Saturday, December 31, 2011

Guardian's Rusbridger and Davies: Media Personality 2011

The third annual Woolly Days media personality of the year (after Mark Scott in 2009 and Julian Assange in 2010) is shared between Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and Guardian journalist Nick Davies. Rusbridger and Davies win the 2011 award for their disciplined and determined expose of the insidious tactics of the News International empire in illegally hacking phones for dubious journalistic ends.

The pair’s actions caused the folding of the News of the World and the resignation and charging of several high profile current and former News International execs including David Cameron’s spin doctor Andy Coulson who was forced to resign twice over. It also hastened the end of the Murdoch dynasty as the public furore caused in the wake of the Guardian’s revelations put a cloud over James Murdoch's ability to lead the company. The biggest economic impact was the loss of the money-spinning BSkyB takeover which looked inevitable as recently as a week before the scandal broke.

Rusbridger told the remarkable story of the phone hacking in his 2011 Orwell lecture. In January 2007 News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman was jailed for hacking into the mobile phones of three royal staff, an offence under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. News International chair Les Hinton told a 2007 House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport Goodwin acted alone and without their knowledge.

News continued its strenuous denials of a wider conspiracy until 2009 when Davies splashed his Gordon Taylor revelations. Davies revealed Murdoch had paid out over a £1m in legal cases that threatened to reveal the phone hacking. Professional Football Association boss Gordon Taylor was paid £700,000. Davies revealed the suppressed legal cases were linked to the Goodman case.

A News private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was also jailed in January 2007. Mulcaire admitted hacking into the phones of five other targets, including Taylor (the others were Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes, celebrity PR Max Clifford, model Elle MacPherson and football agent Sky Andrew). In 2008 Taylor sued News on the basis that they must have known about it. News submitted documents to the High Court denying keeping any recording or notes of intercepted messages. But Taylor's lawyers demanded detailed police evidence which revealed Mulcaire had provided a recording of Taylor's messages to a News of the World journalist who emailed them to a senior reporter. The evidence also found a News of the World executive had offered Mulcaire a substantial bonus for a story specifically related to the intercepted messages. The News case immediately collapsed causing the payout.

When the Guardian revealed the story, News and its supporters in blue closed ranks. The News of the World furiously attacked the Guardian while in The Times the police assistant commissioner in charge of the original investigation downplayed the disclosures saying there were a handful of victims of hacking and only a few hundred targeted. According to Rusbridger, the police conducted the quickest review in recent history – a few hours. News International exec Rebekah Brooks (ultimately undone by the scandal) said the Guardian had "deliberately misled the British public".

A week later Rusbridger and Davies appeared before the House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport. It was there Davies produced the “For Neville” emails that destroyed News’s case against the Guardian. The emails were for Neville Thurlbeck, Chief Reporter of the News of the World, and they conclusively showed people other than Goodman were aware of the hacking. Yet police commissioner Paul Stephenson told Rusbridger Nick Davies was barking up the wrong tree. In November 2009 the Press Complaints Commission rejected the Guardian’s claims in November 2009, but were forced to change their tune in July 2011 after the Milly Dowler affair came to light.

On 4 July, Davies and Amelia Hill revealed the News of the World illegally targeted missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and her family in March 2002 using records stolen from BT’s confidential records. The affair seemed particularly horrific to the public because of the revelation NotW deleted messages from Dowler’s full message bank giving her parents false hope she was alive. The paper made no effort to hide that fact even publishing details of a message in a 2002 article. The Met Police’s QC now says the messages were probably automatically deleted but the damage was already done. Murdoch was forced to personally apologise to Dowler’s parents and his empire started unravelling as allegations each more damaging than the last followed in the Leveson Inquiry.

Nick Davies was honoured for his series of articles with a swag of awards. He was named journalist of the year at the Foreign Press Association Media Awards 2011, won the Frontline Club award for his investigation and also won the FPA print and web news award along with Hill for the Dowler story.

Rusbridger meanwhile used the Orwell lecture to stake out a new future for a troubled industry. He said self regulation was a joke and the PCC had no powers. He said they needed a mediation power which would be cheaper to access than a libel trial and would be a vital input in any court action. Rusbridger also asked deep questions about what the “public interest” means: “It is not only crucial to the sometimes arcane subject of privacy,” he said. “It is crucial to every argument about the future of the press, the public good it delivers and why, in the most testing of economic times, it deserves to survive.” For raising these questions and for relentlessly following the evidence when it seemed they had little to go on, Alan Rusbridger and Nick Davies were a breath of fresh air to a deeply troubled media industry, economically and ethically.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Weeping for monsters: North Korea's dynastic dues

I’ve been thinking all week about the hysterical sobbing in those images of North Koreans mourning Kim Jong-il. Was it pretend-crying just to avoid looking different to everyone else? Was it just group hysteria? Was it stage managed by the government and then exaggerated out of all proportion? Was it genuine grief for a leader that was a daily presence to them? Was it grief for their own loved one who have died in famines and their miserable fortune to live in such an accursed place? Was it fear that things could get worse under Kim Jong-un? Was it simply just a great chance to cry uncontrollably and not look out of place?

