What’s the role of creativity in the digital age?

November 29, 2018

After the Copyright Agency’s AGM on 28 November, a special event was held to stand up for and celebrate Australian authors, publishers and visual artists.

At the event, the three 2018 Copyright Agency Fellowships were announced. Read more.

Guests at the event also heard from the Copyright Agency’s Chair Kim Williams who posited that “technology is amazing, but it needs creative impetus and originality to truly work.”

The evening’s guest speaker, award-winning author, historian and public commentator Dr Clare Wright declared: “Australia’s intellectual, literary and artistic community must have the structural support to tell Australian stories.” But, she asked: “Which stories? Which Australians?  Indeed which version of Australia?”

Clare Wright’s and Kim Williams’ speeches are published below, with their permission.

Speech by Clare Wright, historian, author and academic, La Trobe University

Writers are often told to write what they know.

Guest speakers could be similarly advised.  I will be the first to admit that I know very little about Australia’s copyright regime — how it operates, how it might be under threat and how it could be both saved and improved.

Call me a sheltered industry.  I have a gun literary agent in Jacinta di Mase to look out for my personal interests as an author and I have a passionate publisher in Michael Heyward to advocate for my tribe.

The ability to leave suitably qualified and committed others to look out for your wellbeing is surely both a privilege and a good use of time and resources. I also don’t perform surgery on myself.

So I’m going to talk tonight about something that I do know: writing history.  Specifically, writing Australian history.

I spent yesterday in Canberra celebrating the distinguished career of the historian Tom Griffiths, and I’ve come away galvanised in the pursuit of my chosen craft.  “In order to imagine new futures”, argued Griffiths, “we need to write new histories.”  It could be added that we also need to be able to publish and read them.

Even if I’m not speaking to a room full of historians, I think I can take as read that this audience here tonight believes in the power of stories – and more explicitly, more pointedly, the power of Australian stories.  No doubt I’d be preaching to the converted to argue that a nation without its own unique and distinctive voice, a nation without its own narrative, can only get squished like a dawdling wombat on the unregulated information superhighway.  I think we all probably agree that without a designated access lane, the globalisation of culture will make road kill of all but the most sturdy — aka culturally dominant — myths and legends.

So yes, Australia’s intellectual, literary and artistic community must have the structural support to tell Australian stories.

But I think the more unsettling question is this: which stories? Which Australians?  Indeed which version of Australia?

On 3 December 1973, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam unveiled the restored Eureka Flag in Ballarat. It was the 119th anniversary of what was known in 1854 as the Ballarat Massacre — what we now call the Eureka Stockade — and Whitlam used the occasion to set out the principles of a new nationalist ethos based on the gold rush legacy of democratic reform.

Whitlam said: “the kind of nationalism that every country needs … is a benign and constructive nationalism [that] has to do with self-confidence, with maturity, with originality, with independence of mind.  If Australia is to remain in the forefront of nations … if it is determined to be a true source of power and ideas in the world, a generous and tolerant nation respected for its generosity and tolerance, then I believe that something like ‘the new nationalism’ must play a part in our government and in the lives of us all”.

Now, to my mind, one of the great gifts of Eureka is its enduring capacity to be a powerful foundation story for this country; its unique adaptability to the shifting concerns and aspirations of successive generations of Australians.

But I am less confident than I have ever been about the power of nationalism to guide us in peace and prosperity, particularly when our prevailing nationalist narrative is hitched not to the historical pillars of democracy but to the bandwagon of militarism.

In the past four years, over $500 million dollars has been spent by state and federal governments to memorialise the centenary of World War 1.  Another million has been added to this commemorative war chest by the corporate sector. Australia, which once lead the world as the most socially and politically progressive democracy on earth, is now leading the world in commemorative spending for war dead, with almost $9000 allocated for each digger killed in World War 1 compared to just $109 per British casualty and $2 for each dead German soldier.

 This tally doesn’t include the $500 million recently promised by the Morrison government to upgrade the Australian Memorial, a pledge given despite no evidence for any needs-based infrastructure improvements or extension of the War Memorial’s narrative remit. Indeed the War Memorial continues to reject the mounting demand for it to tell the story of the Frontier Wars.

At a time when the ugliest face of nationalism is once again feeling confident to rise above the parapet of civil society across the globe, our test as a robust democratic nation is to make our key foundations stories as inclusive and as complex as the archive truly indicates.

Militarism has only ever served to shore up the most pinched, starved and backward-looking version of the nation; the most narrow, frightened and defensive version of ourselves.

Militarism encourages a lazy, opportunistic and politically expedient nationalism, nothing like the generous, tolerant and independently minded patriotic reboot imagined by Whitlam.

Fortress Australia might be a hostile place for those currently positioned as our enemies — asylum seekers and citizens of middle-eastern descent — but how does the militarisation of Australian national identity and historical consciousness affect our cultural landscape?

