My brother-in-law once told me a story about being on a train in London back in the late eighties and getting into a conversation with the guy next to him. Turned out the guy was in advertising.
I must say, my brother-in-law said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an advertisement for something and thought, I must go and buy that.
I’m not sure advertising really works, he continued, not on me, anyway.
The ad guy smiled.
What car do you own? What watch are wearing? Which shoes? What refrigerator do you have in your home? Have you ever bought a stereo or a set of headphones? Which ones?
His point was simple. Advertising is more than the ads: it is an entire environment of beliefs and feelings created around a product produced by everything from the colour of the packaging and the price that is charged, to how the retailer displays it in their shop. You might not think you are being affected by advertising, but that’s in the same way a fish doesn’t know it’s in water.
British advertising guru, David Ogilvy, one of the original Mad Men, who founded the ad agency, Ogilvy-Mather, made a similar point in his book, How to Produce Advertising That Sells:
Take whiskey. Why do some people choose Jack Daniels, while others choose Grandad or Taylor? Have they tried all three and compared the taste? Don’t make me laugh. The reality is these three brands have different images which appeal to different kinds of people [and] the brand image is 90 per cent of what the distiller has to sell.
Our existence is mediated more than we like to admit, to an extent we generally don’t notice. To help us control the information that saturates our every waking moment, we rely on mental shortcuts, heuristics, and everyone from advertisers to politicians lean into these shortcuts—these images, in Ogilvy’s sense—to reinforce their preferred version of reality.
In politics, this is why easily demonstrable falsehoods persist: that the Coalition are better economic managers; that working class means men in factories and high-vis vests; that deficits are always bad; that Scott Morrison is a regular guy (though I think that one might be on its last legs).
It is easier to regurgitate received wisdom than to pick it apart. It is more agreeable to maintain our prejudices than see past them. It is why, as Winston Churchill said, a lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.
When we talk about the power of the media, then, this is how we should be thinking about it: not that a single article or newsclip is going to sway people one way or another, but that the media helps create an overall environment that boxes us into certain ways of thinking. The box is never completely airtight, and other institutions build their own boxes, but the media—broadly understood—helps maintain strict perimeters around our thinking about almost everything.
That is the nature of its power, and it exists independently of whatever industry statistics say about audience levels or profitability.
This is why Rupert Murdoch wants to own the media he owns and will run it at a loss. It is why Elon Musk wants to own Twitter.
In her recent book, The Idea of Australia: the search for the soul of a nation, Julianne Shultz does an excellent job of locating the Australian media as one of the driving forces of national life and describing how its power is inextricably tied to other key industries, noting that “Mining, banking, agriculture, and media have always sat at the centre of power in Australia. More than most, these industries depend on close relationships with government.”
The media is just one player in a much bigger game of information and ideas, and so the point isn’t just that the contemporary iteration of the newspapers and television stations might be little more than the propaganda wing of the Liberal-National Party Coalition—as true as that might be—but that the whole history of Australian media is inextricably tied to the interests of capital.
Sally Young’s immense work on the early history of Australian media, Paper Emperors, shows that Australian newspapers have been consistently anti-Labor.
For instance, she notes:
By the late 19th century, Australia was developing a reputation for being a ‘working man’s paradise’. Australia’s conservative newspaper owners were concerned about the effects of demands for improved working conditions on the profitability of industries that many were now heavily invested in – including mining, retail, production, agriculture and, of course, the newspaper industry.
She also writes that,
On the formation of the Labor Party, the Sydney Morning Herald described ‘the intrusion … of the labour struggle into the field of politics’ as the nation’s ‘greatest peril’.
Young even suggests that the concept of the ‘fourth estate’, the idea of the media as a watchdog on power, was nothing more than a cover to ensure that any partisanship they showed didn’t discourage advertising.
‘The concept of political independence that underpinned the ‘fourth estate’ was so central to the identity of newspapers that it had to be vehemently proclaimed even when there was much evidence to the contrary.’
And the evidence of anti-Labor bias is overwhelming:
This book concludes in 1941, with Menzies’ resignation, but the political stances of the newspapers need to be viewed in a longer context to see how determinedly conservative the mainstream daily press was, and would remain for decades. From 1922 until 1969, the majority of daily newspapers were conservative (Tables 3.1 and 3.2) — especially in the 1920s–40s, when 85–90 per cent of commercial dailies supported the conservative parties.
