Wednesday 29 February 2012

World War Two radicalised Aussie nature writer

Archer Russell as featured in
Australian magazine 'Progress'
I spent most of last week at the library in Sydney poring over boxes of material left after the death, in 1960, of Australian nature writer and journalist Archer Russell. What I took away is a sense of how war can be "formative" for a person exposed to it. But I took away another idea, which I explore in this blog post.

In Russell's history, the 1930s were spent in the employ of the Sydney Morning Herald, which is, still today, a legacy broadsheet that has claims to national relevance. Back in those days, publishers Fairfax produced a weekly journal in addition to the regular daily SMH, and it was called The Sydney Mail. It was distributed throughout New South Wales, Australia's most populous state. One section of the paper was 'Outdoor Australia' and it appears to me that Russell was the editor of this page. Among his papers there are many letters sent by NSW readers to the editor of the page.

Russell's editorial contribution to the Fairfax stable of mastheads went further than this, however. There is one letter among his papers from a 16-year-old girl living in the southern NSW town of Leeton thanking him for a booklet she had read titled Birds: The Adventure of Living. There is a copy of this booklet, which was published by Fairfax, in the library, and the database entry has it down as published in 1939, possibly due to this girl's letter having a date in that year. Born in 1881, Russell was about 58 when this booklet appeared and he had spent a lot of his life as an adult writing about wildlife. His efforts in this vein seem to have started in 1918 with stories placed with Adelaide publication the Saturday Journal. In 1919, when he was about 38, his first book (as far as I can ascertain) appears, titled Wild Life in Bush Land, but the second book didn't come out until 1930 (I haven't got a copy yet). Meanwhile, Russell was writing journalism about his travels in the Australian outback for a number of magazines and newspapers. And he was gravitating toward Sydney.

The 1940s demonstrate a change in Russell's output. Just as World War One had launched him on his career of nature writing - he had been an ambulance driver but ended up recuperating from injuries in a small English country town near London, which gave him easy access to parks and forest land - the Second World War radicalised him. Having experienced war in a very personal fashion, Russell quickly chose sides when the fascist threat loomed in Europe. His pamphlet, The Truth About Spain, was published by Communist-affiliated outfit Current Book Distributors, in Sydney, in 1945. It deals with the Spanish Civil War. Just as Russell had lambasted the "get-rich-quick maniac" for ignoring the beauties and inherent value of the natural world, in the forword to his first book, here he attacks the Roman Catholic clergy and (what he calls) "Big Business" for supporting the Right in the bloody and divisive war that served as a prelude to an even larger conflagration that took so many more young lives.

The image accompanying this blog post shows a photograph reproduced in the radical magazine, Progress. The photo was taken at about this time in Russell's life. I think the cast of his head and the upward gaze, to the left, illustrates his new approach to participation in the public sphere. At the same time, Russell was publishing numerous stories, including book reviews, in the Tribune, a Communist newspaper based in Sydney. There are clippings in the library collection from this newspaper. But it did not exclusively define the circle of his interests. In 1949 appeared Russell's biography of Australian agronomist, William James Farrer. Then in 1953 appeared Murray Walkabout, yet another book about nature, and travelling on foot in the midst of nature. So the two strands of his preoccupation with progressive ideals continued, but not in parallel.

I think there is an essential connection between Russell's interest in the Left and his interest in the natural world. He knew from an early stage in his career, post-WWI, that he was different from the run-of-the-mill. His love of nature set him apart, and it was but a small step beyond this preoccupation that transported him into the realms of the radical Left. And both strands of his career find their origins in war. Whether this is of interest to anyone, apart from me, I wonder. But I think it says something about the Left in Australia today, just as it did in Russell's day. If you have any views on this conclusion, please leave a comment.

Saturday 25 February 2012

We should all support Occupy Sydney's legal protest

Glenn Wall this morning at Occupy Sydney
in Martin Place
As an interstate tourist I take an interest in what happens outside business hours in the central business district (CBD). I arrived in Sydney last Saturday and got up early on Sunday morning because I had to do some work on a story. There's not much in the way of food shops where my hotel is, so I tramped down Martin Place to George Street where there's a McDonald's restaurant. On the way down the plaza I passed the Occupy Sydney people, some of them asleep on the pavement, and also a group of young people who had spilled out from one of the two nightclubs that are situated on the corner of Elizabeth Street. Then crossing the street I felt something hit my back. I turned around to see two young men looking in my direction. One of them had thrown a cigarette lighter at me as I crossed the road, and it had hit me fair and square. I didn't talk to them and I didn't stop because they were both younger than me and had probably been drinking alcohol all night.

