Saturday 31 July 2010

Coverage of the WikiLeaks Afghan "war logs" story has shifted to denunciations by civil and military authorities in the US and Afghanistan as the story disappears quickly from the pages of the world's press like a blob of oil dropped onto the surface of a lake. Soon, the ugly speck will simply sink unnoticed below the water's glassy surface.

In the UK, authorities have helped to accelerate this process by refusing to comment at all, thus depriving the debate of the oxygen it demands to exist.

Journalists at The Guardian and The New York Times, which were two of the organisations given access to the leaked documents ahead of their wider public release, are now focusing their attention on official damage control. There is no longer any attention being given to the contents of the "logs" nor is there any effort being expended to compare these detailed records against stories that have been delivered in the past to the public via official channels.

And with only a tiny fraction of the documents having been examined in the press, that's a shame.

In the week since the "logs" have been public, there has been inadequate coverage of their contents, in my view. First there was a flurry of outrage by the big two named here accompanied by second-tier stories from other major outlets. Then the focus shifted quickly to the "other side of the story": expressions of official regret at the release. We are about to enter the third phase of the process: silence.

Pic credit: Abdul Khaliq, Associated Press.

Friday 30 July 2010

The Afghan "war logs" have yet to be fully exploited, says Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, talking with Tony Jones on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Lateline last night.

"Yeah, that is true," answered Assange when Jones asked him if only a couple of thousand of the documents had been read by WikiLeaks and his coopted news organisations (The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel). "To read them and to read them in detail."

There's just so much material. We maybe had 20 people across the four organisations working on this full-time, and only [for] about a month for the other organisations and [for] about six weeks for us.

This naturally begs the questions as to how many of the documents were published without knowing the detail they contained. Jones obliged promptly and was, as usual, promptly answered by Assange.

It's fair to say that only two percent have been read in precise detail and the rest have been hived off using these classification systems. Now I presume what you're getting to is how did we split off the 15,000 that we have not yet released because we think they need further review to understand whether there might be innocent informers' names in there. After reviewing several different types of material, we saw that it was really these threat reports and some other classifications that contained information about informers. So those were all hived off.

WikiLeaks, it seems, additionally attempted to perform due diligence for the purposes of harm minimisation on the documents prior to releasing them. They contacted the White House to ask them to assist in vetting the documents for potentially damaging material in terms of individuals who had collaborated with coalition forces in Afghanistan. Their request was refused by the administration.

This process was mediated by The New York Times.

Dan Kennedy, assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, a private university in Massachusetts, told Northeastern's news website recently that due to its having brought journalists into the story pre-release for the Afghan "war logs" WikiLeaks "is now seen [by the mainstream media] as a more credible source of information than had previously been the case". Earlier it had been "heavily criticized" in the press, says Kennedy, for a leak.

But Jones asked Assange about the continuing desire of the NYT to distance itself from WikiLeaks which I reported yesterday.

It's quite interesting. Der Spiegel and The Guardian were not really like that. They really did come properly to the table. But the environment in the United States, the publishing environment, I presume, is really quite difficult when saying anything strongly against the war. In previous cases what we've seen is you can actually get important stories into The New York Times and into other mainstream press outlets like CNN. We did that with the collateral murder tape, which exposed the murders of two Reuters journalists in Baghdad and the slaying of 16 to 24 other people. But then what happens is editorial space is opened up for apologists who simply have opinion. So to get a story in about the war it has to be hard fact, you have to have the hard facts. But to get a pro-war story in all you need is opinion. I think that really represents just the sheer scope of the war industry in the United States.

It is just possible that the US press will be less likely to allow stories criticising WikiLeaks to have room in the public sphere by denying them access to opinion pages, but I doubt it.

Thursday 29 July 2010

It's pretty clear that Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder and government bete-noir, doesn't much respect the media in the developed world. He's said so explicitly at least once in an interview - of which several have appeared over the past month or so.

Now, The Daily Beast reports that Assange is exchanging barbs with the ostensible newspaper-of-record, The New York Times, which received a copy of its latest leak - over 90,000 pages of classified US military documents known as the Afghan "war logs" - in advance of WikiLeaks releasing them to the public.

The NYT did wrong when it contacted the US administration before publishing its stories on the leaked documents, says Assange. And the NYT also omitted a link to WikiLeaks within the story - which would be unusual practice for the paper.

For its part, the NYT says that WikiLeaks releasing the documents to everyone "had potential consequences that I think anyone, regardless of how he views the war, would find regrettable". People could get hurt, the paper's editor Bill Keller, says.

Assange released the information to three mainstream news organizations because we had the wherewithal to mine the data for news and analysis, and because we have a large audience that would take this seriously. I think the public interest was served by that.

