Democracy dies in darkness: Why the media matters

A poem which famously took aim at the cowardice of German intellectuals during and after the rise of the Nazi party has been given a fresh spin, updated for the era of fake news, Donald Trump and rising xenophobia. 

Martin Niemöller created several versions of First They Came… throughout his life, but all deal with themes of persecution and responsibility. 

In perhaps the most repeated iteration, the German pastor reflects: 

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

In a post for economics journal Quartz, Gideon Lichfield instead took aim at the US President and his treatment of women, people with disabilities, Muslims, Mexicans,  journalists and others. 

Taking a step back from partisan politics, an anonymous version doing the rounds on social media laments: “First they came for the journalists – and I don’t know what happened after that.”

For many, sticking the boot into the media is more than a spectator sport. And certainly in some cases, criticism is justified.

But both Niemöller’s original poem and the others that have followed contain a warning that is particularly pertinent for our age. 

Trump, other populist politicians and those who support them are fond of using the cry “fake news”. 

But the reality is that in all but a few instances, they are really angry about what used to simply be called “bad press” – that is, any news that is unfavourable to them or their positions. 

The problem with this blanket dismissal of the media and the crucial role it plays in holding those in power to account is that rather than removing a few rotten pieces of fruit from the branches, it takes an axe to the whole tree. 

As The Washington Post motto puts it, “democracy dies in darkness”.

Proof for this can be found throughout history. Invariably, when critics have been controlled, limited or outlawed by the state, bad – even horrific – things have followed. 

On the flipside, think of the scandals that have been uncovered by journalists relentlessly pursuing the truth here and abroad: Watergate, the Northern Territory’s treatment of juvenile offenders, large-scale wage fraud by Australian fuel retailers … the list goes on. 

At a local level, how many councils have had rorts, large and small, exposed by a hard-working cub reporter? 

And let’s not forget that the recent Royal Commission was in large part launched in response to the spotlight shone on the Catholic Church and other institutions by the Newcastle Herald, Ballarat Courier and others.

But in addition to the spectre of “fake news”, modern journalism – especially in regional areas – is also facing dwindling resources and ever-shrinking diversity.

As recently as the early 1990s, it was common for regional centres to have more than one newspaper, as well as several local TV and radio news services.

All were almost entirely produced locally, unlike today where bulletins are typically presented from studios hundreds and even thousands of kilometres away.

Earlier this month, an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission preliminary report into digital disruption found that national classified advertising revenue alone had fallen from $2 billion in 2001 to $200 million in 2016.

The report stated that the ACCC was concerned at the similarly dramatic decline in the number of working journalists in Australia, saying: “Even those members of the public that do not read, watch or listen to the news benefit from the role journalism performs in exposing corruption, the creation of public debate and holding governments, corporations and individuals to account through their questioning and investigation.”

With an eye to the future, the report considers the possibility of government support of journalism, with ideas including a tax incentive scheme as operates for film and television. 

Sydney Morning Herald economics editor Ross Gittins suggests that paid subscriptions to news services be made tax deductible, as is the case in Canada, ensuring both the viability of public interest journalism and the knowledgeability of the Australian public. 

They’re ideas worth exploring. In the meantime, though, what can the average Joe do to make sure their local news services have a future? Simply, keep supporting them.

The likes of Trump may well like to imagine a world without critics and without public interest journalism. But as history attests, this would come at a tremendous price. 

Matt Crossman is an ACM journalist.