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Sunday, 31 March 2013

Some reporting failures are due to a lack of resources

Police at a Sydney school in 2008.
After listening to musician Dave Grohl's keynote to the SXSW conference - in which he talks about finding your individual "voice" - I had a look at some of the stories I worked on when I had just started out as a freelance journalist but that didn't make it to print. One was about payback violence in schools which began a year earlier as a blog post. I worked on the story in early 2009 and research included visiting a courthouse to observe proceedings following another, similar, violent attack in Sydney's west.

Working on the story made me contact many stakeholders including the New South Wales Department of Education as well as specialists in children's issues, even three regular parents of high school kids who I knew. And I found that it was a big issue, with many involved stakeholders and many different points of view. Not the sort of story the Daily Terror would be interested in, although I met with one of their reporters at the courthouse and we talked about the issues. Eventually he stopped answering my emails. He was looking for an interview with one of the youths who had been involved in school payback attacks - and there have been many over the years, although we seem not to hear of them nowadays - not a heavy "issues" piece filled with quotes from experts. That's not his newspaper's style. They want something to justify a shrill headline.

The government had to be coaxed into releasing information about violent attacks at schools, and even when they did, the reports were heavily redacted to remove information that might enable the discovery of the identity of the children involved. The police would not comment. The people who were most willing to talk were people working with organisations with charters aimed at providing services to help children cope. One of these people was Joe Tucci, who heads the Australian Childhood Foundation. Another was Maree Faulkner, head of the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. There was also Rey Reodica, CEO of the Youth Action & Policy Association. My understanding was that people like these look for ways to work with the government to improve outcomes for children because often the children who are involved in the kinds of crimes the Daily Terror so energetically runs have come from backgrounds that have conditioned them to react to certain situations in certain ways. We talk for example of dysfunctional families. Tucci said:
They probably have experienced some level of violence themselves. And definitely some level of obstruction in their development. So I think they have to make sense of some life events that generally have got some trauma in them. A lot of these kids that have been really violent in school environments have experienced abuse and neglect. I think that that’s the missing link that we tend to blame young people and focus on them as being responsible for the violence. You can track it back to their childhood and that childhood is one that’s full of disregard and a sense that they don’t have any kind of adult relationship that they can rely on. I think that if we really wanted to do something about violence in schools - and in particular payback violence - we would start much earlier.
Each interview spawns the need for further interviews. Like a Russian doll there's always a new line of inquiry encapsulated within the one you've just covered. As Jay Rosen said at a UK conference last year, this is a wicked problem. Do you stop at parental neglect? Do you go on to look at the issue of poverty? What about the ethnic background of the boys I saw in the courtroom - the same ethnic background as the boys involved in the 2008 attack - do you then go on to look at how multiculturalism works? Is there an element of racism? Where do the leads terminate?

I tried to do enough research but there was no topical hook to hang it on and no editor was interested in taking it. I was an untried quantity as well. The story was too long and not well-written enough. I spiked it and moved on after having worked on it happily for a couple of months. But I look back now and I know that my instincts were right. I just didn't have the exposure to the issues I needed. I had no guiding conversationalist in an editor to help make sense of it all. I didn't understand the ethical issues involved in reporting on children - especially crimes committed by children - properly. I was under-resourced but I basically knew what I was doing although I'd only just started out as a freelancer.

Watching the mainstream media nowadays, four years later, the lack of stories about payback violence at schools worries me because I strongly suspect that it's still happening. The stories are not being reported and I wonder why. I wonder if the police, the education departments, and the journalists have agreed not to cover such stories. Has the Daily Terror had a change of heart? Or is it just that there are not enough resources, now, in the mainstream media, to enable journalists to cover such stories at all? I wonder if this lack of coverage is just one concrete sign that economic realities are leading to a system failure in journalism.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

SMaC Talk podcast website breaks new ground

From left: Khoo, Tait and Sackville.
Not sure if anyone's seen this website before. It's three smart writing women who are internet natives talking about stuff. Smart and irreverent. The website is a new kind of Thing so it might give some enterprising people a good idea or two; how to quickly put up compelling content that costs nothing to make. In other words, it's all in the talent and their interactions. Laughter and wry humour warnings apply.

While the talk is fairly unstructured the role of anchor seems to be held by Valerie Khoo, who runs the Australian Writers' Centre and also writes feature stories for Fairfax Media mastheads and other publications. Although each woman has a different voice and you get used to learning who is speaking it takes a bit of concentration to be sure. So handovers might be a bit better handled. Khoo's associates in the podcasts (I listened to episode 3) are Allison Tait, who is also a journalist and also writes books, and Kerri Sackville, who teaches social media at the Australian Writers' Centre and calls herself a social media addict. Sackville has also written two memoirs.

I don't know how the women decided on the topic runsheet but there was a fair amount of talk about how to get published, agents, publishers and the like. These are topics of vital interest to the SMaC Talk crew and can certainly be of use to listeners. The show really picked up for me when they started talking about Jessica Gomes, the model who has just been chosen to represent David Jones, the embattled Australian retailer. This is something I have written about - a week ago in fact - but listening to these women talk about Gomes I felt I had missed the point. Body shape? It never occurred to me. So here I learned something useful. Other topics include a chocolate cake and a piece of writing by Helen Razer, who is popular with some people and has a reputation for an unconventional style and an outspoken mind.

Video and audio are avidly consumed online, and the mainstream media is starting to adopt these modes of communication. The Australian has dabbled in them, and Crikey has an interesting regular show where their journalists talk among each other about different things. Freelance journalist Stilgherrian has been doing podcasts for years, and has a loyal following. And just a week or so ago I wrote about the Guardian's Budget round-up, which features eight regular journalists talking about the government's submission to Parliament. As in that case, with SMaC Talk it's all about affect - that ephemeral aspect of communication that facilitates take-up for the audience. Here affect is contained in the tones of the three women's voices, their expressions of taste, their wry comments, their laughter, and their sense of the ridiculous. It's fun and engaging.

And slightly disturbing. These women's voices can potentially be useful to critique things other than writing, fashion models and chocolate cake. Imagine these voices applied to politics, for example, or any one of a number of issues that are broadly important to Australians. The first episode appeared about two weeks ago and the website says it's a trial to run for three months, so interested netizens can look forward to quite a few new podcasts over the coming weeks on SMaC Talk.

How I found a painting of the Virgin Mary in Kyushu

With university over for the year, at the end of 1982 I had the chance to travel in Japan and also to work there. I spent over a month there mainly in Tokyo but also including a trip by train west and south which took in the central Japan city of Kyoto and the southern island of Kyushu. Here I made my way to Kumamoto, caught a train to Misumi and then got on a ferry to Shimabara. On the ferry I met a group of young men and women who were taking a trip of their own. They were locals and they took me under their wing and showed me around. I eventually left them and travelled to Nagasaki where I met a couple - a man and a woman - from Australia who were also travelling around.

One thing that struck me while I was in Shimabara was a painting of the Virgin Mary that was hung inside some sort of structure. I don't remember if it was a church, or what. But I did take a photo of it.


When was the painting made? There's no way to know now. But in any case the idea of periodicity in Japan is somewhat moot due to the cultural preference for tradition over innovation. Because of this, in the painting you can see a depiction of the Virgin Mary that most probably is identical to how this personage was rendered in Japan's medieval period, but using clothing that had been used in Japan ever since the Chinese cultural infusion that dates from the beginning of Japan's classical period, in around the year 500 AD; so this is Chinese T'ang garb on a figure that began to be depicted in the 16th Century, and which has been reproduced accurately by, say, a 20th Century craftsman for the use of the contemporary community. Japan is an astonishing place in so many ways.

Andrew Goble writes in Japan Emerging ( a book I reviewed here two weeks ago) that the medieval period in Japan spans the years from the late 12th Century to the late 16th Century, and William Bodiford writes later in the book that Christianity was introduced by Portuguese and Spanish missionaries.
Buddhism faced no real challenge to its spiritual hegemony until the second half of the sixteenth century when Christian missionaries came to Japan from Portugal and Spain. After a great deal of confusion - initially the Europeans interpreted Buddhism in Christian terms, while the Japanese interpreted Christianity in Buddhist terms - many warrior leaders in Kyushu converted to Christianity and gave free reign to Christian teachers. In 1576 a large Christian church (Our Lady of the Assumption; also known as the Nanbanji, or "Barbarian Temple") was dedicated in Kyoto. During this same decade, between 1571 and 1581, the warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) conducted a series of military campaigns against several major Buddhist monasteries and their armed militias. His attack on Mt. Hiei is especially noteworthy since it destroyed the heart of traditional aristocratic Buddhism. Subsequent hegemons, however, saw Christianity as the greater threat to their political power. First, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) issued orders to expel the missionaries, and then the Tokugawa Shogunate enforced those orders by establishing a nation-wide system of family registration at Buddhist temples. The establishment of temple registration marks the end not just of medieval religion but of the diversity and freedom that engendered it.
Despite the official censure, however, it appears that Christianity survived in Japan in some places; or else the people who came to use the picture shown in this blogpost converted to Christianity later, after the Tokugawa Shogunate was so dramatically deposed by US Admiral Perry and his black ships. Certainly, the period that follows the shogunate, which we call the Meiji era, was characterised by a general opening-up of Japan to the world, so it's likely that many Japanese became interested in religions other than Buddhism in those years.

The reason I decided to put up this blogpost is because it says something about intercultural mixing, which is something that we see happening at a greatly accelerated rate in these days of globalisation and multiculturalism. And I think it's something to applaud. So this post can serve as some sort of reminder that the mingling of cultures is ancient, interesting, and fruitful.

Economic performance in Australia and the US since 1980

In a 20 March blogpost Grogs Gamut uses graphs to show how gradual growth increase is better than a boom-and-bust cycle, by comparing real GDP growth in the US and Australia over a number of decades. Thinking of the GFC you can reasonably say that the reason Australia didn't see negative growth, as the US did, is because of more regulation of our banking system. So it's reasonable to say that it is better to have a regulated banking system than to allow banks to do anything they like; the public interest is not served when corporations are allowed to operate unfettered by any laws. So Gamut's post is a clear fillip to moderates and a slap in the face to economic libertarians. The IPA should note this fact.

But I also think there's more to the story than just this, and it gets back to how the US manufacturing industry has been hollowed out since Bill Clinton granted Most Favored Nation status to China in 2000 - this is the point in time at which the trends for Australia and the US start to diverge. Clinton's move led, a year later, to China entering the WTO.
At the time Clinton was pushing for China's acceptance by the world it was said jobs would be created in the US. What happened instead was the hollowing-out of the US industrial heartland. Both jobs and manufacturing capacity migrated to China. 
In Australia, low-value-added manufacturing started to move to Asia earlier, in the 1980s under Hawke because of his deregulation policies. Australia's economy adapted during a time of growth, and people reskilled or leveraged their existing skills to find jobs in industries where there was demand for their effort and time. The way things are now in the US, American workers are effectively competing against lower-wage workers in Asia for the same jobs, which has pulled down US wages. In some industries, those wages have dropped so low that Asian corporations are setting up manufacturing plants in small, rural US towns where they can take advantage of a skilled workforce as well as proximity to their target markets. And tax breaks, and a supine town government. This is one form of economic integration.

I also think there are further reasons why Australia has fared better in the Asian Century, than the US, and it has to do with a different kind of economic integration.

One reason why Australia is an attractive location for Asian people to live is because the time zones are so close; it's only a couple of hours difference between Sydney and Beijing. But look at another demographic fact: since last year we see that the most-spoken second language in Australian homes is Chinese. I wonder how many businesses there are that are operated in Australia by ethnic Chinese and that serve the Chinese market? The large number of workers in Australia who speak both Chinese and English is a valuable resource because it allows Australian businesses to provide higher-value products to Chinese consumers - the rapidly-rising Chinese middle class - including the kinds of services (in addition to education, which we already provide in quantity) that China needs to negotiate its massive demographic shift from being an agrarian economy to being an urban economy.

And not only the time zones but also geographic proximity. Some exports to Asia are facilitated by how close Australia is to the region, for example in the case of food. And it's not just China, either. There are 190 million people in Indonesia and the same economic transformation that is so loudly talked about happening in China is also happening there.

So Hawke and Keating turn out to be visionary leaders who made sometimes unpopular decisions in the national interest. Building on their innovations, Gillard has made Asia a primary focus and if we can stop talking about the stale fact of the ALP's leadership there are a lot of things that can be said to stimulate Australian businesses to develop better ideas in this area. The media has a role to play in this regard. The Opposition has already started to pay attention, with Abbott in his new Plan suggesting a new kind of integration: a 'new Colombo Plan', with some of Australia's high-performing students having the chance to be placed inside Asian universities where they can soak up the culture and learn to speak the language of Asian business.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Tom Waterhouse is the future, and it stinks

Disliked.
It's hilarious watching otherwise intelligent people complain that their beloved rugby league is being inundated on TV with ads for online gambling companies eager to entice the punters to even bigger thrills. The tweets have been coming thick and fast tonight and the name that keeps coming up is that of Tom Waterhouse, who has recently been targeted from many quarters because the way he is used in football game coverage blurs the distinction between the role of compere and that of sponsor.

Waterhouse is some sort of "iconic" Australian, part of a "dynasty" because his mother is a famous horse trainer. "It's in the blood," is the sort of moronic treatment you can imagine half-soaked punters slurring as they exit the TAB on a Saturday evening. The Chaser did a hilarious skit treatment of Waterhouse last year that seems to have had exactly zero impact on how mainstream Australia thinks of him, which is hardly surprising. And the same people who are tweeting their consternation at his omnipresence on TV football coverage are the ones who watch The Chaser. They can't win. Middle Australia gives not a hoot whether clever ABC comedians think Waterhouse is a walking joke. They watch commercial free-to-air TV and those stations have one thing in their sights - and one thing only - which is income.

Football started going commercial in the 80s when the money moved in. Teams no longer had to represent their native turf, but could be made up of players sourced from anywhere - if the club had the money to pay for them. And it's just getting worse and worse. The Cronulla Sharks episode won't be the last. And as Australia integrates more closely with Asia over the coming decades the gambling infection will worsen. James Packer can't be that wrong. Waterhouse will look like a mild infestation of crabs in the future, when gangrene will have set in and the sport will be completely dominated by monied interests all looking - like Facebook - to make a buck out of peoples' keen attention. Of course the sport will suffer. The question is: when will it get so bad that smart people simply turn off.

Stronger ties with China's leaders depend on deeper knowledge of China by regular Australians

Gough Whitlam in China in 1973 with
Stephen FitzGerald (right).
It has hardly been a focus for us in the community in recent days but apparently Julia Gillard is going to China next Friday, which gives her an opportunity to put into practice some of the ideas she voiced in the Asian Century white paper, which came out in October. It's been over six months since that document emerged from the fastnesses of Australia's busy bureaucracy but the quantity of public debate on it has been frankly dismal because, to a large degree, the media has been more intent on the ALP's leadership struggles.