For one, I think that regressive nationalism can be blamed for the decision of the former federal Education Minister, Scott Birmingham, to arbitrarily reject the recommendations of the Australian Research Council and refuse to sign off on 11 successful applications for research funding in 2017-18, worth a combined total of $42 million.  All these applications, which passed a rigorous process of peer review to wind up on the Minister’s desk, were in the Humanities.  Several were historical in nature, if not in strict disciplinary terms.

A colleague of mine at La Trobe University had her career-defining grant scotched. The title of her project — held up for ridicule in the conservative press for its supposed academic pretension and triviality — was ‘Writing the struggle for Sioux and US modernity’.  Seemingly, the project was not ‘in the national interest’: a new criteria that current Education Minister Dan Tehan has promised to introduce into the ARC application process. But as my colleague’s peers well knew, her research expertise is in the state removal of indigenous peoples, as well as their historic resistance to forced removal.  In a nation where ‘the stolen generation’ is still one of our most scandalous stories, how is it not in our interest to understand international policies, implications and legacies?

Perhaps the story that my colleague had to tell was not too irrelevant to qualify for funding, but too dangerous. Gideon Haigh has called Birmingham’s political intervention “the new censorship”, all the more chilling because it threatens to lead to self-censorship among grant-reliant scholars.

Moving from the ivory tower of academe to the sticky floor of the suburban mall, there is another national interest test that non-fiction writers seem to have to pass in order to get an audience.

Taking this year’s summer reading guides of Australia’s most prominent book retailers — both independent and chain — as a case study in selective historical memory, it’s easy to ascertain whose stories are considered worth amplifying in the crowded marketplace of ideas.  I’ve crunched the numbers of four major Christmas catalogues, and without identifying individual bookstores — my point is not to name and shame, merely to make the point — clear patterns emerge.

Of the 21 books profiled in the History category, only two books are authored by women.  One other title has a female co-author.  (Lest you think this is an exercise in sour grapes, my new book is one of those in one of the catalogues.)

More worringly, two of the guides have smooshed History and Military into a single category, as if their epistemological boundaries are indistinct.

Of the 25 books listed in this super-category, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that only one is written by a woman. (That dubious honour too belongs to me.)

Of the books of Australian history that repeatedly appear on the lists, there is one about Ned Kelly, one about Banjo Patterson, one about Charles Bean, one about the Mutiny on the Bounty and one about wartime Prime Minister John Curtain.  Now there’s nothing wrong with telling these stories (again), but how does this offering reflect our diverse and intersectional Australia?

Where — for example — is Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan’s collection of essays, Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre? Or Philippa McGuiness’s celebrated 2001: The Year That Changed Everything? Or Michelle Scott Tucker’s ground-breaking biography of Elizabeth McArthur, or Christina Twomey’s The Battle Within: POW’s in PostWar Australia, which won the 2018 NSW Premier’s History Award. This book would seem to tick all of the boxes for the History and Military category, except that it tells a story about Australia’s failure to look after its veterans in the aftermath of World War 2 – an uneasy conversation between the past and the present as Afghanistan and Iraq war Vets struggle to claim a morsel from the Anzac money pot.

In fiction, admitting a multiplicity and diversity of voices doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem. Gender ratios in the fiction pages of the Christmas catalogues are more equitable. Women are permitted flights of fictional imagination; less so matters of fact.

The 2017 Stella Count identified this trend in book reviewing too.  In the Australian Financial Review, for example, 41% of the total books reviewed were of nonfiction books by men compared with 11% by women.  Australian Book Review, the Weekend Australian, and the Mercury all published more than twice as many reviews of nonfiction works by men than by women.

Moreover, works of non-fiction featuring female protagonists are tacitly considered to be ‘about women’ — Women’s History — and therefore, by implication, only for women.  On the other hand, works with male protagonists are about great, legendary or heroic Australians.

So yes, I’m all for Australians telling Australian stories.  But, our nation has a reflex tendency to gender male historical events and actors that represent The Australian Story, a propensity exacerbated by the equation of militarism with masculinity.

I won’t speak for other marginalised voices or other fields of creative endeavour, but in the arena I know — historical non-fiction — the vast majority of the valuable cultural real estate is patently being colonised by our white, male sons of Empire.

Next time you’re in an airport, look at the table at the very front of the bookshop — the one that has a big shouty sign on it that says Big Books — and do a quick stock take of the subjects and authors on show for any glimmer of gender parity.

If we’re petitioning to be a protected industry, ask yourself, just who and what are we protecting?

So yes, we need to double down on our collective effort to get our government to properly fund and nourish the Arts.

And yes, part of knowing and nurturing our own stories is ensuring we have innovative policy levers at work and regulatory settings in place to support Australian publishing, writing, academic research and creativity generally.

But we also need to look at our own practices and prejudices for evidence of fairness, balance and progress.  New futures require new histories – and new strategies.

