The media gatekeepers vs free speech

Katharine Murphy’s Age column yesterday attacking big ad campaigns against government policy is the third such argument I have seen from journalists in the last six months or so. George Megalogenis made a similar argument in his Quarterly Essay (though for reasons I did not entirely follow, he thinks campaigns are ok after laws have been passed), and Peter Hartcher argued that ad campaigns threaten economic reform.

Murphy says:

We have a choice. We can either bump along and slide into a combative political environment where vested interests set the agenda, or we can stop, think and consider the alternatives.

Should there be full public funding for elections, ensuring that politics is left to the politicians? Should we require truth in political advertising?

Or should we do nothing, and wake up in a decade to find that politics can’t do anything; that politics is now solely about carving up the spoils, that reform has become impossible?

Though I strongly disagree with the Murphy’s views, she does more or less correctly describe what campaign finance reform is about. Its purpose and effect is to insulate the political class from the views of those who disagree with them or might challenge them. There is an implicit assumption that without the corrupting influence of donations and third party campaign spending politicians would govern in the public interest, and that therefore donations and third party campaigns need to be capped or banned (this has already happened in NSW).

It is not an entirely authoritarian agenda – critics would still be allowed to have their say, but mediated by political class gatekeepers who decide what is in the public interest (eg Murphy, Megalogenis, Hartcher).

As a liberal democrat, I think this analysis has things the wrong way around. The ‘public interest’ at a given time is not something pretermined by those already in power, it something produced by the liberal democratic political process itself. None of us are likely to be completely happy with the results, but that is one of the system’s strengths – no single view is ever completely dominant or entrenched over the long term.

From a liberal democratic perspective, the central political problem is not ‘vested interests ranging from corporations to wealthy ideologues’ (Murphy’s description) but the power of the state itself. All the recent ad campaigns Murphy complains of (the anti-WorkChoices campaign, the anti-mining tax campaign, the anti-Wilkie/Xenophon pokies reform compaign) were triggered by massive actual or proposed state attacks on a section of Australian society.

All these ‘vested interests’ are doing is appealing directly to the ultimate umpire in a liberal democracy: the public itself. That can be an expensive business. The mining industry campaign cost $22 million, but that’s only about $1.60 a voter. We have free speech so that the government of the day doesn’t get to decide who speaks or who the voters get to hear.

Apart from their own vested interest in being gatekeepers, I am amazed that journalists of all people think that governments should simply be allowed to get on with their policies, without having to face any large-scale opposition.

9 Responses to “The media gatekeepers vs free speech

  • 1
    Sinclair Davidson
    April 17th, 2011 18:41

    Why are you surprised that journalists are opposed to this? Special interest advertising is a direct competitor to columnists. Rather than the political class telling us what to think special interests cut out the middleman and appeal to the masses direct.

  • 2
    Factory
    April 17th, 2011 20:21

    “All the recent ad campaigns Murphy complains of (the anti-WorkChoices campaign, the anti-mining tax campaign, the anti-Wilkie/Xenophon pokies reform compaign) were triggered by massive actual or proposed state attacks on a section of Australian society.”
    1) Whilst some members of the society would have been ‘attacked’, others would have benefitted. If politicians are restricted in their policies to only those that harm noone at any time, it can only lead to poorer policies.
    2) It’s a bad assumption that special interests will only lobby to defend themselves. Special interests can also lobby for subsidies and regulations which favour themselves as well.

    “Apart from their own vested interest in being gatekeepers, I am amazed that journalists of all people think that governments should simply be allowed to get on with their policies, without having to face any large-scale opposition.”
    This assumes that politicians are monolithic block, they are certainly not. The government of day will always have the opposition opposing everything they do, not to mention independants and minor parties.

  • 3
    Owen
    April 18th, 2011 00:02

    While that’s all true Factory, surely its the responsiblity of the government to convince the population that the winners will outweigh the losers. After all, there’s no real way of knowing whether an individual policy will do more harm than good (doubly so before implementation).

    Also, the government of the day has enormous resources to get its message out. As well as the obvious taxpayer-funded-campaigns, there’s also the more subtle ability to influence the media via control of government briefings and interviews.

  • 4
    Andrew Norton
    April 18th, 2011 05:59

    Factory – Nobody is suggesting that there should be a policy veto held by outside groups. What I am disputing is the assumption that campaigns amount to a veto (or in the case of special interests seeking a new policy, a blank cheque). Unfortunately there is no empirical research on this in Australia, but the US research clearly shows that campaign spending is not a reliable indicator of political outcomes. It can be used to give one point of view more profile than it would otherwise have, but no amount of advertising can sell a bad product.

  • 5
    Factory
    April 18th, 2011 06:46

    Well my comments do assume that lobbying of this kind is effective. Whilst I will agree that this period of time is most amenable to lobbying since:
    1) Major parties are fairly close in political power, so negative advertising campaigns can cause large swings policy making power.
    2) The governing party is not very driven (compared to the Howard/Hawke/Keating governments) so they are not giving up as much in terms of ideology when backing down.

    OTOH in the case of the RSPT major policy was held back by a lobby group, but it’s argueable whether it was the straw that broke the camel’s back or something more major.

  • 6
    Robert Merkel
    April 18th, 2011 07:27

    I think we’re in general agreement on this one, Andrew.

    I would qualify this by noting the disproportionate power of media oligopolists to get their message out, not only to further their financial interests but indulge their personal political hobbyhorses. More generally, it does concern me that the already wealthy and powerful get the largest megaphone, most of the time.

    I would also note that these campaigns don’t appear to be universally effective – the anti-plain-packaging campaign doesn’t appear to be working, so it appears that the tobacco industry’s next trick is abusing IP law. Similarly, while I can’t judge how it’s working in the pokie club heartland of NSW, the anti-Wilkie campaign seems to be struggling here in Victoria.

  • 7
    Andrew Elder
    April 18th, 2011 18:25

    Robert’s right: a big campaign is not always effective. Murphy is wrong to assume that we – particularly journalists – are all helpless in the face of a media juggernaut. Murphy assumes that media consumers don’t have the power to switch off to a self-serving campaign, and that journalists are also bound to slavishly follow such campaigns; as I’ve said elsewhere I think she’s wrong on both counts.

    On the issue itself, I remember some titanic stand-offs between Hugh Morgan and Bob Hawke – Morgan would’ve had Rudd and Gillard on toast.

  • 8
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » When might big-spending campaigns work?
    April 18th, 2011 19:39

    [...] The commenters on yesterday’s campaign finance post think that big ad campaigns don’t always work. That’s certainly the finding of the US literature on this subject – not that money never makes a difference, but that it interacts with so many other factors that there is no stable or predictable relationship between political spending and political outcomes. [...]

  • 9
    M
    April 21st, 2011 13:13

    A big public campaign is vastly preferable to the situation in the US where the money is funnelled to candidates on the quiet.

    Public campaigning on policy, as long as the ad is true is definitely better than lobbying behind closed doors, post-retirement board appointments, large donations from property developers, etc….

    The pensioners public campaign for a raise was effective even if it didn’t involve a large ad buy. Being smart and getting some free media is much more important than how many dollars you spend. Smart use of the internet goes a long way for small dollars.
    However in a system beholden to political donations then how much money you have is all that matters.