But some people have been watching, although they're mostly isolated from the hurly-burly of the public sphere. One of them is Stephen FitzGerald, who was Gough Whitlam's ambassador to China, and who has recently gone public with a lecture - Australia and China at Forty: Stretch of the Imagination, which he didn't give due to health reasons - at the Australian Centre on China in the World at the ANU in Canberra. FitzGerald is down on the government's dealings with China's leadership, which he says started to suffer under Howard and have not improved since. Calling for a deeper, more strategic dialogue with China's leaders, FitzGerald underscores how discussion of relations with China has become largely economic in content. He wants something deeper.
We have to think about China, not as another United States – that would be ridiculous – but in somewhat the same conceptual and functional way as we think about the United States, or other parts of the world where we have more longstanding relationships than we have with China – the UK for example, or Europe. We have important economic relationships with all of those, but the way we think about them and feel we can relate to them is multi-dimensional and not just economic, and in our policy we respond to several dimensions and in our relations we work at knowing them in these several dimensions, and knowing their politics as well as their political and other elites.
When FitzGerald says "we" I think that he means all Australians but my impression is that he's mainly talking about those who operate at the elite level, such as politicians and senior bureaucrats. Which suggests some level of naivety about how the polity operates in Australia, where regular opinion polls are the focus of intense scrutiny by both the community (through the media) and the elites themselves. It's easy for policies to get shelved in the face of strong, negative media coverage and a bad poll. And while I agree that a deeper dialogue with China is necessary FitzGerald seems to miss the point of the Australian values that he elsewhere says the Chinese leadership must respect when doing business in Australia, such as freedom of speech. At one place in his lecture, FitzGerald scathingly talks about "the way public discussion is often reduced to caricature by the media". You wonder if he really understands how the public sphere in a liberal democracy operates.

You get the feeling that FitzGerald would prefer all debate to be conducted in public only by those most qualified to make comment, such as academics.
I have some sympathy for the academics, because of the way public discussion is often reduced to caricature by the media, the dismissive spin with which government responds to intellectual debate, and the personal denigration that too often greets different views.
This acknowledges how public debate in Australia is often not as collegiate as those academics would prefer, which may be why they tend to stay out of the business of public speech altogether. But then FitzGerald goes on to support, in a completely different context, the freedom that Australia's media enjoys at home:
Exceptionalism doesn’t drive everything in China’s foreign policy, but it does influence foreign relations from time to time and it’s not new. In the 1970s, for example, the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni made a documentary film about China which the Chinese denounced as anti-Chinese. When the ABC announced it would show the film, a protest was lodged in Canberra with a demand that the showing be cancelled. On the Australian side, we said this was a matter of our right to freedom of speech and the media. The Chinese attitude was not just that China objected to the film but that when China says so we actually don’t have that right – in effect, the Chinese right extinguishes ours – and the attitude was self-righteous and rude and somewhat bullying.
So it seems that FitzGerald wants it both ways. He doesn't like the Australian media but he is a vocal supporter of the rights - such as that public speech is protected under law - that allow them to carry on the way they do. It seems to depend on whose nose he is tweaking at any point in time. And he also seems to miss the fact that Australian politicians listen to the views of the electorate and tend to base their public announcements on them so that they will be viewed in a good light. We'll leave aside the idea of "leadership" here and just say that in the behaviour of the media anyone can easily observe how government actions merge with the expectations of the electorate. This is something quite foreign, I would suggest, for China's leaders, who expect their media to obediently follow guidelines set at the top.

So you wonder what FitzGerald thinks of the average voter in Australia. But look, here's something in the lecture that gives us an idea:
It was in the second half of the ’90s that this contraction in China focus to the economic began, and a separation of policy into deepening economic engagement on the one hand but retreat from the Hawke/Keating strategy of deepening political engagement on the other. This was a political choice. But there were also other factors at work, and one which I think was important was a shift in attitudes in Australian society at that time, the rise of the ‘aspirational voter’. This was the voter more interested in an ever-better personal material life than in party platforms for reform or social change or policy debate about ideas or visions or values. This trend went hand in hand with the rise of the aspirational politician, the one who cares less about ideas and principles and standing on them and more about gaining and staying in office and therefore more about the aspirations of aspirational voters, and what Ken Henry calls ‘the race for political points and the key to the Lodge’. That aspirational culture has since been overtaken by the culture of entitlement, perpetual material winning, fed shamelessly by both sides of politics.
Within his lecture there are many indications that FitzGerald is yearning for a golden era - one where he personally played a pivotal role as ambassador to China - where public debate was "meaningful" rather than just being about money. But look at how different the whole world was in the 70s, a decade where all nations were still struggling with the imperial imperatives of the dominant Cold War nations. Thank God that time has passed, I say. If the average voter in Australia - like the average citizen in China, I believe - is more interested in material gain then that can only be a good thing. The last thing anyone wants is a return to the kind of toxic paradigm where political parties are threatened with silence - as happened in Australia when Robert Menzies tried to make the Communist Party illegal here - because that kind of bullying behaviour is exactly what happens in China today.

What do I personally think? In a real sense I agree with FitzGerald when he calls for a deeper engagement with China but I also think that this can only happen within civil society itself. And that depends on the voter. Regular Australians must want it to happen. And they need to know more about China in the same way they are well informed about Europe and the US. Europe? It's our political heritage. The US? We were very comfortable when John Curtin gave Douglas MacArthur leadership over Australia's military in WWII.

In a real sense China needs to sell itself better to FitzGerald's aspirational voter, and the Australian media has a crucial role to play here too. In this second case, for example, there are three Chinese-language newspapers operating in Sydney alone. What contact does Fairfax, say, have with the editors who work in those offices in Chinatown? What kinds of stories do ethnic Chinese living in Sydney care about? Surely there are ways to deepen our understanding of the real views of Chinese people in China by watching how ethnic Chinese in Australia engage with the world. And one thing that Gillard's Asian Century white paper does talk about is education. The only way that better relations at the top can be achieved is by deepening understanding of China - regular Chinese people, not just China's leadership - within the Australian community.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

I grew up with magazines but I live with social media

I had lunch at my mother's house as usual the other week and while eating my sandwich at the dining table I was half-listening to the TV and also reading the newspaper in front of me. The TV was on the ABC of course and the program was about the golden age of magazines in the US in the 50s. An elderly gentleman with a handsome, rugged face and some gravitas was lamenting the passing of those august vehicles while I scanned the news and turned a page.

It was an ideal program for my octogenarian mother. My parents brought quite a few magazines into our house when I was growing up in Sydney, although I never really understood how they got there. My impression now is that mum bought House & Garden and Vogue at the newsagents while dad's copies of Fortune arrived in the mail. There was also Arizona Highways and National Geographic, which must also have come through subscriptions. The first and last of these were the ones that interested me. I loved the colour spreads of Nat Geo and hardly realised how superficial and picturesque the articles that accompanied them were. I devoured them. They took me to different places and enabled me to imagine things outside my own, immediate world. House & Garden appealed to my artistic side, not because of the depictions of home interiors with their furnishings and curtains, but because of the floor plans that came with them. I got my parents to buy me a set of special, fine-nibbed, German-made architectural pens so that I could design my own dwellings on paper. I labelled the rooms I carefully drew "den", "living room", "master bedroom". The pens also came in handy for impressing friends at school.

My own magazine purchases ran to ones about sailing and of course Mad Magazine, which I think must have been a common staple of teenage reading in the 70s. There was a time when I was mad on boats. My father was a boatie from way back in the 40s in Melbourne when he used to race VJs and Omegas. I owned a Laser in those years, which I sold before buying a Windsurfer that I raced in school regattas. One year we travelled to Melbourne and raced against Geelong Grammar; I was ceremonially dunked for winning one race. But all this changed radically when I entered university. There, the magazines I was exposed to were arcane Italian journals filled with literary criticism. Living in Glebe, I became involved with a small poetry magazine and joined in its editing and distribution activities. I would later help a friend produce another literary magazine using an Apple Mac; it was the mid-80s and dad brought the machine home from his office for us to use for layout and word processing.

In the early 90s my focus shifted again because I'd taken a job in a corporate communications unit inside a technology manufacturer. Our manager had subscriptions to The Economist and the Far-East Economic Review, Time and Fortune. After she had read them they would be circulated with place-holder sticky notes indicating which articles should be photocopied and filed. We had file boxes with categories reflecting the markets and locations our company did business in. The collected material would later become a handy resource when it came time to writing a case study on a particular sales success, a market review, or a product launch.

