In the wake of anti-lockdown protests, the press has been front and centre in a reckless misinformation campaign, writes Joel Jenkins.
AS WE RECOUNT the anti-lockdown protests over last weekend, it would be prudent to look at how we got here. As most of us check on loved ones and visit the local milk bar more, hoping for good leadership in a crisis, a counterintuitive press juggernaut swirls and repositions in a fatal struggle against us.
A campaign of misinformation, driven in no small part by a hyper-politicised press, is willfully hindering the most important national response in living memory. To say “enough is enough” is now a consideration for Australians, who ought to expect better from the estates as they valiantly batten down the hatches.
Three weeks after Sky News Australia was banned for COVID-19 misinformation, the tension broke the banks of the Melbourne lockdown and spilled out onto its streets. A loose grouping of protesters, the product of nightmare algorithmic auto-play selections, descended into Melbourne to protest against the sixth lockdown of this era of pandemic and disappointment.
The finite measures of control ceded to the futility of Delta in the streets last Saturday. It seemed more evident that emotions around this crisis had evolved into desperation, bitterness and rage, culminating in a heightened level of violence not seen in 20 years.
From the moment the press apparatus set up at the Melbourne press conferences in early 2020, the media contingent has been engaged in a clear and concerted attempt to undermine and obstruct the public health response for political advantage.
What has unfolded since has marked a new era of politics for Australia, played on repeat in the daily live broadcasts in front of an anxious nation. As the fledgling National Cabinet meeting ramped up, so too did the tailored attacks and the contrasting puff-pieces: a “dictator” for Victorian Premier Dan Andrews and a “lily-white” glow for NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
An arsenal of political weapons was deployed, fresh U.S. technology from the Trump wars, given the Australian flavour by teams of morally reckless executives, editors and the socially ambitious and malleable journalists they instruct to do their bidding. While people, industry, experts and academics went to work to meet the challenges of this health crisis, the press helped our Federal Government walk into another cloud of indecision, scratching out a chasm that is growing to be unbridgeable.
The endless puff of the Murdoch and Nine flagships provides a convenient set of ideological stepping stones for the beleaguered PM to fill his self-styled leadership vacuum. Journalists themselves pluck ideas from the ether in the face of reason itself, struggling to work within the lost confines of remit and reality. The information is divvied up downstream by the tabloid papers into individualised packages of information pertaining to the nature of the Government and its position on the News Corp roadmap.
Whatever wastewater is remaining gets recycled by the rest of the entity; after dark programs on Sky, Rebel News and beyond, flowing out into the minds of the disenfranchised and the discarded. The people here unknowingly heave under the weight of the whole enterprise, compounded by the crumbling pillars around them, overwhelmed with information.
These protesters are the diamonds of this enterprise, the result of an overt process of compression and realignment, squeezed out of seams under the entire weight of stratified networks of misinformation and the endlessness of it all, extracted as revenue in the form of clicks.
There is something to be said about the erosion of civil liberties under the pandemic, the militarisation of police and our increasing familiarity with restrictions and border closures. There are many in our society who do not have the security to weather this crisis, nor the tools to rationalise it. With the economic and social wounds of the lockdowns starting to fester, the damage can be felt in the children kept out of school, the business that can't add up the books anymore and the disconnection of family and social bonds across isolated households. Is it any surprise, without leadership, that this gives way to flashpoints of misdirected anger?
How can we recognise and mourn the loss of the freedoms we cherish and keep our society in the best position to fight this pandemic? The opportunity to attempt this could have been captured by the PM at the end of July, days prior to Sky’s YouTube exile, as Treasury set the record straight by supporting lockdowns until adequate vaccination rates were achieved.
The Prime Minister had the opportunity to get behind his National Cabinet and reset the mood around a consensus, to accept the reality of his mistakes, lead on a roadmap and to speak the message that can get us there.
COVID-19 is accelerating the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the “sovereign citizen” movement. It is clearly affecting Australia’s public health response, but it’s also endangering our democracy. What is the role of the press in all of this? If YouTube has seen fit to strike a portion of News Corp from its platform for promoting misinformation, then what does this say about the efficacy of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)? What do we think about this? Does it feel right?
The political class, the press, industry and academia, with all their privilege, must consider their contributions and how their positions have a bearing on public anguish. Framing the entire group as “advocates for freedom” or “White supremacists” discounts the complexities of the issue and deflects attention from the failures of the leaders who put us in this position. In the absence of a good-faith public discussion generated by the media, Australians are forced to read the tea leaves.
The fact that Avi Yemini protested with a highly multicultural and economically diverse group, in the same crowd as White supremacists, says a lot about the nebulousness of the rage and the dangerous considerations for those who define it. If leadership refuses to clarify this feeling, to offer a meaningful solution and the media looks to ensure it all continues in the miasma, the rage will continue undefined, favouring the darker forces that wish to harness it.
Malevolent fringe groups, smelling blood on the periphery, seek to prey on the confused, reaching out to them when no one else will. This all takes place on a stage set by a corporate entity that has no care for the damage it leaves behind.
How we choose to perceive, navigate and communicate this social crisis will have a bearing on the outcomes of our communities and determine the future state of our national harmony. Why is it on the population to bear the burden of these considerations? Without a national message and guidance, without a press willing or able to talk truth to power, Australians are left to fend for themselves in a murky maelstrom of misinformation and political self-interest.
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