After my appearance at the government-sponsored media inquiry in Melbourne last week I was suddenly on the News Limited radar. My name popped up in several news reports and comment pieces over the following days, but not once was I actually asked to comment, or explain my views.
The only inquiry I had from a News journo was late on Tuesday night when a reporter from the Daily Telegraph rang me at home. If I thought that this was going to be an opportunity to discuss my views on the Australian media, I was sadly disappointed.
The guy had been instructed by his editor to call and ask me a couple of questions. He didn’t really sound all that comfortable about it, but he plugged on. The first question was straight out of the Senator McCarthy playbook: Are you now, or have you ever been a communist?
All the Telegraph was interested in was whether or not I would confirm that I still hold left-wing views. The second question was could I supply them with a recent photograph.
“Yeah right,” I thought, “so you can out it on a ‘wanted poster’, I don’t think so.”
It’s interesting that the Telegraph would go down this line, when all the time News Limited papers are agitated about the media inquiry being some kind of McCarthyist witch-hunt against them. The next morning, it was ‘revealed’ in the Telegraph that I had links to an archive website called Marxist Interventions. the paper also pointed out that I am a critic of “Western capitalist democracy” and alleged that my criticism of News Limited had been “aggressive”.
I tried to respond to this by posting an online comment to the article; but it has not been published. In that reply I briefly set out why I am critical of “Western capitalist democracy” within the terms of polite and civil discourse.
On Andrew Bolt’s blog at the Herald Sun I was described as a “former Trotskyist and Pilger devotee”. Which is worse? I don’t know. Once again I attempted to post a polite comment; my main concern being to point out the factual error: I never once claimed to be a “former” Trotskyist. It was eventually published, but only invited more ridicule from Bolt’s followers.
A couple of days later Herald Sun columnist Miranda Devine weighed in, describing me as a “self-proclaimed Trotskyist,” and “anti-American”. I’m not sure where she got the idea that I’m anti-American. My father-in-law is a retired US serviceman; I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for three years and I have visited the US several times over the past decade. I love American muscle cars of the 1960s while recognising that they are gas-guzzling dinosaurs of the age of oil.
I don’t know what Devine means by “anti-American”. It’s a catch-all slur designed to make me seem some how less than credible; like Bolt calling me a “Pilger devotee”. Where’s the evidence for either claim?
No one has bothered to ask me what my views are on America or John Pilger.
If either Bolt or Devine is interested, this is what I would say:
I am not anti-American, but I am against American imperialism – so too are tens of thousands of Americans. Unlike the Murdoch media worldwide, I opposed both Gulf Wars, as did tens of thousands of Americans. I am against the US-led “war on terror” and I think that the American government has sanctioned war crimes in the name of “defending democracy”, while trashing democracy at home. Again, so too do tens of thousands of Americans.
Am I a “devotee” of John Pilger? No, and I’m sure he would hate to think that he has disciples or devotees. Do I admire his work and his public positions on imperialism, the Middle East and the war on terror? Yes I do; in the same way that I approve of and enjoy the work of that great anti-American documentary maker, Michael Moore.
Of course, in the eyes of the News Limited calumnists [sic] thinking favourably of Michael Moore or John Pilger is tantamount to treason. Thinking for yourself and deciding, after more than 30 years studying political economy, politics and journalism (and incidentally acquiring four degrees along the way), that you are willing to identify as a socialist is enough to get them all barking and howling at the moon; even in the middle of the day.
Considered, thoughtful, intelligent left-wing opinion cannot be allowed in the pages of the News Limited press; its very existence must be attacked, ridiculed and vilified at every turn of the page and every click of the mouse. It is why none of these people will be invited to have a column in The Australian, except for William Morris of course. If he wasn’t dead, I’m sure he’d be asked to contribute a few frothy words for the soft furnishings pages.
Well, what I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brainslack brain workers, nor heartsick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all-the realisation at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH .
If you want to know what kind of socialist I am, then look over here.
