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Dr Martin Hirst examines the concept of "groupthink" as demonstrated in news and opinion in the Murdoch press.

IN A RAMBLING and almost pointless column in The Australian on 2 November: 'THE MIND CODDLES', ultra-conservative Murdoch calumnist Janet Albrechtsen lamented the rise of so-called "political correctness" on American university campuses and cited an increase in administrative attempts to impose "trigger warnings" on the content of some course materials to prove her point.

Albrechtsen tapped into the "NewsCorpse" hive mind in preparing this article. In the first instance, she borrowed the idea from an October 10 column by the Herald Sun’s Rita Panahi, whose intemperate language and abusive tone goes unchecked by her editors. Albrechtsen also returned to the "yoga pants man" imbroglio that we discussed in last week’s Media Sauce.

Janet Albrechtsen writes opinion to order for Rupert and Boris (theaustralian.com.au)

Then, a few days after the Albrechtsen column, "emeritus" (simply means unpaid) Professor John Carroll returned to the theme in an opinion piece about the evils of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act: ‘Anguish is exquisite for wielders of 18C’.

I’ve already been down the 18C rabbit hole – and will go there again later this week – but for now I want to introduce you to the News Corp methods of groupthink and pushing inconvenient facts down the memory hole.

Groupthink is easy — it is represented clearly in the way that News Corp editorial and political lines are set at a high level and then all news and opinion reproduces the lines day after day. The current and increasingly vicious campaign against the Human Rights Commission and Section 18C of the anti-discrimination legislation is a paradigm example. I have written extensively on this phenomenon on my blog, Ethical Martini. The simple point about the memory hole is that it permits the perpetrators of groupthink to deny they do it, through the simple act of forgetting.

So, firstly, permit me a short diversion into George Orwell’s magnificent novel of dystopian state capitalism, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Lest we forget: Down the memory hole

In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, the memory hole is a device fitted into every office at The Times, where the character Winston Smith is a journalist, of sorts. The Times is published by the Records Department of the Inner Party (the state). Any inconvenient information that needs to be removed from the record from time-to-time is dropped into the memory hole ‘to be devoured by the flames’.

Smith’s job is to rewrite inconvenient facts from previous editions of the paper so that the historical record always accords with the current ideological requirements of the Inner Party.

By means of this process of erasure and rewriting, any fact or opinion ‘which conflicted with the needs of the moment’ was never permitted ‘to remain on record’.

It is a process that creates a new version of the past: ‘All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed as often as was necessary’. The insidious cleverness in this process of continuous forgetting is that, when it is completed, it is almost impossible to prove that ‘any falsification had taken place’. When re-inscription and forgetting are semi-automated processes; history can be falsified and a new, but false, history overtakes the truth so that ‘no other copy [exists] to contradict it’.

The memory hole might seem like a fanciful creation from Orwell’s brilliant imagination, but as with many of his other works, he wrote as much from observation and experience as he did from imagined concepts.

Orwell had been a journalist for much of his working life, including a long stint at the BBC, where he was unhappy and politically unsatisfied, despite initially believing he was helping the allied war effort against the rise of fascism. The concept of the memory hole is actually an accurate observation of the process of daily news production. The constant forward motion of daily journalism creates its own memory hole and most journalists are guilty of forgetting and rewriting, often without even the slightest self-awareness.

The best reporters, editors and writers learn a critical self-awareness that allows them to shut down the tubes leading to the fire of forgetting; but most do not.

However, at News Corp the process is wilful, deliberate and undertaken with clear purpose. Nothing that contradicts the ideological edicts of News Corp’s editorial straitjacket is allowed to escape the memory hole.

The observation that Winston Smith makes about The Times of 1984 is entirely valid when applied across the News Corp mastheads (including Fox News and Sky News in Australia). 

At The Australian, this process of wilful forgetting and the forgery of history is a daily occurrence in both the news pages and in commentary. It is never openly admitted that an "act of forgery" has been committed; the justification put forward for public consumption is always couched in terms of journalistic integrity.

However, we can take some comfort in Winston’s (Orwell’s) sly and ultimately humorous observation:

It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another.’

When you read the Murdoch press critically, for even a few days, it becomes clear that incinerating inconvenient ideas by shoving them down the memory hole is a corporate modus operandi.

We can now return to Rita Panahi’s piece on academic trigger warnings (10 October), Janet Albrechtsen’s recent column (2 November) on the malaise of political correctness in higher education, and John Carroll’s op-ed on the orthodoxy of academic thought (4 November) as perfect illustrations of groupthink and the memory hole in operation.

Lovely Rita: Angry doesn’t touch the sides

Rita Panahi’s vitriol is legendary on social media but in case you don’t read her Herald Sun columns or follow her on Twitter and Facebook, here’s one I’ve dug out from behind the paywall:

Reading one of Rita’s columns from start to finish is a difficult task, but in the interests of research, here’s a small sample.

