Conflicts Within Australia’s Liberal Democracy: Press Freedom and the Right to Privacy

01/09/2021

The following piece is an essay I have written for a university assessment. I seriously hope it makes sense, otherwise there is only disappointment ahead. For a TL;DR, the purpose was to discuss conflicts between two integral parts of the Australian system – liberalism and democracy. This essay essentially puts forward the argument that Australia’s liberal democracy suffers due to assaults on a free press by both the government and corporate power and influences, as well as the invasive domestic surveillance carried out by the government (the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) in particular). The result is a clash between the liberal concepts of the state and private enterprise with the more democratic ideals of the right to information and accountability from the government (in this case through the lens of a genuinely free press), and the right to privacy.

The reference list is also at the end, which happily contains books I have read (and written about) previously. Enjoy, I suppose.

Australia is often regarded of one of the shining examples of liberal democracy in the 21st Century, particularly in the wake of global trends towards more populist and autocratic forms of government. However, while Australia has avoided a strong push away from democratic ideals, it still faces many challenges and effects of the ‘crisis of confidence’ in liberal democracy felt worldwide (Wike and Fetterolf 2018). Citizens’ satisfaction in how Australia’s democratic system has been run is at its lowest point since the 1970’s, largely due to perceptions of government performance and economic factors (Cameron 2019).

What this essay sets out to do is explore some closely linked conflicts and contradictions inherent in liberal democracy’s constituent parts, liberalism and democracy, in the Australian context. This will be demonstrated using the examples of media concentration and press freedom (in particular, the threats to them), as well as tensions between the liberal right to privacy and the democratic right to information and accountability. The latter point is most extreme when comparing domestic surveillance of citizens with the secrecy surrounding matters of ‘national security’.

First, it is useful to try and define, broadly, what these terms mean. Heywood describes liberalism’s central theme as ‘a commitment to the individual and the desire to construct a society in which people can satisfy their interest and achieve fulfilment’, with the more modern branches ‘[accepting] that the state should help people to help themselves’ (2021: 19). Differing from classical liberal thought involving minimal government, this includes the existence of a welfare state and economic regulation wielded by government in an effort to ensure equal opportunity and general prosperity.

Wilkinson described liberal theory as an ‘institutional realm of individual freedom, a private sphere, which was protected from public intervention and where individuals were free to pursue their own good’. It thus followed that privacy was an ‘inviolable right’, ‘provided that the actions of individuals were in no way dangerous to others’ (2005: 110). In a democracy, one could also apply this standard to the actions of the state.

Democracy, literally ‘rule by the people’, is ‘an autonomous demos governing itself as a collective’ (Hendriks and Karsten 2014, cited in Kefford et al 2018: 212). While deeply flawed by modern standards, Aristotle’s view of the ‘best possible’ democracy was the balanced ‘middling constitution’, whereby the common good can be pursued by a collective of individuals rather than by the judgement of any single individual (Aristotle 2020).

This is a key distinction between more direct and ‘common’ forms of democracy and modern representative democracy, with some insisting ‘democracy and representation stand at odds with one another’ (Hardt and Negri 2004: 244, cited in Kioupkiolis 2017: 35). Kioupkiolis suggests that we must ‘make political representation common, that is, open to all, inclusive, participatory, and accountable’ (Kioupkiolis 2017: 58).

Liberal democracy, the most common form being representative democracy, is an attempt to reconcile the democratic ideals of the common good and collective rule with liberalism’s emphasis on limited government and the will of rational individuals. This is done by holding ‘free and fair elections with individual rights enshrined in a constitution and an active civil society’ (Kefford et al 2018: 2). The Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) list legitimacy, justice, freedom, and (limits on) power as the ‘four critical elements to the [democratic] framework’ (MoAD). It also constitutes a ‘vigorous civil society, including a private enterprise economy, independent trade unions and a free press’ (Heywood 2021: 44).

Conflicts inevitably arise between individual desires sought by political leaders and private enterprise, and the common good. This can take many forms, but most pressingly the ‘tension between leadership and democracy’ (that is, the ‘inevitably “elitist”’ rulers and the general public) (Kefford et al 2018: 213), and the powerful influence private and corporate interests have over individuals and the state. While some concerns are solely political, like the invasive surveillance state measures since 9/11, many of these tensions arise due to a mixture of state and corporate pressures.

A free press, as mentioned, is an integral part of a liberal democracy. Since 9/11, however, the amount of anti-terror and national security legislation – one could imply ‘security for government officials from the prying eyes of the public to whom they are answerable’ (Chomsky 2015: 122) – has drastically increased with dire consequences for journalists and academics (Pearson and Busst 2006; Brevini 2017, 2020: 89). Such harsh penalties can have a serious chilling effect on the types of stories and information that are reported on in the media, ostensibly for the security of the nation and its citizens. This, alongside the encroaching domestic surveillance by security agencies (Molitorisz 2020: 72), exposes a deep conflict between the role of the state in protecting its citizens and the democratic rights to privacy and information.

