Marie Colvin family files lawsuit against Syrian government

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Marie Colvin in Homs (Photo: Paul Conroy)

The family of American journalist Marie Colvin has filed a lawsuit saying the Syrian government deliberately targeted her in the Homs bombing which killed her four years ago. Her sister Cathleen Colvin, whose children are Marie’s heirs, filed the suit through the non-profit Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA) saying Syria had rejected a “reasonable opportunity” to arbitrate the claim. The CJA says their lawsuit is the first case seeking to hold the regime of President Bashar al-Assad responsible for  crimes.

Marie Colvin, 56, died on February 22, 2012 along with award-winning French photographer Remi Ochlik when their building was hit with, according to official Syrian sources, an “improvised explosive device filled with nails”. The Syrian government claimed the bomb was planted by “terrorists” but survivors of the attack say the building was deliberately targeted by the Syrian Army. The lawsuit called Colvin one of the great war correspondents of her generation and accuses “Syrian government agents” of being responsible for her death. She had worked for the Sunday Times for 25 years covering war zones including Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Iraq-Iran, East Timor and Sri Lanka where she lost an eye in a grenade attack.

In 2012 Colvin was reporting on the Syrian revolution which had started the year before. The Syrian Army launched a massive military operation in Homs, the country’s third largest city laying siege to rebel-held suburbs. Despite a media blackout, Syrian citizen journalists used YouTube, Skype and Facebook to get the truth out to the world. Local poet and activist Khaled Abu Salah and others set up a media centre at a secret location on the ground floor of a three-storey house. There they produced video blogs and hosted foreign journalists including Colvin. The Assad regime accused Salah and the Media Centre of being “terrorist collaborators”. In early February 2012 the army had begun a scorched earth campaign against the Baba Amr suburb of Homs, where the studio was located, with civilians subject to artillery and sniper fire.

The world was starting to take note. Colvin and other journalists gathered at Beirut Airport where they were smuggled into Syria. Colvin had seen the Media Centre’s video footage and was determined to cover the siege. She travelled with British photographer Paul Conroy and Syrian translator Wael al-Omar. They decided against an official Syrian visa after French journalist Gilles Jacquier was killed in Homs in January, with other journalists believing he had been led into an ambush. Colvin, Conroy and al-Haems made it to Homs using back roads and a 3km-long tunnel.

Colvin was there for two days as the neighbourhood took heavy shelling and then returned to the border where she filed her report for the Sunday Times. A day later (February 20) they decided to return to Homs where they trapped by artillery fire. Despite her vast wartime experience, she said the situation inside Homs was the worst she had experienced. Things were about to get worse still. On February 21 Colvin made an audio satellite broadcast from the Media Centre which was picked up by CNN, BBC and Channel 4.  “There are rockets, shells, tank shells, anti-aircraft being fired in parallel lines into the city,” Colvin said. “The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.” They bunked in the back room of the house with French and Spanish journalists. The regime knew Colvin and others were coming from Lebanon and tracked their movements to the media centre. The lawsuit said a decision to attack the centre with artillery fire was taken at the highest level by the war cabinet which included Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad and was carried out by the military with help from a secret government death squad known as Shabiha (derived from the Arabic word for ghosts).

That night the Syrian Army at Homs was tipped off about the precise location of the media centre and the information was relayed back to Damascus. The information matched the location of Colvin’s intercepted broadcast signal and officials spent the rest of the night trying to work out exactly where the journalists were in the compound. The following morning Colvin was preparing to leave through the tunnels when the shriek of a rocket shook the house. Using a method called “bracketing” they launched rockets on either side of the compound, drawing closer with each round. Panicking people inside the centre decided to evacuate. As Colvin and Ochlik rushed to the front foyer a rocket slammed into the ground directly outside, killing them both. Conroy, al-Omar and French journalist Edith Bouvier were severely injured by the shrapnel and debris.

As survivors left the building they were spotted by aerial surveillance. The artillery switched target from the building to the nearby streets aimed at survivors and emergency responders. There were no armed rebels anywhere in the vicinity. After the attack Syrian intelligence gathered at Army offices where they were congratulated on the news Colvin and Ochlik were dead. The others escaped through the tunnel, including Edith Bouvier with a broken leg. Conroy called the situation in Homs “systematic slaughter”. Few believed the Syrian story of terrorists and Colvin’s family began the painstaking search for evidence. It eventually led to this week’s suit which states categorically “with premeditation, Syrian officials deliberately killed Marie Colvin by launching a targeted rocket attack”. Whether anyone will ever be brought to justice in a war that has killed almost half a million others, remains a moot point.

Forget News Corp, remember the truth of Indigenous history

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Aborigines cooking and eating beached whales, Newcastle, NSW c1817 (Joseph Lycett). NLA

The troglodytes that make news placement decisions at News Corp tabloids accidentally stumbled on a good thing this week: they opened up an honest discourse on Australian history. That certainly wasn’t the intention when the Daily Telegraph and others decided on Wednesday it was time to party like it was 1999 and re-open the culture wars. As Waleed Aly said the Tele’s front page was a longstanding part of the lies Australia tells itself about its history.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the grubby paper (later humorously renamed the Tele Nullius) and its story. The Whitewash headline, picture of Captain James Cook and its contention that the University of New South Wales rewrites the history books to state Cook “invaded” Australia has been widely deconstructed and destroyed elsewhere. The story featured quotes from a right-wing historian, a right-wing lobby group and a right-wing politician. Needless Indigenous people were not represented. It was simply foolish fodder which the paper believes reflects its audience’s view.

