Saturday, December 27, 2014

Deadly Nexus: Australia in the mix. Add ISIS for dissonance

The Sydney chocolate shop siege of December 15, 2014, garnered non-stop media coverage in many parts of the world. Indeed, the media (Internet) gave a hyper-local event global intensity, connecting local action to dispersed audiences who watched events unfold wherever they were.

The live action could be watched on television, confirming what Australians have long desired - to be part of the first world. In this case, the media provided real time updates on all media sources (I cannot comment on European or South American or African Middle East or Asian ones), heralding that first world aspiration that Australians most desire.

In that context, it shares and bares its soul in synchronicity with the imperial powers. This is the cost of partnering with global power. It could be said. "It was ever thus."

One conclusion that follows from this kind of critical analysis, is the perverse fact that once a nation partners with great powers, its people suffer accordingly. The cost of freedom in a liberal democracy is a seamless association with the aggrandizement of the great powers and their self-inflicted woes. Sadly, when a nation lacks independence, marrying itself to the biggest-greatest power of the moment - the US and before 1945 the UK - the relations falls into place, as do the miseries.

There's hardly a skerrick of independent action to be seen in this sorry history of compliance.

Two exceptions stand out in recent memory:  Kevin Rudd was outspoken as opposition Foreign Affairs minister against the US invasion of Iraq, suggesting that it was "illegal and unlawful," thereby siding with the United Nations position. UN position  (Disclosure - Rudd is an old friend of mine). In recent history, after he became Prime Minister in 2007, (in and out, he completed the role in 2013) he almost looked like a giant when viewed against the tawdry history of Australian compliance with the great powers. It will be fascinating to see how he balances his affection for the US in his new role as President of the Asia Council.announcement

The other exception to this minimalist Australian independence, appears with another Australian Labor Party Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, who won an election in 1972, promising to bring the troops home from Vietnam. He also was prepared to reveal what was happening at Pine Gap, the CIA listening post in Central Australia. His dismissal in 1975, is considered to have been orchestrated by "the agency."

Against these brief exceptions in recent Australian history, the compliance, the cupidity and the willful absence of independent orientation by Australia can be seen as a lazy mirror of great power interests. Conservative governments in Australia, like the current one led by Tony Abbott, are deeply committed to the US "Pivot to Asia," even while the real story - China - is in their regional backyard. Apparently it is better to side with a diminishing great power like the USA than an emerging peaceful power like China. It is better to be associated with the trouble maker than the rising star...

The absence of independence in the Australian polity is palpable. It should be resisted. The loss of a national culture to a dominant and dominating set of values is a loss for civilization. As the options for independent thought and practice are narrowed to align with the great powers, the possibility for ideas that sustain human diversity and national and regional problem solving are reduced. We argue about losing ancient tribes in the Amazon or outback Australia, because we value diversity. Surely we should say the same thing about national cultures generally?

Culture is a major part of this synchronous similarity. From 2007-2011, I managed groups of American undergraduates for month long study tours to Australia. Astute students would comment on the surfeit of American television and media. Why so much American TV? And, "Australians know a lot about American politics." So far from home, yet so familiar.

There were some students who loved not missing an episode of their favorite television show, just like back home.

My strategy was to take the students on a five day desert safari to Central Australia, where the media system was minimal, and phones did not work. In Alice Springs we visited Imparja and the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) and learned about slow media - Aboriginal communication that connects to a 40,000+ years old culture. We watched Australian Rules football on local television together, enjoying indigeneity in the national sport and often in the faces of many Aboriginal players.

Against the local is the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement that gave the US power to send volumes of media down the digital pipeline with the Intellectual Property guarantees in place. digital determinism  Australia accepted most of the conditions and the creative industries in the US loved them for it.

Poor fellow my former country!

Readers may well ask how these comments relate to ISIS fundamentalism in this Uprising blog. Rightly so.

The chocolate shop siege is the manifestation of the Australian fixation on cultural synchronicity. By that I mean, the persistent Australian commitment to imperial power generates a direct connection to the world through two means: the media and material events. Geographically so far removed, yet feeling and experiencing the action.

There is new form of dissonance: cognitive dissonance combined with emotional dissonance. Australians know less but experience more.

Where the US commitment to the pursuit of happiness is played out in the media Australians enjoy that pleasure too. After all, consumer capitalism is an easy sell. The pleasure is there to be had by turning on the television / Internet. No one needs to know anything except the convenience of the advertising-media-consumption nexus. The US media's packaged emotion avoids critical and rational evaluations of pleasure. It is pleasure for its own sake. Both knowledge and pleasure are out of alignment with the national project of life made in an independent state. Thus the dissonance.

Meanwhile, knowledge is generated far away from Australia and delivered pre-packaged through the media network. The cultural nuances of American life are becoming unknown, while the consciousness of national uniqueness is fading. Emotion in lived experience (culture) is imagined on the streets of Los Angeles or New York, not the streets of Melbourne or Sydney, or an outback Australian town. Anything of value is increasingly evaluated through the lens of how American would appreciate it.

Unfortunately, Australians lack the knowingness that results from living in the US. When the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson referred to the US as the "land of the brave," Australians, for the most part, had no idea what she was singing about. (Frankly back in the 1980s when the song was released, neither did I).

Australians try desperately to "get" the world. Their diminished independent national political life means that increasingly they live in a liminal state - in between. They imagine themselves and their daydreams in the USA. The chocolate shop event confirms this positioning. They are in Sydney, yet connected to ISIS, to terror, to the provocations of the imperial power.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

ISIS expands its negative social movement - global internet rolls on

News that ISIS has a new base in Derna, Libya, extends the thesis that this movement is dynamic and dedicated to making material and geographical gains. It will continue to swarm, and the so-called "franchisees" - groups outside the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria - will flourish. They have an unsteady connection to the core ideological apparatus through the Internet.
ISIS in Derna

According to The Guardian, the US military is making public its concerns abut the expansion:
This week, the Pentagon went public with its concerns, when the commander of the US army’sAfrica Command told reporters that Isis – also known as Isil – is now running training camps in Libya, where as many as 200 fighters are receiving instruction.
This comment indicates an appreciation that ISIS is capable of expanding and making substantial claims on lands it believes should be either connected to the Caliphate, or centers of Sharia law. How to respond to the fundamentalism that informs this negative social movement is the question.

As the Caliphate movement expands the scenarios do not improve for peace and cohabitation. Rather, they degenerate. They get to be worst case scenarios as they connect and reinforce each other. Very little of the intellectual and conceptual superstructure and language from contemporary secular Internet Studies, Political Science and Sociology is helpful in the face of the virtual organization of fundamentalism.  

