Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why Media Watch is wrong about journalists and Twitter

Australia’s most important watchdog on all matters media made a rare lapse last night. ABC’s Media Watch got its message badly wrong in a segment where they warned off journalists from making controversial statements on Twitter. Little-known journalist Adam Turner was the scapegoat new host Paul Barry (no relation) chose to pillory to prove a badly flawed point.

According to Turner’s bio he is an Australian freelance technology journalist who was formerly Melbourne deputy editor of Next and the business IT sections of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. He left The Age in 2005 and has been a freelance journalist ever since providing “news, features, reviews, blogs and podcasts to various business and consumer technology publications.”

Turner is a regular user of Twitter with over 2,000 tweets to his name. Like many involved in the media he was online on 21 August as the federal election results were coming in. Turner was an avid contributor to the #ausvotes tag with at least 50 tweets on the day (including two mentioned by Media Watch that have since been deleted). Like most people in this particularly conversation, Turner had an opinion and was not afraid to share it on Twitter.

It was obvious Turner was no fan of Tony Abbott. There were tweets like “If Abbott wins, New Zealand will be swamped with boat people on Monday” and “If Abbott wins, helicopter waiting to fly Kerry O'Brien off the ABC roof as coalition forces close in”. His tweets were clearly partisan but hardly noteworthy. They were also little different to hundreds of other similar tweets that night from those supporting the left of centre parties.

Turner's turning point came as Tony Abbott emerged to address his party and the country on live TV. According to the program transcript, Turner tweeted “Listen to this c-------er gloat when he hasn't even won” which he followed shortly by “this a---hole is trying to make a victory speech, complete with cheersquad”. I suspect Turner spelt out the words cocksucker and arsehole in his tweets though I can’t be certain as they have been deleted. On the night they would have been lost in a swathe of tweets with the same hashtag, many of whom would have had much harsher words to say about Abbott, an extremely divisive public figure.

But someone had it in for Turner and informed the ABC. Media Watch made it seem like the pinnacle of investigative journalism tracking him down as Barry announced “I think we have our man”. All they did was count his number of followers (as if that had any meaning at all in this age of Twitter mass marketing) and then grab the text off his bio that I’ve reproduced above. Both the bio and the tweets are openly available to anyone who looks at Turner’s Twitter page or follows him. There was no suggestion Turner had anything to hide.

So where is the problem? It seems as if Media Watch wanted to save Turner from himself. “Luckily Turner's not a political correspondent or he might now be unemployed,” Barry said. “But even so, why on earth did this seem like a good idea?” He compared Turner’s fate to that of Catherine Deveny who was sacked for breaching the taboo of discussing child sexuality with her tweet "I do so hope Bindi Irwin gets laid”. Leaving aside the sanctimonious outcry from rival media, the furore ignores the fact The Age probably wanted to shaft the troublesome Deveny anyway. More importantly it fails to acknowledge her tweets had nothing to do with her work at the Age.

Similarly with Turner. What he got up to on election night with a few bourbons on board may or may not have been a good idea but it was hardly unethical. It also had absolutely nothing to do with his work. Yet Media Watch felt the need to ask The Age’s editor Paul Ramadge about his freelancer. Ramadge’s reply was succinct “[Adam Turner] has received an official first and final warning.” Media Watch’s verdict was that it was an “embarrassing mistake”. Neither Barry nor his team seemed to understand the openness and conversation that underpins social media tools like Twitter.

This became blatantly apparent with Media Watch’s second target in the same segment. ABC WA journalist Geoff Hutchison was forced to delete his Twitter account after he too had a go at Tony Abbott during a Q&A program in the week before the election. Hutchison tweeted "Tony, why are you frightened of intercourse with Julia? Is it because we will be watching and measuring?"

This sarcastic offering offended someone enough to contact ABC management who ordered him to delete his account. ABC Radio spokesman Warwick Tiernan said the comments had breached the ABC's social media policy. "Geoff's comments, posted on a personal Twitter account, do not meet ABC social media guidelines and do not represent the views of the ABC," he said.

Media Watch claimed the problem with Hutchison’s tweets was it interfered with his job which is to be objective. Under ABC’s social media rules staff are directed not to mix "the professional and the personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute" and not imply the ABC endorses personal views. But Hutchison was not working when he attacked Abbott, he was most likely at home on the couch. No reasonable person could imagine his personal comments could bring the ABC into disrepute. It is also an insult to Hutchison to think he could not be professional enough to leave his personal opinions to one side when interviewing politicians.

Media Watch inadvertently let slip the real reason why he was forced to take the punishment of deleting the account. “Stupid comments like that make it harder for him to do that job properly... and they're a gift to the ABC's critics.” What Barry is really saying is that this has nothing to do with left-wingers putting their gripes on the Internet and everything to do with not giving ABC’s right-wing enemies the opportunity to make tired claims about bias.

Typically Andrew Bolt (who like Hutchison is an able interviewer of politicians despite his own well-known political biases) was quickest off the mark lumping Turner and Hutchison together in a rogue’s gallery with Deveny, Marieke Hardy and Daniel Burt. “Yes, only five,” Bolt admitted in his final sentence, “but all attacking from the Left, with the ABC and barbarians [Fairfax] strongly represented.” Bolt avoided drawing any conclusions from his post allowing his audience do the dirty work for him.

If Barry and his cohorts are frightened off by streams of invective from "ABC’s Critics” like Bolt and his audience then we really do have a problem. Silencing Turner and Hutchison achieves no purpose. We desperately need more robust views not less. We need to know what our politicians and our journalists think, not frighten them off into platitudes. Guiding the social media policy should be an underlying philosophy of publish and be damned. There will be those who will damn the ABC no matter what they do or what their policies say. Media Watch should be standing up to them not for them.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Government proving automatic for the people

Despite the fact a week has passed after the Australian election and there is no government, the sky has not yet fallen in. The two major parties are more or less the same strength in parliament though the Aus Tories could still win 76-74 with the bush bloc (a gang of four not three). But as the bushies are realising, there is no good reason to sack the government. The rest of us are also finding out it does not matter yet who has the key to the Lodge.

Raymond Williams once said there were no masses just ways of seeing people as masses. But masses are useful constructs and they are the ways in which we govern our lives. The laws are still generally obeyed, the courts do their duty unimpeded and the health system is showing no more signs of collapse than usual. No one has stopped coming to work or school and very few protest in the streets. The media has kept publishing, though they and the markets were the only ones in any way agitated with the political outcome. People at home consume their media in the same detached way they consume their burger.

Despite the mcdonaldisation of the media, political stasis won’t last forever. For now it is re-assuring to see how unimportant politics is in everyday life. What the hung parliament is telling us is the choices we make to elect a government are small compared to our choices we make every minute of our lives in our jobs, in our relationships and in the haphazard of game of chance we encounter whenever something happens. We create our own politics to deal with all these realities of identity.

British writer Frank Furedi called this out in his visit to Australia before the election. Furedi said he was struck by the depoliticised character of the election with no one with strong views on any of the so-called top issues except for hardened party activists. “Yet people were far from complacent, and they clearly wanted to improve their lives,” Furedi wrote. “What really seemed to preoccupy them was their economic security: jobs, high prices, their children’s future.”

Yet even Furedi had to concede it was an interesting election in the end. If we are no longer sure what parties stand for any more, we remain interested in the health of the broader polity. Julia Gillard is still officially the Prime Minister but the Prime Minister’s site acknowledges the caretaker period has not ended. The transcript of the PM’s media conference today on the Labor site shows a steely Gillard is still very much in the hot seat.

Rob Oakeshott is one of the independents she must deal with and he has proposed a unity cabinet. This is exactly what Australia needs for the next ten years if it is serious about tackling climate change, a topic close to Oakeshott's heart. "It is a cheeky option, and it's not for me to pick cabinets, [but] Malcolm Turnbull in a Julia Gillard government or Kevin Rudd as foreign minister in a Tony Abbott government?" he said. "Here is a moment when we can explore the edges and explore outside the box." He was soon put back in his box. As politicians and the media reminded him, power is not for sharing in this country.

Yet maybe the paradigm of adversarial politics is changing after all. In the vacuum of ideas Labor and Liberal have more in common that what divides them. The Independents have been a refreshing shot in the arm. For Gillard, the bush bloc may even be easier to deal with than the so-called "faceless men" of Labor politics. It might just be the “Real Julia” can face a minority government future with more confidence than if she was handed the poisoned chalice of outright victory.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Zuma strengthens South African alliance with China

South African President Jacob Zuma is looking for ways to cut his country’s trade deficit with its largest partner as he begins a three day visit to China. Last year South Africa ran a $2.7 billion trade deficit with China and Zuma’s Trade Minister explained why in a press conference on arrival in Beijing today. “In South Africa's export market to China there is a preponderance of primary products, and in our imports from China there is a preponderance of value-added goods," he said. Davies and his boss Zuma want Chinese manufacturers of power equipment, railway cars, solar water heaters and vehicles to consider setting up factories in South Africa.

The relationship between the two countries is growing in importance as China continues its push for influence across the continent of Africa. In the first six months of 2010, there was $10.8 billion trade between the two countries almost half as much again as the same period last year. Zuma will hold talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing and will also meet Premier Wen Jiabao and tour the World Expo site in Shanghai. Zuma will be accompanied by an enormous delegation of 300 ministers and businesspeople as the Africans aim to emulate the Chinese growth rate.

Zuma expects to sign a number of agreements and memorandums of understanding during the visit. These include a declaration on the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership, and MOUs on co-operation in the fields of geology and mineral resources, environment management, transport and railways. There will also be a business seminar in Beijing with over 200 South African business leaders and entrepreneurs to further enhance and strengthen economic co-operation. The visit will conclude on Thursday when Zuma views the South African Pavilion at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo.

The relationship between the two countries is one of the fastest growing in the world. The countries did not re-establish relations after the end of apartheid until 1998 but within 11 years China had overtaken the US to become SA’s largest exporter and importer of goods and services. Zuma has called the trip “crucial” with China National Nuclear Corp in talks to build a nuclear power plant in South Africa. The relationship is important to China too which imports SA iron ore, iron and steel to fuel its growing economy. Chinese Vice Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng said his government would encourage domestic companies to invest in South Africa's mining and resources sector.

According to Chinese State news agency Xinhua, Zuma and Jintao signed a Beijing Declaration in the Great Hall of the People earlier today. The declaration contained 38 bilateral cooperation agreements, including political dialogues, trade, investment, mineral exploration and agriculture to joint efforts in the UN and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The declaration also promised to strengthen cooperation between the two nations in political and regional affairs by “establishing a comprehensive strategic partnership based on equality, mutual benefit and common development”.

Zuma’s China trip is a welcome relief as he faces mounting problems at home, with more than a million public sector workers striking. The success of the World Cup is a distant glow as a strike by more than a million public sector workers enters its second week. Strikers include teachers, healthcare workers, police, customs officials and clerks who are seeking pay raises of more than double the inflation rate. The strike is paralysing the economy and police have used rubber bullets to disperse angry protesters on the streets. Unions are pressing for a settlement but Zuma said he will not negotiate until he returns from China.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, the health of South Africa’s economy is direct tied to China whose demand for SA resources is keeping the rand high. The currency’s strength continues despite the strikes and persistently high unemployment and public-sector strikes. The public sector unions were crucial in getting Zuma the top job so it is likely he will meet their demands. This will push South Africa's already high inflation rate to well over 5 percent by year’s end, and lead to another cycle of pay demands next year. The 68-year-old president will need all the help he can get from his new Chinese alliances.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Australian Academy of Science on the science of climate change

In all the frenzy of the last week of a Federal election campaign, a new report from the Australian Academy of Science flew mostly under the radar. The 24-page report, The Science of Climate Change, Questions and Answers is a concise and readable interdisciplinary look at the factors that are impacting climate change. The report acknowledges the difficulty of bringing the different components of the complex climate system together in one model. Yet considerable progress has been made in this direction, the AAS said, and climate change should not be beyond public understanding.

The document’s science is based on four major lines of evidence: the known physical principles of greenhouse gases, the record of the distant past, measurements from the last century, and climate models that use the other three lines of evidence. These models are currently predicting a rise of between 2 and 7°C on pre-industrial levels depending on “depending on future greenhouse gas emissions and on the ways that models represent the sensitivity of climate to small disturbances.”

Even at the 2°C lower end, we can expect nasty repercussions in the form of heatwaves, higher global average rainfall, impacts to marine biodiversity and rising sea levels. But it is at the 7°C end where things get really nasty. All of the 2°C changes will be magnified to a point where the scientists coolly say “such a large and rapid change in climate would likely be beyond the adaptive capacity of many societies and species.”

The report is at pains to show we are not in some natural cycle of warming. Nothing in the last 2,000 years is like the last 100 and if we add another 2-7 degrees it will be like nothing in the last 10,000 years. Data over a million years show Earth’s surface has risen and fallen by about 5°C, through 10 major ice age cycles in that time. As well, feedbacks in the glacial cycle mean there are strong links between global temperature, atmospheric water vapour, polar ice caps and greenhouse gases. In the past million years, the disturbances to the cycle have come from fluctuations in Earth’s solar orbit. In modern times it is human emissions affecting greenhouse gases which reinforce change in the temperature, water vapour and ice caps. Even small influences can amplify into large changes.

The pace of change is also picking up. Average temperatures have increased over the 100 years to 2009 by more than 0.7°C. However the rates of observed near-surface warming has increased since the mid-1970s with the global land surface warming at double the rate of the ocean surface. There has been widespread melting of mountain glaciers and ice caps, particularly noticeable since the 1990s. The Greenland ice sheet and West Antarctica are also losing ice. Ocean levels are now more than 20 cm higher than in 1870.

Australia is not immune to these global trends. Here the average surface temperature has increased by 0.7°C in half a century. There is a continent-wide average increase in the frequency of extremely hot days and a decrease in the frequency of cold days. Rainfall changes are less consistent though it is noticeably declining in southwest Western Australia and the southeast coast. In the oceans, there has been a there has been a southward shift of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and sea level has risen at a rate of about 1.2 mm per year since 1920, resulting in more frequent coastal inundation events.

Humans are the cause of the problem. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide began to rise two to three hundred years ago at the start of industrialisation and accelerated rapidly in the 20th century. The problem is worsening in the 21st century. From 2000 to 2007 emissions grew by 3.5 percent per year, exceeding almost all assumed scenarios generated in the late 1990s. Deforestation, fossil fuel burning, other industrial sources such as cement production all contribute. Only 45 percent ends up as atmospheric CO2. 30 percent is swallowed by increased plant growth and another quarter is making seawater more acidic.

If “business as usual” levels of emissions continue, the AAS is tipping a doubling of pre-industrial CO2 levels by 2050, and possibly a tripling by 2100. This would produce a warming of around 4.5°C (plus or minus 2.5) to 2100. What this means to climate and sea levels is at best educated guesswork, but all the scenarios put forward are unremittingly gloomy. “The further climate is pushed beyond the envelope of relative stability that has characterised the last several millennia,” concluded the report, “the greater becomes the risk of passing tipping points that will result in profound changes in climate, vegetation, ocean circulation or ice sheet stability.”

Despite or perhaps because of its stark message, the report got short shrift in the media. In the few stories that were there, the message was diluted. The denialist-leaning News Limited muddied its coverage with an unrelated story about New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research which faces a legal challenge by sceptics group Climate Science Coalition. The Sydney Morning Herald did look at the report in more detail but preferred to highlight there were "still scientific uncertainties about some of the details of climate change”.

