We need to talk about ‘Stranger Things’

I finished watching Stranger Things during the week, it was very enjoyable; even if the ending felt just a little downbeat. Max is a great character – eminently relatable – so it sucked to see her end up in such a bad way [sorry – SPOILERS!]. I loved the fact that a new generation has been turned on to Kate Bush. For those who want a little more Kate Bush fire, check out Cloudbusting and the far less renowned ‘Hounds of Love’ – equally timeless and fantastic songs.

I found a fox caught by dogs
He let me take him in my hands
His little heart, it beats so fast
And I’m ashamed of running away

I also liked the way the long-format TV on Netflix is playing on episode length, with the last three episodes essentially being feature movie length installments. That sort of ability to play with the ‘beats’ of a story is a really interesting innovation in long form TV and must be a boon for storytelling.

But, at the same time, there are elements of the ‘Netflixification’ of storytelling that I think really let Stranger Things down, in some ways. There remains a clear desire to appeal to literally everyone that sometimes undermines the actual impact of the story.

The thing I enjoyed most about Season Four was the way in which it managed to play with the ‘DnD is corrupting our kids’ trope, which was a real thing in the 80s.

not subtle, but well played nevertheless.

The series nostalgically confronted how social fears about kids using their imaginations (instead of just playing sport and watching TV) could lead to a moral panic on behalf of witless adults and cool kids made uncomfortable by difference. The showrunners did a decent job of highlighting that the geeks aren’t just ok – their ability to comprehend the danger of ‘Vecna’ and their ability to organise against that danger was clearly enabled by their ‘geeky’ behaviour. Moreover, the fear expressed towards the different created more problems than it solved. It’s a good message that is almost timeless.

But really, at a point where Elon Musk and Mike Cannon-Brookes are generally seen as superheroes by the zeitgeist, is it really that interesting to suggest ‘the geeks are alright? The whole series is nostalgic, and I get that, but it also tries to make that nostalgia relevant for a younger audience that didn’t experience the 80s. And it’s a lot less cutting edge to stand in 2022 celebrating geeks than it was back in the 80s.

But I get it, Netflix production is dominated by attracting large numbers of viewers and achieving cut through across broad segments of potential audience. Hallinan and Striphas talked about this in ‘The Netflix Prize and the production of algorithmic culture’. Netflix use their unbelievably large set of data points about what audiences do and don’t like to curate content (such as Stranger Things) that they know will draw in guaranteed audiences – and the very data driven business model means that a show that fails in this regard and loses viewers can be axed very quickly indeed. So, yeah, I get it – Stranger Things blends its horror with humour, its bellicosity with banality because it needs to hit those audience numbers. (I wrote about this phenomenon – the ‘norming’ created by algorithmic culture in my article ‘The big data public and its problems‘).

But pandering to audiences should never mean that you lose opportunities to tell your story. And in the case of Season 4 of Stranger Things, the showrunners lost me when they – repeatedly – featured ‘gun porn’, particularly in the last few episodes. By ‘gun porn’ I mean scenes and shots of protagonists ogling, praising and fondling guns.

like this scene:

I have the power because I hold the gun

and this one…

killing things… orgasmic

and this one…

This is for being a real jerk to Max!

Now the relationship between media depictions of violence and actual violence is long and complicated – ‘direct’ effects are unverifiable. However, I’m a huge believer that the norming of themes, formats and, well, norms is one area where we certainly do see effective media. One example of this is Laura Mulvey’s concept of the ‘Male Gaze’. The ‘Male Gaze’ is the privileging of the heterosexual masculine eye in the construction of media.

Male gaze much?

Mulvey argues that this construction has been so privileged and prominent in media production that it has become its own social meaning system – it ‘norms’ a way of looking (and displaying) that we all take for granted/agree upon/see as somewhat unproblematic. The dominance of the Male gaze means that it is now unproblematic for TikTokers and Insta Influencers to see displaying for the ‘male gaze’ as something intrinsically valuable, whereas earlier generations would have viewed this behaviour as somewhat problematic. In fact, the ‘male gaze’ has become so unproblematic that males that have also internalised this way of seeing and displaying themselves, although they often ‘hide’ the gaze behind some other display of ‘utility’ [the capitalist gaze being the real power behind the throne].

Thirsty? FWIW I do enjoy both of their content.

The important thing to recognise about this is that this way of viewing has become so broadly accepted that it effects people’s behaviour. While it’s difficult to prove a ‘media effects’ type of causality in cases like this, it’s also clear that media plays a prominent role in ‘norming’ particular social meanings, understandings and [therefore, necessarily] behaviours.

