06 June 2007

Corrupting public debate?

There's a clear assumption in Andrew Norton's question that there was once a time when public debate was uncorrupted. Perhaps I missed it.

Public debate is corrupted whenever people are denied the information they need to form opinions from which they can operate within the society in which they live. It's true that the Howard Government limits access to information, the release of which does not endanger the state but may prove embarrassing politically. It's not true that they are the only government that has done, is doing or will do this.

Marr's analysis should have covered this, but in focusing on Howard it falls down on two levels. First, it's pointless to stand up for for investigative journalism when journalists are so content to be spoon-fed. Second, it depends on what you mean by "dissent".

A journalist who wanted to investigate education policy (for example) would get some press releases from the relevant minister, some press releases from the opposition, cobble together a few hundred words and job done. The fact that the story would bear no relevance to those who work in education would be irrelevant to the average journalist. The journalist who spent time and effort visiting local schools and speaking to teachers and parents would get a story that might testify to the effectiveness of government policy, and the connection between official policy and objective reality. This would prompt a paranoid flurry from the State Education Department's media unit and possibly the minister's office, to which management would not necessarily stand up for the journalist. "Investigative journalism" today means checking the fax machine to see if another press release has been received so that it can be cannibalised and turned into a "story".

In The Age, Frank Moorhouse wrote that the press should be "constantly alert to the vulnerability of freedom of speech, not only when it is threatened by the state but also when the quality of freedom of speech is damaged by intellectual laziness, intellectual intimidation, easy certainties, and all the fashionable sensitivities and peer pressures that creep into our social communication". He was referring to literary magazines, but the same might also be said of news outlets.

In terms of dissent, the rights of a small group comprising both thugs and latte-sippers chanting "whaddawewant whendawewannit" does not constitute "dissent". Demos might have been scary in 1789, they might have had an impact in 1917, and they were somewhat notable in 1968, but they contribute nothing in 2007. For the most part they are irrelevant, and if it's Howard v protesters then Howard will win every time.

What constitutes dissent today? This is an important question if you're concerned about silencing dissent, or if you're trying to develop policies for a post-Howard Australia. Marr should have devoted more thought to that, as it's becoming clear that you can only defeat John Howard by outflanking him - by changing the debate so profoundly that he can't credibly participate in it.


  1. Andrew:

    I review Marr's essay from a "flat-white guzzling" leftie perspective (but point to your note and Andrew Norton's for balance).

    I think Marr is saying that Howard et al are the FIRST to limit information, but merely the most blatant.

    You are correct that journalists are content to be spoon fed, and while Marr cites examples of journalistic questions being stymied, Marr goes further than merely blaming politicians, but the lack of interest by the Australian majority in abstractions.

    I also would not agree that mere street protests completely covers dissent, but the actions taken against non-violent protesters were over the top as detailed in Marr's essay.

    From personal experience when a public servant trying to hold agencies to the regulations and getting stomped on, and knowing that I would be, I think the castration of the frank-and-fearless public service is the most dangerous form of dissent-silencing. Again Marr points our that this started before Howard, but I know that it got significantly worse after Howard came to power.

  2. Excellent post Dave, thank you - except for the confusion about this site's name.

    State governments are pretty damn blatant in suppressing dissent. Relatively few of the police beating up protestors were Feds. Marr is above petty matters like state governments. Neville Wran crapped on for a decade about introducing a FoI Act, but it was only introduced after he'd gone.

    While we'll never know for sure, I believe a re-elected Keating (or a Beazley, Crean or Latham) government would have done everything Howard has done in terms of suppressing dissent, spinning etc. Love to see some solid proof to the contrary!

    Everyone knows that if you go to a demo you run the risk of getting roughed up by police or your overenthusiastic comrades. Artificial outrage over a scuffle is as much a part of that stale old pantomime as "hey hey, ho ho, [whatever] has got to go, hey hey, ho ho".

    I disagree with your claim about abstractions inspiring apathy. Anzac Day is a festival of abstraction; it is never tied to "practical" realities such as better benefits for veterans or dead bodies strewn across some foreign field. For other issues (e.g. Aborigines), "practical" measures are never coupled to abstractions.

    The left have been largely unsuccessful in Australian politics because they have convinced themselves that what they want is what is in people's best interests, which is not merely solipsistic but also patronising. Australians don't warm to those who patronise them.