Since then, I've stopped several times to chat with the Occupy Sydney people, including Glenn, shown in the picture, as well as with Lance and Lily. They are delightful people. They're always ready to have a chat and share a carton of chocolate milk from the convenience store down the street. They don't drink until all hours. And they don't throw cigarette lighters at the backs of passing strangers, just for kicks. Why the police are giving the Occupy Sydney people a hard time is beyond me, harmless and peaceful as they are. And they're protesting legally, so requests from the police for the to "move on" are unwarranted and illegal. Glenn told me that police harrassment has lessened in the last week. But many of these people have had to go to court to fight charges laid against them by a police force seemingly ignorant of the way the law works in Australia.

I sent an email to the Sydney City Council on Sunday morning making the comparison I have also made here - between the Occupy Sydney people who have been demonised in the Murdoch press, and the apparently respectable young people who frequent Sydney city nightclubs - but I received no reply. Clearly my experience is an embarrassment for the city authorities, but it's a tale they should heed because to continue to harrass Occupy Sydney is going to turn out to be a losing proposition. There are a mere handful of souls who regularly appear, Glenn told me, numbering about 20. Others have backed away due to the police visiting their workplaces and talking with their employers, Glenn told me.

The dedication and commitment shown by the people who comprise Occupy Sydney is salutary. Their willingness to endure discomfort and harrassment, to have lies told about them in the right-wing press, and to put up with disparaging comments made by some members of the passing public, are worth keeping in mind. Political protest is legal in Australia. And for good reason. The fight Occupy Sydney is fighting is a fight that all of us have an interest in.

Friday 17 February 2012

Book review: V.S. Naipaul, Beyond Belief (1998)

The subtitle for this book, 'Islamic excursions among the coverted peoples', illustrates the long, historical view that interests Naipaul. In the book's introduction he starts out by talking about the book that preceded this one, which is titled Among the Believers and which was published in 1981, and how comments he received from people about it made him determine to revisit the same countries that were covered in it, and write about them again because "[i]t occurred to me that I had not stood back sufficiently from the material of the earlier book". It must be true also to say that a long, historical view will colour any reader's experience of the second book as we look back, from 2012, past the events of 2005 (London tubes), 2002 (Sari Club, Bali) and 2001 (Twin Towers) to a time and place where it was still possible for a peripatetic British writer of Indian extraction who was born in the West Indies, to go out into the cities and the countryside of Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan, and write about society under the influence of Islam from the perspective merely of a curious outsider. In that sense, Beyond Belief is an under-appreciated little gem. It could not be written today. Or, at least, it could not be written today in the way it was written starting in 1995 when the author set out on his long journey.

Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in 2001. This fact, alone, should help to convince many people to revisit this book. But requirements are odious to dedicated booklovers, those who prefer to wander without a goal among the flowers that bloom on every side in an enlarged literary space, thanks to globalisation. For these people, I think it would be better to remark on the brilliance of Naipaul's craft in this long piece of literary journalism (or creative non-fiction, if you prefer). Here he is setting out with his driver and his translator into the dusty streets of another small town, with his bag and his intense curiosity. Here he is sitting for hours listening to a father or a businessman talking about his life, his past, his family, his forbears, his aspirations. Here he is taking notes while sitting on an uncomfortable chair in a hot, stuffy room. Here he is, back at the hotel, transcribing his detailed notes and writing some of the best journalism you will find anywhere in the world.

As Naipaul listens to his interviewees he thinks, he uses his judgement. This faculty comes into play even more strongly once he is back at the hotel, writing up the latest piece. The Islamicisation that he observes changing the lives of the people he meets in Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan makes him ponder the nature of progress and aspiration, because it is deeply associated with these two elements of the social dynamic. While some might judge Naipaul himself a little severely because of his tough regard, at least he is consistent. No man, not even a leading author of prose, can be expected to possess the wisdom to see how strangers understand the world. Nevertheless, the intensity of Naipaul's gaze enables us to grasp, perhaps, things that the author himself failed to comprehend.

The way that the Western media, today, sees events in Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan is not so far distant from how Naipaul sees them and talks about them in this book. Mixed with curiosity there is a kind of amazement, and mixed with that is a kind of disgust. But while we may regret Islamicisation it is clear that it serves a very real purpose for residents of these countries. Naipaul's achievement is to include enough detail in his journalism so that we may make up our own minds about Islamicisation. In the very-long form, only, are we provided with the means to do this, and Naipaul's very long piece of literary journalism is for this reason a superb addition to anyone's library, and comes highly recommended from me. This time, I think it's fair to say, Naipaul has "stood back" sufficiently far to enable the reader to take in the very broadest view of the countries he covers in the book.

Thursday 16 February 2012

In Australia, the fuel-from-algae business is booming

Here's a green growth sector if ever there was one: fuel from algae. The three companies previewed in this post are developing technologies, and building plants using those technologies in Australia. They also have something else in common: links with the USA. Australia appears to be an ideal place to develop scale in this sector of the energy industry due to an abundance of sunlight and the existence of numerous carbon-emitting industrial plants.

The basic premise of fuel-from-algae is, according to some in the industry, a speeded-up version of the way fossil fuels were delivered to us in the first place. Instead of taking millions of years for algae to turn CO2 into fuel, however, the new industrial CO2-to-algae process takes just days, and there's no drilling involved. Each of the companies I look at here has a different method of growing algae. Algae.Tec (Perth, Atlanta) uses a modular, enclosed system to grow algae, based on the design of shipping containers. MBD Energy (Melbourne, California) uses a system of enclosed trenches filled with water to grow algae. Aurora Algae (Perth, California) uses open ponds and seawater to grow algae. No doubt there are other differences, for example in the species of algae each uses. I don't know. What they have in common, however, is a business strategy where you take emissions from industrial plants, expose these emissions to algae which then grow, and finally extract useful oils (and other byproducts) from the algae after a few days' growth.

MBD Energy CEO Andrew Lawson says that one of his company's algae-to-fuel plants would convert "up to 50 percent" of an industrial plant's CO2 emissions. He says that 1 million tonnes of CO2 would translate into sales of $250 million in downstream products.

Investors are showing interest. Algae.Tec has listed its stock on exchanges in Sydney, New York and Frankfurt. MBD Energy, a private company, has attracted investment from Anglo-American, a mining company, and the Sentient group, a private equity investment firm specialising in the resources industry. Aurora Algae is privately held and has attracted American venture capital funding. And commercial plants are coming onstream.

Algae.Tec is moving ahead with a trial plant in Sri Lanka next door to a cement plant operated by Holcim. The company has also signed an MoU with Shandong Kerui Group Holding Ltd in China to form a 50/50 joint venture with a view to building a commercial plant. Algae.Tec is building a demonstration plant next to a Manildra facility in Nowra, a town in the Australian state of New South Wales. And the company has signed an MoU with German airline Lufthansa for algae-based jet fuel trials.

MBD Energy has operated a demonstration plant at James Cook University in Townsville for five years and its first commercial algae-to-fuel plant is being constructed a Tarong Power Station at Nanango, a town in the state of Queensland. Executives have also spoken about replicating the scheme at other power stations in Australia that rely on coal for fuel: Louyang in Victoria and Eraring in New South Wales. Together, says Lawson, the three plants represent "more than 20 percent of coal-fired power generation in Australia".

Aurora Algae is building a plant in Karratha, Western Australia, a town which is home to a large number of industrial plants.

MBD Energy's relative success in building its business inside Australia possibly reflects the fact that it retains on staff a number of people who have come to it from the heavy industry sector, including chairman Jerry Ellis, who used to be chairman of BHP. Executive director Enrico Bombardieri has worked in the energy sector in Australia for many years. And Robin Batterham AO joined the board as a non-executive director this year; Batterham has worked at Rio Tinto and Comalco in research positions.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Faceless men orchestrate a fresh leadership coup

At first it was only News Ltd newspapers that possessed an animus against Julia Gillard. Its editors believed that, due to the close result of 2010's federal election, which delivered a hung parliament, her cobbled-together hybrid government was, somehow, illegitimate. Australia is not used to these sort of coalitions of non-aligned parties. Novelty is scary, folks. There were "concerns" in the community, we were told by executives when they were asked to comment publicly on the position that their editors had manifestly adopted in their stories.

This low-level harassment by the faceless men of the media of the Right - hiding behind their bylines and their 'right to know' - was irritating, but not deadly. Then about two weeks ago Fairfax newspapers - the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age - amplified a few Labor Party backbench mutterings into a few more stories and so joined the chorus that had been coming from its profitable rivals. Those mutterings were unquestionably a reflection of voter comments that had been spurred on by News Ltd jibes and swipes, but they had their effect. The upshot came on Monday when the ABC's 4 Corners program aired a detailed expose of just what happened, back in mid-2010, in the days leading up to the ouster of Kevin Rudd, and the installment of Gillard as party leader.

