Tuesday 27 March 2012

Senator Assange of the Greens?

This story should get enough exposure without my blogging about it, but I think it's going to come off the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald later today. The paper's Phillip Dorling has spoken with Assange about his plans in politics, that were announced a week or so ago, and has written a story that talks about how that would work.

It might be useful here to say something about how voting works in Australia, especially as regards the Senate, or Upper House. In Australia, each state fields 12 senators. Senators are chosen by popular ballot, as are members of the Lower House. But senators are elected for a period of six years, rather than three. Half of the Senate is reelected at the same time as each cohort of Lower House members. Half stays on. This system is designed to ensure balance in the Senate, which is called in Australia the "house of review", so that no one party can garner an absolute majority of both houses of Parliament. That's the theory anyway.

The Senate is interesting because votes are not reallocated according to pre-established preferences. Preferential allocation of votes is designed to ensure a clear victory for one party or the other in each seat. This happens for Lower House candidates. So for example while the Australian Greens have only one Lower House member at the moment they command six senators in the Upper House. Their Upper House standing better reflects the fact that the party usually commands between 12 and 15 percent of the popular vote. In the Lower House ballot, their votes are assigned to another party because the Greens are generally unable to demonstrate that they can command an absolute majority in the seat.

That's enough about Australia's political machinery. More importantly, Assange has not announced which way his allegiance would fall in a Senate run, but in this story he says that he is considering an alliance with a party. Running as an independent is also a possibility, as is establishing a separate political party. If he were to run with the crowd it could only be the Greens he would choose to partner with.
Mr Assange was sharply critical of the federal government and the opposition, saying there was "very little difference between Liberal and Labor, especially once they get into government. Labor suffers more from cronyism, while the Liberals care more for big business".
Apart from this perception, the Greens are the only political party that has tried to support Assange during his current adversity. The Greens have been talking with the Swedish government, for a start. But also their policies vis-a-vis personal freedoms are closer to those of Assange than are those of any other party. Looking at it from inside the beast, I would say that the Greens are Assange's only viable and credible option in terms of an alliance.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Was Gillard put in power by Obama?

Which wheel is bigger?
Barack Obama nominated Jeffrey Bleich as ambassador to Australia on 11 September 2009. Bleich is a lawyer and an old friend of the US president, which was apposite as his legal skills have no doubt been well-exercised by US attitudes expressed since the fallout from WikiLeaks' Collateral Murder release. That happened on 4 April 2010, and it galvanised the US administration, which quickly moved to jail Private Bradley Manning when evidence apparently emerged that he had had a hand in the release. Manning remains in custody and his military trial continues. There has been movement in regard to WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, too.

Closer to home, there was a lot of movement when Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd as prime minister on 24 June 2010. One of the major players in that transition was Mark Arbib, who had been a senator since July 2008 (he has now resigned), representing New South Wales. A diplomatic cable of 20 July 2009 released by WikiLeaks on 28 October 2010 details Arbib's rise to prominence and also acknowledges his usefulness to the US administration.
We have found that Arbib is an astute observer and able conversant in the nuts and bolts of U.S. politics. He understands the importance of supporting a vibrant relationship with the U.S. while not being too deferential. We have found him personable, confident and articulate. A strong supporter of the alliance, he has met with us repeatedly throughout his political rise.
The cable also notes Arbib's usefulness to Kevin Rudd: "Arbib successfully delivered crucial votes in Rudd's December 2006 defeat of Kim Beazley for the ALP leadership." But when the numbers started to shift, Arbib did too. It is also likely that Rudd's decision to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq, which took place on 31 July 2009, caused the US to alter its opinion of Rudd, leading to the recall of Bleich's predecessor, and leading to Arbib orchestrating the coup which would remove Rudd from office. Even more likely, it was the threat that WikiLeaks represented that led to the US recruiting Arbib's help. The US was losing patience with Rudd, as a 28 November 2008 cable shows.

The cable lists five "foreign policy mistakes" Rudd committed since coming to office in 2007. Australian newspapers have focused more on this cable's calling Rudd a "control freak" but the expression is attributed in the cable to "senior civil servants, journalists and parliamentarians". McCallum appears to be merely reporting what others have said. Rudd's weak point was in foreign policy. This combined with the Iraq withdrawal and the emergence of the threat of WikiLeaks, to spark moves by the US for regime change in Australia. A 13 June 2008 cable released by WikiLeaks illustrates US awareness of its influence:
Although long appearing ambivalent about the Australia-US Alliance, Gillard's actions since she became the Labor Party number two indicate an understanding of its importance. Poloffs had little contact with her when she was in opposition but since the election, Gillard has gone out of her way to assist the Embassy. She attended a breakfast hosted by the Ambassador for U/S Nick Burns who visited Canberra just days after the election. At our request, she agreed to meet a visiting member of the National Labor Relations Board, after prior entreaties by the board member's Australian hosts had been rebuffed. Gillard is now a regular attendee at the American Australian Leadership Dialogues (AALD), and will be the principal government representative to the AALD meeting in Washington at the end of June. (COMMENT: Although warm and engaging in her dealings with American diplomats, it's unclear whether this change in attitude reflects a mellowing of her views or an understanding of what she needs to do to become leader of the ALP. It is likely a combination of the two. Labor Party officials have told us that one lesson Gillard took from the 2004 elections was that Australians will not elect a PM who is perceived to be anti-American. END COMMENT)
The emphasis is mine. It is disturbing but perhaps not surprising that the US ambassador is able to succinctly express the underlying realities of US-Australian relations at the highest level. It is one thing to say that "Australians will not elect a PM who is perceived to be anti-American" and quite another to imply that good relations with US diplomats are the price of the support an Australian politician can expect from colleagues such as Arbib, who called Gillard in the same cable "one of the most pragmatic politicians in the ALP". The right stuff indeed.

