Bugger The Journalism: The Slow Death Of Critical Thinking In Australia


The Australian Research Council’s latest funding round is rich on gadgets, but a wasteland when it comes to social justice projects and big ideas. Dr Jake Lynch explains.

Am I alone in my disquiet at the recently published list of ‘Discovery Projects’ to be funded by the Australian Research Council for commencement in 2017?

Interest declared: this is a bona fide case of sour grapes, since my own proposal was not only unfunded, but rated in the bottom 25 per cent of unsuccessful applications in my field.

Parsing the list of successful ones, however, I am bound to ask: what field? My designated Field of Research Code, from the government’s published list, is Journalism Studies. And yet, of 630 funded projects, the number in Journalism Studies is… zero. Yes, that’s right: the square root of naff all.

This is an age in which it is widely acknowledged, in scholarly and policy-making communities, that – in the words of the influential Communications scholar, Manuel Castells – the “public sphere… [has]shift[ed]… from the institutional realm to the new communication space”. The latter makes for more multifarious mediascapes than of yore; however it is equally widely acknowledged, as Robert A Hackett puts it, that journalism is still the “most important story-telling genre” in them.

Moreover, the critical study of journalism is, it might be thought, of particular importance here. Why? On vital global issues, Australia – in its diplomacy, or in the dominant mainstream of its political discourse – tends to sit way out on the extreme right-wing fringe of global political opinion.

What issues? Responses to refugees and asylum seekers would be top of many people’s list right now. Canberra’s signature combination of heedlessness and deceit over anthropogenic climate change is another; then, one-eyed partisanship in the Israel-Palestine conflict could be name-checked.

If that’s not enough, try the lamentable state of relations with Indigenous people, including world-leading rates of incarceration; attempts on the world stage to sabotage multilateral initiatives from investigating war-crimes allegations in Sri Lanka, to a treaty banning nuclear weapons; a kneejerk recourse to the use of military force in response to conflicts and crises; officially sanctioned scapegoating of minorities, from Muslims to Aborigines, and the near-maniacal compulsion to mow down barriers to capital accumulation, from a modest proposed mining tax to so-called “penalty rates” of pay for the poor souls whose job it is to serve coffee on a Sunday morning.

In all these areas, there is at least embryonic evidence – and, in some, strong evidence – that Australia is leading Australians in directions they do not want to go.

There are significant gaps – in some cases, a chasm – between public opinion on the one hand, and political opinion on the other. So, what interferes in Australia’s mediatized public sphere, to reduce us to what journalist and film-maker, John Pilger has called a “mortuary democracy”, incapable of operationalising the progressive instincts of so many of our fellow citizens?

Why not start with the country’s journalism? Near-unique in wealthy developed countries is our deadly combination of dominance by a tiny number of commercial interests; at-best vestigial regulation of news and current affairs on radio and television, and intolerable political pressure on the public broadcaster. New Matilda is a point of light, of course – but its most devoted fans would accept that it is isolated indeed.

Scan the webpage setting out the abstracts of the 630 Discovery Projects funded by the ARC and you will search in vain for any mention of the issues listed above. There’s no “journalism”, as already established. “Palestine”? You must be kidding. “Nuclear weapons”? Nada. OK, what about “asylum seekers”? Nope. “Islamophobia”? Nothing there either.

Where Aboriginal people are mentioned, it tends to be in the context of worthy aims such as improving literacy outcomes for school students, or benefiting the health and well-being of Aboriginal women. What about the structural and systemic factors bearing down on the educational and health prospects of Aboriginal people in today’s Australia?

Factors that construct and maintain gradients of wealth and power which benefit the settler community at their expense? No – nothing there, either.

Instead, there is a disturbingly high incidence of projects that appear to be devoted to the invention of widgets of one kind or another, including “engineering consultancy” and “programmable chips”, but also ways to support Australian success in “globalised markets” and to “help organisations… to exploit social media”.

It’s a perfectly proper function of academic research funding, of course, to extend Australia’s innovative capacity. And none of the foregoing comments should be interpreted as casting the slightest aspersion on the quality or importance of individual colleagues’ work that is being funded.

Viewed as a whole, however, the ARC list is strongly reminiscent of Robert W Cox’s famous critique of “problem-solving” as an approach to scholarly inquiry, which:

Takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships and the institutions into which they are organised, as the given framework for action. The general aim of problem-solving is to make those relationships and institutions work smoothly by dealing effectively with particular sources of trouble.

The possibility that these self-same relationships and institutions may be the source of trouble, and therefore in need of radical reform, appears to be foreclosed in the ARC’s universe.

Journalism Studies is just one field in which such perspectives could be developed and projected, of course.

Let this complaint not be construed as mere special pleading. And there would be little point in keeping any insights so gleaned within the academy – publicly funded research should lead to demonstrable public benefits.

That category, though, must include added capacity to think critically about where we are heading, as a society; how it compares with where we want to go – and what to change, and how to change it, if we want to switch direction.

That might not be of interest to the present Federal Government, but it is of interest to Australia. And it should be better reflected in funding decisions by the ARC.


Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney; an Executive Member of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association. He is also a Senior Research Fellow of the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg.