Posts tagged ‘media’

Peter Greste is not guilty but Al Jazeera is

As a fellow Australian journalist I am outraged by the imprisonment of Peter Greste and his colleagues in Egypt who are manifestly innocent of the charged they were convicted on. However, the same cannot be said about their employers Al Jazeera whose three employees are paying a heavy price for the Qatari media organisation’s gross meddling in Egyptian politics. Reporter Peter Greste, bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed are unfortunate victims of Middle Eastern energy politics, pawns in a long game between Egypt and Qatar with significant roles also for Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

It is not easy to criticise Al Jazeera, who I admire for having broken the back of western dominance of world news reporting and who have a deservedly formidable global news reputation branching out in every direction from its foundation of excellence in Arab affairs. But Al Jazeera has a major blind spot, one that is becoming more significant as the network becomes more important. Founded in 1996 with a charter to overcome censorship, Al Jazeera is bankrolled by Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who was the emir of Qatar until he abdicated in favour of his son Tamim in 2013.

Qatar’s massive oil and natural gas reserves has turned it into the richest country in the world per capita, wealth it is now pouring into influence across a multitude of world affairs. Al Jazeera is one of Al Thani’s pet projects and despite its own growing influence it  has been unable to turn a profit independently. Therefore it dares not bite the hand that feeds it. And as the Qataris flex their increasing financial muscle, there will be many more matters off limits to Al Jazeera such as the 2022 world cup or Qatar’s place in Gulf politics. The relationship between Qatar and Egypt is particularly problematic and Al Jazeera are not just reporters of that relationship but players.

This dangerous game dates back to former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak who was backed by Saudi government. He viewed the Qataris and their Al Jazeera news network as regional troublemakers. Following the Arab Spring, Al Thani put a lot of Qatar’s billions into the new governments that emerged. Mubarak was toppled in 2011 and replaced in elections by Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Qatar immediately swung into action to prop up Morsi.

Qatar not only supplied Egypt oil but also with liquefied natural gas (LNG) Egypt needs to fulfil export contracts. Egypt has state-run energy companies but allows foreign firms to exploit its gas reserves which the government subsidises for the domestic market. The foreign companies recoup their costs by exporting some of the gas for higher prices. But as Egypt’s demand increased and supply declined, there was less gas for the foreign market. Qatar filled the gap, selling the gas to Morsi’s foreign clients. Qatar also signed a deal to deliver a much needed LNG import terminal. This was a powerplay against not just the Saudis but also fellow Gulf state UAE, both of which had a long standing enmity to the Brotherhood and both of which supplied energy to Mubarak’s economy. Al Jazeera also enthusiastically threw their weight behind the new Islamist regime much to the disquiet of many of its own journalists
Matters changed again when the army deposed the Brotherhood government in 2013, much to the quandary of the west, who found their hatred of coups take second place to their hatred of elected Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood once again became officially Egyptian public enemy number one, but Qatar became number two. Those few Brotherhood officials and powerbrokers who escaped the crackdown mostly ended up in Qatar. Al Jazeera was not just an idle spectator, it is alleged to have paid for hotel suites in Doha for the exiles.

Meanwhile Egypt’s new master Sissi was left with a big problem of how to replace Qatari energy. He once again turned to the Saudis, UAE and Kuwait. Those countries have showered Egypt in petrol and diesel products but it still left Sissi with a serious problem as almost all its power plants run on LNG. None of the other Gulf states have the gas capacity of Qatar, and Egypt is in debt to the tune of $8 billion to the oil companies. Sissi has also been forced to increase the domestic price. But with natural gas supplying 70% of the local electricity, cutbacks are inevitable, possibly leading to more domestic discontent. Sissi has moved to end possible blackouts by contracting  Norwegian HOG-Energy to anchor an LNG unit in the Red Sea but that won’t be online until autumn well past the critical month of Ramadan when people fast during the day.

Sissi does not want to risk becoming the third leader deposed in three years and management of the message is crucial to his success. He closed down several Islamist news channels in 2013 including Al Jazeera’s Egyptian station Mubashir Misr. Greste, Fahmy and Bahar were arrested at the end of December last year accused of “damaging national security.”  The government said the journalists had held illegal meetings with the Brotherhood which had been declared illegal the previous week.

Greste’s letters from prison admitted he knew the dangers and had discussed them with Fahmy but they decided to press ahead anyway. He said they was only doing what journalists across the world do: “recording and making sense of unfolding events with all the accuracy, fairness and balance that our imperfect trade demands.” This is admirable but perhaps a little naive. Greste said he did not support the Muslim Brotherhood which is perfectly believable. But nowhere in the letters does he acknowledge Al Jazeera’s role in Egyptian politics. Greste, Fahmy and Bahar are scapegoats and cause celebres for press freedom. Telling the truth is not terrorism – but the truth is rarely simple. Greste and his two colleagues deserve our support, but they of all people should know this is also about geopolitics as it is about the right to report. Worldwide pressure should be applied just as much to Doha as it is to Cairo.

June 27, 2014 at 4:26 pm Leave a comment

Woolly Days media person of the year 2013 – Edward Snowden

snowdenI read the other day an article in Nieman Journalism Lab that pronounced the death of the blog in 2013. It had been overtaken, the article said, by social media, aggregators, micro-blogs and meme police (think Reddit) in setting agendas and influencing other media. That may be so, but I think the death of blogging may be exaggerated. The article that reported the death was itself a blog post and there are hundreds of millions of blogs still active. I’ve been blogging on and off for over eight years and don’t see myself stopping soon. I enjoy writing them, I like the way they force me to marshall my ideas and I enjoy my work seeing in the public domain, no matter how uninfluential. Millions of others, I suspect, will continue their blogs for a million other reason. One of my many million reasons is that I can get to name a Woolly Days media person (or personality) of the year award, something I’ve done for the last five years.

My winner wouldn’t be aware of the award but that doesn’t stop me from having fun and naming someone I saw as making a difference to the world of the media. The year I started the award – 2009 – was around the time Australia was grappling seriously with the end of analog and the idea of paywalls for internet content. ABC boss Mark Scott was in the fortunate position of being able to deal with both issues without the need to turn a profit. But he was emerging as a thoughtful contributor to where the digital world was taking us. As boss of the national broadcaster he straddled the political divide as a former Liberal staffer appointed by John Howard yet who seemed ready-made Labor-lite and someone not afraid to put the boot into Rupert Murdoch. It is difficult to see how Scott will survive into an Abbott Government but he has put ABC in a strong position as an independent cultural institution, albeit very safe and conservative in its Sydney values.

I didn’t give much thought as to whether it was a one-off award or not in 2009. As it happened, one person dominated world media headlines in 2010 and he was Julian Assange. Assange was Australian but his actions had huge international ramifications. Wikileaks transformed the dangerous act of whistleblowing by providing a safe place to blow that whistle. I believe Wikileaks’ best work was tackling corporate crime such as Trafigura and Bank Julius Baer  but like Icarus, Assange got too close to the sun. The astonishing horde of documentation Assange got from Bradley Manning made Assange a public enemy to western powers. Assange was a brilliant operator who changed the rules of information dissemination but he had fatal personality flaws. Assange has a case to answer under Swedish law and needs to face that justice system, otherwise the current Mexican stand-off will last only until a more American-friendly Ecuadorian government tosses him out to the streets of London.

While Assange languished in legal no-man’s land in 2011, a massive new media story was developing. What initially was defended as ‘few bad apples’, turned out to be an organisation rotten to the core showing it wasn’t just our intelligence services that spied on us. Guardian journalist Nick Davies with the fierce support of his editor Alan Rusbridger courageously overcame a smear campaign to reveal malfeasance by Rupert Murdoch’s News International with the assistance of the Metropolitan Police. The Guardian’s work was the best media on media story in years and Davies and Rusbridger fully deserved my award.

