Journal article

New media and Australia’s national security debate

Social media Blogs National security International relations Australia

Introduction: Over the last decade there has emerged in Australia a small but fertile and occasionally influential group of blogs devoted to international security and foreign policy. This is not the romantic grass-roots story that beguiled US media watchers in the mid-2000s, in which a handful of lone enthusiasts pioneered a new publishing form, building their part-time passion into influential outlets for punditry, and sometimes creating successful media businesses. In Australia, the major international-policy-themed blogs emerged quite late in the short history of blogging, and they are all supported to varying degrees by non-profit institutions. Notable in this regard are The Interpreter (established 2007 by the Lowy Institute for International Policy; covers world politics from an Australian perspective, with a focus on Asia), The Strategist (established in 2012 by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI); focused mainly on defence and national security); East Asia Forum (established in 2006 by Peter Drysdale and Shiro Armstrong, based in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; focused on Asia Pacific politics and economy). and New Mandala, which is focused on political analysis of Southeast Asia. Like East Asia Forum, it was established by two academics in 2006 and is partly supported by the Australian National University.

Some ‘grass roots’ sites have had an impact on Australia’s online international-policy scene too. Notable examples include Andrew Zammit’s counter-terrorism site The Murphy Raid, Leah Farrell’s All Things Counter-Terrorism, the defence-focused group blog Pnyx, Andrew Carr’s Chasing the Norm and Security Scholar by Natalie Sambhi and Nic Jenzen-Jones (the last three sites are no longer active).

But on its face, it is odd that this subject area has not generated more grass-roots online activity.Granted, the audience for a site dedicated to this policy area in Australia is relatively small. But that is typically not a disincentive for bloggers who are passionate about a topic. And given the popularity of international studies degrees in Australia, one might have expected that more students frustrated by the difficulty of getting their opinions past the gatekeepers of the mainstream media would have recognised blogs as an easy and cheap alternative.

But although starting a blog is easy, maintaining it is hard, especially when study gives way to full time work. Institutions, by contrast, can devote resources to such projects over a sustained period of time. A second explanation is that, since Australia is seldom a decisive player in international affairs and foreign policy is rarely prominent in the national political debate, these issues have less cachet among the aspiring policy commentators, who may believe that they are more likely to make an impression on readers and their peers by focusing on aspects of domestic policy. A third possibility is that potential bloggers are put off because there is so little chance of them ever decisively influencing policy. The foreign-policy-making system in Australia is relatively closed, being almost the sole preserve of a tightly disciplined executive. In contrast to the United States, for instance, where Congress plays an independent role and party discipline is relatively loose, Australia’s parliament has little role in the formation or oversight of foreign and national security policy. There are thus few avenues for influencing Australian foreign and defence policy. Or, to put it another way, there are not many people whom it is worth trying to persuade.

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