Saving the Great Artesian Basin

gab-mapOne of Australia’s greatest hidden gifts to the life that colonised it is an enormous water resource far below the ground. Spanning four states and territories over a fifth of the continent and continuing out into the Gulf of Carpentaria the Great Artesian Basin is the largest and deepest artesian water basin in the world. In some places it does resemble a basin, but it is mostly solid rock with water stored in the pores.

The GAB’s water is ancient, falling as rain or leaks from rivers west of the Great Dividing Range over a million years ago. That water takes a slow journey of one to five metres a year percolating through cracks in sandstone sheets (aquifers) held together under pressure from the impermeable stones (aquitards) above and beneath. As well as heading roughly west the water also trickles down under gravity.

Over time water is stored in vast quantities. It emerges to the ground naturally under pressure through springs and geological faults. Native plants and animals rely on springs in parched landscapes, particularly in the south-west where the Basin is shallower. Humans arrived on the continent 50,000 years ago and quickly fanned out to every corner. It is likely they swiftly found this precious resource. Burial sites 20,000 years old showed evidence of trading posts alongside artesian springs. Use of bore water dramatically increased with the arrival of Europeans into central Australia.

The first bore in 1878 found water 53m below the surface at Killara in north-west New South Wales. Within ten years, substantial finds were made at Cunnamulla and especially Barcaldine, both in Queensland. The Barcaldine bore pumped 700,000 litres a day unleashing a drilling boom and pastoral settlement in the central west. By 1900 there were more than 500 bores in the Basin thought it wasn’t easy to find water and not all were successful.

Enough reliable water was pumped out to support 120 towns and hundreds of properties in Outback Australia. Initially the pastoral industries took the most water but more recently water release by oil and gas has caught up. Mining of copper, uranium, coal, bauxite and opals also depends on water, much of it artesian, while tourist spas are also an intensive user of Basin water.

Human activity will unlikely ever dry up the Basin. In 120 years of bores about 0.1 percent of the total water was extracted from the Basin. But what it has done is lower the pressure declining the flow of water, sometimes by 80%. A third of bores have stopped flowing altogether. The springs have been severely damaged by excavation, stock and humans while exotic pests degrade the area around springs. Early bore technology was flawed with many leaking and most were uncontrolled in their discharge of water, and 95% of the water ended up in open drains.

Diminishing flow was recognised as early as 1912 when New South Wales introduced licensing of bores and eventually vested groundwater to the state. They also brought in bore construction standards. In 1990 governments agreed on a Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative to cap and pipe bores. Across Australia capping programs rehabilitated free-flowing bores and replaced drains with pipes but most of the 3000 uncontrolled bores and 34,000km of open drains remain in place.

A Strategic Management Plan was put in place in 2000 and agreed by the Council Of Australian Governments.  But just like the Murray Darling (river) Basin plan,  the issue of licences and multiple jurisdictions means the issue is inescapably political. The jury remains out on the impact of the extraction of large use of water for mining, especially coal seam gas mining.  Graziers have to be convinced capping and piping will help them decrease their operating costs as well as increasing the pressure of the water and the reliability of its supply.

In Queensland the GAB is managed by a 10-year-plan which expires in June this year. Queensland’s government wants to cap and pipe all uncapped bores and bore drains in the next 10-year cycle. It is, as the government policy maker I spoke to told me, “an aspirational target” but it helps show the state is serious about the problem. The new draft plan (now out for community consultation) allows for action if a licence holder fails to comply with conditions.

There are more than 25,000 bores tapping the Queensland GAB, taking 315,000 ML a year. A diagram from the draft plan I saw at a Mount Isa community meeting showed that in 2016 around 90,400 ML was accounted for in losses through seepage and evaporation from uncontrolled bores and open bore drains. This exceeds the amount extracted by stock and domestic of 66,000 ML and the oil and gas industries 64,000 ML with other uses accounting for 93,000 ML.

