The Management of Meaning in Australian Journalism

20/03/2021

The art of communication has become highly coveted in today’s global and highly connected societies and economies. Whether it’s PR spinning a positive image for a corporation, a creative team selling a hit advertising campaign, or journalists telling the news, professional communicators reach into every aspect of our lives. Some can, and do, have immense power over our perceptions of reality, particularly in the political realm. But while these communicators have the power to disperse meaning, they aren’t always the ones making it.

In this piece I am drawing from chapter 4 of Media and Society: Production, Content & Participation, a first-year university textbook written by Nicholas Carah and Eric Louw. While I have been analysing and criticising the media for many years (by no means in a professional capacity, yet, I suppose), this has been a good book to refresh some stuff I already knew while also introducing some new ideas and ways to consolidate my own takes on the subject matter. For one, I read Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent about four years ago, an idea similar to the concept of “meaning making” mentioned in Media and Society.

Carah and Louw don’t reference Chomsky or Herman, let alone Manufacturing Consent, explicitly, but their discussion of the culture industry in the US, as detailed by Adorno and Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School, paints pretty much the same overall picture. The production of meaning, the manufacturing of consent, is carried out by the hegemonies of the day in a constant effort to maintain their legitimacy as a centre of power. Professional communicators – from those at Hollywood to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire – employ a myriad of tactics to ensure the narratives they want accepted are made and dispersed globally.

Like Chomsky and Herman in their 1986 book, here I want to focus just on the media, the journalists and those who “control” them, particularly those here in Australia. Because here, like in many other developed “democracies” in the world, trust in journalists and the old media institutions has been eroding over the years. Unsurprisingly, different groups of people have different opinions on the reason for that and their responses to it.

I, for one, view the mainstream media as a dangerous tool of the powers that be to ensure the capitalist hegemony as a whole – and the neoliberal, big business-oriented faction of that hegemony in particular (the Coalition parties) at the expense of the public and the environment. Others, bafflingly (though understandably in some regards), look at the mainstream media and complain endlessly about the “left-wing” bias that has taken over the country – because “left-wing” media has thrived under the seven and a bit years of Coalition rule, right?

Australia’s media landscape, however, takes on a very different form when looked at with any real scrutiny. There has even been an inquiry taking place in Parliament, triggered by former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, over the troublingly high concentration of media ownership and how that is affecting Australia’s democracy. While I view Labor as part of the capitalist hegemony – albeit the preferable, nicer face of it compared to the Liberals – there is no doubt that they and their supporters, like the Unions, have been victims to many vicious media campaigns over the years.

Kevin Rudd has described the heavy toll the media, specifically Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, had on him during his time as Prime Minister. Many of Labor’s policy plans, from the NBN, control over our natural resources, media ownership, and the environment have all faced staggering opposition from business interests and, consequently, the media outlets that are sympathetic to those interests. In every one of those cases, whether you believe Labor had strong enough positions or not, the business interests ended up winning out and having drastically worse policies implemented.

Murdoch’s media empire continues to thrive as a butchered NBN fails to assert Australia as a leader in internet speeds and connectivity, limiting the threat of modern competitors. The Minerals and Business Councils assure billions of dollars in profits are funnelled into the hands of multinational corporations, depriving the Australian people their fair share of the benefits of our nation’s resources. It is worth mentioning that while Murdoch is most infamous for being a media mogul, his wealth is primarily derived from fossil fuel and mining interests.

News Corp is at the forefront of most of these campaigns either against Labor or in support of the abuses committed by the Coalition. News Corp also has about a 70% monopoly over Australia’s print media (100% in my home state of Queensland), a monopoly that, as Rudd points out, bleeds into the rest of the media landscape. The Australian, their masthead paper, has immense power as an agenda setter – “if you want to know the news of today, read yesterday’s Australian”.

