RICHARD WHITINGTON AND RICHARD BUTLER. Noam Chomsky’s theory of “Manufactured Consent”. Where “lies” the media? Part 3 of 4

Jan 29, 2020

In this series, Richard Whitington and Richard Butler discuss what’s changed since philosopher and psychologist, Noam Chomsky, identified the relationship between business, the military, the intelligence community and the media, in manipulating public opinion.

In yesterday’s post (RICHARD BUTLER AND RICHARD WHITINGTON. “Manufactured Consent” in truth-deprived and electronic times.Part 2 of 4 ) Richard Butler wrote of the destruction of veracity in public discourse, often orchestrated through the intelligence services (or through the blatant misuse of their work), fuelled by the circulation of fabricated materials on the internet.

Today, Richard Whitington asks whether the media in Australia is as powerful as the conspiracy theorists make out:

Richard Butler has discussed the near-invisible but hugely pervasive influence of the western intelligence community. Its ability to promote its own importance is as great as its power to distort policy making. No doubt the same can be said of intelligence communities on the “other side” (do we still call them “the East”?).

In the West, where the media is touted as free and independent, Butler points out that it is now as manipulated by intelligence agencies as it is by the industrial/military axis which Chomsky noted.

In judging whether the media is a willing accomplice, or a hapless pawn in this, a distinction needs to be drawn between what is promulgated for all to see and what is left hidden from the spotlight.

I contend that in what it actually publishes, what is said on radio and television, the media does not shape voter behaviour to the extent that many claim, usually arguing, as a corollary, that voters are ill informed, uneducated, gullible and stupid.

For a start, media audience numbers are in freefall as much as the index of “trust” in politicians. Print media figures are (probably deliberately) confounded by the distinction between “circulation” and “readership”.

Broadcast media audience surveys are so carefully convoluted that it’s difficult to identify trends in total audiences, let alone their overall size. Surveys measure percentage share of listeners/viewers, in 15-minute intervals, and very rarely disclose how many people are actually tuned in. It’s easy to overlook that many might be waiting to hear a news bulletin or participate in the endless competitions on commercial radio, rather than soaking up the shock jocks.

Nonetheless, Roy Morgan reports that over the last ten years Australia’s main newspapers have shrunk to between 30 and 50 per cent of their former readership, although some of those losses were replaced with online readership. Every newspaper in Australia lost readership in the year to September 2019.

When online “readership” is added to the stats, the most recent survey (to September last year) shows that in the 12 months prior, Murdoch’s Telegraph lost 18 per cent of its total (print and online combined). The SMH lost less than half a per cent.

Remember, too, that Murdoch’s publications, online, tend to be protected by paywalls which are more rigorously applied than those of “Fairfax” (Nine Media), let alone the ABC’s (they have no paywalls). In the digital age, News Corp is making itself harder to access.

To return to the point I made earlier, people make their media consumption choices to validate their existing preconceptions. Even in their use of social media people tend to operate in “groups” where they find reinforcement of their own particular views and interests – I suspect in an even more narrow corridor of vision than they’d find in the SMH or even The Australian.

As well has having preconceptions, social media users remain a sub-set, defined by their “activism” and not necessarily representative of the population at large. In politician’s minds, the influence of social media, too, is probably overrated.

True, though, that at times (the Alan Jones/Jacinda Ardern episode; see Part One) social media is proving powerful. Not least because it’s become a major feeder of morning newspapers, which in turn feed morning talk back radio.

An abrogation by traditional mainstream media, in the sense that social media “selects” the news to run as well as providing commentary on and reactions to it.

One reason for this is that print media, shrinking in readership and advertising revenue, is under-resourced, and on tighter deadlines than ever, in the race to beat social media and broadcast media. They don’t have enough journalists to do the searching and scrutiny required.

In any event, the problem I have with the notion that powerful influences succeed because the vulnerable are gullible and stupid is this: believing a lie doesn’t make you gullible, let alone stupid.

The Left needs to countenance the possibility that those they expect to vote for them on the great issues of the day, let alone those of the future, might be happy simply to bequeath the problem and its solution to the next generation, avoiding the “cost” of dealing with it now. Or that they simply don’t agree with you that it’s a problem.

That attitude doesn’t make the “working class” stupid. It makes Left parties inept for their inability to explain the issues and articulate why the Left’s position should prevail, now.

ACTU leader, Sally McManus, was on social media within days of the December UK election, lamenting the influence of the media on the result. I give her credit for conceding that it is a somewhat defeatist thought. Others were pointing out that Left/Social Democrats had won government in countries (like Canada and New Zealand, among many more) where Murdoch doesn’t dominate the media, but had failed, of course, in the UK, USA and Australia – where Murdoch media is “dominant”.

I don’t entirely buy it and the Left would do well not to, either.

It’s also probable that people of all “classes” and levels of education simply don’t know who or what to believe anymore. They mightn’t have particularly believed Trump, or Johnson, but were swayed by their more “colourful” personalities and demeanour.

Both men put on a better “show”, regardless of the truth of what they were peddling. People didn’t care about that. Trump’s biggest and most powerful media hits are from his rallies – attended by many who simply thrill in his vindictive vernacular. Why not? Not unlike the audiences of radio shock jocks carving up their victims.

Both Trump and Johnson exuded an aura of more confidence and authority than their respective opponents. The issue of “attractiveness” was also evident in Australia: no matter what the polls said about policy, they showed that people thought Bill Shorten was less appealing, as an individual.

