On April Fools and fake news

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My dodgied up 1859 map of Queensland. The border is accurate though there was no Mount Isa or NT at the time.

As is my wont at this time of year I published an April Fool’s story  on our North West Star newspaper website on Saturday April 1 . Headlined “Mount Isa to return to Northern Territory in border revision plan” it was a story by “Alan Border” purporting to reveal a plan seen by the North West Star where the westernmost part of Queensland from the Gulf to the South Australian border could return to the NT. Needless to say, the story was false. There is no such plan and those that followed the plan’s link in the story were rickrolled.

Many other details were false or invented. There is no journalist Alan Border. There is no such Professor “Hugh Jerar” (a huge error, surely, though I drag the good prof out regularly as a credible source each April 1) or is there any “Grating Institute”. There is no plan to rename Mt Isa to NT Isa and there is no constitutional crisis over Queensland’s western border (though the bit about the west being added to Queensland in 1862 three years after the rest in 1859 is true). The map we printed where Queensland’s step-like western border is turned into a straight line was semi-false – it was the original 1859 map but it was dodgied up (with five minutes of poor Paint skills). However the giveaway is Queensland and the NT agreeing to the proposal. It’s hard to imagine two governments agreeing on anything.

At the end of the day, I added an editor’s note. “Sorry/Not Sorry” it read, and a clarification. “This article was not written by the cricketer. He is ‘Allan Border’”. Our fake news was patently ridiculous but funny and while the serious tone (or reading the headline only) fooled some, almost everyone enjoyed the joke.

The grain of truth was the story of Queensland’s birth and how its border was revised in 1862. I’ve told that story on this blog before. It is based on the Peter Saenger book “Queensland’s Western Afterthought”. The trigger for Queensland taking the unclaimed land west of the 141st meridian was the search for the missing Burke and Wills in that region in 1861. The Queensland governor assured the Colonial Office his colony would protect settlers in the area as long as the western boundary was redrawn to include the Gulf of Carpentaria.

However I changed the 1859 map to show a fictional Mount Isa (it wasn’t founded until the 20th century) in an equally fictional “NT” (it was still part of NSW at the time). I believe it was this map shown the Facebook excerpt for my story that hoodwinked a lot of people who read no further.

However no more like that. Fake news is fraught with hazard especially in 2017. Last year Macedonian youths made a lot of money when they invented shocking stories to gain large advertising revenue. They were exposed within days but millions believed the fiction. Donald Trump profited from that fiction then turned fake news on its head when he attached it to media giving him a hard time. The fake fake news practice has quickly spread across the world as a way to dismiss news you don’t like. Even truth itself has become muddied by “truthiness” and “alternative facts”.

So despite a long tradition of newspapers writing April Fool stories, I was concerned how people might react to my deliberately false piece. Looking at the Facebook feedback I needn’t have worried.  One reader told me “I was really taken in by the border story! Whoever came up with this deserves a pat on the back. I love starting the day with a smile!” Many others were highly amused with many people picking out different favourite lines from the piece. There was hardly any negative remarks and even those who were fooled accepted their fate with good grace.

The story was shared over 300 times as people who got the joke then tried to fool their friends. There were those who while understanding the joke, still grappled with the issue: “If there are to be any border changes it should be new border along the Tropic of Capricorn to create the great state of North Queensland,” said one. Others though moving north west Queensland to NT was a good idea. Another said “It actually makes me sad this is fake”.

All in all, I’ll call it a viral success – at least in our remote part of the world. But it’s worth handling with care. I’ll stick to reporting the truth – at least until April 1, 2018.

The 2017 MLA Australia Day lamb ad

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Still from the 2017 lamb ad

The new Australia Day lamb ad is likely to be a conversation starter at barbecues on the day as increasingly lamb itself is likely to be on the menu. The ad is the latest creation of Meat and Livestock Australia, the marketing arm of Australian cattle, sheep and goat producers. From 2005 to 2016 their “lambassador” Sam Kekovich has been exorting Australians to eat more lamb on Australia Day. The former AFL player and Victorian media personality has been an inspired choice, in turns hectoring people to eat lamb while blasting vegan culture but usually getting away it with it thanks to his humorous deadpan tone.

The ads became increasingly sophisticated each year and in Kekovich’s final outing in 2016 “Operation Boomerang”, he joined SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin and a gaggle of celebrities on a mission to save Australians abroad from going without lamb on Australia Day, an ad which was funny but with uncomfortable reminders of the police state Australia sometimes looks like. From an MLA marketing perspective, it was the most successful campaign yet with sales up a third in the weeks before and after Australia Day. The video was watched over 5.5 million times online and achieved over a thousand media mentions with an audience of 400 million. The MLA have upped the ante again in 2017 with less Kekovich, but more ambition, aiming for nothing less than a potted Australian history from the last 50,000 years. It is likely to beat last year for views and will probably also put more lamb on the table on Australia Day.

