Archive for August, 2009

Hatoyama’s challenges after DPJ landslide win in Japan

photo by wilbanks

As expected, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) have won a landslide victory in elections ending half a century of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The DPJ is likely to end up with 308 of the 480 seats in parliament almost tripling their representation from the last election in 2005. Incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s work will be cut out as he has made many election promises that don’t sit well with Japan’s troubled economy. The 62-year-old US-trained engineer called the victory “the starting line” but won’t announce his cabinet until he is officially elected prime minister by a special session of parliament, expected to be in about two weeks.

The outgoing Aso government crashed to defeat despite asking many legitimate questions about the DPJ’s ability to pay for its expensive campaign promises. These included a $300 a month child allowance to push up the birth rate (ageing is a principal cause of Japan’s stagnation), income support to farmers and heavily subsidised schooling. But the LDP’s own record was in tatters after the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy and they have stumbled with a succession of mediocre Prime Ministers since the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi (who won the last election) resigned in 2006.

The Nikkei-225 share index reacted well to the DPJ victory going up two per cent to an 11-month high earlier today. But there is a lot of catching up to do. Its stock market contracted by a massive 45 percent between July 2007 and February 2009. Japan was devastated by the GFC and the economy contracted by 0.7 percent in 2008 and is predicted to contract by another 2.5 percent this year before reaching a modest expansion of 0.6 per cent in 2010. Over the medium term, economic growth in Japan is expected to recover to about 1.8 per cent a year. However, exports, the main driver of the country’s economic growth, have been declining rapidly, turning the country’s trade surplus into a deficit earlier this year.

Japan has the largest fiscal deficit (as a share of gross domestic product) among the OECD economies, with public sector debt forecast to reach around 174 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of 2009. This wasn’t helped by the Aso Government’s introduction of a 10 trillion yen (US$111 billion) fiscal stimulus package in December 2008. Any further fiscal stimulus package will only worsen that situation. But after a long period of minimal growth and then severe recession there is now a strong political incentive to pursue economic growth polices. What remains to be seen is whether the DPJ can deliver. The signs are not promising. In the election campaign, Hatoyama proclaimed what The Economist called a “mushy-sounding concept, yuai, that mixes up the Chinese characters for friendship and love”. He calls it fraternity and says tariff sectors such as agriculture will be even more protected than they already are.

Another major challenge will be the environment. Japan’s Kyoto target is 7 percent reduction by 2012 on the 2000 figure. But even with recession, they are tracking at an 8 percent increase. Japan has also been criticised for its 2020 targets which is a modest 15 percent reduction using 2005 as the base year (not 1990 as Europe is using). In June the then environment minister Tetsuo Saito outlined the LDP goals for Copenhagen. Saito claimed it was following the lead of the US by starting the clock from 2005 and said the country has invested $10b in the “Cool Earth Partnership” with developing nations aimed at reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2050.

A key part of the DMJ’s election manifesto was green reforms that went much further than the LDP’s targets. They promised to lift Japan’s 2020 target to reduce greenhouse emissions to 25 per cent below 1990 levels. Hatoyama has also promised to create a mandatory domestic emissions trading scheme, again something the LDP were opposed to. While green groups are obviously pleased with these outcomes, others have issued a warning. Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the US Natural Resources Defence Council, said the DMJ would have to deal with deep-rooted opposition in the bureaucracy and business sector. “You won’t see a wholesale switch,” he said. “They will still have to deal with concerns of industries and with [strong] ministries that have very different views on climate change”. Hatoyama will need every seat of his huge mandate to overcome such bureaucratic inertia.

August 31, 2009 at 11:38 pm 3 comments

Australian politicians and media show no interest in learning UN lessons on Indigenous affairs

Photo by

David Jackmanson CC BY 2.0

Australian politicians and media have adopted a typically hostile and defensive pose in response to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ considered statement on Indigenous issues released on Thursday. The hostility was uncalled for. James Anaya, the UNHCR special rapporteur on indigenous issues, has issued a thoughtful report which civilly applauded Australian efforts to improve human rights and conditions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) communities while saying much more needed to be done.

Anaya, an American legal scholar, released his statement after spending 11 days in six states and territories. He met with Government authorities, representatives of indigenous communities and organisations, and other stakeholder groups. He said he was impressed and inspired by the forward-looking “strong and vibrant” nature of indigenous culture he saw despite having endured tremendous suffering due to “historical forces and entrenched racism”. He said those forces are still relevant today with Indigenous people still lagging far behind in quality of life indicators such as life expectancy, basic health, education, unemployment, incarceration, treatment of children, and access to basic services.

Anaya also praised the “close the gap” federal initiatives and said these programs needed to be improved and expanded. But he also noted some serious concerns. The biggest problem, he said, was with the Northern Territory Emergency Response with its income management regime, imposition of compulsory leases, and community-wide bans on alcohol consumption and pornography. Anaya said these measures overtly discriminated against aboriginal peoples, infringed their right of self-determination and further stigmatised marked communities.