One thing that US media/film/TV production consistently does is ‘norm’ the veneration of guns as being just great. To return to Stranger Things – which we love because of its accessible take on alt/genre culture – in Season Four guns are used as plot devices to give people power, to solve otherwise intractable problems and to be a sort of ‘democratising force’ for good (allowing the physically disadvantaged to stand up to stronger foes). Just like the Male gaze, these messages about guns have become so unproblematically internalised by US audiences that they are used consistently by US storytellers in these ways. We all see it, understand it and – more or less – accept it. But in my case, not so much.

But with the way gun reform is going in the US, and with a nod of the head to the ‘moral panic/won’t anyone please think of the children’ vibe , I found the gun porn in Season Four of Stranger Things to be pretty gross. In my world, guns create problems – they are used by teenagers to shoot innocent protestors, commit armed robbery and shoot up schools. There are clearly a lot of ‘good’ uses for guns but I see a lot more evidence that they create more problems than they solve. Wouldn’t it be great if media started running storylines that reflected this – the presence of the gun makes everything more dangerous, more lethal, and allows a vigilante to overpower and control a situation where they would otherwise be powerless. And people without guns, working together, can overcome that villainy through using cooperation, courage and candour.

In the case of Stranger Things, Season Four, I think the showrunners missed a real opportunity to make the ‘lessons’ a little more relevant and less nostalgic by finding interesting ways to solve the problems the protagonists’ faced. To be fair, they clearly illustrated that it was only in the case of the Russian side story that a weapon proved to be effective (the flamethrower on the mindflayer). In every other instance – the shooting of Vecna, the use of the gun in the plane hijacking, the fight between Lucas and Jason – the guns were pretty much useless.

So, maybe the writers are trying to be subtle about that what really ‘helped’ was the teamwork, the creative thinking, the solidarity and the bravery of the protagonists. But they missed a chance to feature that in a more direct way. I mean, they were creative enough to suggest that the upside down was a symbiotic system of evil and that Eleven could piggyback through time and space on other people’s memories… so why not use this sort of storytelling license to come up with reasons and ways to defeat Vecna without going into gun porn? They managed to NOT use guns earlier in the series to fantastic effect.

I mean Vecna could have probably been beaten by eczema

I’m not one who argues that all media needs to be politically correct – it is completely understandable that these gun porn beats are placed in these contexts. It is also useful to acknowledge that this is how guns are thought about in US culture. But if you ask me, the show does betray the very essence of what is wrong with the way the US thinks about guns (that they are a solution, rather than a problem), and I also think the otherwise savvy show runners missed an opportunity to tell a far more interesting story about how evil actually creeps into our lives, and what it takes to defeat it.

And the reason that they make these decisions is because gun porn, and violence in general, play well in the US market, and so we have ‘gun gaze’.

All of these are used to kill people.

What the media isn’t telling you about Scott Morrison

Ever wondered why the ‘mainstream media’ (MSM) has gone so easy on Scott Morrison and the LNP this election?

‘What’ you say? I thought they were remarkably even handed, he’s had some quite uncomfortable moments, and lost every debate!

Yes, MSM has gone incredibly soft on him (double entendre intended). In this post I’m going to talk first about some egregious corruption that should ensure that no one even thinks of voting LNP this election, and then cover why the media aren’t quite covering it that way.

First, here are some examples of issues where they have been kinder to the Morrison LNP than they were to the Gillard/Rudd Labor government. Much of this comes from the longer list at : https://www.mdavis.xyz/govlist/

A small sample of Morrison government corruption:

