Monday 31 August 2009

Japan lower house election coverage was not brilliant except in the peripheries. On Twitter, hashtags #japanelection, #senkyo2009 and #senkyo provided spirited coverage based on domestic Japanese broadcasts. They also provided access to the best of the election coverage in English care of Trans Pacific Radio, where four bilingual Japan political junkies, all Americans - Garrett DeOrio, Christopher Gunson, Adam Richards and Ken Worsley - gave blow-by-blow accounts of events and in-depth analysis.

There is nothing like this available on the English-language websites of Japan's leading newspapers, The Japan Times, Mainichi Daily, Yomiuri Shimbun, and Asahi Shimbun. Decent stories appeared on the websites of The Times and The New York Times before midnight Australian time. But in Oz itself we had to wait until about 2am when Peter Alford, The Australian's Japan correspondent, posted a story. It contained out-of-date results, however.

The election of the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) by an overwhelming margin is a seminal event in Japan's history. It's been 54 years of one-party rule. In 2005 the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won by a wide margin under leader Junichiro Koizumi. But he resigned soon after and since then we have had two dead-beat leaders who have been unable to continue with Koizumi's aggressive reform agenda. In 2007 the LDP lost control of the upper house, stimying reform. Tokyo local government elections a month ago sounded the dath knell for the LDP. Added to the GFC, the static performances of Aso and Abe infuriated Japanese voters.

Clearly, based on this history, there is a mandate for change. "Change" was the celebratory cry of DPJ supporters during the evening, as they watched their party accumulate a super-majority - two thirds of the total - that will enable the lower house to override a refusal by the upper house to pass a piece of legislation. This is in addition to the DPJ having an absolute majority. In consensus-minded Japan, however, it is likely that the DPJ will form a coalition with those parties that hold the balance of power in the upper house, in order to avoid invoking its right to override.

The DPJ voiced a desire in its pre-election campaign to remove American bases to Guam. It has also said that it wants to reconfigure the making of public policy by eroding the power of government departments, which it describes as a method of returning the power of government to the people, via their elected representatives. This is strong stuff in a country where information is so tightly controlled as to be almost non-existent.

It will be interesting to see if the DPJ will realign its international perspectives to key in more closely with Asian neighbours as opposed to the United States. It will also be interesting to see how long DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama survives. Japan's leaders tyically rule briefly. Koizumi lasted for five years - the third-longest tenure of any post-war prime minister.

Sunday 30 August 2009

Review: District 9, dir Neill Blomkamp

Christopher Johnson is a prawn but he's not the kind who goes berserk over a can of catfood. Wikus van der Merwe is turning into a prawn and loves catfood better than anything, with the possible exception of hamburgers. District 9 is a Johannesberg slum where the approximately 1 million aliens live but it's possible that in three years they will be saved by Christopher.

It's all very confusing. Variety called the movie the "thinking person's alien movie", according to Rolling Stone, and this is true. At least we can be sure of something in this terrifying world.

It's terrifying for the same reason that the original Alien movie was gripping. In that movie, am earth-based private company was intent on delivering a live alien to the home planet for the purpose of study and monetisation. Billions could be made by developing and selling new weapons based on the alien's biological technology. The plot of District 9 is held together by the same idea. Van der Merwe has the misfortune of being infected by a green spray from a strange-looking canister found in a slum hovel during a relocation exercise he is heading. He begins to change. The company - in this case called Multi-National United (MNU) - sets its people to work, including the MNU boss, who happens to be van der Merwe's father-in-law.

Van der Merwe escapes, aided by the superhuman strength afforded by his newly-metamorphosing body. But where can he go? He finds himself back in the slum, where he reunites with Christopher Johnson, the alien engineer who made the 'fluid' that infected him. The fluid is also fuel for the escape pod buried under Johnson's hovel.

There's plenty of action here. There's also Nigerian gangsters, inter-species prostitution, mercenaries, media scare campaigns and, best of all, an exo-suit that transforms the morphing van der Merwe into an almost-invincible killing machine.

But behind all this action is a lot of other stuff that conspires to coax the viewer into using his or her brain. The apartheid theme is chilling. Johannesberg is a lawless city where the government has given over the reins of state to large corporate interests. In this environment, anything is possible because profit is the only goal.

Racism and intolerance is fed by a visceral hatred shared by humans for the repellent-looking 'prawns' (the aliens) who eat everything from car tyres to live humans. Cat food is not removed from the can before consumption. The director is having a laugh, but his experience prior to moving to Canada has clearly inspired his choice of weapons in this crusade against notions of purity and superiority based on the lowest instincts.

Peter Jackson, the New Zealand director, produced the movie, and his name appears in the credits. But this is not a typical Hollywood blockbuster. Once the decision to locate the set in South Africa was taken a thousand ideas bloomed in director Blomkamp's fertile imagination. Blomkamp has an odd North American accent (which sounds almost Australian) but his aspirations are global.

Saturday 29 August 2009

The ‘public sphere’ – without a hashtag – is a concept from a 20th century sociologist named Habermas who had studied 18th century London for examples of how democracy functioned. No doubt he chose London because it was the most developed democracy in that century, and the only one for most of it. In Habermasian mode we’re confronted by groups of older guys smoking pipes at coffee houses – cafes, really – and talking about the news, which was printed on newspapers. The paradigm is skewed because, in those days, the franchise was the possession of a fairly elect slice of society at large.

Nowadays, the public sphere is made up of moments such as those brief, bitchy natterings around the coffee jar in the office kitchen, and of course, the family room where we sit down, absorbed, to watch the evening news. It also encompasses such things as blogs, Facebook news feeds, and Twitter pages. It refers to any place where there is an engagement between the individual and the political entity within the confines of which he or she lives.

Senator Kate Lundy’s #publicsphere Twitter hashtag accumulated about 2000 posts over the course of yesterday, as part of the interaction she organised between web experts and the public. Not a very large public, it must be admitted. At the peak morning viewing time perhaps 50 people were watching the Livestream videocast on the Public Sphere website.

Further interaction was provided by CoveritLive, a synchronous comment capture and publishing tool embedded in the web page. The embedded Twitter display feed was not necessary if you used Tweetdeck or another feed tool. Groups of experts gathered in Wollongong – where the event was primarily hosted – and in Melbourne (at Trinity College, Melbourne University) and Brisbane.

So we’re looking at a couple of hundred individuals all up. The “data set” (a nice catchphrase of Lundy’s) will be gathered together. A blog will be open for a couple of weeks. Then the results will be put onto a wiki. The outcomes will be, therefore, public all the way. But the size of the public is surprisingly small, given the forum’s enthusiastic use of the term ‘public sphere’.

Blogger Geordie Guy labels the event “a love-in pet project of Senator Kate Lundy” in his post of yesterday afternoon.

A ‘love-in’ it may have been but it was not without pain for viewers. The technology was not robust, which is somewhat ironic as one of the slots was filled by Dr Katina Michael talking about emergency warning systems. Follow-over comments on Twitter stemming from Katina’s presentation about the robustness of SMS and Twitter showed that the majority of attendees were techies. They wanted to participate in an area of expertise, and they did.

In fact the setup was so bad, at times, that I almost gave up. At one point they tried to cross to Brisbane. The audio worked but the video didn’t. Earlier, the audio and video worked but the audio was unintelligible for people viewing over the net. A learning experience, to be sure.

Some presenters stood out against a fairly bland crowd, but the epithet is more likely the result of poor delivery. Tim Parsons’ presentation was lively and interesting. He talked about how the internet is a way of life. A baby born today is on the internet, on Facebook, within hours of their birth. “Most new babies born in the developed world are on Facebook within hours,” he said. A group of 15- to 18-year-olds in the back of a bus is living “in a cloud of electronics".

But despite the technological challenges that taxed viewers and volunteer organisers alike, proof of the day’s power was not far to seek. #publicsphere was the top Australian hashtag of the day, beating that for UX Australia, a user experience conference held in Canberra, and video game Final Fantasy. “The strength of the public sphere is its transparency,” said Senator Lundy in her closing remarks.

Let’s hope the information captured yesterday filters out past the geeks and into the lumpen mainstream, so that the debate we saw online can, truly, become part of the public sphere.