There was a similar if more half-hearted effort I saw in the Courier-Mail aimed at Queensland universities and I would imagine the other capital city tabloids also joined in the dog-whistle exposing “political correctness gone mad.” But once the usual suspects of shock jocks, right-wing columnists and radio has-beens finished fulminating at “liberal” universities imposing their dogma, the story brought up many lively considered responses – including Aly’s, which accepted the obvious conclusion that Australia was, indeed, invaded. Even politicians stood up to the nonsense, for once. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal Australians was part of our history. “It must be taught and appreciated by all Australians,” she said.

Ignorance of that knowledge might have been acceptable 50 years ago when the Indigenous experience was still written out of Australian history. For almost a century, the established story had been of a peaceful settlement of an empty continent. The original settler stories were bowdlerised of all their resistance, violence and guns leaving heroic settlers whose only enemy was the land itself which they “tamed”. Anthropologist Bill Stanner was among the first to question this narrative in his 1968 Boyer Lectures where he questioned the Great Australian Silence about its Indigenous history. It was a structural matter, according to Stanner. “A view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape,” he said. “What may have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.”

His talk was backed up by a sociologist, Charles Rowley, whose trilogy The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (1970), Outcasts in White Australia (1971) and The Remote Aborigines (1971) was a game changer in a presenting a new view of Aboriginal Australia. Historians were stung into action, led by Henry Reynolds who delved into the Queensland records and looked at first hand testimony in books and newspapers to show how the colony with the largest Indigenous population was invaded and eventually taken over, thanks to a political squatter class who directly benefitted from the takeover with the help of a native police force. Lyndell Ryan did a similar job for Tasmania, as did Heather Goodall in NSW, and gradually a picture built up across Australia of a land violently taken over.

Yet this picture was slow to infiltrate the mainstream and when it did it was fiercely resisted. The cult of forgetfulness was strong. A cosy image of a settler society was comforting and this new history was too confronting. Because it had been outside the official history for so long, many suspected this new narrative and questioned the motivations of the historians. In 1996 new Prime Minister John Howard tapped into those feelings saying (white) Australians deserved to feel “relaxed and comfortable” about their history. But the only way they could do that was to attack the new history (ignoring it was no longer an option). Howard was enthusiastically supported in this culture war by the stormtroopers in the Murdoch empire and for the next decade there was an exhausting and unsatisfying battle of tit-for-tat. But the effect was tangible as the new history was pushed to the sidelines with a preference on glorifying white military history at Gallipoli and elsewhere.

Just as in the “climate science wars” which followed a similar trajectory, few professional historians disputed the new narrative. The main one was the curmudgeonly Keith Windschuttle – the only historian News Corp bothered to contact in this week’s kerfuffle. The title of Windschuttle’s book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History said more about his research than the historians of Tasmanian history he was attempting to debunk. His counter-history of a land of little violence was soundly and rigorously rebuffed many times.

The political history wars gradually disappeared with the exit of Howard in 2007. Kevin Rudd was no Keating and his famous 2008 apology steered clear of an outright admission of invasion and war. But he gave no momentum to the culture war. Even with the return of Tony Abbott in 2013 it never re-gained traction. Abbott had a muddled view of history, his love of British culture occasionally getting him in trouble when it clashed with his obvious interest and empathy in Indigenous affairs. But politically it has not been an issue. Quietly in the background, historians go on with their research gathering overwhelming evidence. The university guidelines so derided by the Murdoch papers are merely an attempt to bring the language up to date. Murdoch will be dead sometime in the next 20 years and the influence of his rags will die with him. But the story of Indigenous Australia is only getting stronger. Like a stone in a shoe it will continue to nag Australia until it deals with the problem as an adult nation: with a foundation treaty between the federal government and its Indigenous people acknowledging 130 years of invasion and war, and another century of dealing with its painful aftermath.

Dial M for Murdoch

imageThe book Dial M For Murdoch by British politician Tom Watson and journalist Martin Hickman is a frightening read. It is frightening not only because it described a state of affairs where politicians, media and police colluded to hide criminal activity but because the crimes it describes have been almost completely forgotten and the criminals still act as if nothing has changed and they are still in charge.

As the authors say in the introduction, the book describes how a global news company exerted a poisonous and secretive influence on British public life and when exposed, it used its power to bully, intimidate and cover up with help from its allies at the highest levels of politics and the police. Yet the authors’ hope the scandal would force the perpetrators to clean up their act hasn’t eventuated. While the scandal ended with public inquiries, the humbling of Rupert Murdoch and the death of the News of the World (NotW), it hasn’t fundamentally changed the government or Murdoch’s behaviour nor has it chastened the rest of the tabloid pack in Britain who remain a mostly unaccountable right-wing rabble.

Tom Watson is a Labour Party MP who attracted the ire of Murdoch’s empire. His mistake was to plot against Murdoch favourite Tony Blair, an action that earned him the lasting enmity of Rupert’s powerful attack dog Rebekah Wade, who rose from a secretary to editor of the NotW in a decade. The Sun called him a “treacherous lump of lard” and a “mad dog trained to maul”. The NotW went further and raided his message bank as they did with many others.