  • The Morrison government used $800m for paying for carparks and sports facilities (many of which didn’t even qualify for the funding) as a bribe for voters to win the last election.
    • The Morrison government responded by cutting funding to the national (fully indpendent) audit office that exposed this corruption.
    • Given the narrowness of the election win, this tax payer money can be understood to have directly ‘bought’ power for the LNP. Yet, this has never been mentioned in the media.
  • Implemented the ‘Robodebt’ system which cost more money than it recovered, mistakenly accused people of owing money and triggered a number of suicides.
    • For comparison, the death of two workers in Labor’s ‘Pink Bats’ scandal led to a Royal Commission and a strong finding against the Rudd government. The LNP even redirected $4m from the Child Sex Abuse Royal Commission to pink bats because those deaths were to be taken so seriously. While a senate committee has called for a Royal Commission into Robodebt, the Morrison government has refused to engage one – and the media is strangely silent on demanding one.
  • Paid almost $20m in incentives to encourage the sale of Port of Darwin to China, which Morrison now maintains that they had ‘no say’ over
  • Despite promising a Federal ICAC in the last election campaign, the Morrison LNP has failed to table a viable proposal for that ICAC and voted against proposals, insisting that any corruption investigation be overseen by government (as in, let them run their own investigation).
  • And well might this government fear an ICAC as they have repeatedly been implicated in shelling out money to their mates and supporters with no proper process literally dozens of times. Such as:
    • $450million on carbon capture and storage projects – none of which were successful, and almost all of which were subsequently cancelled.
    • $600m on new gas power plant that was not considered viable by the private sector.
    • $15.5m on fossil fuel research.
    • $39m to a naval boat manufacturer Austal for meeting key milestones when they DID NOT meet those milestones. However, Austal just happens to have donated $80,000 to the LNP that year (as opposed to a $1500 donation to the Labor party).
    • $25k to a US defense contractor blacklisted for bribery.
    • Paid a billionaire 10 times the market rate ($30m) for land valued at $3m a year later.
    • $50m to APA to develop new gas projects. APA just also happens to donate to the LNP.
    • $6.7m in Job Keeper to Harvey Norman, despite them quadrupling their profits during the pandemic. (Academics, musicians and artists got $0 from job keeper)
    • $18m on a ‘leadership program’ for young libs, awarded to a shady company with no prior experience, without a tender process.
    • Gave $10m of bushfire recovery money to a paper mill that wasn’t affected by the bushfires.
    • $200k to a National party media advisor to take photos and videos of bushfire recovery.
    • $423m to an inexperienced security provider ‘Paladin’ to supply Manus Island security via an illegitimate ‘limited tender’. The group had only $50,000 to their name when they ‘won’ the ‘limited tender’, so the government advanced them $10m to get started.
    • $385m (eventually $1.6B) for a Brisbane construction company with only $8 in assets at the time… but happened to be a LNP donor.
    • $443m to Great Barrier Reef foundation to ‘save the reef’ through developing business opportunities. This money was awarded without tender or applicaiton.
    • $2.2m on scientifically discredited ‘water fans’ as a solution to reef bleaching.
    • $100m loan to BHP and Rio Tinto – because they need the money.
  • While all this has been going on, the LNP has refused to legislate for transparency of political donations, loosened political donation laws and has increased the amount of government funding without proper tender process to $34billion per month.

So, considering all this, yes, the media IS going soft on Morrison’s government. And this is why…

Included in the campaign against accountability that the LNP has waged for the past 10 years, it has worked furiously to coddle the commercial media (Newscorp, Fairfax and Seven West) and undermine critical media and journalism.

In terms of coddling, ‘traditional’ media has been thrown into a crisis by the economics of search engines and social media – and long story short – the LNP government has raced to the aid of large media businesses. Note, not journalists (more about this below), but the billionaire business owners. The ‘News Media and Digital Platforms Bargaining Code’ could have offered rewards for insightful journalism that made a public contribution but, instead, it ended up guaranteeing some internet advertising revenue to the largest media companies in Australia – but not the ABC. This is the sort of legislation that is needed but the ‘shape’ of the legislation fits the issues described above – it favours the Murdoch press and big business. That has meant, in turn, that the entirety of the Australian commerical media has really opted NOT to go too hard on Morrison, who has been a great friend. I mean Morrison’s government even gave $345000 to News Corp to build a spelling bee website, there was no tender, no competitive process.

On the other hand, the LNP’s attack on critical journalism has been unprecedented. And I use that term pointedly. Unprecedented.

Like the unprecedented use of the AFP to raid ABC and Newscorp journalists who were collecting evidence of war crimes in Afghanistan and writing about increased state surveillance powers respectively. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-07-15/abc-raids-australian-federal-police-press-freedom/11309810

Like the unprecedented new laws

which mean Edward Snowden type leaks are punishable by up to 10 years of prison. No exemptions are made for anti-corruption leaks. If journalists report on anyone (including innocent bystanders) being killed accidentally or deliberately by security personnel, they will be jailed for up to 10 years.

The government has shown it means business on this by spending $2m trying to prosecute a whistleblower who leaked truthful information about corruption. It has also changed protest laws so that anyone who tries to object to the governments plans or policies will pretty much forfeit all their rights.

Like the unprecedented attack on the ABC, not just accusing it of not being on ‘Team Australia’ for making critical comments about war crimes, corruption and double dealing, but more importantly chronically defunding Australia’s most trusted source of news and information. The reason the ABC is so trusted is because it doesn’t replicate the cronyism and support that the Murdoch/commercial media does. For the same reason, the government thinks it is ‘left leaning’. No, it is the most objective and accurate source of news Australia has, and still the best source of honest journalists and journalistic training.