This self-reinforcing cycle of claim and counter-claim in the media has started to bear real fruit, and it's a poisoned apple rather than the fruit of real wisdom. Today's SMH story, 'Gillard used polling to trigger coup', basically calls the prime minister a liar because on 4 Corners she had said she didn't recall specific polling being used to convince Labor Party representatives, in mid-2010, to drop Rudd and back her. Gillard had been plotting for "days", we have now been told, whereas she has always claimed that her decision to move on Rudd was taken on the day of the coup, and not before.

It's all very Machiavellian and dingy, dim and damning, with all those faceless men of Labor now creeping out of their lairs to talk with the faceless men of the media, hanging about in the halls of parliament, about what might have happened on a few days, back in mid-2010, before the political execution of "the king" (Fairfax's rueful monika for Rudd today). On the other side of politics, Tony Abbott, the Coalition leader, is very quiet these days, because there's really nothing for him to do. The media are doing his work for him.

Not only is Gillard labelled a "liar" but the public is breathlessly witness to the construction of a new assassination as Labor Party pollies gather round the crusading reporters and whisper dark things "on a background basis" - meaning that their true identities cannot be disclosed, in order to protect them from embarrassment as a source - and so undermine the credibility of the entire party by their disloyalty. No wonder Abbott is silent. Labor is publicly imploding and all the dross from its disintegration is sticking to Gillard.

The media know a good thing when they are on it, and sliding revenues have turned out to be a fantastic motivator. In the ABC's case, former weekday evening current affairs anchor Kerry O'Brien in his new role with 4 Corners is demonstrating that the old dog can still turn a trick or two, therefore reserving a few new eyeballs for Aunty, and showing that you can't take the fight out of a journo even if you take the journo away from the daily combat of the on-air Canberra cross.

It's all theatre, and we're part of the process. But it has a serious side as well. All this disloyalty promises a federal election result in 2013 that could see Labor out on its ear. Just as happened in New South Wales, where the backroom dealings, hyper poll-awareness, and factional restlessness resulted in an electoral trouncing of epic proportions, last year.

Sunday 12 February 2012

NY Times ignores WWII Townsville black mutiny story

The New York Times holds a particular place in the English-speaking world. Especially for Americans, it is the "newspaper of record", which means that the paper (confides that it) feels an obligation to cover every newsworthy story that occurs in the world on a given day. It has a reputation for being (what Americans call) "liberal", as does the UK's Guardian, another news vehicle with a special profile in the English-speaking world. Both papers stand out in these two respects, which makes it rather surprising that neither covered the biggest story with a US angle to come out of Australia for many weeks, if not months. I mean, of course, reports of a mutiny by African-American soldiers in 1942 at Townsville that were unearthed by a history researcher named Ray Holyoak and which became public when the story appeared on the ABC's AM radio program on Friday. Among US media organisations, the Voice of America covered the story but it is an outwardly-aimed service that broadcasts in markets without the US. In Australia, Fairfax broadsheet website the Brisbane Times rushed to pick up coverage by Saturday and Rupert Murdoch's Australian did likewise. But in the US there has been a curious silence.

It's hard to account for this silence. When floods inundated large parts of Queensland in January 2011 the New York Times was on the story quickly and had soon posted a link on the top page of its website. It did the same when Australia elected Julia Gillard prime minister in 2010. Both stories are newsworthy although neither has a US angle. For the paper to disregard the Holyoak story is exceptionally strange as it has a strong US angle, involves a dead president (Lyndon Johnson), and concerns the type of clear injustice that the paper usually responds to positively in providing coverage of events overseas.

If anyone has a clue why this story has been ignored by the New York Times, I'd be interested in hearing about it, so leave a comment if you are inclined.

Thursday 9 February 2012

The Global Mail so far delivers on its early promises

First mooted in the middle of last year, The Global Mail is now up and delivering quality journalism for free, with an Australian perspective. The stories are longer than those that are normally found in the mainstream media, and for this reason there's the "luxury" of its journalists getting more viewpoints per topic, leading to a broader coverage of any issue and more in-depth reporting. As editor in chief Monica Attard recently said:
We’re taking a step back from the breathless, 24/7 news cycle to think, research, inform, provoke and entertain, gloriously unfettered by commercial and other pressures that conventionally shape news and current affairs.
And this, apart from the new vehicle's boast of its aim to deliver "quality, non-partisan, uncompromising and fearlessly independent journalism for independent minds" - a bit of marketing guff that appears to flatter its intended audience while at the same time talking up its own sense of professionalism - is the crux of the matter. Because it's the "breathless, 24/7 news cycle" that leads to what many people in Australia consider to be the mainstream's weakness.