In the following November I knew I had to pick a media personality for 2012 but hadn’t really thought who it might be. In the end I grudgingly gave it to the British judge Brian Leveson who took on the Inquiry that bears his name from the Guardian hacking revelations. Leveson is a thoughtful jurist and his findings were admirable – though I have serious misgivings the British government’s new regulator will actually carry out his wishes. Nonetheless he deserved the award for running the best daily entertainment that year. Testimony after testimony was spectacular and it bordered on soap opera at times – especially when any of the Murdochs were giving evidence.

When it came thinking about this year’s award (again around November), I became aware of an anomaly – there was a serious gender imbalance, all my winners were men and White Anglo Saxon Protestantish at that.  This said more about the stereotypical way I think about media than a lack of suitable women candidates. Indeed, I found a magnificent contender in the very last week of the year. I had not heard of Ukrainian journalist Tetyana Chornovil before she was beaten up for investigating the Interior Minister but she is everything good about a journalist: single-minded, honest, fearless and determined to tell the story in the face of intense intimidation. She is already the favourite to win my award in 2014.

Yet I cannot give Chornovil, or any other journalist, my 2013 media person award. That has to go to Edward Joseph Snowden, the American computer specialist who leaked top secret National Security Agency documents to world media. The thousands of documents show the extent of surveillance done nationally and internationally, against friend or foe. Pentagon Paper leaker Daniel Ellsberg (who was assiduously courted by Julian Assange as he set up Wikileaks) described Snowden’s revelations as the most significant in US history and it certainly lays bare the US’s intelligence framework, not to mention causing political headaches across the globe.

Snowden himself became the story after his dramatic flight from the US to Russia via Hong Kong and he now remains stranded like Assange in legal limbo (of the unholy trio of leakers, only Bradley Manning has ended up in an American jail so far and even he has ‘escaped’ by changing his identity to Chelsea Manning). The idea that Russia, with its own repression, gives Snowden immunity is a sick Putin joke but the laugh has so far been on the Obama administration which has been left flat-footed as it attempts to deal with the scale of the leaks without being able to press charges.

There are times when we become a little cynical of the way government works and we look the other way when they get involved in a bit of sausage-making. There is the sense in many of our obsessive rules and regulations that it won’t affect me if I don’t do anything wrong. But there are times when someone holds up the mirror and we must look. We know we won’t like what we find and Snowden’s material shows government at its most paranoid and Orwellian-sinister. What the leaks showed was government surveillance is not about protecting people from terrorism but about protecting power. The US and allies spied for political, economic and social reasons, and while this was something we all suspected, here was the proof. Media commentator Jay Rosen said Snowden exposed threats to our freedom and his going public was a decisive moment.

Snowden says he did it to inform the public what was done in their name and what was done against them. One of the NSA documents which he leaked admitted they wanted mastery of the intelligence medium. To find the pin the haystack, they would collect the whole haystack. What they wanted was the ability to spy on anyone, anywhere, and at any time. This was gripping stuff and left authorities and their lackies flailing for answers and blaming the messenger. The craven editors at News Ltd and the Washington Post claimed publishing the articles breached national security but what the leaks showed it was national security itself that was on trial.

What happens next to Snowden is anyone’s guess, but I cannot imagine it will end happily. He is too far outside the pale for the US to forgive and forget and sooner or later, Putin will cash in his chip. Snowden will likely rot in prison like Manning. Whether it is enough to deter other would-be leakers, remains to be seen. In the meantime we must do all in our power to read what he has risked so much for. Not a woman, like Chornovil or Manning, but a worthy winner of the Woolly Days media person of the year 2013.

December 31, 2013 at 11:57 am Leave a comment

Stop Press and the New Front Page – Part 2

This is the second part of my post about Rachel Buchanan and Tim Dunlop’s new books about the media.  See Part 1 here.

If Buchanan’s book Stop Press is apolitical, Dunlop’s The New Front Page is a polemic. Dunlop was one of the earliest Australian bloggers, deeply impacted by living in the US in the wake of 9/11. Dunlop’s attitude to journalists and the media is grounded in other life experiences. As a youngster working in his father’s garage and later as an adult running record and video stores, it was all about customer service. Dunlop admits media has more complex relationships and needs to relate to its audience as citizens as well as customers. The problem the media never faced up to, says Dunlop, was that customers alone didn’t make them money but selling those customers to others did.

This attitude of audience as product, affected the way the media dealt with them and led to significant failures which has deeply eroded audience trust. Newspapers have been in a slow decline since the 1920s as other media like radio and then television took away advertisers. But classified ads were still profitable until the Internet destroyed that business model. Dunlop sheds few tears for these developments. Journalists were complicit in their own demise, believing too much in their own invincibility and relying too much on reputation that reality rarely lived up to. Dunlop was one of the earliest to understand the new technology allowed to audience not only to talk back but create their own media narratives.

Dunlop was one of many writers across the world who found their muse in 9/11.  The day and its many consequences galvanised opposing views of history. The “mainstream media” as Dunlop and other bloggers called them, lined up almost to a masthead on one side of the argument. Too captive to their sources and too addicted to the drip of insider information, they were unable to connect the dots of the wider picture. Its failure to talk truth to power was epitomised, argued Dunlop, by the groupthink that supported the US President GW Bush case for war in Iraq. The casus belli presented by Bush supporters was swallowed almost whole by the MSM. They were shown up by a variety of amateurs enabled by newly invented blogging technologies, who pointed out the faulty reporting. Dunlop and others were a rare counterpoint to what was otherwise painted as a national consensus for war.

The result were a lack of trust between media and audiences, hostility between the professional and amateur producers, and paranoia and barely concealed contempt from the professionals who saw the newbies as leeching on their work. They were interlopers that had to be resisted rather than challengers to be embraced. The later News of the World scandal confirmed for many the perfidy of the press who treat their audience solely as a commodity.

Dunlop’s own blog The Road to Surfdom, inspired many in Australia to follow his path. He charts his own inspiration to journalist Margo Kingston. Kingston was one of Fairfax’s best journalists but her always slightly outsider status was tested to breaking point when she covered Pauline Hanson’s failed 1998 election campaign. Kingston and Hanson seem unlikely bedfellows but they were both maverick women who refused to play the usual media games. Kingston’s disillusionment with the politico-media alliance at the expense of their audience/voters led to her setting up Media Diary as an online portal for news and discussion. Media Diary became all-embracing and ultimately died when it wore out Kingston but it led the way for many in the audience to find their own voice, Dunlop included.

Dunlop had just done a PhD on democracy, citizenship and public debate. A blog like Surfdom allowed him to eloquently put those ideas into practice. Its success eventually led to a surprise job offer from News Ltd. Despite being an ardent critic of Murdoch’s Empire, Dunlop jumped at the chance to talk to the large audiences News Ltd portals offered. Dunlop quickly learned was treated as a second-class citizen in the News Ltd power structure but it still attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. Some said he was selling out, but Dunlop accepted on the condition he would not have any editorial interference. He was a poaching blogger who was now a gamekeeper in the nation’s largest estate. Dunlop became obsessed with issues of moderating comments and curating the unruly conversation that swirled around him. It led to 18 hour days that were both exhilarating and exhausting. Eventually it was undone. His insistence on complete independence proved untenable when sooner or later he criticised the Empire itself. The relationship was terminally damaged after a post criticising the Australian’s editor was deleted. You shouldn’t be surprised, fellow blogging trailblazer Tim Blair advised him, you cannot bite the hand that feeds you.

Now fully independent again, Dunlop’s main concern remains democracy’s ability to allow a variety of voices to be heard. Social media has further muddied the waters, empowering audiences and yet offering new ways for media to show leadership. Newspapers are among the most-connected places in a city or town but their employees can no longer take their audience for granted. Nor can they just troll them for clicks. Dunlop says media practitioners must accept power relations have changed. They must engage audiences or as Dunlop says, according the “respect of talking to them, not down to them.” Otherwise journalism will have little role to play in the continuing evolution of democracy.