Even up to the 1960s, Labor never received the support of a quarter of the Australian daily press.
Instead, for five decades, the conservative parties could count on the backing of a core group of papers that always directed their readers to vote conservative. This group included: the Mercury, the Herald, the Sun News-Pictorial, the Advertiser, the West Australian, and from its formation in 1933, the Courier-Mail.
Young continues by saying, ‘To this group of core conservative papers can also be added the Daily Telegraph, which never advocated a vote for Labor during this period.’
She also notes that ‘The Sydney Morning Herald must also be included because it opposed Labor at every election except one—1961. Likewise, the Sun only supported Labor once, also in 1961, and that was because it was the Sydney Morning Herald’s stablemate by then, so it was ensnared in the Fairfax group’s anti-Menzies campaign that year.’
She points out that even when Labor won its sweeping victory in 1983 under Bob Hawke, The Age was the only paper to endorse the ALP.
It is a useful reminder of the hill Labor must climb at every single election when the mainstream media is so implacably opposed to the idea of it forming government.
Even today, the former Fairfax papers, known now as Nine Entertainment, have a retired senior Liberal politician as their chairman and an editor whom internal documents reveal insisted on reporting a lockout of staff by the Liberal NSW Government as a strike by the workers, about as egregious a misreporting of facts as you could imagine.
Screenshot of SMH Slack meeting exchange between a journalist and the Editor
Denis Muller, writing at The Conversation, argues that traditional media still wield great power. He points out that not only do more people get their news from commercial television than any other source, thus reflecting an ongoing ability to shape our ideas about politics, but that media organisations openly admit their desire to be players and express a political position.
He quotes News Corporation’s internal code of conduct:
Comment, conjecture and opinion are acceptable in reports to provide perspective on an issue, or explain the significance of an issue, or to allow readers to recognise what the publication’s standpoint is on the matter being reported.
When the biggest private media company in the country plays by these rules, all others are dragged into their orbit, a point Michael West makes about the way in which the ABC has become prey to the News Corp mindset:
Every day, the broadcaster follows up the stories which have run in News Corp and Nine Entertainment media, and therefore Coalition agendas, with little scrutiny. They are a key part of the machine which fails to hold governments to account, and which favours the Liberal Party.
This is because Nine and News are selective, the latter venomously selective, in their coverage of politics. The government and its phalanx of spinmeisters control this agenda by leaking to a small group in the Canberra press gallery in return for positive coverage. To generalise, if they don’t play the government game they don’t get the drop.
The ABC and other media, the likes of commercial breakfast TV, regional media and talk-back radio get up every morning and follow these same agendas.
Do we think these things have no effect on how journalism is done at these organisations or that those presumptions don’t then influence how audiences perceive a mediated politics? To quote David Ogilvy, don’t make me laugh.
It is hardly surprising, given all this, that the rise of the ‘teal’ independents is being viewed by the political class as a threat.
As the current election unfolds, it is simply staggering the extent to which the mainstream parties and the mainstream media—the broad political class—are hostile to the rise of independents and smaller parties. It speaks to the sense of entitlement cultivated in the media environment I have been describing, one that allows that class to believe that the two-party system is sacrosanct and their right to govern is a given.
It isn’t just the unseemly childishness of candidates like Josh Frydenberg and Dave Sharma whining about ‘fake independents’ who dare to challenge them.
Nor is it the predictable hostility of both major parties pompously announcing they will not deal with an elected crossbench of small parties and independents.
It is also the way in which a particular bias is built into the very fabric of how the media think about politics.
This was highlighted in a letter the independent member for Warringah Zali Steggall, sent the ABC. She pointed out that their popular “electoral compass”—which allows people to answer questions about parties and policies and thus place themselves on a grid indicating whether they are left or right economically and progressive or conservative socially—ignores entirely the existence of the independent position.
Jeff Sparrow argues in a piece in The Guardian that ‘progressives can’t use the media as an alibi for our own failures. The best reporting in the world won’t change society for us.’
