The King’s Speech

I’ve just seen The Kings Speech, the second movie after The Queen interfering with my simple desire to loath the Windsors. I’ve never met any of the Royal Family but as an institution they embody everything that makes my Irish blood boil. They carry the baggage of immense history and are the symbol of British power and imperialism. The 19th century Pax Britannica that cemented British power brutally enforced across the world in Victoria’s name. The monarch’s picture on the currency reinforced the symbolism behind the success of British business.
(picture of Lionel Logue in 1930: Wikipedia)
Britain declined after Victoria’s death though delusions of grandeur were more difficult to shake off. Her descendants still have exclusive access to the throne and lead the Anglican Church. The Royals’ pomp and circumstance remains an important projection of British soft power. Crippled by inbreeding, they outsourced glamour to commoners Diana Spencer and Kate Middleton. The elaborate fairytale production of “Will and Kate” is designed to reinvent the British brand for the 21st century.Comfortable with my curmudgeonly view of Will’s grandmother Elizabeth II as a hand-shaking cipher for the empire who has seemingly lived for centuries, I did not have high hopes for Stephen Frears’ film The Queen. But I came away with an admiration for her as Helen Mirren transformed the queen into a competent and complex human. Watching it, John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance kicked in despite myself and I had better understanding of the issues Elizabeth Windsor faced after the death of Diana.

Frears’s film was not about the Queen or Diana but about the the monarchy and its ambiguous position at the heart of Government. What power Elizabeth wielded was mostly a result of invented traditions which jar with modern life.

The Royals want publicity just as much as they want privacy. Balmoral Castle, the Scottish seat of the crown is where the family saw out Diana’s death and also features in Tom Hooper’s The Kings Speech, about the Queen’s father George VI (Colin Firth). George (then Prince Albert but “Bertie” to the family) turns up to Balmoral for a party given by his brother, the new monarch Edward (Guy Pearce). The party is a clash of cultures represented by the kilt-wearing traditionalist Albert and party boy Edward scandalising the court with his twice-divorced girlfriend Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).

Edward and Bertie didn’t have to deal with paparazzi with long lenses and phone hacking techniques but they did have to deal with the technology changing the relationship of the rulers to the ruled: radio. Before radio, the Royals were seen but not heard. The first US radio station was set up in 1920 and the BBC started two years later. In 1932 Bertie’s father, George V (Michael Gambon) used the BBC to reluctantly give the first Royal Christmas Message.

Like Bertie, his father had an elder brother who was expected to become king. George V was promoted when Prince Albert died of the flu in 1892. He could see something similar happening to his sons and his advice to Bertie was to master radio, because communication was the key to “the firm’s” power. But Bertie had a serious stammer rendering him to tackle the airwaves. His stuttering 1925 British Empire Exhibition speech was an embarrassment for the speaker and listener alike.

Bertie had one big supporter, wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Elizabeth was a practical and intelligent woman who married into the firm reluctantly in 1923 (unlike the current wedding, the BBC was not invited to Bertie and Elizabeth’s affair). Elizabeth saw a succession of doctors who failed to find a cure for Bertie’s problem.

She sought out Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech pathologist from Adelaide. Logue’s Irish roots and colonial lack of respect for traditions would help him deal with the prince on an equal footing, and he was the only person outside the family to call him Bertie. As much psychologist as therapist, Logue delved deep into Bertie’s childhood psychoses to diagnose the archetypes causing his stammer: the cruel nanny, the missing mother, the harsh father and the taunting brother. Though not a doctor, Logue diagnosed poor co-ordination between the larynx and thoracic diaphragm and prescribed vocal exercises lasting an hour daily. The exercises gave the Duke the confidence to avoid tension-inducing muscle spasms that caused the stammer.

Logue solved the Duke’s public speaking problem by 1927, well before the time the film would suggest. Nevertheless he was retained throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The death of George V and abdication crisis of Edward VIII in 1936 brought Bertie to the throne as George VI. Logue helped him rehearse his acceptance speech and was also instrumental in the monarch’s triumphal speech on the declaration of war in 1939 and his even more influential Christmas Message that year. George mastered the communication and became an effective figurehead of an embattled community that needed morale-boosting as Hitler came threatening.

