Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra
Arthur Sinodinos, former minister and Australia’s ambassador-designate to Washington, has warned that the media is becoming a polarised “battleground”, which is dangerous for democracy and science.
He said it was much easier for parties to be fragmented these days “because it’s much easier for individuals to get a platform, partly through the way the media itself is fragmented”.
Sinodinos leaves parliament later this year and will take up his position as ambassador early next year. Reflecting on changes during his career as a public servant, political staffer (including as John Howard’s chief of staff) and politician, Sinodinos highlighted the changing operation of the media.
“One of the dangerous trends has been that the media itself has become a battleground”, he said.
“We used to look to the media to be the journals of record and today much of the media gets dragged into the actual fight and this is a danger for democracy,” Sinodinos told The Conversation’s politics podcast. It was a danger for science, which was increasingly being “trampled in the public arena”.
“And I think it’s a danger when we have a situation where people can essentially choose their own facts,” he said. “And choose media outlets which feed their own version of reality and feed their own confirmation bias.
“I think that’s dangerous for democracy going forward.”
Asked whether he thought News Corp had become particularly partisan, Sinodinos said: “I think they have a particular business model, particularly Sky, and that’s attracted a particular viewership.
This business model was “to try and corner a particular part of the market and become the champions of that part of the market … as opposed to just trying to cover the field as a whole”.
This had meant other outlets, including the ABC, tended to take “stronger stands on certain things because they feel they’re pulling against a shift in the other direction.
“And so that’s the point – that these forces tend to sort of create this more partisan field out there.”
Sinodinos also suggested the difficulty of pursuing significant reform was exaggerated.
“Often we seem to act as if things are more difficult now [than earlier]. And yet I just think if people are prepared to stand up on something and explain it and indicate clearly why people will benefit from something, I still think it’s possible to get things through.
“But we seem to have somehow spooked ourselves overall that somehow the more difficult reforms are not possible these days. I think reform is still possible but it requires a lot of work”. There were many more outlets and many more stakeholders to consider, including stakeholders who had their own capacity to do research and undertake other activities.
He said part of the reason why the Howard government got tax reform through was that there had been a year of putting the plan together “and then a commitment at the political level to not only work out the technical arguments but to try and anticipate the political arguments and have responses to them so that when we were ready to go on that GST reform we thought we had, in terms of the arguments, every base covered”.