For a start there's a fair amount of casual, and enduring, talk of staff cuts at commercial news organisations leading to fewer hours available to dedicate to any one story. Well, this is a truth. As the quantum of money exits news companies, and the quantum of available scribes - generated by the many journalism schools operating in Australia - shifts to communications departments and public relations outfits, the quantum of text available in the public sphere that is produced as journalism goes down.

The other thing that's worth saying is that the "commercial pressures" that "conventionally shape news" are also real. The need to generate revenue impacts on the journalist's (and the editor's) work because revenue on websites is still generated through traffic. To get traffic you need clicks. To get clicks you need to provoke interest. To do this you need to write (especially) your headline so that it is as "sensational" as possible and this tendency will also affect how the story is written, and what questions are asked of the politician, academic, or other interviewee. And how many angles for any story can a journo on deadline reasonably cover? The forces of commerce run up and down the links in the news chain like electricity, causing it to warp and bend in strange ways. Writers and editors at The Global Mail think that their - more leisurely, less "breathless" - approach can ensure that the product they deliver retains its "truer" shape.

Commercial pressures also impact on story selection, with the low-hanging fruit more likely to be handled because it takes less effort to get at them. This keys in with the idea that the quantum of writing is shifting toward communications professionals, with thousands of these people producing pre-made material aimed at attracting the attention of overworked journalists in the mainstream.

Aspiring to truth in journalism must be a good thing. As I discussed on the last day of last year, however, achieving such a product requires that certain key things be in place. In my view, those preconditions are in place at The Global Mail. The most critical being 'Time'. Another critical element that I talked about in my post, 'Editorial relationships', is moot because we're talking about an integrated newsroom and my viewpoint when writing that post was coloured by the fact that I'm a freelancer. Being a freelancer is a good thing for journalism because you easily avoid any groupthink, any editorial line that can begin to cohere in a newsroom, because you have your own priorities and interests that are independent of those of the masthead that ultimately publishes the work.

But reading a Global Mail story is a satisfying experience, despite a few subediting hiccoughs of the type that you would anyway see in mainstream media stories. Predictable and, in my view, trivial objections to the user interface are of little concern or interest. What's important is that The Global Mail continue to adhere to its founding principles. The expansiveness you sense in Attard's description of the outfit's happy predicament as one that is "gloriously unfettered" must, somehow, remain relevant and accurate. And so it will also be important for the outfit to find sources of funding beyond those so far promised by seed funder Graeme Wood, of Wotif fame. This will be the work of the outfit's board and top editors. Go and read about them, it's worthwhile.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Did Jane Austen embed a puzzle in Mansfield Park?

Some readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of Jane Austen and especially of her third published novel Mansfield Park. This novel came out in 1814 after the first two books, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, which Austen had written a fair bit earlier and then rewrote around this time. So in a way MP was the first book of Austen's mature phase of writing. I spent a lot of time about a decade ago reading Austen, and reading around Austen, which led to a bit of knowledge of the political and social milieu within which she - and her parents' generation - lived and died.

So of couse I knew about Mary Wollstonecraft. This meant that when I met Mary on Twitter (ah, the wonders of modern technology!) we began to exchange ideas and then Mary introduced me to Arnie Perlstein, a man who loves books too and spends time investigating literary puzzles. So this blog post is about a literary puzzle I found in MP all those years ago, but had not yet aired in public. Arnie suggested I write about it so that he could add his views to the debate. If you have any views on this, please leave a comment.

In MP, the unworthy specimen who is Rushworth gets a part in a play that the young people at the country home, Mansfield Park, decide to stage for their own enjoyment while the head of the household, Sir Thomas Bertram, is away looking after his interests in the West Indies. And Rushworth keeps reminding us of the fact. In fact, he reminds us all the time. Not only that but he keeps on telling us that he's got 42 lines to remember - a bit much for the poor sap's limited cranial capacity I would have imagined. But the point is that every few pages Rushworth pops into the narrative and lets us know, again, that he's got 42 lines to memorise.

Right. So, the next thing is: why? Why does Austen make this point so often? Is it just to remind us of the fact that Rushworth is, indeed, an unworthy specimen who probably has trouble remembering his own name when he comes into contact with a fellow member of the human species? Maybe. Or else she's making a point about the number 42. What does the number 42 have to do with Fanny's future, her story? Fanny is, after all, the hero of Austen's masterpiece.