The conclusion of the report itself should be a surprise to no-one: greenhouse gases from human activities are the main cause of temperature increases for the last 100 years and if nothing is done, they will continue to increase significantly. Yet the way the AAS document is reported continues to fly in the face of such evidence. The SMH said the report "unambiguously" supported the conclusion that a continued reliance on fossil fuels would lead to a warmer world while a similar thing happened over at the ABC with their headline about climate change "misinformation". Subeditors will say that putting words like unambiguously and misinformation in quotes is done to show who is using the words. But the effect is the opposite: the quotes undermine the words, causing the reader to doubt the source. The media is doing a great disservice to climate change science by the way it reports the issues and an even greater one by the way it doesn't.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Australian hung parliament - lessons from 1940

Australia has woken up today to the reality of its first hung parliament in 70 years. The 21 August 2010 election has striking similarities with its 21 September 1940 forebear. Like now, Australia was involved in what was still a faraway war which had bipartisan support. Like now Australia had a first term government (with Menzies leading the then United Australia Party) and like now it had an insipid election campaign where Menzies refused to make any specific promises (though his opponent John Curtin was more forthcoming).

In 1940 Menzies and his Coalition partners dropped eight seats to Labor and its allies leaving it with 36 out of 74 seats. It turned to two Victorian independents to keep them in power. Arthur Coles is best remembered these days as one of the founders of Australia’s second largest retail group. But he was also Mayor of Melbourne in the 1930s and he gave that up to fight for, and win, the seat of Henty in 1940. Alexander Wilson meanwhile, was a member of the Northern Irish aristocracy who joined the Australian squattocracy when he moved to Victoria to become a wheat grower. He ran as an independent in 1937 and held on three years later.

Both Coles and Wilson were natural fits for the conservative side of politics and they gave their support to the UAP. With the war worsening in Europe, Menzies spent most of 1941 in London arguing strategy with Churchill. But his position was worsening at home. He was forced to resign in favour of Country Party leader Arthur Fadden. Neither Coles nor Wilson had much empathy with Fadden’s agrarian-socialist philosophy and were both upset at Menzies’ overthrow. They voted against his budget causing the Government to resign in October 1941. After pressure from the Governor General Gowrie, the independents agreed to support a Curtin ministry and the Labor Government muddled through to 1943 when they inflicted a crushing defeat on the Conservatives.

It is difficult to say what lessons, if any, there are from the 1940 experience other than the fact that it is possible to avoid an election for three years despite a lack of a majority. The three key independents in 2010, Rob Oakeshott, Bob Katter and Tony Windsor, would all seem to have impeccable conservative records that make them an ideal fit to back Tony Abbott as the next prime minister. Indeed as an independent state MP in 1991 Windsor kept Liberal leader Nick Greiner in power.

But as I wrote last night there is no guarantee it will happen this time.

Both Katter and Windsor have a lot of unfinished business with former colleagues in the National Party. Both despise Barnaby Joyce and Katter said Nationals leader Warren Truss "attacked me personally last night". Both have also support the NBN rollout, which the Coalition has rejected on the philosophical grounds it is owned by the Government. Katter however, said there is no alternative. “A privatised broadband, I mean, please, don't even talk about it, privatised Telstra has been absolutely disastrous for rural Australia,” he said.

Oakeshott meanwhile has said a key policy of any government should be an ETS – putting him at clear odds with the Abbott agenda. He called climate change a top priority. “I would personally say, let's go back to the Garnaut report and try and get something through based on that,” Oakeshott said today. “The template is there, stick to the script, keep it simple."

Beyond that Oakeshott said he wanted a “fairer go” for regional and rural Australia and it is safe to say there will be a major focus on regional and rural issues by whatever party forms the next government. Given what the Independents are saying today, there is no reason why Labor cannot be that Government. But as the Menzies experience shows – another brutal assassination of a leader would be their death knell.

Australian election 2010 (End of Part 1)

The people of Australia have spoken and delivered a very bloody nose to Julia Gillard’s Labor Government today. Whether the blow is enough to knock it out remains to be seen. With three seats out of 150 still in doubt at the time of writing the likely make-up of Australia’s next parliament has the Coalition with 74 seats and Labor with 71 seats. As well there are 3 ex-Nationals independents, a Green and ex-Green. Voting purely along a likely left-right axis, that makes it 77-73 to Tony Abbott's Coalition and in theory enough to rule, especially if he can convince one of the independents to be the Speaker.

But his party falls short of an outright majority so Abbott cannot yet stake his claim to be Prime Minister. Australia is governed by the Westminster Convention even if these conventions can sometimes prove tenuous just as when it was stretched to breaking point in 1975. In his post-election speech Abbott offered “the Australian people” his team as an alternative “stable government”. But as Abbott well knows, it’s out of their hands right now. Gillard refused to concede tonight and remains Prime Minister. The Governor General Quentin Bryce (a Labor appointee) will have to offer her the first right of refusal to gain "the confidence" of the Lower House.

Gillard will probably accept and attempt to manage a minority government. This will be at best a short-term manoeuvre to gain time to fight another election. She might be able to rule for a while with the tacit support of the Independents if she puts forward legislation that will get what they want for their constituents. After all, this dull election campaign has proven one thing. With the exception of the NBN and the ETS (neither of which will exist much before 2013) there is little differentiation between the parties. Yet a change of government is a big thing and it might be easiest to get what you want from the party already in power. As Tony Windsor said tonight "the most important issue here is stability of governance”. They may find the acceleration of the NBN in their areas an acceptable price of support.

Gillard can rule with the independents and Greens if she can manage the difficult balancing of rural interests with environment concerns. The ETS delay may yet prove convenient. She has no major agenda that she needs to push through in the next few months. A few anodyne bills while the parties squabble through to February may be what she needs. And then with Latham and Rudd just a bad memory they get back the six or so seats they need to form outright government.

But if the independents decide to play a bigger game then Gillard is in trouble. If they publicly come out and say they will support Tony Abbott for three years as the next prime minister than she will have to resign.

If that happens, Labor has no one to blame but itself. For two and a half years of government Kevin Rudd and his party enjoyed stratospheric polls as people enjoyed the change from Howards End and the impressive weathering of the global financial crisis. Meanwhile the Liberals recycled their leaders until it found one with the stomach to take the fight to the Government.

When the polls finally levelled as they normally do closer to an election, Labor panicked and sacked the boss. Australians didn’t like being told their Prime Minister was being removed without their say so and Queensland particularly resented losing their man. The hope that Gillard as a woman would affect the female vote was possibly countered by many men voting Abbott. If people weren’t sure the “mad monk” should be Prime Minister, there was a lot who didn’t like one being an “atheist antichrist” either.

The make-up of the Senate is more assured at this stage. The Greens had a great result electing senators in all six seats. With the Coalition on 34 and Labor on 31, the Greens now have a clear balance of power with 9 seats. Allied to Bandt’s stunning and historic lower house victory in Melbourne, and former Green Andrew Wilkie’s likely win in Denison this is a watershed election for the environmental movement who must now move deeply inside the tent.

A jaded electorate won’t take kindly to be sent back to the polls in the next few months. Who they blame for that will be whoever is seen as the most obstructionist in the negotiations to come. The animus of the party leaders remains crucial. Abbott is assured and now very confident as Liberal leader but still has obvious flaws and a fractured power base. Turnbull is still waiting in the wings to pounce again.

The Labor Government has no obvious candidate out there to replace Gillard (other than Rudd) and our first female Prime Minister may yet grow in the role that Rudd squandered. But the next few months are critical. If she can learn to negotiate with the Greens without needling Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter, a saner long-term Australian policy to the overwhelming problem of climate change may yet emerge from the chaos of representative democracy. Otherwise Gillard's bloody nose will be the least of our problems.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Labor and Liberal's battle of the broadband

Probably much to Labor’s own relief, its problematic Internet filtering policy appears dead in the water. A policy pursued with vigour during the early days of the Rudd administration, it was deferred to 2011 last month before being delivered the coup de grace in recent times with both the Liberals and Greens coming out in opposition to it. Labor haven’t yet formally cut it loose but it is merely a matter of time, probably around 1 July 2011 when the buffoonish pro-filter Family First Senator Steve Fielding is finally turfed out of a parliamentary position that squalid Labor backroom tactics got him into in the first place.