Gillard was now prime minister and the US remained busy containing the fallout from Collateral Murder when the Afghan Diaries appeared on 25 July 2010. Less than a month later, on 20 August 2010, the sex allegations in Sweden against Assange materialised. Stratfor analyst Parsley Bayless confirmed the connection when he wrote on 1 December 2010 in an internal email released by WikiLeaks:
Also, Karen had a very good point about the sex charges. Weren't those dropped months ago after the initial allegations? What do ya know, after the US explictly warned him time and again to stop publishing the cables, it pops back up all of a sudden...
But WikiLeaks did not stop. On 23 October 2010 the Iraq War Logs appeared, followed by the Diplomatic Cables on 28 October. The US administration managed to get Paypal and the credit card companies to cut off the supply of money in December, but WikiLeaks has not gone away. It was clear that a friendly government would need to be found to extradite Assange upon request of the secret grand jury that has been established in Alexandria, Virginia, and tasked with prosecuting a case against Assange.

Gillard has been busy promoting US interests in this regard. In July 2011 the parliament passed what have been called the WikiLeaks Amendments. The law is called the Intelligence Services Legislation Amendment Act 2011. It significantly broadens ASIO’s remit by enabling ASIO to spy not just on foreign governments and entities that they control, or foreign political organisations. It lets ASIO spy on people or organisations outside Australia. The grounds on which spying would be allowed has also broadened.

Another law, the Extradition and Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Amendment Act 2012 was passed earlier this month. Jeffrey Bleich prefigured this move when, in a story published on 12 November 2011 while talking about WikiLeaks, he said:
We will have to see whether there is an offence against any person, and Australia will have to evaluate its own extradition obligations.
Extradition has now been made easier, with the 'political' defence watered down and placed under the control of internal departmental regulations. Any "terrorist" offence now automatically leads to extradition. There's more too. A proposed law, the Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill, would make it easier for foreign law enforcement agencies to request data that relates to Australians, to be used overseas.

LNP will suit Queenslanders nicely

No more hoity-toity mucking about.
Campbell Newman's election victory speech, during which he thanked the people of Queensland - sorry, thanked Queenslanders - for backing him was eerily downplayed in true Howard style. It was an exceptionally good example of what a humble leader should do if he wants to avoid annoying those he depends on. Howard was masterful at appearing statesmanlike and grovelling simultaneously, and Newman has taken a good few leaves out of the Howard playbook tonight. How many times did he thank voters? Hard to say until a transcript of the speech appears online, but it was a lot.

But that's not all he has in common with Howard. Listen to Newman in his opening sentences setting out the agenda that will dominate Queensland politics for the next three years. It doesn't take long. In just a few moments you clearly get the gist of the new realpolitik in the Deep North:
We said all along that this election was all about you - the good hard working people ... the people who work hard every single day to raise their families, to support their community, and to grow our economy.
The keywords are "work", families" and "community". It's just a short hop to "working families", the Howard-style soundbite from, say 2004, and a solid dose of libertarian social values. For the rest - the single women, the shiftworkers, the minorities, the gays, the Aborigines - it's going to be a while before the tide comes in. For the moment they are marooned above the high-water mark.

This LNP victory feels right for Queensland which, finally after so many years of progressive policies mucking up the good life north of the Tweed, can expect to be flattered in its down-home bloody-mindedness. Queenslanders love a scrap with the wowsers from Down South and even go one better on occasion, like banning smoking in the Queens Street Mall. But in the end they are more comfortable with no-nonsense, common-sense conservatism. Because of this, and because there's a progressive government in Canberra to hate, I don't think that the result in Queensland reflects badly on the federal Labor Party. This is a different game. Queenslanders have had enough of southerners' hoity-toity bullshit and they just want to wallow in good, old-fashioned reaction for a few years.

Maybe give it a decade.

Thursday 22 March 2012

Senator Carr, meet Senator Assange

Foreign Minister Bob Carr delivers his
maiden speech in the Australian Senate.
It appears that the Australian Labor Party in government has adopted as policy the avoidance of public support for Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. I saw a photo yesterday of a letter to a constituent signed by Senator John Faulkner in which he said he would not make a media statement about Assange, but in which he reiterated that the government is providing consular assistance to Assange, as it would to any Australian citizen who found themselves in trouble overseas. This has been the government's line for some time and it looks as though it will not change.

In related news, yesterday Bob Carr, the new foreign minister, made his maiden speech in the Senate. Some of that speech has been excerpted from Hansard and published on the National Times website. It's interesting reading. Going back to first principles seems, for Carr, to be something of a standard modus operandi, and the speech is peppered with details taken from history to illustrate his main points. Carr has a Bachelor of Arts with honours in history from the University of New South Wales, after all. But he's also bookish. He reads widely and is considered something of an expert on US history.

I have been reading Christopher Hitchens' Hitch-22: A Memoir (2010), which chronicles aspects of the journalist's life such as his US naturalisation. It's not clear when Hitchens left the UK permanently to settle in the US to take up the offer of a job writing for a US magazine. But it is clear that he admired aspects of US political law and lore. Swatting for the test that all prospective US citizens must take, Hitchens went back to the bookshelves to read some of the foundational documents, including the US Constitution. This seems like something that Carr, too, would choose to do on a Saturday evening. Hitchens said he enjoyed the experience and I think it would be something that Carr would also prefer to do in place of some, more routine, passtimes.

Then there was Carr on the 7.30 Report last night going through his paces for the first time in front of the Australian public. Again, the new appointee demonstrated laudable fluency in respect of historical precedents for current politics. NSW residents would have been familiar with the former premier's easy delivery; hardly a pause between understanding the question and offering an answer. Carr is a practised performer in parliament and in the media. For bookish Australians he also promises to provide at least entertainment because of how he comes across publicly, if not satisfaction because of the matter of what he says.

One day Senator Carr may answer a speech in parliament by Senator Assange. Also bookish, if Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Biography (2011), which I have recently finished reading, is anything to go by, Assange commands a literary resource base that is possibly closer to that of Hitchens than that of Carr. But you never know. Well-read conservatives could plausibly point to the same texts as well-read radicals when making salient points during an argument with an adversary. The history of the West is replete with useful texts for those who place value on the concepts that tend to be used to define contemporary politics, such as freedom, democracy, and good government. Assange says that he is interested in improving government. I am sure that Carr would readily say the same thing, if asked.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Curation is not a dirty word

To this point I have read a number of people's writings rejecting the idea of 'curation' in its recent sense of selecting and sharing content using social media so that others can also use it. One person rejecting this new meaning was, in fact, a professional curator in real life. Others have just seemed to be somewhat bothered by the hype attached to a new expression for something that may, in fact, be not new at all. Or so they say. You get the feeling sometimes that they reject such a neologistic word usage because they struggle to vocalise their ideas on a phenomenon that is so recent.

