Gavin Ellis: The Pacific Media Centre must break free to survive

Papuan students farewell Dr David Robie
Papuan students farewell retired Pacific Media Centre director professor David Robie at AUT last December. Image: Asia Pacific Report


For many years I thought universities were the ideal place to establish centres of investigative journalism excellence. Now I’m not so sure.

My views have been shaken to the core by the Auckland University of Technology gutting the Pacific Media Centre. Its future in anything but name is now in doubt.

The PMC’s founder, highly regarded journalist and academic Professor David Robie, retired last December. In short order the centre’s offices were emptied and the contents, one hopes, placed in storage. The School of Communication Studies head, Dr Rosser Johnson, announced that PMC would henceforth share space in the main media studies workspace.

In an email he said “everything that the school is planning will, we believe, enhance its status and increase its visibility” and that he would be calling for expressions of interest in the leadership of the centre.

However, those previously involved in its operation speak of a communication vacuum and no resumption of centre activity. Four unmarked desks have apparently been assigned. The PMC website appears to have been frozen, apart from links to associated – but independent – operations Asia Pacific Report and the Pacific Journalism Review.

Dr Robie has made clear his views on the plight of the centre and he has been joined by a legion of concerned academics, journalists and concerned members of communities throughout the Asia Pacific region. The Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative, in a diplomatically-worded letter to AUT warned what would be lost if PMC – “the jewel in AUT’s crown” – is closed or subsumed.

It suggested the best solution may be to reconstitute the PMC as an independent centre. The undiplomatic translation of that is “Take it away from the School of Communications Studies”.

Systemic issues at the interface
I would go a step further: Take it away from AUT because there is a fundamental conflict of interest between tertiary institutions and centres of investigative journalism. There are systemic issues at the interface between academic and craft practices. The tension has been exacerbated by the fact that universities can no longer measure the success of their journalism courses by the number of graduates they place in jobs.

Many of those jobs simply no longer exist and prospective students know it. As a result, the focus has shifted to a more traditional university outlook based on theoretical teaching and research outputs.

The Pacific Media Centre is not the first to fall victim.

In Sydney, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, one of the county’s flagships of investigative reporting, closed in 2017 after 25 years of racking up a plethora of award-winning stories. The University of Technology Sydney unceremoniously closed the ACIJ following “periodic evaluation of performance against the strategic objectives of the faculty and the university”.

What that means in plain English is that the centre’s journalism wasn’t counting sufficiently towards the research-based metrics that determined how much funding UTS could attract from government.

AUT’s Pacific Media Centre is in exactly the same position. Its journalism may be lauded here and throughout the region (and beyond) but it does not push the required buttons by fitting neatly into conventional academic methodologies at the core of the Performance Based Research Funding (PBRF) model that determines a large part of the share of government money that each tertiary institution receives.

Professor Chris Nash, an award-winning ABC journalist who became director of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism before moving to Monash University, told me in a telephone conversation last week that journalists were in very vulnerable positions within universities and were often pushed into internecine competition with their colleagues (let alone the broader disciplinary framework of the social sciences) over what should be their proper academic output.

Research-based imperatives
He said journalism wasn’t alone in experiencing this misalignment with the research-based imperatives of academia. Nursing and architecture had been similarly afflicted, as had history which is now one of the most august disciplines in the social sciences.

Nash wrote a provocative book What is Journalism? that argues that journalism should be treated as an academic discipline on a par with history.

“Journalism is where history used to be,” he told me. “History used to manifest precisely what journalism is being accused of, which is that it is purely empirical with no analysis and no reflection.

“It’s a common political problem that disciplines have to face as they emerge in the context of a university environment. I have to say journalism has handled it fairly badly, particularly with its focus on the job market… It has seriously failed to actually develop a concept of journalism as academic research.”

Dr Robie (whose own body of PBRF-recognised research is prodigious) acknowledged as much in a 2015 article in which he argued for greater recognition of “journalism-as-research” in the PBRF funding model.

That hasn’t come to pass and it’s clear from the dire situation facing the PMC that the friction between practice and research is as abrasive as ever.

Centres like the Pacific Media Centre develop an ethos that is driven by their leadership, and particularly by their founders. When it is time for the leaders to move on (and at 75 David Robie had more than earned his retirement), the issue of succession is vitally important.

Panama Papers moving force
When I was conducting research for my book Trust Ownership and the Future of News, I interviewed Charles Lewis, founder of the Centre for Public Integrity in Washington. The centre is the moving force behind the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that uncovered the Panama Papers.

