We are living through a period of fragmentation and polarisation in public discourse on a scale mankind has not before experienced. By far the greatest fragmenting and polarising force is social media.
An increasing proportion of the population, especially those under 40, get their news from social media, overwhelmingly from Facebook. The algorithms that tailor what Facebook prioritises for each individual allow users to choose only those topics or opinions that they want to hear. This has led to the formation of echo chambers or information cocoons.
So we have the paradox of the internet: the technology that provides a global village square also provides the means by which people in the square can block their ears and shut their eyes to things they don’t want to hear or see.
This places great strain on democracy. In the words of William Butler Yeats, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.
In Australia, the effects of this phenomenon are made worse by the increased polarisation of the country’s two main newspaper companies, News Corporation and Fairfax Media.
Australia has very little diversity in its traditional media sector, especially its newspapers. News Corp controls roughly 70% of daily circulation and Fairfax roughly 20%. And for all their cutbacks in journalistic capacity, it is still the newspapers that inject the most new material into the 24/7 news cycle.
So when these two companies become polarised to the extent they have, there is a void at the centre. Notably, this is where The Guardian Australia has positioned itself (in reporting, at least – its opinions still lean to the left).
Sharp differences in political outlook among newspapers are nothing new, of course.
In Melbourne, The Argus was conservative, the paper of the squattocracy and the merchant class. It opposed land reform and favoured free trade, while The Age was progressive, supportive of the miners at Eureka, in favour of land reform and a crusader for protectionist trade policy.
In Sydney, The Sydney Morning Herald was profoundly conservative. The paper was opposed to democracy (which it called mobocracy) and supportive of a property franchise for the New South Wales Parliament. By contrast, The Empire, founded and edited by Henry Parkes, was guided by the principle that, in a colonial society, the working classes were the nucleus and makers of a democratic nation.
So there has never been a golden age when newspapers were heroically detached from interests and ideologies.
However, in the post-war period, the ideal of impartiality in news coverage gained a strong hold on the journalistic mind. American newspapers were the exemplars of this ideal. They were heavily influenced by the 1947 report of the US Commission on the Freedom of the Press, which had been set up to try to rebuild public confidence in the media after a period of corrosive sensationalism and propagandising in the early 20th century.
Appointed and paid for by the media itself, the commission consisted of intelligent and high-minded people from the media, government and academia. Its intellectual leader was a Harvard philosopher, William Ernest Hocking.
The commission’s report laid a solemn duty on the media to render a reliable account of the events of the day: factual, impartial and accurate. Comment was to play no part in news reporting, and was to be confined to pages set aside for it.
Generations of journalists in Western democracies – including me – were trained in this ideal.
Over time, however, it reduced news stories to a desiccated collection of unexplained facts, devoid of context and analysis. And anyway, the idea of a completely impartial and detached reporter came to be seen as fanciful, not to say fraudulent.
Gradually, news stories became more analytical, which introduced an overt element of subjectivity. Comment began to infiltrate news pages, so that now we have reached a point where news reportage, analysis and comment are commonly woven together.
Alongside these developments, ideological fissures were opening up in Australian society. The period of post-war social unity around a white Australia, opposition to communism, and other components of the Australian Settlement, such as wage arbitration and industry protection, began to crack.
Newspaper ownership also became more concentrated. In 1983, the Syme family sold The Age to Fairfax. In 1987, changes to media ownership laws introduced by Paul Keating enabled Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to swallow up the huge but ailing Herald and Weekly Times.
Meanwhile, in Britain, Murdoch was getting a taste of what it was like to wield power over governments. Margaret Thatcher in particular was in thrall to him, as scholars such as David McKnight and Rod Tiffen have shown in their biographies of Murdoch.
His stable of newspapers in Britain included populist tabloids appealing to conservative blue-collar voters and influential broadsheets such as The Times and Sunday Times. These became increasingly conservative under his control, as the distinguished editor of those papers, Harold Evans, pointed out in his memoirs.
It seems Murdoch wanted to replicate this model in Australia. He had already started out with populist tabloids, yet his national broadsheet, The Australian, had begun life in 1964 as a vibrant small-l liberal newspaper.
However, as Murdoch’s vehicle for exerting influence on policymakers, it became increasingly conservative. By 1975 it had become so biased to the right in its political coverage that its own journalists went on strike in protest.
Murdoch makes no bones about his right to control what goes in his papers, and his editorial staff have to accommodate themselves to this – or exercise the privilege of resignation.
At Fairfax, the internal culture has been entirely different. In 1988, journalists at The Age persuaded Fairfax management to sign a charter of editorial independence guaranteeing no improper interference in editorial decision-making. Over the following three or four years, the company’s other titles adopted this charter.
These contrasting cultures are reflected in the editorial values of the companies’ newspapers. As the News Corp papers have become more stridently conservative, the Fairfax journalists seem to have taken it on themselves to provide at least some ideological counterweight.
It can be seen any day in the choice of stories given prominence and in the contrasting angles taken on political stories.
A good example was the treatment given to the controversy last year and early this year over the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Australian was campaigning vigorously to have the commission president, Professor Gillian Triggs, removed. The Fairfax newspapers focused on sustaining her position, particularly in respect of refugees and asylum seekers.
Similarly, with climate change, deniers get a prominence in News Corp papers that they never get in Fairfax.
This polarisation also reflects the deep divisions in the composition of the federal parliament, which in turn reflect deep divisions in the community over issues such as climate change and asylum seekers.
The fragmentation of political discourse brought about by social media only serves to heighten these divisions.
In these circumstances, the body politic would benefit from a renewed commitment by journalists to the qualities that underpinned the ideal of impartiality: accuracy, fairness, open-mindedness and above all balance, which follows the weight of evidence, not the bias of ideology.
Authors: Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne