Sitting in the Dschungel… We do have political satire, Mark. They’re called newspaper cartoons and they suck. #auspol

I like satire.  I really do.  Last week, I wrote in defence of satirical news programmes, claiming that they form a necessary bridge between the public and the issues of the day in a format that suits the audience.

But something was wrong.  Something was niggling at the corner of my memory.  Shortly before Presentmas, a few days before I posted that entry, I went to the Behind the Lines: The Year’s Best Political Cartoons exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House).  As very few people still read newspapers, it’s a chance for the broader public to see what the very best Australian political cartoonists produce.

As I’ve written before, Australian political cartoonists are dreadful.  Since writing that, I came across Simon Doonan’s article in Slate about why the art world is so loathsome. Among other things, Doonan discusses the idea of modern society being in a ‘post-skill’ environment:

“No major figure of profound influence has emerged in painting or sculpture since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s,” writes Camille P. But what about those annoying YBAs, the young British artists, the folks that noted U.K.-based art critic Brian Sewell has wickedly and accurately dubbed “The Post-Skill Movement”? Are they profound or influential? [Source]

It’s a wonderful phrase, if used carefully.  Used inexactly, it’s the vehicle for the sneering and pompous attitude of previous generations of artists towards anything done by newer generations.  Used precisely and surgically, it helps to describe the ugliness that results from a rejection of tradition.  Art cannot exist outside the critical response to the traditions which made it possible.

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Quick Post: On @antloewenstein’s wishlist for journalism #auspol

English: Rupert Murdoch at the Vanity Fair par...

Over on The Guardian, Antony Loewenstein has written a wishlist for journalism in 2014.  Without gazumping it too much (it’s a good read), Loewenstein has four items on his list: reduced reliance on anonymous sources, a ban on politicians penning opinion pieces, greater investment in the ‘Snowden effect’, and increased lauding of public broadcasting.

Although the piece is interesting and fun, it’s also an example of the sort of thing that I don’t want to see in 2014.

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Things I’d like to see in the media: closer merging of news and entertainment #auspol

Image representing Rupert Murdoch as depicted ...

Image via CrunchBase

It is an oft heard complaint that there is too much overlap between news and entertainment.  It is not uncommon in Australia for news programs to promote reality television programs or to report on soap opera plot developments.  It is frequently opined that we treat politics like it’s a football match, that we turn politicians into celebrities by making them perform like dancing monkeys on prime time TV, and that we sacrifice intelligent, sober political analysis for clickbait.

People misdiagnose the problem.  These are examples of where news is sacrificed in the name of entertainment. It’s not really an ‘overlap’; it’s one dominating the other.

On the other hand, merging news platforms with entertainment platforms — entirely possible given recent technological developments — would improve the quality of our news output and the diet of people who regularly consume the news.  If done properly, it would also improve the quality and quantity of Australian made entertainment.  It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s more than possible.

I’ll admit that this is the idea which makes me seem most like a supervillain…

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Things I’d like to see in the media: Journos who are comfortable with their ignorance #auspol

PEN Quiz 2007

PEN Quiz 2007 (Photo credit: englishpen)

Over the next few days, I’m writing up these shorter posts about things that I really wished were actually things in the media.  Should it so happen that a wealthy philanthropist likes the sound of any of these and would like to bankroll them, you can contact me through my ‘about’ page.

One of my key arguments is about the importance of opinion writers.  They — like ethicists and legal theorists — have the task of putting into language the intuitions of non-experts.  If successful, non-experts will have better tools with which to express their own views.

The invisible hand likes to interfere and so opinion writers (by and large) are not necessarily successful if they are clever or insightful.  They are successful if they generate a lot of traffic, either in the form of newspapers sold or views of their website.  Thus, we have the foundation for the Outrage Economy.  Not only do we share excellent pieces of writing with which we agree, but we feel the need to share things which offend us so that we can add our condemnation.

The invisible hand affects opinion writers in another disturbing way: opinion writers need to produce content on a wide variety of subjects, and thus there is an incentive to opine beyond the capacity and knowledge of the writer.  Thus we get writers who one moment are experts on asylum seeker issues before turning rapidly to the carbon tax, and then to foreign affairs, &c., &c., &c.  Far from being polymath foxes, they run the risk of becoming ‘Professors of Everythingology’.

It would benefit public debate if Australian opinion writers were more familiar with Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism:

Be sure your self and your own Reach to know.

How far your Genius, Taste, and Learning go;

Launch not beyond your Depth, but be discreet,

And mark that Point where Sense and Dulness meet.

Pope’s essay contains the core idea of what I’d like to see in the media: journalists who transcend their insecurities and have made peace with their ignorance.

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I wrote some songs; they’re all for you… Why @ShoebridgeMLC is wrong about shield laws #auspol #auslaw

In New Matilda, David Shoebridge (Greens member of the NSW Member of the Legislative Council) argued that shield laws for journalists need to be more robust.

As a motherhood statement all political parties say they accept that the media have a legitimate role in uncovering often difficult evidence and then using that to hold the powerful to account. But the real test of their commitment to this principle will be if they support the extension of shield laws beyond just sources and beyond the Courts.

