Wednesday 30 September 2009

Google Wave: Many can ride it

Released to a select group of developers on a sandbox build today, Google's new Wave tool resembles a wave inasmuch as many people not only will be able to ride a single swell at the same time, but they are the ones propelling it forward. Email is 40 years old, Lars Rasmussen, head of the Sydney-based development team told the audience. His team wanted to see what email would look like, he said, if email were invented today, and not 40 years since.

The 'client' resembles Gmail, with its highlighted new items. But it is clearly aimed at intercepting and holding onto some of the energy that is currently propelling social media forward at such a rapid pace. It allows easy addition of photographs via a drag-and-drop mechanism. And it has a neat, always-on, IM-type feature that lets you see what other people are typing in the wave at the same time they are typing it. This makes it even more dynamic than, say, Facebook chat, where you need to wait until typing is completed and the Enter key has been hit, before seeing what is being said.

You add more than one, or just one, individuals to the conversation (the 'wave') in the same way that you select people in some areas of Facebook: by clicking on their picture.

The reach of Wave is enhanced by its seamless integration with a blog that uses Blogger, which Google owns. Comments made on the blog front-end appear within the wave in real time. I can't see a lot of need for this element of Wave, but it's certainly a neat feature.

Wave's real benefit will be in the area of collaborative authoring.

The presenters highlighted the collaborative strengths of the application by demonstrating the 'playback' feature. You click on a button near the top of the screen and the currently-visible conversation (the 'wave') is played back so that you can see who did what and in what order.

Email commenting is also enabled, and with a nice twist that will see more people using Wave in future. You can place your cursor within another person's email and add text at this precise point. Your edits will then be immediately visible to other participants in the wave.

For document creation, Wave has obvious advantages because it allows many people to concurrently create a single document. Edits are flagged with highlighting but individual edits are not tagged with the author's name. This is a shortcoming, as for more complex, or longer, documents a large number of edits would be likely to occur. In Wave, there's only a general flag at the top of the document that tells a viewer who has edited it, and that's all.

Of course, Google is releasing the API, so other developers will be able to tweak the application to suit different types of usages. A version of Wave developed specifically for the purpose of multi-author documentation would be a real winner in today's service-oriented world.

Gmail's IM feature never really took off for me. I quickly migrated my interactions to Facebook, which is a better social network than Gmail could ever be. With the release of Wave, Facebook has a new competitor in the SM space. It will be interesting to see whether Facebook takes heed and again tweaks its interface to match its new rival's hand.

One area that will have Facebook really worried is in cross-language communication. Wave includes a real-time translation engine that lets you read text being typed in a foreign language, in your own language. This is an extraordinary development, and promises to revolutionise international communication.

You can hear the sighs of Chinese censors as they realise that, with this one facility, their firewall will no longer be able to withstand those incessant attempts by overseas residents to breach their precious barrier. If all communication can now be translated immediately, then all websites and all emails will have to be censored.

This will be particularly true if the new translation engine, dubbed 'Rosy', is better at translating than other engines currently available. The demonstration showed a conversation between English and French. Movement between languages that are not so close together morphologically might present other troubles.

If Google is now entering the language translation space, there will be many companies that will now be concerned about their market share.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Washington is acting bizarrely. Has anyone noticed? 

The media landscape is changing rapidly, so rapidly in fact that Newsweek columnist Daniel Lyons says a piece of media law being debated in the US Congress, The Newspaper Revitalization Act 2009, is "like introducing legislation to save horse-drawn carriages, or steam engines, or black-and-white TV".

The act would enable media companies to enjoy tax breaks under the US tax code, as I wrote about a couple of days ago. In a word, it would help media producers to survive a perfect storm of economic events, which seem likely to lead to the demise of many of them.

It is so likely, in fact, that the president has said that he has considered bailing out newspapers in the same way that he has done for banks and auto makers.

But in the same place, at the same time, lawmakers have passed legislation for sheilding journalists' sources that gives protections to regular employees of media firms in preference to ordinary bloggers or citizen journalists.

Source protection is sacred ground for journalists, some of whom have gone to jail in this country rather than reveal their informants. A journalist asked to reveal a source should hope that they either have a good lawyer or that they're employed by one of those struggling media companies.

The new laws do not recognise a journalist unless they are "working as a salaried employee of, or independent contractor for, an entity ... that disseminates information by print, broadcast, cable, satellite, mechanical, photographic, electronic, or other means" and that disseminates its information by means of a proprietary carriage service.

The carriage service must be either (a) "a newspaper, book, magazine, or other periodical", (b) "a radio or television broadcast station, network, cable system, or satellite carrier, or a channel or programming service for any such station, network, system, or carrier", (c) "a programming service", or (d) "a news agency or wire service".

In other words, an ordinary citizen who operates a blog that is run on a generic service, such as Blogger, would not be protected by the law.

In other words I would not be protected as a blogger.

Even if I were writing a story that I still had to pitch to a newspaper, I would not be covered as I would not be an "independent contractor".

In other words, the law protects people working in an industry under severe threat, many of whom have lost - and will lose - their jobs and as a result may become freelanceers writing stories that they will pitch to newspapers, magazines or news or magazine websites.

I'm assuming that handling a commissioned piece would enable a journalist to consider themselves covered as they would, in that case, be legally an "independent contractor".

Monday 28 September 2009

This yarn shows why we can’t trust the media.

Voting online is a good idea. If it was allowed, you could vote on specific pieces of legislation. Knowledge of democratic rule – such as rules governing debate in the House of Representatives – would become much more widely known. We would all benefit.

If people could vote on more issues, and vote in a way that didn’t disrupt their daily activities, public debate would shift to a new level. Maybe politicians would no longer be so widely reviled.

If you were to take up online voting, you would probably not want the pollie who proposed it to be gaffe-prone, however. You’d want the whole enterprise to be conducted professionally and with poise. But The Sydney Morning Herald’s treatment of Paul Mcleay is, to quote a blogger (more below) who tweeted about this yesterday, “shoddy”.

The newspaper says that Mcleay, Member of Heathcote, a NSW seat, has put his foot in it in launching his Gov2.0 initiative at the same time as insulting his premier, Nathan Rees, and the prime minister, Kevin Rudd – both fairly good users of Twitter – and people with Tourettes Syndrome.

In a piece published in ON LINE Opinion last Wednesday, Mcleay said Rees’ and Rudd’s tweeting was done “with the energy of a 12-year-old with Tourettes”. On Sunday, a slow news day, Tourette Syndrome Association president Robyn Latimer said “such comments stigmatised sufferers”.

An unnamed party staffer was also quoted, saying Mcleay was “disgruntled” because he had not been promoted to the front bench.

Macleay somewhat disingenuously denied wanting to insult his Labor colleagues.

The eternal political bridesmaid, bitter at not being made a minister, yesterday insisted his comments were meant as a compliment to Mr Rudd and Mr Rees.

''They are both active users of modern technology and they do it with keenness and vigour,'' he said.

''There are many colourful ways we could have written it - it's just modern parlance … something colourful.

''The Government itself isn't doing full engagement. They're making a good effort but they're not taking it to the next level.

''They're adopting new technologies and spamming and tweeting and doing all this cool stuff but the next phase is when people get to respond back.

''It certainly wasn't meant as an insult or attack. Far from it.''

But all this argy-bargy is beside the point, although it may seem to journalists like a good way to fill the news hole on a slow day.

The point is that Mcleay is doing something remarkable.

The Community Building Partnerships initiative of the NSW state government is a post-GFC stimulus measure. It is designed to create jobs in local electorates. The amount of $35 million was allocated in July. In early October, Macleay wants to open up the Web to decide how the money is spent in his electorate by counting votes from residents.

It’s not clear how they will authenticate online. Authentication is necessary to prevent rorting of the system by individuals – or groups of individuals – who are so intent on securing funding for a project that they vote multiple times.

But Mcleay and his advisors are aware of the likelihood of misuse.

There are random sampling and risk management processes built in to stop people from cheating. Voters must live in the electorate. The Community Building Partnership fund use the electoral roll and other information to allocate the street addresses which must be verified before voters get their votes. There are only a certain number of people per household that the system will hold until in triggers a trip line that will suspend all votes in that household until they are validated. People will be randomly selected to verify their address and number of people in household.

Applications for funding specific projects under the Community Building Partnerships opened in June and closed in August. Macleay says voting in the electorate will start next week.

Matt Crozier, of Bangthe Table, a technology supplier, beat me to the punch by posting on the media panning yesterday.

Its a really sad state of affairs when an MP cannot be mildly critical of Government's record on e-participation without damaging his career prospects as McLeay may have. Paul has done some excellent work sinking his electorate allowance into a project to give his constituents a direct say in the spending of Government funds. This deserves plaudits and deserves more serious discussion in the media. Ironically Paul's initiative is attracting attention and credit internationally perhaps more than it is at home.

Sunday 27 September 2009

What would you do if you adopted a Chinese child and then suspected it had been corruptly stolen by Chinese officials and sold to an orphanage? You remember handing over $US3000 in cash to the orphanage. Now you are worried, after reading a news story by Barbara Demick in the Los Angeles Times.

Naturally, you ask the government of the rich country where you live, to investigate. This is exactly what Cathy Wagner, a resident of Nova Scotia in Canada, did when she read the story. She was deeply alarmed by the story’s implications for the child’s natural family if the allegations it contained turned out to be true.

She would be “heartbroken” and already she was “very scared”, according to the story in Pound Pup Legacy, a website dedicated to the safety of children.

But Canada’s department of Citizenship and Immigration did not respond to requests for comment, so we don’t know if there have been other complaints. We don’t know if any investigations have been conducted already.

In China, the Chinese Center for Adoption Affairs also refused to comment when questioned by the LA Times journalist.

Officials of the agency have told foreign diplomats that they believe that the abuses are limited to a small number of babies and that those responsible have been removed and punished.

So it’s happened in the past but there’s no problem now.

So much for the complaints by grieving parents in Tianxi village, Guizhou province, who complained that officials had stormed their house, snatched their children, and told them to say nothing about the kidnapping. One of them, Yang Shuiying, even told her he was going to sell her child for adoption.

Fat chance Xinhua, the Chinese official news agency, will take up the story and run with it. It’s just another case of ‘foreign meddling’ as far as they’re concerned, I guess.

Saturday 26 September 2009

'Kadyrov announces his successor: a fugitive from interpol' 

Translation of news story on Peace Reporter website, a site dedicated to the abolition of war.

Adam Delimkhanov, chosen as successor, is accused of having ordered the killing of Commandant Sulim Iamadaiev, Kadyrov's bitter enemy

The president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has announced in an interview given to the nationalist weekly Zaftra, the selection of his successor: Adam Delimkhanov will carry his project forward. Delimkhanov was the vice-premier in 2006 and Duma delegate from 2007 for Putin's party, Russia Unita, and is said by some to be Kadyrov's cousin but he is above all wanted by Interpol, after the police in Dubai accused him of ordering the killing of Commandant Sulim Iamadaiev.

"When he's no longer around the Kadyrov cause will continue," said the Chechnyan President, who loves to talk about himself in the third person. "There's a squad, there are people who will execute my cause. I have prepared a person who can be my substitute. He's a very firm friend of mine, more than a brother, and I believe will be better than me," continued Kadyrov who praised Delimkhanov because he continued to fight in the mountains "against the guerillas" even while being a member of the Duma.

Sulim Iamadaiev, sworn enemy of Kadyrov, was shot with a pistol in June 2000, in an underground parking garage in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Friday 25 September 2009

Government-owned newspapers, anyone?

Government bailouts of US banks and auto companies have been broadly signalled, with Australian news consumers well aware of some post-GFC decisions. I guess it's not strange that the plan to restructure parts of the US media industry using a legal instrument called the Newspaper Revitalization Act of 2009 has received less media coverage here. None, in fact.

But the ramifications of the bill, which would allow news companies to become non-profits with tax rules that would relieve some of the pressure the media industry is currently feeling, are significant.

The bill was initially promulgated through the press in March. But it had no "co-sponsor" (apparently a requirement if a bill is to progress in the political system).

Now it has. The originator of the bill, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, now has on-side Democrat Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York. With her, he is pushing to have the issues debated.

But the Joint Economic Committee is suffering from some poor attendance. The Washington Post reports that

Just three of 20 House and Senate members showed up for the hearing, in which the Democratic chairwoman left early to vote on a House bill, leaving the ranking Republican in charge.

Maybe they had other things to do? The hearing is titled, grandly, "The Future of Newspapers: The Impact on the Economy and Democracy", but that doesn't seem to have impressed those who would decide that future, or given them reason to delay other committments.

But what does the bill mean, in detail, and how could a similar scheme play out in Australia? According to The Deal:

What would the Newspaper Revitalization Act provide for? The Act would allow advertising and subscription to be tax exempt, and contributions to support the news operation could be tax deductible. Newspapers would also be allowed to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes under the U.S. tax code, like public broadcasting companies.

And Reuters had this, also in March:

"This may not be the optimal choice for some major newspapers or corporate media chains but it should be an option for many newspapers that are struggling to stay afloat," said Senator Benjamin Cardin.

Under the new law, newspapers would be able to report as they currently do, but would be prohibited from making political endorsements.

"We are losing our newspaper industry," Cardin said. "The economy has caused an immediate problem, but the business model for newspapers, based on circulation and advertising revenue, is broken, and that is a real tragedy for communities across the nation and for our democracy."

Newspaper subscriptions and advertising have shrunk dramatically in the past few years as Americans have turned more and more to the Internet or television for information.

Because of the nature of government interventions in other industries, it seems, the bill's promoting lawmakers have been forced to deny any desire for emergency funding to prop up an ailing industry. Maloney said, among other things:

"I want to be very clear: This is not about bailouts. No one's talking about bailouts. We're through with bailouts."

In any case, the news industry says that it doesn't want to be saved from dissolution by any government, regardless of its purported sympathies with one side or the other.

"We don't believe direct governmental financing is appropriate for an industry whose core mission is news-gathering, analysis and dissemination, often involving that very same government," John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, said at Thursday's hearing.

As a media watcher, I personally have read in other places about interest in converting some media outlets to non-profit status under US law. But this is the first time (via Twitter, ironically) that I've heard of this bill. And the Australian media has been eerily silent on the issue. There has been no broadsheet coverage of it at all.

It is a deafening silence.

But it may be because Australia's newspaper industry is very narrowly-held, with two main companies fighting in most areas. News Ltd and Fairfax own a staggering number of local town papers, as well as the major metropolitan dailies. The Cardin-Maloney bill is mainly targeting "community and metropolitan papers" in an American market with very different characteristics from ours.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Coverage of Fairfax board developments has been pretty poor. So far, it has been a stale tale of conflict that hangs on the face-off between John B Fairfax – who shares the same name as the 150-year-old company – and the ancien regime of Ron Walker, the Chairman of Fairfax Media.

The irony is that even though Mr Fairfax has the same name as the company, it is him who wants renewal. So far we’ve seen no longer-format piece explaining why all of this is important. It’s something we need.

In a document dated 18 September on the ASX website it is clearly conveyed that “years of under-performance” is to blame for Walker’s demise, as announced today in The Sydney Morning Herald. In the story, the basic grievance is again (but in the final sentence of the story) stated:

Mr Fairfax has called for ''renewal'' on the board, citing a lack of strategic direction and poor share price performance.

Mr Fairfax is a director of Marinya Media, which owns the largest single stake in Fairfax media: 9.7 per cent. The statement also says:

While we clearly appreciate that Fairfax media has been operating within an industry in the midst of structural change, it is our view that the company’s strategic outlook and leadership calls for new direction.

In a related story, this time published in The Australian, we find (again, near the end of the story):

The company's shareholders, including the Fairfaxes, have been pushing for board renewal, particularly the inclusion of directors with digital media experience.

Digital media experience.

So there you have it. The company has been haemorrhaging money and employees for at least the past three years. Media’s share of a dwindling advertising spend has shrunk dramatically. They can no longer rely on ads to support their model. Then a little while ago their arch-rival Rupert Murdoch, who owns competing newspapers in Australia, announced he would set up a pay wall that would prevent readers getting access to stories unless they paid first.

Things are getting hot in the media industry. Fairfax editors tell me all the time that they have no freelance budget. If they can’t afford a few hundred dollars for stories that might mean the difference between having a readership or having none, they’re in serious trouble.

People are spending more time online and more time reading news, but they’re not spending money – apart from the cost of their broadband connection – to do it.

But people are also spending more time creating content, and it’s not just blogs. Blogs are the least important part of the equation. The bigger impact has been from social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Here, people can follow friends and see friends react to stuff these people are posting themselves. A retweet gives you a short high. It’s a lot more than you can say about the average news story.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Where is Dennis Ferguson going to live? The news yesterday on the broadsheet websites tells us that the NSW government is making new law to evict the convicted pedophile from his Department of Housing home. He moved to Sydney, to the northern suburb of Ryde, because he was unable to live in Queensland.

Ferguson committed his crimes in Queensland, was incarcerated there, and on release from prison lived in several Queensland towns before being hounded out of the community by local residents outraged by his presence.

There is noone taking up his line except a week or so ago an academic was interviewed by the ABC for the nightly news. He said that the continued pressure on Ferguson might cause him to reoffend.