Take for example, commentary by Professor Peter Newman a security studies academic at King's College London. It indicates how far removed from reality western experts are in their analysis.
"It will be a challenge for Isis to show they can rule. That’s the downside of running a state: with power comes responsibility,” said Newman. Newman comment
This comment indicates how far off beam, western liberal commentary is about Caliphate claims to form government in towns and regions in the Middle East. The western liberal analyst looks for power and responsibility, as if Voltaire's Enlightenment principles can be applied in the Caliphate, like so much western secularism.

In contrast, the resistance fighter, the history maker, the religious fundamentalist, in seeking to make a new moral order, is happy to overthrow such banalities.    (As indeed was Voltaire.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Digital warfare, Hagel, and ISIS. Against mercurial malignancy.

At the risk of making an ill-conceived claim, the resignation of the US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on 24 November is one in what will be a long line of fails for the US in its war against ISIS. No defense administrator, or any "real world" bureaucrat for that matter, can manage a traditional military and its institutions against the swarming intensity of ISIS. 

More distressingly, the massive militarization of the first world liberal west cannot contain the virtual beast that feeds ISIS. (More of the militarization boondoggle later).      

The clue to the mercurial malignancy of ISIS and the inability of the world's hegemon to know how to react, was buried in comments from the Press Conference about Hagel's departure. Here is the comment that caught my eye from the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest.
“The priorities of the department, or at least of the new secretary, have changed given
changes in the international community”...  “It doesn’t mean that Secretary Hagel hasn’t done an excellent job of managing these crises as they have cropped up but it does mean that as we consider the remaining two years of the president’s time in office that another secretary might be better suited to meet those challenges.” (Italics added) report - source
"Cropping up" happens because the ISIS organization practices an as-yet-unknown-disorder to which the hegemon can only respond with certain force. This is the true swarm. Its emergence should be a lesson in stark reality, a head-on fail of the often vacuous outputs of researchers who have championed the Internet as an uncontrolled communication device. Unregulated is where this got us.

To all the libertarians, where are you now?

In the ISIS context, the net has failed because it has facilitated a system of anti-liberal, unprogressive, regressive political action.

At a talk to colleagues at Boston College's Media Research and Action Project, I referred to this as a negative social movement. 

Another negative social movement could include the hyper-mobilized US military-industrial complex, which is sucking much needed capital and expertise out of society and democratic social programs, in favor of more traditional military hardware and management. (More work needs to be done on the negative social movement concept).

The wonderful, bold and truthful Andrew Bacevich wrote this week that KBR, the Halliburton offshoot had won contracts for its action in Iraq between 2003-2011 worth $39.5 billion. Bacevich blog Private warfare marks the realization of President Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower final speech (From 7'45" to hear the critique of the emerging complex and its threat to the US way of democracy. The entire speech is worth a listen.) 

Nothing in the "traditional" configuration of the military-industrial complex is capable of addressing the Internet+ISIS.

What we don't need is a new Secretary for Defense. What we need is a new way of thinking. Without it the fails will become a mountain of despair.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Public criticism of Rupert Murdoch in Australia by Clive Palmer

Outside Australia, few people know of the Palmer United Party (PUP and its leader Clive Palmer. He is a new politician who formed his party after deciding that the conservative parties in Australia - of which he had been a life-long member - were either corrupt, inept, misguided, or all three.

This week, Clive Palmer unwound some of his feelings about Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation in a news conference. The video, released by The Guardian shines a powerful light on News. Clive Palmer on Rupert Murdoch

The video also offers some instruction on how Australian journalism works - against the etiquette of journalists elsewhere - with one (maybe two) journalists asking question after question, interrupting Palmer and making accusations in the form of questions. Palmer accuses them of being News Corporation stooges. Call it the robust Australian journalistic style, barely controlled and just like Australian Rules football.

Palmer pushes back and in doing so makes deep criticism of News - especially in Australia. For these views to be public are unique. For those of us in media studies in the critical community, Palmer's criticism is welcome.

Background:  Palmer is a House of Representatives member from Queensland. Sometimes referred to as "The Deep North," for the way its politics mirror some US politics from "The Deep South." Palmer seems a curious mixture of populist appeal with hyper-democratic instincts. For example, after 14,000 public servants were made redundant by the conservative Queensland State Government a couple of years ago, Palmer set up a fund to help support those who could not find work.

The "workforce reduction" in Queensland by his former colleagues in the conservative movement, was the point at which Palmer left the party and formed his own... a course of action open only to people like Palmer, who are self-made mining magnates with money to spend on pet projects.

It is easy to forget that the Australian Labor Party started in Longreach, Queensland. It began as the result of a strike by sheep shearers in 19890 who formed the Trade Union Movement. It seems that Palmer is tapping into the traditions of organized blue collar worker sentiment. Unlike other conservatives who use social issues to attract blue collar voters, Palmer has a broad approach to working people, including concern about their economic welfare. He seems very Australian, as the video indicates, with his comments about Rupert Murdoch being American yet running his Australian newspapers.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Pakistan takes a stand on drones

Recent articles in Foreign Policy Magazine's South Asia Daily have included a stream of reports on the regular use of drones in Pakistan and nearby areas of Afghanistan. 

There are many people like me who oppose the current preferred method of US justice through the summary execution of extremists made possible by drones. My article "Killing the Thing You Love: Predator Drones, Wilful Neglect and the End of the Internet," attempted to present the opposition case. Predator Drones  

The US Government has got itself into a difficult corner with its "defense of the homeland" argument: kill the extremists without a warning or a trial in their own nations before they do harm in the US

The number of drone attacks is chilling, suggesting the continued wilful neglect of international law on the part of the US, as it secretly kills in our name (not mine!). The New America Foundation has an excellent resource on the Pakistan situation. New America Foundation Nothing good can result from these actions where militants are executed, while members of their families, children and the innocent ("collateral damage") and killed by the US military. 

On its face these actions do not make sense. In terms of an argument about justice, the use of drones is unsustainable. It is certainly not ethical. 

It is not the first time that the following question has been asked - what happens to the "rules of war" when new technology arrives? (The splitting of the atom and the quick mobilization of the Bomb, is the clearest case of technology leading, leaving behind the morality, law and ethics that needed to be incorporated into any discussion of the use of the new technology.)

The comments from Pakistani officials make clear that the rules applying to the new technology of drones are far from established. 

For readers interested in regulation, the reference to PERMA (a Pakistan electronic media institution) offers a gateway into how non-US nations are seeking to address and manage Internet and technology applications in the current war. 

