Saturday, 10 August 2013

Murdoch, the market and the myth of consumer choice

EDIT: I received an email threatening me with a $1,350 (+GST) out of licence fee for using several NewsCorp front pages in the original version of this post, so I've now removed them. I thought they might be covered under the 'criticism and review' fair dealing exceptions, but wasn't in a position to look into it any further at that point. Wishing the guys at News Corp well in their continuing endeavour to pander to the masses, disregard all journalistic principle, capitalise on people's fears and erode democracy.

Saturday 10 August 2013

In a move that unexpectedly became the talk of Twitter this week, Wallabadah General Store owners Glen and Kim Sheluchin announced on Monday they would no longer stock News Corp papers, citing the company's 'blatant' and 'long-standing' political bias (Nickell 2013). Owned by Australian-born media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the corporation's front pages have been devoid of any pretension to objectivity since Sunday's election date announcement, giving credence to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's claim that editors have been instructed: '[G]o hard on Rudd, start from Sunday and don't back off' (Grattan 2013).

(Refer, for example to the Daily Telegraph frontpage from the 2013 election reading 'Finally, you now have the chance to ... KICK THIS MOB OUT' and the other featuring Photoshopped images of Craig Thomson, Kevin Rudd and Anthony Albanese as characters from Hogan's Heroes, accompanied by the caption 'THOMMO'S HEROES' and the headline 'Albo's explanation for German beers with Thomson: I KNOW NUTHINK!')

As I've mentioned in the past, I believe along with many others that the two arms of a functioning democracy are a robust media and rigorous universal education, so watching the descent of Murdoch's tabloids, especially The Daily Telegraph and The Courier-Mail, from populist mouthpieces to full-blown propaganda over the past few years has been extremely disturbing. It was only in 2010 on my first trip to Britain when I encountered the shameless (and shamefully popular) likes of The Sun (News Corp) and The Daily Mail (DMGT) that I thanked heaven the media discourse in Australia was not so woeful,* that you'd never see such openly biased headlines here. It seems I was wrong to put it down to anything more than antipodean backwardness: we've finally caught up.

*Of course, at this time, I'd never yet seen an edition of the NT News (News Corp), which is known for its outrageous headlines (see the edition featuring an image of a shirtless man drinking a beer with a snake coiled around it accompanied by the headline 'WHY I STUCK A CRACKER UP MY CLACKER').

I first became alarmed in early 2012 while on a business trip in Brisbane. There the political temperature allowed The Courier-Mail to trumpet anti-Gillard sentiment in a way I suspect no other state (excepting perhaps Western Australia) would have tolerated at the time, stirring up even more of the public vitriol demonstrated when local colleagues would whip around in their chairs at the mere mention of the PM, ready to criticise the way she spoke or dressed at any opportunity.

The Sheluchins may have already overturned their ban after a smarmy diplomatic mission by the Tele (discussed in all its quease-making detail here), but hearteningly, not before they received a deluge of 'calls and messages of support' (Nickell 2013) and inspired other vendors to follow suit. The management of Brisbane's Slightly Twisted Refreshment Lounge, for example, which never sold the paper but had it available for customers to read, revealed on Twitter yesterday that they're now displaying this sign in-store:

But there have of course been negative responses to these small business boycotts, most of them bizarrely labelling them acts of 'censorship' (a term the Tele was more than happy to throw around in the gloating victory speech linked to above). For example:

This, of course, is nonsense. As I pointed out on Twitter, the argument is essentially that a newspaper's existence demands its supply or else it's censorship. The Sheluchins said themselves they don't stock Fairfax's The Financial Review. Presumably they don't sell Green-Left Weekly or Uganda's Daily Monitor, either. Censorship? Of course not. The difference, some might argue, is that there's an established demand for the Tele, but I'm afraid there's still that much-vaunted principle at the heart of capitalism to contend with: choice. There might also be a demand for child pornography or cocaine, or even cigarettes. That doesn't make it 'censorship' to refuse to sell them because of your 'own personal political views' that child pornography/cocaine/cigarettes are unethical.

Because unfortunately, that's what capitalism does to truth: commodifies it. The newspaper is a product like any other, and if the vendor of that product decides it is of substandard quality, they are free to cease selling it, and their customers are free to shop elsewhere if they don't like it.

It's curious the disproportionate amount of concern the objectors seem to have about this one supposed form of obfuscation of the truth through 'censorship' in comparison to the potential obfuscation of the truth Murdoch's papers might have through, say, shoddy journalism, liesdubious ethics, bias, editorial influence, vested interests and market monopoly (as the management of the Slightly Twisted Refreshment Lounge noted, 'there are no local publications not controlled by Mr Murdoch' in their area; what does that say about the influence of one man over an entire community?)

Here is one of the multifarious failings of capitalism: it's as though in its animalistic mimicry of the system of evolution (competition, survival of the fittest, etc.), it has also taken on Freud's eros drive, that biological urge 'to combine organic substances into ever greater unities' (1920, page 50), realised in the inescapable corporate gravitation towards monopoly, the ineluctable upward accumulation of wealth and power. 'He's earned his influence', free marketeers, Libertarians and minarchists will protest. 'He's powerful and wealthy because his papers are popular!' Truth by popularity. 

Which is what's so strange about these objections: they controvert the basis of the Right's usual disagreement with 'regulations' and 'red tape' and 'big government', that one golden principle I referred to earlier which it mistakenly apotheosises as the way to determine all truth and quality and morality: consumer choice. As far as I can see, these News Corp boycotts are one of the few examples of consumer choice actually working as it is supposed to. Every time the quality or ethics of a product is questioned and the suggestion of more regulation is proposed, the Right turns to the touchstone of consumer choice: 'We don't need big government interference – the consumers are our regulators. If consumers don't believe what Rupert Murdoch's papers say, they won't read them ... If consumers don't like the way cage eggs are produced, they won't buy them ... If consumers think reality television is vacuous fluff, they won't watch it.' 

