Archive for July, 2009

Tony Fitzgerald’s challenge to Queensland

On Tuesday Tony Fitzgerald returned to Queensland for the 20th anniversary of his landmark Inquiry to make a powerful statement about the nature of patronage and power. Fitzgerald’s extraordinary 1987-1989 “Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct” set new legal standards for commissions of inquiry. By giving indemnities in return for evidence, it not only exposed a corrupt police force, but also toppled the entrenched 32 year reign of the National Party Government. This week Fitzgerald was back in Brisbane’s to point the finger at Labor’s two decade domination of Queensland.

Yesterday the Courier-Mail was only too happy to repeat his speech in full as part of their long-running campaign against the government. “Dirty Dozen” ran their page one headline (article not online) saying Fitzgerald speech “savages Labor’s 12 years in power”. But Brisbane’s only daily newspaper somewhat missed the point he was making. Fitzgerald was not gunning for the government; he was issuing a warning based on the history of the last 20 years in Queensland.

That was obvious from Fitzgerald’s first sentences. He began by praising Labor’s reform agenda in the early 1990s. The political program outlined by the Inquiry was pushed through by Premier Wayne Goss and his active Attorney-General Matt Foley. It was enthusiastically administrated in the revamped public sector by Glyn Davis and Peter Coaldrake (and by their fellow horsemen Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan). As Peter Beattie would later say Fitzgerald was Queensland’s Berlin Wall. “It washed away an old regime and heralded in a new era.”

But the new era didn’t happen as fast as many would like. Fitzgerald did not mention the timidity of the first term in 1989-1992 when Goss was forced to move to the right to shore up the vote. And although he grew more confident in the second term the voters misread it as hubris. Like everywhere else in Australia, Queensland swung to the right in the mid 1990s. Under newly installed state secretary Mike Kaiser, Labor hung on in the 1995 election by one seat. But in early 1996 the Court of Disputed Returns ordered the Mundingburra by-election in Townsville in February 1996. Labor lost that seat and with it their majority. To the surprise of most, Goss immediately resigned saying hoped “he’d left Queensland a better place.”

But as Fitzgerald said, the new National government was uncomfortably similar in voters’ minds to the corrupt one who lost in 1989. After it was revealed that Rob Borbidge’s government had struck a deal with police to repeal many of the Goss reforms, they were turfed out at the first time of asking. Goss’ replacement Peter Beattie, cobbled a majority with the support of independents to rule. He decided to move to the right to gain more certainty as premier. Beattie shut down the examination of the past and made peace with Joh Bjelke-Petersen. As Fitzgerald said, Queenslanders were encouraged to forget the repressions and corruption that had occurred and the social upheaval that had been involved in eradicating those injustices.

Labor’s return to power also marked the end of Fitzgerald’s influence in Queensland. In 1998 he “accepted” the time had come to resign and he moved to Sydney. Beattie claimed today that the real reasons Fitzgerald quit was because he missed out on chief justice and because he was annoyed with the friendship Beattie had forged with Joh.

But eventually Queenslanders forgot about Fitzgerald and reform. Beattie’s cause was helped by the resources boom. China was eager to import as much coal as Queensland could provide. Aided by ample funds in the exchequer and a tyro leading the opposition, Beattie won a landslide victory in 2001 and repeated it in 2004 and 2007. The sins of the past were forgotten in the largeness (and largesse) of victory. Fitzgerald says younger Queenslanders “know little of that era and are largely ignorant of the possibility that history might be repeated.”

And while Peter Beattie’s own personal probity was never an issue, he was let down by faction-appointed ministers. Also many of his advisors migrated out into business where their connections with the centre of power were highly valued. Fitzgerald described the consequences: “Access can now be purchased, patronage is dispensed, mates and supporters are appointed and retired politicians exploit their political connections to obtain ‘success fees’ for deals between business and government,” he said.

None of the scandals of the era touched the Teflon Premier. But after nine years in the job, Beattie suddenly had enough and quit in 2007. His wife Heather called him a “tired, exhausted, man with bags under his eyes”. In an orderly succession, he handed over power to his deputy Anna Bligh.

Bligh hung on in this year’s election but recent events such as the Gordon Nuttall prosecution and the CMC (Crime and Misconduct Commission) report into renewed police misconduct have weakened her position. Bligh acknowledged the state of affairs in her own speech leading up to the Fitzgerald Inquiry anniversary. She said Fitzgerald’s Inquiry was the reason she entered politics. She hailed the $43m CMC and its broad mission to oversee and investigate allegations of public sector misconduct and major organised crime. There are also new FOI laws, a Lobbyists Register, new political donation laws, and laws banning ministers from holding shares or company directorships.

Bligh says the fact that the problems have been found shows that the system works. “The drive for reform is never over,” she said. And as Mark Bahnisch says, openness and transparency are not just the responsibility of the government. He reminds us the media also have a role. But Queensland media are not healthy. The Courier-Mail and ABC local radio have gone tabloid, the state 7.30 report has gone weekly and “there’s no new Quentin Dempster to put the pollies and coppers under the microscope.” But Fitzgerald is saying we cannot afford to wait for new Quentin Dempsters to put probity under the microscope. “[E]ven if we cannot rely on politicians to voluntarily curb their excesses or tell the truth,” he wrote, “a well-informed community that is committed to doing so can influence the way it is governed.”

