Saturday 30 July 2011

Apparently we should be worried. Odd things are happening, like the Australian dollar jumping in value to over US$1.10 - the highest it has been since the currency float of 1983 - and the Australian stock market's S&P/ASX 200 index falling almost 40 percent in a single day to its lowest level since the depth of the global economic crisis in 2009. While we're told Australians are saving more than ever - retailers are grumbling loudly - the fact is that this latter movement probably has to do with our indebtedness to foreign lenders. Both movements are due to uncertainty deriving from the US debt limit drama that's being played out in Washington, DC.

From here it's a little obscure in its details but the amount of press the House of Representatives debate on lifting the debt cap is receiving gives you some indication of how some elements in the US are taking the crisis. If the debt limit ($14.2 trillion, currently - a truly staggering sum of money) is not lifted as a result of legislative fiat by Tuesday the US government will have to start stopping payments to some creditors, or stop paying public servants or welfare recipients. Or stop paying soldiers. Or cut back on its morning coffee. Or raid the piggy bank. Or something. It's causing major ructions Stateside. The country is fighting costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and continues to be beset by economic headaches resulting from the GFC. Both of these things are attributable Republican Party policies implemented to this point but it's the Republicans - with a majority in the House of Representatives and a minority in the Senate - who are now causing global markets to see-saw as investors seek safe havens for their cash. Gold has increased in value to well over $1600 an ounce. The Australian dollar is rising in value as investors buy Australian government bonds as a secure place to park their money.

Compounding the US-led uncertainty is the debt problem in some European countries, notably Greece, Italy, Spain and Ireland. In Greece there have been, in the last month, street riots resulting from legislative moves to cut government spending. European bankers are wary about bailing out the Greeks and have set conditions on future funding. Whether governments there can keep the vessel balanced and afloat remains a question.

More engaging because it's available in English to global audiences in the Anglosphere is the US House crisis. Republican House speaker John Boehner needs to secure the support of some newly-elected Tea partiers in order to pass his bill but they're "holding the line" - a novel catchphrase heard in street rallies among Tea Party diehards. They're refusing to accede to the bill's conditions and are asking for further austerity measures in order to put pressure on the Democrat president, Barack Obama. Needless to say we anticipate a lot more fevered press coverage of this legislature impasse as the next few days drag on for politicians and reporters on the Washington political beat. Who will say "Uncle" first - the Republican House or the president? It's up in the air like a balloon shaped like a cosmic tarantula. Be afraid.

UPDATE 8.35am: Boehner's bill just passes vote in the House but the Senate majority leader says it's "dead on arrival" in the Senate.

UPDATE 4.35pm: Democrat Senate refuses to pass House bill and it is defeated solidly almost immediately in the Senate.

Thursday 28 July 2011

Fallout from the Norway killings less than a week ago is somewhat confusing with some politicians excusing Anders Breivik's rampage - notably Mario Borghezio, a member of the European Parliament from Italy with the anti-immigrant Northern League, Erik Hellsborn, a local politician for the nationalist Sweden Democrats in the southern Swedish town of Varberg, and Jacques Coutela, a member of the National Front in France - and others running as fast as possible in the opposite direction - notably the British far-right EDL:
After reports that Mr. Breivik was in touch with Britain’s far-right English Defense League, the group issued a statement this week saying that it could “categorically state that there has never been any official contact between him and the EDL.”
We rely on the New York Times for this information. And that's another problem with events that have a pan-European play: there will be lots of information but it will be in foreign languages (Swedish, anyone?) and it will be posted on lots of different websites. Much easier to look for help closer to home. In Australia we have the thoughts of such people as The Australian's Greg Sheridan who rejects suggestions that Breivik can be likened to an Islamic terrorist, and says that he's just a lone looney. An animal of an entirely different stripe.

It's not a case of "monkey see monkey do" because there is no ideological infrastructure supporting Breivik.
No serious Christian cleric ever gives such violence succour, no Christian-influenced state ever supports it. The terrorists concerned in custody do not read the Gospels, but always some other conspiracy literature concerning their own hang-ups.
Left unexamined is the obvious matter of agency. "Islam" means "submission" and so Islamic terrorists will naturally seek guidance from outside when putting into play the grievances that they harbour inside themsleves. In the West the notion of individual agency means that individuals prefer a different relationship between ideas in the public sphere and the actions they pursue in order to realise their desires through them. Breivik's long-term industry and efficient application must be seen in this light. A Western terrorist is unlikely to respond to concerted calls for violent action. Jihad can thus take on something like its original meaning in the mind of a man like Breivik: a "duty" or "struggle" against external realities that offend the sensibility. In this vein, no serious Western terrorist seeks specific guidance in their struggle but rather improvises within a nexus of commonly-held ideas. For this reason, Europe must certainly take responsibility for Breivik's actions. Not political parties alone but, indeed, all Europeans.

To pass Breivik off as some sort of insane monster is disingenuous. Unhappily for the majority of law-abiding citizens in the West the upshot of Breivik's attack will likely be enhanced surveillance and enforcement. This is already happening in Europe and it is likely to feature in memos written by security functionaries in other countries too. The failure of Norway's security apparatus to identify Breivik as a threat and the consequent failure to short circuit his actions will rest as a salutory lesson for law enforcement bodies globally. Is 1984 therefore approaching ever closer to our fragile democracies?

Tuesday 26 July 2011

As news of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norway terrorist, continues to emerge we have read criticism from the liberal commentariat aimed at early media coverage claiming that the bombing and subsequent shooting were the work of Islamic extremists. The assumption in much of the West was that a person imitating al-Quaeda had perpetrated the attacks and, for people living in Britain or the USA, such assumptions would have appeared unarguably reasonable. For a Swede like dead crime fiction author Stieg Larsson, however, the real fact of the matter would have been just as credible as this biography by journalist Jan-Erik Pettersson tells us.

Larsson is now famous for writing the highly-popular Millennium Trilogy but that performance occupied only a short period of the journalist's life. What mostly preoccupied him - and what this biography talks about in great detail - is the battle in Sweden since the early 1980s for a contested space. The combatants have been fascist-inspired anti-immigration groups and left-wing social elements including activists like popular fiction writer Larsson. It's an interesting read for anyone interested in this Nordic brand of racism and of course for anyone interested in the man who created such memorable fictional characters as the embattled hacker Lisbeth Salander and that paragon of ethics, journalist Michael Blomkvist. My interest in the trilogy began when my attention was captured by its popularity but my real fascination with it lies in the fact that it engages in debate around the role of the media in society. I love seeing representations of journalists in popular culture because they say something about what we expect to receive from this special class of (more or less) professional people. For Larsson, journalism was a calling, something to occupy all aspects of the individual. For him it was definitely not a 9-to-5 job.