Of course the newspaper is in a different position, vis-a-vis both the administration and the public, from WikiLeaks. The paper has both gravitas and a need to control or manage perceptions of either bias or responsibility. It's a corporation, not a renegade activist outfit. It has a reputation built over decades that it needs to protect in order to assure its future profitability.

But Assange's criticisms both here and earlier make the paper look staid and conservative, as though its reputation is more important than the truth. That should be a perception that the NYT worries about since its place in the public sphere is cemented in its ability to uphold the public interest. That's what a newspaper of record is meant to do, regardless of how unstable and contested a term such as "the public interest" is.

Government condemnation of the leak can combine with the paper's controlling comments to further bolster WikiLeaks' standing in the community as the true upholder of the public interest. It's a fraught exercise for the NYT, and one that its corporate board will be taking a hard look at in the coming weeks.

It'll be interesting to see if any further mentions of the blue appear in the press.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

A slick, white-trash road movie with a complex plot that hangs off a journalist's interest in a murky crime, Bounty Hunter (dir Andy Tennant, 2010) brings to the fore the comedic talents of two seasoned actors. Gerard Butler plays Milo Boyd, a bounty hunter. (For fans outside the US, a bounty hunter is a person who tracks down people who have breached bail conditions and brings them in to the police.) His sidekick is ex-wife Nicole Hurley, played by Jennifer Aniston.

Hurley is a journalist investigating an alleged suicide. But she's in trouble with the law because she decided to go to meet a source instead of fronting up to a court appointment to answer for a traffic infringement. Boyd is asked to bring her in. Instead of this happening, the divorced couple embark on a frantic search for the person responsible for the apparent suicide.

And love is always in the air in a brittle way that reminds you of some of Shakespeare's comedies, the ones where pretty, haughty women trade acerbic banter with handsome, cocksure males out in some remote French forest.

To spice up the romance, the filmmakers included a goofy Lothario in the person of Stewart (Jason Sudeikis), whose pants are too daggy, whose sweater is too pink, and who looks utterly ridiculous in a high-end Mini Cooper. Stewart adores Nicole, who cannot abide his advances and routinely brushes him off as she tracks down the murderer.

The chase takes the two protagonists to a race track, a country club, an "adorable" bed-and-breakfast, a casino, a tattoo parlour, and finally to the police repository where the final drama plays out. In addition, Nicole's saucy mother is an Atlantic City torch-song belle who starts drinking, it seems, at 11am just after she has removed herself from her twisted bedsheets. The fact that the last scene takes place in a jail cell tells you how low the filmmakers have aimed this self-consciously "edgy" romantic comedy.

But it's not all bad - mainly due to the acting talents of the leads. For a laugh the film can be heartily recommended, but don't expect to be swept off your feet. To be a tad swayed away from the vertical is all that the discerning viewer can reasonably expect from this lightweight film.

Tuesday 27 July 2010

The Afghan "war logs" have been curiously absent from the headlines of Australian newspapers, who have long been acclimatised to a pall of silence used by our military to suppress the flow of information about their activities in foreign theatres of war. It's almost as if the media in this country has been anaesthetised by this kind of studied neglect so that they fail to respond when real and copious intelligence comes to hand.

The Guardian, the liberal UK newspaper, was one of three international news outlets to receive the documents, sometimes also referred to as the Afghan "war diaries", ahead of their release by Wikileaks on Sunday. Its coverage has been better than anyone else's, including that of The New York Times, another favoured news outlet which received the docs early.

What is clear is that the US and Australian governments regret the leak.

It is also clear that the full story will only come out in time as journalists read through and decipher the 90,000 documents and detect patterns and themes suitable for reporting in their newspapers.

Just having access to the documents is not enough. You need time to make sense of a resource so vast that a dozen reporters woking for weeks would only just arrive at a complete understanding of their ramifications. The military will be relying on this obstacle of time. In the meantime, they will also be looking at ways to shut down Wikileaks.

When the "Pentagon Papers" were released by The New York Times in 1971 - the last time a leak of this size occurred in the US - the administration took legal action against the whistleblowers. This time, WikiLeaks is a tougher target because it is based outside the US and because it has a high profile. Any action against founder Julian Assange - who says he likes "crushing bastards" - would be widely reported.

Australia has just been exposed to a two-part ABC Four Corners program on our soldiers operating in Afghanistan. It was a bland and anodyne, controlled and well-scripted example of reporting compared to the stories now appearing with the "war logs", which claim among other things that Pakistan's secret service has been aiding the Taliban and that the US runs a special "black" hit squad to carry out extrajudicial assassinations in Afghanistan.