Let’s not shy away from fact that although artists and writers might be the victims of globalisation, corporatisation and economic rationalism, we can also be the perpetrators of our own internal forms of cultural violence.

Rather than community complicity in gender bias, we need our industry influencers and gatekeepers to address the equity issues that demonstrably exist, as research such as the Stella Count annually attests.

We need to understand why certain reading and purchasing habits exist and what might be done to change culturally coded messaging around importance, relevance, authority, worth and meaning.

I’m certain that one of the key ways to tell our own unique Australian stories is to ensure that we have a properly functioning copyright regime with bipartisan support, one in which the rights of artists, publishers and producers are respected and creators are paid for the use of their work.

And I’m assured by those with more experience and expertise than me that the funds that bodies like the Copyright Agency collects on behalf of their members from schools, universities and Australian business flows back to help sustain Australian storytelling.

But let’s do more than sustain it.

Let’s grow it.

Let’s challenge its comfortable assumptions about what makes a book big, about who and what makes history.

And together let’s change the tired, toxic, armoured and bullet-proof certainties about what it is that makes us Australian.

Speech by Kim Williams AM, Chair of the Copyright Agency

At our core, the Copyright Agency is about ensuring Australian writers, publishers and visual artists are rewarded for the use of their work, so as to assist them in what I might describe as a fragile creative eco-system.

I’m glad you’re here tonight to share in this celebration of Australian creativity and to hear from one of our finest historians, Dr Clare Wright, on how we can sustain and nurture Australian stories.

Clare will address this important question at a time when we are seeing profound changes in digital technology and the way in which people make, distribute and consume text, music, video and other art forms.

It is worth asking: in the face of such significant changes, where it can appear that the algorithms are about to take over all manner of discovery and exchange, what is the role for human creativity. What is the role of storytelling? And importantly, how do storytellers prosper?

The answer is relatively simple.  Storytelling remains fundamental.  Let me illustrate what I mean with, well, a story.

On October 15, 1958 the famous CBS news correspondent, Edward Murrow rose to speak at the Radio-Television News Directors Association Convention in Chicago.

Ed Murrow, as I am sure many of you know, had been, in a highly principled and brave way, standing up to threats and intimidation from Senator Joseph McCarthy. He was resisting McCarthy’s attempt to intimidate, silence and destroy people he did not agree with, or frankly simply disliked.  His accomplice in that process was of course Richard Milhous Nixon.

On that day in October 1958 Murrow said of television:

 “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box….”

In this speech, he was challenging his industry colleagues to use television for its best purposes.  He was a noble and remarkably brave figure in the history of the media – you may recall the film from 2005 Good Night and Good Luck which was made as a tribute to him by George Clooney.

I think what Murrow was saying was that the then-new medium of television – for all its extraordinary infrastructure of broadcast facilities, transmission towers, and television sets – was truly useless without human stories, in all of their guises, to bring it to life. To give it purpose.

It is the same with digital technology, at least in the cultural space.

Without the storytelling skills of people like Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb at the ABC, Hedley Thomas at The Australian, or Fairfax’s Tory Maguire, all of whom make enthralling and popular podcasts, a podcast would be nothing but lights and coloured icons on a screen.

Similarly, without the input of the musical scores of great composers like Bach, or Mozart or Sculthorpe, or Bowie or Lady Gaga, AI that can write music is nothing but useless algorithms and fallow computer processing power.  The technology is amazing, but it needs creative impetus and originality to truly work.

Which brings me to copyright.  If creativity is fundamental in the new economy, copyright is fundamental to ensuring creators control the terms and conditions for the use of their work.  It’s fundamental to ensuring they get paid for it.

It’s fundamental to the economic model that allows companies to invest and employ people to produce great content.

But in recent years the rights of creators have been under siege on a wide-range of fronts.


Tech companies who want to freeride off others creativity.

Academic ideologues who think content can be produced without a supportive economic model.

And the rise of a kind of technological determinism that says, “Hey dude the algorithm wants your story, we are taking it for nothing to feed the algorithm”.

But these things are not predetermined.  It is up to us to stand up for the rights of creators, and the economic model that helps sustain them.

It is up to us to say, ‘No you cannot just take that’.

It is up to us to make sure that our laws are modernised in ways that respect creators and enable the extraordinary innovation inherent in digital to continue.

I am heartened that policy makers in Canberra appear to have heard that it is critical, when making necessary modernisations of the copyright regime, to ensure that the rights of creators are respected, so that they can keep producing great Australian content. And never has Australian creativity been under greater threat from immensely powerful forces which are inherently indifferent to its good fortune.

The Government is in the process of looking at ways the copyright regime can be modernised.  It is vital we remain ever vigilant.  But the Government does appear to have moved away from ideas of adopting extreme changes to our Copyright Act that some have thoughtlessly advocated.

This is most welcome.