Friday 28 August 2009

The case of Kartika Sari Dewi – sentenced to be caned for drinking beer, an activity that is a criminal offence for a Muslim - is troubling for liberal Malaysians. Writer Farish A. Noor, in online magazine MySinchew, explains how each time a case like this occurs, many Malaysians feel as though they face a turning point.

Like it or not, Malaysia still depends on trade and international goodwill from the developed countries of the West, not Afghanistan. This, then, is the dilemma that Malaysia faces at the moment, and there seems little consensus on how to proceed.

Kartika's caning has been postponed to the end of the month of Ramadan, but this buys precious little time to resolve what has to be a landmark case in Malaysian syariah law. One thing, however, is certain: The costs of caning Kartika are simply too high, and should that line be crossed the country would have jumped one rung up the Islamisation ladder yet again.

The choice for a moderate country like Malaysia is between creeping Islamisation or creeping liberalisation. It seems as though political pressure by the Opposition Islamic party, PAS, is forcing the governing party, UMNO, to behave in a certain way. The way it feels itself forced to behave is to accommodate the more conservative elements of society, the harder-line Islamists, so as not to suffer in the polls. Appeasement of Islamists, however, increases Malaysians’ sense of estrangement from the liberal West, on which it depends for so much of its investment and trade.

So in Malaysia, more than in Islamic countries such as Syria or Jordan, where there is no democratic process, we are able to view the effects of radicalisation on the political process. Which is why Malaysia makes such an interesting spectacle for a Western observer. Instead of totalitarian abuses we see the forces of society functioning in the same way they function in our own countries.

Another matter has appeared in the media today: the case of US rock group The Black Eyed Peas, whose show in Malaysia has been banned for Muslims. Muslims cannot go to the concert. Statements by the Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture show that even the authorities feel conflicted. On the one hand, they want to boost the economy. On the other they feel obliged to uphold religious law, sharia.

"Muslims cannot attend. Non-Muslims can go and have fun," an official at the Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture told The Associated Press.

She said the concert would not have been permitted at all under normal circumstances because government regulations forbid alcohol companies from organising concerts. But authorities made an exception on the hopes the event would boost tourism, the official said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorised to make public statements.

The concert is sponsored by Irish brewer, Guinness. This is the reason Malaysians have been forbidden from attending it.

What is sure, in all this, is that Kartika Sari Dewi is a brave woman. She has not appealed the sentence of six strokes of the cane. In fact, she has asked that the punishment be carried out in public. She wants the world to see. If this request is permitted, it will be interesting to see if the foreign media will be allowed to film it.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Review: Demons At Dusk, Peter Stewart (2007)
JOHN Howard has called for fundamental change in how children are taught Australian history, and claimed victory in the culture wars, including the end of the "divisive, phoney debate about national identity".

In an Australia Day eve address to the National Press Club, Mr Howard exhorted a "coalition of the willing" to promote changes to the teaching of history, which he said was neglected in schools and too often questioned or repudiated the nation's achievements.

Approaching his 10th anniversary as Prime Minister, Mr Howard also hailed research showing that fewer Australians were ashamed of the nation's past. "I welcome this corrective in our national sense of self."

Mr Howard came to office mounting an assault on "political correctness" of the Keating era, sceptical of what he saw as excesses of multiculturalism, and critical of the "black armband" view of relations with Aborigines.

- Michelle Grattan, ‘Howard claims victory in national culture wars’, The Age, 26 January 2006.

Howard attempts to sweep the black armband under the carpet but it turns out the underlay contains asbestos. Or, it turns out that the public record is intact. The fibres get in and, once in, can’t be removed. Just like the story preserved by The Age’s editors; so many stories are removed, some sooner than others. This one, luckily, survived.

Or maybe they were waiting for someone like Stewart to come along and inject a modicum of balance into the equation following Howard’s triumphant decree, which turns out to be – for me, now – something of a ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment. I didn’t ask Stewart any of this when I met him in June, at the commemorative ceremony of the Myall Creek Massacre. But I did ask him about his historical accuracy.

Stewart’s historical novel draws heavily on the record. A lot is fabricated and some ‘colour’ added to maintain the sense of fiction. In his author’s note, Stewart admits, for example, that the romance between the convict Anderson and the Aboriginal woman Ipeta was not based on the record. They did have a sexual relationship, he says.

Whether he loved her in the way I have portrayed in this book is anyone’s guess, but Roger Milliss does speculate in Waterloo Creek that he may have loved her, and that is good enough for me, because what Anderson did was absolutely revolutionary.

What Anderson did was to testify against the stockmen who murdered 28 black women, children and old men. Naturally, he was concerned for his safety, especially since one of the squatters who contributed to a relief fund for the defence of the perpetrators, Henry Dangar, was in favour of killing blacks. Summing up in the epilogue, Stewart loses track of Anderson after he gains his freedom in September 1846. Dangar, of course, has numerous streets, an island and even a school’s student ‘house’ named after him.

Stewart also includes an end note about the ‘historical significance’ of the massacre, the trial, and the subsequent executions. We are not to miss a thing. Stewart covers all bases, so it is difficult not to miss anything. Coming from a position of utter ignorance, however, that is probably a good thing.

The book is overtly didactic and sometimes poorly crafted. At other times Stewart is ingenious in the way he introduces elements of the story, such as the lowly situation of the convict in the 19th century, and the unwillingness of convicts to testify against each other, for fear of reprisals. These inclusions serve a purpose, as we have seen.

The government and capital do not get off lightly; the ‘war’ between blacks and whites that was being conducted at the boundaries of settlement was based on the idea that the Aborigines ‘owned’ nothing. Governor Gipps, a Whig appointee, did not personally subscribe to this idea. Gipps was in a difficult position. He came in immediately after an interim governor had mounted punitive action against Aborigines in the same area, under Major James Nunn. However, an inquiry conducted in 1839 was, Stewart tells us, “a whitewash”, and exonerated Nunn of any wrongdoing. Gipps himself returned to England in 1846, the last year of conservative government before the Whigs were voted in again. He died in 1847.

Gipps emerges as some sort of a hero, although his enlightened attitudes toward Aborigines seem to have failed somewhat when it came to dealing with convicts. These were tough times, but there were enough voices that arose in contrast to the squatters’ to make it easy to condemn Dangar and his ilk in the face of overwhelming evidence that the massacre was not only unnecessary, but extremely foul in its intent

In the Grattan article it is also reported that Howard called for more history teaching in schools. Perhaps this book should be recommended as a set text?
And if you’re looking for the Grattan article, just type ‘culture wars’ into Google. There are so many times when I wish it was this easy to find a news article. Unfortunately, many just seem to drop out of the public record. We live in slippery times.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Adam Jacot de Boinod is a lexicographer who survived working for the BBC and whose new book, The Wonder of Whiffling comes out in Australia with Penguin Press in November. The book is not the first product of his lexical travels and, given the inexhaustible supply of untranslatable terms in existence, probably not the last.

I had the pleasurable opportunity to ask Adam a few quick questions.

Question 1

Language is inherently interesting, don’t you think? There have been many ‘histories’ of English, for example Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue (1990) and Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English (2003). Do you think that such books are interesting not only due to a jingoistic dedication to monoculture? Why do you think people want to read about their own language?

Answer 1

Well, I’m not so sure about the notion of monoculture in that the English language has always been adept at grafting on words from many languages and increasingly so, despite being currently the international language for business.

The English language pinched and naturalised the best from foreign languages such as ‘ad hoc’, ‘feng shui’, ‘croissant’ and ‘kindergarten’ to name but a few.
People want to read about their own language because it informs much of their culture both historically and to the extent it has sustained and flourished their clarity of expression.

Question 2

In your own case an abiding interest in language must have started early. Can you give a brief summary of your involvement in the collection of phrases and words of unique interest? Did you have a language background as a child?

Answer 2

My interest in the quirkiness of foreign words was triggered when, one day, working as a researcher for the BBC, I picked up a weighty Albanian dictionary to discover that they have no less than 27 words for eyebrow and the same number for different types of moustache, ranging from a ‘mustaqe madh’, or bushy, to a ‘mustaqe posht', one which droops down at both ends.

In the end my passion became an obsession. I combed over two million words in countless dictionaries. I trawled the Internet, phoned embassies, and tracked down foreign language speakers who could confirm my findings. I discovered that in Afrikaans, frogs go 'kwaak-kwaak’, in Korea owls go ‘buung-buung’, while in Denmark Rice Crispies go ‘Knisper! Knasper! Knupser!’