The ad starts with three Aboriginal people on the beach, the “first here” deciding to have a barbecue. The first visitors are the Dutch (who arrived in 1606) who bring cheese. Then the British arrive (in 1788), whose “We are the First Fleet” is answered by “Not quite, mate. They are very quickly followed by the French (also 1788) who also bring cheese. Next are the Germans (the first non British ship of colonists to arrive in 1848) who “bring their own” beer. This reminds them about ice and the scene moves to Antarctica where Mawson and Shackleton (1907-09) are packing ice for the party. Then come the Chinese (which is out of sequence as they first came in large numbers in the 1850s gold rushes) with explosives from Fyshwyck. Then come the Italians, Greeks and Serbians (including Kekovich in a cameo, the New Australians from after World War II). We are brought up to date by international hordes including an Indian asking Adam Gilchrist asking where the backyard is for cricket, a plug for “the neighbours” (New Zealand), and even the “boat people” before Malaysian-born chef Poh Ling Yeow asks “aren’t we all boat people?” And Australia’s multiculturalism is deemed complete with the “float people” from the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Gilchrist thanks the Aboriginal people for “having us” at a great spot for a barbie. “Best in the world,” they reply.

This is an ad with an endless amount of material to be deconstructed, something MLA are only keenly aware of. MLA group marketing manager Andrew Howie told the ABC they consulted Indigenous groups throughout the creative process. “The work that we create is never designed to be offensive, it’s not designed to cause offense to people,” Mr Howie said. “This year’s campaign is a celebration of Australia’s history. This year, and with the essence of the brand being very much around unity, we realised that this time of year there are cultural sensitivities for some groups within the Australian community.”

By “some groups” Howie means the Aboriginal people, the supposed stars of his ad, many of whom oppose the date January 26 as Australia Day as marking “invasion day”, when Britain first declared New South Wales a colony in 1788. For this reason there is no mention of Australia Day in the ad, but given the history of the ads it’s hard avoid the conclusion that it’s about promoting sales on Australia Day. Darumbal woman Amy McQuire picked up this point about using Aboriginal pain to promote the sales of lamb. “There’s Aboriginal people dying in custody, having their children taken away, suiciding … and that oppression stems from that original invasion”. For McQuire and others, Australia’s history is not a celebration.

If that was criticism from the left, there was also criticism from the right. Predictably Pauline Hanson saw the ad as fair game to put the boot in multiculturalism, especially as that was the path the MLA had flagged its campaigns were going last year. “It really is pretty sad, isn’t it?” Hanson said. She blamed “bloody idiots out there, ratbags” though the News Ltd article does not make it clear who Hanson thinks are the idiots and ratbats. But she did feel threatened by the ad. “It’s pretty sad when it’s basically shutting us down for being proud of who we are as Australian citizens.” Hanson was trying to construct an Australian “us” against a ratbag “them” out to destroy all that Australia Day stood for. It was a confusing message but then Australian history is confusing, given it has never been taught properly in Australian schools. Australia Day does not celebrate, as Hanson said it does, “the day we celebrate forming our nation, our federation, our government” (that would be January 1) and MLA are right to downplay its significance other than just a public holiday where people are more likely than usual to attend a barbecue.

The ad is amusing and should also be praised for highlighting indigenous voices even if it did – like most Australian history books until the last 50 years – gloss over the fact that one of those visitors (the British) ended up taking over the beach barbie. Indigenous writer Luke Pearson applauded the ad for its diversity and inclusion but said it would have been more accurate “if the meat the English gave to the Aboriginal people was poisoned with smallpox or strychnine”. Pearson acknowledged that would have distracted from the ad’s core purpose “getting people to confuse eating meat with being patriotic”.  Still, it’s capable of having than one purpose and if despite its cultural stereotypes it leads to a more nuanced discussion of Australian history (Hanson notwithstanding), the MLA will have served Australia well.

 

 

 

Woolly Day media personality of the year 2016: David Bowie

bowieSince 2009 I’ve handed out an end of year award for my media person of the year, or sometimes personalities, or sometimes multiple personalities (as was the case in in 2011, 2012 and 2014). There is only winner this year but it is the first posthumous winner. It also follows the lead of the Nobel Prize for Literature and awards it to a musician: the late, great David Bowie.