Over to us.

July 31, 2009 at 1:57 am Leave a comment

Robert McNamara: strange mists

In every decade of his long public life Robert Strange MacNamara was at the centre of whatever the world’s most intractable problems were at the time. In the forties, he dealt forensically with fascism. In the fifties he used market research to put some sense into the newly booming car culture. In the sixties he was on the front line of the Cold War and in the seventies he ran global finance at the World Bank. Towards the end of his always busy life he campaigned against nuclear arms and worked on solutions to reduce poverty.

His death at 93 earlier this month robbed the world of one of its great technocrats and fiercest thinkers. But almost every obit focussed almost exclusively on the 1960s and the flawed nature of his leadership of the war in Vietnam. His seven year role as a Kennedy-appointed Defence Secretary was also central to the documentary SBS showed in his honour tonight. The Fog of War is Errol Morris’s Oscar-winning 2003 documentary about “11 lessons from McNamara’s life”.

The “fog of war” was coined by the nineteenth century Prussian military thinker Carl Von Clausewitz. In his magnum opus On War, Clausewitz warned about the uncertainty of all data. It was a peculiar difficulty, he said, because all action is “planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not unfrequently—like the effect of a fog or moonshine—gives to things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance.” McNamara could certainly identify with the chaos of war as seen by those immersed in some component of it.

Much of McNamara’s time as Defence Secretary (1961-1967) were spent immersed in a war fog of one kind or another. His recollections to Morris were an attempt to view the fog through the clarity of hindsight. But while McNamara was happy enough about the title he was not happy about the 11 lessons subtitle. Morris put these in very late in the editing process. McNamara complained bitterly to him, “these are not my lessons; these are your lessons”. But Morris would not take them out, he was making a movie and was determined to paint the story as he saw fit. “It’s a Horatio Alger story, Morris told Tom Ryan, “the story of a man who comes from relatively humble origins – his parents didn’t finish high school – who becomes this incredible achiever”. Morris called it a very powerful story about a man who believes in rational solutions to economic, social and political problems.

McNamara saw a lot of action in the Pentagon hot seat. He had to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassionations of Ngo Dinh Diem and Kennedy within a month of each other, the difficulty of doing business with Johnson, the Gulf of Tonkin incident which escalated the war in Vietnam, and the authorisation of the deadly herbicide Agent Orange in that war. He attempted to rationalise his way through all of these difficult decisions. But in one of the lessons of Morris’ film he is forced to admit that “rationality will not save us”.

Yet there was little evidence from the rest of McNamara’s life that he had abandoned his belief in rationality. His 13 year reign as President of the World Bank transformed the stuffy cautious institution he inherited. The Bank began to address problems of income disparity and poverty. It diversified into sectors of activity where progress was inevitably slow and unspectacular. It was also taking more of an interest in the economic and social conditions of its borrowers. McNamara called the bank “an innovative, problem-solving mechanism…to help fashion a better life for mankind in the decades ahead.”

Though McNamara still had two decades of his own life to shape after 1981, Vietnam continued to haunt him and dominated the public discourse about his legacy. 25,000 Americans and a million or more Vietnamese died during his reign as Secretary of Defence. He claimed his role was to soften President Johnson’s hawkishness. But he told his biographer Deborah Shipley he was never sure enough of his doubts about Vietnam to act on them.

McNamara knew his was a tough reputation to defend. But defend it he did using Shipley, Morris and many other proxies to tell his story. He also wrote his own memoir, In Retrospect published in 1995. Morris probably got his “lessons” idea from this book which was subtitled “The tragedy and lessons of Vietnam”. McNamara claimed it was a book he planned never to put on the public record. He did not want to “appear self-serving, defensive, or vindictive” and found it hard to face his mistakes. “But something changed my attitude and willingness to speak,” he wrote. “I am responding not to a desire to get out my personal story but rather to a wish to put before the American people why their government and its leaders behaved as they did and what we may learn from that experience.”

Writing about the book, Noam Chomsky witheringly noted that McNamara did not have much of an idea of what was going on around him, neither then nor now. And to some degree this is true, McNamara has always been embroiled in the fog of war. But what Chomsky does not deny is that McNamara was at the centre of major decision making constantly confronted by the uncertainty of the data he was using. He may not always have been right, but he could always plausibly justify his course of action. This alone makes him worth learning from.

July 29, 2009 at 1:47 am Leave a comment

Making Health better: Bennett’s call to arms

(Photo “Health Dept” by Kate in Sydney)

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put off the decision today for six months whether to implement a $16b public health revamp suggested by the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission. Rudd says he is not frightened to tackle the issue but will consult with the public and health professionals before taking recommendations to the COAG meeting at a date to be announced late this year.