Magazines are coping with changes introduced by the internet, just as journalism is. Newsagent stands still offer a wide range of titles for practically any niche you can think of. Meanwhile there are countless blogs that marry words and images, suggesting another golden age, but one that is not yet comprehensible. And there were 1.1 million Twitter users in Australia in 2011 and 9.4 million Facebook users. All of these people seem to be intent on sharing images and links to stories. It's another incomprehensible domain that the mainstream media has not chosen to describe, although there are niche magazines and websites that focus on this theatre of effort. 1.1 million is a number as big as the population of the city of Adelaide, and 9.4 million is a number bigger than the population of New South Wales, Australia's largest state. But as yet we have not engaged fully with the job of describing these communities. How many communities are there? Who is connected to whom, and why?

It's fun for my mother to watch a program about the halcyon days of pictorial magazines, but that was a time that existed a generation before the invention of the internet. The internet itself is pretty old, older of course than the World Wide Web (saying it like this sounds so outdated, like saying "telephone" instead of "call"). So much has happened to change the way that information is created, shared, and used. This is having an impact on power relations in societies, too. In other words, social media is changing the nature of the public sphere in radical ways. But it seems that the mainstream media, while content to promote its content using social media, has not found a reason to talk about how it all actually functions. Maybe they are too heavily invested in it to objectively examine how it works.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Don't call it 'independent' media

I had a heated exchange on social media with a young writer some months back about whether to call small emerging online media websites "independent". I hear a lot of people talking about the "independent media" for example, using an analogue to the situation in the music industry where small labels set themselves apart from the "majors" by using the word "indie" to describe themselves. But the reality doesn't cut so cleanly in Australia. Or anywhere. All media is by definition "independent" because it's role is to be a watchman and to protect the community from abuse by powerful interests, be they government, corporations or private individuals.

There are three main print companies in Australia: News Ltd, Fairfax Media and APN News & Media. When I think about these three companies I find it hard to see anything that unites them. They all have different structures in terms of ownership. APN, for example, is 30 percent owned by Irish company Independent News & Media. APN largely serves regional markets. It's the little guy among the big three and nobody really knows what it stands for except that it operates tabloid newspapers. News Ltd is owned by US parent News Corp, which is traded on the NASDAQ but in which Rupert Murdoch has a controlling share. Most people understand that News Ltd papers have a conservative bias. Fairfax Media serves metro markets - Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Canberra - and is publicly traded on the ASX. Most people see Fairfax as gradually becoming more popularist but retaining its mainly objective stance. Then there's the government-funded ABC, which has a broad charter to serve the interests of the Australian public; the ABC is a highly trusted source of information. Because APN is mainly in regional markets the general consensus is that the Australian mainstream media (MSM) involves the other three players.

In the general news and the political space - which is the space people mostly inhabit online - there are a number of small, new websites. Crikey is a website owned by a company called Private Media which also operates a set of niche publications that are on the web. Crikey is the big little brother and tends to be irreverent, taking its publishing cues to a certain degree from the Big 3 but also doing plenty of original reporting. It is based in Melbourne but serves the entire Australian market. Crikey survives by subscriptions and advertising. New Matilda is a small outfit owned by one person, Marni Cordell, who also does a lot of the editing work. It is more overtly Left in its politics and tends to go for the alternative view, running stories that can appeal to an urban elite. New Matilda solicits reader donations. Independent Australia is a new outfit that does some interesting longer journalism and publishes no information about its ownership, but only about its editorial staff. I suspect that it is operated by volunteers. Like New Matilda, Independent Australia tends to sit on the Left on the political spectrum. Then there's Australians For Honest Politics, which was set up by ex-Fairfax journalist Margo Kingston. It is run by volunteers in southeast Queensland. The site is highly irreverent and is as happy to criticise the MSM as it is politicians. The Global Mail is a not-for-profit outfit set up using money provided by internet entrepreneur Graeme Woods. Headquartered in Sydney, it runs longer journalism and mixes its focus between the original and the topical.

As in the case of the MSM, there is not a lot to enable you to group these smaller, new news websites together. Crikey optimistically uses the word "independent" twice on its masthead, as if that gives it credibility and a new kind of gravitas. Funny thing is that The Global Mail does the same. I say optimistically because compared to the other three websites listed above Crikey is the most established, best-staffed, and richest one we've got. Australians For Honest Politics makes Crikey look like the MSM.

Others can continue to use the word "independent" to group together such websites as these, in opposition to such companies as those. But I won't. To me, these little startups will always be just small news websites. I wish them all well. It is amazing how we are so well-served by them in the face of a striking lack of diversity within Australian media generally. There are estimates that News Ltd, for example, controls 70 percent of the print media here. I especially wish the little guys well because despite the growth of internet usage most people still tend to rely on the MSM for their news. One reason for this is the depth of their newsrooms; the MSM just has more people doing news and so is able to pull together fuller accounts quicker than can the smaller outfits. The thing to remember is that it's the community that drives this business. Your clicks today are what drive the news agenda tomorrow, to a large degree. And your spending habits are what support the news outfits you use. Spend wisely.

Monday, 25 March 2013

The Checkout cuts through retail spin

Reucassel.
A hybrid beast, the ABC's The Checkout uses comedy to examine claims that affect our retail spending everyday. Last week's first show looked at a number of different products, including dietary supplements and a particular brand of compact car. Pretty wide scope I think. It's a bit sad that you need to spend hours reading the fine print and talking to experts in the various fields to really understand what you are doing when you sign a form or when you pay for an item in the supermarket. Retail spending is powerful, and to a significant degree it determines what kinds of products get made, and how they are made. Choices you make everyday can have a strong flow-on effect up the value chain all the way to the primary producer.

But most people are barely equipped to make informed decisions, so The Checkout is a welcome addition to the weekly free-to-air program list. Viewers will already be prepared for Craig Reucassel's approach in this show because many people already are fans of the ABC's The Chaser, where he has worked before. The show is smart and funny. The first is necessary because manufacturers and retailers are very adept at using spin to influence purchasing decisions. The second just makes it easy to watch.

It's extraordinary what those words on the label mean. I mean, it's in English, but it's not the English that you use everyday. Words on labels have defined, precise meanings that often consumers won't be able to tell apart, or even properly understand in the way that the company that put the words there meant when it did so. This new show hopefully can help consumers to understand just what they're getting when they pull that item off the shelf: it's such an easy action to complete: you grab the packet and throw it in the trolley. But surrounding that action are thousands of other actions taken by people working in offices and factories all over the country, and all over the world. This show takes us behind the scenes and illuminates those actions so that they are visible and plain. Good one Aunty!

Thanks to those who helped ... and look what happened!

Yesterday at about 3.30pm AET I started writing this post about how big business had hardly felt the carbon price and how there are many opportunities to grow the economy by keeping it. It took about 45 minutes to finish and publish. But then I decided to push it hard on social media because it's something that I am passionate about. This involved Twitter as well as Facebook. Many people helped. The response showed that many, like me, are tired of seeing stories in the MSM about the ALP's leadership while the polls show that Tony Abbott is getting off scott-free, and with his policies uncontested. We've got his Plan to look at now, so, I thought, why not look at it? Big thanks to those who retweeted that top link. The story has had almost 600 pageviews as of this morning (about 12 hours after it first went up), but remember the matter of scale. That sounds like a lot but the top-ranking story on the Sydney Morning Herald website has over 74,000 pageviews!

It's germane to mention the Herald here because after that massive effort last night with that blogpost, finally we see a story about the carbon price on their website. I don't think it's a coincidence. MSM editors see what's trending in cyberspace and pitch stories accordingly. So here's a business journalist with the paper telling us that Australians don't understand the repercussions of the carbon price, using a study from a local company. Most people have it wrong, the study says. The costs are lower than what they think. Many people even think it has affected the price of petrol - and it was set up to specifically exclude petrol. He then blames the ALP for not "selling" it properly. What has really happened is that the inexhaustible force of the public's curiosity about the parliamentary leadership has sucked leaks from politicians into the mobile phones of journalists, who have pumped out the spill stories as fast as they can to satisfy the craving. This stream of stories blocks the making of stories on other topics, such as the carbon price. (And remember, SMH editors will be watching Peter Martin's story to see how it fares in the popularity stakes; how it goes, so will go the future stories. The agenda. Want more stories like this? Then clickety click!)