The ambiguities hidden in the tears define North Korea as it has done since the end of World War II. When the Democratic People's Republic of Korea set up shop in the northern part of the peninsula in 1946 they were faced with two big problems. The North had always been more remote and less developed and now 2 million more fled south to avoid the Communist DPRK. The three-war that followed left the new country in tatters.

North Korea converted to a centrally planned economy which strangled small business. Dissent was not tolerated and all good was embodied in leader Kim Il-sung. In turn Il-Sung promoted “Juche” as a concept of self-reliance which would have to make do in difficult times. Il-Sung said juche meant man was the master of everything and decided everything. That man was him and he mobilised the entire workforce to industrialise North Korea rapidly after the civil war.

But always suspicious of the South, they built up their military might to deter invasion. They ran up massive debts mainly to the USSR, China and Japan. By 1980 they defaulted on all their loans and the economy has been contracting ever since. The collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989 left Russia unimpressed with their poverty-stricken debtor. That meant an increasing reliance on China with which DPRK shared philosophies and its only open border. Il-sung refused to consider Gorbachev’s perestroika because he knew it led to glasnost. He died in 1994 and first son and heir apparent Kim Jong-il took over.

Born in 1942 Jong-il spent his first years in Siberia with his parents. His father commanded the 1st battalion of the 88th Brigade, a Red Army unit made up of Chinese and Korean exiles. Jong-il was born in Vyatskoye, a fishing village near Khabarovsk where the railway turns south to Vladivostok. As a schoolboy, Jong-il was interested in politics and Marxist literature. He learned English in Malta and as early as 1980, was effective head of the politburo with only his father to look up to. He inherited his father’s personality cult and was named head of the armed forces in 1991.

With Jong-il making all the decisions since they defaulted on their debts, North Korea’s economy collapsed. When Il-Sung finally collapsed in 1994, aged 82, Jong-il was undisputed leader. The US were worried by his nuclear ambitions and threats to leave the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. The countries signed an Agreed Framework as one of Jong-il’s first achievements in office. It allowed the DPRK to continue developing nuclear technology at foreign expense but with light water reactors rather than the nuclear proliferating graphite reactors they already had.

The US overplayed its hand. President Clinton rashly assumed North Korea was on the verge of collapse and DPRK officials knew his assumption. Congress would not pass a bill to end the trade embargo in place since the end of the Korean War and the US dragged its feet in calling for tenders to build the new reactors. By October 2002, the US believed North Korea had an enrichment program and confronted them with their evidence. Three months later North Korea left the NNPT. The Framework was no longer Agreed and the subsequent Six Party talks were almost completely fruitless. North Korea had gone rogue.

While nuclear testing proceeded with Iranian and Pakistani know-how, the fate of the people of North Korea worsened. Jong-il oversaw a collapse in industry and technology and floods and storms in 1995 wrecked existing electricity and health infrastructure and destroyed harvests. Hungry peasants ate what survived before it was fully developed and the country could no longer feed itself. Women and children bore the brunt of the death toll of a million or more in the three years that followed.

Food from China, South Korea and the US eased the situation until Jong-il refused all overseas aid in 2002. Inclusion in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union “Axis of Evil” heightened the sense of North Korea’s isolation. Famine conditions worsened again. Recent escapees told the BBC hunger and starvation were common with homeless people dying in the railway station, and others too weak to beg. Complaining about this inside the country would lead to instant imprisonment.

It’s not difficult to imagine the logical leaps of doublethink North Koreans must take in order to make sense of their world. Death is all around them but so is a regime that demands obedience and Juche. Even when people were confronted on the street by evidence of the failure of the regime, their total reliance state media meant foreign powers and the evil South could always be conjured up as scapegoats.

