Scare-mongering on China is a threat to our democracy and responsible media must guard against itMar 1, 2022
There is a great deal more at stake than national security in Scott Morrison’s hyper-partisan and grossly dishonest accusation that Anthony Albanese and his deputy, Richard Marles, are carrying the hopes of the Chinese regime at the forthcoming election.
It undermines the stability of our democracy and shows we have reached a dangerous point in our political discourse.
Two factors are at work here: extremely divisive political rhetoric and the willingness of the country’s dominant newspaper company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, to lend it a megaphone.
Morrison and Murdoch are trying to do to Australia’s democracy what Murdoch and Donald Trump did to America’s between 2016 and 2021.
They are working together to create division where none exists in pursuit of their own political and ideological interests. No lie is too big to be used for this purpose.
The English philosopher A.C. Grayling and two American political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – among many others – have shown how these factors have combined to weaken democracy in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Broadly speaking, their arguments go like this:
Hyper-partisanship – in which fierce disagreement is expressed in extreme language – leads to a breakdown in the consensus on which democracy depends.
When the consensus breaks down, so does the acceptance by each side that the other side has political legitimacy.
When that acceptance breaks down, the peaceful transfer of power that democracies achieve by holding elections is severely threatened. We saw this on January 6 2021, when the Trumpian mob assailed the Capitol in Washington.
Propaganda, spin and outright falsehoods promoted in the professional mass media and on social media contribute powerfully to these consequences.
Levitsky and Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, argue extreme polarisation leads political rivals to see each other as mutual threats. This in turn encourages a win-at-all-costs attitude and leads to a corrosive refusal to accept that the other side is entitled to govern.
If democracies were to be diverted from this destructive course, it was necessary for them to recapture the civility, sense of freedom and shared purpose that defined democracy’s essence in the mid-20th century.
It is here that the professional mass media have a crucial role to play. It lies within their power to promote civility of discourse, articulate a society’s shared purpose and debunk lies.
However, after Morrison’s crude and baseless accusations, Murdoch’s newspapers, including The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun, and his Sky News channel all trumpeted the message that Albanese and Marles were Beijing’s preferred candidates for the election.
Morrison used as evidence an article in the Global Times, a propaganda mouthpiece for the Chinese government, written by former Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh, entitled “Weak Australian leadership inhibits potential relationship reset with China”.
Purely as a matter of logic, it is difficult to follow the Morrison argument.
The proposition seems to be that he can swallow material from a recognised Chinese government propaganda outfit and use it as credible evidence that someone else – namely the Labor leadership – is being manipulated by the Chinese government.
On top of that, the article quoted was far from flattering of Albanese. It characterised him as a cautious politician inclined to accept the US view of the world without giving it any independent thought.
At this point, it is only fair to point out there have been two remarkable exceptions to the Murdoch media chorus. Both Greg Sheridan, The Australian’s foreign editor, and Andrew Bolt, the Herald Sun and Sky News commentator, have spoken out, strongly disapproving of Morrison’s accusations.
In doing so, they echoed what the more responsible elements of the Australian media have done, focusing on the warnings from the current head of ASIO, Mike Burgess, and a previous head, Dennis Richardson, that Morrison’s conduct undermines national security.
The election is still scheduled for three months’ time, and the pressure on these responsible elements of the media is only likely to become more intense. Who knows what new conspiracy theories and hobgoblins the politicians will drum up between now and then?
Much will depend on whether Australia’s political leaders can climb out of the gutter, not forgetting that Albanese slung the “Manchurian candidate” slur back at Morrison.
Another important factor will be what happens on social media.
Hyper-partisanship is fuelled by social media through the echo-chamber effect, a phenomenon American political analyst Cass Sunstein examines in his book #republic.
He argues people could join the political debate wholly within these echo chambers among like-minded people, isolated from alternative views. They are exposed only to information of questionable quality and arguments that become increasingly strident and extreme as participants stir themselves up into a frenzy of hostility towards the opposing viewpoint.
This hostility then provides further incendiary material for unscrupulous politicians to exploit. Not long after, the contents of echo chambers can seep out into the public discourse.
Australia’s democracy is in some respects better designed than America’s, especially with its independent electoral commission, preferential ballot and compulsory voting. These all provide some protection against the electoral impact of extremism.
But it is not indestructible. It rests on consensus, and that is preserved by tolerance and restraint, what Levitsky and Ziblatt call the “guardrails of democracy”.
We have seen precious little of either in the past week from the Morrison-Murdoch machine, leaving it to the rest of the media to try to see that those guardrails hold up.
This article was first published in The Conversation on February 28 2022