When the culture war became a business model

News organisations with the most cynical motivations have conscripted themselves into the culture war.

Companies like Fairfax and Newscorp have conspired with the very worst of the left and right, organising themselves into militant, ideological armies. No longer reporting from the sidelines, news organisations have joined the battle, bleeding pages of ink, eager to make it onto the front-page of history.

The more craven audience analyst might argue this behaviour is merely identifying and engaging with your audience. In my opinion, many news organisations are directly responsible for fragmenting the culture with articles that police speech and shame their subjects for having the audacity to hold two or more conflicting ideas, or for holding views which fall outside of the publication’s chosen tribe, and encourage their users to do the same.

The latest in this most predictable saga has to do with seven words published by ABC TV and radio presenter, Yassmin Abdel-Magied on Facebook:

“Lest we forget, Manus, Nauru, Syria.”

(Anzac Day commemorates the fallen Australia and New Zealand soldiers “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served”).

On the right, these seven words were enough to drive the party of free speech and their media sympathisers into meltdown.

The Daily Telegraph devoted its front page to a story titled:“Two Finger Salute: ABC host’s ultimate insult to Anzac legend.

For seven words which asked Australia to reflect on its continuing role in foreign conflicts, and on its unlawful incarceration of thousands of families fleeing genocide and civil war, publications like The Daily Telegraph and The Australian decided  Abdel-Magied must be punished.

These are the very same publications which have defended the late, infamous racist cartoonist, Bill Leak’s right to make racist, sexist and homophobic remarks about Muslims, The Indigenous, Women and the LGBTIQ community. The same publisher which stood by conservative commentator,  Andrew Bolt in a court of law for doing the same. The same publications which have devoted hundreds of column inches to upholding the values of free speech, and their right to make blokey jokes at other people’s expense at the pub every Friday, seized upon these seven words, calling for Abdel-Magied’s resignation, apology (even though she has already done so) and public evisceration.

Liberal senator Eric Abetz publicly called for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop terminate Abdel-Magied’s membership of the Council for Australian-Arab Relations. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said in The Australian that it was “a disgrace that on our most significant national day … this advocate seeks to make political mileage”. The Nationals’ George Christensen called for Abdel-Magied to deport herself.

The leader of One Nation,  (Australia’s defacto alt-right party), Pauline Hanson tweeted : “Why’s the overfunded ABC giving a platform to people like Ms Abdul-Mageid [sic]?”, adding: “Let’s end this sort of tokenism!”

One-time Labor minister Graham Richardson said in The Australian that Abdel-Magied’s performance “demonstrates what is wrong with the ABC”.

“Remember that the essence of the public broadcaster is Australian. If you can’t put Australia first then we, as taxpayers, should not be forking out for the salary of someone who she says is ‘first and foremost a Muslim’,” Richardson wrote.

On the left, publications like The Guardian and the Sydney Morning Herald were quick to point out the hypocrisy of the free-speech brigade using Anzac Day as an opportunity to take a swipe at Muslims.

David Stephens, secretary of the Honest History Coalition wrote for The Guardian that Anzac Day, like Christmas and Easter, has become a day for some of us “to put normal affairs to one side.”

“On the other hand, it seemed to be OK for Barnaby Joyce and others to hijack the furore over Abdel-Magied to bash the ABC, and for readers of the Daily Telegraph and similar outlets to have a whack at Muslims – some of the comments on Andrew Bolt’s blog were breathtaking in their crudity and brutality – or let fly with that great Australian riposte “piss off back to where you came from.”

Writer Jane Gilmore wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald that the attacks on Abdel-Magied cannot be separated from racism. Each publication chose a side and their flags fly proudly and zealously across newspaper front pages, websites and social media.

Last year a working-class man by the name of Duncan Storrar became the subject of a NewsCorp witchhunt after he appeared on Q&A asking why low-income earners have historically been neglected from federal budgets.

The year before that American publicist Justine Sacco lost her job and was subjected to months of press coverage and online trolling for a rather insensitive joke she made on Twitter about an impending trip to Africa. “Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!,” she tweeted.