There seem to me to be two distinct meanings for the word 'curation'. One is where people using social media post links to content that they like so that it is useable by those who watch their feed. The other pertains to the world of journalism, but it also relates to social media inasmuch as the idea is to monitor social media with a view to seeing how certain topics are dealt with therein. In this sense of the word, the journalist makes sure that he or she catches trends on social media so that their messages can be incorporated into stories. The idea was espoused recently by the Guardian in its Three Little Pigs advert. This form of curation would ideally make Guardian journalists more up-to-the-minute and informed so that their stories would more truly reflect common views on a topic. The other type of curator, the one who peppers their feed with selected items of interest, can be anyone at all.

There's a risk of annoying those people who baulk at giving credence to neologisms, but the nature of the information economy has changed so much with the advent of social media that some measure of newness can, I think, be pardoned. In labelling a person a 'curator' some things would be evident, or apparent, about their relationship with those who consume what they post.

While I was debating the topic last night I had recourse to an article by Bora Zivkovic, who is a blogger with Scientific American, in which he talks about the new information economy in the context of journalism and science writing. (I wrote about Zivkovic's article earlier this month with another object in view.) He talks about the "anomalous 20th century" during which public communication came under the aegis of large corporations, and these large companies began to prize "objectivity" in order to accommodate the wide range of views that their large number of urban readers held. Some of the things he wrote:
What is important to note is that, [before this time] both in journalism and in science, communication could be done by anyone.
Personal – and thus potentially phatic – communication was a norm in the early scientific publishing.
[A]fter the deviation that was the 20th century, we are going back to the way we have evolved as a species to communicate – one-to-one and few-to-few instead of one-to-many.
With the return of a more natural system of communication, we will all have to re-learn how to read critically, find second opinions, evaluate sources. Nothing new is there either – that is what people have been doing for millennia – the 20th century is the exception. We will figure out who to trust by trusting the judgment of people we already trust.
A curator's relevance within social media could thus be understood as a factor of the affect they project in the context of social media. I use the word "affect" in a way that is analogous to Zivkovic's use of the word "phatic" to describe language. He says:
Phatic discourse is just one of several functions of language. Its role is not to impart any factual information, but to establish a relationship between the people. It conveys things like emotional state, relative social status, alliance, intentions and limits to further conversation (i.e., where the speaker "draws the line").
And "affect" refers to the experience of feeling or emotion. For both words, the critical issue is their ability to describe something that we "like" or "dislike". The use of phatic language enhances the affect of any utterance, and makes it easier for the consumer, busy scanning his or her feed, to react to what has been posted. It facilitates comprehension. So if we see something posted by someone we like or already trust, we are more likely to click on the link they post. I think these ideas have something to do with the new notion of the 'curator' in social media.

Some people might say that professional communicators, such as journalists, have always been "doing curation". They read, understand, select for inclusion, reject as extraneous, synthesise, assemble, write, and publish. But this is only the second meaning of curation, although it still refers, when used these days, to something that happens on or around social media.

In parentheses, professional communicators might scan the social media feed for useful bits of information. But the realities that Zivkovic elencates as pertaining to the "anomalous 20th century" to some degree still constrain the journalist from projecting affect within social media. There is the matter of objectivity to consider for most journalists using social media. In this respect, journalists are to some degree circumscribed in their engegement online. They might want to engage more meaningfully with people online but there may be corporate policies that restrict the types of interactions they can have with others online. Or else they may be jealous of their reputations as professionals, and that might be linked, in their minds, to the notion of objectivity. But this arms-length stance vis-a-vis opinion is, says Zivkovic, at variance to the way communication occurs on social media these days.

Finally, I think it's necessary to say something about the extent of the pool of information available for consumers nowadays. It is immeasurably large but, at the same time, our appetite for information is unquencheable. You might have a person in Australia reading a tweet that a person in Kenya retweeted but that was originally posted by someone in New Zealand that contains a link to an article published in the United States about something that happened in the United Kingdom. Or vice versa. Today, access is limited not by geography, as it was during the first scientific revolution, but by a cognitive factor. We can read anything written in the language we speak. So you've got the Anglosphere. But you've also got the Latinosphere, the Russosphere, the Sinosphere, the Francosphere. And some people speak more than one language. It is this overabundance of information that makes the coining of a new word, 'curation', desirable and even necessary. Curation is not a dirty word.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Abbott's attack on Media Inquiry is par for the course

"Trust me, I'm a politician."
In publishing an attack by Opposition leader Tony Abbott on Ray Finkelstein's recommendations from the Independent Media Inquiry, the Australian is just showing its stripes because this is the man its editors want to see lead the country.

Abbott's piece, which is paywalled, reruns a lot of the stuff we have heard already, placing more of its emphasis on "the current government" than other commentators have done to date. Julia Gillard is, after all, Abbott's main target. The nub of his argument is contained in a single paragraph:
Especially in the hands of the current government, any new watchdog could become a political correctness enforcement agency destined to hound from the media people whose opinions might rattle the average Q&A audience. It's easy to imagine the fate of Andrew Bolt or Alan Jones, for instance, at the hands of such thought police. Their demise, you understand, wouldn't be because the government didn't like them but because they'd persistently breached "standards".
"Demise," Tony? Asking Andrew Bolt - who recently lost a racial vilification case in the Federal Court - or Alan Jones - who is routinely rebuked for breaching requirements for balance and fairness - to register an apology, correction or retraction, seems like a desirable and uncontroversial outcome to result from setting up the News Media Council. Bolt is cosily ensconced within the secure fortress of the Australian's sister paper, the Herald Sun. Would being asked to retract something he had written lead to his demise? Far from it. A demand for a retraction by the NMC would merely cement Bolt more firmly in the affections of the breathing oddities who daily welcome his views. And would asking Alan Jones to make a retraction lead to his demise, firmly implanted as he is within the citadel of 2GB, and within the affections of his doltish listeners?

