Your blood drool attracts the flies… Agreeing on how to disagree #QLDlitprize

I wrote an article on New Matilda about the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award.  In short, it’s a vanity project for premiers; it achieves very little and is difficult to justify when cuts are going to be made to important programs.

There are ways to dispute my argument.  You could say that there’s some error with my reasoning.  Even though it only advantages a very small number of people, that small number of people do amazingly wonderful things which is good for the community… or something.  You could say that there’s no error in my reasoning but there’s a bigger picture; despite me being correct about everything I’ve said, there’s some bigger issue.  Even though it’s true that it’s a vanity project for premiers, advantages a vanishingly small number of people, and will mean that important projects will be cut by an extra quarter of a million, that’s all okay because there’s a prophecy that Space Nazis will attack the Earth if the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award is abolished.

These are, broadly, the two ways people have a discussion or engage in discourse: find an error in the interlocutor’s reasoning or identify how the interlocutor could be correct in the specifics of their argument but incorrect in the broader application.

I’ve said it over and over again, but the number one reason why politics and the media are spiralling down the lavatory vortex is that people can no longer engage in discussion sensibly and productively.  I noted it in passing with the ‘300 bills = good’ discussion: no matter what I said, no ALP supporter can explain why 300 bills is an indication of a good government.  This is the reason why there are no productive discussions about the ABC; people complaining about ‘balance’ have no workable definitions — it’s just bellyfeel reaction to anything IPA-related or rightwing-related.  It’s why conversations about important policy issues go utterly nowhere: you have teams and you yell your teams mantras until one of you passes out from exhaustion.

The colloquial expression is: ‘to talk past each other’ and I’m now seeing this problem emerge routinely in news websites and blogs. I’m also worried that we see it more and more on shows like Q&A and Insiders where the hosts quickly shuffle on to the next topic instead of moderating deeper discussions between parties who disagree.  As the guests know that they’ve got vanishingly small time to get their message across, they resort to one-liners and triviality in order to be remembered.

If we want to see better political discussion, perhaps we need to get better at it ourselves.

Let’s take a holiday in East Berlin… @jonaholmesMW and off-the-record sources #auspol #mediawatch

It’s a widely held view that something is wrong with journalism in Australia.  For nearly a year — it seems — supporters of former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, were white-anting Prime Minister Gillard. Supporters were providing comments to journalists off the record, and papers were publishing the comments verbatim.  ‘An ALP insider says…’ ‘A Rudd supporter says…’ ‘A senior ALP figure says…’

This has divided part of the audience: LNP-friendly readers saw this as instability within the ALP; ALP-friendly readers saw this as intolerable right wing bias in the newspapers.

On 27 February, ABC’s MediaWatch covered the controversy.  Was it all media beat-up?  Was this a media-induced leadership spill?  Should journalists protect their sources?

It was Jonathon Holmes’ view that:

I think that once a reporter has promised confidentiality to a source, he or she is stuck with it, except in the most unusual cases.

And a reporter who refuses to base stories on off-the-record chats won’t last long in the press gallery hothouse. Any change to the culture will have to come from their editors. [Source]

I find Holmes frustrating as a presenter.  Where Marr was exceptional in his insight and ability to argue his view, Holmes regularly relies on his bellyfeel take on an issue.  There’s nothing insightful or philosophical about his arguments.  Worse, his presentation of legal issues in media coverage is routinely abysmal.  Regarding a case where a court ordered that a newspaper reveal its source to a woman who had been defamed, Holmes said:

Why? Well, it’s a long, complex judgment, and I’m no lawyer. But some of Her Honour’s reasoning strikes me as concerning. […]

It seems to me a wonderfully circular argument. The right to protect their sources is designed to make it easier for journalists to discover matters of public interest; the qualified privilege defence is designed to make publication of those matters more possible; but if journalists make use of the second, they risk losing the first.  […]

What they should do is honour their commitment to protect their sources’ identities – if necessary, by defying the courts. [Source]

It was a bizarre train of reasoning leading to the outlandish outcome: defy the courts!  Journalists really do think that they’re a law unto themselves.