Monday 26 July 2010

Interesting how the National Press Club's debate of last night between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott has played out in the media, who seem addicted to the kind of conflict that the new PM seems determined to subdue. Gillard is colourless and boring. Abbott is dull and unconvincing. But I think there's something else at play here that hasn't been acknowledged.

Gillard has shown from her first press conference that she likes a measure of decorum in events she plays a part in. Her handling of the press gallery is masterful. She seems to abhor the usual high-octane barking of questions as journos would try to outdo each other in volume and persistence while putting their questions to the floor. Gillard does something to prevent this. She doles out the floor in a controlled manner. Sometimes she even knows the names of the journalists she points to. But she always makes sure they each get their turn.

This kind of civil tone is unusual and it is emerging also in the way Gillard answers questions. There's often a smile. There's a lack of temper. And there's a measured, calm demeanour that overrides any bid for apparently interesting content launched in response to loaded questions.

Abbott changed the game when he became leader of the Opposition. Gillard has shown that she is able to change the game too. Look forward to more civility and a focus on content rather than soundbites. Polling shows that female voters are listening to this new tone of voice with more interest than they did to the testosterone-driven harangues of male PMs past.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Matt Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller in Green Zone (dir Paul Greengrass, 2010), a fast, high-octane romp through the dusty streets and half-destroyed palaces of post-invasion Iraq.

Once the bombing strikes ended in 2003 the question should have quickly turned to the pressing issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and where they were hidden. News crews from around the world staked out their patches in the Green Zone, only occasionally venturing out into Baghdad's grimy suburbs and preferring to cover press conferences organised by US military heads.

It's in the suburbs that the movie starts. Miller and his team make visits to city locations in an effort to uncover WMD stashes but repeatedly come up empty-handed. When he complains, Miller is silenced by a senior commanding officer and by Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a tightly zipped-up and besuited Washington bureaucrat with an agenda to push.

Frustrated, Miller seeks help from Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), a tubby CIA operative in an ill-fitting brown suit who is on a collision course with military spooks, who are trying to protect the fiction WMD embody. So when Miller gets some intelligence about the location of "high-value target" General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor), he takes it to Brown and not to Poundstone.

Getting the intelligence happened by chance. Working in the field, Miller is approached by an Iraqi citizen named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla). Freddy tells him there is a meeting of senior Baathists happening nearby. Miller takes his team to the house. They enter it and capture three Iraqis but Al Rawi escapes. Thinking he is onto something, Miller is naturally disappointed when a rival group of US soldiers choppers in, abducts the captives, and leaves him bleeding from the nose.

Undaunted by the unseemly scrape, Miller attempts over the next few days to get to the bottom of the puzzle. If WMDs are absent every time they move in on a target site, where did the intelligence come from?

He asks Washington Post journalist Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan). A senior official gave her the information, she replies. Didn't anyone verify it, asks Miller. No, she says; when you get raw information from such a source you don't ask questions.

Working with Brown, Miller works out that Poundstone had visited Jordan at the same time as Al Rawi. They had met to discuss WMD. Putting two and two together, Brown and Miller face up to the fact that the lies go right to the top. This insight is confirmed when Poundstone raids CIA HQ in the Green Zone and confiscates Miller's field intelligence.

Everyone is trying to find Al Rawi, but not all of them for the same reason. Some want to get him to talk - did the US lie about WMD? - and others want to prevent him from talking. The chase sequence that ends the film takes us into the suburbs once more. These are the same suburbs that the Iraqi tribal heads will argue about in the conference room in the palace under the "leadership" of the US-backed government head. Poundstone, watching the bickering, can only scratch his head.

As for Miller? He's just put back on the road to continue his work.

In 2010, the bombings in Iraq have slowed to a trickle thanks to negotiations that could have taken place years earlier. That they still occur is one reason this film had to be made.

Monday 19 July 2010

Something personal belonging to all actors always seeps into their films and Mel Gibson - shown here as Detective Thomas Craven in Edge of Darkness (dir Martin Campbell, 2010) - is absolutely no exception. His role is characteristically off-beat and his performance is typically strong as the kind but no-nonsense Boston cop whose life becomes entangled with the functionaries and mercenaries employed by a secretive nuclear research lab where his daughter, an MIT graduate, works.

It's a role Bruce Willis could have played, but Gibson is easily the better actor. He's able to trade insults with thugs in expensive suits but also empathise with a single mother of one in such a way that he comes across as genuine, scared, determined, high-minded, and reassuringly down-home. Willis would have needed a lot more support to look as good. Gibson does it solo - in more ways than one.

