Saturday, May 31, 2008

Being Digital: Internet growing pains

Bell Canada has awkwardly defended its practice of deliberately throttling Internet traffic, in a results of a regulatory audit released today. The phone company argues is necessary to relieve congestion on its network but substantial portions of the audit documents have been blacked out for "competitive reasons". This is a convenient way of avoiding scrutiny of the reasons why they slow down bandwidth-intensive peer-to-peer file-sharing protocols. Bell admits there is congestion, mostly caused by P2P transactions but argues that additional capacity would be "uneconomical since much of it would go unused during non-peak periods".

The report shows that the internet is straining. But while P2P goes under the microscope, the vast acres of blogs and social media go unchecked. The early 21st century appears to be the glory age for the democratisation of news on the Internet. With a rich repository of material online, optimists see the Internet as heralding in a new digital age in which citizens both generate and consume news while the big players no longer control political communication. On the cusp of the Internet age in the mid 1990s, one of those optimists (MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte) said that being digital allows the content provider to deliver a signal with information added to correct errors such as “telephone static, radio hiss or television snow”. This is true, and the quality of digital reproduction is one of its major selling points. But digital transmission doesn’t fix errors of fact, provide newsworthy content, or make dull writing good. The age-old journalistic skills apply as much as ever in the Internet age and may, in the end, be the only way of judging good content in an era when participatory publishing has exploded.

There is no denying there is a sense of power of being able to publish your own news site. An Nguyen defines Participatory Publishing (PP) as the act of the citizen or citizens playing an active role in collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information. PP is attracting people in ever larger numbers. In April 2007, blog search engine Technorati was tracking upwards of 70 million blogs, which represented a doubling in size since 2006 with 1.4 blogs being created every second of the day. The social networking sites also have blogging capability. By October 2007, Facebook had more than 42 million active users worldwide each potentially with their own ability to publish information online. What blogging and the social networks have exposed is the ease of entry to the publishing industry. They are inexpensive to set up and no longer require access to a printing press and retail distribution system. The users of these tools are the people formerly known as the audience as Jay Rosen calls them, or the “passengers on your ship that got a boat of their own”.

Those that remained aboard as readers have also become fractured. Wired’s Chris Anderson used the metaphor of the ‘long tail’ to describe the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream. The key towards successful publication in the long tail is delivering regular content to a niche audience. The 2007 Australian federal election saw many online sites actively promoting local political activism. Most prominent was youdecide2007.org at Queensland University of Technology, funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in partnership with SBS, Online Opinion and the Brisbane Institute. Site co-editor Graham Young said the site’s aim was to use citizen journalists to report on their own electorates to fill the gap left by fewer journalists on the ground, especially in less populated areas. The site is modelled on the successful Korean citizen journalism service OhMyNews which mixes professional and large-scale amateur journalism with strong editorial oversight and professional site management. The key is “strong editorial oversight” which is the part most lacking in the unregulated stream of consciousness that emerges from the blogosphere.

There are also the questions of who reads all this information and for what purpose. In 2005, the researchers Nguyen, Ferrier, Western and McKay performed the first national "uses and gratification" survey of online news consumption in Australia. While they found that the Internet has reached mainstream status in terms of audience size, it tended to be more prevalent among the higher socio-economic segments of society. The study also found that immediacy was the most important feature for readers of online news. Two content-richness related elements also rated highly: the permanent availability of background information and the plethora of news choices available. The study confirms that the Internet is changing our definition of news and how people seek and use it. The most popular websites in Australia are not established news sites but search engines, predominately Google. Google makes money not by trying to keep its audiences but by sending them elsewhere. While most news organisations are wary of outgoing links without an editorial justification, the lesson to learn from Google is that online website owners should not be afraid to add value by including relevant links to other sites in their content.

Nonetheless, as a result of all these innovations, there is a profound groundshift in the way news is generally understood. In 2004, Associated Press CEO Tom Curley said “we [journalists] have to free their content from the expensive containers known as newspapers and broadcast bulletins. It means a change from the news as a lecture to news as conversation”. By this he means that no-one owns the news any more. This takes news back full circle to the turn of the 20th century when modern journalism emerged from the limited public sphere of the era and was directly accountable to its readers. That sense of direct accountability and conversation is built into the blogging platform. But the Internet is suffering growing pains, as the problem with P2P shows. Lets hope it will fit into its new bandwidth.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Gujjars seek to downgrade their caste status

The Rajastani capital of Jaipur remains tense today as thousands of members of one of India’s lowest caste fight a seemingly bizarre battle to have their status lowered still. But the traditionally nomadic Gujjar people are taking this battle very seriously with a deathtoll that has reached 39 in fighting with authorities in the last seven days. In the Byzantine world of the Indian caste system, the Gujjars are fighting to be downgraded. The mostly Muslim Gujjars are considered as Other Backward Classes (OBC) which entitles them to access to 27 per cent of government jobs and university places but they want Scheduled Tribe (ST) status which would open the door to even further grants and positive discrimination entitlements. The protests began after the state government refused calls for their re-classification.

The violence began when Gujjar protesters lynched a policeman and police responded by opening fire on the demonstrators, killing 38 of them. Since then, the Government and the Gujjar community have been using the bodies of the slain protesters as bargaining chips in the dispute. At least 37 bodies are awaiting cremation, with the Gujjars holding 18 bodies at Bayana and Sikandara, while the state holds another 19 bodies inside morgues in Jaipur and Bharatpur. The government say the Gujjars have not permitted autopsies on the Bayana and Sikandara bodies. They are now hesitant to release the morgues bodies because they might be used as bargaining chips in the agitation for ST status. One man said he has been waiting for five days to collect his cousin's body. “Nobody is telling me anything and the condition of others at our home is really pathetic,” he said. “This is absolute cruelty as they first shot our brothers dead and are now refusing to even give back their bodies.”

The violence has spread to New Delhi where 500 people squatted on a major road in a seventh day of agitation associated with Gujjar demands. The state government has been forced to deploy 35,000 police and invoke the National Security Act as railway services were cancelled and major roads blocked in and out of the capital. The government of Rajasthan has told the Gujjars to take the appeal to the federal Government in Delhi but the federal coalition Government, led by the Congress Party has been trying to wash its hands of the matter saying it should be handled by the authorities in Rajasthan.

However, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that Gujjars are treated differently from state to state. The only states where the two million Gujjars are recognised as having ST status are Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Gujjars form a significant part of the populations of Rajasthan and Delhi where they are still considered OBCs. State governments there say that although Gujjars were originally nomadic, they have since become more settled on the land and more involved in agriculture and therefore not as deserving of special consideration.

Scheduled Tribes are recognised by the Indian constitution. It refers to indigenous groups living in forests and hills whose status is enshrined by national legislation. These groups are explicitly recognised as requiring support to overcome entrenched discrimination. The constitution provides three means of supporting STs. They are protective arrangements (laws which ban discrimination and enforce equality), compensatory discrimination (affirmative action to allocate job and higher education quotas to STs) and development (resources and monetary benefits).

But even ST status does not help prevent the oppression of Gujjar women. In the border province of Jammu and Kashmir, a study found that 89 percent of all Gujjar women are illiterate. The researcher, Dr Javid Rahi said early marriage, illiteracy, extreme poverty and nomadic way of life were all casting dark shadows over the future of hundreds of thousands of nomadic Gujjar women in the region. The women (who make up 10 percent of the state’s population) were being exploited and became the victim of superstitions. Because of early marriage and social status, only 12 per cent of Gujjar girls were admitted to primary school and most of these leave early. Rahi said there was not a single Gujjar woman officer in the civil service, parliament, banks, universities or in journalism. Scheduled or not, life remains a grind for the tribes of Gujjar women.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Perfidious Albion: the tale of the TOD and the Mill

At the Global Retail Real Estate Convention last week organised by the International Council of Shopping Centres in Las Vegas, urban strategist Chris Leinberger kicked off a discussion by talking about the industry’s new buzzword: the TOD. The TOD is an acronym for Transit Oriented Development. TODs are mixed-use, high density, pedestrian and cycling “lifestyle centres” situated on vacant land near railway stations. The idea has been around for at least five years but is suddenly big in American planning circles. Leinberger, a visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, described them as the biggest structural change in urban development since the 1950s. “[The TOD is] one of the most important trends of our time,” he told the Vegas conference. “It is a structural shift in development”.

This structural shift is looking an increasingly attractive option in the era of high petrol prices and TODs are taking off rapidly in the US. City planners in Washington DC, Portland, Seattle, Austin and Denver all have TOD projects in various phases of planning or completion. The idea of living, working and shopping within walking distance of public transport is clearly an attractive idea whose time has come. And now, slowly but surely, the idea is crossing the Pacific.

Car dependent Australian cities face many of the same problems encountered by US urban areas and local authorities here are starting to look at Transit Oriented Development solutions. The urban sprawl of the South East Queensland corridor from Coolangatta to Noosa in particular, is straining at the edges as it copes with large internal immigration from the southern states. Authorities are now looking to TODs to play a key role in achieving social, economic and environmental sustainability in the region. In 2005, the State Government released its South East Queensland regional plan (pdf) for the 21 year period 2005-2026 and it identified several planned TODs which would be located in existing public transport hubs of Milton, Bowen Hills, Buranda, Woolloongabba, Cleveland and Albion.

The plan called for a taskforce to implement the TODs. Each development will incorporate high density housing, commercial development to encourage employment opportunities, open spaces, and seamless integration between the transit node (railway or bus station) and the community. However the taskforce will face some considerable difficulties to make their plans a reality. They need to bring the community with them. While professionals have been exposed to this fairly new concept, it has not yet gelled in the larger community. Yet TOD has the potential to significantly change the lifestyle for the whole community. A number of the TOD sites such as Milton, Woolloongabba and Albion contain a substantial number of character houses. These low density Queenslander style houses are protected from local development, making it difficult to implement TOD-style development.

The TOD closest to where I live is at Albion, about 6km north of Brisbane city. Albion is an older suburb, somewhat disconnected from its nearby inner-city suburbs of The Valley and Bowen Hills by the vast expanse of the Mayne railyards and the natural geographical boundary of Breakfast Creek. In recent years, property values have skyrocketed as younger buyers are attracted to its proximity to the city and its railway station. The suburb’s population grew by five percent in 2006. Over five years, the proportion of residents between 25 and 39 years of age has increased by almost six per cent. Because of its changing demographic and infrastructure, the area around Albion station has been identified for a TOD. Surprisingly then, Brisbane City Council’s 2005 draft Albion Neighbourhood Plan does not discuss the TOD in any detail.

The proposal was devised to make sure that Albion’s heritage and unique characteristics are protected. It promoted the area on Sandgate Road known as “Albion Village” as the core retail, restaurant and entertainment precinct. It spoke about protecting the character and heritage values of Albion and providing easy access for pedestrians and cyclists to public transport, parks, Breakfast Creek and Brisbane River. But the only reference to the TOD states a goal that “development in the Station Precinct, be in keeping with the precinct's role as a transit oriented development”. While the plan does not define what the TOD is, it does mention that “future opportunities for land…to support mixed use, high density residential development…may occur in the medium term when the flour mill redevelopment is substantially occupied.” The flour mill development is the key phrase here, and is at the heart of Albion’s TOD.

The flour mill is Albion’s dominant landmark. Situated next to the station, it is a large derelict six storey building with two massive nearby silos. The Flour Mill was built in 1930 and was constructed by the Stuart Brothers for the princely sum of £8,500 just as the depression was about to bite. The original five-storey brick structure housed the mill in the eastern section and storage and parking was located in the western part. Additional buildings were added after World War II including a laboratory and boiler house. In 1957 the mill began to package self-raising flour under the retail name “white wings” which was the first Australian brand to introduce cake mix to the local market. The two iconic silos were added in the 1960s.

In 1983 the mill was bought out by Defiance Milling who ran it until 2002 when they were taken over by Allied Mills a conglomerate controlled by the multinational food group Cargill. Allied quickly bought out many of Australia’s old milling companies including Defiance, Geo. Fielder Co Pty Ltd, Gillespie Brothers Holdings Ltd, Mungo Scott, Bunge Australia, White Rose Flour Mills, Sunshine Mills, Murrumbidgee Milling Co-operative, McLeod’s Milling and Great Southern Flour Mills. The market was ripe for consolidation. Predictably the Albion Mill closed within two years and has been derelict since 2004. Once Albion was identified for a TOD, negotiations began in earnest for the site.

Property developers FKP began public consultation on development of the flour mill site in April 2006. FKP Property Group, founded 30 years ago in Queensland, describe themselves as a “top ASX200 performer” with offices in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. For the half-year to 31 December 2007, FKP reported a 33 per cent increase in net profit to $73m. In 2006, they agreed on a $7.5 million purchase of the site. They submitted a development application to the Brisbane City Council for the site in August 2006. The plan, according to FKP’s Queensland commercial development manager Angus Campbell, was to turn the site into “an urban hub”.

In November 2007 the State Government confirmed to the Brisbane City Council that agreement had been reached with FKP to build a multimillion-dollar footbridge to the railway station; the final component needed for the development to proceed. The 1.3 hectare site would be transformed. The ground floor retail space would include cafes and restaurants, a major supermarket, medical centre, newsagency, deli, bakery and grocers. Announcing the plan at Albion station, State Premier Anna Bligh hinted at its TOD possibilities when she said: "It will transform what is not a particularly attractive area into a first-class precinct providing a vibrant place where people can live, work and socialise only eight minutes’ train ride from the City”.

In January 2008, FKP Properties formally announced a $280 million mixed-use development on the site. The plan would keep the heritage listed mill and its silos which would be a focal point for a mix of buildings linked by public plazas and community spaces. It also called for twenty thousand square metres of office space to be spread over two commercial buildings, one 12-storey and the other a five-storey campus style building.

Then deputy mayor David Hinchliffe hailed the project as “the key to Brisbane’s future”. He told the ABC that if “we keep building out further and further into the suburbs, it's going to lead to congestion of our arteries.” He said all Brisbane’s roadways would be clogged up. “That's why smart growth like the Albion Mill project has to be the way of the future,” he said. Project architect Richard Kirk was similarly enthusiastic. He said the Mill redevelopment was a great opportunity to re-work one of Brisbane’s much loved landmarks. “Historically the site began as a part of the Albion Village," he said. “And it was the main intent of the project to re-connect the site back into the Village”.

But not everyone is impressed by the redevelopment. Town planner Tristan Peach was disappointed the residential component was aimed at the luxury market and thought it would be difficult for the small shops to compete with the planned supermarket. However he conceded the development would improve what he called Albion station's "desolate feel". Sociologist and writer Mark Bahnisch was more scathing. He described the project as “the victim of a tussle between the Council and developers, eventually to be resolved mostly in the latter’s favour - with the token addition of a modicum of public housing.” Bahnisch disputes the architect’s blurb that the development is “soulful”. At Larvatus Prodeo last month, Bahnisch wrote: “We can only imagine what the mill might have looked like if someone with the same vision which transformed the Powerhouse had cast an eye over it.” He continued: “Sundering the link between developers’ donations to political parties and the planning process can’t come quick enough, but it will have already been too late for Albion’s heritage”.

Albion's heritage was sealed when the council approved the application this year as a “mixed use” TOD. A marathon sitting of Brisbane City Council on 29 January recognised that the proposal presented significant issues. It was noted that the new 12 storey building will dwarf the sense of history of the old mill and therefore failed to adhere to the TOD principle of “development of a place through design”. There were also issues raised about the volume of traffic, noise levels, the lack of open space and bikeways, all of which were also contrary to TOD principles. Nevertheless, for better or worse, the plan was approved.

