Australian-born investigative journalist Phillip Knightley says the WikiLeaks saga has changed the relationship between citizens and governments forever. The veteran reporter and author, who broke the Kim Philby spy scandal in the 1960s, regards the saga as a major shift “in the way we are ruled and the information we are entitled to expect about how decisions about our future are made”.
Access to the media is a vital component in the democratic process. What is interesting is that learning to become an active citizen is increasingly coming from vehicles and organisations outside formal media and news outlets. I believe that such a phenomenon - that is, not only the existence of an organisation such as WikiLeaks but its revelations and resulting reactions - is a compelling example of what I call the contemporary media ecosystem.
A media ecosystem - a phenomenon in which journalism is a joint project between journalists, non-journalists, accidental journalists, bloggers, politicians, celebrities, and the general public.
For example, in order to make digestible the overwhelming amount of material released by his leaked information organisation, founder Julian Assange harnessed mainstream media outlets. Other organisations added to the public conversation quickly unfolding on blogs, Facebook and alternative outlets such as Crikey.
Concerns that Wikileaks is putting lives at serious risk led Reporters Sans Frontieres, among others, to protest that the release of documents is “highly dangerous” and an act of “incredible irresponsibility”.
Other groups responded to some American politicians calling for the arrest and even death of Assange, and our Prime Minister calling Assange’s movements “illegal” in spite of the fact no crime has been identified.
The not-for-profit advocacy group GetUp! is organising a campaign to stand up for the rights of Australian citizens, while the international civic group Avaaz.org have launched a petition urging the public to stand up for our democratic rights to a free press and freedom of expression.
The imperatives of reporting for mainstream publications - standardised frameworks, the isolation of facts and events - can be limiting. What I think is exciting about the future of news and journalism and, as Knightley says, the shift in the way we are ruled, is that the contemporary media landscape is questioning and continuing to question the conventional frameworks for analysing and reporting on culture, politics and society.
The concepts of transparency, participation and collaboration are all producing profound culture change - information that was once protected by insiders and vested interests is now potentially available to all. Big Brother is us.
In a nation with the western world’s highest level of media concentration, shows such as Four Corners and Foreign Correspondent and other credible sources for daily news are of course essential to our democracy.
But Wikileaks, Facebook, GetUp! Avaaz.com, humour, satire and information that explore popular culture are all just as vital to the health of the Australian identity as Australian documentaries and current affairs. They all apply themselves, albeit sometimes unwittingly, to the traditional structures of news-making.
They are not replacing journalism, but through their very existence are questioning the conventions of traditional news and current affairs, including how such conventions may constrain what and who is regarded as newsworthy.
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