Since 1989 almost 1000 bores have been rehabilitated under the government-funded program but one in five uncapped bores in Queensland remain untreated while 28% of bore drains have yet to be replaced with pipelines. All stock and domestic water users will be required to deliver water through water-tight delivery systems by the time the plan expires in 2027. Stock and domestic licences that permit free flowing bores or bore drains will require a bore management plan outlining what steps will be taken to deliver a water-tight delivery system.

The future of the Great Artesian Basin is exciting if it is managed properly. GAB water has a future as an energy source. Birdsville already has a geothermal power plant and other towns such as Winton are looking to copy it. It will make water available for future development and social and cultural activities that depend on water, including for the aspirations of Indigenous peoples in native title areas. It is crucial it is not destroyed in the same way humans are destroying Australia’s other natural wonder: the Great Barrier Reef.


A new start it ain’t: Jenny Macklin and unemployment

The new Australian political (and election) year did not get off to an auspicious start with the Macklin affair though some good might yet come of it. The affair has seen a government minister tied up in knots about a nonsensical hypothesis, the media whipped up in frenzies of righteous wrath, and the leader of another party now wanting to live out the nonsense.

The problem occurred on New Year’s Day. Families Minister Jenny Macklin held a door-stop media conference at a Melbourne hospital to promote the government’s Dad and Partner Pay scheme introduced on January 1. The scheme brings in government-funded paternity leave for two weeks so it should have been a good news story for Macklin.

However the journalists there were not interested in the good news, they were more interested in a bad news change that also came in on January 1. This change was a follow on from a change John Howard made in 2006 which was to end the supporting parent allowance when the child turned eight. Howard exempted those already receiving the parenting payment before July 2006 who were able to keep it until their youngest turned 16. This meant there would be exemptions until 2014. However the Gillard Government has now ended that immediately, saving $728 million over four years.

This change shifts 80,000 single parents from the parenting payment to the Newstart allowance when their youngest child turns eight. Some parents will be up to $110 a week worse off with the new arrangements and it was this issue that journalists turned to when one asked Macklin if she could live on the dole on $246 a week. Macklin could have done many things at this point, including refusing to answer on the grounds it was a very stupid question. Fellow Minister Tanya Plibersek later answered the question “properly” by saying “I don’t think anyone thinks it’s easy.”

But Macklin gave the worst possible answer: “Yes I could”. She then made matters worse by omitting her answer from the transcript issued by her office. Macklin tried to push on by telling journalists they had simply applied existing rules to people who had on the payment since 2006. “What’s important for people who are unemployed is that we do everything possible to do everything we can to help people get into work and that’s what we’ll be doing with these single parents as well,” she said.

But it was too late. The killer quote did the damage. TV cameras captured that answer which immediately provided the headline for broadcast and print media and the non-appearance in the transcript merely fuelled speculation of a cover-up. Susie O’Brien in the Herald Sun called it “obscene”. Australian Council of Social Service chief executive Cassandra Goldie also took Macklin to task, but ridiculed calls for the minister to try surviving on the Newstart allowance. “You can’t replicate that experience if you are a senior member of government,” she said.

Goldie’s comment came as Greens’ leader Adam Bandt repeated tragedy as farce by announcing he would live on the $246 allowance for one week, challenging Macklin to do the same. “Once you take into account your rent your bills, your food, there’s not much change left over from $35 a day,” he told reporters in Melbourne, but didn’t elaborate how much of his modern lifestyle and well-tailored suits would be pushed to one side to make ends meet in that week.

Bandt’s stunt had little to do with the Newstart Allowance and everything to do with his struggle to retain Melbourne at the next election. But the affair highlights issues with the low benefit rate when there are systemic problems of under-employment. While the current rate of unemployment is low at 5.2 per cent by historic and international standards there is a high degree of volatility within this rate. In March 2012 the unemployment rate in Tasmania was 7.0 per cent, nearly twice the 3.7 per cent rate in the Northern Territory.  In March 2012 the unemployment rate for those aged 15-19 is 18 per cent, more than three times the national average.