And now there's Brett Collins, coordinator of prisoner advocacy group Justice Action.

So I did a little research. They have a website where you see that they do not receive funding from sources "that could compromise our work in a wide range of areas, relying instead upon community support". To raise funds, there's a principal sponsor called Breakout DesignPrintWeb. The business has the same address as Justice Action on Goulburn Street, Sydney. They do printing and design.

Collins has been active for a long time, most recently in the cause of prison privatisation opposition. He has a profile page on The Guardian's website that tells us he is the "current New South Wales record holder for remaining on a prison roof", a curious fact that testifies to his long-time commitment to prisoner rights.

I suppose only a prisoner, or an ex-prisoner in this case, could advocate on behalf of Dennis Ferguson.

Surely Ferguson still has rights. Whether he is truly contrite is irrelevant. He is entitled to a place in the community and I think that the media - with the signal exception of the ABC - is being irresponsible in focusing so completely on making sure he never lives in peace anywhere in Australia.

The government sees that community sentiment is overwhelmingly against justice for Ferguson and has taken measures to enact new laws that would ensure he has no home.

This is disturbing, especially in the light of our current ignorance as to the causes of pedophilia. There may come a time, in a better future, when we come to know that it is a medical condition, or a genetically-conditioned trait over which the bearer has no control.

It's too early to know. In the meantime, can we please just leave the man alone and concentrate on things that will really make a difference. We do know, now, that most violence against children of this type is committed by people the child knows and trusts.

Let's concentrate on what we do know instead of causing more anguish to a man who has already paid the lawful price for his misdeeds. By hounding Ferguson out of town it is ourselves that we hurt, not those who should in fact be brought to justice: the uncles, friends, fathers, brothers of our children.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Tonight two movies on China that fight over the same, contested space were featured on TV.

One is already a part of Western culture through the book Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin. The other chronicles the rise of the Communist Party and, although it will be of interest to Western viewers, is essentially a product designed for the domestic market.

I don’t know what it’s called because I can’t find the news story that introduced it to me.

It features, we’re told, a lot of Chinese film stars and viewers in China will therefore find a lot to like right there. But it also emphasises the importance and righteousness of Mao and his cohorts who fought the Nationalists across a broad swathe of China.

It is designed to counter the negative effects of books such as Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang. When it was published, in 2005, it attracted scathing comments from the Party. Now the Party has answered, reinventing Mao as an avuncular and honourable leader as opposed to Chang’s vicious, opportunistic tyrant.

Cunxin’s memoir has sold, we’re told, 500,000 copies. Living now in Australia and working as a stockbroker, Cunxin represents a pure, Westernised point of view. In his worldview, the West offers freedom. It offers opportunity and happiness. China demonstrated its enmity to Cunxin once, when he defected to the United States while dancing in Houston. Now, it has allowed Bruce Beresford, the director, to film on the mainland.

Certainly I will watch this. As for the local, Chinese product, it will depend on whether it is released in Australia. Let’s hope that it is. It will be an educational experience, if not an entirely pleasant one.

Monday 21 September 2009

The decision of Chechnya President Ramzan Kadyrov to enter two horses – Mourilyan has been entered in the Melbourne Cup and Bankable in the Mackinnon Stakes - will surely cause a thousand earnest hearts to flutter. Oops! The word just popped out; apologies.

But it’s worth noting that while The Sydney Morning Herald featured a two-page story yesterday on the debacle – which includes Senator Bob Brown calling for the horses to be banned due to Kadyrov’s abysmal human rights record - The Herald Sun website didn’t feature the story on its front page.

Possibly hard-bitten editors in our southern capital thought a story with mad Greenie Brown as its hero must be suspect.

Assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politskovskaya dubbed Kadyrov the “new Stalin” a short time before she was gunned down in October 2006. Six months after the killing a memorial ceremony was held in Moscow.

Kadyrov is thought by knowledgeable commentators and human rights experts to have been involved in her murder.

The Australian website ran a story on Kadyrov’s Melbourne Cup aspirations, but there was no front-page headline until 5.15pm, by which time Brown’s opinion had become news. To find it before then you had to do a text search. As Fairfax had featured the story, this is not surprising, in an odd sort of media-rivalry way. It goes to show how commercial considerations can influence the placement of even important stories.

The Age, Fairfax’s Melbourne broadsheet, carried the story on their website yesterday in the sports section only. Even The Sydney Morning Herald pulled the story off its front page after a couple of hours, making it virtually invisible without a text search. The racing fraternity is powerless to block the entries.

Racing Victoria's chief steward Terry Bailey said it was powerless to prevent Mr Kadyrov's English-trained horses - due to arrive in Melbourne on October 10 - from competing.

''When owners run in Victoria they have to declare any criminal convictions and we then assess whether they are suitable,'' he said. ''As I understand it, Kadyrov doesn't have any convictions and, given the horses have raced in other jurisdictions around the world, we wouldn't have any reason to stop them coming.''

The Herald Sun, News Ltd’s Melbourne tabloid, is remiss in not more-highly featuring the story, which would doubtless appeal to readers’ distrust of Russia, which strongly supports Kadyrov’s regime. It is surprising that the editors think that the pending visit by a former St Kilda Australian Rules team captain to the upcoming Grand Final match is worth more attention than whether the Australian Governor-General may present the Melbourne Cup to an accused war criminal.

Strangely, The Courier-Mail, News Ltd’s Brisbane tabloid, ran the story at 11pm the previous day, the same time The Herald Sun ran it. But again there’s no front-page feature.

There’s plenty of information available on the dangers reporters face in the country Kadyrov leads, including a piece published last Thursday on the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The piece describes the death on July 15 of Politskovskaya’s friend, journalist Natalya Estemirova.

Politskovskaya was shot in the lobby of her apartment building in Moscow. Estemirova was abducted from outside her home and was found shot in the heart and the head and found 50 miles away. She had received a warning from Kadyrov two days before her death. Terry Gould writes:

Defying death threats from government militias and a personal warning from the Chechen president, on July 13, Estemirova gave an interview to the Caucasian Knot news agency about her latest exposé of killings and house burnings committed by representatives of the Chechen regime.

Sunday 20 September 2009

How should we judge official reaction to catastrophic events? High-profile arrests, murderous rampages, terror attacks, gang warfare, arson – these are the types of events that will make authorities respond in the media.

There they sum up the situation and in the process pass judgement on behalf of the rest of us. The response gives us a sense that it was ‘felt’ in the places that needed to feel it. Alone in our living rooms, we feel secure that those in power have heeded the devastating signal we’ve just received from the streets.

There are two ways that officials express themselves. It is either something along the lines of “everything is under control” or else “we will do more in future”. I think there’s no doubt which of the two methods I prefer to hear.

Perhaps the first response is given when bad things happen that frighten us, such as the attack by a ‘loner’ schoolboy two days ago that resulted in injury to ten people. His name has not been released, probably because he was not killed. The attack took place in the Bavarian town of Ansbach and involved an 18-year-old using petrol bombs, knives and an axe to wreak havoc on occupants of Gymnasium Carolinum which the Bavarian Culture Minister said was “not a problem school”.

And the response?

"Our experience here makes clear that our improved procedures are effective," [German Interior Minister] Hermann told a news conference, "The quick response prevented even worse happening."

In other words, we were able to contain the danger quickly, minimising casualties. The attack came almost exactly six months after the gun attack by German teenager Tim Kretschmer at Winnenden, where 15 people died.

But the response contains nothing to suggest better controls will be implemented to stop this kind of thing happening in future. What is it with German kids and schools, anyway? Are these kids just depressive loners with no social skills or is there some underlying dynamic we’re not yet aware of?

The second type of response is the promise of improvement and there’s an excellent example from the same day. Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s response to the elimination of Malaysian terror bomber Mohammed Noordin Top includes a promise to tackle the ''ignorance and poverty'' that causes terrorists to take up a struggle they may be prevented from assuming.

... Dr Yudhoyono was not declaring outright victory, even if the terrorist threat had been ''seriously reduced'' with Noordin's death.
''Paralysing [Noordin's cell] just means we have won a battle, but, by prevention, we will win the war against terrorism,'' he said. ''We have to save our country, our people, our community and our young generation from the temptation to involve themselves in terrorism.''

He said this was cause for an acceleration of spending on education, both formal and religious.

In Indonesia, there is a lot of sympathy for so-called ‘terrorists’. The men are sheltered, fed, concealed, and funded by ordinary people who otherwise would never break the law. SBY knows this. He also knows that there is a lot of xenophobia in his country, the type that prefers home-grown criminals winning rather than foreign meddlers.

The difference, I guess, is that SBY was marking the successful end to a long campaign and investigation, whereas the Germans were reacting defensively to another aberrant outcome of their education system.

