In a world of soundbites and political spin, academic blogs can offer an alternative to those wanting to look deeper
In the late hours of Saturday 5 May 2013, servers at the Australian National University (ANU) went into meltdown. They were being bombarded with thousands of hits from Malaysia, where the country was waiting on edge to see if the all-powerful and long-ruling UMNO party and its Barisan Nasional coalition would finally be toppled at the ballot box.
Led by Greg Lopez, now of Murdoch University, a group of ANU scholars and students and media staff provided live, rolling analysis on the critical vote via the specialist Southeast Asia blog, New Mandala.
Malaysian voters, as well as other interested onlookers from Australia and around the globe, lapped it up, hungry for credible and timely insight on what many perceived to be the crucial test in Malaysia’s recent democratic development.
Outside of a few courageous independent online platforms, Malaysia’s mainstream press still danced to the tune of its rulers—hardly surprising in what is often called an electoral authoritarian regime and where media licensing and ownership are tightly controlled. Malaysians inside and outside the country looked to New Mandala to know what was actually going on and make sense of what was happening.
Our live coverage that night—rolling commentaries, analysis and op-ed articles, field reports, videos, podcasts and the occasional meme—still remains one of New Mandala’s most popular posts of all time.
At first glance, the whole evening, and the early hours of the next morning, are testament to the power and value of academic blogging, and the opportunity that digital platforms provide for academics to shape and enhance public debate.
But, considering that today Malaysia’s democracy is still a pipedream, that mass street protests calling for electoral reform and transparency continue, and that dipping into a sovereign wealth fund still isn’t enough to see a prime minister go, one may wonder whether academic engagement with public debate makes any difference.
I would still argue yes—and that it is needed today more than ever. Academics have a responsibility to engage the public, and this responsibility is now more acute.
First, there is the clear public and social interest, particularly when it comes to democratic deficits and diminished freedoms. Websites like New Mandala fill holes punched in the political fabric by the heavy-handed controls of some of Southeast Asia’s regimes. And in a region like Southeast Asia, pointed questions of press and political freedom have only become sharper.
It is often said journalism is the first draft of history. If that’s true, academic scholarship not only has a role to play in enhancing that first draft, it can write the all-important second draft
Of the 180 countries ranked by the Reporters without Borders annual report, the 10 nations of Southeast Asia came in, at best, 128 (Cambodia) and, at worst, 175 (Vietnam). The others in order were Indonesia (130), Thailand (136), Philippines (138), Myanmar (143), Malaysia (146), Singapore (154), Brunei (155), and Laos (173). This represents a slight deterioration from the 2015 report.
But it’s not just media freedom at stake; it’s media in general, and its disintegration in the face of digital disruption.
As traditional mainstream media shrink as a result of budget and staff cuts and fewer resources, academics are starting to fill the breach. It is often said journalism is the first draft of history. If that’s true, academic scholarship not only has a role to play in enhancing that first draft, it can write the all-important second draft.
There is a clear appetite among the public for this. People, sick of soundbites and spin, want nuance and depth over superficiality. They seek out new and trusted sources of information. In some cases, academic blogs are more trustworthy for the mere fact that, unlike newspapers and TV and radio stations, they don’t run to a political agenda, unspoken or otherwise. At New Mandala we publish anything that propels public debate and knowledge, regardless of whether we agree with it or not.
Most importantly, people no longer listen to what they perceive to be the establishment to see how well the old guard and old ways are faring—as the rise of politicians like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Donald Trump in the United States, as well as the Brexit fiasco, attests.
Digital disruption means old formats are being replaced by new formats. The traditional mainstream media has been eaten by social media, and the web has switched off the television. This trend will only continue. As the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2016 notes, more than a quarter of 18- 24-year-olds say social media (28%) is the main source of news—that’s more than television for the first time (24%).
Academia’s gain is not just the mainstream media’s pain. There are major social and political ramifications in the rise of the blogger and the demise of mainstream media—not least that journalists provide a critical service in gathering facts and reporting them. This is a function academics cannot be expected to replace. One wonders how much the first draft of history, and by extension the second, will suffer as a consequence of this tectonic shift. Robust, wise societies need robust, wise media. Today, across much of the globe, this is not certain.
In these circumstances, it is not hard to see websites like New Mandala playing an even more important role in Australia’s frontline reporting on a region so critical to this nation’s future.
Red Shirt demonstration in Bangkok in 2010. Academic blogs like New Mandala are keeping people informed about events in regions such as Southeast Asia where pointed questions of press and political freedom are becoming sharper. Photo: Wikimedia Commons