Archive for October, 2009

Australia’s federal parliament should move from Canberra to Sydney

canberra[photo by Sam Ilic] I’m no great fan of the national capital even though I like its architecture. I’ve only been to Canberra a couple of times and the closest I’ve come to staying there was a night across the NSW border in Queanbeyan. I found the capital an elegant but cold and deadly dull place far removed from the mainstream of Australian life. Walter Burley-Griffin’s creation is a work of architectural brilliance but no soul. And in a country with such a dominant coastal culture, Canberra is an inland fish out of water. The site of the nation’s capital arose as a Federation issue and Canberra was the compromise between the then equal cities of Sydney and Melbourne. But in the last 50 years Sydney has outranked its Victorian rival by most major metrics of importance and is Australia’s only truly global city. If we were making the choice of capital today, Sydney would be the obvious choice (and we could get rid of the useless states while we were at it).The only reason it won’t happen is the outcry of Canberrans whose city would suddenly be stripped of importance and relevance. Yesterday Peter Martin blogged about the old Keating and Fraser arguments about Canberra as the Australian national capital. Martin linked to a Laurie Oakes article in which Paul Keating left him in no doubt the capital should be Sydney. Fellow former Prime Minister but notably Melbournian Malcolm Fraser can’t quite bring himself to agree the winner is Sydney. However he did tell the veteran Nine newsman the new parliament house was his worst mistake as Prime Minister.

Oakes agreed with Fraser’s view of architecture but thought Keating was merely “possum-stirring”. According to the Australian Dictionary of Colloquialisms, possum-stirring means to liven things up, create a disturbance; raise issues that others wish left dormant. Oakes was right. These were definitely traits Keating had and there are plenty of plenty who wish the Canberra capital argument remain dormant.

Perhaps not surprisingly most of these people have a strong Canberra connection, including Laurie Oakes himself. Oakes, Nine’s federal political reporter, is not happy about the alternative. He said the main reason Sydney should not be the capital was because access to corruption and lobby groups. “Our federal politicians and senior bureaucrats would all then live among, mix with and be constantly influenced by the same log-rollers, urgers, developers, greedy business people, lobbyists, shysters, corrupters and crims who have made NSW politics such a cesspit,” said Oakes. True, perhaps, but hardly relevant. A mere 300kms of distance is hardly going to stop someone from trying to corrupt a federal politician.

Peter Martin (The Age’s Canberra correspondent) is also in the negative camp and said Keating and Fraser were wrong to call Canberra a mistake. He agrees with another of the capital’s journalists, former Canberra Times editor Jack Waterford who said recently “opposition to shifting the Australian capital to Sydney or Melbourne would be even more fierce today than it was 110 years ago.” But would it? It seems to me that no one really cares outside vested interests in Canberra such as Oakes, Martin and Waterford.

It is not just Paul Keating that thinks Sydney would make a good capital. He made the remark in a 2007 speech when John Howard was still in government. Keating noted that Howard had effectively moved the capital to Sydney anyway and “Canberra had an air of unreality.” His comments were supported by then NSW Premier Morris Iemma and Patricia Forsythe of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce who said Sydney was already nation’s economic, cultural capital and transport hub. “When world leaders come to Australia they come to Sydney,” Forsythe said, “and if they have time they will go to Canberra.”

Ever keen to distinguish himself from the man he followed, Labor PM Kevin Rudd did find time to go to Canberra. His home town Brisbane is too much of an outlying city to host cabinet meetings on a regular basis but it is not hard to imagine the next Sydney Prime Minister – whoever he or she might be, and which ever party he or she represents – going back to the Howard precedent and moving the capital back to the nation’s largest city. And Canberra need no longer be a waste of a good sheep paddock.

Australia is not alone in the misguided notion of quarantining the capital from the largest city. There are 35 such capitals worldwide at the time of writing according to Wikipedia and the list is growing. Abuja (Nigeria) and Astana (Kazakhstan) both became capitals in the 1990s. In 2006 Burma shifted its capital from Rangoon (Yangon) to the remote hillside town of Naypidaw so that its paranoid military rulers would feel more secure. Washington DC and Ottawa are closely related. But the capital Canberra has most in common with is Brasilia which arose from post-war presidential designs to inherit the Brazilian capital from Rio in 1960.

Brasilia turns 50
next April and its 101 year old architect Oscar Niemeyer hopes to be alive to see the anniversary. It is the only 20th century capital that UNESCO has given a heritage listing to and viewed from above, the city has elements that repeat in every building which gives it a formal unity. But not everyone was happy. Brasília was a city built for the car, not the pedestrian. And Simone de Beauvoir complained that the similarity of Brasilia’s partment blocks gave the city “the same air of elegant monotony.”

A similar cool air infects Canberra. Even Canberra supporter Frank Moorhouse says he likes the city and its culture because it has a “Scandinavian aesthetic rather than a Mumbai aesthetic”. But this, like the massive freeways of Brasilia, is a 20th century aesthetic. The museums can stay in Canberra but on environmental grounds alone we should be discussing when the parliament should move closer to the people it serves.

October 31, 2009 at 2:39 am Leave a comment

Australian Press Council attacks News Ltd for poor standards

community cabinet march 2008 037

media scrum around Kevin Rudd: Derek Barry

Outgoing Australian Press Council chair Ken McKinnon has used his final annual report (pdf) to blast News Ltd newspapers for poor editorial standards and over-reliance on stories with single sources. McKinnon also took a swipe at the industry for its APC budget cuts and the view that its work could be replaced by the Right to Know Coalition. McKinnon has now finished up after nine years and hands over a reduced council to new chair Julian Disney. Disney will work with a fifteen-member board (down from 22 but more than the 12 the industry wanted) but the fact that funding is still tied to industry approval may mean his independence is undermined.


