St Mary's a metaphor for blogger power

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Online News by Stuart AllanThe latest report from the Committee to Protect Journalists makes depressing, if anticipated reading: bloggers are being hunted down and jailed in many countries, most numerously in Burma, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Tunisia, China, Turkmenistan, and Egypt.

The practice of blogging has become so widespread now that academics are researching it, policymakers are deliberating about it, businesses are salivating at its revenue potential, and even cops are being assigned to hunt down its practitioners. And as the net tightens in Burma, Iran and Syria and those others, it also tightens closer to home, especially in Fiji but also in apparently benign democracies such as Malaysia.

University of Queensland PhD student Abdul Latiff Ahmad has been monitoring the blogosphere in his home country of Malaysia and he says there have been controversial cases involving bloggers there over the years.

'Prominent political bloggers have been charged under the Sedition Act and their cases are still being trialed in court. Religious issues are also debated in blogs, as is sexual content.'

But it's not all bad news. Mr Ahmad says the number of blogs in Malaysia has been growing and more bloggers have been gaining prominence.

'There has been a strong shift of attitude towards bloggers especially with the general election in March last year. The government found the need to establish good relations with bloggers, and ministers in the government have also established their own blogs to get closer to the people.

'There is a television show on the public broadcasting channel, RTM1, called Blog@1, which invites bloggers to talk about current issues and share their blogging experience. At the same time, ex-journalists have started their own blogs. 'The latest and most prominent person to join the blogosphere is Malaysia's ex-Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir Muhammad, whose blog currently has more than 18 million visitors.'

Researcher and author Stuart Allan, in his book Online News notes that bloggers and their ilk have the potential to 'alter the dynamics of public debate', firstly by removing the established role of news gatekeeper and secondly by becoming so influential that 'reporters are beginning every day by reading the blogs'.

Perhaps because of this, there is another aspect to the issue which deserves a look: bloggers haven't been popular among journalists either.

Many journalists — especially the rightfully disgruntled ones among the thousands laid off from newspapers here and in the UK and US in the past year — regard blogging by 'non-professionals' as a threat to their position as 'professionals' and, more acutely, to their income.

They are right to be concerned. We hear daily of print journalism businesses either going out of business or converting to smaller online productions requiring fewer reporters and editors. And you only have to read the annual Technorati report to witness the growth of blogging's influence and power, displacing old-fashioned journalists' position as 'professional reporters and commentators'.

But while these supposed threats might explain mainstream journalism's lack of support for bloggers, it can't excuse it. By saying that blogging is fine as long as it's published by 'professional journalists', but not if published by the commentator down the street, you're attempting to dilute freedom of speech. And the freedom of speech which establishment journalists and their audiences enjoy cannot be diluted without being destroyed.

Dare I say, the Catholic Church's recent dealings with the parish of St Mary's in South Brisbane is a useful and pertinent metaphor. My informed understanding of that debate — which spilled into the blogosphere very early on — is that only 'professional clergy' are allowed to have a say on important matters of faith and that everyone else may be denigrated (and relegated) as 'the commentator down the street', and legitimately ignored.

Many commentators and bloggers have tried to make the point that Fr Peter Kennedy and his followers are 'in a club which has rules and should abide by those rules or get out'. Fr Kennedy, not unreasonably, maintains that he and his followers are loyal members of that club and want to make legitimate change happen from within.

The metaphor goes further: now that Fr Kennedy and his parishioners have actually moved 'down the street' to premises donated by the local Trades and Labour Council, and a new 'official clergyman', Fr Ken Howell, has been installed on the parish steps, does the church really think the problem can be ignored and might 'go away'?

Let's bring the discussion back: do the governments of Burma, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Tunisia, China, Turkmenistan, Egypt and Fiji — or indeed mainstream journalism establishments in Australia, the US and the UK — think criticising, punishing or ignoring bloggers is going to make the issues they raise go away?