It is time for all governments to urgently reform shield laws so that they protect journalists from revealing their sources and from betraying their confidences and to extend these protections to other coercive public inquiries. For all those politicians who say they believe in the principle of a free press, the time has come to put up the laws. [Source: Shoebridge, ‘Why Journalists Need Shield Laws’, New Matilda]

Shoebridge gives examples of cases where the wealthy and the powerful used the courts to chase after journalists.  Mining heiress Gina Rineheart is currently chasing a journalist in the WA courts over claims she believes are defamatory.  Rineheart wants the details of correspondence between the journalist and the source so that she can then sue the source for those comments.  And so on and so forth.

The argument relies on the audience having fairly similar reactions to the examples cited: journalists are the brave, courageous truth-seekers who need protection from the rich and the powerful.

But Shoebridge isn’t arguing for shield laws to protect the brave, courageous truth-seeking journalists from the rich and the powerful; Shoebridge is arguing for shield laws to protect all journalists from everybody else.

I think I’m entitled to a certain level of privacy and a fair reputation.  One day, I become a little bit famous and a local journalist decides that publishing sordid details about me would sell more papers.  They find a secret source who’s willing to divulge all kinds of strange stories about me.

Due to our legal system, I’m unlikely to be able to afford the same level of legal representation as the newspaper.  I could probably afford to sue the source of the information, but Shoebridge’s proposed shield laws prevent me from discovering who that person is.  So what are my options?  What protects me from the tabloid journalist? Why don’t I have a right to face my accusers?

Journalists are not on the side of the public.  For example, it was clearly in the interests of democracy that voters knew which politicians were leaking information to the media, but the media decided not to tell us.  This problem is reflected in the level of trust the public has for journalists: it’s extremely low.

So if we don’t trust journalists, and if we can clearly see that journalists are not acting in the interests of the public, why would we confer upon them greater protections from public accountability?

So free your love. Hear me, I’m coming… Why opinion writing matters #MediaWatch #auspol #ausmedia

Monday night’s Media Watch ran another of its ‘special’ episodes where it tries to explore a particular issue relating to journalism in more depth.  Unfortunately, both the time constraints and the limitations of the current host tend to cripple the show’s ability to really nut out the issues in sufficient depth.  In an interesting exploration of the phrase ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp’, Media Watch really wants to achieve something amazing, but has neither reach nor grasp.

Which is a shame.

In an episode filled with unchallenged assumptions, one stood out to me in particular because it’s quickly becoming the dominant ideology in discussions about the media.

 And even as their numbers dwindle, more and more senior journalists appear to be spending time analysing and opining, rather than digging and reporting. […] Laurie Oakes is hoping – vainly, perhaps – that the mainstream media will see that fact-based reporting, not endless opining, is what it can do better than the blogosphere. But he, and I, both fear that it may be too late. [Souce: Media Watch, 22 April 2013]

In the comments of the transcript, one comment echoes this ‘fear that it might be too late’:

The media doesn’t have any interest in reporting facts. I’m sick to death of listening to journalists opinions. I want the facts. As a result, I now look for my news and facts outside of the usual news outlets. [Source: ‘Jason’ 23 Apr 2013 8:12:40am]

As a person interested in theory, I worry when people start to divide the world into ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’.  Facts, it seems, are independent of the observer and, as such, are the correct material for newspapers and journalism.  But we know that the world doesn’t work like this.

Take the discussion about live exports.  People were extremely passionate about the subject and had radically different ideas about what was at stake.  In the middle of this was an internal-ABC paroxysm about whether the ‘correct’ word for the building where animals are killed was ‘slaughterhouse‘ or ‘abattoir‘.  Both words denote the same thing (broadly), but one has the word slaughter in it.  Is it neutral to use a word which does not include that connotation?  Is it neutral to use a word which does?

In January, Australians celebrate ‘Australia Day’ which marks… settlement? colonisation? invasion?  Which is the neutral word?

More than the prevalence of opinion (to which we’ll return in a moment), I’m worried about the pretence of ‘neutrality’.  Time for some Zizek!

In his review of Zero Dark Thirty, Zizek noted the director’s claim that it was supposed to be a neutral account of the events leading up to bin Laden’s… death?  killing?  murder?

One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.

Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?

Without a shadow of a doubt, she is on the side of the normalisation of torture. When Maya, the film’s heroine, first witnesses waterboarding, she is a little shocked, but she quickly learns the ropes; later in the film she coldly blackmails a high-level Arab prisoner with, “If you don’t talk to us, we will deliver you to Israel”. Her fanatical pursuit of Bin Laden helps to neutralise ordinary moral qualms. Much more ominous is her partner, a young, bearded CIA agent who masters perfectly the art of passing glibly from torture to friendliness once the victim is broken (lighting his cigarette and sharing jokes). There is something deeply disturbing in how, later, he changes from a torturer in jeans to a well-dressed Washington bureaucrat. This is normalisation at its purest and most efficient – there is a little unease, more about the hurt sensitivity than about ethics, but the job has to be done. This awareness of the torturer’s hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture ensures that the film is not cheap rightwing propaganda: the psychological complexity is depicted so that liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty. This is why Zero Dark Thirty is much worse than 24, where at least Jack Bauer breaks down at the series finale. [Source: Zizek, ‘Zero Dark Thirty: Hollywood’s gift to American power’ The Guardian]

Zero Dark Thirty is a really good case study in ‘neutrality’ as a way to obscure the ideology of the author.  Watching this film, you get the impression that torture was useful in the hunting down of bin Laden even though no particular point of the film outright makes the claim.  When confronted with the allegation, the director was able to hide behind the air of neutrality: ‘Oh, I’m not really saying anything or pushing a particular message.  I’m being neutral.’