I started learning Latin at the age of seven and Ancient Greek at eleven so I have always been passionate about vocabulary.

Question 3

The Meaning of Tingo came out in 2005 and The Wonder of Whiffling is just now being released. How much time does it take to collect and assemble a book? Do you enjoy writing the books? Why?

Answer 3

It took eight passionate or to be more precise obsessive months to research 500 dictionaries for The Meaning of Tingo and a year for The Wonder of Whiffling. I was unable to go near a bookshop or library without sniffing out the often dusty shelf where the foreign language dictionaries were kept. I started to collect favourites: ‘nakhur’, for example, a Persian word meaning ‘a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled’; many described strange or unbelievable things.

How, when and where, for example, would a man be described as a ‘marilopotes’, the Ancient Greek for ‘a gulper of coaldust’? And could the Japanese Samurai really have used the verb ‘tsuji-giri’, meaning ‘to try out a new sword on a passer-by’? And where would you expect to find a ‘cigerci’, the Turkish for ‘a seller of liver and lungs’? I love writing the books because it’s great to unearth, by delving and burrowing, words that have been lost or barely known for ages.

Question 4

As a classics scholar (which I find from a BBC website) how do you feel about the resurgence in popularity of classical languages in Australia? Enrolments in Latin and Classical Greek have risen significantly in recent years, despite their apparent irrelevance to career development. Why do you think this is?

Answer 4

I don’t know why it is but it is highly commendable. Classics gives one the ability to look across a range of different disciplines, thereby allowing one to “think outside the box”.

Question 5

You worked as an ‘elf’ on the BBC2 TV program Q1. When did this program start and how long did it run for? Can you describe what BBC2 is, for people who are not British?

Answer 5

It started in 2004 with Stephen Fry as the compere. The BBC is the English equivalent of the ABC.

Question 6

Are there any secrets involved in being a lexical traveller? Do you need a compendious memory? Does having a classical background help in terms of being able to identify patterns in words that belong to languages you otherwise do not speak?

Answer 6

Well it’s a combination of a private passion and, as you say, a reliance on a Classical education to determine word origins.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

If the "next small thing" in IT is the Smartbook, who's going to address the underlying issue that will plague users of an always-on "thin device you can balance on your fingertips"? Which is, of course, that most web pages are designed for a 17-inch screen. David Firth, who wrote the article, ignores this stumbling block.

Or maybe he has never tried to browse the internet using a mobile phone, as I have. When I got a new Nokia recently, it came with a Facebook option. I relished this inclusion as I was staying in a Brisbane hotel at the time and was away from my trusty desktop. But I found the experience less than satisfactory.

Processing speed is a major drawback for mobile phone net browsing. Combine slugishness with an interface that lacks an independent scrolling device - a mouse - and you get truly clunky interaction, snail-slow download speed, and restricted options in terms of interactivity.

The screen is just too small. Layout of Facebook on a mobile phone means the interface in very few ways resembles that which you use on a computer. This means that the typical click paths you are used to using on a minute-by-minute basis to get where you want to be, are fatally compromised.

You can see messages but it's not clear which ones are new and which have been there since your last session. You can see status updates and whatnot in the news feed, but the miniscule screen means reading is difficult. Why would these problems go away once you're on a "fingertip"-sized interface?

Now that I have a 23-inch screen, I'm even less likely to be satisfied with a Smartbook-sized interface. The new screen allows me to sit back in my chair and put my feet up on the desk while reading the text online at 125% of default resolution. After this type of comfort and convenience why would I be satisfied with a cramped screen and touchpad?

Until software developers start making web pages that include a design for small-screen browsing, this problem will just not go away. If performance were the only thing getting in the way of a good experience with a small screen, it would be enough to put me off. But add to this the utter mismatch between what's written in the code and the screen dimensions, and you have a perfect storm of frustration.

Monday 24 August 2009

Suicide is a fraught issue in the media. Jeff Kennett representing depression thinktank BeyondBlue has been successful in blocking the screening on Channel Nine's Sixty Minutes program of a story about a 'suicide cluster' that has challenged students, teachers and parents at Geelong's Western Heights College. The TV station came to an agreement with BeyondBlue outside court after an injunction was brought by BeyondBlue to stop the program going to air.

Natalie Rowe, 14, who attended the school briefly and had bipolar disorder, was found dead in February. In March Zac Harvey, 15, killed himself. Three weeks later Harvey's girlfriend, Taylor Janssen, 16, killed herself too. Then in July Chanelle Rae, 14, killed herself. All were students of the school.

But Kennett is on the record asking for more discussion on suicide. Yahoo7 published a story on 21 July, 'Fourth Geelong student commits suicide', which includes this:

Former Victorian premier and beyondblue chairman Jeff Kennett said the school's students and staff were bound to be hurting but that it was important not to sweep the issue under the rug.

"It needs to be talked about openly within the school community and there needs to be a positive response to avoid it happening again," he said.

"I hope they have a very heavy program for helping the students cope with these sad events and to help them develop mechanisms for coping with change.

And frustrated viewers commenting on the website (9 August 2009) almost universally condemned the program's axing. An anonymous commenter said:

Completely agree with you both, it's a huge problem that really needs air time. It's not pretty and is so hard to discuss but it is necessary and I can't believe that a program such as this would back down on this issue.

Another anonymous commenter noted that it was "not because of the topic in general but something about the way the program was being presented was potentially dangerous" that caused the program's shutdown.

But in a website posting, SANE Australia, in a piece (24 July 2009) titled 'Reporting of Western Heights College student death', congratulated the media for its reporting.

There has been extensive national media coverage of the tragic death of Geelong student, Chanelle Rae and the important issue of youth suicide, bullying and community support.

SANE Australia has thanked the media for their reporting of this issue and its contribution to suicide prevention – the majority of coverage has been handled sensitively, accurately and has provided balance and context to what is an extremely complex and emotional subject.

Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg hopes that coverage will not focus exclusively on one incident.

Chanelle "was a member of the Geelong cheer squad; they will feel this very closely and personally and should be allowed to express their grief as they see fit," Mr Kennett told The Weekend Australian. "But the day, the Beyondblue Cup, is about destigmatising depression throughout the community as a whole, and particularly through AFL football.

"There is no way the game will be turned into a tribute to any one person."

For Dr Carr-Gregg, an expert in adolescent psychology, it is an essential distinction to maintain.

"This tendency to deify the person who has died scares the hell out of me," he said. "The more we talk about it, the more we do seriously run the risk of it blowing out of proportion."

But if we are to get beyond the headlines there need to be programs such as Sixty Minutes, which provide a longer, magazine format, involved in the discussion. And there is clearly a lot of demand for this type of story, although there are those who want to be let alone to grieve. In an ABC news story publsished on 11 August, "a father with a suicidal child praised BeyondBlue's actions, and criticised some of the recent reporting on the deaths at the Geelong school".

"The frenzy is just causing so much immense pain on individual levels. I ask, is it worth the public interest to report it in the way they're doing it? It's just astounding, absolutely astounding," he said.

So what is needed is not a frenzy that looks at a single case to the exclusion of all the others, but a more in-depth investigation into an issue that will not go away.

Sunday 23 August 2009

Review: Outlaw Journalist, William McKeen (2008)

In its details, this biography of one of the most significant journalists of the 20th century is outstanding. Coming from ignorance, as I did, I found the parts about his childhood and early writing life of great value. But the book suffers from this success.

The volume of detail is frankly overwhelming. McKeen has clearly worked very hard to assemble the greatest amount of information possible. But his writing suffers from his role as a journalist, a breed of writer that is frequently a tad too enthusiastic about cumulative data.

In tone, the early parts following childhood are tinged with fatigue, as Thompson struggles to get his writing published and put food on the table. Aggression produced as part of the struggle boils over into violence against his first wife, Sandy. McKeen is obviously saddened by this. He also sighs between the lines as he recounts Hunter's many infidelities. But this down-beat tone disappears when Hunter strikes success, in the 1980s. From then on, it's a whirlwind of activity as Hunter struggles against sloth and intransigent editors.

