IAN McAULEY. Pauline Hanson, Malcolm Turnbull, and the ABC – a Faustian bargainAug 16, 2017
Turnbull’s deal with One Nation, to require the ABC to be “fair and balanced”, looks innocuous at first sight, but if implemented it would see the ABC cast into the wasteland of moral relativism.
Malcolm Turnbull has struck a Faustian bargain with One Nation in order to gain support for the government’s proposed changes to media ownership laws. The bargain involves measures relating to the ABC, including a requirement that its journalism be “fair and balanced”.
At first sight Pauline Hanson’s idea of requiring the ABC to be “fair and balanced” may appear to be a mere semantic re-wording of its charter, which presently requires it to be “accurate and impartial”.
But the difference is profound, because it would cast the ABC into the postmodern void of moral relativism – a void in which there is no truth, no primacy of logic, evidence and reason, but only competing opinions and perspectives.
I leave it to moral philosophers to present a formal definition of postmodernism – many books have been written on it. In the political context it suffices to point out that postmodernism abandons both the traditions of the Enlightenment and the Aristotelian traditions of the mainstream Christian religions.
My own illustration of a postmodern dystopia is to imagine a high school classroom, in which a teacher, bound by the education authority’s requirement to be “fair and balanced”, is commenting on a student’s presentation on the Holocaust – a presentation for which the student has diligently consulted historical sources, has examined and exposed flaws in theories of racial superiority, and has presented the religious and humanist moral condemnations of the Nazis’ crimes.
The teacher then says:
Thank you, Cathy, for sharing your opinions with us. But to be fair we should be aware that others have different opinions, including the possibility that the so-called Holocaust is a fabrication. Every argument has two sides and we have no way of accessing “the truth”: everyone has his or her own perspective, and we must respect them.
It’s a dystopia with echoes of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but only in some ways, for the government of Orwell’s Oceania at least had a concept of the truth. Orwell’s was a classic totalitarian system, where Big Brother defined the truth in line with the interests of the regime.
The dystopia of postmodernism is more frightening, however, because where there is no truth there can be no lies. The critic of a government policy has no recourse to any agreed framework. Rather than being subject to execution, torture or re-education – the practices of totalitarian regimes – the critic is dismissed with a polite “thank you for your opinion”.
That’s “fairness” in the world of postmodernism.
Of course those who have the power to shape public discourse – radio and TV producers, editors – should be guided by principles of fairness. But “fairness” does not mean giving equal weight or legitimacy to every “opinion”. Rather, in the political context fairness should be about supporting and protecting the voice of those who are guided by the principles of logic, evidence and reason but who lack the resources of the rich and powerful.
It should not be about a “free-for-all” where every utterance is reduced to a mere “opinion”. There is nothing “fair” in allowing those with the loudest and most strident voices, who rely on lies, sophistry, casuistry and obfuscation, or on raucous populism, to drown out the voices of those committed to seeking truth and accuracy.
The struggle between an Enlightenment discourse and a postmodernist discourse is most evident in arguments about climate change, but it is manifest in many other areas. In America Trump and his supporters have heaped ridicule and derision on policy experts in government agencies and universities, and already we are seeing consequences in a dysfunctional and dangerous foreign policy. Britain’s Brexit referendum was an example of “fairness”, applying equal weights – a “balance” in other words – to the opinions of the informed and the uninformed, with costly consequences.
In spite of the clarity of its charter to be guided by accuracy and impartiality, the ABC is already drifting towards postmodernism in its political coverage. Its popular and influential Radio National programs such as RN Breakfast already tend to allot equal time to government and opposition spokespeople – a process that often results in a equal time of political spin based on meaningless speaking notes. Experienced and competent presenters, such as Fran Kelly and Chris Uhlmann, seem to hold back on challenging obvious logical inconsistencies and factual errors. Is this “balance” at work?
In conceding to Pauline Hanson’s demands Turnbull shows that he has learned nothing about the cost of doing deals with parties on the far right. As a lawyer he would be well aware of the implications of Hanson’s demands. And even if he has lost his moral compass, he should be aware of the political cost of such a deal: as John Scales of JWS Research points out, for every vote the Coalition gains from such deals, it loses two votes from centrist voters.
The votes of Nick Xenophon’s team now stand between retaining the ABC as we know it and its transformation into an insipid moral wilderness.
Ian McAuley is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Canberra and a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.