Margaret Simons
in Crikey thinks that this may be the start of a new battle between the industry and its regulatory body. She says the annoyed public committee members chose the “social activist and reforming lawyer” Disney to counteract the arrogance of News Ltd which is pushing the Right to Know Coalition alternative. Simons says the other issue is the power of News Ltd editors. Although these editors understand the business of news, they tend to be arrogant and gung-ho leading to many errors of judgment. “The Press Council is far from perfect,” said Simons. “But how bad does it look for the industry to back away from even its gently-gently approach, while also arguing for reduced government intervention?”

 

This is not the first time that this has happened. The notion of a press council dates back to the American Hutchins Inquiry and British Royal Commissions in the 1940s. These led to the notion of the social responsible press in the US and UK. Similar grumblings in Australia led to a journalists’ code of ethics but media organisations themselves were loath to accept any accountability agencies. Although the unions pushed for a press council, the media proprietors continued support of the long-running Liberal government of the 1950s and 1960s ensured that nothing much got done about it. It wasn’t until 1975 when the Whitlam Government began preparing legislation to create a statutory press council, that the APC was founded grudgingly. The council had owner and union reps but the owners had the majority – and the funding. The Council has no legal authority apart from its own constitution.

News Ltd initially refused to join. In 1979 the APC upheld a complaint against Murdoch because his Adelaide Advertiser was so biased against Labor in the state election that year. But as Julianna Schultz says in Reviving the Fourth Estate, by the mid 1980s they were inside the tent and self-interest ensured the council had acquired the reputation of a defender of fourth estate values. Yet the nature of the APC meant it could never shake off its reputation as an industry lapdog. In 1991 Kerry Packer told parliament the APC was “window dressing”. The union called it the “publishers’ poodle”. And former Sydney Morning Herald editor David Bowman wondered how it could serve the public when it was dominated by the publishers.

Yet as McKinnon’s strong criticism hints and its statement of principles attest, the APC is a watchdog with potential bite. It has two broad principles worth noting. First, it notes, the freedom of the press to publish is the freedom, and right, of the people to be informed. It is an essential feature of a democratic society. Secondly, press freedom is important because of its obligations to the people not the media. Therefore public interest is foremost when dealing with complaints.

In his 1984 text The Media, Keith Windschuttle said there were two reforms that emerge from these principles. Firstly is the need to keep the press honest and maintain standards of accuracy and fairness (something he said the Press Council was set up to achieve). The second is the institutional reform of the media. The 1979 Norris Inquiry into Melbourne’s press (after Murdoch’s failed bid to win the Herald & Weekly Times) found two dangers with the existing media concentration: loss of diversity and too much power in the hands of too few. Norris recommended an independent authority scrutinise media share transactions to prevent further concentration. The Inquiry was a failure in that sense. No such authority was set up and Murdoch eventually got his hands on HWT empire. It was the refusal of the APC to deal with this matter that caused the journalists union (then the AJA) to quit its role on the council in 1987.

They returned 18 years later now rebadged as the MEAA and handed off all journalist complaints to the APC. As union boss Chris Warren said in 2004 “the press council can deliver something we can’t, which is a published correction”. Their return adds to the weight of the APC claim that it represents the entire print industry. But the more regulation-heavy broadcast industry never signed up. The APC is nominally independent and funded out of newspaper profits whereas in broadcasting there are mandatory licencing requirements dished out by ACMA.

But Windschuttle wrote The Media as his personal politics were changing from left to right. In the book he offers the alternative of the laissez faire response to regulation which the proprietors if given the choice would prefer. This is the notion that the press are simply in the business of telling the news and owe nothing to the people which it serves. The APC is pre-disposed towards the market system with its so-called “light touch” regulation. But as media scholar Robert McChesney notes in his book Communication Revolution, no one ever voted for a market-based press subsidised by advertising. Commercialism has gutted journalism in the last two decade. Newspapers remain the most important media for original investigation and reporting. However as Michael Schudson notes, Wall Street’s collective devotion to an informed citizenry is nil and as a result newspapers are going to the wall.

McChesney was talking about the American scene which has no strong public broadcaster as a counterweight but otherwise many of his lessons are transferable to Australia. In McKinnon’s final report, he casts the net far and wide with issues of concern to local media: Internet clean feed, secrecy laws, the right to publish school “league” tables, FOI, the Bill of Rights, privacy, protection of whistleblowers, court reporting, and many others. McKinnon reminds us of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Australia is a signatory: “Everyone has the right of freedom of opinion and expression”.

McKinnon distils this into a “charter of a free press in Australia”. The people of this country, he says, have a right to freedom of information and access to differing views and opinions. This is a direct attack on News Ltd’s attempt to monopolise news in Australia and a worthy watchdog’s attempt to bite the hand that feeds it. With the even more combative Disney now in the chair, the social justice angle of the APC will only get stronger. At a critical juncture for the media, expect this battle to get a lot more heated.

October 30, 2009 at 2:33 am Leave a comment

Byron and beyond: A northern NSW photoessay

An hour and a bit’s drive south of Brisbane lies the Laser lighthouse. The lighthouse is on the border between Queensland and NSW on the tip of Point Danger in Tweed Heads, NSW just a stone’s throw up the hill from Coolangatta, Qld. The Captain Cook Memorial lighthouse was the first of its kind commissioned in those go-ahead development days of 1971. But the laser technology was unsuccessful and it returned to using more conventional mirrors four years later.
This is the mouth of the Tweed river just south of the lighthouse. The Tweed is not quite on the border but in most people’s mind is the definitive line where Cockroaches end and Canetoading begins. The river begins out of the massive caldera of Mt Warning which blew its enormous stack 23 million years ago.

Another 80km or so south is Byron Bay. The population is supposed 5,600 but the tourist traffic makes it seem a lot busier than that. A long-time Aboriginal settlement, Captain Cook gave it its decidedly English name in 1770 when he found safe anchorage at what he called Cape Byron. This Byron was John Byron an Englishman had circumnavigated the world. He was the grandfather of the more famous poet Lord Byron. Today Byron is a compulsory stop on the backpacker route north from Sydney. Most people come for the beachlife and the renowned surf.

Byron’s most prominent feature is the white lighthouse built in 1901 at the most easternly point on the Australian mainland.