Albion upholsterer John Ward believes the changes are for the better. Ward has been a businessman in the area for more than 20 years. He said Albion was developing into a destination for more than local residents, with the Albion Village restaurant strip proving a major drawcard. "In the early days you could walk down the street and run into people you knew, but now you don't," he said. "The traffic has gotten a lot heavier and there has been a lot of changes". Ward said the changing face of Albion had resulted in many of the older houses being restored and a noticeable surge of new development occurring. "There could be a few changes around the area but what people have done around the area is a huge improvement to what it was yesteryear,” he said. People had better get used to the changes and a new word. A TOD, however imperfect, is coming to Albion.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wilde's Evenings: the rewards of Citizen Journalism

This article was first published in Media Culture Journal Vol 10/11 Issue 6/1 April 2008

According to Oscar Wilde, the problem with socialism was that it took up too many evenings. Wilde’s aphorism alludes to a major issue that bedevils all attempts to influence the public sphere: the fact that public activities encroach unduly on citizens’ valuable time. In the 21st century, the dilemma of how to deal with “too many evenings” is one that many citizen journalists face as they give their own time to public pursuits. This paper will look at the development of the public citizen and what it means to be a citizen journalist with reference to some of the writer’s own experiences in the field. The paper will conclude with an examination of future possibilities. While large media companies change their change their focus from traditional news values, citizen journalism can play a stronger role in public life as long as it grasps some of the opportunities that are available. There are substantial compensations available to citizen journalists for the problems presented by Wilde’s evenings.

The quote from Wilde is borrowed from Albert Hirschman’s Shifting Involvements, which among other things, is an examination of the disappointments of public action. Hirschman noted how it was a common experience for beginners who engage in public action to find that takes up more time than expected (96). As public activity encroaches not only on time devoted to private consumption but also on to the time devoted to the production of income, it can become a costly pursuit which may cause a sharp reaction against the “practice of citizenship” (Hirschman 97). Yet the more stimuli about politics people receive, the greater the likelihood is they will participate in politics and the greater the depth of their participation (Milbrath & Goel 35). People with a positive attraction to politics are more likely to receive stimuli about politics and participate more (Milbrath & Goel 36). Active citizenship, it seems, has its own feedback loops.

An active citizenry is not a new idea. The concepts of citizen and citizenship emerged from the sophisticated polity established in the Greek city states about 2,500 years ago. The status of a citizen signified that the individual had the right to full membership of, and participation in, an independent political society (Batrouney & Goldlust 24). In later eras that society could be defined as a kingdom, an empire, or a nation state. The conditions for a bourgeois public sphere were created in the 13th century as capitalists in European city states created a traffic in commodities and news (Habermas 15). A true public sphere emerged in the 17th century with the rise of the English coffee houses and French salons where people had the freedom to express opinions regardless of their social status (Habermas 36). In 1848, France held the first election under universal direct suffrage (for males) and the contemporary slogan was that “universal suffrage closes the era of revolutions” (Hirschman 113). Out of this heady optimism, the late 19th century ushered in the era of the “informed citizen” as voting changed from a social and public duty to a private right – a civic obligation enforceable only by private conscience (Schudson). These concepts live on in the modern idea that the model voter is considered to be a citizen vested with the ability to understand the consequences of his or her choice (Menand 1).

The internet is a new knowledge space which offers an alternative reading of the citizen. In Pierre Lévy’s vision of cyberculture, identity is no longer a function of belonging, it is “distributed and nomadic” (Ross & Nightingale 149). The Internet has diffused widely and is increasingly central to everyday life as a place where people go to get information (Dutton 10). Journalism initially prospered on an information scarcity factor however the technology of the Internet has created an information rich society (Tapsall & Varley 18). But research suggests that online discussions do not promote consensus, are short-lived with little impact and end up turning into “dialogues of the deaf” (Nguyen 148). The easy online publishing environment is a fertile ground for rumours, hoaxes and cheating games to circulate which risk turning the public sphere into a chaotic and anarchic space (Nguyen 148). The stereotypical blogger is pejoratively dismissed as “pajama-clad” (Papandrea 516) connoting a sense of disrespect for the proper transmission of ideas. Nevertheless the Internet offers powerful tools for collaboration that is opening up many everyday institutions to greater social accountability (Dutton 3).

Recent research by the 2007 Digital Futures project shows 65 percent of respondents consider the Internet “to be a very important or extremely important source of information” (Cowden 76). By 2006, Roy Morgan was reporting that three million Australians were visiting online news site each month (Cowden.76). Crikey.com.au, Australia’s first online-only news outlet, has become a significant independent player in the Australia mediascape claiming over 5,000 subscribers by 2005 with three times as many non-paying “squatters” reading its daily email (Devine 50). Online Opinion has a similar number of subscribers and was receiving 750,000 page views a month by 2005 (National Forum).

Both Crikey.com.au and Online Opinion have made moves towards public journalism in an attempt to provide ordinary people access to the public sphere. As professional journalists lose their connection with the public, bloggers are able to fill the public journalism niche (Simons, Content Makers 208). At their best, blogs can offer a “more broad-based, democratic involvement of citizens in the issues that matter to them” (Bruns 7). The research of University of North Carolina journalism professor Philip Meyer showed that cities and towns with public journalism-oriented newspapers led to a better educated local public (Simons, Content Makers 211). Meyer’s idea of good public journalism has six defining elements: a) the need to define a community’s sense of itself b) devotion of time to issues that demand community attention c) devotion of depth to the issues d) more attention to the middle ground e) a preference for substance over tactics and f) encouraging reciprocal understanding (Meyer 1). The objective of public journalism is to foster a greater sense of connection between the community and the media. It can mean journalists using ordinary people as sources and also ordinary people acting as journalists.

Jay Rosen proposed a new model based on journalism as conversation (Simons, Content Makers 209). He believes the technology has now overtaken the public journalism movement (Simons, Content Makers 213). His own experiments at pro-am Internet open at assignment.net have had mixed results. His conclusion was that it wasn’t easy for people working voluntarily on the Internet to report on big stories together nor had they “unlocked” the secret of successful pro-am methods (Rosen). Nevertheless, the people formerly known as the audience, as Rosen called them, have seized the agenda. The barriers to entry into journalism have disappeared. Blogging has made Web publishing easy and the social networks are even more user friendly. The problem today is not getting published but finding an audience. And as the audience fragments, the issue will become finding a niche.

One such niche is local political activism. The 2007 Australian federal election saw many online sites actively promoting citizen journalism. Most prominent was Youdecide2007 at Queensland University of Technology, funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in partnership with SBS, Online Opinion and the Brisbane Institute. Site co-editor Graham Young said the site’s aim was to use citizen journalists to report on their own electorates to fill the gap left by fewer journalists on the ground, especially in less populated areas (Young). While the site’s stated aim was to provide a forum for a seat-by-seat coverage and provide “a new perspective on national politics” (Youdecide2007), the end result was significantly skewed by the fact that the professional editorial team was based in Brisbane. Youdecide2007 published 96 articles in its news archive of which 59 could be identified as having a state-based focus. Figure 1 shows 62.7% of these state-based stories were about Queensland.