There are “dole cheats” but the dole queue remains a humiliating experience for most people. Economist John Quiggan said that instead of completing the Howard agenda, the Gillard government ought to be looking at increasing the real value of benefits, “allowing the unemployed to share in some of the growth in incomes for the community as a whole”. Even thinking about the absurdity of living on $246 a week, reminds us many people have to do exactly that and some parents of those aged eight and over will now pay the price for the Government’s budget balance obsession.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard preferred to focus on solving the inequities of employment in the “patchwork economy” rather than increasing dole payments. “Some today see a problem, they offer blame”, Gillard told the Sydney Institute last year. “I see a person, a person who can work. I offer only opportunity, I ask only responsibility in return.” If Gillard gets the public space to tackle that agenda, she might yet be grateful for Macklin’s mistake.

A Year of Revolt: In memory of Mohammed Bouazizi

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and The Last Man was misinterpreted as a triumph for democracy in the wake of the fall of western communism. It was easy to laugh at him being hopelessly wrong when the New World Order collapsed in the late 1990s and new enemies appeared to replace old bugbears. Yet the “end of history” Fukuyama spoke about was the foremost importance of dignity in life not the success of democracy. This thesis was right then and remains true today. Democracy has massive failings but it offers the dignity of revenge against oppressive or incompetent rulers in the promise of a future ballot box.

The Eastern European revolutions of the 1980s understood this as do today’s democracy-deprived Arab World. Societies dominated by single parties and long-term dictators are almost always corrupt. It took someone to strike a match to bring people power out on the street. That someone was Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi and his search for dignity began a worldwide revolution. When authorities took away Bouazizi’s vegetable cart because it was unlicensed and then slapped and humiliated him when he paid the fine, they unleashed consequences that would not just wipe away the certainties of their world, but also of our world. Because Bouazizi was “humiliated and dejected”, he set fire to himself outside a Sidi Bouzid police station on December 17.  The burns were horrific but Bouazizi did not die straight away. After 18 agonising days, he died on 4 January 2011, almost exactly a year ago. While Bouazizi lay dying in hospital, an impotent rage exploded across Tunisia. Hundreds of thousands suffered similar pettinesses at the hands of Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year regime and rose in protest at Bouazizi’s treatment. An alarmed Ben Ali visited the dying man in hospital but it was too late for both of them. Bouazizi died a week later and Ben Ali was out of power just 10 days after that.In the west it is called the Arab Spring, in the affected countries it is the Sidi Bouzid Revolt in honour of his hometown. Bouazizi’s enraged relatives, friends and acquaintances were first to take to the streets in support of his act of mad defiance.

Labour unions quickly got on board. The country’s largest trade union, the normally pliant General Tunisian Workers’ Union mobilised its half million members in favour of the revolution. Top officials loyal to Ben Ali changed their tune under pressure from members and a vibrant youth movement.

The tremors from Sidi Bouzid quickly spread across the region once Ben Ali was overthrown. Eleven days later, there were massive protests in Cairo against the regime of Hosni Mubarak in power for 30 years and about to effect a handover to his son Gemal. After three weeks of mass protest, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak was handing over power to the military to the joy of the Tahrir Square protesters. But their joy was short-lived with the military junta showing no signs of wanting to share power and the protests continue a year later.

In Libya Muammar Gaddafi held on to power for 40 years despite often being public enemy number one in the West. His own people dislodged him after a bitter and long-lasting war. Riots were happening in Benghazi in January over chronic housing shortages but Gaddafi threw Libyan oil money at the problem to quieten the Benghazi protesters.

Those riots were fresh in the mind at the end of the month when dissident writer Jamal al-Hajji issued an Internet call for demonstrations across Libya “in the Tunisian and Egyptian fashion”. Al-Hajji was arrested in early February and Gaddafi issued a warning to political activists, journalists and media figures to behave.

When Libyan lawyer Fatih Turbel was arrested in Benghazi on 15 February, police broke up protests and arrested dozens more. The riots spread quickly through the east and a Day of Rage two days later shook the regime to its core. Within 24 hours, rebel forces controlled Benghazi. In the first week they pushed east to Misrata and Tobruk fell in yet another war. The rebels shouted the slogans heard in Tunisia and Egypt: the people want to bring down the regime.