The revamp was outlined in a report released today by commission chair and BUPA Australia chief medical officer Dr Christine Bennett. The executive summary is available here in in PDF format. The report had five recommendations across the areas of indigenous health, mental illness, rural issues, dental care and access to public hospitals and suggested moving full funding of the system transfer from the states to the Commonwealth.

Though the additional funding required is problematic, the transfer of powers is not as big a deal as it sounds. The federal government already runs the health system at a macro level. As Medicare Australia says, Canberra has the primary role of developing broad national policies, regulation and funding for the industry.

It also does much of the spending. The department’s 2007 factbook (pdf) revealed that Canberra spent 46 percent of the total health budget with states responsible for another 22 percent (individuals spend 19 percent with “other private” bodies on 13). But it is the states that have primarily responsible to deliver and manage public health services. It is NSW, Victoria and the rest that also maintain direct relationships with most health care providers, including regulation of health professionals and private hospitals.

Bennett is not so much interested in taking power away from the states as giving individuals more power. Her stated motto is “wellness begins with you” and the aim of the document released today is to ensure the Department of Health lives up to its name rather than being a Department of Sickness, Injury and Death. This is reflected in the name of the report released today: “A healthier future for all Australians”.

The report had five major recommendations. The first was improving health outcomes for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI). It recommends a new authority to run ATSI health. The new body will be better funded, target nutrition, and train up an indigenous workforce. All this are good ambitions but a holistic health plan must take into accoun the impact the appalling imprisonment rates are having on ATSI life expectancy.

The second priority is improved care for the mentally ill. It wants more “sub-acute” (which defines a stage of illness between acute and chronic) services in the community with 7 x 24 “rapid response outreach” teams to provide alternative to hospital treatment. The third priority was support for people in remote and rural areas. This concept of universal service obligation (USO) is borrowed from telecommunications and insists that rural and remote citizens get treated the same as urban citizens. This is admirable but often impractical in a country the size of Australia. To address the shortage of doctors, nurses and facilities in remote and rural areas, the report suggests top-up funding to match communities who have better access medical, pharmaceutical and other primary health care services.

(Photo: 7 Day Dental by flickr_b3rn)

The fourth key recommendation is improved access to dental care. One in three Australians put off dental visits due to costs and there are 650,000 people (3 percent of the total population) on the public waiting list. The report recommends education of dentists and schools and a new universal scheme called Denticare Australia where basic services can be paid by private health insurance or the public purse.

The fifth and final recommendation is improving timely access to public hospitals. It says large public hospitals should have emergency beds available at all times, as well extra funding to reduce waiting lists beyond the budget moneys allocated to 2010-2011 (Health’s $52b annual budget is scheduled to be slashed in half for 2011-2012). It suggests a national access target to measure whether people are getting access to health services when they need it.

The report is talking about fundamental re-design. Bennett wants to embed prevention and early intervention, connect and integrate health services, and move to what it calls the “next generation of Medicare” to review comprehensiveness, the USO and safety nets. Crucially it will also examine what pharmaceuticals and services get onto the lucrative Medicare benefits schedule which is five percent of the total health spend.

The report says COAG needs to agree on a Healthy Australia Accord to realign roles and responsibilities for health. This talks for the need for “one health system” under full Commonwealth funding control of primary health care, as well as dental, aged and ATSI care. The Commonwealth would pay the states “activity-based benefits” for public hospital care to share the risk caused by increased demand and provide an incentive for better care. It will start at 40 percent of cost of every public hospital admission and will eventually rise to 100 percent at which time the federal government will be in de facto control of Australian public health.

It suggests a timetable for the Accord to be 2010 and says the reform plan will cost between $2.8b and $5.7b with a further $4.3b to $7.3b in infrastructure. The Denticare plan will cost an additional $3.6b which could be offset by a 0.75 percent increase in the Medicare levy. This taxation hit will be difficult to sell. But as Bennett says in the report “[governments], the community, health professionals and health services are…ready to embrace reform”. Let’s hope COAG sees it that way.

July 28, 2009 at 1:23 am Leave a comment

Citizen Byte conference part 3: Political blogging in Australia

This is the third and final post about Friday’s “New Media and the Informed Citizen” symposium held at Brisbane’s South Bank. See links to parts one and two.

In his perceptive book Blogwars (2008), American academic David Perlmutter says that too many news and information blogs read like reporters’ notes prior to going to press. He quotes the famous dictum of Washington Post publisher Philip Graham who said that journalism is the first draft of history. Blogs, said Perlmutter, could now be considered the first draft of journalism. But where exactly blogging and journalism intersect has always been a thorny subject in the Australian political and media landscape and this was one of topics Graham Young touched on in his speech to the Citizen Byte forum.

Young is well qualified to speak to this theme having vast experience across blogging, the media, and politics. He blogs at Ambit Gambit, conducts online polling at What the People Want and also the chief editor of one of Australia’s most important Internet journals, On Line Opinion. In the 1990s he was the vice-president and campaign chairman of the Queensland Liberal Party. He was successful too – the Liberals last election victory in 1995 occurred on his watch. But Young was always too iconoclastic to be a Liberal hero and is now outside the fold.