So take a bow, Twittersphere. Take a bow, Facebookers. And thanks especially to the Facebook friend who put the story up on Reddit; that made a big difference. You have all made a difference because without your involvement Peter Martin's story wouldn't be on the SMH website this morning, I'm convinced of it. This is grassroots media in its purest form: people turn their passion into change. Let's make Tony Abbott accountable for the misinformation he's peddling about the carbon price in his Plan. It was 45 minutes of writing and hours and hours of promotion on social media that have started to do that.

As for why it only took 45 minutes to write the blogpost it helps to remember that I worked as a freelance journalist for three-and-a-half years with my major focus on innovation. Innovation in public policy and innovation in technology. So this kind of material is implanted deeply in my brain. I first wrote about rising gas prices here in the middle of last year on the back of a couple of months' research into the subject. That research was sparked by a magazine commission that threw off a second story that another magazine agreed to take. All-up it was 2.5 months of work on two stories. The second story, for The Global Mail, fell a bit flat because it was long and heavily-researched and took the long view. It wasn't something that had hit the headlines in the Age or the Australian yet; though it will do so. But the thing to remember in all this writing and publishing, including your publishing links on social media, is that it's the public that drives the agenda to a large degree. Ask Ben Herscovitch from the CIS, a think tank. In this ABC video, which runs for about seven minutes, he mentions opinion polling, which he describes as a kind of periodic election that serves to deeply influence public policy and the political agenda. Do you think the government and the media are powerful? That's wrong - it's you, the reader of this blogpost, who has the power to heavily influence the way the public debate goes, and therefore to determine how the issues fall in the public sphere. That's an awesome power.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Australian business response to carbon price: "Wut?"

Since Tony Abbott has finally published something substantial in regard to his plans post-September, should the Coalition win the election, we can get down to examining what that would mean for Australia. In the Plan Abbott returns again and again to the carbon price instituted in July 2012, and that the ALP would convert to a full emissions trading scheme next year if they win in Sept. Abbott refers to the carbon price when talking about small business, for example, and for families as well. As if it were a real concern for those parts of the community. I'm not going to talk  about the impact of the carbon price on electricity and gas prices - I've written about gas before and others have written about electricity (here and here) and the overwhelming bulk of the increases we've seen (and are yet to see) have nothing whatsoever to do with the carbon price - but instead I want to look at how business has reacted to it.

The first thing to notice, even without talking to anyone, is the stock market. Talking to people? It would be so easy to get on the phone, if you worked for Rupe's Australian, and chat with a CEO or two about how they hate the carbon price. Of course they're going to bag it. But look at how their companies have actually performed since its introduction. This is a grab from the ASX chart easily available on Fairfax's websites.


Since the introduction of the carbon price the All Ordinaries has risen from about 4100 to about 5000. There was an incredible period from mid-November to mid-February when the stock market enjoyed an uninterrupted lift, adding to the personal wealth of millions of Australians. There's nothing here to suggest the carbon price was a burden. The drop at the end of May was due to the Greek election, so it was political. In November there was another drop when the US election was quickly followed by a fiscal stalemate in Congress that upset investors. Again, political. Then last week there was another slip due to the Cyprus debt crisis. All of these drops have been due to political problems resolving issues of sovereign debt stemming directly from the GFC, which was a Conservative disease we are still recovering from. Australian companies have been blithely moving ahead in leaps and bounds despite the carbon price.

Now let's look at another point that Abbott raises in his Plan: high-tech manufacturing. With a high dollar it's difficult for Australian manufacturers to compete in overseas markets for commodity-like deliverables. But given the right signals, Australian companies can achieve supremacy in specific niche areas. The carbon price can act as that signal, and work to ensure thousands of highly-paid jobs for Australian workers making things that are not economical to make in other countries.

Fuel-from-algae processing plants is one of these areas. Look at tiny, Perth-based Algae.Tec, for example. This little battler of a company has pushed the boundaries. Its modular processing units are purchased by companies that emit carbon, attached to the emissions point, and the algae converts the carbon into biomass which is then chemically converted into fuel. Without a carbon price it's very difficult for Algae-Tec to sell its units to emitters. The company is listed in Australia and in Europe, has established partnerships and joint ventures, and is building plants right now in a number of countries. This could become a major exporter for Australia, and employ hundreds or even more people in this country. Abbott wants to stop this happening.

Another company that is making a mark in green high-tech manufacturing is Silex Systems, a solar power plant maker. It's another little battler of a company and is using patented technologies developed in Australia. Its first solar power plant is under construction in Mildura and it has the capacity in Melbourne to manufacture more plants, if given the opportunity. Hundreds, even thousands, of workers receiving top salaries could be employed by Silex to make the state-of-the-art power plants that the whole world needs and wants. It's a success story waiting to happen but Abbott wants to strangle the pipeline of jobs and slow down the company's growth.

Big business just yawns when the carbon price comes up but there are many small, green, high-tech businesses waiting for the opportunity to grow, and they will be watching very closely to see if Abbott succeeds in repealing the carbon price. Very closely indeed.

The media and the government should scrutinise Abbott's plan

Tony Abbott has had published a type of policy document on the Liberal Party website that sets out a set of policy guidelines that would come into effect if his party wins government in September. It's repetitive and partisan, which is not helpful, but you could hardly expect anything different from an Opposition.

I won't stick to the script it sets out. From a quick reading - it is about 50 pages long, which is going to be way too long for the average person to handle, and is readable only for the media and others employed in industries that are close to the public sphere - it efficiently ignores the GFC completely, concentrating on promises to reduce government spending and creating one million new jobs over the next five years. It ties the carbon tax to family spending - and spending for small business, elsewhere - and ignores how energy prices have been largely pushed up by forces independent of the carbon tax (gold plating of infrastructure in the case of electricity, the export hub being built at Gladstone in the case of gas).

For businesses also the document promises less red- and green-tape (fewer regulations) and fewer days lost due to union actions; I take this as shorthand for a promise to reintroduce Howard's industrial relations laws. The document also says nothing about the high value-add manufacturing industries that are benefiting from the carbon tax, and how they will fare if it is abolished; Abbott's plan talks about strengthening "Manufacturing Innovation" but there's very little concrete to ensure health in this part of the economy. The idea that the carbon tax can actually help the economy seems to have completely slipped Abbott's mind when he was drafting his spiel.

In terms of infrastructure the focus is on better roads, not public transport. For health and education the document talks about "putting local communities in charge" and improved relations with state governments. Also for research Abbott wants to "support the use of new technologies, particularly digital and IT" but I wonder how this can be possible if the Liberals intend to shut down the NBN. Ditto for the idea of boosting education exports to Asia through the use of online delivery. The document also takes credit for the NDIS, which was Labor policy, and a law that Labor introduced with the support of the Greens. Getting back to education, Abbott merely paints a picture where instead of "unaccountable bureaucrats" "parents, principals and school communities" will be put "in charge" and this is better for students. This smack to me of tired Liberal rhetoric, and it chimes in with Abbott's promise to "end government waste".

Halfway through the document comes the first bit of news, and it's attached to a photo of the party's deputy leader, Julie Bishop. It's to do with improving economic opportunities in the Asian region, which means that - as in the case of the NDIS, which passed through Parliament last week with bipartison support - the Liberals have adopted Julia Gillard's 'Asian Century' platform. Abbott here promises that 40% of high school students will be studying a foreign language, "preferably and Asian language", in year 12. He also wants to implement a "two-way 'Colombo Plan'" by having not only Asian students coming to Australia to study at university, but also Australian students going to Asian universities to study. This is great stuff and should be something that both sides of Parliament embrace.

There's also a list of infrastructure projects including a copy of Gillard's promise to complete the M4 to the Sydney CBD. In SE Queensland the plan promises to improve the road to Toowoomba and to upgrade the Gateway Motorway - both projects that desperately need to be done. And there's a promise to complete the duplication of the Pacific Highway from Newcastle to the Queensland border. For the defence forces the Liberals want to increase spending also.