A third regime was about to topple but Gaddafi had no intention of quitting gracefully. He threw the full force of his armies on the rebels. Their majority support was endangered by Gaddafi guns purchased from Western countries.

Perhaps inspired by guilt – or political expediency – David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy pushed for intervention to save the revolution. Obama, already stretched by two wars in Islamic states, was harder to convince but eventually NATO airpower swung the pendulum back in the rebels favour. Tripoli fell in August and Gaddafi was butchered in October. Cameron and Sarkozy were heralded as heroes in Libya and Tunisia’s Burning Man had played a small part in overthrowing a third tyrant.

Bouazizi also indirectly or directly inspired protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Palestine and Yemen with varying degrees of success. Bouazizi could well claim two more leaders this year in Saleh in Yemen and Asad in Syria. The Arab Spring template was closely watched by many in the western world and played a symbolic role in the Occupy movement. Time Magazine, with eyes on both phenomena, called the anonymous protester its person of the year. Mohammed Bouazizi’s loss of dignity and death sacrifice was a pivotal “end of history” moment across the planet.

The building of the Berlin Wall: 50 years on

On 3 August 1961, the leaders of the Comecon Communist bloc met in Moscow. It was the heart of the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs invasion failed a few months earlier, and in July President Kennedy requested a 25 percent increase in military spending. The East stood strong but had a soft underbelly: Berlin.

Divided by the Potsdam Conference after the war, scarred by the 1948 blockade and institutionalised by the founding of East and West Germany in 1949, Berlin remained a porous city. Over half a million East Berliners crossed daily to West Berlin to get their dose of capitalism. Many went shopping or to the cinema and discos in the West, 60,000 commuters even worked there. There was no need to defect. The east was cheaper and exotic frills of the west like pantyhose and tropical fruit were just a U-bahn ride away. Westerners also enjoyed the fruits of the border. West German Deutsch Marks were exchanged into East German DM at a rate of 1:4 and westerners got goods cheaply in the East.

However, East Germany was losing its thought leaders. The income gap was stark and anyone with ambition wanted to be in the west. Although some were stopped, hundreds of thousands made it across the border forever. By the 1960s, East Germany had lost 2.5 million trained professionals, 15 percent of its population. The Comecon decided this had to stop before the labour force was drained. At 4pm on Saturday 12 August 1961, East German leader Walter Ulbricht issued the order to close the border. At midnight Sunday, police and armed forces began bolting the city shut. They built the wall in a day and shut streets, the railway, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn. The pulsating heart of the city at Potzdamer Platz became a no-go zone. Trucks with soldiers and construction workers rumbled though the sleeping city and tore up telephone wires and streets to West Berlin, dug holes to put up concrete posts, and strung barbed wire across the border. The 100km wall wrapped up West Berlin. In the morning, there was widespread shock. Whichever side of the border you went to bed on 12 August, you were stuck there for decades. The wall captured the imagination, defining the Cold War.

The wall went through four transformations in its 28-year history. It started as a barbed-wire fence with concrete posts, but after a few days, it was replaced with a permanent structure of concrete blocks, topped with barbed wire. A third version in 1965 was a concrete wall, supported by steel girders. The fourth built in 1980 had 3.6m high and 1.2m wide concrete slabs with a smooth pipe across the top to stop people from scaling it. By 1989 there was a 91m No-Man’s-Land, an additional inner wall, soldiers patrolling with dogs, raked ground that showed footprints, anti-vehicle trenches, electric fences, massive light systems, watchtowers, bunkers, and minefields.

About 200 people were killed trying to cross this labyrinth and another 5000 escaped over or under it. The only people allowed to cross the border were foreign tourists, diplomats and military personnel. There were three crossing points: Helmstedt, Dreilinden and Berlin Friedrichstrasse. Helmstedt was called Checkpoint Alpha, Dreilinden got Bravo and Friedrichstrasse was Charlie. When East German border guards at Checkpoint Charlie checked identification as western soldiers entered the Soviet sector on 25 October 1961,  the Americans said the Allied right to move freely had been violated. For 16 hours there was an imminent threat of war. The next day, both sides withdrew as Kennedy and Khrushchev hastily cobbled together an agreement.

