I lit a match in Vienna tonight, it caused a fire in New York… Press freedom is dead, long live academic freedom

Let us put down our curly wigs and tricorn hats, friends: freedom of the press is nonsense.  It has always been nonsense.  It will always be nonsense.  Journalism is bourgeois entertainment for the privileged chattering classes.

Every slogan we hear about why the press is necessary is dopey.  On Media Watch on Monday, Paul Barry had an enormous sulk about media ownership laws.  ‘Boohoo!’ he complained, ‘One media company was buying another media company and that would be bad for Australia.’  But he could never explain why it would be bad.

Allow us to consider a slightly different question: why do we believe that journalism is an important, essential, very good thing for a democratic society?  The answer is quite simple: because media companies keep telling us so.  But they’re the group of people you should trust the least.  They have an interest in protecting their business model, and — just like vitamin companies keep telling us that we’re not getting enough vitamins, and pharmaceutical companies keep telling us that we need to stockpile more of their drugs — media companies are always going to tell us that we need to protect media companies.

It’s from this pessimistic angle that I want to argue to propositions.  The first is that we should instead consider academia to be the real fourth estate of democracy.  The second is that pessimistic attitudes towards participating journalism are unwarranted and unhelpful.

We currently have more protections for journalists than we do for academics.  It’s really weird, and it makes no sense.  On the one hand, we have media companies who have a profit motive to keep us outraged, to affect an air of trustworthiness (even if they don’t actually know what they’re talking about), and to keep us entertained rather than informed.  There is very little incentive to give us news dispassionately.  There is absolutely no incentive to challenge our beliefs, or to make us feel like we simply don’t understand things.  The best way to be a columnist is to either tell your audience what they want to hear (that they’re smart), or tell them something that they really don’t want to hear (that you should get outraged and share this link with your friends).

Universities have no such incentives.  They’re paid by tax payers to be custodians of culture, information, and inquiry.  There are few incentives to deceive (this is less true for STEM than for HASS, true).  And, as recent studies of journal impact have shown us, academics are free to publish things even if no other human being outside of the editorial committee ever reads it.

So why aren’t there more legislative protections for academic freedom?  Let the media companies run rampant with sensationalist pseudo-news, but let us sue them unto the seventh generation and take away their shield laws.  Let’s provide our universities with privileged access to government data and information, and be done with the Freedom of Information Act (yet another way that taxpayers subsidise media companies).

Sure, you’d need to watch that universities didn’t start abusing this new found power, but at least we would know that they wouldn’t abused the power for economic advantage.

It’s the perfect division of labour.  Media companies can get on with replacing the 6 o’clock news with cat videos from YouTube (this would already have happened if there weren’t legislative compulsions to show news content), and Australian universities can prosecute their mission of keeping Australian society informed.

Having just thoroughly and comprehensively demolished your 17th Century views of the role of the press, Mr Kane, let me instead turn to the question of who should be involved in the press: many people.  I think that media ownership restrictions should be abolished.  They are an absurd relic of an ancient era when the Internet didn’t exist.

The real problem is not that media companies keep merging into one hell-beast, but that it is increasingly difficult for new voices to enter the scene if they’re not backed by foreign money.  The advantage of blogs and Twitter and the various forms of new media is that the entry costs are reduced.  The disadvantage is that there’s a lot of noise and new players struggle to attract an audience.

But this is why the pessimism is unwarranted.  New voices can only be found if people do produce material that a few dozen people might like and share with others.  It’s through forming those networks that you can create opportunities to build the next generation of media outlets.  Further, it’s through those outlets that you get critique and can work out how to improve as a writer.  I use this blog to rehearse arguments, for example.  When I have to go and be a grown up and write something more formally, I don’t have to start with a blank sheet of butcher’s paper.  The ideas are already there.  I’ve already got most of the way through ironing out the clunky expressions.  The ideas are second or third generation, rather than fresh and untested.

Pessimism that the system is stacked against improvement isn’t helpful because it turns away people who might be part of a better system, if only they formed the networks and collaborated with each other.

This post, for example, is a mess of two tensions.  On the one hand, press freedom should be scrapped in favour of developing academic freedom.  But, on the other, we need storytellers and public intellectuals who are going to replace the dead wood — or renew the old growth.  Finding a way to build this into a coherent whole is going to be an exciting challenge.

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One thought on “I lit a match in Vienna tonight, it caused a fire in New York… Press freedom is dead, long live academic freedom

  1. Pingback: Perhaps the strange ones in the dome can lend us a book we can read up alone… Funding experts | Only The Sangfroid

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