Journalism should not go down this path.  Journalists and editors are just like directors, they make decisions about what goes into the news and, equally as importantly, make decisions about what is not covered.  When we, the ordinary public ask, ‘Why did you cover this story in this way, and why didn’t you cover that story?’ the answer is not ‘We objectively presented the facts!’ but ‘We made decisions about what we thought was important based on our own judgement.’

In this respect, I wish journalists were a little bit more human.  Instead of hiding behind the phony veil of objectivity, I wish we could get a better understanding of how they view the world first so that we can see the perspective from which they’re writing.  Alas, we’re never going to get that because of journalists’ pretension of professionalism.  Objective and impartial…

Don’t get me wrong.  Worse than trying to be objective and denying subjectivity is the greater evil: being extremely partial and pretending to be objective.  Going holus bolus after particular political parties, &c., &c., &c., in the ‘news’ is flatly unprofessional.  It was unprofessional when Murdoch’s media empire backed Gough in the 1970s and it’s equally unprofessional today.  All of that said, I wrote in New Matilda that the attacks on News Ltd weren’t always entirely justified and still agree with that position:

It’s like watching the hyenas maul Scar at the end of The Lion King. Sure, Scar wasn’t exactly the hero of the story, but did he deserve to be torn to shreds? [Source: Fletcher, ‘Has News Ltd Actually Done Anything Wrong?‘ New Matilda]

So, just to reiterate: outright bias masquerading as objectivity is a Bad Thing, but feigning objectivity without admitting subjectivity is also a Bad Thing.

What I argue now is that the same principle can be applied to opinion writing.  Further, good opinion writing is absolutely essential to a well-functioning democracy.

The difficulty in making this argument is that we are much more familiar with bad opinion writing than we are with good opinion writing.  From both sides of politics, we are more familiar with the asinine restatement of partisan party lines as opinion than we are with opinion writers who are able to put into words those ideas that we’re struggling to express.

Forget journalism for a moment and turn to applied ethics.  Everybody has ethical intuitions.  Everybody has a vague idea of what they think is morally good and morally bad.  The point of applied ethics (and ethicists) is not to be some decider who determines whether some act is good or bad, or even some pontiff who tells people how to think about ethics.  The point is to give language to people’s intuitions and to challenge those intuitions.

Opinion writing — good opinion writing — fits into a similar framework.  The point of opinion writing is not to just express the opinion of the author (every halfwit with an internet connexion can do that) but to give language to people’s intuitions about debates and to challenge those intuitions.

It therefore becomes almost a trivial matter of showing why good opinion writing would not be an expression of outright bias pretending to be objective but, instead, would be more like good journalism simpliciter — presenting a balanced and fair account of an argument without pretending that the account was objective.

Why is good opinion writing as I’ve described important?  We assume that everybody is equally capable of putting together a coherent argument.  ‘Opinions are like arseholes,’ I’ve been told, ‘Everybody has one.’  But it’s not actually true.  Some people have much better opinions than other people.  Some people are much better at expressing their opinions than others.  Some people have opinions that would never occur to other people — for example, as a straight white guy, my perspective on the world is very different from a homosexual, a person of colour, or a woman (see, for example, the recent atheism debate where a white guy straight up told me that there was no problem of gender in pop-atheism and that I should STFU for claiming such a thing).

When we live in a Republic of Reasons, it is important that people have the tools necessary to discuss and debate their reasons with others.  Good opinion writing provides that tool.

And we see the outcome of our modern landscape of poor opinion writers.  Tony Abbott puts up a sign with some potentially inaccurate words; people freak out about those words, vandalise the sign, and then completely forget to analyse the policy.  Meanwhile, millions of voters have their bellyfeel instincts about both border control and asylum seeker activists confirmed.  We have protests filled with people of both political tribes who can barely mumble out what they believe.  Meetings of the WTO and G20 are bombarded by people screaming ‘Something something globalisation something something.’  We see crowds gathered at Parliament House with ‘Ditch the Witch’ signs.  You could replace all journalists with objective robots who dutifully conveyed information in some value-neutral way (i.e. with magic) and you’d still see this depressing obliteration of public discourse.  Why?  Because people don’t have good quality resources for forming opinions.

So let’s get back to Media Watch.  Jonathan Holmes and Laurie Oakes fear ‘endless opining’.  They shouldn’t.  The current batch of opinion writing is not unlike a sewer gushing out into the wilderness and we should fear that the rivers will never again run clean, but we shouldn’t fear opining itself.  What we should be doing is looking for ways to improve the content of our opinion columns.  We should look for ways to promote diversity in columnists for one, and to promote quality for another.

But we already know why this won’t happen: the market.  When it’s more profitable to pump out blogs and columns by trolls (leftwing and rightwing) who can draft up linkbaiting garbage with very little research, you’re going to tap that resource dry before you start to look for well-researched opinion pieces which (shock, horror) will be expensive.

I have a dream that, one day, I’ll be able to read the opinion pages of an e-newspaper which won’t be flooded with ‘comedians’, ex-politicians or their staffers, or think tank miscreants.  I suspect I’ll be dreaming for a long time to come.