November 19, 2013 at 11:52 am Leave a comment

Stop Press and the New front Page – Part 1

Paul Barclay (right) introduced Tim Dunlop and Rachel Buchanan at Avid bookshop, Brisbane

Paul Barclay (right) introduced Tim Dunlop and Rachel Buchanan at Avid bookshop, Brisbane

Two authors writing on similar themes but with radically different perspectives are taking a discussion of their books on a national tour at the moment. I caught up with them – Tim Dunlop, author of The New Front Page and Rachel Buchanan, author of Stop Press – in Brisbane recently where they were quizzed about their books by the ABC’s Paul Barclay. The books published by Scribe are in a series of first person accounts about the changes underway in what Barclay called a “now emaciated” media industry. Dunlop is well known blogger and political commentator while Buchanan has been a journalist for over 20 years. Dunlop’s forte is the media’s relationship to politics, written from a left-wing perspective. Buchanan’s politics are private but what she does wear on her sleeve is her abiding love of newspapers.

The book subtitles reveal their perspectives on the industry. Dunlop’s New Media and the Rise of the Audience looks forward to a re-shaped landscape while Buchanan’s The Last Days of Newspapers is a valedictory for a dying industry. Buchanan and Dunlop occasionally talked at cross purposes with Dunlop’s focus on political journalism of less interest to Buchanan than newspapers as a whole. Barclay had a tough time find unifying themes but eventually the life-long learning that informed both their views made it a mostly fascinating discussion of Australia’s media landscape in 2013.

Buchanan, in her mid 40s, describes herself as a “paper girl” who has lived most of her life in the “dirty imperfect city of newspapers”. She was first published aged 16 in her native New Zealand and she ruefully remembers her first byline miscaptioned as Richard Buchanan. Starting out as a journalist in the mid 1980s, she landed in a slowly declining but still profitable industry. She loved the wonderful variety of the job with everything from court reporting to heli-skiing. Her peregrinations led her to London before landing a job at The Age in Melbourne.  The Age was the toughest paper she ever wrote for. Buchanan said her time there was a stressful competition with other journalists for a spot in the paper.

Buchanan tried to leave the industry several times. She wrote fiction, she did full time study, she eventually became an academic. But whatever she tried, she would eventually return to the fold of newspapers. As the years rolled by, she found the industry shrivelling around her though she was disturbed by the hypocrisy of continually expanding university programs for jobs that no longer existed. After several years in academia, she returned once again below the fold to newspapers in 2012. The reason was an unexpected return to New Zealand for family reasons where she picked up a job as a subeditor, fighting off accusations of being a scab in the process. In 2007 Fairfax Media sacked their sub-editors in Newcastle and Wollongong and outsourced the production work of the Newcastle Herald and Illawarra Mercury to NZ at lower rates and with less people. The decision caused shock not only in the two NSW cities but resonated across the entire industry. Sub-editing, said Buchanan, was “once the hidden creative and technical grunt behind a newspaper.” Subbies were the ones who turned “nude” copy into published prose, house-style. They usually had a compendium of knowledge about the newspaper and the city they served. Now they were gone, replaced by contract labour, working hard and cheap and knowing nothing of their faraway markets.

It wasn’t their fault but Buchanan and her colleagues in Wellington had no feel for the Mercury or the Herald and knew little or nothing about local issues or personalities. Sub-editing was always a stressful job and in older times they often had to write to four deadlines a day. Now those peaks are gone, evened out by an incessant demand for daylong copy, done fast and non-stop. After 12 exhausting months in the job, Buchanan quit and came back to Australia to write her book.

Buchanan says the book is about the cultural and economic implications of the death of newspapers. Too much of the public conversation has been about the impact to the journalists and everyone else who worked in the industry has been forgotten. The job losses have affected all aspects of the supply chain from the newsprint makers to the deliverers. It included the printers, the switchboard operators and the advertising execs. Most departments, said Buchanan, “were denuded, centralised or shut.”

As part of her research, Buchanan paid a visit to The Age’s space age printing plant at Tullamarine. In June 2012 Fairfax announced it was shutting Tullamarine and Chullora (Sydney) and moving metro printing to regional plants. Tullamarine was a massive operation encased in glass which had only opened in 2003. It housed three new German double-width printers and state of the art post-press equipment. Architect Ken Sowerby was showered with awards for design, construction, lighting, steel work and environmental friendliness. Designed to make 46,000 newspapers an hour, it was down to 40,000 by 2013 and dropping. Printer numbers too are dwindling. As one printer told Buchanan, “There was little skill left in the job…These machines do everything.”  When Sowerby designed Tullamarine in the late 1990s, Australian newspapers were still expanding and the newly evolving online world was still a novelty. Buchanan remembers reading Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital when it came out in 1996 and thought it “super wacky, even absurd”. She now admits most of his predictions have come true.

Buchanan denies she has written a “history book” but admits even her journalist friends think it is. Stop Press is an elegant and wistful eulogy to an age that has passed. Journalism will survive, but the large-scale newspaper industry it lived in is on its last legs. Rachel Buchanan may be in mourning but Tim Dunlop, meanwhile is very much comfortable in the digital realm. For his take on the new front page replacing newspapers, see Part 2 of this post tomorrow.

November 18, 2013 at 12:41 pm 1 comment

On Rupert Murdoch and Col Allan: Why the Australian press needs counselling

With the election now a week old, I thought it was about time I re-read the Advisory Guideline on Reporting Elections from the Australian Press Council. But as much as I tried to take it seriously, I couldn’t help chuckling after reading the first section headline which was on “newspaper bias”, I immediately conjured up a vision of Rupert Murdoch or Col Allan snorting and enjoying a good belly-laugh in the unlikely event they ever read this section together. Murdoch brought Allan from New York to report this election in the way the owner wanted, not the way APC wanted.

Both men would agree with the first sentence in the advisory guideline. “The Council,” it began,”upholds the right of a newspaper to have its own political position, to accept certain beliefs and policies and to reject others; and to favour the election of one party and to oppose the election of another.”  The subclauses were a bit unnecessary but it was a sentiment most owners would agree on (however at odds with the various codes of conduct for television and radio broadcasters).

The second sentence was more likely to attract guffaws from Murdoch and Allan, saying newspapers which claim to inform people on politics were under an obligation “to present to the public a reasonably comprehensive and accurate account of public issues”.  The News Ltd men would immediately tell you their newspapers are under no under no such obligation. Their only obligation is  to their own survival in tough times.  The spate of anti-Government front pages in the Murdoch tabloids since Rudd called the election serve two purposes, one political and one commercial.  The political aim to overthrow a government Murdoch does not like. The commercial one is to increase newspaper circulation by having their ideas front and centre in the supposed zeitgeist to bump an unpopular government.

In either of these purposes, the Australian Press Council is not a consideration. This is despite the fact News Ltd is a constituent body of the APC and accept their jurisdiction. They know the APC is a pale ombudsman.  The complaints procedure goes through vague strictures which are easily overcome while the more egregious crime that can’t overcome it, attracts at most a mild censure, that is at the paper’s discretion to publicise widely.  If all  the APC wants is to keep the paper’s editorial viewpoints and advocacy separate from its news columns, News Ltd could simply claim their openly biased call to action front pages are easily identifiable as advocacy.

It is not just the front page that are calls to actions. The signs outside the newsagent saying Kick this Mob Out  are neither an “an editorial viewpoint” nor a “news column” but simply a blatant ad for a political party.  The open cynicism was probably too much for a corporate flak like Kim Williams, but when push came to shove, it was Williams that was shoved, not the campaign. 

What it shows is that the Press Council is a joke again, in a year when News successful fought against its reform. When it comes to the nitty gritty of what the council demanded when it comes to “unfairness and lack of balance”, News simply were abysmal failures.  The APC calls for equal space for parties, equivalent photography, a selective right of reply and a “balancing response”, none of which the Government is getting in the current campaign. Yet breaches of these demands could all be easily be batted away by an experienced company lawyer who, in the worst of circumstances might simply advise to take the censure of a mild slap on the wrists.

