Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Read all about it: to hell with free speech and long live the sponsors
Fifty years of permissiveness but still, when it comes to scandals, nothing beats sex. We deify certain males for their capacity to take the field like psychopathic primates, then act shocked when they go the bonobo off-field.
Over a week-long media-blitz, Matthew Johns appears with and without the club tie, the contrition, the hair gel and the stand-by spouse. Yet an affair that goes to the future of our friable civilisation gets 100 words on page nine, then it’s as come-and-gone as yesterday’s fine upstanding citizen.
The tale of the writers’ festival gagging its critics was intriguing from the start, but presuming my colleagues would be all over it, I stayed away. Only when I was invited to join a “criticism” panel did I peer more closely.
Since 2004, UTS journalism students have, for the few days the festival, produced a free daily, Festival News. Last year, the festival confiscated the first issue, declaring itself unhappy with both the students’ behaviour and the content of their organ which was, the director, Wendy Were, wrote, “riddled with disparaging content about the festival and its supporters”. In particular, the festival rejected a report that the arts minister, Frank Sartor, had been “booed” (the current online wording is “greeted with grudging applause”) in presenting the Premier’s Literary Award. There was passing mention of Morris Iemma’s conspicuous absence and some gently gleeful discussion of Macquarie banker Bob Carr’s declaration he didn’t read Australian books.
Pretty mild stuff. Refreshing, compared with the usual pap, if perhaps a little undergrad. Given that both Arts NSW and Macquarie Bank are major funders, it makes you wonder. Was the festival just another “be nice to sponsors” week?
This year, it happened again; students and others had their paper impounded and their persons allegedly threatened with arrest. Excuse me, what? Are we suddenly transported to Burma? The festival’s droll manager, Ben Strout, may argue “free voices does not mean freedom to blurt . . . whatever . . . wherever”. The Walsh Bay precinct manager, Luke Mead, who apparently gave the order, may yell down the phone at any who ask that “it’s private property and we’ll stop people handing out papers if we want to”. But in truth, they’re both wrong. Free speech does mean pretty much whatever, wherever, and the festival wharf – unlike much of Walsh Bay – is still public domain.
The students, understandably, claim harassment and censorship. They point out the paper was wholly UTS-produced and funded, and a disclaimer distanced its views from the festival’s. More importantly, they defend their independence. “We’re journalism students,” writes one, “not public relations students”.
The UTS humanities dean, Theo van Leeuwen, attempted to make peace, posting an apology on the festival website, but only poured kero on the embers. The students felt betrayed. Their professor, Wendy Bacon, defended them, and free speech, only to find herself promptly banned from a panel on radicalism, when she’d simply been polishing her credentials. The festival denies the ban, but emails make it clear her presence was not acceptable.
All looking strange indeed, until the explanation emerged that puts both parties in a bizarre light.
A contract – titled “Education Partner Agreement” – signed in 2006 by van Leeuwen (for UTS) and the then festival director, Caro Llewellyn, commits UTS journalism students to produce Festival News at UTS’s cost. The contra for UTS includes their writers’ involvement in festival panels, the festival launch of a UTS student anthology and the UTS logo on the festival website. Neither the staff nor students producing News knew of the contract’s existence.
What are two supposed bastions of intelligent and unfettered debate doing colluding in the first place, in a covert sweetheart deal that leaves the university looking like a PR firm and the festival like some tacky trade fair?
They need their heads knocked together if they cannot see that teaching journalism students to think like copywriters is quite as dangerous and more insidious than fettering them to a military junta.
Postmodernism loved to blur boundaries – between disciplines (viz neurogeography), between races and cultures (Eurasian, Spanglish), between genders (metrosexual, retrosexual) and also between journalism and PR.
More universities are merging journalism into PR and “communications” faculties, as though who pays the piper matters not a jot. This is almost as ugly, and parochial, as a writers’ festival stifling criticism.
What should they do? Base their attitude to News on mine to Matty Johns.
I disapprove of the game he plays, but will defend to the death his right to play it.