As I researched Australian’s media use during the pandemic, it became clear that Australians tend to turn to the ABC in times of crisis. Think of the pandemic, the bushfires, the floods. How reliant are we on the excellent journalism of the ABC at these times? And yet the Morrison and Abbott government defunded it to the tune of around $250 million dollars over the past 10 years. As a media scholar studying the proliferation of misinformation online, I can tell you that the quality journalism that the ABC offers has never been more crucial. So why defund it? Because it occasionally offers valid criticism of nepotism and corruption.

Finally, the Morrison government hasn’t just attacked critical voices in journalism, but also the training of critical thinkers (and journalists) in our universities. When considering how we could change university funding to encourage ‘job ready graduates’ the Morrison government ramped up the costs for training in journalism, critical thinking and anything else that challenged the ‘status quo’. For me, this is where the corruption becomes endemic – it is an attempt to ensure that not only does this government get away with it, but that future governments will too.

Don’t take my word on any of this, you can google any of these talking points and ‘do your own research’. At the same time check out https://theyvoteforyou.org.au/ and see how your local LNP member has voted on issues like a Federal ICAC and University funding just to check that I’m not smearing them. I’m not. This is what they are doing.

They are trying to destroy our democracy by making corruption endemic, and the media has been bought along for the ride.

Statements (about what is going on at UWA Social Sciences) that are not rumours

What follows are statements of fact that are (at least as far as I know) are neither rumours, nor possibly defamatory on the basis of the fact that they are true.

If you believe that something said here is not a fact, please point it out in the comments and I’ll do my best to address it. Similarly, if you’d like to make more statements of fact (not rumours) about the UWA Social Sciences change proposal, please feel free to comment below and I will add any verifiable statements to the list.

FACT: The recent ‘restructure’ of social sciences at UWA has resulted in the redundancy of at least five of Australia’s leading academics in their field. Prof Loretta Baldassar, Prof Petra Tschakert, Prof Farida Fozdar, Ass Prof Jeannette Taylor and Ass Prof Joanna Elfving-Hwang. They are all recognised as being excellent in their field, are ‘top cites’ and have each attracted large amounts of research funding to the university. They are all women who asked reasonable questions about Amanda Davies and her ‘vision’ of the social sciences. They are all now leaving UWA.

FACT: While there was no clear argument in the proposal document about how the changes proposed would achieve their goals, Amanda Davies stated to me that ‘increased efficiency and teaching load’ for the school would be achieved by increasing the teaching load of Media and Communication. That is, increasing efficiency and teaching load is to be achieved by making one discipline teach more than the others.

FACT: The implicit justification provided in the proposal for the preservation of ARCH, GEOG, POLS and LING research time was that they were established or emerging areas of research strength. There was no reason given for why COMM and ASIA were not considered areas of emerging research strength, although these disciplines were clearly marginalised by the new ‘school vision’ ‘in which students learn to employ the scientific approach to examine, theorise and develop solutions to complex social challenges’. The only justification for making these latter disciplines ‘teaching focused’ was ‘to ensure adequate teaching resources are available for the School’s programs and enable the programs to be delivered sustainably’.

FACT: The COMM major is one of the most efficient majors in the university. It is not just ‘sustainable’ with a Teaching and Research staff but highly profitable. So the ‘sustainability’ of programs does not refer to the COMM program but, rather, to the sustainability of other programs in the school.

FACT: Despite COMM being among the most understaffed disciplines in the university the school of Social Science has repeatedly appointed staff to other discipline areas over the past 10 years. Notably the disciplines of GEOG and ARCH have made appointments, despite being at the lower end of the Staff Student Ratio (SSR) table.

FACT: GEOG and ARCH have held the Head of School position for the past 5 years. According to the proposal, which the FWC acknowledged clearly used ‘data that had proved to be incorrect’ for persuasive purposes, the GEOG reported SSR stands at 17 and ARCH at 13 students per staff member respectively. COMM is at 27 students per staff member.

FACT: When COMM lost one of only two Level Ds in 2019, they received no replacement position. Despite this being an ongoing position. Despite having one of the highest SSRs in the school.

FACT: When I asked HR to provide me with a list of appointed positions by the last three substantive Heads of School, HR claimed that they did not have this information.

FACT: In a meeting with Amanda Davies and Christina Lee (HR) just prior to the release of the proposal in July last year, Amanda Davies stated to me that Media and Communication ‘should be a cash cow’.

