Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Moscow bombings: Putin and Medvedev have only themselves to blame

Russian authorities have blamed North Caucasus separatists for yesterday’s Moscow underground attacks without releasing a shred of evidence in support or any claims of responsibility. The death toll in the Lubyanka and Park Kultury metro station bombings rose to 39 today after a young woman died in hospital. 71 others remain in hospital, five critically injured. Russian Intelligence services say the bombs were planted by two women wearing belts packed with the explosive hexogen and metal shrapnel. It was FSB boss Alexander Bortnikov who said those responsible had links to the North Caucasus but he offered no supporting evidence of his charge.

Meanwhile Russia’s tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee leaders Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin tried to outdo each other in fatuous condemnation without either making any effort to apply wisdom to the situation. Medvedev said “they were simply beasts” without really saying who these beasts were. But whoever “they” were, Medvedev went on to make the ludicrous claim “I don’t have the slightest doubt: we will find and wipe out all of them.” Putin was no better, apparently blaming the attack on dogs or horses when he said those responsible for the attacks would be “destroyed”.

The fact is the Russian government is sowing what it reaped with these and other so-called terrorist bombings in recent years. After the Russian annihilation of Chechen separatists in the 1990s, the opposition has turned to a more extremist Muslim leadership with Saudi Wahhabist leanings despite the fact that most people in the area have peaceable Sufi leanings. The extremists want to declare a Caucasus Emirate and have killed 5,000 people since 2002 in their jihad against Moscow.

The Guardian said the two latest targets appeared to have been carefully chosen to represent a symbolic attack on Russia’s government. The first bomb went off opposite the headquarters of Russia’s FSB anti-terrorism intelligence agency at Lubyanka in the city centre. They say the second bomb may have been intended for Oktyabrskaya station, next to Russia’s interior ministry in the city’s south west.

However it is not beyond the realm of possibilities these may have been false flag operations. The FSB has form in this department. In the Russian apartment bombings of 1999 which led directly to the Second Chechen War, the failed attack on the building in the city of Ryazan was carried out by FSB operatives who were arrested by police. A hugely embarrassed then FSB director Nikolai Patrushev laughed off the incident as a “training exercise”. Those in Grozny did not see the funny side of it as 50,000 civilians were killed in the massive military assault.

Chechnya has had peace of a sort since then but it is a Russian imposed peace and a low-level insurgency continues. And as the Guardian’s Tom Parfitt said last year, Chechnya’s peace is based on murder. Its Kremlin backed government is run by a 33-year-old thug named Ramzan Kadyrov who was appointed by Vladimir Putin. Kadyrov brooks no dissent in his fiefdom, and his soldiers have repeatedly been accused of torture, kidnappings and extra-judicial killings. He has killed off his political and media opponents while Moscow has turned a blind eye. As Parfitt notes Russia has signed “a Faustian pact with [Kadyrov] to quell insurrection and stop terrorist attacks reaching the Russian heartland, in exchange for wide autonomy on his home turf.”

But that is proving an elusive goal. Chechens are still succeeding in bringing the war to Russia’s own turf. The two suspected suicide bombers are part of what the media loves to dub “black widows”. These were women who lost husbands or brothers to the Russian war and who made a spectacular leap into public consciousness during the Moscow theatre siege “dressed in black chadors, their waists and chests adorned with bombs”.

But while the bombs might be hidden behind chadors, the war of ideas is hidden by the bombastic rhetoric of Putin and Medvedev. Their naked greed and imperialism is taking Russian into a dangerous and almost fascistic phase. They have plundered the country’s wealth, killed with impugnity and destroyed the hopes of democracy inherited from the work of Mikhail Gorbachev. They are the real murderers, the “beasts” which should be “destroyed”.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Emperor's New Car: why electric cars won't solve energy issues

“In 21st century consumer culture, even ostensibly useful items like running shoes and cars are frequently replaced, not because they are worn out, but because they no longer produce sufficient gratification in the form of status or novelty.” [The Emperor's New Car]

A car buyer’s guide is not where I expected to find the most penetrating analysis of western consumer culture I’ve read in a long time, but that is exactly what The Dog and Lemon Guide’s editor Clive Matthew-Wilson has provided in the brilliant “The Emperor’s New Car”. The Emperor’s New Car is ostensibly a critique of the economic and environmental value of electric cars but in order to make his points Matthew-Wilson has poured question upon question until he gets to the root of the problem: it is our materialistic lifestyle that is killing the planet not the use of petrol-fuelled cars.

Matthew-Wilson begins by comparing the advantages and disadvantages of electric cars. On the positives, they improve air quality, reduce traffic noise, reduce reliance on oil from politically volatile countries, reduce emissions (but only if using electricity from renewable sources) and may be more fuel efficient. These advantages are balanced by the negatives: most electricity is produced from highly damaging fossil fuels, electric cars are still less efficient than mass public transit, there is a serious shortage of accessible energy, private cars are an unsustainable transport model, and they are being financed with taxpayers’ money as a bailout of car companies.

The world’s shortage of oil, says Matthew-Wilson, can be best understood as an energy shortage. This is exacerbated by energy wastage and resulting pollution. The West’s energy lifestyle relies on the East staying poor and undeveloped. 25 percent of the world uses 85 percent of its resources. The world simply does not have the resources, renewable or otherwise, to sustain lavish lifestyles in the west let alone across the globe.

Car ownership is embedded in western culture and with it an illusory sense of freedom. But the private electric car cannot solve the US energy and pollution problem because the private car is not the biggest waster of energy in America. That honour goes to homes mostly poorly designed and poorly insulated, far from services and now full of gadgets that are an energy sink. Worldwide the demand from gadgets will require building the equivalent of 560 coal-fired power plants, or 230 nuclear plants and while experts are promoting mandatory efficiency rules no one is advocating restraint in purchases of consumer electronics.

Shipping is also major problem. As few as 16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world. These ships carry consumer goods providing temporary gratification. The nub of the problem therefore, says the report is not so much the car by itself, but a package deal of wasteful cars, wasteful suburbs based around cars, together with a wasteful society based around consumption, with the car as the most obvious symbol of this waste. “Changing the way that American cars are powered will not solve the built-in problems of the American system of over-consumption.”

Globally the problem of materialism is compounded by energy wastage. China’s growth and demand for energy soon outstrip any environmental gains made within the West. The West’s addiction to consumption has fed the uncontrolled Chinese boom with its poor safety record. China's vast underground coal fires make an enormous, hidden contribution to global warming annually releasing 360 million tons of carbon dioxide as much as all the cars and light trucks in the US.

The report also side-tracks into such unexpected places as the dangers of WalMart car parks, the US diet and excess consumption. The conclusion is straight-forward and likely to be unpalatable to many: the only way a society hooked on excess energy consumption can solve the problem of excess energy consumption is to reduce its energy consumption to a sustainable level. The problem with the electric car movement, said Matthew-Wilson, is that it is based around the falsehood that it is possible to continue the American car-based lifestyle of the twentieth century by changing the form of energy used to power it. Read the report and act; it is a clear-eyed and compelling prescription for societal change.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

HRW uncovers LRA massacre in Congo

A new Human Rights Watch report has given details of a large scale massacre of civilians in north-eastern Congo by the Ugandan rebel group the Lords Resistance Army in December last year. In a well-planned operation, the LRA killed more than 321 civilians and abducted more than 250 others, including at least 80 children in northeastern DRC near the border with Sudan. The attack was one of the largest single massacres in the LRA’s 23-year history and witnesses said for days afterwards the remote area was filled with the “stench of death.” (photo © 2009 Reuters)

The horrific nature of the attack is outlined in HRW 67-page report “Trail of Death: LRA atrocities in Northeastern Congo” (pdf version).It was one of a series of assaults in the Haut-Uele and Makombo regions of DRC late last year during a vicious four-day operation to abduct child soldiers for their operations. In each town they arrived in, the LRA pretended to be Congolese and Ugandan army soldiers on patrol, and spoke in broken Lingala (the common language of northern Congo) to reassure locals. Then they tied them up with ropes or metal wire at the waist, often in human chains of five to 15 people and dragged them away. The victims included many children aged 10 to 15 years old who were made to carry pillaged goods. Anyone who refused, or who walked too slowly, or who tried to escape was killed. Hundreds were hacked to death with machetes or had their skulls crushed with axes and heavy wooden sticks.