Anaya conceded that affirmative measures were necessary but said they needed to take due regard of self-determination and to be free from racial discrimination and indignity. He said there needs to be a holistic approach to address Indigenous issues nationally. He quoted Prime Minister Rudd’s apology speech and said governments needed to form partnerships with Indigenous people “based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.”

It was only with the aid of local partnerships that issues of alcoholism, domestic violence, health and education could be addressed in culturally appropriate ways adapted to local needs. He said some government programmes fail to take into account local initiatives or duplicate local services undermining Indigenous institutions. He welcomed ATSI social justice commissioner Tom Calma’s call for the government to appoint a new ATSI representative body but said that indigenous groups must strengthen their own organisational and governance capacity.

Anaya also called for constitutional change. He said there needed to be recognition of ATSI rights in a charter of rights to be included in the Constitution. He also urged continued land rights, fixing housing needs and said the Native Title Act should be amended to include UN recommendations on racial discrimination. He said the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should frame legislation, policies, and actions that affect ATSI people. The declaration, he said, “expresses the global consensus on the rights of indigenous peoples and corresponding state obligations on the basis of universal human rights.”

But despite the reasonableness of Anaya’s suggestions, it was met mostly with hostility this weekend from media and politicians alike. The Weekend Australian’s editorial claimed he missed the point and went on to indulge in a bit of silly UN-bashing. Former Liberal indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough said Anaya was “pontificating about human rights” while former health minister Tony Abbott bizarrely called him an “armchair critic”.

The stupidity of the response was matched on the Labor side of politics. Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin used the feeble excuse of protecting children to reject the main findings of the report (despite the fact that Anaya specifically justified affirmative measures in this area). Former national president Warren Mundine said the report should be binned and claimed that although racism exists in Australia, “we are actually in Australia working towards resolving those issues.”

It is difficult to see how exactly those issues can be resolved when “we” cannot even treat the considered opinion of an unbiased outsider with respect. It also shows yet again an Australian inability to deal constructively with criticism. Both Labor and the Liberal have thrown out Anaya’s baby in a childish tantrum because they didn’t like the look of his bathwater. Greens’ Indigenous affairs spokesperson Rachel Siewart is one of the few to come out of the affair with any credit. She said she was not surprised by his findings. “It is good to see an independent outside voice that brings a wealth of international experience of Indigenous development airing such strong criticisms of where this ill-thought-out top-down intervention has gone wrong,” she said. “This may ultimately result in the Government listening.”

We can only hope, Rachel.

August 30, 2009 at 9:26 pm Leave a comment

Peering beyond the paywalls: Life after Murdoch

(Photo by Arenamontanus)

Perhaps the most terrifying phrase in the English language is “all bets are off”. This is the panicky moment where regret about actions and inactions is inevitable but momentary. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch felt that fear when he announced that News Corp was going to start charging for online content from 2010 onwards. Necessity is the mother of this action – News Corp posted a $3.4 billion loss in fiscal 2009. Change is difficult, but as a businessman Murdoch understands how evolution works. The alternative is death. Change has no moral charter however, and the jump from Charles Darwin to World War I took just thirty years.

The notion of objectivity journalism arose in the early 20th century to report on the complexities of the times. A hundred years on, faithfully reporting the facts remains the key to influence in a media-crowded environment. More than ever journalism is a crucial component of democracy and its first loyalty is as always to citizens. It is now easier that ever for those citizens to spread their own messages. The Internet has provided the means of production to the masses. But it must be understood it is not a free entity. It owes as much to Adam Smith as to Marx. People who are horrified about paying for content on the Internet don’t seem to complain too much about paying for access and equipment.

It is important to understand how much the market will bear the costs of Murdoch’s content. But it will also be useful to observe how people will exploit the new niches left vacant in the attention economy. There is plenty of information waiting to fill the gaps that will be left to those who want to find their news, opinion and analysis in a frugal fashion. Announcing a new millennial culture for the 21st century The Cluetrain Manifesto hailed the power of the networks and how hyperlinks subvert hierarchies. It is an anarchic age where information has gone from being scarce to being hyperabundant.

Citizens are gathering a larger part of the puzzle. When the shooting of two London policemen occurred earlier this month, Sky News found the ideal picture to accompany their report on the Twitter picture service Twitpic. A man named Joe Neale had snapped a picture of the scene as he walked to a meeting. But Sky did not seek Neale’s permission to use the photo nor did they realise that Neale was an ex-employee of Murdoch at Myspace. Neale used Twitter’s terms of reference to shame them in to not only giving him attribution but also payment. It was a piquant Neale who pointed out the consequences of their actions. “Rupert Murdoch has announced people will have to pay to access his sites from 2010, meantime he doesn’t seem to mind not paying for material and happily infringes on other people’s work” he said.