He began by discussing how the Internet was affecting Australian politics. He quoted the 2007 Nielsen Internet Technology Report which found the technology was pervasive and that 72 percent of all Internet users use it for news, sport and weather updates. However when he looked at the data, he found that despite the existence of thousands of political blogs, online users were consistently turning to existing media organisations for their news. In order of frequency the most accessed were (with Alexa ranking in brackets) Nine MSN (9), News.com (11), SMH (14), ABC (21) and The Age (26). The exclusively online organisations were well down the ladder with the biggest Crikey at 40,977 and Young’s own On Line Opinion further down at 142,137.

The message from this data, said Young, was that “tyrants rule” in Australia. Existing brands count, he said, as do the number of resources at their disposal, their national presence, and the fact that Australia is such a small and competitive marketplace. The few exclusively online operations that have been successful serve niche markets. Young also found that geographical proximity counted on the Internet and 30 percent of On Line Opinion’s users were from Queensland (which has 20 percent of total population).

This accentuation of the local was repeated in the Youdecide2007 citizen journalism project which Young was also involved with. This 2007 federal election site was an initiative of the Creative Industries faculty at QUT, funded by the Australian Research Council, and supported by project partners On Line Opinion, SBS and Cisco. The intention was to provide hyperlocal news and information on a seat-by-seat basis. However, audiences and stories from Queensland predominated (including the site’s one ‘gotcha’ story crategate) and this can be attributed to the fact the project was run out of Brisbane.

Young also noted how what he called Australian “para-parties” use the Internet. In the last election, 200,000 people joined the union-based Your Rights At Work campaign to fight the then-Governments Workchoices legislation. Activist group Getup! has an even bigger membership with 325,000 people registered on their books. Young disputes whether these are “members” in a traditional sense. He see Getup! as a harvester of e-mail addresses to which it then targets fundraising and single-political issue campaigns. According to AEC returns Getup! raised $1.2m in the election year of 2007 and it campaigned heavily (with mixed success) in the seats of Bennelong and Wentworth against Liberal heavyweights John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull respectively.

The mainstream political parties haven’t embraced the Internet as much as the “para-parties”. Young says there is a good reason for this – the old fashioned methods still work. TV ads and direct mail remain the most successful media campaign techniques. According to Young, Liberals used the Internet the most (with 44 percent of candidates having websites) with Labor second on 30 percent. The minor parties such as the Greens and the Democrats were well behind, preferring to use their scarce funds on more traditional advertising. Despite their apparent net-friendly credentials, these parties were only too aware where the real priority was when it came to spending money. (This is not a unique Australian problem; Perlmutter notes in his book that despite being a very adept blogger, Iowa Democrat governor Tom Vilsack was forced to drop out of the 2008 presidential race because didn’t have the money to buy television time).

Young then turned his attention to what he called the problem of “the failure of the blogosphere. He gave his version of an a-list of blogs he called “the domain” which included Larvatus Prodeo, Jennifer Marohasy, Homepagedaily, John Quiggin, Club Troppo and Henry Thornton. Young said that with the possible exception of Thornton who writes a fortnightly column in The Australian, none have successfully made a breakthrough similar to US blogs. Possible reasons for this include their point-of-view, a competitive market, the unwillingness of the MSM to interact, and the lack of a sustainable financial model. Young conceded some polling blogs have succeeded in impacting the agenda but he said this was hardly a mainstream interest. He also suggested that the highly educated people that ran most of his “domain” blogs may not be talking about the issues relevant to everyday Australians.

Because, he said, in the mainstream “brands count”. Media companies rely on severe audience inertia acting against change. Commercial television stations know that the 5.30pm slot is the most important because if they can lock in viewers prior to the high cost ads of the 6pm news, the likelihood they won’t change the channel – remote or no remote. Other issues affecting the ability of blogs to impact on politics here include the central control of party funding and candidate selection and the fact that Australia, generally speaking, is well run. What that means is that people generally don’t need to think about politics in daily life – they have more exciting things to do. The reason almost 100 percent of people voted in Iran’s recent election, said Young, was because there was a burning desire to fix a problem. The same desires don’t exist here. The blogs have their community but have not crashed through to a greater public. According to Young, “the days of the Interknight errant never arrived”.

July 27, 2009 at 12:04 am 1 comment

Citizens bite: Part 2

“Everyone, from journalists to the people we cover to our sources and the former audience, must change their ways. The alternative is just more of the same” – Dan Gillmor (We the Media).

And speaking of changing ways, I must begin with a correction. I gave the impression that Brisbane media did not attend the Citizen Byte new media symposium in Brisbane yesterday. That simply wasn’t true. Graham Young (OnLine Opinion, Ambit Gambit, What the People Want) was an invited speaker and there was also Wotnews.com.au and Woolly Days. I have since found out that other journalists and academics would have attended with more notice. In any case, the proceedings were filmed and I hope will be available in the public domain soon enough.