But both stories are linked by this idea of the journalist’s right to protect their source.  In the latter case, they should be protected even if it means denying justice to another party.  In the former, even if that means the public is unable to make an informed decision about politicians.

The journalists’ rhetoric is usually wound up in discussions about democracy and the importance of an informed electorate.  Why, then, is Holmes advocating a policy which actively strikes at both?

Holmes goes one step further: the public should not criticise the media because the public doesn’t know the full story (only the journalists do).  On Twitter, he chastised a critic:

can’t discuss on Twitter but you are merely speculating. You have less actual knowledge than the reporters you condemn. [Source]

I suggested that might be the problem.  If reporters have all this information, why aren’t they sharing it with us?  Further, why should we trust journalists to report accurately and fairly?  MediaWatch is full of stories where journalists distorted and misrepresented in order to grab an exclusive story.

When I asked Holmes if the public ought to be able to verify stories, he responded:

Only solution is not to base stories on off record sources. Then we’d all know even less, seems to me. [Sources]

The problem here is that Holmes has a blunt view of what it means to base a story on an off-the-record source.  What he’s meaning here is: ‘Some public figure divulges information which they shouldn’t; the Press should be able to run their unverifiable comments unchallenged.’

But a more nuanced (and sensible) view is possible: ‘Some public figure divulges information which they shouldn’t and tips off the journalist about how to find more information.’

This isn’t an uncommon way to leak.  Every day, government agencies pour out hundreds of reports, papers, books, pamphlets, &c., &c., &c.  You would be shocked to know how much is revealed in them.  It’s one of the reasons why some governments (cough, States, cough) dilute hideous news in pages and pages of pedestrian dullness.

See also the spookily accurate Freedom of Information requests…

In those situations, protection of source is still important but there’s no need to put blind trust in the journalist to report accurately and fairly the source we’re not allowed to know.

The difference between my kind of off-the-record source and Holmes’ is that my version requires some work on the behalf of journalists.  It’s not all private catchups with senior journalists in back rooms, drinking scotch and then phoning in the story.

A lot of my friends get very uptight about the media.  They perceive it as being biased against whatever political position they hold.  What they forget is that very few people trust the media.  Holmes’ argument that we would ‘know even less’ if journalists couldn’t run ‘trust me when I tell you things you can’t verify’ stories falls into the same trap: the public already does not trust the media, so unverifiable off-the-record stories does not help the public to know things.

The problem is lazy journalists who don’t understand their audience.  Short and simple.

No colours anymore, I want them to turn black… Rinehart is good for Australian media #auspol #ausmedia

My Twitter feed has turned into a sea of boohooery over Gina Rinehart’s announcement to buy into Fairfax.

The problem, it seems, is that rich people are not allowed to buy media companies.  Media companies are a sacred trust, a public good, a pillar of democracy, and therefore ought not be owned by the wealthy.

There is a lot of mythology about the media, most of it cooked up and spread by the media itself.  A healthy, independent, fierce media is essential to a functioning democracy… apparently.  I have no idea why this is believed to be true.  Every ‘essential’ element to a functioning democracy is regulated to ensure that power isn’t unchecked.  These checks and balances do not always work well, but no institution is unfettered or unrestrained.

To even criticise the press will cause tut tuts.

No other profession in the West receives this kind of kids’ gloves treatment.  Politicians will happily savage the Church, the military, and even the police before it takes a long hard look at the press.

Rinehart’s purchase of part of Fairfax might prompt some people to question whether the Specialness of the Press is justified, or whether it’s just the spin of a deeply insecure profession.

Further, Rinehart’s purchase has highlighted the question of media ownership.  At least now we know mining stories might not be 100% kosher.  Until now, I had very little idea who was behind Fairfax.  If I read a story in The Age or SMH, I don’t know what commercial interests are behind the ventures.

For instance, until I looked it up, Fairfax is behind RSVP.com.au.  I’m pretty sure I’ve read articles about online dating on SMH; was the article influenced by Fairfax’ commercial interests?

Finally, Rinehart’s purchase might prompt people into getting a bit more serious about supporting alternative media.  If the major newspapers are bought out by disliked commercial interests, people will have to turn to the newly emerging outlets which support the next generation of journalists and writers.

