Media Analysis

Pacific Media Centre gutted in blow to journalism on the Pacific Islands

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The Pacific Media Centre has been dismantled by the Auckland University of Technology (image self-supplied)

The launch of a New Zealand project to produce more Pacific news and provide a “voice for the voiceless” on the islands has highlighted the neglect of the field by Australia and New Zealand.

The new development is the non-government, non-university Asia Pacific Media Network (APMN), a research base and publishing platform.

Its opening followed the cleaning-out of a centre within the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), in an exercise exemplifying in-fighting that goes on in universities hardly glimpsed from outside.

Cleaning out the media centre

The story features an unannounced move by University officers to vacate the offices of an active journalism teaching base, the Pacific Media Centre, in early February 2021.

Seven weeks after the retirement of that Centre’s foundation director, Professor David Robie, agents of AUT’s very non-journalistic School of Communication Studies turned up and stripped it, taking out all the archives and Pacific taonga-valued artefacts from across the region. Staff still based there did not discover it was happening until later.

The place had been in operation for 13 years; it was popular with Pasifika students, especially post-grads who would go on reporting ventures for practice-led research; it was a base for online news, for example prolific outlets including a regular Pacific Media Watch; it had international standing primarily through the well-rated, SCOPUS-listed, academic journal the Pacific Journalism Review; and it was a cultural hub, where guests might receive a sung greeting from the staff, Pacific-style, or see fascinating artworks and craft.

Its uptake across the “Blue Continent” showed up gaps in mainstream media services and in Australia’s case famously the backlog in promoting economic and cultural ties.

Human rights and media freedom

The Pacific Media Centre was formed in a troubled era with a military coup d’etat in Fiji, civil disturbances in Papua New Guinea, violent attacks on journalists in several parts and endemic gender violence listed as a priority problem for the Pacific Islands Forum. Through its publishing and conference activity, it would take a stand on human rights and media freedom issues, social justice, and economic and media domination from outside.

The actual physical evacuation was on the orders of the Head of School at AUT, Dr Rosser Johnson, a recently appointed Associate Professor with a history in various management roles since 2005. He said the University planned to keep a centre called the PMC and co-locate its offices with other centres.

His intervention caused predictable negative responses, as with this comment by the former New Zealand Herald Editor Gavin Ellis, on dealing with corporatised universities, in “neo-liberal” times:

'For many years I thought universities were the ideal place to establish centres of investigative journalism excellence... My views have been shaken to the core by the Auckland University of Technology gutting the Pacific Media Centre.'

Conflicts over truth-telling

The Pacific Media Centre (PMC) affair has stirred conflicts likely to worry observers who place value on truth-finding and truth-telling in university research, preparation for the professions, and academic freedom.

The centre along with its counterpart at the University of Technology Sydney, called the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), worked in the area of journalism as research, applying journalistic skills and methods, especially exercises in investigative journalism. The ACIJ produced among many investigations, work on the reporting of climate policy and climate science and the News of the World phone hacking scandal. It also was peremptorily shut down, three years ahead of the PMC. 

Both centres were placed in the journalism academic discipline, a “professional” and “teaching” discipline that traditionally draws in high-achieving students interested in its practice-led approach. 

All of this is decried by line academics in disciplines without professional linkages but professional interests in the hierarchical arrangements and power relations within the confined space of their universities. There the focus is on theoretical teaching, frequently “studies”, in “media”, “post-modern”, “communications”, “cultural”, “digital”, and so on, angled at de-legitimising “the media”, singular; no differentiation among different media services.

Not that journalism education itself resiles from media criticism, as Professor Robie told Independent Australia:

"The Pacific Media Centre frequently challenged “ethnocentric journalistic practice” and placed Māori, Pacific and indigenous and cultural diversity at the heart of the centre’s experiential knowledge and critical-thinking news narratives."

Yet it can be seen how conflict may arise, especially where smaller journalism departments come under “take-over” pressure. It is a handy option for academic managers to subsume "journalism” and get staff positions that can be filled with non-journalists; the contribution the journalists may make to research earnings (through the Australian Excellence in Research process, or NZ Performance Based Research Fund), and especially government funding for student places.

There, better students likely to excel and complete their programs can be induced to do more generalised courses camouflaged with a specialist “journalism” label.

Any such conflict in the AUT case cannot be measured but must be at least lurking in the background. The Head of School, Johnson, works in communication studies and cultural studies, with publications especially about info-advertising. He indicates just a lay interest in journalism, listing three articles published in mass media since 2002.

What is “ideology”?

Another problem exists, where a centre like the former PMC will commit to defined values, even officially sanctioned ones like inclusivity and rejection of discrimination. Undertakings like the centre’s “bearing witness” projects, where students would deploy classic journalism techniques for investigations on a nuclear-free Pacific or climate change, can irritate conservative interests.

The derogatory expression for any connection with social movements is “ideological”. This time it is an unknown, but a school eviscerating an “ideological” unit might get at least tacit support from higher-ups supposing it might help the institution’s “good name”.

What implications for future journalism, freedom and quality of media? Hostility towards specific professional education for journalism exists fairly widely. The rough-housing of the journalism department at AUT is indicative, where efforts by the outgoing Director to organise succession after his retirement, five years in advance, received no response. 

The position statement was changed to take away a requirement for actual Pacific media identity or expertise, and the job was left vacant, though in part an effect of COVID-19. Professor Robie stated that he remained officially uninstructed on the fate of a centre which if small, performed well on key performance indicators, bringing in limited research grants but good returns for academic publications:

"On 18 December 2020 – the day I officially retired – I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor, Derek McCormack … expressing my concern about the future of the centre, saying the situation was 'unconscionable and inexplicable'. I never received an acknowledgement or reply."

Futures ahead

Journalism education has persisted through an adverse climate, where the number of journalists in mainstream media has declined. In New Zealand,  reporter numbers have halved over a decade, within commercial media 637 media jobs recorded as lost or left vacant during 2020. Otherwise, new media are expanding; new demand exists for media competency across the exploding world “mediascape”; schools cultivating conscionable practices are providing an antidote to floods of bigotry and lies in social media.

The new NGO in Auckland, the APMN, has found a good base of support across the Pacific communities, limbering up for a future free of interference, outside the former university base.

It will be bidding for a share of NZ government grants intended to assist public journalism, ethnic broadcasting and outreach to the region. Products of the former centre have been held onto, including the successful research journal Pacific Journalism Review, which has had two editions under its new management.

The operation is keeping its production-side media strengths, beginning with the online title Asia Pacific Report.

Among his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Pacific Journalism Review.

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