If there is a communications policy fight in this election it is now over how broadband will be delivered to the home in the years to come. The centrepiece of Labor’s policy is the National Broadband Network. The ambitious NBN is Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project and will involve the laying of fibre optic cabling to Australian homes, schools and businesses. It will be capable of delivering speeds of 100 megabits per second which is up to 100 times faster than most current speeds. The NBN will reach 93 percent of the Australian population with the remaining premises connected via a combination of next generation high speed wireless and satellite technologies delivering broadband at the much lower speed of 12 Mbps.

The work (both fibre optic and wireless/satellite) has already started under the auspices of the new NBN Co led by former Alcatel boss Mike Quigley. Quigley was chosen for his American experience developing and integrating large scale Fibre-To-The-Premise and Fibre-To-The-Node implementations for US telecommunication carriers.

Most of Australia's telecommunications network is still copper based. This is ageing technology that is primarily responsible for Australia’s slow Internet response times. FTTP involves laying optical fibre from a central location right to the home or business. While it could potentially deliver broadband at speeds of up to 100Mbps, the actual speed is determined by the size of the Passive Optical Network.

The technology is capable of transmitting data at speeds of up to 2.5Gbps; however this amount is divided by the number of termination points on the PON to determine the actual bandwidth to each end point. FTTN is a cheaper option (and was Labor's policy until 2007). In this case fibre is terminated in a street cabinet up to several kilometres away from the customer premises, with the final connection being copper. Customers typically connect using traditional coaxial cable or twisted pair wiring, both of which are 19th century technologies.

The current Labor Government is going with the FTTP option. FTTP is expensive and is one of the reasons the NBN is likely to cost in excess of $43 billion (though this is likely to be substantially reduced now that Telstra are inside the tent) with a rollout period of eight years. Phase 1 has already begun in Tasmania with 1,200km of cable laid and the first services have been switched on in the north-east communities of Midway Point, Smithton and Scottsdale.

In these towns the ISPs iiNet, Internode and iPrimus are offering 25Mbps for $29.95 and 100 Mbps for $59.95 per month. Labor is also addressing “regional blackspots” on the mainland with 6,000 km of new, competitive fibre optic backbone links are being rolled out in regional Australia. NBN boss Mike Quigley is now saying that 1000 Mbps plans may also be available for wholesale. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said at this speed a school could download a hi-def documentary in 20 seconds rather than the five hours it takes now.

The Liberals meanwhile agree Australia needs fast, reliable and affordable broadband services but differs on the technology it wants to use to provide it. It says the NBN Co will be a taxpayer funded white elephant when it is completed in eight years time, does not deliver lower prices, and gives no priority to those who do not currently get an adequate service. They will cancel the NBN and instead deliver a 13 point plan they say will “encourage competition and ensure services reach all Australians.”

Their plan is significantly cheaper than Labor’s at $6 billion and will cover more of the population at 97 percent and will be completed quicker too. However they will only commit to offering 12 Mbps relying heavily on wireless technologies. They will provide $2.75 billion for an open access, fibre-optic backhaul network which connects the big cities to compete with Telstra, $2 billion for blackspots in outer metro and regional areas, $750 million for fixed broadband optimisation on older exchanges and funding for satellite serves for the outlying 3 percent.

The response from experts in the communications field has been mixed. Crikey’s tech writer Stilgherrian said the difference between the two policies as much about ideology, vision and political rhetoric as technological choice. He said the Coalition’s saves money now, but asks “is it merely delaying the inevitable big spend?” However ZDNet reports some analysts saying the Liberal's plan could potentially be safer, more flexible and "give more bang for your buck".

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Adam Turner said the Liberal's plans were stop-gap measures while he called the NBN “future-proof”. The Internet Industry Association has also come out in favour of the NBN saying “the key to Australia’s broadband future is speed.” However Commsday CEO Grahame Lynch in The Australian slammed the NBN as “the world's most generous telecom industry welfare scheme”.

The attitudes of the Greens in the Senate will be crucial to deciding the outcome of telecommunications policy regardless of which sides wins the election. The Greens policy is strangely silent on the position of the NBN. However their ICT spokesperson Senator Scott Ludlam said the NBN should go ahead, with priority for communities in regional areas. “It should absolutely stay in public hands so that we don't see another repeat of the debacle that followed the privatisation of Telstra,” he said. The Greens are also cold on the Coalition’s alternative with Ludlam calling it “a real patchwork of service delivery.”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Charles Taylor trial of brief interest to celebrity mags

The Special Court for Sierra Leone does not usually feature in world tabloid headlines nor does it typically attract the attention of supermodels and Hollywood stars. The Court has a very serious purpose:genocide. It wants to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian and local law in Sierra Leone since it was overrun by rebels on 30 November 1996. Its most famous case is the trial of Charles Ghankay Taylor, former President of neighbouring Liberia, who stands accused of 17 crimes against humanity including murder, rape, mutilation, sexual slavery and conscription of child soldiers by arming RUF rebels during the 1991-2001 Sierra Leone civil war.

Taylor's extended trial took a surreal edge recently with the conflicting testimony of a Hollywood star and a supermodel briefly giving case a taste of world tabloid headlines. In the last month the Court heard testimony from actress Mia Farrow which contradicted that of British model Naomi Campbell. Prosecutors had called the model to testify to provide evidence that Taylor had handled blood diamonds used to purchase weapons during the war.

The prosecution said Taylor gave a gift of diamonds to Campbell at a dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela in September 1997. The occasion was a lavish dinner in Cape Town to raise funds for the Mandela Children’s Fund. Campbell attended the dinner along with Farrow and Campbell’s former modelling agent Carole White. Campbell gave evidence on 5 August which attracted large headlines, partially because she told the Court her appearance there was a “big inconvenience” (a mistake for which she would later apologise to the Court) and partially because of the incongruity of a model giving testimony at a genocide trial. As the Washington Post noted, it’s hard to believe that these two worlds could ever collide. “That they did, however, said the Post, "is testament to beauty as both valuable currency and irresistible narcotic."

In her own evidence Campbell said she was woken up from sleep by two unknown men who handed her a pouch saying it was a gift. Because she was sleepy she didn’t ask who the men were or who gave her the pouch. She said she did not even open the pouch until the following morning she was disappointed to find a few “very small, dirty looking stones”. She said either Farrow or White suggested the stones were from Taylor and she believed so herself.

With Campbell’s testimony giving Taylor a lifeline, the Prosecution looked to White and Farrow to give them the evidence they needed. But these two only succeeded in complicating the picture as they contradicted Campbell and each other. Farrow told the court on she heard Campbell say that Taylor had given her a "huge diamond" at the dinner. She said Campbell told the story to a group of guests at breakfast the following morning. Carole White said it wasn’t a huge diamond but rather five separate pieces. She said Campbell and Taylor were seated near each other during the dinner and started flirting. White said Campbell then whispered to her Taylor was going to give her diamonds and she was very excited at the prospect.

Campbell told the court that she later gave the diamonds to Jeremy Ractliffe, a representative of a Mandela charity. Ractliffe said he worried the gift would damage reputations and might be illegal, so he kept the diamonds and did not tell anyone. He issued a statement last week saying that following Campbell's testimony he had now handed over to authorities three alleged "blood diamonds" given to him by the model. South African police confirmed their authenticity.