Perhaps we’re all being a little bit uncharitable.  Fairfax has been desperate for cash and now it has one of Australia’s wealthiest people backing it.  Making Fairfax financially viable can hardly be a bad thing.

The city breathing, the people churning… Copy-pasta manifestos

Quite a lot is being made in the Australian media of the Oslo bomber’s manifesto and its mentions of Australian conservatives.

The story seemed almost too delicious to be true.  Even though I’m a conservative, it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if racists looked to Howard as one of their own.  Alas, the journalists didn’t bother to dig much deeper, favouring the obvious linkbait: ‘Howard praised by bomber manifesto’.

The manifesto, ‘A European Declaration of Independence’ is 1,492 pages long as an Adobe file.  The writing style varies rapidly: neither tone nor content is consistent.  This shouldn’t surprise us: it’s not a manifesto.  The author — ‘Andrew Berwick’ — states that it is a ‘compendium’.

There are two passages relating to John Howard.  The first begins on page 519:

Federal Treasurer Peter Costello[28] said Australian Muslim leaders need to stand up and publicly denounce terrorism in all its forms. Mr. Costello has also backed calls by Prime Minister John Howard for Islamic migrants to adopt Australian values. Mr. Howard caused outrage in Australia’s Islamic community when he said Muslims needed to speak English and show respect to women.

A tiny amount of Google-fu makes it clear that this passage comes from a 2006 article published to News.com.au.

The second is on page 675:

Luckily, not all Christian leaders are appeasers of Islam. One of the intelligent ones comes from Australia, a country that has been fairly resistant to Political Correctness. They have taken serious steps towards actually enforcing their own borders, despite the
predictable outcries from various NGOs and anti-racists, and Prime Minister John Howard has repeatedly proven to be one of the most sensible leaders in the Western world.

George Cardinal Pell[30], Archbishop of Sydney, tells of how September 11 was a wakeup call for him personally[31]:
“I recognised that I had to know more about Islam.” “In my own reading of the Koran, I began to note down invocations to violence. There are so many of them, however, that I abandoned this exercise after 50 or 60 or 70 pages.” “The predominant grammatical form in which jihad is used in the Koran carries the sense of fighting or waging war.” “Considered strictly on its own terms, Islam is not a tolerant religion and its capacity for fear-reaching renovation is severely limited.” “I’d also say that Islam is a much more war-like culture than Christianity.” “I’ve had it asserted to me is that in the relationship between the Islamic
and non-Islamic world, the normal thing is a situation of tension if not war, or outright hostility.”

This comes, word for word, from a 2007 article published by the Assyrian International News Agency.

The ‘manifesto’ reads like chainmail.  The penultimate section is about the best producers of sugar beets.  The final section is a series of weird, weird pictures…

The question here is what is the relationship between the writer of the manifesto/compendium/copypasta and Howard?  There doesn’t appear to be one.  There’s no admiration expressed by the compiler because in compiling a document, you don’t express your own opinion.

Does the compiler agree with Howard’s position?  It’s also hard to tell.  Although they were distasteful and repugnant, almost none of Howard’s ‘multicultural’ policies are expressed in the collated news clippings.

If the media were being honest and balanced, the story would be: ‘Oslo bomber copy and pasted news clippings which praised Howard’s policies.’

But that story wouldn’t manufacture outrage or sell adverts, so we didn’t get to read it.

We’re leaving now, so all aboard… Why would newspapers report a Twitter scandal?

Each Saturday, I walk into Civic in order to buy my stack of newspapers: Canberra Times, Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian.  Each Saturday, I end up with a mound of sections which I won’t read either because I’m thoroughly disinterested (Drive, for example) or because it is a billion times more efficient to source the information online (My Career, classified, &c.).

Newspapers have the advantage of being able to provide a calm, reflective, stable version of the news.  Where online media outlets scramble to be ‘first’, giving a few details as they trickle in from various sources, newspapers can provide the richer, fuller, broader story.  This is the trade-off we make with newspapers: the news is at least six hours old, but it’s deep and fulsome news.