Rupert Murdoch may not have fully considered the hyperlocal consequences of having to pay his suppliers but he will have considered that he can drop audience and still turn a buck. His personal wealth dropped from $7.9 billion to $3.4 in the last 12 months, but he was far from alone to suffer carnage from the GFC. And he does have the industry in his blood. Michael Wolff’s feature on the billionaire publisher in Vanity Fair portrayed him as “the last mogul standing who truly loves print”. Australian journalist Frank Devine, who had a working relationship with him from 1983 up to his death last month, was probably closer to the mark when he said Murdoch was motivated less by money than by the intrigue of business. He said Murdoch finds “near total fulfilment” in constantly telephoning, travelling on whims, out-thinking rivals, balance sheets, and calculating risks”. Murdoch will have a fair idea of just how risky this is.

But he will also know the benefits. In The Sociology of News, journalism academic Michael Schudson set his readers the following riddle: When should a profit-seeking newspaper seek fewer readers? His answer was “when the readers it loses have, on average less income than the readers it keeps”. Newspapers make 80 percent of their income from advertising and for advertisers the perceived quality of a publication’s readership is as important as its quantity.

Sale price is almost unimportant by comparison. The crucial metric is instead demographic. As a Bloomingdale executive allegedly once told Murdoch, his store did not advertise in the New York Post because “your readers are our shoplifters”. News Corp is now going for the non-shoplifting reader so they can bring guaranteed wealthy eyeballs to advertisers.

Isolation is a reasonable a business plan, but News Corp ring-fenced content would look even more attractive to an audience if they thought it was difficult to get elsewhere. His wooing of the New York Times, the Washington Post and Hearst media has been compared to “Vito Corleone calling for a meeting of the Five Families”.

In Australia, his only other serious private rival Fairfax (who themselves lost $380m last year) is interested in getting behind the paywall. Fairfax Media managing director Brian McCarthy announced he would be “happy to talk” to News Ltd about charging for online content. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has said it is watching for anti-competitive or collusive behaviour and has warned News Ltd and Fairfax to consult with it before entering into any paid online content arrangement.

But perhaps the ACCC is being a little too precious. Even if a news cartel can form a working paywall, will it really usher in a two-tiered era of the information rich and the information poor? The Internet has long interpreted censorship as damage and may treat large paywalls the same way. Would Australia be losing much if News and Fairfax hid their content much of which is vacuous? There are plenty of other ways of getting overseas information and ABC is left as master of the local unfenced field. Trusted bloggers who do not charge may find their influence expanding as well as their audiences.

It is also likely there will be significant leakage of material of paywall content into the public commons and with it new legal quagmires. Associated Press have announced they will charge for content at $2.50 a word but re-publishers may claim fair use privilege. Copyright law will be sorely tested too. What any judges who may be asked to decide on such matters must realise that, as Terry Flew says, information is a metapublic good. It generates the most positive benefits to a community when it is freely available. It is the miracle of the knowledge economy which as Charles Leadbeater says exists on thin air. Those with the best images and ideas are quicker to adapt than those weighed down by assets that have outlived their usefulness.

The question will be whether Murdoch has absorbed that lesson with his new plans. He is a flying a flag for those who believe the era of free on-line content is over. They argue pay per view is necessary to support quality journalism.

But others say that death of quality journalism was caused by the profit motive of the late 20th century newspaper where budgets were reduced, and journalists were asked to write more stories per day and were given less time to check facts. Wired editor Chris Anderson argues that the age of information abundance is leading instead to the rise of freeconomics driven by the underlying power of the web. Everyone with the skills to become a journalist may find unexpected advertising possibilities opening when News Corp turn off the Google juice. All bets are off.

August 30, 2009 at 12:06 am Leave a comment

Is Media140 abandoning Twitter?

The inaugural Media140 conference in Australia is on in November in Sydney. As a totally Twitterised wannabe journalist, I’m looking forward to attending. There will be lots of great speakers and good discussions there, I’m sure. Interestingly, the event’s flyer barely mentions Twitter, the technology that inspired the 140 idea. That’s a pity in some respect because sometimes a little technological determinism doesn’t hurt. No matter what it is called, Twitter is a reforming technology.

Its name may be for the birds, but Twitter is usually imagined as a stream. Right now, it is a raging current is rushing towards some eventual ocean of communication. The channel is known but it might be more difficult to work out who is saying what to whom and for what effect.

At first glance Twitter seems anchored and orderly with a precise naming system. There are hashtags denoting issues and an honest sounding at-sign denoting voices – My voice is @DerekBarry. But the information in the sign may not be reliable as it seems it is at.

Fakes about on Twitter. The real fakes acquire a fixity over time channelling another personalities. Tiny Buddha spreads 140 character wisdom, Marcel Marceau spreads a similar amount of silence. Nietzsche may have killed God but he cannot stop him/her from tweeting.

If there is genuine in the fake, there is also as much fakery in the genuine. Last week, “Media-more-than-140” gleefully published research that headlined 40 percent of Tweets are pointless babble. They were wrong to call it Twitter twaddle; the figure grossly underestimates the need for phatic conversation as a part of social bridge-building. But whatever the true ratio of signal to noise, the question has validity. It implies there is a discrete judgement about each individual communication.