This is why Larsson branched out into activist journalism. Employed at an early age by media companies, initially to produce graphical illustrations to accompany pieces written by others, Larsson moved eventually to a writing role with Sweden's wire service, TT. While gainfully employed by TT he also began to work on stories for a fringe magazine set up to combat racism. His knowledge of the far-Right and its organisational structures, operating methods, and principal actors was much sought after even though the magazine that took his stories - named Expo - folded after a few years due to lack of funding.

That's as far as I've gotten in the biography, which I purchased at the airport while on my way to Sydney to meet up with friends. Reading it, I thought how timely its appearance was considering the developing drama of the Norway attacks. In fact it was uncanny for me that it has hit Australian bookshops just at this time. It's a reminder that no matter how bad our radio shock jocks are there are places with far worse brands of racism that include assault, assassination, physical intimidation, street protests, and hate-filled popular culture. I'm sure there are adherents of this kind of dark ideology in Australia but to this point they have been well hidden within the outwardly peaceful suburbs that nurture our desires.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Twitter user @danielrhamilton says, "I was at U w/ guy who attacked #Murdoch. It's Jonathan May-Bowles. (@JonnieMarbles)" And who are we to argue? The cheeky comedian's last tweet before his attack on Rupert Murdoch at the Commons culture, media and sport select committee meeting, where Rupert and his son James appeared today, was: "It is a far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before #splat." Further, the gentleman whose face appears with this post closely resembles that of the attacker of Rupert Murdoch, as seen on British TV live from the parliamentary committee room. As far as I can ascertain from having viewed the feed, anyway. The feed shifted rapidly from inside the committee room to outside, where two police officers had taken custody of a man in a checked shirt with a white substance on his face. The full details of the event will undoubtedly emerge tomorrow.

It has been a news event from start to finish. Both Murdochs have sat through hours of questioning by members of parliament. Many matters have been discussed. Rupert Murdoch has weathered the verbal parliamentary onslaught with a remarkable quantity of stamina given his advanced age. James has done much better. While it appears that Rupert was simply unaware of what was happening on the editorial floor at News of the World, it is far too early at this point (it's 2.30am as I write and it'll be later by the time I finish this post) to digest all aspects of the testimony given this day in the committee room. James Murdoch's rhetorical abilities have probably helped to save the company from embarassment in the short term but longer-term there is still a way to go before this scandal will have played itself out fully.

The fact that NotW contributed a mere one percent of News Corporation's profits highlights a problem for Rupert Murdoch. Corporate governance was the topic that hearing started on and despite the apparently heartfelt apology with which RM closed the proceedings it still remains a subject the company will have to address in future. But the hearings are to continue despite the efforts of the attacker and despite Wendi Deng's swift defence of her 80-year-old husband. Deng can protect Rupert from a plate of shaving foam but she cannot protect him against accusations of cultural rot, and this was suggested by members of the committee. The culture within News is certainly lacking in process - Bruce Guthrie says as much in his biography - and the evidence in the present case underscores this weakness.

People will remember Deng's smart move out of her chair, in her black pencil skirt, in the direction of the shaving foam attacker. The image of an octogenarian being physically threatened will remain in memory for a long time. It was a close shave. But until the British press scans through the transcript, until the police investigations are completed, until the two inquiries have played out in full - we will not really know how culpable these two men were in the crimes committed at NotW. How far up the chain of command the taint will spread is still a matter of conjecture and uncertainty.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Discussing things openly raises awareness but it can also highlight gaps, and so is doubly useful. 'Awareness' is an oft-used word and when matched with 'raising' or 'lowering' refers to how much people in the community think about something. I've been participating in the #ruralmh hashtag on Twitter a fair bit of late because it is available and interesting. People participate. Things are discussed. The awareness of the participants is raised. As for the gap, it's obvious to anyone who closely follows what passes for reporting on mental health and suicide in the nation's newspapers. While there are over 5 people who kill themselves every day the number of news stories about suicide is very small indeed.

On a related note, the reporting of mental health is also pretty bad, although more prevalent than for suicide. You might read about a man tasered by police so many times that he suffers a heart attack, which can be sort of like suicide by proxy - for the man was most likely experiencing an 'episode'. Psychotic episodes are common. You may not know from looking at people as they walk down the street but it's more than likely that one of them is experiencing heightened anxiety brought on by - a number of reasons. People don't often show the severity of their anxiety. It may only manifest itself in a higher-than-normal pulse or breathing rate. It may be that a person you are talking to suddenly stands up from their seat, makes an excuse, and leaves the party. When someone kills someone else due to an episodic attack we hear about it, likewise when a person has to be restrained due to a psychotic episode and as a result of poor handling by the people doing the restraint, dies - we hear about it. A man with a knife on the street gets reported.

What doesn't get reported in these cases, as in the rare cases of suicide that get reported, is the backstory. And this is the real story. The emotional rollercoaster leading up to the catastrophic final act - the overdose of sleeping pills, the kitchen knife brandished on a public street - is manifestly out of view. We never know what happened to bring events to pass.

Mindframe is a government-funded initiative that aims to assist the media, among others, to better report on mental health issues. Their website gives police, for example, tips on how to talk with the media.

Among the things recommended is referring journalists to the police media unit. There are guidelines as to language that should be avoided, words to use in preference to others, and the types of facts to relay to the media. These are worthy points to start from but until the media begin to report more frequently they're not going to help an awful lot. In fact, most coppers will anyway refer you to the media unit due to internal guidelines that control (very tightly in my experience) not just what can be said but who can say it.

Journalists are under the impression, moreover, that they should not report on suicide. When I was starting out as a freelance journo I had the opportunity on one occasion to talk with a reporter from a major metropolitan tabloid. "We don't report on suicides," he told me. And I've since paid attention to such reporting, finding it to be true. Even if a journalist were to go to the police they would likely find themselves blocked from access to the type of information their editors would want to read. And they would move on - the relentless pressure to produce stories on a daily basis means that you can't expend resources as lavishly on reporting mental health and suicide as the topic deserves. There is a huge unmet demand for stories on these issues but the police are renowned for the amount of control they exercise over messages aimed at the media, reporters are hamstrung by tight deadlines, and the learned bias is to say nothing. So the inherent dynamics of the system of information production mean that there will be less revealed than is necessary.