OK, so far so good. But what does a Hunter enthusiast who is largely ignorant of the contours of the writer's life take away from this book? The drugs are less interesting than the dedication to craft. This characteristic of Hunter is evident in the huge stash of 20,000 letters he preserved over a lifetime of frequent correspondence with friends and editors.

Then there's the essential thing about Hunter: he was always an outsider. As a boy, he got into trouble frequently. The tonic moment seems to have been when he outsmarted the authorities after toppling a mail bin in front of a milk truck. As a prank, it is both well thought-out and well executed. When confronted with the facts, however, Hunter denied culpability and when threatened with witnesses he asked "What witnesses?" He outsmarted the deputies. His luck ran out, however, when he and a group of friends robbed a pair of necking couples in a remote vehicle. They threatened to rape one of the girls if they didn't get the cash. The judge was stern and Hunter went to prison. When he got out he entered the Air Force.

In the Air Force, Hunter worked on the base paper as a sports writer, honing his early skills. But he couldn't stand authority and got an honourable discharge. There followed years of wandering, from Puerto Rico to Big Sur and San Francisco, chasing the dragon of fame. The Hell's Angels book launched him into it but it would be years before the money troubles disappeared.

Hunter on the university lecture circuit and Hunter with his endless string of girlfriends after divorcing Sandy is less interesting.

The book is clearly essential reading for enthusiasts, yet it is only a beginning. It gives you clues as to which other writers from the periods to read. It also helps you to understand a man who worked very hard and with single-minded effort toward attaining the recognition and fame that he felt, from a very early age, was his birthright.

Saturday 22 August 2009

Shirley Singh, whose husband, Vijay, accuses Brisbane’s Max Sica of killing their children, doesn’t like the questions she’s being asked during Sica’s committal hearing. The hearing is being held in Brisbane Magistrate’s Court to establish whether there is enough evidence to bring Sica to trial. It’s incredibly intriguing.

Sica’s lawyer, Sam Di Carlo, has been questioning the Singhs intensely for the past week in an attempt, as he says today, to “establish the likelihood of another person being responsible” for the deaths, in 2003.

Vijay Singh and his wife were in Fiji at the time the murders were carried out.
"If you are trying to prove that my husband is violent and that he is the cause of what happened let me remind you that we were in Fiji at the time," Mrs Singh said.

"I'm not trying to prove one or another person did it," Mr Di Carlo replied, referring to the crimes for which his client, Max Sica, is currently in court.

But there’s more.

Mrs Singh told the defence lawyer yesterday [20 August] she could not understand why the abuse she suffered at Vijay Singh's hands was "the main topic" of his questioning.

"In 25 years of marriage, 50 times being assaulted is just a minor thing," she said, insisting the attacks were irrelevant to her children's deaths.

"What are you driving at?"

Mr Di Carlo, who spent more than an hour quizzing Mrs Singh about her childhood, her husband's business dealings, his extra-marital affairs and the physical abuse she suffered, told her he simply had to do his job.

"I'm not driving at anything," Mr Di Carlo said.

"I understand your pain ... I don't think anybody can understand your pain but I'm doing the best I can."

Vijay was on the stand earlier.

During another dramatic day of cross-examination by Sica's barrister Sam Di Carlo yesterday [17 August], Mr Singh said the accused man had influenced Neelma to lie when she wrote in an email about a threat by her father to chop her up.

Mr Di Carlo read out the email, allegedly written by Neelma to Sica in October 2002 when she and her mother, Shirley Singh, were in Fiji investigating an affair Mr Singh was having with a Fijian woman.

In the email Neelma allegedly wrote that she had confronted her father, who was then in Australia, about the affair and six or seven other women she believed he had been sleeping with.

"I spoke to Dad and blew the f--- out of him. He told me that when I get back to Brisbane he will cut me to pieces. He said he's going to bash us up and he's really going to do it."

Asked if the threat was made, Mr Singh said it was not, and that Sica was responsible for his daughter's words.

"He is the one who instigates very much my daughter to do that," he said.

"Why should I be saying that? I did not."

The trial continues, providing endless topics of conversation for the people of Queensland. In my view, Shirley’s prompt denial of guilt and her ready excuse that she and her husband were overseas at the time of the murders, makes her sound guilty. And her husband’s erratic temperament is also a matter of interest for a spectator.

The upshot of all the evidence is that Vijay Singh killed his children because he was sexually abusing his youngest daughter, Sidhi, 12. Son Kunal, 18, and daughter, Neelma, 24, also died. This may be because they were aware of the goings-on. In a traditional Indian family such as this, silence would have been rather more usual than the alternative.

Sica is an easy target for Singh because he violently disagreed with Sica’s (39) love affair with Neelma, which took place in 2002 and 2003. Vijay Singh claims that Sica threatened him, which is possible, but it seems unlikely to me that Sica did it. If Singh were really abusing his daughter, as Sica claimed, then he has motive. As for opportunity, he could easily have organised for another person to have entered the house and killed the children.

Vijay Singh further presents an unbalanced personality by admitting that he and his wife once fantasised about having sex with Sica. The children were killed with an religious rake, an accoutrement of a Hindu god.

Friday 21 August 2009

NSW Supreme Court justice Ian Gzell appeared briefly on TV last night wearing a wig. It wasn't reported, though. At least the appearance wasn't reported. Gzell was shown in the sentencing hearing handing down his judgement. I believe this is a first for Australian TV: a judge in camera and on screen at the same time.

The debate has been aired in the media, however. Queensland chief justice Paul de Jersey has uttered reservations about the practice of screening courtroom sessions, although I can't find the main story right now. Some remarks are included at the bottom a Queensland Times story about a recent hearing.

Lawyer argues against televising court cases

AN IPSWICH criminal defence lawyer has backed the Chief Justice's assessment regarding television cameras in court rooms, saying it could trivialise the justice system.

Queensland Chief Justice Paul de Jersey cautioned against televising court cases, questioning whether broadcasting verdicts and sentencing would bring transparency to the legal system.

Simone Healy said televising court proceedings brought a risk of intimidating witnesses or encouraging others to “play up” to the cameras.

Televising of court proceedings is widespread in America and TV cameras are also allowed in some courts in New Zealand.

Gzell was sworn in in January 2002.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Review: Back on the Wool Track, Michelle Grattan (2004)

Unaware of what to expect, a couple of weeks ago at a second-hand bookshop I bought this. Most journalists know how to write well, and this was my main motivation in buying it. Which is fitting, as I suspect that Grattan's main motivation in following in the footsteps of early-20th century journalist CEW Bean was from a sense of kinship.

Certainly, Bean is not overrepresented here, either in terms of space given over to quotes, or to musings on his martial, xenophobic, and oddly fascistic opinions. For example, Bean's belief that West country Australians were the best 'type' of Australians gets short shrift from Grattan. The period was full of racial stereotyping and crazy beliefs in the superiority of the Ango-Saxon 'race', and there is no doubt that Bean held to similar opinions.

But Bean's success as a journalist and his strangely modern ideas about writing for a popular audience have struck a chord with Grattan who is, as we know so well, one of the premier political journalists in Australia today. Bean was not. He was sent out West by his employer, the Sydney Morning Herald, to write pieces about the best route for a railway into the deep West. He then took on another, greater challenge, when he was chosen by ballot to go with the AIF to Gallipoli and Europe to cover events there, following the declaration of war in 1914.

Grattan does not follow him overseas, thankfully. What she does is quite special, however. This is a very entertaining and readable book that is only very loosely based on a (probably) rather unlikeable character. In essence, Grattan brings us up-to-date on the far West, the country around the Darling River, which is sporadically fed by monsoonal rains falling in Queensland and provides a very uncertain subsistence for people living along it.

Wool was the staple then. Grattan pokes her nose into innumerable shearing sheds. In true journalistic style what she does best is to talk to people. There are thousands of different voices in the book, all adding their tones and tales to building up a picture of life on the driest land east of the desert. It is marginal land, and the stories are of people living with change, a constant flux between plenty and dearth.

Grattan ends on a note similar in tone to this, but it is not the main point. She modestly reserves the summing-up to a brief epilogue. The vast bulk of the book is useful (for those who know nothing about the area, and about Bean) and entertaining. The book is therefore recommended highly.

Monday 17 August 2009

Review: The Great Shark Hunt, Hunter S Thompson (1979)

Edited by Thompson himself, the first volume of the Gonzo papers demonstrates the emergence of gonzo journalism, starting in the last years of the 1960s and the first years of the 1970s. To put it blankly, by 1972 he was gonzo. This may be moot to some but to me the appearance of this high-toned style is of seminal importance.

