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Reader riposte: Raising awareness

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COMMENTS

19 March 2010 11:23

Jo Gilbert, a PhD candidate at the Griffith Asia Institute, responds to my post expressing scepticism about building public awareness of various foreign policy issues. I feared that my piece might be interpreted this way; more thoughts from me below Jo's email:

I read with interest your discomfort of raising public awareness when it comes to foreign policy issues. I would like to address two assumptions you make in this piece. 

The first plays into the issue of accountability. The question, 'Do we really want or need the great mass of Australians to worry about issue X?' replicates the discourse and hubris of foreign policy elites that foreign affairs are far too complicated for the public to understand and bother with. 

This assertion discounts the fact that the Australian public have a right to know what the government is doing and how it is doing it. The question undermines the obligation of the government to provide that transparency, and justifies and allows the kind of manipulation and opacity in foreign policy that we saw in the decision to go to war in Iraq.  

Secondly, it assumes that the public are spoon-fed by discounting the fact that the public can access their own sources of news via the internet in a way that cannot be manipulated to the same levels as it could when local and national print media were all that were accessible. Even though I understand your analysis is crude, this means that the extrapolation from how much time commercial media gives to international news, to individual news choices is quite meaningless. Even if we accept your statistic that 27% of the time Australians are online is spent accessing news, this figure is not insignificant, nor is it one that can be classified into national/international as arbitrarily as you have.

I would think, unless the Lowy Institute’s mandate 'to provide an accessible and high quality forum for discussion of Australian foreign policy and international relations' is intended for an audience of policy makers and elites only, you are criticising the very thing that your institute sets out to do. After all, if defence and foreign policy matters are crucial for Australia, they are equally as crucial for Australians.

Note that the question Jo quotes at the beginning of her email, which she says indicates an elitist mindset on my part, is just that, a question. And it was intended to be a very specific one: when read in context, you'll see that what I'm really asking is whether it is desirable for Governments to launch public information campaigns to improve awareness of, for instance, our relationship with Indonesia. And if not, then what do we mean when we say that we ought to 'raise awareness' of such issues?

Nor should the crude statistical analysis I did about news media consumption be read as an indictment of Australians, or of hubris on my part about foreign policy being too complicated for the masses.

I don't think I said anything in the post to create that impression, and in fact, I'm on the record as supporting the view that public ignorance of certain political issues, while real, is in fact a pretty sensible time-management tactic, and certainly not an indication that the great mass of people are stupid. A glance at my output on this site should also put paid to any suggestion that I'm indifferent to government opacity or manipulation on foreign policy. I've been a consistent small 'l' liberal in that regard. 

The Lowy Institute's work is certainly not intended solely for policy-making elites, and part of our job is to expand the intelligent discussion of international policy beyond those elites. That's partly what The Interpreter was created for, so by extension I am personally dedicated to that task.

Then again, I'm also sensible enough to realise that The Interpreter is never going to rival news.com.au for hits. Thankfully, our readership keeps growing, so I guess part of what I'm trying to figure out is the natural limits to that growth — how much attention and debate we can reasonably expect to generate with a site like this?