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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Media briefs & public debate « Previous | |Next »
March 26, 2003

The public philosopher over at has been writing long posts on the need for the humanities to address public issues of concern to citizens

These daily media briefings provided by ANU are one example of the humanities showing their public relevance. Are they useful? Yes, because of the lack of information and knowledge about the Middle East in Australia.

Some instances.

First, Amin Saikal, the professor of Arab and Islamic studies at ANU, says that the briefings provide an opportunity to redress the paucity of opinion from an Arab or Islamic perspective in Australia. Most notable is the footage showing large numbers of civilian casualties broadcast on in the Arab world has been given little or no airing in the West. Only SBS is making an attempt, followed by the ABC.

Amin says that different perceptions are being formed by the contrasting coverage of the war in the Middle East and the West. The images on the Al-Jazeera network:

"...are the images that the Arab masses get and they shape their perception of what is really happening, and their perception of the American, British and Australian drive to Baghdad".

What we don't see much of are the gruesome pictures of civilian and military casualties that made front pages in Europe. So its CNN v Al Jazeera

And if you are not in Canberra? Tough luck. No media briefing There is nothing online. In Adelaide, for instance, there is a panel discussion in a week or so which costs money to attend. So we are left with a paucity of opinion from an Arab or Islamic perspective in Australia.

Secondly, we have need to counter the orchestrated, triumphalist Anglo-American one from the embedded journalists who concentrate on technology at the expense of the human element. It is orchestrated because, as Tony Walker argued in the Australian Financial Review, the US networks are the media used as weapon (subscription required). The media has become a conduit for military information. The largely pro-US view of CNN gives us lots of scenes of tanks charging through desert sand storms and spectacular, night-vision footage of bombardments of Baghdad.

Its Hollywood joining hands with the Militarized Enlightenment to give us the guilty pleasures of The Shock and Awe Show The public relations is being run by the Pentagon's instrumental reason as if it were a political campaign. This creates an illusion of being inside the war machine with a direct access to the empirical truth. In reality this picture is constucted around on photo-ops that enable viewers to identify with the troops and the mission. What disappears is the questioning of the war.

Thirdly, we have the Howard Government's control of the information. As Margo Kingston says:

"Unlike our allies, Australian reporters get nowhere near our troops, and the people are told virtually nothing of what they're doing. Like the Defence force war on boat people, there is a total media blackout, except that, unlike that war, the government is silent too, not spinning the facts to suit the politics."

She argues that John Howard only wants us to see that which his apparatus can control, shots where Australians look strong and nowhere near the victims of war. Hence we have fake warshots of the troops.

Three instances. All point to the need for citizens to access knowledge to question and make their judgements about the implications of this war (blowback) in our region; or the implications of the pre-emptive strike doctrine for the western alliance and world security. All three instances indicate the lack of knowledge: we have a knowedge vacum. We need lots more of this analysis.

The significance of the ANU media briefings is that the academics are providing knowledge that we citizens lack; this enables us to question of where Australia is going and its implications for us. These media briefings indicate that the Humanities can play useful role in this questioning of public policy: they can provide information about the significance of the images of civilian casualties; the reactions of distrust and sense of abandonment by the Iraqi people; the reactions by Iran to the war; and the changes in the world order arising from the new fault lines in interantional relations and so on.

But the universities are not coming to the party in any substantive way by putting the media briefings online. The corporate managers, infatuated by the money making possibilities of the biotech sciences have generally seen the humanities as useless, and so have downsized staff and starved them of resources. So we citizens turn elsewhere. The humanities are marginalized even further.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 2:31 PM | | Comments (2)


There is not much humanity in war Gary, when perhaps 'My country/group, right or wrong' attitude manifests itself on both sides, once the decision to go to war is taken. The Humanities may have their place again once the killing stops.

Nope: the humanities should be showing their relevance during the war.Why cannot they do a close reading of the war texts?