Abbott goes on:
The current government has an ingrained tendency to bully and intimidate critics. Witness this week's attack on Peter Costello for questioning the government's handling of the chairmanship of the Future Fund; this month's jihad against mining magnates for daring to question the government's investment-sapping mining tax; or last year's assault on mum-and-dad anti-carbon tax protesters in Canberra as the "convoy of no consequence" or the "convoy of incontinence".
Well, you know, Tony, the people with hats shaped like wingnuts may be clever self-parodiers, but online those who, like you, reject the idea of the NMC display similarly looney views on the nature of the media and our apparently hard-won freedoms. There are, indeed, some who lampoon these ghoul-raisers as "dribblejaws". Alan Jones at risk of "demise"? Democracy at risk of erosion?

Asking Abbott to pen a relevant critique of a statutory measure that would likely go against his interests is lazy. True to type, the Australian's editors aim to prolongue the attack as far as possible and Abbott has turned out to be an ideal proponent of the same misguided ideas the newspaper's editors and journalists have been peddling for weeks now. It's just the latest campaign of the war, the most recent front in the battle to turn public sentiment against an eminently reasonable measure that is designed to reduce the power of entrenched corporate interests in Australia's public arena. It is a desirable measure, and we should not be diverted by the self-interested ramblings of random politicians.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Measures of success: Topical or deep analysis?

Going in deep requires specialised
In an interesting piece on the Nieman Journalism Lab website, Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown-Smith take a look at culture change in newsrooms. Their good-news exemplar is the Christian Science Monitor, a vehicle of long standing, which in March 2009 took the plunge and moved from a daily print edition to a weekly print edition plus a topical news website. They met with success, according to Groves and Brown-Smith, and we discern success in this case by looking at their stats.
Today, csmonitor.com receives 30 million pageviews a month, and advertising prospects are improving. And newsroom leaders are a bit more optimistic than three years ago.
How did they do this?
With the help of Jimmy Orr, the online editor at the time, as a primary change agent, newsroom leaders pushed writers and editors to develop new routines — such as more frequent updates, more topical stories, and headlines written with search-engine optimization in mind.
So they attempted to - with success - become more topical, more in-tune with the zeitgeist, giving a CSM angle on stories that had already gained traction in the public sphere. This is something similar, I think I recall, to what happened at the Wall Street Journal after it was bought by News Corporation. And it's even something that I suggested a few days ago to a bunch of people on Twitter, in this case farmers, who are looking at ways to gain traction in the metro media space for their stories. I illustrated my thesis with a picture showing how dopamine, the natural opiate produced by the body, latches onto receptors in the target cell through specialised structures.

The search for topicality is one thing that seems to be happening a lot nowadays. But I think that there are other new and successful approaches to journalism. Given a budget and freedom to decide, The Global Mail has made a move in another direction: toward more in-depth reporting on subjects that might not seem to be important immediately but that, on closer analysis, turn out to be of real interest to readers. Some of the stories this vehicle runs are topical but the bulk of them are not. Specialised equipment? How about a philanthropist determined to remain at arms length from the news process and an experienced editorial staff? It seems to be working.

I have complained publicly about the short attention span that reporters have, and their superficial, part-of-the-picture, 24-7-news-cycle reporting. To get the whole picture a person needs to read a range of media outlets over a number of days, or weeks. In-depth reporting is hard to justify in an age when page views are the measure of success for a story. But I think that there is a latent demand for more sustained analysis of important issues, so that you take the focus away from the place where he-said-she-said journalism is good enough to justify today's update on the issue, and look instead to write sustained and accurate stories that might cost more but, in the long run, better serve the interests of the readership.

The problem seems to be, given that a paper such as the CSM measures its success by page views, how to encourage reporters to go deeper on a single issue until a larger picture is available, before publishing. To enable this to happen there would need to be some sort of signal from the readership that could be measured and appreciated. Perhaps we need to wait until tablet computers are in broader use, which would allow people to download those longer stories to read at leisure times. That would be a metric that could be used to gauge success for in-depth reporting. The kind that we need in these days of a superabundance of stories.

Sunday 11 March 2012

News Limited attack on academics deeply self-interested

A student like this at university risks
becoming infected by dogma, says The Oz.
The Australian never gives up. And it hates anyone who thinks they know better. Associate editor Cameron Stewart's long piece dated yesterday, which nimbly negotiates the borderland between reporting and opinion, demonstrates these truths. Or at least they're true when the academics in question are not saying the things that The Australian wants them to say. We're talking, of course, about the Independent Media Inquiry, and those academics who agree with the recommendation of its head, Ray Finkelstein, which is to institute a new news media regulator.

Stewart knows how to write a compelling piece, which means focusing on one point and using all available resources to affirm, again and again, that single point until it appears unassailable. And that point, in this case, is the distance, as Stewart tells it, between realistic, feet-on-the-ground, working journalists (like him) on the one hand and out-of-touch, Left-leaning, theory-obsessed academics (like those who support the inquiry's recommendations) on the other. And the point that Stewart goes back to, again and again, is the kind of point that will appeal to the masses. It's all of a piece with News Limited's traditional Right-leaning agenda. Attack the ivory tower and you bring the great unwashed along with you. Never fails.

But it's deeply flawed, as is the story. I am a working freelance journalist who has spent two years at one of the journalism schools Stewart criticises for potentially infecting the next generation of young reporters with Left dogma. I wrote about the Media Inquiry's findings earlier this month because I find nothing suspicious and nothing dangerous about them. The regulator is needed because of the way newspapers like The Australian operate, and of course nothing that the paper says that is at variance with the inquiry's findings can be taken at face value. I'm not a journalism teacher, yet I believe that News Limited operates unethically and in a way that is against the best interests of the Australian people. We are not being well-served by this company, it is too big, and needs someone to hold out a guiding hand to make sure it behaves itself. Stewart is part of the problem. Taking his story at face value is like taking something Tony Abbott says in criticism of the government and holding it up as truth.

