Thursday 31 October 2019

New office building, “Workshop”, at 21-43 Harris Street, Pyrmont

Last year on 22 August I wrote about the construction site that had been prepared for a new office building. They are now taking the scaffolding down to reveal the façade, and it looks like the building’s shell has been completed. The photo that appears below was taken on 15 October.

A development application was filed with the City of Sydney and approved on 4 December 2017. The developer is Milligan Group. The building is called “Workshop” and it will contain eateries.

The little sandwich place operated by the friendly Korean woman that had been running in a tiny niche near the light rail station is shut and there’s a “felafel bowl” place there instead. On the same square the burrito shop where the Turkish guy works is still operating and, in the same building, there’s also the café, run by a Chinese guy, and a convenience store. In another building, on the corner of Harris and Scott streets, the sandwich shop (also run by people from China) is still open.

There has been a lot of building going on in my suburb over the past two years. One site on Harris Street that will contain town houses is nearing completion. The cutting made for it was enormous.  And the blocks of stone that were made to clear the site were taken away by truck. There is also a block of apartments being built down on Miller Street.

Now, there is talk of putting in a new train station in Pyrmont on the planned “Metro” line that will run from Central to Parramatta underneath the inner west. In addition, the casino wants to put a big hotel on its site and the Fish Market will be relocated, with the existing site redeveloped. With the entire suburb being made over I wonder what will happen to the dwellings owned by the government that are currently occupied by tenants?

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Book review: Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing, David Leser (2019)

Leser is a good writer, there’s no question about that. His profiles from a generation ago were used as texts in at least one of the units of study I completed a decade ago for a journalism degree. I can’t say if they are still being used to teach there, but it doesn’t matter: those features – articles of length that promise to provide a broad overview of a subject, in his case the details of and direction taken in a person’s life – are still emblematic for me of something valuable about journalism that no amount of cynicism and argy-bargy on social media has been able to wipe away.

So, completeness and comprehensiveness are central to Leser’s way of approaching his work, hence the title for this ambitious but flawed book. It occurs to me that Leser might have experienced hubris after his Good Weekend article on this topic resulted in a large number of responses from people in the community. He seems to have thought that by simply multiplying the scope of that story he would be onto a dead cert to win big. It turns out that this was an illusion.

When you’re writing a book such as this, one that aims to encapsulate in a couple of hundred pages the facts of thousands of different cases that are united by a single theme, you have to do your preparation well if you want to be credible as a witness and as a chronicler. So, because the community is so divided on this issue Leser feels the need, from the outset, to marshal all the ammunition he can to establish the need for the review.

I don’t think there’s much doubt that we need to be looking for ways to address criminality but it does seem a bit ambitious to assume that mysogyny has the same characteristics everywhere in the world. I read part of this book and that part seemed to me to be overambitious and faulty in its conception.

The problem of violence against women doesn’t appear to me to be the same in, say, Pakistan, as it is in, say, Australia. These are two different nations with completely different histories and different institutions; institutions such as the education system, the legal system, the religion (Australia has no official religion even though Islam is practiced here), and defacto institutions such as the customs that regulate the ways that marriages are organised and those that regulate relations between young people. To presume that you can find common themes if you study cases that take place in one or the other of these countries is to place a huge burden on the reader. It is to treat the reader as someone who is credulous.

The problems with this book don’t stop there. Leser turns to the historical record to find some sort of cause that has made men today behave in such despicable ways toward women. He stumbles upon what seems to be a promising theme – that the notions of desire and hatred are closely linked, for men – but doesn’t take it much further than to merely make a note of it. Instead of looking at the physical and psychological determinants for men’s often despicable behaviour, he then makes much of old Biblical precedents for the treatment of women as second-class citizens. There are more quotes from the Old Testament in the first chapter of this book than in a news story about Israel Folau.

The problem with this approach is that it seems to have no justifiable applicability. If you grow up in a Chaldean Catholic family in Sydney’s west and you go to church every Sunday and read the Bible and follow the guidance of your priest and of your elders, then it makes sense for a journalist to take into consideration, if you are abusive toward your wife or girlfriend, what Leviticus says about women, or what Saint Augustine says. For his part Leser seems, to me, to be a pretty typical middle-class Aussie boy who grew up listening to Supertramp and Frank Zappa. He, like me, and like the overwhelming majority of men in the country who are of an age at which they can still be considered a threat to women, is about as likely to have read the Bible as he is to have read the entire output of a popular (in the 19th century) novelist such as William Thackeray or George Eliot. Less likely, in fact.