Captain Cook also named Julien Rocks in a later voyage in 1776. The two main peaks named for his nephew Juan and niece Julia. They are the remnants of an ancient volcanic eruption more than 20 million years ago. They were established as a marine reserve in 1982 after 10 years of lobbying. The Rocks are one of Australia’s top dive spots a marine reserve, providing shelter and food for more than 500 tropical and temperate fish species.

This precariously place fisherman is hoping some of Julian Rocks marine life has strayed close to the mainland.

Cape Byron Lighthouse was built in 1901 (year of Australian Federation) out of prefabricated concrete blocks in the style of New South Wales colonial architect James Barnet, by Barnet’s successor, Charles Harding. The 8 ton optical lens was made by the French company, Societe des Establishment, Henry Lepante, Paris and contains 760 pieces of highly polished prismatic glass. The light is Australia’s most powerful.

The beautiful Tallow beach lies due south of Cape Byron facing eastwards.

Looking back towards Cape Byron from a mostly deserted Tallow Beach

About 20kms further south is Lennox Head. This is the view to the township and Seven Mile Beach from Pat Morton lookout south of town.

This is the view south of Pat Morton looking towards Skennars Head

This is Lennox Headland from Lennox Head. It was formed from the same eruption (or one of them) 20 million years ago that carved out Mt Warning.

Enjoying the view of the Richmond River as it empties into the ocean at Ballina (just south of Lennox)

Town Hall, Ballina, Seat of Ballina Shire council. I used to think that Ballina (with the stress on Bal-lina) was named after the County Mayo town of Ballina (with the stress on Ballin-‘ah) but apparently it is an Aboriginal word meaning “place of many oysters” and the Irish settlers in the area were happy with the dual meaning.

A view of Mt Warning itself from the Murwillumbah-Nerang back road. Because of its height and proximity to Byron, Mt Warning gets the first light on mainland Australia. Cook again named it in 1770 as “a remarkable sharp peaked Mountain lying inland” that warned him of the dangerous reefs near Fingal Head.

Lamington National Park on the Queensland-NSW border

The border post on the lightly-used Murwillumbah-Nerang back road.

 

October 29, 2009 at 12:56 am 1 comment

Coordinator-General gives go-ahead for Wooloowin Airport Link shaft

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Airport Link tunnel works at Kedron: Derek Barry

Queensland’s Coordinator-General Colin Jensen has approved the building of a $35 million controversial shaft in Wooloowin to ensure the $5.6 billion Airport Link tunnel is completed on time. Jensen’s decision was in response to a change request to address potential adverse impacts of the Wooloowin tunnel worksite. The decision means that tunnel builder Brisconnections can begin construction of a shaft 15m in diameter and 42m deep on vacant land at the corner of Kent and Rose streets, Wooloowin.

 

The problem arose when difficult ground conditions around the Kedron underground ramps meant extra work to construct more complex tunnel support. Without the change the Kedron caverns providing for the ramp connections with the mainline tunnels under Wooloowin would not be built in time to receive the Tunnel Boring Machines progressing westwards from Clayfield. Brisconnection’s solution was for a 29-month-long worksite to be built at Rose St complete with a large acoustic workshed, a shaft and access passage and a fitout of the tunnels when they have been constructed.

Brisconnections provided the change request to the Coordinator-General on 17 July which resulted in 163 public submissions. The main issues that arose from the submissions were: the change reason wasn’t abundantly clear, concerns about traffic and transport impacts, concerns about large trucks, environmental and social effects, and decommissioning and rehabilitation.

These concerns were also noted by community action groups. In his response Jensen noted three major potential impacts: construction impacts, spoil haulage (construction traffic), and visual pollution from structures such as the acoustic shed. Jensen recommended the worksite time be minimised, form a community consultation committee, immediate rehabilitation of the site, community development and management plans, a complaints resolution process and half-yearly independent audits.

Brisconnections won the bid to build the controversial tunnel in May 2008. The win also entitles them to operate the tolled tunnel for a 45 year concession period. Brisconnections is a consortium of Macquarie Capital Group, Thiess, and John Holland. The latter two are both being independent subsidiaries of Leighton Holdings Group and are jointly responsible for project design and construction. The Coordinator-General approved the initial project in July 2008. There will be two parallel north-south tunnels linking East-West arterial road at Toombul with the Inner City Bypass at Bowen Hills with an exit at Kedron linking Gympie and Stafford Roads.

In evaluating the justification of the Wooloowin change request, Jensen considered three factors: a) other alternatives, b) cost-benefit analysis and c) management of adverse impacts. Jensen sought advice from independent expert Graeme Peck of GM Peck and Associates. Peck told Jensen that the request was the only “reasonable probability” of ensuring the project met the original completion of June 2012. “This means that the benefits of the project to the Brisbane traffic network and hence the community as a whole will be available when expected,” Peck said. Jensen noted that all other alternatives would have delayed the project by eight months.

According to Jensen there were “no better feasible alternative(s)”. On the second point he noted the benefits of congestion improvement, employment opportunities and community benefit versus the impact of delay to the project if the change request did not go ahead. He said it was “reasonable to assume” that the benefit would outweigh the $35m estimated cost. He then addressed the mitigation concerns acknowledging there would be negative impact as a result of the new worksite.

Jensen said that local business ambience and customer comfort would suffer due to increased dust, noise and vibration. He recommended a one-way construction traffic route to minimize spoils and haulage impacts and vehicle monitoring to ensure the route was being followed. He also banned haulage vehicle queuing near “sensitive” places including residences. All site workers would arrive via shuttle buses from the existing Kedron worksite. Jensen also placed conditions on the acoustic barrier for noise mitigation and all generators and associated equipment must be enclosed. The report also made recommendations in the area of dust, air quality, groundwater, contaminated lands, and flora and fauna.