There’s the other challenge for the Left: put up leaders who have both gravitas and an ability to restore faith and belief in what their party is saying. And courage; because in this context I would note the very good point that Richard Butler made to me when we were discussing this series: it’s the politicians who are more swayed and terrified by the media than the voters. Absolutely!

Politicians have been conned by business interests, rather than the media itself, into an exaggerated estimate of media power. Whenever there’s something big at stake, it’s “Lobbying 101” for the agents of the aggrieved to rock up to a Minister’s office with the draft of an advertising and PR campaign they’re threatening to run if they don’t get their own way.

There’s no better example of that than the demise of Kevin Rudd, when most of the pollsters and the strategist in the Labor Party fell for the mining lobby’s extortion. The Labor Party is yet to recover, losing three elections straight and facing nearly ten years out of power.

If politicians, themselves, and their advisors took as little notice of the media as I believe ordinary consumers do, the power of Murdoch et al would be more marginalised than malignant. Sure, Murdoch papers have nearly 60 per cent of the print circulation in Australia, for what that’s worth. And, yes, Murdoch has Sky News, watched, it would seem, mostly by parliamentarians, their staff, the press gallery and patrons of airline lounges – but not in many households.

All that said, if someone who does have the resources is prepared to throw enough of them at their cause, they can use the media to huge effect. Few observers have attributed enough emphasis to Clive Palmer’s impact on “killing Bill” at our last federal election. Perhaps because the commentariat aren’t home by 5.00pm, watching the top rating timeslots on commercial TV, in the lead up to and after the evening news (rather than their feed from Sky News).

I was at home. As a long-ago participant in political advertising campaigns, some of them moderately successful, I thought Palmer’s campaign was riveting and lethal. In Pearls and Irritations on 23 December, Bob McMullan, noted that the Emerson/Wetherill report on Labor’s 2019 national campaign had found that: “Voter trust in politics globally and in Australia has collapsed, resulting in economically insecure, lower income voters treating all political promises with extreme scepticism while being highly receptive to negative campaigns”.

Clive Palmer sure gave them that, apparently spending as much as both the major parties, combined, in doing the job.

It was a massive distortion of the democratic process and one which could be easily fixed by adjustments to electoral funding regulations, if only either major party, particularly the ALP, had the courage.

Many studies show that voter trust in politics sits at record low levels.

John Tan, in Pearls and Irritations on 19 December, cited the recently released Australian Election Study (into the May 2019 national election) from the Australian National University, Canberra, showing that only one-in-four Australians had confidence in their political leaders and institutions. And 56 per cent said government is run for a “few big interests”.

The study also reported that Australians’ satisfaction with democracy is at its lowest since the constitutional crisis of the 1970s, and that just 59 per cent of Australians are satisfied with how democracy is working, down 27 percentage points from the record high of 86 per cent in 2007.

It’s valid to argue, in logic, that studies showing a loss of voter confidence in politics confirm that voters aren’t stupid and, by inference, the media is not as influential as is made out (especially when we see that people are deserting “main” media). A decline in trust in politicians can be taken as evidence, perhaps, that the media has lost its sway over the ignorant and gullible. That’s encouraging.

Just this month, the Australian Communications and Media Authority released the results of research done for it by the University of Technology, Sydney. It showed that media audiences are both awake to and concerned about the very things which some allege they (consumers) are being manipulated by.

Between 38 and 88 per cent of respondents said they were “very” concerned about: the influence on news of large advertisers (47%), the non-disclosure of payments made to have products featured in news (43%), media companies promoting businesses they own (38%), making news more dramatic to attract more viewers (88%), biased rather than balanced reporting (85%), and the increasing commercial influence on Australian news (58%).

This, from the ignorant, malleable and uneducated who carry the blame for the election of Trump, Morrison and Johnson. If you know you’re being conned, how does that make you stupid? You might simply go along with it all because you feel helpless to make a difference or see no attractive alternative.

I’m mindful that Alan Jones (to whom I’ve devoted considerable attention in Part One) is not the only “right wing” media influence (and he doesn’t even work for Murdoch, folks), but he has by far the biggest audience. In addition to Andrew Bolt on Sky, Murdoch can boast Janet Albrechtsen, Greg Sheridan and several other formidable foot soldiers.

To conclude on the spectre of Murdoch’s might in all this, at a micro level, at least. Let’s not forget that in Victoria and Queensland (where Murdoch’s saturation of print media circulation is at its greatest), we’ve had Labor state governments re-elected (that is, in office, and being returned) since the Coalition won power at a national level, in 2013. In Anna Palaszczuk’s case, she became the first woman to lead her party to power from opposition (2015) and succeed in retaining government at the next election (2017).

Alan Jones is broadcast in Brisbane, too. Neither he nor Murdoch stopped Anna.

Next: Richard Butler discusses the role of Think Tanks, old and new, “legit” and not so, in the coalition of those who “manufacture consent”.

Richard Butler AC is a former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations and Head of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq. He has since held academic posts at the New York University and Penn State University.

Richard Whitington was a member of Gough Whitlam’s staff from 1974 to 1977. After a subsequent career in advertising, corporate communications and executive recruitment, he now does some freelance writing. Website:

Richard Butler and Richard Whitington worked together on Gough Whitlam’s staff during Whitlam’s final term as Leader of the Opposition: the two years between the 1975 dismissal and election defeat, and his retirement as Leader of the party, following the 1977 election loss.

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