Imagine what we could do with the accumulated trillions of dollars in the hands of a tiny minority of capitalist parasites. We could feed, clothe and shelter the millions who live on less than $2 a day, just as a start. The state, with its armed might that is used to repress dissent and defend the interests of the tiny minority would no longer be necessary. There could be genuine democracy. With the end of capitalist competition for profits there would be no war, so the massive resources that go into killing machines could be put to use restoring the environment, for education, health, community care of the sick, the young and the elderly. And much more.
And here’s why you should be a socialist too.
I don’t really expect that I would be treated politely, or with any respect, in the limitednews pages; but I was still surprised then to see myself talked about again in the Saturday (12 Nov) Weekend Australian.
The paper’s media diarist (or at least one of them, apologies to @meadea) Nick Leys filed a brief piece on the Tuesday afternoon (8 Nov) quoting my solicited comments at the media inquiry:
The first submission at the public hearings has been made by associate professor Martin Hirst who has spoken about free speech and the responsibilities of the media.
He said mainstream media is failing in this responsibility by limiting “the variety of views and opinions.”
“there is not a lot of strong left opinions in the mainstream media and I think that is a lack of diversity.”
Later he told the inquiry: “the public does have a right to expect honesty and truthfulness and a range of opinions.”
So far so good. Straightforward and accurate. But these sensible comments were to be buried a few days later by @leysie (is that a misspelling?).
I thought long and hard about why the sudden change in tone and I think I understand now. When Leys filed the short, factual piece reporting my comments in a straight newsy way, he didn’t know about my supposedly hidden socialist past. It wasn’t until he got back to the office to find that I’d been outed on the interwebs that the tone changed. He then got the News Limited line straight: under no circumstances was I to be given any credibility at all.
All the limitednews calumnists have now got the message and have fallen into line. Writing in Monday’s Media section of The Australian, veteran Murdoch apologist Mark Day argues that my appearance on Tuesday has fatally damaged the credibility of the Finkelstein inquiry.
On Tuesday, the Finkelstein inquiry into the print media got under way in Melbourne with an academic Trotskyite leading a procession of lefties calling for an overhaul of media regulation. Nothing could have been more damaging to the credibility of this once-over-lightly look at the print media.
Really, does one lone Trot have the power to do that? Imagine what we could do with a party of thousands. The week before, Mark Day was happy to ignore me in his preview of the inquiry:
THE Finkelstein inquiry into print media gets under way in Melbourne tomorrow and there are no prizes for guessing which way it will go. First up to give evidence are the “Bad News” academic Robert Manne, Crikey founder Stephen Mayne and its current owner/publisher, Eric Beecher.
Day had the running order clearly showing that I was “first up”; but at that point, my name didn’t strike horror into the hearts of reasonable men and women and the mention of Manne, Mayne and Beecher was sure to scare the horses, they were in the front lines.
You think I’m paranoid? Well sorry to disappoint. The punning ‘trot’ headlines continue to spew out of the Murdoch bunkers. Try this sorry exercise, for example: Trotting out nonsense at an inquiry into nothing by David Penberthy. You see a pattern emerging here?
The inquiry’s a joke and the pinkos are out to get us:
The Federal Government is in the middle of holding an inquiry into the Australian media. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, this inquiry is the strangest beast to wander out of Canberra in a while. It is wholly an accident of the fraught marriage of convenience which Julia Gillard was forced to enter into with the Greens to cling to power. Its terms of reference are absurd.
But this stuff plays well to a News Limited audience, even if some, like “Richard”, are a little bit confused in the comment thread on Penberthy’s piece:
News limited is a very broad and sprawling organisation. While I like the Australian and the Daily Telegraph, I absolutely hate the Courier Mail, its a perverse hotbed of reds and socialists doing their darnedest to corrupt Queensland with leftist slime, I sincerely believe that.
Anyway back to@leysie. After getting the story straight [Hirst, Manne, Mayne and Beecher would now be known by the collective noun a “procession” of lefties], Nick Leys contributed a fine and lengthy piece for Inquirer in the Weekend Australian (12 Nov), which deftly establishes the News Limited agenda through insinuating an ulterior motive on behalf of the inquiry head, former judge Ray Finkelstein:
Was the structure of that first day designed to allow Finkelstein to deal with the more extreme concepts of media regulation and any vendetta against News Limited? It appeared so.