Figure 1: Youdecide2007 news stories identifiable by state (note: national stories are omitted from this table):

State Total no. of stories %age
Qld 37 62.7
NSW 8 13.6
Vic 6 10.2
WA 3 5.1
Tas 2 3.4
ACT 2 3.4
SA 1 1.6

Modern election campaigns are characterised by a complex and increasingly fragmented news environment and the new media are rapidly adding another layer of complexity to the mix (Norris et al. 11-12). The slick management of national campaigns are is counter-productive to useful citizen journalism. According to Matthew Clayfield from the citizen journalism site electionTracker.net, “there are very few open events which ordinary people could cover in a way that could be described as citizen journalism” (qtd. in Hills 2007). Similar to other systems, the Australian campaign communication empowers the political leaders and media owners at the expense of ordinary party members and citizens (Warhurst 135). However the slick modern national “on message” campaign has not totally replaced old-style local activity. Although the national campaign has superimposed upon the local one and displaced it from the focus of attention, local candidates must still communicate their party policies in the electorate (Warhurst 113). Citizen journalists are ideally placed to harness this local communication. A grassroots approach is encapsulated in the words of Dan Gillmor who said “every reporter should realise that, collectively, the readers know more than they do about what they write about” (qtd. in Quinn & Quinn-Allan 66).

With this in mind, I set out my own stall in citizen journalism for the 2007 Australian federal election with two personal goals: to interview all my local federal Lower House candidates and to attend as many public election meetings as possible. As a result, I wrote 19 election articles in the two months prior to the election. This consisted of 9 news items, 6 candidate interviews and 4 reports of public meetings. All the local candidates except one agreed to be interviewed. The local Liberal candidate refused to be interviewed despite repeated requests. There was no reason offered, just a continual ignoring of requests. Liberal candidates were also noticeably absent from most candidate forums I attended. This pattern of non-communicative behaviour was observed elsewhere (Bartlett, Wilson). I tried to turn this to my advantage by turning their refusal to talk into a story itself.

For those that were prepared to talk, I set the expectation that the entire interview would be on the record and would be edited and published on my blog site. As a result, all candidates asked for a list of questions in advance which I supplied. Because politicians devote considerable energy and financial resources to ensure the information they impart to citizens has an appropriate ‘spin’ on it, (Negrine 10) I reserved the right to ask follow-up questions on any of their answers that required clarification. For the interviews themselves, I followed the advice of Spradley’s principle by starting with a conscious attitude of near-total ignorance, not writing the story in advance, and attempting to be descriptive, incisive, investigative and critical (Alia 100). After I posted the results of the interview, I sent a link to each of the respondents offering them a chance to clarify or correct any inaccuracies in the interview statements. Defamation skirts the boundary between free speech and reputation (Pearson 159) and a good working knowledge of the way defamation law affects journalists (citizen or otherwise) is crucial, particularly in dealing with public figures. This was an important consideration for some of the lesser known candidates as Google searches on their names brought my articles up within the top 20 results for each of the Democrat, Green and Liberal Democratic Party candidates I interviewed.

None of the public meetings I attended were covered in the mainstream media. These meetings are the type of news Jan Schaffer of University of Maryland’s J-Lab saw as an ecological niche for citizen journalists to “create opportunities for citizens to get informed and inform others about micro-news that falls under the radar of news organisations who don’t have the resources” (Schaffer in Glaser). As Mark Bahnisch points out, Brisbane had three daily newspapers and a daily state based 7.30 Report twenty years ago which contrasts with the situation now where there’s no effective state parliamentary press gallery and little coverage of local politics at all (“State of Political Blogging”). Brisbane’s situation is not unique and the gaps are there to be exploited by new players.

While the high cost of market entry renders the “central square” of the public sphere inaccessible to new players (Curran 128) the ease of Web access has given the citizen journalists the chance to roam its back alleys. However even if they fill the voids left by departing news organisations, there will still be a large hole in the mediascape. No one will be doing the hardhitting investigative journalism. This gritty work requires great resources and often years of time. The final product of investigative journalism is often complicated to read, unentertaining and inconclusive (Bower in Negrine 13). Margaret Simons says that journalism is a skill that involves the ability to find things out. She says the challenge of the future will be to marry the strengths of the newsroom and the dirty work of investigative journalism with the power of the conversation of blogs (“Politics and the Internet”). One possibility is raised by the Danish project Scoop. They offer financial support to individual journalists who have good ideas for investigative journalism. Founded by the Danish Association for Investigative Journalism and funded by the Danish Foreign Ministry, Scoop supports media projects across the world with the only proviso being that a journalist has to have an agreement with an editor to publish the resulting story (ABC Media Report).

But even without financial support, citizens have the ability to perform rudimentary investigative journalism. The primary tool of investigative journalism is the interview (McIlwane & Bowman 260). While an interview can be arranged by anyone with access to a telephone or e-mail, it should not be underestimated how difficult a skill interviewing is. According to American journalist John Brady, the science of journalistic interviewing aims to gain two things, trust and information (Brady in White 75). In the interviews I did with politicians during the federal election, I found that getting past the “spin” of the party line to get genuine information was the toughest part of the task.

There is also a considerable amount of information in the public domain which is rarely explored by reporters (Negrine 23). Knowing how to make use of this information will become a critical success factor for citizen journalists. Corporate journalists use databases such as Lexis/Nexis and Factiva to gain background information, a facility unavailable to most citizen journalists unless they are either have access through a learning institution or are prepared to pay a premium for the information. While large corporate vendors supply highly specialised information, amateurs can play a greater role in the creation and transmission of local news. According to G. Stuart Adam, journalism contains four basic elements: reporting, judging, a public voice and the here and now (13). Citizen journalism is capable of meeting all four criteria. The likelihood is that the future of communications will belong to the centralised corporations on one hand and the unsupervised amateur on the other (Bird 36).

Whether the motive to continue is payment or empowerment, the challenge for citizen journalists is to advance beyond the initial success of tactical actions towards the establishment as a serious political and media alternative (Bruns 19). Nguyen et al.’s uses and gratification research project suggests there is a still a long way to go in Australia. While they found widespread diffusion of online news, the vast majority of users (78%) were still getting their news from newspaper Websites (Nguyen et al. 13). The research corroborates Mark Bahnisch’s view that “most Australians have not heard of blogs and only a tiny minority reads them (quoted in Simons, Content Makers 219). The Australian blogosphere still waits for its defining Swiftboat incident or Rathergate to announce its arrival. But Bahnisch doesn’t necessarily believe this is a good evolutionary strategy anyway. Here it is becoming more a conversation than a platform “with its own niche and its own value” (Bahnisch, “This Is Not America”).

As far as my own experiments go, the citizen journalism reports I wrote gave me no financial reward but plenty of other compensations that made the experience richly rewarding. It was important to bring otherwise neglected ideas, stories and personalities into the public domain and the reports helped me make valuable connections with public-minded members of my local community. They were also useful practice to hone interview techniques and political writing skills. Finally the exercise raised my own public profile as several of my entries were picked up or hyperlinked by other citizen journalism sites and blogs. Some day, and probably soon, a model will be worked out which will make citizen journalism a worthwhile economic endeavour. In the meantime, we rely on active citizens of the blogosphere to give their evenings freely for the betterment of the public sphere.

References

ABC Media Report. “Scoop.” 2008. 17 Feb. 2008.

Adam, G. Notes towards a Definition of Journalism: Understanding an Old Craft as an Art Form. St Petersburg, Fl.: Poynter Institute, 1993.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mengistu sentenced to death in absentia

Ethiopia has sentenced to death in absentia former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. The country’s Supreme Court upheld a conviction of Mengistu and 11 of his aides on 211 counts of genocide, homicide, illegal imprisonment and illegal property seizure. The 71 year old Mengistu ruled Ethiopia between 1974 and 1991 and now lives in exile as a guest of fellow dictator Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Mengistu’s regime was marked by one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa.

His twelve-year trial came to a head in January 2007 when he received a life sentence for the torture and killing of thousands during his 17 year reign. Witnesses told the court that family members who went to collect the bodies of their loved ones were asked to pay for the bullets that killed them, and evidence included torture videos. The prosecution appealed the sentence saying it was not commensurate with the crimes he committed. Yesterday the Supreme Court agreed saying “Crimes committed by Mengistu and his co-defendants by killing an emperor and burying him under a toilet is unheard of in the annals of human history”.

