BRIAN COYNE. Rupert Murdoch and the increasing division in society

Following the sensational demand from Archbishop Vigano for the resignation of Pope Francis, Michael Sean Winters wrote a commentary in National Catholic Reporter wondering if the right wing in the Church was about to launch a schism. The following commentary by the editor of catholica, Brian Coyne, was written suggesting all of society is heading for division and schism at the moment and our Australian mate Rupert Murdoch has to take much of the blame.

I think our world at the moment is becoming increasingly divided. The possibility of schism is very real. And it’s not just a church or religious problem as witnessed to by the riots in Germany on the weekend orchestrated by right wing extremists over the refugee question.

It’s ironical and logic-defying in a way: by some measures we (humanity as a whole) have never been as blessed with affluence and knowledge as we are today. Since the end of the Second World War we’ve known nothing but relative peace in the educated, affluent, first world. Yet, quite suddenly, this huge division seems to be opening up — and it is seen across our globe.

Australia’s most notorious, and wealthiest, export…

I think we Aussies have to take some of the blame for this because of one of our most notorious, and wealthiest, exports — Rupert, the global media tycoon, who influences so much in public opinion across this planet today.

Advertisers are the life blood of any publisher but more so large scale commercial newspaper and media proprietors. Advertising revenue is intimately linked to audience size. The competition provided by these new media has been devastating for all media owners seeking a mass audience. The former “rivers of gold” provided by classified advertising have dried up as people have switched to advertising on the internet in such places as e-Bay. Whether we’re talking about political parties or media proprietors the competition has been on to find large cohorts of the population who can be communicated to at the least cost per member of the population. We’re all familiar with the competition for the so-called “youth vote”, the “seniors vote”, the “migrant or ethnic vote”, the “women’s vote”, “religious vote” etc.. A few decades ago now Rupert stumbled on the best one of them all: about a third of any population operate at a shallow, principally emotional level of thinking and behaviour. It’s a far more “cohesive” sector of the population than any other. It’s the sector of humanity who operate principally at the “fight or flight” level of their emotions.

It’s relatively easy, and cheap, to “stir them up” either through over-the-top sentimentality, or fear and outrage — themselves almost polar opposite communication tools. Another of the ironies is that this sector seems to show no distinction across other factors such as wealth, health or levels of educational attainment. Even people with high academic achievements can be basically insecure and fearful. Perhaps Rupert learned it from the Catholic Church which has long had an understanding of the value of fear, and over-the-top sentimentality, in motivating, or controlling, large populations.

Rupert was primarily trying to shore up his crumbling readership audiences against the assault on them coming from all these new media competitors. He passed the lesson on to politicians. This (roughly) one third of any population when added to the 20 or 30% who’d vote for the same party even if it was led by a drovers dog, or an imbecile, was critical for politicians in getting the majority necessary to form a government. Rupert has shown them it was relatively cheap to “stir up the lizard brain” and fear in society. Other commercial media proprietors, particularly talk-back shock jocks have turned it into a new “art form”. These “stirred up” audiences themselves have a secondary benefit in that they themselves provide “great entertainment” for others watching them, or listening to them. It’s an audience that, in a sense, “feeds on itself”.

Do you remember the “Tampa Affair”?

Here in Australia, former prime minister, John Howard, was the first to successfully apply the “lesson learned from Rupert” via the Tampa Affair — stopping a bunch of refugees who had been rescued by a commercial ship, the M.V. Tampa, on the high seas north of Australia, reaching Australia. It won Howard an election. Howard’s acolyte, Tony Abbott, who subsequently became prime minister via the slogan “stop the boats” had also been schooled at the feet of Rupert. Prior to becoming a politician, Abbott had actually worked for Rupert as a writer and journalist. It’s a simple formula: stir up the lizard brain and perpetual insecurities and fears that reside just below the surface in every human heart and you’ve created “a friend for life”. Donald Trump has taken it to an entirely new level. We (humanity as a whole) are yet to experience what sort of final harvest it delivers.

One of the big challenges at the moment is that the sector of the population attracted to having their emotions stirred up are totally unlikely to be reading Michael Sean Winters, NCR, catholica, John Menadue or listening to the ABC, the BBC, the CBC, or NPR. (Do you understand now why Rupert wants to shut down all the public broadcasters of the world?)

One of the worrying things today is that all of the major political parties around the world are either single mindedly pursuing this 30% of the population who live out their lives predominantly at a shallow, emotional level, or, they are trying to ensure their opposition isn’t the one getting any kind of exclusive hold on their loyalty — and their votes. Ultimately “the game” is all about winning the 51% of the votes necessary to win an election — and that 30% is critical as a “block vote” towards that end, or in the case of commercial media proprietors it is securing the loyalty of that sector of the population in terms of retaining their advertising revenue when all media today are facing unprecedented competition from all these new media channels that people have available to them today.

The challenge facing the Catholic Church is the same…

It’s basically the same factor at work in not just the Catholic Church but virtually all religions (witness the religious unrest in India and other countries around the world). Humanity is becoming increasingly divided today and it is not actually insane to think that a schism that makes all the previous schisms of history look like a Sunday School picnic might be a real possibility. We are dealing here with forces in the human psyche that are more powerful than just about anything else known to humanity. People who play with those forces are playing with something even more powerful than fire and nuclear explosions.