It takes more time to read the book than it does to read the Wikipedia page on Thompson, but it’s a lot more fun.

A few early markers of relevance stick out. These are the Hells Angels (1966) book, the articles on hippies and the beats, and an outrageously fantastic piece titled ‘Living in the Time of Alger, Greeley, Debs’ that sees Thompson driving around the Midwest talking to itinerant, casual construction laborers. It’s even better than the political pieces of 1973 to -74 on Watergate. It was published in 1964.

Thompson also published a number of pieces for the National Observer in 1963 and -64 that look at South America through the author’s particularly acute mental lens. But these are not gonzo. I want to make this clear because I think it is of importance to any enthusiast of gonzo. A piece published in 1970 by Scanlan’s Monthly titled ‘The Police Chief’ and signed Raoul Duke (“Master of Weaponry”) is, unequivocally, gonzo.

What had changed? I’ll need to read a longer biography to get a handle on it, but the task is not only tempting. It is essential for me to do this so that others can benefit from my work. It is a selfless task, but a necessary one.

Compare for example Thompson’s 1974 Playboy piece, and the title piece for this volume, ‘The Great Shark Hunt’ with the 1964 piece mentioned above.

In the former we find Thompson on a private gig to cover a big game fishing competition in Mexico. Naturally he doesn’t ‘cover’ the event in any way that is designed to satisfy his sponsor, a fishing boat manufacturer. Instead of getting involved in fishing he says how much he hates it, goes off to drink and take drugs with some of the locals, trashes his hire car, and then cuts out of the hotel without paying the bill. When he gets on the plane with his associate they find they have some drugs left and decide to do them before arriving in the US. The outcome is hilarious and entertaining. But this is not a straight piece of reporting.

The 1964 piece takes place in cars. Thompson drives around the Midwest picking up hitchhikers and finds that many are almost destitute. Some are on their way to work in another state. This is a straight piece of reporting, but with a distinct tone. Thompson sympathises with the men and tries to find grounds for common humanity to forge a link between them.

In his gonzo pieces, we see a similar effort to find common humanity but, on a small resort island in Mexico, Thompson, who admits in ‘When the Beatniks Were Social Lions’ (National observer, 1964) that he was a beatnik once, finds little in the way of common ground for a meaningful exchange of social capital. He feels isolated and resorts to drugs and alcohol as a result.

This, it seems to me, is the core of Thompson’s aesthetic. He used to be a beatnik, he gets involved in the hippy scene of San Fransisco (‘The “Hashbury" Is the capital of the Hippies’, New York Times Magazine, 1967), he sympathises with the Left (hates Nixon, likes Carter), he seeks some sort of isolation in the backwoods of Colorado, but he is drawn to modern America like a moth to a flame.

He seeks compensations for his essential ennui. It’s not just drugs. It’s also powerful guns, football, and politics. Because he’s a romantic fool for love he doesn’t play around with women, but remains largely faithful. It’s sort of like Quentin Tarantino with his movies. Thompson is a news junkie because it tells him something about his country and the world, both of which being places he feels some sense of connection with. He doesn’t just drop out, he tunes in, but there are filters in place that allow him to remain stable and healthy (spiritually) in the eye of the storm.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Review: Rebecca West, Fay Weldon (1985)

Not everyone would dare to advise a giant of 20th century feminism on sex, career, family. Fay Weldon’s contribution to the Lives of Modern Women series (“a series of short biographical portraits by distinguished writers of significant twentieth-century women whose lives, ideas, struggles and creative talents contributed something new to a world in transition”) takes the form of a set of direct addresses given over 70 years after the facts she writes about. She pulls no punches. She exhorts, she soothes, and she applauds. It is a tour-de-force in biographical writing.

The book is so appealing because Weldon covers so much ground in such a small space (it is just over 100 pages long). In her addresses she recreates imagined scenes involving West in the process of recovering from the birth of her first son, Anthony, whose father was H.G. Wells. The scenes include West’s mother and sisters, friends, the landlady and a nurse.

This cast allows Weldon to examine the realities of illegitimacy among free-thinkers in context. Social mores that leading lights such as West and Wells sought to overturn were deeply ingrained. It would take several more generations before they were remodeled in a less censorious, more equitable mold.

Weldon also seeks to paint an accurate picture of the father, H.G. Wells. An uxorious, middle-aged husband and father, Wells sought out dalliances with the daughters of friends in the circles he habitually moved in. Weldon is not at all kind toward Wells, but she acknowledges his importance in world history. Some of his ideas, such as a World Nation, have started to come to fruition in the form of the EU. But he was a typical philanderer, in Weldon’s eyes, unable to settle with one woman and give her the due she deserved.

For West she has more praise, naturally.

The intimate scenes Weldon creates are full of interesting chatter and banter of the type we frequently see in happy families. But we less frequently see it in biographies. And although the book does not pretend to be exhaustive, it is certainly replete with wisdom and grace. In the course of the book Weldon, a feminist from the generation following West’s, answers her own question when, in the Introduction, she asks herself how she could talk to such an imposing figure.

Weldon rises to the task, and in the process gives us an example of biographical writing that may profitably be copied when writing about other dead people. We feel that we are in good hands.

Saturday 15 August 2009

Review: No Angel, Jay Dobyns (2009)

We don't often think about the stress of being a police officer, a cop. But police, and especially undercover police, often suffer loss due to the complex and shadowy nature of their work. I started to think about post-traumatic stress while reading this book. Not only police but also spies, victims of crime such as those involved in terrorism, and journalists.

I thought about Adam Shand, a reporter who was held up at gunpoint while working in South Africa, and whose book I reviewed last month.

Dobyns' book, authored with ghost writer Nils Johnson-Shelton, is largely true. "All of the events, persons, and alleged crimes that occur in No Angel actually happened or existed," the Author's Note states. There was some telescoping of conversations and events in the narrative. There was some invented incidental detail. This is not a history book. Dobyns reaches for the best epithet and comes up with 'memoir'.

Unfortunately a lot gets lost. Names of main characters blend one with the next. Events that seem to be important disappear in the story, or are blended with other, similar events. The people and events make up a composite, a simulacrum of reality. Much is lost, especially those events that are seminal for the story. Big things get wasted in the crush of detail. Details lose their outline and wash into others.

Dobyns and Johnson-Shelton also err in telling us about Bird's dissolution. We are told that he is running too close to the edge and confusing the fiction of his sting with his own reality. We don't really need to be told because we can see it happening. The drama of the undercover cop is best seen from without. Inside himself Dobyns, aka 'Bird', does not recognise the signs and delineations of the world he has entered.

There is also a bit too much stars-and-stripes bravado. This may have to do with Dobyns' post-sting trauma. After the trap was closed down on the Hells Angels, Dobyns was outed as an undercover and became unable to work in the field. He chased compensation from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms unit. Convictions that seemed so promising turned to dust. The Angels took out a contract on him. He turned to God. He understood how much he needed his family. It would be close to the mark to label him a 'broken man'.

But the good v evil paradigm that raises its ugly head at various points throughout the book becomes galling. There's a little too much hardboiled righteousness. Some of the prose is a tad on the nauseating side. Dobyns may be unaware of the effect this chest-thumping creates as Bird battles the forces of evil, but Johnson-Shelton should not have been. You can't convince people you are right if you don't show them how you made mistakes, and there is a bit too much concrete in this statue of liberty. When Dobyns visited New York and went to Ground Zero, I mentally paused.

And the bikers seem a bit oafish to inspire true dread. The backstory has been sanitised a little too well. Sure, there was that woman they stomped and killed. More on that, please. But the endless high-speed rides through the red dust of Arizona do not raise your hackles, neither do the multiple gun deals Dobyns conducts in his persona of Bird. We want to know more but perhaps these guys are just not as big as they seem, not as nasty, and not as wealthy. We've come to expect more.

There is no doubt that most of the work was Johnson-Shelton's. Dobyns does not strike you as a very deep thinker or subtle observer. The ghost writer did as much as he could, but Dobyns' terrible need to reclaim some dignity after burning out on the job means we are saddled with a lot of guff.

