Laws scandal raises deeper issues

[Green Left Weekly, #369, July 28, 1999]

John Laws, one of the kings of Sydney talkback radio, has been engulfed in scandal. It has emerged that, at the same time that he was engaging in some populist bank-bashing, he secretly approached the Australian Bankers Association (ABA) seeking a lucrative deal to promote the banks' cause on air, not only through open advertisements but also through his supposedly independent editorial comments.

Understandably, large sections of the public are outraged and in a very cynical mood.

Numerous official inquiries have been announced, John Howard and Kim Beazley have weighed in and calls have been made for controls to curb such practices. In the July 17 Sydney Morning Herald, journalist Margo Kingston offered the following prescription:

If the media abandon their watchdog role and get into bed with business or politicians for cash, then a fundamental check on the abuse of elite power is lost.

It is now up to the politicians and regulators to strengthen democratic institutions to keep the elites ethical. It is up to the media themselves to repair the damage caused to their credibility by the talkback scandal.

This is simply liberal twaddle.

In capitalist society, the media perform two main functions. Their first and overriding priority, obviously, is to make profits for the handful of fabulously wealthy owners of the newspapers, magazines and TV and radio stations.

But they also perform an even more vital role in selling the whole system to the masses. They do this not only by overt propaganda in favour of capitalism ("democracy", the "free market", etc.) but also by maintaining the illusion that what we have is as natural — and unchangeable — as sunlight or rain.

Furthermore, the media almost totally exclude seriously critical views — especially, of course, socialist views. If, for instance, a party like the Democratic Socialist Party had an hour of prime-time TV each night, arguably it would quickly become, if not a mass party, at least a very significant force.

"Freedom of the press" under capitalism is only relative. Compared to total state censorship and control, as was the case in Nazi Germany, for example, liberal democracy is a very definite advance, and we value that.

But media freedom in countries like Australia is really only freedom for big business magnates and their highly paid hacks and pundits to flood society with pro-capitalist propaganda.

In reality, the "watchdog role" of the media is extremely limited and purely superficial. It may expose particular scandals and abuses, but it is never going to be a platform for exposing the system as a whole. It would be far more accurate to say the media are key watchdogs for the capitalist system — not for particular abuses within it, but for its survival against any threat from below.

We can easily believe that the Laws case is only the exposed tip of a very big iceberg of influence peddling. But, however common this might be, the influence of big business on the media doesn't depend on buying particular personalities. It is far more systemic.

Can one imagine, for instance, that a TV station would run a program seriously critical of one of its major advertisers? More fundamentally, the media are a key part of big business and will always reflect its overall interests.

Socialists do not waste their time formulating plans for capitalist politicians and "regulators" to reform the capitalist media. That would not only be a ridiculous and utopian notion, but would also be a dangerous deception of public opinion. One might as well establish rules for crime.

If a genuine workers' government was established in this country, it would expropriate the capitalist class. The means of production, including the production of public information, would be placed in the hands of society as a whole. The new state would ensure that all legitimate currents of opinion would be given the material means to express themselves freely, in proportion to their weight in society.

The media would become immeasurably more diverse and vibrant than today. "Freedom of the press" would move far beyond the shabby capitalist caricature with which we are familiar to become a reality.

In the meantime, the most effective way to fight the capitalist media monopoly is to develop the working-class media, especially the press. If the ACTU, for instance, did not function as an agency of the pro-capitalist ALP but as a militant leadership of the workers' movement in its struggle for a better world, it would establish its own newspaper and take all measures necessary to ensure it gained a wide audience among working people.

But the Laborite ACTU leaders are absolutely incapable of such a course of action. They have no program or ideas capable of inspiring the masses and winning a large section of them away from the capitalist press.

What is needed is a newspaper like Green Left Weekly — but bigger and with far more resources. The working class "has to have an honest newspaper to express its needs, defend its interests, broaden its horizon, and prepare the way for the socialist revolution" (Leon Trotsky, in a 1938 article, "Freedom of the Press and the Working Class").

That is our project and recent events have only strengthened our determination to persevere in our efforts. We renew our appeal to the radical public to support us in any way you can.

Before finishing, it is necessary to say something about the other side of the John Laws scandal — the banks. If he was selling, they were buying. If the Commonwealth Bank had qualms, it was only the fear of possible exposure.

There is widespread public hostility to the banks — to their fee gouging, huge profits, job shedding and branch closing. This is precisely the sentiment that Laws initially tapped into. Every day it becomes clearer that the banks are a vast conspiracy against society.

The big banks desperately want the government's "four pillars" policy changed: they want the right to merge with each other. John Howard wants to oblige them but he needs a package he can sell to the public. This is the context in which the ABA took up Laws' offer.

However, there is one bank merger socialists support: nationalise the banks and the whole financial sector and create a single state bank under democratic public control.

The fee gouging, profiteering, job shedding and branch closing would be halted and reversed. Every community would have the right to have a branch in their area; without abandoning any genuine electronic conveniences, workers would be hired to staff the branches and interface with the public; funds would be mobilised for socially useful projects and any "profits" would belong to society as a whole.

Is this likely to happen under capitalism? It is a question of struggle and the balance of forces. In any case, it is the only realistic banner under which the labour movement can fight on this issue and educate and mobilise ordinary people. Anything else is simply negotiating the terms of surrender.