You’re such a delicate boy in the hysterical realm… The Spectre of Catholicism in Folk (A)Theology

You make the whole world want to dance…

So we have a new Pope and he’s totally a Jesuit.  A Jesuit.  From the Society of Jesus.  Didn’t Dan Brown say something about Jesuits?  Weren’t Jesuits another name for Opus Dei, the Illuminati, and the Reptile Lizard People?  Wasn’t Tony Abbott advised by an influential Jesuit?

For an institution as old and as influential as it is, it is strange that the Catholic Church is so poorly understood and so often misrepresented.  Misunderstandings and misrepresentations of theology are understandable; theology is difficult and popular culture has neither the time nor the inclination to grasp its subtleties.  It’s why Dawkins can sit on Australian television guffawing about Cardinel Pell’s grasp of human evolution, while simultaneously making stupid comments about how Catholics understand the concept of the soul.  Knowing about science is Important, but knowing about theology is a Waste of Time (especially, it seems, for people who write books with titles like God Is Not Great and The God Delusion).

But misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the Church itself seem less understandable. Perhaps it’s because of the huge amount of anti-Catholic propaganda circulating the place.  Perhaps it’s because the Catholic Church has a history of not being entirely open about its wheelings and dealings.  And perhaps it’s because people just like to think the worst about large organisations and powerful individuals.

When Pope Benedict XVI declared his intent to resign, social media went into meltdown.  ‘The Pope?!  Resigning?!  Can the Pope resign?!’  I had a rather testy exchange with Alan Fisher, a senior journalist with Al Jazeera, when he added to the noise of ‘Oh, wow!  How is this even happening?!’  His role, I argued, was not to be as ignorant as the average punter, but to be a source of information for the average punter.  He disagreed, figuring that the media was supposed to be a mirror of public reaction or some crap.  But when the media appears to be mystified by the mysteries of the Church, how is the ordinary public supposed to keep up?  (More cynically, I think they feign mystification in order to hype up the news: ‘The Catholic Church acted in a way contrary to ignorant public expectation; this is extraordinary news!  Click here!  Retweet this!  Linkbait!  Linkbaaaait!’)

But problems with Pope Benedict XVI’s image went further than mere astonishment at everything he did.  He had significant image difficulties.  This shouldn’t have been a problem, given that he was a man of substance — but when the wider world gets its information in 2-second bites, looking like Emperor Palpatine did more to influence public perception than anything written in an encyclical.

Perhaps that’s a bit unfair.  It also appears to be true that the wider world wants nothing more than a non-Catholic Pope.  ‘This Pope is anti-condoms, homophobic, and believes in the resurrection of Jesus?!  Way to stay in the Dark Ages, Catholic Church.’   It is strange to compare the Pope with the Dalai Lama; while the Dalai Lama is homophobic and occupies a weird place in Tibetan politics, he gets the benefit of being a smiling, goofy-looking Asian.  Pope John Paul II was an Old, White Guy.  Pope Benedict XVI was formerly of the Hitler Youth or something.  And while the Dalai Lama occupies a fantasy role in the lives of hundreds of thousands of white Buddhists (who totally think it’s a philosophy and not a religion, and who think they can pick and choose the bits which affirm their affectations), the Pope is Catholic.  Horribly, horribly Catholic.

Somewhere in this space is the attitude that you don’t need to understand the Catholic Church in order to criticise it.  Child abuse!  Anti-condoms!  Dan Brown!  But it could also be that we feel it’s not possible not to know something so omnipresent and influential.

The Church has a lot of problems to resolve, and it needs to resolve them quickly.  The problem of child abuse (and abuse in general) has a systemic and long-standing problem, and an academic Pope might not be the best person to address those needs.  But the problem needs to be understood before it can be solved: is the problem that there’s abuse within the Church, or that the Church knew about the abuse and did nothing, or that the Church knew about the abuse and covered it up, or that the Church suspected the abuse but had structures which tried to avoid addressing the issues, or &c.?  When the prevailing attitude is ‘Boo!  Catholics!’ it is difficult to nut out the problem of abuse.  I hope that the Catholic Church in Australia engages with these questions.  Given some of the people responsible for engaging with the Royal Commission, I think that there’s a good chance of that happening.  In fairness, although the Catholic Church has had some of histories finest apologists, the Church itself has never been sufficiently apologetic for its past and current crimes.

But part of the solution has to be a reengagement with the community.  The Church has become like an estranged father, shadow looming over the community as it tries to rebel.  The image problems, the conspiracy theories, and, now, the questions about what it means for a Jesuit to be CEO of the Corp are symptoms of the disconnect.

And this is all said by a devout and practicing atheist.  A healthy, open, and connected Church is in the interests of everybody, not just Catholics.  I hope that Pope Francis is capable of the task.

Trolling a city with @feed_the_chooks and @MylesPeterson #canberra #auspol

Linkbaaaaaaait.

I have now lived in Canberra for half a decade in several different houses.  Always northside.  Always northside.

A few months ago, notorious weirdo, Myles Peterson, wrote an article in the Courier Mail trolling Canberra.