In my two years at university studying journalism as a mature-age student I met a wide range of teachers, most of whom had extensive industry experience. As well as this, they often relied on interesting and challenging texts that attempt, in good faith, to grapple with the complex problems that are associated with the media in contemporary societies, like Australia today. The rigid dichotomy that Stewart sets up and that I mentioned at the start of this piece is deeply flawed and, in addition, the way that he does it is deeply dishonest. As though any taught topic that is not directly and intimately related to churning out mediocre stories in the newsroom's heated environment is suspicious and not to be trusted. The fact is that, once you leave school and enter the workforce as, say, a journalist, you have little time to think about the sometimes difficult concepts you learned about at university. So that intensive focus on sophisticated ideas is therefore a necessary counterweight to the compromising environment you find yourself in once you start writing stories.

Journalism schools try to help you respond better in the workforce when you are confronted by complicated situations in the real working world. What you learn is designed to keep you out of jail, to help you see different angles in a story, to assist you in deciding when you have enough information to truthfully cover a story, to make sure you live up to the highest ideals of a profession that is, to me, very important. Journalism is critical to the functioning of a democracy. Without journalism no democracy can survive. In the absense of the ability to see differing viewpoints, to understand the real situation, to recognise and appreciate corruptions of all kinds the world as we know it would simply be run by the powerful with narrow, vested interests, at the expense of the interests of the regular citizen.

News Limited is, unfortunately, one of the powerful, vested interests that the news industry should be questioning. Because it controls so much of the media in Australia today that is unlikely, however. What Finkelstein and his colleagues have done, with their report, is to help us understand how society at large can make sure that this powerful, vested interest can be counterbalanced so that it does not simply accrue more power to itself.

Friday 9 March 2012

The blogger has become the journalist's friend

A blogger shown in the Guardian's 'open
journalism' advert. Note the dressing gown ...
In his long and interesting piece published on Scientific American's website dated 20 December 2010 Bora Zivkovic talks among other things about the way the internet is changing the relationship between readers and the sources of news. While his main interest is in the relationship between science and the media, he says that the media system we are used to - where we rely on a few hegemonic media companies that supposedly value 'balance' - and which dates from what he calls the "anomalous 20th century", is being replaced instead by a many-to-many configuration where individuals talk to one another.
What about trustworthiness of all that online stuff? Some is and some isn’t to be trusted. It’s up to you to figure out your own filters and criteria, and to look for additional sources, just like our grandparents did when they had a choice of dozens of newspapers published in each of their little towns.
Zivkovic says that the subsequent erosion of trust - an aspect of the new online world that media companies hold up to display as an evil when they are busy attempting to boost their own brands - is not as important as the fact that having access to multiple viewpoints lets us see that "the mainstream media is not to be trusted". He says that we will have to learn how to discern trustworthiness and that trust is "transitive", meaning that it is conveyed from one source of information to another. We tend to trust stories that come recommended by people we already trust.

There is an element of hubris in Zivkovic's piece, and it translates into a certain amount of crowing at the current economic discomfort felt by the mainstream media. Objectivity, he discounts as an income-generation ploy, for example.
Until the 20th century we did not see the consolidation of media into large conglomerates, and of course, there were no mass radio or TV until mid-20th century. Not until later in the century did we see the monopolization of local media markets by a single newspaper (competitors going belly-up) which, then, had to serve everyone, so it had to invent the fake "objective" HeSaidSheSaid timid style of reporting in order not to lose customers of various ideological stripes and thus lose advertising revenue.
Conflating objectivity with "he-said-she-said" journalism (the term is Jay Rosen's) is a bit of a stretch, but Zivkovic attempts to explain what has happened.
A good science story should explain what is known by now (science), what the new study brings that is new (news) and why does that matter to you (phatic discourse). The lack of space usually led to omission of context (science), shortening of what is new (news) and thus leaving only the emotional story intact. Thus, the audience did not learn much, Certainly not enough to be able to evaluate next day’s and next week’s news.
Zivkovic regrets that lack of space available for science reporting. This is true and is due to the need for editors to (1) ensure that the stories they put out are not too long and demanding for readers, and (2) stay within budget because stories commissioned from people not on staff are paid on a per-word basis. And journalists, he says, have merely come to rely on viewpoints from their sources rather than working to understand the ins and outs of the science themselves because that kind of journalism is very time consuming and expensive. So stories often, he says, end up as "he-said-she-said" journalism because the journalist merely relies on those sources, and the internal policy demand for objectivity requires taking views from people who may be pushing an ideological barrow. I talked about the shortcomings of science journalism back in January on this blog:
We all want to be informed, and many believe that the mainstream media has dropped the ball a bit in the communication game. They may regret the amount of disinformation circulating regardless of the actual research, and the climate change debate is a classic example of this phenomenon. Raising doubts about complex issues is what conservatives have done so well for generations. The way the mainstream press operates, these doubts are expressed and thereby gain currency. Momentum is lost. Policies fall by the wayside. Frustration results. The media cops the blame. Scientists grind their teeth and keep their heads down.
And so we tend now to rely on sources who gain our trust through the use of what Zivkovic calls "phatic language", such as in social media where users post information about their personal life, their feelings, and their cats, alongside news stories that they like that have been published by media organisations or by bloggers. However I think it's not quite true to say that "nobody enters a news site via the front page and looks around". It is true that "we all get to individual articles via links and searches", but it's also true that people still go to their favourite newspaper website to glean what's new and what's on the news agenda on any particular day. We do both. We still trust our newspapers, and the extraordinary number of page views that newspaper websites are attracting is testament to this (the problem for media companies remains how to monetise those page views).

It's a good thing that science blogs are gaining traction because they will provide a better overall news experience for citizens eager for trustworthy information. The public's appetite for information is bigger than ever before. But the hegemony enjoyed by the mainstream media is not yet exhausted. We see how they function as a forum for debate on a day-to-day basis, even as social media and bloggers add new dimensions to those debates. The stories that the mainstream media cover, and the way that these stories are covered, requires the respect of politicians and other people operating in the public sphere. So newspapers still condition public policy by their activities.