A local residents’ action group was disappointed with Jensen’s findings. Kalinga Wooloowin Residents Group response coordinator Brian Nally said the work site will destroy their community and force them to endure constant noise, dust and traffic from the shaft’s construction. “They are claiming that they are doing this to stop the negative effects on the community at Kedron and Toombul,” he said. “We have shown that there are bigger effects on the communities of Kalinga and Wooloowin with this site.” However Infrastructure Minister Stirling Hinchliffe welcomed the findings. “While I understand some sections of the community may not welcome the Coordinator-General’s decision – I believe it’s necessary to ensure the project is delivered on time,” he said. “[It] will mitigate prolonged impacts for the wider community.”

October 27, 2009 at 10:53 pm Leave a comment

Baghdad bombing is a reminder that Iraq is a fiction

Yesterday’s explosion in Baghdad was a reminder that Iraq’s problems have not gone away. Opponents of the state launched two massive suicide bombs outside Justice Ministry and the council buildings with vehicles loaded with 68 kgs of explosives. It was the deadliest attack in two years and occurred two months ahead of planned elections. At least 147 people were killed and another 500 injured in a soft and indiscriminate attack on the centre of the capital just outside the heavily secured Green Zone. (photo of a 2005 Baghdad bombing by controlarms)

No one has claimed responsibility but there are plenty of enemies to al-Maliki’s Shi’ite regime with reasons to carry out the atrocity. Al-Qaeda, the Sunni Sons of Iraq, ex-Ba’athists, Kurds, Shi’ite extremists all had motives to discredit a government looking for credit for Iraq’s increasing independence. The still-large American military presence also rankles with many Iraqis. The government was due to meet yesterday to discuss laws to govern January’s proposed general election. The meeting did not happen and the blast has put further doubt on whether the poll will take place.

The street where the blasts occurred had just been reopened to vehicle traffic six months ago as the regime attempts show Iraq is getting back to normal. But this new “normal” is very different than what passed for run-of-the-mill in Baghdad prior to 2003. The US has turned the old order upside down. Democracy has given the more numerous Shi’ites power and the old Sunni Ba’athist elite are disgruntled. They boycotted the 2005 election and may do again in 2010. There are also issues on the Kirkuk faultline of Arab-Kurdish relations. The International Crisis Group has nominated Ninewa as the new flashpoint with violent sectarian attacks common-place in a town which is mainly Arab but with a large Kurdish minority.

Finding a sustainable solution to Kurdish disputed borders is one the fundamental problems threatening Iraq. The country was founded as an artificial construct after Britain cobbled together three Ottoman provinces to give to a deposed Saudi king after World War One. Strong Sunni leaders papered over the cracks for 70 years but its future is less certain. ICG’s Middle East Program Director Robert Malley says a compromise won’t happen without an assertive American role. “The US might be on its way out, but its hands will be full even as it heads for the exit,” he said.

As Vice President Biden reiterated in September, the US “recognises and supports” a united Iraq. But from a US policy perspective, Afghanistan is the now only overseas war-game in town and are anxious to withdraw large-scale forces from Iraq. There are still more US troops in Iraq than there are in Afghanistan and General McChrystal wants them badly. For the first time since the Iraqi war started, US Coalition forces deaths are going to be higher in Afghanistan than in Iraq this year with three times as many casualties to October. The Afghan numbers are not yet as high as figures for the early years of the Iraq war but have been on the increase since 2003 so it is safe to assume things will get worse there.

The Afghan presidential run-off election will dominate headlines but the Iraqi poll has the potential to be even more traumatic. As The Guardian puts it, politics of compromise and national unity in Iraq are fragile and slow-moving. The political system has been simply been unable to overcome traditional challenges leading to an inevitable consequence of violence. Iraq’s same old “issues of oil, federalism, provincial borders and reconciliation [are] still festering”, says The Guardian. Expect more bombs in Baghdad and elsewhere until these challenges are addressed.

October 27, 2009 at 1:15 am 1 comment

The BBC and Nick Griffin

When Nick Griffin and fellow British National Party candidate Andrew Brons won two seats at the recent European elections there was no rioting or storming the gates of parliament. Yet when Griffin was invited to talk on the BBC last week all hell broke loose. Television succeeded where the ballot box did not and the appearance of Britain’s fifth largest party on the BBC caused an outbreak of national soul-searching and riots that besieged the broadcaster’s London headquarters. Opponents were furious that the venerable broadcaster was legitimising a far-right wing group by giving them the “oxygen of publicity”. Anti-fascists protesters tried and failed to shut the program down. Supporters said the BNP deserved to be heard, and some free speech advocates defended Grffin’s right to appear on Question Time while expressing a Voltaire-like disagreement with every word he uttered. (photo of BBC riots by Reuters)

The entire affair seems overblown given how irrelevant the BNP are. The party won ten percent of the European election vote in heavily working class areas where the Labor Government is on the nose. Its overall vote was actually down on the 2004 election. It is likely many this year’s protest votes will swing back at the next general election. The BNP are a lunatic fringe for the disaffected with few coherent policies. It’s now illegal membership criteria requires that all members be part of the “Indigenous Caucasian” racial group (which is purely on looks alone) and want everyone who is not so Aryan to go “home”.

Membership of the party is currently closed while apparatchiks write a new constitution to be presented to members for acceptance. The BNP’s limited appeal is based (as was the National Front of the 1970s) in the notion that Britain is being “swamped” by miscellaneous “others”. The party will never win an election or gain any sort of power. While their views might be repugnant to many, they also give voice to the frustration of many who want to blame someone else for their own inadequacies.

What the controversy really showed is the immense power of the national broadcaster. Popular media such as the BBC can amplify any subject matter. According to www.ranking.com, bbc.co.uk is one of the world’s 25 most used websites and the second most accessed news site (after CNN). Its British television stations remain hugely influential and eight million people watched Thursday’s episode of Question Time which featured Griffin and other British politicians including Labor Lord Chancellor Jack Straw.