What is the answer? Mindframe publishes statistics showing how many briefings have been carried out in a given timeframe. There are help sheets for the police that can be downloaded to a mobile phone. There are discussions with the media and joint projects that surface occasionally. But until a better routine is established to drive the overall performance of mental health and suicide reporting there will not be an increase in public awareness. I suggest that editors establish a regular mental health beat in their newsrooms that will enable the reporter to spend the time necessary to achieve a useful and rounded story whenever there is an opportunity to report. Police should be more forthcoming with information that will be useful to the media - and hence to the public. And the editors themselves should think about their role in the public sphere and how their actions on a daily basis can influence community perceptions so as to reduce the power of stigma, for example, or increase the number of times a friend asks, 'Are you OK?'

Saturday 16 July 2011

With the News of the World soap opera in its second week we're now over the initial shock we experienced at the news that NotW journalists paid private investigators to hack into the mobile phones of crime victims, and that they paid police for information. Two senior executives in Rupert Murdoch's empire have stepped down including Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News International (Murdoch's British company) who was NotW editor at the time the hacking was prevalent. With the passing of days various experts have entered the field of punditry notably, for the purposes of the present blog post, Michael Gawenda, who has written a piece for ABC The Drum in which he shows surprise at the hypocrisy of journalists who have expressed outrage at the machinations of the British tabloid newspaper.
Honestly, is there a journalist in Australia with any sort of time served in this trade who was genuinely shocked by the revelations of the way journalism was done on the News of The World? Or who will be genuinely shocked by the revelations still to come, not just about the now defunct News of the World but about other News International titles and beyond that, about the tabloids owned by other media companies in the UK?
If there are any, they ought to be doing some other trade.
Gawenda is Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University and so presumably is involved in some form of teaching of young students, those who bring their ideals into the practice of journalism, who may even have dreams of changing the world for the better by getting involved in what Gawenda refuses to label a profession ("We are not a profession like lawyers and doctors and should not pretend that we are," he writes). He would also be in some way responsible for setting the tone around campus, in terms of expectations for aspiring journalists. So I was shocked to read this:
So it's okay to hack the phone of Hugh Grant - who is now a moral arbiter of what is ethical!- because NoW readers want the goss on Grant and people like him, including politicians, especially if it is salacious which means getting the story invariably involves an invasion of privacy.
No, in fact it's not OK to hack the phone of Hugh Grant and Gawenda should be trying to prise journalists away from celebrity gossip, which is an easy and high-GI gig that produces short-term satisfaction but should not be confused with the kind of journalism a person of Gawenda's stature could more profitably endorse. At issue here is not just phone hacking. At issue is the entire celebrity-watching industry that encourages the type of shenanigans NotW journos found themselves caught up in. In fact, journalism should be more like a profession. Gawenda notes that the Australian arm of News Corp has belatedly loaded its Code of Conduct to its websites.
What's the code of conduct for A Current affair and Today Tonight for instance? I am my brother's and sister's keeper - these programs employ journalists and they are my colleagues for better or for worse - but are we operating on the same ethical standards? What about the Fairfax papers? Where's the discussion with their readers of the ethical challenges they face in this time of technological revolution? And this time when journalism is being shamed.
As if all journalists were involved in the type of low-rent manufacture of social bugbears that those tabloid TV shows routinely engage in. Manifestly, Fairfax papers do not operate at the same level as these TV shows and it's a little obtuse of Gawenda to suggest otherwise. I have always tried to be an ethical journalist even to the extent that I transcribe interviews in their entirety and do this irksome work all by myself because it is the only way that I can achieve complete accuracy - and be utterly confident that the transcript is faithful to the recording. I need to know in my bones that the material I use to write stories is without blemish in the least of its elements. I also make sure that I do not mislead interview subjects as to the type of story that I will write, to the extent that I will contact a person interviewed to tell them if the story plan has materially changed in a way that might surprise them - I don't want them to be upset when they see the final product in the magazine.

Gawenda seems to be satisfied with the way journalism is conducted in Australia (let alone the rest of the world). He seems not to worry about 'he-said-she-said' journalism, which is so prevalent and which inflames the public consumption in the same way as junk food accelerates the process of digestion - so that the product is quickly exhausted and a new fix is required to keep the machine running. He seems not to be concerned about the shortage of funds that exacerbates this kind of journalism. And with his brass-tacks demeanour and lack of high-mindedness he seems to think that journalism not only cannot but should not get better and more effectively address the problem of making information that will sustain a responsible and successful body politic. He seems to have a low opinion of humanity, a jaundiced eye, and the taint of hard liquor on his breath.

One of the least-examined aspects of the NotW case is that it was the people, who created the momentum necessary to prosecute action against Murdoch's newspaper. The journalists who initially reported the wrongdoing were partly responsible and kudos must go to The Guardian for living up to its name. But the sense of moral outrage that has led to Parliamentary hearings, standings-down, the flight of advertisers, criminal prosecutions, independent inquiries, and phone calls to apologise - all this is due to the will of the people. Gawenda should be taking the moral high ground and asking that journalists do even more to ensure that their craft performs more like a profession. I want to consider myself as a professional not in the mundane sense that helps me navigate the jobs page of the daily broadsheet, but in the deeper sense that I profess to hold certain skills and standards as necessary for the performance of my work.

Only by doing so can the media industry begin to work toward a better future where the kind of practices that have led to the current debacle are shunned by the least-principled practitioner and so never happen again. Risk management experts will tell you about weak links. They would also say in respect of the NotW case, in all probability, that Murdoch's business style is clearly unsustainable because it caused the corporate crisis we now watch unfolding. Unsustainable business practices should be publicly discussed with the aim of finding a more sustainable way foward. Unfettered competition between only privately-owned media companies is not sustainable, in the same way that the kind of practices that led to the GFC were not sustainable. Something else - and here we get back to codes of conduct and the notion of the 'professional journalist' - is needed.