It was the fierce level of competition Murdoch inspired that encouraged this behaviour, even pitting their own reporters against each other for the perfect tabloid scoop. The NotW had deep links into the police with Wade even admitting to a 2004 parliamentary inquiry they routinely bribed the force. But it was a successful model with the Murdoch tabloids making money and the NotW having a reputation as a muckraking award winning bastion of investigative journalism.

But its methods were vile. Some like chequebook journalism were well known, others like “blagging” confidential records or paying corrupt officials for private data were less well understood and there was no appetite to expose it by police forces anxious to have cordial relations with Fleet St. It took the involvement of the royal family to start the unravelling.

In 2005 Prince Charles’ staffers were alarmed when they saw very detailed gossip about his sons appear in NotW. They came to the conclusion the tabloid could only have got their information from phone hacking. They contacted Scotland Yard who began Operation Caryatid. The Royal revelations were appearing in NotW column Blackadder written by Royal editor Clive Goodman. Scotland Yard compared Goodman’s columns against the phone numbers they knew were being hacked and built a case against him. At the same time senior police officers were wining and dining with then NotW editor Andy Coulson.

Operation Caryatid made a breakthrough when O2 told them about a blagger wanting to change royal phone codes. He was private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who Goodman kept on a weekly retainer to hack voicemails on an industrial scale – not just the royals. Yet police made the decision to restrict the case to “less sensitive” witnesses. In 2006 Goodman and Mulcaire were arrested with no effort made to widen the inquiry to other journalists despite circumstantial evidence. Instead police gave Wade a full briefing on what they found because she was mentioned in Mulcaire’s files. Unsurprisingly Wade did not wish to make a complaint against her employers. They didn’t tell the many victims named in Mulcaire’s files and neither did the phone companies (except O2) for many years.

In 2007 Goodman was jailed for four months and Mulcaire got six for illegal invasion of privacy. NotW editor Coulson had to stand down in the scandal but the paper hid behind the “bad apple” defence. Goodman was sacked but was furious as he believed he was just a scapegoat and threatened to appeal publicly. Mulcaire admitted in court hacking football union leader Gordon Taylor and now Taylor was threatening to sue. His lawyers had gained police evidence including a Mulcaire email “for Neville” believed to be for NotW journalist Neville Thurlbeck.

Yet Murdoch had bigger fish to fry setting his sights on Dow Jones Wall St Journal and British pay TV and throwing his support behind the Tories under sympathetic new leader David Cameron – and his new press secretary Andy Coulson, formerly of NotW. Taylor was paid off for almost half a million pounds, a record, on condition of silence.

In 2008. Guardian journalist Nick Davies became aware of the scale of the illegality at News through a police contact. He scoured NotW for stories that might have used intercepts as a source.  In 2009 he broke his story saying Murdoch had paid a million pounds to settle legal cases like Taylor’s that threatened to reveal evidence of criminality. He had found the For Neville email and quoted a police source saying thousands of phones were hacked. Labour was outraged saying Cameron should sack Coulson but police refused to reopen the case. Murdoch himself denied it, saying if they had paid out Taylor he would have known about it. The Times counterattacked rebutting the Guardian allegations and calling Davies dysfunctional. News lawyers admitted to Watson at a parliamentary inquiry James Murdoch had approved the Taylor payout.

But at the end of 2008 the Press Complaints Commission exonerated NotW saying no new evidence had emerged. The Guardian’s stories had not lived up to their “dramatic billing” the PCC decided. Scotland Yard urged the paper to drop its hostile coverage as “over-egged”. But the Guardian persisted and discovered Mulcaire had accessed the inbox of 100 customers of Orange, O2 and Vodaphone. They were supported by Watson’s parliamentary culture committee which accused News of hindering their inquiries. NotW accused Watson of shamefully hijacking the committee.

After the May 2010 election Cameron became PM and Coulson his press secretary despite Coalition partner LibDem reservations. Just as he did in the Blair years, Murdoch had a private audience in Downing St with a plan to take sole ownership of BSkyB. But the storm clouds were gathering. People who appeared in Mulcaire’s files like Sienna Miller and Steve Coogan began legal action though could not prove they were hacked. The Guardian shared their files with the New York Times which quoted a disgruntled News journalist saying Coulson knew of the hacking which spread well beyond one reporter. News claimed the Times was carrying out a vendetta because of its rivalry with their Wall St Journal. Coulson “emphatically” denied wrongdoing.

Watson raised the matter in parliament, especially on the news Scotland Yard had deliberately ended the investigation despite extensive evidence. Watson was warned by News they would target him if he didn’t back off but with media refusing to publish his allegations he put them on the blog Labour Uncut. When LibDem minister Vince Cable threatened to refer the News takeover of BSkyB he was undone by a sting from undercover Telegraph reporters and resigned. New Tory minister Jeremy Hunt was more compliant to Murdoch.

Four years after the arrest of Goodman, Met Police finally interviewed his boss Andy Coulson. They announced there was no new evidence but didnt reveal the key evidence they had all along. Miller took her case to court revealing News editor Ian Edmondson knew of the hacking and he was immediately suspended by his employers. Coulson resigned in January 2011 despite claiming he had been punished twice. The Met launched a new inquiry into hacking. A senior Met officer admitted to Watson they never looked at all the Mulcaire files. With evidence growing, the BBC finally started to take an interest. Yet Hunt continued to back the BSkyB bid despite growing reservations.

