Power, politics & secrecy
: newspaper reporting of submarine procurement in Australia

  • Kieran Mcguinness

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Purchasing submarines in Australia has long been a controversial exercise. Naval procurement presents an ideal opportunity for politicians and defence contractors to deliver projects worth billions of dollars and create thousands of jobs. But Defence contracts can be dogged by leaks, power plays and political scandal. The discursive struggle between political and commercial rivals plays out in news media, where journalists publicly tell the story of Australia’s naval procurements. Through the discursive analysis of media texts, this research explores the collision of national security, rising secrecy and commercial interests, and intensifying local politics in a time of transformation for Australian news media industries.
This thesis analyses Australian newspaper reporting of the Attack class submarine procurement between September, 2013 and April, 2016. Using an approach informed by Critical Discourse Analysis, it emphasises the role that journalism played in structuring public discussion of this important national security policy. The thesis takes a critical approach as normative scholarship provides a limited framework within which to understand the complexities of news discourses as mutually influential, ideological and socially constitutive. Its primary theoretical framework is informed by Foucault’s theories of power and discourse, and it uses a methodology derived from Fairclough’s articulation of Critical Discourse Analysis. In total, 879 texts from four major Australian newspapers were analysed using a broad qualitative approach to textual analysis, including a subsample of 188 articles analysed using an in-depth CDA approach.
The thesis demonstrates that newspaper discourses of the Attack class procurement drew from and were connected to broader discourses of social change in Australian society. News discourses of the Attack class procurement became entangled in ongoing discourses of the Liberal Party of Australia’s leadership crisis, South Australia’s growing unemployment, strategic alliances between Western powers and the emerging ‘China threat’. By privileging the voices of political and industry elites, journalists centred public debate over the submarines around political conflict and commercialised discourses. This thesis argues that the politicisation of the Attack class is a response to structural influences within the changing news media environment. Journalism is in crisis, with financial insecurity combining with pressure from a more secretive government and a well-resourced public relations industry. As journalistic practices adapt to meet the changing political and economic landscape, the balance of power between journalists and their sources is shifting. As findings from this study suggest, while journalists still work to provide scrutiny, chase scandals, leak information and hold the powerful to account, there is an emerging vulnerability in the Australian press. The reporting of the Attack class procurement provides a window on how journalistic choices are made and how news is being reshaped by the 21st century Australian political economy. The news media are caught between digital media disruption, a secretive surveillance state, and the power and resources of the global defence industry. But as this thesis argues, the complex interconnected nature of news media discourses in the digital era require a novel approach to understanding media power and influence. This thesis contributes to an understanding of the disruption of power relations in news in this changing media environment.
Date of Award2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorKerry Mccallum (Supervisor), Caroline Fisher (Supervisor), Mathieu O'Neil (Supervisor) & Jason Flanagan (Supervisor)

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