The post-war counterculture swept away in a generation most of the remaining vestiges of organised religion for the majority of Australians, leaving, in its place, modern-day prophets such as John Lennon and Bob Dylan. You can’t lionise poor, murdered Lennon and give Dylan a Nobel Prize in Literature and then turn around and say, in a book like this, “What they wrote makes no material difference to the people who consumed their cultural products. Check out Leviticus!” What kind of relationship does Leser think the Old Testament has to contemporary Australian mainstream culture, a culture that permitted one young man to deface Euridyce Dixon’s memorial in a Melbourne park? To assert, as Leser does, that someone like myself had been – in any way, shape or form – influenced in my thinking by what is in the Old Testament is to commit a solecism of the most flagrant nature.

These two major methodological problems are evident in the parts of the book I read. If the author had got these things so wrong, I thought to myself as I was closing it and putting it down on my coffee table, what other bizarre notions was he going to serve up? There are simply no words to adequately describe the feeling of boredom that invaded me when I had finished Leser’s foolish survey of the Bible.

Now, I am not a big fan of academic writing. In my experience, much of it is incomprehensible to the layman. But what Leser’s book needed was a bit of rigour in the thinking used to form it, even to come up with the list of topics it should deal with. I can understand a publisher like Allen & Unwin wanting a commercial success because they do some good things in the area of fiction publishing. You need reliable titles in order to allow you to publish books that are challenging and difficult, and this company does bring out some good books. But it is beyond understanding if no-one in the editorial department at the company said, quietly, to Leser, one day, “David, do you really think this stuff about Leviticus is relevant for your readership?”

This one of a number of books by feature writers I’ve reviewed in recent months. Another is ‘Fake’ by Stephanie Wood (reviewed here on 2 August), and the same problems that I found with Leser’s book apply in that one as well. There is an assumption that the same way of thinking that had resulted in a successful feature article would also work for a book. And there was similarly sloppy thinking and an identical belief that gender identity is determined to a degree by external influences, in Wood’s case things her mother had said to her when she was young.

I’ve seen a number of reviews about Leser’s book and I also saw it discussed on TV, on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘The Drum’ panel show. When women talk about this book they seem to be concerned with the very fact of the book itself. How appropriate is it for a man to be writing a book like this? This seems to me to be unnecessary. The bigger issue appears to me to be the belief that just saying something – for example, writing in holy scripture that women are inferior to men – actually makes much difference to people’s conduct. It won't unless it answers an existing need or else confirms an existing bias. Or unless it responds to something innate to the species, like xenophobia.

A text can embody values without necessarily promoting behaviour that sustains or encourages their adoption. I am sure that Leser takes a look at this sort of thing in his book and I would probably have benefited by learning something if I had persevered with it. The reservation I express is a complex point to get your thinking gear around but it is one that seems to be misunderstood by a large part of the community. What I’m talking about it the kind of thinking that made Evangelicals in the 19th century try to coerce novelists to write “improving” works of fiction, and that led the Nazis in the 1930s to burn books. It’s simply wrongheaded.

In my mind, a far more important aspect of the question is the way that biology operates on the minds of men. Men are more violent than women and they have been bred to be so, so it is hardly surprising that they use violence to get what they want. Even if you socialise men differently – by raising them to be as concerned about the wellbeing of the collective as they are about themselves – you will still find men conducting themselves differently from women.

I’ve sat on the review you are reading for months thinking about what to do. Should I give a negative review or should I say nothing? I finally decided to go ahead and publish. There are many good books of journalism available that are solid on the basis of the information as well as on the basis of style. Leser’s work seems to me to be weak in terms of content and the style strikes me as being unsuitable for a book, but if you’re looking for good journalism at book length, then try Chloe Hooper’s 2018 work of creative nonfiction, ‘The Arsonist’

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Sapporo protests over G8 summit held in the city

The following photos were taken over a period of half-a-minute around 7.09pm on Sunday 6 July 2008. There were protests in 2008 in Tokyo and Sapporo at the time of that year’s meeting. These shots are from the nightly news in the days before the confab became the G7; Russia formally quit the grouping in 2017.