After the merger of Nine Entertainment and Fairfax, prominent papers like the Sydney Morning Herald have slowly fallen into a similar boat. While perhaps not as openly cracked as News Corp, Nine has Peter Costello on board. Someone like Costello wouldn’t be there just for a cushy, post-political gig or to look good – he’s a man with power within a powerful institution. It is people like him and Murdoch who ensure the proper management and production of meaning takes place in their respective businesses.

Many journalists, obviously, defend their positions and reject the notion they are controlled by anyone with the organisation. But as Kevin Rudd explained, Murdoch doesn’t call up every journalist and tell them what to do – control is rarely that transparent and direct. Although there are some journalists who do receive drops from places like the Prime Minister’s Office, or are given an angle to approach a story; poor poor Gladys Berejiklian, her heart broken by a blatantly corrupt partner she enabled, comes to mind there.

No, the methods of control are much deeper and subtler than that. For starters, I can only imagine there are rather strict guidelines covering who gets hired. As Media and Society admits, there are certain viewpoints that will simply not allow you a place in the mainstream discourse. If you are too antagonistic to the interests of the paper or those who manage it, you will not get heard. Certain ideas and stories will not gain traction, or will be watered down, if they must be attended to. Sometimes they are just outright suppressed, like we’ve seen with the Higgin’s and Porter revelations.

On a more fundamental level, if you are a journalist at a mainstream outlet, you are being paid by them. Conscious or not, that alone will influence your approach to the work you pursued and the stories you report on. To rock the boat or irk the people above you could cost you your job and livelihood. The Frankfurt School compared this to the patron system. The content you produce, the meanings you disseminate to the public, is heavily influenced by the people and industries that pay you to produce it. And if you don’t conform, that’s okay – someone else probably will.

Here in Australia, with such a concentrated media landscape, the narrow window of perspectives acceptable to the centres of power becomes even narrower. As such, pro-Labor stances, like Friendlyjordies, or even just independent media outlets like Michael West, Independent Australia, Juice Media, various freelancers, etc. who are critical of anything worthy of critique, are viewed as “fringe” or alternative media. (On the other end of the spectrum you’ve obviously got the likes of Avi Yemini of “Rebel News”, who are more aptly comparable to the “right-wing” grifters like Ben Shapiro in the US).

As mentioned above, though, Labor is still a part of the capitalist hegemony – there is nothing radical about them as a mainstream political party, they just have a greater affinity for the public good within that framework. And yet they are, to many, deemed unacceptable. They deviate, to varying degrees of conviction and potency, from the narratives and desires of the makers of meaning in this country. As such, the national discourse inevitably sways public opinion towards the Coalition, or at least a close 50/50 split, despite public support for certain initiatives and policies actually being in Labor’s favour.

There has been a slight upset in the wake of the Porter allegations – sex scandals do appear to stir the hearts of the Western populations. The ABC, now facing defamation proceedings from Porter, has revealed what it knew but could not share previously. Samantha Maiden, from News Corp, has done quite an excellent job from the Higgin’s case onwards on the issue of sexual violence towards women and the culture around it. And the public seems quite disgusted at the men who appear to be defending Porter or attempting to smear the now dead victim. Peter van Onselen, for one, has been driven off of Twitter for his pathetic antics.

Sadly, I doubt this will result in a paradigm shift in the media, even if it does help bring down some wretched people and give a boost to movements opposing patriarchal systems of power. I also doubt it will spark a newfound journalistic vigour to blow open or properly report on various corruption scandals, but it is something at least.

Australia’s media landscape is, as the likes of Rudd have been saying for years, one of the most highly concentrated in the developed world. The managers and makers of meaning hold an immense amount of power, and they use it to legitimise the abuses of political and corporate hegemonies that dictate the direction of the country. It is our job, as active citizens, as observers and participants in the political arena, to scrutinise this propagandistic system and call out its misdeeds.

As the windows of discussion close in, genuine alternative voices have never been more important – are you listening?

Liked this? Read Outsourcing Deliberation: Political Misinformation Online

Previous piece: That Was A Weird Thing to Say in A “Vibrant Liberal Democracy”, Morrison

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