Journalists can give peace a chance

15 October 2008

Norwegian academic Johan Galtung, the "father of peace studies", came up with some of its key concepts such as structural violence and positive peace. Another is peace journalism, and that's where I came in, after meeting Galtung when working as a journalist just over ten years ago.

Peace journalism is a way of reporting conflicts which finds ways to explore backgrounds and contexts, looks round the edges of self-serving representations and definitions - such as war propaganda - and seeks out and highlights peace initiatives from whatever quarter. Peace journalism is when editors and reporters make choices - about what to report, and how to report it - that create opportunities for society at large to consider and value non-violent responses to conflict.

It's not just about 'reporting peace', and neither is it trying to turn journalism into something else. If society is provided with such opportunities, and decides that, after all, it prefers violent responses, there is nothing else journalism can do about it, while remaining journalism.

But Galtung's other landmark concept is the conventionality of conflict coverage, put forward in his essay, The Structure of Foreign News, in 1965. The general drift of news is such, in most places at most times, as to privilege war over peace. To give peace a chance, there is a place for a deliberate strategy.

Galtung's essay was one of a clutch of early structuralist texts that also included Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Published in 1962, the book popularised the phrase, "paradigm shift". These days the term has become a cliché - we can have a paradigm shift when we change our minds at the coffee counter and order a latte instead of a cappuccino. And, as I always advise my students, one should avoid clichés like the plague.

But a shift is currently under way which can be characterised as a "crisis of military legitimacy". The media of the US and allied countries, including Australia, were partly to blame for the invasion of Iraq. But the rapid and conspicuous unravelling of propaganda can be chalked up on the other side of the balance sheet.

We know, because journalists have told us, that there never were any "weapons of mass destruction"; that nobody ever really thought there were; that the plot for the war, and a takeover of Iraq's oil industry, was hatched by the Bush Administration long before the 9/11 attacks and that the Blair government in Britain, to name but one, secretly promised to join in long before any semblance of 'debate' got under way.

In Kuhn's classic account, a new paradigm is called for when anomalies proliferate under the old one, and the present conjuncture is foregrounding such anomalies. America, of all countries, tells us - in statements from Condoleezza Rice and John McCain - that "countries do not invade other countries" in connection with events in the southern Caucasus. And there was no shortage of reminders that South Ossetia was to Georgia, was to Russia, as Kosovo was to Serbia, was to NATO. Who can persuade us to believe absurdities can persuade us to commit atrocities, Voltaire said, but what if we disbelieve them?

For the US - or, I should say, for the American military-industrial complex - this is bad news. The Pentagon is a war machine, and it needs wars to survive and grow. Wars these days tend to be dressed up as 'humanitarian intervention' or a necessary precursor to 'nation-building' (the previous formulation was to uphold the 'new world order'). It corresponds to one of six 'screens' identified in a famous piece of research titled, When Americans Favor the Use of Force - that a 'visionary objective' is necessary to obtain public support.

Another is the presence of allies to share the risk and costs - Americans don't want to go it alone. The exposure of professed visionary objectives as false pretexts, and abundant evidence of the damage, death and destruction wars leave behind, has left publics around the world deeply antipathetic towards joining in with any more military adventures alongside the US.

Hence, military agendas are pursued stealthily - the huge arms build-up in Georgia over the last five years, the proxy war in Somalia, the surreptitious establishment of a de facto military base in the southern Philippines and yes, even the mysterious transformation of the Boeing Super Hornet fighter, from a redundant piece of junk to a must-have addition to Australia's arsenal, all come into this category.

For me, as a long-time peace activist, this is a novelty. Growing up in Britain, and setting out to oppose the UK 'task force' to the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, to call for dialogue with Sinn Fein, to campaign against the bombing of Iraq in 1991 or Yugoslavia in 1999, even to espouse a more inclusive approach to policing of ethnic minorities, was to inure oneself to being in a minority.

Today's it's different. The problem is not convincing ourselves, but the sheer unresponsiveness of the institutional framework. The commitment by the Labor government to military spending at three per cent a year, above inflation, is a good example, based, as it seems to be, on nightmarish scenarios about Australia being invaded by China or even India. And, meanwhile, the doctrine of 'interoperability' with US forces continues as a cornerstone of 'defence' planning.

The media represents a promising field of contestation in all of this. Politicians feel obliged to nod sagely at absurdities such as the ones I mention here as if nothing is amiss, but journalism cannot afford to appear more credulous than its readers and audiences. In Michael Schudson's words, "the media are formally disconnected from other ruling agencies because they must attend as much to their own legitimation as to the legitimation of the capitalist system as a whole".

So, peace journalism, as an underpinning for media activism, can be a key to the instrumental logics which govern the construction of conflicts in public discourse. An opportunity exists to move beyond the mere articulation and exchange of ideas, to engagement with social movements, real or virtual, and make a paradigm shift, indeed, from liberal humanism to counter-hegemonic formation.

Jake Lynch reflects on some of his own activism in a new book, Debates in Peace Journalism, published this month by Sydney University Press. He will lead a CPACS course on Conflict-resolving Media at the Sydney Summer School in early December. Associate Professor Lynch spoke at a summit in Norway last month organised by Point of Peace, an international human rights and media organisation.

Contact: Mandy Sacher

Phone: 02 911 - 40622

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