Pioneering sociologist Max Weber theorised that all human societies lay along a continuum from the individual/small group-centred, to the community-centred.  US society is very individual-centred, though not quite at the point Ayn Rand advocated:  Australian society, less so.

In the US ‘my right to go out when I please, where I please and with whom I please’ trumps the individual’s responsibility not to do harm to the community, intentionally or accidentally. This belief is strong among those the media terms ‘right wing’.  Left-leaning communities, traditionally and in practice, look more to common benefits and community responsibility.

But there are times when a nation has to act as a community, indeed a ‘great society’, rather than the domicile of individuals. There are times when trusting governments may rile, but are in the long term interest of the community. 

But how do we, as individuals, arrive at such conclusions?

Function of the Media

A key function of the media, all media, social, as well as traditional, is the circulation of information, information that combined with personal experience and insight becomes knowledge.  

Thus the reliability of that information is crucial to the individual’s ability to know the circumstances of their community, to know when to pull together, to act for the community as a whole, or when pursuing individual interests better serves the interests of the community.  

Until recent times, grading the information, trusting it or treating it with scepticism, was relatively easy.  If the editor of the local rag was a drinking mate of the mayor, reports of council doings could be a bit suspect, or the Irish-born journalist might be tougher on parking problems outside the Anglican Church than the Catholic one.

If you lived in Britain at the turn of the 20th century, your class identity could be measured by the paper that came through the front door: The Times was for the aristocracy or politicians, the Daily Telegraph for the self-made middleclass, any of the ‘Red-tops’ for the workers, and the Daily Herald if you were activist minded.

Even today, British newspapers maintain clear political and class cultural fidelities.  But to balance the ideological alignments, there is diversity in the marketplace with some thirty daily or weekly papers with a national readership and diverse ownership, more than 150 regional mastheads, and who know how many local papers.  Diversity of ideas is there for the finding.

Who Controls Our Media

In Australia the situation is very different:  News Corporation Australia controls the only daily newspaper in Brisbane, Hobart, Adelaide and Darwin, many regional mastheads in Eastern Australia, as well as the Australian.  The Nine Entertainment Company, proprietors of the Nine Television Network, control the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Financial Review, while Australian Community Media controls most regional papers that News Corp. doesn’t, as well as a few dailies like the Canberra Times

So an individual, uncertain of direction and seeking a diversity of views, won’t find it in the mainstream newspapers.  Television and radio are considered important sources but, in reality, neither medium is very good at in-depth reporting, rarely going beyond what would be the fourth of fifth paragraph in print, so it is no surprise that many turn to social media for information.

But this is hazardous territory if reliability and accuracy is valued.  As often as not, social media has not empowered the individual, better informed the reader, but licensed their anger or envy, allowed people to strike-out at self-conjured wrongs, and imagined enemies.  In a real way, the echo chambers of social media deny the users the mechanisms to resolve their issues by argument, understanding and compromise.

So, social media can be a mechanism to create division without reason, evidence, or consequence.  This has happened because the technology has evolved far faster than the media awareness of its users.  The danger is that society will become so fragmented, everyone with a different story or opinion that, as a consequence, the norms of social and political governance that have grown since Magna Carta, will be unworkable.  In such times there is the danger of a breakdown in collective action for community benefit and the media and politicians have a key role in its resolution.

Cohesive Leadership

It is the duty of political leadership to call the country together, and the role of the media, to circulate the message, but not uncritically.  But it is a fine balance: to be critical and analytical without undermining beneficial outcomes.

We have been fortunate with political leadership in Australia.  The Liberal-National government has made fiscal decisions in response to the pandemic crisis that are more Keynesian than Friedman-like.  Doubtless, this has enraged its rightwing rump and sharpened the knives for some future time.  In March, the Victorian government was attacked, especially by the News Corp. papers, for being too alarmist and cracking down too hard with its lock-downs.  Now the same papers are blaming Premier Andrews for failing to control the pandemic, and not easing up enough as case numbers recede.

But though the second wave in Victoria is alarming hitting a peak of 725 new cases overnight on August 5, falling to 14 at press time, with a national total of 884 deaths, we are still well off by comparison with some, the USA for example with 200,000 deaths and more cases than any other country in the world..  There, deficiencies in leadership, state and federal, distrust in the media engendered by the President, and rampant individuality, is a lethal mix.  

As a stark demonstration of the national’s vulnerability, Florida, population 21 million, recorded 219 deaths in the 24 hours to August 18: Australia, population 26 million, had 189 deaths in the 5 months to August 18.

When coupled with the deep fissures in the US polis and the lack of trust with politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as the media, demonstrations of ‘individual liberty’ are powering the pandemic.  

The USA is approaching the status of a failed state, one that riven by a near civil war between federal authority, state responsibility and individual freedom.  This paralysis opens the world to the rise of other states, especially China and Russia, each of whom fancy the role of hegemon of the western world.  That could be the legacy of this pandemic.

But one thing is certain. In this pandemic, knowledge is power and a robust independent media matters: it powers our democracy.

Vincent O’ Donnell
Media analyst and Researcher

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