There's no female lead other than his daughter, for a start. Removing the romantic prop could have left Gibson looking overly hang-dog, but the veteran actor embraces this weakness and turns it around so that he stands on equal footing with a range of characters who are, equally, sorely beset by the rogue operation that the US government has allowed to become a law unto itself.

The dialog is strong but often hard-to-hear, with actors such as Ray Winstone as the shadowy enforcer Jedburgh severely mumbling in Cockney while others, such as Jay O. Sanders as the cop Bill Whitehouse severely mumbles in Boston American.

Injecting Gibson into the mix enables these guys to perform strongly. The journalist, too, plays a key role well even though she appears for just a few moments. Played by Molly Schreiber she empathises with Craven's plight as he leaves his determinately middle-class house in the dead of night, and is rewarded by a parcel containing DVDs with evidence of state-sponsored crimes of the most devilish nature. Such a scoop comes to a working journo perhaps a couple of times in a lifetime.

For Gibson is intent on uncovering who killed his daughter. In the process, he runs a gauntlet of assaults on himself and others because the operation on the hill, called Northmoor, is doing government-funded work that it should not be doing. It is a scenario of egregious maladministration going to the highest levels of government, including a Boston senator creepily played by Damian Young.

The action is really good, as is the way the story unfolds in stages, although some mumbled dialog makes it hard to follow at times. Craven's misguided rant to the senator about PTSD aside there's little to object to in this film, and a lot to enjoy. It kept me riveted to my seat for the entire two hours' duration.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Nicola Collins, the creative force behind The End: Confessions of A Cockney Gangster (2008) started out in acting and also worked as a fashion model. Her twin sister Teena produced the film. Their father, Les Falco, is one of its stars. The two women were born in 1978 and this is their first production.

It's a film that probably had to be made. Subtitled and decorated with an interestingly dark and complex soundtrack and fashionable visuals, the film appears to target a US audience. Explaining cockney lags and geezers to Americans requires a few atmospherics and even more cognitive aids, it seems.

In a sense it is good that this film was made when it was. News stories appeared recently telling us that cockney would disappear as other slang used by London's disadvantaged youth takes precedence in cop shows and films. The film is a kind of pickling jar, and all of the men who appear in it tell us with some level of regret that they are aware of this demographic shift.

On the other hand, the men who face Collins' camera are a band of robbers, standover men, debt collectors who use questionable methods to secure their money, and probably even worse.

So while their attempts to justify their activities stand up while you're watching it and this empethy is testament to the filmmakers' skill, later on when you get to thinking about the ragged collection of clapped-out brawlers and thugs you realise that you wouldn't want to spend much time with any of them in real life. They come across OK in front of a camera but you know that everything else being equal the situation could turn ugly pretty quickly given the right circumstances.

The Collins twins clearly spent a lot of time and thought in producing this film. The hours of video interviews are skillfully assembled with an eye to retaining some form of coherent narrative arc, so that the segues between themes are seamless. As such they deserve respect, despite the suspicion that there's a certain quantum of ego driving the whole enterprise. And a bit of voyeurism, too. After all, this is a dying breed - as we've been told - and the new breed of thugs - and there must be one lurking about the traps, to be sure - remains undocumented.

Perhaps the twins could make a similar movie with that demographic in their sights. For novelty value this would top the current project, and for public interest too.

Saturday 17 July 2010

A Canadian film, The American Trap (dir Charles Biname, 2008) is probably a lot better in a lot of ways than the other film that pretends to solve the mystery behind the assassination of John F Kennedy, America's most-favoured president: 1991's JFK directed by the famed Oliver Stone.

JFK met his untimely end in 1963 in Dallas when he was hit, we are told, by a bullet fired from a gun held by one Lee Harvey Oswald. Biname and his writers suggest that the various US law-enforcement bodies, in league with the US mafia, were behind the hit.

Like Stone, Biname introduces us to an assortment of shady characters. In the film we're looking at, The American Trap, the majority of these are French-speaking Canadian drug barons who bring heroin into the US hidden in automobiles. Of primary importance is Lucien Rivard (Rémy Girard), a savvy and competent middle-man who takes orders from Paul Mondolini (Gérard Darmon). On the sidelines sits a spook, Maurice Bishop (Colm Freore). And in the middle there's an unfortunate and appealing woman named Rose Cheramie (Janet Lane).

The best part of the film is conducted in French and the dialog is very, very fast. This combination of elements means you have to concentrate very hard to keep up with the action. There's not a lot of leeway if you blink too often or even if you choose to take a sip of coffee from time to time. I recommend keeping your eyes glued firmly on the screen throughout the film's 110 minutes because one trip to the lavatory will mean sacrificing a heap of references that will be relied upon later by the filmmakers in yet another crucial scene.