Discrete communication Twitter may be, but discreet it ain’t. Yes, there are backchannels where you can sometimes privately engage in conversation via the deep and meaningful DM. But most of Twitter’s output is in the public sphere where followers can see directly and a network of others can indirectly. Twitter is a 21st century agora and a marketplace of ideas. It exists in mostly equal fashion across the Internet though there is manipulation. China and other countries can switch it off from time to time and the US can keep it on the air in an attempt to update Mohammad Mossadegh’s Iranian fail whale story.

As the State Department found out, Twitter is useful. It is a vibrant source of news, stories, information, jokes, links, music, arguments, gossip and goofs. There are leads, information, signposts, arguments, diary entries, story, contact, and laughing. There are many expressions of boredom. It is how taste is transferred; a sort of Bourdieu on Big Brother.

Much of this milieu is familiar to other modes of communication. But there is also joy in the technology itself. Like Google, it is simple. But unlike Google there is a restriction. Twitter’s most ingenuous factor is the creative motif of denial. The need for brevity is paramount. The 140 character limit concentrates the mind. Every letter of every word must be scrutinised to ensure it is working for the cause. Driven by the limit, Twitter is a 21st century telegraph on steroids. But it is digital, so what goes on in the Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay there.

Because there is an organic search engine. Twitter search has its faults as it doesn’t keep a great history, but it is right up to date with the present. Anything new, interesting, informative or important will cascade quickly through its networks in the form of an accelerating power law. It can go from 0 to 140 in under ten seconds. Google might be able to tell you what something is, but Twitter can tell you what it is right now.

August 28, 2009 at 12:42 am 1 comment

Krishna’s birthday festival in Brisbane

Musicians providing the entertainment at Krishna Birthday festival (Photo by GWP Studio – used with permission from Taraka Sticha).

The celebration lawn at Brisbane’s Roma Street Parklands was transformed into a riot of colour and sound on Sunday as thousands gathered to celebrate Krishna’s birthday festival.

The festival is the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and celebrates India’s rich cultural contribution to Australia.

The tent for the main stage was the place to be on an unseasonal scorching hot winter’s day.

There the audience was treated to a mix of music, dancing and drama while many others were tempted by the free yoga classes and the rich aromas from the wide variety of food stalls nearby.

The festival was organised by the local Hare Krishna movement.

Event co-ordinator Taracha Sticha said Krishna’s birthday has been celebrated for almost 40 years in Brisbane dating back to 1971.

“We’ve always celebrated it at our Graceville temple but this is the first time we’ve moved it to the centre of Brisbane”, she said.

Ms Sticha said there were 40,000 Indian-born residents in Queensland, 85 per cent of whom lived in the south-east.

Councillor David Hinchliffe attended on behalf of Brisbane city council and Ms Sticha said he was impressed by what he saw.

“Mr Hinchliffe advised us to apply for grants and we did a lot of fundraising ourselves,” Ms Sticha said.

The festival celebrates the birthday of Krishna Janmashtami which is an avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu.

In India, Krishna’s birthday is a public holiday which is always held between mid August and mid September.

Ms Sticha said she was pleased with the turn-out at Brisbane’s celebration and hopes to repeat it at Roma Street Parklands again next year.

“I just hope it’s not too hot!” she said.

More photos I took on the day:

August 26, 2009 at 11:06 pm Leave a comment

Gov 2.0 roadshow comes to Brisbane

The federal Government 2.0 taskforce roadshow rolled into Brisbane today as part of its series of open forums in all the state capitals. The federal government sponsored taskforce’s aim is to increase public sector information and online engagement. About hundred or so people came along to 175 Eagle Street in central Brisbane to give input to taskforce about making governance more democratic and accountable. In attendance was chair Nicholas Gruen and three other members Brian Fitzgerald, Lisa Harvey and David Solomon

While the “2.0” in the name suggests the use of web 2.0 read-write tools, the biggest task for the government (if it is serious about it) will be engendering cultural change in a public service that is used to zealously guarding information. The cultural nature is shown in the taskforce’s terms of reference which are to make government information more accessible and usable, make government more consultative, participatory and transparent, build a culture of online innovation within government, promote collaboration across agencies, and identify and trial some initiatives.

The roadshow was a roadmap of how they might approach the task. Gruen ran the proceedings. Nicholas Gruen is the CEO of Lateral Economics and a former economics adviser to two Labor governments in the 1980s and 1990s. He also writes for the Australian Financial Review and blogs at Club Troppo. He began by saying the taskforce had to engage skeptics and show that Government 2.0 was a way of delivering on the mission of agencies that was better than the way they do it now. He then threw the session open to suggestions from the floor.

Most of the first hour of the session got a bit bogged down on records management. Several members of the audience wanted to know how governments would manage public access of intermediate documents, and whether people would have the opportunity to give feedback on unfinalised documents. Gruen said government agencies had an obligation to consult on policy development and spoke about using blogs and date/time stamped wikis that can track changes to ensure a transparent history. But he also noted there was a difference between public and private spaces for conversation. He said some requests for FOI such as a recent Daily Telegraph request for the butchers’ paper of a government conference was “frivolous”.