Well, you have to go to Fanny's cold little room to find out. There are three books there. One is an account of the visit to China of England's first diplomatic delegation to the kingdom. There is also a collection of poetry by George Crabbe, who was one of Austen's favourite authors. And there is a collection of issues of the Idler, a periodical that was written for the most part by Samuel Johnson, another of Austen's favourites. If you look in detail at the three, the one that stands out in regard to the number 42 is the Idler. Number 42 was published on Saturday, February 1759 and is signed 'Perdita'.

This issue of the magazine is a reader offering and it talks about the problems a young, marrigeable woman has with her unpleasant father, with whom she lives in a small village in England. 'Perdita' says her topic is "the snares that the bad behaviour of parents extends over the paths of life which their children are to tread after them", one of which is the tendency of parents in England at the time to 'market' their childrens' virtues with a view to an advantageous (economically speaking) marriage. It is this, mostly, that 'Perdita' regrets and in her convoluted (to us) Augustan prose she details her miseries.

The analog in the novel is clear, if not a perfect fit. Not so much Sir Thomas but, instead, his wife's sister, who lives in the large house, Mrs Norris, has an eye to 'marketing' the virtues of Sir Thomas' two daughters among the tribe of eligible bachelors who live nearby. The most eligible of them all, of course, due to his immense personal wealth, is Rushworth. Those who know the novel will know that Rushworth is designed to marry Maria, Sir Thomas' eldest daughter. But the picture is complicated when two strangers arrive in the area. Henry and Mary Crawford are more urbane and knowledgeable than the bumpkin-ish Bertrams. It is their idea to stage a play. To do so they are forced to move Sir Thomas billiard table to make way for a stage and auditorium.

Billiards is a game in which you hit a ball with a cue. Sometimes, you hit a ball with a design to hitting another one so that you can sink it into a pocket. Taking this as a cue, let's look at the name 'Perdita' and see if this can take us further in our quest. The name is indeed famous in English letters because it's the name of the heroine of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale.

Perdita is the lost child in Shakespeare's late play. The play has, furthermore, for a long time been thought of as an allegory encapsulating the lives of Elizabeth Tudor, who would become Elizabeth I, and Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In the play, Perdita is sent into exile in Illyria because Leontes, the King of Sicilia, believes that his wife has been unfaithful to him, and that had led to his wife, Hermione, giving birth to the girl child. So Perdita is raised by shepherds but returns to Sicilia as a young woman, whereupon Hermione comes "back to life" and Leontes repents for his malfeasance. So in a way the play sets right the life of the infamous Henry VIII, and gives back legitimacy to his first wife, also sparing young Elizabeth much of the unease she experienced in her early life due to the complexities of the succession and the counter-Reformation.

In the end, in Austen's novel, it's Fanny who returns, after the hardships brought on by the injection of the Crawfords into the Bertram household - especially given Sir Thomas' absence overseas - and it's Fanny who restores peace to this small world in the face of discord and unease. So there's the analog with Shakespeare's play. Rushworth's "42" leads to the Idler, which leads to A Winter's Tale. All along the chain of reactions that Austen sets off in the novel we are dealing with the hardships of young women in societies that offer them so few options beyond marriage. There's also the themes of loss and redemption - the second often only available through art.

This little puzzle is, I believe, a stunning tour de force of literary subterfuge. It's had critics snookered for centuries. Until now!

Friday 3 February 2012

Think-tank flack Ian Hanke comes to Rinehart's aid


"Ian, it's Trevor Bleach. Yes, mate, I know. It's been a while. Yep. Yep. Haha, no worries mate. Listen, just giving you a quick bell to ask if you're good for a column on this clown Hamilton's take on Gina's move on Fairfax. Thought so. Yeah, it looks pretty bad, I know, Ian. But don't worry, just slam the bastard. Don't worry about facts. No. Nah. Nah. Yep, that's it. Make 'em look like stuck-up fuckin' snobs. Which they are, of course, yeah I know. Out of touch with middle Australia. No don't say unAustralian, that's too big a target. And talk about alternative views. Yeah, good one. I like that, "conspiracy", beaut. Fantastic. Yeah, just really nail their asses and talk about the share price. But don't talk about Gina wanting to shift the debate to the right, no. No. No. Let them carry on about that, the punters'll never twig. Just slam 'em. Right. See ya mate."