This culture war conscription is hardly unique to the Australian media landscape.

Over in America, flash in the pan conservative columnist, Tomi Lahren was fired from Fox News for holding pro-choice views. Weeks of intense media speculation, op-eds and think pieces followed in the wake of her sacking.

Publications ranging from The New York Times & The Guardian to Breitbart, The Spectator – even the Hollywood Reporter – have covered with interest the ‘free speech battle’ over whether Alt-Right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos has the right to speak of his views for a public (and paying) audience at Berkeley University.

Meanwhile The American Civil Liberties Union has defended Anne Coulter’s right to speak at Berkeley University whose lectures have twice been cancelled due to threats of violence, this after helping to shut-down Milo’s lecture tour last year.

The coverage of Berkeley as a ‘ground zero’ of America’s culture war, and the left’s use of violence to shut-down hate-speech has only helped to increase the ‘stock’ of the Coulter and Yiannapolis’s of this world, and feed the perception that free speech is truly under-threat, despite the fact that the speech they claim is being suppressed is pasted all over newspapers, social media, television and radio.

Not to mention there are entire sub-reddits dedicated to the celebration of the very views people like Steve Bannon & Alex Jones would have you believe are being driven underground.   Nevertheless, the left gave Milo exactly what he wanted when their opposition to hate-speech descended into violent riots, (emboldened by publications like Breitbart and The Spectator).

There is an obvious irony that the very people claiming to protect America from bigotry was prepared to use some of the same, violent tactics as the Nazis to shut-down speech they found to be offensive.

And it is perhaps this irony that led the ACLU to switch sides (again), defending Anne Coulter’s right to her left-wing university conversion tour. It remembered that before it had stoked the tensions that led to the Berkeley Riots (the 2016 edition), it once marched with the KKK through the very same university in the ‘70s and again in 2012, simultaneously opposing its views while defending its right to hold them publicly.

The policing of speech even through violence goes some way to explaining why Yiannopoulos is back (having been abandoned by his prior champions over allegations he was paedophile apologist ), and this time is vowing to hold a week-long free-speech event at Berkeley University.

And all of it was covered vigilantly by publications on both sides of the ideological divide, fodder for social-media consumption.

Culture has been fragmenting into ideological tribes since the dawn of the social media age. Coupled with economic anxiety and a rising distrust in the news media, the culture wars have directly led to the age of Trump and Brexit and the alt-right.  Continuing to seize on the perceived enemies of ideology will only further divide countries and races and genders against each other.

Left or right, neither side has any interest in exploring the validity of their ‘enemy’s’ argument, nor contribute to a greater good. (This does not preclude the good intentions of each author, who may not realise their beliefs are being used to serve a different end).  Each click and every page view provides seconds of attention which translate into dollars on a bottom line. The more controversial the topic, the more dollars flow through to profit, to hell with the consequences.

If there were really concern for a Greater Good, the topic of these articles would not be about Yiannopoulos’ or Coulter’s opinion, or what they post on social media, or Yassmin Abdel-Magied,  or Duncan Storrer or Justine Sacco, or anyone else convicted in the court of public opinion. It would be about America, or Australia or The UK’s ongoing role in foreign conflicts, or solutions to the continued incarceration of asylum seekers, or the African AIDS crisis or how to address unemployment. Instead reporters are encouraged to scour social-media for anything remotely controversial that can be seized upon and used to promote traffic.

The left and right have become self-perpetuating marketing machines for each other and it is the culture that suffers. We can only expect to see more violence, more tension, more riots and economic insecurity if populations are encouraged by their trusted news sources to turn against each other: Men against women, black against white, conservatives against liberals, Christians against Muslims.

Policing speech needs to get off the front page. If the press is so interested in the public interest it should stick to covering the underlying issues present in the culture war, instead of airing the public laundry of perceived ideological enemies.

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Claire Connelly is working on her first book, How The World Really Works, a guide to recognising rhetorical red flags and immunising yourself against bullshit. You should definitely buy it when it comes out. A podcast of the same name will also be launching in the coming months.