Pakistan calls for international drone norms South Asia Daily

Amb. Zamir Akram, Pakistan's delegate to the United Nations General Assembly First Committee, called for greater adherence to and development of international norms regarding the use of armed drones, according to reports on Friday (ETDawn). Akram stated: "Technology must follow the law and not the other way around." Speaking about the risk from the development of autonomous weapons, Akram said: "[they] pose a fundamental challenge to the protection of civilians and the notion of affixation of responsibility and transparency." Akram also emphasized the threat to sovereignty, arguing: "The ambition for world domination and hegemony has undermined accommodation and engagement as the basis of a rules-based cooperative multi-polar world; absolute security for one state or a group of states cannot come at the cost of diminished security for others."
Domestically, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) called the use of drone cameras illegal and a threat to privacy and security (ET). A senior Pemra official stated: "The drone-cameras used by TV channels are illegal and against the rules set by Pemra. Channel owners have to get advance permission from the interior and defence ministries for using such technology." According to Pakistani law, Pemra has the authority to regulate the use of drone technologies.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"The Internet or Fundamentalism – Inverted Communication"

The challenge of the Islamic fundamentalist movement in Syria, Iraq and nations nearby requires careful reflection. War is not the answer... I am not the first one to say so.

Here is a link to my article on the Knowledge, Technology and Society site.

The Caliphate and Digital Technology

Thursday, August 21, 2014

How newspapers wither - News Corp in Australia, in two parts

On August 20  Crikey an independent on-line news source based in Melbourne, Australia released a confidential set of financial figures about News Corporation newspapers in Australia. News financial report The performance indicates a consistently steady reduction in the sales of the group, prompting layoffs. Surely in the future, some of these publications will have little value at all to Murdoch, except to keep up the political pressure in states and regions where he has an ongoing interest that he wants to protect and support.

In several regions and cities of Australia - Brisbane, Gold Coast, Darwin, Adelaide - News is the only paper publication, where Fox News has a presence on cable. The News argument has been that this is not a problem to have a monopoly on news because there is always the Internet as an alternative. That's like saying, "We have run out of water, but it's OK because you can drink your urine." (OK, so that's not the finest analogy).

Given a couple of years, loss leaders like many of the News organs may not be sustained.  

On a closer examination, the performance of the suburban newspapers is strong,  as is Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper. I once worked in both these organizations for News.

The confidential financial report is valuable for researchers and their students, as well as critics of News. It can throw light on the internal operations of the organization as the print media (non Fox) side of the business moves into sunset territory.

The second part of this story is also remarkable. Crikey reported the following:

Crikey owner Private Media and News Corp have reached a legal agreement that prevents Crikey from hosting or further distributing the News Corporation Australia Weekly Operating Statement for the week ended June 30, 2013.
As part of the agreement, Private Media has promised to destroy by 5pm today any hard and electronic copies in its possession.
I beg you pardon!? Crikey caves
Good journalism relies on public interest aspects of everyday life being exposed. Exciting secrets being revealed make journalism the fifth estate. Is Crikey a case study of great journalism turning to jelly? 


Monday, August 18, 2014

Murdoch and News debate ramp up

The headline says it all: "Clive Palmer takes media potshot at Rupert Murdoch with rival publication plan." News challenge Reported in The Age newspaper from Melbourne, the story has a couple of notable points for analysts and critics of the News organization(s).

Clive Palmer is a very wealthy, idiosyncratic mining magnate from the state of Queensland. He gained his wealth from early claims to massive coal fields in that state, which matured with investments from Chinese sources who liked an uninterrupted stream of coal for their growing economy. (He is the guy who is building the Titanic 2. Only in Queensland?!).

Palmer launched his own political party, The Palmer United Party (PUP) in 2013, on the back of a sordid history of anti-Labor Australian nationalists, taking over the United Australia Party. Of course, being a client state - first of England and more recently of the US - there is a role for a healthy nationalist perspective that seeks to preserve national wealth and identity in and for the country and its citizens. This should be more pertinent than it is, given that Australia is an island continent, where it should have been able to develop a unique political economy... but that died out with World War 1.

Indeed, the oeuvre of cultural studies is informed by the idea that ideology (core values) is located in the way people live their lives. Ideology needs to be identified and where necessary contested: that is cultural studies defining characteristic. For example, we don't all live in Los Angeles nor should we imagine ourselves only as west coast Americans.

The nationalist argument is a long and complex one. For example, Lenin's opinions are still debated. Lenin and nationalism-culture questions  In the contemporary scene, the nationalist matter sits awkwardly against questions about globalization.

Meanwhile Clive Palmer has announced that he is setting up a newspaper or a news site that seeks to challenge Rupert Murdoch's The Australian newspaper. This paper is influential - a long-time maker and destroyed of politicians and progressive reform in Australia, as well as an active leader in climate denialism opinion ans pseudo-science.

Its coverage of Palmer and PUP is directly critical to the point of vitriolic. Palmer's response has been to increasingly face opponents like The Australian head-on.

Here's the thing: Palmer and PUP, both as politician and political party are funded by Clive Palmer himself, a mining magnate, who wants positive news about himself and the party. As well as Clive Palmer in the House of Representatives since November 2013, PUP has since June 2014 had three senators in the Australian Senate holding the balance of power. They reject the negative stories, along with the portrayal of the political challenge they have made to the established order of Australian political life. So start a newspaper!

Here is my first point: it you want to enter public life and have massive wealth, should you start your own vanity publication? When is it propaganda?

Here is the point that caught my eye from The Age report. Palmer has asked journalists to report on their work and the editorial decision making at The Australian newspaper, anonymously if necessary.

This is invited whistleblowerdom. Such an approach to journalism marks a significant twist in the Murdoch and News world, perhaps even in the history of Australian journalism. PUP indeed!



Friday, August 8, 2014

Social media, antisemitism, EU, Internet

Disturbing reports on antisemitism in The Guardian. antisemitism in EU  

There are indicators reported in the article that reflect the relationship between difficult social conditions and Jews as a target. Truly horrible historical tremors here as the article points out echos of the 1930's.

However, the anti-semitic incidents should not be essentialized to the detriment of a broader analysis about inequality and prejudice against all minorities in the EU - Roma, Turks, Africans... what a mess.  

My primary interest in this blog is in the role and impact of social media on attitudes and cultural life. In Uprising, I discussed how "ideological grooming" produces limited perspectives for users of the Internet by reducing a variety of counter-opinions. In the book I discussed how this grooming had enhanced jihadism. That helps explain how jihadists, now in the dozens, annihilate themselves by blowing themselves up and others alongside them.

I have discussed this in the light of the rise of fundamentalism more generally - fundamentalism among Christians, Jews, Tea Party members in the US for example - where one opinion is everything.

Liberalism - tolerance for others - can no longer be assumed.

In Uprising I theorized that the emergence of this singular perspective leads to proletarianization.

Here, unregulated speech circulating through media on the Internet generates values and ideas that are unmediated by Enlightenment values. Social advancement is no longer about European Enlightenment:  universal ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity (to take the French perspective). Social advancement in the fundamentalist system is now about a deep commitment to a narrow set of interests that are repeated over and over again through the Internet. Social advancement is seen as the realization of a community that is isolated from "the world," from evil and secularism, yet connected.  

Back to the EU and antisemitism.

