Graduation address given by Professor Gerard Goggin

Professor Gerard Goggin gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences graduation ceremony held at 4.00pm on 4 May 2012 in the Great Hall. Mr Anstice is Chair, Department of Media and Communications.

The photo of Professor Goggin is copyright, Memento Photography.

Professor Gerard Goggin

Graduation address

It is an honour to be with you to celebrate your enormous achievement in graduating after arduous study. Your hard work has come to fruition, the culmination of personal dedication, the inspiration of your teachers, and the support of your families, friends, and communities.

As the first professor of media and communications appointed by this university, and someone whose research focusses on digital technology and cultures, I’d like to directly address the issues in this area, which now hold a great importance to each of us as individuals and to how we imagine and shape our collective destinies.

As a new graduate, you are about to embark on the next phase of your lives. It is likely that whatever course your life takes, media and technology will feature prominently in the lifeworld you inhabit.

None of this is news to you, of course. Your studies involved the primacy of face-toface teaching and learning, a strong commitment of the University of Sydney. But here, as much as other places of learning, the hydra-headed forms of contemporary media are unequivocally an equal partner. The library is an electronic repository, where books give way to digital forms - intellectual property controls permitting. Lectures, tutorials, and conversations routinely occur online. In this brave new world teachers are critiqued in real-time on a Twitter backchannel. And, if that doesn’t work for you, there’s ‘always an app for that’. Ironically, this multitude of media, this babel of technologies, the veritable surfeit of ways to foster or deny connection, poses fundamental questions which we cannot yet answer.

Communication has long been at the heart of our lives as human beings, if not our relations with non-human species and things. Yet communication is something that often eludes and baffles us. Our Federal government led by Prime Minister Gillard, many believe, is frustrated by its ability to ‘connect’ with voters, its lack of a narrative’, its problems with telling a story. Here as elsewhere, mediated communication enriches yet grows in complexity. Our ability to broadcast minute as well as grand news of our lives to large or small publics, crosses the divide between the private and the public in new ways. The portable media of smartphones, iPads, and other mobile devices extend our architectures of communication in extraordinary ways. Yet we return, as always, to ancient questions about how we should best live.

In the past weeks, many of us have been transfixed by one of the best known media proprietors, Rupert Murdoch, and his British newspaper division, News International, being minutely scrutinised by the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press. In opening the hearings in late 2011, Lord Justice Leveson declared: ''The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?' (Leveson, 2012)

This idea of accountability of the media, and the view of the press which underpins it, is a well-established one in Western democracies. Yet for many this ideal lost its lustre with the dawning of the twenty-first century, and the rise of the Internet and the digital transformations it wrought to our media.

For Internet and democracy enthusiasts, the Internet changed our media and its social function utterly - an indelible mark of our modernity. In his memoir, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair invoked new technology as way to style his New Labour. ‘All around the globe’, Blair declared, ‘the new technology – the Internet, computers, mobile phones, mass travel and communication – was opening the world up, casting people together, mixing cultures, races, faiths in a vast melting pot of human interaction’ (Blair, 2010). When it came to media, many such Internet enthusiasts believed the problem no longer to revolve around scarcity - or who could be entrusted with a media outlet, and what responsibilities they should bear. No longer was there relevance to the cross-media ownership policy of former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, whereby media moguls were obliged to choose among being ‘Queens of the Screen’, ‘Princes of Print’, or ‘Rajahs of Radio’. Rather, Internet signalled a incredible growth and radical democratization of media. The Internet’s contribution to democracy is indeed remarkable, as countless examples attest, including the recent case of the Arab Spring. Yet just as a new technology shakes up the old order, as the renowned Canadian communication scholar Harold Innis noted, it is not so very long before new monopolies of control form.

Now the British Leveson Inquiry, and the various other inquiries into Murdoch’s News group, were not especially motivated by the urgent need to think about the future of the Internet and our media. As we know, the British government established this Inquiry, because of the scandal of phone-hacking and other allegations. The implications of these revelations for Australian media were of course immediately at issue. While there was little evidence of similar patterns here, nonetheless the scandal gave oxygen to other long-simmering concerns about the Australian press, including fears that media outlets were being used to advance political, or at least, ideological agenda. The result was the establishment of an independent inquiry into the
Australian media in September 2011 - the Finkelstein Inquiry, as it is known. With the release of its report earlier this year, fundamental questions of media regulation and the public interest have squarely returned to centre-stage of public and political life.

