The wisdom of crowds is a well-worn script. It’s time to get real.

Covering day one of the nation’s much vaunted tax forum, George Megalogenis suggested that it “demonstrated why the Australian political system has been struggling to secure reform over the past decade. Vested interests know how to lobby governments—or campaign against them—but they don’t have the conversational tools to bargain with one another in the national interest.” He then quoted Ken Henry, former Treasury secretary and now special adviser to Julia Gillard, who observed: “You could have written the script to this before coming in.” Employers want a tax cut, Megalogenis wrote. “The unions want to deny them.”

One of the more ideologically balanced and insightful writers at The Australian, Megalogenis deserves much respect. ABC political commentator Annabel Crabb later re-blogged the entry, describing it as “just so eminently sensible”. It was also eminently applicable to far more than Australia’s tax reform agenda, reflecting the entrenched, scripted battle lines into which our public discourse has descended.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the media’s role in democratic societies and its ability to shape popular opinion. The most recent Quarterly Essay by academic, former Quadrant editor and left-to-right-wing convert Robert Manne is titled Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation. In it, Manne launches a fairly comprehensive attack on Rupert Murdoch’s flagship national broadsheet, accusing it of biased reporting, lack of editorial diversity and political agendas. All of which, he says, has negatively influenced the development of Australian public debate.

Incidentally, the paper actually loses money, has a very low print circulation (around 10,000 for the state of South Australia) and is only made viable, according to Peter van Onselen in another eminently sensible piece criticizing Manne’s attack, “by the economies of scale created by being part of a wider newspaper conglomerate.” Which does somewhat undermine claims that it reflects a wide variety of Australian views and opinions, from the elite cultural and political classes to ordinary folks in the suburbs and towns. Likewise, such numbers also throw into doubt suggestions by the Left, including from Manne, that news coverage and editorials by The Australian have unfairly skewed public opinion. It seems not too many people of any persuasion are buying the damn thing, anyway.

Nevertheless, The Australian responded swiftly to Manne’s critique with a double page spread of counter arguments from various sub-editors and contributors entitled “setting the record straight”. Now, having not read Manne’s essay, I won’t be looking in detail at the relevant merits of his argument versus News Ltd’s response. Not yet, anyway. There are certainly many criticisms to be made of the Murdoch News media juggernaut, including its antipodean wing. These include the oft-remarked quality of prose found in the company’s daily tabloids, which strive to provoke ideas, demonstrate in-depth reporting and challenge the minds of any reader under 7 years old.

But, aside from the inevitably less high-brow focus of a local paper, such lowest common denominator reporting is only a symptom of what the people want. It’s the ongoing chicken & egg argument over the quality of current public discourse: who’s to blame? The media, which focuses on what Lindsay Tanner calls the “sideshow” of political stunts and meaningless sound bites instead of policy detail and substantive debate? The politicians, who pander to this media scrum in the pursuit of votes instead of leading from the front like statesmen? Or (shock horror) the people, who feed such behaviour from below. Sure, in a city where the daily Murdoch tabloid is your only comprehensive print source of local news, perhaps one can be forgiven for supporting the Empire with your readership and loose change.

But it also works the other way. In Adelaide, for example, somebody did set up a rival paper a few years back. It failed. Or at least, had to move entirely online. Not enough people wanted more complex, intelligent news coverage to support a second print source. So too with politicians: everybody likes to complain about how they never give straight answers and speak only in hollow dot points or obfuscating jargon. Yet the same electorate demonstrate their fickleness and lack of capacity for complex thought at nearly every turn.

Take the current debate over mandatory pre-commitment for pokies. The campaign against these proposed laws, launched by Clubs Australia, is summarised with the slogan “Won’t work Will hurt”. The clubs and now football leagues have argued that mandatory pre-commitment won’t reduce problem gambling, but will impact on the revenue of Australian clubs, thus harming their ability to provide community services and social hubs for average, working Australians (of course). Sounds awfully familiar to the argument that a carbon tax means economic pain but no environmental gain. Perhaps the financially imperilled clubs association has been pooling resources with the marginalised anti-climate action lobby & hiring the same copy writers? Now, the issue is a complex one. I’m certainly not comfortable with Andrew Wilkie’s gun-to-the-government’s-head legislative approach. There’s also merit to some of the more thoughtful arguments opposing mandatory pre-commitment – namely that recreational gamblers may be discouraged from signing up for a card under the system (although cards won’t be required for low intensity machines) while problem gamblers will be some of the first to sign up and will, in fact, be able to choose high limits or no limits for their betting. In other words, the system will encourage self control for problem gamblers, but ultimately how much they lose will still be up to them.

But none of the hysterical public debate has acknowledged any of these complexities. Particularly on the opposing side, accusations that recreational gamblers will be forced to limit their betting abound. Another snappy one liner put forward by clubs is the “un-Australian” idea of a “licence to punt”. They don’t acknowledge, of course, the counterpoint that such licences – i.e. pre-commitment pokies cards – will be freely and easily available. The argument that recreational gambling will decline because people won’t bother to fill in a form is undermined by the multitude of loyalty discount cards, promotional coupon programs & mailing list paraphernalia we sign up for every single day. Not to mention that we already need licences to do all sorts of potentially dangerous or damaging activities – such as driving – that require a level of regulation to remain safe. Each one of us over the age of 16 has the right to drive, but the state places a legislative framework around that right in order to make it safer for everyone. The same is true of mandatory pre-commitment technology. All things considered, I think it’s probably a fair enough idea. So long as the cards are simple to acquire & their only purpose remains helping those with potential gambling issues to put a ceiling on their losses before the moment catches up with them.