The appearance of the beautiful and wealthy Western women and their precious stones overshadowed most of the other recent testimony in the trial. Former RUF leader Issa Hassan Sesay, who has already been convicted by the Court for his part in the atrocities, has been on the stand for three weeks. He refuted claims Taylor had directed the rebels when they entered the capital Freetown in 1999. The prosecution preferred to hammer him on his earlier statements Taylor had directed the 1998 attack on diamond-rich town of Kono. Sesay's testimony concludes this week.

It is more difficult to say how much longer will go on for as proceedings head towards the seven year mark. Taylor was indicted on 7 March 2003, when he was still President. The indictment was announced three months later on his first trip outside of Liberia. In August Charles Taylor resigned as president and went into exile in Nigeria. Nigeria finally transferred him to the Special Court in March 2006. Due to concerns about security in Sierra Leone, the Special Court arranged for the trial to be held at The Hague where he was transferred to in June 2006. After legal wrangling, the Prosecution re-opened witness testimony on in January 2008. They closed their case 13 months later after having presented testimony from 91 witnesses. The Defence opened their case on 13 July 2009. The Prosecution also reopened its case to call Campbell, Farrow and White. While the trial briefly reached the women's magazines, it will now once again retreat into international law journals, until the day the judges make their final decision.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A foggy 2020 vision: The politics of climate change in Australia

That a Tory British daily could write seriously about something called Earth Overshoot Day is a measure of how far the climate debate has moved in the last 20 years in Europe. Without a murmur of criticism, The Telegraph has reported growing world population and increasing consumption was pushing the world ever deeper into ‘eco-debt’, quoting new statistics on global resources. From Earth Overshoot Day until the end of the year, we will meet our needs only by liquidating stocks and accumulating greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. By mirthless coincidence, 2010's Earth Overshoot Day is this Saturday: the same day Australia goes to the polls to choose from mostly uninspiring policies to deal with the problem.

The Day is a creation of New Economics Foundation, a radical thinktank which aims to “construct a new economy centred on people and the environment”. With their funding from anonymous sources but the support of governments, they combine research, advocacy training and practical action. They say ecological overshoot is at the root of many of the most pressing environmental problems we face today: climate change, declining biodiversity, shrinking forests, fisheries collapse, and underlying many factors in the global food crisis.

Over the course of any given year, the Earth Overshoot project compares all the food, fuel and other resources consumed by humans against the ability of the biosphere to cope with the loss. Rather like a Doomsday clock they calculate the daily profit and loss to come up with the mathematical day of the year we will overspend our inheritance. Ten years ago NEF calculated we were already in trouble with our ecological freehold running out in November 2000. By 2008 Earth Overshoot Day was coming in on 23 August leaving roughly a hundred days on the wrong side of the ledger. When the clock was reset for this year’s experiment, it calculated an extra two days debt making payment due on 21 August.

Earth Overshoot Day is a bit gimmicky, not unlike the election it shares the day with. But its serious subject matter reminds us yet again of the large elephant in the room of Australian politics: the economic if not ecological catastrophe that will occur if the country does not soon move away from a carbon economy. Of the major parties only the Greens have anything approaching a comprehensive plan to achieve this massive task but they will likely attract only one vote in every ten cast at the ballot box across the country. Their policies of 40 percent reduction on 1990 levels by 2020 and zero emissions by 2050 remain unpalatable to the vast majority of voters.

The two major parties have far less grandiose targets. They are unwilling to advocate the difficult choices that might affect large sections of the population They are also hamstrung by State-based brands in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth who are too wedded to the wealth and jobs provided by existing massive fossil fuel industries. They also have to deal with powerful lobby groups from existing industries and a point-scoring media that promotes short-term consumer benefits over the country’s longer-term needs. Leading politicians fear raising a head above the parapet lest they be wedged by the combined weight of opposing parties, PR and the press.

The result is a collusion that promotes the status quo. In 2007 the Climate Institute measured Labor and Liberal policies in that year’s election. The Institute’s modelling showed that both parties have failed to propose a set of measurable policies that will halt the rise in pollution, let alone enact the substantial reductions required by 2020. It was impossible to judge what might happen after 2020 as neither side had a substantive policy in that area.

As depressing as this was, it is arguable things have gotten worse in the last three years. In 2007 both Rudd and Howard promised to bring in an ETS if elected. No such consensus exists in 2010. Labor’s policy on climate change is captured in Chapter 9 of their 2010 election platform. It acknowledges “climate change is the most dangerous long term threat to Australia's prosperity”. It commits Australia to anything from 5 percent to 25 percent reduction on 2000 emission levels depending on a “global agreement”. It has a target of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 (a target introduced by the Howard Government in 2001).

But it still does not commit to any firm policies beyond ten years. Labor said it is committed to reducing Australia's carbon pollution by 60 per cent on year 2000 levels by 2050 but at this stage it has no idea how to get there.
It will create the Australian Centre for Renewable Energy, to support research development and demonstration of renewable technologies, and a Solar Flagships Program to create an additional 1000 mw of solar power generation capacity in Australia. But given Queensland alone has 9000mw of coal fired power capacity it does not seem anywhere near enough to deal with the size of the national problem.

“Labor recognises the science of climate change is continuing to evolve and a deeper National 2050 target may be necessary to act in concert with international effort to reduce carbon pollution,” their manifesto reads. This is another excuse for delay - the science is evolving but a clear and unambiguous pattern of gas warming is emerging. It still hangs on for a CPRS to provide an economic platform for climate change but it refuses to put a time when this legislation will be re-presented to parliament.

It was the last CPRS vote that proved the downfall of Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull and put the “human weather vane” Tony Abbott in charge of the party’s climate policies. It was no accident that Turnbull was unseated on this matter. Though it is far from a majority view in the party room, Liberal has many high profile climate change doubters who think the whole science on global warming has been concocted by an international cabal with leftist leanings. These are people who see the direct challenge posed by climate change: Behaviour is needed if we are to address this and for those who do not want to change their behaviour than climate change has to be seen as a fraud.

This view is countered by realpolitik hardheads within the party who may hate the green movement but acknowledge there is a problem either real or perceived that needs to be addressed. The Liberal policy on the environment and climate change awkwardly straddles both of these views in its meaningless title “Direct Action Plan”. These plans, they say with reduce CO2 emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 based on 1990 levels without the need for the CPRS. They will establish an Emissions Reduction Fund to provide “incentives” for older power stations to reduce emission “in an orderly manner.” It may be orderly but it is slower than Labor’s as they only commit to a 15 percent Renewable Energy Target by 2020.

The Liberals are slightly more honest than Labor in admitting the size of the problem. They take great care to note the conservative responses of the Australian States and other parts of the world including Europe, the Americas and Asia. They also have a better list of practical measures than Labor. But there is one absolutely glaring omission. Nowhere does it say what needs to happen after 2020. It does not say if 5 percent reduction on 1990 is all that is needed nor does it have a back-up plan for the obvious likelihood that emissions will continue to increase in the next ten years. Tony Abbott’s party does not appear unduly worried when Earth Overshoot Day will fall in 2020. Here's hoping it doesn't coincide with an unusually early election date that year.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

John Nichols on the way forward for journalism

Queensland had its little slice of this year’s Sydney Walkley Media Conference when US journalist John Nichols came to Brisbane on Thursday to talk to local industry workers. Nichols is a political writer for esteemed American periodical The Nation and is also an editor of the Internet-based The Capital Times in his home state of Wisconsin. He has also published several books on journalism most recently co-authoring The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again with Robert McChesney. The thesis of the book is that journalism should be seen as a public good and that the US government should subsidise newspapers and other media outlets to save American journalism.

Nichols spoke to this theme in his talk at the Regatta Hotel on Thursday night which was billed as a “casual conversation”. Nichols was in good form, boisterous and humorous but his tone was far from casual; he had serious matters to discuss about journalism with his Australian audience. He began with his own start in the industry. Aged just 11, he went to the editor of the local paper in Union Grove, CT and told him he had read the Constitution and Tom Paine and asked he be given a job. The editor took him on a whim and and poorly-paid prayer. His big moment came a year later when Democrat heavy and then Vice President Hubert Humphrey came to town during a presidential primary and he submitted to an in-depth interview from the 12-year-old Nichols.