FACT: During the time considered by the proposal for total research funding by discipline, Media and Comms had the most junior staff in the school (on average), had lost their Level D without replacement and had their research funds frozen by the university because of ‘COVID contingencies’ that were not transparently applied to all staff equally (meaning some staff members were able to use their research funds and others of us were not, with no justification, or transparency around the decision).

FACT: When I contacted the then SDVC to point out that the inefficiencies of the school of Social Science was the result of inequitable appointments and resourcing within the School, he responded that he ‘didn’t see it that way’, without making any argument about why my argument was incorrect.

What does the term ‘genuine consultation’ mean? FWC on UWA change proposal illustrates low standards of accountability in Australian universities

When Associate Professor Martin Forsey was presented with a proposal for change at his workplace that lacked a logical argument and contained flawed data he bought a case to the Fair Work Commission, arguing that such a flawed proposal could not be used as the basis of the ‘genuine consultation’ about structural reform required under his enterprise agreement.

However, in its judgement released last week, the Fair Work Commission found that the university was under no obligation to provide data, let alone accurate data, in order to justify its proposal, and that because staff had been given the opportunity to respond to the proposal, UWA had clearly fulfilled its remit to provide ‘genuine consultation’.

The term ‘genuine consultation’ was included in the EBA and the use of the term ‘genuine’ seems to imply that consultation will extend beyond a cursory or deceitful representation of the justification for change.

But in this case, the Fair Work Commission argued that ‘genuine consultation’ had taken place on the following grounds:

  • UWA provided a written proposal detailing the nature of the change, the underlying rationale for the change and the impact of the change on employees.

Fact check. The Social Science Proposal for Change did outline that the rationale for the change was to ‘improve budget sustainability, increase student load growth and improve student experience’, it also outlined that in order to achieve these goals, some majors would be eliminated, some turned into ‘teaching focused’ majors, and some rendered as ‘research flagships’. What was not in the proposal was any logical claim or connection between the nature of the changes made and the intended goals of the changes.

Logically the proposal read like ‘in order to have more bananas, we’re going to plant some apples’.

This was particularly concerning for staff as many of the changes seemed to undermine the ability for the school to achieve the stated goal – for instance – rewarding inefficient disciplines with ‘research flagship’ status while punishing efficient ones with high teaching loads actually discourages efficiency and student load growth.

In place of any rational justification for the changes, the proposal simply contained some carefully selected tables of data that selectively represented the achievements of disciplines in external research funding and Staff/Student Ratio (note – not in efficiency or student outcomes). It also selectively mentioned the decline in enrolments in Antrop and Sociology. All of these tables and use of data contained flaws and misrepresentations.

  • UWA provided the opportunity to meet and confer on the Proposal and any alternative proposals.

Fact check. The Head of School and a HR representative met with every discipline after the proposal was released. In these meetings my discipline was explicitly told that the only way to provide feedback on the proposal was via a school administered email address. When it was revealed that the Head of School would be vetting all feedback staff questioned the fairness of this process but were asked ‘to trust’ that management would consider all feedback. While the Head of School did offer to meet again to discuss the impact of the proposed changes, she made it clear that such meetings could not be used to discuss the proposal’s merits.

  • Genuine consideration given to matters raised

Fact check. The FWC uses the the inclusion of an indigenous anthropology major as evidence that ‘genuine consideration’ was given to matters raised. More than 390 pieces of feedback were received in response to the proposal. As a result of an FOI request we can now see that one of them suggested that indigenous anthropology might be necessary (presumably to secure more research funding from mining companies). The rest of the feedback questioned the logic behind the proposal, and most illustrated that the proposal would not achieve its rationale. This included a joint submission from all school disciplines that rejected the proposal based upon clear inequity and faulty logic.

The vast majority of feedback (over 380 carefully written and argued documents) was simply rejected, or went unconsidered, and at hastily called town hall meeting the Head of School announced the ‘revised’ proposal would be enstated with no further alteration beyond the inclusion of a possible anthropology major.

This was the first time staff had heard that all their efforts to point out the logical flaws in the proposal and come up with alternatives were being ignored and dismissed. So following the presentation the ‘town hall’ was opened up to questions.

As I had to use video conferencing to attend at such late notice (the meeting was announced less than 24 hours before it was held) I typed in my question that went to the heart of the faulty logic behind the proposal:

‘How does punishing the most efficient discipline in the school with the best student outcomes with higher teaching loads encourage other disciplines to achieve efficiency and improve student outcomes?’

