Quality press needs to save politics from social media

Article published in the Financial Review, October 10, 2017.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to generally know what you should do to run the country and boost the economy.

The Productivity Commission has a long “laundry list” of what can and should be done.

Unfortunately it is the “doing” that is very difficult, and yes, I agree it has become increasingly difficult.

People say that prime ministers Hawke, Keating and Howard were able to implement reform, but that since 2007 it has been a drought.

Why are politicians now so hopeless, goes up the cry.

There is no doubt that the changing media market has made it so much harder to conduct reform.

Things were very different back in the Hawke, Keating and Howard years in terms of media.

The other day I was speaking to the Conservative Club at the University of Sydney.  The audience were principally born at the time of, or just after, John Howard won his victory in 1996.

At the time I was a senior executive in the NSW Cabinet Office.

My audience were shocked to learn that it was around the time of the election of the Howard Government that my area of the Cabinet Office first got an internet connection.

Only one officer had it on their personal desk computer and they were responsible for being trained up to use the World Wide Web for the benefit of all the staff in my division.

Different days indeed.

So during the Howard Government, let alone Hawke and Keating, there simply wasn’t the social media environment of today.

Nor was there 24 hour news channels and continual television news updates.

Why is this relevant?

I think it is crucial to understanding how much more difficult it is to do reform today.

Basically social media makes it exceptionally hard to build and prosecute an argument.

Ten or fifteen years ago and earlier politicians and others could develop the arguments and lay the groundwork for reforms over a period of months or even years.

Today ideas can be hijacked by social media within hours and the turbo charged negativity that comes with that social media can kill decent ideas for reform in as quickly as a 12 hours news cycle let alone 24, 36 or 48 hours.

The mainstream media, which is being eaten alive by social media, has perversely reacted to this challenge by embracing it.

In my view the thing that the mainstream media have developed and sold over the years is quality control – even the ABC.

Social media has no quality control and is massively biased toward political correctness and groupthink.

As we have heard often in recent times, from all parts of the political spectrum, social media propagates fake news and scare campaigns.

And the mainstream media has exacerbated this by giving it an elevated platform.

So today we may see a policy idea propounded by a politician featured on the nightly news broadcast, and then it is accompanied by the reporting of a tweet from no-name person who expresses a total opposition to the idea – often in vulgar terms.

A flood tide of this then quickly leads to the end of the debate.

Unfortunately the ideological opponents of economic reform who run groups like GetUp! are experts in this.

Hopefully main stream media will come to its collective senses and stop promoting this and focus on their comparative market strength which is quality control.

If they do not then it is eventually goodbye to the news services that we have seen in the past as they simply will no longer be commercial.

All this leads to something I have been thinking about for a few years which is the identification of what I call a Democracy Paradox.

Democracy is the best form of government bar none.

However, our forefathers and mothers knew there were limits.

My Democracy Paradox states that: “not everything that gives people a bigger voice actually improves the state of the nation or improves our democracy”.

You would think that giving individuals a bigger voice is inherently more democratic, but is it better for the governance of the state?

Thus social media highlights a modern dilemma.

It is that social media which apparently increases people’s say, can have a very destructive effect.

It reinforces the reason we have over the centuries created a representative democracy where we put faith in elected representatives to argue through and legislate on our behalf but checked by the rule of law and periodic elections.

It is the same Paradox that we have lived with for centuries where we cherish freedom of speech but we also believe it is important to limit it to stop libel and slander – ie a paradox.

I am not calling for an end to social media.

In fact exactly the opposite.

It’s positives in my view do definitely outweigh its negatives.

However we do face a dilemma.

Often in history identifying a problem allows us to develop new ways of doing and marketing things and I hope that what I call – for want of a better term – the “Quality Press” is able to reassert its importance as a bulwark of democracy.

Peter Hendy

Former CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and former Minister in Turnbull Government