I find it increasingly difficult to make that argument with a straight face.  While this might have been the case a few years ago, the quality of the news in newspapers has deteriorated.  There have been a number of stories which literally did not make any sense unless you’d been aware of the background online.

And this weekend we had the final kick in the guts from the newspapers: vast coverage of Weiner’s weiner.

Why, in the name of all that is holy and sane, would we look to a newspaper to tell us about something trivial that happened online?  It’s so batshit insane that my face contorted when I read it.  Why would this be here?  Why is the internet infecting my newspapers?

The idea of newspapers as a journal of record is antiquated.  There are two reasons to read a newspaper.

The first is long-form investigative journalism.  All the short ‘factoid’ articles about who said what and what’s doing who have been outclassed by the internet.  Buying articles from other sources has been a staple part of the newspaper diet since at least the 1930s.  Now, a lot of the stories are just collations of online material: press releases, social media stunts, &c.  While it’s cheap, it’s clogging up space for investigative journalism which is far more likely to attract readers into buying papers (or pay-walled content, if managed properly).

The second is high quality opinion and analysis.  I would gladly pay my eight dollars a week in return for reasoned and logical debate.  Far too often, we’re getting the self-important waffling of people who can barely string together sentences.  In the Sydney Morning Herald two weeks ago, Lenore Taylor wrote a piece that was painful to read.  It wasn’t because the ideas were stupid, but because it was riddled with tortured prose, run-on sentences, and paragraphs which had nothing to do with the argument.  I half suspected Amanda Vanstone was ghostwriting for her.

When I talk to people about this issue, people say that they want unbiased reporting of facts.  I disagree.  While brute facts might be unbiased, the sheer process of putting them into language causes bias.  People from both the left and the right wings of politics read factual material and claim bias against them.  The way to avoid this is to have analysis from both ‘sides’ of the debate, calming and rationally discussing agreed facts.  This would work in Australia, if not for one thing:

We don’t have a non-partisan right wing.

There are very few conservatives left in Australia.  We’ve been strangled out of the debate by neo-cons who, come hell or high water, back the Coalition.  It doesn’t matter what the Coalition says, neo-cons think they’re correct.  It also doesn’t matter who’s leading the Coalition: when Turnbull was leading the meta-party, there was significantly less vitriol spewing out about global warming being a sham.  Why?  Because the right wing media was echoing Turnbull’s talking points of the day.

More left wing papers, on the other hand, are less likely to be partisan (although they routinely give free passes to the Greens).  Left wing papers are more likely to criticise both the ALP and the Coalition, while right wing papers are less likely to criticise the Coalition.

Newspapers should get their noses out of Twitter scandal sludge and hours-old ‘news’, and get back into the game of reasoned, rational argument.  For that to happen, we’ve got to find right wing voices which are more than echoes of Coalition scaremongering.  Good luck.

Staring at the sea, staring at the sand… #lolbolt and the right-wing freak show

Andrew Bolt has a new television show, courtesy of a certain mining magnate.

In the course of 30 minutes, he managed to grovel to Tony Abbott, savage an Afghan Refugee, subject the audience to Latham and Kroger’s furious agreement about how terrible Julia Gillard is, and then a very confused rant about the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Even Abbott seemed uncomfortable about the whole thing.  Bolt is a known climate-change denier.  Abbott has been at pains to show voters that he doesn’t ignore reality.

So there was a miniature trainwreck coming when Bolt asked Abbott: ‘Why didn’t you ask my favourite question?  How long would it take the government to reduce the temperature of the Earth?’

Of course, the question is nonsensical.  Action on climate change is designed to slow the rate of temperature increase; not reduce the current temperature.

Smelling a trap, Abbott avoided the problem by evading the topic.  You know a show’s in trouble when even Abbott thinks the host is a crazy.

Not that other conservatives on Twitter seemed to mind.  Summing up most of the Tweets, @VikingQuester wrote: ‘#BoltReport is filling a massive void in the left, politically correct world of TV.

As a conservative, I was really hoping that Bolt would manage to get on a few conservative guests who could discuss and analyse issues.  Instead, we were treated to a confused rush of nonsense.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll be more precise with my terms.  The sort of ‘conservativism’ on display during the Bolt Report and most of the Tweets is that malevolent neo-conservatism that’s drowned out most of the right.