How else do you explain the near-histrionic appearance by Martin Hirst, a communications academic who told the inquiry he had been living in New Zealand for at least four years?
“I am not here to bash the Murdoch press,” he said, before doing just that.”I was blown away,” he said theatrically of the discussed political coverage. “Every story about federal politics is slanted. If they can find a way of attacking Julia Gillard or another Labor minister, they do.”
“Ouch,” histrionics, theatrical? Nick, you were there in the chamber with me for nearly two full days; did you see me waving my arms or shouting? Did you see evidence of Vaudeville song and dance? Did you watch me weep, or scream or laugh hysterically?. No, jackass, you didn’t!
You sat less than 3 metres away from me for most of Wednesday and made no effort to talk to me. You knew I was there because you were following and contributing to the #mediainquiry twitter feed. Why not ask me a question? Journalists are supposed to conduct research and interviews. Why didn’t you make any attempt to make contact with me?
Were you afraid I might breathe Trotsky-germs on you; or did you think I might not quite fit the nasty straitjacket you and your colleagues were busily stitching up for me? Or were you told not to give me any oxygen in case I actually sounded sensible and reasonable – like I did on Tuesday morning when I was just another media academic?
Instead of going to the source, you have strung together two quotes from me as if they were part of the same (breathless?) sentence. But the transcript clearly shows they were separated by a good 10 minutes or more. I can estimate this because there’s nine pages of transcript between my first statement and the phrase that @leysie attempts to link it to.
The first part of the quote, including the remark “I’m not here to bash the Murdoch press”, is on page 10 of the transcript I have, which puts that phrase into some context:
I am not here to bash the Murdoch press, but I think across the board in the mainstream media there is what I would call a limited variety of speaking positions. There is a limited view of what are permissible views in terms of what’s actually picked up and promoted through the media.
This comment is not aimed at News Limited alone, I am clearly linking my comments to the mainstream news media in general. Then there’s four pages of general discussion – and when I say discussion I mean that I was effectively being cross-examined by the judge.
The next mention of News Limited is a comment I make about Andrew Bolt and the Racial Discrimination Act case, which in the copy of the transcript I have is on page 15. Clearly that is some considerable number of minutes after “I am not here to bash the Murdoch press.”
MR FINKELSTEIN: Why shouldn’t people scream abuse at each other?
DR HIRST: It’s not very helpful.
MR FINKELSTEIN: It might not be, but might the question be: so what? People scream at one another. In other words, they are uncivil in their political communications. In a democratic society, can I ask the question: so what?
DR HIRST: I guess because free speech has consequences. I guess, in a sense, that was at the heart of the Bolt matter before the RDA, that it was deemed that there were consequences of Andrew Bolt’s commentary. It was deemed in that context to be hurtful and I would actually argue inciteful, as to incite others into action. I make that point in the paper that you read, that in fact that is the situation. I would actually argue that Andrew Bolt was aware of that, and that there was a purpose behind what he was doing.
MR FINKELSTEIN: His conduct was governed, as the court found, by existing legislation.
DR HIRST: Absolutely, yes.
I have highlighted the line ‘in the paper that you read’, to demonstrate an important point about my appearance at the media inquiry that you will never read in the News Limited papers. I was there with my colleague Ivo Burum (@citizenmojo) to talk about something completely different. Our joint submission to the inquiry said nothing about News Limited, or Andrew Bolt; it was all about Ivo’s very successful projects teaching the tools of the trade to all sorts of interesting people. Take a look at this video to get an idea of what we’re talking about.
When Ivo and I sat down in front of the judge and the professor, we had no idea that our carefully prepared double act on NT Mojo was going to be hijacked into a discussion of free speech, racial vilification, market failure and the limits of press freedom at limitednews. I was not there, as the Telegraph was trying to suggest, as part of an anti-Murdoch conspiracy. The transcript clearly shows it was the judge who opened that Pandora’s box, not me.
