Politics Analysis

Fourth Estate or weapon of the state

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A free and independent press is now a thing of the past (Screenshot via YouTube)

A truly free and independent press is becoming a pipe dream as the mainstream media is increasingly used as a political weapon, writes Dr William Briggs.

‘Free, independent media allow the public to make informed decisions, hold leaders accountable and hear a diversity of opinions — all free of government influence.’

So says a statement from the United States Mission in Italy. It is a noble sentiment but is there a free media, a free press in 2023? Is there really a “Fourth Estate” or just the state? Has the media ever been free?

In May 2021, U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, stated:

“Information and knowledge are powerful tools. A free and independent press is the core institution connecting publics to the information they need to advocate for themselves, make informed decisions and hold government officials accountable.”

He was happy to ignore the fact that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sits in a prison cell for doing just that.

The idea that the media has not only a duty to remain apart from government but exists autonomously, is embedded in the mythology of the democratic state. It has become one of the verities. The image of the courageous journalist fighting for justice and swaying public opinion is an enduring one and an idea that adds to a general sense of legitimacy in the structures of state and governance.

The Fourth Estate, that body that stands apart and protects our best interests, is an image that has been diligently built. Thomas Carlyle quoted Edmund Burke who described how ‘there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all’.

And so, the heroic image remains, if in a distorted fashion. Dr Martin Hirst once described this Fourth Estate in the modern era as coming ‘to mean taking a principled position to – as Australian Democrats Senator Don Chipp would have put it – “keep the bastards honest”’.

The question remains, is that still the case? The media has always been a part of the weaponry of the state; to inform and in times of crisis, to rally opinion. When times are good, then the reins are loosened and we see a semblance of that freedom that Burke spoke of. What is evident over the past several years is a sharpening of the media in the service of the state.

Are any “bastards” being kept honest today? Is the media now closer to a propaganda machine than a means of informing people, allowing for divergent views and for promoting independent thought? Is the image of the heroic journalist now more akin to a bruised Don Quixote tilting at windmills? Something has happened and it does not augur well.

Our society, economic system and international interactions are increasingly ridden by crisis. The threat of economic crisis looms large. We may be told that things are essentially in order, that there is no real crisis, that there is nothing to see here. We may be told that our economy is the envy of the world and that problems are merely headwinds that we will sail through, but the facts tell another story.

Since the Great Depression, there have been 17 significant recessions and crises that have affected global capitalism. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that between 1970 and 2011 there were 147 banking crises, 217 currency crises and 67 sovereign debt crises. This number has not abated in the past decade and we all live with the consequences today. The latest tremors on the economic front are just the latest. The media, however, appears reluctant to speak ill of an economic system that is in such fundamentally poor health.

This is not simply lazy journalism or an oversight. It is calculated to present a picture that is untrue. All media outlets have dismissed a Chinese projected economic growth rate for 2023 of 5.2% as a poor result. These are not Chinese Government figures but come from the IMF. These same IMF figures also point to a U.S. rate of growth of just 1.4%. OECD figures for global growth sit at 2.2%.

The figures are there for all to see and are on the public record. Journalists have access to these figures and yet almost universally they become distorted and understated in order to achieve a specific end. It is an end that serves propaganda rather than news.

Economic factors affect all nations and drive political actions. It is, as former President Bill Clinton once observed, the economy stupid. This can have awkward, Janus-like implications. The world is close to a precipice. War clouds loom and there is a broad acceptance on the part of governments and the media that war with China is almost inevitable. Western leaders speak with one voice about observing the “rules-based order” and point fingers at their now-named enemy, who will not, it would seem, play by these “rules”.

The rules are, crudely stated, American rules. As President Joe Biden so likes to say, repeated in his 2023 State of the Union Address, “it's never ever a good bet to bet against America”.

The same world leaders and their trade ministers still beat a path to Beijing to seek trade deals. The media is happy to turn a blind eye to the obvious irony.

Australia is second to none in its schizophrenic approach to China. It desperately seeks good and improved trade relationships with a country it has all but damned to hell as a direct threat to our sovereignty. To compound the problem, Australia is seeking to build a war-based economy in place of an industry policy. The AUKUS arrangements and the hundreds of billions of dollars of the people’s money that will be expended are spoken of as being good for the economy as they will provide jobs.

There is no way that such a grotesque parody could be played out were it not for a media that promotes such nonsense.

An industry policy worth the name would invest in programs that provide jobs, earn money, enrich the social fabric of society, lower emissions and would be sustainable. It would not be a policy that endangers the population and threatens war.

The role of the media should not be to act as a spokesperson for government. However, that is increasingly becoming its unstated role. When former Prime Minister Paul Keating spoke out against the new shift in political thinking and pointed out the problems with AUKUS, he was effectively ridiculed by the same media that promotes a war economy. The press spoke about his speech but space for him to speak in his own defence was not offered.

Keating finds it increasingly difficult to find any space in the pages of Australian newspapers. This ought to be astonishing and ought to be a wake-up call. Individual journalists are not simply showing a bias. Anyone can be guilty of that. What is increasingly visible is an encompassing blanket bias — a move from media to propaganda.

