Journalism, international affairs and the new information order
10 Sep 2018|

The shifting role of international media is akin to the changing-times tale told by the university economics professor retiring after 40 years of teaching.

At his farewell, the prof confessed that for those four decades he’d set exactly the same questions in the economics exam each year.

Wasn’t that boring as well as lazy?

‘Ah! That’s the point’, he explained. ‘The exam questions stayed the same, but every decade the correct answers changed!’

And that’s the story of the media in international affairs over the past 50 years. The questions—the obsessions—still tend to rhyme. Problem is, the correct answers—the journo’s reality—keeps transforming.

I used to joke that I’d had a wonderful hack career in two vanishing fields of journalism: starting on a broadsheet afternoon newspaper and then shifting to shortwave broadcasting. I’ve now added a third form that’s fading, or let’s hope being remade: foreign correspondent.

When I got into shortwave broadcasting to the South Pacific and Southeast Asia in the 1970s, Western media were at the height of their powers, as they had been for decades. Four major news agencies, based in London, Paris and New York, drove 80% of global news. Media, movies and advertising around the world came with an American flavour.

The developing world had started pushing back, through UNESCO, seeking what was called ‘the new world information order’.

The UNESCO call was for an end to news hegemony and a shift to information equity and equality. The new world information order was to be part of a broader new international economic order.

The new world information order drove a lot of conferences and was a wonderful platform for developing-country leaders and the non-aligned movement. But the remaking of world information flows UNESCO advocated never got going. The one clear result was that the United States and Britain withdrew from UNESCO.

Some of the shifts UNESCO pushed for did come to pass, but because of changing  trade flows, not information flows. Step forward what the World Bank dubbed the East Asian economic ‘miracle’. (That miracle report came out in 1993, and looked at what eight key Asian economies had achieved between 1965 and 1990.)

The miracle meant Asia got rich and powerful. And that’s where things started to get interesting for Australian reporters in Southeast Asia in the 1980s and 1990s.

The pushback, in big ways and small, was against Western media dominance and for what Asia was building.

It was in that period that Oz hacks actually had an impact on Australian diplomacy in Southeast Asia. Oh, for those long-gone days when reporting had the power to shift Australia’s diplomatic relations with Singapore or Malaysia or Indonesia.

I remember going to a closed conference in Canberra in 1991 with the foreign minister, Gareth Evans, and some of his officials where we argued/debated about the structure Evans was putting in place to enable the Australian government to formally disavow the work of Oz journalists if it was causing diplomatic difficulty.

The 1990s was the era of ‘Asian values’, driven by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, arguing that Asia’s success rested on Asian values and Asia didn’t have to play by Western rules—and, in particular, Asia didn’t have to put up with pesky foreign journalists.

The Asian values argument was picked up by Suharto in Indonesia and, to a lesser extent, by China and Vietnam. The strongmen of Asia had to be careful about insulting the US. Berating Oz journalists was a low-risk way to attack the white guys.

Suharto expelled the ABC correspondent from Jakarta in 1981 over Radio Australia’s reporting—especially by our Bahasa service—on East Timor. It took the ABC a decade to be readmitted. One of my jobs as the ABC’s Southeast Asia correspondent, based in Singapore, was to go to Jakarta to wave the flag—including the visit to the Department of Information for the ritual birching on how perfidious Australian journalists were.

Suharto centralised control of radio news bulletins—one national bulletin coming out of Jakarta ever hour—and had a strict system of daily ‘guidance’ to newspaper editors.

Malaysia and Singapore did their overt censorship at the airport gate: checking the International Herald Tribune, the Asian Wall Street Journal and the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review; blacking out offending articles or banning individual editions. It’s primitive compared to what China does today, but the intent was the same.

Television was CNN, the other American networks, and the ABC because its coverage in Asia was syndicated around the world through the Visnews cooperative. Shortwave came from the BBC and Radio Australia. So despite the Asian pushback Western norms still set the terms of much international coverage.

The 1998 Asian financial crisis was an end moment for a lot of things in East Asia: Suharto’s regime and the claim of distinctive Asian values that translated into economic success, plus the subsidiary argument against Western journalism.

Then the real revolution started.

The digital disruption arrived with the 21st century. For commercial media, advertising revenue no longer supports journalism. The ads and the reporting that were once part of the same package have been split.

The world still needs good journalism. But the gatekeeping role hacks and editors once played is in ruins. Digital citizens now have all the tools once held solely by the hacks.

The old gatekeeping truth was that journos couldn’t tell you what to think, but they could tell you what to think about. No more. Mark that as one of those answers that’s changed forever.