Ray Finkelstein’s opening gambit was to take both of us down a rabbit hole:
MR FINKELSTEIN: Can I deviate, though, from the terms of your submission, Doctor, and ask you some other I hope related questions. I ask them in part because I have read a publication of yours to do with free speech and racial vilification.
DR HIRST: It was only published a couple of days ago.
MR FINKELSTEIN: It was published on 5 November, according to the copy that I have.
A draft of the paper, currently submitted to a journal for peer-review, was uploaded to my Academia.edu profile page on Saturday 5 November. It is called ‘I’m not a racist.’ Andrew Bolt and free speech. This was not part of my submission to the media inquiry; it is part of a broader study that I’m doing into free speech and commecial speech in the marketplace of ideas and the capitalist (private) media.
The next installment has the working title “There’s no such thing as free speech”. You will have to wait for that, but no doubt the dribblejaws will wet themselves with barely contained rage at the mere suggestion of an idea that I could even possibly contemplate such heresy against the founding fathers.
But anyway, I digress. The point is that my first comment about News Limited and my brief mention of the Bolt case do not amount to me going to the inquiry with a Murdoch-bashing agenda.
In fact, coming to that point, my comments were in response to the one question asked by the professor during my time at the front table. It is in the context of me talking about the failure of the free market to provide a wide diversity of media voices in a capitalist economy, particularly in the mainstream media. It is worth reading this exchange, because it also puts to rest the lie that I was only talking about the Murdoch media.
I think in terms of the main ways in which we get political information and the main ways in which the public sphere is created and informed, it still relies quite heavily on the main players in the marketplace, and they are heavily capitalised global companies in most cases that do, I think, have greater clout because of their economic size and wealth.
Economic power does bring with it a certain amount of political and social power as well, in the battle of ideas. It actually creates a much bigger platform and louder megaphone than somebody on a blog that gets a couple of hundred views a day. It is a much more powerful tool of speech.
…I don’t think the marketplace of ideas is actually an open and fair marketplace where everybody has the same right of access and the same ability to be heard.
DR RICKETSON: What might be an example of what you were just talking about before with the mainstream media and the fact they have an undue influence? What is an example of that, that you can think of?
DR HIRST: I think the kind of editorial pages of any newspaper provide that kind of platform. The Insiders program on the ABC, Four Corners, 7.30 Report, all those type of things generate a huge amount of interest – Q&A, all of that type of mainstream political information programming, news and current affairs type of programmes, I think carry a much greater social weight in terms of how we as a society form opinions and react to those things than the internet and blogs and those kind of things at the moment. There is definitely still a dominant mainstream media in that regard.
One example that is very current, which I am sure other people will talk to you about today, is the idea that the News Limited newspapers are running some kind of political agenda at the moment against the Gillard government. I actually think that is true.
I have only been back in the country now for about four months after living in New Zealand for four and a half years and I was absolutely blown away by that, and by what I see appearing now in the newspapers, particularly in The Australian, which I have a subscription to and I look at every day. There is a consistent kind of approach to the way that The Australian is actually reporting federal politics at the moment. It seems to me that the people who are arguing that there is an anti-Labor bias in the editorial pages and in the news pages of that paper are absolutely right. You see it every day.
So, there you go; I mentioned the editorial pages in “any” newspapers, and four ABC programs to illustrate my point; only then did I talk about The Australian.
But it actually gets more interesting. You see, I am accused of being part of the amorphous group who are conspiring to have the Murdoch press shut down. I can tell you right now that I have not caucused with Professor Manne, Stephen Mayne, or Bob Brown. I don’t speak to Labor politicians and they don’t ring me for advice (huge sigh of relief in News HQ?).
I was very careful to put on the record my views about any suggestion that I am in favour of shutting down News Limited through government regulation. I am not; I believe if it is to be shut down, it should not be by any other means than workers’ direct action, a’la 1975.
In 1975, before the News Corporation became a multinational conglomerate and moved its headquarters overseas, journalists at its flagship The Australian went on strike to protest the lack of fairness at their paper.
In 2011, in a sign that the peaking of News Corporation power had come at a price to its integrity, almost to a man and woman, those whose profession required they stand up for the public interest appeared to be fawning for favour at the requirement of their employers rather than feeling any obligation to the ethics of their profession.