The devil, though, is in the details. And that’s my point. When the average voting punters approach issues like this, facts go flying out the window. Pre-commitment legislation has become one of Labor’s biggest headaches. Yes, Andrew Wilkie is holding them hostage over it. But that’s only a problem because so many punters seem to be turning against the government over a legislative proposal they don’t even understand. Some might argue it’s Andrew Wilkie or the government’s fault, for not educating people well enough on the details of their plan. The same thing’s been said about the government’s carbon tax information campaign. But that’s a bit rich, isn’t it? The majority of people aren’t ignorant for lack of information. They are wilfully so. To paraphrase H.L Mencken, nobody ever lost money by underestimating the people’s intelligence.

Which brings us back to my original point. One particular response to Robert Manne in The Australian caught my eye. It was The Media Perspective by Chris Kenny. In it, Kenny writes:

Manne betrays a low opinion of the public. He is not concerned for the “politically engaged citizens” but about the “capacity of News Limited to influence the opinions of the vast majority of less engaged citizens”. This narrative has the mainstream as supplicants whose views are bestowed on them by the media. It is condescending.

This rhetorical device is becoming common among both social conservatives and the libertarian Right in Australia. That is, accuse the “liberal elite” (the ABC, Fairfax, GetUp, etc.) of patronizing the great mass of people, ignoring their concerns and mocking their values, instead of actually mounting a substantive argument yourself. Indeed, on the issue of pokies reform and Bob Brown’s ill-advised labelling of the Murdoch press as “hate media”, The Australian editorialised that “Senator Brown and Mr Wilkie believe that some matters are so sensitive that they should be left to the politicians while the rest of us shut up. We strongly resist the implicit assumption that the public lacks the intelligence to make up its own mind.” In a separate editorial, the paper went even further. “A great debate is under way in this country,” they wrote:

It embraces the policy challenges of the hour: global warming, the risk of recession, immigration, the role of the media. At its core is a more fundamental question, a contest between those who believe democracy is a top-down exercise in which the views of elites take precedence over the rest, and those who believe democracy springs from the people. In this debate between common sense and intellectual opinion, our inclination is to defer to the wisdom of the crowd.

They suggest the average person is perfectly capable of “informed, intelligent commentary” and able to “embrace complex ideas” — so long “as they are asked, not told, to adopt them.” So, average people are informed, intelligent and able to embrace complex ideas, but then ignore and discard them out of pure spite or stubbornness? Real mature, Australian battlers. Bravo.

One of the most disappointing recent culprits of this anti-condescension rhetoric is Spiked Online editor Brendan O’Neill, many of whose stated ideals I warmly agree with, including “free speech, moral autonomy, tolerance and the democratic spirit”. O’Neill has expressed his concern with the idea that “tolerance no longer means critical engagement, judgement and debate, as it did for Enlightened thinkers like John Locke, but is now simply a shoulder-shrugging refusal to make value judgement.” Except that in many of his recent essays, critical engagement with ideas or values seems to be a very low priority. Take his piece claiming that “every slur in the book has been hurled at those who dare to question climate-change orthodoxies.” O’Neill says climate change skeptics have “been compared to Holocaust deniers” and suggests that greens, “in their pathologisation, demoralisation and even criminalisation of dissent […] unwittingly expose their deeply censorious, inquisitorial instincts.” Eco-warriors like Al Gore, he claims, “want to make climate-change scepticism as disgusting as saying the N-word; he wants to deny the oxygen of respectability to an intellectual current he disagrees with.” Except the kind of climate change scepticism most rational people disagree with isn’t an intellectual current at all, but a fear driven political one. It is, in fact, anti-intellectual.

The comparison between climate scepticism and racial prejudice, while perhaps a long drawn bow, is based on their commonality as opinions based not on fact, science or reason, but prejudiced ideology. Exactly what O’Neill claims to abhor: meanwhile, he reduces those who oppose such anti-enlightenment thinking to the clichéd “chattering classes” or some other synonym of the liberal, cultural elite who crop up as vaguely defined, cartoon villains in so many of his recent op-ed pieces. Along with those of News Ltd writers like Chris Kenny or Graham Lloyd, who defended his paper’s allegedly biased reporting on climate change against that king of the chattering, liberal elite, Robert Manne. Responding to Manne’s accusation that The Australian features significantly more coverage sceptical of climate change than supportive (editorial position aside) Lloyd chastises Manne’s “offensive judgement that readers of a serious newspaper cannot be trusted with exposure to the alternative viewpoints of contrarians.” That would be the contrarian views neither Kenny, Lloyd nor O’Neill seek to contextualise or address in their own writing, yes?

Maybe those latte sipping elites are right. Perhaps most people are stupid. Maybe they deserve to be condescended. Maybe they don’t have the time, skill, education or inclination to critically analyse what they read, hear or watch from the media. But that’s not reason enough to place further limits on the robust, messy principle of free speech. Andrew Bolt’s conviction for racial vilification is a perfect case in point. Despite what his defender’s on the Right may suggest, Bolt wasn’t raising the legitimate issues of race identification & affirmative action policies in good faith. He was being a dog-whistling jerk. But that’s absolutely no reason to convict him of a crime. Unfortunately, Jonathan Holmes is the only one of us lefties who seems to get that. But nor is it reason for conservative populists and lazy, right-wing libertarians to fawn ignorance and pretend they believe the masses are intelligent. Don’t opportunistically paint your opponents as arrogant tossers by ignoring the truth.

Basically, the current state of media commentary is one big hypocritical merry-go-round, where almost nobody on either Left or Right has the skill, intellect or balls to get off and write something insightful, let alone acknowledge the existence of counterarguments or opposing viewpoints. Just like the recent tax forum’s various lobby groups, ideological warrior’s from both sides rush to battle with flags waving and weapons drawn. Prepared to fight, draw blood and die but never, oh never, to critically engage.

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