Looking back he said it was a highlight of his career which corresponded with a lowlight in Humphrey’s just before his unsuccessful run against Nixon in the 1968 election. But the grilling the young Nichols gave him was important. Journalists were not stenographers to the Royal Court or there to put a smile on the faces of their interviewees. They were there with a “profound responsibility” to be upsetting and ask difficult questions. Anything else was simply PR not journalism, he said. “Journalism can be obnoxious, challenging and unsettling, as long as it conveys information.”

Nichols quoted from the famous Thomas Jefferson letter to Edward Carrington where he said “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” While this quote is enshrined by newspaper owners such as Murdoch, Nichols reminded us of Jefferson’s other opinion on newspapers as “evil and lying but we’ve got to have them.” Nichols said the way of the world was that the wealthy always triumph over the poor and it is journalism’s job to break that inequality.

Nichols went on to talk about the difficulties of doing that in an era when large scale industrial journalism is on the decline. He said 100 newspapers a year have closed in the US since 2007 including big ones such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Denver Rocky Mountain News as well as the dailies in Albuquerque Tucson and Kansas City as well as the print edition of the Christian Science Monitor, one of just three US national dailies.

Nichols said 30,000 newspaper jobs have been lost in the States in the last two years and the situation is almost as bad in broadcasting with 19,000 jobs lost in 10 years. Yet he said there was no evidence people are consuming less hard news - he said the websites for The Guardian and The Independent had higher numbers of visitors from the US than from Britain. Nor did he blame the Internet, saying the decline of US newspaper circulations date back to the 1950s. Instead, Nichols pointed the finger at the changing nature of newspaper ownership.

In the last 30 years the newspaper companies which made large amounts of money from their exclusive access to classified ads were taken over by larger non-media companies. When they started losing their monopoly to the Internet (more of a nod wink than finger pointing to Nichols), the new owners reacted to the sudden loss of profits by closing papers or bureaus or laying off journalists. This was despite the papers not yet being unprofitable but they just weren’t making their new owners super-rich. The result was, he said, more journalists covered Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign in 1940 than covered Barack Obama in 2008.

Nichols said there was a knock-on dumbing down effect on political life and democracy in the US. He has testified in FTC inquiries into the status of the press, inquiries he said were a “very big deal” for which “transformations may occur”. To underscore why thought this was important, Nichols pointed to the Baltimore study done by the Pew Centre which confirmed old media, and especially newspapers, still produced the largest amount of news.

But the city’s largest paper The Baltimore Sun has lost 73 percent of its journalists in 20 years. The news gap, he said, was being filled by PR, a finding in common with recent Australian research. “Journalism is no longer speaking truth to power,” Nichols said. “Power is speaking its truth to us.” With four workers in PR for every journalist in 2010, excessive corporate and government propaganda was wrecking the Jeffersonian ideal of the press.

Nichols said new ownership models were needed. He suggested new owners needed to emerge from the government, local communities or not-for-profit organisations. “Just because they are not making the large profits of years ago means they have to close down,” he said. He said this was a problem for democracy not just for journalism or the media. “Don’t think anyone else is going to do the job,” he warned.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gamut's Gambit: Blogging the failures of journalism

An extraordinary thing happened in the reporting of this year’s Australian Federal election. A blogger's shot across the bows of journalists hit its mark. The anonymous Canberran blog Grog’s Gamut was responsible for drawing blood with his post on Friday 30 July about media waste and mismanagement. Many others have written about the shallowness of media election coverage, but Grog struck the biggest chord yet when he said 95 percent of the journalists following Gillard and Abbott around the country were not doing their job properly and should come home. He backed up his comments with a personal story that rung deeply true.

Grog's post was important reading. But in the past such criticism would have been buried in the wastelands of cyberspace. What made this one different was the power of Twitter, where so many journalists keep their alter egos. Instead of killing blogging as many predicted, social media has instead “deepened it, [and] given it more clarity and heft”. At the time of writing, Grog’s post has been re-tweeted 266 times with many influential people including ABC boss Mark Scott, Lateline host Leigh Sales, The Chaser’s Chas Liacciardello and The Australian’s media writer Amanda Meade chiming in. As a result Grog caused journalists the most severe bout of introspection seen in this country since blogging took off in the early 2000s.

As James Massola wrote in the Australian on the weekend, not all journalists (including his own dismissive headline writer) liked the criticism. Herald Sun political reporter Ben Packham took issue with some of the assertions contained in the piece, as did the Sun-Herald's Jessica Wright. “Across Twitter a conversation bubbled and crackled as journalists and readers debated the merits of reportage from the campaign trail,” Massola wrote. “Such a public conversation about journalism was unimaginable five years ago.”

Indeed it was only three years ago in the last federal election campaign, that Massola’s bosses at The Australian penned the most infamous denunciation of bloggers this country has seen. The editorial of 12 July 2007 righteously thundered about “the self appointed experts online...from the extreme Left, populated as many sites are by sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper.” At the time, The Australian was defending its interpretation of opinion polls which were coming under increasing attack by knowledgeable bloggers such as Possum’s Pollytics, The Poll Bludger, and Mumble.

Three years later all three of those bloggers have been co-opted into the mainstream (the first two at Crikey, the third at The Australian). Corporate media has bigger issues to worry about than bloggers, plagued as it is by falling circulations, declining ad revenues and the trivialisation of online news. Those journalists who follow politicians around the country are in all likelihood overworked and underpaid. In responses to Grog’s post (though neither acknowledged him) the ABC's Annabel Crabb and News Ltd's Sally Jackson defended the press pack. They said the problem was caused by secretive politicians, fast-moving campaigns, 16 hour days and the lack of time to absorb important decisions. Neither put it down to any failings by the journalists themselves.

Scott Rosenberg, writer of the best book yet on blogging (“Say Everything”), suggests journalists are incapable of handling public criticism. He quotes recent US examples of reporters both snapping and sneering when attacked. He points to a common complaint journalists don’t like being held to the standards of accountability they expect from other office bearers. Rosenberg puts it down to the profession’s “pathological heritage of self-abnegation”. When something goes wrong with the system, they count on the edifice they are a part of to protect them.

By contrast bloggers have never been beholden to a bigger system and therefore find it easier to accept complaint. They are used to relying on crowdsourcing to make up for the lack of an editor. Rosenberg says this accepting attitude is now more common in younger journalists who have a different relationship to their own work and the public. Most journalists are also now getting used to the idea of reading blogs or better still running one themselves, changing attitudes towards the medium and those who write in it. The “running, linked blog” was one of Guardian editor’s Alan Rusberger’s ideas for how journalism might reinvent itself as it faces up to 21st century uncertainties.

But there are few Rusbergers in Australia. Most editors here are still wedded to old ways and remain a critical stumbling block to any reform of media reporting. It is important to remember Grog’s post was not addressed to journalists at all. His first sentence read: “Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money?” Among the many incisive comments (which is another wonderful thing about blogs - their ability to generate excellent user generated content) the post got was from an anonymous member of the travelling press gallery. “There is no time to eat, to find a bottle of water, to go to the toilet,” the commenter wrote. “Just a relentless demand for more and more copy, faster and faster.”