Citizen Byte is a community research project whose stated purpose is to “examine what the implications of the new media environment are on politics and the political sphere both in Australia and in Malaysia.” One of those implications was that new media was having a bigger impact in Malaysia than it was in Australia. Last night I discussed the role of keynote speaker Steven Gan. The editor of Malaysiakini is the “new media” go-to person for the White House and the New York Times and he has transformed a small online venture into Malaysia’s most popular news site. But tonight I want to discuss some of the other Malaysian wisdom on offer at the symposium. Tomorrow I will conclude with some great observations by the conference’s only Australian speaker, Graham Young.

Not the least wisdom came from a member of Malaysia’s media elite: Datuk Azman Ujang. Datuk Azman is chair of the Malaysian Press Institute and the Editorial Adviser at both national news agency Bernama and its broadcasting arm Bernama TV. He took up the latter two jobs having retired as overall GM of Bernama. Datuk Azman is an experienced powerful insider who can get away with calling a spade a spade in the corridors of power. He told his Brisbane audience how the government admonishes him for being “too honest” but it does not dare censure him further. Yet even he was disturbed by the last election result which he said was a wake-up call for the media as well the government. Datuk Azman said that entrenched government support within the media has resulted in biased news for 50 years. The arrival of new media suddenly made their credibility a marketplace issue for urban voters. Malaysiakini took up the challenge and inspired other news portals. Meanwhile opposition politicians took to blogging in numbers to enhance their appeal with younger audiences and crash through their lack of coverage in the MSM. They also used the world’s highest mobile penetration to good effect to spread viral political messages.

But most of the villages don’t have the Internet or mobile phones and the government won the election overall 60:40. The poorer states, particularly East Malaysia voted for BN. There is entrenched corruption in Sabah and Sarawak that has survived for half a century which KL turns a blind eye to. And the government uses regulation of the broadcast spectrum and annual licensing of newspapers to keep the media in check. Datuk Azman said there were “unwritten laws” which depended on the circumstances and mood and attitude of the government at a particular time.

Mohd. Zulkifli was the next to speak. Zulkifli is a content manager at Media Prima Berhad. Media Prima Berhad is Malaysia’s largest media company with a diversified portfolio of assets including four free-to-air TV channels. Zulkifli is bringing the power of new media to bear on many of those assets. He said audiences had to register to the websites but the content was free. 838,000 Malaysians have signed up.

Zulkifli says their biggest differentiator is video content but they are also providing Tweetdecks, SMS alerts (with video alerts starting next month), streaming content on mobiles, as well as interacting with television shows in innovative ways that would please fan theorists like Henry Jenkins.

Their websites are full of blogs and online discussions with network stars and there are discussion rooms where audiences can go to have their say and possibly affect the plots of soap operas. There is also an “Indie showcase” channel that deliberately attempts to “push the boundaries of censorship”. In 2007 Berhad released Malaysia’s first made-for-web drama. “Kerana Karina” or KK tells the story of overnight pop star Karina in 20 four-minute episodes. Though he didn’t mention in the speech, Zulkifli took time out from his day job to write the lyrics to the KK theme song.

What he did mention was that Berhad’s investment in new media (including 60 staff) is starting to pay off. The most popular site TV3.com gets 41 million hits each month. His job is to keep the revenue high otherwise, he said, he “wouldn’t be here next year”. Zulkifli says that social media is the big challenge of the next couple of years. Somehow, I don’t expect him to fail this challenge – Mohd. Zulkifli is definitely not “more of the same”.

July 26, 2009 at 12:37 am Leave a comment

Malaysiakini editor speaks in Brisbane

When Barack Obama’s campaign team and the New York Times online editor were scouring Asia-Pacific for innovative ways to harness the power of new media, they avoided Australia. There was little going on here they did not already know. Where they did go to was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is home to some of the most cutting-edge use of media in the world. The person both organisations sought out was journalist and editor Steven Gan. Gan is the editor of Malaysiakini (MK) an online citizen news service that has become the most trusted media organisation in the peninsula. MK publishes in Malay, Chinese, English and Tamil and has also expanded into video.

Today, Brisbane was fortunate enough to host Gan and several other key Malaysian new media players at an all-day symposium called “New Media and the Informed Citizen” at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music at South Bank. The conference outlined the vibrancy of the industry in Malaysia in front of audience of about thirty people. It was a shame more people in Brisbane didn’t get the chance to listen to how the media is being shaped in new directions in our part of the world.

“Malaysiakini” means Malaysia Now and celebrates its tenth anniversary in November. Up to around 1998 the Malaysian Barisan National (BN) government (which has ruled since independence in 1957) had a monopoly on news in cyberspace. But after visiting Silicon Valley, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad introduced the Multimedia Super Corridor (now MSC Malaysia) to kickstart the local IT industry. One of things Bill Gates and others told Mahathir was that he should not censor the Internet. While Mahathir had misgivings (particularly over pornography) he saw the business benefit and agreed. Malaysiakini rose to exploit the loophole, starting up with just four journalists.