Cashing in on the torrents of taxpayer cash flowing on to Canberra’s gold-paved streets, local retailers and supermarkets charge prices found only in South Yarra and Vaucluse. Low-paid Canberrans have been steadily priced out of the city. Students cannot afford to rent anywhere, often taking drastic measures just to put a roof over their head. Many visiting undergraduates flee long before completing first year.

Savvy former public servants have taken the exploitation to absurd, some would argue corrupt, levels. Government-owned land is selectively released to cartels of ex-bureaucrats, who then make out like bandits on-selling postage stamp-sized blocks to Canberra’s housing-desperate underclasses.

Links to the article swept around the Canberran networks along with the ‘corporate’ memory of who Myles Peterson was and why he was so notorious.  From the point of view of the Courier Mail, the article was a success: the page views must have skyrocketed.  People outside of Canberra would have read it and responded with outrage when it confirmed everything they secretly believed about Canberra.  People inside Canberra reacted with bemusement: several different people made quips about golden cocaine and cocaine gold, not having enough change on them for coffee due to all the hookers and blow, and being mindful of not scuffing the freshly gold-plated road.

Today’s trolling article in The Age by Martin McKenzie-Murray inspired a different response.  Without the absurdity of Peterson’s article, the response inside the circle has been hostility.  The article merely contends that Canberra is a bit less packed than Melbourne and Sydney.

On the day I moved to Canberra I was taken to the top of Mount Ainslie. From there you can view The Plan – the sight lines, the Parliamentary Triangle, the geometric symmetry. From there you could also see the empty boulevards and feel the crisp air. That cool wind didn’t just come from the Brindabella Ranges. There was a chilling vibe. Here was the ”unreality” of Canberra that Keating had described.

Nearly 100 years before, the city’s planner had wanted nothing less from his design than a revolution in our consciousness. Griffin described his plan for Canberra as ”[the best opportunity] so far afforded for an expression of the democratic civic ideal and for all that means in accessibility, freedom … and splendour”.

But what was splendid in the vision was sterile in the living. Griffin had designed a city that pre-empted the primacy of the car, which was both prophetic and pathetic. Instead of a tightly knit centre, six (now seven) small districts emerged, separated by vast space and ill-connected by public transport. Between these centres lies mandated green space, which is pretty for tourists but pushes locals apart, limits land availability and drives up property prices.

I use the word ‘hostility’, but it is less than that.  It’s more: ‘And what would you know?’

Canberra-bashing is easy and fun.  My younger sibling is a cabinet maker.  I am in awe of his ability to craft things.  It’s like an art and he’s good at it.  He lives in rural Victoria in a house he bought and is in the process of renovating.  He doesn’t understand the property market, but he thinks he can make some money through the renovations.  He gets his news from breakfast commercial television.  He struggles with reading, preferring to get audio books.

When I last saw him — and despite the family rule that people get into political conversations with me at their own peril — he decided to tell me that he thought the carbon tax was rubbish and that it would ruin the economy.  When I asked him to explain the carbon tax, he couldn’t.  When I walked him through the concept of externalities, he would agree that he shouldn’t have to pay for companies to pollute but then couldn’t link that idea to increasing the cost of pollution.

As a way out of the conversation, he bagged Canberra with the usual remark: ‘You guys just don’t understand what it’s like to live in the real world.’

Peterson’s and McKenzie-Murray’s articles use this same trope: Canberra is distant, unnatural, and a burden.  My brother was echoing this: he does a real job by building something but I don’t have a real job because it’s technical and theoretical.

Owen Dixon didn’t want to have a fixed location for the High Court in Canberra.  He felt that the Court should be as close to the people as possible (individual citizens being the primary unit of the legal system).  Parliament House was built in Canberra in order to separate it from individual States (States being the primary unit of the Commonwealth; not the people).  But the public service (and the swarm of people who shadow the public service) has always been the most distant.  Public servants are servants to the Minister.  Advisers are advisers to decision-makers.  Administrators are administering organisations.  The unreality arises from the abstraction, and Australians tend to distrust the thinkers.

The media is not interested in the hive of activity in Canberra, and so the public that it’s meant to serve never get to look in on the world.  Instead, they see it represented in satire, invective, and controversy.  For that reason, articles like those are troll-bait to confirm the prejudices of the Real World while trying to provoke some kind of reaction from the ivory city.

You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends… @ConversationEDU: Academic opinion vs opinion of academics

This is a particularly difficult blog post to write as it criticises something which, on the whole, I think is a good thing: The Conversation.

During the height of questions about ‘balanced media’ and ‘expert authority’ surrounding climate change and (in Australia, at least) the imposition of a carbon tax/trading scheme, The Conversation was established, supported by various universities and research institutions, to provide an outlet for expert engagement with the community.

The Conversation is an independent source of analysis, commentary and news from the university and research sector — written by acknowledged experts and delivered directly to the public. Our team of professional editors work with more than 4,000 registered academics and researchers to make this wealth of knowledge and expertise accessible to all.

We aim to be a site you can trust. All published work will carry attribution of the authors’ expertise and, where appropriate, will disclose any potential conflicts of interest, and sources of funding. Where errors or misrepresentations occur, we will correct these promptly. [Source]

In practice, this has been difficult to achieve.

Let’s start with ‘written by acknowledged experts’.

