Election 2013 media panel

Go hard or go home: best practice partisanship for journos

This is true for political campaigns as it is for invasion games like chess or football. If you can commit to a strategic line early, then press it for all it is worth, you have a good chance of winning. If you cannot, you do not.

It is also the genius behind Marx’s ‘Thesis 11’: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’

Karl Marx’s Thesis 11.

Most times I read Marx’s line, I find myself siding with philosophers. A political campaigner’s obsession with ‘change’ is hostile to intellectual reflection — not to mention it denies that most campaigners spend most of their efforts trying to live and succeed in the world we already have.

Academics are deluded by our own fantasies too, of course: especially the fantasy of abstract contemplation — when merely interpreting the world also changes it.

Meanwhile, journalistic practice covers the broad space between those poles. On the one hand, journalists hold a public trust to help people understand the world as it is and as it changes. On the other, journalism has always reserved a brief to talk about how the world should be and how it should change.

As we see in today’s highly revealing Australian editorial, some in the Murdoch stable are particularly given to ‘should’-speak. In editor Chris Mitchell’s paradigm, it behoves journalists and their bosses to push partisan agendas. Readers benefit and the journalistic function is improved by this advocacy function.

Most commentary around journalistic bias focuses on identifying and critiquing the partisan agendas that media outlets put forward. It focuses on agenda-coherence across a publisher or broadcaster. If we look at any given publisher or broadcaster, though, we can see how contestable that focus must be. There are infinite disparities between the positions of individual journalists at any given outlet — some of them reflecting much profounder divergences of view than we might find between the policy positions of the Labor and Liberal parties, say.

When it turns to the extent of media owned by Rupert Murdoch – as it so often does in English-speaking countries – the commentary focuses on agenda-coherence between his outlets. Again, this comes at the expense of appreciating the differences between them.

As Sinclair Davidson pointed out earlier this week, comparing the election campaign coverage between Sydney’s Daily Telegraph _and Brisbane’s _Courier-Mail shows two papers taking very different approaches to the current federal election campaign. Both the _Australian _and the _Telegraph _have decided to change the world; the _Courier-Mail _has decided to interpret it instead.

Much speculation persists about the role of Colin Allan. It seems very likely that he is revving up coverage at the Telegraph, keeping it both pointed and playful. Mitchell, who finds himself working in the same building as Allan, may not have needed any prompting to keep it fierce. Both papers have gone early and gone hard.

By contrast, Mitchell’s previous paper the _Courier-Mail _has taken the path that campaigners rate impotent: the ‘Thesis Zero’ of political commentary. As a consumer, it is certainly what I prefer to pay for, but the market is filled with different folks wanting different strokes.

Talking on ABCTV’s Q&A show this week, Grahame Morris described the discrepancy between News Corp papers in just such terms: a product of the respective markets. He reckons a parochial Queensland readership is unwilling to pay to read any full-scale assault on a Queensland prime minister. Doug Cameron and several in the audience mocked Morris for this answer, thinking it let the Sydney papers off the hook — but the Queensland comparison still reveals some powerful dynamics of the Murdoch stable, even if you distrust all News Corp editors on principle.

Media Watch this week drew similar comparisons with the West Australian, the NT News, Melbourne’s Herald-Sun, and the Adelaide Advertiser. It is an analysis that David Holmes continues today. In all, what we see is less like an editorial line, more like an editorial bandwidth. The corporation permits its editors and leader-writers to veer wildly to the right, but it also permits them to steer very close to the centre.

Given the concentration of ownership in Murdoch’s hands, this situation does not leave much room for the left in Australia’s capitalist media — but what is new about that?