The Pacific Media Center was highlighted in the Pacific Islands Journalism Strike

The launch of a New Zealand project to produce more Pacific news and give 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-governmental, non-academic Asia Pacific Media Network (APMN), a research base and publishing platform.

Its opening followed the clean-up of a center at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), in an exercise that exemplifies the infighting that goes on in universities that are barely visible from the outside.

Cleaning the media center

The story features an unannounced move by university officials 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 from AUT’s School of Communication Studies turned up and stripped it, removing all the archives and artefacts prized by Pacific taonga from across the region. The staff still there didn’t discover it was happening until later.

The place had been operating for 13 years; it was popular with Pasifika students, particularly postgraduate students who continued to report projects for practice-led research; has been a mainstay for online news, eg prolific outlets, including a regular Pacific Media Watch; it had an international reputation primarily through the highly rated academic journal (“SCOPUS-listed”). Pacific Journalism Review; and was a cultural center where guests could receive a sung greeting from staff, Pacific style, or view fascinating arts and crafts.

Its adoption across the “blue continent” has highlighted gaps in mainstream media services and, in Australia’s case, a notorious backlog in promoting economic and cultural links.

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Human rights and press freedom

The Pacific Media Center was formed in a turbulent era, with a military coup in Fiji, civil unrest in Papua New Guinea, violent attacks on journalists in several parts and endemic gender-based violence listed as a priority issue for the Pacific Islands Forum . Through his publishing and conference work, he would take a stand on issues of human rights and press freedom, social justice, and outside economic and media dominance.

The actual physical evacuation was ordered by AUT’s head of school, Dr Rosser Johnson, a recently appointed associate professor with a history in various leadership roles since 2005. He said the university planned to keep a center called the PMC and co- -locate their offices with other centers.

His intervention provoked predictable negative responses, as with this comment from the former New Zealander Herald Editor Gavin Ellis, on relations with corporate universities, in “neoliberal” times:

“For many years I have believed that universities are the ideal place to establish centers of excellence in investigative journalism… My views have been rocked to the core by Auckland University of Technology dismantling the Pacific Media Centre.”

Conflicts related to telling the truth

The Pacific Media Center (PMC) affair has sparked controversy that may worry observers who value finding and telling the truth in university research, professional training and academic freedom.

The Center together with its counterpart at the University of Technology Sydney, called the Australian Center for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), worked in the field of journalism as research, applying journalistic skills and methods, particularly investigative journalism exercises. ACIJ has produced, among many investigations, papers on climate policy and climate science reporting and The news of the world phone hacking scandal. It was also peremptorily closed, three years before the PMC.

Both centers were placed in the academic discipline of journalism, a “professional” and “teaching” discipline that traditionally attracts high-achieving students interested in its practice-based approach.

All of this is condemned by line academics from disciplines with no professional connections, but professional interests in the hierarchical arrangements and power relations within the restricted space of their universities. There the emphasis is on theoretical teaching, frequently “studies”, in “media”, “post-modern”, “communications”, “cultural”, “digital” and so on, oriented towards the delegitimization of “media”, singular; no differentiation between different media services.

Not that journalism education itself is immune to media criticism, as Professor Robie told the Independent AAustralia:

“The Pacific Media Center has frequently challenged ‘ethnocentric journalistic practice’ and placed Māori, Pacific and Indigenous and cultural diversity at the center of the centre’s experiential knowledge and critical thinking news.

However, one can see how conflicts can arise, especially where smaller journalism departments are under pressure to ‘take over’. It is a handy option for academic managers to embrace “journalism” and get staff positions that can be filled with non-journalists; the contribution journalists can make to research income (through the Australian Research Excellence Process or the NZ Performance-Based Research Fund. ), and in particular government funding for student places. There, better students likely to excel and complete their programs may be induced to take more general courses camouflaged under the specialty “journalism” label.

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

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What is “ideology”?

There is another issue, where a center like the former PMC will commit to defined values, even officially sanctioned ones, such as inclusiveness and non-discrimination. Actions like the center’s “testimony” projects, in which students would use classic journalism techniques to investigate a nuclear-free Pacific or climate change, can irritate conservative interests. The derogatory term for anything to do with social movements is “ideological”. This time it’s an unknown, but a school that eviscerates an “ideological” unit might at least receive tacit support from higher-ups, assuming it might help the institution’s “good name.”

What implications for future journalism, media freedom and quality? Hostility to specific vocational education for journalism exists quite widely. The rough situation of the journalism department at AUT is indicative, where the incumbent director’s efforts to organize the succession after his retirement, five years before, have gone unanswered.

The position statement was changed to remove a requirement for Pacific media identity or expertise, and the position was left vacant, albeit partly an effect of COVID-19. Professor Robie said he remained formally uninformed about the fate of a center which, if small, performed well on key performance indicators, yielding 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 concerns about the future of the centre, saying the situation was ‘unconscionable and inexplicable’. I never got a confirmation or a reply. .”

Futures ahead

Journalism education has persisted in an unfavorable climate, where the number of journalists in the mainstream media has declined. In New Zealand, the number of reporters has halved over a decade, with commercial media 637 media jobs recorded as lost or vacant in 2020. Otherwise, new media is expanding; there is a new demand for media competence in the exploding global ‘media landscape’; schools that cultivate reasonable practices provide an antidote to the flood of bigotry and lies in social media.

Auckland’s new NGO, APMN, has found a good base of support in Pacific communities, preparing for a future without interference outside of its former university base. It will bid for a share of NZ Government grants to assist public journalism, ethnic broadcasting and outreach in the region. The products of the former center have been preserved, including the successful research journal Pacific Journalism Reviewwhich had two editions under its new leadership.

The operation retains its media strengths on the production side, starting with the online title Asia Pacific Report.

Among his extensive journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield was ABC’s European correspondent. He is also an acclaimed academic. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Pacific Journalism Review.

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