Islamism and the West: A new reign of terror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Australian’s laughable war on Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The killing season must end: Why Labor should not change its leader

shorten gillardThe Killing Season on the ABC is brilliant television and should give producer Deb Masters and writer/presenter Sarah Ferguson a double in TV and journalism awards. The three-part series is deservedly taking plaudits for its riveting dissection of the Rudd-Gillard leadership wars. Though the period has been well examined in books, The Killing Season is rich multi-sensory art, from the wintry Poe-theme opening and the music of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1, the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a flawed hero and adventurer.

The Killing Season offered extended interviews of its own flawed protagonists, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, two of the sharpest minds in Australian politics in the 21st century. Both had the right stuff to become Prime Minister but got in each other’s way. They were personal and political opposites, but made a smart marriage of convenience at the time, as Simon Crean observed. Rudd got the nod as leader, easier to sell as a male Protestant than a female atheist.

Rudd was a consummate actor and phenomenal media performer. He dominated their first election as a team and the defeat of four-time Prime Minister John Howard was put down to “Kevin 07”. The electorate respected Gillard but loved Rudd and his nerdy dad persona. His rock-star status was still rising after the 2008 Stolen Generations apology and his response to the Global Financial Crisis. But his stratospheric ratings could not last forever and quickly fell to earth after the Liberals appointed a hard-nosed leader to replace the hapless Malcolm Turnbull. Saving Australia from financial collapse was an astonishing achievement but too intangible to measure and Rudd’s leadership slowly collapsed amid a series of self-inflicted blows.

Rudd wasn’t the only one making mistakes. Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan made a fatal error to replace him in June 2010, though each step in the process was defensible. Rudd still had a winning lead when he was sacked in 2010, despite his problems. Rudd could not believe what was happening, his horror best expressed in The Killing Season in his shocked, almost whispered comment that trails off, “But the polls….?” His government had 52-48 lead over Abbott at the time, just like Shorten has now. But Labor panicked and he was gone. The people were not consulted and the coup would, as Anthony Albanese predicted, destroy two Labor leaders.

Much of the testimony of that 2010 period is of chaotic moments shared Rashomon-style with differing conclusions depending on the speaker. The Killing Season was, as one deft reviewer called it, classical tragedy “where at each stage all the tragic character can do is tighten the net”. Gillard replaced Rudd but couldn’t remove him. And for the next three years, he white-anted her relentlessly until his revenge was served stone-cold in 2013. Gillard and Rudd’s relationship was not the first poisoned by power and won’t be the last. Neither were “killed”, but they destroyed each other politically and are now both lost to parliament despite still being in their 50s and in their prime.

Worse still, their Labor Party too is now out of power, rudderless as well as ruddless, after looking semi-invincible from 2007 to 2009. Two leaders and two elections later the moral challenges of our generation are in the calamitous hands of Tony Abbott, the great divider. The Killing Season is important history to see how we got to that equation in six short years. The astonishing personal enmity tells us how Labor imploded and is compelling viewing. But a better guide to why it happened comes from the rich first-hand testimony of the large coterie of supporting characters swirming around Gillard and Rudd.

Sarah Ferguson is Australia’s sharpest political interviewer and her forensic approach extracted the drama from every statement and counter-statement. Most Labor ministers were rueful, occasionally bitter, but always honest, whether they supported Beasley, Rudd or Gillard. Minders like Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton were eye-opening in their perceptive day-to-day detail. Their admiration for Rudd’s judgement was shared by Gordon Brown, Hank Paulson and Ken Henry. Only three notables from the Labor first rank did not have their say with Sarah and two of them, Lindsay Tanner and John Faulkner, are retired. The third is current leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten’s minders no doubt believed there was nothing to gain from raking over old coals – particularly coals that Shorten himself stoked, with important roles in the 2010 and 2013 coups. This was a mistake, he should have explained what Labor had learned from the process (arguably nothing if today’s factional announcement from Tasmania is a guide). Shorten was implicated anyway despite his silence, caught out lying to Neil Mitchell about the 2013 challenge that brought Rudd back to power.