The difference is noticeable. SBY is being diplomatic because he can afford to be gracious in victory; whereas the Germans, to make the most of a bad situation, are crowing about their success in the hope the sound will dampen any discontent with their overall performance.

It’s all about perception and the media. We only display that which will cause ourselves the least discomfort.

Saturday 19 September 2009

“They chant: have no fear, have no fear, we are all together.” “Keshavarz street we hear chants of Marg bar Dictator!” “Chant: Our vote is lost, Iran is turned to Palestine.” “Radio: the darker it gets, the more people will come out. HANG IN THERE.”

The face of citizen journalism is made up of thousands of facets competing for the reader’s attention. On Twitter, crowdsourced snippets like this jostle and merge together, as each minute a hundred new ones emerge over the internet into your hashtag reader (in my case, Tweetdeck). You strain to understand both the extent of the new Iranian post-election protest and the truth of the claims being made.

What is in no doubt? This, for example: “Ahmadinejad is delivering his speech at Tehran University.” But other tweets are less easy to decipher, such as: ‘Nedaagain basijis and military are just looking don't know what to do.” You are confused when you read this, however: “Police force frees arrested protestors from Basijis & protects people.”

Is this the final revolution? Will the military come across to the side of the protesters, and oust the government? Surely a coup d’etat would be the only way to shift Ahmedinejad?

Still the tweets arrive. “THE BASIJI ON HIS loud speaker on his truck saying death to America. People ARE CHANTING DEATH TO RUSSIA.”

Whatever else we can say about citizen journalism, it is still necessary to confirm and interpret. Not every utterance carries the same weight as the others. The “cost of moderation” is undoubtedly a cause for relief for traditional journalists, my experience with yesterday’s Twitter stream tells me. You cannot take everything at face value. Some things must be jettisoned.

“Police on poeple’s side go to Basijis, take arrested from vans, free people a few streets away, saying ‘we r with u’.” I doubt it. The revolution may come one day, but not today. According to Oxford University's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism:

[J]ournalists must accept that the dynamic between audience and journalist has changed and must find new, collaborative ways to tell stories, [Washington Post columnist and former visiting fellow at the institute, John] Kelly argued. While the rise of new forms of newsgathering, such as citizen journalism, and revenues may not be fast enough to compensate for the decline in Western news media, he wrote, 'the impulses underlying the rise of citizen journalist are here to stay'.

Twitter streams like yesterday’s show us that there is more to journalism than just reporting facts. On the other hand, facts must be verified before they can reliably be reported. Journalists are trained to be wary of unconfirmed reports which, in many societies, can result in costly legal challenges. In others, they may result in worse outcomes, including imprisonment or even death. So there is still a need for the journalist to sift and glean. Nevertheless, watching a full-on Twitter stream like this is exhilarating. You feel as though you are in the middle of something bigger than yourself.

“Al Jazeera reports millions were out today.” “Mobile phone contact down in Shiraz.” “Caller saying in Shiraz pepper spray was used.” “Females ... chanting, chanting and clapping, clapping ... women SO LOUD ... MOUSAVI MOUSAVI.”

While you are watching the posted videos on Youtube and reading through the stream, you might at the same time be tuned into the local news. The broadcast seems so mundane, so boring. It’s not the real thing. The real thing is several time zones and thousands of kilometres away. It’s early morning in Tehran and the ‘Sea of Green’ (the opposition-leader supporters) are marching in the streets. Over there they also have local news stations, TV and radio.

“Caller R Farda: 'I saw a kid that they caught in side street, his mother was pleading & they sprayed face with gas.’” "Death to the dictators," and "Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, We are ready to die for Iran," chanted protesters. “Heavy attack on #Esfahan University. Students need help. Esfahan Uni campus under attack.”

But the breathlessness eventually tires you out. Tweetdeck refreshes continue to pulse out 30, 40, 50 tweets every minute on the #iranelection hashtag but you zone out. Eventually, you go back to the reliable source you recognise because you see it daily.

A Twitter friend writes: “@matthew_dasilva prefer to rely on a smaller network rather than hash tags on unconfirmed reports.”

Unconfirmed reports. What is he talking about? The stream is relentless. There’s no way they could fake this outpouring of emotion and information. But you understand why he says this.

It’s the lack of credibility that each tweet possesses. “ also confirms Khatami attack and how police and supporters saved him from thugs” is plausible because it has a media outlet’s name attached. If you go to the website you read that it is true. You trust the news source whereas you do not trust the tweet.

The atmosphere generated by the twitter stream cannot be reproduced by a news report, however. There is something so visceral and compelling in the array of short bursts of information that conjures images and emotions a normal news story cannot.

We are witnessing something more than a political rally in Iran. We are witnessing a sort of collective consciousness emerging in the Twitterverse. Each voice bleeds into the next, ricochets off it, and thunders away only to be replaced by another, no less interesting one.

“Helicopter flying over sea of green now in Tehran, greens booing them, chanting & showing V sign.” “Basiji thugs attack in Valiasr circle in Tehran has been defeated by people.” “Security Forces stopped 1,000 students of Sharif Industrial Uni in Tehran from protesting and beat them up.”

You cannot pull your eyes away. You are engrossed. You only wish there were fewer, more carefully selected clips of data. You wish for form. You collapse back into the welcoming arms of your favourite broadsheet, breathing heavily.

Friday 18 September 2009

I worked at Sydney University for six years until recently and often had the chance to walk past St Paul's College. The residential college is located down a sweeping driveway leading to City Road. The driveway and a contiguous path give access to other parts of the campus, where often I had the need to go. As I walked under the trees and past the gorgeous sports oval I noticed the new metal gates installed to keep out intruders.

Recent stories giving the cons and pros of residential college life brought back memories and I wonder if gates might better be placed somewhere to keep college residents out of the campus! Because the old habits from my year at St Paul's in 1981 seem to remain unchanged.

Not once, as I went about my business as a university employee, I saw young men carrying slabs of beer into the college. More memories. Drinking was - and still is, it seems - a dominant form of recreation at college. It wasn't just beer. Tequila shot contests went on into the early hours and I remember the groups of drunken men wandering around the grounds as I tried to sleep, bleating out their inane warcries, looking for a little action.

St Paul's is located next door to Women's College. On many occasions, the Paul's boys would go on a 'raid' into Women's, trying to effect ingress and barraging down the halls looking for someone on whom to inflict their boisterous energy.

If you didn't take part in these activities you were labelled an outsider and punished accordingly. I came back to college one day after attending lectures to find the entire contents of my dorm room deposited - intact and everything in place - on the lawn of one of the quads. A friend helped to restore order into my life, but the feeling of helplessness for the stigmatised was a real threat to personal happiness.

College hazing is part of the deal. 'Freshers' - year-one students, or 'freshmen' - are subject to an institutional form of hazing when they are 'auctioned' one August evening. Second- and third-year students 'buy' freshers so that they can take them out into the wilds of NSW one night and wait for them to return to college. The residents who had bought the fresher who returns last of all wins a cash prize derived from the proceeds of the auction.

I admittedly gained a high price. But I had a surprise in store for my tormentors. They make you dress in your full academic robe - and it's winter, after all - and take a shower while they search your clothes for contraband such as cash. But I rolled two five-dollar notes into pipes and held them under my toes during the shower. The fivers came in handy, later, when we had to buy rail tickets.

Suffice it to say we were not the last to return. But institutionalised hazing like this, accompanied by a strict code of enforced conformism when it came to participating in extracurricular college activities meant that anyone who didn't fit the standard 'drink-til-you-spew' mold lived in a constant state of anxiety.

I guess it toughened us up. But I left after a year. The prospect of buying my own fresher was not enticing and I moved, mercifully, into a small flat in Glebe from where I could walk to uni unmolested, unnoticed, and unworried. It was bliss and I had a couple of very productive years not only studying by making art and reading American literature voraciously.

A room of my own, sans fiends.

Thursday 17 September 2009

How should the media be using social networks? Given the parlous state of media companies' balance sheets nowadays, it's not surprising that many people are writing about how to solve the malaise.

I don't pretend to know the answer but I have recently read two pieces on the website Nieman Reports. The Nieman Foundation for Journalism is at Harvard University. I picked these two stories because there was a whole page of similar stories about journalism and social media and I got to the end of the third one before throwing up my hands.

But I'm going to try to pick out a theme. It doesn't have to do with what news companies should be doing but, rather, with how they should be doing it.

The first story I want to point to is by Robert G. Picard, a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. He says, at one point:

Reasons can be found to use some [social media] without full cost recovery, but those should be based on strategic thinking and informed choice, not on technological hype and exuberance.