News set aside 20m quid for payouts to settle with a growing list of victims as they tried to pick off civil claimants before their day in court. The pressure was building on what Rebekah Brooks knew, despite her closeness to Murdoch. But the tables turned on July 4, 2011 when Davies revealed a new hacking victim: murdered school girl Milly Dowler. Davies overreached by claiming NotW deleted messages from her phone to make room for others, giving false hope to her parents she was alive. But the impact was devastating and News had to admit it was a “great concern”. Social media went berserk and even the PCC admitted it was misled. Advertisers threatened to leave NotW and News’ share price plummeted.

With news emerging of Murdoch papers’ corruption of police, the noose tightened. On July 7 NotW called an all staff meeting which read out a James Murdoch email admitting they had misled parliament. At the end was a bombshell: the paper would close down after that weekend. Coulson was arrested and it was open season on Murdoch in parliament. With BSkyB shares in freefall Murdoch finally got the message and withdrew his offer. A week later Wade resigned and Rupert and James were summoned to give evidence to the Culture Committee.

Murdoch’s memorable phrase was about his most humble day of his life but his evidence was accurately satirised by Private Eye as “we are sorry we have been caught”.  His feeble defence was they had only recently found out the problem and would only admit they had been “lax”. By then Wade had been arrested and the Met Police chief was forced to resign. Wade also fronted parliament but claimed she couldn’t remember authorising payments for hacking. Cameron claimed not to have discussed BSkyB with Murdoch, but Labour couldn’t press too hard. After all, they had been in bed with the Dirty Digger too in the Blair years.

At the end of that summer News announced profits of $982m mainly from television and Murdoch was awarded a $12.5m bonus. As they hived off their troublesome newspaper business, it was back to business as usual, the Murdochs holding on to power against rebellious shareholders thanks to their powerful voting shares. While the PM distanced himself, his education minister Michael Gove still had stars in his eyes. “Murdoch is a force of nature and a phenomenon,” he said. “I think he is a great man.” The Sun on Sunday would soon fill the NotW gap and while the Leveson Inquiry brought many embarrassing revelations, they were soon forgotten in the relentless 24 hour news cycle. It did not take long for Murdoch papers to resume their role as kingmakers. As Watson ruefully concluded, the empire stood shaken and ostensibly apologetic for a while,  but it is still there and Rupert Murdoch is still in charge. British – and Australian – media remain in his thrall.

Media person of the year 2015: Clementine Ford

clem fordWoolly Day’s 2015 media person of the year is Australian writer Clementine Ford. Ford is an experienced columnist who has written about identity politics and feminist issues for many years at Fairfax, Murdoch and elsewhere. However this year she has gained wide attention for her uncompromising stance in publicly outing misogynist behaviour, bravery attracting praise and hatred in almost equal measure. The title of her forthcoming book Fight Like A Girl speaks to her battling qualities and an entry in her companion blog, describes why many men are so intimidated by Ford’s actions. “Women can’t go around pointing out sexism and RUINING SEXIST MEN’S LIVES with it,” she wrote.

Some makers of sexist remarks have lost their jobs after Ford called out their behaviour. Ford has also done a superb job calling out institutional sexism in the media, often to withering effect making many enemies. How she has dealt with them has made her an inspirational figure in the fight for women’s equality in public and private life.

Clementine Ford has long been a forthright media defender of women’s rights in Australia, never afraid to back it up with the honesty of her own experience. When almost 10 years ago, Tony Abbott pushed an anti-abortion pregnancy hotline as Health Minister in the Howard administration, Ford attracted condemnation and praise for her revelation that she had undergone two abortions without shame. Her only feeling was one of “intense relief”.

In 2013 Ford told her story to Mamamia as a “lifetime struggle to accept her body.” She said her body had endured 18 years of “punishing self-hatred.” Ford identified her struggle as dysmorphia. “Society drowns women in an ocean of narcissistic self-loathing, until eventually the only thing they can see is themselves and how incomplete they are, and they’re oblivious to the thousands of other bodies being sucked under the waves around them,” she said.

Ford’s solution was to articulate the problems her female body posed, in a way that was eloquent, honest, political, and fiercely critical of cant. As her media profile grew, so did the critics. In 2014, right-wing Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Blair included Ford alongside Marieke Hardy, Catherine Deveny, Vanessa Badham, Margo Kingston and others in his poll to find “Australia’s craziest left-wing frightbat”. “Frightbat” was Blair’s own invention and these were the women, he said, “whose psychosocial behavioural disorders are becoming ever more dramatic following Tony Abbott’s election.” Instead of being outraged Ford took the challenge head on, pleading with people to vote for her. In the end she attracted 5438 votes narrowly losing out the “frightbat” title to Badham by six votes.

Despite the humour, Ford, Badham and the others were all too aware of the institutional sexism that dominates Australia’s public life, especially in the media. Sydney shock jock Alan Jones spoke of how women were “destroying the joint” while Kerry-Anne Walsh’s book The Stalking of Julia Gillard was a forensic examination about the media’s merciless role in the downfall of Australia’s first female prime minister. Yet the “frightbat” and the “destroying the joint” campaigns also showed how feminists were using the language of their enemies to win their battles. Ford in particular fought hard against the practice of victim blaming, the archetype of the woman who invites rape by dressing too sexily.