Sadly, universities, particularly the arts and humanities disciplines, are now inhabited by too many entitled, insufferable idiots with the coping skills of overtired toddlers.

… these echo-chamber-dwelling dolts have developed totalitarian attitudes which demand that dissenting voices be silenced.

Panahi goes straight for the obvious target – progressive students and a compliant left-leaning faculty – whom she blames for a lack of diversity on campus.

'Universities must not allow a loud minority of hypersensitive students to stifle free speech and freedom of expression.'

Rita’s examples are all from the U.S., including the University of Chicago, which issued a letter to the 2016 incoming first year classes in August this year. Why it took Panahi three months to report on this issue is a mystery.

The angle taken in the American press, which reported the issue on 25 August, was to focus on so-called "trigger warnings" and this is what Panahi has honed in on. However, as is typical in News Corp journalism, relevant details which do not support the ideological line Rita wants to push have been left out. Only a small fraction of the letter to freshmen is quoted.

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called "trigger warnings", we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Rita’s response is as predictable as it is short: 'Brilliant.’

But, it’s not that simple, nor all that "brilliant" for Rita’s simplified thesis. The real story is about a whole set of policies at the University of Chicago around the issue of "freedom of expression". A report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression lies behind the letter to students. I’m sure Rita hasn’t read the report and it’s more than likely that nobody at NewsCorpse has bothered to either; including Janet Albrechtsen and Professor Carroll.

If they did, they would have come across this uncomfortable historical fact. Chicago University’s policy on freedom of expression was formulated in 1932 in response to protests against a visit to the university by William Z Foster, the Communist Party of America candidate for president in that year. The report makes this very clear and this is why it would be uncomfortable for Rita or Janet to read.

'To those who condemned the University for allowing the event, President Robert M Hutchins responded that “our students should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself.” He insisted that the “cure” for ideas we oppose “lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition".'

I have no doubt that Rita, Janet and John would have been leading the condemnation of Foster and the university in 1932. Left-wing opinion is not part of the diversity they so modestly and falsely champion on our campuses.

The University of Chicago committee’s report also contains the "trigger warning" statement so beloved of the News Corp free speech fundamentalists. It appears in Albrechtsen’s piece too. But vital context is missing because to include it would undermine their political and ideological intent. Deviation from the line is a cardinal sin at NewsCorpse, where the motto is "never let the facts get in the way of a good rant".

In this case, the context is important, so let’s hear again from the Committee on Freedom of Expression:

'The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish.'

The caveats put around freedom of expression at the University of Chicago would probably rule out Ms Panahi referring to her opponents as "dolts" or "insufferable idiots", because there is a requirement for "civility"; speech that constitutes "a genuine threat or harrassment" is not permitted; nor is speech that might "disrupt" the orderly running of the university. None of this is mentioned by Panahi, Albrechtsen or Carroll. It doesn’t suit their argument.

Just like Panahi, Albrechtsen claims the University of Chicago is heroic because it supposedly called out "political corrrectness" on campus. Unfortunately, the phrase is not used in the Committee on Freedom of Expression’s report.

It is hard to know exactly how many U.S. universities are undertaking this practice of issuing "trigger warnings" but Albrechtsen honed in on a handful that are probably not representative. Figures reported in the U.S. press at the time of the Chicago University student letter shows that it is an insignificant problem, not even on the radar of most American students.

According to a 2015 survey conducted by the National Coalition Against Censorship, less than one per cent of U.S. campuses have officially-sanctioned policies on trigger warnings and less than 20 per cent of students actually favour them or want them. The NCAC report on trigger warnings is not hard to find but, like the University of Chicago document mentioned above, it contains inconvenient facts that Panahi and Albrechtsen either didn’t bother to read, or chose to ignore.

This report has been shoved down the NewsCorpse memory hole. (Source: ncac.org.)

Please note the tagline:

'Survey reveals a complex picture: threats to academic freedom are not just about "political correctness".'

In fact, contrary to the editorial line taken by Panahi, Albrechtsen and Carroll, the demand for trigger warnings on campuses is not being led by Leftist and progressive student bodies. Some professors are using trigger warnings because conservative students are upset by academic discussion of gay artists.

Wrote one instructor:

'I used trigger warnings to warn about foul or sexual language, sexual content, or violence in order to allow our very conservative students to feel more in control of the material.'

Another teacher was aware of “religious objections to nude models in studio courses” and “homoerotic content in art history”. Another teacher noted the use of trigger warnings “because some students were upset by the realisation that certain artists were homosexuals".

It’s a pity that Rita and her colleagues don’t bother with basic journalistic conventions — you know like checking for themselves.