Now before making any comment, I want to point to another story on the same page of links. It is by Richard Gordon, an associate professor and director of digital innovation at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Gordon illustrates what he thinks news websites should be doing by describing a project undertaken by two IT-cum-journalist students in a class he oversaw. They developed an interface called News Mixer, which allows readers to leave traces of their personalities on the website in a way that doesn't require a lot of personal capital to be invested.

The News Mixer, however, also lets readers who write good, interesting and valuable 'letters to the editor' and see their productions featured on their own page, where comments can be left by others. It's an interesting mix and I won't go into all the details now.

What I wanted to show is that it is precisely 'exuberance' that will enable the media to engage well with its audience. Or, rather, that will allow the audience into the conversation. Gordon quotes from Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li, who said that

“… in the future, social networks will be like air.” It will seem “archaic and quaint,” Li wrote, that we had to go to a Web site to “be social.”

It's like the status field in Facebook. The status field was once a single feature among many when I joined the site in 2007. It was just one way the site allowed users to engage with others. It was located obscurely, in the corner near your profile picture.

The Facebook status moved to a more prominent position. Then Twitter happened, making the status field the only game in town. And I think that it's enthusiastic approaches like this that characterise the web today. Even agile software development has allowed developers to move away from the traditional specification-develop-test model that meant long time delays and difficult implementations.

We are in a different place, now. The apps4nsw initiative, launched this month by the NSW premier, Nathan Rees, follows on from a debacle that involved a rogue developer with a good idea for the iPhone and the state rail authority, RailCorp. In March, Rees got a tweet from the developer complaining that RailCorp had tried to prevent the development of a timetabling app on copyright grounds. Rees stepped in and ordered them to allow the project to go ahead.

Under apps4nsw, which is based on Apps For Democracy, an initiative in Washington DC, prizes will be given for the best applications that use government data. Data will be provided in an open source format and licensing will be open source. So instead of investing millions to develop software that may not work, ordinary citizens will be the ones spending time - for fame and fortune - making things people want to use.

Exuberance, again.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Facebook has just launched five new 'prototype' apps that you can activate (click on 'New prototypes' to see the list). The announcement took place at the TechCrunch50 conference in San Francisco. It was also announced that the social network site had passed the 300 million user mark.

It took just five months to go from 200 million to 300 million users.

Another announcement came with news that Facebook would support voice interaction, in addition to the current text chat feature. Facebook is not slowing down, and rival Twitter has a long way to go before it catches up, with less than 20 million current users.

Facebook has also introduced @ tagging, which allows users to tag friends in status updates.

But the new apps are exciting. I activated two of them.

The 'Recent Comments Filter' is a great way to catch up on comments your friends made while you were doing other stuff. You know how it is. A friend posts an item and you register it. In facebook, if you 'like' an item or comment on it any subsequent comments on that item will be shown to you. But items you didn't comment on or 'like' are not treated this way.

The 'Recent Comments' tool lets you see what your friends commented on, but of course it only shows you those comments made on items posted by your friends. so you don't ever get outside your own 'friend cloud'.

It's a great tool.

The other tool I activated is the 'Similar Posts' tool. I'm not sure how sophisticated this keyword matcher is, but it seems to offer a way to search through posts that you didn't make yourself. It may be that you remember a post by a friend on a particular topic, say a topic related by keyword to a post you are now looking at. All you do is click on the 'Similar Posts' button on each News Feed item. This brings up a list of similar posts.

The similar posts that appear can be outside your friend cloud. This is exciting, as it gives you access to a huge range of information you would never normally be able to see. It's not wildly accurate as you cannot do the more refined searches you may desire to do, such as those you would normally do using quote marks. But it's a start. To clear the search just click on 'News Feed'.

This one seems good for searching but I think I'll probably be using the 'Recent Comments' tool more often than the other one.

You can read more about the new apps at Inside facebook and at TechCrunch.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

I've just read the word 'inventory' again in relation to declining advertising revenues in the online sphere. And again I'm forced to wonder what it means. Pundits use these technical words with such abandon and so freely, assuming their readers know what's going on. We're just curious, you see.

The word usually crops up next to 'increasing'. So what I'm assuming is that there is, for some reason, an increase in the number of news pages available for advertising. Ads are costed in terms of 'views' and 'click throughs'. Each time a page is viewed, the company that provides the page the ad is placed on gets paid. There may also be a payment if someone viewing the page clicks on the link contained in the ad.

It's confusing for me because the revenues deriving from media advertising has fallen drastically in the past year. The trend seems likely to continue. Advertising on paper is far more lucrative than online. Paper ads have fallen most. But the increase in online 'inventory' is having an impact.

So it makes me wonder what is the cause of this increase in 'inventory'. There seem to be more websites than before offering news. Certainly, in Australia, we have the emergence a couple of years ago of two broadsheet websites owned by Fairfax: The Brisbane Times and WA Today. But I'm still struggling to identify the other websites out there that are encroaching on the news space. Of course, it's not just in Australia that 'inventory' is increasing. It's a global phenomenon.

News companies are starting to panic and it has become routine to read on the websites of media critics that standards of journalism are declining. The two things go together. As revenues fall, the trope proceeds, there is less money to be spent paying for news. The result is more news manufactured by processing the press releases of PR operatives. The result? News that is less in the interests of the citizen, and more in the interests of the cashed-up corporation.

The panic started with Rupert Murdoch in the first week in August announcing that his newssites would start charging for access to stories. Since then, it has become a standard part of any discussion of online media. Then Google announced that it was developing a payment solution for news providers.

The language of online media is not transparent. Readers must come to grips with a new set of terms that have instant recognition for practitioners. The average Joe is frequently confused. That is why I chose to write this post. Because I'm trying to understand but I'm confused. There need to be more news stories published dealing with this issue that is so central to our ability to stay informed.

Which is why I was irritated to see a story on The Sydney Morning Herald's website today about a new magazine-style online reader launchd by Google called Fast Flip. I had already seen a mention on Twitter and had had a look. I was not impressed. But the syndicated story deserves space on the front page of the SMH while the stories I want to read do not. This, in essence, is lazy journalism. Instead of writing an in-depth story about the delcine in ad revenues among media providers, we get a PR-sourced syndicated story from global news house AFP.

Because I can get this information free on Twitter, this type of story would not warrant my money. And this is the problem with journalism today: too much cheap stuff devalues the brand and makes it less likely that dedicated news readers like me will support our regular mastheads. It's short-termism pure and simple.

Monday 14 September 2009

Review: Taliban Country, Carmela Baranowska (2004)

What Baranowska is trying to show in her documentary is that US Marine insensitivity toward local tribes led to some members of them actively participating with the Taliban.

In fact, the part of Uruzgan province in Afghanistan where the video was shot is not, strictly speaking, ‘Taliban country’. We hear that the Taliban had visited about three days before the Marines, but had left soon after.

Uncommitted Afghanis do not automatically side with one party or the other, in this war of East against West. Above all they value their honour. By harrassing the tribesmen, the Marines blemished their honour. “We would rather die than be treated like this,” they say.

What did the Americans do? The tribesmen say the Americans searched them, stripped them naked, fondled their anuses and testicles, and laughed at them. Under Islam, nakedness is a sin. Touching the genitals is also haram. There is no doubt that these men will not soon forget their humiliation. Near the end of the video one of them described how easy it would be, now, to go to the Taliban. “I know where they are,” he said.

Of course the tribesmen could be lying in order to heighten the negative effect of the Marines’ visit. How would the Marines know that fingering an Afghani’s anus was haram? But if they are lying they are all lying in concert. Their stories are eerily similar in content.

In any case it is easy to sympathise with these simple people of the hilly, rock-strewn foothills. They are welcoming of Baranowska when they had no reason to be. They tell everything in a straight-forward way that leaves little room for doubt.

Their culture is so alien, however. This is a place where death is not the greatest misfortune. The codes of honour are deeply ingrained in a land where the extent of official legal reach is probably not deep. Each man and woman knows their own place. They live within a philosophy of Islam as the ultimate arbiter and everyone understands the rules.

In a place with such broadly shared beliefs there is no room for either doubt or argument. But this consensus leaves open, once again, the possibility that their stories are made-up for effect. The script is ready-at-hand, if you were looking for an excuse to lay more blame at the door of the infidels than had been warranted by experience.

Baranowska does not judge. She is the observer. The magic in this film is that she took a chance – and not a trivial one – and returned alone to walk fearless in an alien land, the land of the muezzin and the headscarf.

The video is not long. In fact, it runs for less than an hour. While some might see this as a tonic measure in these days of marathon screenings, by the end of the video I was still wanting more.

But Baranowska’s options were severely restricted due to the circumstances under which she shot the film. Initially embedded with the marines, she was banished to Kabul but returned under her own steam, as I wrote earlier this month.

There is no doubt that the footage obtained while working independent of the Marines is superior. Tribesmen are far more willing to talk in the absence of their tormentors. Using a sole translator, she is able to solicit honest and full accounts of what happened.