In June 2015 Ford entered the limelight over a stand against a now deleted Channel Seven Facebook post. Seven were talking about an American revenge porn website which had posted illegally obtained naked photos of 400 South Australian women. However instead of attacking the website for its behaviour, Channel Seven blamed the women. “What’s it going to take for women to get the message about taking and sending nude photos?” they posted. A furious Ford saw this as making it the responsibility of women to stop others from exploiting them. She posted a nude photo of herself on her public Facebook profile. The photo showed text on her chest that read “Hey #Sunrise, get fucked”. Her reasons were twofold. “I wanted to oppose the message of victim blaming that forms so much of our social narratives about crimes against women’s bodies,” she said. “But secondly, I wanted to show solidarity to every woman who has been made to feel afraid or ashamed for engaging in a form of intimacy that should be bound by trust and respect but instead was marked by betrayal.”

The photo went viral. It was shared 45,000 times and liked by over 200,000 people. It also attracted thousands of comments, many supportive but many others rude and misogynistic. She shared screen grabs of some of the viler private messages she’d received which included requests for nude photos, explicit photographs of naked men, and many insults. Facebook banned Ford from accessing her account for 30 days because her messages violated their community standards. Ford launched a community protest and the ban was rescinded. “No one should be punished for speaking out against abuse, especially not the kind of cowardly abuse sent under the banner of ‘private correspondence’,” she said. “Private correspondence is a conversation mutually entered into by more than one party and defined by respect and sometimes discretion. It is not someone sending you unsolicited emails calling you a filthy whore.”

In August, Ford drew fire again from the Murdoch Empire. This time it was page one criticism in The Australian from Sherri Markson. Markson complained that a “foul” Ford freely used profanities in her Twitter stream but celebrated Mark Latham’s sacking as a Fairfax columnist over his misogynistic comments. Markson also noted Ford had attacked The Australian’s columnists Rita Panahi and Miranda Devine. Markson sought comment from Ford’s employers Fairfax, who declined to say if she had breached their social media policy. The coded message was News Ltd was watching what Ford was saying and if she does slip up she could lose her job. Mike Carlton (sacked by Fairfax after News called out offending comments he made on Twitter) said it was part of a News Corp campaign to shut down dissenting views and journalists should not have a responsibility to act with professional objectivity on Twitter.

If it was a warning to Ford, she ignored it. In November she launched a stinging attack on the hypocrisy of White Ribbon Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. While Ford applauded how the day brought better dialogue around the impacts of men’s violence, she said not enough people called out the links between violence and casual misogyny. Ford castigated the campaign as a way “of reassuring every man listening that this isn’t really about him and therefore he doesn’t really have to do anything about it.”

Once again her post attracted the ire and abuse of many men. As she did after the Sunrise affair, Ford shamed her sexual harassers by screenshotting messages of abuse, unsolicited dickpics and requests for nude photos, and then publishing them. When one abuser lost his job over it, the vitriol against Ford increased but so did her support. Fellow “frightbat” Badham said the man deserved it. “The belittling and bullying, threats and harassment, cyberstalking and outright hate speech directed to women on the internet every day is real-world behaviour with real-world consequence and it should oblige real-world punishments,” Badham said.

The chatter around Ford hit her US namesake, the actress Clementine Ford who had received some of the abuse intended for the Australian.  The American Ford reached across the Pacific in support. “I have the pleasure of sharing a name with a strong brave journalist who pissed of (sic) some mysognists,” she tweeted. When the Australian Ford apologised to her for being caught in the crossfire, the American told her not to be sorry. “Fuck them,” she responded, “I’m proud to be mistaken for you.”

By the end of the year Ford was a major figure in the world of feminism and not to be messed with easily. It was probably not the right time for independent left-wing publication New Matilda to get its hands dirty publishing a piece by a naive young man critical of Ford’s methods. Jack Kilbride defended Ford as “courageous” but said her strategy of outing sexist offenders may be doing more harm than good. When that post was attacked as risible, New Matilda editor Chris Graham (who has many runs on the board for attacking racism) openly admitted it was a test in the interest of seeing “how much abuse he (Kilbride) cops”.

Graham found out Ford’s supporters did not enjoy being trolled in the name of a subscriptions drive. Her support is massive because her readers respond to her unflinching honesty and bravery under massive provocation. For all of these reasons Ford is a deserving winner of my media person of the year. I have given this award since 2009 and Ford would not be impressed – though not surprised – to find she is my first female winner, which says more about my male-dominated media interests than the work of outstanding women in the field. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya would have won in 2006, the year of her assassination, had I done it then. Of those who have won it, three were fighting the Murdoch Empire (two with the Guardian, and one a judge), two (Assange and Snowden) were fighting for freedom of information (and are still in legal limbo) and last year’s winners the Al Jazeera journalists Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed – all jailed on trumped up charges when doing their job – were the good news story of 2015 when Egypt finally released them without charges.

My first award in 2009 went to ABC managing director Mark Scott for his defence of strong public broadcasting and it is fitting that as he stands down this year, Michelle Guthrie becomes the first woman to head the organisation. Depending on how she tackles her job, she will be one of main candidates for my award next year. In the meantime, happy new year and congratulations to Clementine Ford.

Woolly Days media person of the year

2009: Mark Scott

2010: Julian Assange

2011: Alan Rusbridger and Nick Davies

2012: Brian Leveson

2013: Edward Snowden

2014: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. 

2015: Clementine Ford

How stoner sloths may help legalise marijuana

stoner slothThe Australian state of New South Wales may have done the drug debate an unlikely favour through its hilariously bad new ads warning of the dangers of marijuana. NSW Health Department’s updated version of Reefer Madness is a campaign called Stoner Sloth designed to warn teenagers about the de-energising effect of the drug. But the anthropomorphic sloths used in the ads have attracted ridicule and concerns the cuddly looking mammal will actually have the opposite effect, attracting more people to use the drug.