Tens of thousands of people died during a period of Mengistu's 17-year rule known as the Red Terror. Mengistu grew up under the shadow of Ethiopia’s long-term emperor Haile Selassie. Selassie was enormously respected internationally and was instrumental in the creation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. But at home, his regime was under increasing pressure. In 1972, a famine in the north-eastern region of Wollo killed 80,000 people and the oil crisis of the following year also hit Ethiopia hard. Together with a series of military mutinies, these events were instrumental in destabilising Selassie’s regime.

In 1974, a growing opposition movement coalesced into a 120 member military group called the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army that soon came to be called the Derg (Amharic for "committee" or "council"). The Derg elected Major Mengistu Haile Mariam chairman and immediately wrung concessions from the emperor which saw an effective transfer of power. In September the Derg formally deposed Selassie and secretly killed him and the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox church in the months that followed. The Derg named itself as the country’s ruling body under the chairmanship of an outsider, Lieutenant General Aman Mikael Andom.

Andom didn’t last long and neither did any of his immediate successors. After three years of violent internal power struggles, Mengistu declared himself Derg leader in February 1977. He set about consolidating his power and eliminated all of his remaining rivals in a campaign that became known as the “Red Terror”. Thousands died in the streets of the capital and other cities in the following two years. Under his leadership, the Derg promoted the “Ye-Itiopia Hibretesebawinet” (Ethiopian Socialism). The concept was embodied in slogans such as "self-reliance," "the dignity of labour," and "the supremacy of the common good."

Mengistu flourished in the paranoid atmosphere of the Cold War. Under his leadership Ethiopia became the main African client of the Soviet bloc, and received massive shipments of arms to fight insurgent movements in the Ogaden and Eritrea. Another half a million civilians died in the aftermath of the 1984 famine (which inspired Band Aid). Mengistu initially tried to hide the extent of the famine from the world and then used the disaster as a pretext to forcibly relocate hundreds of thousands of villagers from rebel-held northern Ethiopia to areas in the south.

Mengistu’s regime quickly unravelled after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The Eritrean opposition led a coalition of regional and ethnic rebel groups known as the Ethiopian people's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which overwhelmed the Derg and took the capital Addis Ababa. Mengistu fled to Harare where he was warmly welcomed by Mugabe. In 1992 the new government established a Special Prosecutor's Office (SPO) to investigate the widespread crimes committed during the Derg period. In 1997 the SPO charged five thousand people with genocide and war crimes, of whom over half, including Mengistu, were charged in absentia. Two years later, Human Rights Watch unsuccessfully called for his arrest when he travelled to South Africa for medical treatment.

Mengistu is unlikely to come to justice unless Mugabe loses next month’s run-off election. Zimbabwe has consistently refused to extradite Mengistu since he fled there in 1991. And after the Ethiopian court handed down its original life term last year, Mugabe reiterated his position, saying, "Comrade Mengistu still remains a special guest". Mugabe has found a useful role for his “special guest” making him a consultant to his secret police the CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation). As a Zimbabwean opposition group put it, “No doubt the former dictator found the income useful and the CIO could benefit from his wide experience in suppressing dissent.”

Monday, May 26, 2008

Murdoch names insider as new Wall Street Journal editor

Robert Thomson has named as the new managing editor of the News Corp owned Wall Street Journal. Melbourne-born Thomson was the editor of The Times (London) and in his new role will hold the joint roles of editor-in-chief of Dow Jones and managing editor of the Journal, its flagship publication. The move is seen as a change to the Journal's institutional culture with Thomson a proven candidate as someone who will execute Rupert Murdoch’s plans faithfully.

The move had been telegraphed since December when Thomson was appointed publisher of the Journal after playing a key role in Murdoch's acquisition of the newspaper. According to News Corp, the new appointment was approved unanimously by the Wall Street Journal’s “special committee”. The committee was created to protect the Journal's editorial independence after News Corporation bought Dow Jones.

Murdoch first made his takeover move of the journal in May 2007 but was initially opposed by the Bancroft family who had controlling stake in the Dow Jones Company. But by August the company confirmed the signing of “a definitive agreement” with News Corp for a cool $5.6 billion. Murdoch expressed his gratitude at the deal: "I want to offer the Bancrofts my thanks, and an assurance that our company and my family will be equally strong custodians.”

Many articles have pointed out similarities between Thomson and his boss. The pair are close friends, share a birthday (11 March; Thomson is 30 years Murdoch’s junior) are married to Chinese women and both made their way up from the bottom in papers owned by Murdoch’s father Keith. But these similarities are superficial. This relationship is purely business. Thomson has an impeccable editorial record in three continents and is a newspaper man through and through.

47 year old Thomson started his career as a copy boy on Melbourne’s now defunct afternoon newspaper The Herald in 1979. After working as that newspaper’s Sydney correspondent, he was hired by the Sydney Morning Herald where he gained a reputation for his judicial reports. He graduated with a BA in journalism from RMIT in 1990. Thomson moved to London where he worked for the Financial Times. In 1998 where he was appointed editor of the American edition of the FT. Having narrowly failed to become overall FT editor, Thomson got the plum job of The Times editor in 2002. Under his direction The Times made the decision to go tabloid. Thomson left the Times in December 2007 to join Dow Jones.

Thomson’s appointment as managing editor became more likely after Marcus Brauchli resigned in April after just 11 months in the job. Because Brauchli resigned rather than being fired, the Journal editorial committee were unable to complain about proprietorial interference. However there seems little doubt that Brauchli was pushed to make way for a Murdoch man. Thomson has already wrought changes. The paper has increased its political coverage and broadened its opinion pages. Writing in Thomson’s former paper, the FT, John Gapper foresaw some problems for the new editor. “Journal staff are uncomfortable about Mr Murdoch’s enthusiasm for taking on the New York Times by broadening the political coverage,” he said. “Even if it does the job well, it will inevitably lose some focus.”

This point was also made by Stephen Mayne writing in Crikey in August last year as the Murdoch deal crystallised. Mayne saw Murdoch’s biggest risk as a revolt by the 2,000 Wall Street Journal journalists. According to Mayne “it would be easy for a group of them to set up a direct rival to The Journal ’s website offering and, with some capital backing from, say, a cashed-up Bancroft family, a rival paper version in the US would not be out of the question.” Thomson’s appointment as editor will be the acid test for the Journal’s reputation.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Rebel Sell and counter-cultural myths

Earlier this year, Adbusters’ founder Kalle Lasn lost his court battle with Canadian TV conglomerate CanWest Global to make them sell advertising time to Adbusters. The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that private TV broadcasters are not obligated under the Canadian Broadcasting Act to sell television advertising time to Lasn’s magazine Adbusters. Lasn wanted to buy air time to advertise his “Buy Nothing Day” on the day after Thanksgiving. Lasn said the court case “goes right to the very heart of democracy”. It was about “who has a voice and who doesn't," he said.

Through Adbusters, the Estonian-born Lasn has been one of the most strident critics of capitalism in the last decade. Though his books, he is most closely associated with the concept of “culture jamming” which uses the resources of capitalism itself to subvert it. The goal of culture jamming is to expose the propaganda and lies of advertising by “jamming” it with anti-consumerist ideas. The idea comes from radio jamming: where public frequencies are pirated and subverted to either enable independent communication, or disrupt dominant frequencies.

Lasn’s work has made him a darling of the counter-culture. However two fellow Canadian writers don’t share this view of him as a hero. In their 2005 book “The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture”, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter attempt to expose a myth of counter-cultural thinking. It is their thesis that counter-culture is actually counter-productive and instead of destroying consumer society it is the key ingredient in creating it.