The extraordinary scenes in Pyongyang after Jong-il’s death are not without precedence. This week’s public lamentation eerily resembles the carefully choreographed mourning after Kim Il-sung died. Life seemed almost too unbearable to go on without Dear Leader. But just as in 1994, the State machinery will be whipped into shape after a decent interval and the leadership cult will swing to Kim Jong-un. The world should learn from Clinton’s mistake. North Korea can survive dysfunction. Bellies may remain empty but the belicose dynasty of Dear Leader will continue. As the handpicked factory worker in the sobbing video said “I will change sorrow into strength and remain faithful to Comrade Kim Jong-un.” It’s best the North Koreans cry now because it will not be tolerated in six months time.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Charles Byrne's Body: A sorry science story

Back in the mid 18th century an oddity was born in Ireland who if he lived over 200 years later would have likely been one of Irish basketball’s best hopes. In a dwarfish country stunted by lack of access to nutritious foods, Charles Byrne stood out. He was believed by many to be over eight feet tall though skeletal evidence put him at 2.31m, which at seven foot seven was still head, shoulders and much of the upper torso over most of his contemporaries. Byrne did not have access to a better diet than others around him. It was a gene mutation caused by a pituitary tumour that caused the growth. He died in 1783 aged just 22 though it wasn’t the tumour that killed him.

Byrne lived 21 of those 22 years in Tyrone, born of unexceptional stock. The sly gossips said the reason for his height was his parents had a love affair on top of a huge haystack and this lofty situation somehow affected conception. No one said this to his face - if they could up into it. Although acknowledged as a freak of nature, Charles Byrne wasn’t generally treated as one. Australian historian Patrick O’Farrell said the Irish treated everyone on their merits. Writing about the Irish in Australia, O’Farrell noted that because they never tried to paternalise their relationship with Aborigines they never looked down on them as the WASPs did and instead treated them as equals. Byrne left Tyrone not ashamed of his freakdom but wanting to exploit it. His parents knew he could better capitalise on his status elsewhere.

His exceptional size had attracted a nearby carpetbagger named Joe Vance from Coagh. Vance wanted to astound Europe with Byrne. The pair arrived in London in 1782, and Byrne transfixed the capital as Vance’s creation “the Irish Giant”. He took a room next door to the fabled Cox’s Museum at Charing Cross. The choice was not accidental. James Cox was a jeweller and toy maker who exported luxury European items to the Far East. When China suddenly banned his goods, he turned his unsaleable cargo of exotic clocks, watches and earrings into a museum of “automata” which opened in 1772. This museum became known for its extravagant assemblage and quickly became “a seductive metaphor and a compelling stage for debating the troublesome issues of political and economic stability.”

While Cox had sold up by the time Byrne moved to London, his museum retained an aura that Vance knew he could capitalise on. Byrne entertained audiences next door for seven hours a day, six days a week. His gracious airs made him the talk of the town. Within a few weeks, Byrne was entertaining the Royal Family, members of the nobility and his baffling condition was examined by the Royal Society. When a fellow freak, Count Joseph Boruwlawski known as the “Polish Dwarf” met Byrne in London, their surprise was equal. As Boruwlawski remembered, Byrne was a moment speechless, “viewing me with looks of astonishment; then stooping very low to present me his hand, which easily have contained a dozen like mine, he made a very polite compliment. Had a painter been present, the contrast of our figures might have suggested to him the idea of an interesting picture; for having come very near him, the better to show the difference, it appeared that his knee was nearly upon level with the top of my head.”

Flushed with success, Byrne moved to Piccadilly where he continued to work six days a week (Sundays excepted). Admittance for ladies and gentlemen was 2s. 6d, children and “servants in livery” had to fork out a shilling. Vance and Byrne grew wealthy on the profits. By early 1783 the fickle public were tiring of the Irish Giant. News of his success drew other tall men to London including the Gigantic Twin Knipe brothers who were born only five miles away from Byrne in Tyrone. Another Irishman was advertised as a giant “upwards of Four Inches taller than the noted Burn”. Byrne’s problems were compounded by his love of gin and whiskey. He was frequently drunk on stage and cancelled many performances. Vance was forced to drop prices and soon everyone was paying the livery price of a shilling.

On 23 April 1783, Byrne went on a “lunar ramble” at the Black Horse public house. He fell asleep drunk and someone stole £700 from his pockets – his entire savings. Devastated, he redoubled his drinking and contracted tuberculosis. He deteriorated badly in May and died on 1 June 1783. In his final days his biggest fear was not death but the surgeons’ thirst for his body. His Irish Catholic upbringing gave him a horror of the coroner’s knife which he believed could deny his soul a place in heaven on Judgement Day.

One man had no time for Byrne’s scruples on the matter. His name was John Hunter, Surgeon Extraordinary to King George III. Hunter was a pivotal influence on modern surgery with his method and dissected thousands of cadavers he got from “resurrection men” – professional grave robbers. From the moment Hunter set eyes on Byrne he coveted his body for science. Byrne was aware of Hunter’s ambition and strove to thwart it in his dying days. His instructions were that his coffin should be guarded by Irish friends who would arrange to bury him at sea. Byrne scraped the last of his savings to the undertaker whom he entrusted to carry out the plan.