Of course, Panahi, Albrechtsen and Carroll are intent on making a political point — that the "propensity to take offence" is a "virus" that is ‘running rife on university campuses where it threatens to do the most damage’. Their thesis is that (once again) free speech is under attack and that this virus is spreading dangerously in Australia. There is little evidence for this but these hive mind "freethinkers" are only interested in offence taking when examples can be used distorted to beat any liberal or left-leaning idea squarely over the head.

An inconvenient fact, conveniently forgotten

To a very large degree, these groupthinking drones are taking offence (though they would never admit it) at a very limited data set that is not representative of modern practice in contemporary higher education. Their target is actually a figure of straw; a scarecrow built from scraps of ill-defined information that, when cobbled together, can be made to seem suggestive of a widespread cultural phenomenon.

However, what does seem clear is that these self-actualised clones are all reading the same conservative U.S. press that has been campaigning against so-called political correctness for years. Their themes and sources are evident in just a simple Google search using the print headline to Abrechtsen’s column: 'THE MIND CODDLES'. Conservative U.S. magazine, The Atlantic, is a favoured source, used extensively as "background" in Janet’s column. Copies must be freely available in the NewsCorpse tearoom, perhaps in a rack next the kool-aid dispenser.

Is Ms Albrechtsen intellectually coddled?

Coddling the NewsCorpse hive mind

It seems the only minds being coddled – in the sense of cooked like an egg – are those of the NewsCorpse kool-aid gang.

The real problem around freedom of expression in higher education today is not trigger warnings to protect the feelings of sensitive students, it is the knee-jerk reactions of overly-sensitive administrators and vice-chancellors to criticism from the right that they are too soft on outspoken academics with progressive, liberal or left-wing viewpoints.

The issue that should concern critics of academia in Australia (as in the U.S.) is conservative and overtly-political managerialism in the neoliberal university driven by what Henry Giroux calls "casino capitalism".

Panahi, Albrechtsen and Carroll are not interested in telling this story because it does not fit their learned-by-rote talking points, which demand a focus on attacking targets of opportunity on behalf of Murdoch’s conservative and destructive agenda of cashing in on the casino economy.

In his turgid and confused contribution, Professor Carroll tries the "psychological explanation" for the supposed rise of "political correctness" on campuses. He clumsily deploys a simplistic version of Freud’s "concept of negation" to explain his theory that it is the "guilt" of Bill Leak’s "pious accusers" who wish to "vent their own hatred with good conscience" and "false guilt mobilised for political purpose".

However, Carroll seems incapable of taking a good hard look at himself in the psychological mirror when he talks of the modern "crusade" to impose ‘a neo-Marxist ideology of domination and oppression’. Such a construction – common as it is in the Murdoch hive mind – is laughable.

As I’ve noted previously, the only "crusade" evident today is that of The Australian’s editor-in-chief Paul "Boris" Whittaker to defend his narcissistic and crude cartoonist, Mr Leak. This crusade is now about to turn even more violent and ugly.

The Weekend Australian has opened a new front against the Human Rights Commission and there’s likely to be some pretty heavy collateral damage, including the vilification and pillorying of anyone who dares to criticise Leak’s racist and vitriolic drawings.

The privacy of complainants in the Leak case has already been breached, and details of their family and friends from Facebook and other sources have been revealed. It is not too far a stretch to suggest that lives have been put in danger — there are some serious nutters among the so-called patriot movement. Motivated by The Australian’s hyped-up and aggressive coverage, these lunatics are capable of making words into action.

Whittaker has quickly grown into a sociopathic editor in the mould of his predecessor, Chris Mitchell. He is an editor of which Murdoch can be proud.

Here’s his editorial fatwah from this weekend:

'The Weekend Australian refuses to play this insidious game [keeping details of the complainant confidential] when vital matters of freedom of speech and informed debate are involved … this newspaper will put into the public domain everything we can ascertain about the complainants and the process.'

As IA reader John has noted, this "crusade" by the Murdoch press is not about their freedom of speech (which has never been under threat), it is about closing down opportunities for opposing voices to be heard. Despite all the whinges about the lack of "diversity" on our campuses and in the press, when have you read an opinion in The Australian that doesn’t accord with the editorial line? Never, is the only honest answer.

Rather than fostering debate on important issues, the threats of intimidation emanating from Boris and his crew only confirm what most decent people know; the Murdoch press in Australia is acting like a gang of out-of-control schoolyard bullies.

It is the unwritten rule at News Corp to focus only on issues and examples that give credence to Rupert’s ideological viewpoint. Groupthink is the rigid enforcement of this credo, complete with threats and bullying. Everything that contradicts the edicts from headquarters is to be ridiculed, dismissed, ignored, misrepresented or, perhaps more conveniently, shoved into the memory hole.

Read more by Dr Martin Hirst on his blog Ethical Martini and follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

Explanation of the memory hole in the digital world

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