NSW Health’s campaign was launched with the support of St Vincent de Paul’s Alcohol Drug Information Service. The premise is that “you are worse on weed”, based on research done by the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre. The idea has some intrinsic merit. Cannabis is a depressant drug, which means it slows down messages travelling between brain and body. However the health aspect of the ads are drowned by embarrassingly bad delivery.

Complete with its own hashtag, #stonersloth sets out to talk to the young about the effects of marijuana in language (and gifs) the department hoped the young would understand. Hit the books not the bong at exams, the campaign lectures (sound advice before exam time, though unlikely to be listened to AFTER the exam). It also warns about marijuana turning you into “that guy” at a party who is moody, listless and uninvolved (presumably unlike all the drunks who are the life of the party).

While slow reactions and a tendency to disengage can be symptoms of marijuana usage, the ads run into trouble transforming the stoner into an actual sloth, surrounded by human friends and family. Sloths are South American tree-dwelling mammals related to anteaters. Because they mostly eat nutrient-poor leaves, three-quarters of their body weight is devoted to their stomachs, so there is little energy to do much else. Their resulting lack of speed makes them ideal hosts for moths, beetles, cockroaches, fungi and other microbiotic creatures. Their low metabolic rates has made them extraordinary successful lifeforms in tropical rainforests. In short they are very little like the three young people named Deliha, Jason and Dave, the stoner sloths of the ads who can’t communicate with family and friends or concentrate on exams.

The campaign was designed to be shareable, especially among teenagers and it certainly made waves if not for the reasons the makers hoped. The hashtag #stonersloth became a hotbed of ridicule with people complaining about the stupidity of the ads, the cuddliness of sloths, and the apparent lack of consultation with young people.

Even NSW Premier Mike Baird appeared to distance himself from the campaign.He used his mastery of Twitter to riff about “Chewbacca siblings” and “no sloths being harmed in the making of the video”. Baird’s offhand humour is engaging but his comment that the video was “Quite something” is less than ringing endorsement of the message of his own health department and showed he didn’t see it before it was released.

The NCPIC whose message NSW Health relied on had not seen it either and are furious their message is attached to it. “NCPIC was not consulted on any of the creative elements of this campaign,” NCPIC director Professor Jan Copeland said. While some were worried about the silliness of the campaign Professor Copeland was more worried about the impression of the character of the sloth. “Associating a sloth with people being intoxicated may convey a positive appeal to people being intoxicated rather than the intended negative message,” she said.

The debate so far makes no mention of the elephant in the room: Cannabis remains an illegal drug to use, possess, grow or sell in Australia (despite moves towards legalising medical marijuana). The Northern Territory, the ACT and South Australia have “decriminalised” some marijuana offences, which means possession of small amounts becomes a revenue raiser for the state with minor fines applicable (arguably a tax on use, though unfairly distributed). In the other states, cannabis possession can lead to a criminal record (depending on the good will of prosecuting police) as well as larger fines, with repeat offenders still sentenced to jail.

In NSW, the home of #stonersloth, police can issue a “caution” to offenders caught with up to 15 grams of cannabis. There is a maximum of two cautions for each individual and police give out information about the harms associated with cannabis use and a number to call for drug-related information or referral.

These laws reflect a growing community belief marijuana usage is at worst a “victimless crime” and its widespread usage is causing unnecessary criminality. Studies show 34.8% of Australians 14 years and over have used cannabis at least once and 10.2% have used it in the last 12 months. Longer term effects of excessive use of cannabis can include memory loss, learning difficulties, mood swings and reduced sex drive. These are genuine health issues (the jury is still out on whether it causes schizophrenia) but hardly enough evidence to keep it illegal, especially when the damage done by legal drugs alcohol and tobacco is so well documented.

Stoner Sloth is a ill-designed schemozzle but its makers should be congratulated for at least putting marijuana back in the centre of public debate, however unwittingly. The road to legalisation is neither straight nor simple and requires new safeguards, taxing powers and managing community expectations. It is a complex debate our politicians don’t want to have, for fear of offending conservative media always keen to whip up outrage based on simplistic binaries of good and evil. No politician wants to be seen as soft in the “war on drugs” and the easy option is to support prohibition.

Yet support for legalisation in the wider community is growing. In Australia it rose from 26.8% in 2004 to 31.8% in 2014. The medical marijuana debate – legislation supported by Mike Baird among others – is casting a whole new light on the drug. As well as Stoner Sloth, NSW Health is also investing $9 million in clinical trials of marijuana use in pain relief. In the end it will Be Australia’s rapidly aging population and sufferers of cancer, Alzheimers, Parkinson’s Disease and more that will convince lawmakers to act. Stoner sloths are a stereotype, and just one tiny piece of a complex puzzle. It is up to the community to insist our leaders understand and solve that puzzle. Marijuana needs to come out of the shadows and be part of a wider health debate.

Islamism and the West: A new reign of terror

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A ripped picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hangs in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa following the fall of the city to the Islamic State on March 5, 2013. Raqqa is now the capital city of IS. (Photo credit MOHAMMAD AL-HUSSEIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The sight of Brussels in continual “lockdown” is a sobering glimpse of the future. The tenuous contract between freedom and equality is on a slippery slope equality’s way and we are all becoming equally enslaved. The cause of the imbalance is Islamism, the largest threat to “western” (a word that has no geographical meaning as modern Chinese and Indian people aspire to be the “West” as much as Americans and Europeans) civilisation and dealing with it will become the thorniest global issue over the coming decades if not centuries. I don’t know why we are so surprised at this as 9/11 showed in horrific live global pictures the extent Islamists are prepared to go. It is war, where we like it or not, and whether we recognise or not who the “enemy” is.