Both the Congolese and Ugandan governments had previously claimed the LRA was no longer a threat to the DRC. HRW says embarrassment over these claims contributed to the lack of news of the massacre reaching the outside world. A DRC army investigation unit arrived in the area a week later and concluded the LRA had carried out the attacks but no further action was taken. Ugandan soldiers attempted to pursue the assailants but without success.

It wasn’t until the end of December that news filtered through to MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. Though it regarded the LRA as the enemy, MONUC did not have the resources to investigate. Its priorities were to defend the district capital Dungu from LRA attack, and attend to the long-running crisis in Kivu. However after a HRW briefing in March, MONUC sent a team of human-rights specialists to the area to investigate.

The attack was coordinated by General Dominic Ongwen, commander of LRA forces in northeastern Congo. Ongwen is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes committed in Uganda and he divvied up the abductees among the LRA commanders and separated into multiple smaller groups, each heading in a different direction. HRW has now called on the ICC and the DRC to investigate Ongwen and his two most senior commanders for their role in the massacre.

It will be a task easier to ask than answer. Originally restricted to Uganda, the LRA has now evolved into a regional power causing deadly mayhem in Uganda, southern Sudan, CAR, and Congo. They were pushed out of Uganda in 2005 and now operate in the remote border areas between southern Sudan, Congo and CAR. Despite continual attacks from multiple directions, including the 2008 US-logistics backed Operation Lightning Thunder, the LRA has proven remarkably resilient and able to regroup to continue their attacks against and abductions of civilians. In retaliation for Operation Lightning Thunder the LRA attacked numerous Congolese villages around the end of 2008 killing almost a thousand civilians and abducting hundreds more.

HRW says one hope of defeating the LRA comes from the US government. On 24 February, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Senate told the Foreign Relations Committee “I have been following the Lord’s Resistance Army for more than 15 years. I just don’t understand why we cannot end this scourge. And we [the US government] are going to do everything we can to provide support we believe will enable us to do that.” Three weeks ago the Senate unanimously passed the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. The bill is now before the US House of Representatives and if enacted into law requires the Obama administration to develop a regional strategy to stop LRA attacks, LRA, work to apprehend their leadership, and support economic recovery for northern Uganda.

HRW says the people of northeastern Congo and other LRA-affected areas across the central African region have suffered for far too long. “They are waiting for strong, effective action to end the LRA’s atrocities,” said the report. “[And also] to see the safe return of their children and other loved ones who remain with the LRA, and to let them know they are not forgotten.”

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

50th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre

Sunday was the fiftieth anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, a day now called Human Rights Day, which was celebrated with rare political unity. According to The Sowetan a service was held at the Sharpeville cricket stadium which was attended by members of the ANC, United Democratic Movement, Democratic Alliance, African People's Convention, Independent Democrats and Inkatha Freedom Party. Each of the political parties present was given two minutes to deliver speeches. Keynote speaker Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said the people had to take ownership of history both as various political organisations and members of society. “A common ownership of our history is the basis of nation building and must never be undermined by any interest group based on the subjectivity of race, class or ideology,” he said. (picture GALLO/GETTY)

The Sharpeville Massacre was a brutal event which shaped South African politics, both black and white for the next half a century. White police killed 69 black people and wounded 178 during a demonstration against segregation laws. While the massacre was instrumental in focussing world anger on the apartheid system, it also exacerbated political tensions within the black community between the ANC and the breakaway Pan Africanist Congress, which exist to this day.

Sharpeville was a small township built to service the white industrial cities of Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging. Here itinerant black workers would live in shanty-towns and earned a pittance in the nearby coal and steel industries. On 21 March 1960 the PAC organised a peaceful protest as part of their campaign against the pass system for black South Africans which severely limited their movements. PAC was a hardline organisation founded a year earlier as a breakaway from the ANC after the latter instituted its Freedom Charter with its commitment to a non racial South Africa.

The protests against the pass laws were the ANC’s idea and were due to start on 31 March 1960. But the PAC pre-empted them with the Sharpeville protest. On 21 March, about 6,000 people converged on the local police station offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying pass books. There were a small number of officers inside the station but they were not too worried as the atmosphere was peaceful. But as the crowd grew during the day, it got more tense. Police rushed in 130 reinforcements in Saracen armoured cars. They were supported by sabre jets who buzzed the crowd in an effort to scatter them.

When the crowd responded by throwing stones, the officer began making arrests. A fight broke out and the crowd advanced towards the police fence. What happened next is disputed. Hendrik Verwoerd, the then prime minister claimed that the protesters had shot first – though no arms were found on any of the protesters or victims. The police report later that year said inexperienced and panicky officers opened fire setting off a chain reaction. However evidence given at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 34 years later said the police action was deliberate.

What was not disputed was the death toll. 69 died including 8 women and 10 children, and over 180 were injured, including 31 women and 19 children. Many were shot in the back. In the week that followed, blacks across the country were enraged and there were demonstrations, protest marches, strikes and riots. On 30 March the government declared a state of emergency and arrested almost 20,000 people. The UN condemned the massacre and a year later the UN Security Council passed resolution 134 concerning ”the situation arising out of the large-scale killings of unarmed and peaceful demonstrators against racial discrimination and segregation in the Union of South Africa”. Of the permanent members only Britain and France abstained and foreign investors quickly pulled out of the country. Sharpeville played a crucial part in the gradual isolation of racist South Africa.

As a result of the massacre both the PAC and the ANC were banned leading to the radicalisation of both organisations and formation of their military wings. All of these events would lead to the ultimate collapse of the apartheid regime in the late 1980s. Author Millard W. Arnold said the ban and heavy-handed crackdown had "welded together three generations of black people united in their opposition to Apartheid." South Africa would have to endure 30 more years of pain before Sharpeville could be forgiven, if never forgotten. The TRC would eventually find the police actions constituted "gross human rights violations in that excessive force was unnecessarily used to stop a gathering of unarmed people” but its terms of reference meant that no one was charged for the crime. Perhaps it is best it is so. It means only the marginalised PAC (which got 0.27 percent of the electoral vote in 2009) still look back ruefully on Sharpeville and think what might have been.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

US State of the Media 2009 report paints grim picture

The latest American State of the News Media report shows a continuing and catastrophic decline in advertising revenue in online, newspapers, magazines, radio and network television. Cable television was the only sector not to decline and the overall picture leaves analysts wondering how much farther the industry has yet to fall. Amid the gloom, the Pew Project report says 2009 was the breakthrough year for Twitter and other social media which emerged as powerful tools for disseminating information and mobilising citizens.

But the uncontrolled nature of social media is not much consolation for major news media organisations. Their most immediate concern is how much revenue they will regain as the US economy pulls out of recession. Market research and investment banking firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson predicts that by 2013 newspapers, radio and magazines will take in almost half as much in ad revenues as they did in 2006.

The collapse so far has been extraordinary. Newspapers, including online, saw ad revenue fall by a quarter during the year bringing the total loss over the last three years to 43 percent. Local television ad revenue fell 22 percent in 2009; triple the previous year’s decline. Magazine ad revenue dropped 17 percent, network TV is down by 8 percent, while online ad revenue fell by 5 percent. Revenue to network TV news and online news sites weren’t broken out of the overall totals but most likely fared much worse.