If there’s one things neo-cons hate, it’s political correctness.  They hate it so much that they’re willing to sacrifice correctness altogether.  There was no substance to the Bolt Report.  It was content to make inflammatory assertions about people, most of whom were unable to fight back.  Admittedly, it fell into the same void as Insiders – in an attempt to make journalists seem knowledgeable, they skirt across issues so quickly to avoid anybody making any substantial comment.  The key difference between Bolt Report and Insiders was BR‘s rapid cycling through issues, rather than moving into new territory.

So the opening monologue was about ‘boat people’ and how dreadful they were.  He moved quickly on to a different topic.  He then returned to ‘boat people’ for a quick chat with Latham and Kroger before moving on quickly again.  He then interviewed an Afghan refugee, asking a string unrelated questions as if to bait the poor guy, then closed down the interview.  I forget if ‘boat people’ returned in the closing section (I was stunned by the last section: it was an unrelenting attack on the senses).

The media has a right-wing bias.  The default reporting of events is written from a right-wing perspective (even on the ABC): Coalition talking points are normalised, even when they’re batshit insane; Greens are considered left extremists (I’m no fan of the Greens — I think they’re tricky and deceptive — but I wouldn’t call their position extreme).  Opinion writing is overwhelmingly left-wing, with most of our highest profile writers being ‘progressives’.  If Bolt was to fill a gap, he’d be filling the ‘Analytical and critical right-wing opinion’ gap which we conservatives have left seeping.

Unfortunately, it seems far too much to expect from Bolt, who seems far too content trolling public debate rather than contributing to it.

As he came into the window, it was the sound of a crescendo… the other side of #Chasergate

I, like so many others, was disappointed that The Chaser will no longer be able to provide their commentary of the royal wedding on ABC2.  The royal family apparently intervened.  It’s a shame.

The blogosphere’s narrative about this turn of events is utterly ridiculous.  AnonymousLefty, for example, wrote:

The ABC is supposed to be an independent public broadcaster. So is the BBC. And yet the royall (sic) family – our royal family, still – can apparently exert so much pressure over the two public broadcasters that they will cancel a program that might satirise a public event [Source]

This is probably the more eloquent of the rage yet it still falls into the tired entitlement complex of those with an internet connexion: how dare anybody tell me that I’m not allowed to get what I want?!interrobang?!  I have a blog!

Sure, it sucks that The Chaser won’t be able to screen their commentary but, at the same time, it should be remembered that this is somebody’s wedding.  A family ought to have the right to determine the extent to which their privacy is invaded, even if it’s a ‘public’ family like the Windsors.

The requests aren’t even that unreasonable.  Australian Parliament House provides live broadcasts of parliamentary events, and even they stipulate that the material broadcasted is not to be used for ‘satire and ridicule’.  These are our politicians who are allowed to put limits on broadcasts, and yet we get uppity and outraged when limits are put on broadcasts of a wedding.  Seriously?

The absurd posturing that a public broadcaster (or the media in general) should be permitted (if not obliged) to invade a family’s life for our shits and giggles is adolescent at best.  It’s not ‘craven caving’ to respect the wishes of people generous enough to allow the event to be broadcast at all.  Grow up.

I brought you all here to discuss, as I must, how grateful I am…

The judgment for the Assange extradition case has been posted online and it makes for interesting reading.

It is shocking and — to be perfectly frank — more than slightly embarrassing that there has not been more analysis of the judgement in the media.  Instead, there is quite a lot from the defence.  The verdict is ‘unfair’, says his mother.  Boohoo, says Robertson.

This is ‘infotainment’ as its worst.  Holy shit: my spellcheck thinks that ‘infotainment’ is a word but not ‘spellcheck’.  What the shit is this shit?

The judgment is a brilliant piece of legal reasoning.  It carefully and — in my biased opinion — magnificently deconstructs the defence case against extradition.  Having read through some absolute dogs of judgements, it’s nice to get one that’s straightforward and clear.  Basically, everything that the defence put up as an argument was bunkum.