This is not to suggest that the media has not always been supportive of the state. It would be ludicrous to think otherwise. The degree of autonomy may be questioned and in times when the economy is looking good and enemies are not being found, then there is scope for journalists to be critical. This is used to show just how liberal our society is, how democratic and free-thinking it is, and how healthy it is. The Fourth Estate is held up to us as a banner.

Even in the midst of the Vietnam War, there was an apparent freedom of the press. Journalists exposed the criminality of the war and stood for truth. The 1960s were, of course, tumultuous times. Radical ideas flourished and so too did the global economy. The “golden age” of capitalism that came in the post-WWII period had not yet ended. In such circumstances, journalists of the calibre of Seymour Hirsch were heralded, not as aberrations but as representatives of a free and healthy media. Hirsch may be viewed as a metaphor for what has happened to the media as it now so unashamedly serves the interests of the state.

It was Seymour Hirsch who gave the world the story of first lieutenant William Calley, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and its cover-up. He won the Pulitzer Prize for that work. Since then, he has received over a dozen prestigious awards for investigative journalism. Last year he broke a story that showed that the Nord Stream gas pipeline was sabotaged, not by Russia as the USA declared, but by the U.S. themselves.

There are no more awards for Seymour Hirsch. The U.S. administration officially refers to his exposure as complete fiction. There is no room for dissent. Hersch has the score on the board and yet has been shunted into a siding and effectively ridiculed. There is no longer room for such as he.

Not all journalists are treated with such contempt. Closer to home, we see the elevation of some to a stature that is not altogether deserved. Peter Hartcher, for example, is a career journalist who began as a cadet in 1986. He has come to be widely accepted as a leading authority on China’s foreign policy, strategic thinking, the internal workings of the Communist Party and much else. His experience lends his work a certain gravitas.

He is not especially singled out here but is representative of the elevation of the journalist to semi-official spokesperson. Unfortunately, his work is often inflammatory and has become a principal voice for those who would fan the flames of scare-mongering against China.

What is disturbing is that the media and key journalists, while less and less focused on telling the story, become the story. It is all too common to hear journalists interviewing journalists to get informed comment on issues that are, in reality, beyond their actual brief. Hartcher is frequently invited into the studios of ABC Radio to provide analysis on China-related issues.

While it might be galling to those who are better credentialled, the fact remains that “appropriate” voices and “appropriate” versions of reality are what is required. Questions and potentially awkward answers are not required.

Of course, there are journalists breaking news that is critical of the status quo. News still does inform and it is often neutral. This does not alter the fact that on the big issues, opinions are increasingly being formed and reinforced. When issues of economic trajectory, foreign affairs, or questions of war and peace are concerned, then little or no allowances are made for critical thinking.

It is unlikely that a majority of Australians would be supportive of going to war against China. This is especially the case if it meant going to war over Taiwan. However, precious few voices are raised in the media that argue for any policy other than a belligerently pro-militaristic, pro-U.S., anti-China stance.

The sad fact remains that with the passing of every year, the percentage of Australians who view China with distrust grows. Every year, those polled show a professed awareness of a “threat” emanating from China. Lowy Institute figures show a constant decline in trust in China. In 2014, 29% of those polled saw China as our “best friend” in the region. Today, that figure has shrunk to just 6%.

In 2009, 15% considered China to be a potential military threat. By 2022, that figure had risen to 32%. Just a few short years ago, more than 50% of Australians believed China to be a trustworthy neighbour. That figure, with the aid of an avalanche of anti-China rhetoric from the media, is now 15%.

This media campaign has been remarkably successful and runs, not at all surprisingly, in close parallel with the U.S. anti-China containment campaign that began with the Obama administration earlier this century.

The frustrating thing in all this is that if a free press still existed, then the fear that can be so easily generated would largely dissipate. Whether China is or is not a “threat” is ultimately not the point. Whether this alleged threat is economic or political is not the point. What is important is that opinions are being given and the ability to question is being taken away.

At about the one-year mark of the war in Ukraine, the Chinese offered a 12-point plan to act as a precursor to peace talks between the warring parties. Our collective media noted the proposal, commented on the proposal but the 12 simple and quite innocuous points were not published broadly. It did not serve the perceived interests of the U.S. and its allies in this proxy war.

Instead, we read of its propaganda purpose, its weaknesses, its one-sidedness and of how China is seeking to manipulate events to suit its ends. These criticisms may well have some merit, but nothing like an open analysis was permitted. Instead, we read of President Biden’s response — and what a response it was.

Biden’s response was infantile. The comment that was supposed to serve as a statesman-like rebuttal to China’s proposal for a settlement was, “Putin is applauding it, so how could it be any good? I’m not being facetious. I’m being deadly earnest”. The trivialising of that moment deserved to be met with global derision, but it passed with barely a comment. The propagandists’ work has been done. There is no longer any shading on the canvas. There is simply black and white.

And if the media permits itself to engage in such obvious propagandist work, then the once-vaunted Fourth Estate has been trampled upon. It is not that anyone can expect a free and truly independent media, autonomous of the state. That is a fantasy and always has been. What it does mean is that there is no longer even an attempt at convincing the public that there is a free press.

If criticism is removed, critical thinking disappears. Questions will not be asked because it becomes all but impossible to know to question. That is the danger and that is where we are headed.

Dr William Briggs is a political economist. His special areas of interest lie in political theory and international political economy. He has been, variously, a teacher, journalist and political activist.

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