Brian Coyne is editor and publisher of the website catholica.com.au

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4 Responses to BRIAN COYNE. Rupert Murdoch and the increasing division in society

  1. Michael D. Breen says:

    Neat article, Brian. Both Murdoch and the Catholic Church have been fairly free from predators which would challenge their power. They are both centrally controlled and provide services in meaning and interpretation of the world, something people crave. This creates an unhealthy dependency. And yes when you can induce fight flight there is no reasoning; it is a form of madness where survival is the only focus. And yes Murdoch is enormously powerful. However it is the kind of religion which is important. Religions pose questions about the most important matters of life and death. These matters are mysterious. The Catholic church poses the questions and then supplies answers, some of which were learned off by heart from a catechism and some are recited as a creed. This kind of stuffs up the openness to further inquiry and deepening in the individual around mysteries. Conservatism eschews inquiry. Philosophies like Buddhism invite personal deepening and endless confrontation with what is mysterious. It seeks a totally intimate relationship with what is, experienced individually while inviting further deepening.
    Your analysis is sadly correct where sport provides meaningful belonging as Murdoch knows and gymnasia become the new temples. And both the church and Murdoch short change spirituality.

  2. Brenton Woods says:

    A good article Brian. I have thought about this topic quite a bit myself and how these survival instincts are exploited by those trying to influence mass opinion. The other side to this coin is the tribal instinct. That is, we instinctively trust those from our tribe who look and behave like us. Others are treated as suspect and a possible threat. This can be manifested in our society as racism and easily exploited by media intent on keeping people on edge and trying to divide. These basic survival instincts, or our lizard brain, served us well when we were hunter gatherers, but in a post enlightenment civilisation they can be used for tremendous harm.

    • Brian Coyne says:

      Thanks, Michael and Brenton for adding to this conversation. I think one of the fallacies today as that we all tend to view the world through a very political lens. Everything is evaluated within a right-left, progressive-conservative type thinking paradigm. Did the population at large think everything through in this kind of political paradigm for most of human history, or is it something that only became embedded after the Industrial Revolution or the French Revolution? I’m more inclined to believe the great division in society today is along psychological rather than political lines. In particular it’s about how different groups in society deal with anxiety, insecurity and fear. These factors are on the rise in the developed world today for a complexity of factors: the export of many jobs to low-wage countries of the developing world; the transfer of many jobs (means of earning an income) to these new technologies; the growing gap between the rich and the poor; climate change is inducing fear for many; we came from a post-WWII generation where we expected as a matter of course that we’d be more prosperous next year than last year, that our children, as a matter of course, could expect to own a bigger house than we owned and enjoy a better lifestyle. Today the prospect is very real that they won’t be ever in the position to own a house or a modest piece of real estate. It is this fear and anxiety that is the big change agent today. Sadly, down through history we’ve seen this brings out the charlatans and snake-oil salespeople who are adept at exploiting people’s fears and anxieties for their own ends. I think we are, curiously enough, privileged to be living in, and witnessing, a significant turning point in human thinking and the base paradigm in which we do most of our thinking and living.

      Just as we experienced the massive transfer of power, economic and cultural hegemony from Britain and Europe to the United States after the Second World War and the Great Depression, I suspect we’re now witnessing an enormous transfer of power and cultural and economic hegemony from the West to the East; from the United States to China, India and Asia.

      We’re going to end up like the Greeks and Egyptians who once “ruled the world” but today are largely laughed at, or scorned, in Western society. We “Westerners” have sat at the top of the pile for a relatively long time now but we’d better start getting used to the idea that soon we’ll be the second class citizens to the Chinese and those building the New Silk Road — the new “white trash of Asia”. It’s not just “all about money and wealth”. We don’t yet know much about what drives the Chinese paradigm and culture. John Menadue recently published a commentary by Vincent Cheok</strong? which is the best analysis I’ve yet seen exploring this transfer of not just wealth and affluence but the underpinning “thinking paradigm” from the West to the East.

  3. Michael Faulkner says:

    A most interesting article Brian, comparing the Murdoch media empire and its strategies for maintenance and growth with the Catholic Church in an age when there are novel pressures on both. Certainly, the metaphor of the multi-national congregation of the Murdoch empire across the English speaking world, has a ring of familiarity to it.

    It is useful also to note that Rupert Murdoch’s grandfather Patrick and his great grandfather James were both clergymen from the Calvinist tradition, each an effective persuader of his congregations in Scotland (James) and Australia (Patrick) respectively.
    Patrick held positions of influence with the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

    It is unsurprising that Rupert Murdoch seems to view the land of his birth as a very special congregation, whose citizens are eternally ripe for proselytising towards his particular view of the world.

    Just as Rupert learned about exploiting the collective ‘lizard brain ’ of the wider populace towards his own commercial ends, he also learned from his father Keith that he could be more resiliently influential in Australia as a successful newspaper proprietor, than he could ever be as a politician.

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