Sunday, 6 September 2009

In reporting as 'news' that the prime minister's website had been revamped by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, The Age adopts a censorious tone as if it were a frivolous expenditure not authentically related to the task of government.

The tone, the curled lip, is unmistakable from the headline, which reads 'Now it's the ministry of polishing the PM's blog', as though the department did nothing other than attend to the website, which included moderating comments on blogs. The newspaper's tone echoes that of Liberal senator Eric Abetz, who smeared his hand under his nose - metaphorically speaking - as he itemised the abuses included on the department's activity sheet.

Liberal frontbench senator Eric Abetz said the spending on the website was ''an extravagant waste of money'' and questioned whether it was appropriate to use bureaucrats to ''censor'' comments posted on the blog.

''Aside from the obvious implications about politicising the public service, I would have thought most taxpayers would prefer their public servants to be working at improving their lot rather than censoring submissions to the PM's website,'' he said.

It's more than surprising that a newspaper, an entity currently struggling with the most serious challenge to its profitability ever, from the internet, should join in with the opposition party in this nasty little story that has no other aim than to coopt the prejudices of the broader community against a practice that is, nowadays, entirely reasonable.

Apparently the department has historically looked after the prime minister's correspondence and organised community events. Both of these are definitions of practice that entirely cover maintaining and running a website, one would have thought. This information is contained in the story but it is buried in the final paragraph, miles away from the sneering headline and Abetz' reference to "censorship", as though comment moderation were an unsavoury activity, rather than something all newspapers do on a daily basis to protect themselves from legal action.

Rudd's spokesman Sean Kelly, said:

''The new site enables people to discuss government policy, ask the Prime Minister and ministers questions, and find government information quickly and easily,'' he said.

He said the previous government had not sought to use modern technology to engage people and ''therefore a new site platform needed to be built to enable video, blogs and online chats to be hosted''.

Rather than treating website expenses as something natural and desirable - from the point of view of government and democracy generally - The Age chose to treat them as though blue-veined brie cheese had been listed as an essential item of survival for an outback trek. In reality, embracing the internet is essential for politicians, and for everybody.

I'm currently trying to get my mother to use the internet. She's 80 years old and has never used it. I set up a Gmail account for her but when she wants to know if she's got mail she asks me to log in for her. As a person with no opposable thumb when it comes to online life, my mother is excluded from so many activities that I consider routine, such as blogging, watching YouTube, using Twitter and Facebook, and sending emails.

She is thus excluded from a large slice of everyday life. She is essentially crippled. For The Age to get into the spirit of the story from the point of view of a sneering opposition, rather than from the point of view of an enlightened netizen, is irresponsible and ugly.

One could easily imagine that the Community Engagement Unit of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet will be increasingly busy, in future, as Twitter becomes more deep-reaching. If it to be desired that individuals can contact government in an unmediated way - through social networking tools - and vice versa, and both thus bypass the media, the number of people employed in the bureaucracy who attend to the business of social networking, must rise.

Imagine how many of Rudd's followers would get involved verbally via a dedicated hashtag - just as they do now via newspaper website comments threads. Imagine how much time it would take to glean information from tweats logged under that hashtag. The mind truly boggles. But this is the direction we are moving in, there's no doubt about it.

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