The article includes this comment from Yonathan Arfi Crif, vice-president of Crif, an umbrella group for France's Jewish organizations:  
Almost every observer pointed to the unparalleled power of unfiltered social media to inflame and to mobilise. A stream of shocking images and Twitter hashtags, including #HitlerWasRight, amount, Arfi said, almost to indoctrination. "The logical conclusion, in fact, is radicalisation: on social media people self-select what they see, and what they see can be pure, unchecked propaganda. They may never be confronted with opinions that are not their own.".

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The jihad, public policy, public opinion nexus - effects theory

Jihadist use of the Internet is producing a reaction and that reaction is changing the Internet. Those changes are increasingly  public policy ones that are announced or discussed in public.

This is different to the ones that have been in private play through government security agencies for many years. In the US and the west, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden's release of National Security Authority (NSA) files indicated an advanced history of secrecy, typical of spy agencies for generations. The exception now is that the nature of spying on domestic populations in western democracies may be altogether at a different register thanks to the Internet.
Events that signify the way jihad is changing public policy settings are important indicators of change. Equally important are shifts in public opinion that make it possible for governments to change public policy. Combined, these two forces are maxims if you will, of public policy making: establish a public opinion shift and change policies accordingly. Every student of Institutional Economics understands this principle, as well as the principle of institution building and sustenance, as a central tenant of ideological considerations in society. (For more on Institutional Economics the initating document is John Commons, "Institutional Economics," 1936. Commons article link)

Two news items draw attention to the public opinion policy nexus and the Internet in the context of jihad.

1. "India Shaken by Case of Moslem Men Missing in Iraq" in the New York Times. India and Moslems
Here is part of the story:
Four young men from this city on the outskirts of Mumbai — well-educated children of a rising middle class — disappeared from their homes with no warning in late May, leaving behind a note about fighting to defend Islam. Investigators traced them to Mosul and have said they were recruited over the Internet by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — a process that, while relatively well-known in the West, has not been documented in India.
Mumbai is the technology and call centre capital of India... The connection with the computer network adds to the discussion about unintended consequences of the Internet. Government's believe technology is a solution to development. Public policies reflect that perspective, and rightly so. But in the layers of Mumbai's technology activity is a layer of jihadist recruitment. 

That the young men appear to have joined ISIS, the foundation for the Islamic Caliphate is pretty dramatic. Three of the four are qualified engineers, according to the New York Times report - which is incredible because in this case, the Internet jihad nexus appeals to highly educated people. As engineers, they can make a significant contribution to ISIS and the organization of the Caliphate using new technology.  

The report cites Indian authorities expressing concern about this connection between the Internet and jihad.
“This came as a shock to all of us, this incident,” said Deven Bharti, a senior official in the Mumbai police department. “Trying to join the global war, it is quite a new thing.”
Responses to this move will include - if they do not already - closer scrutiny of jihadist recruitment through the Internet. At present it appears that the Indian police are monitoring the situation - but that is merely the public record of this event.

Below is a public example of a national policy response to the recruitment of jihadists.

2. Australia announced that it will be monitoring nationals who become jihadi fighters and then return home.

The Guardian headline and subhead summarized the approach by the Prime Minister: "Tony Abbott plans extension to terrorism laws amid jihadi fears. Abbott government wants more power to ban organisations, permit arrests without a warrant and cancel passports."

Here is the strong public policy response. The change to public policy is influenced by the ill-defined relationship between public opinion and media reports. This is the way culture changes. We need  concentrated research and critique on this nexus. And we need it not from the dominant American position of "rights" to free speech and rights generally, but from an appreciation of the increasingly granulated mix of media, Internet, government and public policy.

In media studies the relationship between media and behavior is known as effects theory. It is somewhat controversial as the influence of media is difficult to measure. However, jihadi activism due to the Internet is making effects theory clearer, as the nexus of cloudy relationships between media and behavior makes way for conclusions that point to clear cause and effect. Call it technological determinism if you will.  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Back to analog: The end of the Internet = typewriter redux

A couple of years ago I published the following article:

“Killing the Thing You Love: Predator Drones, Wilful Neglect and the End of the Internet,” International Journal of Knowledge, Technology and Society, Vol 8, Issue 1: 153-166.

At that time, armed drones were new and marked a deeply disturbing trend in the use of Internet technologies. The drones were using the telecommunication infrastructure that had been created by the US Government and then privatized. With the US military in charge, the drones were annihilating opponents of the US and innocent civilians. To me this amounted to abuse of the infrastructure, as well as an abuse of legal systems. The law in most places does not allow for summary executions without a judicial procedure. Drones killed with the movement of a joystick and the push of a button by unnamed military personnel safe on US soil. 

To me, drones marked the end of the Internet - at least as it had been imagined. 

My ruminations were accurate, prophetic perhaps. My analysis we have witnessed the end of the Internet has now achieved confirmation status with the news that the German Government and apparently the Russian Government are using typewriters for communicating securely. Why? Because the National Security Administration sees and hacks everything, as do other nations' security agencies. (This is at the planning stage in Germany). Typewriter redux marks the material end point of the Internet, if the report from The Guardian is to be believed.  end of the internet v 2

The forcefulness of securitization by national powers large and small has led to this. The full scale global circulation of information is at an end. With the Internet, it was hoped that knowledge would be freer and more spirited in the way it offered resources for human betterment. By that I do not mean that human beings would realise their potential with more consumption. Unfortunately, consumption seems to be the handmaiden of securitization: buy more stuff while experiencing more security.

Or to put it another way: the end result is Internet pleasure generating more consumption which offers more granulated information to security agencies: both commercial and public. 

Typewriters are back. All those ones sitting on bookshelves behind writers being interviewed on television will need to be dusted off, carbon ribbons found, machine oil purchased and off we go - clak-clak-claketty-clak. 

With drones and securitization, is there any hope for the Internet?          

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Rolf Harris, Rupert Murdoch face regulation plus culture shift

Critical analysis is important because it explains how established social and economic practices can be overthrown.

In my experience at least, academics and intellectuals do not spend enough time thinking about how to change the rules in order to shift the boundaries that separate legally tolerated behaviour  from unlawful thuggery. If they do engage in research on this topic, we tend to see precious little progress on moving against illegality. There may be some changes afoot in identifying and acting against previously tolerated activities.

The last couple of years have seen subtle changes playing out in relation to two Australians living abroad that could throw some light on the way shifts in the application of law within legal structures are changing and thus change the game.

The two people in question are Rolf Harris and Rupert Murdoch. As pillars of establishment media they have been thrown into the spotlight. In Harris's case he was found to be engaged in criminal sexual activity against children. In Murdoch's case, Andy Coulson, former editor of the no longer operating tabloid newspaper News of the World was  engaged in criminal phone hacking. He was employed by Mr Murdoch's company, as were a number of others who have admitted to similar wrong doing or are still awaiting trial.

There are a couple of lines of inquiry to tease out here.