In May 2012, The Conversation ran an article called ‘On Iran, Obama shows he loves Israel a little too much‘.  Middle East conflicts are notoriously difficult to cover in opinion/analysis articles.  Regardless of what you write, somebody in the audience will scream about bias.  Just to declare my conflicts, I’m pro-Arab.

The article was written by Michael Brull.  Brull is prominent in Independent Australian Jewish Voices, which is a loose organisation extremely critical of Israel.

None of that is disclosed in his article, which instead asserts the contrary: that he has no relevant affiliations.

Further, his claim to ‘expertise’?  ‘Studying for [sic] Juris Doctor at University of New South Wales’.

I pointed this out quietly to The Conversation at the time.  It was ignored.

Unfortunately, Brull is the most obviously problematic of the contributors.  What happens when academics have axes to grind?

Jane Caro is an academic, but I’ve found it difficult to find anything she’s written that’s been peer reviewed.  More famous as a celebrity than an academic, Jane Caro has a number of pet causes, particularly atheism (she’s one of the Australian pop-atheist crowd) and opposing government support for private schools.  Neither of these causes have anything to do with her academic position: she’s a lecturer in advertising, marketing, and communication at the University of Western Sydney.

In September 2012, she was listed as an ‘expert’ on education reform and the Gonski Report.  While she’s employed by an academic institution, her private opinion was confused with academic opinion.

What’s the difference?

Consider ANU’s Academic Expertise and Public Debate policy.  It states:

When staff members speak within the broad framework of the expertise which led to their employment, or which they have subsequently developed through research and scholarly activities as ANU staff members, they are entitled to use their ANU affiliation as evidence of their expertise on the issues.

The important part there is ‘speak within the broad framework of [their] expertise’.

Jane Caro would be subject to the University of Western Sydney’s Media Policy, which states:

[The University] encourages academic staff to engage with the media to showcase their research, and to offer expert scholarly commentary on topics within their areas of expertise.

But the Gonski Report and education reform are not part of Caro’s research expertise and this was not flagged in the article.

This problem was repeated in a subsequent article, ‘The MLC “scandal”: who cares, and why?

Caro writes:

Surely it is only of real interest to a very small number of people; those parents who are forking out as much as $23,000 per year in fees for example. And, yes, noone knows better than I do that taxpayers money has also been involved in the running of this school

For those who didn’t follow the story, it involved the peculiar arrangement of a very well connected group of people in Victoria’s business scene.  Due to a dispute between the recently sacked principal of Methodist Ladies College in Melbourne and the governing board of MLC, a lot of people were startled to see the disputes of a highly influential and under-scrutinised group of people.  We often complain that the media doesn’t hold those in power to account and, when it finally does what it’s supposed to do, Caro complained because it involved those wealthy private schools that she hates.

Perhaps a tenuous link could be made to her position as a ‘communications’ lecturer, but Caro’s not an acknowledged expert in Victorian business.  She’s not even an expert in secondary education.  Yet here’s The Conversation presenting her as an expert the lay audience can trust.

And there are plenty more examples like it.  It would be dreary reading to list all the ones I’ve picked up, but it’s fairly regular that an academic will write on a political issue in which they have little expertise.  The strike rate increases considerably when they publish articles by former politicians turned academics…

More problematic, perhaps, is when The Conversation systemically denies a right of reply to people its articles besmirch.  Companies and organisations have often been targeted by invective from academics, with no indication that those groups were offered a right of reply.  University administrators are routinely targeted for invective by disgruntled academics.  But the article which, with breathtaking audacity, demonstrates this problem most clearly was Professor John Dewar’s article in August 2012, ‘Vice-Chancellor: La Trobe protestors abused freedom of speech‘.

Like many universities, La Trobe is faced with the need to ensure financial viability in the face of budget uncertainty.  It decided to target an underperforming faculty to make it more profitable.  This resulted in — it must be admitted, frankly ignorant — outrage from the students.

As an academic, Professor Dewar was given a platform in The Conversation to make rather odd accusations about the students, including the damning claim that they ‘roam[ed] freely around the campus’.

The undergraduate students — not being ‘acknowledged experts’ — were not provided an opportunity to respond.  The Conversation was, by its nature, incapable of providing balanced coverage to the issue.

The problem is exacerbated when The Conversation tries to shift from a news outlet by academics to a news outlet about academics.  A conversation about the funding structures of universities, for example, won’t necessarily be well informed by asking a bunch of academics what they think about funding cuts.  Similarly, asking the person who flips the burgers at McDonald’s what they think about principles of corporate responsibility in the fast food industry regarding the obesity crisis.  It might sound like an unfair comparison, but most academics don’t research academia.

Although it wasn’t published on The Conversation (much to their credit), the best example of this divide between ‘working at a university’ and ‘knowing how universities work’ is Donald Meyers, Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline.

The book was rejected by publishers.  Here’s Dr Nathan Hollier, Director of Monash University Publishing, on why they wouldn’t touch it:

Unfortunately, while I think Myers [sic] makes some very important points, I also think the argument needs some re-thinking and a different mode of expression before it could be seriously considered for publication.

In  my view (again) the main problem with this manuscript is that the points made are generally not backed up by evidence. There are too many questionable assertions, generalisations and distinctions and too few direct examples with documentation and detailed explanation.