The film reminds us that good journalism needs to be neither sanctioned nor lengthy.

Sunday 13 September 2009

If I hadn't read Janine di Giovanni's Madness Visible, this story would not have made much sense. In the story, 'Bosnia to seek extradition of accused war criminal', there are a very few details of the alleged crimes against a Bosnian, now Australian citizen, named Daniel Snedden.

I remember when Snedden, whose previous name was Dragan Vasiljkovic, was arrested in Perth. He has now instituted defamation proceedings against The Australian newspaper.

It is likely he will be extradited to Bosnia, as

''Bosnia's court dealing with war crimes is staffed with international judges and prosecutors and it has received very high marks on the international level for its professionalism and impartiality''.

A recent case involving an extradition request from Croatia was declined by Australian authorities because it was deemed the defendant would not receive a fair trial.

But what is "Captain Dragan" accused of? According to the story:

... a Bosnian woman accused Snedden of repeatedly raping her in Zvornik, northern Bosnia, in 1992. The woman, who travelled to Sydney in April to testify in the NSW Supreme Court along with several Croatian men allegedly imprisoned and tortured by Snedden, identified him in court as the ''Captain Dragan'' who repeatedly raped her and watched as other soldiers did so.

Now that I've read about these types of crimes, which were all too common, I can visualise the kind of man Snedden is accused of being. I can understand the anger felt by the woman, who is doubtless a Muslim. I can see in my mind the ravages brought on an innocent people by war.

Snedden was apparently head of a paramilitry unit operating in northern Bosnia in the early 1990s. "Paramilitary" is an opaque term. What it means is that the unit was NOT part of the official military force of Serbia, but operated alongside the military in an ancillary capacity.

The advantage of being in a paramilitary unit is that you could get away with things that a military unit could not. Paramilitary units are not bound by the rules of war, and feel less circumscribed by ethical opinions. In other words, they are potentially worse than the regular army.

It will be interesting to see what happens in this case - both the extradition attempt and the defamation case - as I believe that public outcry would be greater had the September 11 event not taken the public's attention away from Bosnian war crimes.

Saturday 12 September 2009

Review: Madness Visible: A Memoir of War, Janine di Giovanni (2004)

Slobodan Milosevic died last year in The Hague. The war criminal was dead. But his death wasn't the greatest tragedy facing the survivors of the Bosnian War. Perhaps most damaging in its extent and effect on the perceptions of the world community was September 11, 2001. When the planes hit the skyscrapers everything else was subsumed in the resulting coverage. War crimes in Bosnia were no longer news.

Di Giovanni spent many years covering the Bosnian War, which extended from about 1992 to 1998. During this time uncountable men were summarily shot and buried in mass graves. Uncountable women were interned as sex slaves for the Serbian troops. Uncountable lives were damaged beyond redemption.

Many Serbs would deny things di Giovanni tells us. It's just foreign propaganda, they say. But it's not. If only it were.

Rape in wartime is no small thing. The men line up for their turn. The women are made to serve tea naked, a cause of intense shame for Muslims. They don't know where their children are, or their husbands. They lie on dirty mattresses in concrete huts as tens or dozens of men use them. Then they are released. And they can tell no-one what happened because the shame is too great.

"I was touched," they say. Others, who went through the same trauma, understand immediately. But later, when they return to their communities, after the shelling and killing has finished, they see their tormentors in the streets. What can they do?

These stories never came out in the press. Mass graves, yes. But mass sexual abuse on a fantastic scale was not aired. I would have known. Instead I watched for the thousandth time as a jet flew into a skyscraper, until the sight no longer held any value. Meanwhile these stories were there, waiting to be told.

Nobody told them. It wasn't until I picked up di Giovanni's book that I understood.

Her method is slightly confusing at first. Layer after layer of detailed reporting is applied to the reader's consciousness until a clear picture appears. Dates recur, meaningless at first, until they gain meaning. Characters and names reapper time after time. We finally manage to assemble a picture. Di Giovanni's method is a series of layers applied one on top of the other until meaning blossoms. Then, finally, we understand.

It would be meaningless to say that this book should be mandatory reading at secondary schools. It would be meaningless because each time this type of savage terror occurs it will have unique characteristics. In this case it was ethnic war, which allowed for ethnic cleansing. Next time it will be something different, but the effect on individual lives will be equally devastating.

Friday 11 September 2009

Is big media targeting bloggers in its search for culprits for its economic woes? Going by comments from APN News & Media Ltd chief executive Brendan Hopkins today at the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers' Association (PANPA) conference held in Sydney’s Masonic Centre, the answer may be ‘yes’.

Of course, Hopkins also targeted search engines, saying, according to The Brisbane Times:

"To use an analogy, I see search engines as breaking into our homes, itemising the contents, walking out and listing everything for everyone to see. And they get money out of that process," he said.

"The only problem is, I don't see any revenue being paid directly from Google, Yahoo! or Microsoft in our company profit and loss accounts."

His attack grows out of James Murdoch’s. Murdoch, News Ltd’s Europe and Asia boss, last month delivered a spray at state-sponsored media outlets in a speech in Edinburgh. It was widely publicised. He said government-sponsored media, such as the BBC, had a “chilling” effect on the news.

But Hopkins takes the generalised aggression currently visible among media bosses further, intimating that changes to fair dealing laws might be sought, by attacking bloggers:

"As an industry we must strive to protect our content from those who contribute nothing to its creation and are happy to run on its coat tails.

"Our value is diminished by other media companies, both online and in print, with limited resources, who feed off our newspapers, by those who take the ideas of the newspapers, rewrite our journalists' words to be miraculously their own words, and then put it on a blog or a broadcast piece and call that journalism."

Bloggers beware. Or not?

In Australian fair dealing law, you can quote from a published work. Section 41 says “A fair dealing ... does not constitute an infringement of the copyright in the work if it is for the purpose of criticism or review, whether of that work or of another work, and a sufficient acknowledgement of the work is made.”

And section 42 says, further, that “A fair dealing ... does not constitute an infringement of the copyright in the work if it is for the purpose of, or is associated with, the reporting of news ... [and] a sufficient acknowledgement of the work is made”.

Under S 41, fair dealing with a news story would be for the purposes of criticising or reviewing the news story.

Under S 42, fair dealing would apply also, I assume, for the purposes of reporting the news. It doesn’t say anything about blogs, but includes “a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical” as publications that can use extracts. It doesn’t mention reporting reports but, rather, the reporting of “a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work, or with an adaptation of a literary, dramatic or musical work”.

Under S 41 of the Copyright Act 1968 the use of quotes (or a blockquote) around extracts of news reports found on this blog are definitely inside the legal boundaries. Under S 42 they are probably not breached as S 42 only refers to literary works, which however could be understood to subsume a news report.

But Hopkins is seeking more protection than this, because he specifically identifies rewriting and publishing the rewritten words as abuse of privilege.

Google has also come in for criticism, not least from Rupert Murdoch in May this year who accused the search engine of “shameless promiscuity”, inviting Hopkins’ housebreaking analogy. Murdoch later announced that News Ltd websites would set up ‘pay walls’ limiting access.

In the US the industry is getting to grips with a problem that has caused more disruption than it has here. In response to a request from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) for information about payment systems, Google released a response detailing its capabilities in terms of online transactions for news publishers.

The response describes micropayments and subscription billing, including bundling of multiple offerings under a single subscription. The response makes much of the ‘single sign-on’ used with a Google solution. This would be great news for hard-core web users, many of whom already use Google for emailing and blogging. Google highlights the fact that it has already been successfully using an online payment engine for years. ‘Google Checkout’ is, however, currently “in production”, which means that it is not yet ready to use.

As a user of Google for advertising, I can attest to the ease of paying by credit card with Google for small amounts logged daily but paid periodically, and to a daily limit. Google says in the position paper that it judges an individual’s ability to pay on past performance, and sets the daily limit accordingly.

The NAA also asked other companies to respond, including The Wall Street Journal, which “declined to submit an RFI because their solution will be focused on larger media companies”. In other words, News Ltd will use the WSJ’s solution when they go paid-only.

Hopkins also chairs an industry group, The Newspaper Works. The entity is “seeking talks” with Google over remuneration for use of proprietary works. Google is clearly getting ready. According to a similar story in The Australian:

APN publishes 14 daily newspapers and over 75 community publications across Australia and has newspaper assets in New Zealand.

Thursday 10 September 2009

A good day for journalism or a good day for free speech?

Yesterday New York Times journalist Stephen Farrell was freed from Taliban in Afghanistan by British soldiers. He had been in captivity for a few days, and is pictured wearing a black bullet-proof vest with the word ‘Press’ clearly visible on the front.