We don’t normally think of Japanese people as liable to resort to street protests to make a point about the political settlement or about the economic circumstances that condition their lives, but this is remarkable as, since WWII, there is in the country a history of civil disobedience. In 1960, in fact, well before the more well-known anti-Vietnam War protests that would take place in the US, street protests in Tokyo happened that would change, in a decisive manner, the direction Japan was to take.

Those protests resulted in a more mild, inclusive, and accommodating attitude characterising the relationship between government and the governed because the latter, seeing the protests on their newly-acquired TVs and reading about them in the newspapers, decided that “enough is enough”. The 2008 protests in Sapporo, meanwhile, had little effect on the country or on the world although George W Bush, shown in effigy in one of the images below, was replaced early the next year by Barack Obama.

The use of effigies in this way is also puzzling, as though the zeitgeist or the global consensus were nothing more than an action movie with actors you can easily identify with and who play characters that possess limitless individual agency. As though messiahs and their evil doppelgangers were real. As though the global consensus depended, for its reliability and for its strength, on a few men operating in isolation from the desires and aspirations of hundreds of millions of people.

On the other hand, people in aggregate are gullible so such contrivances are regular currency. But what does it mean to capture 30 seconds’-worth of vision in 19 JPG files, vision showing such unedifying contrivances – the police and the men and women marching with their amateurish signs in front of the assembled journalists and the camera operators – as though the unreal were real?

Does it mean taking back control of the message? Is the TV news broadcast itself to be understood as reflecting anything like reality? Or is it just part of a continuous, debilitating spectacle that politicians and public servants and businessmen and -women in aggregate rely on to entertain us and to give us the impression that we are informed – so that we can consent to being governed by them – while they, largely unhindered, politely do their jobs? Aren’t the protesters just actors in a hackneyed drama? And who writes the script? George W Bush or, perhaps, us?

Monday 28 October 2019

Book review: Dying in a Mother Tongue, Roja Chamankar (2018)

An Iranian woman who writes erotic poetry is not something you often come across and, the translator’s introduction tells the reader of this collection, her work is not taught in schools or at universities in her home country. She was born in 1981. This book of hers came out in Persian in 2012 and the English translation was published by the University of Texas at Austin.

When I first began reading this book I felt the sense to be a little overdetermined but then I got into the swing of things and realised that I was dealing with a person with very strong views about the world. You expect such a person to be, at times, unconventional.

There is nothing dry, nothing ironic or understated about Chamankar’s verses. But you do get some outstanding lines. An example of metaphors and images that can appear, at first glance, slightly too strong, and which are coupled with a really striking image is here, in ‘Stand clear’:
I’m detached from myself
from your voice
from my bond with the sparrows
and the moon
who drags the sky down to the earth.
This comes at the beginning of the poem and the protagonist’s feelings are clear: she is fed up with picking up the crumbs her lover leaves for her on the ground. Crumbs, like what sparrows peck at with their beaks. Her bond with the moon is a physical one, one which is native to all women. But the final line sampled here – “the moon / who drags the sky down to the earth” – is masterful. It links up with the first image (crumbs on the ground the sparrows peck at) and adds substance and depth to the feelings that are being communicated as being the protagonist’s (the poet’s feelings).

What Chamankar reminded me of when I was reading her poems is poetry published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when poets gave readers striking and startling imagery but who also, in a classical vein, used historical references to make meaning. I wasn’t clear about the proper nouns that Chamankar deploys in her poetry, and so looked them up. “Zipporah”, a name that appears in ‘On the edge’, was the wife of Moses. “Haliptus” in ‘The Seaweed’s Magic’ has not been indexed by Google. “Dalan” in ‘Bits and pieces of me’ is probably a reference to a town with that name in southwest Iran.

In ‘For Bahar’ you find a reference to the “Strait of Bulhayat” but while no mention of such a place is available on Google’s results pages, "hayat bul" means "find life" in Turkish. This poem contains more or Chamankar's characteristically striking imagery. It is both erotic and patriotic, mixing love of a man with memories of the protagonist’s experiences of war. There is a very striking theme that seems almost Stoic which invokes beauty and its opposite that, when combined in the poem, make existence more poignant. The positive and the negative, the good and the bad. Side by side, like the lovers in their bed.