For that matter, does the Federal Labor Government think that by filtering the entire internet within Australia they can make those 'bad men' (paedophiles, pornographers, people they disagree with) go away?

There's not much evidence to support either hypothesis, as the scientists might say.


John CokleyJohn Cokley is a lecturer in journalism at the University of Queensland. 

 

Recent articles by John Cokley.

Journalism's life after death

Topic tags: bloggers, Committee to Project Journalists, Burma, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Saudi journalism

 

 

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I'ts a little surprising to see John Cokley, 'an informed commentator' as he says, stating that only professional clergy are allowed to have a say on important matters of faith. Is he inferring that ordained clergy as is Peter Kennedy can just 'teach' whatever they wish? That is like saying that any Judge sitting on the bench can determine cases according to his fancies. or The captain of a footy team can change the rules of a game as he sees fit. This is just patent nonsense. The obvious solution has occured. Peter set up his own outfit on other premises and another priest will offer liturgies and sacraments to those who wish to share in their benefits. Bloggers can go on saying whatever comes into their heads without need to be taken seriously. There is no analogy.
Reason | 22 May 2009


Well looks like the "Voice of Reason" has spoken and no one has anything else to say (or is brave enough) about it. What a sad community these hide-bound traditional Catholics are! There is a great similarity between this approach and that evident among church hierarchy in the ABC Australian Story last night about the dreadful treatment of Fr Peter Kennedy.
John Cokley | 26 May 2009


Malaysia a democracy? I wonder what Anwar Ibrahim thinks about that?
Name withheld by request | 26 May 2009


Fr Kennedy has not set up his own outfit but has continued to do as he and the St Mart's community have done for so long. The community was never engaged with, never had substantiation of the claims brought against them and have been denied dialogue on this matter. 'Exiled' is an appropriated term to describe the imposed outcome. Australians live in a democracy with Catholics living in a totalitarian church. Would Catholicism be better suited to countries such as Malaysia?
John Fitzwalter | 01 June 2009


Umm, ultimately we ARE in benign totalitarian existence. God, the lover of our souls has total and ultimate power over all, but chose to exercise His grace instead of the retribution that we richly deserve. That part of Himself which He calls His Son, came and made this very clear to us, and laid down His earthly life as a sacrifice of grace, for us.

No church organisation is perfect, but we respect our leaders as they have dedicated themselves to God, and been ordained by the church, and witnessed by the people. There is a hierarchy, and our leaders must respect their leaders if they wish to remain there. Of course there are differences of opinion, but you either choose to remain faithful to the organisation you made a promise to and pray to your one King and High Priest for change, or you leave. Anything else is mutiny and has consequences.

As to this sorry event being a metaphor for blogging, I think it's a very poor example. Bloggers generally have no public allegiances to anyone but themselves, and no responsibility either. An ordained/appointed priest/minister/leader has both, and betrays that trust if they start to make their own rules.

Bjorn Schmid | 14 June 2009


Ultimately we ARE in benign totalitarian existence. God, the lover of our souls has total and ultimate power over all, but chose to exercise His grace instead of the retribution that we richly deserve. That part of Himself which He calls His Son, came and made this very clear to us, and laid down His earthly life as a sacrifice of grace, for us.

No church organisation is perfect, but we respect our leaders as they have dedicated themselves to God, and been ordained by the church, and witnessed by the people. There is a hierarchy, and our leaders must respect their leaders if they wish to remain there. Of course there are differences of opinion, but you either choose to remain faithful to the organisation you made a promise to and pray to your one King and High Priest for change, or you leave. Anything else is mutiny and has consequences.

As to this sorry event being a metaphor for blogging, I think it's a very poor example. Bloggers generally have no public allegiances to anyone but themselves, and no responsibility either. An ordained/appointed priest/minister/leader has both, and betrays that trust if they start to make their own rules.
Bjorn Schmid | 14 June 2009


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