The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas would probably weep. I suspect Sir Dove-Meyer Robinson, our erstwhile mayor whose bronze fist is quite appropriately raised in Aotea Square, would roll in his grave.
I’m talking, of course, of the facebook-styled monolith that went up in our city square this week and from which electronics company LG is promoting itself and its products. Between it and the recently installed ice rink and fairground rides is still, I presume, the city’s beautiful and precious waha (mouth, gate) that was lovingly restored and returned to its rightful place as part of the relatively recent $80 million restoration of the square. That waha symbolically takes locals and visitors alike into the conceptual heart of the city’s public sphere. And now it is almost entirely hidden from view by some tacky promotion for microwaves that exploits people’s addiction to social media. Give me a break. Auckland may always have been a city of merchants, as Waitemata and Gulf councillor Mike Lee once reminded me, but boy have the money lenders moved into the church of public debate now.
Aotea Square was once part of Grey’s Ave, which connected with Queen St. It was developed in 1979 when I was a fifth-former hanging out at the Henry IV coffee shop. It’s ever since then been a symbol of the public sphere for me. Indeed it was the place where the notorious Queen Street riots in 1984 began when Dave Dobbyn allegedly wound up a crowd already furious at a power failure with a reference to the riot squad’s “small batons”. It has been the scene of innumerable protests and public debates over the years, culminating recently in it being the site of the Occupy movement’s frugal assault on the neo-liberal State. Every Saturday Syrians gather to honour the dead and dying and tortured in the war against their people being waged by their own maniacal president. Falun Dafa practitioners not only practise their “evil” antics there, they sit in silent vigil for the tortured back in their homeland too. This is a site for the imploring of reason. Indeed, megaphones and chanting were heard over the sale of state assets as recently as last Saturday. What I’ve heard this week is some completely different sort of guy with a megaphone reading out fake social media messages from those below him who are hoping for a free microwave. As I say, give me a break.
Merry go round
Of course they’ve paid to be there and the Rogernomics response will be that that will ease the burden on ratepayers. Pah! Ask those putting their lives on the line in Syria – what price the public sphere? I asked a nice woman at Auckland Council what they would be paying and well, it’s hard to say once you take into account all the add-ons and so on, but, well, something like the merry-go-round, that’s 10mx20m, but you have to discount pack-in days to 50%, are we talking summer or winter, well there really are a lot of variables … you’re not going to discuss this in the commerical arena are you? Well, why the hell not? Our town square is being rented out and we can’t talk about it? Anyway, she was right, there are plenty of variables and it’s hard to be definite – but we are talking at least $1000 a day. Clearly the council has $ signs sparkling, Scrooge-McDuck-like, in its eyes. It finally had the Occupy protestors removed. And now business is clearly booming.
I’ve started this blog along with a class of Bachelor of Communication Studies students who are taking the New Media Journalism paper I head here at AUT Unversity. Our building is just over the road from Aotea Square. And the public sphere – the conceptual and even virtual kind, at least – is very much at the heart of our course. Up there on the left of this main page is a picture of another type – the nakamal from Vanuatu, a meeting place in every village for the discussion of local affairs and the consumption of kava (photo: Wikipedia). Students will choose their own topics for their blogs but all in all I thought journalism, media and the public sphere a pretty good area of inquiry for an ex-hack turned academic (we call ourselves “hackademics”) teaching journalism and under pressure to prove he can blog along as well as the young uns.
Of course the background to all this for me is not so much Dave Dobbyn and Aotea Sq or even the slightly sickening Facebook apparition that is making winter sun even harder to find. For me that was simply the concrete and somewhat convenient exemplification of the issues of the public sphere in 2012 that we face every day – newsrooms struggling for adequate resources as readers migrate online, advertisers no longer needing news organisations the way they used to, media corporates slashing news costs to keep shareholders happy, private interests eg Gina Rinehart, Rupert Murdoch brutalising the concept of editorial independence and the long-heralded, painfully slow death of television and newspapers. Journalism is in crisis, we are told again and again. This is true, I think. It is in crisis. Not because of the evil internet, per se, because the most wonderful journalism can be found online but because we have lost sight of our ideal of the public sphere in the rush to neo-liberal salvation. We have let corporations, from News Corp to LG, dominate it in the interests of their directors and shareholders. Habermas argues the development of the mass media has killed the critical nature of the public sphere. He might now add to that the development of the microwave. Me, I’m going over the road to ask the nice young people from LG if they just might have a ‘dislike’ button I could press.