The film gets its point over with some brilliant cinematic tricks and the interaction between Rush, Firth and Bonham Carter is compelling. Once again I was forced to care about the king’s speech because Bertie was a living breathing person with human faults. Neither film is turning me into an Australian monarchist. The idea the British queen or king should be head of the Australian state is an embarrassing anomaly of an earlier age. I was happy to take out Australian citizenship in 1994 after Keating removed the oath of allegiance to the crown.

The Royals biggest problem today is to make themselves relevant outside of their Faustian pact with the redtops. Will’s great-grandfather was able to overcome this – and his own personal demons – by being the personification of leadership to a large imagined community in abtime of great crisis. What, other than the supposedly mad Charles, are the royals doing to contribute to solving today’s crises?

Home ground advantage: commerce and e-commerce

I was at a chamber of commerce meeting tonight where the guest speakers from one of the major banks gave a macro-economic view of exchange and interest rates. The conversation about the health of the economy got round to the internet and its effect on the shopping experience. One speaker wondered at what point “home ground advantage” was lost and people did their shopping online because it was cheaper.

(photo: transcyberiano)

The tale was told of shops who charged their customers $50 just to try on the footwear. Many people were getting fitted out while getting expert advice then buying the same gear online for a fraction of the price. The owners had a right to be miffed by a time investment not matched at the till, but their defensive measure in response was also short-sighted, the speaker argued. The internet is coming whether shop owner like it or not.

A few minutes later, there was a worried question from the floor asking what this meant for commercial operations in Roma. The speaker reiterated the earlier point: it becomes a question of when home ground advantage is conceded. As another voice from the floor put it, “I like shopping”. The Internet will never fully replace the visceral appeal of commerce in real life.

Cheaper online overheads and the convenience of clicking will eat seriously into the profits of shops. People are spending a lot more time online too. A Nielsen Australian Online Computer Report released yesterday showed average internet usage has increased in 12 months from 17 hours 36 minutes in 2009 to 21 hours and 42 minutes in 2010. Usage has tripled in the last decade and with the prospect of high-speed broadband, this trend has not yet reached saturation point. Australians will sooner or later spend a full day a week online.

Much usage is watching TV programs or surfing, but shopping online is also on the increase, though not as sharply. In 2008-09, 64 per cent of Internet users (pdf) aged 15 and over made online purchases, up 3 percent on 2006-07. This behaviour is concentrated in the young, which suggests it will increase. Three-quarters of people aged 25-34 bought over the Internet while less than half aged 65 and over made online purchases.

Businesses are going to lose business to the Net whether they like it or not. Rather than resisting change by charging $50 for the right to try things on, the bricks and mortar operations need to engage with the competition. That doesn’t just mean having a website to sell their wares. They also need to maximise other home ground advantages. While issues of security and shopping in person were important factors the most commonly reported reason for not making online purchases in 2008-09 was “a lack of need”. People shop in the real world when they don’t need to do it online. Understanding how to tap into this lack of need should be a holy grail for 21st century business.

Traders cannot rely on the GST loophole argument to equalise prices. There is a threshold below which it is too costly to collect taxes on goods privately imported. Keeping retail price below the cost of imports plus delivery is unlikely so shops should look to value-added services to keep the tills ringing. Intangibles like goodwill, trust, a social media presence, an identification with their geography, and an honesty when dealing with customers may end up being decisive factors. If customers think there is a need to for online services – and they will – then they will find them. It’s up to business to find an ecological niche to avoid extinction.

(photo seen outside a closing Borders store in the US)

Insufficiently robust: Murdoch issues a mea culpa on phone hacking

There’s a joke doing the rounds. A banker, a Daily Mail reader and an income support claimant are sitting round a table. There are 12 biscuits on a plate. The banker takes 11 and tells the Daily Mail reader, “You want to be careful, that scrounger’s after your biscuit.” The Mail has got a lot of biscuits of its own, selling over two million copies a day as does its Sunday edition. Only two British papers sell more (the Sun 2.7 million and the News of the World at 2.6) and they both belong to Rupert Murdoch.

