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Tuesday, 31 March 2009

People shuffled between knees and seats and walked across in front of the stage as my computer played the easy-listening tunes piped into the auditorium. Finally the music faded out and a light applause was heard. Then Simon Longstaff from the St James Ethics Centre introduced the debaters and opened proceedings.

The Intelligence2 debate has shifted definitively into cyberspace with tonight's face-off being streamed live from the venue and advertised ahead of time on the Sydney Morning Herald's website's front page. Organisers might have to come up with some sort of audience activity to add more value now. Who would want to go out if you can watch it live on your computer?

The story that led me to the video website appeared on the Herald's website at about 6.15pm. The debate started at 6.45pm so there was plenty of time to prepare. Not that there's much to do. A fresh cup of coffee is all that I needed to get ready for the fireworks. The Herald decided to include three unlikely collaborators on the affirmative side: David Marr, Janet Albrechtsen and Peter Jensen. The topic? 'Freedom of expression must include licence to offend'.

On the negative are a law academic, Fleur Johns, a special-interest figure, David Knoll, and Donald McDonald, director of the Classification Board.

Voting tickets were provided for the audience to lodge a preference 'for' or 'against'. The vote is counted before audience questions and presented at the end of proceedings.

One glitch at 6.52 stopped play for a few seconds. At 7.19 and 7.21 there were more short glitches. More glitches at 7.53, 7.58, 8.02, 8.03, 8.06 (twice), 8.10, 8.11 (three times) and 8.16. I wonder where these are occurring – at their end or at mine.

Convenience is a boon when watching streamed video. I got up to make food for a few minutes (no, not cup noodles!) during Albrechtsen's address. I wonder if I missed much...

I got the microwave running while David Knoll was answering audience questions, so the slight advantage the negative side got earlier was nullified.

Female voices are slightly less easy for hearing words clearly, particularly the sibillants which sometimes explode in the speakers obscuring what comes next.

McDonald's defense fell short of the high standard adhered to generally by being almost a defense of his own job – that of chief censor.

The applause following David Marr's address was conspicuous by its force and despite the fact that the rice interrupted my attention during the journalist's address, I thought he'd be the critical factor in ensuring a win for the affirmative.

However, I reasoned, given the purported bias of the audience – online viewers can't vote – it seemed possible that the negative would win. This sounds odd considering that the only things I could see during the lead-up to the debate were a few profiles, a number of bobbing shoulders as people moved along the rows looking for their seats, and the scuttling dark forms of people looking for their seats further up toward the stage at the front of the auditorium.

Marr was compelling because he was funny. The only funny thing McDonald said was to refer to Marr ironically. His method didn't differ significantly from that of the others, who all used examples – colour and texture – to illustrate their point. In terms of pure sophistication I think the laurel should go to Johns. At some points her address was more complicated than the low-res video (it's difficult to lip-read online) allowed for.

I anticipated problems with hearing the audience questions as they would be looking in the opposite direction but it turned out that the only difficulty was created by the fact that many of them stood in shadow while speaking.

Knoll's concluding remarks got a good applause but that may have been due to relief that the debate had finally ended. I missed the SBS Insight program about the government's proposed web black list, unfortunately.

And the vote? 76 per cent voted for the affirmative side, 19 per cent for the negative and 5 per cent were undecided.

As to the other question – who would go to these debates – Longstaff exhorted people to book early as demand now outstrips the number of seats available.

Curiously, when I'd finished watching there was no link back to the SMH website, only to the BusinessDay website. This seems like a curious – if not sneaky – way to get people to visit the website.

Another reason to watch at home? I had a long conversation on chat - though not so disrupting as the food as I could listen while typing - and you can't really do that if you sit in the audience. Although some people might like the chance to get away from their computer long enough to just sit for a while without electronic interference.

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