ABC deserves Switzer’s critique … only just

When Tom Switzer has something to say, he deserves to be read with a healthy dose of skepticism.  No Left ideologue could have invented a more stereotypical reactionary: Sydney’s North Shore; private school; Sydney University; conservative think tanks; climate change denier; and obligatory ‘other side’ presenter for the ABC radio’s Between the Lines.

Switzer, like many others, claims to be a conservative when really he is a reactionary.  The difference seems to be lost in uncritical repetition of self-representations.  It has never been conservative tradition to oppose progressive reforms, including welfare measures.  Traditional conservatism merely opposes revolutionary change, seen as too rapid to gauge harmful impacts on established institutions and practices.  That is, today, much more nearly the ideological position of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) than of the Coalition–the peculiar post-war alliance between the horribly misnamed Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia.

Reactionaries, of which there are many in the Coalition, seek to actively turn back reforms and oppose change for the sake of a narrow-minded nihilism.  And that is Switzer’s position on most policy positions.  Policy on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is no different in his view.  He would prefer the ABC editorial policy to be returned to the cautious conservatism of the 1950s or ‘60s.  He thinks the ABC should reflect his ideological version of Australia rather than some other perspective.  And his version is 1950s White Australia, where the riff-raff knew their place, and good old white boys from Sydney’s North Shore would naturally rise to determine the nation’s affairs, while Britannia and the USA would rule the world outside.

I find little to commend Switzer’s views, no matter how impressive his accomplishments might appear on a résumé.  But when he pokes the ABC with a tired version of traditional reactionary criticisms, predictably wheeled out every so often, I have to admit he has at least some solid ground under him.

Not, however, quite in the way he suggests.

I think he is wrong to suggest that the ABC should not fill perceived failures in mainstream media, by telling the stories and offering the perspectives of people otherwise invisible in national discussions: women; original Australians; migrants; and the ideologically convenient LGBT construct.  As a white man, it has been easy for me, for decades, to ignore the invisibility of the people lumped together in these groups.  But since I have been actively looking for this absence, it has been equally easy to spot as a yawning gap in national consciousness.  And I have some sympathy for the view that being excluded from public life on a regular basis breeds a smouldering resentment that is definitely not in the national interest, if not an outright disenfranchisement of more than half the national population–ignored at policy-making levels for its lack of influence and power.  If the ABC does something to address this gap, it does a better job of representing its constituency than Parliament.

Switzer and Abbott
Switzer with newly elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013.

No one could accuse the Murdoch propaganda empire of representing anything but its owner’s interests, and the Fairfax stable is stodgily Anglo-American in its outlook and prescriptions.  Aside from occasional nods to public prurience spanning all demographic divides, private television and radio networks are no better.  On that basis the ABC’s representation of the less than influential interests in society strikes me as eminently more fair and balanced than its private counterparts.

Another tired old argument floated by Switzer is: ‘Conservatives, like some social democrats, have long believed that the public broadcaster all too often flouts the statutory guidelines that insist on impartiality.’

Underlying Switzer’s interpretation of impartiality is the idea that it must ignore imbecility, corruption, or irrationality in giving equal coverage to an imagined bi-polar political spectrum in Australia.  In effect, Switzer is from the school of thought that demands journalism has no business selecting, sifting, and analysing stories.  A kind of journalism that never really existed in the West.  A kind of stenography for the official party line, the way it is favoured by despots, and practised most conspicuously today in China.

Switzer’s difficulty arises in part from failing to acknowledge that if one ‘side’ behaves less reprehensibly than the others, it will find itself justly treated more favourably more often than the more reprehensible ones.  That always works against the sitting government of the day for the fact that it controls public policy. And it may be that the nation is far more progressive than its reactionary representatives, who cannot really claim an overwhelming mandate.

By Switzer’s own argument, the ABC often gives voice to ‘sides’ in political debates that have little or no representation for issues not favoured by politicians.  Complaining, therefore, that ‘conservatives’ get short shrift from the ABC is actually to ignore the fact that conservatives are in a minority when compared to just one under-represented Australian group: materially poor women. Let alone all of the groups mentioned in combination.

Moreover, Switzer’s own ABC radio program acknowledges that ‘progressives’ win cultural debates more often than ‘conservatives’ because the latter have turned their backs on intellectualism, erudition, rationality, and the capacity to put together a sustained and coherent argument on any issue–even economics.  Intellect and education does not belong to the Left.  It is simply the case that public figures of the Right have ignored it in favour of peddling populism and dated rhetoric.  I have often wished there were more erudite Right spokespeople in Australian public life.  Their absence tends to make many on the Left intellectually flabby and stagnant.

Where Switzer is entirely accurate is in terms of political correctness.  A terms that seems to have lost its meaning with overuse and misapplication.  Political correctness was a Leninist concept, developed further by Stalin, which insisted that thought, action, and especially spoken or written words had to adhere to the ‘correct’ party line.  To stray from that correctness was to commit a crime against the state.  Explicit in this conception is that the party dictates what is correct, and enforces punishment for transgressions.  In other words, it is the abolition of independent thought, and the imposition of fixed truths.  Like religion.