In Britain there has been a strong tradition of public ownership of media going back to the invention of broadcasting in the 1920s. The BBC was created with a government-appointed board of governors and funded by an annual licence fee. Under John Reith the BBC established a high-minded tradition that eschewed the position of the popular tabloid newspapers in favour of high culture. Committed to the avoidance of sensationalism, it did not hire its first newspaper journalist until 1932. According to Michael Schudson the BBC forbade discussion of birth control in the 1930s and 1940s under its government-regulated monopoly. In the face of changing social values and competition from ITV in the 1950s it was discussed along with divorce and other controversial topics. Competition gave the BBC something to worry about other than their political paymasters.

The BBC rose to the new challenge with a topical political question-and-answer radio program. “Any Questions?” started on the Home Service in 1948 and runs to this day. Notably the program was stopped for ten minutes in 1976 when far-right politician Enoch Powell appeared and anti-fascist protesters threw bricks at the church where the show was recorded. Three years later, the format was tried on television as Question Time. Three panel members from each of the main parties were joined by a non-politician to face questions from the audience. In 1999, a fifth panel member was invited who was either from the minor parties or another non-politician. Over 30 years the show has become Britain’s flagship political panel show.

The BNP have been persona non grata until their recent European and council victories. When Griffin finally did appear on the show, it was almost an anti-climax. The BNP leader was sensible enough to leave his more outrageous opinions in the dressing room and he tried to steer a course of sensible reaction to an immigration crisis. Like most politicians he used as many words he could to say as little as possible. He claimed was a “moderniser” who simply wanted to end immigration. He was also nervous and the target of intense questioning and jeering from the crowd.

Nearly every question was related to BNP politics and Griffin was pilloried by a multi-cultural audience. One person told him that “the vast majority of this audience finds what you stand for to be completely disgusting.” The libertarian Brendan O’Neill wrote in Spiked called the debate “surreal” and a “cultural lynching of Griffin by members of a political elite bereft of ideas and lost for words.” He saw it as an act of moral distancing that established a sense of “us and him” that made Griffin a “voodoo doll they can stick pins in to try to ward off their own political misfortunes.”

Griffin will probably feel the pain of these pinpricks is worthwhile and the BNP will undoubtedly gain traction as a result of his appearance. The party’s issues will temporarily get on the agenda. Many will sympathise with the way Griffin was torn apart on the program and others will react positively to his racist message. Nevertheless the BNP will always be a fringe party that will be handicapped by Britain’s first past-the-post election system. The BBC was right to allow him on Question Time and have the right to invite who ever they see fit to appear on their shows. Broadcasting asserts a right to public access. By encouraging more people to keep informed it encourages more participation in public life. More participation will likely mean more unsavoury voices in the public sphere but it is crucial they be heard. Anything less is toxic to democracy.

October 26, 2009 at 2:53 am Leave a comment

Margaret Simons on the future of journalism at Brisbane Wordpool

Margaret Simons talking at Wordpool: Derek Barry

Margaret Simons talking at Wordpool: Derek Barry

Media writer Margaret Simons was the star attraction for the final Wordpool event of 2009 at Brisbane’s State Library of Queensland (thanks to Mark Bahnisch for the hat tip on the event). Simons is the author of the seminal text on Australian media The Content Makers (2007) and runs a blog of the same name under the Crikey banner. The Melbourne-based Simons reminded her audience of her close affinity with Brisbane having been here often since The Age assigned her to cover the Fitzgerald Inquiry twenty years ago.

Simons began with a history lesson and charted the influence of the Gutenberg printing press. This revolutionary device effectively created democracy and modern capitalism. The movable type press was invented in the 15th century but it took another two hundred years before newspapers emerged and almost another hundred before the first journalists arrived. The printing press altered power relations and caused the decline of oral memory. It enabled people to identify themselves belonging to nations rather than small communities. It caused the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism. It sowed the seeds for the American and French Revolutions. These trends were exacerbated by broadcasting in the 20th century.

Simons says the Internet now has the same revolutionary capability as the printing press. But its disruptive effect won’t be noticed overnight. Simons recalled what journalism was like when she started in the business 27 years ago, in an era without computers or mobile phones. The newspaper buildings had a manufacturing air with the smell of hot metal and ink and the rumbling of the presses. She recalled that people would queue out outside the building at midnight to get the first edition. Ruefully, she said, they were not there for the journalism; they had come to get first nibs at the classified ads.

But the classified ads model that sustained newspapers doesn’t work on the Internet. Free services such as Craigslist have destroyed the business model and ads don’t pay for journalists’ salary any more. Simons also noted that journalists’ power has declined in the Internet Age. Their influence has waned with the power of the masthead and the Page One headline does not matter as much as it did 20 years ago. Similarly the power of television has waned. Families no longer sit together to watch the 6pm news. 68 percent of Australian households have more than one television and a quarter of all households are single occupancy. This fragmentation undermines the business model that relies on gathering mass audiences to sell to advertisers. The business model is broken. And when high-speed broadband arrives, the last power of the broadcasters will have been broken with it.

Simons then moved on to discuss ABC boss Mark Scott’s recent “end of empire” speech. She was cautious about whether this was a good or bad thing noting the Life of Brian skit about “what have the Romans ever done for us?” Similarly old media such as News Corp have facilitated democracy, employed large numbers of people, acted as watchdogs and informed the public. She also noted the end of the Roman Empire brought in the Dark Ages and would not rule out the possibility that similar dark times lay ahead for journalists. The big change in the Internet era, said Simons was universal instant access to both information and publishing. With the aid of mobile phones, people could (and did) Twitter this speech immediately – she helpfully suggested the use of the #wordpool hashtag. Simons said that Twitter was now a crucial tool for deciding what to read or watch. The question was then, if everyone is now a publisher, what do journalists do that is “special”?

Simons said that journalists had to specialise in things they are interested in. The barriers to publication are low and it is possible to attract international audiences and advertisers who might be willing to pay to access such a niche. She noted the long tail model as perfected by Amazon who make most of their money from niche audiences. She said Crikey was a good example of niche media with its email list of 10,000 people. Its audience is small but influential and Simons could delve into more detail about the media there than in a mass publication because the audience is interested in that detail.