Shorten has apologised privately to the Melbourne radio host but should return to Mitchell’s show to talk about why he lied in the first place. It has undermined one of Shorten’s main advantages over Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after the latter was caught out lying spectacularly and repeatedly to the public the night before the election.

The Killing Series came out at a bad time for Shorten. Fairfax have gone on the attack over questions he may have to answer in a politically motivated union inquiry. Others on the left such as Jason Wilson decry Shorten as a do-little union apparatchik constantly moving to the right to avoid being wedged by Tony Abbott. Yet he leads in the polls, and a move to sack him would only suit Abbott, who is trying to get Labor to panic again. Abbott has no intention of going to an early election he wouldn’t win, but more Labor leadership turmoil would change that.

Abbott hailed The Killing Season as an unmasking of Labor’s untrustworthiness. “I don’t normally say thank you to the ABC,” Abbott admitted in parliament, “but I have to say Australia is indebted to you on this instance.” Abbott was spouting rubbish as usual, but he was right on one point – he doesn’t normally say thank you to the ABC. He’s normally lying about its future, stacking the board, slashing its budget and attacking its editorial policies.

Barely days after The Killing Season, he launched into open warfare over the Zaky Mallah exchange on Q&A on Monday. Not for the first time, Abbott used the sporting analogy of “whose side are you on?” when attacking the ABC. Abbott’s crude “team Australia” rhetoric is inadequate when trying to distil a complex argument like why people support Islamic State. It was a point Mallah demolished when he spoke about how young Australian Muslims become disenfranchised. The ABC took no “sides” but offered a platform for dissenting views, a platform urgently needed as the Murdoch press (which sets the media agenda and also has a vested interest in attacking the public broadcaster) becomes increasingly one-sided. The ABC is considered duplicitous despite the public judging twice as trustworthy as the government.

This is not just a problem for the ABC. It is a problem for Labor as an alternative government. Rupert Murdoch is a bulwark for Tony Abbott, his papers running constant interference and setting agendas by attacking Abbott’s enemies while giving him an easy ride. Mallah is considered the enemy but hysterical front page photos like the Courier-Mail’s conflation of the ABC and Islamic State are okay because the Courier-Mail is on “our side”. The effect is to move the Overton Window of acceptable political discourse further to the right.

The Killing Season is classic public broadcasting and a terrific first draft of history. Labor should learn from that history and allow Shorten what it didn’t allow Beasley in 2007, Rudd in 2010 and Gillard in 2013: a chance to survive the killing season and be judged by the voters. They might be shocked to find that behind the screeching of Abbott and Murdoch, there is another Australia out there, and one that does not like to be told what to think.

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 intelligence 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 and Fahmy 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 is 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.

The news of the otherworld: Wrecking the RET

A sure sign the Warburton Review into the Renewable Energy Target was flawed was the lavish praise in yesterday’s editorial in the Weekend Australian. It was the second of two editorials with the main one bemoaning the lack of decision making in the “national interest” which is Weekend Oz’s code for “Murdoch’s interest”. Murdoch’s interest applauds the Abbott Government for its foreign affairs stance, fiscal consolidation and market-based reforms but castigates it for the way it sells its economic messages, as well as taxing high earners, introducing a “gimicky” medical research fund and bringing back knights and dames. Rupert Murdoch remains doggedly republican.

His pride and joy The Australian is now 50 years old – a month younger than me – and we are both showing our age. I’m still in control of my faculties but I’m not so sure about the Oz / Woz. This sorry excuse for a broadsheet is becoming more unhinged, especially on climate science. The page 5 exclusive yesterday from “environment editor” Graham Lloyd talks about “Records detail heat that ‘didn’t happen”, a giveaway it is climate change Oz headline writers think “didn’t happen”. The story is muddled junk which took forever to get to its dubious point the BOM are fudging figures to over-egg increasing temperatures. Lloyd’s sole “proof” is old weather records from Bourke in northern NSW. There is also a dubious graph which show local temperatures heading downwards over 150 years. The graph ignores its own spikes in the last 20 years. The lede is buried in the last sentence from a man who rescued the old records: “At the moment they (BOM) are saying we have a warming climate but if the old figures are used we have a cooling climate”.