It takes you back to 1975, when Indonesian troops invading East Timor shot and killed five Australian journalists who tried to identify themselves, but failed. They paid for their presence in the hot-spot with their lives.

This brings me to another win for journalism yesterday: the decision by Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor to launch an investigation into the Balibo Five. His Liberal predecessor, Philip Ruddock, declined to take up the finding by the NSW Deputy Coroner, Dorelle Pinch, that the journalists had been murdered. Pinch fingered a number of men for the crime, two of whom – Captain Mohammad Yunus Yosfiah and Christoforus da Silva – are still alive.

An article in The Australian says that O’Connor “has a life-long interest in the matter, and was keen for there to be an investigation”. His appointment to the Home Affairs portfolio – which covers federal crime and law, as well as the Australian territories – has given him a chance to do something about it. It is also likely that the appearance and success of the new film Balibo, directed by Robert Connelly, spurred his interest in the case.

His decision will certainly go down well among the Left intelligentsia.

It has also given him an immediate, and high, profile. Following hot on the heels of the news announcement of the investigation, which the Australian Federal Police say they instigated on 20 August, The Australian’s Caroline Overington contacted Indonesian authorities.

They were less than impressed, and said outright, even before any approach had been made by the AFP, that they would not cooperate. There would be no extraditions. It was bad for Indonesian-Australian relations. Both the government of Australia and its people would suffer. It was “something that does not exist”.

The other big win, of course, was that NSW Premier Nathan Rees has agreed to a Senate inquiry into the matters surrounding Michael McGurk, the lender-of-last-resort who was shot in the head outside his Cremorne home a few days ago. There’s apparently a tape-recording made by McGurk implicating top Labor figures in corrupt dealings with property developers.

There is certainly much mud in the air, and it’s probably a wise suggestion by the Liberals to seek out the truth. But I decided it’s actually not as good news as the Balibo decision because Rees’ decision was made for pragmatic reasons:

In a surprise move, NSW Government members in the Legislative Council supported an inquiry, apparently once it became clear that Shooters Party MPs would give the Coalition the majority required.

Basically, it came down to numbers. There’s no longstanding commitment to the truth, as there is in the Balibo case. There’s just hard-nosed utility. Nevertheless, it will now be highly entertaining for the people of Sydney – where the events took place (and this is a very Sydney case) – and of Australia to find out what really happens between shonky lenders, shonkier property developers, and (ahem) politicians.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

A couple of years ago I attended a news writing course for a few days. I was working at the time so it was part of my professional development and I'll always be grateful to the manager I had then - thanks Kim! - who also allowed me to edit and produce a weekly bulletin for my work unit. The bulletin ran for over a year until we had a reorg, when another group of employees took it over and I moved to a different work unit.

Anyway, the presenter at the course was (and possibly still is) a contractor with the University of Sydney's Centre for Continuing Education. Because I was also then studying for a masters in media practice, I had more experience than other attendees. I'd already heard about the general practice among journalists to use feed from public relations agencies and the PR people employed by private corporations, NGOs and government departments. So I asked the presenter if investigative journalism was decreasing. "Yes, definitely," she said.

Since then I've been looking out for such references and they appear fairly frequently. One guy I heard on the radio - a journalist himself, though retired - said that he can tell if a piece is largely reproduced from a media release.

And for the study I was doing I had to take a unit specifically dedicated to writing PR releases. I didn't get a brilliant mark, but I passed. We were trained to write stories in such a way that enabled us to both get the message across and to engage journalists and, hopefully, get them to run our stories unaltered.

So when I read about an address given recently by Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, I took notice. He is reported to have said, in part:

What Rosenstiel described as the “trust me” era of journalism in which journalists served as gatekeepers has been replaced with a new era of “show me” journalism, in which audiences express their demands of journalists to openly divulge the source of their information and prove its legitimacy. Thus the role of the journalist has shifted to that of the “committed observer,” with the responsibility to be the eyes and ears for their audience.

If this is the way things are moving, and if journalists now need to "insert their content into a rapidly flowing stream of information", then it seems likely that news consumers will be more and more wary of anything that seems "manufactured". By this I mean something that looks to have been merely cut-and-pasted from a media release.

Journalists are already among the least-trusted breed of working professional, ranking just above lawyers and politicians in the popularity stakes. Isn't it time that they started to do more work, instead of relying on free stuff?

It may be cheaper, but we know now that newspapers are running toward deficit faster than a bunch of lemmings toward a cliff. And who are they following? They're following the shareholder gremlin, the one who says that cheap stories are good stories because these are the stories that pay for themselves.

But this seems short-termist. Getting quality copy online is hard, but the alternative is going to be harder: readers will go elsewhere for their daily news intake. The question to study right now is: how much distance is there between the flock of moving lemmings and the cliff's edge.

In the United States many newspapers have taken the plunge, reformatting output by stopping their printers entirely. Others have settled on a hybrid, with a weekly printed edition as well as daily online publication. But the core problem won't just disappear by wishing - which is what going for cheap copy essentially is.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

The Prosperity Principal’s Trusted Avatar shtick got my attention when I read about it on the mUmBRELLA site (a website for the marketing industry containing news). The link was delivered by mUmBRELLA’s Twitter persona.

I didn’t want to resort to short-termist posting, a reactive strategy dependent on interesting stories that appear near to the time of posting, but I feel there’s no other way to produce a daily post than this. Which may seem callow and transparent, but there you go. I’ve only got so much time available for blog posting.

The ad agency’s principal is Geoff Emerson. Going by his responses to comments on the original story, Emerson feels entirely justified in promoting the new service, which involves paid individuals adopting a persona for use in social networking and other Web 2.0 sites. These people ‘drop’ relevant links into the discussion. They do not declare that the link is part of an ad campaign.

In other words, they’re participating in a Web 2.0 version of ‘cash-for-comment’.

That little rort was, as many would recall, outed by the ABC’s Media Watch program. It involved experienced and trusted radio announcers dropping promos for products into their spiels, without disclosing that they had received remuneration for the boosting.

And Emerson is just as brazen. His replies to comments are vitriolic and aggressive, as though he were literally stunned that other advertising practitioners could find anything wrong with his plan.

Apart from anything else, the ‘trusted avatars’ are exploiting the good name of the forum they are participating in. Not content with relying on traditional vehicles for promotion, such as free-to-air TV and newspaper adverts, companies who take up Emerson’s offer of services will be relying on the good name of online sites that are likely to be – initially, at least – oblivious of the rort.

Emerson even admits that the plan is “black-hat”. This is industry code for something that is not-quite legit, or underhanded. But it’s not spam, he asserts.

There seems to be a problem of perception. What is the difference between what he proposes and a company buying space in a newspaper for editorial-like copy? Media companies self-regulate and have decided to only include editorial-like copy with a disclosure, such as an all-caps word at the top of the page that says ‘Advertisement’.

In a follow-up piece on mUmBRELLA Emerson lists the conditions of employment that would apply for people using personas under his plan. It includes this:

If someone asks if you are working for a company, please make a full and frank disclosure about who you are working for and why. If you’d like, you can forward these guidelines to them, it may make them feel more at ease knowing our guidelines and it may also demonstrate, that in return for being present at their site, we are endeavouring to deliver traffic to them. If asked to stop, do so immediately. Please never revisit a site that has asked you to refrain – then notify your manager.

Notify your manager? And what happens if you get, say, ten ‘strikes’ of this kind against your name? Will your employment be terminated? What kinds of people will want to do this kind of work anyway? Depending on the makeup of the cohort under contract, the likelihood of spamming seems high, everything else being equal.

But it is unlikely, given the kind of replies he uses, that Emerson will back down.

The project WILL go ahead. We have been warned. Oh, and by the way, this type of promotion has already been legislated against in the UK.

Monday 7 September 2009

In June 2007 Queensland Police officer Snr Sergeant Chris Hurley was acquitted of charges of killing Mulrunji at the Palm Island watch house, near Townsville. The finding marked the end of years of speculation about how Mulrunji had died while in custody. His injuries were serious, and included a liver cloven in two, which caused his death.

The events surrounding the death and the long prosecution process, including two coronial investigations, are documented in Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man (2008), which was named winner of the 2009 Victorian premier’s Literary Award for non-fiction. Hooper also won the Davitt Award for true crime, the 2009 John Button Prize, the 2009 Indie Award for non-fiction, and the 2009 Ned Kelly Award for non-fiction. The book has also been shortlisted for the 2009 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.

Her book has had a significant impact in the broader public sphere in Australia. But how true are the facts it contains? Was Hurley guilty, as Hooper suggests? Accusations of guilt failed the most recent test, in Queensland’s Supreme Court, but these accusations, which started with a coronial finding in September 2006, have flared on and off.