Hunter meanwhile was determined not to lose out. He employed a man named Howison to watch Byrne’s whereabouts at all times from a next door apartment. When Byrne died, a newspaper reported he wanted his bones “far out of the reach of the chirurgical fraternity”. The chirurgeons were in an arms race of demands for the body. One reportedly offered a ransom of 800 guineas to the undertakers. While the bidding went on, the promoters got one last meal ticket out of Byrne: they displayed his enormous coffin to the public for one shilling. Then on 6 June, the body was taken aboard a ship to Margate where it would be sunk in “20 fathoms of water” in the English Channel. At Margate another boat was chartered and the coffin was tipped into the sea.

But Byrne’s body was no longer in it. The Annual Register for 1873 said the sea burial report was “merely a tub thrown out to the whale.” While the whales had the tub, Hunter had the body. When Byrne died, Howison immediately told his paymaster. Hunter quickly bribed the undertaker for £500 who switched the body with paving stones while the oblivious funeral party was drunk. Hunter took the corpse back to his surgery but became terrified of the revenge of Byrne’s friends if they found out. There was no autopsy. Instead he He chopped up the body and boiled the pieces so only the bones were left. He then hid the huge skeleton for four years until Byrne’s name was forgotten. In his haste, it went brown.

Hunter displayed the Irish Giant in his anatomical collection and was later put it in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1909 American neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing got permission to open Byrne’s skull and he diagnosed the pituitary tumour. Byrne’s discoloured skeleton remains today in the Hunterian where many visitors including the current monarch have been fascinated by his extraordinary size.

Hunter got his way but the fight continues today between his legacy and Byrne’s modern day family anxious to carry out his dying wish. One of those relatives, Brendan Holland said Byrne’s body has been on display for 200 years and it was time for him to receive a proper burial. "He was quite a celebrity and he made a lot of money out of exhibiting himself," Holland said. "It's the person within that's important. It's very unfortunate that he didn't live long enough to understand that." His enthusiasm for a sea burial is not shared by the Hunterian’s current director Sam Alberti. Alberti was reluctant to hand over his star attraction saying “researchers were excited about the potential for future research.”

But the British Medical Journal agrees with the family Byrne has done his time and should be buried at sea. Fellow Northern Irishman and researcher at the school of law at Queen’s University Belfast, Thomas Muinzer wrote in the Journal it was time to respect his memory and reputation. “What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified,” Muinzer wrote. Mr Muinzer added there was nothing of any more use that could be deduced scientifically from Byrne’s bones. “We have now a full record of Byrne’s DNA and we also have numerous examinations of the skeleton,” he wrote. “With burial law, when you or I stipulate burial wishes in life, we rely on those wishes to be respected. Those wishes don’t have legal force, they have moral force.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Disturbing Durban: The world starts to act on climate change

The tag line for the Durban Conference was "Climate Change in balanced fashion". That these corporate wankwords hide as much as they reveal was shown in the angry environmentalists' respone to the conference. Those who can see we are in a spot of bother are spitting chips over the Durban agreement. We cannot afford no action until 2020, they said.

The consequences to the planet of a “gaping 8 year hole” are potentially catastrophic, particularly as the likely outcome is a further increase in carbon emissions in the short term. But while they are right, the Greens are showing their usual tendency to forget realpolitik: this latest deal is as good as the governments of the world were willing to give at the time, giving their widely differing places at the table. This is not no action and the agreement builds on the small steps taken at Bali, Copenhagen and Cancun agreements to give a roadmap towards worldwide reductions in 2020 and that is mostly a good thing.

There are things the Greens are right to be angry about. Sea level rises caused by warmer temperatures will continue long after the oven is turned down in 2020. There is also the prospect of mass species extinction. Current best estimates have atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration expecting to exceed 500 parts per million and global temperatures to rise by at least 2°C by 2050 to 2100. These values significantly exceed anything in the least the past 420,000 years during which most of our marine organisms evolved.

Earth relies on the greenhouse effect to sustain life. But CO2, methane and nitrous oxide all absorb infrared energy and keep heat energy on Earth and all are on the increase. The effects are varied: the North West Passage is becoming seaworthy again, the 3250 sq km Larsen B ice shelf disappeared in a month in 2002, glaciers in Argentina and Chile are melting at double the rate of 1975 while sea temperature rises are threatening coral reefs across the world.

