The Rise and Fall: Conservative Opinion and Democracy
Niall Lucy, Steve Mickler, The War on Democracy: Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 2006).
The Australian National University
1. Governments in Western liberal democracies are increasingly becoming more media savvy and are investing in developing the support structures and personnel required to run effective media campaigns and public diplomacy initiatives (Chase 2002). New technologies, including services available through the Internet, are being utilised to ensure that the public (both local and foreign) can have access to government-generated information. For example, the Australian government has recently set up a website specifically designed to allow the public download of media releases and speeches via a podcast service (http://www.australia.gov.au/media). Correspondingly, however, as new technologies become available and governments become progressively more involved in developing media management capabilities, media commentators have expressed concerns regarding the erosion of the position and role that media - and journalism - should be playing in society.
2. For just over a decade there has been a marked shift in the ways in which the Australian government engages with the media. Previously, the media was viewed as a tool in helping to promote policy and gain positive public opinion, especially as regards foreign policy (Ammon 2001:5). However, this has now shifted into a more active (and strategic) approach. The first comprehensive management of media resources was undertaken by the Keating government at the 1995 Pacific Leaders Forum in Papua New Guinea, where the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade developed a visiting media program for Australian journalists wishing to report on Forum events. The Howard administration has taken on board this strategic approach and set about to consolidate a specialised approach to media management.
3. One example of strategic image management was when in the early hours of 23 July 2003 HMAS Manoora approached Red Beach in the Solomon Islands - marking the beginning of the Australian-led intervention known as RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands). On the shore, journalists from around the world were gathered and coordinated by DFAT officials (Field 2003). It was a local replica of the coverage of the 1992 American landing in Somalia that started operation 'Restore Hope'”. A photographer travelling with the Australian media contingent (this was also being supported by DFAT) began handing out Australian flags to local people witnessing the event. They were instructed to wave their flags around while he recorded the scene (once the photo was taken, the plastic flags were taken back) (Field 2003).
4. With governments around the world increasingly allocating larger resources to create public information offices, undertaking traditional investigative journalism has become harder. At the same time, increasing financial pressures on media budgets (especially in the newspaper industry) are also creating an environment where media companies are more than willing to accept news stories and information released from the public information offices. Related developments, including contentious appointments within the state-run Australian Broadcasting Corporation and, for example, the inclusion of a former liberal treasurer to the Fairfax Group board, have led to increasing concerns regarding the transparency of reporting in the Australian media.
5. This is the background of Niall Lucy and Steve Mickler's The War on Democracy: Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press. The book provides an analysis of conservative politics and opinion in Australia by focusing on the press. In general terms, the authors outline the ways in which what they identify as Australia's conservative movement is seeking to comprehensively replace the notion of 'democracy as social progress' (with inherent safeguards for minority groups) with an understanding of 'democracy' as mere representation of the will of the majority. For Australian conservatives, they argue, democracy is not about protecting all within the social body; it is about protecting a variously defined 'majority'.
6. War on Democracy provides a number of interesting perspectives on the nature of conservatism in the press and how it evolved in order to fit in with broader shifts taking place within society. For example, Lucy and Mickler focus on the ways in which contemporary conservatism departs from the conservatives of generations past (suited-up and comb-overs ...), and how it is appropriating particular versions of 'otherness' for its own purposes: younger generations "aren't scandalised by tongue piercings, Big Brother Uncut or Eminem [...] [t]hey look hip, but they're old school when it comes to sharing Howard's views on patriotism and matters of national interest", they remark (p. 32).
7. War on Democracy expresses concerns regarding the nature and future direction of the printed media in Australia and its relationship to democratic life. According to the authors' rendition, the Australian 'media wars' can be seen as beginning during the 1960s, when conservative values and ideas were being challenged by a strong movement towards progressive ideas of social equality and understanding of difference (p. 2). Lucy and Mickler convincingly argue that while conservative opinion can be construed as inherently 'anti-democratic', it had to adjust its rhetoric in order to become effective.
8. The conservative press of Australia touts the need for democracy but all too often derides its very foundations, calling diverse social groups 'Stalinist' (Indigenous rights claimants, feminists, unionists, etc.), and in turn ignoring the fact that different social groups accessing special considerations and entitlements is an indication of a healthy democratic life (intolerance of diversity is a Stalinist trait, after all) (p. 2). Rather, conservatives see Prime Minister John Howard as a democratic leader, not because he gives expression to the 'rights and interests of the least powerful individuals and groups in a society', but rather because he 'represents the will of the majority' (p. 75). It is this notion that allows Australian conservative opinion to exercise a remarkable ascendancy over the Australian press. It is this representative power, they argue, that has underpinned John Howard's dominance of Australian political life (p. 3).
9. Each chapter focuses on a specific media conservative (columnist Luke Slattery, Miranda Devine, columnist and commentator Gerard Henderson, ABC Board Director and columnist Janet Albrechtsen, Andrew Bolt, Counterpoint presenter Michael Duffy and Catholic journalist, Christopher Pearson). The combination of the two authors' expertise provides an interesting approach to the dissemination, rise, and inner workings of conservative opinion in the press. They have researched a wide field and have done so extensively. Their insight into the nature of the conservatism as it appears in the Australian press allows readers an understanding of the current conservative mainstream media frenzy.
10. Lucy and Mickler combine published examples (articles, editorials etc) alongside theoretical undertakings in politics, public policy and culture to demonstrate how the 'war on democracy' is being waged. Each chapter focuses on a theme that has made headlines in the conservative media and used a popular media conservative to help provide working examples: from Luke Slatterly's concern of the 'postmodern' approach to the teaching of English in secondary schools (Chapter 1), and Andrew Bolt's take on history and its fall into the grasps of 'elites' such as those found in humanities departments across Australia (Chapter 5) (p. 88).
11. One (and arguably minor) criticism that a media scholar may raise relates to the authors' inclination to present a 'simplified' reading of their sources. In some instances, the deeper implication of what appears in the press is lost. Despite this minor criticism, War on Democracy is certainly an interesting read, and one cannot help but cringe, laugh and/or be horrified by the antics of the conservative mind in the Australian media. War on Democracy is also a good starting point for anyone wishing to monitor the slips and literary faux pas of Andrew Bolt, Michael Duffy, and a number of other pundits, even if it is a little too easy.
Clare Shamier is a PhD Candidate at the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the Australian National University. Her research focuses on Australian government media management strategies in the Asia Pacific.
Ammon R J. (2001), Global Television and the Shaping of World Politics: CNN, Telediplomacy and Foreign Policy, Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc, Publishers.
Chase P. (2002), 'Hegemony in abstraction: media coverage and the 2001 government election', paper given at the APSA50 conference, Australian National University, http://arts.anu.edu.au/sss/apsa/abstract/Panels.htm [accessed: 16 July 2007].
Field M. (2003), 'Australia Leads Charge in Operation Helpum Fren. Is it massive overkill or recolonisation?', Pacific Magazine, 01/09/03.
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