  • One has to do with the fact that both of the people in question are Australian expatriates.
  • Another has to do with their behaviour. 
  • A third has to do with the confluence of actions by the UK government and its regulators to suddenly bring them to public scrutiny and charge them or people in their organizations with crimes. 
  • The fourth line of inquiry has to do with what Australian men (in this case) believe is acceptable behaviour.
  • A fifth line of inquiry is whether these cases signal a much needed shift in tolerance for illegal behaviour generally.

First the Australians (I am also one). Consider the following questions:
Are Australians in the media inclined to practice criminal behaviour?
Are Australians likely to dismiss regulation in favour self-interest?

It is possible to draw the conclusion that the Harris and Murdoch guilty verdicts are merely a matter of timing.

Another conclusion could be that Australians achieve recognition and global success by refusing to accept limits on behaviour placed by regulations in their new "home" countries. By breaking the rules, or just going about their business to gain international success, Australians break or break through, drawing on their Crocodile Dundee libertarian cultural default along the way.

Recall the 1986 film of the same name and the favored scene of "That's not a knife. That's a knife!" Croc This scene is instructive for the way the knife wielding Dundee wins the girl for his bravado, his macho charisma and his rough charm. These ear characteristics for which the unregulated individual is well regarded, and like Harris and Murdoch, these free spirits are two Australian risk takers, who win over the Americans and the English with their unpolished behaviour, their brazen charm and their accents.

Or consider the US advertisement for Outback Steakhouse: "No Rules. Just Right."

A more interesting philosophical question is this: is there wilful ignorance at work?

(I would not eat at a restaurant that was not regulated, if that meant the food was poorly prepared. The connotation for me in this restaurant's pitch is that regulation of the entire operation, including hygiene, is something they reject. It's the end of the libertarian line. GO AND WASH YOUR HANDS!)

Some critics will add that this ignorance is further mobilized as Australia is swamped with celebrity worship, uncritical consumerism and obsessive interest in all things American that appears to be solely about the economic good life and anti-regulation.

Australian media organizations feed this beast. They share with many others around the world the need for lists to fill up that otherwise white space on the magazine page. The list of Trusted People included Rolf Harris on the Readers Digest list of 100 Most Trusted People, which means name recognition for celebrity. Trusted People - Australia

Is the culture changing? Have rugged individuals like Harris and Murdoch or their organizations been brought to justice outside Australia? If so what does this say about public and private attitudes to particular types of previously tolerated behavior? Or behaviour that has been made public.

Under the headline "Rolf Harris's pantomime act should never have fooled us," Suzanne Moore
 writing in The Guardian suggested that there was one individual who mobilized action against Harris, the UK director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer.  Moore comments

"It was against a backdrop of a different Crown Prosecution Service, not some nebulous atmospheric change in the ..." writes Moore. The second part of that sentence is not in line with this blog post, while the first part suggests that there are too many officials working in regulatory organizations who do too little to defend the public interest by bringing charges.

Sometimes good things happen:

This week, after 10 years of pretending their was nothing wrong with their cars, General Motors in the US accepted Ken Feinberg's arrangements for multi-billion dollar settlements to families whose members were killed as a result of GM's behavior. Payment result from Feinberg

Similarly, BNP Paribas bank has agreed to pay an $8.9 billion fine to the US Department of Justice.  PNB Paribas No criminal charges were brought in this or other cases against banks making transactions for banned governments, such as Iran.

Harris and Murdoch are receiving penalties. Banks and auto manufacturers are being caught and brought to justice in not nearly enough numbers, but in numbers that suggest regulators are making some small headway.

Not an atmospheric change? Let's hope Suzanne Moore is wrong. Criticism please!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rupert Murdoch under scrutiny

As the UK phone hacking case draws to a close in the Old Bailey courtrooms, the story takes another direction that suggests more grist for the media studies mill.

In this twist, the news on 25 June 2014, that Scotland Yard had postponed interviewing Mr Murdoch but would follow up soon with an interview, suggests a change in the power landscape. Police to Interview Murdoch

The English establishment has generally tolerated News Corporation and its offshoots because he could be considered as sometimes helpful to their interests and often good for business. He supported most if not all British war excursions - most prominently the violent Malvinas / Falkland Islands interaction with Argentina - and was the maker of Prime Ministers from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair, and as always, his enterprises made money.

The English establishment will put up with a lot of disturbance as long as their supremacy at the top of the local social order is not challenged. Phone hacking could even be tolerated as something akin to sport. As I have noted here previously, for media students (and the citizenry) the story was about the emergence of new media and the absence of regulations that were written to reflect the networked society.

While libertarians may defend the freedom of the Internet, resisting regulation as "government intrusion," their anti-statist approach rings hollow and would ring loud and clear if they were the ones to be surveilled, have their privacy invaded and selves mangled through the press.

When the UK police caught up with the phone hacking behaviour of journalists and editors at News of the World and Sun, Murdoch and his son James apologized in public at the Levenson Inquiry. "The most humble day of my life," said Murdoch senior.

The news that Murdoch may be interviewed by British police suggests that a new avenue of scrutiny has opened up, that is interviewing the owners and managers of media organizations. If this continues, the UK regulatory system may finally be maturing into a regulator of substance. Perhaps no longer will the English political establishment give the appearance of being either willing supplicants to News International or to being bullied by the Australian-American.  

If Murdoch senior is interviewed - an event whose content is unlikely to yield anything of substance - it will at least enliven debate about media and the abuse by owners of their power over public opinion.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Slavoj Zizek on Ukraine: musings on culture and the Internet

Slovinian academic, Slavoj Zizek published a typically brilliant piece of work in the London Review of Books about the crisis in Ukraine. "Barbarism with a Human Face," 8 May, 2014. LRB

Everyone can read it and rejoice in the historical knowledge Zizek brings to the discussion: especially the history of Lenin versus Stalin. More importantly, the analysis offers a picture of the drivers of the current situation, where the expansion of Russia into Ukraine is, according to Zizek, following a crypto-Stalinist model of  a unified Russia ("Socialism in one country revisited," perhaps?).

Zizek offers a mountain of evidence about the Leninist program of cultural independence for the regions that Stalin undid. Unfortunately, Zizek forgets the messy domain of culture.

Sure it may be preferable for Ukraine to be connected with progressive, liberal (that is "tolerant") Europe, rather than conservative, illiberal Slavic life. Every emancipated person still enjoying the benefits of the Enlightenment movement celebrates the wonders of human dignity against the eastern methods of culture, says this line of argument. (And one with which I agree). That hardly resolves the culture question, which is about a counter hegemonic move by many people in the Ukraine to align themselves with Russia because that is the culture with which they feel comfortable. Surely, a Leninist like Zizek should support such a claim?    

Add to the cloudy cultural mix the way the Internet generates "ideological grooming," and it is no surprise that political positions in conflicts like Ukraine and many others around the world harden in seconds, like lead poured out of a furnace. The theory is that the singularity of voices on the Internet consolidates opinion, especially when only one opinion is read or watched over and over. Thus culture becomes ideology by any other name - values are elaborated, reinforced, Balkanised in anti-liberal ways.      

