Paul Kelly vs Chris Berg debate in the marketplace of ideas

Chris Berg, all-round great guy and neoliberal ideologue, has a post on The Drum that equates ensuring access to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ with the regulation of ‘debate’ (which he suggests is a bad thing) in the context of questions asked in the Media Inquiry’s recently released discussion paper. Chris writes:

Implicit in the marketplace of ideas theory is that freedom of speech has a purpose. It is utilitarian. The only way to come to the truth about an idea is to freely debate it. The best ideas – that is, those which are most true – will out-compete the rest.
Yet it’s trivially easy to demonstrate this ‘marketplace’ is distorted. Some have access to louder megaphones than others, as everybody keeps pointing out.
And if speech has a utilitarian purpose, it never quite achieves its ends – even once ‘truth’ has been obtained through free discussion, speech freedoms continue to allow wrong ideas to be broadcast.

Of course, that is why ‘political economy’ approaches are the best tool to understand precisely why the ‘marketplace of ideas’ gets distorted by people who have greater access to ‘megaphones’ compared to others. A political economy approach to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ would move in two directions at once. Firstly, map the ‘public sphere’ with the actual marketplace for media content. Secondly, examine who and what gets access to the public sphere via the ‘marketplace of ideas’.

I don’t agree with this approach either, mainly because I think the ‘public sphere’ is a myth. Admittedly, a useful myth, but a myth nevertheless. There is no public sphere. Inter alia there is no ‘marketplace of ideas’. The only way to come to the truth about anything is to research it, not through ‘free discussion’. I’ve never witnessed ‘free discussion’. There is certainly debate, however. What matters in ‘debate’ are words on a page or screen, screen time for comment, the rhythm of publication, the endurance of attention for focusing on specific issues across the entire media ecology, the capacity for an audience to engage and reflect upon what is discussed in a rational manner and so on. Chris is worried about the government regulating debate somehow. He says:

We do not want the Government managing public debate for all sorts of reasons. First among them is that any attempt to do so will necessarily abridge our basic right to freedom of speech. […]
For instance, the right to speak must be also the right not to speak; to determine the content of your speech. This principle is breached clearly by one of the major proposals of the media inquiry issues paper – a legally guaranteed right of reply which would treat newspapers as regulated common carriers.

Chris’s argument is strangely the opposite of a similar critique made by Paul Kelly in The Australian about Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay. Kelly argued that Manne wants to shut down the capacity for ‘debate’:

…the startling feature is Manne’s fixation on repressing stories and debates he doesn’t like…
For Manne, the paper’s crime was to stage this debate. He believes certain views have reached “uncontested” status and must not be contested. Books and views that contest Manne’s beliefs are to be met with silence and censorship. It is good that Manne’s technique of handling opponents is put on the public record…
Manne says that on climate change our democracy must rely upon citizens placing “their trust in those with expertise”. Again, the idea is that certain beliefs cannot be debated or contested…
Once again, the paper’s offence was its refusal to shut down debate. Period. Manne insists his view embodies Enlightenment rationality. During our interview to stress the gravity of his position on climate change he actually compared the issue with the Holocaust.
I told Manne that one reason for the public’s backlash making carbon pricing so unpopular was the precise attitude he took. While pretending to be rational his rejection of debate was really faith-based dogmatism and the Australian public didn’t like being told what to think by patronising experts…

Therefore I believe it is necessary, at this juncture, to ‘stage’ a ‘debate’ between Paul Kelly in favour of ‘debate’ and Chris Berg who is clearly a ‘debate hater’. Indeed, I hope that journalists working for The Australian will welcome what I am inferring Chris Berg is implying, that an outcome of the Media Inquiry will be that they will be forced to encourage ‘debate’ for voices from opposing ideological position if they decide to instigate a ‘debate’ in their own pages. Surely, as Paul Kelly writes, they would not want to shut down or censor debate? Worse, that by critiquing a view, position, scientific theory or what have you in the paper, that The Australian would, in effect, manufacture a relative silence in the ‘public sphere’ around opposing views by not strenuously encouraging their ideological opponents to enter into debate with them? Without supporting the regulated and enforced access to the public sphere via the ‘marketplace of ideas’ surely The Australian would be guilty of attempting to silence critiques and stifle debate? Surely Kelly would not want that…

Was that ‘debate’ good for you too?

Maybe the point of ‘the press’ (the historically specific overlap of the social instution of journalism as the ‘fourth estate’ and the commercial media industry as a mode of distribution) is not to actually stage debates at all, but to report on the them. (I introduced Daniel Boorstin’s concept of ‘pseudo-events’ to my first year students a couple of weeks ago.) If ‘the press’ is staging debates are they then fabricating their own ‘marketplace of ideas’ where they get to control who has access to participation and therefore which ‘ideas’ will be reported on as having ‘value’? This line of argument — where freedom of the press is defined in terms of media controlled access to ‘debates’ that are actually staged by the media — therefore becomes incredibly fraught. Real issues and real news then become lost, and there is not much worth trying to salvage from that situation in the name of the ‘the press’ when the commercial media industry is using the image of fourth-estate journalism so as to serve its own interests.

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