While the 1989 revolutions were all startling in their speed, the fall of the Wall was the most stunning. On 9 November 1989, East German central committee spokesman Günter Schabowski made a surprise announcement: “Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR (East Germany) into the FRG (West Germany) or West Berlin.” “As of when?” asked an Italian journalist. Schabowski hesitated and then improvised: “As far as I know … as of now.”

It was a shock to locals decoding his bureaucratic announcement to realise the border was open. The first East Germans approached tentatively and found border guards were letting people cross. Within an hour, people from both sides crowded to the Wall. Some brought hammers and chisels. Others hugged, kissed, cheered and cried. Schabowski, who was later imprisoned, said he remembered a Stasi agent telling him: “Comrade Schabowski, the border is open. Nothing to report.”

Now the Wall is mostly gone and the few remaining scraps are tourist attractions. The East and West are reunited though the East still lags. Germany is arguably weaker as a united country with a reunification bill of €1.3 trillion. Trabants litter the streets but few people are calling for the return of the DDR. The Berlin Wall was the supreme monument to the corrosive power of the old regime’s paranoia and distrust.

The politics of social media

“Corporations and politicians worldwide have latched onto social media to advertise their brand and get the message out. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election was supercharged by Facebook and social networking, which became the ultimate tool for gauging public opinion and speaking to the masses. But working with social media can fast go horribly wrong. US Congressman Anthony Weiner’s recent fall from grace was brutal and should be a lesson to all who merge online networking with real-time power chasing. Social media holds power potential for those who play the game correctly. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, hire someone else to do it right. And always keep your pants on.” Paul Barry, The Power Index
Hot on the heels of British plans to shut down social networks to stop rioting, comes news they have already been beaten to it by the US. Demonstrators in San Francisco had planned a protest to condemn the shooting death of Charles Hill. Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers killed Hill on 3 July 3 after they responded to complaints about a drunk man at a station.
A week later protesters shut down three BART stations and planned a second protest last week. This time BART interrupted wireless service for three hours at some BART stations, to “ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.” They claimed they asked providers to stop service, but later admitted they did it themselves as it is allowed to do under its contracts with the providers – Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.
The move prompted hacking group Anonymous to hit back. They have planned Operation BART which they said was “meant to teach BART a lesson about the dangers of censoring people…and is supposed to be an educational experience for the operators.” Yesterday, they defaced BART affiliated websites and released user info for the website saying they “are just warmed up.”
Anonymous compared the San Francisco moves to government censorship in the Arab Spring. “In Egypt and Tunisia, we saw people struggling to make their voices heard,” Anonymous said. “We have seen companies such as Telecomix delve into the nastiness of political corruption in an attempt to free those censored individuals from their prisons of silence.”
Whatever the truth of that comparison, the Arab regimes remain suspicious of social networks. This week, an Egyptian has been charged with using Facebook to incite violence. The Egyptian Military Prosecution arrested activist and blogger Asmaa Mahfouz, 26 for defaming the junta and calling for armed rebellion. The court said Mahfouz used Facebook to call for the assassinations of Supreme Council of Armed Forces members and judges. “If justice is not achieved and the justice system fails us, no-one should feel upset or surprised if armed gangs emerge to carry out assassinations,” Mahfouz wrote. “As long as there is no law and there is no justice, anything can happen, and nobody should be upset.”
Mahfouz and others may be helped by the Telecomix site mentioned in the Anonymous post about BART. Telecomix is an international organisation “dedicated to informing the public about internet freedom issues”. Telecomix member Peter Fein likens it to guerrilla informational warfare. “We’re kind of like an inverse Anonymous,” Fein said. “We operate in a very similar way to Anonymous not just IRC (Internet Relay Chat ) but also the non-hierarchical structure. Except they break things and we build them.” When Egyptian authorities cut off the internet and telephones, Telecomix filled a a need for internal communication. “Not for people to be able to talk on Facebook or Twitter to the world, but amongst themselves … so there were a number of tools, mesh technology and so on — that we tried to help people figure out,” Fein said.
The experiences learned in North Africa may need to be re-applied to the Western world. British Prime Minister’s knee jerk “kill switch” proposal for social networks may sound idiotic and undemocratic but that does not mean it will not be tried if he thinks there are votes in it. Cameron’s statement to MPs said they were working with police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services “when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
People will plot violence regardless of the availability of social networks. But as the current Australian Government has shown with its internet censorship plans, moves to limit free speech are justified using tropes such as “not acceptable to civilised society” and protecting “young children”. China too has successfully mastered internet censorship with its Golden Shield (though 30 second Internet response times are throttling innovation). As Electronic Frontiers Foundation says of the Australian proposals, successful technology isn’t necessarily successful policy. “We’re still yet to hear a sensible explanation of what this policy is for, who it will help and why it is worth spending so much taxpayer money on,” said EFF.
Yet it is hardly surprising politicians are so wary of the technology. Most social media widely used today are still in their infancy and remain difficult to understand their use and potential effects. Yet as the Paul Barry quote illuminates, there is a coming of age of online political engagement, According to researchers Jim Macnamara and Gail Kenning (E-electioneering 2010: Trends in Social Media Use in Australian Political Communication) three-quarters of Australia’s federal politicians had a Facebook presence in 2010 while 57 per cent of citizens would like opportunities to comment on policies online and 36 per cent are interested in communication with their MPs online. But old habits die hard. Macnamara and Kenning found most politicians used social media primarily for one-way transmission of political messages, rather than citizen engagement or listening to the electorate. Maybe that will change as the technology matures, but equally likely it will be shackled to ensure powerbrokers keep their pants on.