But despite the liberal censorship rules (by Malaysian standards) the new publication still attracted the unwelcome attention of authorities. In January 2003, police raided the offices of MK looking for details of an anonymous letter writer who satirically compared a politician to the Ku Klux Klan. The politician was not amused and sent police in to find out the identity of the letter writer. Gan, as any good journalist would do, refused to divulge his source. Police seized four servers and 15 central processing units from its office and interrogated Gan and senior staff. The move provoked an outcry with spontaneous protests outside the office and led to a coalition of groups condemning the raid. Police never formally raised charges and returned the now obsolete boxes two years later.

MK continued to grow as its attacks on government corruption attracted a new readership unhappy with the servile nature of Malaysia’s mainstream press. In 2006 they broke the Petronas story over lies the oil company boss told about its activities in Sabah. The following year they took on Abdul Taib Mahmud the long-term corrupt leader of Sarawak over logging kickbacks to Japanese shipping firms. And last year MK played a pivotal rule in the general election (where the MSM all supported the government) and BN had its worst result in 50 years, losing control of five states.

MK now employs 30 journalists and has moved into video at www. malaysiakini.tv. They have also trained up a team of citizen journalists and provided them with video cameras to report on local news across East and West Malaysia. MK grew steadily with a subscription only model (the advice he gave the NYT) and a large bed of content.

As the election got closer in 2008, Gan made an important decision. He opened up the site for free for the entire period of the election. By the time of the vote on 8 March it had overtaken The Star newspaper as Malaysia’s most popular political site. Gan called the election a tsunami that almost completely overturned Malaysia’s political system (a later speaker said it wasn’t a new chapter in Malaysian politics – it was a new book).

Thanks to a corrupt government and the biased MSM, Malaysiakini quickly established itself as the most trusted media brand and brought in thousands of new subscribers after the election. The badly shaken BN government admitted they lost the Internet war and have now started to negotiate with MK and the other online outlets.

MK is now a thriving media organisation that has made a profit in each of the last four years. Gan says they were lucky they started their subscription model early. And after the election he says that big advertisers have started to take notice. He described one of his proudest moments as a video they released of a “nude ear-squat” form of prisoner punishment the government claimed had not been used in decades. The video scandal caused a Royal Commission to be set up to investigate the affair. “A half minute video changed practices that were going on for years,”  he said.

July 25, 2009 at 12:34 am Leave a comment

Muphry’s Law and Sarah Palin’s resignation letter

As an Irishman I know Murphy’s Law only too well. I have often been bitten by it and occasionally made bitter by it. The law says that if anything can go wrong, it surely will – and usually at the worst possible moment. Yet Murphy has to be admired as an unbending issuer of Rhadamanthine justice who cautions you to be wary that a serious snafu is always just an ill-timed moment away.

Yesterday I found Murphy’s literary cousin has a similar rule. Called Muphry’s Law, it states that if you are going to correct someone’s grammar you will undoubtably foul up the correction. This post is another attempt at breaking that important rule.

I learned about Muphry in the comments of a wonderful article in the Punch. “Mind your language if you’re making a parse at me” was a “lucethought” from JJJ journalist and news reader Lucy Carter. Carter described herself as a rarity amongst her peers: “a 22 year old who adores a well constructed sentence.” In ‘mind your language’ she tells the story about how her flirting with a barista went off the rails when she automatically corrected his grammar.

Because as she ruefully admitted, “nothing says ‘we should go out’ like a grammar check”.

Amusing, but Carter was making a serious point. She was discussing our education system – a subject the state of NSW is making laws to stop you talking about. Carter doesn’t think there is anything wrong in the way newer-style education forces people to examining theme within literary works. But she says the loss of grammar in the curriculum means that she cannot “parse” sentences like her mother could. What Carter was realising was that grammar is a useful tool for deconstruction.

This was amply demonstrated by the article’s comments thread. The first commenter “Allan Cox” (who missed a good opportunity to legitimately use the misnomer “frist”) said the article had restored his faith in “gen-yer’s” but also suggested this group were more analytical than they were letting on – particularly when it came to money.

The second commenter was BD. It was BD who introduced me to “Muphry’s Law”: anybody who writes about poor grammar will inevitably make at least one grammatical error. BD sternly picked apart several mistakes in Carter’s copy and gave the mark “must do better”. But BD had not thought through the concept.

The third commenter, The Punch’s own Tory Maguire, pointed out the pot-kettle moment when she mentioned BD’s own mispelling of the “fist letter of University”. Maguire was smart enough herself to keep her fist out of her mouth – she posted just one sentence which was gramatically correct. Muphry’s magic ended temporarily. It would appear again in later comments.