The Murdoch campaign is rich irony for Labor. It was their idol Paul Keating who got them in this mess. His infamous “princes of print or queens of the screen” line  which allowed Murdoch a 1987 Herald and Weekly Times takeover left Keating’s party horribly exposed should the princes of print decide to exercise their royal privileges against them.  What ever about his unimaginative failure not to predict media convergence, Keating had no excuse for not predicting likely bias given he saw first hand how Murdoch destroyed Gough Whitlam in 1975.

This supine acquiescence a quarter of a decade ago may be enough in 2013 to haunt his party into opposition in a tight election.

August 9, 2013 at 11:56 pm 2 comments

Fifty-five pieces of legislation

THE thing politics has over policy is that it is a sport.  When The Age tried to call this out in its editorial asking for the head of Julia Gillard, it was roundly condemned for not setting the agenda of policy themselves instead of focussing on palace politics. But would The Age have sold as many copies if it focussed too much on the what when the who is infinitely more interesting?

We all profess to be tired of the Gillard-Rudd business but you can be sure the hashtag spill would go ballistic if and when the long drawn-out battle actually ever takes place.  Everyone would want to know the result.  The Age know the personal drama is infinitely more interesting than the 55 or so pieces of legislation yet to pass in the final week of the 43rd parliament of Australia.

But here where I don’t have to pander to profit or personal drama, I can take the time to look at all 55 remaining bills, in alphabetical order.  They cover a full gamut of legislative issues such as environment, the world economy, employment, education, tax reform and agriculture.

You may or may not find these interesting reading and they are mostly ignored by the media.

But this is what parliament is for: to change and enact law. Each of the 55 bills is important to someone or something; a truth the independent members of parliament (who raised most of them) know all too well. I’m hoping you’ll feel a little more informed if you read them; I did for writing them down.

1. African development bank Bill 2013 

Enables Australia to become a member of the African Development Bank Group by authorising the payments required to subscribe to membership shares in the African Development Bank and meet membership and ongoing subscriptions to the African Development Fund.

According to Bernie Ripoll (Lab) the bank promotes sustainable economic growth to reduce poverty in Africa. The bank currently has 78 member countries, comprising 54 African and 24 non-African countries. In 2011, the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness recommended that Australia join the group as it would represent value for money, and be a high-level indication of Australia’s commitment to development in Africa.

2. Australian Jobs Bill 2013 

The far-reaching bill would require private and public projects of half a billion dollars or more to develop an Australian Industry Participation plan. A new quango, the Australian Industry Participation Authority would be set up to administer and monitor compliance of the plan reporting back to parliament. In the first debate, Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly  saw an obvious problem: The measure would see government officers embedded in business, “just like it used to be in the Soviet Union”.

The planning regime itself will cost $1 billion dollars to implement, so I wonder if it will be subject to an Australian Industry Participation plan if it passes.

3 Australian Ownership Bill 2013

This Katterbill wants to limit foreign investment in Australian agribusiness and agricultural land. It would do this requiring the Foreign Investment Review Board to take “the national interest” (a contested concept if ever there was one) into account in foreign investment and also prevent non-Australians from owing half or more of an agribusiness or land more than four hectares.

4 Aviation Laws Amendment (Australian Ownership and Operation) Bill 2013

Another Katterbill to amend air acts to ensure Australian international and domestic air services are at least 51% Australian owned and operated, do at least 80% maintenance in Australia and use only Aussie crews.

5.  Broadcasting Services Amendment (Advertising for Sports Betting) Bill 2013 [No. 2]

Greens bill to amend the 1992 broadcasting act to prohibit ads on odds, restrict betting ads to after 9pm, and prohibit “non-ad ads” and freeze betting ads before sports broadcasts. Given the 1992 act is ludicrously pre-Internet, this seems papering over some enormous cracks.

6. Competition and Consumer Amendment (Australian Food Labelling) Bill 2012

This one from the Greens wants to amend the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 to: specify country of origin on food with labelling based on the weight of the ingredients.

7.  Competition and Consumer Amendment (Strengthening Rules About Misuse of Market Power) Bill 2013 is an adjunct of 6 to strengthen the act to protect people in complicated supply chains eg where a $1 litre of milk to the customer is a net cost to the producer.

8. Customs Amendment (Prohibition of Certain Coal Exports) Bill 2013

Amends the Customs Act 1901 to prohibit the export of coal mined in the water catchment valleys and district of Wyong (NSW) and enable the minister to prohibit the export of coal mined “in other areas”. This is Craig Thomson’s attempt to shut down a possible Wallarah Two underground mine despite no politician ruling it in at the moment. “People in electorates trust the laws, they don’t necessarily trust the politicians,” Thomson said. “And that’s why I tabled a bill today that looks to restrict the export licences of miners in the Wyong Shire in particular, but more broadly any other area that the minister by legislative means, deems to be appropriate.”

9 Dairy Industry (Drinking Milk) Bill 2013

Katter’s call to register dairy regional representative bodies and Fair Work Australia to determine a modern award for dairy farmers with dairy farmers and processors to establish enterprise agreements and collective negotiations.

10 Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013

This one from Peter Garrett. Establishes the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account to provide $300m over two years to long day care services to pay employees wages, costs and expenses and is an early pay off for Gonski in an attempt to make kindy-teaching a better paying job.

11 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Making Marine Parks Accountable) Bill 2012 [No. 2]

Townsville LNP’s George Christiansen’s “Making Marine Parks Accountable” bill amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to allow Government to set an area of sea, or land and sea, as a Commonwealth reserve with the help of an independent scientific reference panel and a stakeholder advisory group. Christiansen wants to protect his fishing constituents access to marine parks.

12 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Moratorium on Aquifer Drilling Connected with Coal Seam Gas Extraction) Bill 2013

Amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to place a two year moratorium on aquifer drilling connected with coal seam gas extraction; and impose penalties for any contravention. Katter wants to ban CSG mining for 24 months.

13 Fair Indexation of Military Superannuation Entitlements Bill 2012

Katterbill to index military retirement benefits the same way as Australian age and service pensions, currently based on a higher-end consumer price index.

14 Fair Work (Job Security and Fairer Bargaining) Amendment Bill 2012

This Greens bill amends the Fair Work Act 2009 to expand enterprise agreements, settle disputes, and make provisions on industrial action. The object is to consider items of job security, full employment and work/life balance when the full bench makes a workplace determination.

15 Fair Work Amendment (Arbitration) Bill 2013

Katterbill to remove the restriction of Fair Work Australia dealing with disputes by arbitration, mediation or conciliation, or by making a recommendation or expressing an opinion.

16 Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Amendment (Cubbie Station) Bill 2012

Katterbill to stop the foreign takeover of Cubbie cotton station near Dirranbandi, Qld.

17 Grape and Wine Legislation Amendment (Australian Grape and Wine Authority) Bill 2013

Ag Minister Joe Ludwig’s bill to create a new Grape and Wine Authority by merging Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation (GWRDC) and the Wine Australia Corporation. The merger would align strategy and achieve efficiency gains.

18 Homelessness (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2013

Social inclusion minister Mark Butler’s bill introduced with the Homelessness Bill 2013, to repeal the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994 and makes an amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. The bill ensures homeless people can still vote in elections.

19 Homelessness Bill 2013

Butler’s main bill which provides for the recognition of homeless people and those at risk of homelessness. There is a recognition of homelessness and an aspiration everyone should have a home. The aim is to remove barriers in social inclusion and improve service delivery.

20 Imported Food Warning Labels Bill 2013

This Katterbill imposes penalties on those who don’t label imported food properly.

21 Income Tax Rates Amendment (Unlawful Payments from Regulated Superannuation Funds) Bill 2012

Bill Shorten’s bill – Combined with the Superannuation Legislation Amendment, the bill amends the Income Tax Rates Act 1986 to impose a 45 per cent tax on superannuation benefits that are illegally released early. See also 50.