Newspapers are in the worst trouble. The researchers estimated the US newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2000 - roughly 30 percent. They predict further cuts in what remains a $4.4b industry in 2010. This is a major concern because newspapers still provide the largest share of reportorial journalism. The report uses the metaphor of sand in an hourglass. “The shrinking money left in print, which still provides 90% of the industry’s funds, is the amount of time left to invent new revenue models online,” it said. “The industry must find a new model before that money runs out.”

But it is not just newspapers feeling the heat. Network news divisions are on a long slow curve of decline since their 1980s peak period and have since halved in size. Local television has not been hit as hard but is also feeling the pain. One estimate puts the losses in the last two years at over 1,600 jobs roughly 6 percent. Flagship magazines such as Time and Newsweek have also shed almost half their staff since 1983.

Life on the Internet paints a more complex picture. Almost three in five Internet users now use some kind of social media, including Twitter, blogging and networking sites. Citizen journalism is on the rise at local levels and rapidly filling niches vacated by undernourished news organisations. But the report says that despite the invention and energy of new media efforts, their scale is dwarfed by what has been lost. The J-Lab project estimates $140 million of non-profit money has been pumped into new media in four years but that represents less than a tenth of newspaper losses alone. According to NYU’s Clay Shirky “the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”

But this is not necessarily a bad thing. The motivation of news corporations over the last 20 years has been to cut expenses for the sake of profit eroding its sense of public good in favour of efficiency and profit. The researchers say the collapse of these ownership structures may mean a partial rebirth of community connection and public motive in news. But it warns unless someone can develop a system of financing the production of content, reportorial journalism will continue to shrink despite the new technologies.

The vexed question of a viable Internet revenue model is core to this problem. The researchers found that four out of every five online news consumers say they rarely click on online ads. Rupert Murdoch and News Ltd are moving to paywalls to address this problem but studies also show most people are “grazers” and only about one in five people say they would be willing to pay for online content - this number is likely to decrease with less voracious news consumers not included in the survey.

The upshot is a growing tendency towards niche operations. Most news organisations are becoming narrower in ambition and more specific in focus, brand and appeal. The researchers see the critical questions now as being: What collaborative models might work and under what ethical basis? Will there be more sharing of content and resources and what does that mean for fairness and accuracy? “The year ahead will not settle any of these,” they conclude. “But the urgency of these questions will become more pronounced.”

Friday, March 19, 2010

Australian media ignore CSIRO/BOM's State of the Climate report

While the Australian media obsess with the arrant nonsense spouted by the likes of Chris Monckton, sober climate change warnings from reputable agencies such as the CSIRO and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology continue to fly under the radar. Monckton attracted hundreds of articles and acres of print in his recent visit to Australia whereas a search of Google News found just 27 articles about the latest CSIRO/BOM State of the Climate report released this week. Only 20 of these were Australian and the most profile of these was a predictable tirade against the report by Andrew Bolt. But at least Bolt should be lauded for discussing it, generally the media were neither interested in burying nor praising CSIRO.

In doing so, they have done Australia a massive disservice. Because the document has major implications to the way we live our lives in the next 50 years. It contains an up-to-date snapshot of observations and analysis (html version, pdf version) of Australia’s climate and the factors that influence it. The data was sourced from peer reviewed data on temperature, rainfall, sea level, ocean acidification, and carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere. Between them, the two agencies that gathered the data, CSIRO and BOM, have 160 years of research behind them so there ought to be a fair degree of trust of their data.

Among their key findings is the long-term upward trend of temperature of Australia. On average temps have risen by 0.7 °C in the last half a century. Some areas have experienced a warming of 1.5 to 2 °C in that time. The strongest warming is occurring in spring (about 0.9 °C) and the weakest in summer (about 0.4 °C). The number of days with record hot temperatures has increased each decade over the last 50 years and the years 2000 to 2009 was Australia’s hottest decade on record. Rainfall has been stable since 1960 though the geographic distribution has changed significantly. Rainfall is on the rise in remote northern areas such as the Pilbara, the Northern Territory coastline and the Gulf of Carpentaria. But as city planners are only too aware, rainfall has decreased in south-west and south-east Australia, including all the major population centres, during the same period.

The report looked at 137 years of ocean data and found the global average sea level rose by close to 200mm in that time. The speed of the rise is also increasing. In the 20th century sea levels rose at an average of 1.7mm per year. But since 1993, the rise is about 3.0mm per year. There are many geographical variations within the 1993-2009 figure. In Australia sea level rises are higher in the north and west (7-10mm per year) while rising just 1.5 to 3mm in the south and east. The oceans are absorbing a quarter of all human generated CO2 making them more acidic affecting the health of ocean ecosystems around the world.

It doesn’t help that global carbon dioxide and methane emissions are on the rise. The natural range of CO2 in the atmosphere has been 170 to 300 ppm (parts per million) for at least the past 800,000 years. But emissions have been rising rapidly in the last century and were up to 386ppm by 2009. Similarly methane emissions were steady for most of human history around the 650 ppb (parts per billion) but have shot up to more than 1700 ppb in recent years.

The evidence from the report points to glaringly obvious conclusions: Australia is becoming hotter, the heavily-populated areas are becoming drier, and human activities have caused most of the damage since 1950. Being research agencies, the CSIRO and the BOM deal with probabilities so they are “only” 90 percent sure of that last fact. But I for one would not want to be backing the one in ten possibility. As the researchers baldly conclude “our observations clearly demonstrate that climate change is real”. Which makes all the more surreal, reactions from some of our more recalcitrant MPs and media decision makers.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thaksin supporters take their melodrama to the streets

Thailand political protesters have decided to spill blood to match their colour-coded red shirts on the streets of Bangkok. Organisers have asked 100,000 marchers to donate blood which will be spilled at the gates of Government House to demonstrate their fierce opposition to the rule of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Apart from the melodramatic nature of the protest, it is a terrible waste of good blood but it shows the determination of those loyal to ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who have been protesting more or less non stop in the 15 months since Abhisit took power. (photo:AP)

Demonstrators lined up to have their blood drawn by nurses, after their leaders vowed to collect "one million cubic centimetres" of blood. Protest leader Nattawut Saikur said if he still wants to continue as prime minister “regardless of our demands, he must walk across Red Shirt people's blood." Another leader Veera Musikapong said the blood was a sacrificial offering “to show our love for the nation, to show our sincerity.” The protesters planned to spill the blood if Abhisit continues to refuse their demands that he resign.

This latest macabre mass protest has entered a third day bringing 50,000 troops and police to Bangkok’s streets. The red shirts are the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship. They are mostly rural and support Thaksin, who now lives in exile in Dubai after he jumped bail on a graft charge. He swept to power in 2001 with their support promising measures to benefit the poor, and most still see him as a hero. Micro-credit and affordable healthcare schemes were two popular policies. They believe the Abhisit Government is illegitimate, because it came to power by virtue of defections rather than by winning an election.

The Oxford educated 45-year-old Abhisit first rose to prominence when he became leader of the Democrat Party in 2005 after its crushing election defeat by Thaksin. After a constitutional crisis Thaksin called a snap election in April 2006 Abhisit boycotted it as did all the other opposition leaders. In the chaos that followed there was supposed to be a second election in September but the military coup put paid to that. Though Abhisit disapproved, he gave support to the interim leader and bided his time. He was defeated again in the election that followed in December 2007 by Samak Sundaravej of the People's Power Party who formed a tenuous six-party coalition.

When Samak was sacked for corruption Abhisit lost out again to Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law. But Somchai didn’t last long either. The Constitutional Court banned him and his party for electoral fraud. Many disillusioned MPs defected to the Democrats and Abhisit finally had the numbers. He was elected PM in December 2008. It wasn’t long before the sniff of scandal began to whiff around Abhisit. The opposition accused him of approving false account reports to the electoral commission and filing false information. Abhisit survived a vote of no confidence though the endemic corruption within the Thai body politic continues to dog him. However, the biggest shadow over his leadership remains Thaksin. In March 2009 Thaksin accused the Privy Council of masterminded the 2006 coup that ousted him and then conspiring to make Abhisit leader.