In the course of documenting these examples and explaining them at greater length there would also – hopefully – be a different tone emerging. While it is good to condemn things that need condemning (such as falling academic standards and the increasing managerialisation and bureaucratisation of the university), it is also good to be aware of why people – including those with views different from your own – think and act in the way they do. Generally, I would suggest, people in the tertiary sector are operating within a complex system which, like the society of which it is part, faces various pressures from within and without. A more extended consideration of these pressures would enable a reading of what has happened and is happening within the sector, including the negative parts of this, that does not wrest [sic] on the assumption that large groups of people are either stupid or ‘bad’.  [Source]

Over 168 pages, Meyers outlines his heroic battle against the forces of terribleness at work within universities:

I have incurred the wrath of management on numerous occasions – without even trying. One of the most amusing, however, was my only face-to-face interaction with the Vice Chancellor. It started with an order to appear at the Headmaster’s office, without notice or explanation, shortly after the conclusion of a meeting of the Vice Chancellor’s Environmental Advisory Committee, which I had the misfortune to chair for two years. It transpired that an administrator
who sat on the committee had visited him in tears allegedly as a result of being abused at the meeting. [p. 135]

The reality is that most of the people who move into [positions of Deputy Vice Chancellors, Pro Vice Chancellors, Executive and Associate Deans, Senior Policy Advisers] are people with academic degrees who would not be competitive in the private sector and who no longer have the desire or competence to succeed at teaching and/or research. In many cases I suspect they have little more than a pathological need to wield power over those who make them feel intellectually inferior. [p. 151]

If the higher education is to be convulsed yet again by reform, let it commence with lavage of the tertiary sector gastrointestinal tract to  expel the resident parasites – the managerialists, the pseudointellectuals, the hangers on, the snake oil salespeople and the ever expanding coterie of Education poseurs. The administration should then be subject to radical liposuction, lap banding and abdominoplasty. Botox will be administered to those who scowl. [p. 165]

There needs to be recognition that we are not all intellectually equal. It is important to know how we rate against others in a variety of pursuits and, just as importantly, we need to know in general terms where our skills may lie. The idea that everyone should go to university is just as detrimental as the constant focus on inflating self-esteem irrespective of performance. […] I can see the hackles and hear the howls of the Educationalists at the mere mention of such ideas. It will be unfair to the socially and economically disadvantaged. [p. 166]

My favourite one is the ‘I abused a person to the point of tears; I was told off and I find this hilarious.’

But it illustrates the point.  Academics study their field.  They don’t study universities.  When The Conversation presents articles by academics discussing the nature of universities, they are no longer giving their academic opinion, they are merely opining.

Finally, there are the articles which are just plain bad.  More often than not, they’re articles where the editorial team felt the need to get an article up which addressed some hot topic of the moment and couldn’t find an academic to write the article quickly enough.  Unfortunately, both of the good examples of this are written by the same person which makes it seem a bit unfair and petty (The Conversation‘s archive system is rubbish and I only happened to remember the name because it popped up twice).

Universities left economists ill-prepared for the GFC: Wolf‘ tells the story of a public lecture given by Martin Wolf, the chief economics writer for the Financial Times.  I don’t know many people in Australia who’d know who he is, nor would they be intimately familiar with his various stances on economic ideology.

The article completely fails to explain who he is or what he’s talking about:

Universities and macro-economists still haven’t found a way to solve the crisis of economics that was triggered by the global financial meltdown says economist Martin Wolf.

Speaking to an audience of economics students at the University of Melbourne, Mr Wolf said the real world debate on economics and the global financial crisis was one between Keynesians, Monetarists and Austrians, none of whom were seriously represented in contemporary economic discourse.

Keynesians?  Monetarists?  Austrians?  Unless you’re an economics buff, these words aren’t going to mean a great deal to you.  One of the comments to the article wondered why academics from Austria were having such a hard time being represented in economic discourse…

Worse:

Mr Wolf said economists didn’t know what to do about the mismatch between the rigorous academic framework of economics and the heuristics of applied policy work.

“I don’t think it’s a simple answer, but I think that branch of economics is in pretty serious crisis, as in the thirties.”

Again, this is linked to the problem of The Conversation trying to be about universities rather than by academics.  One part of Wolf’s argument was that universities weren’t developing well skilled applied economists and that the public debate (flooded with Keynesian, Monetarist, and Austrian economic philosophies) wasn’t being informed by academic economists.

The same author wrote ‘Murdoch, Scott defend governance in media‘ which follows a common trend for editor-written pieces.  This article responds to a hot topic: the Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, had made some interesting remarks at Senate Estimates.  It coincided with Rupert Murdoch making similarly interesting remarks at News Corps’ AGM.

There’s only one man alive who can write rapidly and ferociously about anything Rupert Murdoch says.  His name is Stephen Mayne and he is batshit cray-cray.  Unfortunately for The Conversation, he doesn’t have an academic position anywhere.

In order to get articles up quickly, editors will write up an article and then, quite strangely, add the musings of an academic they’ve telephoned for some quotes.  In this example, they chose Bruce Arnold, a lecturer in intellectual property law at the University of Canberra.  Arnold doesn’t really discuss the claims or statements made by Scott or Murdoch, opting instead to opine broadly on the commercial media industry as a whole.