It is also a problem that is not going away anytime soon, regardless of how well the West “copes” . While random easy target attacks with guns and bombs are not as as wicked an economic problem as the effects of climate change with its catastrophic results to the planet, the outcomes posited by Islamism are a more potent and direct threat to centuries of science and innovation. The notion that climate change is a fraud is easier to defeat as the weight of scientific evidence becomes insurmountable in the 21st century. But even supporting science or calling our times the heuristic “21st century” is inimical to Islamic terrorists.

Terror is an overworked word but is accurate to describe the sense of fear crucial to the work of terrorists. The notion is not exclusive to Islamists and is as old as human society. The power of ancient Rome was enforced by terrorism of its own people while the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror enshrined violence as a political right. State terrorism was a core tactic in both world wars, especially the second as en essential element of the Total War mentality leaders saw as necessary for victory.

In the late 20th century, terrorism became associated with non-state actors in asymmetric battles against the power of the state. Growing up in the political complexities of Ireland it was easy to see how one person’s freedom fighter was another person’s terrorist. But central to the strategy of all of these groups was that soft undefended targets were legitimate within the confines of their “wars”. In particular tourism and tourists became targets, both as a easy mark and also as symbols of the mass consumption that defined western society.

Islamists have taken this strategy to the next level in their battles against the West. The idea that tourism becomes unsafe and therefore untenable is a central concept in their war. You are a legitimate target whether you are in a hotel in Bamako, a beach in Tunisia, a rock concert in Paris, a pub in Bali or a plane over Sinai. The activities that mark out daily routines are slowly denormalised and with them, the assumptions that drive life in the West.

Terrorist actions are inescapably political, a fact the West prefers not to understand. Neither side in the traditional left-right divide of western politics understands how to deal with the problems posed by asymmetric warfare. The right is quicker to see Islamism’s threat but its simplistic solution of keeping Islam out and “closing the borders” belongs to less mobile times. The West is post-Christian and imposing a religious solution on secular societies has no chance of success. The borders are a hangover from the 19th project of nationalism and nationalism has few answers to global jihad.

The  other side practices its own stupidities. So determined is the liberal-left to prevent the effects of divide and conquer promoted by the right, it is blind to the causes of Islamism preferring not even to speak of the religious dimension that drives its actions. Their reluctance is understandable, not wanting to drive an artificial wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims. But ignoring causation will never address the problem. The fact IS supporters practise their religion in a way that horrifies most liberals does not make it any less Islamic. When a British Muslim intellectual states it is lazy and wrong to say Islamism has nothing to do with Islam, she is castigated by non-Muslims as a Zionist in disguise. But as she argues, “the repugnant creed of the Islamic State is certainly related to Islam – but it is also inimical to Islam”.

It is not just Islamic State that is the problem, though they have succeeded in their avowed long-term media strategy. Jihadis view themselves as warriors against western imperialism and across the world Islamist groups invoke Allah to drive murderous projects. Boko Haram in Nigeria is even more bloodthirsty than IS, and the aim of their project is reflected in their name which means “western education is forbidden”.  It mounted 453 attacks in 2014, killing 6644 people – “the most deadly terrorist group in the world”.

There are others in similar guise across the Muslim world: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb  (ALIQ) in northern Africa, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQIP) in Yemen, Al Shabaab in Somalia , Islamic State, Al Qaeda and their proxies in the Middle East, Taliban armies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Lashkar e Toiba in Pakistan and India, Jemaah Islamiya in Indonesia and Abu Sayyef in Philippines. They have a ready stream of adherents and are well-funded and well organised often by supposed “allies” of Western nations. The Salafist and Wahhabist strains of Islam, as practiced by some Gulf nations, Saudi Arabia in particular, are utterly intolerant and want only a world in their image. They can only be defeated by the populations in which they live.

There are no easy answers for the West. Media castigation of Muslims in their midst sells papers but is counter-productive. Military intervention is catastrophic and must be avoided. Even a peacekeeping mission has the potential to be badly misunderstood. Democracy has not taken root in Muslim countries and authoritarian regimes – backed by western nations for their own cynical purposes – have hollowed out civil societies. Jihadism with its easy illusion of divine sanction has filled the void, with a simplistic message often compelling to those disenfranchised in the west as it is to Muslims.

Islamic State must be allowed to be seen for what is it: A cruel, despotic and capricious regime that gives its elite a lucrative regime from smuggling oil, drugs and other contraband aroind their black economies. Those that live under IS and other intolerant Islamist regimes need time to find out the dictum that democracy is the worst possible way of organising the world – apart from all the others. Whether the people under Islamist flags ever get to see that, depends on the politics of the West: the right avoiding weapons and bigotry and the left not avoiding reason and rationality. We are a long way from both and the war goes on. IS and their ilk have much room to grow before they being destroyed by their own absurdities.