This speed of conception is usually, in my view, an indicator of quality in a film.

As an index of how fast the film moves, no camera shot takes more than a few seconds. There's a lot of period recreation here, too, especially in Dallas and New Orleans. Many other scenes take place at disused industrial sites - which are timeless and therefore require no costly set-up. This was a clever decision by the filmmakers as it would have helped to keep down costs.

The plot is also clever and would definitely reward a second viewing. A primary event is the uncovering by the Narcotics Squad of a shipment of heroin from Mexico. The cop who uncovers this - based on a tip-off - is Jeffrey Cohen (Joe Cobden). But Cohen has bigger fish to fry and this will lead to his downfall in a typically understated scene shot along a Southern backroad with a refinery as backdrop. Cohen's downfall and Rivard's survival are the primary ways the filmmakers tell us that the nexus of effort coordinated by the spooks and the mob led all the way to the Dallas Book depository and beyond.

A lot less muscular than Stone's work, The American Trap is also a lot more interesting. Watch it again and again, because you'll find things out here that you missed the first time around.

Friday 16 July 2010

Bob Ellis in The Drum paints a dark portrait of defeat for Julia Gillard if she calls the election now. On Twitter, Ellis' fellow ABC commentator Marieke Hardy applauds the screed for its "beautiful turn of phrase" and promises that her heart would continue to swell every time Ellis writes and publishes. It is, indeed, a compelling piece and a well thought-out one.

A lot of people don't like the Liberal Party and these punters - Ellis included - fear a return of the Libs above all else. They fear the fear-saturated pronouncements aimed at stifling any progress in society toward a better future. They fear the small-minded parochialism and the obsession with money above all else. They fear the powerful being given a free rein in the ongoing and practical debate about the place of regulation in society.

But I think Ellis is over-salting his stew. My personal prognosis vis-a-vis the election outcome if Gillard calls it tomorrow is less sour. For me, the big issue is not whether the Liberal Party or the Labor Party wins the election. The bigger issue is how the Australian Greens will fare.

This is because, as Gillard has shown amply since she took the helm of government, the two major parties are as one on a lot of issues that really matter. The Labor Party has done practically nothing in terms of renewable energy, for example. They have thrown homosexuals to the wolves by denying them the ability to marry. And they have chucked buckets-full of pabulum at the xenophobic minority by mooting a refugee processing centre in East Timor.

They have, in fact, done nothing the way they should have done as a progressive party. The 18 percent that the Greens are said now to command seems secure as long at the Labor Party does nothing on climate change, for a start. Given that the election will be called sooner rather than later, it seems there will be no time for that debate to play out, again, in the media. In fact, they do not want to go there because the Labor Party has already said that nothing will happen on climate change until the Kyoto Agreement runs out, in 2012.

Gillard is not one to go against the party line. Not in any way, shape or form.

So it seems that we will be led, for the next three years, by a conservative government either way the chips fall: blue or red. The difference will make itself felt in the number of people who defect from Labor to the Greens. I await the next poll eagerly.

Thursday 15 July 2010

The news media got its telescope stuck up its own backside today after veteran journo Laurie Oakes threw a curly question - like a gauntlet - at the feet of Julia Gillard during question time at the National Press Club in Canberra. The detailed question about what happened on the night Gillard overthrew Kevin Rudd fell flat, however, as the prime minister batted it away expertly. She batted not an eyelid, twitched not a muscle.

But news websites across Australia decided, en-masse, that this was a story and gave top-of-page prominence to it. This included all Fairfax websites as well as those controlled by rival News Ltd. A variety of headlines appeared within an hour of the televised press conference being screened. All were alleging that Gillard is trying to hide something.

But the question was a pure fishing exercise on the part of Oakes. No doubt his sources are impeccable. But from day one Gillard has said she will not divulge what happened during the meeting in question. Her reply today merely reiterated this decision.

Why are the media so bent on finding scandal and outrage? What is their motivation in attempting to scoop Gillard when she gave exactly the same reply today as she has on numerous occasions before? Why is Oakes more of a celebrity than a journalist? And how come nothing else from the day's proceedings appeared in the news?

The talk itself was routine but nevertheless revealing. Gillard was in campaign mode, indicating that, without a doubt, an announcement on the date of the election is imminent. She played up Labor's fiscal credentials, demonstrating how the party has drifted even further to the Right since Rudd campaigned three years ago.

There was no mention, for example, of the party's new climate policy. Gillard repeatedly thrust home the message that the Labor government had a strong fiscal record and would return the budget to surplus within three years - three years (a guess) before any other developed economy. She also said that it would be reckless to trust the economy to the Liberals - essentially turning a Howard-era threat back onto his party.