Social media conditions the mainstream media, as do bloggers. The blogger has become the journalist's friend - as shown by the Guardian's latest advert for its 'open journalism' project; see the picture accompanying this blog post - and there are numerous stories that take events in social media as their main point of reference each week all around the world. What is happening is that the mainstream media is adjusting its focus to accommodate these new players in the public sphere. When a tweeter can be sued by an editor for accurately conveying what a citizen journalist recorded during a public forum, the game has changed forever. And Zivkovic is right to applaud the growing number of scientists who are occupying a place in the communication chain. Zivkovic calls himself a "science writer" despite, he says, "never going to j-school". He writes on blogs.

I went to j-school. I am a freelance journalist. I write on a blog. I'm on a horse.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

To communicate a message, make part of it topical

Getting your message out can be a challenge if you're a farmer and you want to have more influence in metropolitan centres, where much of the public debate that conditions government policy takes place. Other farmers will be receptive to your message in a way that, perhaps, metropolitan residents will not. Priorities differ. And there's in many ways a different ethos ruling priorities in the cities, compared to that which regulates those pertaining in the country. Rural residents tend to be socially conservative but their isolation makes them more reliant on the government of the day than, for example, your typical metro Liberal voter. So there's not a clean match in terms of priorities between your typical farmer (is there such a thing?) and any one of the various 'types' of metro resident, be they conservative, uncommited, or progressive. And the business of farming differs from your average 9-to-5 job in a lot of ways.

But what takes place in the metro media space often conditions government's response to any number of issues. Take the Indonesian abbattoir scandal as an example. It only took one ABC TV program on one night last year for the government to shut down the export of livestock to that country. Because rural businesses, especially those in northern Australia, rely so heavily on that particular export business, the fallout for the farmer in, say, the Northern Territory, was tremendous. That farmer felt not only isolated geographically, but ignored by the metro media who he or she felt was paying too much attention to animal rights groups and not enough attention to the economic and other impacts hitting the region as a result of the shutdown of trade.

Your average Territory cattle grazier is deeply concerned about how his or her livestock is treated. All farmers with cattle care about their livestock and take pains to make sure that the animals are as happy as possible. But how to get this message across into the metro media, the place that conditions government responses to issues that arise from time to time in the public sphere? This is the challenge. It's not easy, but it's not impossible either. I wrote this post in the hope that it can help farmers to understand the dynamics of the metro media, from the point of view of a freelance journalist. A lot of metro news outfits do not take freelance stories now due to the difficult economic times newspapers are facing. But that doesn't mean that you can't get your message across. For many newspapers, staff journalists are in constant contact with public relations operatives (PRs), who send them story ideas in the same way that a freelancer will pitch a story to editors and journalists working for a news vehicle.

The illustration accompanying this post was chosen because it serves to show, in a graphical way, the way that a freelancer or PR will shape a story to fit with the existing priorities of metro media staffers. At the top is a structure labelled in the diagram 'dopamine terminal', which manufactures dopamine that it sends out into the environment. At the bottom is a structure labelled in the diagram 'post-synaptic cell'. This structure has a number of receptors implanted in it that are designed to accept the units of dopamine that are produced by the dopamine terminal. Note that each dopamine unit has a distinctive shape, including spurs that are designed to allow the dopamine to latch onto the receptor.

Let's say that each receptor is a different current (or 'topical') story, which is familiar to the editor or journalist on the staff of the metro newspaper. Topical meaning current, or relevant. The idea then is to make sure the spur on the dopamine unit can fit into the receptor representing that topical narrative. It must be a snug fit. What happens away from the spur, on the rest of the dopamine unit, is of secondary importance for the editor or journalist. Once that snug fit is made there is space to include other aspects of the story. The story you want to tell might constitute the bulk of your communication but it has to hang off the critical spur that will fit into the editor's receptor.

Another editor might take your story and rewrite the first two or three paragraphs so that the story's spur fits more snugly into their receptor. The interesting thing is that within a story there might be elements that are at variance, or that constrast with one another. Because of this dialectical tendency in the West - the play of opposing views in any one space - you can switch (or 'segue') from one track of a story to another track. In this way, the concepts built into the spur can logically lead (using grammatical elements like 'but' or 'however', just for example) to other concepts that are related and that actually hold the message that you want to communicate to the world. Journalists talk a lot about 'transitions', meaning those parts at the beginning and the end of a paragraph that enable the easy movement from one idea to another. Note the 'easy' part: it's important.

This is a quick guide to tailoring your message for the metro media. If you think your message is not getting out, there may be ways for farmers to rope in the services of an experienced PR, or to catch the attention of a freelance journalist who might possess a measure of credibility with some metro editors. Remember, though, that a PR is not the same thing as a freelancer even though some of the things they do are identical, like pitching ideas to editors. What sets them apart is largely the matter of 'interest': a PR is paid by the interested party to do the communication while a freelancer is paid by the editor at the other end of the chain of information.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Bob Carr sorry for Assange, but doesn't admire him

Is the casual Carr of the blog
to dematerialise utterly, forever?
It doesn't require much thought to regret that with Bob Carr's elevation to the federal ministry as foreign minister, his blogging is unlikely to continue. Started in May 2010, Thoughtlines with Bob Carr took a broad perspective, roping in for commentary a wide range of topics. Carr felt qualified to talk about everything from National Gallery exhibitions of Renaissance art to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. As a man with an interest in history and Western civilisation who was once a journalist, you should expect nothing less but it's to Carr's credit that he stuck his neck out for so long. Is his neck made of stern stuff? Now, those days of casual comment and counter-riposte are probably over.