Lloyd didn’t interview anyone who might gainsay that remark. His only expert is another sceptic “Queensland researcher” Jennifer Marohasy who agreed temperatures were warmer earlier in the century. Lloyd doesn’t mention Marohasy’s views are not widely shared. Lloyd has form with kooky climate theories and his employers always push them prominently. Dissenters to climate science interpretation like Marohasy and Bjorn Lomborg get a good run in the op eds. Though many organisations reacted negatively to the results of the RET review, they were absent from the Weekend Oz news pages. There was not a single article on RET nor any op eds, leaving only His Master’s Voice in the editorial.

The editorial began by attacking favourite enemy Christine Milne for petulance in throwing the review in the bin before calling it a “balanced, rational assessment”. Most of what followed was a direct copy and paste from the review. As Lenore Taylor said, the RET did exactly what it was designed to do: it pushed investment from fossil fuels into renewables.

The Woz said it was too expensive and heavy subsidies were ultimately lowering productivity and national income. The key statement in the review picked up by Peter Martin was the RET was helping the “transfer of wealth among participants in the electricity market”. This line is pure Dick Warburton, who led the four-person review and a man of commerce who prefers the hands of the market to move invisibly.

Warburton was the perfect choice to lead the review to a particular outcome, a successful businessman who doesn’t think climate change is caused by humans. When appointed review chair in February, Warburton told the Australian’s Sid Maher he was not a climate sceptic. The Australian did not ask Warburton if he believes climate change is real and if so, what is causing it and what we should do about it. As Taylor said, the result of the review only made sense if the intention was to deny the problem it was trying to solve.

The Australian quotes the review’s statement the RET created jobs at the expense of other industries. It claimed removing “inefficient subsidies” would free up investment for research into more efficient renewable energy sources. But with no carbon tax or any other market mechanism to support it, it would just as likely lead to more investment in fossil fuels. The RET exceeded its 20% target, generated a large surplus of electricity and lowered prices.

The scheme would cost $22b to its end point in 2030 (less than $1.5b a year or about 15 super hornet planes) which is a small tax price to pay for a good outcome. But the review didn’t see it that way. It was “distorting investment decisions” (again, doing what it was designed to do), the low prices were “artificial” while the cost of the scheme meant added 4% to those prices, though that figure was trending to negligible. The Warburton Review said it was not generating any new wealth just transferring it to other players in the market. As Martin picked up, the big losers are the mining companies who backed Abbott’s axing of both taxes (carbon and mining).

The RET helps reduce carbon emissions by an additional 300 million tonnes to 2030, the equivalent of 100,000 cars taken off the road. But cars aren’t coming off the road, they are increasing as is the impatience of those who rely on them, paying an increased price in transport and electricity. Warburton said abatement cost was too high but that cannot be proven. The Government’s hollow sounding “direct” action has no modelling or explanation how it might achieve its (low) targets. It is also unlikely to pass an increasingly feisty Senate that Abbott has managed to alienate, despite it containing many philosophical fellow travellers.

Abbott was able to “axe the (carbon) tax” but not do much else other than clear the cupboard. He dismantled the Climate and Science ministries, gutted CSIRO and abandoned the Climate Commission. Removing the hated RET is the next step in the ideological agenda that undersells the problem of climate change and leaves Australia behind in solar, wind and geothermal research. Murdoch’s rags are only too willing to help to put the boot in. The Government continues its brutal search and destroy mission of all legislation enacted between 2008 and 2013. If this is evidence of the “adults in charge” then for god’s sake bring back the children.

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 all 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.

Al Jazeera 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. 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. But Al Jazeera has a growing blind spot as the network becomes more important.

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. Mubarak was toppled in 2011 and replaced in elections by Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar swung into action to prop up Morsi.

Qatar supplied oil and 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 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 moved to avoid 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 should know this is also about geopolitics as much as the right to report. Worldwide pressure should be applied to Doha as well as 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.