Do any of these dickheads look virtual to you?

A couple of days ago Australia’s prime minister (PM) Julia Gillard found herself in the unprecedented position of having to host an extended news conference to hose down allegations of corruption from 17 years ago. A slightly abridged version of the news conference is available here, and it’s a barn-storming performance by Ms. Gillard that shows some of her finer qualities. My reader(s) from countries with a more timid political climate might like to feast their eyes on it as an example of how politicians should handle the idiots from the press.

This post isn’t about the press conference or Gillard’s finer qualities, but rather about the issue she was asked to address late in the press conference about how to handle what she (scornfully) describes as the “Americanization” of debate with its “lunar right, tea party fringe” and the role of new media in promoting a vitriolic atmosphere of political debate. The press conference itself is supposedly an example of how the internet has changed politics, since many of the allegations about corruption that Gillard has been forced to address have only been kept alive on the internet, by a couple of (apparently) misogynist and lunatic websites. A common question that consumes a lot of the (admittedly limited) processing power of the average journalist’s brain is whether the rise of internet communications and “new” media is corrupting political debate, and what journalists can and should do about it: near the end of the press conference Gillard summarizes this question more eloquently than any journalist could, and calmly points out to them what they should be doing about it – she doesn’t point out that her need to hold the press conference at all is an implicit proof that journalism has failed to rise to the task.

At the same time the Observer is running another of the seemingly endless run of journalistic pleadings about whether the blogosphere is responsible for the modern atmosphere of political hysteria. It cites some of the now famous research that claims the blogosphere fragments rather than facilitates political debate, and calls on some (imo) fairly trite stereotypes of the internet generation as self-serving and individualistic. But is blogging, and internet debate more widely, really the cause of this modern hysteria? Can journalists really stand above the fray and pretend to be offering a better, more reasoned or more “balanced” form of public debate? Or is this all smoke-and-mirrors aimed at hiding journalism’s corruption, and subsequent loss of control of the space of cultural and political discourse?

Returning to Gillard’s press conference, I can’t say I’m convinced that the problems she faces would just go away if a couple of vile and sexist websites were to disappear, and judging by her tone when she deals with a journalist called “Sid” from the Australian newspaper, she doesn’t think so either. Although the allegations she was confronting have been floating around for years, they were largely unknown to the wider public until 2007 – when the Australian published a defamatory version of them. And then 2010 – when the Australian published a defamatory version of them. And then last weekend, when the Australian published a defamatory version of them. Are we seeing a pattern here? On every occasion that it has chosen to move these allegations from the fringe blogosphere into public debate, the Australian has had to apologize and publish a retraction, and in 2010 it sacked the journalist who wrote the story. This newspaper – Australia’s only national newspaper – is on record as having declared a plan to destroy Australia’s environmental party, The Greens; its editor in 2003, Paul Kelly, traveled the country openly drumming up support for the Iraq war and calling anyone who opposed it cowards. The Australian is owned by News International – on the same weekend as the Observer was blathering about standards on the blogosphere, News International’s the Sun was publishing pictures of Prince Harry’s naked arse, presumably in the interests of free speech. This is the same News International that probably used illegal means to obtain and then broadcast a recording of Prince Charles telling his girlfriend he wished he was her tampon; the same News International that hacked a dead girl’s cellphone and deleted some messages, giving her parents false hope that she was still alive. The same News International – an American company, incidentally, run by an Australian – that probably also hacked the phone of the UK prime minister, and the families of a couple of soldiers who died in Iraq.

So is Gillard’s problem really with the blogosphere alone? As she observes in the press conference, in a world with more and more information people will tend to put more weight on the opinions of trustworthy mainstream sources; but when these mainstream sources simply regurgitate the opinions of “the nutjobs and misogynists on the internet” then the issue becomes bigger than just the opinions of some lonely wanker with a PC – the bigger issue is the judgment and respectability of the employees of a newspaper company that thinks hacking dead girls’ cellphones is a justifiable act. The reality is that journalists are cheap and easily bought, and they were running down the respectability of their own profession long before the internet made it possible for lonely misogynists to pile on.