This was the signal for thousands of Thaksin red-shirted supporters to come in from his countryside supporter base to take to the streets. Last year Abhisit declared a state of emergency and he got the army to clear the streets of protesters. This time the catalyst is the constitution court's verdict on 26 February to seize nearly two thirds of Thaksin’s assets. As The Guardian says “For Thaksin, the struggle is now all personal after his assets confiscation. For the reds, the fight is increasingly an organic people's movement to upend the established order. Such all-or-nothing stakes bode ill for Thailand's stable future".

Monday, March 15, 2010

Read all about it: Over half of all Australian news content is PR

A major new study of Australian newspapers has shown over half of all editorial content is driven by some form of public relations. The study by Crikey and the University of Technology Sydney found that 55 percent of all hard news stories in Australia’s top ten papers were the result of a media release, a public relations professional or some other form of promotion. The study backs up similar international and Australian research that says PR is the backbone of modern journalism.

The study was carried out by UTS investigative journalism students and Australian Centre for Independent Journalism student interns in the spring semester of 2009. The students chose a five day period from Monday, 7 September to Friday, 11 September from the print editions of the ten newspapers and analysed news articles from 11 rounds for a total of 2203 articles.

The ten papers in the study were spread across three owners News Ltd (The Australian, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Melbourne’s Herald-Sun, Brisbane’s Courier-Mail, Adelaide’s The Advertiser and Hobart’s The Mercury), Fairfax (Australian Financial Review, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age) and WAN (The West Australian). The 11 rounds chosen were: politics, business/finance, education, technology/innovation, police, rural, health/science/medicine, arts & entertainment, environment/energy and motoring.

Students investigated the origin of news and feature articles in these newspapers by using Google search engine and the Factiva news database to pick out earlier uses of direct quotes and phrases in media releases. Source material was also found as students combed exclusive interviews, publicity events, specialist email alert services, stories directly tied to and produced to support advertising, and public relations stories targeted and prepared for particular journalists.

The study found the News Ltd capital dailies were the worst offenders for using PR generated stories. Fully seven in ten stories in The Daily Telegraph were sourced from PR while the Hobart Mercury was not far behind with 67 percent. By contrast the Fairfax metro dailies did a lot better for original work with the Sydney Morning Herald just 42 percent spin and the Melbourne Age 47 percent. Worryingly (or brazenly, if you prefer), a quarter of all articles featured a journalist’s by-line with little or no appreciable effort in the article beyond the original PR.

Results also differed widely from round to round. Researchers found that over three quarters (77 percent) of all innovation/technology articles were sourced from PR while police was also high at 71 percent. Perhaps surprisingly given the number of governmental communications officers around, politics was lowest at 37 percent. But this is not necessarily cause for joy. The researchers cautioned this lower figure may be because “more public relations activity happens behind the scenes through journalists’ relationships with politicians and their advisers and for that reason is harder to identify.”

The results would have been worse if PR-heavy rounds such as property, travel and lifestyle were included or if the weekend papers had been included with their mass of supplements packed with promotional material. The problematic sports round was also excluded because contact between sports celebrities and journalists are heavily controlled by Sports PR. Crikey and UTS decided because of the nature of the media and PR industries relationship with sport, it was “too difficult to reliably code the sports reports”.

The findings should be no surprise to anyone working in journalism, PR or in research. Not only does public relations generally pay better than journalism, there are far more people in the PR industry than are currently listed as journalists. And with most companies now exercising strict policies when dealing with the media, it is getting increasingly harder for journalists to get anything other than the controlled message from an organisation.

Allied to this are time pressures and multiple stories which often do not give journalists enough time to get additional sources of information prior to deadline. The lowest-common denominator of Internet click-throughs and corporate penny-pinching also add to the problem. The bottom line is that investigative journalism is on the wane as we move towards the triumph of celebrity culture. On the whole, the quality of what we read, hear and see (the broadcast media are no better) on the news is ordinary. However the fault is ours. As news consumers, we are only getting what we pay for.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Glenn Beck forced to backtrack after attacking religions

American far-right television personality Glenn Beck has spent the last few weeks in the unfamiliar role of backtracking from earlier espoused positions. Beck’s provocative and confrontational views on Fox News, internet sites and syndicated radio stations have made him a hero to conservatives especially since Obama came to power. He commands audiences of 2.3 million to his 5pm cable show making him as the New York Times said “one of the most powerful media voices for the nation’s conservative populist anger.”

However he took a step too far for his base earlier this month. On 2 March Beck told listeners of his radio show they should "run as fast as [they] can" from any church that preached "social or economic justice" because those were code words for Communism and Nazism.

As Amy Sullivan wrote in Time, Beck probably thought he was tweaking a few crunchy religious liberals who didn't listen to the show anyway. But he was little prepared for the reaction he did get. As Sullivan puts it, “instead he managed to outrage Christians in most mainline Protestant denominations, African-American congregations, Hispanic churches, and Catholics--who first heard the term ‘social justice’ in papal encyclicals and have a little something in their tradition called Catholic social teaching."

Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners a network of progressive Christians is calling for a boycott of Beck’s Fox News program. He said Beck perverted Jesus' message when he urged Christians last week to leave churches that preach social and economic justice. Wallis says 20,000 people have responded to the boycott. "He wants us to leave our churches, but we should leave him," Wallis said. "When your political philosophy is to consistently favor the rich over the poor, you don't want to hear about economic justice."

Peg Chamberlin, President of the National Council of Churches of Christ, was one of many religious leaders outraged by Beck’s views. Writing in Huffpo she said it was nothing short of a call for his listeners to disregard central tenets of their faith because they do not conform to his political ideology. “He is advocating that they abandon the full Gospel message in favour of a hollow idol, and he is doing so for worldly gain,” wrote Chamberlin. “His statements cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.”

There is little danger of that happening and it is par for the course for someone to challenge any utterance of Beck’s. But this time it is hurting as the challenges are coming from his own side of politics. Mormon scholars in Beck's church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in interviews he seemed ignorant of just how central social justice teaching was to Mormonism. Philip Barlow, the Arrington Professor of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, said “A lot of Latter-day Saints would think that Beck was asking them to leave their own church.”

However Sarah Pulliam Bailey warns against getting carried away by the size of the reaction against Beck. Writing at Getreligion.org, she calls it a “sweeping generalisation” and said many conservative Christians were comfortable with Beck’s remarks. She said media were making out there was a wide chorus of criticism “when in reality (drumroll please) Jim Wallis is calling for a boycott,” she said. “I can’t help but wonder if we’d ever see a headline like “Christian Leader Calls for Rachel Maddow Boycott.”

Yet very few have come forward to defend Beck. Perhaps unsurprisingly one of the few voices of support was from fellow extremist Jerry Falwell Jnr, an evangelical leader in the mould of his controversial father. Falwell said those pastors who preach economic and social justice were “trying to twist the gospel to say the gospel supported socialism. Falwell said Jesus taught that people should give to the poor and support widows, but he never said that we should elect a government that would take money from a neighbour's hand and give it to the poor. "If we all did as Jesus did when he helped the poor, we wouldn't need the government," Falwell said.

But social justice is a tenet of mainstream faiths and has been promoted by many respected religious scholars. When this was pointed out to Beck, he issued a “clarification” on 12 March. He began by conflating social justice with big government and then launched an attack on his critics “They always change and confuse the language. Political correctness comes from the progressive movement,” he said. “There's a lot of people who say ‘social justice’ and some people don't mean Marxism. But others do, and you need to know, which is it?” But it was obvious the criticism hurt. As Amy Sullivan said Glenn Beck has certainly discovered the dangers of publicly practicing theology without a licence.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The People's Republic of Facebook

Sooner or later, we will all probably hate Facebook enough to leave it. It will become too commercialistic, too voyeuristic, too invasive of privacy or just too damn powerful. And we’ll all pack up our digital bags and go somewhere else. And that will be a shame because as social networks go, Facebook has a lot going for it.