Bowie barely lived ten days in 2016 but they were enough to make a profound impression on the year that followed. On January 8, it was his 69th birthday and his birthday present to the world was his 25th album, ★ (Blackstar), released that day, and his first ever without a cover picture of Bowie. Its oddness captivated and for two days reviewers crawled over ★  sokaing every last slice of meaning out of it. The 10-minute title song was on everyone’s lips but songs like Lazarus also spoke about an artist groping with mortality.

Just how close to the truth, few realised. Lazarus was also a musical Bowie co-wrote with playwright Enda Walsh, inspired by Walter Tevis’s book The Man Who Fell to Earth, about a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to get water for his dying planet. Bowie starred in the Nicholas Roeg movie based on the book in 1976. Some 39 years later he made a rare public appearance on 12 December, 2015 outside a performance of the play Lazarus at New York’s Theatre Workshop, where he greeted fans and signed autographs.

He was never seen in public again. On January 10 2016, just two days after the release of ★ came the shock news the Black Star himself was dead. Bowie had liver cancer, but managed to keep it a closely guarded secret for 18 months. He struggled to make rehearsals as illness closed in but he got his album out before he died and the media had never picked up on it. Early January is a slow time for news but this was shocking. Bowie was 69 but surely had many years still to give us?  In 2015 his life work inspired museums to host “David Bowie Is”, here we were suddenly with David Bowie Was.

It affected me like a death in the family. I’ve never met him and only saw him twice (oddly within three days of each other at concerts in 1987) but he composed the soundtrack of my life. I was in a daze for days comprehending the news. It wasn’t just me. Bowie’s death profoundly impacted many and his death almost framed an entire year. Paul Bethany expressed the phenomenum best on June 24 when he tweeted “In January I dismissed my mate’s theory that David Bowie was the glue holding the universe together but I don’t know man… I don’t know…”

June 24 was a day after the stunning Brexit result, a week after the particularly shocking murder of Labor MP Jo Cox, a month after the death of Mohammad Ali (who would surely have won this award multiple times in the 70s) and barely two after the death of another musical great, Leonard Cohen. With Europe in crisis, terrorism rampant, the Syrian war spiralling out of control and Trump menacing, Bethany’s distress was palpable. The “mate’s theory” Bowie’s death unravelled the universe sounds like a plotline of a Bowie song but it also reflected dangerous times, allied to a string of famous but coincidental deaths (British celebrities were badly hit). The same feeling persisted in the second half of the year, before I expressed my exasperation for people to “stop being so arbitrary” in a Tweet saying the “2016 was bad” idea was skewed to singers and British cultural figures as well as two election results which not everyone thought were disasters. Then I remembered minutes later I am equally arbitrary with this annual award.

I don’t often think of Bowie’s music being media but it is, just as Dylan’s music is literature. Media covers a multitude of sins and the awards have reflected my interests of the year each year. I started in 2009 giving it to then ABC boss Mark Scott for taking up the fight to Murdoch, who had far too much power in Australia and English-speaking world. The 2015 government learned their lesson by appointing a Murdoch hack to lead the ABC, while Scott this year became boss of NSW’s education department.

In 2010 my fascination turned to the possibilities of Wikileaks and audacious founder Julian Assange. In 2016 Assange remains powerful with his strategic leaks against Hillary Clinton playing a major role in the US election. But Assange is compromised goods and will remain so as long as he stays in the Ecuadorian embassy, a now ridiculous four years far longer than any sentence a Swedish court might have imposed.

In 2011 my focus switched back to the pervasiveness of Rupert Murdoch. The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger and reporter Nick Davies won it for exposing News Ltd’s frightening links with government and police and even more frightening conspiracy to howl down – and hunt down – anyone that might expose them. News’s search for the “story” trampled on all human rights but the Guardian’s dedication to the truth brought them down.

Their work was reinforced by 2012 winner judge Brian Leveson who patiently let all the evidence flow through his court. It led to countless shocking revelations and Rupert’s most humbling moment, a problem 10 years in the making. Labor MP Tom Watson and journalist Martin Hickman wrote Dial M for Murdoch about the wide extent of the conspiracy. I read the book at the start of this year thinking, that in 2016 the Sun is as bad as ever. British media is now worse than it was in 2011 with The Sun overtaken in infamy now by the Daily Mail for its single-handed anti-immigrant push. Unlike most immigrants, the Daily Mail doesn’t mind stealing, with the paper internationally notorious as a plagiarist of other people’s journalism.

