Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Media, History and Truth

This morning I read an excellent comparative review of Nick Davies', Flat Earth News, (2008) and David Edwards' and David Cromwell's, Newspeak in the 21st Century, (2009) by Johnathon Cook, a free lance journalist based in Israel. While both books analyse the failures of corporate media, Cook's review argues persuasively in favour of Edward's and Cromwell's explanations for the failure building on Chomsky's 'propoganda model of media control. Chomsky et al argue that the failure of mainstream media to provide a diversity of ideas and opinions is structural and systematic. The media, they argue, presents a particular world view not through the direct exercise of power or any greta conspiracies but simply by “the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors' and working journalists' internalisation of [elite] priorities and definitions of newsworthiness". In this model, the media's role is not to present the truth but to promote the interests of the powerful corporations that dominate our society.

In exploring this model, Cook develops the idea of the "climate of assumptions" that is shared by all western media whatever their ostensible political orientations around a discussion of the media coverage of the Iraq war and of climate change. In the case of Iraq, for example, it is argued that any media crticism 'is almost entirely restricted to the [UK] government’s handling of the details of the war rather than questioning the war’s goals or the motives of those who led it."

While still thinking about this climate of assumptions I read the Centre of Indepenent Studies recent report Revisiting Indigenous Education. This is a report I disagree with on many grounds but it is the way it works within another climate of assumptions that I want to explore. Among the 'findings' (assumptions) of this report is the simple statement that '[s]tudents must meet NAPLAN English literacy standards to be able to work and participate in society' (p. 10).

The need for English literacy and the need to be able to work and participate in society are uncontested assumptions underpinning all public debate around Aboriginal affairs and certainly many Aboriginal people do want these things. On the other hand there are many Aboriginal people who want no part of Australian society whcih raises a critical question that is simply not able to be asked in the mainstream media: do Aboriginal people, particularly those in remote communities, have a right to financial and other support from the Australian state if they have no wish to participate in the Australian nation?

From within the assumptions of Australian society the clear answer is no. I would like to suggest that this may be due to a 'propoganda model of public history control.' The main form of public history control in Australia has been silence as pointed out by Stanner forty years ago and more recently by John Pilger when accepting the Sydney Peace prize whcih can be seen as video or read as transcript. It is a silence I am reminded of when students in my Indigenous Studies classes ask aloud why they were not taught the history of Australian colinization at school. It is a silence that must be broken before we consider recomendations from the Centre for Independent Studies to close schools in remote community and force Aboriginal people even further off their country so that they might 'participate in society.'

There are now many histories available that tell the sorry story of the Australian fronteir and Tony Roberts' article in the November 2009 edition of The Monthly tells the story of the Gulf Country in the Northern Territory in the late ninteeth century in great detail. Most disturbingly it demonstrates the active involvement of the government in far removed Adelaide in actions that today would be described as crimes against humanity and in their day were capital crimes by their own laws. The story is of an entirely successful society brutally removed from their country so that new commers could graze cattle without interference. The history that follows includes what amounts to slavery, social exclusion, further removal from country, the breaking up of families and one of the highest incarceration rates in the world (something still going on, although this story is from Western Australia). At the same time the Australian state has reaped huge mineral and agricutural wealth from the land taken by force.

I am not advocating anything on behalf of the Aboriginal communties of the Northern Territory; it is not for me to speak on their behalf. I am questioning the media and public policy assumption that participation in Australian society is a desirable thing. An alternative might be for the Australian state to pay full reparations and compensation for past wrongs and to withdraw from the territory. It is an alternative, however, that is simply not imaginable from within the public climate of assumptions about the nature of Australian history.

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