Writing in Crikey on Monday, Margaret Simons said we perhaps had to have some sympathy for the journalists actually on the campaign trail who rarely have time to think. Simons said editors are not exercising enough independent judgement about what is worth reading and the stories (such as the weekend’s Latham debacle) descend in to solipsistic nonsense. “For goodness sake, get the reporters off the bus!” Simons wrote, exasperated. “Refuse to let your staff be treated with such contempt. Tell them they should not let it happen.” She then suggested the people formerly known as the audience solve the problem themselves. Taking her cue from Wikileaks' success, she asked “Could there be an election wiki, perhaps, giving the policy information the media is largely failing to provide?”
Over to us.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Pakistan enduring worst ever floods

The still rising floods that struck Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces and that now threaten Sindh are becoming the worst in Pakistan’s history. The official death toll is around 1,600 people but with the Pakistani government estimating over 13 million people are affected it is difficult to believe the true death toll is not much higher. The floods have laid waste a 1,000kms swathe of Pakistani territory along the Indus River. After two weeks of pounding, heavy rain is still falling adding to the floodwaters and hindering relief efforts and grounding helicopters needed to deliver food to victims. Even boat rescues are proving difficult in the deep waters.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said they were are particularly concerned about the needs of 600,000 people, who remain completely cut off in the north of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They also said the floods have now reached the southern province of Sindh flooding hundreds of villages there. Rain is forecast there for the next three days. OCHA said they expected the amount required for the relief effort over the coming months will be several hundreds of millions of dollars.

The floods began last month after record monsoon rains, which were the highest in 80 years. The Upper Indus Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkwha began to fill out inundating the flood plain downstream. In some areas the water had reached as high as 5.5 metres. By 1 August, the Dawn newspaper was reporting at least 800 dead, as well as 45 bridges and 3,700 houses swept away in the floods. The Karakoram Highway, connecting Pakistan and China, was closed after a bridge was destroyed. The Afghan border city of Peshawar was also cut off with road and rail links under water.

As rescue teams attempt to get to the worst affected areas by boat, they soon realised things were even worse than they feared. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti said thousands of people in the inaccessible valleys of Malakand were in danger and rescue teams were facing problems in reaching there. “We are facing the worst-ever natural disaster in our history that has pushed the province almost 50 years back,” he said. “The destruction caused by heavy rains and flash floods, particularly in Malakand, is beyond our imagination.”

The floods affected the delivery of aid and the International Committee for the Red Cross said floodwaters also destroyed much of the health infrastructure in the worst affected areas, leaving inhabitants vulnerable to water-borne disease. Bernadette Gleeson, an ICRC health delegate in Islamabad, said they were restoring water systems to working order and distributing such items as soap and wash basins. “We hope to ward off many of the health problems that could arise if large numbers of people had to use contaminated water supplies,” she said.

Meanwhile Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari is fending off criticism he should return from an extended foreign trip. Zardari said the cabinet was responsible for directing relief efforts, and he was getting regular updates. It's the prime minister's responsibility, and he's fulfilling his responsibility,” he said. Zardari said he had secured promises of assistance from the countries he had visited - the UAE, France and the UK. But these promises did not cool down anger back home. "Our president prefers to go abroad rather than supervising the whole relief operation in such a crisis," said a resident of the flood-threatened Sindh city of Sukkur. "They don't care about us. They have their own agendas and interests."

Of most interest to the city is the Sukkur Barrage across the Indus built during the Raj to feed one of the world’s largest irrigation systems. Water has already exceeded the danger level at the barrage. By this morning, the water flow coming down the Barrage was recorded at up to 1.4m cusecs (cubic feet per second). It is only designed to withstand 900,000 cusecs. Operators have opened the Barrage doors, but the water pressure there remains heavy. With incessant monsoonal rain and a lot of water still to come down the valley, matters will get worse before there is any improvement.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Wikileaks and the War in Afghanistan

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange told us he released all his documents to get people talking about Afghanistan. The US has charged 22-year-old Pfc Bradley Manning with releasing the files and has demanded Assange take them down from his site, but Assange said he and Bradley were not the problem. "The most dangerous men are those who are in charge of war. And they need to be stopped," he said. Assange is right to question the intent of the war which is showing no signs of success after 9 years. So far however, all people are talking about is the tool itself: Wikileaks.

For several years Assange has been acting in the best tradition of news: revealing something someone wants hidden. People sent him electronic files under the cloak of anonymity and he published them on his European-based servers. Many governments including Australia’s have been embarrassed by his findings. But the Afghan documents were his biggest coup yet. On Sunday 26 July, Wikileaks released 75,000 detailed secret US military reports covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010.

But Wikileaks weren’t flying solo. Aware in advance Assange had access to something extraordinary, a Guardian editor convinced him the files needed the sense-making capabilities and resources of journalism. Assange was not immediately convinced but compromised by giving the information to three newspapers to do what they wanted with them. He knew the three papers would add perspective and attention. The Guardian with its links to both Manchester and London and its ownership locked in trusts, is one of the few genuinely left of centre broadsheets in the English speaking world. Germany’s Der Spiegel is a weekly newsmagazine mostly owned by its Hamburg workforce – it would give a non-Anglosphere view.

The third is still generally regarded as the best newspaper in the world, despite many failings. The New York Times under the old family money of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr added the ultimate prestige to Assange’s enterprise. Although the NYT’s motto is “All the News That's Fit to Print” even it had to condense down the narrative to a few thousand words. All three news angles were similar in that they said the release of the data itself was the biggest story.

With so much data still left to go round, Assange encouraged the crowdsharing potential of the Internet. The reports described the majority of lethal military actions the US military were involved in. They were categorised by the type of mission or engagement. Between them enemy action (27,000) and explosive hazard (23,000) accounted for over half the files. They showed the number of people killed, wounded, or detained during each action, together with the precise geographical location of each event, and what military units involved and major weapon systems were used. In the one and only file marked “counter terrorism”, the data states:
“Weapons seized in Herat City, Injil District, Herat Province 15 Jan 08: Counter Terrorism Department reported Anti-Terrorism Directorate personnel located and seized 1x 82 mm mortar launcher and 1 x PK machine gun from local Herat City (41S MU 25688 01079) residence (Source ARSIC-West ROC)”.
While the data are pure intelligence reports which are terse and difficult to interpret, Wikileaks provided a reading guide to help out but it not very exciting stuff.

When releasing the documents, Wikileaks said they hoped it would lead to “a comprehensive understanding of the war in Afghanistan and provide the raw ingredients necessary to change its course”. But what they forgot was that the rest of the media which did not get the exclusives might have a different slant. Murdoch's papers expressed mock outrage over their release. The Washington Post were also so annoyed at not being chosen, they got Mark Thiessen from neo-conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute to write an op-ed calling Wikileaks a criminal enterprise which had to be shut down. He also wanted the US to arrest Assange regardless of whether jurisdiction he is living under gives its consent. Thiessen may be living in a forgotten Bush-Cheney fantasy world but he is not alone in wanting Assange eliminated.

The New Yorker called Assange a “trafficker” which made him sound like a drug dealer. But it did make the useful point Assange has made diverse enemies including failed British bank Northern Rock, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi and the “Church” of Scientology. Assange sent back a lovely letter to demands from the Scientologists’ lawyers: [We] will not comply with legally abusive requests from Scientology any more than Wikileaks has complied with similar demands from Swiss banks, Russian offshore stem-cell centres, former African kleptocrats, or the Pentagon.”

While perhaps nettled by being listed next to kleptocrats, The White House response merely expressed its annoyance about what Assange’s “irresponsible leaks” wouldn’t do. “[They] will not impact our ongoing commitment to deepen our partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan; to defeat our common enemies; and to support the aspirations of the Afghan and Pakistani people”. Otherwise National Security Advisor General James Jones was agreeing with everything leaked because he said they had already acted on its problems.

That leaves most of the case against Assange about consequences. “Innocents will die” is a short summation of it. Under this argument it does not matter what good can come from the documents in the public domain, because the possible death of Afghans identified as helpers is too high a price to pay. The right to kill innocents is an option the armed forces wants to keep exclusively for itself.

Noticeably this argument has not been used against the three newspapers each of which used the data for their stories. They are part of the social responsible press who are also answerable to laws both at home and wherever they publish. Wikileaks does not have these constraints. Jay Rosen calls Wikileaks the world’s first stateless news organisation. Wikileaks releases information onto the Internet without regard for national interest. Rosen said that up to now, the press was free to report on secret matters only so far as their local law protected them. “Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it,” Rosen said. “This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.”