For women, Abbott promises to index parental leave payments to the actual wage, rather than to the minimum wage. He also promises a review into the childcare system so that it's not just suitable for mothers working 9-to-5 "as work patterns and demands on parents are different today than even a decade ago". Oh, and cyberbullying. For seniors the Libs promise to leave superannuation alone "so that those planning for their retirement can face the future with a higher degree of predictability". "We believe the people who want to plan and save for their retirement should be supported by government, not penalised." But Abbott also wants workers aged 50 years and over to get back in the workforce; a Liberal government would provide "better structured incentives for employers" to do this.

There's plenty in this plan for the government to attack, and for the media to scrutinise. We can only hope that once the kerfuffle about the spill has finally died down those two groups can get on with the job of discussing how Abbott's plan would play out in real life. There are 91 instances of the word "better" in the 50-page plan, and it's their job to help us find out if things would actually improve under a Coalition government, or if it's all just spin.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Let's focus on Abbott's plans, not the ALP leadership

Abbott fronts the press after the spill.
With the cacophonous echo-chamber of Australia's media intoning a single note, as it drones on and on about the ALP leadership spill, a lot of people in the community are looking forward to the day when they can learn exactly what the Liberal-National coalition plans if it wins the federal election on 14 September. Oh, sure, they're there. You get an occasional person asking a question during Q and A. Once or twice a month a journalist in the MSM even writes something about this question. But in essence the Australian public seems happy to cruise into spring knowing nothing substantive about what lies ahead. With the opinion polls strongly favouring the Coalition, Tony Abbott and his crew don't need to say anything, and so they don't. And we're none the wiser.

But from time to time you get an inkling, as we did after last week's spill when Abbott fronted the media in Canberra to deliver his damaging narrative about the ALP's "civil war". Look behind the man. On the backdrop that has been carefully erected to frame Abbott - with Truss on his left and Bishop on his right - you can see some icons printed on cardboard. Ok, so we've got a "no carbon tax" icon, which is pretty self-explanatory, and chimes in with what Abbott and his mates have been telling us since goodness knows when. But over to the left there's a little icon that shows a Greek-style classical entrance with five pillars. Underneath it is something that probably says something like "Five pillars of strength". Who knows? What is important is that Campbell Newman and Barry O'Farrell had similar images at work during their election campaigns. And similarly low levels of actual policy. Both state leaders were elected by a wide margin.

In the case of Newman, the LNP government started on a crusade against the public service. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost, causing the unemployment rate in Queensland to soar to over 6.5%. Newman also took an axe to TAFE, promising to close or amalgamate a number of campuses, with the result that fewer young people from low-income families will have an opportunity to receive a useful education. Newman also stripped the guts out of environmental regulations, making it easier for miners to launch projects. He has done nothing for farmers, with his focus on bolstering employment in the mining sector by supporting the coal seam gas industry in the state.

What Abbott would do if he won in September is pure conjecture. We know nothing at all about his plans in terms of education, green technologies, health, or the environment. And he likes it like that. Fewer policies in the public sphere make it harder for anyone to call him to account. It's a small target strategy that's being promoted by the majority of the nation's press as they continue to focus all their energies on the now complete irrelevancy of the Labor Party leadership. Certain sectors of the press are more complicit in this than others. But for example the single minded focus of the News Ltd media on the media reforms last week did no service to the community at all. And Fairfax journalists who insist on making everything that Simon Crean says a headline are letting us all down.

Let's focus on Abbott and what he represents. He's getting a free pass. Call him on his unwillingness to announce policy. Make him explain.

Tony where's the policy? Or is this what we're to expect?



David Jones plumps for Eurasian beauty Gomes

Gomes.
Yesterday news came out that embattled retailer David Jones would drop its long-serving fashion ambassador, 29-year-old  bogan pin-up girl Miranda Kerr, for Jessica Gomes, 28. Gomes' immediate ancestry is half Singaporean-Chinese and half Portuguese, and she grew up in Perth. Her fame has to this point been largely earned overseas, and she's big in Korea where she has her own English-language TV show. She's also a US regular in Sports Illustrated calendar issues (see pic).

David Jones has been struggling financially, reporting full-year profits down in 2012 by 40 percent. Meanwhile, online has six percent of total retail spend in Australia, and the trend there is up. While it would be nice to think that DJs chose Gomes for purely aesthetic reasons, I suspect that it's more to do with finally entering the Asian Century. I can't be too extreme to think that DJs would be looking to capitalise on its new recruit's appeal in Asia, and convert that into higher sales. I can't think of anything wrong with this tactic, because clearly the august retailer needs to do something to stem the blood as consumers rush online - the blogpost linked to above shows that 75 percent of online clothing sales are at small- to medium-sized local outlets - for items traditionally considered the province of brick-and-mortar stores. Consumer spending habits are changing and DJs has to change to keep up. Employing Gomes might give the retailer access to new markets for its high-end clothing lines.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Public's interest in parliamentary leadership an inexhaustible force

Maybe Julia Gillard can bring ASIO in to plant listening devices in the offices of those "senior Labor sources" who have been so busy leaking to the ABC and Fairfax. Surely she could get taps put on their telephones, including mobiles. After all, if you're the PM then you have the right, no? Alas, the shades of Nixon and Johnson deny you resort to such practices. If you're Simon Crean you finally throw your hands up in the air, confront your leader, and then bring on a spill in the hope of fixing the leaks once and for all. After all, the constant presence of leadership challenge stories on major news websites, and on nightly news broadcasts, is undermining your party's ability to build momentum (Gillard's done it before, but she needs clear air to do so).

What's clear is that there is a feeling of horror within the party at the prospect of the September election. With polls showing a primary share of about 30 percent for Labor, many despair at losing their seats. But the leadership switch-around tactics of the NSW Right faction of the party obviously do not work. Yesterday saw that faction attempt its death-pirouette for the final time - we hope - before September. Today the bloodletting ensures the leadership story remains on the front page. But today's Friday. We've got the weekend to go before a new news week arrives, delivering - Labor stalwarts might wish - a drop in the turbulence currently swirling around Parliament House and the offices used by Labor.

The spill yesterday was not just due to Labor leakers, though. Partly it had to do with the new kind of presidential leadership we see in Australian politics. What happened to Rudd in 2010 was something that many Australians take very personally. They chose Rudd, after all. On top of that there's the system of news which shows editors exactly how popular any story about the Labor leadership is: web clicks are accurately measured. Editors know exactly what people are clicking on, and it doesn't matter how fabricated or how flimsy; the leadership stories get attention. In the new attention economy Gillard went into debt to the electorate in 2010 and she's still buying her freedom. This hunger within the community pulls editors to pitch leadership stories high, and pulls leakers to drop their secret messages into the inboxes of select journalists. It's an inexhaustible force originating within the community that is pulling these stories out of the fabric of the Labor Party; a sucking force that cannot be ignored either by unhappy backbenchers or smoldering Gillard loyalists.

Early this morning, the Sydney Morning Herald website showed the top story - on the spill, of course - had over 380,000 pageviews. This afternoon the total had dropped to about 206,000, showing the long tail of attention still working to draw the punters in. These figures are extraordinary. If you watch those stats on the website you see that on a normal day the top story will get around 60,000 pageviews. Fairfax's Queensland satellite site, the Brisbane Times, gets around 6000 pageviews daily for a top story, usually. It's amazing how people care so much about who sits at the top of the ladder of opportunity. We may have rejected one form of republic, but the parliamentary leadership in Australia is becoming more and more presidential as every year passes.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Telstra shares hit new high on back of leadership spill

Gillard.
SYDNEY, 31 January 2014 - Telstra in its half-yearly report announced profits of $2.4 billion on sales of $34 billion. The Telstra share price topped $10, with CEO Dover Thoorley crediting the company's success to a sharp increase in sales of retail products stemming from the Labor leadership spill in March 2013.

