The Broken Estate by Mel Bunce (Bridget Williams Books, 2019), 224pp., $14.99; Student Political Action in New Zealand by Sylvia Nissen (Bridget Williams Books, 2019), 168pp., $14.99
To receive reliable information about the world; and to be able to act on this information to change how society works. These basic conditions for democracy are the subject of two new books in Bridget Williams’ Texts series. Mel Bunce’s The Broken Estate explores the state of contemporary journalism, asking whether it is still (or ever was) equipped to fulfil its dual role of informing the public and helping to produce imagined communities. Sylvia Nissen’s Student Political Action in New Zealand examines the realities faced by young people undertaking university education and how these shape or constrain their political expression.
Both books are written by scholars with a general audience in mind. Both firmly inhabit the interregnum – a time of crisis when ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’, the famous definition by Antonio Gramsci that inspired the title of another BWB Text.
As such, they may appear to be lacking in solutions or answers, but should be evaluated instead for the questions they ask. In the case of The Broken Estate, these questions centre not on whether contemporary journalism is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather on whether or not it can effectively support democracy. Bunce’s analysis takes the form of an expansive survey and covers ground that will be familiar to anyone who has been following debates on the media both in New Zealand and internationally: the collapse of the economic model that supported traditional journalism – and print journalism in particular – as platforms such as Facebook and Google take over the advertising market; the loss of trust in traditional authorities as sites of information and disinformation multiply; the special fragility of the New Zealand industry, where transnational funds with no stake in the quality of journalism, let alone something as abstract as the health of the polity, control the majority of assets (a situation presented by former UK newspaper editor Roy Greenslade as ‘direr than anywhere else in the English-speaking world’).
However, the author’s argument is not predicated on nostalgia: the ‘good old days’ when the industry was more prosperous are only portrayed as good and old insofar as they made it possible to employ more journalists, which in turn enabled news outlets to cover more aspects of civic life. I appreciated in particular the discussions of the historic role of newspapers, and of local media as ‘keystone media’, a phrase coined by professor of political communications Rasmus Nielsen in recognition of the role they play in the overall information ecosystem. The environmental metaphor is all the more apt in light of cited research by US economist Pamela Campa, suggesting that the mere presence of a newspaper in a town is correlated with lower amounts of pollution from local oil and gas companies.
Bunce paints a persuasive picture of the ‘desertification’ of the industry as it progressively abandons more and more of its traditional functions as well as entire geographical regions. The principal solutions she advocates include repopulating local newsrooms and developing new forms of public support, but the chief value of the argument resides just as much in its setting of priorities. In this most Gramscian juncture, as ‘news is simultaneously dying and being reborn’, the question of how to think our way out of the present crisis can be kept in focus only if we insist on evaluating the outcome strictly in terms of how it will support and expand democracy, and therefore represent a true plurality of voices and interests.
The students that form the subject of Sylvia Nissen’s book belong to a generation that hasn’t experienced the old journalism. They are part of the fractured public described by Mel Bunce, although they don’t seem either disinformed or disconnected.
I’ll admit this is not quite the book I expected. The title conjured images of a history of political militancy at New Zealand universities. Based on seventy interviews conducted by the author in 2014 and 2015, it is instead an examination of the political attitudes and circumstances of a recent cohort of students, and is best read perhaps in conjunction with, and as an extension of, Andrew Dean’s Ruth, Roger and Me, for it, too, grapples with the generational shifts caused by the reforms of the 1980s and 90s. The particular timing of Nissen’s sample, preceding as it does the current wave of mass mobilisations of both secondary and tertiary students, may seem unfortunate, but the point of the book is not to chronicle a circumscribed series of actions but rather to describe the broader conditions in which (or against which) students think and act politically. Those conditions are likely to endure.
In order to synthesise the views of her informants, Nissen draws a distinction between ‘desires’, ‘demands’ and ‘doubts’. Desires describe the field of political aspiration; demands explore the pressures exerted on students, in the form of high debt, the necessity to work long hours to contain the burden, and the resulting state of existential insecurity; doubts reflect the uncertainty expressed by students both in relation to their own role as political actors and the political attitudes of their peers. The section on demands is the one that anchors the analysis most effectively.
To extend the connection between the two books included in this review, Nissen’s work suggests that we may think of the university system as undergoing a similar – and similarly acute – crisis as journalism, except the effects may be harder to discern. In some ways, universities are as healthy as they’ve ever been, and just as effective at producing graduates. What is being eroded, in some cases quite deliberately, is their role as politicising environments.
To understand how critical this function is, Nissen introduces the distinction between social and political rights made by Zygmunt Bauman: political rights, Bauman argued, are nothing without the rights of participation that allow a citizen to exercise them. Nissen’s interviewees are keenly aware of and articulate in expressing the limitation placed on those rights. One, for instance, explains his wariness about participating in protests: ‘It’s just being realistic, right? I’ve got an insane amount of debt and, call me crazy, but, like, getting arrested protesting or something is not going to help me get a job to pay that off.’ Such instances of self-policing are especially chilling, but Nissen’s informants report a broad range of ways in which the extreme economic pressures placed on students inhibited their sense of political freedom or narrowed the range of their social interactions.
The book is particularly forthright in rejecting the popular notion that today’s university students are ‘apathetic’ compared to earlier generations, even though this is, paradoxically, a view shared by several of the interviewees themselves. There is a difference between disillusionment and apathy, argues the author, between being disenchanted and being disengaged. And besides, she explains, citing sociologist Nina Eliasoph, people have to work in order to produce ‘apathy’, and this realisation ‘moves our focus from the failings of individuals towards the processes that cultivate or impair our ability to talk, think and imagine together’.
This last phrase connects with the role that news media are said to have in helping foster imagined communities. What seems lost or in the process of being lost, in Nissen’s account of the modern university, is a sense of shared intellectual and collective space: eroded by competition; devalued by the senseless drive to make students pay in advance for the social mobility they might enjoy in the future; erased as a fundamental need from the very design of modern campuses and the drawing up of course timetables. Appropriately, then, the last of the solutions advocated by the author is to stop thinking of the government’s ‘fees free’ policy in the narrow, instrumental terms of whether or not they might lead to an increase in enrolments, and begin seeing them as a means of reducing the social cost placed on entire generations of students for what is after all a common goal in all advanced societies: to have higher levels of educational attainment.
GIOVANNI TISO is an Italian writer and translator based in Wellington. He is online editor of the Australian literary journal Overland.