Gruen then passed the baton to Lisa Harvey who is an IT specialist working in the not-for-profit sector. She said the government’s role should be one of “facilitation, feedback and watching”. What she wanted to see was a conversation between constituents about the issues that mattered to them. One audience member then asked about how this conversation would be moderated given the likely divergence of views and the possibility it could spin out of control. Gruen said we needed to be more libertarian about it. He said that on his blog (Troppo), he does not tell commenters what to do. The one rule there is: “use your common sense”. But he admitted he would have difficulty convincing governments of this.

Gruen was of the view that as much as government information as possible should be in the public domain so that citizens could comment on it. In his words, it equated to the open source mantra of Eric Raymond that “enough eyeballs make all bugs shallow”. But as almost everyone in the room agreed, it was more a matter of culture change than technology that was required. He wanted to give the government a forum where they could openly say “we stuffed it up” and look for help to fix problems.

The last day for submissions to the taskforce was yesterday. It will provide a final report on its activities to Lindsay Tanner, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation by the end of 2009 at which time the taskforce will disband and hand over to a government-appointed information commissioner. The challenge will be to show this is not merely technological determinism where society adapts to new technologies to avoid complex questions about their impact or who controls them.

What it needs to do is meet head-on the hoopla that greeted Tanner’s announcement of the board in June. “We have to accept that when we open ourselves further to public discussion…we won’t always like what we hear,” he said at the time. “But if the new technologies and ways of using them mean that government is in closer and deeper contact with citizens it serves, and is harnessing their best ideas, the government will only benefit.” Roll on, the day.

August 25, 2009 at 11:18 pm Leave a comment

The last post and chorus

(picture adapted from original by Annie Mole).

What happens to a blog when it turns seven? Well, if it belongs to Lawrence Lessig it is retired. To be fair to the legal scholar Lessig, he doesn’t actually use the r-word. Instead he called it hibernation and a sabbatical but he did write it was “the last post in this frame”. Whatever he calls it, Lessig’s departure is the latest in a line of events that is giving the impression that blogging is passé.

But Lessig had several good reasons to cut back. He named three factors: the impending birth of his third child, a five year directorship at Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard and the workload involved in maintaining a blog. He needed two friends’ admin help to cull the 10,000 spam comments that were causing pollution among the 20,000 genuine ones. Lessig said he was not abandoning web2.0. He was continuing presence at Twitter, Blip.tv and podcasting.

Here in Australia, Kate Carruthers picked up the theme today that newer social networks have made blogs look so 2004. While Carruthers accepted there was still a need for longer-form communication platforms, she suggested there may be a move away from the likes of Blogger and WordPress. Carruthers said possible replacements include Tumblr and Posterous which are half-way houses between blogs and shorter messages. “They seem to sit between a short message sharing medium and a traditional blog,” she said. “They also easily incorporate multimedia content.”

Carruthers didn’t mention Lessig but did link to an article Paul Bautin wrote in Wired a year ago. Boutin’s friendly advice to anyone wanting to start a blog was “don’t”. He went further and suggested all current bloggers should also down tools. “Writing a weblog today isn’t the bright idea it was four years ago,” he argued. “The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge.” Like Lessig, Boutin believes that the blogging waters have been polluted by bilgewaters. He says blogging lacks the intimacy it used to have. And as well as dealing with spammers and trolls, Boutin says big media have taken over. The buzz was now at social multimedia sites like YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook which “made publishing pics and video as easy as typing text”. His message condensed to 140 characters was: “@WiredReader: Kill yr blog. 2004 over. Google won’t find you. Too much cruft from HuffPo, NYT. Commenters are tards. C u on Facebook?”

Boutin himself linked to another high profile blogger who had called it quits. Weblogs network owner Jason Calacanis also announced his retirement from blogging in 2008 despite professing to love the craft. Blogging had gotten too big, he said, too impersonal and too lacking in intimacy. But unlike Boudin, Calacanis was heading towards a more primitive form: a 600 member mail-list he was going to have a conversation with “I’m looking for something more acoustic, something more authentic and something more private,” he said.

Calacanis, like Lessig and Boudin, has good reasons to stop blogging. But are they indicative of a wider trend? It may be 12 months old, but Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere 2008 would beg to differ. Its data suggests that blogs are pervasive and part of our lives. 184 million people worldwide have started one and 346 million people read them. There are almost a million new posts every day written in 80 languages. Blogs are part of the daily traffic of 77 percent of active Internet users. Twice as many people go to a blog as those who visit Facebook. This seems like a practice in rude health, but Technorati does acknowledge one issue: the lines are continuing to blur as to what is a blog and what is not. It rightly says mainstream media sites packaging their content as “blogs”. But Technorati ignores the blurring at the micro-end of the spectrum at the Facebooks, Twitters and Tumblrs of the world. It defines the blogosphere as “the ecosystem of interconnected communities of bloggers and readers at the convergence of journalism and conversation.”