Consequently, the news that the Russian Government has launched an Internet register for users, suggests that the uprisings in Ukraine have an Internet component.Russia Quietly Tightens Reins on Web with Bloggers Law

The report by the New York Times May 7, was about censorship of the web.

"The idea that the Internet was at best controlled anarchy and beyond any one nation’s control is fading globally amid determined attempts by more and more governments to tame the web. If innovations like Twitter were hailed as recently as the Arab uprisings as the new public square, governments like those in China, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran and now Russia are making it clear that they can deploy their tanks on virtual squares, too."

There is strong American bias in this report - that is, the implicit claim that free speech in America can be applied universally. There is nothing wrong with this Enlightenment approach, except that it is given a preferential treatment in the discussion, as if everyone knows and supports free speech, as an abstract objective, regardless of how it collides with political realities. This default position, is part of the cultural calculation as well.

As it turns out, the New York Times article is about censorship, which in the countries mentioned, is not about what Americans imagine to be free speech, but the more challenging matter, anti-government activity organized through the Internet. This is the case in China, which has a remarkably liberal policy to on-line media and communication, just as long as it is not political.

Consider a counter US example: Americans organizing anti-American activities which are considered terrorist acts-in-planning, have been blown to smithereens by drones. Those people have been blown up because other people working in institutions of the US Government read their emails and listen to their speeches verbally attacking the US. This surveillance leads to maximum use of deadly force by the US Government, without judicial due process - "extrajudicial killing." It has even been discussed in relation to the use of drones on American soil against Americans! Rand Paul debatesThis link between surveillance of digital communication and killing has been a controversial matter now for several years and presents an approach that is not in accordance with the popular US belief that everyone has speech rights. Congressional debate

Russia has a tradition - contrary to many Western approaches - that government can be authoritarian in its practices. From the Tsars to Stalin to President Putin. This is Russian culture. It is not Enlightenment culture, as preached or practised in the west, but something quite different. (This is why Zizek quotes Lenin on the vast amount of "spadework" needed to bring Russia into Western Europe.)

Would it be possible to say that US Government surveillance of citizens is Puritan culture revisited, an approach that predates Enlightenment?

The relationship between Zizek's Leninist history, the Russian Internet register and US approaches to free speech are to be found in the messy stuff of culture, to which there are few clear answers except the need for tolerance of many cultures. But that hardly helps anything.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Internet Dimensions - Alcatel-Lucent projections + Bell Labs return

The Alcatel-Lucent Joint Ordinary and Extraordinary Shareholders Meeting scheduled for Paris on May 8, 2014, makes instructive reading for many reasons: the company continues to be slow to innovate and barely keeps up with its competitors; there are massive debts, profit seems unlikely to be a strong point of this year; the European economy has not allowed the firm to leap onto new initiatives and unfortunately it must look to the US for sales. The 8.1 percent increase in wireless access division activity was good news for 2013.

Many people were part of the companies Alcatel and Lucent in the late 1980s into 2002, as the US and global telecommunication markets were liberalised. Those people enjoyed the spoils of the telecoms boom followed by the bursting Internet bubble. The latter had little to recommend it!

The company includes some of its own analysis into the projected size of the digital technology population. Two data sets make eye-boggling repeating:

  • by 2017 3.9 billion people are expected to be on line. This is a 720% increase from 2012.
  • Between 2012 and 2017 there will be a 440% increase in data centre traffic.

Finally, to reinforce the importance of the change in the dimensions of the Internet, Alcatel-Lucent has announced that it is significantly increasing its research capability. The page 18 paragraph begins with the following phrase: "refocus and unlock innovation." It is going to be a "new engagement model for Bell Labs Research," to move it "closer to the portfolio life cycle." Yes that's right, Bell Labs is back!

The outcome may be to offer more granularity to the firm's understanding of the growth of the Internet, particularly knowledge about the subsets of users and the fragmentation of applications.

For  media analysts, the report suggests a continuing huge move to digital stuff and not just big data. It means more innovation theory is required.  


Thursday, April 3, 2014

New Corporation, The Guardian, Public Media: trends

Importantly for public policy analysts,news about News Corporation is comprehensively reported in The Guardian. This liberal-left newspaper, now with electronic sites in the UK, the US and Australia and online readership of up to 10 million daily, has an interest in circulating information about public media, even while it is a private company.
It's holdings are complicated. The Guardian was based on a model initiated as the Scott Trust, which until 2008 provided security to the firm. In line with commercial pressures and privatization generally, the 2008 move away from the Trust was market centric. Wikipedia Short version The shift to a Limited arrangement for The Guardian financial structure put the paper more directly into the market space, thereby privileging competition and reducing its philosophical role as a public good. Little or no profit concerns gave way to a lot of profit / performance concerns.  
History determines two trajectories that are part of The Guardian's orientation: 1. As a quality liberal newspaper The Guardian comprehensively reports on the media; 2. The Guardian is in a survivalist competition with News Corporation, which is personalised around the Murdoch Family, mostly the grand per Rupert Murdoch.
Reports on News Corporation's behavior in Australia have been consistently strong, as noted on occasion in this blog.   February 2014, December 2012
A report on April 1, was not an April Fool's joke. It offered a detailed exploration of the conflict that has emerged in Australia between public interest / liberal media and News Corporation. The opportunity to unpack that collision is the kind of reportage that has become a key component of The Guardian's recent traction in Australia and earlier, in its coverage of the News of the World hacking scandal - a News Corporation story par excellence.
The news report, "Mark Scott: News Corp Papers Never More Aggressive Than Now,"  took as its ammunition a presentation by Mark Scott the Managing Director of the Australia Broadcasting Corporation at The Centrer for Advancing Journalism at The University of Melbourne. Scott report
There are excellent critiques of News and their domination of the Australian market. The real story is about monopoly practices and how some media outlets in Australian capital cities are open to control by News newspapers: especially Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart. For access to the advertising pipeline, being the only newspaper in town offers excellent sources of revenue to the newspaper. Monopoly in this sense is great - if you are the monopolist!
Monopoly practices are complicated when the media layer is thrown into the mix. As News has argued in the past, there is not really a monopoly because of the Internet.
Perhaps Kim Williams should now be seen as the "poor boy" who was sent to do his bosses bidding, arguing this line.
He was CEO of News Corporation in Australia until just before the last Australian Federal election, and did himself no good when he shilled this line of argument: "The internet makes all sorts of news available ergo there is no monopoly, there are other news sources everywhere." Running this line in response to the Australian Independent Media Inquiry recommendation for a News Media Council (a kind of Review Board for balanced content and coverage) was irritating at best for those critics who saw monopoly practices at work, and absolutely inexcusable for democrats who wanted traditionalist non-ideological news.
(Some people still believe in objectivity in news coverage...As a student of journalism at The University of Queensland in the late 1970s, we were already talking about the problem with that approach.)
What should media analysts make of Mark Scott's comments?
A. As a conservative, his comments indicate concern about News Corporation's business practices from inside the business community.
B. The report indicates that a line has been crossed, where criticism of liberal and public media in Australia is now part of the News Corporation approach.
C. Models of media management are rapidly changing under the combined weight of News Corp's aggressive  push to maximise its market reach. (See Scott's comments on Fox in the US and market segmentation, as a business case).
D. Ideological forces and self interest are becoming more conspicuous thanks to Murdoch.
E. The Internet continues to remake news media.
F. Looking at News Corporation's news coverage, it magnifies its audience interests to the detriment of other opinions, by directing the audience from Fox TV to News Corporation newspapers to its own Internet sites. In Uprising I referred to this as "ideological grooming."
G. Australia offers special conditions in its political economy. The News Corp. Wall Street Journal is a different newspaper to Murdoch-owned media outfits in Australia and the UK...
The Guardian is an important source of information and analysis about News Corporation. It's view is helpful for researchers seeking to understand the new media ecosystem.
Media studies gets more exciting with the Internet.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Stopping social media - Is this evidence of its impact?