Yes, I still believe in direct action. We are the 99 per cent.
So, what did I say inside the inquiry? Well, in a nutshell I said that the Murdoch press can do what it likes, that it has a ‘right’ to be anti-Labor and that we have to live with that, even if we don’t agree with it, or like it.
DR HIRST: I don’t have a problem with The Australian doing that, but I just think it is interesting. I am not saying that The Australian shouldn’t do that, or it doesn’t have a right to do that; I am just observing that I think that’s what is happening.
MR FINKELSTEIN: But it’s not just an observation. Don’t you mean that in a critical way?
DR HIRST: Yes, I’m critical of it, but I’m not arguing that it should be stopped; that we should actually stop The Australian from doing that.
…MR FINKELSTEIN: That is not a complaint about the content of the political articles?
DR HIRST: I’d politically disagree with the editorial line of The Australian, but I’m not suggesting for a minute that The Australian should be banned or anything like that. I’m just making the observation that that seems to me to be one of the advantages of having a $30 million printing press that you can use. It gives you a big advantage in terms of the battle of ideas, absolutely.
OK. got that? Like I said, this comes some 10 or more pages after my first comment and it is in response to direct questions from the chair of the inquiry.
I’d also like to nail the false allegation against me that I am pro-censorship and want the government to regulate the Murdoch press. It’s amazing how many of Andrew Bolt’s regular readers actually believe this deceitful line that he and News Limited calumnists are pushing at every opportunity. Just take a look at the comment streams on his blog and ones like this in the outer spirals of the cyberverse. Some of these posters, most of whom are anonymous and unaccountable for their disturbing worldview, are clearly living in a parallel universe.
I thought ‘shtum’ or other variant spellings, was from the Yiddish, given the ‘sh’ sound. Which will only further fuel Hirst and the Hirstians’ belief in the Murdoch-Bunyip-Zionist-RWDB-Bolt-Big Carbon-Big Pharma-Max the Chocolate cabal. Play that tune, you jolly paranoids! It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. Neil In Newcastle
Yeah, if you say so Neil.
If you go back to the inquiry transcript you can see that I was able to get on the record my view of media licensing. Far from supporting it I am totally opposed and actually suggested that the government pull back from licensing, not impose more.
I think there is a need to probably adjust some rules and regulations. For example, is there really any point any more to licensing broadcasters when there is no longer a shortage of spectrum?
…I think Bob Brown’s submission raised the idea of licensing newspaper owners. I would actually argue that you should look at taking away any kind of licensing regulation around broadcasting because, in fact, the argument for that, which is spectrum scarcity, no longer exists.
This is on page 12 of the transcript I have. It indicates that, far from only bashing Murdoch, I was answering questions and making points on a range of issues.
I made a similar point when questioned in a media scrum outside the inquiry on Tuesday.
SIMON LAUDER: The first to give evidence before the inquiry was Deakin University journalism lecturer, Dr Martin Hirst. The media is not allowed to record proceedings, but Dr Hirst spoke outside the hearing room.
He says the public doesn’t trust the media.
MARTIN HIRST: Any surveys that you look at that talk about trusted professionals – journalists rate about as high as prostitutes and used car salesmen and I think that is a problem that we need to address and I think journalists need to talk about that and start addressing that themselves, because if you don’t, if journalists don’t start fixing it themselves, there will be licensing, there will be regulation and I think that would be a blow to media and to freedom of speech.
Of course, that’s taken from the left-wing ABC program PM, so they probably doctored the quote (with my help) to confuse the dribblejaws. Joking aside, this comment makes it quite clear where my sympathies lie. I am in favour of journalists fixing the problem on their own terms. I have argued elsewhere that news workers must take collective responsibility and collective action to resolve these issues. The near hysteria from senior News Limited head-kickers is not in journalists’ best interests, nor, I would argue, is it in the greater public interest, which I also spoke about at length in my comments before the inquiry.
