Woolly Days media personality of the year 2014: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Basher Mohamed

GresteIt’s that time of the year when I name the Woolly Days media personality of the year. The “award” dates back to 2009 when I complimented ABC boss Mark Scott for taking his organisation into the 21st century and leading the fighting against Australian media Murdochocracy. 2010 was the year of Julian Assange, who despite cringe-worthy self-centredness, did as much as anyone to tell stories people didn’t want told (the definition of journalism). In 2011 I gave it to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and journalist Nick Davies for shining a light on News Corp’s despicable practices in the UK, with the tacit approval of the police. Their full extent was revealed in Judge Brian Leveson’s inquiry in 2012 and he was my winner for that year. In 2013, Edward Snowden was a dominant winner for his spectacular expose for the intelligences practices and malpractices of the US and its allies.

There has been no standout this year but there is a deserving winner, or rather three deserving winners bucking a trend in news journalism. I recently saw the movie Nightcrawler, an excoriating treatment of evening news priorities.  TV news journalism in the big American cities (and here in Australia) is all about ambulance chasing, the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy leading to news services overwhelmingly devoting time to petty local crime.

That criticism can’t be levelled at the three Al Jazeera employees who share the Woolly Days media personality of the year for 2014. Australian journalist Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and their Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed end the year as they started it in an Egyptian prison. The trio were reporting on the aftermath of the overthrow of Egypt’s elected government when arrested almost exactly a year ago. After a long and often farcical trial they were sentenced to multiple year prison terms for reporting news “damaging to national security.”

The sentences were widely condemned across the world though I queried their employer’s role in the matter. Al Jazeera’s owners, the emirs of Qatar, have dabbled dangerously in Middle East politics and bankrolled former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi with Qatari LNG. When Morsi was overthrown Qatar gave sanctuary to several high-ranking members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt accused Al Jazeera of bias in their reporting.

The most well-known of the three in Australia, Peter Greste acknowledged the problem in his letters from prison. Greste wrote that despite its responsibility for Islamist violence, the Brotherhood remained the largest social and political force in Egypt. “What then for a journalist striving for ‘balance, fairness and accuracy?’” Greste asked. “How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?” Greste discussed the problem with Fahmy and decided they had to keep talking to everyone, regardless of the consequences. This is admirable and courageous, but didn’t acknowledge Al Jazeera’s role in Egyptian politics.

While Greste has been the focus of Australian efforts thanks to his media-savvy parents, Fahmy has been more prominent in Canada, where he attended university. Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is among those calling for his release. Fahmy’s CV is impressive. He was a stringer in the 2003 Iraq War for the LA Times and wrote a book on his experiences called “Baghdad Bound”. When the Arab Spring broke out, he returned to his native Egypt and chronicled the uprising in a photo documentary he called “Egyptian Freedom Story”.

Baher Mohamed is a graduate of Cairo University. He worked for Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper for five years, and freelanced for CNN and Iran’s English-language Press TV before joining Al Jazeera in 2013. In his trial, the prosecution said his father was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and had tried to make him go to religious classes organised by the Islamist movement. But Mohamed refused to attend because they were “boring”.  Mohamed got the seven years sentence of the other two but also an additional three years for having a weapon.

Their year in prison has been filled with false hope of an early release, most recently in November when Greste’s parents spoke of a possible pardon from Egypt’s president. Their best bet appears to be a thaw in relations between Egypt and Qatar with the visit of a top Qatari envoy to Cairo. Egypt said it looked “forward to a new era that ends past disagreements” but made no mention of the Al Jazeera trio.

The Committee to Protect Journalists say they are among at least 12 journalists behind bars in Egypt. Four have been convicted including Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed. The other is Abdel Rahman Shaheen, a correspondent for Freedom and Justice News Gate. Shaheen was sentenced by a Suez court in June to three years jail on charges of inciting and committing violence during protests in April.

Many are saying Egypt has declared journalism a crime. The CPJ has released a documentary called Under Threat as the government cracks down on the press, forcing independent and critical voices into silence, exile, or prison. The film documents the dangers of working for Egyptian media. impunity in the killings of reporters, and the ongoing imprisonments of journalists.  For braving those dangers, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed are my media personalities of 2014. Here’s hoping for a swift release for them and fellow journalists in 2015.

Peter Greste is not guilty but Al Jazeera is

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

It is hard to criticise Al Jazeera, who broke the back of western dominance of world news reporting and who have a formidable global news reputation branching out in every direction from its foundation of excellence in Arab affairs. But Al Jazeera has a blind spot becoming 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, emir of Qatar until he abdicated for 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 now pours into influence in world affairs. Al Jazeera is one of Al Thani’s pet projects and despite its influence it has been unable to turn a profit independently. It dares not bite the hand that feeds it. Matters off limits to Al Jazeera include 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 Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak who was backed by the Saudi government. He viewed the Qataris and Al Jazeera as regional troublemakers. Following the Arab Spring, Al Thani put Qatar’s billions into the new governments that emerged. Mubarak was toppled in 2011 and replaced in elections by Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar swung into action to prop up Morsi.