Simons also said that journalists must engage with social networks. They needed to show reliability, genuineness and a willingness to interact. Tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Google may come and go but the functionality they represent will stay. She said Twitter was moving fast and her advice was “get on board now”. She noted that the appetite for news has not waned though people may be looking in different places for it. Australia is a chronically underreported country and opportunities exist in reporting local councils and courts. What journalists need to do is to link these to federal and local government policy and make the connections. The bottom line was that if people want reliable information then “professional messengers need to be supported”.

October 23, 2009 at 1:38 am Leave a comment

Future imperfect: Thoughts about journalism in 2020

“In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising” (Oscar Wilde 1891).

2020 is barely ten years away. That is nothing in quantum time and not much more in the history of human civilisation. Yet predicting what might happen in 2020 is a prospect so hazardous, few do it outside the label of science fiction. The past is not much of a guide. If the butterfly effect ascribes an infinite amount of possible consequences for one action, what then might eventuate over the next 3650 days on a planet of six billion people? There are only two certainties. Events will occur, and humans will adapt to them. The adaptive habit of mind is an essential human survival strategy. In The Origin of Species Charles Darwin noted that existence is a struggle which relies on fickle fate to give a sucker an even break. “Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little”, he said and life becomes more bountiful. The rest of this essay will look at what checks and mitigations might help predict a more bountiful journalism in 2020. (photo by danzen)

Today’s journalists work under a rubric of organisations commonly known as “the media”, shorthand for any intermediate agency that enables communication to take place. In 1891 Wilde recognised the media as an improvement on the rack, if only barely. The media remains an imperfect communication construct and one that acts awkwardly in its dual-function of social institution and a business. It is these unresolved tensions between the church and state functions of media that will most affect the journalism of the future.

Technology is also affecting the business model that sustains journalism. Product lifecycles have been reduced to 12 months in all high tech industries which means there is a continual struggle to stay ahead of the basics of any job. The mass media industries have grown fat and wealthy under the philosophy of bringing eyeballs to advertisers but that does not work well on the Internet. Nor does subscription work either in an environment where the expectation is that content is free. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation is currently trying to stick its fingers into this dyke but the dam walls will probably come tumbling down anyway.

Mention of Murdoch’s empire also reminds us that journalism has been corporatised. Media has become Big Media as the industry consolidates according to the natural nature of capitalism. The freedom of the press, as A.J. Liebling noted, used to be reserved to those who owned one. But the huge unregulated flow of user-generated content in blogs and social networks is changing that dynamic. Journalists who find themselves cast adrift from corporate downsizing may find salvation in the newer media.

There is the also the additional systemic impact of public relations. Other important actors such as governments have learned the skills of journalism to sidestep the media to ensure their message is delivered in the way they want it. Journalists pejoratively call public relations “the dark side” but it is the work of PR practitioners (mostly ex-journalists) that underscores the value of the craft. They thrive to serve the human unquenchable thirst for knowledge. The information society is not merely an intellectual abstraction; it is an economic reality. Yet Naisbitt also says that we are “drowning in information, but starved of knowledge. News is public knowledge and journalism will always be required to turn it into a composite, shared, ordered and edited product that people can use. Long-term journalism’s survival remains linked to finding an economic purpose to match the quenching of that thirst.

To do that, journalists must find new ways of doing things and must also embrace creativity. According to cyberspace scholar Lawrence Lessig, the Internet is the world’s greatest innovation commons. In a decade it has gone from being a technical curiosity to a major influence on every aspect of life for most people in developed countries. While journalism has traditionally prospered on a scarcity factor, the technology of the Internet has created an information rich society. Its influence will be at least as profound as that of Gutenberg’s printing press which affected religion, democracy and the organisation of society.

Democracy on the Internet is becoming an increasingly hot topic. Just as the right of clean air and healthy environment is being seen as a property from which nobody should be excluded, some countries are beginning to regard Internet service as a basic human right. Finland has recognised this recently by making it a legal right for Finnish citizens to have access to a 100 Megabit-per-second broadband connection by end 2015. This is laudable though likely to be outdated by 2015. What cyberspace needs more than democracy is a balanced ecology between culture and commerce.

Older media manage such ecologies with varying degrees of success. Newspapers appear to be in permanent decline although the lesson from Fidler is that the older technologies can survive if they enhance the texture of newer environments. Television still rules despite being the pejorative “idiot box” for “couch potatos” that Postman observed was “amusing us to death”. The computer has not yet inherited the negative cachet of TV twenty years later nor has it yet inherited its influence. That may yet change as fast broadband leads the way towards convergence between the two media. Mobile phone technology is further complicating content delivery. Cellphones are becoming the defacto mobile computer as more functionality is packed into these devices.

But while the technology to deliver journalism to audiences will undoubtedly continue to evolve, the basic craft skills will remain. Those skills are important in providing a sense-making mechanism that uses available technology to provide content for audiences. These audiences are fragmenting and a “long tail” of niche providers is emerging to take the place of the big monoliths. Yet whatever the size of the enterprise, journalists’ first obligation should always be to the truth. They should also retain the core trait of journalism: fairness. While our perception of reality is always only partial, these intangible values have stood the test of time and will retain value in the new economy.

Networks of social relationships create social capital which underpins this new economy. Leadbeater called social capitalism “the driving force” behind creativity. But unlike the old economy where individuality and self-interest were critical success factors, social capitalism relies on the ethic of trust and collaboration. As Cambridge University vice-chancellor Sir Alec Broers said “if a researcher is not part of a world technology network, he [sic] is unlikely to succeed”. The era of individual innovation is over. Teresa Amabile says creativity occurs best when people are working on a problem they perceive as important, with a sense of urgency that is apparent not only to them but to others. According to Cunningham, creative enterprises should increasingly be seen as an integral element of high-value-added knowledge-based emergent industries.

Richard Florida says that creativity is the single most important source of economic growth and investing in creativity in all its forms is the best way to ensure continued growth. But creativity simply cannot be turned on by tap, it means using both hemispheres of the brain. In Western cultures the left-to-right alphabets has reinforced left-brain dominance and what Havelock called “the alphabetic mind”. Journalists who write for a living are particularly cursed by the alphabetic mind. More right-brain thinking is required to unlock the potential offered by simultaneous operations, understanding context and seeing the big picture.