22 Infrastructure (Priority Funding) Amendment Bill 2013

Greens bill to amend the Infrastructure Australia Act 2008 to prioritise Commonwealth rail funding over roads, with the exception of road projects designed to fix an urgent road safety issue or on which construction has already begun.

23 Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Bill 2013

Greg Combet’s bill to tighten IP laws on crown use, implement a TRIPS protocol to supply developing countries with generic versions of patented medicines, protect plant breeder IP and bring in joint patent regime for Australia and New Zealand.  Despite its international importance, this huge bill affecting several acts of parliament has got zero attention in local media as far as I can tell. It features in International Business Times which said the law would enable Australian companies to respond to future health crises in less developed nations.

24 International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Amendment Bill 2013

Bob Carr’s bill to amend the International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Act 1963 to give privileges and immunities to the International Committee for the Red Cross and the International Criminal Court. The first part is required because Australia has signed an MOU with the Red Cross making it a legal entity while the second provides support for victims in ICC trials and removed a roadblock to Australia’s accession to the ICC Agreement on Privileges and Immunities.

25 Live Animal Export Restriction and Prohibition Bill 2013

Andrew Wilkie’s bill calls for the end to live animal export by 2017 and in the interim ensure “satisfactory treatment” before slaughter.

26 Malabar Headland Protection Bill 2012

Minister for State Gary Gray’s bill provides for the protection of Malabar Headland following divestment to New South Wales. Malabar Headland is in south-east Sydney and was declared a 70 hectare national park in 2010. It was transferred to NSW in 2012 after remediation of the site. The bill ensures Commonwealth oversight of the site.

27 Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013

Andrew Wilkie’s bill to amend marine regulations to ensure Australian standards are followed despite the rundown of Australia’s merchant fleet.

28 Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2012

Greens bill to allow gay marriage. Likely to fail due to Liberal block of conscience vote. We may have to wait a few years yet for parliament to catch up with public opinion on this.

29 Migration Amendment (Reinstatement of Temporary Protection Visas) Bill 2013

The Coalition’s Scott Morrisons’ bill to restore two new temporary protection visa classes lasting three years. One is the offshore entry TPV for refugees entering at an “excised offshore place” (eg Christmas Island) but who meet Australian protection obligations, the other a “secondary movement” offshore visa which is the same as above except the person is a non-citizen who transited in a country other than Australia where the person could have sought protection.

30 Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013

Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor’s variation on the TPV bill and one of the few bills gathering media attention due to the furore over 457 visas which are a subclass of TPVs.  It require sponsors in the TPV program to do Australian labour marketing testing with Fair Work inspectors oversight before employing someone on these visas.

31 Military Court of Australia (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2012

and 32 Military Court of Australia Bill 2012

Nicola Roxon’s bill (from her time as A-G) to establish the Military Court of Australia as part of the Federal Court to overcome the High Court challenge to the 2007 Military Court to deal with widespread military abuse. Interestingly, the court case Lane v Morrison that sank the previous court came out of a recruitment drive here in Roma in 2005. After a round of golf and drinks, Lane supposedly ”tea-bagged” an army sergeant but denied the charge before the military court. Lane successfully argued the court was unconstitutional.

33 Minerals Resource Rent Tax Amendment (Protecting Revenue) Bill 2013

Greens amendment to the ill-fated Minerals Resource Rent Tax Act 2012 to disregard increases in state royalties after 1 July 2011 when calculating royalty credits for the tax.  Adam Bandt’s objective is to protect tax revenue from being eroded by increased State Government royalties.

34 National Electricity Bill 2012

Rob Oakeshott’s bill to make the national electricity law a Commonwealth law rather than state law. Oakeshott said the states electricity networks have seen the biggest increases in electricity prices  and still have the biggest say in how the pricing rules are set.
“There’s a clear conflict of interest in states owning monopolies and regulating monopolies at the same time,” he said.

35 National Health Reform Amendment (Definitions) Bill 2013

Amend definitions in the 2011 National Health Reform Act to allow the new National Health Performance Authority report on the performance of hospitals and primary health care organisations.

36 Native Title Amendment Bill 2012

Nicola Roxon’s A-G bill to amend the Native Title Act 1993 to disregard some historical extinguishment of native title and broaden the scope for voluntary indigenous land use agreements. 

37 Paid Parental Leave and Other Legislation Amendment (Consolidation) Bill 2011

Families Minister Jenny Macklin’s bill to clarify provisions related to ‘keeping in touch’ days. This means that they can come to work for up to 10 days during their parental leave, without it affecting their unpaid parental leave entitlements.

38 Pay As You Go Withholding Non-compliance Tax Bill 2011

Wayne Swan’s bill imposes a pay as you go (PAYG) withholding non-compliance tax on directors and some associates where their company has a PAYG withholding liability for an income year and the director or associate is entitled to a credit for amounts withheld by the company during the income year.  These amendments reduce the scope for companies to engage in fraudulent phoenix activity or escape liabilities and payments of employee entitlements.

39 Primary Industries (Customs) Charges Amendment (Australian Grape and Wine Authority) Bill 2013

Joe Ludwig’s bill amends three acts to form the new Australian Grape and Wine Authority (see 17).

40 Primary Industries (Customs) Charges Amendment Bill 2013

Ludwig’s bill removes product specific maximum rates for R&D charges and marketing charges as changing them is difficult, slow and expensive. See also 42 and 48.

41 Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Amendment (Australian Grape and Wine Authority) Bill 2013

Another Ludwig bill changing three acts to form the new Australian Grape and Wine Authority (see 17 and 39).

42 Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Amendment Bill 2013

Another Ludwig bill to implement the government’s rural R&D policy, to remove product specific maximum levy rates for R&D levies and marketing levies. See 40 and 48.

43 Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2012

Wilkie bill and companion to number 44 with consequential amendments to four acts.

44 Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Bill 2012

Wilkie’s bill provides a comprehensive definition of public interest disclosure and provides protections to public officials to make such disclosures. 

45 Reducing Supermarket Dominance Bill 2013

Katterbill to reduce market share to 20% by enforced divestiture over six years and establish a Commissioner for Food Retailing.

46 Renewable Fuel Bill 2013

Katterbill to regulate renewable fuel and mandate 5% ethanol by 2017 and 10% by 2020.

47 Reserve Bank Amendment (Australian Reconstruction and Development Board) Bill 2013

Katterbill to establish an Australian Reconstruction and Development Board to fix financial arrangements of stressed Australian agriculture businesses and associated industries.

48 Rural Research and Development Legislation Amendment Bill 2013

Ludwig’s third R&D bill affecting 8 acts. See 40 and 42.

49 Student Identifiers Bill 2013

Tertiary Education Minister Chris Bowen’s bill to introduce a national student id from 2014. Needed because there is no single repository of records for vocational education and training.

50 Superannuation Legislation Amendment (Reducing Illegal Early Release and Other Measures) Bill 2012

In conjunction with 21, Bill Shorten’s complex bill to ensure civil and criminal penalties for promoters illegal early release of superannuation benefits, part of his “stronger super”  reforms.

51 Tax Laws Amendment (Disclosure of MRRT Information) Bill 2013

Joe Hockey’s bill to provide an exception to the prohibition imposed on taxation officers about the disclosure of information regarding the tax affairs of a taxpayer. Hockey wants to remove doubt tax officers can provide information about the MRRT when the Minister wants to make it publicly available. The intention is to reveal how much the mining tax has raised, without breaching tax privacy laws.

52 Tax Laws Amendment (Special Conditions for Not-for-profit Concessions) Bill 2012

Treasurer Swan’s bill to amend taxation legislation to restate the ‘in Australia’ special conditions for income tax exempt entities. The bill is raised after the High Court found charities are considered to be pursuing their objectives principally ‘in Australia’ if they merely operate to pass funds within Australia to another charity that conducts its activities overseas.