The poem ends like this:
The sea is more beautiful
when you laugh and water
fills the dimples in your cheeks.  
Now go
pick up the seashell
and hide the sound inside.
The poem had opened with the image of a seashell which, in that case, had carried the protagonist’s voice to her lover. Now, at the end of the poem, the seashell reappears but the meaning of the imagery here is ambiguous, strange, and indirect. There is something sensuous about the final line quoted – this is poetry, after all, and words in poetry are allowed, in fact they are encouraged, to have multiple meanings. But what does the woman who is speaking want the man to do with the shell? With her voice? What does anyone want this woman who is speaking to do with her voice?

Once the shell has been picked up, does she still have a voice? Or perhaps her voice is only meant for the man who holds the shell. Perhaps, as well, finding something positive in acts of violence is the only way to cope with the sorrow they inspire.

Sunday 27 October 2019

Meditation: On the beach

The following photos were taken with a digital camera on 30 September 2011 (between 3.17pm and 3.34pm) at the beach in Maroochydore, in southeast Queensland, where I was living. Dad died in March that year, two days after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami happened. I was still, in that year, writing stories on commission for magazines.

The beach was about 500 metres away, to the east, from my apartment, which faced a road and, beyond that, a park where people played football on the weekends and, sometimes, for practice, on weekday evenings.

On the northerly margin of the playing fields stood a huge paperbark tree and there was, planted in soil in a pot on my balcony, an aloe which would flower some years. When it did so it tended to attract bananabirds which, using their claws for purchase, would cling to the plant’s peduncle so they could feed from its bright orange blossoms.

Saturday 26 October 2019

Book review: Midnight in Sicily, Peter Robb (1996)

This magisterial work of creative nonfiction is a kind of history of the Sicilian mafia. The bulk of the book concentrates on what happened in southern Italy in the years since WWII but there are excursions into much older eras although not in ways that provide an equal amount of detail. Probably the biggest mystery the book provokes is what has happened to Robb since 2014, the year the most recent piece of journalism by him appeared in Australia.

To make the book, Robb plugs away diligently at his craft, spending time in Naples and in Palermo (the capital of Sicily), and in Rome, flitting between small, out-of-the-way restaurants and the homes of the famous.

He does a good job and you can learn a lot from reading this book but it goes quite fast at times and people who are mentioned earlier in the text will suddenly pop up again without any contextual information. I had to look things up online a couple of times to get back in the picture.

Robb’s main achievement however is the quality of the writing. He is, simply, a master of style. The suspense, the colour, the detail, the dramatic moments, all of these things pile up in a great, towering, massive thing shaped like a cornucopia or a croque monsieur, although you wonder – as I did in the case of Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ – how Robb managed to remember so many details in some cases where overheard speech is directly reported.

The book entertains and it informs and that, as the teachers will tell you if you go to journalism school, are the two, complementary, halves of your job. The book has, furthermore, stood the test of time very well. It’s as fresh and relevant now as it was when it was first put on the bookshop shelves. The focus on food is particularly good, and this anticipates trends that would not start to really go mainstream for decades. The book, a bit like a mafia don, has not a hair out of place.

The mafia operates – or it did, at the time the book was being written – something like a state within a state. It has its own laws, its own forms of authority, its own forms of authorised violence. And it was, during the years Robb describes, deeply and intricately involved in the matrix of Italian society especially through Christian Democracy, a centre-right political party, and a politician named Giulio Andreotti who is the main “character” in this saga. He forms a central locus of meaning generation for the whole narrative and even if, to expand on a theme he is interested in, sometimes Robb goes off on a tangent to look at other people, the focus returns to Andreotti eventually. In this way, the book has about it the feel of a work of true crime.

In defence of Italy’s honour, it is important to remember how poor the country was even when the Americans first landed on the shores of Sicily to begin the project of liberating Europe from the scourge of fascism. Many people were desperately poor. But the mafia were preying on (or recruiting) the poorest, and no doubt still are.

Robb is relentless, over a period of years, finding out who did what to whom and how Andreotti was involved, in order to provide a portrait of a country in a permanent state of crisis. Paralysed by fear. The trial that comes at the end of the book concluded in 1999, so that part of the drama was not included in this book. 

Friday 25 October 2019

Odd shots, 06: The media are stenographers

This is the sixth post in a series about the ways that people online blame the media for society’s ills. The title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” The first post appeared on 24 August but there was an earlier post on 18 February this year titled ‘Don’t shoot the piano player’.

