Monday, August 10, 2009

The "big men" view of history

Okay - so I'm about to call myself out. I blogged earlier today about John Howard's public service, and in doing so I my have subscribed to the theory of "Howard as epoch".

Earlier I have made a comment about the fact that Howard did not define an epoch, just another phase. One of the triggers for that post was John Howard's address at Melbourne Uni which I have found online.

I have found it because of another item about it, now in New Matilda which stated with the phrase "John Howard's speech about the media at Melbourne University was a reminder of just how much one man's ideological obsessions continue to shape our national conversation." Yes it is of the epochal view.

The core of that argument is;

Over his 11 years in power, these personal beliefs became elements of media strategy, and then actually began to frame the way the media conducted itself. ... there's no doubt that the ABC lost some of its critical edge over Howard's tenure, began self-censoring, and eventually made counter-productive broadcasting decisions that were never going to placate its partisan critics.

Howard's dubious gift to the Australian media, and especially the ABC, is a continuing adherence to an utterly spurious version of "balance". The assumption that journos are lefties by default, and that this inflects their work with bias, has been institutionalised...

Howard's mission now is to entrench his mythology ... he dragged his party so far to the right as to be ungovernable and, in his absence, unelectable.

But we shouldn't allow Howard's own version of his engagement with the Australian public sphere stand unchallenged — understanding what happened to our key news media over the last decade or more is the first step towards repairing and renewing them.

This is an extraordinary claim - that somehow or other Howard has single handedly changed the way our media operates. This claim is made outside any consideration that there have been other changes, including to the structure and economics of print media, and the bizarre occurence of lots of TV politics shows which consist of interviews with print journalists. Howard in his address in reference to Alan Reid talked about the differences that occurred in the politici/media relationship with the advent of TV news.

An informed comment would identify the changes in television news that has focussed on any news story with a picture - not on its importance. It might also reflect in the change across media - not just political reporting - that "news" is about celebrity and the "horse race" (who is winning) and little about ideas.

This last point is what allows "But Fairfax's recent decision to publish a long essay by the Prime Minister without critical comment or context is also less than ideal." Why? Is not reporting what the PM says "news" - not all news needs commentary or criticism.

We need to get over the epochal view that Howard oversaw a fundamental change in our society. Our society changes all the time, Howard remaind in power because of his success in reflecting society, not in shaping it. Big men don't make history - they are made by it (see E.H.Carr What is History?)

Note: It is interesting to note that Howard's motivation for making the speech is that he is an opponent of a Bill of Rights. He sees instead that there are three pillars for protection of our rights, the first being a "vigorous and highly competitive parliamentary system", the second is an "admirably impartial and incorruptible jdiciary", and the third is a "free and sceptical media". Didn't talk about that - just a context for the talk. Will address distinction between cynicism and scepticism.

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