The potential to do more was there, only there was no way to reach it. Johnson-Shelton had to work with his materials, and Dobyns provided, I feel, precious little in the way of coherency and detail. The ball won't bounce.

Friday 14 August 2009

An ‘earlier problems’ segue reminds us that legendarily tardy and sclerotic RailCorp is yet to bring out an iPhone app for train timetables, despite the premier, Nathan Rees, asking the government body to cooperate with developers back in March. March, guys. That’s five months ago.

The story this time was about an iPhone app - FoodWatch NSW - that will have restaurateurs shaking in their boots. Developers mogeneration have taken data about food standards breaches that is already publicly available on the NSW Food Authority website and included it in an interactive iPhone map. The screen grab on the news website shows a succession of red bulbs, each marking out a restaurant that failed a NSW Food Authority inspection.

I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it? You’re in the car and you decide to eat out. “But where can we eat?” is the question-du-jour. IPone users can now check to see if the place they are sussing out the car window is non-compliant.

Having this information on a website is simply not adequate. I can almost overhear restaurant owners cursing mogeneration for their initiative.

Whereas before you needed access to a computer to see non-compliance details, now you can get them on your iPhone. It’s almost sure that the NSW Food Authority’s website is NOT optimized for mobile phones.

Take that, you dirty restaurant owner! The Sydney Morning Herald website captioned the story ‘Filthy Feed Map App’. What a laugh!

In a massive understatement, mogeneration CEO Keith Ahern thinks “a lot of restaurants aren't happy about it”. Well … Let’s see … Hmmmm. Yup.

A NSW Food Authority spokesperson sidestepped the dilemma the organization now faces given the large number of rancorous restaurant owners.

A NSW Food Authority spokesman said it did not have a particular view of such applications, but would encourage the public to use the information wisely.

"We don't endorse any of those products," he said. "We just provide the information for anyone to use. We just encourage people to be cautious because the information is frequently changed. They should check back to the original source before they make a decision.

"People can do what they do with public information."

Now people can actually use the information in a meaningful context, the NSW Food Authority is not about to start crowing, are they? I mean, it’s not politic, is it? This is classic bureaucrat-speak for “look, we wouldn’t have made it easily available ourselves but we’ve looked into it and since the information is already in the public sphere there’s not much we can legally do to stop this thing. Sorry. We tried to stop it but it‘s out of our hands.”

Which will hardly pacify the many restaurateurs whose premises are logged on the map.

As for RailCorp allowing developers to bring out an iPhone timetable, attached to the end of the story, it might be wiser to keep a sharp look-out for flying pigs than expect a fast turnaround within the behemoth any time soon.

Thursday 13 August 2009

Snarkey ignoramuses pan the idea of reintroducing an upper house in Queensland, based on the comments on a story on the Courier-Mail website recently. A few days later, when the Fairfax-run BrisbaneTimes website puts up a more reasoned take, they still use a headline designed to appeal to the electorate's hatred of politicians: 'Fancy funding more politicians?'

Typically for Fairfax, which established the BrisbaneTimes a year or so ago to give Queenslanders a less sensational alternative to the News Ltd tabloid, experts are consulted, including Nicholas Aroney, a reader in law at the TC Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland.

He says that an upper house is required to function as a house of review.

"Queensland is reaping the consequences of a long incumbency just like the 1980s National Party era," he said.

He argued the Queensland government was not effectively scrutinised by parliament, whereas in New South Wales, for example, the upper house often exposes incompetence in government.

"It constantly scrutinises; that's what Queensland needs," he said.

Then, of course, an opposite view is inserted. This comes from Dr Rae Wear, a senior lecturer in political science, also at UQ.

"I think it's an expensive option and I'm not convinced an upper house in itself would improve things," she said.

"New South Wales has an upper house and there's no great evidence that it's free of corruption."

Dr Wear points out that running the senate, in terms of senators' salaries only, amounts to $8 million annually. In a total expense of $53 billion, however, that is chicken feed.

Cut to Queensland Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald, who wants a toothless tiger on top.

Senator Macdonald said he envisaged an upper house with limited powers, so it could not hold up legislation indefinitely or have the power to bring down a government, but could delay or amend legislation.

"By placing the aforementioned restrictions on an upper house, its focus could remain on thoroughly scrutinising the decisions of government and voicing popular disagreement when it arises," he wrote.

Fairfax also points out that running the Crime and Misconduct Commission and the Ombudsmans office cost money, too.

Whatever the outcome, from my point of view an upper house is absolutely essential. So many things are happening here as a result of inadequate scrutiny by government. The problem is that any decision to reintroduce an upper house (which was abolished in 1922) will have to work in the context of an extremely low approval rating for politicians generally. They're even less popular than journalists.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Review: The Facebook Era, Clara Shih (2009)

When I was a university undergraduate I was invited by a friend to a party and I decided to invite two female friends to come along. It was a clear case of win-win for all concerned. I would get to go to a party, as would my friends. And the host would benefit from having three interesting people onboard.

When we arrived we discovered to our intense dismay that it was an Amway recruitment gathering. The friend had said nothing to alert us. We left, disgruntled, soon after arriving, having driven in the car some 20 kilometers, and having spoilt our night.

Shih’s new book makes me remember this image, still fresh in my brain now, after 25 years.

Here’s another image.

Imagine an enclosure filled with little bunny rabbits eating grass. Outside the wire mesh, imagine a posse of ferocious, slavering beasts with horns and gaping jaws. They want to get in to feed on the bunnies. The bunnies are not aware of the beasts. Shih arrives, carrying a spade and proceeds to dig a hole under the fence.

The slavering beasts are corporate executives eager to get their jaws into the unsuspecting Facebook friend networks that have developed. In March 2009, when the book was going to press, there were 150 million bunnies. Now there are 250 million. The beasts are getting restless.

I felt dismay when I looked at this book and realized I’d only read half. In fact, I stopped at this point. At the point where my mind was glassing over and my eyes were skating unseeing across the rows of words. I started to think about completely unrelated subjects. It was time to quit.

A bad book half read is a remedy for pain.

Shih comes to the book from a background with a customer relationship management company and a degree from a prestigious US university, but she doesn’t have the writing skills to pull it off. The language is both dry as she explains the intricacies of online life to a (presumably) mainly green audience. But it is also disconcertingly eager. I think back to my Amway friend throwing his energy into presenting figures of sales totals and products as he stands in front of an audience, half of which just wants a beer and some good conversation.

The problem is that the target audience - newbie sales executives - and the subject matter - arcane aspects of the Facebook interface and the world of social networking - do not share a common grammar or vocabulary. As a result, Shih is forced to extoll the virtues of using Facebook as a sales tool by resorting to a fixed-grin, high-toned enthusiasm that, hopefully, will keep the poor buggers reading for just one more chapter. For an experienced Facebook user who wants an idea of how the tool is being used for business there is little of interest.

I refrain from quoting because of the pain involved in going back into the book to search for a suitably horrendous passage.

Some elements of Facebook are not explained adequately, moreover. Shih makes much of the ability of sales people to ‘leverage’ networks and to accomplish some of the more routine parts of selling more easily. An example of this is qualifying a lead. She says that Facebook makes this easier because you can see a lot of the person’s details in their Information page. This is true, but to get to this point you need to be a friend of that person first. This fine point is not discussed. In fact, there’s no discussion of ‘friending’ at all, which is odd as it is perhaps the most interesting and difficult part of the Facebook model.

She does mention that your employees can maybe introduce you to a lead - a task that another social networking tool, LinkedIn, is specifically designed to do. But when the total community numbers 250 million you’d need to have a lot of well-connected employees or friends to make a dent in your sales target using Facebook.

Hopefully the ravening beasts will have to be made to dig the hole themselves. Being born without opposing thumbs, it’s likely they will fail in this task. Which means the bunnies will be safe for a while. Until a beast with a bigger brain or more flexible fingers comes along to broach the wire.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Access to abortion drug RU 486 does not increase the incidence of abortion, says Marie Stopes International national clinical adviser Jill Michelson (pic).

But Right to Life president Marcel White in Queensland, where abortion is against the law, has compared doctors at 14 clinics nationally run by the outfit who are to be allowed to prescribe the drug, to Al Qaeda.

According to Michelson:

"... The decision to have an abortion is a very difficult one for any woman - just because this is available people are not going to run out and have an abortion.