Hooper’s book clearly favours an assumption of guilt for Hurley, although this is never stated. Hooper’s sympathies lie with Mulrunji and his family and the onus of proof of innocence seems therefore to have swung back to the police’s side.

The following is a detailed analysis of the events leading up to Mulrunji’s death, prepared in cooperation with Michael Bates, a commenter on this blog.

In 1991 the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody recommended sobering-up shelters to which a person drunk in public can be taken. This was because most Aboriginal people in police lockups are in “protective custody” after being found drunk in public. Successive governments have taken so long to implement this life or death measure in all jurisdictions that as late as July 2003 Chris Hurley pointed out to the Federal Parliamentary Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs that Palm Island lacked an alcohol diversion program and as a result police only had one option for drunk and disorderly people: the watchhouse.

It is therefore ironic that the death was the result of Hurley arresting Mulrunji and taking him to the watchhouse when he was drunk in public in November 2004. At the time of the arrest Hurley was escorting Gladys Nugent so that she could safely retrieve her belongings from Roy Bramwell's house. She was one of three women who Roy Bramwell had assaulted. Mulrunji walked past, challenged Police Liaison Officer Bengaroo as to why he helped lock up his own people, and then kept walking before turning and swearing at the police. Hurley drove up to him and arrested him on a public nuisance charge. Although some witnesses said that Mulrunji wasn’t really drunk the Coroner’s report held that Mulrunji’s blood alcohol concentration at the time of his death was 0.292. His blood alcohol concentration at the time of arrest is unknown but must have been at least as high.

Hurley dropped off Ms Nugent then transported Mulrunji to the watchhouse. He removed Mulrunji from the van and struggled to get him into the watchhouse. Mulrunji punched him in the face after getting out of the vehicle and then attempted to struggle out of Hurley’s grasp. This apparently caused Mulrunji to fall into the watchhouse and Hurley to fall with him.

Mulrunji was taken to a cell and later found dead as a result of a serious injury to his liver. Being a death in custody, the matter attracted national attention. Some naturally speculated that Hurley had beaten Mulrunji causing injuries that led to his death. By 3 December 2004 speculation appeared to gain substance when media reports revealed that a witness (Roy Bramwell) had seen Chris Hurley punch Mulrunji. An article in The Australian on 13 December 2004 had Murrandoo Yanner state that he viewed Mulrunji while preparing him for his funeral and that the head injuries looked so severe that he was unrecognizable. In response to a Minister’s suggestion that Yanner was not a medical expert he said “I’ve seen plenty of bodies and I’ve seen blokes who have had the shit kicked out of them, and I know what it was.” It wasn’t until 27 September 2006 that the Coroner's report revealed that the only visible facial injury was a small oval shaped graze in the centre of his right eyebrow and this finding was never well publicised.

On 1 March 2005 The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Patrick Bramwell claimed to have witnessed Hurley taking Mulrunji out of an adjoining cell and punching him on both sides of his body. This allegation was also rejected by the Coroner in her 2006 report with reference to video footage from the cell. The Coroner said that the video footage showed Bramwell was in the same cell and that Mulrunji wasn't taken from the cell, thus voiding his allegations. Patrick Bramwell later hung himself.

It is possible to pinpoint the time when Mulrunji’s fatal injury occurred within a very small time frame with a high degree of confidence. The medical evidence cited by the Coroner showed that the fatal injury could not have occurred before the fall as Mulrunji would have been unable to struggle after sustaining the fatal injury. Associate Professor Stephen Lynch, a specialist general surgeon specializing in liver transplant surgery, said that the injury must have occurred at the time of the fall or afterwards. It would be impossible for someone with that injury to engage in the struggle which Mulrunji put up when he was first removed from the police vehicle. Also, the Coroner advised that the video footage from the watchhouse enabled Patrick Bramwell’s allegations of assault after being locked up to be dismissed.

Therefore the fatal injury must have occurred in a period of time starting with the fall and ending when Mulrunji was filmed entering the cell. The incident occurred on a weekday morning at Palm Island watchhouse and it was not hard to find witnesses during that time. Arguably the time period can be further narrowed. Mulrunji, Chris Hurley and Roy Bramwell were only out of view of other witnesses for approximately 6 or 7 seconds after the fall according to media reports of the testimony at trial.

The Coroner considered the two possibilities. One was that Hurley's 115kg had fallen on top of Mulrunji with a knee or elbow making contact causing the fatal injury. Another was an assault involving punching as alleged by Roy Bramwell. She noted that medical evidence ruled out Bramwell’s allegation of kicking.

It was well publicized that the Coroner accepted Roy Bramwell’s evidence of punching and that she found this to be the cause of Mulrunji’s death. Bramwell had alleged that Hurley punched Mulrunji three times in the head. The Coroner's opinion redirected these blows to Mulrunji's midsection due to the nature of the fatal injury and her belief that Bramwell's view was partially obscured.

The matter was then referred to the Department of Public Prosecutions. A complaint was also made to the Criminal Misconduct Commission as police killing people in custody is obviously a breach of police ethics. This resulted in analogous investigations. The DPP had to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to launch a criminal trial and the CMC had to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to launch disciplinary proceedings.

On 14 December 2006 the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions made a shock announcement. Her finding was that there was insufficient evidence to charge Chris Hurley. She also said that the incident was a tragic accident. On the same day the Criminal Misconduct Commission announced that no disciplinary charges would be laid.

The Queensland Government circumvented the DPP and on 4 January 2007 Sir Laurence Street was hired to review the DPP decision. Being the son of Jessie Street, famed for her advocacy of indigenous rights, his appointment was welcomed by the indigenous community. On 16 January 2007 Street visited the home of the dead man’s family to “pay our respects and express our regrets”. On 26 January Sir Laurence argued that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute and the trial commenced on 5 February with Hurley facing charges of assault and murder. The prosecution was launched by the Attorney General as the DPP refused to prosecute. This later attracted criticism from Robert Mulholland QC in The Courier Mail on 6 July 2007. Mulholland claimed that it relied on a power which was a relic from another time. This was disputed by former Attorney General Matt Foley in the same publication the next day. Foley argued that it was legitimate and the Fitzgerald Report confirmed that the Attorney General has extensive powers.

The defence was that the fatal injury was sustained in the fall with Hurley's weight hitting Mulrunji through a knee or elbow. The trial prosecutor proposed a knee drop theory whereby Bramwell executed a WWF-style knee drop on Mulrunji. No one said they saw a knee drop after the fall but the prosecution needed to account for the medical evidence which unanimously states that if Hurley landed on top of Mulrunji with a knee or elbow it would explain the fatal injuries and most other options were ruled out.

Hurley was acquitted by a jury on 20 June 2007. He subsequently appealed the coronial findings and they were overturned by District Court Judge Bob Pack on 17 December 2008. This ruling was then appealed in the Supreme Court’s Court of Appeal which presented a judgment on 16 June 2009.

The Court of Appeal judgment included the startling announcement that the medical evidence before the Coroner ruled out the alleged punching as the cause of the fatal injury. It also pointed out that the Coroner didn't report that evidence. As a result the Court considered that the Coroner’s judgment that Hurley had punched Mulrunji to death should be overturned. This was startling as the medical evidence ruled out kicking and the options prior to the trial prosecutor’s knee drop theory had always been a choice between an injury in the fall or an injury from punching.

Hurley’s adversaries in the Court of Appeal argued that only the Coroner's finding regarding punching should be set aside and a knee drop or something similar during the ‘window of opportunity’ should automatically be considered the cause of death. The basis for this was Hurley's evidence in early interviews that he didn't recall falling on top of Mulrunji. By the time of the Coroner's report he said that he figured he must have fallen on top with a knee or elbow but didn’t remember. That remains his position today. The Coroner and the prosecution took the view that Hurley would have had to remember making contact with Mulrunji at the bottom of the fall and the contact therefore must not have occurred. Thus they argued that circumstantial evidence proved that Hurley didn't fall on top of Mulrunji. (Another witness gave evidence that Hurley looked like he "landed on top of the other person".) In consequence Hurley's adversaries argued that a knee drop during the subsequent ‘window of opportunity’ must be the explanation. The Supreme Court disagreed, saying that Bramwell's evidence could be taken to rule that out.

Was Hurley guilty as Hooper suggests? The Coroner reported that medical evidence ruled out the time before the fall as the time of the fatal injury and kicking after the fall was ruled out by the medical evidence. Further, no assault occurred once Mulrunji was placed in a cell. The Supreme Court reported that the medical evidence excluded punching as a cause of fatal injury. They also pointed out that Bramwell’s evidence is inconsistent with the knee drop theory. If this is all correct the possibilities seem limited. If Hurley’s knee didn’t hit Mulrunji’s stomach and split his liver at the bottom of the fall how did Hurley do it?

We will probably never know.