The importance of network externalities to the big picture cannot be understated. We live in a small world where everything is linked to everything else. Because everything is connected either through technology or culture, connection creates as much value as function. Open source models such as creative commons licensing are facilitating a new Internet business environment which enables a “royalty-free literature” to thrive which enlarges readership, enhances reputation and still enables creators to retain copyright of their works.

The rise of the network economy has implications across the board. Journalists have taken up social networks like Facebook and Twitter in large numbers. These forums are a rich source of material, contacts and opinions. These networks are living organisms where producers and audiences alike engage with each other. Because these gated communities blur the line between private and public utterances, journalists will need to be increasingly careful of online reputations, both theirs and others. Closed communities add to the breakdown of social cohesion which has led to the proliferation of special interests and an over-valued sense of belonging to narrowly subscribed communities. But the social networks and blogs are revolutionary technologies capable of creating a vast Habermasian space where a public sphere can debate items of wide-ranging importance.

As media historian Mitchell Stephens reminds us, none of the existing revolutionary technologies have exhausted themselves. The alphabet has been around for barely 95 generations, the printing press is still expanding, and the electronic media are just reaching adulthood. The effect is “revolution upon revolution upon revolution” in which technology continually outstrips our imagination. Journalists and everyone else must be, as Bauman noted, “fluid” in response. We must be ready to change shape in time, be mobile and weightless. Anthropologist Margaret Mead said no one will live in the world they were born in and no one will die in the world they worked in maturity. It is safe to say that 2020 will be a time of profound protean change.

A final note in any discussion of the future is the need to ensure there is one. Tough says that humanity has the potential to live for many more centuries “with robust health and happiness” if we take seriously the five most important priorities: understanding world problems, dissemination of that knowledge, improving governance, avoiding catastrophic war, and fostering positive developments. Journalists can play a large role in the creative story-telling that will bringing these priorities to wide audiences in a compelling manner.

Chief among these priorities is human-induced climate change. Respected scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen have warned of catastrophic species loss and the inundation of the world’s coastal cities if we do not address the problem. As Hansen bluntly told a newly elected President Obama last year “the planet is in peril”. Science tells us what we need to do to stop climate change. Yet vested interests will always be out there slowing the way. H. G. Wells saw human history as “a race between education and catastrophe”. As storytellers, journalists of the future can play a key role in ensuring that education wins that race. Even Oscar Wilde might not find that outcome too demoralising.

October 22, 2009 at 2:27 am Leave a comment

No former African leader worthy of Mo Ibrahim prize this year

Sudanese-born British mobile phones billionaire Mo Ibrahim has denied the GFC forced his foundation not to award a $5 million prize for good governance in Africa this year. “The prize committee do not pay any attention to my bank statement,” he said. “This is an award for excellence. Jury meets and they set the bar some way and decide. There’s no way to know where the bar was set.” (photo of Mo Ibrahim by World Economic Forum)

Ibrahim was bristled by the questioning of British journalists about his role in the Prize that bears his name. Ibrahim has made $2.5 billion from two successful business ventures and his second Celnet provides mobiles for 25 million Africans. His foundation is aimed at “re-branding” Africa, he says. The Mo Ibrahim Prize for achievement in African leadership is awarded to a democratically elected former African head of state or government who has left office in the past three years. The foundation has awarded two former African leader the prize in 2007 and 2008 but could not find anyone who matched their confidential criteria this year. Former Botswanan president Ketumile Masire said the prize-giving committee had “considered some credible candidates” but could not select a winner.

The ceremony will go ahead next month in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania despite the lack of a winner. Ibrahim said he respected the decision of the committee and said it did not mean that Africa was not making progress in governance. He claimed he had no input to the decision “I am not privy to the conversation, I don’t know on what basis they decided not to award it this year, and I don’t want to know. Their deliberation is confidential,” he said. Nevertheless, the decision means a timely and considerable saving to Ibrahim. The Prize is the richest individual prize in the world. The Winner receive $5 million plus paid over ten years and then another $200,000 for each year of the rest of their life. It is designed to encourage African leaders to be less corrupt.

The key factors in the award are measured using the Ibrahim Index. The index was developed under the direction of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard with the help of African academics and ranks African countries according to five criteria. These are: sustainable economic development, health and education, transparency, democracy, and rule of law. Ibrahim calls his Index a tool to hold governments to account and frame the debate about how we are governed. “Africans are setting benchmarks not only for their own continent, but for the world,” he said.

The two previous recipients are former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano (2007), and Botswana’s former president Festus Gontebanye Mogae (2008). Chissano served two terms in office and helped end Mozambique’s 16-year-old civil war in 1992. He also stepped down voluntarily even though he could have run for a third time. Meanwhile Mogae’s Botswana is Africa’s most stable country and has had multi-party elections since independence in 1966. Mogae stepped down in 2008 after two successful terms in office.

African Affairs Analysts Cameron Duodo (see Al Jazeera youtube clip at 5:50) says the prize-winning criteria is too narrow. Duodo says it is not just presidents and leaders who do outstanding work. He said independent media and the judiciary who scrutinised the powerful and bring governments to account over corruption also play a major part in ensuring good governance. Leaders are already pampered and don’t need any further financial inducements. The enormous power vested in the executive office is a major reason why Africa has so many failed states. The year’s gap should give the Ibrahim Foundation the pause it needs to re-evaluate its intent.

October 21, 2009 at 12:11 am 1 comment

Is Rome burning? Murdoch picks a fight with the ABC

“You want sensitivity training? Don’t hang out in a newsroom, that’s your sensitivity training.”
(From Overheard in the newsroom #1979)

Everyone know that media is a harsh business full of oversized egos and a well defined sense of self-importance. So when there is substantial disagreement on a major matter of media principle, it likely the bruises will be public. No noses have been bloodied yet in the big private v public access battle is playing out at the moment but it is only a matter of time. This fight is serious. Corporate media led by Murdoch want to charge for content but are aware that they will leak substantial audience to publicly-owned media companies who have no intention of charging directly for content. Public enemy number one in Australia is ABC boss Mark Scott who is fast becoming a talisman for the power of new media.