This spatial elasticity means Wikileaks gets to be play by multiple sets of rules. Assistant Professor of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island CW Anderson sees it as asymmetric journalism which can either go it alone or else perform a dance between two informational cultures “one of hackers and one of reporters”.

With so much information in the public sphere, Jeff Jarvis asks where the line should be drawn. His conclusion is that “the line has to move so that our default, especially in government, is transparency.” Jarvis said the “sane response” to leaks was to open up as much as possible. “Then there’s nothing to leak except the things that shouldn’t be leaked,” he said.

Good. Now that we’ve got that straight we can move beyond the infatuation with the stateless tool and get back to Assange’s question, which is simple and grounded in geographical reality. Why are we in Afghanistan?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Should Community Cabinets be part of the furniture?

Words can create strange alliances in time. My words from last week were used in evidence in high-level political flaming in Queensland's parliament yesterday. And because it now appears in the weighty Hansard, it has forced me to think further about what I wrote. (photo of Anna Bligh speaking to Roma's Community Cabinet: Tim Braban)

Let me explain.

Two weekends ago we had the State Government Community Cabinet in Roma. Anna Bligh and most of her ministers were in town to hear deputations and meet with locals to discuss their issues. We covered the cabinet in detail in last Tuesday’s edition of the local paper, The Western Star, including an editorial I wrote that strongly supported the concept of community cabinets.

Fast forward to Queensland’s parliament yesterday. After a bout of feuding across the floor about federal issues, it was Labor MP Mary-Anne O’Neill’s turn to ask a question without notice of Bligh. O’Neill wanted an update about the success of the recent community cabinets. The question was designed to elicit honest information but coming from a fellow party member it would also act as a Dorothy Dixer for Bligh to attack Tony Abbott further.

Last month the Opposition leader announced some 17 cuts to pay for $1.2 billion worth of election promises. One of these cuts is the axing of federal community cabinets as part of a general trend to hold less meetings.

The Feds can’t axe Queensland’s community cabinets as Bligh well knows. It would be a much harder promise to make for the State-level LNP whose bread and butter is the rural and regional vote. Yet the closeness in time of Bligh’s latest cabinet with Abbott’s announcement was an opportunity too hard to pass up. Bligh got into Abbott’s mind to unleash a bit of conjecture:
“I’ll be so busy cutting and slashing your services that the last thing I want as Prime Minister is to be out there hearing about the pain that those cuts are causing,” said Bligh as Abbott.

It was pure politics.

Yet Bligh did have some interesting things to say about community cabinets. Roma was State Labor's 132nd community cabinet and the 26th since Anna took over in 2007. This was the second time it took place in Roma and the numbers of deputations have almost doubled from 67 to 129 in the ten years between the two.
“What this tells us,” Bligh said, “is that far from the community tiring of those sorts of events, their enthusiasm and appetite for them are increasing."

It was at this point Bligh brought in my article in as ammunition to back her up.
“I will quote from the editorial in last week’s Roma Western Star newspaper. It stated...” she said, before launching into two sentences from my editorial: “It was a great chance for people with local issues to discuss them directly with decision makers. It is forums like these when the government comes to the people that give those affected by decisions 500 kilometres away the chance to make themselves known to administrators, so they can humanise the policies that affect them.”

Bligh went on in her own words. “That is exactly what happens," she said. “At Roma we had delegations to me and all of the other ministers in relation to matters affecting rural Queenslanders.” Bligh said they had delegations from farmers, people talking to the government about protection of cropping land, about getting a balance with mining companies, and about looking after the interests of landowners and rural producers.

“These are absolutely critical issues for Queensland and we will make better decisions in relation to them because we have sat down and talked personally to those people who will be affected by them,” Bligh said.

After this sentence, Bligh began her attack on Abbott which I’ve already documented. Yet the question about the value of community cabinets is moot, especially considering the numbers.

Bligh and I agree they are a great idea, particularly in large dispersed communities like Queensland. But doing 20 or so a year must be extremely expensive in time and money. Federal Labor has also been busy. They have held 24 community cabinet meetings in two and a half years. 6 have been in NSW, 4 each in WA and Queensland, 3 in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania and 1 in Northern Territory (ACT gets the consolation prize of hosting all of the non-community cabinets).

That is a lot of meetings and they appear to be skewed in favour of the three big northern states. Abbott is wrong to want to axe them but it is a reasonable question to ask how much humanisation of policy we can afford with our taxpayer dollar and in what direction? Maybe we'll come to the surprising conclusion it doesn't happen enough.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Niger's famine kills celebrations of 50th anniversary of independence

Celebrations in Niger for the 50th anniversary of its independence from France yesterday were muted as it faced up to a massive famine that threatens millions. The UN estimates half of the West African country’s 14 million people are at risk, with the number of severely food-insecure people increasing significantly from 3.3 million people as recently as April. The sombre mood was reflected with few public events marking the independence milestone. Among them was a simple tree-planting ceremony on the outskirts of the capital, Niamey. (picture: Sunday Alamba/AP)

The country’s leader General Salou Djibo dedicated the celebration of independence from France to the "struggle against food insecurity by sustainable land management." Djibo who claimed power in a coup earlier this year, said in a broadcast on Monday he wanted an overhaul of farming to prevent a repeat of the crisis in future harvests. “Our goal should be radically to transform the system of agricultural production to definitively bring Niger out of the disastrous consequences of unreliable climate change and the cycle of famine," he said.

Aid groups have been generally supportive of Djibo even if he hasn’t let the famine get in the way of dealing with his political enemies. Last week Niger police arrested the ex-prime minister and three other former senior officials on charges of embezzling public funds. The arrests were part of a promise Djibo made to investigate corruption during the ten year reign of former president Mamadou Tandja who he toppled in February. Last month his anti-corruption commission published 200 names they accused of embezzlement. Ex-prime minister Oumarou has been called to return $500,000.

Djibo has been less keen to dismantle some of Tandja’s even bigger earners. In 2008 the then president gave his approval for a $5 billion production-sharing agreement for the Agadem oil block with Chinese state-owned CNPC in 2008. Human rights groups complained the agreement lacked transparency and should be investigated. But this week Djibo approved the deal. "The production-sharing agreement with CNPC allows us, if we manage it well, to guarantee better returns for our country," he said. The Agadem oil block has estimated reserves of 325 million barrels and should come online in three years. Niger is also set to become the world’s second largest uranium producer when French company Areva's billion-dollar Imouraren mine starts production.

This abundant mineral wealth means little to the lives of millions destroyed by lack of food. Niger lies at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index so even in a year of good harvests the region is on the edge of a humanitarian crisis. Last year’s harvest was not good. Niger is at the centre of a Sahel famine that has hit Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad and Mali, after insufficient rains left poor crops and a desperate shortage of cattle feed. The fodder shortfalls and lack of water are affecting livestock herds with increasing cases of animal mortality and pastoralists having to sell their cattle at very low prices. The situation is becoming critical in all regions and emergency destocking measures are recommended by humanitarian partners.

Children are worst affected by the crisis. The results of the UN 2010 nutrition survey published on 24 June show the magnitude of the nutritional crisis among children. The Nutrition Survey shows 17 percent of children aged 6 months to 5 years are affected, increasing by 5 percent in a year. The UN’s biggest priorities in Niger are food security (including assistance to pastoralists) and nutrition (including water, sanitation and health activities).

The UN World Food Program is rolling out a large-scale feeding operation to provide foods fortified with vitamins and nutrients for all children under two and their families in the worst-affected parts of the country. They are also providing medical treatment for those who succumb to malnourishment, nursing mothers in particular. Longer term, the communities need build up their livelihoods to become more drought resilient. “Higher agricultural output and lower population growth would make these crises less likely,” the WFP said. “That means improving living conditions in rural areas and providing farmers with access to water, credit, education and healthcare.”