"We took out ads on the Sydney Morning Herald website on that day, quite by accident, not knowing that the prime minister would agree to a caucus ballot for the party leadership," said Thoorley. "What Simon Crean started earlier in the day led to a high volume of requests from consumers for increased capacity in their data plans."

On 21 March last year, Julia Gillard, the prime minister, agreed to face a caucus ballot for the leadership and deputy-leadership positions, after long-time Labor MP Simon Crean urged ex-PM Kevin Rudd to challenge for the top job. The ballot was uncontested, with Gillard walking away from the caucus meeting as the winner by default. Ten minutes before the ballot was held Rudd had declined to challenge on public TV.

"It's amazing how higher traffic volumes on a news website can convert into much larger sales volumes," said Thoorley. "We had customers calling us in tears saying that their data limits had been reached and begging us to increase them. Our sales team was swamped, but we coped."

Fairfax Digital, which operates the website, said that pageviews on the site spiked at about 4.10pm AEDT, just prior to the caucus meeting taking place.

"The Sydney Morning Herald experience extremely high traffic volumes on that day," confirmed Jake Mayhew, Fairfax Digital CEO. "The website is normally one of the top news sites globally but in this case we were almost overwhelmed with visits. Pageviews spiked significantly, and that translated into solid results for one of our best customers."

Bred Croote of Axxer Equities acknowledged the contribution of the leadership ballot to Telstra's higher share price.

"We haven't seen prices like this for the company for a long, long time. If ever," Croote said. "The entertainment value of the leadership contest definitely contributed to a large degree to this result."

Paisley Wrench of Asbestos Footprint, a creative agency located in Sydney's Surry Hills, said that the parliamentary leadership spill was a new, native form of reality television.

"You've only got to look at what was said overseas. Big-name news outlets ran stories on the leadership spill. This is prime-time material and it's a uniquely Australian genre, the parliamentary leadership contest.

"I remember the independent MP Tony Windsor telling the guys holding the cameras outside Parliament House that they would drag the thing on and on and on. He's dead right. This is a complete media event. The media devour this kind of thing like hungry wolves. All the TV channels had spikes in viewers on the day.

"In fact, the media, and particularly Fairfax, were deeply instrumental in creating the event in the first place."

Asked how he came by his name, Mr Wrench told this reporter to mind his own f**king business.

General ignorance happy with humdrum Sinophobia

This picture seems to be what Elizabeth Farrelly has in mind when she talks about China in a column published today on the Sydney Morning Herald website. Authoritarian. Uncompromising. Inflexible. Other. Foreign. Different.

And it's quite odd when she gives a nod to the classic Australian "Yellow Peril" trope - (you'd hardly want to be seen firing off that old canard, eh?) - but goes on to catalogue Chinese buyouts of Australian businesses, which she then frames in the context of the authoritarian government that rules in China today.

Of course it's not surprising when all we generally get from Australia's media are stories about odd crimes and government censorship of the press. Intimidation of foreign reporters. Undemocratic selection of the national leadership. Oppression of minorities. Government-sponsored hacking. Bullying behaviour in the South China Sea. Government-sanctioned protests against Japanese interests. Denials. Obfuscation. Secrecy.

Yes, this lack of transparency within China is troubling and to be condemned but the actions of the Chinese government do not represent the will of the people, at least not the will of ALL the people living in China today. I think Farrelly needs to go back to university and do a course of study where she can meet any number of young Chinese people, many of whom hope to translate their degree into permanent residence in Australia. Because for Chinese people the point is not to arrive here with buckets full of dollars, buy out the farm and then impose authoritarian rule on the business. No. The point is to enjoy the liberties that Australians take for granted every day.

You can't buy freehold property in Chinese cities, for example. Chinese people love the idea that you can buy a house in Vaucluse and know that - without fail - you'll be able to pass that property on to your children one day. They know that property has sanctity in Australia in a way that it does not in China, where you can only buy a long lease on property (and it's not cheap). Family is terribly important to Chinese people - certainly more important to them than the Communist Party of China - and those precious links to children, to grandparents, to fathers and mothers can be realised in a concrete way in Australia. They love that.

Chinese students studying in Australia love their country and they are proud of it, but they also value things that are not available there. They do not wish to impose their values on Australians they meet here, in fact they go out of their way to learn and understand Australian culture and our polity. It is true, for example, that the Australian-Chinese press is monitored by the Chinese government through its embassies, but that does not mean that young Chinese journalists working here do not yearn to write big, important stories that can lead to change in the future. They do.

And Chinese businessmen and -women who buy into Australia's economy do not yearn to bring official relations that apply in China to their operations here. Quite the opposite. They will obviously exploit their contacts and knowledge of China to build their businesses. But they will also do so within the laws that apply in Australia. Expressing concern about the possible importation of regulatory structures is not on the point. Chinese people are nothing if not law-abiding, in general.

The dog whistle usually gets blown by shock jocks and conservative op-ed writers, not by people who ostensibly belong to the liberal intelligentsia. This is why Farrelly's column today sparked my interest. It seems to show that general ignorance asks for nothing more than what we routinely get served, when I think it's more important for us to get to know the real Chinese - both those living in our midst and those who live in China - by hearing and reading their stories. We are not getting this. It's time we did. We live in the Asian Century, after all.

Guardian's 2013 Budget video round-up is lovely

The Guardian - that august UK liberal mouthpiece - continues to innovate ahead of its rivals such as the New York Times. Today we see a dedicated page containing links that let you run individual video segments showing working journalists give their own run-down on a part of the country's 2013 Budget.

It took a little bit of trying to work out which links to click on (they could be made more prominent, I thought), but once you get the hang of it the interface is simple.

Each journalist talks on-camera for a few minutes as he or she (in the eight videos there's only one woman, in the final one, on banks) gives a quick precis of the main points contained in the annual Budget.

Affect is an important element for understanding, and these videos are happily heavy on affect. You get to see each individual person, watch their mannerisms, hear their voices, and listen to their ways of speaking. Affect enhances the consumer's ability to take in information. Because the take-up is quicker, it's easier and more fun. And fun is something that the YouTube generation values highly. I very much enjoyed seeing these working journos give their spiels. I felt their experience and expertise, and I grokked their passion for their craft.

This is something I'd hope to see more of. In Australia, the Australian has done this type of thing from time to time, but never in such an integrated package as this. We also see News Ltd journalists on TV in Australia, most notably on Channel Ten and on Sky News. But this kind of integrated package of videos - eight journalists talking on one subject - is something that we have never seen in this country before. Kudos to the Guardian for staying, as per usual, ahead of the pack.

Media reform bills are designed to protect journalists from undue influence

Journalists make hundreds of decisions every day as they write their stories. Each new bit of information has to be assessed and weighed against the others, its relevance and importance identified and contextualised within the broader scope of the developing story. What is the story? What is the lead? What is the angle? Given the wider context of society - in Australia and globally - there are judgements to be made in order to create something that will both make sense to the reader, and be easy to read. And every journalist has his or her own ways of understanding the world due to experience, and his or her own value system, for without these it is impossible to make judgements and assess the relative importance of those bits of information that surround you as you move forward toward a finished piece. Writing a story is a complex and intellectually demanding - even physically tiring - process that puts you in the centre of a web of relations between things, people, ideas, contexts, and values. It's a complex process. And then there's the writing, which is also challenging because a poorly-constructed story simply will not be read; one thing a journalist wants is to be read. It's like an elemental hunger. And there's your byline to prove that you did it. You are accountable.

Given this dynamic it's almost obscene to think that a proprietor's interests, or an editor's biases, can come into play and distort the natural disposition of relations between the things the journalist is puzzling together into a whole. Even if a proprietor does not specifically mandate a position on any given issue, it is still distorting if the tone he or she suffuses throughout the organisation due to his or her value system, gets to influence developing stories. But we know this happens because there have been cases where individuals have spent long periods of time studying how some newspapers tend to follow a certain "line" on certain issues, despite objective evidence going contrary to it. Beyond that subtle influence we know that senior editors do specifically influence how some stories are written because from time to time little bits of information escape from the hermetic confines of the newsroom, and are revealed in the light of day.