53 Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Consumer Protection) Bill 2013

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s bill amends the Do Not Call Register Act to clarify who is responsible for making telemarketing calls and faxes where third parties are involved, vary industry codes and tighten the ombudsman standards.

54 Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Claims for Travel Expenses) Bill 2010

Julia Gillard’s own bill to amend the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986  to extend the time period for lodging a claim for non-treatment related travel expenses from 3 to 12 months and enable further extensions of time in exceptional circumstances.

55 Voice for Animals (Independent Office of Animal Welfare) Bill 2013

Greens bill to establish the Office of Animal Welfare as an independent statutory authority which was originally planned by Labor. Bandt said the Office would be a centre of excellence for animal welfare science and law and work to harmonise and improve animal welfare laws across the country. He also said  it would give animals a voice in parliament, independent of the Agriculture Department and Ministry, to reduce animal cruelty.

June 25, 2013 at 12:34 am Leave a comment

Puya Chilensis: Media fooled by “sheep-eating plant”

Puya Chilensis (courtesy

Puya Chilensis (courtesy

Easily the most intriguing thing I read in the last 24 hours was the massive sheep-eating plant about to flower in the UK.  It sounded so much better than a venus flytrap.  I needed to know more but now that I do, I’m now thinking the BBC,  Huffington Post and others have likely served up a dud.

The story surfaced on Tuesday when Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society’s media centre put out a gem of a press release. Their South American plant puya chilensis was about to flower for the first time in 15 years. The plant, they said, lived in the wild on the fertiliser provided by dead animals, including sheep, which decomposed trapped in its thick spines.

For the RHA this was a “gruesome secret” where dead animals become the “grizzly (sic) equivalent of a bag of fertiliser”. This is a big claim for garden in the green heart of Surrey and sheep are big animals to get stuck in bushes. Yet the simplicity of the tale was  far too enticing to media eager for an off-beat story, and in a great setting. RHS Garden Wisley is so much a flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society it even sounds like one.  There, irises and candelabra primulas line the long ponds, roses and salvias sway in the Country Garden, and glorious peonies dazzle and bloom.  But does something more sinister live in this part of England’s green and pleasant land?

In question is Puya chilensis,  a hardy plant surviving on mostly waterless hills in Chile. It is a terrestrial bromeliad, which means it has one seed-leaf not two and is a cousin of the pineapple. Puya chilensis is common enough in the Mattoral region.  However  because the Mattoral also contains Chile’s largest cities including Santiago, the constant land-clearing and the plant’s high flammability is making it rare.

What’s also rare, says the RHA, is the striking flowering of puya chilensis: It produces enormous spikes of neon bright, greeny-yellow flowers. The blossoms are gigantic. Individual blooms measure 5cm and they contain enough nectar for a person to drink. Wisley is particularly delighted as it said few UK specimens have flowered, a fact the nursery puts down to difficulties in replicating its natural diet in Chile.

Yet on the Scilly island of Tresco, the Abbey Garden’s puya chilensis has been thriving since 1848 and flowers annually. “Each spring the clumps of puyas send up great spikes of flowers 2-3m high, the flowers clustered at the top,” the garden’s website said. “The actual flowerhead is about 1m long and packed with racemes of chunky flowers, the sterile tips of which stick out, affording a perch for thirsty birds.”  There is no mention of puya’s taste for animals, something you’d think the Tresco gardeners would have noticed in  160 years.

The RHA say puya chilensis uses its razor-sharp hook-like spines to ensnare animals. The animals starve to death and decompose. Finally, after perhaps years, the plant feeds off the fertiliser.  Chilean shepherds on the Matorral, they claim, are all too aware of the danger and they usually burn the plant when they see it. Because of the “problematic”  food, Wisley fed their puya chilensis with a liquid fertiliser rather than sacrifice a sheep or two.

On the carnivorous plants UK forum, no-one had heard of this strange diet of the bromeliad. “Osmosis” raised the topic on the forum about speculation the plant may derive an advantage from the decaying carcasses of animals it snares in the wild. “I know this is not strictly carnivory,” Osmosis went on, “but with only a slight embellishment it makes a sensational answer to what is the largest carnivorous plant.”  Another, vraev, made the point carnivory was no longer such a big deal. “It seems almost one plant or another is trying to take advantage of the vast reservoir of animal nutrients,” he/she said.

I’m no botanist but I could find no evidence of carnivorous bromeliads either in scholarly publications or from talking to scientists who work in the field. In fact there is no evidence at all, earlier than the RHA media release of June 18. It is possible this is new science but I’ve not seen any papers. I asked the RHA “if this information has only recently came to light and if so, how?” They have yet to answer my query. The Beeb and Huffpo may have oversold puya chilensis but it doesn’t need to be sheep-eating to be an extraordinary creation of nature.

UPDATE: June 26. I got this response overnight from Stephanie Shepherd, Senior Press Officer, Art and Gardens:

Thanks for getting in touch. You can find references to the idea that the Puya chilensis derives a benefit from nutrients that leech into the soil from the decomposing carcasses of small animals (particularly farmed sheep) that become caught in its spines in Sharp Gardening byChristopher Holliday and in Maberley’s Plant-book. A Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classifications, and Uses. 3rd Edition by David J. Mabberley. It has also been referenced by the National Botanic Garden of WalesThe Eden Project and BBC Wildlife Magazine and you can find a piece from Tresco here which references the plant’s reputation for snaring sheep. All of these pre-date the press release announcing the flowering of our Puya chilensis.

 As you could probably tell from the tone in which the press release was written, the story was intended as quite a light hearted one and a way of drawing the attention of the wider public to some of the fascinating and peculiar plants that live in our world.

June 22, 2013 at 10:37 am 3 comments

Why Sally Bercow deserved to lose the defamation case and why it won’t chill Twitter

While it seems absurd at first glance, the words “*innocent face*” were correctly ruled defamatory by the England and Wales High Court this week. It doesn’t matter they appeared in a tweet as Twitter is publishing, nor is there any freedom of speech issue as the right to express a reasonable opinion remains – as long as it is obviously opinion. The UK Telegraph gleefully identified the tweeter Sally Bercow as a “Labour activist” but this case has nothing to do with her politics.

The full text of Bercow’s offending tweet was “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*” which she wrote on the night of November 2, 2012. These terse smart-assed bon mots are common on Twitter and rely on sardonic humour to carry across their meaning. The problem was there was a lot of meaning in Bercow’s tweet, particularly at that time. The BBC had just aired its flagship current affairs program Newsnight with explosive allegations of a 1980s-era Tory sexually abusing boys in North Wales in the 1970s and 80s. Though the BBC didn’t name the Thatcher era adviser, it didn’t take long for people on Internet to publicly identify Alistair McAlpine as the suspect.

Many of these people took to Twitter to voice their opinion. So many in fact, that Lord McAlpine started to list among the trending subjects in Twitter. If Sally Bercow had just asked “Why is Lord McAlpine trending?”, there would have been no case to answer. Bercow could simply have said she was genuinely bewildered. With plausible deniability, no one could have accused her of defamation and it would have been lost in the growing traffic of comments. But the “*innocent face*” complete with emotion-defining asterisks undermined that argument. Then-regular Twitter user Bercow (she has since left her spot abandoned) knew full well why Lord McAlpine was trending and was deliberately stirring the pot with her 56,000 followers. Unfortunately for Bercow, McAlpine was innocent of the charges.

The BBC had commissioned the Newsnight story from an independent not-for-profit news organisation called the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ). BIJ’s Angus Stickler pitched the child abuse story to acting Newsnight editor Liz Gibbons. Stickler was accusing McAlpine in his piece but did not have enough evidence to name him. Stickler’s centrepiece interview was with sexual abuse victim Steve Messham, at his Wrexham care home. Messham said he had been taken in a car to a local hotel and abused more than a dozen times. Newsnight said the abuser was “a prominent Thatcher-era Tory figure”.  In editorial conferences, Gibbons did consider offering McAlpine a right of reply in the story but felt that was not appropriate as he was not named.

