Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday, 11 March 2023



It’s becoming clear that Australians can’t handle the truth

It’s beginning to become clear that Australians can’t handle the truth. When we hear it, we don’t like it. So we make sure to avoid it. And we’re not alone.

The extraordinary inside story of what happened at Fox News after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election shows how disconnected Americans have become from a shared and objective reality.

“You can’t handle the truth,” bellowed Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men.

“You can’t handle the truth,” bellowed Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men. CREDIT:CASTLE ROCK ENTERTAINMENT

The network was sent into crisis mode when it was first to call the state of Arizona for the Democratic Party. Telling the truth early and accurately infuriated the network’s Trump-supporting voters, who boycotted the station. So, in the days following, Fox executives considered whether they should use slower and less accurate election-projecting technology – or, even more shockingly, if they should base election projections on how viewers might react.

This story has rightly sparked outrage around the world. Imagine a news service even considering obfuscating, garnishing or downright misreporting the objective truth in order to please its audience. Imagine a country in which the media presents stories and perspectives their audiences wish were true instead of providing them with a window into the world as it actually is.

Sadly, even in Australia, we don’t have to imagine. The pressure from audiences overwhelms many news outlets. One of the favourite ways for audiences to express their outrage at news and views they don’t like in commercial media is to threaten to cancel their subscription. Smaller media outlets trying to win market share encourage that tendency and feed off it by insisting that only they, who most slavishly mirror their audiences’ prejudices, are telling them the truth. In an era of commoditised content, it takes immense courage and a bit of fiscal recklessness to present facts in their unspun ugliness. Sometimes, like Fox, media outlets cave in and follow the money.

This week, this masthead published the conclusions of an expert panel on China. Predictably, many people didn’t like it. Nobody likes the idea that war could be imminent. But in a country that shies away from knowing too much about how global affairs are intersecting around us, it was an important piece of cut-through reporting. It was unmissable. More people are now aware of the potential for imminent conflict. It will significantly help achieve the “psychological shift” the assembled experts emphasised Australians will have to undergo to understand the world we now live in. The purpose of the experts’ warnings, and of the report, was to make Australia aware that we need to prioritise defence to prevent a hot conflict.

But it’s not fun to hear experts warn that “our holiday from history is over”, as this panel did in a joint statement. Whoever wants their holidays to end? Australians are used to peace and have enjoyed the safety of distance and irrelevance while other countries are constantly reminded of wars just past and tensions still simmering. One letter writer encapsulated our kumbaya complacency by suggesting that instead of a “red alert” Australia needs a “peace alert”.

And the relativists were out in force: “China has a right to become more assertive. We are a settler nation anyway, what right have we to protect the land we live on? The experts are just making us the patsies of a warmongering America. In fact, it’s just the weapons manufacturers trying to turn a buck.” And no doubt Xi Jinping’s increasing penchant for military khaki is purely about fashion.

As usual, a range of smaller (left-leaning) media outlets offered themselves as a corrective. They and they alone would tell audiences the truth by telling them that there really is nothing to worry about. Look, if you don’t like the facts you got from the big fella, we’ve got some you’ll like better over here.

I hope the little guys made some good coin – I subscribe to many of them – but I also hope their readers haven’t taken that next step in Foxing Australia by choosing to turn away from reality to be told things they prefer to hear.

Something similar happened a fortnight ago when Treasurer Jim Chalmers announced a review of the purpose of the superannuation system at the same time as an idea to reduce the tax concession on superannuation accounts over $3 million. The change to the concession is small and affects only a small number of well-to-do people. But the conclusions of the review will potentially affect the way all Australians can use their super and how it is invested.

Before that could be discussed properly, readers scurried down their favourite media foxholes to hyperventilate about a “broken promise” or counter-hyperventilate over pity for millionaires. The farce continued as some media types blamed other media types for describing things that are very little as huge. Meanwhile, the real conversation that the treasurer started, about the purpose and uses of superannuation, was swept away like an awkward joke at a society party.

The irony is that it’s the Foxified consumers who despair most over the loss of trust in the media.

Good journalism costs money, but truth often costs a media outlet even more. If we no longer trust objective reporting, perhaps we should at least be prepared to pay to consume media that actively tells us things we don’t want to hear.

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