Because Muphry, it seems, is an unavoidable consequence of large-scale correction. Take the case of Vanity Fair‘s story about Sarah Palin’s Alaskan governor resignation speech. The magazine used a high-powered team of the magazine’s executive literary editor and representatives of the research and copy departments to unpick the speech line by rambling line. The trio took to the task with gusto and red, green and blue pens scrawled hundreds of corrections. It was great editing work. My only quibble was the resulting pictures weren’t easy to read and Vanity Fair did not provide a cleaned up version (presumably that was Palin’s job).

Oddly enough, Palin may have taken notice. Another report what she actually said had some (but not all) of Vanity Fair’s corrections.

But I wanted to see the finished article and felt compelled to write out my own post-Vanity Fair version of the farewell speech. I found just one Vanity Muphry (marked with ‘sic’) but there may be others. It almost certainly has fresh Muphry-ness introduced by me.

Yet Muphry or no, the communications question is: is this remashed version still identifiable as Palin’s speech?

===

Thank you all for coming here today to Lake Lucille. You are a source of inspiration for my family and me. And I’m thankful that Todd flew in last night from commercial fishing grounds in Bristol Bay to stand by my side as always.

It is the eve of our celebration as a nation a time to remember those souls who sacrificed selflessly so that we might live in freedom. From the shores of Maine to Texas and California, to the tip of Barrow, we live in peace because 233 years ago so many brave men and women fought for something far greater than themselves, and so many continue to fight for us today. Therefore I say God bless our military on this eve of Independence Day.

People who know me know that except for God and family, nothing is more important to me than our beloved Alaska. Serving her people is the greatest honour I can imagine. I want Alaskans to grasp what can be in store for our state. We were purchased as a territory because a member of President Andrew Johnson’s cabinet, William H. Seward, heard of this great land’s hoard of vast riches and beauty and recognised its strategic placement on the globe. He boldly looked to the future but later endured ridicule and mockery for his vision. His adversaries called his great dream “Seward’s Folly”.

Seward however, secured Alaska realising that Alaska could help secure the United States.

Alaska is strategic as a crossroads of the world and a gatekeeper of the continent. Seward and other early visionaries saw that Alaska would play a key role in America’s destiny.

That destiny includes developing the natural resources of the land, its wildlife and minerals, its oil and gas.

Serving this important state is a humbling responsibility. I trust you know me by now, I promised four years ago I would show independence and put an end to politics as usual. My administration’s accomplishments speak for themselves.

We created a Petroleum Systems Integrity Office to oversee safe development. We held the line on Point Thomson. And now with our co-operation you’re seeing drilling up there for oil and gas.

[Alaska Gas Inducement Act] AGIA, the gasline project was a massive and bi-partisan victory. The vote was 58 to 1. Like many other projects of its kind, this one is very competitive perhaps the largest private sector energy project ever achieved in this state.

[Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share] ACES, another bi-partisan effort is working as intended to work and industry is publicly acknowledging its success. Alaskans will no longer be taken advantage of. ACES provides incentives for new exploration and development. It also provides for new jobs unlike the system under a monopolised North Slope Oil Basin.

We ushered in bi-partisan ethics reform and we slowed the rate of government growth. We worked with the Legislature to save billions of dollars for our future. I made no new lobbyist friends with my hundreds of millions of dollars in budget vetoes. Living beyond our means today spells chaos for tomorrow.

We took the dairy business away from the government and put it back into the hands of the private-sector where it belongs. We provided support for education. We finally filled long-vacant public safety positions, including the doubling of Police academy recruits. We built a sub-cabinet to deal with climate change. We took heat from special interests for what I believe are our biologically sound practices to deal with wildlife management and predator control.

We broke ground on the state’s new prison.

We eliminated such luxuries for government employees such as jets, chefs and personal entourages. The lieutenant governor and I said no to pay raises. For our success in this first term I am proud to take credit for hiring the right people. Our goal was to achieve a gasline project, more fair oil and gas valuation, and ethics reform in four years. Thanks to our group’s astounding work ethic, we are well on the way in just two. I wish you would hear more from the media about your state’s progress and how we tackle the special interests and bodies that would stymie our state and force the heavy hand of federal government into our communities.

I have taken criticism for exercising my veto when I knew it was the right thing to do but I’m convinced it is better than being popular. I felt that some of those special interest dollars would harm not only Alaska but also America. I turned down those dollars because they would add to the obscene national debt we’re forcing on our children because of today’s big Government spending. It is not just immoral, it doesn’t even make economic sense.

Our Department of Law protected state’s [sic] rights. In just the last two weeks U.S. Supreme Court reversals came down against the liberal Ninth Circuit, deciding in our state’s favor over the last two weeks.

You don’t hear much of the good stuff in the press and some say things changed for me on August 29 last year, the day John McCain tapped me to be his running mate. It was an honour to be his running mate. It was an honour to stand beside a true American hero. But I say others changed and let me elaborate on that for a minute.
Political operatives descended on Alaska digging for dirt. The ethics law I championed became their weapon of choice. Over the past nine months I’ve been accused of all sorts of frivolous ethics violations from holding a fish in a photograph to wearing a jacket with the logo of my husband’s snow-making sponsor on it while answering reporters’ questions. Most of these ethics complaints have been dismissed. We won but it cost us. The State has wasted thousands of hours of your time and shelled out nearly 200,000 of your dollars to respond these attacks. That’s money that won’t be going to fund teachers or troopers or safer roads. Because of this politics of personal destruction Todd and I are looking at more than half a million dollars in legal bills to set the record straight.