Friday 15 July 2011

Watching John Hartigan perform on the ABC's 730 program last night I was unhappy. Hartigan, CEO of News Limited, the Australian arm of News Corp, is a polished performer and he demonstrated yesterday a suitable quantity of professional diffidence although the constant movement of his hands struck me as slightly defensive (news editors are accustomed to be the ones asking the questions, not the ones answering them) especially since Leigh Sales, his interviewer, held back a fair amount of justified indignation - which is the default pose of the News journo after all. The Australian belongs to the ideological right in the media space and is often at odds with the ABC - where journalists actively observe the organisation's code of conduct - on matters of editorial approach. Certainly, News Limited vehicles participate in the agenda-pushing activity that goes on, with more enthusiasm than does the ABC, in my opinion. So Sales was actually quite kind to Hartigan given the volatile nature of the backchannel relationship. Once the initial back-and-forth about the News of the World scandal had been aired, Sales turned to the real meat of the encounter which is the "bullying" of politicians that News vehicles engage in with - what many would say was - unusual relish. Here's what transpired.

HARTIGAN: "Look, I think we take them to their official capacity and responsibilities. I don't believe we ever overstep. Yes, it's a love-hate relationship and sometimes it's loving and sometimes it's very hateful. But I don't think, generally speaking, that we don't exceed our authority."

SALES: "The independent MP Rob Oakshott believes that since he backed Julia Gillard to form government that some of the News Limited reporting about him has been, to quote him, 'malicious and shamelessly unfair' because they disagreed with the decision that he made. Do you see examples of that in your publications?"

HARTIGAN: "Look, I think that we've been very aggressive with Rob Oakshott as we have with the other independents."

SALES: "Unfairly aggressive?"

HARTIGAN: "I wouldn't have thought so. I think his electorate, which is largely a conservative electorate, asks questions of him and we reflect those questions."

SALES: "The Age reported in June last year that you personally told a meeting of senior NSW police that they could choose to work with News Limited or not. And that paper reported the police took that as a threat, that if they didn't cooperate with your group's reporters they would receive negative coverage. Are they right in that interpretation?"

HARTIGAN: "No they're not. In fact it's the opposite. The police commissioner at that time said to me that he had no intention of working with the media in this country. He then went about - in my view - a series of leaking to an opposition newspaper organisation. But he instigated that. I went there to really open the bounds of having a relationship with him. He chose not to."

SALES: "So what did you mean when you said 'you can work with us or against us'?"

HARTIGAN: "No, I didn't say that. What he said was that he had no intention of working with the media. He was the new police commissioner and he chose to go about his way in a very different and not open way, that I would have thought he would have."

SALES: "And what did you say to that?"

HARTIGAN: "I said, 'Well that's his initiative. If he plans to do that ...' I didn't question that."

SALES: "A number of senior government ministers have told 730's political editor Chris Uhlmann that the believe News Limited is doing all it can to force regime change in Australia, that they want the Gillard government out. Stephen Conroy's said that on the record. Is that the case?"

HARTIGAN: "Look, you know, I've heard that that has been said. Interestingly noone has stood up to say 'Hey, it's me!' And I would suggest that's a whispering campaign and like most whispering campaigns it has no element of truth."

SALES: "Some of the example that people point to are things like Anthony Albanese has said that News Limited papers have run inaccurate stories, Stephen Conroy has complained that the coverage of the NBN, for example, is skewed to be negative and not balanced. What do you say to those examples?"

HARTIGAN: "Well, I think most people would think that the BER program was a sham and very badly organised. And I think that some of our newspaper reflected that very strongly. Some of the other issues, I think, the NBN, you know, Australians are asking questions about the transparency of huge amounts of billions of dollars. So I would suggest that we're acting in the public interest."

SALES: "So you stand by The Australian's coverage of the NBN as being fair and balanced?"

HARTIGAN: "I do, yep."

SALES: "There was a meeting of News Limited executives and senior journalists and editors in Carmel in the United States recently. Again, Gillard government ministers have told 730 that they believe that after that meeting News Limited publications escalated their anti-Gillar government campaign. Was their any directive issued along those lines?"

HARTIGAN: "I think it's very necessary to say what that meeting was about. We have a lot of meetings. We're a global company and we're going through arguably the greatest change in media at the moment. You're seeing all sorts of digital channels, you're seeing audiences moving around. That was about seeing what is the best practice for us as a company, as a corporation."

SALES: "So there's no company-wide directive, then, that you want the Gillard government out?"

HARTIGAN: "Absolutely not. We're a company of values like most companies, and we have very implicit values. We have things that we think as a company and individually as editors that need to be done. One of them is a leadership vacuum by a minority government. But there's lots of leadership vacuums around Australia at the moment. You know, there lots of issues."

SALES: "If you disagree that News Limited is running a campaign against the Gillard government where, then, do you think is the source of this widespread view among ministers? Why is it held?"

HARTIGAN: "Well I think it's heald because, largely, we're the only organisation that really takes it up to the government and, also, when they're also at record low levels of public support. I think that endears that sense that, 'Hey, there's one organisation out to get us.' Rather than the performance of the party."

SALES: "You don't think you could say that the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and the ABC apply a reasonable amount of scrutiny to the Gillard government?"

HARTIGAN: "They do but they also feed vary largely ... They get preferred treatment because they tend to support most of the government initiatives. The Australian doesn't. It does on occasion but it really is very strident in the way that it covers politics. And I don't argue it's really the only newspaper in Australia that properly covers politics, national politics."

Back to my commentary here.

There's an exceptionalism at play here in Hartigan's words that probably serves a lot of the troops in the organisation well at different times, especially when they feel besieged as a result of run-ins with external entities. When the time comes to making a stand it's therefore easy for journalists to say "We're different and, yes, this will be unpleasant but we're performing a public duty here". This attitude can only inflame the situation because a wild animal when cornered will always turn and fight. So every headline and every editorial, every story placement on the corporate website and every picture selection - designed to depict, say, the prime minister as domineering or cowed - is animated by a preemptive supposition that thousands of people out there in the Australian public sphere hate what you are doing. There would a permanent sneer on the face of an anthropormorphised masthead, a sneer cemeted in place by endless disappointments anticipated and countless rebuffs looked upon as a birthright. "Go ahead," the once-again despised editor thinks, "Make my day."