This is one of my favourite passages of the judgment:

The lawyer also complained that it is now difficult for his client to receive a fair trial as he had not been provided with all the evidence against him, including important exculpatory evidence.  He gives as an example the witness Goran Rudling, from whom the  court had heard the previous day.  He only knows this evidence because Mr Rudling has contacted the defence. [Source: Sweden v Assange (2011)]

There are two problems with the defence — in the broadest, non-technical sense.  The first is the utter disregard for the alleged rape victims.  This will, no doubt, be played out in greater detail in the media.  B-list celebrities and journalists have been jumping over themselves to denounce the case as a conspiracy against Assange.  This is despite a crapload of evidence suggesting that Assange might not be entirely kosher when it comes to respecting women.  Hell, one might go so far as to suspect that he has some downright obnoxious views regarding women, based on several of his statements and actions.  Does that prove that he raped the women?  No.  But should it cause us to have second thoughts regarding his (and his representatives’) claims that he should be exonerated without trial?  Damn straight it does.

The second is more interesting and it regards Geoffrey Robertson.  Fun fact: when I was, like, twelve, I wanted to be Geoffrey Robertson.  The guy was a hero.  Lately, I’m left wondering if the guy has completely lost his cracker.  He’s writing specious arguments against the Pope and, now, he’s attention-seeking with extremely sub-par arguments in high profile cases.  When your best witnesses outright admit that they received the facts of the case from the defence lawyers, things have gone very, very wrong for your case.  When one of them also goes on to admit that a lot of their opinions come from the media and that their opinions are considered controversial, what was the point of going to court?  Robertson trying this case was like David knocking out Goliath, reaching old age, and then punching 16-year olds just to show that he still has what it takes to be king.  What the hell has happened to Robertson?  Is he that starved of attention?

But don’t expect the media to analyse any of this.  No, no.  Heterodoxy is still saying that Assange is a media hero, revealing the hidden secrets of the bureaucracy and dressing up as a woman to avoid unseen and unprovable government spies. Cough. Cough…

Fun story.  Bearnard Keane writes for Crikey, right?  It can hardly be considered the zenith of journalism in Australia but even he takes the cake when he writes several lengthy uncritical articles about the glory and brilliance of 4Chan while, simultaneously, a large number of 4Chan’s netizens harass a 12-year old girl with sexually explicit messages.  But, no.  Anonymous (/4Chan) supports Assange, so 4Chan must be ‘good guys’ while the governments trying to stop their bullshit are the ‘bad guys’.  It’s so obvious now.

Oh, wait.  It isn’t.  The media is still too keen to write ‘good guy/bad guy’ pieces in order to make their articles more accessible to readers.  For shame.

I know a place where the grass is really greener… Katy Perry lyrics used ironically in a post about women opinion writers

It certainly wouldn’t shock anybody, I think, if I let them know that I was in support of many kinds of censorship.  I don’t think that media/entertainment should be a free for all where anybody can produce whatever they like just because there’s a market for it.  Freedom of speech laws are far too often used to the detriment of the unprivileged, and most regularly used to defend the tasteless, tacky, and indecent.

But if we are going to have the system that we’ve got — where every halfwit gets to express ‘their opinion’ (often a very staged and crafted variant of it) — then the rules have got to be consistent.  At the moment, they aren’t: women opinion writers are overwhelmingly more likely to be censored than male writers. Continue reading “I know a place where the grass is really greener… Katy Perry lyrics used ironically in a post about women opinion writers”

Treat me like the sea, all salty and mean… though slightly less mean than the ALP

A few people have told me that they feel sorry for Kevin Rudd.

For the life of me, I can’t work out why.  His political career appears to be a less eloquent version of Macbeth — except Rudd played both the title role and the role of the three witches:  ‘All hail, me, I shall be king hereafter!’  All the character flaws play their role — the arrogance, the rage, the inability to maintain relationships — and then he’s toppled (interestingly not by a man of woman born… though the execution of this part makes Rudd seem more like the Witch-king of Angmar than Macbeth). Continue reading “Treat me like the sea, all salty and mean… though slightly less mean than the ALP”