And what about the people who brought up these silly accusations? It doesn’t cost them a dime so they’re not going to stop spending the public’s money in this game. It’s insane. My staff and I spend most of our day dealing with this stuff instead of working for our state.

If I have learned one thing, it’s that life is about choices. You can choose to engage in things that tear people down, or build people up. I choose to work very hard to build up this state and our great country.

Life is too short to waste time and resources. Though it may be tempting to listen to those who tell you to stay in line and shut up but that’s the quitter’s way out. I think one big problem in our country today is apathy and I refuse to just hunker down and go with the flow. We’re fishermen so we know only dead fish go with the flow. Productive people know where to put their efforts and how to utilize precious time. There is such a need now to build up our state and fight for our country. I’ll work hard for those who believe in free enterprise, smaller government, and strong national security, who want to support our troops and protect our freedom.

I will support others who willing to serve in or out of office inside or outside of Alaska. I don’t care what party they belong to.

But I won’t do it from the governor’s desk. So for the sake of my family, I have chosen not to seek re-election as governor.

As I thought about this announcement, I also thought about how much fun some governors have as lame ducks. Many politicians travel around the state and other states, maybe even go overseas on international trade missions. But then I thought, that’s wrong just to hit the road and draw a paycheck. I’m not going to put Alaskans through that.

I am not wired to operate under the same old politics as usual. I promised you that four years ago and I meant it. It’s not what is best for Alaska.

Therefore I’ve decided it’s best to transfer the authority of governor to Lieutenant Governor Parnell so that this administration, with its positive agenda and its accomplishments can continue without interruption to achieve administrative and legislative success.

We know we can effect positive change outside government at this moment in time and actually make a difference for our priorities. So we will, for Alaskans and for Americans.

Let me apply an analogy that seems comfortable to me and that’s basketball. You’d be naïve if you didn’t see a full-court press picking away right now. A good point guard drives through that full court press, protecting the ball, keeping her eye on the basket. She knows exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can win. That is what I’m doing – keeping an eye on the ball that represents sound priorities. Those include energy independence, smaller government, and national security. And I know that it’s time to pass the ball for victory.

I have given you my reasons candidly. My last day won’t be for another few weeks so the transition will be smooth. In fact, we will look forward to swearing in Sean Parnell up there in Fairbanks at the conclusion of our governor’s picnic at the end of the month.

I don’t want to disappoint anyone with my decision so all I can do is ask you to trust me.

Maybe some Alaskans don’t mind wasting public dollars and state time but I do. I cannot allow all that time and money go to waste just so I can hold the title of Governor. Some people are going to question the timing. Let me just say that this decision has been in the works for a while and only comes after much prayer and consideration.

I polled the most important people in my life – my kids – and they were unanimous. I asked them do you want me to make a positive difference and fight for all our children’s future from outside the governor’s office. It was four yeses and one “hell yeah!” That “hell yeah” sealed it.

For the kids, their approval had to do with the kids seeing their baby brother, Trig, mocked by mean-spirited adults. I only wish folks could understand how much we learn so much from someone like Trig. I know he needs me, but I need him even more. The world needs more Trigs.

My decision was fortified by my trip to Kosovo and Landstuhl, to visit our wounded soldiers overseas. We can all learn from our selfless troops. They’re bold and they don’t give up, and they know that life is short so they choose not to waste time. They choose to serve something greater than self and to build up our great country. These troops are where the worthy causes in this world can be found today. And that is where our public resources should be spent, instead of wasteful political bloodsport.

We’ve got to put first things first. For me, that means Alaska. It hurts to make this choice but I am doing what’s best for Alaska. My parents have a little magnet on their refrigerator that says “don’t explain: your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe you anyway.” But I have chosen to give you my reasons. I’ve had my fill of usual.

I’m taking my fight for what’s right for Alaska in a new direction. However, I don’t want to dissuade any Alaskan from entering politics after seeing the real climate change that began last August. We need hardworking, average Americans fighting for what’s right. And I will support you because you can effect change, just as I can, too, outside the political arena.

We need more people who will respect our Constitution, resist big government takeover and protect individual rights, who will have the good sense to know when conditions drastically change and who will pass the ball when it’s time so that the right team can win! That is what I’m doing here today.

Remember, Alaska, America is more than ever looking north to the future. God bless you. You have my heart. We’re all going to be in the capable hands of our lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell. Lieutenant General Craig Campbell will assume the role of lieutenant governor. And I promise you that I will be standing by, ready to assist. We have a strong, positive agenda for Alaska.

Take the words often attributed to General MacArthur, “We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction.”

Again I say thank you, and God bless you, Alaska.

July 24, 2009 at 3:18 am Leave a comment

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