Thursday 14 July 2011

Twitter users may never have seen this before. I had not and it surprised me to see geo-location data appearing in tweets during the #rurlamh hashtag convo last night. I can't remember it happening before. Once a week on Wednesday evening peeps get together online to talk about rural mental health issues using Twitter. During last night's conversation, I noticed that location data was appearing along with individual tweets - here's a screen shot to show what I mean.

You can see that it didn't matter whether the original tweet was sent from the web, from a software program like TweetDeck, or from a mobile device. My interface in this case was Seesmic Web, which accesses Twitter via a web interface. And the geo-location data did not appear with the same tweets that were viewed in other tweetstreams, or with tweets from the same people that came without the hashtag, or when viewed using the Twitter web interface. So it was a very specific issue relating to Seesmic Web when the hashtag was present, and only in the hashtag tweetstream.

Another odd fact is that the location data had nothing to do with where the actual person was physically located. I know this because location data for my own tweets appeared - see the next image.

Those are indeed  my tweets but I do not even know where "Basalt, QLD' is! I asked @johnalchin about his location (in the first image above he is shown as being at "near 354-360 George Street, Sydney", which is right in the centre of Sydney's CBD). He said he was actually out in the suburbs but that his "provider's wireless broadband has that as point". I did mention the phenomenon in the tweetstream but nobody else twigged, so I assume that I was the only person seeing this data in their browser.

It certainly is a mystery, and one that I do not know the answer to. If anyone who reads this post has the answer please leave a message explaining why this happened!

Wednesday 13 July 2011

I have been concentrating as a journalist on food for some time and as a result I have come across many stories that have caught my attention and made me think. Because I have been working on a story about a new tomato variety development project being carried out in a government-private partnership in Queensland I have come across a number of writings about tomatoes. This book is one of them.

Finding the book and reading more than half of it changed my approach to the story I am writing on the tomato development. Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland (2011) is a piece of investigative journalism on an unusual subject. It's also an unusual book in other ways. Estabrook is originally a food writer who has brought his writing skills to bear on a different angle of food: the way it is produced. He has written for such American food publications as Gourmet and Eating Well magazines. And his new book was brought out by a small publishing company - Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC - with offices in Kansas and Sydney! When I say that reading the book changed my way of thinking about my own project I don't mean to say that I have decided to write 150,000 words on the development of hybrid tomato varieties (although that would no doubt be a worthy project). But the book did alert me to a weakness inherent in writing stories that depend mainly on the input of the main players. So I decided to also talk with a company that markets heirloom seeds. Heirloom fruit are distinct from the modern hybrid varieties developed by multinational seed companies, in that they are the "original" varieties that our parents ate and that can be found possibly in some restaurants where the food culture has taken an alternative direction.

Heirloom tomatoes matter a lot to Estabrook. The book starts with the writer driving his car down an interstate highway in Florida. When he comes up behind a truck laden with green tomatoes he is concerned because some of the fruit bounce off the truck into the road. He gets out of the car to find the road littered with undamaged tomatoes. The rock-hard fruit have simply bounced to the roadside where they will eventually rot but their consistency forces the writer's mind to contemplate an unmistakeable fact of the modern food production system. It is designed to favour appearance over flavour.

Estabrook does not stop there. Up to where I have read in the book there are two things about tomato growing that incite the writer's alarm. One is a lack of safety in an industry that uses a lot of highly toxic chemicals for pest control and fertilisation. Florida's sandy soil is not an ideal medium to grow tomatoes in and growers compensate for this lack by applying a number of pesticides prior to planting seedlings and at other times during plant growth. The migrant workers who work in the paddocks do not understand in many cases how to interact with the chemicals, and in addition a casual attitude to worker safety means that exposure to potent chemicals happened frequently. In one case a number of pregnant women working on farms gave birth to deformed babies. Estabrook examines the reaction of the growers to the events. It is sad and enlightening.

Even more frightening are the slaves kept by crew bosses to work in the fields for almost no pay. Despite criminal investigations and convictions the trade in slaves continues. Tomatoes are farmed using labour made up of men and women brought into American by unscrupulous operators who intercept them as they cross the US border and place them in trucks for transport to Florida. There they are kept in unsantiary conditions and forced to pay off "loans" incurred, the bosses say, while bringing them to the States. When they try to escape they are beaten or killed. Estabrook relies to a significant degree on the testimony of men and women attached to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a local peak body with 4000 members. Most disturbing is the fact that growers know that slavery happens but do nothing about it. Weak laws mean that there is little incentive to disturb a system that supplies them with cheap and reliable labour. Workers' rights are not a major concern for private companies.

Immokalee is a small, poor town near the rich conurbation of Naples, Florida. As an Australian journalist Estabrook's stories are interesting for me but the paradigm probably does not easily transfer to this country. In Australia, there are low-paid workers picking fruit and vegetables, including backpackers, and certainly I think that there are good stories to be told about our own horticulture industry. But slavery? I doubt it. Then again, you never know. If I put in the hours needed to find out more about Australia's horticultural labour I might be surprised by what I discover.

Monday 11 July 2011

Although Australia's east coast has had some serious rain this year farmers are not so easily convinced that the tough times the drought brought with it are finished for good. This is part of what I took away from a blog post by Vana in the Wimmera about the times when it was really bad on the land. I was especially interested in part of what she wrote:
In the Wimmera not all of us experienced the kind of drought you might see on 60 minutes, because my kind of drought wasn’t so camera friendly. Mr  & Mrs Non Farma may not be able to recognise that the crop that just covers your ankles should be up to your waist when shown on TV! The media liked to portray starving stock and drifting soils on a barren landscape. We don’t run stock and because our farming practises are minimal tillage our soil didn’t drift as much as conventional methods.
I don’t blame the media for missing us out, I applaud the constant reporting they did of the drought and the subsequent recovery period which for many will be as long as the drought itself.
Surely it's true, as Vana says, that city folk have to get by on what they can glean from the nightly news. And that may not be the way the farmer herself experiences the drought. The drought brought heartache and pain to many people in rural Australia. For some rural residents, the drought also brought with it a bleak sense of occasion. For me, talking with such people delivered some sort of understanding beyond what the TV supplied.

In December 2007 I went down to Wagga Wagga in order to gather material for a story I planned to write. The story never got written but I spoke with Fay and a friend of hers for an hour or so and had a cup of coffee in the kitchen. I also took photos of the embroidery work they had made and intended to exhibit in Sydney. Ths work was the reason for my interest in the two women. The image below is one of their creations with needle, thread and cloth: a rendering of a news photo. (Click on image to see larger view.)