The latest sales figures show the circulation of all four papers is going down, however the News publications were experiencing a greater decline. The Sun has to try harder to reach a more diffuse audience than the Tory Mail. The last survey of readership by voting intention in 2004 showed over twice as many Tory voters than Labour read the Mail but the Sun had a 41-31 preference of Labour voters.

Murdoch’s publications can’t take a reflexive pro-Tory line without alienating its own readers. Far easier than stealing biscuits is an apolitical ration of tits, titillation and celebrity gossip. The News of the World’s attempts to get inside access to the gossip fueling their pages has ended up in the courts and a criminal investigation. There is likely to be impact to Murdoch’s pockets in a case that has already had one high-profile casualty, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spinner-in-chief Andy Coulson.

Coulson was editor of the News of the World in 2006 when police exposed its phone hacking practices. Coulson denies he knew about it, making him a liar or a fool. The only employee who has admitted guilt is former royal reporter Clive Goodman. Goodman had a reputation for scoops and held the paper’s record for the highest number of consecutive front-page leads. His thirst for inside information led him to hack private phone messages.

He hired private investigator Glenn Mulcaire to help him. Mulcaire managed to access message bank pin codes. Royal aides were confused when they found unread messages in their inbox appearing as already read. When Goodman reported unusual information about the Royals only a handful was privy to, the royal household got the counter-terrorism branch of Scotland Yard involved. Goodman and Mulcaire were arrested on 8 August and police raided newspaper offices for evidence. Goodman pleaded guilty to intercepting phone messages when he faced court in January 2007. He got four months jail. As Justice Gross said in sentencing the case was not about press freedom, “it was about a grave, inexcusable and illegal invasion of privacy.” Coulson resigned two weeks earlier. Goodman’s departure wasn’t formally announced until the 25th when Mulcaire also pleaded guilty and got six months. Police found a hit list of other celebrities in his diary; celebrities not normally covered by Goodman in his royal round, but they did little with this information.

The News of the World hid behind the ‘rotten apple’ and ‘rogue reporter’ defence. It took two years before the world learned the rot went further than Goodman. Three phone companies told The Guardian 100 of their customers’ pin codes were compromised, contradicting earlier police and News of the World claims about a “handful”. The Guardian said they included Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and PR guru Max Clifford while Coulson was aware of the tapping. By then the Tories were in power and Coulson was Cameron’s right hand man. With Labour calling for his head, blog editor Tim Montgomerie asked how many times did Andy Coulson have to resign for the affair. Twice was the answer, as he left the government job in January 2011.

The net was widening at NOTW. MPs on a culture, media and sport select committee accused News Limited executives of “collective amnesia, ignorance, lack of recall and deliberate obfuscation” and said it was inconceivable no one else knew about the hacking. Several victims took the paper to court and won substantial out of court settlements preventing discussion of the affair. Max Clifford won $1m but the list of journalists involved was not read out in the court.

In September 2010, parliamentary committee chair John Whittingdale told the New York Times Scotland Yard had no enthusiasm for the investigation. “To start exposing widespread tawdry practices in that newsroom was a heavy stone that they didn’t want to try to lift,” Whittingdale said. A former reporter told NYT the News of the World had a “do whatever it takes” mentality under Coulson and said the then editor was present during discussions about the practice.

With Coulson denying the claim under oath it has been difficult to mount a criminal prosecution. Metropolitan Police re-opened the investigation following “significant new information”. However it has been left to the aggrieved to take action in civil courts. Sky Andrews, Sienna Miller, Steve Coogan, Chris Tarrant and Andy Gray have all taken legal action against the paper.

Desperate to avoid the crime being revealed in open court, Rupert Murdoch was finally forced to take decisive action. On Thursday he apologised to eight victims and admitted the practice was rife at the News of the World. Murdoch said internal investigations into the matter were not “sufficiently robust” and has offered unreserved apologies to some victims (though it continues to fight allegations by Coogan and jockey Kieren Fallon). Murdoch is said to have offered up to a million pounds, some are expecting the bill to reach £40m. With new evidence there might have been up to 3000 people on Mulcaire’s lists, there may be a lot of people after Murdoch’s biscuits. The question becomes how high a price is Murdoch prepared to pay to avoid the court making public the reasons why their internal investigation wasn’t sufficiently robust.

