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Empires of Information

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The international War on Terror and recent events in our immediate region, particularly Indonesia, have thrown a sudden spotlight on Australian reporting of the Asia Pacific. But Australia has a long history of journalism, travel writing and documentary filmmaking here. This paper draws on Edward Said’s writings on ‘orientalism’ to bring an historical perspective to bear on contemporary factual genres and practices. It highlights three cases, focusing on Indonesia and Papua New Guinea: the travel writing and journalism of Frank Clune in the late thirties and early forties (To the Isles of Spice, 1944), the agit-prop filmmaking of Joris Ivens and the Waterside Workers Federation (Indonesia Calling, 1948), and the explosion of documentary work that came out of Papua New Guinea, Australia’s only true colony, from the early 1970s. In conclusion, the paper offers a caveat to factual crafts and genres — in both journalism and filmmaking — that deal with these geographically close, but culturally ‘other’, Australian neighbours, whom we must learn to live with. Empires of information are always, simultaneously, empires of imagination. 2 Empires need more than armies and navies to exercise control over their conquests. The recent Iraq war was fought on two battlefields. The first was won with tanks and cruise missiles. The second was an even more lopsided contest between a crude third world propagandist and a sophisticated information superpower. U.S. President George Bush’s crusade for an abstracted “freedom” resonated widely among Arab countries, but perhaps as a result of their colonial experiences, not entirely in ways that he intended. Such rhetoric carries much historical baggage, and cannot easily cross cultural borders untouched, unexamined. And if the last century has taught humanity anything at all, it has surely warned of the dangers of thinking in absolutes — including calls for ‘liberty’, ‘democracy’, and ‘justice’. In colonial times, Westerners who chose to govern ‘natives’ argued moral and intellectual superiority to rationalise their governance: on one hand to underpin the recruitment of local administrators, and on the other, hopefully, to keep the conquered submissive. Such ideas of superiority — coded as ‘civilisation’, ‘modernity’, ‘progress’, ‘development’, ‘liberty’ — are fundamental to colonial governments, which set out early in the imperial mission to build an apparatus for transmitting them both locally and globally. Far from simple, crude methods of ‘mere’ government propaganda, this apparatus is sophisticated, commonly comprising ‘modern’ administrative, educational, medical, communication and legal institutions which replace existing traditional or ‘primitive’ systems of knowledge. And this cosmos of dominance is relentlessly reinforced locally through imported cultural packages, which may include literature, movies, art, music, and fashion. More importantly, narrative genres that present themselves as ‘objective’ 3 and ‘factual’ accounts — such as news and documentary — must also be seen as part of the same project. This paper concerns itself with these latter, ‘factual’ genres, for the cultural packages of imperialism continue their work long after formal colonial government has ended, resulting in the old metropolitan centres maintaining post-colonial influence over their former subjects. And the sophisticated modern technologies and rhetorics of actuality, reality, neutrality and objectivity deployed by contemporary global news text and image empires are particularly difficult to avoid, analyse or verify at the local level — at their margins.

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