Speaking at Dublin City University in February 2014, my presentation was titled: "Uprising: What happens next?"

I addressed the political chaos in Egypt where reports of the influence of Social Media and the impact of the Internet have been strong. In my view Social Media has been generating hyper-fragmentation among interest groups in society, giving rise to "ideological grooming" which continues apace.

Researchers are notoriously brave or reckless in theorizing technological determinism in the quest for democracy. Count me in that lot.

Now there is evidence of real impacts as opposed to marketing claims from techo-boosters parading as researchers - I know the terrain is complex, but the point is worth making less researchers become corporate shills. (definition of shill: a person who publicizes or praises something or someone for reasons of self-interest, personal profit, or friendship or loyalty).

Turkey Prime Minister quote:

"We are determined on this subject. We will not leave this nation at the mercy of YouTube and Facebook," Erdo─čan said in an interview late on Thursday with the Turkish broadcaster ATV. "We will take the necessary steps in the strongest way."

Read the report here. Stopping social media in Turkey

Then this from SXSW -

"Eric Schmidt to dictators: 'You don’t turn off the internet: you infiltrate it'."

The pursuit of televisual happiness: Public interest, net neutrality, regulation

Significantly serious claims have been made following the announcement that Comcast is planning to buy up and consolidate large chunks of the broadband infrastructure by purchasing Time-Warner for $45 bn. The result is likely to be new price regimes for its customers. ZDNet  The commercial imperatives of Comcast will provoke, say the critics, the end of net neutrality, as Comcast plays favorites with its preferred content providers - mostly NBC-Universal and (maybe) Time-Warner, which it owns or will own. Ah, the luxury of vertical integration.

Here is the snap-shot picture from ZD-Net's Larry Dignan.


That's part of the business case.

Content providers and public interest activists are outspoken about the ability of Comcast to control the cost and speed of content from innovators such as Netflix and Google, which rely on the cable and internet providers to get their programs to consumers.

The larger point is this: the national communication infrastructure is changing. In fact, it may be accurate to say it is disappearing.

And why? The Internet is the vehicle by which national systems of regulation have been turned on their heads. Historically, as I  showed in Uprising, the business interests of the computer industry operated in an unregulated space. As digital switching devices were gradually incorporated into the telecommunications voice network, the computer industry brought their business approaches to telephony. They expressed an unregulated, market-first approach, not a public interest orientation. The shift away from regulation toward a kind of cowboy communication, where the guy with the fastest business proposition won, was undertaken in a series of commercially driven moves to deregulate. (The Computer Inquiries, 1974, 1984, 1994.) Like ranchers, or silver and gold miners in the wild west, small chunks of the vast telecommunication enterprise could be claimed by entrepreneurs, in a winner-take-all shoot out for digital freedom. ("Information just wants to be free.") Thus the end of the regulated national infrastructure. Thus innovation agility in the market place obsession in computer technology which drives Silicon Valley and its progeny.

If you don't have regulation with a centrally located legal code, you cannot have a national infrastructure in the public interest.

In short, the infrastructure of the US national telecommunication network overseen by national regulators such as the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has been gradually made redundant against the business logic of American free enterprise.  Originally, FCC regulations were to make voice services universal and affordable - to bring together the entire nation. (Media and journalism academic James Carey showed in Communication as Culture (1989) that the national culture was embodied within communication). Slowly, consistently, (regulated) telecommunication services (voice telephony) became (unregulated) information services (Internet).

With the Comcast acquisition and opposition to it, there is every reason to believe old regulatory theory will be applied to keep the content flowing and to make us happy. The Guardian reported results from a court case, noting that the court "reaffirm[ed] that the commission had authority to regulate broadband access under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the FCC will use that authority to review how it can bring back non-discrimination and no-blocking regulations while complying with the order." Italics added.

Bringing back non-discrimination and non-blocking is a way to guarantee televisual equality, in the constructivist language of mainstream US law.

Here's the thing: Everyone agrees that consumers should be happy and nothing is more unhappy-making than not being able to get your favorite TV program. This is an important cultural aspect of telecommunication policy making - the pursuit of televisual happiness. (In the 1936 Telecommunication Act it was the pursuit of audio-telephone happiness.)

Cultural aspects of telecommunication policy express the core of American values, constitutionally codified in that telling, yet ambiguous phrase, "the pursuit of happiness." My view is that happiness as conceived in this regard is unattainable, which is why the phrase is so perfect. It is in the "pursuit" that American culture revels, not the realisation of happiness.

Customers, end-users, will probably have the costs of content of the new Comcast network passed to them. The possibility here is that the price tiering that already exists based on end-users ability to pay, will become more segmented. This is what stands out in the ZDNet report and the Comcast case - how quickly this deal will be profitable as costs are passed to consumers who will pay up, while the business costs of both companies are reduced through the merger and reduction of competition. (Comcast reports EBITDA margins of 41.1% and Time-Warner 36.1%. It's a good business!)

Those in wealthy neighbourhoods and cities will: a. have the ability to pay - be able to accept the cost increases; b. have the infrastructure in their neighborhoods because they are the neighborhoods where people can pay the higher fees. (Quick question on the relationship of the national infrastructure to national culture: how many people are watching HBO specials in minority and poor  neighborhoods, where HBO is not part of broadcast television or basic cable? This split needs more discussion: the culture of the upper middle class and the other.)

There is a third consideration for public interest reasons: the Federal Communication Commission has signalled the introduction of regulations in the new vertically integrated scenario.FCC Chair on regulating The carriers, such as Verizon, hate this. And rightly so. Regulation undoes the cowboys, it can insist on the public interest which becomes a tool for public discourse about the infrastructure, the nation and culture.

