In 1844 Karl Marx introduced the idea that “Religion is the opium of the masses”. What if we could apply Marx’s theory to modern society and adapt it slightly to say “politicians are the new opium of the masses by the way of the media”. While the government is seen to be regulating the media to protect the ‘public interest’, a deeper observation suggests they are using the media to dictate their own political agendas.
Regulation has been defined as “the process by which government induces, requires or prohibits certain actions by individuals, private institutions, and sometimes public institutions, often through the efforts of specially designed regulatory agencies” (Gow, 1997:101). This paper outlines the reasons the government believes it must regulate the media, concentrating on two dimensions. The first being for the interest of the public through censorship and legislation. The second looks at regulation for its own benefit through legislation and manipulation.
Windschuttle ; Windschuttle (1981), discuss how the media’s role has changed from telling the truth, to trying to attract the sort of audiences that advertisers want at any cost. For this reason the government feels it needs to regulate the media in relation to the amount, types and times of advertising that are allowed. If the government doesn’t put some restriction on the amount of advertising it may become much too excessive and manipulating. The government has also placed legislation about advertising of harmful products, such as tobacco in place.
This is so that the public isn’t coerced into damaging activities and because it is seen as the socially responsible thing to do. Another reason the government feels it needs to regulate for the publics interest is because ownership of mass-media in Australia is concentrated in the hands of a small number of men, mainly Packer and Murdoch. The ownership and market dominance these men possess could be seen as a threat to democracy (Singleton et al, 2003). These men have the power to control what we see, therefore they have the potential to construct our perceptions of the world (Turner and Cunnigham, 1997:3).
The government has put legislation in place to limit the amount and scope of media these men control and to supposedly allow a more diversified voice to be conveyed. Media has been called “the most persuasive industry” (Shultz, 1998:1). The government therefore sees it as imperative that its content be regulated. The internet is a hard medium to legislate and is therefore riddled with pornography and hate sites. Print and television are much easier mediums to regulate. They must abide by codes of practice approved by the commonwealth formed Australian Broadcasting association (ABA).
These codes take into account community attitudes towards violence, sex, offensive language, drugs and disparagement of certain groups and they also apply the film classification system to ensure films that are of a M or MA classification are only shown at certain times (Jackson, 2001). The reason the government feels these kinds of regulations are necessary is to protect the general public from inappropriate and offensive materials, in particular young children who are easily influenced and are in the process of building their moral value systems.
While it has just been recognised that the government regulates media for the interest of the public, it is not hard to see they use this power to produce outcomes that will benefit their own political plights. Even regulation for public interest benefits the government because it makes them appear to be socially responsible. This will keep voters happy and possibly conjure up further support. Another indirect way they use the media is through media mates. The concept of ‘media mates’ is not a new one. It is about media and government merging into an interdependent, some have even called it “Parasitic” relationship (Western, 1987:14).
An example of this is the government passing legislation that will have a positive affect on business prospects of one of the major media players. In return the media player, who will have vast control over their empire, will ensure the government is portrayed in a positive light. The Howard government is often accused of colluding with Packer and it is no secret that Hawke and Packer had a close mutual benefiting relationship. Hawke passed legislation that enabled Packer to become the media force he is today (Shultz, 1998).
Another way the government uses regulation of the media to its advantage is to limit the amount of information they provide. For example Cabinet meetings are kept out of the media so the government can shield themselves from errors and indiscretions (Windschuttle, 1981). There is also legislation that stops other events from being reported in the press. This legislation was applied when two journalists, Frank Brown and Raymond Fitzpatrick were jailed for three months for ‘contempt of the house of representatives’ after claiming that members of parliament were paid to obtain land for illegal aliens (Shultz, 1998:87).
While the government sees this regulation as protecting it is actually making them seem more incompetent. In the same way they stop this information going out they also attempt to regulate an outflow of information that will present them in a positive political light. Political leaders can appear more visible when they are actually less accessible to questions. Politicians who manipulate the media like this are known as ‘spin doctors’ (Singleton et al, 2003). An example is if a politician calls a press conference to present a constructed statement that will enhance their image.
In conclusion after viewing a variety of literature on the subjects of politics and the media, it can be seen that the government regulates the media in order to protect the publics interest. With a little deeper obeservation one may conclude that much more selfish motives reigns supreme. As previously mentioned the media is the “most persuaive industry on earth” (Shultz, 1998:1). The government is continually regulating this industry in indirect and direct ways to maintain and gain power.