McKenzie Wark on Tue, 31 Aug 1999 16:37:27 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Web: Democracy in Action or the Death of Journalism?(forum comments)

[moderator's note: sorry its too late to let you know about the forum
itself, but Australians can listen to the boradcast this coming Sunday.
-- SM]

George Munster Journalism Forum
The Web: Democracy in Action or the Death of Journalism?

live: 6.00-8.30 Tuesday, 31 August
place: ABC, Harris Street, Ultimo

broadcast:  5.05pm Sunday, 5 September
network: ABC Radio National

participants: Tom Burton (Fairfax On-Line), Cass O'Connor (consultant to
E-Corp), McKenzie Wark (media studies, Macquarie University). 

Here's a draft of my remarks for the forum. Comments welcome.  McKenzie

If there is a feeling shared by most who witnessed the Kosovo crisis, it
is the feeling of historical impotence. All these images, of all this war
has turned us into weary spectators, while the tough guys play chicken.
The war drive goes on and on, accelerating like a car racing toward a
cliff. We watch in idle fascination to see if anyone will put on the
brakes, or if the media event will career off into catastrophe. And
usually, it does. And we move on to another story. 

Is there really nothing we can do? Are we home viewers always the last to
be informed, let alone consulted, and the first to be defeated when the
pedal hits the metal?

History humiliates those who see no sense in it. Blindness to the
significance of an historical event renders helpless those to whom history
will happen anyway. Or as Hegel said, somewhere, "Hell is truth seen too

But the significance of history isn't decided by those who think they
occupy the driver's seat -- whether they be politicians, generals, or
media proprietors. It was Kant who explained, some time ago now, the
dignity of what we would now call the passive audience. The outcome of an
event might be decided by its protagonists, but the score is decided by
the witnesses. It is the armchair observers who observe what passes, who
decide who passed.

The vector that connects camera tipped missiles and eye witness soundbites
uplinked via satellite to millions of eyeballs might seem to create more
and more mere passive observers, but it also creates more and more
eyewitnesses to history. And thesedays, those eyewitnesses are getting

This so-called passive audience is reading, watching, listening. Today,
more than ever it becomes a power, not over the present, but over the
past, and for the future. 

Now, what does all this have to do with the internet and journalism? When
I was asked whether the internet meant the death of Australian journalism,
my first reaction was that it's been dead for years, only nobody's
noticed. The question is whether the net can create a new kind of
democracy in action, based on a new web of witnessing. 

Those remarks I made about witnessing history, I should explain, are based
on an editorial in a newspaper, a newspaper called Bastard. The editorial
was written by Boris Buden, a Croatian intellectual, and Geert Lovink, the
Dutch media activist. I had a hand in its composition also, and others did
too, including Dejan Krsic, Nicole Lindstrom and Honor Harger.

Bastard is a newspaper based in Zagreb. For the special global edition,
the Kosov@ Briefing, the deputy editors were in Amsterdam, Belgrade and
Berlin. The subeditors were in London, New York and Sydney.

Bastard was printed simultaneously in half a dozen countries around the
world and distributed free. In Australia it is available from the Search
Foundation. It contains news and views on Kosov@ ranging from Tony Blair
to Noam Chomsky, John Pilger to George Soros, Slavoj Zizek to Veran Matic,
and a good many Balkan writers, journalists and activists who many people
will get to read there for the first time. 

What made it all possible, of course, is the net. The articles published
in Bastard were mostly posted on two internet discussion lists, Nettime
and Syndicate, both of which bring together independent media activists
from all over Europe, both East and West, and indeed from all over the

The newspapers, as the expression has it, provide a first draft of
history. But with Bastard, on which I worked in a very very minor
capacity, what I think we were doing was providing a series of alternative
possible drafts. 

The net made it possible to do that by putting together a very wide range
of written materials simultaneously. On the Nettime and Syndicate
discussion lists, participants acted as their own editors, forwarding to
the list information, or pointers to sources, that they had filtered
themselves for content and quality.

Both Nettime and Syndicate contained, I should add, many people from
Serbia, although the bombing campaign did reduce the amount of material
that got out. There were few Albanian participants, but there were a lot
of reports directly from Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania, which often
arrived in my inbox long before western journalists got to the scene. 

It may seem like very little, when a war is going on, to keep open an
email discussion list. It is very little, almost nothing, as Beckett would
say, and yet it is not nothing. It is not nothing to be a witness to an
event. It is not nothing to try and maintain a civil conversation among
people whose countries are at war. It is not nothing to support, even in a
minor way, the efforts of groups like Wam Kat's Balkan Sunflowers, who go
into divided communities and try to create means of communication between
the warring parties -- sometimes with modems, often not, but really by any
means necessary. 

When the Serbian government tried to shut down radio B92, one of the few
independent media sources in Serbia, it was net media activists who
provided the alternative. The sound of B92 streamed from a web site in
Amsterdam, from which it could be picked up by international broadcasters
like the BBC World Service and broadcast back into Serbia. Not much, but
not nothing. Very little, but the very little is what democracy in action
is all about.

There is a lot of rhetoric to the effect that democracy is a direct result
of the existence of the internet as a technology. Its a popular bit of
corporate cyberhype. But technologies do not determine their uses.
Technologies just create possibilities. As William Gibson says: "the
street finds its own use for things." The street, in this case, was media
activists and independent journalists. 

That technology is liberating is just cyberhype that suits the
corporations. Who needs regulation when free and democratic media is a
sort of mystic extrusion of the technology itself? 

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm actually in favour of a free market in
information. It would be a lot better than what we have now. A free market
works through price competition and the rapid development of new products
and services. A real market certainly couldn't do worse than our present
media oligarchies.

But corporate media doesn't have much to do with good journalism, which is
I think something that has to be perennially reinvented from the margins.
George Munster, in whose memory we are speaking tonight, is a great
example of that -- of a journalist who made the margins matter at the

The net is a threat -- to the institutionalised mediocrity of the
newsroom. It is a threat to the stale and jargon addled language of news
and feature writing. (And perhaps we need a Walkley award for the *worst*
piece of journalistic prose of the year). 

But the internet is also a promise of something better. Better not in the
sense that the technology is automatically better. But better in terms of
what people can do with it. You can edit an international newspaper and
print it all over the world for what News and Fairfax spend each week on
toilet paper.

Now, I wouldn't hold Bastard up as world's best practice journalism. It
lacks the professionalism and quality control that, let me add right away,
I really do admire in much of the Australian news industry. But the mere
fact that Bastard could be produced at all makes it possible to ask what
*else* good journalism might be -- at least by giving us a different kind
of example of what it isn't. 

What the internet makes possible is a return to the best, and indeed the
worst, of journalism before the era of the mass press, with its
centralised and hierarchical ideas about gathering, ordering and
distributing information.

Democracy in action does not need what now passes for good journalism.
Sure, there's a lot of fine product out there. Particularly in the
supplements, you have to admire the efficiency with which press releases
can be turned into advertorial. 

Democracy in action needs bad journalism, and lots of it. Cheap, amateur,
outrageous, contradictory journalism. Journalism not as reporting what
everybody else is reporting, but journalism as witnessing, as risking a
judgement on events, and a sharing of that judgement.

"Hell is truth seen too late". But nobody sees the whole truth and nothing
but the truth, no matter how much of a pro they are. The net makes it
possible to create a network of observations, from different viewpoints,
so that the truth may emerge out of the conflict between those viewpoints,
which is democracy in action.

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