Facebook is easily the most popular social network in the world and now has a massive user base capable of connecting a planet. There are more than 300 million members and growth is showing little sign of slowing. And to date, its effect is mostly benign and very often beneficial. It allows people from across the world to get a window in other people’s lives. It re-opens old and stalled friendships. And though it has more than five percent of the world’s population in it, it hasn’t caused any wars, terrorism, or large scale hatred. Yes sure there are hate groups out there on Facebook, but these can be easily named and shamed or better still simply shunned. And despite the media stink about linking every nastiness with Facebook, usually there is only a tangential link. There is no evidence to suggest Facebook is evil.

What is evident is Facebook is in danger of becoming a massive time sink. Facebook is changing the way we deal with the world because it is a one-stop shop for multiple communication needs. It has email, instant messaging, twitter-like status updates with added banter, there are a limitless number of games, there are links to be shared, and there are photos to be posted and enjoyed. Before you know fifteen minutes of the day is gone in a flash. No wonder some employers hate it. Yet it caters for a crucial part of human existence: the need to know more about the world. If Facebook didn’t exist, people would still be on the phone or reading letters or playing games.

Mark Zuckerberg has already made a lot of money from Facebook. Aged just 25 he is a “youthful multi-millionaire” however most of his wealth is virtual and tied into the possible worth of Facebook if it ever went for public stock options. And when that happens the gloves will be off. The corrupting influence of power and money will likely turn Facebook into a grubby advertising pit.

So here’s my suggestion to Mr Zuckerberg. Instead of making gazillions out of it, why not give it away. Release it into the wild of the public domain. Let the users take it over and turn it into open source or wikify it. Let Facebook privacy finds its own equilibrium. Sack your army of lawyers and offer passports to the People’s Republic of Facebook. If that idea sounds too radical, then consider the alternatives. The desire to make serious money out it will eventually kill it. You may be gone on to other things by then and may not care but the destruction of Facebook will still be forever associated with you.

It remains a good idea to put the world on one network. That doesn’t mean everyone has to talk to everyone, but it does open up infinite possibilities. It will require a whole new universe of trust; it will redefine what it means to publish. It will stretch and pulsate our neural network without the nagging fear that ultimately its all about exploiting users to turn a buck. Facebook could yet be that network but only if Zuckerberg lets it run free.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

BBC strategic review is useful template for the ABC

The BBC Strategy Review of March 2010 (pdf) is an important read not only for those interested in the future of Britain’s premier broadcaster but also for those who follow the fortunes of its antipodean cousin the ABC. Given the tagline “getting the best out of the BBC for licence fee payers” the 79-page document is the BBC Trust’s attempt to steer a course for the public-funded organisation in the likely event of a Conservative win in the forthcoming election and a corresponding serious reduction in government expenditure. (photo: The Guardian)

The Trust said its reference points were the audience and the market. It said its audience is proud of the BBC and willing to pay for a strong and independent voice that delivers original and high quality content. The market meanwhile is more ambiguous. It wants the BBC to fulfil its public service charter but questions where the boundaries lie with private enterprise and also its genuineness in its proposals for partnerships.

The Trust said the time was right to look at its future direction and possibilities of expansion in the framework of four key questions. These were: Is its portfolio of services still appropriate in the digital age? Has its near 24 x 7 expansion caused a dilution in quality and distinctiveness? What is the best distribution model for content? And finally how should it react to the problems of commercial media?

These questions in turn raised five lines of enquiry the Trust put to BBC management. These were: How can the BBC best maintain quality and distinctiveness? Where could it narrow focus and scale? What will a fully digital BBC look like? Can the BBC better define the public space it provides? And finally how can the BBC create the most value from its scale?

The response to all these questions from BBC management called “Putting Quality First” is in the same document. The Director-General’s vision was to create “a BBC focused on quality content and enduring values, keeping open a public space for all”. This would be achieved by five central principles: putting quality first, doing fewer things better, guaranteeing access, getting better value from the licence fee, and setting new boundaries.

The BBC mission statement is worth repeating because it has relevance also in the Australian context. It says, “[the mission] is constant and enduring: to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value. It strives to fulfill this mission not to further any political or commercial interest, but because the British public believes that universal access to ideas and cultural experiences of merit and ambition is a good in itself. The BBC is a part of public space because the public themselves have put it there.”

The BBC is part of an independent public space that include other media, public institutions, libraries, museums, parks, universities, monuments and voluntary bodies. And while the digital age should be a “golden age” for public space, fragmentation of audiences is destroying business models causing public space to diminish. The BBC say their role is to be a main guarantor of public space and its technological underpinning and should also be a catalyst and connector within that space.

Its mantra, says management, should be putting quality first. It will have five content priorities: world-class journalism, inspiring knowledge, music and culture, ambitious local drama and comedy, outstanding children’s content, and events that bring communities and the nation together. That means changing £600m of priorities a year (a fifth of the BBC’s cost base) over the next four years and committing to 90 percent of licence fees on high quality content (though it will be interesting to see how ‘high quality’ will be defined and measured).

This also means doing more with less. Spending on the BBC’s website will decrease by a quarter each year to 2013 and its number of sections will be halved. There will also be more external links with the intention of doubling monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites. Other services to be closed will be Radio 6 Music, Asian Network and teen offerings BBC Switch and Blast! In order to guarantee access to all, BBC management want to make internet-connected television a reality, continue free access to news and also to open its archives and program library and work with its partners such as the British Library and BFI to bring their public archives to a wider audience.

To pay for all this, the BBC is proposing to reduce costs, reduce senior management numbers, freeze pay and suspend bonuses. They will also reduce spend on overseas content, cap sports rights spending, defer to commercial radio and other broadcasters in area in areas of popular music and serving teenagers and to not go more hyperlocal than they already are.

Opponents of public broadcasting here in Australia such as Mark Day have seized on this report as a rationale for trimming down, if not totally removing, the ABC from the media landscape. While this goes too far, the BBC Trust document does ask some very good questions and opens up a debate on public broadcasting and its platforms and contents we do need to have in Australia. Particularly as there is no licence fee, it behooves us to question the direction the ABC is headed (and also ask where SBS fits into the picture). All too often media policy here is reactive. As we stand on the cusp of the death of the analogue age, we could do worse than examine the BBC document. It is a template for honest and mature discussion into what we might want from “our ABC” in the coming years.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Massacre in Central Nigeria

Human rights groups have called on Nigeria’s interim president to launch an immediate investigation into the tit-for-tat murder of over 400 villagers in the centre of the country two days ago. The killings of men, women and children in Nigeria's Plateau State took place on Sunday morning, when an armed group arrived in the mainly Christian villages of Dogo Nahawa, Zot, and Ratsat, 10 kilometers south of provincial capital Jos. The group shot into the air to draw people out of their homes before cutting them down with machetes. (photo by Reuters)

The strong stench of decomposing human bodies filled the air before they were removed to three mass burial sites. A state official who headed the Rescue and Recovery Committee said about 380 were buried at Dogon Na Hauwa while about 36 corpses would be buried in the two other graves. A small number of the bereaved families made their own burial arrangements. Plateau State Police Command said 96 people were arrested with four of the fleeing killers shot dead by security forces.

Witnesses interviewed by US-based Human Rights Watch said the attacks were committed by Muslim men speaking Hausa and Fulani against Christians, mostly of the Berom ethnicity."This kind of terrible violence has left thousands dead in Plateau State in the past decade, but no one has been held accountable," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It's time to draw a line in the sand. The authorities need to protect these communities, bring the perpetrators to book, and address the root causes of violence."

