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John Keane Questions the Power of Silence



28 May 2012

What does the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill have in common?

Professor of Politics and Director of the Sydney Democracy Initiative, John Keane, will deliver his controversial and damning answer at the upcoming Insights 2012: Inaugural Lecture Series at the University of Sydney.

Keane's public lecture, entitled 'Silence, Power, Catastrophe: New Reasons Why Media and Democracy Matter in the Early Years of the Twenty-First Century', will present a cutting reflection on the recent spate of world disasters since 2007.

What are their common causes? What have been their effects? And what can society do to prevent more of them in the future?

According to Keane, these three cases are symptomatic of a wider pattern which he coins "mega-projects" - large scale, costly developments that have grown in size and influence over the past three decades.

"Mega-projects are risky adventures of power and they often feature a dictatorial managerial style, where employees are ruled by fear and operate within workplaces typically shrouded in silence produced by public relations," Keane explains.

"Yet all evidence points to the fact that if these mega-projects don't have inbuilt scrutiny and accountability mechanisms, they are destined to fail, often with catastrophic effects.

"When mega-projects stifle bad news by wrapping themselves in publicity they typically run over budget, take longer to complete, and have the potential to cause large-scale economic, environmental and human catastrophes," Keane says.

He warns that such operations also have grave ramifications for democratic processes in general, with governments "deeply implicated" in many mega-projects.

Keane's Insights lecture will consider the fundamental paradox: that in today's media-saturated societies, in which everything seems out in the open, there still exist sizeable pockets of silence and enclaves of unaccountable power that hold the potential to produce mass disasters.

He will argue that the only way to curb mega-projects' potentially disastrous effects is to "make a lot of noise", with particular significance for investigative journalists, independent monitory organisations and general citizen whistleblowers.

"We're living in a new era of large-scale catastrophes, whose causes and remedies demand bold new political thinking," Keane says.

"The uniquely 21st century idea of free communication is the only way to combat a mega-project's failure," Keane says. "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 points to the current Leveson inquiry into phone hacking at News International publications as a positive example of how mega-projects are no longer able to operate with absolute 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."

John Keane's "Silence, Power, Catastrophe: New Reasons Why Media and Democracy Matter in the Early Years of the Twenty-First 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.

Visit the Insights 2012: Inaugural Lecture Series event page for more information and the full list of program lectures.

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Contact: Emily Jones

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