Stickler’s story was based on mistaken identity. The Waterhouse Inquiry of 1997 into child abuse in Bryn Estyn Children’s Home in north Wales  had previously examined Messham’s claims. Rumour had gone out from Wrexham jail it was McAlpine’s cousin, prominent local businessman Jimmie McAlpine who had attacked him. There was a brief media frenzy in 1998 after this rumour had changed Jimmie’s name to his more famous cousin Alistair.  In the end Waterhouse’s report in 2000 found Messham’s story had no solid evidence to back it up.

There the matter rested for 12 years until Stickler re-heated it in the wake of the Jimmy Saville revelations of late 2012. A year after his death, Saville was accused of 214 acts of child sexual abuse over 50 years, many at BBC studios.  The BBC was aware of rumours of dodgy behaviour for most of that time but did nothing. Even after he died in 2011, Newsnight prepared a report on Savile’s sexual antics but shelved it for reasons still not entirely clear.

A year later with the Savile allegations in the open, the BBC was anxious to get back on the front foot and agreed to commission the BIJ piece. But they failed to heed the warning signs. A day before the show went to air, BIJ boss Iain Overton added fuel to the fire at Oxford University. There at a debate on the media’s influence on politics, he mentions a major expose airing on the BBC the day after. After the Chatham House rules debate, Channel 4 News’s political correspondent Michael Crick asked him  in front of others was the program about McAlpine. Overton replied with the classic non-denial denial “Well you said it”.  Crick then did what the BIJ and BBC didn’t and contacted McAlpine, who promptly denied the allegations.

On the morning of the airing, it didn’t take long for the Overton-Crick conversation to do the rounds but Overton didn’t stop there. He took to Twitter and said “If all goes well we’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile.” While the BBC was alarmed about Overton’s tweet and got him to apologise, it decided to go ahead with the airing. Its defence was the pool of people mentioned was large enough to avoid individual identification.

Meanwhile the alarms continued to ring. Crick also took to Twitter to say “the ‘senior political figure’ due to be accused by BBC of being paedophile denies allegations “+ tells me he’ll issue libel writ agst BBC.” Without naming McAlpine, Crick went to air on Channel 4 News at 7pm saying a “former senior Conservative official” denies any abuse. The BBC Show aired three and a half hours later. It did not use those final hours to offer a right of reply, despite Crick’s warning McAlpine would sue them. Ironically it was handicapped by its own processes in the wake of a child sex scandal with the regular experienced Newsnight editor suspended for his role in the Jimmy Saville story.

As soon as Newsnight aired, those who knew what Overton told Crick, aired their views online.  The Guardian’s George Monbiot wrote: “I looked up Lord #McAlpine on t’internet. It says the strangest things.” Monbiot could have used deniability too but the slightly mocking tone of “t’internet” undermined him. He later apologised to McAlpine and made a legal settlement, where Monbiot would carry out work amounting to £25,000 on behalf of three charities.

Monbiot admitted he contributed to the “febrile atmosphere” and the redtop media went berserk after these hints from cyberspace. They laid immediate siege to the 70-year-old McAlpine’s house. McAlpine was photographed packing up and leaving home with his suitcase. Within 24 hours the Guardian proved the BBC Newsnight program was wrong.  It did the research into the Waterhouse Inquiry that Stickler did not. Within 24 hours Messham apologised for a case of mistaken identity and Newsnight and BIJ were in the poo. The BBC and ITV later paid out £310,000 in libel damages to McAlpine and dozens of Twitter users made donations to charity over the false claims.

Yesterday it was Sally Bercow’s turn to face the wrath of the court.  Britain’s most senior libel judge, Justice Tugendhat, ruled the tweet was defamatory and had falsely tarred McAlpine as a paedophile. “I find that the tweet meant, in its natural and ordinary defamatory meaning, that the claimant was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care,” Tugendat said. “If I were wrong about that, I would find that the tweet bore an innuendo meaning to the same effect.”

Tugendhat said “sensible readers” among her 56,000 followers would have understood the meaning of *innocent face* to be “insincere and ironical”. It was “the last piece in the jigsaw” linking McAlpine with the allegation of guilt of child sexual abuse. “I see no room on these facts for any less serious meaning,” Tugendhat concluded.  As media lawyer Gerard Cukier told the Guardian, anyone is entitled to comment freely on any matter of public interest as long as the comments can be recognised as such, not “statements of facts or imputations such as the judge held Bercow’s comments to be.”

Bercow had crossed the line further than Monbiot and ended up being just another high profile victim of publicly not getting their facts right. Despite the hoo-hah over “the most expensive tweet in history” (for now), she can afford the fine – McAlpine did not pursue the small fry. It is nonsense to suggest it will have a “chilling effect on social media”. Millions of users won’t suddenly be scared to voice opinions – but they might be more careful how they express them. Twitter is used in many different ways, often badly as many of the protagonists in this story showed, but not all of them end up in court.

May 26, 2013 at 1:14 am 1 comment

Scratching Rupert Murdoch

murdoch1I picked up the book Murdoch (1993) by William Shawcross in the cheapie bin at Lifeline book sale in January.  The book is an unauthorised biography and does not hold back criticism though Shawcross is recently on the record saying Murdoch saved journalism, at least in the UK. The front cover of my copy of his 1993 book is torn – an eye is scratched out of the subject’s portrait on the front cover. While there were those protesting against him outside the IPA dinner in Melbourne last week that might have deliberately torn it, it looked more like a label had been removed. I didn’t hold much hope I’d find a tattered 600-page, 20-year-old volume on Rupert Murdoch interesting, so it lay unread for several months under a pile of other books.

By coincidence it filtered back to the top of the pile as the media baron made a rare return to his native land last week. As he appeared at the Melbourne gig, he was greeted by a protester wearing a mask of Murdoch as the devil. The image of Murdoch as Satan won’t bother a Catholic/wee free 82-year-old whose gods are money and power but the protester was not the first nor last to imagine him as evil incarnate.

Forbes ranks Murdoch as only the 91st wealthiest person in the world though the 26th most powerful person. In this category Forbes tucks him in one spot ahead of Jeff Bezos of Amazon and one behind Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Yet it hard to imagine similar hatred against Bezos or Zuckerberg. Despite a silver spoon upbringing, Murdoch has always been an outsider. He is also a different era to the two Americans that have built international empires in his wake and his modus operandi has always been blatantly ‘my way or the highway’.

Only 200 pages in, Shawcross’s book has a gripping read following Murdoch’s footsteps, from out of the giant shadow of his father Keith and into the world of international communications. Murdoch snr was one of the most important people in Australia in the first half of the 20th century. In 1915 young Keith’s reports from Turkey to the Australian Prime Minister precipitated the end of the Gallipoli campaign. He grew as an editor in the 1920s under the tutelage of British press baron Viscount Northcliffe, Alfred Harmsworth.

Harmsworth showed Murdoch snr the importance of keeping a paper lively, a virtue Keith passed on to Rupert. Keith Murdoch was a hugely influential managing editor but at his death in 1952 aged 63 he only owned two newspapers: the Adelaide News and the Brisbane Courier-Mail. The titles passed to his only son. Young Rupert was still at Oxford University but already well mentored in the successful ways of newspapers by Harmsworth through his father: explain, simplify, clarify.

His mother Dame Elizabeth was immensely powerful in her own way and it was the widow’s recommendation they should sell the Courier-Mail when the Herald and Weekly Times came calling. Still overseas, Rupert acquiesced but was furious and was determined to build up what was left of his inheritance quickly. The Adelaide News was the minor paper in town compared to the Advertiser. But Murdoch’s inexhaustible energy pumped it up.

Never with much time for “elites”, Murdoch delighted in stoking up the News’s anti-authoritarian voice. But in conservative Adelaide, the News never strayed too far from accepted opinions. Murdoch was left-wing at Oxford and had a strong interest in Communism and a bust of Lenin in his dorm room. But once established as a newspaper owner, instinctive love of the ways of capitalism grabbed him by the throat. Even more than his managing editor father, Rupert became obsessed by the bottom line. He learned quickly how to pick winning politicians and then back them all the way.