The blogosphere is a massive ecosystem with enormous diversity and engagement. Blogging evolved from early listings of websites people liked to personal journals and a community of interest that encouraged conversation. But it was also something else. Peter Merholz coined the term in 1999 when he decided to pronounce “weblog” as “we-blog”. Or blog for shot. Merholz enjoyed the word’s crudeness and dissonance. “I like that it’s roughly onomatopoeic”, he recalled. “These sites – mine included – tend to be a kind of information upchucking”.

Even granting that information is not necessarily knowledge, that need to upchuck it has not dissipated. In his response to Technorati’s 2008 report, Chris Pirillo got it right. “The idea of blogging will never disappear,” he said “But the process by content is created, will continue to undergo radical upheavals.”

The death of the blog is exaggerated.

August 25, 2009 at 12:54 am Leave a comment

Lockerbie anguish continues as Al-Megrahi protests innocence

While many in Britain and America have condemned the celebratory nature of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi’s Libyan return, they conveniently overlook the fact he was unlikely to be the Lockerbie bomber. The Scottish government released the 57 year old cancer suffering al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds last week after serving eight years of his life sentence. But dying or not, al-Megrahi says he is still intent on proving his innocence. “If there is justice in the UK I would be acquitted or the verdict would be quashed because it was unsafe,” he said this weekend. “There was a miscarriage of justice.”

Al-Megrahi has a good point; justice has always taken a back seat to politics in the Lockerbie bombing. Pan Am flight 103 blew up over the small Scottish town a few nights before Christmas 1988 en route from London to New York. 270 people died – 243 passengers, 16 crew and 11 residents on the ground. Scotland claimed jurisdiction for the crime as the plane was destroyed in Scottish airspace.

The initial suspect was a Syrian group with the unwieldy title of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command (PFLP-GC). The PFLP-GC had a motive by acting for Iran in revenge for the American attack on an Iranian Airlines passenger plane a few months earlier. Two years before Lockerbie, the group’s Syrian leader Ahmed Jibril had publicly warned there would be “no safety for any traveller on an Israeli or US airliner”. Although PFLP-GC subsequently denied responsibility for Lockerbie, the early years of piecing together evidence focussed firmly on the Syria-Iran link.

But by 1990 Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Neighbouring Iran and Syria were now suddenly proxy-allies whom the west could not afford to alienate. The Lockerbie case refocussed on the “Malta connection” and later that year the US and British governments issued indictments of murder against two Libyan men Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah. In 1991 the pair were back in Libya and the US and the UK requested their extradition. Libya refused as it had no extradition treaty with either country. Libya arrested the pair but a local prosecution went nowhere as US/UK refused to hand over their evidence. The UN then made an unprecedented move to impose sanctions for not comply with the extradition request. The sanctions lasted six years.

After years of negotiation the UK agreed to Libyan demands for it to take place in a neutral country due to concerns of safety and a fair trial. The trial began in May 2000 in the Netherlands under Scottish law and three Scottish judges. The key evidence was the brown Samsonsite suitcase which contained the bomb hidden in a radio/cassette player. The clothing in the suitcase was purchased at a shop in Malta and the store owner swore that a Libyan he could not identify bought them. Al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was in Malta on the day of the purchase and stayed near the shop. He was unable to offer the court a reason for his stay on the island. This evidence plus his connections to airport security and the Swiss company that built the timer in the explosive device was enough to convict him. Al-Megrahi was given a life sentence.

The second defendant Fhimah was an acquaintance of al-Megrahi and an Air Malta employee. They both arrived in Malta on the same flight two days before the bombing. The prosecution argued Fhimah knew how to get unaccompanied baggage onto a plane but the court found no evidence to show he had assisted al-Megrahi and acquitted him. But with Fhimah’s acquittal part of the case against al-Megrahi collapsed too. How did he get the bomb out of Malta?

Also, as part of their defence under Scottish law, the pair accused the Syrian-backed PFLP-GC of carrying out the attack. A German police officer testified that PFLP-GC had the means and intention of attacking an airline but the timers and cassette player used were not consistent with other PFLP-GC attacks. A Jordanian agent Marwan Khreesat who had infiltrated the group said he had never seen radio cassette players with twin speakers converted into explosive devices. On the basis of the German and Jordanian evidence the court concluded the PFLP-GC did not make the bomb.

The UN appointed five observers to watch the trial. Of these only one, Professor Köchler from Innsbruck University, published his findings. Köchler concluded the trial was unfair based on two points of objection. He noted the extraordinary length of detention (though this had been requested by the defence to prepare its case) and said the “presence of foreigners” at the prosecution and defence tables hampered the judges’ ability to find the truth and introduced a political element to the case (though there was no evidence that the judges were swayed by the “foreigners”).

Al-Megrahi appealed against the sentence based on the strength of the evidence linking him to the fatal suitcase. There was also the startling evidence that emerged in September 2001 when a former security guard at Heathrow named Ray Manley said in a sworn affidavit he had told anti-terror police one of Pan Am’s luggage rooms had been broken into on the night of the bombing. This evidence cast complete doubt on the whole Malta connection. But for many years Scotland fought the appeal process.