I imagined a telephone conversation in this vein when this morning I read the dishonest opinion piece published in The Age, by Ian Hanke, director of communications and strategy for the H. R. Nicholls Society. This body was singled out as a right-wing think-tank by op-ed writers from the other side of the political spectrum, and held up as proof that Rinehart associates with people whose views are not, at all, representative of middle Australia. So it's a defensive attack on the Left, Hanke's piece, and it verily drips vitriol.

Hanke knows that most readers are not as knowledgeable about the way the media works in society, as he is. So he first of all sets up a few straw men. "Look," he says to his readers, "the guys on the Left say Rinehart is a 'right-wing ogre' who is going to 'tear down society'."

Well, no, Ian. That's not at all what the Left is saying. What they're saying is that if Rinehart starts to change the editorial position at Fairfax then all of Australia's metropolitan newspapers will be writing from the Right. Rupert Murdoch already owns 70 percent of this sector, and Murdoch demonstrably and aggressively operates on the Right. In fact, Murdoch's ploy - to use his loss-leading newspapers to influence public policy to favour his profitable TV assets - is exactly the one that Rinehart desires to action in her own interests. For the benefit of the Australian mining industry. This is precisely the reason Rinehart has bought such a large stake in Fairfax Media.

People on the Left already complain that the ABC is shifting too far to the Right, because there are people like Gerard Henderson, from right-wing think-tank The Sydney Institute, regularly attacking the ABC with claims that it's not representative of middle Australia, and is too far to the Left. In fact, with Murdoch's editors working ever more assiduously to promote right-wing views, the entire spectrum of Australian media is being dragged to the Right. Outlets like Fairfax and the ABC, which are centrist, appear to be on the Left because of this deliberately distorting effect orchestrated from the Right by editors at Murdoch tabloids and The Australian.

Hanke also drags out the victim card and plays it endlessly. There's the "orthodoxy" of the latte set, the chardonnay-sipping know-alls in Newtown and Glebe. Can't have "alternative views" can we? asks Hanke. So climate change scepticism is the birthright of those on the Right, regardless of the overwhelming consensus among - not the latte set, but - scientists all the world over. It's not just the latte set who think that climate change is man-made, it's 99 percent of the world's scientists. Giving equal weight to the remaining one percent is balanced, representative? Ian, mate, I don't think so.

But you don't care what I think, do you Ian. All you care about is making the majority of Australians doubt whether the truth that's being told about Rinehart is real, or not. Well, it's real.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Journos go prospecting for insights on the Rinefax

If you ever wanted proof of the continued relevance of the mainstream media, the acquisition of 12 percent of Fairfax Media's shares by mining magnate Gina Rinehart should convince you. There seems little doubt that Rinehart's move is motivated by a desire to influence government policy by working on the opinions of people living in the big cities of Australia's south-east. Fairfax operates two broadsheets here, the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age, among a large number of other media properties.

Since the announcement of the share buy yesterday, these newspapers have published several analyses. You only have to watch the video, featuring the Herald's senior business columnist Adele Ferguson, to get the gist. "There's a lot going on in terms of the mining tax, and the carbon tax," says Ferguson. "And she wants to make sure, given she owns some of the biggest iron ore tenements, that nothing goes wrong in that space."

She goes on to talk about Rinehart's low opinion of journalists, who in Rinehart's mind are "very left-wing", according to Ferguson. "There are a few journalists who she really respects, one of whom is Andrew Bolt," says Ferguson. "Another one is Alan Jones. They are the two people that stand out for her. Just about everybody else, she thinks, are too left-wing and really don't understand the need to push mining forward and give it tax breaks."

In The Age we have a piece by Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra who stood as a candidate for the Greens in a byelection in the federal seat of Higgins in 2009. Hamilton is equally blunt, saying that "If Gina Rinehart succeeds in getting a controlling interest in Fairfax Media ... the nation's political landscape will be changed." He goes on to list a slew of Rinehart's eminently regrettable policy foibles that reflect views evidently of long duration, since she "dropped out of the University of Sydney claiming the lecturers were communists". Hamilton gives us the names of those she trusts, and they echo ones included by Ferguson: Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones and Ray Hadley and Christopher Monckton and Ian Plimer and Hugh Morgan.
Hugh Morgan is prominent in [a lobby group Rinehart created, Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision]. Morgan used to run Western Mining Corporation, but his enduring legacy is a series of right-wing groups he established or supported, including the H.R. Nicholls Society, which is dedicated to attacking trade unionism and expanding the power of employers.
Since taking a stake in Channel Ten, Rinehart has promoted a TV show for Andrew Bolt and she helped fund Monckton's Australian tour last year. She has used her money to advance her ideological interests and policy preferences. There is no reason why we should imagine that she will not try to do the same in the case of Fairfax.