Qatar not only supplied oil but also liquefied natural gas 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 costs by exporting 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 an LNG import terminal. This was a powerplay against the Saudis and UAE. Both had a long standing enmity to the Brotherhood and both supplied energy to Mubarak’s economy. Al Jazeera also enthusiastically threw it weight behind the new Islamist regime to the disquiet of many of its journalists.

The army deposed the Brotherhood government in 2013, to the quandary of the western leaders, who quantified their hatred of coups 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 powerbrokers who escaped the crackdown mostly ended up in Qatar. Al Jazeera is alleged to have paid for hotel suites in Doha for the exiles.

Egypt’s new master Abdel al-Sisi was left with a big problem of how to replace Qatari energy. He turned to the Saudis, UAE and Kuwait. Those countries showered Egypt in petrol and diesel products but could not supply al-Sisi with LNG for his power plants. No other Gulf state has the gas capacity of Qatar, and Egypt owes $8 billion to the oil companies. Al-Sisi had to increase the domestic price. With natural gas supplying 70% of local electricity, cutbacks are inevitable, possibly leading to more domestic discontent. Al-Sisi has moved to end possible blackouts by contracting Norwegian HOG-Energy to anchor an LNG unit in the Red Sea. That won’t be online until autumn past the critical month of Ramadan when people fast during the day.

Al-Sisi 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 Islamist news channels in 2013 including Al Jazeera’s Egyptian station Mubashir Misr. Greste, Fahmy and Bahar were arrested in December accused of “damaging national security.” The government said the journalists 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 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.” Greste said he did not support the Muslim Brotherhood. But he does not 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 to Cairo.

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 is 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 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 in the public domain, no matter how uninfluential. Millions of others 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 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. 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 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 the whistle. 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 massive 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 regarded as ‘a 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 2011 award.

In 2012 I gave my award 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 to this year’s award 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 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 lays bare the US’s intelligence framework, not to mention causing political headaches across the globe.

Snowden 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. However the laugh has been on the Obama administration 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 sausage-making. There is the sense in many of our obsessive rules and regulations that it won’t affect us if we 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. 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 NSA documents 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. Snowden 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 the leaks showed it was national security 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.

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 must 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 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. 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 US President GW Bush’s 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 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 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 news.com.au was treated as a second-class citizen in the News Ltd power structure but it 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 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.

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. I caught up with them – Tim Dunlop, author of The New Front Page and Rachel Buchanan, author of Stop Press – in Brisbane 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 doing 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 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 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 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 stressful 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 newsprint to delivery. 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 a passing age. 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 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.

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

With the election a week old, I thought it was 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 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 sub-clauses were a bit unnecessary but it was a sentiment most owners would agree on however at odds with the codes of conduct for broadcasters.

The second sentence was more likely to attract guffaws from Murdoch and Allan, saying newspapers which claim to inform people on politics had an obligation “to present to the public a reasonably comprehensive and accurate account of public issues”.  The News Ltd bosses would immediately tell you their newspapers are 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 political and commercial purposes. The political aim is 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 purpose, the Australian Press Council is not a consideration. This is despite the fact News Ltd is a constituent body and accept their jurisdiction. They know the APC is a pale ombudsman. The complaints procedure 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.

It shows the Press Council as 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 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 election 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. Whatever 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.

Fifty-five pieces of legislation

THE thing politics has over policy is that it is a sport. When The Age called this out in its editorial asking for the head of Julia Gillard, it was condemned for focusing on palace politics instead of setting the agenda of policy. The Age knows 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 wide-ranging issues of environment, the world economy, employment, education, tax reform and agriculture.

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 people feel more informed for reading 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 payments 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 has 78 member countries, comprising 54 African and 24 non-African countries. In 2011, the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness recommended 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. The Australian Industry Participation Authority would administer and monitor compliance 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 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 Katter bill wants to limit foreign investment in Australian agribusiness and agricultural land. It would require the Foreign Investment Review Board to take “the national interest” (a contested concept) into account in foreign investment and 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 Katter bill 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]

A Greens bill to amend the 1992 broadcasting act to prohibit ads on odds, restrict betting ads to after 9pm, prohibit “non-ad ads” and freeze betting ads before sports broadcasts. Given the 1992 act is pre-Internet, this seems papering over 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 Wallarah Two underground mine despite no-one 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 farmers and processors to establish enterprise agreements and collective negotiations.

10 Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013

Peter Garrett’s bill to establish the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account providing $300m over two years to long day care services to pay employee wages, costs and expenses and is an early pay off for Gonski 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 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 contravention. Katter wants to ban CSG mining for 24 months.

13 Fair Indexation of Military Superannuation Entitlements Bill 2012

Katter bill to index military retirement benefits the same way as Australian age and service pensions, 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

Katter bill 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

Katter bill 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 the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation 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 Katter bill 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 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 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 got little attention in local media. International Business Times 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 NSW. 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. The bill ensures Commonwealth oversight of the site.

27 Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013

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.

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

The Coalition’s Scott Morrison’s 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 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 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. Lane v Morrison 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 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 bill to amend the Native Title Act 1993 to disregard 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

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

46 Renewable Fuel Bill 2013

Katter bill 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

Katter bill to establish an Australian Reconstruction and Development Board to fix financial arrangements of stressed 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

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 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 three 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 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.