The Scottish law professor who negotiated the Netherlands trial says many people believe there was overt political pressure placed upon the judges. Robert Black says it was probably necessary to reach a conclusion that was satisfactory to the British and American governments. “I think that consciously or subconsciously, these judges appreciated that if neither of the two Libyan accused were convicted in this trial, this would be an enormous embarrassment to the prosecution system in Scotland,” he said.

But by 2003, Libya was no longer a public enemy. Gaddafy told the Americans about his weapons capability. The west lifted international sanctions against Libya after it admitted responsibility for Lockerbie in 2005 and paid about $2.7bn in compensation to the victims’ families. Libya has since got that money back and much more in oil revenues. As The Times points out, al-Megrahi’s freedom is a further product of the effort to bring Libya out of dangerous isolation. “This is as much to America’s advantage as Britain’s, but Washington has too much baggage to be openly involved,” said The Times. And 20 years on, everyone is happy except the families of the Lockerbie victims who are still no closer to knowing who killed their loved ones.

August 23, 2009 at 10:15 pm Leave a comment

Pandora’s Boxers: Crikey’s “serious questions” about women

“The sight of women talking together has always made men uneasy, nowadays it means rank subversion,” Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, 1971.

On the whole, I like Crikey and its editor Jonathan Green. Green runs one of the few lively and independent voices in big Australian media and I enjoy their skewering of Australian political and media sacred cows. However, I did not think much of the “serious question” Green asked on Twitter last week. Why, he pondered, don’t women subscribe to the online newsletter? Crikey has about 15,000 annual subscribers who pay $100 or thereabouts for a news and current affairs email five day a week. 70 percent of these are male, says Green. According to Green the “unbalance was weird.”

There were five reasons I didn’t think much of his question.

Firstly I am disposed to be cynical and say this is a disguised advertising ploy. Green may want to get people talking, but it wouldn’t hurt to lift his readership by 5,000 people. Secondly there is an assumption that the ratio of male to female readers is somehow an important matter that requires fixing and not merely a reflection of individual taste. Thirdly, if Crikey’s content is geared toward males, then they can solve it themselves. Half of their newsroom are female, as deputy editor Sophie Black reminds us. Though Black wanted “more talk on this”, perhaps they would be better served with more action. Fourthly the question ignores the cost of Crikey and the time investment required to read it. It is a great publication but also a luxury that requires discretionary wealth and time to take up the subscription.

But the fifth and biggest reason I didn’t like it was that Green was doing the “annual airing” of the whole tiresome battle of the sexes argument without a clear agenda as to where it might lead. What then did Green want to see as an outcome if it wasn’t simply about getting more readers for Crikey? Did he not know that many women would use this as an opportunity to remind Green that equality of the sexes remains a distant dream in 21st century Australia. As “a journalist since before you were born”, there are issues Jonathan Green might have been able to foresee.

But there were many who did take Green’s question seriously, including Crikey’s own Scott Steel aka Possum. The writer of Pollytics was inclined to do soul searching about the gender mix of his own readership. He said the ratio of male to female comments on Pollytics and fellow Crikey pseph blog Poll Bludger ranged “between about 4 to 1 on a good day, through to 10 to 1 depending on the topic.” He also bemoaned the “lack of big female political bloggers” and would eventually run into heavy traffic when he damned Hoyden About Town with the faint praise that they “touch[ed] on politics occasionally”.

And then the argument spun off in all sorts of directions. Lisa Gunders took the question head on. Assuming an acceptance of Steel’s premise (which she did not necessarily share), she mentioned two factors. Women wrote about different forms of politics which wend “under the radar”, she said. But the biggest reason was a lack of time. “Women are still carrying the major load in terms of housework and the relational work required to keep a household running these days,” she wrote. “Much of this work isn’t recognised and is so piecemeal that it chews up hours without you having anything to show for it.”

Sarah Stokely noted the women bloggers were there but could not be seen. She linked to Geek Feminist’s question “where are all the men bloggers?” which effectively skewered this particular blindness. Larvatus Prodeo also used the metaphor of sight and the male gaze. Anna Winter’s post there suggested that women were creating alternative niches in the public sphere away from the sexism, the “shrill and angry tone”, and the dismissal of women’s experience they find in the “hard politics blogs”. Winter said that if men were noticing the absence of women wherever they go, then “perhaps the more relevant question is why they are avoiding you”.

Hoyden About Town also weighed in about invisibility. Viv (Tigtog) and Lauredhel’s blog is one of the heavyweight feminist Australian blogs and its comment ratio is closer to 70 to 30 percent in favour of women. But unlike Crikey, it seems to be happy enough with the split, and does not indulge in any hand wringing about changing it. Lauredhel posted five of the comments (three men, two woman) from the Pollytics thread which its readers ripped into. Softestbullet wrote that Jason Wilson’s “Big-p Political” comment means “about dudes.” Lauredhel pointed out that woman also post about gardening, and food, and parenting, and life. “For me,” she wrote, this was “part of that is a deliberate political strategy.”