As usual, Gillard's performance was stable and flawless. It will take a question with more bite than the one Oakes threw down, to unseat her in the lists.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Forget Paul the prognosticating octopus. Old Spice Guy has captured the attention of the world. It's part of a sustained ad campaign by Proctor & Gamble, which owns the brand.

The Old Spice Guy ad won a coveted industry award at Cannes with his kooky palaver extolling the benefits of using the old-fashioned masculine scent. Now, creators Wieden + Kennedy have scored an even bigger coup by inviting Twitter users to send in questions - using the @OldSpice handle - that are promptly answered with a customised video.

mUmBRELLA host Tim Burrowes says he has counted 116 videos. There are videos for celebrities and for regular people with requests they send in. The reaction on Twitter has been uniformly positive, with posters lauding the creativity of this, latest, "viral" campaign. It's certainly an original and compelling use of the medium. The campaign gives new depth to the term "engagement" and indicates the direction media companies could choose if they want to get people talking about their brands in a positive way.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

When a series of bombings struck London's transport system in 2005 we were overwhelmed with media coverage. Thousands of pictures and millions of words were generated, disseminated, and mulled over by reporters and the commentariat in Australia. The evening news was even interrupted when information first started to filter through from London, where it was still morning.

But our attention is selective and biased, as coverage of the bombings in Kampala, Uganda, yesterday attest. Very little is available in the Australian media. Despite the fact that Australian soldiers are still stationed in Afghanistan to combat terrorism, we are seemingly not at all concerned by the Uganda blasts. Or, at least, the well-informed editors of our newspapers believe they are not important enough to warrant front-page coverage.

Possibly more than 74 people were killed in Kampala yesterday. In London, the death toll was 52, with over 700 injured. It is still too early to know how many were injured in Kampala, but no doubt the count will be high with the second attack taking place at a bar where people were sitting outside watching the World Cup final game on a large-screen TV.

The first attack took place at an Ethiopian restaurant. Both attacks have been claimed by a Somali militia group, al-Shaabab.

Pic credit: Charlie Shoemaker/EPA.

Monday 12 July 2010

Musical Chinese kitsch is not average fare although it's certainly entertaining. In this case, it was a symphony concert led by singer Wan Shanhong (pic) doing a medly of old numbers from the 70s and 80s that were based on old stories from novels from the distant past.

So the references were twice filtered, making it difficult to understand. But in any case it was all in Chinese.

The first filter is the 16th or 10th century novel the songs were based on. They're all very famous novels such as Journey to the West, which features Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. On top of this, a second cultural filter from the time the songs were written is applied. So it's a kind of palimpsest.

And it's high camp stuff. The full symphony orchestra adds power and drama to probably simple folk tunes, with swelling arpeggios and thundering finales in the style of the great period of classical Western music, in the 19th century.

There was one Chinese instrument in the orchestra, but the player sat idle for the most part. A multi-stringed Chinese guzheng is no match for a Western-style orchestra in full flight.

There was other drama, too. The organisers had placed decorative flowers around the border of the stage. But they blocked the view for people sitting in the front row. Many of these people simply stood up and took the fowers down, placing them instead on the floor. One security guard had a different idea, however, and replaced several bouquets.

The audience enjoyed the concert, and clapped along when requested by the singers. There were about ten different singers, all with powerful voices and fantastic costumes to match the stories they told. An interesting night out.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

God rules under Gillard, it seems. The question - Is this a wimple or a hoodie? - is no longer relevant. Julia Gillard has come out in favour of the Right.

On the question of gay marriage, Gillard has explicitly adopted a conservative position saying, in an ABC Local Radio talkback session in Darwin this morning, that "Marriage is between a man and a woman."

"Obviously we live in an age when there are all sorts of relationships which are not marriages.

"I am in a committed relationship of that nature myself with my partner Tim."

I had expected better. In fact, I brought this to Gillard's attention on Sunday when the prime minister used Facebook to declare her love for "Australia and the people in it". I commented a few minutes later:

Help reduce suicide rates by recognising the right of gay Australians to marry.

The prime minister said she would "do her best". Well, if her best is to sacrifice the interests of an embattled minority in order to curry favour with the religious component of the population, then I have to say that I'm deeply disappointed.

I would have thought that a person whose own marital status comes under such close and sustained scrutiny would be more flexible. And so strictures put in place a couple of thousand years ago by followers of Jesus continue to determine who can fully participate in society - and who must remain on the margins. It's a crying shame.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Last night on Lateline we heard former Liberal immigration minister Alexander Downer state very clearly that the only way for the Gillard government to stop the asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia would be to implement the policies of his government, which was voted out of power in 2007.