Heath and Potter begin their book with a discussion of Lasn’s 2003 decision to market Black Spot Sneakers, Adbuster’s own signature brand of ‘subversive’ running shoes. Known as the “unswoosher” Lasn marketed the shoes as a “ground-breaking” scheme to un-cool Nike. Although Lasn says his product will not be made by sweat shop labour, Heath and Potter says the enterprise does not represent a threat to the capitalist system. They say it is a business model that has already been successfully exploited by the likes of Starbucks and The Body Shop.

According to Heath and Potter, culture jammers are the latest in a long line of countercultural rebels who have been unsuccessfully trying to foment consumer revolt for over forty years. The hippies of the sixties became the yuppies of the eighties and the VW Beetle was replaced by the SUV (aptly described as “a gated community on wheels”). Heath and Potter say this is not a sell out but a natural progression. The counter-culture was always intensely entrepreneurial, which the authors say “is the most authentic spirit of capitalism”. When the hippies got older, they turned to the adventurism inherent in the SUV to continue to express their desire for ‘rebel chic’. By the early 21st century, the counterculture's ideas of rebelliousness and "cool" have been co-opted as the central tenet of consumerism, hence “the rebel sell”.

For its first 150 pages, The Rebel Sell makes a very compelling argument that the counter-culture has got it completely wrong. Drawing strands from diverse sources such as Hobbes, Marx, Freud, Rousseau, “The Matrix”, Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, and the experiments of Stanley Milgram, Heath and Potter point out that the system not only tolerates subversive ideas, it actually co-opts them. They say that counter-culture provides entertainment for the rebels, but not much else. Rebels reject good solutions to social problems because they are not radical enough. They undermine social norms that serve a valuable function and also undermine democratic politics by refusing to acknowledge the difference between compromise and ‘selling out’. The bottom line for the authors is that bad rules are better than no rules at all.

The other key point they make is that counter-culture is the cause of rampant consumerism not conformity. If everyone went out and bought the same stuff, not only would everyone be happy, but there would no desire to buy anything new. The problem is not caused by those who try to keep up with the Joneses but by the Joneses themselves. The Joneses are the non-conformists who try to stand out from the crowd. This is reflected in brand identity which is all about product differentiation. People identify with brands because of the distinction they confer. But status is a zero sum game. For every winner there must be a loser. As society grows wealthier, consumer behaviour takes on the guise of an arms race each competing against the other but with no increase in the collective happiness.

These are persuasive and compelling arguments. But at some point in the book, Heath and Potter’s arguments become monotonous and repetitive. While apparently sympathetic to the problems that many counter-culturalists are trying to address, they are consistently critical but offer little by way of alternative solutions. As the Guardian critic Andy Beckett observes “the authors can sound as nostalgic as any conservative newspaper columnist for the world before the 60s, when genuine political rebels were more easily identified and more soberly attired.” Nonetheless a brave book that destroys many a globalisation myth, and one well worthy of study and critical engagement.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A history of Spain

Earlier this month New Statesman reviewed a new book about Spanish history by British historian Henry Kamen. Entitled “Imagining Spain: Historical Myths and National Identity”. The reviewer Jason Webster is an Englishman resident in Valencia. His article makes some good points about the sensitive nature of Spanish history and the country’s “deep insecurities”. Unlike France or the US, says Webster, there is no revolutionary idea that holds Spain together. “More like Britain,” he says, “it is bound by less easily defined concepts such as custom, shared history, or even a state of mind - and then not always very clearly.”

Webster says it would be more accurate to view Spain “less as a country and more as a mini subcontinent.” Another writer of Spanish history Simon Barton also picks up this subcontinental idea in his 2004 book “A History of Spain”. In his thousand year sweep of Iberia’s past, he finds it is an old idea. Barton quotes the fifth century historian Orosius who observed that “by the disposition of the land, Hispania as a whole is a triangle, and surrounded as it is by the Tyrrhenian Sea, is almost an island.

A later English writer Laurie Lee described Spain as having “geographical convulsions”. By this he meant that the country’s striking contrasts of climate, altitude and vegetation have shaped the nation’s political, economic and cultural development as well as endowing the peninsula with a plethora of regional diversity. This is especially evident in the north-east where Catalonia (separated by the peaks of the Iberian mountain range) has closer relations with its neighbours across the Pyrenees and in the Mediterranean than it does with the rest of Spain. The isolation is even more pronounced in the Basque Country which has kept its strange non Indo-European language and culture intact for thousands of years.

The problems with Spanish history spread to when exactly Spain was born as a nation. Some historians claim it began with Roman Hispania or the Visigoth monarchy that replaced it in the sixth century. Others see the key moment as the dynastic union between Isabella and Ferdinand that brought together the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in 1479. There is also support for the reign of their descendant Philip II who led Spain through its golden age of world power in the 16th century. And Aragon and Castile continued to lead separate lives as kingdoms until the reforms of Philip V after the War of Spanish Succession (when the crown passed from the Hapsburgs to the Bourbons) in 1714. There are some that say that even today Spain is not a true nation in the light of the strong regionalist feelings in Catalonia, Basque Country and Celtic Galicia.

The Muslim influence on Spain cannot be discounted either. Barton quotes an adage attributed to Napoleon: “Africa begins at the Pyrenees”. At its closest point Spain is divided from Morocco by the 15km wide Straights of Gibraltar. The rock itself gets its name from Jabal Tariq, the mountain of the Moorish governor of Tangier named Tariq Zayad who was the first Muslim to invade Spain in 711. Tariq’s invasion began a centuries long struggle for control of the peninsula between Muslims in the south and Christian kingdoms in the north. Although by the 11th century Moorish territory was confined to Andalusia, it wasn’t until the fall of Granada in 1492 that Muslim power was finally extinguished in Spain.

There then followed a remarkable phase of imperial expansion. In 50 years Spain went from being a backwater to the foremost world power. But then Spain lost pre-eminence almost as quickly. Its hegemony under Philip II was undermined by the loss of Portugal in 1640 and Spain suffered the indignity of invading armies in 1704 (the Spanish Succession) and 1808 (Napoleon). When Napoleon installed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne after his invasion, Madrid rose unsuccessfully in revolution, events dramatically captured by the paintings of Goya For the next five years, Spanish irregulars tied down the French occupiers and their chief tactic would give the world a new word: guerrillas (from the Spanish ‘little war’).

Spanish decline continued through the 19th and early 20th century. Its Latin American colonies broke free in the 1820s and a disastrous war in 1898 with the US saw its fleets destroyed in the Philippines and Cuba. 60,000 soldiers died in the Cuban campaign. While the rest of Europe rushed to colonise, Spain’s days of empire were ended. Positions hardened in the country between those who believed Spain needed an ‘iron surgeon’ (a benevolent military dictator) to recapture its glory days and those who wanted workers’ rights in a new republic. Anarchists inspired by the Russian revolution fomented armed revolt against the centre. Industrialists hired gunmen to defend their interests. A seven-year right wing Falangist dictatorship led by Primo de Rivera in the 1920s sowed the seeds for the discord to come.

In 1931 Republican forces won a bitterly-disputed general election and the Bourbon King Alfonso XIII was forced to abdicate. While the forces of the left demanded social justice, the right feared a popular revolution. The anti-clerical tone of the new government did much to entrench opposition. The government introduced a new constitution to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church ending their control of education, legalising divorce and subjecting the Church to taxation. Government War Minister Manuel Azana declared “Spain is no longer Catholic”. But tensions within the leftist coalition government meant it could not agree on radical measures required to solve the nation’s economic ills as the worldwide depression started to bite. The interregnum from 1933 to 1935 was known as the “two black years” as neither right nor left could form effective government.

The leftists closed ranks again in 1936 to form government under Azana. The alarmed opposition conspired to overthrow the government and in July the Spanish Army in Morocco rose in rebellion under the command of General Francisco Franco. But a naval blockade kept them out of the mainland. Franco turned to an old friend for help: Adolf Hitler. Germany dispatched transport planes, arms and equipment to airlift Franco’s experienced forces into Spain. Mussolini also gave armed support to the Nationalists, rightly figuring that Britain and France would not take up arms in defence of the Republic.