As for Assange, Carr holds a composite view that seems to be at odds with the views of both supporters and detractors. For a start, he called Assange "an under-educated [egomaniac]" for WikiLeaks (post of 17 December 2010), which he regretted because "Lives could depend on ... confidentiality." In a post dated 13 February 2011, Carr explained his rationale more fully:
Daniel Ellsberg did not breach secrecy for its own sake. He was acutely conscious of the risks of disclosure and did not circulate documents betraying live diplomatic efforts to end the fighting. The Wikileaks dumped on the Web allow endless mischief. They can be data-mined and pattern-mined by the Chinese and private companies. Amoral – nothing in common with Ellsberg’s intervention aimed at exposing US lies about Vietnam and ending the killing.
Some might counter that the difference between the Pentagon Papers (what the material Ellsberg revealed is called) and WikiLeaks disclosures is merely a matter of scale, and that Carr's rearward view is tinted rosy merely by dint of the mellowing effect of time's passing. But Carr, it seems, believes that modern technology has changed the game, so that the potential for undesirable damage has now increased to a critical point. (Carr doesn't include a search tool on his blog, probably for the same reason; to find blog posts here you have to go to the monthly lists and scan.) Nevertheless, Carr takes a compassionate view regarding the treatment of Assange, although we must reason that the scale of his empathy is tempered by the association he makes between one element of the Assange case and a personal hobby-horse of his about a charter of rights (he doesn't think we need one). On 2 February 2012 Carr explained his thinking:
If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times. Australia, the advocates said, had an inferior rights record to Europe because all the countries of Europe were stitched up in its charter of rights.
And how do you explain the treatment of Julian Assange under European jurisdictions, that of the UK and Sweden?
He goes on to list his objections to the Swedish process in respect of Assange. The prosecutor is the same person as the judge, he scoffs. The hearing would be held in secret, without the presence of the public. The accusation (he says "charge" although there has been no formal charge) involves rape but the sex was consensual. The complainants talked together about revenge. "Hang on," Carr muses.
None of the above happens here. Would anyone disagree that Assange would be better off in an Australian court? In a system, that is, without a charter or a bill of rights?

Monday 5 March 2012

Natalie Tran: Still funny, and very, very grounded

Natalie Tran
The past year has seen lean times for Natalie Tran fans. Natalie finally favoured the hungry legions by posting a short clip a couple of days ago, and promising more, but clearly Real Life has got in the way of Natalie's video-making activities, resulting in a long period of humourless browsing on Facebook, where her followers nevertheless react lightning-fast to the merest hint of Nataliness, quickly posting 'Likes' and comments that number often in the thousands.

Because she's a Sydney girl, the local media have taken an interest in her success. Most recently, Sarah Whyte, a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, caught up with Natalie to glean her views on a debate that has sprung up here in the Antipodes over the representation of minorities in entertainment and other highly-visible professions. The beef began a couple of weeks ago when New Zealand actor Jay Laga'aia complained publicly about being cut from the soap Home and Away. As the New Zealand Herald reported on 16 February:
New Zealand actor Jay Laga'aia has accused Australian network Channel 7 of axing him from Home and Away because of his ethnicity.
Laga'aia, who is of Samoan descent, has backed comments from Underbelly actor Firass Dirani, who accused networks of a "white Australia" policy and that actors on shows such as Packed to the Rafters and Neighbours do not reflect Australian society in 2012.
In typically humble style, Natalie responded to the interviewer by hosing down the situation but then gently admitted that she, too, sees a problem with casting and writing choices being made in Australia by people who make decisions at TV stations:
''I don't think that people watch others on YouTube because of how they look,'' she said. ''They [don't] watch someone because of their ethnic background.
''I am Australian, I was born here and raised here and it would be nice to see a cross-section [of ethnicity] portrayed on television.''
Whyte then did what other journalists have done in the past: made a video showing Natalie talking about her success, which has been extraordinary, to the point where she can make a living from doing what she has done - making funny videos - since 2006. Again, Natalie plays down her success, saying that the internet is
just a place where I can put up content and luckily I get an audience who come back. I feel more lucky than anything else. I get to do what I like and have people give me feedback. So it's a nice situation.
Natalie is such a grounded person, and one who is unlikely to succumb to the type of emotion-led public blow-outs that Hollywood stars routinely fall prey to. As she says in the video, she has definitely done the hard yards.
A lot of people kind of go, 'Oh, you make videos and you get all these hits.' But it's been six years or something like that, so it's very much been a snowball effect. It's been a gradual thing. When I started, the most-subscribed person on YouTube had 70,000 subscribers. I think now it's more than 5 million, or something like that. So the growth has been quite large in the audience. I started making vlogs back in 2006 and then it's just kind of progressed from there on.
Natalie's supporters have long memories and they're very patient, too. Despite an almost total lack of new videos over the past 12 months or so it's clear from watching how they react on Facebook that the appetite for the kind of content she makes is very much still there. The most likely explanation for the drought is that Natalie has been completing her studies and organising her life so that she can continue to do what she does so well. Whatever the outcome the one certain thing is that there are many, many people who await the next installment eagerly. It's kind of amusing watching the reaction when Natalie posts something on Facebook. The 'Likes' and comment roll in, numbering in the tens every minute, testifying to the loyalty she has built up by making screamingly-funny videos at home with basic equipment.

Natalie tells us in this latest appearance that she likes writing. It will be fascinating to see where that takes her in the future as she settles down and moves to establish - as no doubt she will - a career in the public sphere. Will she go commercial? Will she enter public life in some other way? Politics? TV? Right now the settings on her existential video deck are set to 'pause'. Just wait to see the reaction when she finally hits 'play' again.

Saturday 3 March 2012

Media Inquiry findings sure to cause debate

Faceless men? Ray Finkelstein sat on
the Independent Media Inquiry panel.
Along with many others who have an interest in Australia's public debate, I followed the Twitter stream running alongside Ray Finkelstein's Independent Media Inquiry, back in November, and commented on it. I found myself to the left even of such commentators as journalist and academic Maragret Simons, whose summer footwear attracted so much interest from the Murdoch tabloids, by proposing "a government-funded regulator" but "with a sunset clause". Now, the inquiry's results are in, and our newspapers are reporting on Finkelstein's plan, as well as reactions from the news media to his proposed News Media Council, which would replace the current Australian Press Council, be government-funded ("but the government would have no role in its powers"), and be followed up by an inquiry by the Productivity Commission within two years into the health of the news industry.