In the case of the media laws being assessed by certain politicians in Canberra at the moment, we very clearly see the campaigning tendency of the news media violently distorting the facts to suit an internal line and convey a certain take on reality to the public. This, despite testimony from Ray Finkelstein to the Senate committee hearing that the media reform bills still to be passed through the Lower House "[are] a relatively minor imposition on press freedom and probably no restriction on free speech". But the distorting and warping influence of the media should not be a surprise to those who watch it in operation on a daily basis. When it feels itself to have been attacked, it always violently defends itself, and in doing so it distorts the facts to suit its own internal line. As sure as night follows day.

What the media reform laws are designed to do is allow individual journalists to get on with their difficult and demanding jobs without the warping influence of the company line - brought to bear by editors up the line - coming to bear on the facts he or she is assessing as he or she puts the story together. He or she shouldn't be worried that when the story is passed to an editor for assessment it will attract criticism because it doesn't go hard enough on a certain angle, or because it diverges from the corporate line on the issue at hand. In a real sense, the four remaining media reform bills - specifically the bill that establishes the Public Interest Media Advocate - will work to protect individual journalists from heavy-handed dealing by people up the line.

Fairness and balance are important, because journalism is essential for the functioning of democracy. Let the facts speak for themselves, and don't let the opinions of proprietors or senior editors mold the facts to suit a particular line of thinking. In a real sense, the four remaining media reform bills are designed to protect journalists from undue, unwarranted, and undesirable influence from within the corporate hierarchy.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Breakthrough in crowdsourcing to compensate news media

It has been a long road travelled, but talks this week in Silicon Valley and New York between news media providers and social media (socmed) companies are finally drawing to a close, with insiders saying that a crowdsourcing solution that will compensate the media for links shared online is "very close".

The overall plan has been public for some time and one source said that details are still being negotiated between multiple parties including press councils, socmed and the media. It has been learned that Google will agree to develop a micropayment engine linked to the accounts of its users. Representatives from Twitter, including VP development Maurice Ecambay, say that they are ready to come in behind an agreed solution that will allow those who produce the news to be financially compensated for links shared on their microblogging site.

Talks began in earnest five months ago, in late 2023, when it became clear that efforts by the beleaguered news media industry to earn money for links shared in socmed, had found support within the broader community. Well-known blogger Henriette Smalt summed up the feeling as consensus: "People like reading stories from the MSM [mainstream media] and they understand that some form of reward should be built into the system. How that happens is the $64-dollar question."

Journalism academic and blogger Ray Gron wrote last week that Smalt had been vindicated. "She hit the nail on the head when she called for financial compensation for journalists. The multi-partisan talks underway in the US today will change the landscape for the news media. This is as big as the introduction of copyright laws in the 18th Century, or bigger."

Smalt said Gron missed the main point: it was ordinary people who deserved applause. "One blogger is basically powerless. Crowdsourcing rules."

Ecambay and Facebook senior VP business development Laura Po are expected to announce that their companies will make a formal representation to users in the near future. "Probably within the month," said Ecambay.

Google's role in the new system is considered to be key, as it will operate the micropayment engine as well as derive income from the transactions. Facebook and Twitter will also cream off a share of the income, although as in the case of Google those amounts will be very small for individual clicks.

"By next year or even in 2024 newspapers should start to see income from these micropayments going into their bank accounts," said Google media coordinator Safra Bak. "Probably earlier than later. We are working very hard to make this happen."

Gillard shepherds media reform laws towards reality

Oakeshott (left) and Windsor.
It appears that the prime minister has shown typical aplomb in the negotiations surrounding the proposed media reform laws that have excited so much unwarranted animosity from Australia's press, especially the News Ltd press. In a paywalled story in News Ltd's Australian that focuses exclusively on the bargaining Julia Gillard has conducted over the past couple of days, we learn that:
After caucus criticism of the handling of the media laws, Labor last night secured the support of Labor cum independent MP Craig Thomson, who had cast doubt on the reforms on Monday. Mr Thomson emerged as a key figure late yesterday by switching camps to support an amended regulator. 
Labor is also understood to have the support of Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt and independents Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and Peter Slipper to ensure a lower house majority when debate on the changes resumes today. 
The talks appear likely to see legislation pass this week to create a new regulator to oversee the "public interest" in media mergers and press standards.
There is no detail in the story about how Gillard has amended Labor's plans in order to secure this support for the legislation. (That is contained in another paywalled story on the website: 'PM forced into strategic redraft.' and there's more from the ABC: 'Two of Labor's media bills approved.') It's a pure horse-race spiel from the News Ltd journalists who wrote it. In fact, information about support for the media reform package is interlaced in the story with speculation about leadership challenges that have been mooted here and there over the past couple of days. (What such stories would do well to mention, in all cases, is the unwillingness of independent Tony Windsor to countenance a change. He has said each time he's interviewed after such speculation that his continued support for Labor is conditional on Gillard remaining as PM.)

The story continues with: "The Australian understands independent MP Rob Oakeshott has confirmed privately that he cannot support the package." Rob Oakeshott certainly seems to be bent on rejecting the media reform package. On Twitter, I've delivered links to him for blogposts written at various times on this blog that outline the propensity of News Ltd to breach its obligations to fairness and balance - obligations under Press Council rules that it agrees to conform to - but Oakeshott only retweeted one of these links: 'Journos self-censor to get ahead at News Ltd.' The blogpost dates from early December 2011 and hinges on a story published by The Conversation that included words from an ex-employee of News Ltd saying that:
Proprietors aren’t hands-on pulling the strings. They set a tone. The tone is known to the editor. The tone is set at News Ltd through various statements by the proprietor, by Rupert [Murdoch]; the tone tends to be disseminated through things like annual conferences where the News Ltd editors come together and a kind of group-speak develops. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s not the case that the proprietor tells the editors or the reporters what to put in the papers – generally.
It's interesting that the person quoted here is basically saying that, on certain issues, there is no fairness or balance, but certainly a campaigning attitude. (Whether that is due to direct orders from the top is moot, as fairness and balance are obligations for all news media who belong to the Press Council. You can't erase a lesser evil by demonstrating the absence of a greater one.) The blogpost also contains a link to a post on my blog about Robert Manne's year-long study of the Australian, which had been published in September of the same year. (You can also read a blogpost about that newspaper's response to Manne's essay, from a few days later, but this is not linked in the post Oakeshott retweeted.)

I have to thank Oakeshott for retweeting the link, but I wonder why he didn't also retweet another link I directed to him, about the case of Asa Wahlquist, a former News Ltd journalist who complained in 2010 about editorial interference in her coverage of climate change. And also I think that in the quote that appears above the use of the word "generally" is telling, because there seem to be some issues - as Manne pointed out in his 2011 essay - on which News Ltd papers have decided views, regardless of facts. Climate change is one of these, clearly, as, also clearly, is the issue of the media reform laws currently under discussion.

As for balance, the Australian seems to have got the message, in part at least, because elsewhere in the Australian today we've got Ray Finkelstein addressing the Senate committee (paywalled) that is examining the matter of media reform. In part, this story says:
The proposed Public Interest Media Advocate would have "limited powers", Mr Finkelstein said, while warning the inquiry, led by Labor senator Doug Cameron, that examinations of media regulation "could get terribly distracted if the object of the exercise was to look for press failings". 
In his report, he said: "It struck me as very odd that any group in society that wields enormous power should be wholly, or substantially, unregulated." 
"There are no powerful groups in society that can come along to governments or anybody and say, 'we can do what we like, when we like, and there's nothing you should do about it'," Mr Finkelstein said. 
He described this attitude as "a very surprising approach".
Finkelstein, who wrote the original report on media reform after the inquiry that is generally referred to using his own name, also said that Labor's media reform bill "is a relatively minor imposition on press freedom and probably no restriction on free speech".