I say the drought created a sense of occasion because the photo this image is based on was taken by the media during a visit by John Howard, the prime minister, to Charles Sturt University, which has a campus in Wagga Wagga. I think the image embodies a dual threat - both within the lines of the cracked, grey earth as well as in the disembodied figure of the man (the PM) kicking up dust for the cameras and the accompanying media personnel gathered around him. The image says much about the curious relationship between the rural community and the government, which is it seems the only entity large enough to counterbalance the size and sheer overwhelming power of nature itself.

There is something of Vana's dark mood in this image, a brooding power that threatens life and renders up nothing more than a man kicking dirt, as if kicking dirt were enough to keep the farmer in food and petrol, clothing and school fees, insurance levies and mortgage payments and the hundred other things weighing on her mind at all times. The image is an interesting reflection of a dark time. When everything else goes wrong we turn to each other, whether it's a mate down at the pub for a chat on a social night or one of the big boys in Canberra who controls the nation's purse strings. Community has to be enough, sometimes.

Saturday 9 July 2011

You can hardly blame Rebekah Brooks' look of anxiety as her car is snapped by a photographer as she leaves her office. It's the kind of photo that's standard fare in tabloids like News of the World, the newspaper the company she manages - News International - owns and has now decided to shutter following shocking revelations of unethical and illegal practices used by its reporters to glean private information for stories by hacking into the mobile phone accounts of British individuals. Standard fare, indeed: the accused being transported to or from the courthouse and the airing of allegations that could destroy a person's reputation, reshape their life. It may come to that, the British prime minister says.

James Murdoch fronted staff at the newspaper to make the unexpected announcement - which included words that pointed a trembling finger at "wrongdoers" at the paper who will "have to face the consequences" - that the paper would close after the following Sunday's edition. But the firm hand of his father Rupert is discernible behind the move.

It's no great loss for the family. Newspapers account for only 13 percent of its revenues. Newspapers serve a purpose in that they let Murdoch influence politicians, public institutions and the public so that money can be made in abundance elsewhere, notably in television. Shutting down the NotW was, for Rupert Murdoch, nothing more or less than than a mercy killing. When you own racehorses and one breaks its leg there's only one thing to do. A sick horse can win no races. Then there's the pain to endure. Better for all concerned, if you ignore the paper's 200-odd staff who received the news that they would lose their jobs with a mixture of astonishment and shock.

In plain fact, the NotW had quickly become something of a liability because of the revelations. It's unwelcome high profile suddenly threatened to derail Murdoch's plan to purchase the 61 percent of British pay-TV broadcaster BSkyB that he didn't already own. Since the scandal broke, lawmakers have decided to push back a decision about the takeover until September. It is a decision that had been imminent.

As for what will happen to Brooks, former New South Wales premier Bob Carr thinks that she must eventually resign. Another view holds that Brooks is being kept at News International so that she can be sacrificed at a later date if circumstances take a worse turn as police and official investigations proceed and as further dirt emerges to stain the reputations of people close to the newspaper. Certainly Rupert Murdoch will be keen to protect the reputation of his son, James, and shielding him from anticipated attacks might just save him from any further shame rubbing off.

Whatever happens, Brooks does not have much to be happy about at this point in time especially since it has been announced by persons unknown that she will not take the helm at the planned Sun on Sunday paper that is being widely mooted to replace NotW, as far as we can credibly assert given the extent of present knowledge within the rapidly-evolving environment in which this astonishing story is unfolding. We have seen a short video clip showing Brooks admitting before a parliamentary enquiry that police had been paid by NotW for information. We have read that a previous NotW editor, Andy Coulson, has been arrested by police. And we have have learned that the prime minister is to launch two official enquiries - possibly with powers to compel people to answer questions - into both the police bribery and into press oversight in Britain.

Murdoch's media rivals globally are unlikely to let him off the hook easily, which guarantees extensive media coverage of the case at various points around the globe as events unfold in the UK. There are also those, such as the UK Opposition leader Ed Miliband, who are sure to maintain the pressure on News - in Miliband's case so that he can continue to score points against adversary Cameron, who has close links to Coulson and Brooks. Other politicians will be ready to snap at Murdoch's heels every time he enters the public sphere because of the resentment they feel about the power News papers have held.

It's a couple of months until summer emerges Down Under, and those involved in the multinational News franchise will see the season change before this drama has completely played itself out. The saga raises questions about how large media organisations operate and whether they can be sustainable. Clearly Murdoch has few friends with the current situation, and this prompts queries about the sustainability of a model of proprietorship where editorial tone and direction are driven from the very top. The elephant in the room being, of course, the amount of control that the octogenarian partiarch exercises over editorial decisions. Few who watch the media on a regular basis will have any doubts that this happens, despite public pronouncements from News management and the credible-seeming structures that have been put in place to deflect accusations of control over editorial.

The NotW case puts all of this into play in a dangerous way because it alters the power relations between actors involved in the routine drama of daily headlines and allegiances cemented in tony restaurants and executive boardrooms. Is this model of media ownership sustainable when things go awry somewhere else in the corporate structure? If the public is angry because you have stepped over the line of decency that they feel to be their due, and politicians are angry because they smell blood, and the authorities have become involved because laws have been repeatedly broken, and your enemies are energised by the opportunities you have suddenly handed them, can you continue to thrive within the system of laws, customs, and rhetorical devices that have kept the machine running for so long?

How much goodwill can a media owner rely on when the performers no longer collude in the (apparently) scripted web of relations that exist in the public sphere? The answer to that question explains the anxiety on Rebekah Brooks' face.

Friday 8 July 2011

The photo shows a man waiting at a Kenyan refugee camp for assistance while supporting his hungry children. The children are alive, at least for now, but the death toll mounts daily.

Prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa has forced hundreds of thousands of Somalis - already beleaguered by sectarian conflict inside their country - to leave home in search of food. After securing rides on trucks and in cars, or after walking hundreds of kilometres on foot, the displaced people arrive at camps in Ethiopia and Kenya where administrators are stretched to allocate resources, finding it difficult sometimes to process the refugees, who may receive little at first in the way of relief. The statistics are alarming.