"There is no evidence from overseas, where (RU486) has been introduced to a country, that there has been any increase in abortions."

The case of Tegan Simone Leach, 19, of Cairns, has propelled the debate back onto news front pages. The Queensland premier, Anna Bligh has reiterated her government's opposition to decriminalising abortion. Leach used RU 486 that had been imported from the Ukraine to abort a pregnancy. She and her partner have faced community wrath and have been forced to move residence to avoid property damage, and possibly worse.

But Queensland law says nothing about medical abortion, such as applies when RU 486 is used. Only surgical abortion is illegal. It is legal to surgically abort when the physical and mental health of the woman is at risk. It seems likely that the statutes will need to be rewritten given that doctors at Marie Stopes in Caboolture and Salisbury will now be legally prescribing the drug.

Marie Stopes International is a UK-registered charity "providing a full range of sexual and reproductive healthcare services to 4.8 million people worldwide in over 40 countries across Africa, the Arab World, Europe, Latin America and Asia", according to the website. Services include vasectomies and abortions.

The Queensland Criminal Code statutes proscribing abortion date from 1899.

Monday 10 August 2009

The Australian Sex Party (ASP) has been on my radar for some months now but it has just got approval from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to run in elections.

Now it can take to the stage where influence is brought to bear on the public alongside the Greens, and help to form debate on a broader scale, not just at the level of the sex industry but at the civil level.

ASP convenor Fiona Patten has been in the news in regard to sex policies and activism for a long time. In 1992 she founded the Eros Foundation, based in Canberra, which lobbied for certain policies and laws against a determined, conservative agenda. She left the foundation in 2000 and spoke with the ABC’s Julie Posetti.

JULIE POSETTI: What sort of support have you had from your family? I mean, a lot of people, you know, would go home and tell mum and dad, 'I'm going to represent the sex industry' and be met with an apoplectic reaction.

FIONA PATTEN: Yes. Look, honestly, in some ways they would probably prefer that I was doing - I was doing something else or representing other people - you know, the wheat farmers of Australia or something. But one of my, sort of, ancestors or relatives is a woman called Jessy [actually ‘Jessie’] Street who was a fabulous reformist, and actually she spoke out - or spoke for sex workers back in the first part of this century. So -

JULIE POSETTI: She was, of course, a famous feminist.


JULIE POSETTI: A founding mother, if you like of feminism in Australia.

It’s useful to note that the ASP’s logo bears the same ‘twin arrow’ design as that which was used by the Eros Foundation.

As for the name, the AEC decided that the name of the new party was not ‘obscene’, as suggested by petitioners to the AEC. To reach their conclusion, the AEC referred to statutes.

An application for registration as a federal political party has never previously been refused on the basis of the name being ‘obscene’. Accordingly, the AEC had to assess the validity of this claim by conducting an examination of case law and statute relating to the word ‘obscene’ in order to obtain some guidance on the standard that must be met for an application to be refused under s129(1)(b). When the Party name and abbreviation are assessed in light of the guidance afforded by existing case law and statute on the word ‘obscene’, the name ‘Australian Sex Party’ and the abbreviation ‘Sex Party’ are not prohibited under s129(1)(b).

This must have been a relief to Patten and her coworkers at the ASP, which now is able to run candidates in Australian electorates for the purpose of gaining seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The party’s logo is accompanied by a humorous slogan: “Where you come first!”

Which may be considered, by some, to be obscene.

In any event it is a done deal and we will now see ASP candidates debating issues in the federal arena alongside previously the only alternative game in town - the Greens. The Eros Foundation seems to still exist as it has a Hotfrog page. But it has no website or published telephone number. However the Eros Association (‘Australia’s national adult retail entertainment association’) does have a web page. It also has the Eros Foundation’s twin-arrow logo and the same Deakin address. The Eros Association website says it, too, was founded in 1992.

Considering that Canberra is Australia’s porn capital, I guess it’s not surprising to see this as the postal address. Nor this as part of its duty statement:

“We seek to bring logical and popular perspectives to love and sex rather than moral or religious ones.”

“Make love, not war” is another element, albeit borrowed from the more-popular Hippie Movement of the 1960s and -70s.

At some point the Eros Foundation became the Eros Association. What is clear, however, is that the people who formed this industry peak body had a hand in assuring that ‘X-rated’ movies were not banned by the federal government. That was in the late 80s. But, as the website says, the fight continues:

Despite overwhelming support for the legalisation of X rated videos amongst the general public (72% average in polls over 10 years), they remain illegal in all the states. It is still illegal to host adult content from an Australian ISP and phone sex is still illegal if charged to a normal home phone account. On the other side of the ledger, X videos remain legal at a federal level despite constant pressure from sections of the government to ban them. Draconian laws to make it illegal to even upload adult material to a website, have been defeated in some states but have been passed in others.

Clearly Patten has a lot of experience dealing with government on touchy subjects. As a member of the peak industry body, she was at arm’s length from business and so was able to deal effectively with politicians without them becoming involved in potentially damaging entanglements with the private sector. She has served a useful purpose.

I wonder why she left the association?

Whatever the reason may be, she has now found a more substantial platform for her activities and inspirations.

Jessie Street (1889 - 1970) has an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Sunday 9 August 2009

Review: Investigative Journalism (2nd edition), Hugo de Burgh (2008)

What can you say to the Chinese authorities to get them to relax media restrictions? How about this line from the book, in chapter 2, ‘The Emergence of Investigative Journalism’ (p 35):

… according to [Prof John] Hartley [of the Queensland University of Technology] … [the poet John] Milton argued the case that liberty is a condition of national greatness and journalism the means by which that liberty is to be assured. Hartley also makes the point that the idea of the reporter as someone identifying truth, what he calls the ‘ideology of the eyewitness’ predated the scientism normally associated with the Enlightenment.

De Burgh writes that the scepticism associated with the religious mindset “as the century wore on” (presumably the 17th century as Milton’s Areopagita, where the above idea originates, was published in 1644) played its way into a number of channels, including historical enquiry and scientific investigation. This trend led by stages toward the establishment of “the basis for the idea of impartial evidence”.

De Burgh thus shows that the polemical bent of the Renaissance bled, in England in the years surrounding the Revolution, into a way of thinking in objective terms - of course toward achieving a dearly-held goal, it goes without saying - that fostered the rise of science in the following (18th) century.

No doubt the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695, after which publishing became much easier, helped in this historical project. Early-18th-century writers such as Defoe and Steele partook of the enthusiasm for well-written and trustworthy prose by writing on a range of topics including weather, science, manners, crime, and society as a complex of secular interactions involving rational beings.

I am grateful to Hartley and de Burgh for drawing this historical artefact to my attention. If this were the only thing in the book worth reading, I would be satisfied. There is much more, however.

On one point, though, reservations should be expressed. This is a textbook and as such is designed to be discussed in a classroom with a teacher and fellow students. By reading it as a standalone object you miss out on the opportunity to question ideas and expand on presumptions.

One of the most topical, now, is the decline of investigative journalism in the 21st century.

Investigative journalism, it appears, boomed in the 1960s and -70s due to the large budgets of newspapers that attracted masses of advertisements and, hence, were driven to increase their page counts. The new type of ‘watchdog’ journalism that included interrogating sources and digging for evidence, was affordable.

[Australian-born journalist Phillip] Knightly … believes that newspapers’ loss of enthusiasm for investigative journalism came about because, first, before new technology, the salaries element of the total costs of production of newspapers was very small - he says 11 per cent; however, once new technology came in, salaries came to a much larger percentage of total production costs and were seen as ripe for cutting. Second, he says that new technology made it possible to see instantly the productivity, in terms of words per pound [we are in the UK here] spent on salary and overheads, of any particular journalist. Since investigative journalists had typically produced much less copy, they were vulnerable. (p 216)

De Burgh also notes that around the time investigative journalism started to wane at the Sunday Times, where Knightley worked from 1965 to 1985, it was purchased by News Ltd. Murdoch’s economic rationalism precipitated the decline of this valuable form of journalism at one of the most-respected newspapers in the UK.

Also of particular interest in addressing this question is Michael Bromley’s chapter, ‘Investigative Journalism and Scholarship’ (pp 174-88).