One of the elements of that policy was offshore processing of asylum seekers on the small Pacific island of Nauru.

Today, Prime Minister Gillard announced that she had begun talking with East Timor about establishing a regional processing centre in that country. Her talks were not explained in detail and journalists are still waiting for firm details that would explain the new policy direction. But the view seems to be that such an offshore processing centre is to be established if Gillard's government wins the next election - which is to be held this year.

So it seems that Downer was right, which is a hard fact for any self-respecting liberal to stomach. But it's a true fact nonetheless.

To her credit, Gillard was at pains during her policy announcement - which was held at the Lowy Institute today - to signal a move away from the polarising and divisive attitudes of earlier administrations. Terms such as 'red-neck' and 'leftie' are, she says, not useful. Her understanding of the concerns of people living in rapidly-growing and highly-populated parts of the country was reiterated. People "are concerned", she said.

In effect, Gillard is trying to wedge the Opposition away from its core supporters in the outer suburbs of the big cities: the people who are no longer 'red-necks' but merely 'concerned'. It's probably an effective strategy, although Opposition leader Tony Abbott will no doubt do his best to rubbish the new policies as "weak".

Pic credit: Time 4 Change blog.

Sunday 4 July 2010

In Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland there are no star performers apart from the director, who creates here a fantasy of slightly less-than-epic proportions that is peopled by wonderful characters that exhibit their creator's deep personal whimsy and charming individuality.

But the story, alas, has all the curiousness of a Dungeons-and-Dragons contest, all the originality of a video game for teen boys. It's a pure good-vs-evil play with twisted malice on the one hand against sanity and reasonableness on the other. The books that form the basis of the screenplay are far more disturbing on both sides of the equation.

No, all the good stuff resides in the odd little characters Burton dreams up in his odd little head. This is a decent enough achievement in itself, but I can't rate the movie higher than a solid "Well done".

There's the voice of Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar - a snoozy, slightly boozy street-tout drawl with ageing editor highlights. There's Johnny Depp as the dashing, oddball Mad Hatter. There's Helena Bonham Carter as the malicious and greedy but less-then-terrifying Red Queen. And there's Anne Hathaway as the prim, precious and prudent White Queen (she's so campily white her hands are permanently raised in surprise).

And then there's the heroine: Alice herself. Mia Wasikowska plays her straight. I think this is necessary due to the character of the original Alice and due to the whacky energy of all the surrounding players. You need a bit of bread to go with all the strange cheeses.

And the plot is equally deadpan: a routine mustering of armies, and plain-old clash of swords, and a run-of-the-mill fearsome beast that must be slain by the eternally viruous Champion. Alice steps into the role with aplomb but it all gets so deadly ernest and adrenaline-filled you wish the contest had been concieved to play out on the croquet lawn instead of the battlefield.

Saturday 3 July 2010

Review: The Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuscinski (2001)

A journalist with this much unrequited curiosity, physical courage, and literary talent deserves to be read. This is especially true if the things he or she wrote about happened a generation or so ago. Quite simply, there is nowhere else to go apart from the history books to get as deep an appreciation of African society, and possibly not even there.

We are, in many ways, at the author's mercy. This makes it especially important that the journalist be honest and truthful with us. This is the way we have been brought up to understand non-fiction: as a record of what actually happened. But the new biography of Kapuscinski, by Polish journalist Artur Domoslawski, published this year, says that Kapuscinski cannot be trusted - in our terms, at least.

This is a shame, because this is a rare and fascinating - if not brilliant - book. Were Domoslawski less sceptical, it would certainly become a touchstone of investigative journalism, travel journalism, and ethnographic journalism. But with serious caveats now - finally - in place, we must reach for the salt whenever we come to a passage that seems too extraordinary to be true. Chances are, it's not.

This reservation aside, the average reader will learn a lot about the history of many African countries by reading this book. You also learn some essential truths about African society and how it is formed. These lessons tend also to be a valuable guide to understanding what is happening in Africa today.

Kapuscinski's most illuminating insight is possibly the observation that, in Africa, the individual does not exist. The landscape, he says, is simply too harsh for a person, alone, to survive. A person really only exists as part of a larger collection of souls, such as a family or clan. This is why, he says, when a person achieves prominence or success there is always a string of near- and far-relatives arriving to benefit from it. Nepotism, cronyism and graft follow.