But looking a little wider, beyond the issue of what journalists choose to confer legitimacy on, is the increasing nastiness of public debate really the fault of arseholes on the internet at all? The picture at the top of this page is from a rally against Australia’s carbon price. The poster at the back refers to Ms. Gillard, and is suggesting in quite a vile and sexist way that she is the sexual toy of the leader of Australia’s environmentalist party, Bob Brown. The man standing under that banner at the front, with the microphone, telling the demonstrators he agrees with them, is Tony Abbott, the leader of Australia’s opposition liberal party and Australia’s potential future PM. The woman next to him is Bronwyn Bishop, a senior and respected politician from that same party. One might call it merely an error of judgment, but it’s hard to say that they’re doing much to keep debate above board and polite when they choose these kinds of banners as their backdrop. Where are the bloggers in this picture? It wasn’t a lonely wierdo on the internet who called a feminist activist in America a “slut” for wanting contraception to be covered by health insurance – that was Rush Limbaugh, a major media figure. It was a Republican who decided to invoke the 10th Century fiction of “legitimate rape” in defending his anti-choice views; it was a politician, not a blogger, who put rifle cross hairs over pictures of American democrats (or was it their offices?); and there are more than a few birthers in the Republican party (indeed, in congress).

So is the problem really with the blogosphere and the increasing fragmentation of political debate on the internet, or is that a symptom of a wider unhinging, that is being driven by powerful forces in politics and the media? Indeed, even though he’s completely wrong and definitely not honest or well-meaning, there’s not really anything wrong with what Anthony Watts does, in principle, in his little denialist fantasy land. There’s also lots of debate and engagement between the two sides of the AGW “debate” on the internet – if anything, the question is whether there should be less, not more, given how wrong and mendacious the denialists can be. And the role of the media here, too, is questionable since the average journalist’s understanding of the concept of “balance” doesn’t extend past “giving a nutjob a voice on national tv.” The notion that balance is best obtained through calm and rational presentation of facts and getting it right doesn’t seem to have stuck with modern journalists, who constantly trot the likes of “Lord” Monkton out to defend the indefensible – and in fact as the science gets more settled and the denialist population shrinks to a smaller and crazier rump, the journalist notion of “balance” just leads to crazier and crazier people being put on national tv to represent the “opposing view.” Again, is this the blogosphere’s fault? Sure some of those bloggers love to feed the fires, but everyone is craving the legitimacy of the mainstream public eye, and it’s journalists who offer that legitimacy, not blogs with too many colours and 30% of the words in block letters. If AGW was a fiction conjured up by powerful voices in the mainstream, then Watts’s work would be honourable rather than misguided, and he would be justified in both using harsh language, and allowing insulting and rude language on the part of his commenters. And even though some of the stuff he does there – particularly the shenanigans with publishing private correspondence that just happens to be embarrassing – is scummy and low and something he should be ashamed of, that kind of stuff is par for the course with national media and has been for a very long time.

I guess there’s a fine line between being an arsehole and being a hero – a lot of politicians seem not to like the Watergate journalists, or Assange, and I guess from their perspective the work of these people is more than just an inconvenience. But there’s more than enough arseholes in politics and the media, and they’ve been around long enough and doing dirty enough work, that one hardly needs to look to the internet for the cause of the increasingly strident and aggressive nature of modern political debate. The Palins and Limbaughs and Abbotts and Murdochs of the world have pretty much cornered the market on being nasty in public, and given how often journalists offer them the fig-leaf of legitimacy through unquestioning regurgitation of their crap, acceptance of the “legitimate questions” they raise, or straight-out editorializing in their favour, I think it’s fair to say that when journalists start pointing the finger at new media they’re either trying to shift the blame, or warn each other that their time is up. They certainly aren’t trying to improve the quality of public debate, because they and their political masters managed to debase that years ago.