Even modest increases in sea levels could cause major flooding in many of the world’s low lying megalopolises. If there is a rise in sea levels of 0.5m, the Majuro Atoll in the Pacific Marshall Islands would mostly disappear. If the sea level rises by 1m, one fifth of Bangladesh goes under as would 13 of the world’s 15 largest cities. If the unstable West Antarctic Ice Shelf replicated the behaviour of Larsen B, sea levels could rise 3m. If Greenland once again resembled its name it would add 7m to water levels.

This picture is a New York with a 5m rise, not beyond the bounds of possibility though the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report worst case scenario only allows for a maximum of 0.6m to 2100. The report also acknowledges global emissions will grow despite mitigation measures. Even at the likeliest levels of 0.3m in 2100, that rise is enough to obliterate many island nations. Without the power to influence conferences except by emotion, the islanders' biggest challenge will be to preserve their nationality without a territory. Believing such a loss ia temporary has lawyers rushing to the Law of the Sea and the UN Convention to see how such states could survive “in exile”.

Despite the depression that starts this kind of thinking, this is profoundly optimistic in the long term. It speaks to the unending human belief we can fix any problem, including ones caused by our own actions. The annual Climate Change Conference is like a large ship with a slow turning circle. But it is slowly taking effect. The year 1990 is used as the benchmark year for all emissions as this was around the time science realised there was a major problem. It was also the year UN-steered climate change negotiations started. No-one cared at first. In the 5 years after 1990, carbon emissions worldwide increased from 1 billion tons to 7 billion tons.

20 years down the track, the scientists still have difficulty selling their message, if some sections of the right and the media are to be believed while on the other side, the Greens thinks we are not moving fast enough. Yet recent International Energy Agency data shows global action is beginning to work. Countries who participated in the Kyoto Protocol were 15% below their 1990 levels two decades later. The problem is the Kyoto non binding countries led by China and the Middle East have greatly expanded their emissions in that time.

This is why a global agreement iis so important. The developing countries have a good point the West has caused more emissions. But they have learned quickly from Western technology and China is now the world’s biggest emitter. An agreement of “annex” and “non annex” countries no longer makes sense.

This is why China and India ultimately signed the agreement. Let no one underestimate what was achieved.It is the first global deal that scales back our fossil fuel economy. 2020 is a long way away and there will be more eight more meetings and eight more frenetic all-night negotiations as nations and economic blocs jostle for position in the brave new world of a post-carbon economy. But the decision offers a clear signal the ship is turning and passengers need to look the other way. The markets will now do their bit by promoting investment in industries that best fit the new model.

If the Greens are impatient we are not turning fast enough, then rightwing groups such as the Australian Coalition are determined to steer straight ahead regardless. Abbott’s claim the carbon tax is an “international orphan” is wrong on at least three counts: Australia is not the only country to price carbon, it will be a necessary requirement to send the right market signals to move to renewables, and its overgenerous compensation will mean that it will have little genuine effect on the nation’s massive fossil fuel industry in the short term. By 2020, the world will still be warming to dangerous levels. But an agreement is now in place to deal with the problem. And Australia has an enforcing mechanism. Whether that is all too little too late is for our grandchildren to judge.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Surat Basin Rail gets another approval

The Queensland Government has approved the development scheme for the Surat Basin Rail Joint Venture. The approval is another tick for the proposed rail line linking the western line with the Moura Railway System. The Surat Basin Rail is the so called “southern missing link” a 214km railway linking Wandoan and Banana. According to the Surat Bain Rail project, the railway will “enhance the existing coal rail network and unlock 6.3 billion tonnes of coal reserves in the Surat Basin.” The approval follows last year’s environmental approval and the railway will connect to the future coal industry-owned Wiggins Island Coal Export Terminal.

Surat Basin Rail is a Joint Venture between rail infrastructure company Australian Transport and Energy Corridor Limited, Xtrata Coal and QR National. JV chair Everald Compton said the project had significant implications for the Surat Basin and Queensland. “Surat Basin Rail will boost economic development of regional Queensland and connect the multi-billion dollar industry-funded Wiggins Island Coal Export Terminal, to unlock the vast coal reserves of the Surat Basin and support the continued growth of Australia’s largest export industry,” he said. “The Joint Venture’s proactive engagement approach and environmental impact statement which comprised 14 technical studies, will ensure minimal social, environmental and economic impacts.”

The Queensland Government’s Surat Basin Rail Bill 2011 proposes to grant a long-term lease over the Surat Basin rail corridor land. The bill has been referred to the Industry, Education, Training and Industrial Relations Committee for detailed consideration reporting back on 19 March 2012 (which may or may not before after the next state election). If passed the bill will regulate a lease the Government intends to grant to the SBR JV, to construct and operate the railway. The Bill would provide some exemptions from provisions of the Property Law Act 1974 and the Land Title Act 1994.