The Australian’s laughable war on Twitter

frayIt may be 2015 but Australia’s only national newspaper The Australian remains stuck in the 20th century, raging against the dying of the light. This weekend the ever-pompous broadsheet reached into its grab-bag of perceived enemies and pulled out the one marked “Twitter”. For hundreds of millions of users worldwide, Twitter is a great communications tool that companies, organisations and individuals use to market themselves and find out what is happening in their chosen field. For The Australian, it’s more personal. As its banner headline reads Twitter is “debasing quality journalism”.

No doubt the Oz has themselves in mind when they talk about “quality journalism” and there remains many talented journalists in their ranks. Unfortunately their work is skewed by editorial decisions tied to owner Rupert Murdoch’s increasingly unhinged world view. Was Murdoch debasing quality journalism with his tweetstorm last week, based on his observations after returning to Australia last month? Murdoch called the country “ungovernable” thanks to “extreme greenies”, “corrupt violent unions” and “deadly drugs”. The solution to this odious cocktail according to Murdoch? More of the same – another Abbott government.

The Australian is a faithful servant of His Master’s Voice ranting against environmentalism, unionism, drugs and more. It has long defended its position as the sacred arbiter of the news and its opinion pages are clogged with political analysts mostly to the right of Genghis Khan. The newspaper has been particularly dismissive of “pyjama-clad bloggers” and “under-employed academics” who dare venture into its chosen field with alternative views. Twitter, with its easy facility to talk back to power, has long been a target. But would @rupertmurdoch (now 1500 tweets old and counting, with 608,000 followers) appreciate a full page of this weekend’s Inquirer section devoted to exposing the evils of the 140-character communications mechanism?

The lead story on the page from reporter John Lyons (a talented journalist who seems reluctantly roped into this auto da fé) was about the Border Force debacle in Melbourne last week. The headline “The news, brought to you unedited” is dripping in irony at a company that sacked most of its sub-editors in 2013.

Yet the sub-headline continued to push the house message: “The idea of checking facts and verifying sources is alien to Twitter”.  It is a statement that makes as much sense as saying “the idea of checking facts and verifying sources is alien to paper”. Twitter is a tool used by hundreds of millions of people, with hundreds of millions different reasons. “Twitter” (even in the narrow News Ltd sense as “the people that use Twitter politically”) is made up mostly of individuals, not news organisations and they are not bound by the institutional, and increasingly fraught “rules of journalism”.

Despite calling it a Twitter war, Lyons initially plays a straight bat on the #borderfarce story acknowledging the effect Twitter has on the news cycle. But then it gets judgmental. There is a ritual attack on Fairfax before decrying the lack of filters in Twitter with people “re-tweeting” (his quotation marks, it’s obviously not a real word yet) information that often was wrong. That’s true, but no different to newspapers, and with far less influence. Traditional media says Lyons, “usually” (my quotation marks, it’s getting less and less usual) has several pairs of eyes looking at articles before publication.

The problem says Lyons is that (political) Twitter is skewed towards “the young and the left”, constituencies the Australian has well-nigh abandoned. Lyons quotes social media expert Axel Bruns who denies that simplistic skew saying Twitter was used by all sorts of constituencies for all sorts of reasons. That’s true. I was at an AgForce forum in Roma last week where farmers (hardly young and left) were encouraged to get their personal brand out on Twitter. Lyons attempts to be even handed but the headlines and fact-box “A Friday Afternoon Twitterstorm” push the house line that “Twitter” cannot be trusted.

This point is emphasised in the second story on the page, “When the Twitter tail wags the dog” by deputy editor Peter Fray. Once again, the frame is set by the sub-headline: “Some newsrooms are allowing social media to dictate what constitutes a news story”.  In this context “some newsrooms” is code for the enemies Fairfax and the ABC and Fray mentions them both in the context of the Australian Border Force story. Fray’s lament is not the stupidity or dangers of paramilitary government bodies but that Dutton’s jihadists (Fairfax and the ABC) prefer the “siren song” of social media over “sober tones of fact-checking, empirical evidence, objectivity and plain common sense.” The plea for common sense is a sure signal this is a right-wing rant and Fray does not explain why social media and journalistic practice has to be either/or and not both.

Fray (who tweets @peterfray) has three “truisms” to share about Twitter. It is fast not deep, it is dominated by “media types” and it is both a blessing and a curse for time-poor journalists. I would take issue with all three. To say it is not deep takes no account of hyperlinks; its supposed domination by media takes no account of celebrities or the millions of other non-media users; and it is only a curse to those that allow themselves to be ruled by it. Yes, there are unsubstantiated claims but lies are found out just as quickly. In a social media world where your reputation is everything, it doesn’t pay to muck around with the truth for too long.

But that seems completely lost on the writer of the hilariously awful third article on the page. Margaret Kelly (“who holds a degree in English literature and language”) was angry about lazy language, but inevitably social media comes in the firing line. In a confused rant that pours doubt on climate change and has Orwell disapproving of Facebook, Kelly laid into “groupthink” which “lives today in cyberspace where people want to be unknown”.  Kelly does not define groupthink but she says it leads to terrible things like Trending on Twitter. Kelly does define trending, which she says is “a lot of people saying the same sorts of things, mostly unconsidered… and trending is just what groupthink means.” Though her readers are none the wiser (not least at the ellipses which are in Kelly’s text) after this nonsense, it all leads to one definitive conclusion. “Frankly, in my view,” Kelly says, “only twits tweet.” Take that, all you 2.8 million Australian users of Twitter, you’ve been told. Though frankly, in my view, Ms Kelly ought to be careful about what she says about Rupert Murdoch in one of his papers.