But investigative journalist Paul Barry says that such fears are at least premature. He was interviewed on the radio by Eleanor Hall for the ABC's The World Today:
She'll definitely get a board position if she has 15 per cent. Whether that will allow her to dictate the policies of the paper I very much doubt, because it's not enough to control the paper. It's got a tradition of independence. It's got a very antsy staff, basically, and I think that she'll find that 15 per cent doesn't buy her what she's after.
She may think 15 per cent is going to buy her all the influence she wants; I would doubt that.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Farmers' interests drowned in creeping globalisation

Residents in Griffith burning Murray
Darling Basin Authority plan, October 2010
Farmers appear to have no qualms about attacking the government, but the raised fist turns into a cat's paw when the time comes to criticise their largest customers, the retail giants.

Look at the image. It shows farmers from country round about near the Murray River burning the Murray Darling Basin Authority's plan when it appeared that the Labor government would retain in the river (in their view) too much water, leading to cuts to water allocations. Residents in the area grow crops through irrigation. It's not the only time farmers' frustrations at the government have been expressed strongly in the media. Similar ire was sparked last year when the Labor government temporarily terminated exports of live cattle to Indonesia following the showing on ABC TV of a program that revealed maltreatment of cattle in Indonesian abbatoirs. And, again, when the Labor government finally passed its carbon tax legislation in the House of Representatives, National Party leader Warren Truss could be heard across the back paddock fulminating generously against the government's success.

But representatives of fruit and vegetable farmers this week merely expressed reasonable disquiet when it emerged that retail powerhouse Coles, a unit of Wesfarmers, would reduce prices of fruit and veges by half. Today Woolworths, Coles' rival for the weekly food spend of urban consumers, said it would match the cuts. The price wars continue, it seems.

Wesfarmers and Woolworths are publicly-listed companies, so profits are important for their managers. While profits at these companies continue to grow, farmers continue to complain - on the back channel, in the background, if you like - that their incomes do not grow to match the cost of inputs and other expenses.

Bringing in produce from overseas is not, of course, a novelty for local growers. "We are already a net importer of fruit and vegetables," said federal independent MP Bob Katter today. And while the present deep cuts to prices for these consumables reflect recent good harvests, due to the La Nina effect that has delivered strong rainfalls in Australia, you wonder what will happen when the situation changes. Will Coles and Woolworths lift their prices or will they continue to look overseas for cheaper alternatives?

Structural changes in markets take place over the long term. The US opened up the manufacturing industry in China in 2000 by granting Most Favored Nation status to that emerging economy. The following year, China entered the WTO. As I wrote back in August:
Access to foreign markets then led to a shift in global trading patterns. At the time Clinton was pushing for China's acceptance by the world it was said jobs would be created in the US. What happened instead was the hollowing-out of the US industrial heartland. Both jobs and manufacturing capacity migrated to China.
If urban consumers lead the retail giants to pull down the shelf prices of fruit and veges, the logical long-term effect will be to push jobs overseas, to countries where wages are lower. Lower wages lead to cheaper produce. This kind of structural change is implicit in the notion of globalisation, as companies and consumers make rational choices - choices based on the rational self-interest of lowest cost - about where the products they buy are made.

So what can the government do about these changes? Today Opposition lightweight the shadow small business minister, Bruce Billson, made this comment in the same Age story quoted above:
''The concern that the Coalition has is that there's an enormous power imbalance in the supply chain, between the big supermarkets and smaller suppliers and where that market dominance is detrimental to suppliers in the longer term, consumers will also be disadvantaged.''
To say there's an "enormous power imbalance in the supply chain" is just the most extraordinarily wild understatement, but it's hard to imagine the Liberal Party actually doing anything about the situation even if they were in government because of their business-friendly attitude and their economic-libertarian tendencies. The National Party would huff and puff but in the end the views of the larger partner in the Coalition would win out. The Labor Party is unlikely to do anything because if it did it would be blamed for any price increases felt by consumers. It would fall to the Greens to support the agricultural sector in Australia, but they are unlikely to lead a majority government for the forseeable future. In coalition with Labor their views would also be smothered. But what can government do, anyway. Probably not much.

What can farmers do about this situation? Please leave a comment if you have an opinion.