He says, quite rightly, ‘If we want to win, we have to actually fight.’
His argument is that the power of the right-wing media has faded, that ‘they still wield power—but not nearly as much as they would like us to believe,’ and that if we ‘cower under our beds in fear of them’ we will get sucked into letting them wield influence they don’t really have.
It’s a fair point, but it highlights a paradox we shouldn’t ignore.
What he describes, after all, is Labor’s problem in a nutshell, and Sparrow is right: it is hard to believe Labor are not cowering under the bed in fear of the Murdoch press. They construct policy and campaigns around an exaggerated sense of how the Murdoch media will respond.
But here’s the paradox.
We can say Labor shouldn’t do this, but they do. It happens.
And that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s power, isn’t it? It’s real. It has real-world consequences. Labor has undoubtedly shifted right on everything from tax cuts for the wealthy to asylum seekers, and in so doing, narrowed political debate for the rest of us. They might be overreacting, but the fact that they do is a by-product of media power.
It’s like the line from the sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond. Raymond’s wife is mad at him for how he has treated her mother who visited during the day. What are you talking about? Raymond says, startled. I was nice to her.
You were pretending to be nice! his wife yells.
It’s same thing! he yells back.
Sparrow is right that you can’t cower in the face of power, and that the influence of right-wing press is less than it was, but we live in water tainted by right-of-centre ideas of common sense, and the media remains a key vehicle for the dissemination of that set of beliefs.
It is worth noting, though, that ordinary voters are less in thrall to this power than the political class itself, and the rise of the teal candidates is evidence of the ability of citizens to step outside frames the media tries to enforce.
We should take heart from that, but let’s recognise the immensity of the challenge.
In talking of a political class, we are talking of an entire panoply of institutions that use ideas and information to conjure and deploy power. The media are part of it, but they are the tip of an iceberg.
As the neoliberalism Labor instigated under Hawke-Keating hardened under Howard after 1996, the new PM took to heart Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul,’ and for him, this meant dominating the public service and universities, and any other sites where ideas were turned into actions. Schultz writes:
A strong public sector has distinguished Australian administration since settlement, but it proved to be a surprisingly easy target. John Howard expanded those on the watchlist to include ‘Indigenous activists, multiculturalists, feminists, republicans and black armband historians’. Making life uncomfortable for these groups, whose jobs gave them a public platform, also sent a clear message about who was in control.
…This was mystifying to those of us who worked as journalists, lawyers, teachers and academics. How had our workplaces gone from being a part of the institutional fabric of the nation to its enemy? …For most, [the work we did] was not a matter of ideology. At heart it was a liberal lesson, one that could be traced back to the Enlightenment and conservative thinking about the value of life being more than economic.
Instead, we were pilloried as elites, often by those who by virtue of birth, wealth or class were unequivocally elite.
This is why, on the eve of this election, the Morrison Government announced up to thirty appointments of staffers and other cronies to organisations such as the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the Productivity Commission, and the Arts Council. Even if they lose the election, they leave in place an infrastructure managed by those who will exercise power in ways that favour the LNP ideology.
Scott Morrison may well lose the coming election.
But given his track record and basic unfitness for the job—a fact increasingly admitted by people on his own side of politics—the only reason he is even in contention is because of the ability of the media to present him and his government in such a way as to seem legitimate and to cast doubt upon all alternatives.
What I’m saying is, media power isn’t always about the ability to dominate.
It can be enough to maintain sufficient a hold on the conversation to keep its side in the game, and so it will always remain a key progressive goal to hold the media to account and provide alternative outlets.
Put it another way: we happily talk about the importance of ‘soft power’ in the projection of our interests in foreign policy, but we are just as susceptible to it at home, and the media remain the primary tool for the dissemination of that power.
Yes, it is true, that the rise of social media and other outlets has increased our ability to create alternative narratives around various issues—though there is a whole other discussion to be had about the way this fragments opposition to the status quo rather than consolidating it—but the mainstream media remains closely aligned to other sources of power in society and thus remains a cornerstone of the status quo.
Rumours of the death of media influence are greatly exaggerated.
Tim Dunlop is a writer based in Melbourne. His regular newsletter is available here.