What’s new? Democracy, politics and the role of the media

Tim Dwyer, The University of Sydney

Malcolm Dean Democracy Under Attack: How the Media Distort Policy and Politics, Polity Press, Bristol, 2011 (432 pp). ISBN 9-78184742-848-6 (hard cover) RRP $61.95.

Lindsay Tanner Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, Scribe, Melbourne, 2011 (240 pp). ISBN 9-78192184-406-5 (paperback) RRP $ 32.95.

Sally Young How Australia Decides: Election Reporting and the Media, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2010 (346 pp). ISBN 9-78052114-707-1 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

The phone-hacking scandal continues to unravel in the United Kingdom, with new revelations emerging to tarnish the News Corporation brand almost daily. The parliamentary, police and judicial inquiries in the United Kingdom, and the Australian government’s inquiries into the news print media, and into how media industries are changing are a sign of the times. They represent an unprecedented political response to the crisis in the role of the media in contemporary democracies.

The three books considered in this review are part of a new wave in books analysing media performance, and the consequences of this deeper malaise. Nick Davies Flat Earth News was a front-runner, and the Australian Review of Public Affairs considered another, Jack Fuller’s What Is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism, last year (Phillips 2011).

Despite their divergent national contexts, the raison d’être of all books reviewed here is the role of the media in a democracy, and associated debates about the consequences of media performance for how citizens lead their lives. In their own specific ways, they offer fine-grained analysis of different elements of this mosaic of crisis.

In Democracy Under Attack, Dean draws on his wealth of experience as The Guardian’s columnist on social policy for twenty years to observe the way the media has constructed the very terms of social policy in asylum, law and order, education, drugs, health and social care, welfare, poverty and housing. He contextualises these case studies in an introductory chapter entitled ‘The rise and fall of mainstream journalism’ and surveys a litany of media failures in accountability and transparency. Much of the focus is on media/government relations—when Blair was elected Labour leader in 1994 he said ‘the only thing that matters now in this campaign is the media, the media, the media’ (p. 3).

Geoff Mulgan, Director of the Blair Government’s policy unit and the Cabinet Office’s strategy unit, writes in his endorsement for the book that those with an interest in social policy, both inside and outside the media, will be ‘invaluably’ informed by Dean’s wise prognostications. That a Blair Government insider is prepared to comment publicly about the events and processes revealed by Dean, makes this is no ordinary endorsement. I will go further and suggest that many of Dean’s thoughts and observations would undoubtedly assist Lord Justice Leveson in his current inquiry in the aftermath of the News of the World (NoW) scandal. And why shouldn’t he take them on board? Dean’s insights cut to the chase and reveal many fundamental problems within journalism.

Dean’s insights reveal many fundamental problems within journalism.

Dean’s core chapter ‘Subverting democracy: Seven sins of the reptiles’ details the extent of distortions not only across key categories of social policy such as asylum, crime and health but also in the way the media relies on scapegoats like social welfare recipients to malign the unemployed and other legitimate beneficiaries of social security expenditure. He notes, for example, that media generally played on prejudices, avoiding the truth that over 50 per cent of this spending goes towards age pensioners alone (and not the structurally unemployed and other recipients) in the United Kingdom. The media love to misreport, perpetuate and distort existing constructions such as ‘Broken Britain’ or ‘Middle Britain’. The former focus on the most psychotic stories of dysfunctionality (ten and eleven-year-old murderers etcetera) and the later, the ‘absurd distortion’ generated by the right-wing papers’ definition of the middle class, (who actually represent a tiny elite minority). The Express, Telegraph and the Sunday Times routinely campaigned to curb or abolish ‘death taxes’, when only about 6 per cent of estates were actually paying it, and individuals can pass on £325,000 before paying any tax. Similarly, in 2010 the ‘middle class’—defined by these papers as earning over £150,000 a year—were warned of impending taxation scrutiny. For a reality check, Dean notes that ‘median pay in the year ending April 2009 was £25,428’ (p. 352).