The Head of School started to read this aloud, but then stopped and skipped to the next question without answering it, before becoming flustered, shutting down the meeting and attempting to leave. The question remained unanswered and the ‘consultation’ was over. So I sent an email to SDVC Biggs who simply responded that ‘he didn’t see it that way’ without any argument, logic or rejoinder. I then sent an email to the VC  asking the same question and am yet to receive a response. I emailed the VC again about a month ago, restating my question – and again – I’m still yet to receive a response.

And this is supposed to be ‘genuine consultation’?

This FWC judgement sidestepped the complaint that there was no rationale provided in the proposal aside from the faulty data. Feedback on the proposal was collated only by the proposal’s author and the vast majority of it, including a joint submission from all school staff, was never responded to, or addressed. Of 391 pieces of feedback to the proposal, almost all of which was entirely critical of the lack of clear and justifiable rationale behind the changes, one largely cosmetic change was taken on board and used by the university and the FWC as evidence that the consultation was ‘genuine’.

The corruption and cronyism at UWA goes way beyond this case but the fact that the management of a PUBLIC university is hiding behind such low levels of legitimacy and accountability to me suggests that the university is losing its integrity and will soon be consigned to become the ethics-free corporate training college that the Morrison government most desperately wants it to be.

Discussion of our responses to the proposal have been redacted. This is what they should have said.

This is just a rant about the recent proposal

The university’s investment in Media and Communication has always been weak, and the staff in that discipline have been asked to carry excess teaching loads to support two offshore programs as well as their UG and PG programs – which are among the most successful and efficient in the university despite this lack of investment. The proposal for change does not recognise and reward this success but punishes it. And that makes no sense whatsoever, which is why I suspect that sections of this response document that deal with Media and Communication are redacted.

Despite being the most understaffed and junior discipline in the school (at around 35 SSR and a staffing profile composed mostly of Level Bs at the time of this proposal) Media and Communication staff have also taught into non-synchronous offerings in Singapore and Hong Kong since the discipline was established (from 2006-2015 and 2006-present respectively). This has meant that discipline staff have been relied upon to deliver an excessive amount of teaching. In my own case I delivered 36 extra units offshore on top of an always overloaded teaching load at Crawley. Other staff would have delivered more than this. As well as the second largest UG major in the School, our 5 or 6 staff also deliver the large and profitable PG Masters in Strategic Communication.

As a result of this ‘teaching intensive’ workload, defined by the university, Media and Communication staff have ‘relatively underperformed’ in terms of attracting external research funding. Of course, low research performance has previously been used as an excuse to deliver these staff higher teaching loads, prevent career advancement and, in the case of one staff member who has been serving the discipline with distinction since 2009, as a justification for no permanent contract. These conditions have created a ‘vicious cycle’ undermining research in the discipline group.

As a further result of being so short staffed there is a heavy requirement for ‘service’ within the discipline – personally I’ve spent 6 of my 11 years as Level B in discipline chair/Major Coordinator roles, which is a significant amount of leadership of the second largest major in the school for a Level B. Beyond that, being a small discipline with a lot of students means that things like supervision, dissertation marking, marketing and promotion, event attendance and general pastoral care fall to a very small selection of people. Delivering a major to 200 EFTSLs with 5 or 6 staff presents major challenges to the ability for staff to concentrate on their grant applications. Every hand is needed all the time and there is no flexibility to arrange teaching schedules to block out some research time as there simply aren’t the staff to take up the slack. But we have soldiered on for our students.

In response to this issue the discipline has submitted repeated business cases to the university for extra staff. These have always been rejected on the basis of the school’s SSR being too low. It has been galling, in this respect, to see continual appointments made in other, less understaffed disciplines. But we have soldiered on for the sake of the school and our colleagues.

Let’s be clear about this – the Media and Communication staff have always produced a significant profit for UWA. We have always carried the heaviest teaching loads in the school, we have always delivered courses in the most efficient structure (8 unit majors) and we have been successful at everything we’ve been asked to do. We are NOT the source of the budget deficit and we continually have the best student outcomes in the state, if not Australia.

And as the discipline within the school with the most junior staff and the highest staff/student ratio, we lost a Level D appointment at the end of 2019. The university’s refusal to backfill this position in the most understaffed discipline in the school is emblematic of the lack of investment in our discipline. This level D was the closest thing we ever had to a ‘research appointment’ and of course, in a discipline defined by the need for more staff, the loss of that position definitively impacted our ‘externally funded research’ figure used in the proposal. The fact that this refusal to fund us was then used to compile evidence that Media and Communication wasn’t performing in externally funded research exemplifies the fact that university leadership had already decided to defund our research by early 2020. And yet I’m sure consultation on the proposal was ‘genuine’.