Dadaab camp in northeastern Kenya, near the Somali border, now contains over 380,000 people and it was designed to accommodate 90,000. A UN spokesperson told America's CBS News that there were more deaths among arriving Somali children in the first quarter of 2011 than in all of 2010. Another UN worker said 54,000 people fled Somalia in June alone and 30,000 of them went to Dadaab, according to an AFP story, with 1,400 refugees arriving there daily. Voice of America says 61,000 people have come to Dadaab this year.

“When I was first there, in 1992, there were about 40,000 refugees in the transit camp,” said Kevin McCourt, CEO of CARE Canada. “By 1994 it had reached capacity. Now there are close to 400,000 people.”

The European Commission has sent $7 million to Dadaab in an effort to ease the crisis but there seems to be little in the short term that the developed world can do for the people affected by drought in Somalia unless humanitarian intake quotas set by elected governments are lifted. In the case of Somalia we have known for some time about the numbers of displaced persons. Sectarian conflict that is present in that country is also a factor determining the volume of people on the move. And it's not just in the Horn of Africa that numbers of displaced people have gone up in recent years. Pakistan, for example, hosts 1.9 million refugees or asylum-seekers inside its borders because it is located next door to Afghanistan, where the decade-long American war has displaced vast numbers of people.

What is true to say is that the 21,000 or so people arriving by boat on Australian shores in the past decade or so represents but a tiny fraction of the total number of displaced persons globally fleeing drought or armed conflict. The Toronto Star's Olivia Ward says that in 2010 "some 43.7 million people were forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution". With the current Horn of Africa crisis added to the inhuman mix, the number of displaced persons can only go one way.

Thursday 7 July 2011

When footage screened on the ABC's Four Corners on 30 May this year a palpable shiver spread through the Australian community. Images of manifest cruelty by Indonesian abattoir workers flashed across our screens. The footage was taken by animal welfare campaigners Animals Australia at 11 randomly-selected abattoirs in Indonesia, with spokespeople gaining unfettered access to see business-as-usual practices that would shock Australian TV viewers. The Labor government imposed a ban on live cattle exports to the featured abattoirs the next day. A week later it was announced that all live cattle exports from Australia would be stopped.

Over the succeeding weeks the sound emanating from the farm sector gradually rose in pitch to an audible scream and the websites of the rural news media filled with complaints from various bodies and political representatives close to producers. Minister for Agriculture Joe Ludwig came under siege as stocks of cattle built up in Northern Territory holding yards and one producer even threatened to start shooting cattle.

The Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association said it was "disappointed with the Federal Government's decision to temporarily suspend all live cattle exports to Indonesia", the Cattle Council of Australia said the ban would particularly hurt the Northern Territory, and LiveCorp said there would be a significant impact from the move. One cattleman shown addressing a government panel that included the prime minister, Julia Gillard, said the move was "bloody bullshit".

Yesterday when the live export ban was lifted by Minister Ludwig the National Farmers Federation released a statement jointly prepared along with the Meat & Livestock Australia, LiveCorp, Australian Livestock Exporters' Council, Cattle Council of Australia, WAFarmers, Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association, AgForce, Sheepmeat Council of Australia and the Goat Industry Council of Australia.

The industry welcomed the news, the statement said, it was "an important first step" and "the recommencement of the trade will be gradual to those supply chains that meet approved international standards".

"While ever volumes remain below normal levels producers in northern Australia will continue to suffer," the statement went on. There was no mention of the Indonesian abattoirs responsible for the cruelty to the cattle that had been shown suffering on TV. Keen not to upset important customers, the NFF and farmers generally remain mum on the root cause of the government ban on live exports. The statement went on to note that "the industry and Government must now work together with Indonesia to bring additional facilities up to international standards".

While Jakarta says it will still seek to import 500,000 head of cattle this year, the Ministry of Agriculture, Prabowo Caturroso, said the ban was "a hidden blessing" as the country is seeking to become self-sufficient in livestock for slaughter. The Minister also said "the number of imports will definitely go down". In Australia, federal Nationals leader Warren Truss said that "the Minister made the right decision initially, closing trade to 12 offending abattoirs and allowing trade to continue to those abattoirs with acceptable animal welfare standards".
Mr Truss said the decision offered hope but did not mean a full resumption of trade, with far fewer cattle to be processed due to the business disruptions of the past month, caused by the suspension.
It is striking that throughout this controversy the published comments of those close to cattle producers say nothing about the appalling conditions experienced by Australian animals being killed in Indonesian slaughterhouses. Time will now show whether the practical measures mandated by the federal government will be enough to ensure the safety and comfort of animals sent to Indonesia to be killed for meat.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Using the hashtag #agchatoz last night to tap into the tweetstream reflecting a part of rural Australia was instructive for me, a journalist who wants to write about rural issues. It's a regular gathering. Each Tuesday for two hours participants discuss issues surrounding a single theme and this week it was about youth on the land. It's a pressing question as most farmers are far older. As one participant framed it, "Regardless of farm size, the fact remains that our farmers are generally 60+ but provide 90% of our food. The next gen is critical."

But how to attract young people to the farm? Part of the problem, as I see it, is attracting the attention of the urban young to take up agricultural studies in many of the excellent universities in Australia with courses on offer that provide training and learning in these areas. What are young people in the city interested in? how to cut through, reach them? It appears to be a problem for farmers in Australia. I think one of the problems in this respect is the differences in the way farmers see themselves, and the way other sectors of Australia's population see them.

A way to view this is through the lens of the rural media, which for all intents and purposes runs a parallel course to the editorial desks of the major metropolitan news organisations. To get attention from the metro population farmers need to be depicted positively in the metro media. Unfortunately, they don't really seem to understand what metro dwellers care about and think about. A perfect example of this disconnect is available by contemplating the way that a personage such as Barnaby Joyce (pictured) is depicted in metro media - as a bit of a loon - and in the rural media - a serious participant in the public sphere. Not even the right-leaning papers in the metro areas give Barnaby air, unless it's to get an easy laugh.

Some of the tweestream participants urged rural industries to get urban dwellers involved through on-farm experience. There was talk of special courses at universities that cater to those wishing to take up agricultural studies. One or two people talked about Farmer of the Year as though it were something that an urban dweller gave a second's thought to during an average year. It's not, I'm sorry to say.