Murdoch was more than just an astute proprietor; he had great knowledge of all area of his business. Often he and his senior managers would put out the paper when journalists went on strike. He impressed the printers in London when he climbed onto a machine and found the bar that would fold the pages to ensure the presses could run in tabloid format. Murdoch had inexhaustible energy and would run his business by telephone, constantly looking for deals to expand his footprint. His specialty was purchasing loss-making operations and turning them around.

He quickly outgrew Adelaide and brought his racy tabloid format to Perth before breaking into the Sydney market. Fairfax’s boss Rupert “Rags” Henderson preferred to sell a down-at-heels Mirror to Murdoch in 1960 ahead of more established rivals (to the chagrin of his Fairfax board). Murdoch seized the chance to buy in to Australian’s premier market-place. He could not immediately break into Sydney television but his Adelaide station was making plenty of money.

In the late 1960s, Murdoch was already looking toward the UK and USA.  He bought the News of the World after a protracted battle with Robert Maxwell and later The Sun. The News of the Screws was already a product of the gutter before Murdoch bought it, but the Dirty Digger (as the unforgiving British establishment called him) took it that step further.  While his papers were successful, he and especially his second wife Anna Torv, hated London. Anna was the intended victim of a kidnapping and the wife of an employee died in her stead. They were more anxious than ever to get a foothold in the US.

Murdoch started with two papers in San Antonio, Texas. The papers performed solidly though Texans were slow to appreciate Murdoch’s formula for success: exaggerated headlines, a lively style and infatuation with sex and crime. But it worked better once he got his foothold into New York through The Post,  the third paper in the US’s biggest city behind the News and the Times. But the summer of 1977 and the long-running Son of Sam saga, gave Murdoch the chance to dominate news. The powers-that-be and his rivals detested Murdoch’s hyped story-at-all-costs but he couldn’t care less. What did they know, they were just elitists or “pipe smoking journalist academics” and he was giving the people what they wanted. Murdoch’s power in his native land grew as his international interests expanded. He could even afford a loss-leader: The Australian.

Founded in 1964, the Australian was unique as a national paper in a country with deep metropolitan divisions. Its early years quickly established itself as a serious force and under editor Adrian Deamer an important part of the national political conversation. But Deamer was too independent for Murdoch. Deamer was good (and Murdoch grouchily acknowledged him as the paper’s best editor 20 years later), but he was too far removed from Murdoch’s growing conservatism and was sacked. Murdoch wanted editors who knew how to implement his formula, not set a path for social revolution.

Though he supported Whitlam in 1972, Murdoch was actively plotting against him three years later. Malcolm Fraser was the beneficiary (just as New York Mayor Ed Koch was two years later) of Murdoch political largesse. As a US watcher of that Koch election put it, “When the New York Times gives its support you’ll be lucky to get an editorial but when Murdoch supports you, you get the whole paper”.

Murdoch was gaining the reputation of a king-maker, something that prospective kings would quickly learn to take into account in their dealings with him. Australia is now small potatoes in Murdoch’s global reach but he remains the dominant figure in the local landscape.  The Greens may call Murdoch’s News Ltd hate media, but Prime Minister-in-waiting Tony Abbott was in the IPA audience last week listening to the Sun King. In 2011, former News Ltd editor Bruce Guthrie suggested Murdoch has let it be known within his organisation that Australia needed a change of government and his editors were simply doing his bidding. Guthrie had a spectacular falling out with Murdoch and is likely biased but he makes a good point about the extent of his company’s power: “Given News controls about 70 per cent of Australian newspapers, which, in turn, feed talkback radio and evening news bulletins, that’s a fight most politicians want to avoid.”

At the IPA dinner, Abbott called Murdoch  “probably the Australian who has most shaped the world”.  Abbott was on less firmer ground when he said Murdoch’s opinionated but broad-minded publications had “borne his ideals but never his fingerprints”.  “He’s influenced them but he’s never dictated to them”, Abbott claimed. The point is, over the years Murdoch hasn’t had to dictate to his editors. With a few courageous exceptions like Deamer and Guthrie aside, most of them have known exactly what to do to keep their job.

April 7, 2013 at 12:35 am 1 comment

Two bald men and combs: Stephen Conroy’s fight with Kim Williams

Our media sent themselves hurtling further towards irrelevance this week with an exaggerated response to modest proposals to strengthen an under-regulated industry. The reaction followed last week’s announcement by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy on the Government’s response to the Convergence Review and Finkelstein Inquiry.  The Convergence Review was about policy and regulatory frameworks in a converged media and communications landscape while Finkelstein examined media codes of practice in the Internet era.

Conroy proposed five reforms to deal with issues raised in both inquiries.  They were:  a beefed-up press standards model for print and online news media, the introduction of a Public Interest Test for mergers and acquisitions policed for diversity by a Public Interest Media Advocate (PIMA), upgrading the ABC and SBS charters for online and digital activities, allocating the sixth free-to-air channel to community television and offering a rebate for more Australian content.

Conroy proposed three other reforms to be sent to parliamentary committee: The abolition of the 75% local reach rule, on-air reporting of ACMA regulation breaches and whether ACMA should consider news program supply agreements when determining if someone is in control of a commercial television broadcasting service.

University professor and media policy commentator Terry Flew calls the reforms low key and a “ very cautious, and in many ways piecemeal” response to the two inquiries. “It has probably not modernised media laws sufficiently to ‘tackle the challenges of the future’, although it does make some overdue changes to existing law,” Flew said.

But the Australian media that will be subject to the change saw it very differently.  For them, the five proposals were nothing less than an assault on freedom of speech. The Sydney Telegraph put Conroy in a rogues gallery of dictators likening him to Stalin, Mao, Castro, Kim, Mugabe and Ahmadinejad. News Ltd group editorial director Campbell Reid defended the Telegraph’s chutzpah as a “provocative tabloid presentation of an incredibly provocative act by a Government.”  The Telegraph later issued an “apology” for printing a picture of Conroy dressed as Stalin. The apology was to Stalin who although “a despicable and evil tyrant who was responsible for the death of many millions,” he at least was “upfront” in his efforts to control the media.

This notion of control was picked up by many of the Tele’s News stablemates. Without a scrap of evidence, the Herald Sun turned Conroy’s package into “a deplorable assault on freedom of speech.”  This glossed over the assaults on freedom of speech practiced by the company that owns half the Australian media landscape.

James Paterson expressed the view of his bosses at The Australian to reveal the laws’ real purpose: to punish and rein in the federal government’s critics in the media. News Ltd boss Kim Williams said the proposals were “government sanctioned journalism”  and “dangerous policy” while the PIMA would be an “unnecessary novel creation”. Fairfax boss Greg Hyland was more measured but still saw the PIMA as a bridge too far.

No wonder Conroy took to the airwaves to describe Williams’ reaction as “hysterical”. He quoted at length from both inquiries from submissions which went to the heart of News Ltd’s huge penetration in the Australian market – something no-one from News was willing to admit was an issue. Conroy admitted the public interest test was contentious but said News and Fairfax had 86% of the market, “one of the most concentrated media sectors in the world.”

However in many respects the battle is irrelevant. Conroy has joined the bald Williams in fighting over a comb. Only a few media commentators like Alan Kohler understood the pointlessness of the struggle. He says regulating for diversity and complaint handling is irrelevant and unnecessary in a world that is quickly moving past the monoliths of print and broadcasting.

“Rebuilding trust with customers and keeping it is the greatest of all the challenges facing the media in the digital age, and dealing properly with complaints is an important part of doing that,” Kohler said. “The pity of it is that the PIMA and the complaints handling body will probably just be another set of slow, clanking bureaucracies that serve only to highlight the contempt that much of the media have for their customers.”

March 19, 2013 at 10:24 pm 1 comment

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