There was plenty of valid material available, as proven by my stand-out winner in 2013. Edward Snowden took the Wikileaks concept to a logical conclusion with his voluminous leak of NSA files. That it was dangerous is obvious in that Snowden remains a fugitive from American justice. The leaks did not help Clinton in 2016 even though they showed her as competent but their existence is a reminder for politicians, corporates and the rest of us, it is in our interests to be truthful. Our lies will be some day be found out.

I awarded my following year’s media personalities to Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Basher Mohamed. They were three brave journalists, imprisoned in Egypt on trumped up charges for over 12 months for just doing their job. They were in Kafka’s The Trial, unable to to be prosecuted but nightmarishly unable to get off the hook either. Their employer Al Jazeera was not blameless as a player in Egyptian politics, but Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed behaved with great dignity through their year long ordeal and deserving winners in 2014.

By 2015 I was aware of a glaring anomaly in the awards: no woman had won it. As I admitted last year, this reflected more on my male-dominated influences than on a lack of suitable female candidates. When I started to look at women in the field, Clementine Ford stood out for her uncompromising stance in publicly outing misogynist behaviour, bravery attracting praise and hatred in equal measure. Ford sharply called out the problems that lie in our language as much as in our attitudes. Her book Fight Like A Girl was well received this year.

When I started thinking about this year, I was convinced the winner would be another woman: Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton was as much an outsider as an insider, and her fight to become president shows the additional challenges women face as a pure result of their gender. Despite misgivings, she was infinitely preferable as president to Donald S Trump. I shared the view of the New Yorker which used the analogy of the air steward offering a choice of “chicken, or a platter of shit with broken glass in it”, only for the customer to pause and go, “how is the chicken cooked?”

Southern fried Clinton was better than shitstrewn Trump by almost any measure but it wasn’t enough. Trump didn’t play by the rules, he rang rings around traditional media and played into its sexism. While I admired successful unorthodoxy in Assange and Snowden, I detested most of what Trump said (the only relief is we are not talking about President Ted Cruz) and maybe he’ll even stimulate the economy with new infrastructure. But Time can do what they like, I could never award him my person of the year. Of his many lies “Crooked Hillary” was the worst of the lot, a projection of his own aura as Crooked Donald. Had she won Hillary would have been a steady hand at the tiller, though would have struggled to get her agenda through a hostile House and Senate.

But she didn’t win. Even before the election, she was “deeply reviled” and her strengths was less interesting news than his failings. She had failings too – not least, not heeding the warning signs in the rustbucket states Mike Moore pointed out. But even Moore thought she’d get in in the end. President Obama too thought his legacy was safe. But Clinton didn’t land a killer blow in the debates and the CIA news about her email investigations a few days before the election hurt badly. She comfortably won the national vote but easily lost the electoral college. Like Gore in 2000, Hillary disappeared off stage left in mid November despite doubts about her opponent’s legitimacy.

Among other crises, Trump left me in a panic about my person of the year. Thinking elsewhere it was another poor year for media. The year Buzzfeed almost matched New York Times in the value showed the contraction of the industry. There was the clickbait obsession of those that remained surrendering their social license, and leaving the field for social media networks to promote “dialogues of the deaf” using fake news tailor-made for the purpose of people who want it to be true so as to fuel their deafness.

The Prince of Social Media, Mark Zuckerberg is either the personification of evil or proof the singularity has arrived, depending on your beliefs. Yet there were good things even out of his tools. A woman used Facebook Live to broadcast the death of her partner at the hands of American police. The Media Centre in Aleppo got news out to the world the Syrian government did not want people to know and produced one of the most memorable images of the year of the boy in the ambulance , all through Facebook.

But in the end I had to go back to the “2016 is terrible” meme and remember how it started. Bowie was ahead of the curve in many ways, constantly reinventing himself musically, bending the rules on gender, quick to see the possibilities of digital and a pioneer of social media and online music streaming. In 1998 he said “If I was 19 again, I’d bypass music and go right to the internet.” A year later he told a prim Jeremy Paxton he supported the ideas of artists like Duchamp “that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

★ was his final interpretation. The song’s 9:57 length reflects the 10 minute maximum posting allowed by iTunes.I still listen to it from time to time and I comprehensively enjoy his 1970s and early 1980s back catalogue. But to go with the sentiment, here is Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy in the first Christmas both Bowie and Bing Crosby are dead.

 

 

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 responsibility 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 returned 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. 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 including 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 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 and aimed at survivors and emergency responders. There were no armed rebels nearby. 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. This week’s suit 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, 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