This survey covers a period of just over two weeks starting about a month ago. For variety there is also a short excursion back to 2008 and 2007. Times shown are Australian Eastern Standard Time except after 6 October this year when daylight saving kicked in, meaning times shown on days after then conform to Australian Eastern Daylight Time.

Accusations of simply promoting government “propaganda” are commonplace on social media as people try to come to terms with the difference between the rate at which the community moves and the rate at which their own imaginations move. This disconnect seems to characterise the dynamic lying at the root of the frustration that people sometimes feel when they see things on TV or read stories on news websites. Their ideas are ahead of the larger community’s, and so they lash out at the media. The media is thus a convenient scapegoat.

A problem also lies with something mentioned in an earlier post in this series. As noted there, news stories cannot, in all cases, contain all the nuance and subtlety that every issue warrants, in everyone’s eyes. To ask for such a thing is to demand the impossible. All news stories are proxies for larger debates.

Having said that, the media does need to hold the powerful to account, and the powerful are always more interested in getting their own message to their audience than they are in respecting the truth. Everyone wants something from journalists, and people who talk to journalists are very careful, in most cases, about what gets published. This can lead, for example, to interviewees asking to see a story before it goes public, in order to possibly “correct” a point. This can even mean that people change what they said in an interview, if what they said could embarrass them. So while people want the exposure that journalists can often provide, they also want to control the message.

On the other hand, what a politician says in public is, on its own, newsworthy. To say otherwise is to commit a solecism. So publication is a bit like Occam’s razor: you want to be fair, you want to be intelligent, but you also want to just report what’s happening. And it seems that many people are not happy with the way this is done.

With the examples that follow the themes are consistent although some accusations aimed at the journalist are partly justifiable on the basis of the evidence available. In some cases the suspicion lingers, after seeing the evidence, that the article in question was merely a bit of spin launched by the government in order to earn the community’s approval. In all cases, however, despite what appears to be a lack of rigour in the reporting, there is something at least that warrants attention. Whether there are other, more important things, to occupy the community’s attention, is another matter. Based on personal experience the evidence shows, however, that people in general are attracted to the ephemeral and the digestible, and will ignore more solid reporting even if reading something more substantial is in their best interests.

I will finish with an example from about a decade ago which shows how time can put things in context better than any journalist is able to do.

Going in chronological order, I will start on 25 September 2019 when, at 7.08am, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) journalist David Crowe tweeted a link to a story in the SMH about the prime minister’s response to student and climate activist Greta Thunberg. His tweet went: “'Let kids be kids.'-- Scott Morrison's plea after Greta Thunberg's UN warning goes viral.”

In response to this, with a retweet, former SMH journalist Asher Moses tweeted, “This is what you get from journos who care more about ‘news’ and drops from politicians than truth and justice. They manipulate facts to serve the interests of power and ignore key context such as inaction leading us to certain extinction. This is copy [and] paste govt propaganda.” I found it hard to see how Crowe had “manipulated” anything other than letters in his word processing software by pressing the keys in the order necessary to type out his story. This was a straight report, pure and simple, and the attack from Moses seemed, to me, to be unfair. Given the government’s position on the environment, it is newsworthy to simply report what the PM says about Thunberg, the prominent Swedish student and activist.

Then, a few days, later, on 29 September at 5am, I saw a tweet from New York University teacher Jay Rosen about a different subject: US politics. He said, “Don't know what went awry here, but this reads like a press release from Ivanka Trump's office. Perhaps you think I am exaggerating. See for yourself.” The tweet came with a link to a story with the title, “Ivanka Trump's role as top diplomat reemerged at UNGA.” The story was from CNN and was dated 28 September. “UNGA” is the United Nations General Assembly which, Google says, is “one of the six principal organs of the United Nations, the only one in which all member nations have equal representation, and the main deliberative, policy-making, and representative organ of the UN”. The CNN story contained this:
Trump was in New York to promote her Women's Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) initiative and to practice diplomacy on the world stage, a role she's embraced with mixed reviews, hamstrung by her father's mercurial tendencies and policies that are sometimes at odds with her objectives.
It went on a bit later:
President Donald Trump recognized her work multiple times during his remarks before world leaders at the UN, thanking her directly during a speech on religious freedom Monday and referencing W-GDP during his address to the General Assembly Tuesday.
Rosen’s point was fair in this case: this was a bit of a puff piece, but this kind of story is not unusual. Having said that, I did wonder why the story had been reported beyond its relevance of Trump’s tendency toward nepotism. The US president’s daughter is not a politician, although pointing out the flaws in Trump’s character is, in itself, useful.

