Truth, integrity, gossip

The Indigenous Public Sphere: the reporting and reception of indigenous issues in the Australian med

The title of this book is not exactly calculated to attract the interest of the general reader, which is a pity, because it is one of the most stimulating explorations of the politics of the media and the mediation of politics to have come my way in some time. Its detailed subject matter is the media treatment of blackfella politics, culture and domesticity during a period when Australians, like others, fell in love with their black athletes and other showbiz heroes, but continued to struggle with the larger racial questions of rights, resources and national identity.

The proposition of John Hartley and Alan McKee is that these matters cannot be well understood through the familiar prism of expectation which assumes that politicians act, the media report and the public respond. Rather, the authors set out to convince us that, if we are to understand both media and politics correctly, we must see that the two domains are inseparable to the extent that, in many respects, they are one and the same. The medium is not only the message, it is the polity.

This thesis is held to be particularly relevant for the indigenous people of Australia, in part because they lack purchase on the formal structures of power - business and government. They have become "the most studied but least understood people in the world". As a result, Aboriginal matters are numerically greatly over-represented in the Australian media. Their activities surface in the news columns, in stories about political conflict and crime, but even more potently in the "softer" media cultures of magazines, television entertainment, arts programmes and films. Here, symbolic acts such as the waving of an Aboriginal flag by a victorious athlete, or accidental ones such as a celebrity interracial romance, form the subject matter around which Australia is reinventing its identity.

The intellectual framework for this argument could scarcely be more ambitious. It states that our knowledge universe consists of three overlapping circles. The smallest is the public sphere, wrapped within the media sphere, which is itself enclosed within the semiosphere or, if you are allergic to that word, the cultural sphere. The consequences of this remapping are significant. Formal politics, and other public sphere activities, become contingent on media, not mainly in the crude sense that politics operates "through" the media, but because most of what we do and decide is touched more by the stories we follow and even, these days, vote about in our media lives than by our formal activities as democracy-empowered citizens. Journalism, it follows, is of huge and growing importance because, paradoxically, it has succeeded in what some call "dumbing down" - namely, expanding vigorously, and with great commercial reward, away from the political and civic and towards the personal.

In an earlier book, Hartley described journalism as "the sense-making practice of modernity". Here, he moves the argument to what was always its implicit conclusion: that journalism, defined in its broadest and most democratic sense as the free conveyance of information and opinion by anyone through any medium, takes us beyond the shores of any conventional understanding of modernity - enlightenment fuelled by the conclusions of empirical investigation.

Here, we enter the realm where understanding the media "text" has value in its own right, because it is as central to the functioning of politics as it is to, say, family life. "Journalism has brought to the fore one of its own long-standing tendencies, making the discourse of private identity as central as the discourse of public decision-making." Or, to restate this notion in the advertising slogan of an Australian style magazine: "Truth, integrity and a little gossip."

Where does this leave the Aborigines? Well advised, the authors say, to believe in the power of their own public conversations. One novelty of this book is that it includes a lengthy account of a forum in which indigenous people debated with others, including media professionals. Although this "parliament" was a "talking shop" in the sense that it had no formal power, it is presented here as a living example of the effectiveness of the media sphere.

It is scarcely surprising that loose ends dangle from a thesis which combines so ambitiously the universal and the particular. The authors certainly understate issues of economic and commercial power, and that they have not thought through the implications for journalism of the "professional v amateur" debate becomes all too plain in an ungainly final chapter dealing with professional codes of practice. But this is a book with a line of inquiry that demands to be taken further.

Ian Hargreaves is director of the Centre for Journalism Studies at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Please, sir, we girls want some more