The fundamental charge of Murdoch and his formidable empire is that public corporations are inherent anti-competitive whose funding power gives them an unfair advantage. The ABC undercut private companies’ ability to provide content on the Internet, says Murdoch. Last week, ABC boss Mark Scott took up the cudgels and compared the empire of The Sun King to the Fall of Rome. The times they are a-changin’ in the world of news, he says. He ridiculed News Corporation’s plan to charge for Internet content and provided a spirited defence of the national broadcaster’s right to provide free news to the masses.

It didn’t take long for the Empire to strike back. Today a couple of News big guns took to the columns of its Australian flagship newspaper to defend their turf and attack Scott’s assumptions. It was no surprise ABC’s own Media Watch would cover the “conflict” in its program tonight. As an ABC product, Media Watch is not entirely bi-partisan but it is considered an Internal Affairs watchdog and therefore usually not afraid to put the boot into its own employers when need be.

Tonight’s program was called the “end of the free ride”. Scott’s speech took on the challenge provided by paid content head on. His theme was end of empire. Taking his cue from Gibbons, Scott charted the progress of the media giants who are now struggling in these “desperate days” to cope with the new realities of Internet. According to media writer Margaret Simons, the Internet’s revolutionary intent is comparable to the printing press which changed religion, democracy and the organisation of societies.

Media still has a role to play in Internet dissemination but Big Media has been subsumed into Big Business. There are very few people in the banks and private equity companies that understand how this business works. And in a time of crisis, they are all waiting for Murdoch because he is the only “newspaper man” left. And he is on the defensive. In Beijing he hammered the philistine bloggers and plagiarist aggregators that feast on News’s content. He also condemned the search engines that make their money from pushing around other people’s content without giving anything back to the creators. Murdoch’s son James went further and warned the public that their ways must also change. It is essential for the future of independent digital journalism, he said, for a fair price to be charged for news “to people who value it”. The message was the Internet free ride is over.

But Mark Scott said that News “empire” no longer has the power to dictate terms on the ride. The audience has the power now he says and media providers must engage with those audiences on their terms. For 15 years people have gotten used to the idea of not paying for online content and are unlikely to start wanting to pay now, he says. But News Digital CEO Richard Freudenstein retorted today in today’s Media Australia that Scott was “shielded from the commercial reality”. Freudenstein says people are willing to pay for journalism online but advertising alone won’t work on the Internet. People will pay for online content if it is relevant and delivered in ways they want, he says.

His article was accompanied by a funny Kudelka cartoon which shows an appreciative Rudd hugging a Scott for thinking he had come up with a way not to require government funding. “Wayne” (Treasurer Swan) would be delighted with him, gushed the wonky PM, always thinking about red lines that might disappear from the $53b budget black hole. Scott is increasingly distraught as the PM “misunderstands” what he means about free content.

But as News Corp well knows, the ABC is an important part of the culture and not likely to disappear anytime soon. So they will just have to be creative in their pay offerings. In the same edition, The Australian’s media analyst Mark Day inted how News might implement their paywall. It would not be an old newspaper-model, he said. “They’ll be more akin to social networks, a hybrid of news, services, commerce, information and entertainment designed for like-minded people or communities,” Day said. They will not be providing old content for “like-minded people” but new content. Basic news will still be free.

Simons said paying will work for some things but people will not pay for general news in countries that have strong traditions of public broadcasters (eg Australia and the UK). James Murdoch calls this issue the “dumping” of free state-sponsored content which makes it difficult for journalism to flourish on the Internet. Murdoch notes that the distinction between broadcasters and newspapers is irrelevant on the Internet and what we have now is an “all media market” (Keating’s “Princes of Print and Queens of the Screen” looks very dated 13 years later).

And if commercial organisations need to charge people for content in this new converged environment, they should not face competitors who provide the same content free courtesy of the taxpayer. James Murdoch says it is fundamental for journalism and the creative industries that public media “exist on a far, far smaller scale”. Or as the Times put it to the BBC in Chinese-fashion, they should get its tanks off our lawn.

Mark Scott says the public pays the ABC to provide distinctive content to them which they are entitled to view “free of charge”. Free to the user but not to the taxpayer. The ABC has a guaranteed $844.6m budget (2007 figures) that insulates Scott’s decisions from his audience’s actual wants. The private companies must however live or die by their paid content. Media Watch says the signs are we won’t be asked to pay for what we are currently getting for free, but for new content.

Scott says one of the reasons the ABC is required is because of the abdication of news in commercial companies citing Channels Seven and Nine’s attenuated coverage of current affairs. ABC should not be crippled just to make private concerns wealthier, he says and crucially, he adds “there is no political sentiment to make this happen”. Media Watch cited the $14m ABC got over four years to provide websites for regional Australia.

It interviewed APN Media boss Brendan Hopkins which questioned this strategy. APN is in direct opposition to ABC Regional as it owns 14 regional newspapers in northern NSW and Queensland (disclosure: this journalist has worked for APN and is hoping to do so again) and Hopkins says he cannot see the government supporting a model of the ABC where the cost “keeps going up”.

He says if APN think ABC is getting unfair treatment they will talk to Graeme Samuels at the ACCC and “hold them to account”. When asked whether after 75 years the ABC should even exist, Hopkins said “now is a good time to have that debate”. With Margaret Simons agreeing that the ABC is now in a serious position to hurt the commercials’ business model, this argument has a long way to go. Maybe it is as Hopkins says, time to honestly re-evaluate what is meant by “your ABC”. The Anglosphere has tended to scoff at Sarkozy’s 600m euro press interventionism in France, but how is our public broadcasting funding much different?

October 20, 2009 at 11:54 am 1 comment

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