Media moguls versus elites

Nov 12, 2020

Members of the Murdoch media have once again used the US election as an opportunity to pursue elites. Chris Kenny suggested in The Australian (5 November) that the election had been a win for the mainstream, against elites who treated the choices and preferences of the people with disdain. Who are these elites?

After the election of John Howard in 1996 and the rise of Pauline Hanson, the Murdoch mastheads changed the meaning of elites in this country. In an intensive research exercise, Murray Goot and Sean Scalmer showed how Murdoch newspapers redefined elites as university-educated inner city dwellers who were out of touch with and denigrated the values of ordinary Australians. Their university education fitted these elites for public sector employment and gave them a vested interest in expanding the welfare state.

Elites were no longer the ‘money power’ as in older forms of populism. In the older version elites were seen as bankers, corrupt politicians and big businessmen – ‘Mr Fat’. In the new version, elites were not necessarily rich or powerful but had cultural capital, including values different from those of ordinary people.

Of course this anti-elitist discourse was not only promoted by News Corp papers – or the free-market think tanks they gave space to. Wealthy talkback radio hosts were also depicting themselves as victims of inner city elites objecting to racial or sexual vilification and imposing political correctness – as shown by Steve Mickler in his analysis of talkback radio and anti-elitism.

This populist anti-elite discourse has focused on humanities, arts and social science graduates, human rights lawyers and public sector employees rather than bankers or big business. Summed up in a letter to The Australian (9 September 2004), they are ‘the bleeding hearts, the politically correct, who control everything we do’.

As can be seen from the term ‘politically correct’, much of this discourse has been imported from North America, where values such as social justice and minority rights have been derided as ‘designer fashions’ intended to show superiority over ordinary people. A more recent import is the term ‘virtue signalling’, also disparaging concerns over issues ranging from climate change to the treatment of asylum seekers.

The main vector for the import of all of these terms (‘woke’ is another one) has been the Murdoch press and Sky News. In last week’s article Chris Kenny describes the US Democrats as ‘obsessed with post-material issues, virtue-signalling policies for people who are not particularly worried about job security or electricity bills’.

American political scientist Ronald Inglehart in his 1977 book The Silent Revolutionintroduced the term postmaterialism’ to describe changing values and political styles in western democracies. In recent populist discourse such postmaterialist values have become not a symbol of political change but of political betrayal. Expressing such values is enough to turn a high school teacher worried about climate change into a member of the elite with contempt for the ordinary people who pay the bills.

Expressing concern over postmaterial issues supposedly masks the vested interests that elites have in public spending, at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. Such vested interests are summed up in terms such as the ‘Aboriginal industry’ or in the idea that scientists are inventing the threat of climate change to expand their budgets. But public interest advocacy is not only reframed as the self-interested advocacy of special interest groups. To further mobilise resentment of inner city ‘elites’, they are said to sneer at the values of the mainstream.

The postmaterialist values that have become a badge of the elite, are also a tell-tale sign of the gender shift that occurs when elites are no longer bankers and financiers but teachers, social workers or public servants. Unsurprisingly given this sex change, elites now tend to earn considerably less than critics speaking in the name of ordinary Australians. As Ian McAllister has pointed out, these so-called elites tend to rate much higher in cultural capital than economic assets.

Sex change is also highlighted in the targeting of ‘nanny-state’ regulation, a term imported from the UK rather than the US and strangely inappropriate here. Imperial Tobacco’s ‘No Nanny State’ campaign against Nicola Roxon’s plain packaging legislation was notably unsuccessful. Regardless of this lack of traction, the Institute of Public Affairs has a ‘nanny state’ website and The Australian has told us that ‘The spread of nanny state regulation crushes liberty, spirit’.

The promotion of anti-elitist discourse from the 1990s was perhaps over-determined. Just as it seemed that socialism was dead and free markets had triumphed, climate-change emerged as a pressing new reason for state intervention and regulating markets. To counter this, not only was climate-change denial born and science discounted, but the university-educated who were most likely to be concerned about climate change and other environmental and social justice issues had to be discredited as elites

What is disturbing is how little critical analysis there has been of the reframing of anti-elitist discourse and its use to discredit the public broadcaster, ‘greenies’ or those supporting the public sector. In this brave new world, where media moguls or Republican presidents battle elites, the unspoken flipside of ‘down with elites’ is now ‘up with inequality’, something we all need to be more aware of.

Marian Sawer is an emeritus professor of politics at the Australian National University.

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