Digitisation held out the promise of a ‘new frontier’ to investigative journalists … Nevertheless, from the perspective of a growing body of those who professed to be most committed to journalism’s traditional professionalism, the new multimedia environment had fostered a ‘culture of news’ that was antithetical to investigative journalism … .

The outcome of this ‘culture of news’ where the ‘news hole’ begged to be filled constantly, now, in the digital era, cause PR operatives to gain the upper hand as they were able to feed information, packaged as news, to journalists. Sensationalism derived from the more highly-competitive environment, and an ‘argument culture’ led to an increased reliance on punditry, as opposed to copy that came from intensive ‘digging’. The list of five points on page 182 is highly instructive, but these are the main points. And I think they are the points of most interest for people with an interest in the media today.

Based on past experience these issues apply equally in Australia. I attended writing classes a couple of years ago and asked the presenter if investigative journalism was less prevalent now than in the past. She was unequivocal in her reply. “Yes,” she said. “Definitely.”

And even though the many examples covering print, radio and TV are British, there is a lot to learn. A student would get a lot of satisfaction from working with this book, I feel. The sentences are often long and complex and the types of techniques used by investigative journalists are various in their ethical aspects. But the overall tone of the book is both competent and exhaustive.

Each chapter finishes with notes and a bibliography so that you can go on to read source material if you feel inclined.

Saturday 8 August 2009

Are technology news sections becoming the new headline news? Is traditional inter-agency competition squeezing out useful stories when the subject of the story is the news itself? I think the answer is ‘yes’ on both counts.

Technology touches almost every aspect of our lives, apart from the courts, which seem to view it with as much relish as a sixteenth century burgher contemplated the plague. Court websites are notoriously slow, clunky and information-free.

But elsewhere in the world, IT plays an ever-more central, and growing role.

So when News Ltd launched a story at about 11am the day before yesterday about Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that his company’s newspapers would start charging for access to stories by the end of this fiscal year it was no surprise that the story did not feature on the pages of rival The Sydney Morning Herald. Even APN-owned Sunshine Coast Daily, which launched a similar story less than two hours later, was better furnished with this important news.

Yesterday, SMH tech writers caught the story when it appeared that (surprise, surprise) commenters on the story on’s website had seen fit to pan the concept of a commercial block on what most people, nowadays, take for granted should be free.

Fairfax reporters had a ball.

While noting gleefully that over 140 people had commented, reporters added a lot of background detail that I included on my post on this topic on the day the story broke.

While other major publishers are considering charging a subscription or micro-payments for their online content, New Corp has become the most vocal proponent of a move that Murdoch began telegraphing earlier this year.

At the same time, a number of his lieutenants have gone on the offensive, attacking bloggers and aggregators, such as Google, for profiting off the work of others.

In April, Wall Street Journal editor Robert Thomson attacked aggregators – including Google – calling them “parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet” because they profited off the back of free online content.

In June, Dow Jones chief executive Les Hinton described Google as a "digital vampire" that was "sucking the blood" out of the newspaper business.

Last month, News Ltd chief executive John Hartigan berated bloggers for leeching off mainstream news reports and criticised them for their lack of original reporting and professional standards.

Well good for Fairfax for being interesting and informative. It’s just a pity that they didn’t announce the new plans on the first day it became news, when it was still news.

Friday 7 August 2009

Review: Making the Cut, Mohamed Khadra (2007)

The book is very uneven in quality. This is because Khadra is a very boring man, although sometimes his insights are brilliant. When he is good - especially in the initial parts of the book - he is very, very good.

But when he lets go of the narrative thread and gives his prejudice its head, he can be very bad indeed. This is especially true in his grumbling about - what he thinks is - a crumbling health care system. ‘Old school’ is the epithet that comes most readily to mind.

Nevertheless, Khadra is a good prose stylist and he has a knack for turning otherwise nominally interesting material into coherent stories. The chapters are short and many have a definite arc that ties together the beginning and the end. Occasional wooden passages, such as are found in the story about his mother’s death, are offset by sparkling dramas such as the story of the rich surgeon with a drug habit.

Doctor stories are inherently interesting. The tug of drama is ever-present. Partly this is because the world of doctors is closed to most of us. It is an opaque oasis of ethical behaviour and gravitas where destinies are defined and the best and worst of people emerges, despite themselves. We are drawn to the inherent pathos.

Khadra turns much of this on its head. Naturally, as a practicing clinician, he is in a privileged position vis a vis the base material. No TV scriptwriter has equal access to the bones and marrow of the universe of ward and gurney. In turning upside down what is otherwise unfathomable, Khadra is deft with his assumptions of our own knowledge. He doesn’t scoff at it but he also doesn’t take anything for granted.

He seems quite candid. But there’s the danger. In fact, Khadra has very definite views about what he experiences in a lifetime of medical service. Equally, he is quite sure of the kind of appearances he wishes to engender in our minds.

Like the patient on the slab, we are at his mercy.

Overall, he is ethical in his dealings with us. On occasion, however, he wavers, stepping across the line that marks out the distinct territory of the observer from that of the grudging participant. Yet there is knowledge to be gleaned even from reading those passages in which he rumbles most menacingly in his chest at the evils of a profession that seems to be going to the dogs along with everything else we treasure in this world.

He’s probably wrong. One day, a patient will die of sepsis contracted by a dirty ward, a lawsuit will ensue, the hospital will be forced to pay a large compensation package, and things will start to change. In sum it is probably fair to say that some things were better in the old days. I guess that some things are better now.

But Khadra is not going to be the author-doctor to admit this. He will have the last word. And who are we to question him?

There’s also something very prosaic and unsubtle about the aspirations and tenor of the book. One example is the way the poems that are tacked onto the start of each chapter relate to the chapter that follows. Khadra says often that art and literature helped him to survive not only the grueling preparation process that led to his accreditation as a surgeon. They also help him in daily life to deal with patients who are, after all, humans.

But just adding a clip of poetry to a chapter does not true wisdom make.

Khadra’s eminently down-to-earth foibles (the BMW, the comfortable house) also make me wary of his motives. It is as if a politician were suddenly to attempt to make his persona seem less formulaic by writing an opera in Italian, a language he had learned since his university days. Imagine if Kevin Rudd were to write a treatise on T’ang pottery.

In fact, it is frightening how hollow an average surgeon seems to be compared with, say, some of the more flamboyant lawyers we see in TV crosses to the courthouse steps. A lawyer I can imagine writing a book about love-life in Constantinople in the ninth century. A surgeon’s way is a little closer to the way of Jack Smith from the body shop in my view.

Thursday 6 August 2009

Rupert Murdoch's decision to start charging for readers' access to its news websites comes after a long PR campaign designed to pass the blame for poor overall media performance to content aggregators such as Google News. If websites such as such as The Australian and The Daily Telegraph go 'paid', will anyone read them?

The ABC's finance reporter Alan Kohler says "Good luck with that".

Back at the end of May, Murdoch cited Google's "shameless promiscuity" as the reason news publishers would be forced to ask customers to pay for online news.

Two days earlier Campbell Reid, News Ltd's group editorial director had said that “Poor management, poor newspapers, I think are responsible for the death of some newspapers".

Who's right?

News Ltd's shares rose about 40 cents today on the back of its announcement. "I think the worst may be behind us," Mr Murdoch said, "but there are no clear signs yet of a fast economic recovery." But the main culprit seems to be News' lack of perspicacity in terms of its online ventures.

News Corp's division that includes Fox Interactive Media, which includes the social networking site MySpace, posted a $US136m operating loss due to ad declines and the cost of launching MySpace Music. The unit suffered turmoil during the quarter as it lost ground to rival Facebook and slashed its work force by nearly a third.

Facebook recently announced that its membership had passed 250 million and a valuation that occurred at the time of a recent sale put it as $6 billion. When Microsoft bought a share some years ago it was valued at $15 billion. But it's still doing better than MySpace.

This result augurs ill for Murdoch's capacity to blend online with traditional media production methods. If he cannot choose the right vehicle to run with - I rejected MySpace as soon as I saw it and joined Facebook as soon as I saw it back in 2007 - what are the chances that he can replicate the Wall Street Journal's success charging for access, in his other vehicles?

I'm sceptical.

Murdoch invested in MySpace soon before being quoted in his flagship newspaper, The Australian, welcoming in a qualified manner the advent of the blogoshpere, during which he called what was starting to appear on the internet "mainly rubbish".