Dumbing down democracy? It's probably true

1 JANUARY 2003

A CSU academic says that the recent comments by former federal Labor cabinet minister, Mr Lindsay Tanner, which he also expresses in his new book, Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, are worthy of serious consideration for the simple reason that they are, in part at least, probably true.

CSU's Dr Edward SpenceA Charles Sturt University (CSU) academic says that the recent comments by former federal Labor cabinet minister, Mr Lindsay Tanner, which he also expresses in his new book, Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, are worthy of serious consideration for the simple reason that they are, in part at least, probably true.
 
Dr Edward Spence, a senior lecturer in media ethics at the CSU School of Communication and Creative Industries in Bathurst  and senior research fellow at the ARC Research Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics in Canberra concurs with the general tenor of Mr Lindsay Tanner’s comments, that the Australian media has, at least to some extent, “… seriously distorted the picture of politics”, which has arisen from “ … a toxic interaction between politicians and the media that is driving the Australian political process further and further away from issues, from the national interest, from serious political debate”.*
 
 “With a number of notable exceptions, the media, in order to capture the interest of their increasingly dwindling market share of audiences, have adopted the strategy of reporting matters that they perceive to be ‘of interest to the public’ rather than what are genuinely ‘matters of public interest’. The two are not the same,” Dr Spence said.
 
“The word ‘interest’ in the phrases ‘public interest’ and ‘of interest to the public’, has a different meaning in each of the two respective contexts. In the first instance, interest means ‘claim’ or ‘state’. For example, I have an interest in staying healthy, or I have an interest in providing my children with a good education. In failing to safeguard that interest I would be failing in my duty to provide myself and my children with adequate means to a good life.
 
“By contrast, interest in the second instance, usually refers to an array of different things that different people may find interesting, like bushwalking, stamp collecting, philosophy, ballroom dancing, car maintenance, golf, or gossip. It also means ‘curiosity’, as in something has aroused my interest. The two meanings of interest, although different, are related. They both relate to our sense of freedom and well-being. A person’s level of freedom and well-being might be diminished because it is raining and he cannot go out and play golf. But a person’s freedom and well-being would be significantly more affected if he, or his children, were seriously ill. The difference is a difference of degree in significance. Interest as in ‘public interest’ has a greater significance for one’s freedom and well-being than interest as in ‘of interest to the public’. The reason is quite simply because interest in the former instance attaches to aspects of our basic well-being such as physical integrity (life and health), property, security and liberty. In consequence, public interest is of greater significance than interest to the public.
 
“If the primary justification for freedom of the press is provided by the two related fundamental principles of journalism - the public interest principle, and the public’s right to know principle - then freedom of the press cannot be used to infringe the legitimate rights of freedom and wellbeing of any individual or group, including politicians, in any situation in which those two principles do not apply.
 
“So, for example, a person’s or a group’s privacy and dignity cannot be infringed in the name of freedom of the press where the information to be obtained from such an infringement is not of public interest and the public do not have a right to know, because they do not need to know. Suppose, for example, a Member of Parliament is a homosexual who has decided to keep his homosexuality private and out of the public eye. So long as the MP’s homosexuality does not in any way interfere with the performance of his public duties and responsibilities as an MP, the matter of his homosexuality as such is not a matter of public interest (though it may be of interest to some members of the public and some sectors of the media who thrive on gossip) and should therefore not be published. If the media publishes that information, to the extent the MP’s right to privacy has been unjustly violated, the media has acted unethically.
 
“Increasingly, the media in its quest to increase its audience share has been adopting the strategy of reporting matters concerning politicians that are not in the public interest but matters that can only be at most perceived to be matters of possible interest to some members of the public. The artificial engineering of controversy, and, in some cases, ridicule, of politicians by the media is a case in point. Unless there is a matter of public interest such as the exposure of political corruption, or the failure of public duty by politicians, the media must not misuse its freedom of expression to unduly ridicule, lampoon or set politicians against each other in a Punch and Judy Show hoping to create enough controversy to attract audiences.
 
“Equally bad is the media’s recent tendency to polarise public opinion on matters of national and international importance, such as the proposed carbon trading scheme to reduce green-house gases and the interim carbon tax. The media does this by turning a matter of genuine public interest into a babble of fractured opinions that serve various commercial and political interests, including those of the media, rather than the national interest of the Australian people. Such trivial tactics are unbecoming and inappropriate of a mature and democratic media. Rational and informed public debate on such crucial issues such as climate change, demand a responsible media that not only provides the channel for such debate but also, importantly, the stimulus and leadership in promoting reflective and balanced public dialogue. For, increasingly, politicians themselves fail in their public duty to inspire, let alone also provide such a rational debate.
 
“The media should fulfil its role as the Fourth Estate in taking up the challenge of leading and galvanising rational and informed debate on matters of public interest, rather than pandering to the individual commercial and corporate interests of various pressure groups. The media should dare to be independent for the public good of all Australians.”

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