I think the marketplace of ideas rhetoric, which is, if you like, the rhetoric of liberal democracy and representative democracy and capitalist economy and capitalist society, is a flawed model in that the marketplace is not a level playing field. It doesn’t give everybody the same rights of access. I think it commodifies the notion of public interest, which is something I am also quite interested in exploring, because I think that our definitions of public interest are actually based on ideas of the market.
If you look at the legislation around broadcasting and telecommunications, for example, with the public interest test, that is often based on looking at economic benefits, so the public interest is defined in those terms and citizens are defined in that regard as consumers rather than as an expression of political ideas.
I think that there is a philosophical debate to be had about the idea of the marketplace of ideas and how relevant it is, and if it is working. My argument would be that it is not working and that we are in a situation we are in today, in terms of the collapse of business models and decline in public trust in journalism and in the news, as a result of failure of the market as it is currently established.
If you want to know more about this line of reasoning and how it relates to issues of trust, public interest, citizen journalism and new business models for the news media, then you can read about it here.
It is good though, that I’m not the only one attempting to tell another version of the media inquiry story. I am grateful to @watermelon_man (aka David Horton) for his tweeting, his good humour and this post in which he outlines a reasonable seven point plan:
Fundamentally you need (1) an ownership diversity mechanism (2) a “fairness” and balance doctrine in some form, (3) a return to a clear distinction between news and “opinion”, (4) some measure of truth in reporting (and advertising), (5) clear labelling of vested interests and institutional homes of commentators, (6) some protection for privacy and against libel, and (7) a complaints mechanism with teeth. Then see how it goes and review at regular intervals.
Finally, I’d just like to say a word to that man of integrity and letters, Gerard Henderson, of the conservative Sydney Institute. I don’t usually read Henderson’s Media Watch blog, but since it contains a reference to me this week (Nov 11), I thought that taking a quick look might be a good idea.
Well, not so much. It reads much like a discussion the Mad Hatter might have with himself on rising from bed and trying to work out which pants to put on. The bit about me is also done in this shambolic style:
Martin Hirst – A Trot With The Lot
Associate Professor Martin Hirst, who hails from Deakin University, is a former ABC journalist and a current dedicated follower of the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. According to the website Marx Interventions [sic], Martin Hirst claims to be the only Trotskyist to have ever worked in the Canberra Press Gallery as a journalist. [I doubt this. – Ed].
It seems strange that the Media Inquiry believes that a taxpayer funded Trotskyist is the best person to lead off its public hearings. This is what Robert Service had to say about Leon Trotsky in his well regarded Trotsky: A Biography (Macmillan, 2009):
…Trotsky was no angel. His lust for dictatorship and terror was barely disguised in the [Russian] Civil War. He trampled on the civil rights of millions of people including the industrial workers. His self-absorption was extreme.
By the way, Dr Hirst is on the public record as declaring that “objectivity as a principle of journalism is no longer the holy grail”. Martin Hirst is an academic. Can you bear it?
I haven’t read Service’s biography, perhaps I will one day. But so that you can decide for yourself, here are two reviews. The first in the Torygraph claims it a masterpiece, the second by Paul Le Blanc pans it as a stinker.
Of course for the libertarian-minded Henderson and his free-market thinking, Trotsky must be a monster. That he relies on Robert Service for his view of Trotsky comes as no surprise. This from the Wikipedia entry on Service:
His biography of Russian revolutionary Marxist and co-leader of the Russian Revolution Leon Trotsky had been subjected to severe criticism since its publication for historical falsification. David North, chairman of the International Committee of the Fourth International published his criticism in the form of a book, In Defense of Leon Trotsky. The accusations of not meeting basic standards of historical scholarship and numerous factual errors in the biography were also seconded by the American Historical Review.
The last point: Henderson also attempts to cast doubt on my reputation by suggesting I am wrong (possibly lying, or ill-informed) about being the only Trotskyist to have worked as a journalist in the Canberra press gallery.
Well, Gerard, go and find another. I wish you luck. It would be nice to have a fellow-traveler to share the opprobrium with.
And yes, I do not think that the pursuit of objectivity is the holy grail of journalism. I am not alone in that view it is fairly mainstream now in the literature and even among journalists, both working and retired; living and dead.