In short, it’s difficult to see how these articles (and others which fit the same format) indicate that The Conversation is a site we can trust for academic opinion.  Between people writing wildly outside their field of expertise, articles spun to be about the research sector, and articles which are cobbled together under extremely demanding time pressures, it’s hard for the lay person to spot where the academic opinion ends and the opinions of people who happen to be academics begin.

I said at the start that I thought The Conversation was, on balance, a great thing.  The articles on science are wonderful and there’s an enthusiastic fun about a number of the articles where you can see how much the academics love writing about their subjects.  It’s when it strays into contentious, political areas that the problems emerge and its those articles which significantly reduce the quality of The Conversation overall.

You don’t feel love like you used to… Why @urthboy is wrong about classical music funding #ausmusic #auspol

Over on the Twitters, the Herd’s Urthboy wrote:

This is the music industry’s version of middle class welfare http://musicfeeds.com.au/news/government-slammed-for-outrageous-classical-music-funding/ [Source]

Apparently, the Government has given $7.25 million dollars since 2004 (that is, an average of $906,250 per year over 8 years; a bit less if the calculation includes 2012) to Melba Recordings.  Melba Recordings:

was established to promote Australia’s finest classical musicians and artists in the national and international music world.

The appointed role of the foundation is to help the best contemporary Australian musicians, the Nellie Melbas and Joan Sutherlands of today, develop a profile and continue to build musical careers on an international stage.

The Melba Foundation was established in 2001, with founding benefactor Dame Elisabeth Murdoch and patrons Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge.

The Melba Foundation funds the fine music label, Melba Recordings, to produce and distribute recordings that have earned accolades around the world.Highly regarded music producer, Maria Vandamme, is CEO of Melba Foundation and managing director of Melba Recordings.

During its first ten years Melba Recordings has supported and recorded several established Australian artists – including the conductors Richard Bonynge and Simone Young, and singers Cheryl Barker and Stuart Skelton – as well as an increasing number of emerging talents like tenor Steve Davislim, violinist Ray Chen, cellists Pei-Jee and Pei-San Ng, and many others. [Source]

Less than a million dollars a year to promote Australian classical musicians?  How on Earth could anybody think this was middle class welfare?  Nevertheless, Urthboy is incensed:

@clothedvillainy@jamesbrann Nothing against classical music. All about the grossly imbalanced distribution of arts budget. [Source]

@clothedvillainy this is about investing in creative, original talent. i’ll say it again, we like your music. this is about fairness. [Source]

So Urthboy’s complaint is that there is an imbalanced distribution of the arts budget because less than $1m per year going to support Australian classical musicians is not investing in creative, original talent.  Sucks to be you, Australian classical musicians and your uncreative unoriginal talent.

Let’s be incredibly clear here.  I can create hip hop music in my bedroom.  I get a machine and a computer and I can pump something out fairly cheaply.  If I want to produce an album of orchestral music, I’m going to need an orchestra.  That means instruments and people to play them.

Classical music in Australia is under severe threat because the invisible hand of the market doesn’t support it.  It is expensive and the audience is tiny.  At the same time, we feel that it is culturally important to provide outlets for classical musicians.  Melba Records plays a role in commercialising classical music in an environment where the industry is unsustainable.  The sort of record sales classical music gets in comparison to the sort of sales Australian hip hop gets is laughably small.  If we don’t want the industry to die, it needs to be supported.

So when Urthboy uses the word ‘fair’, he means ‘Hip hop should get more of the pie even though hip hop doesn’t cost as much to produce’.  Or ‘Even though hip hop will outsell classical music to the point where the classical music sales are statistically insignificant, we want more taxpayer funds.’  What he doesn’t mean is ‘fair’.

In the universe next door UrthboyPrime is arguing that there should be a fairer distribution of insulin because the government isn’t giving it to non-diabetics.  In the universe across the street, MirrorUrthboy is arguing that subsidised ritalin for ADHD kids is middle class welfare for parents with bratty kids and that there should be a fairer distribution of ADHD subsidies.

In other words, Urthboy’s ‘fair’ has no correlation to the ordinary understanding of the word ‘need’.  When he says classical musicians are unoriginal and uncreative  (by virtue of investment in them being at odds with investing in ‘creative, original talent’), he is saying that, regardless of need, other musicians are entitled to classical music’s slice of the tiny pie.

The part that should have tipped off every right-thinking person that something was amiss with Urthboy’s comments were the lack of details about the total funds distributed by the Australia Council:

The Australia Council supports Australian music-making through the Music Board, Major Performing Arts Board, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board, Community Partnerships and Market Development sections. In 2010 –11, we invested $12.3 million in Australian music-making (excluding orchestras and opera), of which $5.7 million was distributed via the Music Board. This support took the form of grants to individual artists and groups, financial and operational support to music organisations, market and audience development initiatives and strategic initiatives to build capacity across the sector. [Source]

What’s that?  $12.3 million goes to music, excluding orchestras and opera?  Whatty what?  It might be my crazy maths intuition, but isn’t $12.3 larger than less than $1?  I’m pretty sure it is.

So that leaves us in an awkward position assessing Urthboy’s outburst.  Is it anti-elitist?  Is this a fair use of the phrase ‘class warfare’?  What sort of reasoning goes through a person’s head when the group with the majority of the funding looks at the smaller distribution of another and says: ‘It’s unfair that they get so much!’?

How Urthboy can be jealous of the pittance that goes to classical music beggars belief.