Civil society leaders in Jos said that the attacks were retaliation for previous attacks against Muslim communities in the area and the theft of cattle from Fulani herdsmen. On January 19, more than 150 Muslim residents were killed in an attack on the nearby town of Kuru Karama. In that attack scores of the residents were hacked to death and their bodies stuffed into wells. State agencies went missing in that attack and also in the revenge attacked that followed this week.

Religious and land-related clashes in the state have claimed more than 2,000 lives since 2001. The ruling state and national party the People's Democratic Party is supported by Christians while Muslim mainly back the opposition All Nigeria People's Party. And because the Hausa-speaking Muslims are often referred to as settlers, they are barred from taking official positions, gibing further rise to hatred.

Nigeria’s racial problems have been exacerbated by a constitutional crisis triggered by a long illness to President Umaru Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua spent three months in Saudi Arabia clinic before returning to Nigeria last month. However he has yet to resume any duties and four Saudi heart specialists arrived in Nigeria on the weekend as his health deteriorated. His exact health status is shrouded in secrecy as Acting President Goodluck Jonathan and other ruling party members have still not been granted access to see him in his Intensive Care Unit within the state house.

The Acting President is a Christian unlike the Muslim Yar’Adua as part of an unwritten agreement to take turns sharing the presidency between north and south. Jonathan comes from the oil-rich Delta region, an area with a sense of resentment that northerners stolen its wealth. The stand-off between the northern and southern factions has paralysed the administration of the country since Yar’Adua fell ill. Everyone is now waiting to see how the armed forces respond to the crisis. As Jonathan Clayton said in The Times “few people would like to see a return to military rule, but an unstable Nigeria is a nightmare prospect for both African and Western leaders.”

Monday, March 08, 2010

Michael Foot dead at 96

The great British parliamentarian and journalist Michael Foot died last week aged 96. He was a Labour MP for ten years from 1945 and then another 32 years from 1960 and led the party to defeat in the 1983 post-Falklands poll as Margaret Thatcher won her second election. While often flayed in the media for his leadership woes and his poor dress sense (his duffel coat wearing at the 1981 Cenotaph memorial service infamously mislabelled by the right-wing press as a “donkey jacket”), Foot held the party together during one of its lowest ebbs and was a great servant to British democracy. (1982 photo of Michael Foot by Jane Bown)

Michael Mackintosh Foot was born and raised in the south-western city of Plymouth, the fifth of seven children of a Scottish mother and Isaac Foot the former mayor of Plymouth. He was schooled there and in a Quaker school in Reading before graduating from Oxford with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics. He graduated in 1934 at the height of the depression and took a job as a shipping clerk in Birkenhead on Merseyside. Foot was shocked by the scale of unemployment he found in Liverpool and it was enough to shake him out of his erstwhile Liberal views and become a socialist.

In 1935 he joined the Labour Party and contested the Welsh seat of Monmouth but lost. He worked for the New Statesman and then was one of the first journalists on the weekly magazine Tribune when it was set up in 1937. Aneurin Bevan recommended him to Lord Beaverbrook to work on the Evening Standard and he eventually became editor in 1942. Under the pseudonym of “Cato”, he also co-authored a book about Chamberlain’s appeasement policy called “Guilty Men” which became a surprise bestseller. His own chronic asthma prevented him from signing up in the war.

Although Foot would continue as a distinguished journalist throughout the 1940s and 1950s, a new career beckoned at the end of the war. He went back to his home town Plymouth and contested the 1945 election which he won as Labour under Clement Atlee ended Churchill’s rule. He held it again in 1950 and 1951 but was a shock loser in 1955 as the Tories increased their majority by 60 seats under Anthony Eden. In 1960 he returned to Wales and contested and won the Ebbw Vale by-election made vacant by his mentor Aneurin Bevan’s death.

After barely a year back in parliament then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell expelled Foot from the parliamentary party after he led a rebellion against the leadership over defence spending. Gaitskell’s sudden death in 1963 and the ascension of Harold Wilson paved the way for Foot’s return to the party. Foot turned down a role in the Wilson ministry in 1964 preferring to offer criticism from the back bench on matters such as wage restraint, Vietnam and Rhodesia.

After Wilson’s defeat in 1970 the party moved leftwards and arrived at a rapprochement with Foot. When Labour was re-elected in 1974, Foot finally accepted a cabinet position as Secretary of State for Employment. He lost the leadership battle to James Callaghan in 1976 but was elected deputy leader and it was his job to somehow keep the Lib-Lab pact going as the government tottered towards the end of its reign. After the “winter of discontent” in 1979 Labour was put out of its misery by Thatcher, Callaghan resigned and Foot finally had the top job, aged 67.

His immediate task of uniting the badly fractured party was made more difficult by the defection of the Gang of Four to create the Social Democratic Party. With media support and favourable polling, the SDP looked as if it could overtake Labour as the alternative party of power to the Tories, who themselves were in strife as Thatcher’s early policy reforms showed no signs of bringing rewards.

The 1982 Falklands Crisis restored Thatcher’s lead in the polls, Labour’s vote fell by three million and she won the 1983 election with an increased parliamentary majority of 144 seats. Though Labour only polled two percent greater than the combined SDP/Liberal vote, Britain’s first-past-the-post system meant they still took 203 seats to the Alliance’s 23. The scale of the defeat was enough to sink Foot. Harold Wilson’s press secretary Gerald Kaufman famously described Foot’s anti-nuclear, anti-European election manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history". Foot went to the back benches and finally retired from parliament at the 1992 election.

All throughout his life, Foot remained a fervent member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a possible relic from his Quaker education. He was also passionate about the arts and music and a lifelong fan of Plymouth Argyle FC. Neil Kinnock, who followed him as Labour leader, called him “a resolute humanist with profound faith in the ability of free men and women using free institutions to secure irreversible advances in standards of living and liberty for every country and community”.

Although some opinion polls have nominated him the worst Labour leader in history, it is likely no-one else would have done better with the poisoned chalice he was handed in 1979. As well as the Jenkins-inspired ructions on the right, the Militant Tendency was making great strides on the far left while Tony Benn remained a major destabilising influence within the party. As the Guardian said in its obituary, the ultimate judgment may well be he performed the vital service of holding his party together when it was dangerously polarised between Healey and Tony Benn.

Foot was an eloquent parliamentarian with friends across the political spectrum. Enoch Powell loved him because he spoke beautiful English. Foot was well-read, eloquent, devoted to literature and regularly quoted Swift, Disraeli, Hazlitt and Byron. As a student of history, he might have enjoyed the irony of how Labour’s current problems mirror many of his own in the late 1970s. He might also have told them not to despair despite their current problems. As Foot was only too aware, all things must pass.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Roma's record flood: Day 2.

At 5.45am on Wednesday morning I was jolted into life by my alarm. 15 minutes later I was on the road and driving to the council building. The rain had stopped. I did a quick detour to the Arthur St bridge which was flooded out yesterday. There was still plenty of water on the road but it looked passable today. I went into the council’s 6am emergency response meeting at the invite of the mayor. The price of entry was that it would be off the record but there were many things said there they wanted me to get out to a wider audience. (See Day 1 story here)

Roma had been declared an official state emergency site yesterday. The Bungil peaked at 8.1m at 1.30pm yesterday but had dropped a couple of metres overnight. They said a quarter of the town had been flooded and at least 200 properties had water damage inside the home. There were no fatalities or serious injuries though there was one report of snakebite. 34 evacuees came through the RSL. There was also talk of the Premier Anna Bligh visiting town later today on her way back to Brisbane from Charleville which was in even deeper strife. It was not yet certain when or if she would come at all given that the airport had been closed for almost 24 hours. I said I would chase up more info via her media liaison unit. The school principal also asked me to contact the ABC. ABC Local news was telling the world one of the three state school campuses was shut. It wasn’t and the principal asked me could I help get the right message out. After an hour of hearing reports from all the emergency services and a mixed weather forecast everyone left knowing the worst was over for now but it wouldn’t take much to rise again.
I went back to the office to catch up on emails and the Internet and take stock. Yesterday I was unable to get to the worst-affected areas – including where I lived as recently as ten days ago. First I went back to the RSL where the McGilvrays had moved home but the oldfellas from St Vinnies hospice were back. I brought a few copies of the paper for them to read and then set about finding more stuff to write about. I was able to drive over the Arthur St bridge in my two-wheel drive with care. The water was still over the road but low enough to get through.