The truth is that most urban dwellers go to an agricultural show like the Royal Easter Show in Sydney once a year and never give a second thought to the countryside after that. If the rural sector gets into the news it's always via a negative story, for example the current fight against coalseam gas extractors. Or a flood. Or the furore over live cattle exports to Indonesia. As some of the tweetstream participants noted online, the positive stories just don't get a run in the metro press. How to broach the divide? Putting a segment about an urban farmstay family on the ABC's Landline is not the answer because metro media consumers do not watch the program, they watch Insiders early on Sunday mornings then go out to buy bagels and croissants for brunch.

One way to capture the attention of the urban middle class is to focus on something they think about, like sustainability. It may be anathema for the rural farm owner to give air to a Green issue but the fact is that the people living in the inner west of, say, Sydney pay attention when you talk about climate change. Farmers are better placed than any of those people to make a difference on climate change because so much land is controlled by farmers, and land can be used to store carbon away from the atmosphere. What about water? Seventy percent of the water we consume is used up on the farm, so it's a big issue for farmers too.

Another issue the metro droogs care about is natural produce. Inner city droogies buying direct from a farmer's market has become a significant income stream for many farmers based near the city. And city types think about where their food comes from: growing crops in the city is an expanding practice in many parts of the urban landscape. Selling direct to consumers without the involvement of the big two retail chains is another way that farmers can cut through and reach the urban consumer.

It's true that agriculture is a high-tech industry but unless people living in metro areas think about these things in a positive way there is little that farmers can do to counter the stuffy image that they possess in the minds of the city folk, who see rural Australia as right-wing, pro-monarchy, agrarian-socialist (always asking for the government to do things for them), and a bit quaint. Like butter dishes and crochet hooks. The rural press does farmers no favours by lambasting anything progressive like a carbon tax: those inner city types are responsible for the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate. It's pointless to let yourself to be seen as holding back the tide of natural social progress toward a more sustainable future when you are perfectly placed to contribute in a very meaningful way in the project of ensuring the future safety of the planet.

This is how urban folk think. And stewardship is a great way for farmers to engage with that urban constituency. It's a population full of intelligent, hard-working Australians eager to make a difference, strike out on an exciting journey toward a better future, and save humanity. Everyone has grandiose dreams when they're young. It's better to harness those dreams rather than pander to fear of change at any cost.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

So the time has come when the barbarians have crossed the threshold and are now firmly seated within the chamber. As of yesterday the Greens' enlarged contingent - nine Senators in total from the country's third party - took their places in the Senate. Their first order of business, The Australian reminds us, will be carbon tax legislation. The national broadsheet said that the "emboldened" party made an "audacious bid" to secure for itself the position of Senate President.

Right-wing flack Gerard Henderson leapt from the gate with an opinion piece comparing the Greens' success with the performance of two other challengers to Australia's entrenched two-party system: the Democratic Labor Party and the Australian Democrats. Henderson works for The Sydney Institute, a right-of-cantre think tank, and is frequently to be seen growling menacingly on the ABC's Insiders program. He's an old hand at this sort of thing, but Bob Brown's claim that the Greens would supplant Labor in the future holds enough water to dampen Henderson's enthusiasm in this case. The fact is that the Right in Australia is struggling with the ascendancy of the Greens.

Labor is staying mum at the moment. A week ago, on the ABC's Q&A program, Labor's Anthony Albanese sat next to the Greens' Adam Bandt on the panel and the two were on their best behaviour. Albanese at one point carefully deflected a call to attack the ruling party's coalition partner. It was an interesting performance, and an instructive one.

But then here comes Henderson accusing the Greens of "hubris" - raising the sickle at the stand of tall poppies that have miraculously sprouted in the fecund field of Australian politics post-Rudd - and threatening the emerging party with doom. The DLP and the Democrats faded fast, he reminds us. The Greens need no reminding but you can hardly blame leader Bob Brown for crowing a little. Following Rudd's disastrous backdown on the issue of carbon pricing, the result in last year's federal election must have felt good to the 66-year-old environmental veteran. It's been a long road. Finally there appears to be the promise of movement on the climate front and, since Senators hold office for six years, little chance of the Coalition repealing any carbon price legislation once it has been passed by Parliament.

Friday 1 July 2011

Soil is a good place to store carbon. Or at least agricultural land is a good place to store carbon. Not only does Australia have a lot of it, but we have a history of using farmland to sequester carbon starting with negotiations surrounding the Kyoto protocol which led to an easy-to-meet target that was entirely met by reducing land clearances across the continent.

Now there's legislation about to be introduced that allows farmers to offset costs associated with the planned carbon tax - rises in fuel and fertiliser prices, for example - which is tied to a plan called the Carbon Farming Initiative. Farmers are starting to pay attention to how they will be allowed to help mitigate climate change (despite a high level of scepticism in the bush about the cause of global warming).

The NSW Department of Primary Industries is kicking off the process of understanding just how this can be done by asking  farmers to place tenders for work they will conduct on their farms in order to study carbon sequestration. This work is essential for the purpose of learning how our farmers should in future be paid by the government for any carbon storage efforts they conduct on their farms.

The project is restricted to a small area in central NSW to the west of the town of Orange. It is being led by NSW DPI which has a long track record of sequestration research that includes looking at how biochar can store carbon in the soil. The current project needs at least 30 farmers to be involved so that it can begin. Farmers are being asked to put in tenders stating how much their work - to be conducted over a period of years - will cost the NSW government. Tenders will be run by the Lachlan Catchment Management Authority and paid for by NSW DPI.
Farmers will be paid for land use changes that sequester soil carbon. Such changes would include reducing cultivation, sowing permanent pastures or planting trees.
There's no mention of biochar in the story but I expect that NSW DPI will be anticipating some work done using this carbon sequestration method. If not, maybe they can suggest it to some of the participating farmers. Use of biochar in trials at NSW DPI's Wollongbar Research Station further north in the state have been going on for years. The main problem with it at the moment appears to be the high application rate required to achieve soil amelioration and also a shortage of available supplies. Biochar is made by burning organic matter in an oxygen-depleted environment at high temperatures, so the carbon it contains is 'fixed' and does not escape into the atmosphere through decomposition. It is an ideal storage method, but appears at the moment to be a bit dear.

I have written about biochar before and it's something that interests me as it possesses a dual efficacy: not only does it sequester carbon away from the atmosphere it also helps build soil structure. Soil structure is essential for healthy soil and for improving water use. We'll see how the NSW DPI and its collaborators go with this new project, if they get some biochar action happening, and whether they get a solid take-up from local farmers in the Orange area.