Another conflict regarding the media comes from the ‘private enterprise’ that also plays a major role in Australia’s liberal democracy. Australia has one of the most concentrated media landscapes in the world, most notably Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Nine Entertainment controlling around three quarters of national readership, with News’ ‘predominance… unprecedented in liberal democracies’ (Minter 2021). Cuts to the ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster, under successive Coalition governments also contributes to this. With this more commercial focus, there has been a shift from the ‘commitment to public accountability to the question of what might interest the public’, relegating the role of an active public sphere to ‘the idea of the public as a witness of public spectacles’ (Wilkinson 2005: 116).

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) ran a survey of members that found over 90% agreed Australia’s media was too highly concentrated and that this was ‘bad for democracy’ (MEAA 2021). They also noted that ‘media reforms over the past five years have worsened the state of media diversity’, such as the merger between Nine and Fairfax and the drawback of regulations allowing existing empires to expand further. In her study on corporate power in Australia, Edwards says ‘For a healthy democracy we want a variety of diverse voices scrutinising our political leaders with well-resourced investigative journalists.’ (Edwards 2020: 94). Her conclusion regarding the influence of media companies was bleak: ‘The government responded to the accumulated power of the moguls by ceding to their demands.’ (2020: 118).

The liberal mix of the state and private enterprise is in constant debate over how to balance these two arenas. When you introduce pure democratic ideals and the common good into the equation, the current liberal democratic framework clashes over many points of contention. Those in positions of power, whether elected representatives or corporate media outlets, have their own individual and institutional ambitions that are often at odds with the public interest and common good. This is particularly damaging for democracy when one is meant to be a regulator and the other a watchdog, but both end up beholden to the other.

Pending a radical shift towards more direct styles of democracy, efforts should be made to ensure protections for journalists and whistle-blowers while expanding the diversity of voices in the media landscape by breaking up monopolies. Greater transparency in government is also required, both to protect the privacy of citizens from ‘national security’ legislation and allow a higher standard of accountability to the public. While flawed, there are many avenues we can take to create a more viable and common good-centred liberal democracy.

References

Aristotle 2020 ‘Democratic Judgement and the “Middling” Constitution’, in T Ball, R Dagger and D O’Neill eds. Ideals and Ideologies: A Reader 11th ed. New York: Routledge.

Brevini, Benedetta 2017 ‘Metadata Laws, Journalism and Resistance in Australia’, Media and Communication 5(1): 76-83.

Brevini, Benedetta 2020 ‘WikiLeaks: Australia’s Non-event’, in F Ruby and P Cronau eds. A Secret Australia: Revealed by the WikiLeaks exposes Clayton: Monash University Publishing.

Cameron, Sarah 2019 ‘Government performance and dissatisfaction with democracy in Australia’, Australian Journal of Political Science 55(2): 170-190.

Chomsky, Noam 2015 Because We Say So, Penguin Books.

Edwards, Lindy 2020 Corporate Power in Australia: Do the 1% Rule? Clayton: Monash University Publishing.

Heywood, Andrew 2021 Political Ideologies: An Introduction 7th ed. London: Red Globe Press.

Kefford, Glenn; Hannah Murphy-Gregory; Ian Ward; Stewart Jackson; Lloyd Cox and Andrea Carson 2018 Australian Politics in the Twenty-First Century: Old Institutions, New Challenges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kioupkiolis, Alexandros 2017 ‘Common Democracy: Political Representation beyond Representative Democracy’, Democratic Theory 4(1): 35-58.

MEAA 2021 ‘Media diversity and concentration of ownership’, Press Freedom 30 April. Accessed 28 August 20221. Available at https://pressfreedom.org.au/media-diversity-and-concentration-of-ownership-4f3eff3444ad.

Minter, Elizabeth 2021 ‘Media concentration by Murdoch, Nine and Stokes, and ABC cuts, a danger to democracy – report’, Michael West Media 12 April. Accessed 28 August 2021. Available at https://www.michaelwest.com.au/media-concentration-by-murdoch-nine-and-stokes-and-abc-cuts-a-danger-to-democracy-report/.

Molitorisz, Sacha 2020 Net Privacy: How We Can Be Free in an Age of Surveillance Sydney: NewSouth Publishing.

Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) Defining democracy Canberra: Accessed 28 August 2021. Available at https://www.moadoph.gov.au/democracy/defining-democracy/.

Pearson, Mark; Naomi Busst 2006 ‘Anti-terror Laws and the Media after 9/11: Three Models in Australia, NZ and the Pacific’, Pacific Journalism Review 12(2): 9-27.

Wike, Richard; Janell Fetterolf 2018 ‘Liberal Democracy’s Crisis of Confidence’, Journal of Democracy 29(4): 136-150.

Wilkinson, Jennifer 2005 ‘Desperately Seeking Democracy: Unreflexive Liberalism and the ‘Privacy Bias’ in Journalism Ethics’, Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy 114(1): 109-121.

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