The future, down under
Two legacies of British imperial rule in Australia are the extreme bias of libel laws and the absence of a constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech: The old face of Australia may have been white but the legal foundations of today’s multicultural Australia are as conducive to the assertion of state control as the colonial era laws (Official Secrets Acts on the British model, for example) still relied on in ex-colonies ranging from Singapore to Malaysia.
Since 9/11, Australia has led the way in having the most national security-reinforcing legislation in the developed world. This, to me, is what came as the biggest surprise to visiting Filipinos such as the group I recently joined for what the Australian Embassy termed a “Media Benchmarking Study” that took a four-person-strong Inquirer contingent and six other national and local journalists to Canberra and Sydney to meet a profoundly thought-provoking sampling of media practitioners and academics, all engaged in the favorite activity of the media, the study of itself.
While the British legacy may be hardly called liberal or democratic by American-oriented standards, it would be wrong to think Australia’s civil society and media are lacking in vigor; this is, after all, a country that abandoned its policy of remaining a white enclave in the 1970s and embarked on what is turning out to be a remarkable experiment in both instituting a multicultural democracy and one where the colonial past is being reckoned with in a slow but sustained manner.
This was made clear to us from the start in Canberra, which is what Quezon City was aiming to be, a modern government center establishing a new capital to replace the old colonial one (a project embraced by nations ranging from Brazil and its Brasília to, most recently, Malaysia and even Indonesia); by contrast we have no real capital, only ones being attempted through stealth, in Fort Bonifacio and New Clark City. Even as we’d toured the Australian Federal Parliament, with its nod to the Mother Parliament in London, with its green upholstery for the lower house and red for the Senate, echoing the lower and upper houses in the Palace of Westminster, we encountered, outside, a vigorous protest in defense of refugees fated to be deported; among the banners fluttering defiantly in the breeze was the black yellow and red aboriginal flag; here was a case of solidarity much more straightforward, perhaps, than the at times ambivalent attitude in some conservative quarters—among migrants.
And so the white supremacist of yesterday railing against the “Yellow Peril” in the 1980s might, today, in some instances find common cause with conservative Asians against today’s fashionable Other to denounce, say, Arabs. And yet overwhelmingly, Australians of all colors are supportive of their emerging multicultural identity. Theirs is a society that is not yet collectively addicted to social media, so that less than half, according to some estimates, rely on social media for their news; instead, as we discovered talking to one managing editor, a newspaper can increase circulation by providing reliable news during the pandemic; and where newspapers, as a whole, remain bigger players in the media landscape than here.
If there was one shortcoming of our collective experience, it was that we didn’t spend more time exploring, understanding, and learning these strategies used with success, by our peers. The challenges represented by demographics (a younger population no longer in the habit of paying full attention to the news), and economics (the collapse of old advertising models) have been met by modifying newsroom practices (editors no longer rule the roost; taking their place are producers working with empowered reporters), and taking the fight to the disruptors of the media economy: Google and Meta have ended up being compelled to provide a revenue stream to the media by way of compensation for their lost income. How we would have wanted to learn more about this, in particular!
Just as media practitioners and academics and even officials were eager to demonstrate solidarity and support for Philippine media, so, too, was it reassuring to talk to, and understand how these individuals in their own ways have been wrestling with questions increasingly boldly, aggressively, and often, in a hostile manner, asked of media practitioners here: What gives you, the broadcast or print media person, either the right or the confidence, to question authority or generally poke your noses into the goings-on of society? When anyone can claim to be a journalist (not least, by being able to wield the tools and amass the following to claim a large audience), where does that leave the media practitioners?
In one interaction we received a challenging answer: The demise of so many media outfits means affiliation alone can no longer distinguish who is a journalist; the only thing that can distinguish who is a journalist is a reference to three things: first, signing on to a code of conduct; second, demonstrating, through your body of work, your adherence to that code of conduct; third, and this remains the trickiest because most difficult to do, accreditation by a professional body that can be appealed to, and which can continuously reevaluate, that accreditation. This, of course, prefers the reporter and the editor; it would mean the end of considering opinion writers as journalists (they might, instead, like all citizens, rely upon freedom of expression). This proposal accepts the ferociousness of criticisms aimed at the media, in a sense expanding who can be considered a journalist, while raising the bar on the calling.
From the interplay of government and media, and both with the public, to the effects of technological disruption in the economic and social sense, created by social media, to the reconciliation mechanisms that must produce, as their end result, the recalibration of the power relationships of the oldest Australians—the aboriginal First Nations—the first waves of settlers, and the more recent arrivals, all the while trying to grasp what, exactly, the country’s role should be in the region: In one week, this crash course, in a domestic and regional, even global soul searching and debate of rising power, provides a tantalizing glimpse into the possibility of future engagements.
President Marcos Jr. boldly declared, some months back, that Australia should become part of Asean. The idea is hardly laughable now, though it was once: the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization withered on the vine while today, the country is one of only two nations with whom we have visiting forces agreements.