It was not as if Australia lacked government inquiries into the challenges of Internet and new media for policy and regulation. Most of these reviews, however, have been premised on the need to find new concepts and approaches for the challenges of new media. How do we regulate hate speech or abuse on Facebook, for instance, when it is the company itself that governs what its users can do? How do our censorship or content rules apply to broadcasting of television over the Internet, or mobile platforms, when our laws were designed for earlier forms of broadcasting, if not books, newspapers, and magazines? How do we recognize that people now get their news from entertainment genres, or so-called ‘soft’ news formats, or social media?

While many discontents had been aired, there was no real possibility - before the News Corporation relevations raised international concerns - that the press, prostrated on death’s door before the all-conquering Internet, would have its regulation fundamentally rethought. Yet this is indeed the serious debating point at present, recommended by the Convergence Review Final report issued this week, as well as the Finkelstein Inquiry.

Many of us have mixed feelings about the regulation of the press. To be sure, the press is rapidly changing its shape. Yet it remains highly influential. While we might disagree with views expressed in the press, or even perceived tendencies of particular outlets, a free press is vital.

For this very reason, systems of accountability are also important to ensure that media fulfil their function, deal ethically and respectfully with their obligations of accuracy, balance, objectivity, truth, and respectful dealings with sources of news and communities affected by them. In this regard, my view - like those of my Sydney colleagues Professor Rod Tiffen and Associate Professor Anne Dunn - is that the Finkelstein recommendations represent a modest and helpful strengthening of media regulation to support the fundamental functions of the press.

My purpose here, however, not to canvass regulation per se, which many will find a dry topic. Rather to note something important about the relationship between the media and universities that emerged as a controversy in the wake of these inquiries into new technology, regulation, and public interest.

A number of media outlets disagreed vehemently with the Finkelstein Inquiry, including both the Fairfax and News Ltd groups. The Australian newpaper went further than most, and criticised the disciplines of media studies and journalism education in Australian universities, holding them responsible for the intellectual climate and set of ideas that shaped the push for more regulation. Associate editor Cameron Stewart wrote: 'It appears that media academics played a central role in driving the findings of the Finkelstein report. What’s more, if many of today's journalism teachers are supporting moves to legally regulate the Australian media to deal with the way it covers the news, then these views will be imbued in their students, the journalists of tomorrow. It invites a generational clash within the media industry about the limits that should be placed on press freedom in Australia.' (Stewart, 2012)

Setting aside the provocation to embark again on a cultural wars sideshow, the important issue to be teased out here goes to the heart of the relationship between the media and universities in our age. Both are vitally important institutions for making

Universities were once thought to be distant from the media, ivory towers vaunting loftily above the press. There is doubtless a whiff of golden age myth, but now we have abundant evidence that media and universities are close cousins indeed - their destinies symbiotically entwined. The role of the contemporary university, however, is very much supported - and thoroughly saturated - with media. Media now also rely to a surprising extent on academics as commentators and public intellectuals. Truly ours is a media university.

In this epoch, then, there are many reasons to affirm the role of the university in an age where media is pervasive, central, and rapidly transforming. Your freshly minted degrees attest to an education that combines the fundamentals of a traditional humanities education with the new knowledge and skills needed to apprehend and critically engage with media well into the future.

In my view, the critique of media studies coming from the Australian is misplaced. Universities such as ours are doing the right thing in equipping their graduates, conducting research, and stimulating debate on media and communications in all their respects. Accordingly, I wish to affirm that the university - as a locale for new disciplines like media and communications, digital cultures, or museum studies - is an institution that remains a vital pillar of society.

The media, from ancient times to the social media of today, is also a vital pillar of society. The media has the right to criticise the university, and should do so - and we should take seriously, and respond to, its critiques. Such critique should not, of course, be undertaken to have a chilling effect on research, but rather to encourage free enquiry and debate.

For its part, the university is an institution whose scholars also criticise the media. Our predecessors did so with perhaps greater impunity and, often, with not a very strong understanding of the media and its role. We are revising our understandings, to better acknowledge the longstanding interdependence between modern universities and media from the eighteenth century onwards. Nonetheless, the intensity and pervasiveness of the media’s role in the university of the twenty-first century gives us all the more reason why our work in teaching, researching, understanding, and critiquing media is essential.

Such reflections on the importance of both media and universities as institutions central to our lives in democracies may seem all too abstract. Their point in our graduation ceremony today is to honour your role in this ongoing project. Also to wish you well in what the future brings.

There is no doubt that your knowledge and expertise gained in your studies will equip you well, not only for vocations in its professions. More so than previous generations, you have the communicators of the future. Hopefully your studies will bear fruit wherever you go, because media is more often than not with us in every personal and collective setting - and what we make of it, in all senses, is an enterprise of experiment, debate, and collective understanding, about how should we best live, to which you stand to make an important contribution indeed.