I parked up the road and trudged barefoot through the waters I couldn’t get through yesterday. This area was copping it for the second time in a month. The waters were still waist-high having dropped a metre or two overnight. My RSL friend Jill said I could check out her house so I went inside to take photos. The water had mostly dried out inside the home but had left a smelly mess. I walked around the corner to Charles St and found the house where I used to live.
There was no one there but the water was still all around the back yard and there was a sandbag at the door. Across the road a man named Paul lived in a high-set house on stilts. Paul was there on the balcony and I shouted up to him.

“I assume you were dry enough up there?” I said.
“Yes, the water got as far as the fifth step,” pointing about half way down the stilts.
I asked him about the house across the road where I used to live.
“Yeah the water came right up. Think it got into the house,” he said.
I shuddered with my luck in so recently leaving – my new place was in an unaffected part of town.
I then tried to walk on but the waters were rushing towards the creek here so it was too dangerous and too deep to continue. I went back the way I came and bumped into Johnny Mac.
Johnny is a Roma institution and has DJed here for 30 years. Johnny lives on a shed at the back of his brother’s house and the waters got into his place. Worse still they got into the bigger shed where he keeps all his audio gear and destroyed $16,000 worth of amps and other equipment.
“Luckily most of the old records were up high and survived,” Johnny said.
“It’s a musical history of Roma.”
Johnny said he spent the night at his parents who live at the back of the property on a slight hill. But the creek running behind them it was touch-and-go whether they would be spared. He also showed me the swimming pool which was a mess of brown water and collapse shade.
Johnny’s brother Phil Macfarlane then came downstairs and showed me underneath the house. They were getting ready for a garage sale and had all their gear ready for it. But a drum had gotten loose in the water and smashed into all the other contents sending everything flying.
Phil showed me the mark they had drawn for the height of the 1997 flood and this one was at least a metre higher. He and his family were safe enough upstairs in their stilted house but the power was off all night and they like everyone else hoped it would get no higher.
Johnny meanwhile looked disconsolate at all his damage.
“This is it for me,” he said.
“I’ve lived through six or seven floods in my time in Roma and I’ve had enough. It's time to move.”
It was time for me to move on too. Much of the morning had gone and I needed to get back and start writing up my stories for Friday’s paper. I slowly waded my way back to the dry area. On the drive back the water was receding further on the bridge. In the office I heard Anna Bligh wasn’t coming today. Her pilot had deemed the airport too unsafe to land though it had re-opened this morning. I went along to second recovery coordination meeting of the day at 2pm. This time the council chamber was packed solid. As well as all the emergency services, there were reps from Telstra, Ergon, the insurers, health services and both the state and federal member of parliament.
(Image courtesy: Maranoa Regional Council)
The Council CEO officially declared it Roma’s worst flood since records began in 1917 though there was anecdotal evidence of a bigger one in the 1890s.
The sheer size of the meeting meant it was unwieldy and took longer than it should. It was suggested they go back to the core group for tomorrow’s meeting, a fact that didn’t bother me as I was on deadline tomorrow anyway.
I went back to spend a long afternoon collating information and writing up the stories for what we hoped would be a memorable edition of the paper.
At the end of the day, I called in on the RSL again. They had a couple of the St Vinnies oldies staying the night and another couple that had to be helicoptered to safety from their property near Morven about 190km further west. Roy and Jill would stay the night with them again.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Roma's record flood - March 2010

The warning signs were there from Monday. A bloody great big monsoonal low was descending from the Northern Territory and was predicted to dump a great wad of rain on south and central Queensland. It started raining in Roma around 8pm and began to come down hard. The rain stayed hard and loud all night making sleep difficult and fitful. I had to be up to report on a 6.45am sports breakfast meeting at the council buildings about five minutes drive from where I lived. I thought it would have been cancelled at the last minute but I had to check it out. It didn’t take long for me to realise the waters had risen substantially overnight.

I carefully threaded my way through the river-like roads and found Roma’s CBD awash with water. Not from the creeks but simply because the drainage system couldn’t cope. 133 mils had fallen overnight and it was still coming down. I got out of the car to take a few photos of slow-moving traffic struggling through the waves. The water was up to the step of our office and still rising. In about two minutes of taking photos I was soaked to the skin. I retreated back to the car and went onto the council building.

To my surprise, the sports breakfast went ahead. Many people were stuck on their properties and others were running late but an amazingly large amount of sports administrators turned up to hear how council was going to change its management of local sport. I sat there saturated and took notes all the while realising the real story was elsewhere. By the time the meeting finished, it had stopped raining. The waters had retreated from the office step leaving a muddy mess on the pavement. The word was the Bungil Creek was still rising and we were heading for a big flood. Having recalled what the floods were like last month, I rushed home to get a pair of shorts and thongs (footwear) and was ready for combat duties.

It was soon obvious this flood was going to be much larger than the last one. In February there was one bridge to the northern part of town that didn’t flood over, but it was now inundated by the time I got there. I saw a boat about to ferry a lady with her groceries across and hitched a lift with them into the flood zone. I thought initially the two boaties were SES officers but no, they were just two Santos workers who were heading to find their friend who was stranded in a ditch somewhere. The other passenger told me her name was Inge Strybos and she lived further up the street. Neither her name nor her accent was local and it turns out she was Belgian but had a Roma boyfriend. But Inge had never seen rain or floods like this in Brussels.

The boys dropped Inge and myself off in shallow waters on the other side of the creek and set off to find their mate. I started walking further north asking whoever would talk to me about how the flood was treating them. None of the houses I saw were inundated though the gardens were looking soggy. I was taking a photo of a woman walking her three dogs to safety when she shouted out “hello Derek”. At closer inspection, it was local MP Howard Hobbs’ media person Ann Leahy and she was taking her dogs to the safety of her office on the other side of town before returning to her flooded home. I left Ann to find her way to town and walked further down her street.

The waters were waist high and cursing the fact I had no t-shirt pocket I had to carry my mobile phone in my hand. Towards the end of the street the waters were getting almost chest high and the current was getting stronger. Here several low-lying houses were inundated and their occupants long gone. Concerned about losing my mobile and camera in deeper water, I retreated back the way I came.
Back on the corner, Ann was still there and finding it difficult to get a lift back to town with the dogs. Then came Darren Christiansen to the rescue.

Darren had a big truck and was taking sandbags around to houses in need. He got Ann and the dogs to hop on. Then he spotted me.
“Are you from the press?” he said.
“I’m from the Western Star,” I replied.
“Do you want to hop in? I’m delivering the last few sandbags before heading back into town,” he said.
I didn’t need a second invitation. I hopped in the front cab which was already crowded. Darren introduced me to Kate who was pregnant as well as her toddler Zoe and their small dog. Darren was taking his human and canine crew to higher ground.
Darren was a bit of a character. He told me he was a young and single grazier.
“I don’t know if you saw me – I was on A Farmer Needs A Wife but I was eliminated in the first round”.
I hadn’t seen the program. Darren said he’d never seen floods like this (neither had I) even though he was well used to rain on his property about 70km west of Roma.
“It’s been raining solid there for four weeks,” he said.
“The only way around is by quad bike or horse.
“I was in town today and thought people could use a hand.
“The truck has got a high input so it’s safe enough to get round in.”

We continued to tour around the flood areas from the safety of his high cab and I helped Darren deliver the last few sandbags at his mother’s house. Finally he started to head back to town and dropped Ann, Kate, Zoe and the dogs off. He told me he was going to the council depot to get more sandbags and I said I would go along.