Meanwhile the Co-ordinator General’s report said the project was needed but its value would increase once integrated with other rail and port infrastructure projects. The Co-ordinator General has imposed a number of environmental conditions relating to land and soil, water management, air quality, traffic, greenhouse gas emissions and other factors. He accepted some impact on good quality land was unavoidable and further investigations were required for future habitat approvals.

The Surat Basin Rail Joint Venture has an exclusive mandate granted by the Queensland Government to develop the project as an open access coal and freight railway. Government approval now allows the joint venture to begin land acquisition and construction in late 2012 with first coal on rail due in 2015. The railway will have the capacity to transport up to 42 million tonnes of coal per year on trains up to 2.5 kilometres in length.

Stanmore Coal made the development approval announcement in an ASX release last week. Stanmore Coal has a strong vested interest having applied for five million tonnes of capacity on the SBR to deliver 5Mtpa of high quality export thermal coal from The Range project from 2015. The Range project is in the north of the Surat Basin 27 km south east of the line. Stanmore Coal has obtained 7Mtpa of priority capacity rights at the proposed Wiggins Island Coal Export Coal Terminal Stage 2 at Gladstone.

Wiggins Island is expected to open in 2014. The 27Mta coal terminal is located at Golding Point, Gladstone. It is owned by eight coal producers and will be operated by the Gladstone Ports Corporation. The terminal will be built in stages and when fully commissioned will provide more than 80Mtpa in export coal capacity. Stage 1 construction of the $2.5b project started in October. Construction will include a stockyard for 1.9Mt of coal, a 5.5km-long overland conveyor, a 7600tph rail receipt facility, a single berth with travelling ship loader and channels and wharf to accept 40,000-220,000dwt ships. A feasibility study for the terminal’s expansion is expected by the end of the year. In case anyone was in any doubt, coal remains central to Queensland’s economy.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Pearl Harbor: Japan's oil blunder

In a sad admission of the passing of time, the Pearl Harbor survivors association used the 70th anniversary of the attack to announce they will disband at the end of the year. An estimated 8,000 people are still alive who survived the Japanese attack on Hawaii and some 2,700 of them are members of the association. But it has become too difficult to organise the annual national reunion in Honolulu. Association President William Muehleib cited the age and poor health of remaining members. "It was time. Some of the requirements became a burden," Muehleib said after this year’s ceremony at Pearl Harbor. (photo:Matt York/Associated Press)

The moment of silence at the ceremony was marked just before 8am when the first Japanese planes launched their attack. Tuesday, 7 December 1941 would become a day that would “live in infamy” as Roosevelt predicted when he responded to the attack. In two hours, 2,400 people would be killed, 1,200 wounded (a shocking discrepancy between the dead and wounded) 20 ships sunk and 164 planes destroyed. Yet the infamy FDR spoke about was not the death toll but the fact the Japanese had lied to him and attacked 30 minutes before they declared war.

The cause of Pearl Harbor, as so much of the 20th century’s conflict, was oil. Expansionist Japan was 80% reliant on US petroleum to fire its economy but knew the time would come when the alarmist Americans would turn off the tap. The US took a dim view of the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the subsequent war with China. Modern China retains so much bitterness about that war it still refuses to call the area Manchuria because it might legitimise Japanese claims. Instead it just called “North East China”.

From their puppet base in Manchukuo, belligerent Japan declared all out war on China in 1937. Relations with the US deteriorated with the USS Panay Incident that year when the Japanese sunk an American ship in Nangking and then the Allison Incident where US consul to Nangking John Moore Allison was struck in the face by a Japanese soldier. Japan said sorry for both incidents claiming it did not see the American flags on the Panay. It did not offer an excuse for Allison but bowed to US demands for an apology.

Despite the provocation, economic self-interest ensured the US kept supplying oil to Japan until 1941. It wasn’t until July that year they finally placed an embargo as did Britain. Crucially so did Dutch two months later, breaking an existing treaty with Japan and ending the possible increase in the supply line of Javanese oil which supplied 15% of Japanese crude. The embargo put a critical constraint on the conduct of the long-running war in China. Japan was the sixth largest importer of oil in the world. If Japan wanted to resume bombing Chiang Kai-Shek's and Mao Zedong’s armies, it would have to grab oil for itself and the East Indies was the easiest target.

While Pearl Harbor was a shock, the Pacific war was no great surprise. A majority of Americans expected war with Japan especially over the Philippines which held many strategic American interests. But Japan had other ideas. It was well aware it could not cope with planned American expansion of the Navy. The 1940 Two-Ocean Navy Act (sponsored by two Democrats Carl Vinson of Georgia and David Walsh of Massachusetts) planned to expand the size of the US Navy by 70%. Japan could never match this so struck a blow early before the Vinson-Walsh ships came off the assembly line.

An attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese believed, would also neutralise the existing Pacific Fleet to give Japan free reign to take Jakarta. Then the Americans would sue for a peace profitable to Japan. That this was flawed thinking is obvious in retrospect as was their complete failure to work out how the US would respond. Yet as a plan it no woollier than the thinking that led to another oil war while the execution was just as striking.

The 1941 attack was led by submarines. Five midget submarines came within 20km of the coast and launched their charges at 1am. At least four of them were sunk. Then the planes struck. There were almost 200 of them in the first group. A second wave of 170 flew closely behind. They were picked up by newly established radar on the northern tip of Oahu but misdiagnosed as a returning US crew and its immense size was not passed on to headquarters. At 7.48am they arrived at Pearl Harbor. The immediate target of the first wave was the battleships.

Japan believed that by targeting the battleships they would remove the biggest status symbols from the Navy. While they succeeded, they badly misread the importance of the technology. The sinking of one battleship the USS Arizona caused half the death toll on the day. Ten torpedo bombers attacked the ship. After one bomb detonated in the Arizona’s ammunition magazine, she went up in a deafening explosion. 1,117 of the 1,400 crew were killed instantly and the fire took two days to put out.

The second wave had various targets including hangars, aircraft, carriers and cruisers. After 90 devastating minutes, half the planes on Oahu were destroyed. A planned third wave to knock out Pearl Harbor’s remaining infrastructure was called off which Admiral Chester Nimitz admitted could have postponed US operations for another year. But Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo refused because of likely casualties and a need for night-time operations.

Despite this lapse, the Japanese did not rest on their success. Hong Kong was attacked a day later as were US territories Guam and Wake Island. The Philippines, a commonwealth of the US at the time, was also invaded on 8 December. The same day Japanese troops made an amphibious landing at Kota Bharu in north-eastern Malaya, and six points along the south-east Thailand, an invasion ended by an armistice which allowed Japan to use Thailand as a base to attack Malaya. Malaya had rubber and was the obvious dropping off point to access Dutch oil in soon-to-be Indonesia.

Only the US, Iran and Romania exported more oil than the East Indies in 1941 but the profits went to Amsterdam and Royal Dutch Shell not Jakarta. Borneo was another yet victim of the 8 December naval blitzkrieg threatening the oilfields of Kalimantan. The rest of the island archipelago quickly fell and would remain in Japanese hands until 1945 while the war was fought elsewhere. The three aircraft carriers that called Pearl Harbor home were out at sea during the attack and the elimination of its battleships gave the US no choice but to put the fate of the war in its carriers.

While the Europe First policy slowed down the Pacific Conflict it was almost over as soon as it began. A wrathful America armed with its new Navy and massive fighting capacity was never going to forgive Japan’s treachery. By July 1942, America sunk four of Japan’s own carriers at Midway. Japan used its fierce military pride, deadly code of honour, incessant pro-war propaganda and Indonesian oil to keep the insanity going for another three years.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Razan Ghazzawi arrested in Syria

Prominent blogger Razan Ghazzawi is the latest victim of an increasingly desperate Syrian regime, arrested on her way to a media conference in Jordan on Sunday. The US-born human rights activist was arrested at the border while on her way to attend a workshop for advocates of press freedoms in the Arab world. Ghazzawi was arrested by police and immigration officials at the border while on her way to Amman to attend the conference as a media representative. While the Assad administration have said nothing, a local committee of activists confirmed the arrest yesterday.

The Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) said Ghazzawi worked for them as a media officer and was attending the workshop on their behalf. SCM said they condemned her arrest and the restrictions on civil society and freedom of expression in Syria. “SCM demands authorities stop abuse of systematic practice against bloggers, journalists, and Syrians citizens,” they said. “SCM demands to release the blogger Razan Ghazzawi immediately and unconditionally and to release all detainees in Syria and stresses on the need for Syrian authorities to respect their international commitments that have committed themselves to it through the ratification of the conventions and treaties international.” SCM said they held Syrian authorities responsible for any physical or psychological harm caused to her.

Ghazzawi has been a high profile documenter of violations and arrests in Syria since the start of the uprising in March. Bravely she was one of the few in Syria to blog under her real name. Her most recent post on 1 December announced another Syrian blogger and activist Hussein Ghrer had been freed after 37 days in Adra prison. “Hussein is going to be home tonight, where he will be holding his wife tight, and never let go of his two precious sons again,” Ghazzawi wrote. “It’s all going to be alright, and it will all be over very soon.” But now the nightmare has begun for Ghazzawi herself.

