‘The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.’ So writes George Orwell in the original preface to Animal Farm.
Change ‘British’ to ‘Australian’ and ‘men’ to ‘people’, and you’ve a pretty accurate assessment of newspapers in this country today. Yet the recent restructurings by the various tycoons dominating the local media hint at something genuinely new: in place of dominance by the dishonest papers of the past, we may very well be confronting a future featuring no newspapers at all.
The essays by Jonathan Green and Alex Mitchell examine, from slightly different perspectives, the history and immediate prospects for the press. But a concern for the state of the media runs throughout the edition. Indeed, it has long been an Overland preoccupation, not simply in the long-running Meanland collaboration with Meanjin about digital culture (represented here by Malcolm Harris’ piece on the new political possibilities manifesting in Twitter) but in terms of the journal’s project as a whole.
That is, Overland exists not simply to critique mainstream culture but to provide an alternative to it. Obviously, that alternative is limited and partial in all sorts of ways (not least because we’re a not-for-profit NGO rather than a multinational corporation). But it’s no less important for all that.
As the old media models enter their death throes, we need, more than ever, to discuss and debate alternatives – because, in some respects, those very discussions, those very debates, are the alternative, representing the embryo of a different kind of media.
Overland 208 features the third essay in the ‘CAL-Connections’ project, which seeks to highlight the cultural exclusions that often go unnoticed in Australian literary culture, with Juliana Qian writing on her complicated relationship with Chinese language and culture.
There’s also an instalment of another series: Bruce Mutard’s graphical re-visiting of fiction from early Overlands. Here he’s re-examining ‘Paper Children’ by Elizabeth Jolley (Overland 89), an account of a mother-daughter relationship across two continents, imagined against the backdrop of the ongoing trauma of Afghanistan.
With this edition, we extend our deep thanks to our outgoing fiction editor Jane Gleeson-White who is leaving to concentrate on her PhD and her own very successful authorial career. The selection in Overland 208 provides a fitting note on which to farewell her, not just because of the stories’ merits, but because among them you can read the work of Jennifer Mills, who now takes over the editorial role. Jennifer is an award-winning novelist, short story writer and critic, and we look forward to watching her develop Overland’s fiction.
Orwell’s brief discussion of the British press in that suppressed preface is, in some respects, a document of its era, written in the context of the West’s wartime alliance with Stalin’s Russia. But in places, it seems oddly contemporary. In particular, Orwell associates the inadequacies of the media with the failings of those he calls ‘the literary and scientific intelligentsia’, cowed by demands for their loyalty in a time of political crisis. His conclusion has a particular resonance in our age, given the ongoing impact of the ‘War on Terror’ on writers and thinkers who once might have been expected to celebrate dissent.
‘[T]here is now,’ Orwell writes, ‘a widespread tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods … it is the liberals who fear liberty and the intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect: it is to draw attention to that fact that I have written this preface.’
The increasing narrowness of the Australian public sphere is obvious. But we must also recognise the active attempts to police its borders. Witness, for instance, the recent ferocious attacks on the Australian Greens for voicing policies that would have been entirely unexceptional in social democratic parties a couple of decades ago.
In other words, as Orwell knew, if we want a different media, we have to be prepared to fight for it.