Other sins include dumbing down through trivialisation, peddling celebrity addiction, sheer commercial competitiveness, and the sin of more interest among editors in politics than in policy, since ‘political reporting through a bi-focal lens can produce a more simplified story: who is for and who is against’ (p. 361). Complexity is avoided and the media are generally reluctant to challenge wild or hyped political claims that would require time and resources to investigate. Group think is a perennial sin, again linked to market rivalry. Another is the media simply being ‘too adversarial’ (p. 368). Dean has in mind particular forms of attack campaigns where the media takes hold of some bone, for example, what they see as the perceived failings of some vaccine or drug (p. 370). Sin number six is being ‘too easily duped’ and he cites Nick Davies’ discussion in Flat Earth News (2008) of the millennium bug as a case in point. His seventh sin is the one he sees as the most important: the way media concentrate on the negative. It’s easy to do and commercial media cash in on existing audience distrust of politicians and official statistics (p. 372). Dean, as you would expect, offers an account of the ongoing NoW scandal: which he refers to as ‘Britain’s July Spring’ (p. 393). His final word on the subject is the observation that the pressure will be on Lord Justice Leveson to apply a deregulatory ‘light touch’. This, Dean argues, must be resisted in favour of ‘radical reform’ (p. 400), and surely he is right in this regard?

Much of Dean’s UK-focused book resonates with Lindsay Tanner’s general ‘dumbing down’ take on the relations between the media and politics in Australia in Sideshow. The conventional wisdom is that the Australian media does not come close to the hysteria of the UK’s ‘Red Tops’, such as The Sun or the now defunct News of the World. That said, the argument can be made that Australia’s populist talk back radio ‘shock jocks’ or ‘tabloid’ current affairs television programs such as A Current Affair or Today Tonight give them a run for their money. At any rate, self-described ‘private citizen’ Lindsay Tanner makes the argument in Sideshow that a ‘sideshow syndrome is eroding our democracy’ (p .192). Like Dean, Tanner sees a litany of poor media practices and coverage of issues, which have led to a decline in informed debate by the media. He sees that ‘the need to entertain has completely taken over the media’s approach to serious subjects’ (p. 201). This entertainment focus is driving distortion and trivialisation. He argues that the endpoint is a return ‘to the world of the nineteenth century when powerful elites dominated western societies with little accountability to the wider population’ (p. 202). The strength of this book is that it is based on his many years in politics and dealing with the media. He knows these processes intimately, from a politician’s perspective.

Tanner knows these processes intimately, from a politician’s perspective.

Tanner is also very concerned about the concentration of media ownership in Australia and the impact of concentration on the sector’s ability to deliver the diversity of information so vital in a democracy. Discussing his book on Q&A last year, he made the important point that whether the views of politicians reach audiences very much depends on whether media outlets choose to transmit those views. ‘Who decides what goes on TV? Who decides what goes in the newspapers and on radio?’ he asked (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2011). How can politicians influence media representation of events ‘unless you own a media outlet’? Tanner was shining a spotlight on the importance of policies that create the conditions for media diversity.

Billionaire mine-owner Gina Rinehart’s recent move on Fairfax Media’s share register represents the risks of deep pockets with few constraints, in a media landscape that is already the most concentrated among comparable democracies. It shows that a hugely wealthy sectarian business interest can buy into media with no advanced warning. In Rinehart’s case, that’s for a range of purposes, not simply investment ones, and these undoubtedly include the full gamut of ‘influence’ implications. At the top of that list clearly there’s the mining tax issue, but also the carbon tax, and the ongoing skirmishes around the mining of natural resources and the rise of clean renewable energy industries.

These events have certainly been a lightning rod to political elites who, with an eye to the federal election around the corner, will have their hands firmly on the media policy levers. Let’s just say it will be factored into their assessments of how they respond to the recommendations of the Independent Media Inquiry and the Convergence Review. (The former inquiry was primarily prompted by the Greens, led by Senator Brown, and also those in the ALP concerned with News Corporation antics. The latter is a more routine departmental review of the state of media regulation in the context of Australia’s converging media, overseen by industry experts.)