After Lewis left the centre in 2004 it went through a series of directors, its fulltime staff dropped from 40 to 25 and it committed a number of embarrassing gaffs. It has since recovered its equilibrium and regained its place in the media landscape, but Lewis told me he believed insufficient attention had been paid to succession planning and to codifying values and ethos.

Dr Robie was mindful of the issue of succession and has written extensively on the values and ethos of the Pacific Media Centre but the reality is that neither he nor the staff of the centre had any control over events following his retirement. The decision-making was within the Faculty of Design and Creative Technologies and its School of Communications Studies.

Not only were there no guarantees of any continuation of the imperatives or ethos Dr Robie had built up over 13 years, but the terms of reference for a new appointee could – and likely will – pay more attention to the academic interests of the school (and its PBRF score) than to journalism.

This endgame is in stark contrast to the centre’s beginnings. It was established as one of five autonomous centres that comprised the Creative Industries Research Institute. Although the institute was within the university, it enjoyed significant independence.

The inaugural chair of the PMC advisory board, Selwyn Manning, told me that, from the onset, the centre’s purpose was clear.

The Pacific Media Centre Project – a video made by Alistar Kata for the PMC while she was contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch.

“It was established to be a place of Pacific (and Asia Pacific) identity, where undergraduates, and those from industry, could locate, research and learn. Key to the PMC’s purpose was to ensure a bridge be constructed between the university (AUT), external journalistic bodies, and industry. The work that post-graduate students produced was to have relevancy and value in both academic terms and as real examples of quality Fourth Estate reportage in the real world.

Significant support from AUT
“The model attracted significant support from within AUT, from external networks, and from industry. The PMC’s governing board reflected this and under David Robie’s directorship the PMC soon became a thriving example of collaboration, where common ground was identified among its stakeholders, and the PMC’s direction and purpose was sustained.

“The support extended to the PMC from the Creative Industries Research Institute was first class. But, when some years later CIRI was disestablished, and the PMC was shifted to be within the School of Journalism, then it appeared to me support for its efforts and its autonomous-identity began to ebb. This was despite the PMC having achieved prominence among other media centres in the Asia Pacific region, and having produced a steady stream of AUT post-graduates, including many people recognised for high achievement.”

All of this points to a basic incompatibility that is not limited to AUT, its Faculty of Design and Creative Technologies, or its School of Communications Studies. They are victims of a flawed system.

The neoliberal underpinnings of tertiary funding in this country (and elsewhere) demand policies that maximise an institution’s ability to attract contestable government money. And in the neoliberal belief that everything can be measured, the whole system is skewed by decisions on what will count. In the case of New Zealand, that means academic research outputs dictated by recognised methodologies.

That system is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future so the only way in which centres such as the PMC can survive – and thrive – is for them to be separated from institutions that devalue the product of their endeavours.

Disengagement should not be total because students and faculty members benefit immeasurably from working in a rigorous journalistic environment. And, let’s face it, they represent cheap manpower while they learn and research.

The demise of the Creative Industries Research Institute suggests there is no safety in so-called independent structures within a university. The need is for structures that have their own charter, funding security, and ability to freely associate with tertiary institutions.

NZ’s Pacific aid
New Zealand’s current official aid to the Pacific amounts to more than $440 million a year. A tiny fraction of that sum would finance the Pacific Media Centre, the worth of which is widely recognised in the region.

The Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative’s letter to the AUT vice-chancellor stated that Pacific journalism is “under existential threat” and that the PMC “has a key role to play in. the survival of public interest journalism and media in the region”. That, surely, is a justification for funding.

The government already funds the Asia Media Centre (through the Asia New Zealand Foundation) and the Science Media Centre (through the Royal Society Te Apārangi). The Pacific Media Centre should be added to that list and re-established as a stand-alone trust. It should continue its original remit and maintain its associations with Asia Pacific Report and the Pacific Journalism Review.

It may be time, however, to find a new university partner. I fear AUT has damaged its associations beyond repair.

Dr Gavin Ellis holds a PhD in political studies. He is a media consultant and researcher. A former editor-in-chief of The New Zealand Herald, he has a background in journalism and communications – covering both editorial and management roles – that spans more than half a century. Dr Ellis publishes a blog called Knightly Views where this commentary was first published and it is republished by Asia Pacific Report with permission.

The Radio 531pi interview with Dr David Robie and doctoral candidate Ena Manuireva by host Ma’a Brian Sagala.

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