Of Nika and Basmati Rice: another twocents worth on the London riots

“Cameron aims to ‘address a broken society’ with more CCTV, less social media, battering rams, water cannons and maybe the army” – @abcnewsintern
In 532 Constantinople was besieged by the worst riots in history. Known as the Nika riots, they resulted in the destruction of half the city and 30,000 deaths. It started when a member of a popular elite sporting group was arrested for murder and quickly got out of hand. But there were wider issues. Emperor Justinian was negotiating peace over an expensive war in Persia and there was simmering resentment over high taxes. Three days after the murderers sought refuge in a church, the angry mob turned its resentment on Justinian at the Hippodrome races. When it looked like he would be chased out of the city, he bought out half his opposition and his army slaughtered the other half.

I was thinking of Justinian as the notion takes hold the British riots exist in a thuggish vacuum. According to the papers lowly scum have risen up in some mysterious “now” that pays no attention to anything that has gone before. It seems the chavish untermensch are incapable of collective memory nor is it possible to admit they might have grievances. Thugs are thugs because “they have nothing better to do”.

Whatever the motivation to cause mayhem and smash other people’s property, the idea the government, the media or the police are trusted institutions to deal with the problem were smashed long before the first pane of glass. The suspicious death of a black man was a spark, but the tinder was bone-dry and sooner or later there would have been an excuse for conflagration. An army of brooms sweeping Kristallnacht 2011 under the carpet won’t stop the disenfranchised coming back for more.

As the Murdoch scandal showed, the British media are part of the problem. The BBC’s contemptuous treatment of an old black man speaking truth to power and the wall-to-wall newspaper coverage of thugs and scum reveals a frightened press desperate to hang on to privileges in the old order. Politicians too, needing to speak reassuring words of toughness to scared constituents, retreat behind paeans to law and order. There is a magical belief this will keep the disaffected off the streets.

The glue that holds communities together is losing its stickiness. Family bonds are harder to keep. Education works only for the wealthy. Religion is irrelevant. Culture is complicated and foreign. International capitalism is a stinking corpse bloated by greed and selfishness. Big business is venal, politicians are corrupt and police are inept. The cult of individualism is rampant, neighbours don’t talk to each other and everyone is suspicious of “the other”. Racism is endemic, the climate is going to hell in a hand basket and no one seems to care. A Norwegian goes berserk and tries to wipe out a political generation. But rather than examine all that, the media is besotted only by the daily minutiae of two useless royals.