British and French were more worried the trouble in Spain would spread to other parts of Europe and acted to ‘seal off’ the conflict. But their Non-Intervention Agreement was blatantly flouted by Germany, Italy and Portugal who provided massive military and logistical support for the rebels. This foreign support tilted the war in Franco’s favour. Only ferocious resistance from the workers’ collectives in Madrid and Barcelona and support from Russia dragged the war on another two years before the Republic was finally crushed. Franco was brutal in victory and enacted a Law of Political Responsibilities which saw 30,000 executions of enemies, half a million imprisoned and the repression of Catalan and Basque nationalism.

Despite pressure from Falangists in his right-wing coalition, Franco resisted the pressure to join World War II on the German side. As the war turned against the Nazis, Franco toned down his fascist rhetoric and Falangist symbols, but the Allied powers were not fooled. Spain was denied entry to the new UN and was condemned as a Fascist power. UN countries called for a democratic regime and all withdrew their ambassadors with four notable Catholic exceptions: Argentina, Ireland, the Vatican and Portugal. But as the Cold War took off, the West began to warm to Franco’s anti-communism. Spain joined the UN in 1950 and signed the Pacts of Madrid with the US three years later that saw three American bases established on the Spanish mainland.

As Franco descended into old age and illness, his regime began to crumble. By 1975 Spain was becoming a wealthy country again on back of low-wage industrialisation and a burgeoning tourist industry. Franco nominated Juan Carlos (grandson of Alfonso XIII) as his successor and he was crowned king two days after Franco died in November 1975. Since that time, Spain has made a remarkable transition to constitutional democracy. The country is now ranked ninth in the list of the world’s industrialised nations. But with the Basques and the Catalans still fighting for their autonomy, old tensions between the periphery and the centre remain.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lebanon deal brings end to political stalemate

After five days of talks in Qatar, Lebanese factions have agreed on a deal to end the country’s 18 month political stalemate and renewed fighting that claimed at least 67 lives this month. The outcome was greeting by celebratory gunfire in Beirut as Lebanese TV broadcast the Doha ceremony live which brought an end to five days of talks. But weary Government leaders have had to give way on major provisions to avoid the alternative of outright war. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said it was "an exceptional agreement at an exceptional time". Parliamentary secretary Saad Hariri also put the best spin on the outcome saying "I know that the wounds are deep, and my injury is deep, but we only have each other to build Lebanon.”

Other parties in the region were less circumspect. Syrian President Bashar Assad claimed the talks as a victory and called Qatari Emir (and Prime Minister) al-Thani to congratulate him on the agreement. Iranian News Agency ISNA also congratulated the Qataris for their efforts. They quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini who said “The Islamic Republic of Iran hopes that the Doha accord ... will provide a blossoming and brilliant future for the Lebanese.”

Iran and Assad had good reason to be happy – their proxy Hezbollah made major inroads in the talks. They have almost doubled their seats in cabinet from 6 to 11. Crucially, it now has enough seats in cabinet to give it veto power in the new national unity government. It also benefits from a new electoral law that divides Lebanon into smaller districts which will give the country’s sects better representation. Shiites make up between 30 and 40 percent of the Lebanese population, yet are accorded only 18 percent of parliamentary seats. However, one downside is the need to disarm – the deal states that the "use of arms or violence is forbidden to settle political differences".

The deal also paves the way for parliament to elect a new president. Lebanon has been without a president since November 2007. Al-Thani said the deal will be "carried out immediately” and he believes the election of a new president will occur within 24 hours. The post is likely to be filled by Army chief Michel Suleiman. The army is seen as the one institute that stands above the fray. Suleiman is a good compromise candidate and despite being a Maronite Christian is regarded by the country's rival political factions as relatively neutral. More importantly he has kept the army on the sidelines of civil conflict.

Several key issues remain unresolved after Doha. Among them are what will happen to Hezbollah’s large weapons cache, and thorny question of Lebanon’s quixotic relationship with Syria. The Lebanese government blamed Syria for the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But Syria has so far refused to co-operate with a UN investigation into the murder of Hariri and ten other government officials. In October 2005, UN investigator Detlev Mehlis told then Secretary-General Kofi Annan the plot to kill Hariri "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials”.

Nevertheless, one immediate benefit of the outcome of the talks was the end of a 180 day Hezbollah sponsored blockade of the centre of Beirut. The protest began on 1, December 2006 when the opposition set up a sprawling tent city on streets leading to the offices of the Prime Minister Siniora, in a bid to force him to step down. The camp site paralysed the commercial heart of the city and large parts of the centre became a ghost town as dozens of restaurants and businesses were forced to shut down. Today, trucks started clearing the tent city under the orders of Opposition parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri. While protesters headed home, workers returned to the city to pick up the pieces. Fadi Harb, an employee at a nearby cell phone shop, said happily, "This agreement means calm, peace, security, stability and the future."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Andrew Forrest: Australia’s new iron man

Last week, Australia’s richest man Andrew Forrest realised a five year dream when he shipped his first load of iron ore to China, breaking the stranglehold of rival mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto in the process. While BHP and Rio circle each other in a round of hostile bids, Forrest’s Fortescue Mining Group goes from strength to strength. They are now shipping ore in a lucrative and lengthy contract with China’s largest steel company and are doing it on their own infrastructure: the project integrates several Pilbara mines, a 250km railway line and port facilities at Port Hedland.

On 15 May, Fortescue commenced loading its first shipment of iron ore from Western Australia to China. The 180,000 tonne loading occurred at “Herb Elliot Port” which is named for the Australian Olympian who also happens to be Fortescue’s non-executive chairman. In a press release (pdf) to ASX, Fortescue CEO Forrest described the event as historic bringing an end to three and a half years of planning since his company first found iron ore in the Pilbara region. “It has been a testament to Australian ingenuity, persistence and hard work that Fortescue has managed to achieve this feat in such a short time,” he said.

This persistence is now being felt on the balance sheet. Fortescue Metals Group will make its maiden profit this year and had its 2009 profit estimate doubled by JP Morgan Chase & Co. because of higher forecast iron prices and production. Iron ore prices are set to gain 10 percent to a new record high in 2009 continuing six straight years of rises. The share price has tripled in the past 12 months and was at $9.24 at close of business today.

According to Forbes, Forrest jumped 600 places in the world’s richest list adding five billion to his personal wealth. Forrest went from the 745th wealthiest person in the world in 2007 with $1.3 billion to 145th in 2008 with a net worth of $6.5 billion. Forbes puts his rise down to Chinese demand for steel and to “red-hot speculative interest in iron ore mining companies in general.”

The 46 year old Forrest is a Western Australian blueblood. He is a descendant of the first premier of the state, Sir John Forrest (presumably indirectly, as he died childless). Sir John commissioned the world's longest water pipeline into the Kalgoorlie desert goldfields, borrowing six times his State's budget to do it. Andrew Forrest has inherited many of his great-great-great-uncle’s visionary tendencies. He was born in 1961 graduated from Perth’s Hale school and after university embarked on a career in stockbroking and mining. He founded his first mining company Anaconda Nickel (now called Minara) in 1994.

Anaconda borrowed heavily to invest 60 percent in the world’s fifth largest nickel mine at Murrin Murrin in WA. But after operating delays and shortfalls in production targets, Forrest was forced to step down as CEO in 2001. After Anglo-American bought a major share of Anaconda, they expressed their lack of confidence in Forrest’s leadership. Forrest bounced back and in 2003 acquired Allied Mining & Processing who owned tenement sites at Mt Nicholas in the Pilbara. His new plan was to ship iron ore from the Chichester Ranges to China.

