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Informed citizenship in the digital age: no excuses!

By Adam Henry - posted Wednesday, 14 October 2009

In the Western liberal democratic tradition we westerners, often too quickly, pat ourselves on our collective backs to highlight our own apparently enlightened disposition towards freedom of expression, factual honesty and commitment to democratic principles. In the digital and internet age this tendency towards the assumption of arrogant superiority over all other alternatives (past and present) is often taken as a given.

We are now subjected to more information than at any other point in human history. While the internet is a chaotic example of all that is human (the sacred and profane as it were) it has also made informed citizenship much easier than ever before. We can have almost instant access to documents via the internet if only we know where to look.

The internet is simply awash with electronic versions of refereed articles, searchable primary source archives and newspaper databases, and so on. Most organisations (both political and professional) now recognise this reality. In the United States of America, with its constitutional safeguards on freedom of information, it has seen a flood of primary source documents released by the CIA among others. These documents lay bare an embarrassing and long history of complicity in corruption, coups, human rights abuses, abuses of civil rights and sheer hypocrisy.


In the old Soviet Union, the Commissar was the chief propagandist and information specialist, i.e. the spin doctor! He or she moulded information to suit the purposes of the CCCP regime; facts were secondary to such purposes. In the West, (particularly in the USA), it was customary to criticise Soviet academics lacking the courage to criticise an oppressive Soviet regime, while lauding individuals such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Therefore, in the old Soviet system (and as it continues under the rule of the Communist party in China) the penalty for honesty and factual integrity was/is severe punishment, torture and death.

Why then does it seem that Western journalists and many intellectuals cannot apply the same standards to ourselves that we apply to others? This would seem to be a most basic and rudimentary standard to adopt should intellectual integrity and factual integrity be taken seriously in the West.

This is doubly true when one considers the enormous freedom intellectuals and journalists in the West have in their native countries: they won’t suffer the oppression and tyranny of the Soviet or Iranian system coming down upon them.

Case study: the internet as one agent of informed citizenship

I would like to provide just one example of how the digital age can provide us with powerful and legitimate knowledge. On September 5, 2009, Paul Kelly’s article “John Howard's covert East Timor independence plan” appeared in The Australian.

Ignoring those sections of the article only supported by various off the record interviews Kelly conducted alone with Howard and Downer (and some selective quotations from others), let me quickly move through three major points made by Kelly in this article:

  1. the Howard government decided in early 1999 to covertly work for East Timor's independence;
  2. the Howard-Downer strategy culminated in a determination to proceed with the August 1999 independence ballot despite growing violence; and
  3. while Mr Howard and Mr Downer publicly said they preferred East Timor to stay within Indonesia, their actions were geared towards East Timorese independence.

Paul Kelly is considered to be to be one of Australia’s most experienced and preeminent journalists. First, a visit to the online dictionary; Merriam and Webster, provides us with an impartial definition:

Main Entry: journalism
Date: 1828
1 a: the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media b: the public press c: an academic study concerned with the collection and editing of news or the management of a news medium
2 a: writing designed for publication in a newspaper or magazine b: writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation c: writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest

Now let us continue by examining the three main points made by Kelly in his article. Let me provide just two academic sources that examine the numerous primary sources (government documents, intelligence and media reports) available and then use this empirical evidence for their analysis.

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About the Author

Adam Hughes Henry is the author of three books, Independent Nation - Australia, the British Empire and the Origins of Australian-Indonesian Relations (2010), The Gatekeepers of Australian Foreign Policy 1950–1966 (2015) and Reflections on War, Diplomacy, Human Rights and Liberalism: Blind Spots (2020). He was a Visiting Fellow in Human Rights, University of London (2016) and a Whitlam Research Fellow, Western Sydney University (2019). He is currently an Associate Editor for The International Journal of Human Rights (Taylor and Francis).

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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