Tanner is on the money in relation to the key role of policy making. My somewhat tongue-in-cheek view is that media policy making in Australia is a bit like a looped sample remixed by your favourite DJ, and has a tendency to place political party interests above all others. These recurring patterns are to be seen in the Convergence Review’s Interim Report, where the views of the loudest and most-favoured actors dominate the arguments (Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy 2011). Ironically, progressive priorities can be combined with conservative ones. So, in the case of this particular report, it recommends innovative ways of shoring up Australian content. But these benefits are far outweighed by the costs of recommendations that would result in unrestrained media concentration. Not much point in being able to see Australian faces and hear their voices, if mainstream news media are spinning some anti-mining tax or anti-carbon tax line.

My point is that the deregulatory rhetoric allowing these processes is blithely and irresponsibly unconcerned with trifles like a well-informed citizenry or democracy. There are important reforms being addressed (such as fostering Australia content on our screens), but unfortunately the trend in media reform processes is for governments to not take any risks in the run up to an election, the mode we are presently in.

Young’s book is a very stimulating and skilled blend of data, theory and exposition.

Tanner would readily agree that a sustainable democratic process, for well-informed citizens, requires a steady drip of accurate information about government and corporate decisions. Media concentration in the hands of vested business interests undermines that possibility.

Sally Young’s How Australia Decides connects media and politics by offering a close reading of Australian election reporting, based on empirical on data gathered over the first decade of the 2000s. Some of the concerns expressed by Dean and Tanner also emerge in Young’s systematic analysis. The evidence is there of bias, sensationalism, trivialisation, horse-race reporting of elections, and a general distortion of how many issues get filtered and mediated. All is at the expense of any serious analysis of important policies.

The book is structured in three main parts: ‘Political news audiences and outlets’; ‘Where does election news come from and what is it about’?; and ‘Elections in mediated times’. Young is a political scientist who takes a close interest in the media. This focus comes alive in the book in a very stimulating and skilled blend of data, theory and exposition. The culmination of Australian Research Council and earlier funded research, the book is loaded up with figures, tables and information boxes.

Young is able to draw on a considerable amount of comparative, historical election data. Her study was based on over ‘10,000 media texts on the 2001, 2004 and 2007 elections’ (p. 281). The book begins with an observation that the 2010 election was unprecedented, with the election of Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard after deposing the sitting prime minister Kevin Rudd overnight. There was some media display of the party factionalism behind these events. The book provides very important election statistics that all Australians would benefit knowing about the state of democracy in this country. For example, Young notes in the 2010 election, ‘over a million eligible Australians were missing from the electoral roll’, and of those voting ‘80 percent gave their first preference to one of the major parties’ (p. xvii).

For her ‘audiences became more fluid, “nomadic” and mobile in the 2000s’ (p. 2). At the same time, elections themselves have become ever more mediated, with Australians increasing relying on multiple sources of information, including the Internet. The question I would want to ask in this context, though, is how diverse is this coverage? I suspect that there is a limited amount of original news, and much reuse, repurposing and syndication as there is with news production and distribution outside of election ‘horse-race’ periods. But as Young points out, there is also a great deal of information being churned out by news media workers, other than by traditional ‘political journalists’. And these sources can be very influential. Think Crikey, New Matilda, or The Conversation. To these we need to add, ‘comedy shows, talkback radio hosts and callers, websites, blogs, YouTube clips, social networking comments, emails and electronic newsletters’ (p. 6). Despite recognising this diversity in sources, Young admits her academic interest is concerned with ‘formal politics’; in other words the institutions of politics (parliaments, parties, governments, politicians), and their social and cultural contexts to some extent (p. 16). Understandably, Young considers these institutions to still be at the heart of democracy even though their actual operation is nowadays often theorised in ways, which recognise complexity in society and culture.

Much is unknown and unpredictable at this moment in the evolution of media industries.