Forrester’s first act was to rebadge the company as Fortescue Metals Group. His second act was to acquire Iron Ore Pty Ltd. He was quickly building the infrastructure for both the mining of iron ore and its transportation to port. Forrester's timing was perfect as the Chinese boom was about to explode. Within 12 months he had signed sales agreements with two Chinese iron ore companies. In 2005 they raised $70 million through a convertible note issue. This allowed them to build their port at Port Hedland and the railway to serve it.

As Forrest’s plans to ship the ore to China came closer to fruition, Fortescue’s share price went through the roof. At the end of December last year, the price soared eight per cent in one day alone, pushing his personal wealth close to $7 billion. By March 2008, The Age crowned him “Australia’s wealthiest man” overtaking James Packer with Forrest's personal wealth now in excess of $8 billion.

March was a good month for Forrest. His ship came home when he signed a deal with Shanghai-based Baosteel Group Corp, China's biggest steelmaker. The state owned Baosteel will take between 20 and 30 million tonnes of ore this year alone before increasing their order to 55 million tonnes. Founded in 1998, it is now one of the most profitable steel enterprises in the world. Baosteel are desperate to get steel from any source (including World Trade Center debris) for use in the supercharged Chinese economy.

Their relationship with Fortescue is likely only to become more cosy as Forrest announced last week they were "most welcome" to buy shares in the company. “We are in talks with Baosteel all the time because they are a major customer,” he said. “I'm not here to say they have a particular interest in buying shares but they are most welcome to.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Johannesburg beset by a wave of xenophobic attacks

A wave of attacks on mostly Zimbabwean immigrants has left at least 22 dead in the last three days in Johannesburg, South Africa. Another 6,000 have fled to the safety of churches, police stations and community halls. Townships have become no-go areas as mobs go on a xenophobic rampage targeting foreigners without provocation. The refugees have become scapegoats for South Africa’s growing economic problems such as unemployment, crime and a lack of housing.

The scale of the violence has caught South Africa’s politicians and security forces off-guard. On the weekend, central Johannesburg resembled a war-zone, as armed police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse angry crowds. 200 people have been arrested and police reinforcements have been sent into the worst affected parts of the city calming the situation in the last 24 hours. One day earlier, a church where about one thousand Zimbabweans were taking refuge was attacked by a large mob. Bishop Paul Veryn of the Central Methodist Church told SABC radio: “We consider that the situation is getting so serious that the police can no longer control it.”

The violence began last week in the Johannesburg townships of Alexandra and Diepsloot due to perceptions that foreigners were behind robberies in the area. Local anger sparked vigilante justice and foreigners were assaulted and driven from their homes. The violence spread to other areas over the weekend. Men with guns and iron bars chanted “kick the foreigners out” and set upon immigrants from neighbouring African countries. In the last three days hundreds of people from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and elsewhere have been injured. Thousands more have been left homeless and many raped as the attacks on foreigners spread to the whole of the Johannesburg area. Gangs of youths, up to a hundred strong, attacked the homes of refugees over the weekend.

The cause is simmering resentment against successive waves of immigration. Since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, millions of African immigrants have poured into South Africa seeking jobs and sanctuary. But recent high inflation has eroded the value of wages and social benefits and recent sharp increases in food and fuel prices has also adding to pressure on low-income families. Unemployment in South Africa currently stands at 40 per cent. Frans Cronje, deputy director of think-tank The South African Institute for Race Relations believes a number of factors have all come together to create the problem. He says the key issues are inflation, food and fuel prices “which put the squeeze on poor communities and then we were waiting for the spark.”

The attacks have been concentrated in Johannesburg's poorest areas and Zimbabweans have borne the brunt of the violence. Up to three million Zimbabweans are estimated to be in South Africa. Most of these have fled their homeland on South Africa's northern border due to the Robert Mugabe’s repressive policies and the current political crisis. Archbishop Desmond Tutu condemned the violence and urged South Africans to remember the help neighbouring countries offered during the apartheid era. "Although they were poor,” he said, “they welcomed us South Africans as refugees, and allowed our liberation movements to have bases in their territory even if it meant those countries were going to be attacked by the SADF (South African Defence Forces).”

One Ugandan victim of the violence in Johannesburg spoke of his experiences. “Hassan” said he saw a mob breaking into the next-door residence where many Somalis live. He heard an exchange of gunfire and later saw a crowd setting a man alight before police sprayed him with a fire extinguisher to put the fire out. He said gangs were stopping vehicles on the street and pulling foreign nationals out so they can beat them. Foreign-owned businesses have now closed. It's quiet now but very tense. He said he was staying with some South African friends who were protecting him. Hassan thought the violence was orchestrated from “quite high up” as a result of the rivalry between President Thabo Mbeki and his likely successor Jacob Zuma (though both men have publicly condemned the attacks).

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Lows of Lucas Heights: nuclear power in Australia

The operators of Australia’s only nuclear reactor have announced today it will make 80 staff redundant and trim costs by $10 million. Federal budget cuts have bitten into ANSTO - the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation who operate Lucas Heights in southern Sydney, ANSTO have asked its thousand-strong staff to volunteer for redundancies, but expects they will have to sack some people. The $10 million shortfall is split almost evenly between a reduction in funding and a curtailing of a graduate program.

The news comes as Lucas Heights was re-started after ten months off the air with technical problems. ANSTO shut down its 20 MegaWatt Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) reactor in July last year when it was discovered several uranium fuel plates had come loose from their original position. ANSTO was forced to shut down the $400 million plant until it could approve a new fuel plate design.

ANSTO’s acting chief executive Ron Cameron says the job cuts will not impact on safety at Lucas Heights. He said the organisational focus would remain on safety, security and compliance of regulations. "We are committed to ensuring that we operate safely all the time,” he said. “We will ensure that in making the reductions that we need to make we will maintain our ability to deliver on our core scientific research areas."

But Shadow Minister for Innovation Science and Research, Eric Abetz was not impressed. He said today it was “anti-nuclear payback”. He blamed the cuts on “ideology” saying ANSTO copped the biggest cuts of any Abetz is still hurting from the Labor wedge campaign on nuclear power in the last election as he told the ABC today: “the Labor Government saw something with the name “nuclear” in its title and thought this is a fair cop for a cut.”

It is no surprise Abetz is so defensive of the industry. Lucas Heights was a project dear to the heart of Liberal hero Robert Menzies. It celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in January this year. In 1958 Australia was gripped in Cold War hysteria and the nuclear reactor was seen to give the country a seat at the nuclear table. Menzies approved the 10 MW High Flux Australian Reactor (HIFAR) based on a British model.

But by the 2000s HIFAR was aging and in need of replacement. But situated just 31km from Sydney, Lucas Heights should have been the home of serious nimbyism. As Kevin Rudd exploited so successfully in the last election campaign no one wants a nuclear reactor in their back yard. Yet although OPAL was twice the size of HIFAR, it was opened in April 2007 with barely a minimum of fanfare. Like its media treatment, the plant too fell silent two months later due to its loose plates.

The question remains why ANSTO is funded at all. ANSTO claims its focus is on “science and medicine.” While its 20 Megawatts industry is a tiny fraction of Australia’s overall 50 GigaWatts capacity (mostly coal), it cannot be totally ignored as interim solution to global warming. But although the likes of James Lovelock have proposed nuclear power as a climate change solution, it seems unlikely that fission will ever be considered as a major power source in Australia.

The current Labor government seems to be hedging its bets. It won’t shut down OPAL but won’t fund ANSTO to upkeep it. Similarly it won’t introduce nuclear power in Australia, but is quite happy to export uranium overseas. Its uranium policy “recognises that the production of uranium and its use in the nuclear fuel cycle present unique and unprecedented hazards and risks” but Labor seems happy to export as much uranium as NNPT countries can accept. Perhaps the paranoid Abetz is right - this is nuclear payback. But it doesn't pay to be vindictive. As Russia only too well knows, there is only one thing worse than a nuclear industry and that is an underfunded nuclear industry.