The African's culture, also, deserves to be recognised for what it is. It strikes me that it resembles the Aboriginal culture, in this way: that misfortune is to be blamed on an Other (be it a nearby tribe or a witch) and that an African only fully senses his or her existence once an event has been described. If you get sick, says Kapuscinski, it is because a witch or sorcerer in another tribe has put a spell on you. Natural causes are discounted in favour of the exercise of the spirit world. And the talk around the fire at the end of the day, he says, are key to an African's existence.

I picture Kapuscinski as a man with a slight stoop trudging from place to place under the burning sun of noon, dressed in a white shirt and brown trousers, a notebook in his pocket and a typewriter nestled in a travelling case that he holds in his sweaty grip. The hours, days, weeks, months and years he spent chronicling the African continent - driving, flying and walking from place to place, always in his white shirt, brown trousers - were well-spent. It's just a pity that he didn't stick to just the facts, but felt the need to rewrite history. Surely the facts, as they are expertly and sensitively described in this book, were extraordinary enough for any reader.

Friday 2 July 2010

The Chinese consul general Hu Shan takes the plunge today with an opinion piece on the website of the National Times. It's a brave step for the local top functionary of a secretive and controlling country - a look at the comment thread shows some people are sceptical of Hu's complacent pacifism.

China's big problem is that it cannot release its controls on the press as it struggles to allow development, without opening the doors to civil strife. The "harmony" it seeks will always come at a cost, however. One of the most costly elements being, of course, the blank-faced incredulity foreigners exibit when confronted by this type of fatuous pabulum.

We know, for instance, that the Chinese government is quite capable of turning on the taps of xenophobia when it chooses. Demonstrations against Japan are tolerated while demonstrations against the ruling Communist regime are not. Hypocrisy is the only word for such duplicitousness.

Hu's commenters are not all genuine, furthermore. It's quite clear that there are prepared statements among the comments left on the piece. It's just further proof of the kind of control the Chinese government demands of its media - one of the least free in the world.

Releasing controls on the press might go some way toward alleviating the perception problems that Hu's piece is designed to address. By giving the Chinese media a free rein, outsiders will be able to see what actually goes on inside this dark and tumltuous country. "Harmony" is a rhetorical veneer covering a toxic melange of corruption and dissatisfaction. Strip away the plastic cover and the wall-space is filled with rats and roaches.

Leaving things the way they are, at present, is merely another way of saying that China does not care what foreigners think about it. Civil strife would be better, perhaps?

Pic credit: Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China in Sydney.

Thursday 1 July 2010

It's good to be back home. Back from three days at a tuna fishing management conference - although it was called a 'workshop' - and two nights in West End, a suburb just west of Southbank, Brisbane.

West End is an entertainment district, it seems to me - who is a long-time resident of Sydney, the city I grew up in and know best among Australia's cities. The enormous Melbourne Hotel dominates the major intersection of Melbourne Street and Boundary Street.

There are a lot of restaurants in the sector. The small, often ethnic, and trendy restaurants line Melbourne Street along with houses and offices. Toward the edge of Southbank - which grew out of the revamped sector designed for Expo 88 - the up-market tone is immediately set and it continues to predominate as you walk along the landscaped thoroughfare toward Boundary Street.

Off Boundary Street, just north of the intersection, sits the Sapphire Motel, a yellow-painted, multi-storey complex of rooms, carpark, and restaurant. It looks OK, but it's distinctly down-market. My experience there tells me it's not a good refuge for the traveller.

I went to bed early at around 10pm. Just after midnight, I was awokened by a sharp report as someone knocked on the door. Then the voices started. They were loud and angry. And with them the TV's annoying drone permeated the wall from the room next-door. This went on and on, so I decided to call the front desk to complain.

Even though I made the call and spoke with the night staff, the disturbance continued for an hour, so I called again. This time, the staff took the time to knock on the door of the room next-door, telling them to turn down the volume. They did, but it wasn't until around 2am that I fell asleep.

It was a fitful, dream-laced sleep that left me ghasping when I awoke at 7am. I went back to sleep. When I woke up, there was more noise from next-door so I was very glad to be checking out. I did that, and then descended the echoing staircase to the carpark where I'd left the car. Here, however, another suprprise awaited.

The tire was flat. I'd driven over a small bolt about two weeks earlier and the aperture created then had finally grown large enough to let all the air out on the front right-hand side. At the front desk, I asked if there was a garage nearby. With the directions in hand, I gingerly drove the car through the streets to my destination.

I left the car at the garage and walked a few minutes to the conference centre, where I attended the final session on the schedule. After lunch at a nearby Turkish restaurant, I returned to the car and drove home.

It was an eventful trip, and a fruitful one. But next time I'll pay more than $90 a night so as to get better, quieter, and more salubrious accommodation.