Now, to the UK and to the subject of Brexit (the UK’s exit from the European Union). On 8 October at 6.42pm, an account with the Twitter handle @mattsumption and 774 followers tweeted, “Good journalism is publishing texts of political spin verbatim from government sources, the longer the texts, the more journalism you are doing.” “Peter Oborne has some words for James Forsyth (among other client journalists).”

Oborne is “a British journalist and broadcaster” according to Wikipedia. “He writes a political column for the Daily Mail and Middle East Eye.” Forsyth is “a British political journalist and political editor of The Spectator magazine” according to the same source. The Spectator is a conservative paper. The tweet came with this image.

I couldn’t immediately make much sense of the context these comments were made in but I did find out. The article in question was by Oborne and had been published on 4 October in Middle East Eye. It had the title, “UK Brexit crisis: The next few weeks could shape Britain for decades to come,” and it went, in part: 
[UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s] slovenly dress is not merely expressing contempt for the grey suits and traditional country tweeds of Tory MPs and party members. He’s deliberately showing contempt for the British Conservative Party itself.  
And not just that: he’s sending out a statement that he holds Britain in contempt too, including his attitudes towards its institutions, its values, its rule of law and its parliamentary democracy. 
To further his cause, he can rely on the support of an army of client journalists who crowd around him for access and information. They tend not to ask difficult questions about his ultimate objectives or who funds him. 
Large sections of the British media share much of his destructive agenda, craving access and information. In return, Cummings receives their protection.
In response to the tweets quoted above, an account with the Twitter handle @Dr_Tad and 3288 followers (with Berlin put down as the user’s location) tweeted, “Yes, it’s a long honoured tradition among journos to report such spin by adding quotation marks and minor bits of paraphrase. Speccie really letting the side down.” “Speccie” is a shortened form of the name of the Spectator, a right-wing media outlet. 

Because of the Spectator’s natural bent, its reporting positively on the conservative UK PM should not be remarkable. There are media outlets that are progressive (such as the Guardian) and there are others that are conservative in their editorial positions (such as the Murdoch papers). Newspapers conforming to their natural bias is not really noteworthy unless you want to point out that it is undesirable. I have written before about how issues get politicised as soon as they become public property and, to digress for a moment, I think that we all need to care less about what political parties think about issues, and to care more about the wellbeing of the entire community.

Back in the US again, on 9 October at 2.20am an account named Walker Bragman, belonging to a New York journalist with 20,871 followers, tweeted, “This whole thing with Ellen DeGeneres defending her friendship with war criminal and monster George W. Bush is a good example of how celebrities serve as cultural ambassadors for our brutal capitalist system.” A bit later, at 2.49am, Jacobin Magazine, a New York progressive media outlet, tweeted, “When you ask your favorite [sic] liberal media figures why they never use their platform to fight for global justice or stand against American imperialism.” The tweet came with the following image. In it, US TV host Elen Degeneres says, “I’m friends with George Bush.” 

I found it hard to criticise Degeneres for saying this and harder still to see why her statement was unpalatable. Degeneres is a trusted source of information for millions of people so, naturally, what she says is of interest to many. On the other hand, the Iraq invasion of 2003, which was led by the US, was not beneficial for anyone, as history proved, and Bush was badly advised to go ahead with it. 

In the Australian context, on 11 October at 7.55pm Melissa Clarke, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) foreign affairs reporter, tweeted, “Scott Morrison runs water for his PM’s XIII team, then takes a selfie with the players, in a match against Fiji. That is one happy rugby league tragic, right there!” The tweet came with a photo showing the Australian prime minister taking a selfie with some football players, presumably in Fiji.  Morrison had been shown in a video as well, taking bottles of water to players on the field at a rugby league game held in Fiji. In response, on 13 October at 9.01am Tim Dunlop, an Australian author with 9475 followers, tweeted, “Journalism as propaganda, pure and simple....serves no other purpose than to show the PM in a particular light, an image he is very happy to have perpetuated.”