The reactions from the news industry are predictable, with Murdoch supremo Kim Williams threatening us with the "spectre of a government-funded overseer of a free press", editor-in-chief of West Australian Newspapers Bob Cronin saying that such a body "implies government control", and the IPA gargling impotently about an "outrageous attack on freedom of speech". Boo! In case you didn't read the link I put in at the top of this post, this is what I wrote about government funding of a regulator back then:
Why government regulation must be, a priori, "heavy handed" is beyond me. This reminds me of the public debate that raged a year or so ago in the US when it became obvious that journalism was in terminal decline in that country. Any suggestion as to government funding was rejected, I remember, by people I was following on Twitter as somehow immoral, or at least questionable on the grounds that government should be kept out of the media at all costs. Shades of those [Obamacare] "death panels" again! But the fact is that in Australia the most balanced and fair media organisation that we have is the ABC, which is entirely government funded. Government attempts to stifle the activities of the ABC - such as those threatened by the Howard government - always attract vocal public outcry.
The Australian has also blogged about one aspect of the Finkelstein findings, gleefully noting that the News Media Council should also regulate "newsletter publishers and bloggers" who have "a minimum of 15,000 hits per annum". Ahem. Well, I personally do not know how such a regulatory purview would affect what I do here on this blog, but I do not doubt that I would be eligible for oversight. And that's fine. But I suspect that the large number of outlets that would qualify would make this aspect of the NMC's task onerous. It would come down, in the end, to a breach being brought to the NMC's attention by an aggrieved party, and action taken at that point. If at all. However I think that scale is important. A blog that gets 15,000 hits a year is not in the same league as a website, such as the Sydney Morning Herald, which gets millions each month. And that fact would have an impact on any findings.

As to the meat of Finkelstein's matter, the clear implication from the findings is that the news media in Australia does not abide even by its own stated codes of practice. There are few internal  ombudsmen exercising oversight of what goes on indoors. There is too much "campaigning" journalism, especially on the Right. The Australian Press Council has too little power to both investigate (a problem of resources, because it's voluntarily funded by the media) and to enforce rulings (currently adverse decisions must be agreed to by the offending outlet).

Getting back to bloggers briefly before closing, I note that the Guardian's recent Three Little Pigs ad shows a blogger on-screen. At least it's what a blogger is meant to look like from the point of view of the established media. In the ad, the blogger is wearing a T-shirt, tracksuit pants, and an open dressing gown. He's got a wall covered with newspaper cuttings that he adds to regularly, a messy desk, and you can just see his unmade bed in the back of frame. I laughed when it hit me. Here's the mainstream coming to terms with the real world, but I have to admit that the first couple of times I watched the ad it didn't hit me that this guy, who looks like he sees too little sun, was meant to be a blogger. MSM #fail.

Friday 2 March 2012

Three Little Pigs drop out of the frying pan, into the fire

The Guardian has dramatised how it would
deliver media coverage using socmed curation.
It's a clever ploy by the Guardian, Britain's popular liberal broadsheet. The newspaper today posted an advert on its website that purports to show through a dramatisation how its "open" journalism - a curational strategy that pays attention to social media, rather than debunking it (something which media companies have in the main stopped doing now) - would work given the case of the Three Little Pigs. The advert got plenty of play on social media, with credible sources posting links to the video along with admiring comments. But beyond the novelty of adding curation of social media the ad shows that the Guardian's aspirations are merely true to type.

The dramatisation shows plenty of scenes with police carrying guns conducting raids (the image accompanying this blog post has a clip from one of these sequences). Across the entire package we get dramatic music aimed at heightening the sense of something important happening, the unfolding drama. It's a bit like the short produced to promote an action film made by a major Hollywood studio. There's a court scene, scenes showing forensic experts examining a crime scene, a reconstruction using animated drawings of how the Wolf could not have blown down even a house of straw, and a riot scene. The truth of the story (it's a bit convoluted) being that the Pigs had framed the Wolf because they could not afford their mortgage payments. This revelation led in the ad to a street riot (shades of August 2011, but here instead with the middle class out in force), which also gets coverage in the media.

Interspersed with these scenes are computer-graphic illustrations showing posts made by average citizens using Twitter and Facebook that comment on the stories as they emerge. The Guardian is saying that its editors and reporters would respond to such postings by including their views in their investigation, allowing punters to participate in the news process through curation of messages they leave on social media. This is a welcome step but not a particularly radical one. Most media organisations take notice of trends that emerge in social media, and often include this material in their stories. And trending attitudes on social media do not necessarily represent an informed view, but rather often merely a representative view. It is hard to see how such views can add much value to news stories.

But beyond this one argument against the Guardian's opinion of itself the ad offers us, the ad's conception of what happens in the media is, overall, uninspiring as well. All the dramatic music and rapid action cuts that are used in the making of the video, point back to other representations of "news" we get elsewhere. One place we get them is in the ABC's adverts promoting its news coverage in Australia, where on the screen alongside the corporate logo appear words such as "community" and "sport" accompanied by a dramatic, typical soundtrack giving us an idea of each type of story in brief. The ease with which we can recognise each type of story in the soundtrack (the ABC does a lot of radio and TV in Australia) is as uninspiring and fatiguing as the scenario drawn in Guardian's Three Little Pigs dramatisation. These organisations are making a routine claim not only to authenticity and reliability (the use of logos, the recognisable soundtrack) but to timeliness and relevance. It's "news". But merely news, too.

These claims hardly go beyond what we already recognise as "news". It's an uninspiring view of the world, this news package, despite all the drama used to trick it up and paint it as somehow "new". And it points back, also, to the routine attempts by newsmakers to generate drama through the use of catchy headlines and topical angles. The aggregate of stories, the Guardian is telling us, give us a full picture of the truth. But I feel that the stories we would get via the curational approach offered by the Guardian will be the same stories that we are reading today. It's unlikely that this approach will lead people to hold a higher opinion of the media, than they do at present. Not that they can live without it. They can't.