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Public Speech, Public Spaces, Public Spheres

The next session I'm attending at the CCi conference is also (broadly) on citizen journalism. Andrew Kenyon from the University of Melbourne is the first speaker, and his focus is especially on the legal perspective on journalism as public speech, building on interviews with editors, journalists, and other media workers. Legal frameworks enable in particular the search for truth, the maintenance of democracy, and (especially in the US) a critique of government, but public speech is often positioned as fulfilling a more generic function (such as consensus formation). Public speech often critiques, and limited protections for public speech is often seen as having a chilling effect on the diversity of public speech that is possible.

Traditional Australian defamation law requires the plaintiff to do relatively little; it requires the public availability of speech which identifies the plaintiff and may have a defamatory effect on their public standing, but the plaintiff does not have to prove untruth or prove actual harmful effects of this public speech. This is different from the US, and in the Australian environment the focus is therefore especially on the possible defences for such defamatory public speech. In the US, traditionally the key defence was truth; since the 1960s, for defamation of public figures actual malice and known falsehood of defamatory public speech must now also be proven. It can be proven that these different legal environments have significant effects on the comparative level of critical public speech in both countries.

In Australian law, a wider defence has been developed in recent years: a general defence that relates to matters of 'proper public concern' and 'reasonable circumstances' of publication for critical public speech. In other words, the law used to say that critical speech had to be proven true; now it allows for reasonable circumstances regardless of truth.

Coming out of Andrew's interviews with news personnel, then, are some common themes - media makers see some lawyers as very sympathetic to the media (willing to explore the full range of speech allowed by law and following current investigative journalism processes), while others take a more defensive approach and are less closely aligned with journalistic processes, for example. In Australia, the local knowledge of both lawyers and journalists of plaintiffs' 'form' was far more central, and strongly influenced their willingness (or otherwise) to engage in potentially defamatory public speech - for more belligerent plaintiffs, in other words, there was less willingness to stretch the boundaries of the law than for others. Another notable difference was that while the documents to be used in support for critical public speech were roughly similar, US media makers had far more ready access to such documents than their Australian counterparts. For these reasons, US journalists could much less imagine themselves working under Australian frameworks than vice versa.

Next up is Sue Campin from QUT's Faculty of Business. Her focus is on physical space in postmodern cities, and she identifies a struggle for public space at present. Personal, private, home spaces are getting smaller in postmodern cities (South East Queensland with its 1000 new residents arriving each week is a good example here); public spaces become all the more important, then, and they're under increasing stress also from more and more public events (such as street festivals, etc.). New approaches to governance, including a stronger focus on self- or private governance, also play a role here - and the demographic makeup of those commonly involved in such governance projects needs to be problematised further.

Sue explores this in the context of North American 'Business Improvement Districts', which have been popular in the US and Canada for some time (one of the earliest projects was around Toronto's downtown Yonge Street area). Such areas extract a special levy from local businesses (sometimes in exchange for a reduction in rates bills), which is invested in local improvement projects - for example, youth outreach groups, area ambassadors, anti-litter squads, para-police 'crime prevention officers', ICT training, and specific events. This also introduces a new level of non-representative quasi-governmental organisations, sets up new exclusion zones which disallow certain forms of using public facilities (bicycling, skating, playing sports), and leads to the homogenisation of local areas (described as 'clone towns' without local specificity) and the balkanisation of the urban fabric which creates rootless, placeless phenomena.

Finally to my PhD student and fellow Gatewatching blogger Barry Saunders. He's presenting work which is closely related to our wider blog mapping project, which aims to track distributed political discourse online. This also flows out of our ARC Linkage project on citizen journalism that generated the Youdecide2007 and Qlddecides Websites. In terms of blog mapping, Barry notes that much of the work done so far is essentially incomplete as it focusses mainly on the mapping, but does not take into account the political and public sphere dimensions of political blogging; network mapping ('linkfluence') and Google PageRank-based investigations of importance and influence are limited in their insights.

In particular, the maps of link networks which are generated in the process are usually static snapshots of link structures; blog conversations, however, are not static, and blog interlinkage is only one indicator of blogging activities themselves. Further, link analysis often mistakes static blogroll links for (arguably more important) discursive links within blog posts. Against this, Barry's approach is multi-level, iterative, and palimpsestic - tracking development in blog-based interaction over time using tools such as datascrapers, Issuecrawler, Leximancer, as well as statistical analysis and visualisation tools (like IBM's Many Eyes).

The approach is to select specific political issues and generate common search terms for them, to choose limiting parameters (here, the Australian political blogosphere), and develop a seed list of Australian political blogs discussing such issues, to feed these seeds into Issuecrawler, and feed the URLs found by the crawling process to the datascraper. The scraper accesses posts in these blogs and identifies blog post links and texts; these, finally, can be mapped through analysis and visualisation tools such as Many Eyes and Leximancer. (At the same time, cross-comparison between the maps generated for different blogs remains difficult, and further secondary analysis - e.g. through a second round of visualisation - may also be necessary; Barry will further develop this methodology throughout his work on his PhD project.)

What such information is eventually able to throw some light on is the development of political discusion online, the tracking of public opinion and identification of the new opinion leaders in the political blogosphere, and the shape of the public sphere in a post-broadcast environment.

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