Thirty years after the riots of her making, Thatcher has been proved right: There is no such thing as society. Why should the rioters behave? What’s in it for them? A fat pile of nothing, and there is no deterrent. If people will commit a crime for $2 of basmati rice then the slim prospect of jail time or a criminal record is not going to stop them. The criminals at the top end of the scale get away with their crimes, why shouldn’t the small fry try too? Their looting is caught on camera but the liars that run the business world put their hands in the back pockets of millions without youtube evidence.

It is sad for the small businesses that suffered across Britain in the last few days – no doubt Constantinople’s unfortunate merchants paid an equally high price in the Nika Riots. They are on the frontline of a civil war that has a long way to go and like any soft target, will be picked on again. Cameron is no Justinian, nor is the equally ineffectual Ed Miliband. Britain must wait for the reliable rain to relieve the riots, not its robotic politicians.

The slow lingering death of journalism

Not everyone seems impressed, but in my view Lindsay Tanner raised substantive points in his interview with Leigh Sales this week in the 7.30 Report. Tanner was arguing from his new book Sideshow where he says the media are largely to blame for the shoddy state of our polity. The argument was never fully teased out. The interviewer took the adversarial role of blaming the politicians for the problem and the issue of media behaviour was ignored.

Sales didn’t address the problems Tanner raised: “gotcha journalism”, the treatment of gaffes, the trivialisation of politics as a game, and the glorification of the aggrieved whenever reform is proposed. Instead she took the easy line, pushing back on the duty of the politician to rise above the shackles the media has imposed. As Kerryn Goldsworthy pointed out, it was a textbook example of the problem Tanner was describing.

Sales kept asking why politicians couldn’t rise above it, but never once explored the other half of the problem, or even acknowledge it existed. It is as if the commodification of news is a taboo topic, which is somewhat understandable. After all, what media will admit to its audience the inconvenient fact they are part of the problem they are analysing?

Certainly none of the media organisations that spent millions of dollars giddily covering Friday’s Royal Wedding would make any such admission. As Dan Rather pointed out, we should remember this next time a media company closes a bureau or is unable to cover a “foreign story with full force”. This week-long extravaganza saw hundreds of journalists stationed in Green Park seeking mind-numbing excreta on the edges of the wedding. The one snippet I caught of Channel 7’s Sunrise on Wednesday morning featured an in depth article on Kate Middleton’s stripper cousin or to use the parlance beloved of media pretending not to be prudish while being prurient, Middleton’s “saucy cousin”.

I don’t blame the journalists. Short of News of the World tactics and hacking the Royals’ phone service, they are not going to get an exclusive royal story outside the long lens. They’re hard working hacks who devote their talents to a Kevin Bacon game finding news in saucy strippers two irrelevant stages removed from another irrelevancy. The only newsworthy elements of the Royal Wedding are the fuss over the Bahraini ambassador, the snub to Blair and Brown, and the censoring of the Chaser’s attempt to satirise the wedding. Tanner’s Sideshow has moved into centre stage.

The problem is, as Robert McChesney puts it, media companies are a government sanctioned oligopoly, owned by a few highly profitable corporate entities. They guard their privilege through legislative influence and control of news coverage; they distort understanding of media issues. According to Eric Beecher it is a convergence of economic, technological and societal trends threatening “quality media” in an unprecedented way. He blames a media obsession with celebrity, fame, trivia and lifestyles as serious analysis cannot attract a broad constituency “without large dollops of celebrity gossip and soft lifestyle coverage.”

The Royal Wedding is easy news – controllable, glamorous and unthreatening. No journalist is taking chances like Mohammad Nabous or Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. These men died trying to communicate things people don’t want you to know. But as Lindsay Tanner points out, the companies they work for don’t want you to know either. The model is borked. Investigative and analytical journalism do not pay their way. With the ABC entrenched in the status quo, only the unpaid fifth estate is showing any interest in saving democracy. But without the power and kudos of the fourth, I don’t fancy their chances.