One other matter of note: Watch the FCC and its opponents closely in the debate about reintroducing regulation. What happens in the FCC can translate into national infrastructure debates outside the US.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Strange data - Ukraine readers on the public interest

This week has been momentous for the Ukraine. In Europe - or at its doorstep - live ammunition has been used against protesters, killing perhaps hundreds.

And this week, more people than ever in Ukraine read my blog. It was the blog about public broadcasting and the public interest. It is 16 people so far, a tiny number. However the "surge" in readership suggests an interest in the relationship between the state and public broadcasters, between private interests and government.

This is the political economy of media.

There are differing sets of questions and concerns:

  • how government media institutions respond to vested interests; 
  • how public broadcasters respond to governments; 
  • and a third set of interests is what private media companies do. 
I have no idea what is happening in Ukraine, apart from US and international media coverage. Each reporter and source offers a perspective and many of them uncritically channel the views of those being interviewed. (In contrast, in the US, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) TV has camera footage from behind both the protesters and government police officers, which is a framing exercise indicating an attempt to offer viewers both sides of a complex story.)

Why is this framing important? Here is a guess that is not reflected in most media reports I have seen and heard: Ukraine is cursed with an unfortunate geography: close to Russia and its transformation and Slavic culture (closed and traditional) while also close to Western Europe and drawn to the west's social and economic approaches to governance and culture (open and disruptive).

How could public interests be served by broadcasters in such a cauldron of competing cultural interests? I suspect this is the pressing issue for policy makers in a country that is currently tending towards eastern styles of autocracy, while looking to the west for liberal models of development and democracy.

To readers in Ukraine - please stay the course in pursuing the public interest. It will probably be a model that I don't recognise because there is no single model of the public interest and public broadcasting. Every nation needs its own national broadcasting system to suit its democratic purposes.      

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Is the public interest served by public broadcasting?

IN the past couple of  months several news articles and print media discussion pieces have assessed moves against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) the national public broadcaster. Late in January, the ABC's journalism was called into question by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for its coverage of refugees seeking to escape into Australian territorial waters from Indonesia. Abbott statements

It was a nationalist-centric set of comments, is notable for the way it constructs the ABC's role as one that should offer preferential reportage of Australian interests:

"Prime Minister Tony Abbott has berated ABC News, arguing that it is taking ''everyone's side but Australia's'' and that journalists should give the navy the ''benefit of the doubt'' when it comes to claims of wrongdoing."

Following this outburst, and a somewhat less subtle one last year from Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who asked if the ABC was promoting the national interest. Bishop the role of public broadcasters has become a hot target for conservatives. The ideals of a public broadcaster like the ABC are independence and criticism, hallmarks of the modernist model of society.

The ABC is about to be reviewed by the Federal Government in an "efficiency study," following several accusations that the broadcaster if biased against the country and towards the left. Efficiency study  (In this scenario, the political left has been effectively  reconstructed in the public imagination by conservatives as liberal, creating the impression that liberalism - tolerance - should be strongly contested, even overturned). This case has been been promoted by conservative think tank IPA - an Australian privatisation protagonist, with close associations with Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation. Together these two institutions have  created a pincer movement influencing public opinion. It hardly qualifies as public opinion though, and needs to be  redefined when the opinion is singular or mono-tonal in its views.  Comment from IPA  

Inevitably, the ABC (and its privatised partner Special Broadcasting Service, SBS) will survive, having been suitably disciplined.

The move to curtail public broadcasting has not been restricted to Australia, with a 10% cut to National Public Radio (NPR) late in September 2013. NPR 10% staff cut  In the US there is consistent drip of negative commentary and political action against NPR and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), resulting in the steady loss of public funds from Congress for the broadcasters. Endless campaigns for donations and sponsor advertisements have become part of the flow from public broadcasters in the US. Symbolically, the public is reduced by the campaigns to endless requests for support of itself, to tell its non-commercial stories, to investigate, critique and report. One exception being college radio stations.

The moves against public broadcasting opens two related perspectives, which are obvious and will not be considered in detail here:
1. The public interest aspect of public broadcasting;
2. Organised private interests as opponents of public broadcasting

There is a larger point for media and communication scholars and users:  How to make sense of public broadcasting in the era of privatization.

This discussion is engaging for public interest theorists who believe in and support liberalism's core ideology, tolerance. The irony is that liberalism as applied to public broadcasting has shown itself to be a complicated beast. The tolerance that is at the centre of public broadcasting - the ideal of a diverse society fully represented and sustained by the national broadcaster, to paraphrase the founder of the BBC, Lord Reith - allows the intolerant to reject tolerance. In the public broadcasting present, tolerance for divergent views is treated with intolerance by opponents of tolerance.

This is a larger issue that hardly gets to the core of contemporary political economic theory, much less democratic visions of the relationship between the state and its citizens. The point is that any certainty about public broadcasting as a public good is open to questions that are driven by the private economic interests of for-profit media owners and political interests who (frankly) are intolerant. of diversity and difference.

The arguments are of interest to those people who seek to understand the new media and communications order in the internet era, because many of the arguments against public broadcasting emerge from internet-based libertarians. Namely, the Internet is a superior source for all news and information, it is ubiquitous, universal and open to all. Why take tax payers' money to fund public broadcasting when commercially viable internet providers can offer the same services?

Here is the IPA line, taken from the article cited above, which mirrors a News Corporation line:

"If there was ever a case for a taxpayer-funded state broadcaster, it doesn't exist today. Australians have at their fingertips access to more news from more varied sources than ever before. Online, every niche interest and point of view is well covered. And as private media companies continue to struggle with profitability, the continued lavish funding of the ABC only serves to undermine their business model further." 

Readers of this blog will be familiar with this line of argument from News Corporation. When the Australian Independent Media Inquiry (Finkelstein) recommended in February 2012, a News Media Council to offer a review of journalistic performance, News Corporation was keen to offer the argument "the Internet is the solution."  (Final Finkelstein Report)

Margaret Simmons from The University of Melbourne, Centre for Advanced Journalism offered a constructive summary of Finkelstein - which indicated key points in the debate. Yet her summary like many others failed to mention the gorilla in the room, the ideological master stroke of those people and organizations opposed to public broadcasting  - the Internet. (Margaret Simmons Summary). To add to this "gorilla" are questions about the nature of the public interest in a society without public broadcasting alternatives. More works needs to be undertaken to explore this ideological shift - that is, the Internet as private provider and a mechanism used to anchor arguments against public interest institutions. It is an important and complex discussion.

At other conjunctures, it is pretty simple. This brings News Corporation in its news configuration, not its television side, to the table. John Birmingham writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December, 2013, generated the headline "Simple as ABC: Murdoch out to crush ABC." Simple as ABC

Always always always there is power and money to be considered; the power of a conservative government in the short term, the wealth, power and interests of the Murdoch family and their media properties over the long arc.