Unlike Dean and Tanner’s analyses, Young, as you would expect from an academic political scientist, has a systematic framework that guides her research on election campaigns. In fact, her methodological assumptions shape her book’s structure. She argues that to understand election reporting, a broader context is required, and she considers five key aspects in this regard: ‘(1) audiences; (2) news organisations, reporters and how they create election news; (3) politicians and how they campaign and interact with the media; (4) the content of election reports; and (5) the impact of this reporting on Australian democracy’ (p. 16). Arguably Young’s approach to audience theory would not satisfy some media studies scholars, but then, when your focus is on the broad empirical features of the audiences attending to politics, then some general categories are the main requirement. Hence, Young points out that only about 20 per cent of Australians actively followed political news through the mass media, and ‘only half of these chose the more detailed, elite “quality” media’ (p. 40). The bottom line is that there is only a hard core of keen follows (news tragics and political junkies?) and ‘the vast majority of Australian still do not switch on’ (p. 41).

In separate chapters Young reviews key theories of the ‘elite public sphere’ and ‘popular public sphere’ audiences. These accounts are combined with valuable socioeconomic data about the people who attend to various media platforms, channels, formats and programs. The data assembled is an excellent resource for researchers in many disciplines. Data on online news websites shows that, while there’s some crossover with broadsheet paper readers, visitors to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald websites are skewed to professional, high-income earners. The visitors to the The Australian website are more like the hard copy readers, but skewed to the younger and wealthier (p. 58). Young makes an important point when she argues ‘as with elite media audiences, these audiences (from the ‘popular public sphere’) did not just pre-exist as some fully formed entity but were created and cultivated in particular ways by media companies (p. 83). Unfortunately, this is an idea that only vaguely makes its way into media policy. If it were taken more seriously in policy formation processes in relation to news diversity and democracy, this would be certainly ramp up the sophistication of these debates.

Young’s analysis of how journalists create news and the many structural constraints (such as lack of diversity in sources and declining interest in election news) that shape media content, gets overlain on election and political processes. She has a realist’s view of how relations between politics and the media will play out in Australia: ‘National contexts – including media policy but also political systems and cultural factors – have a great deal of influence over how media and technology are used’ (p. 228). Tempering this, though, she wisely notes that there is much that is unknown and unpredictable at this moment in the evolution of the news media industries. The future role of journalists and ‘hard news’ as we have known it is uncertain. The link between news formats, citizenship and democracy is the core question in Young’s final chapter. Importantly, she regards access to news formats as matters of tastes and benefits, which then need to be assessed in light of the outcomes for empowering people (p. 279).

Several common themes emerge from all three books. Dumbing down, distortion, trivialisation, the shift to ‘news as entertainment’, to use Daya Thussu’s phrase (2009), being the key ones. The relationship between media policies and media performance and industry structure is another. The power of the media to define politics, policy and the world generally has been forensically examined. It’s small wonder that both the UK and Australian governments have been pressured to institute major inquiries into these precise concerns about media power, responsibility, and where the buck stops in media governance in western liberal democracies. The penny has dropped at a political level that politicians rely for their survival on the way these news providers operate. However, more sophisticated media policy making in Australia would need to recognise and attempt to counter the specific constraints: a dangerous level of media ownership concentration, coupled with a structural trend in the print news media industries to declining investment in costly citizenship-focused information gathering practices, and audiences whose tastes have been cultivated in soft entertainment rather than more challenging news formats.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2011, Transcript of Q&A, Monday 9 May [Online], Available: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3205559.htm [2012, Feb 15].

Davies, N. 2008, Flat Earth News, Chatto & Windus, London.

Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy 2011, Convergence Review Interim Report, Australian Government, Canberra [Online], Available: http://www.dbcde.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/143836/Convergence-Review-Interim-Report-web.pdf [2012, Feb 15].

Phillips, D. 2011, ‘Old problems, new media’, Australian Review of Public Affairs, April [Online], Available: http://www.australianreview.net/digest/2011/04/phillips.html [2012, Feb 15].

Thussu, D. 2009, News as Entertainment: The Rise of Global Entertainment, Sage, London.

Dr Tim Dwyer is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at The University of Sydney. His research focuses on the critical evaluation of media and communications industries, regulation, law and policy. Recent publications include Legal and Ethical Issues in the Media (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and Media Convergence (McGraw Hill/Open University Press, 2010).