The depot was full of exhausted council workers many of whom had been on the job since 3am laying sandbags. They were enjoyed a smoko: a rest and a feed. They were also swapping war stories of the morning’s events. Everyone agreed it was the biggest flood that had ever hit Roma.

Darren borrowed a forklift and loaded his truck up with more sandbags. He picked up his mate Mark who had yet to see the flood and the three of us drove back past the flooded bridge. The Bungil peaked at 8.1m around lunchtime but waters were still rising around town. Most houses in the flood zone were beyond sandbagging but we kept driving around the streets seeing if anyone needed help.

One man named Aaron Murphy showed us inside his saturated house. “I was out in the garage madly trying to lift everything off the ground.”
“While I was out there, the waters came in through the door.
“It happened so quick there was no time to react.”
The waters contaminated every room, destroying the carpets, sofas and fridge and everything near ground level. With nothing left to do, Aaron joined us on the truck as we continued our tour of the saturated suburbs.

Occasionally someone would call out for sandbags for their property on higher ground but most had already left leaving their home's fate to Mother Nature. The rain stayed away all day so the waters stopped rising further - though there was menacing talk of waters up north that was yet to come down this way. With all the rivers in southern Queensland flooded there was nowhere for that water to go except up.

After touring around for a couple of hours it was time to head back to town. Darren picked up a few more stragglers and we all milled around the back of the truck in totally illegal fashion. Police turned a blind eye on the creek crossing but further down the road they took a dim view of Darren's unsecured load and we all had to hastily get off. It was a short walk from there to the office where I caught up with all the news from elsewhere. I heard the RSL hall was transformed to an emergency response centre and trudged up to take a look.

I had gotten friendly with the RSL crew and knew most of them there. They were great people who tirelessly devoted themselves to the community. One couple, Roy and Jillie, had their own home flooded out but still spent all day helping others, feeding the evacuees and plying them with tea and coffee. The RSL processed over 30 evacuees during the day while they tried to find beds for the night for them. Many people from the community volunteered to house the evacuees. All that was left when I arrived were three fellas from an old folk’s home near the creek that was flooded out. I talked to Henry Steers, who was 77 and rescued with his 16-year-old dog Boss.
Henry said he and his mates were glad to be rescued by the SES though some of the others had to be cajoled by police into leaving their homes.
“I live next to the Creek and the waters just came swimming through my door,” Henry said.
His friend Bobby McKenzie was envious at the way Henry was rescued.
“He got piggybacked out while we had to walk!” he said.
But Henry had a good excuse.
“I’ve only got one leg, see,” he said, tapping at his wooden leg.
“When the boat took us to the other side, this lovely lady picked us up and dropped us off at the church where someone gave us dry clothes,” he said.
“Then we were taken over here where they looked after us too.
“It’s beautiful here, I got a hot meal of potato and sausages."
Then Henry looked wistfully at Boss as he remembered what he had left behind.
“I bought a big Y-bone and a fillet today for us, that’s all gone,” he said.
“And I don’t know how much clothes I’ve lost.”
Henry has lived in Roma all his life but never saw anything like he saw today.
“I’ve never seen it this high,” he said.
“It frightens you really.”
The RSL found beds for the night for most of the old men thanks to the generous offers from the community. It was proving harder to place Henry because of Boss but his daughter who was stuck in the floods finally arrived to take them both away to a warm bed.

Just as it seemed the RSL’s work was done for the night, another couple arrived around 8.30pm dripping wet from head to toe. Tanya and Andrew McGilvray live on a hill behind the saleyards and thought they were safe up high. But as the waters steadily rose all day, their worries increased. The neighbours below started to move out, the waters were lapping below the floorboards and baby snakes started appearing around the house. As darkness approached, the McGilvrays became convinced it was time to leave.
“What probably convinced me to go was when I looked out the window and saw a 44 gallon drum float past” said Andrew.
But first he had to walk his two horses to higher ground.
“The water came up to here,” Andrew said, pointing to his nose.
Andrew made it through safely with the horses but back at the house there was another problem.
“We rang the SES but they said we would have to swim out to the road to get to the boat,” he said.
“My wife is pregnant so we didn’t fancy that idea.
“Just when it looked as if we would have to do it, the neighbour rolls by in a tractor and got us down to the boat.”
The SES crew winched the two last families to safety with the bridge over the highway completely submerged in the gathering gloom.
They stayed overnight at the RSL and Roy and Jillie decided to stay with them. Just before I left to go home around 9pm, the Mayor arrived and invited me to the 6am disaster response meeting the following morning. I said yes and drove home exhausted. It was raining heavily again. Nevertheless I slept the sleep of the dead, knowing that another big day lay ahead with the possible promise of more floods to come.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Chad and Niger: Neighbours in crisis

Two UN humanitarian coordinators have said the central African countries of Chad and Niger are on the verge of widescale famine. Michele Flavigna, the UN representative in Chad told a news conference last week almost one in five people are starving in that country. “Two million Chadians, or 18 percent of the population, are in a situation of food insecurity," he said. "A great deal needs to be done to counter this grave problem," he said.

Neighboring Niger is also facing a severe food shortage that could affect 7.8 million people, according to one estimate released in late January. Niger’s situation is worsened by political woes as its government was overthrown last week in a military coup. A junta calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy stormed the presidential palace and captured president Mamadou Tandja and his ministers in a four-hour gunbattle that left at least three people dead. The junta gave no indication of how long it intended to hold power but called on the people and the international community to support its actions. A UN official in Dakar said Niger needs a stable government to address the food crisis, and urged the new military junta to move swiftly to set elections.

In Chad, drought has led to a 35 percent fall in crop production leading to severe food shortages. The rate of global acute malnutrition for children under five in the worst-affected areas stands at almost 30 percent - almost double the emergency threshold set by the World Health Organisation. The UN is transporting 30,000 tonnes of food aid into the country from its regional supply base in Cameroon, but says tackling malnutrition will be difficult due to a shortage of human resources and functioning rural health facilities. They are calling on NGOs to increase their number of personnel who can intervene on the ground.

In Niger the approaching food crisis has prompted the UN and NGO partners to issue an appeal for aid internationally. Malek Triki, public information officer for the World Food Program said Niger is facing a structural state of high acute malnutrition and has one of the highest rates of population increase in the world. “It also has a harsh environment, made even worse by climate change and the poor management of environmental resources,” he said. The situation is similar to the 2005 famine though the chaos over the coup is unlikely to help relief efforts.

Both Niger and Chad are in the Sahel desert region which faces perennial food shortages due to unpredictable rains that can cut into crop yields and the region's poverty has been aggravated by various rebel conflicts. The weather in the Sahel is influenced by the erratic behaviour of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (similar to the El Nino Southern Oscillation that causes such havoc with weather patterns in the South Pacific). Both Niger and Chad had an unusually short rainy season in 2009 leading to fears for this year’s crop.

Both Niger and Chad are already near the bottom of the UN Human Development Index, a composite benchmark that includes literacy rates, life expectancy and economic wealth measures. Chad is ranked 175 and Niger is ranked rock bottom at 182. Niger’s life expectancy is just 50.8 years (Australia’s is 81.4), just 28.7 percent of people over 15 are literate and the per capita GDP is $627 (Australia’s is $34,923 with Liechtenstein the world’s highest at $85, 382). Chad’s figures aren’t much better. Life expectancy is actually worse than Niger’s at just 48.6 years. Adult literacy is 31.8 percent and GDP per capita is $1,477.

Chad’s problems have been exacerbated in recent years by an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting in neighbouring Darfur. Tensions between ethnic groups in the north and in the south of the country have further contributed to political and economic instability. Niger is still recovering from the 2005 famine with child malnutrition a critical issue. Agriculture is the mainstay of Niger’s weak economy, with 82 percent of the population relying on farming. Its story is one of entrenched and deepening poverty with little interest or attention from the outside world.