This decision flies in the face of the fact that despite these structural impediments, we have a discipline made up of highly respected and productive researchers. In my own case I have supervised 8 PhDs to completion, I have a H index of 7, and I am a CI on more than $400,000 of grants. I have four articles published this year, with another 2 due out before Christmas and another 2 currently under review. I lead a team of international researchers on game studies and we have been extremely close to securing those ‘large external funds’, our project will be successful in getting these funds – just maybe not at UWA Social Sciences. My performance outstrips most other Level B academics in the school and has been achieved in a situation of structural disadvantage and immense service load – and yet I am to lose my teaching/research balance without any substantive justification. My research covers issues such as fake news, democracy, online radicalisation and COVID communication, which apparently lies beyond the purview of our school’s ‘vision’.

The university has treated Media and Communication as a cash cow and refused to fund our area in a way appropriate to the growth of our discipline and the requirements of our students. University management is now using their own failure to manage effectively as a justification for undermining the future of the Media and Communication discipline. This doesn’t just fail to acknowledge and reward our good faith and excellent performance, it also enshrines a culture of punishing efficiency and commitment to students.

Do we care about what we share? A proposal for dealing with the proliferation of false information by creating a public platform

Excited to see my latest article come out: ‘Do we care about what we share? A proposal for dealing with the proliferation of false information by creating a public platform’ (publicly available here: https://griffithlawjournal.org/…/gjlhd/article/view/1214)
 
This is a huge topic for me that returns both to the subject of my PhD (how can democracy survive and flourish in the digital age?) and what I think is the most pressing and fundamental issue of our times: How can we generate more transparency and accountability around decision making, and how can we start to celebrate positive contributions to the public good as a marker of identity and public esteem?
 
Answer: We could develop a ‘public platform’ under the auspices of public broadcasting legislation, to provide a place for ‘truth-telling’ and the establishment of (and dispute over) shared truths.
 
This article contains my basic description of how we might use digital technology to do this based on insights from democratic theory. The proposal ends up looking like a wikileaks mixed with reddit, mixed with facebook, with contributions and identities judged by their ability to make a positive public contribution over time.
 
As a piece of scholarship it is imperfect but boy is it important, as unless we develop something like this ‘public platform’ for debating public issues and establishing public truths, the powers that govern us will continue to use evasion and misinformation to set people against each other, while they make decisions that suit their own interests, largely free of scrutiny.
 
The article was inspired by Facebook’s banning of Australian news services during a pandemic and bushfire season and my own work on misinformation around the COVID vaccines. It became clear to me that we can’t fight misinformation without first determining how we arrive at ‘truth’ in a way that is acceptable to everyone. The role that existing social networks (and governments, and media networks) currently play in determining truth is clearly problematic. Our public broadcasting system is already mandated to (independently) inform and educate and it does a valiant job (and is the most trustworthy source of public information in Australia); but the broadcasting system needs to move into the era of many-to-many communication – and this is how it could do that.
 
The article doesn’t acknowledge a lot of work already done around these areas by people such as Tim Van Gelder https://timvangelder.com/, who has long been interested in these issues alongside me, and side steps a host of other academic objections to make this basic point:
 
Corporate governance structures abuse public naivete and reward themselves with inequity. The public needs to fight back with demands of transparency and accountability. And for the first time in history we do have the technological capacity to facilitate this in a way that can re-engage us with caring about the things we share.

Public interest research is what people won’t pay you for, everything else is advertising.

I’m thrilled to have had Sarah Ison cover how the proposed changes to UWA’s Social Science program are going to impact my public interest research. However, the article also over-represented some blatant mis-direction from a ‘UWA spokeswoman’ that I had rebutted with Sarah.

I suspect that West Australian editors have decided to protect the interests of UWA (a major advertiser in that paper) and cut much of the story. So, I’m taking to the interwebs, where people can – at least for the moment – speak freely, to rebut the empty claim that research in areas such as ‘health, social care, the environment and media and communications – would “continue to be developed and supported through nationally competitive resaerch grants and industry funding”‘.

That statement is misguided and specious. The proposal suggests that our research and teaching contracts will be replaced with teaching focus. There is no actual statement in the proposal about supporting existing or future research projects for teaching focused academics; even in the event of successfully gaining nationally competitive research grants and industry funding. So what they are saying here isn’t even clearly ‘true’ or part of the proposed change. The only statement in the proposal is that we ‘will continue to have access to research time in line with workload allocation for activities, including, where relevant, for the supervision of HDR students’. That is an incredibly vague statement that does not even match what they have said above. It means I ‘might’ be given 5 hours a week to supervise the research of my 6 PhD students, it certainly does not spell out that if I won a grant I’d be able to buy out of teaching.  If that were the case, they might have mentioned it in the proposal (they didn’t).