This I thought was a bit unfair as Morrison’s trip to Fiji – a country with its own problems, notably a lack of democracy – was designed to bolster ties to countries in the Pacific. Climate change is causing problems on many of the islands that make up these countries and rising sea levels especially. Morrison’s Coalition government has poor energy policies that do not aggressively deal with climate change, so keeping good relations with the Fijian leader Frank Bainimarama – a man who loves his football – is actually pretty important. Showing Bainimarama how an Australian politician can be a servant for his or her people might furthermore form a constructive lesson. Giving an oblique message.

The next day the attacks on Clarke continued however, for on 12 October at 10.16pm, in relation to her tweet, Rex Widerstrom, a freelance journalist and political consultant with 637 followers, tweeted, “From one journalist to another: this is a disgrace. You should be ashamed, either of your gullibility, or alternatively your willingness to be used in the hope of personal advancement. I employ journalists. If I saw this on an applicant's social media, their CV would hit the bin.”

Guardian journalist Greg Jericho also got the boot in when, on 12 October at 7.10pm, he tweeted, “When I see how easily our media gets suckered in by Morrison’s schtick, I wonder: Is Australia’s political media more gullible than the US or UK?” In reply, with a retweet, Moses, tweeted, “Sycophants and stenographers who are drunk with their proximity to power, no longer even trying to get at the truth or hold power to account. Completely pathetic press gallery.”

So, just to demonstrate how journalism really works, here’s a case study. The photos that appear below were taken on 11 June 2008 between 7.34pm and 7.36pm. The story on the TV at the time was about ideas that were being thrown up about GM Holden manufacturing hybrid (petrol-electric) vehicles in Australia. Labor was in government at the time and they were subsidising the auto industry because it wasn’t sustainable on its own. Toyota had announced that it would built hybrid Camrys in its Melbourne plant. 

The Australian auto industry was finally allowed to die by the (conservative) Coalition government under Tony Abbott. But in 2008 the Labor party – which has always tried to help workers, especially in industries such as manufacturing and mining – was throwing around ideas. The ABC news story involved interviewing the GM Holden boss in Australia, the industry minister, Kim Carr, and a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) employee named David Lamb. There was also a guy from the Federated Chamber of Auto Industries and a guy from a magazine named GoAuto. So the ABC did its best to get a range of view. Even so, the idea fell flat because no-one – especially the company itself – wanted to really make cars in the country, and they certainly didn’t want to invest in the new plant and equipment that would have been necessary to tool up their factory for the new models. 

Lamb quit CSIRO in 2011, having worked there from 2003 as the CEO of the Australian Automotive Technology Centre. Before that he worked for Ford in Taiwan. He now lives in Melbourne and tutors in English. When Labor aired its policy for electric vehicles in advance of the May 2019 federal election people were again talking about making EVs in Australia, but of course Labor lost the election. 

It would be easy to criticise the ABC, on account of the 2008 story, for being captured by either a carmaker or by the government to put out a scheme that no-one really believed would happen. The story was, in fact, a total brainfart and it was accompanied (as the photos show) by copious quantities of compelling “relevant” imagery in the form of footage supplied (probably) by carmakers. Factories with robots always look good on-screen, they’re so photogenic. 

But nevertheless, the story was perfectly legitimate, although from this far away in time and in the absence of a transcript of the interviews used on the program it’s impossible to really judge either the people involved in the story or the journalists who put it together. Perhaps it was unwise to run it though given that nothing concrete had been announced either by the carmaker or by the government. 

To contextualise the state of the industry, at the time, the following is another shot from the TV, this time from the Special Broadcasting Corporation’s news half-hour on 18 July 2007. The photo shows Ford Australia plant workers looking unhappy after being let go from their jobs at one of the company’s plants (either Geelong or Broadmeadows). When the country was under a different government, Ford shut its plants, as did Holden. In 2014 even Toyota announced that it would shut its production facility in Victoria, and it closed three years later. 

It wouldn’t have hurt for the ABC to do some of this kind of contextualisation in their segment but perhaps they did. I can’t know at this far remove from the moment of the broadcast. But journalism has this ephemeral aspect to it. It’s not history, but people often call it the first draft of history. When people criticise journalists for submitting their critical faculties to someone else’s opinions, they are missing this point.