FuckPoliteness, as the name of the blog suggests, was not inclined to give much truck to Crikey’s arguments. While the big P penis people discussed big P political issues, said the blog’s author, women were “just discussing media, law, rape, issues with the medical profession, disability politics, invisibility, breastfeeding discrimination, conduct of politicians, live blogging elections, internet censorship, race politics, divisions in feminism, transphobia, homophobia, talk back radio, life/work/study/family/friends/leisure balances, and about a million other things.” She said that the public sphere that existed in the comment sections of blogs such as Larvatus Prodeo was a race to the bottom where women faced aggression and smug superiority.

That blogger may want to fuck politeness but she does want a place where she could discuss these issues in “open and respectful ways”. But males are everywhere and do not always behave well – despite the best efforts of Crikey, Pollytics, Jason Wilson or Larvatus Prodeo. In a snark-infested internet, perhaps an open and respectful public sphere can only be found in a forum moderated by women. As Lady Psyche in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Princess Ida reminds us:
Man will swear and man will storm-
Man is not at all good form-
Is of no kind of use-
Man’s a donkey – Man’s a goose-
Man is coarse and Man is plain-
Man is more or less insane-
Man’s a ribald – Man’s a rake,
Man is Nature’s sole mistake!

August 23, 2009 at 2:22 am 5 comments

How Sky caved in to Joe from Twitter

(Photo by Joe Neale @Joe – used with permission).

As Londoner Joe Neale has just found out, News Corp wants to charge for content on the Internet while not being averse to using other people’s content for nothing.

Joe’s story began two weeks ago on 5 August with events that seemed to have nothing to do with him. On that day two police officers from Kennington police station in London were patrolling near Waterloo station when they stopped to question a man on a bicycle. As the officers approached him, the man dumped the bike and ran away. As he did so, he fired shots at the officers leaving two of them injured in the vicinity of Southwark tube station. It was Joe Neale’s fate to be walking past the tube station at the time. He snapped a picture of the crime scene (see photo above) which he immediately loaded to Twitpic with the caption “Holy crap police man shot at Southwark tube station!”

Neale had to rush to meetings so did not immediately notice that others were paying close attention to his picture. The shooting of two policemen in London is meat and drink for NewsCorp’s Sky News and they were quick to publish and article about it. They found Neale’s Twitpic and used it to illustrate the story. Sky captioned the photo with the credit “Joe from Twitter”.

But it turns out that Joe is not just anyone from Twitter. Neale is the original @joe on Twitter with 20,000 followers and is the head of End User Programmes at software licencing company Symbian. Sky could have found all this out by looking at his Twitter page. There they would also have found out he is a former Murdoch employee. Neale’s previous job was MySpace UK Content Manager. This meant he knew who to talk to in News Corp.

Friends of Neale told him that Sky was using his picture. His first reaction was one of delighted amazement. Neale sent a couple of tweets to Jon Gripton, News Editor of Sky News Online saying he was “really pleased” Sky had used the photo. He asked them to change the attribution from “Joe from Twitter” to “Joe Neale http://www.twitter.com/joe”. Gripton responded after 5 hours saying “Will do Joe – give me a minute to talk to the team”. Gripton also requested Neale to follow him in Twitter so that he could send him a direct message (DM). Neale appreciated the response and asked jokingly “how many beers” the picture was worth. A day later the pair were following each other but Neale complained he still had not yet gotten an email response.

Sky changed the attribution but were in no mood to divulge how many beers they though it might have been worth. But Neale was no longer joking and found out for himself. He checked the terms of service of Twitpic which specifically said “All images uploaded are copyright © their respective owners”. He sent Sky several emails but got no response. But after two weeks of silence from Sky, Neale hit back using the power of social media. Two days ago, on Wednesday 19 August, Neale published the content of the email on Twitter using the #skypic hashtag. Part of the email read as follows:

My photo was used without permission on the sky news website on the 5th of August 2009, and was taken from my Twitter feed without my permission(I have 20000+ mainly UK based followers including a large section of press/media folk).

Neale went on to tell Sky the conditions he demanded for using the photo without permission. It would be £300 for the initial use on the front of the site and then charged at five percent for each of the two weeks it was used by the site (note: Neale’s picture has now been removed from the Sky report of the shooting linked above in the first paragraph).

To hammer home the point, he sent out further tweets using the tag #skypic, which read: “Newscorp use your photos without permission but have plans to charge for reading their content” or “Newscorp vs citizen journo”. Neale’s network got involved and put out 200 retweets of #skypic.

After 24 hours, Sky caved in yesterday and promised to pay £330.75. The promise came in an email they sent Neale which read: “I’m sorry my colleagues didn’t get back to you as soon as you would have liked. We always acknowledged your copyright, & I’ve forwarded on your invoice for payment – here it is attached with the relevant SY number inserted in case you’ll need that if you need to chase it up. Just be aware that payment should take approx one month to get through the system.”

The game is not over till the cheque is in Neale’s bank but for now the score is Citizen Journo 1, Newscorp 0.

August 21, 2009 at 3:38 am Leave a comment

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