But even beyond that, what they are doing is making grant success impossible for teaching ‘focused’ academics, particularly in Media and Communications which, along with Asian Studies are the ONLY disciplines to lose all research positions. I’ll explain why:

Gaining nationally competitive research grants and industry funding depends heavily on a criteria called ‘research environment’ – meaning ‘is your research taking place in an environment that actively supports and adds value to your research’. If the university does not foster research in our area we will forever be structurally disadvantaged in that category and unlikely to succeed in those grants.

Also note that when writing these grants, budgeting for teaching relief is shunned and requires ‘significant justification’ (see https://www.science.org.au/news-and-events/newsletters/emcr-pathways-newsletter/emcr-pathways-issue-5/behind-closed-doors) – precisely because the review panel don’t expect teaching focused academics to be in a strong enough research environment to get these grants. Being ‘teaching focused’ is a red flag that you are not in a strong research environment.

Simply writing up a nationally competitive research grant generally takes more than 100 hours of work just to do the writing (recommended time: at least 6 weeks) – and then only around 15-20% of grants are ever successful. Grant success is a product of time investment in the writing plus a wealth of work on previously published research to prove your research strength (which is most commonly understood in the form of ‘previous grant success’). I will need to spend my entire annual leave writing an application that is almost bound to fail because of the impoverished research environment the university is creating for us as a ‘teaching focused discipline’.

So they are saying ‘here, sign a contract that states you will no longer research, and will be given a massive teaching load that literally takes up every hour of your working week but trust us that if you manage to somehow do the impossible and find the time to write a grant, and then despite the structural disadvantage of your research environment  you make it through to the 15% of successful grants and actually secure grant funding we MIGHT let you buy out of some of your teaching duties’. (but of course we would discourage you from asking for teaching relief in your grant if you want it to be successful).

I am actually on more than $400,000 of grants for the Coronavax projects at the moment – but none of that budget is allocated to buy me out of teaching. The money goes to software, administrative support, advertising and simply to ‘the university’. When we last requested that the next grant buy me out of some of my teaching for next semester the Head of School responded that the School couldn’t afford to lose my teaching duties (as it is important for student experience). So how they expect us to ‘trust them’ that in the future it will somehow be different (after I’ve signed a contract that commits me to just be a teacher) is again, a leap of faith that I would have to be stupid to make. This statement elicited here in this story is the most concrete suggestion I’ve seen that there might be some way to protect my research time but even then, they are attempting a whitewash to suggest what they are proposing is plausible or a ‘solution’.

Finally, there is also the argument that grant research IS NOT the only form of valuable research and not the only research that ought to take place at a publicly funded univerity. The process of deciding what research gets grants is really problematic and presents huge barriers to first time applicants, or people with novel or challenging research projects. It has also been highly politicised – with Simon Birmingham and Dan Tehan interfering with the process by blocking successful humanities grants they didn’t like. While it might seem fair to block research funding for ‘mens fashion in the 19th Century’, consider that this is just the interference the government is happy to brag about because doing so wins them votes. If they are happy to brag about this interference, they are also clearly willing to interfere on more sensitive research topics.

So NO, I don’t think the Morisson government will support grants into issues such as violent misogyny, political corruption or the bungled vaccine role out (all projects I’m currently working on). While Industry partnerships can be promising, these are not a case of ‘public interest research’ but rather university subsidising research industry would or should otherwise pay for. Industry partnerships can produce really efficient and important research. HOWEVER, it should not be the case that research in a G08 university should only happen in areas that ‘industry’ wants it too. Research into the huge problems our society faces will simpy never take place under that model and the question is, if it doesn’t take place in a privileged and advantaged university such as UWA – where will it take place?

There is an old saying about journalism ‘news is what someone doesn’t want you to print, everything else is advertising’. The same can be said for research. While industry and government can (and should) fund much worthy and critical research, there is by definition a critical deficit in such research. Quite frankly, they don’t fund research that might make them look bad, they fund research that bolsters their own positions and moves them toward their own goals. (See for instance, this announcement about $1.3M being awarded to UWA for defense industry research).

What is missing in this model is research that specifically helps the the disadvantaged and the marginalised, that protects the interests of the broad public that shares the experience of being led to a bleak future by an political elite in the pocket of big business. Research that criticises mistakes made by government and industry and points us to a better world for everybody. Research that encourages critical and challenging thinking as a worthy end in and of itself. It is gone under this model of the university.

Public value research is what industry and government doesn’t want to fund, everything else is advertising.