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Silence, power, catastrophe: why media and democracy matter in the 21st century


30 May 2012

Professor John Keane: "When corporations stifle bad news by wrapping themselves in publicity they have the potential to cause large-scale economic, environmental and human catastrophes."
Professor John Keane: "When corporations stifle bad news by wrapping themselves in publicity they have the potential to cause large-scale economic, environmental and human catastrophes."

In a lecture this Thursday night (31 May), Professor John Keane will call for the cracking open of the corporate culture of public-relations-induced silence that has caused human loss, and environmental and financial disasters.

Keane, a Professor of Politics from the University of Sydney, says investigative and citizen journalists, independent monitoring organisations and other whistleblowers all have a role to play.

Keane will critique the recent spate of disasters since 2007, including the collapse of the Lehman Brothers, the BP Deepwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.

In his lecture 'Silence, power, catastrophe: new reasons why media and democracy matter in the early years of the 21st Century', Keane will argue these cases are symptomatic of the increasing size and influence of organisations he calls "mega-projects".

"These projects are risky adventures of power that often feature a dictatorial managerial style where employees are ruled by fear and operate within workplaces typically shrouded in silence that has been produced by public relations," Keane said.

"When corporations stifle bad news by wrapping themselves in publicity they have the potential to cause large-scale economic, environmental and human catastrophes.

"The uniquely 21st century idea of free communication is the only way to combat a mega-project's failure," Keane said. "It's only through providing a culture of bold openness, in which ideas flow freely from the bottom to the top, that mega-project disasters can be prevented in future."

Keane said evidence suggests these organisations do not have inbuilt scrutiny and accountability mechanisms, so they are destined to fail, often with catastrophic effects.

Keane points to the UK's current Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking at News International of how corporations are no longer able to operate with impunity.

"Historians will report that the News International Company went under for this reason - the silences that act like a cancer, eating away the organisation from the inside."

Keane's lecture 'Silence, Power, Catastrophe: New Reasons Why Media and Democracy Matter in the Early Years of the 21st Century' lecture will be delivered as part of the Insights 2012: Inaugural Lecture Series, presented by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.


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Media enquiries: Jacqueline Chowns, 02 9036 5404, 0434 605 018, jacqueline.chowns@sydney.edu.au

Emily Jones, 02 9114 1961, emily.jones@sydney.edu.au