Under capitalism, your dollar is your vote, and (in the fantasies of Randists) the market is supposed to adjust itself to align with consumer opinion as businesses consumers like succeed while businesses they don't fail. As though we are all moral philosophers, thoroughly conscious of the ethical ramifications of our every purchase. As though we have the time in our busy lives to research whether every product we buy is tested on animals or contributes to the deforestation of the Amazon or is made by third-world child sweatshop labourers working eighteen hour days for infinitesimal pay. As though in the moments before we put each item into our trolleys, bombarded by psychologically manipulative advertising and marketing and packaging designed to conceal anything untoward, dogged by a hundred other disparate velleities and cravings and distractions and concerns, we are our best rational and ethical decision-making selves. As though the majority of us are even concerned with right and wrong when we are shopping. As though we haven't been taught that the only value worth considering is monetary value. As though most of us even have the ethical fortitude to resist purchasing products we know involve unethical practices. This system is demonstrably flawed.

So here, in the form of a few small business owners rejecting the low-quality products of a powerful multinational corporation which will probably get its own chapter when historians write about the downfall of the United States (notoriously evil American television network Fox News, panderer to climate change deniers, Creationists, second-amendment nutjobs, Tea Partiers, Republicans and other fundamentalists, is also Murdoch's handiwork), we have one rare instance of an actual deployment of consumer choice for a reason other than price, one time where the consumer has looked at a substandard product and said, 'No, this isn't good enough; I refuse to sell this', and the internet commenters of the Right denounce it.

Jeff Sparrow, editor of left-wing literary journal Overland, is optimistic about the recent slew of rubbish front pages from The Daily Telegraph, and claims the reaction to them online is a signal that 'Murdoch's spell is breaking' (2013). But it's easy to convince yourself you're in the majority when you're surrounded by sympathisers, when you're caught up in the outrage of the Twitter intelligentsia. Growing up in the safe Labor seat of Throsby I'd never met anyone who voted Liberal and couldn't even imagine anyone voting for Howard, and yet he'd won every election in my lifetime until '07. I'm sure Sparrow has the deductive powers to see past those in his immediate political surrounds; I just can't share his optimism in this.

Besides, it's not the engaged people I'm worried about. Not the ones who spend time reflecting on these issues, reading political articles, tweeting their outrage, and slowly constructing a worldview from a number of sources like world news from other countries, independent media, books, discussion, Q&A and Lateline. It's the ones who can't be bothered with politics most of the time, the reluctant voters, the uninformed but stubbornly opinionated who concern me. The ones who glean their political views incidentally from here and there: the mainstream news, the Sunday paper, what other people seem to be saying, a bit of Alan Jones here, a bit of The Bolt Report there. Because when you don't seize control of the discourse, when you just cruise through your intellectual life on autopilot receiving whatever comes your way, the vested interests take control for you, and you've got nothing against which to contextualise your information. The chances are that the vast majority of news these 'uninformed opinionated' come into contact with is produced by the Murdoch media and they don't even know.

So I think Sparrow might be giving people a little too much credit. People don't want facts and truth and expert opinions from people smarter or more specialised than them. They don't want hard questions about right and wrong that might require them to change their behaviour. They want entertainment. They want fluff. And 'consumer choice' on its own without any other barometers of quality or truth usually ensures they get it. Consumer choice alone results in pandering, like a divorced glory parent who only takes their child on weekends and spoils them with gifts and sweets and amusement parks instead of necessities and vegetables and homework, making the other parent seem boring. Given the choice, who might the child prefer to live with? What lifestyle would they choose to adopt? Do they want to watch Big Brother or Lateline? Do they want to read celebrity gossip or serious policy discussion?

This is why it would've been useful to have a real media inquiry in this country. But the howls of 'freedom of the press' that issued from the papers, accompanied dutifully by the Coalition, saw the death of that. You might disagree it was needed, but let's just imagine that it was. One wonders how we would ever get such an inquiry given the corrupt media would use its opinion-forming power to turn public sentiment in its favour with whichever party was in opposition to give it credibility.

No, my feeling is that we're stuck with tabloids that will become ever more like Britain's now, at least as long as the newspaper format survives. All we can do is try to avoid ending up with the Australian equivalent of Fox News that we already know prominent conservatives and conservative organisations like 'Lord' Monckton and the IPA are gunning for. And, of course, to save the ABC from privatisation or, in other words, dumbing it down as much as the commercial networks. I only pray it doesn't come to that.

Thanks for reading

L Phillip Lucas (Facebook page)
@LPhillipLucas (Twitter profile)


The Daily Telegraph's Monday 5 and Thusday 8 August 2013 front pages.

Harry Dellavega's (@NastyHarry) 9:11am 9 August 2013 Twitter tweet.

'Didie's' comment on Ms Alena Nickell's 4am Friday 9 August 2013 The Northern Daily article ''Be fair or you'll be binned''.

Sigmund Freud's 1920 book Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Volume 18 of James Strachey's 1953 –1974 series The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, published by Hogarth Press, London.

NT News's Tuesday 31 July 2012 front page.

Alena Nickell's 4am Friday 9 August 2013 The Northern Daily article ''Be fair or you'll be binned''.

Slightly Twisted Refresment Lounge's (@Sl1ghtlyTw1sted) 8:23am Friday 9 August Twitter tweet.

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