Unfortunately Switzer’s own definition is an example of the intellectual incoherence reactionaries are often prone to: he argues that the ABC often displays ‘a left-liberal cultural groupthink’ that ‘routinely clouds its editorial output’, often expressing ‘an attitude or a tone of voice’ that ‘is more than likely a narrow, politically correct one’.  Political correctness is not ‘left-liberal’.  It is totalitarian.  Left-liberalism requires independent thought to deal with matters of social ethics and political conscience, the way religion and ideology cannot for their prescriptive approach to setting rigid rules that banish independence of thought and rational judgement.

However, as a supporter of the ABC, and opponent of government interference in its operations, I can nevertheless see clear evidence for the imposition of the deadening hand of political correctness in its programming decisions–news and drama.  The characteristics are pretty obvious: white middle aged men are always wrong when women, Aborigines, migrants, or non-heterosexuals disagree; capitalists are always wrong when someone of the Left disagrees; hawks are always wrong when doves disagree; the political establishment is always wrong when ‘minority groups’ disagree.

The effect of this editorial policy is to banish critical analysis, independent thought, and judgement.  It is not that all the instances cited above cannot be accurate and impartial reporting or representation … in some cases.  But a case must be made for that conclusion in each separate instance, not as a rigid ideology.  It cannot be ideology and still fair or impartial.  Imposed as ideology, political correctness is just like reactionaries pursuing the long-discredited idea of trickle-down economics as a rational policy position.

Worse, political correctness breeds a fear of independent thinking for the often gratuitous public witch-hunts the politically correct commissars indulge in.  It is a screeching cacophony of denunciation that comes predominantly from so-called ‘progressive’ public commentators, particularly academics, focusing solely on form, not content.  Meaning it is not the merit of ideas that is excoriated, but the temerity of contravening against some unwritten rule of political correctness.  Daring to challenge a taboo.

Sometimes this extends to trial by media, where a public figure is found pre-emptively guilty of some crime simply for having been accused of it.  Because the crime is considered an affront to minority groups.  Not because the accused has actually been found guilty.

And so political correctness stamps out critical analysis and the confidence to make the kind of judgements that are still necessary in assessing human conduct.  If that were not so, we could simply program a computer to remove all semblance of analysis and judgement to reflect only ideologically cleansed lies about events and public affairs.  The logical conclusion would be to do the same for politics, making representative government unnecessary.  Just the way Lenin and Stalin saw it.

Given the ABC’s undoubted influence on public consciousness in Australia, the intellectually corrosive effects of its politically correct biases have a much greater reach than one might suppose.  Taken together with the rigidity of politically correct rules against independent thinking and judgement in the public sector more generally, notably the academy, the effect has been to legitimise the notion that Australian adults cannot be trusted to form their own views, make their own decisions, or express their own judgements.

That kind of paternalism achieves exactly the opposite effect to the one I think is intended.  Instead of embracing a wider point of view than politicians and private media, it weakens and withers the capacity to have a point of view at all, rather than repeating ideologically determined rhetoric.

Infantilizing all adults this way, possibly on the basis of a small but vocal group of vulgar proletarians, seen as unacceptably recidivist, and needing to be controlled the way convicts were, is not in the national interest.  It diminishes us as a nation and as a people.  It legitimizes instead the necessity for a ruling class to tell us all what to think, say, and do.  Which were precisely the objects of Leninist-Stalinist political correctness.  And, ironically, also of reactionary ideology.

How closely political correctness and reactionary politics are aligned, and how much both work to atrophy independent thinking and judgement, is illustrated no more clearly than by a recent example set by the Prime Minister himself.  In banning sexual relations between ministers and staff, he has clearly admitted that even the nation’s leaders cannot be trusted to make sound judgements.  And if they are not to be trusted with judgements about their private affairs, what hope is there for the public to trust MPs to act in the nation’s best interests?

How did this come about?  Through the imbecility of a darling of the reactionary Right: Barnaby Joyce.  A man barely capable of putting together a coherent sentence.  A man who continues to damage his own reputation in public for not knowing when to shut up.  A man from a party that almost destroyed itself to deny any wrongdoing by Joyce.  A man who was deputy prime minister in a government so unprincipled it could not resolve to pressure Joyce to resign for its own good, let alone that of the nation.  Switzer should not weep such crocodile tears about unfavourable reporting by the ABC when his own side in politics makes such a mess of things that even the Murdoch propaganda machine sees fit to publicize its imbecility.

While the realities of the day are that reactionaries behave like uncouth clods, who deserve to be called out by news media for being that, Switzer would do better to focus on advice to his fellow travelers on lifting the intellectual and rational tenor of their policies and rhetorics, rather than to throw stones inside his reactionary glass house at some target beyond its walls.

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