EIDOS Brisbane conference: Social media in times of crisis

(Kym Charlton of QPS speaks at Eidos. photo: Fiona Muirhead)

One predicted outcome of climate change is more frequent and intense severe weather events (today’s report in The Australian predicting the opposite shows only the paper’s ideological bias.) Given the likelihood, a conference called “Social Media in Times of Crisis” in Brisbane yesterday was timely. Organised by the Eidos Institute, the conference brought together speakers from academia, media, public relations and public affairs to discuss the use of tools like Twitter and Facebook in crises, particularly in the 2010-2011 Queensland flood event.

Queensland Police Service media unit manager Kym Charlton was responsible for the delivery of a service that set the gold standard in crisis response. Charlton told the audience she set up the QPS Facebook Page in May 2010 without asking for permission.

She admits it was a risky move in a notoriously risk-averse organisation but the page grew slowly through word of mouth. Charlton eventually realised she needed high level sign-off and approached her boss Deputy Commissioner Ian Stewart (who later played a leading role in the flood response). The tech savvy Stewart agreed to trial the page for six months and by December 2010 the page had 6000 likes. Early experiments such as live-streaming the funeral of an officer who died on duty failed, but the experience gained was crucial.

On 15 December 2010, as Charlton laconically put it, “it began to rain”. Many people, myself included, signed up to the QPS Facebook feed in the days that followed as it sent out reams of useful and relevant information covering flood events across the state. On 11 January 2011, a torrent of water rushed through Toowoomba and into the Lockyer Valley below. Journalist Amanda Gearing later took the conference through a harrowing blow by blow of events in the region from her eye-witness perspective.

There was a desperate need for credible and quick information about missing family and friends. USQ’s Kelly McWilliam told the afternoon session how one person’s page Toowoomba and Darling Downs Flood Photos and Info was set up within an hour of the flood (well ahead of scanty official responses from Toowoomba Regional Council) as a repository of photos and information about the missing. It remains the most popular site with 37,000 fans.

QUT’s Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess measured Twitter use of the #qldfloods hashtag. They noted a huge spike in tweets on the day of the Lockyer floods and an even bigger one when Brisbane flooded. The ABC’s Monique Potts told the conference how they used tools such as Ushahidi to map crowdsourced incidents in the flood (and later cyclone) region.

On the day of the Toowoomba/Lockyer Valley flood, the QPS Facebook page was a crucial resource. 16,000 fans of the page became 160,000 in 24 hours as people across Queensland, Australia and the world desperately sought to get information about the disaster zone. There were 39 million views of the page that day, over 450 views a second. “Thank heavens it wasn’t our website,” Charlton said. “January 11 blew us out of the water.” The pressure remained intense to get timely and accurate news out all week as the wall of water headed towards Brisbane. Just as valuable as the information sharing were the QPS “mythbuster” posts and tweets which punctured many rumours. Then “after a week off” as Charlton put it, tropical cyclones Antony and Yasi struck the north coast pushing the QPS team into overdrive again.

It was an astonishing effort for a team with just one acknowledged social media expert in an organisation with no official social media policy. Emergency 2.0 Wiki Project Leader Eileen Culleton (a survivor of Darwin’s Cyclone Tracy in 1974 when it took days to let the world know what happened) later told the conference a social media policy was a must for all organisations with a public presence. Culleton noted how Brisbane City Council galvanised the “mud army” to help the clean-up with their use of social media.

For Charlton the QPS social media updates were simpler still; it was something they had to do to save lives. The conference’s final speaker UQ’s Mark Bahnisch put these usages in a social sciences context of “social resilience”. Disasters, said Bahnisch, expose our social structures more sharply than any other event. They unsettle us by taking us out of our normal rituals. But panic is rare, Bahnisch argues and there is a social good of new communities created out of the common bond of crisis. Social media go a long way to help creating those communities and, as the QPS found out, saving lives.