Thursday, 4 October 2012

Australian media should do more on Asian countries

First there's information, and the more of it the better. Then comes the idea. We see it all the time. Like the other day when I was driving and listening to ABC local radio, and I heard a guy come on air talking about a new escape pod he'd designed and built. Based on the Gold Coast, in southeast Queensland, this guy is technically inclined and he came up with the idea in the wake of coverage of the Fukushima tsunami in March last year. Who can forget those images. This guy's escape pod is designed to fit six people and is constructed in such a way as to resist impacts from the kind of speeding debris we saw rushing across the landscape during the news coverage of the event. This wasn't something the guy had read about in an arcane economic or market report, the kind of report that you can buy for a price from a research firm, the kind that a large corporation may allow key employees to access. The guy came up with the idea while watching the news on TV.

It's not rare for this to happen. Ideas can come from anywhere in response to a need someone might preceive. The idea becomes a product. The backstory becomes part of the marketing pitch. Sales result in more export income for Australia, and can lead to the creation of jobs. But the key ingredient is information, and the more of it the better. We're told often by hopeful politicians that Australia must look for opportunities to do business in Asian countries. But when we turn to the national media we're confronted by a distinct lack of depth in reporting on the region we live in, and where our economic future ostensibly lies. It's mostly about Australia. If it's not a death or a murder ("If it bleeds it leads.") it's local political wrangles, speculation surrounding sport, or another chapter in the culture wars between left and right. For someone who wants to build a business around trade with Asia, it's not an inspiring mix of news.

Take a big story that came out of Malaysia a few days ago.
The Kuala Lumpur High Court's Appellate and Special Powers division has quashed the Home Ministry's decision not to grant a publishing permit to Mkini Dotcom Sdn Bhd, which operates the Malaysiakini news portal.
In ruling the ministry’s decision as “improper and irrational”, judge Abang Iskandar Abang Hashim said the home minister's decision was misdirected as it exceeded the limit of its jurisdiction.
To this point in time, I learned through social media, where a friend who lives in Malaysia was posting stories about this important event, most of Malaysia's media has either been controlled by the government or else closely aligned with it. The ruling party, UMNO, has overwhelmingly dominated Malaysian politics ever since independence after WWII. It's the party of Mahatir, who clashed so spectacularly and so often and publicly with Australia's prime minister, Paul Keating. Malaysia will head to the polls sometime between now and April 2013. That's a newsworthy event to report, straight up. But this new story is interesting for how it shows that a new printed newspaper is to be launched, something remarkable considering the state of the media in developed countries globally. So by any reckoning the Malaysiakini story is big: here's an independent-minded newspaper in an important Asian country that is branching out, not from print to online publication, but the other way, from online to print. It's clearly a case of the publishers and editors wanting to expand their readership base, from wealthy urban dwellers who access the internet regularly, to poorer rural constituencies where reading the news on paper is still a key part of daily life. The story tells you a lot about the nature of politics in Malaysia, and it also suggests there is a big market for middle class ideas outside the developed cities.

We usually only hear about Malaysia when a big politician goes to jail. We might also get the occasional story about Australian company Linas and its struggle to build a rare earth processing facility in the country. But beyond that the life of the average Malaysian is more remote from us than that of a Greek consumer or a German engineer. This has to change. The lack of coverage for the Malaysiakini story in Australia's mainstream media is truly alarming, telling us that our editors and journalists remain fixated on traditional sources of news like Europe and the United States. Calls by Australian politicians for a deeper engagement with our region are stymied by a serious lack of essential information. We need more stories from Asia in the mainstream media, more frequently.

The lack of China coverage is also truly astonishing considering that the country is already Australia's largest trading partner. In China we learn that there is to be a leadership change in the next few months. China is a one-party state, but who is reporting on the mechanisms that exist to facilitate a change of this nature? What is the real reason Bo Xilai is being hung out to dry by the Party? What do people on the street in China think about the method of government that determines so many important things about their lives? What do they care about, wish for, and want to buy? Such stories are completely absent from the mainstream news in Australia. As a result we are left without any means to understand either the government of China or the people it leads. There are a significant number of Chinese language newspapers in Australia, especially in the major cities. These newspapers depend for a large quantity of their content on translations from the national Australian press, but the dynamic does not work the other way. So the average Australian remains in the dark about what is really happening in China.

Another truism we're aware of from time to time is how the invention of the printing press in Europe in 1439 sparked the Renaissance and the Reformation, and led to the Enlightenment, which in turn fostered growth in the 19th century, and enabled the scientific revolution that has touched all our lives so intimately and with such unquestionably positive results. So it's apparently all about more people talking about more things more often. This chaotic information environment has been, we're told, an undoubted boon for civilisation. Ideas pinging around in the ether bounce off other ideas in an unpredictable whirl of connections, in people's minds, in their workplaces, in their homes, and in the educational institutions where ideas are transferred from one person to another within a more formal setting. But ideas are anarchic and unpredictably sticky. Like a bacterium, they require only a suitable environment within which to grow. And that's the media's role.

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