The arrest has sparked wide protests online. A Twitter campaign #freerazan has gone viral in the last 24 hours while own twitter feed @redrazan is being managed by friends. A Facebook page has also been set up since the arrest. A Moroccan blogging friend Hisham Almiraat said Razan was an indefatigable campaigner for human rights and freedom of expression in her country. “She has been advocating for the rights of political prisoners and minorities in Syria and has always fought for the rights of the Palestinians,” Almiraat said. “Razan is the most driven, thoughtful and freedom loving person I have ever met.”

A message on Ghazzawi’s blog shows what she told friends before she set off for Jordan. If anything happens to me, she said, “know that the regime does not fear those imprisoned but those who do not forget them”. This message suggests she knew she was taking a risk by travelling to the conference. The blog MidEast Youth is making much of her US citizenship in its calls for her freedom. While Ghazzawi admits she born in the US she never lived there. Her family lived for 10 years in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and are now back in Damascus. She graduated with a degree in English literature from Damascus University and did a further five years of study in Lebanon before returning home.

The administration she berated shows no sign of bending to intense international pressure either to release her or end atrocities against protesters. Instead the regime held bellicose war manoeuvres over the weekend. State-run television said the exercise was meant to test "the capabilities and the readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression." The drill showed Syrian missiles and troops "ready to defend the nation and deter anyone who dares to endanger its security". Assad and his regime intend to tough this out with the support of Russia and China and won’t mind the collateral damage to the likes of Ghazzawi in the process.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Friends, Romaites and welcome to country: Vale Artie Beetson

In an era when Aboriginal rights were just beginning to speak their name, Artie Beetson was a leader. A rugby league great, he was the first Indigenous man to captain his country in any sport. At a time when Charlie Perkins was emulating the US south freedom marches, Arthur Henry Beetson was accepted by his peers as a natural leader. He was born and raised in Roma and he died yesterday aged 66 on the Gold Coast after suffering a heart attack while riding a bike. (pic: Beetson top left in the Balmain 1966 side)

Neither of Beetson’s parents came from Roma. His mother Marie came from Buderim via Cherbourg Mission, the Aboriginal reserve settlement near Murgon in Queensland’s Lower Burnett. She was a member of the Stolen Generation. Marie fled Cherbourg and she met her husband Bill Beetson in Roma in the 1940s. Bill came north from Brewarrina, NSW where he was persona non grata with the law. This was a difficult time for Aboriginals in western Queensland.

Some of the smaller towns around Roma still had “yumbas” well after the war. “Yumba” was a Murri word for camp and has provided the name of several Australian towns such as Yamba, NSW and Yaamba, Qld. White people steered clear of these camps while the Aboriginals were barred from the pubs and shops. As a white women growing up in Mitchell remembers, the only place the two communities would meet would be on the footy field. In the late 1960s, the yumbas were razed to the ground and the Aboriginals relocated in town.

Roma was a bit different. It had a camp but it had been demolished as early as World War I. As a result Indigenous people were more common in town, though still fringe dwellers. The Beetsons lived in a small house on the Bungil Creek. Artie was born in January 1945 just as the world began to look beyond the tyrannies of Hitler and Japan. Artie got the rudiments of an education at the local state school and left aged 15 at Year 10 to join the post office.

He played first grade league in Roma for Cities until he was 19. Cities team mate John Vickery remembers Beetson didn’t much like training but he was a natural. “He was so strong; he would have three or four defenders on him and he would still get away.” But there were other qualities Vickery also recalls, qualities that made the man as much as the player. “He was down-to-earth and humorous – he loved his jokes but when he was on the field he stuck to his game.” Another Cities teammate John Ashburn (who died a few years ago) remembered him as a deserved accolade of a game Immortal in 2003. “Artie had terrific ball skills and could unload a pass to anyone.”

Ashburn said both of Beetson’s parents were well known around town and he was always proud to say he was from Roma. In 1962, aged 17 he played for Roma against Charleville and was “tickled pink” to be selected. On the way down he watched as a team mate got plastered and learned the drinking culture. He transferred to Redcliffe in 1964 aged 19 and said the training regime was not like today. “If it rained we played cards and drank a keg,” he said. “It rained a lot in Redcliffe.”

Between the showers, Beetson helped them win the Brisbane premiership. For once Beetson played in the forwards as the Dolphins beat Valleys 15-7 to take the 1965 premiership over the Hornibrook Bridge for the first time ever. They would not win again until 1994, 29 years later. Before their losing final in 1987, their general manager Don McLennon reminisced on the Beetson win. “Arthur played the majority of his football as a centre in his two seasons with us,” he said. “He was a huge manager and it was a masterstroke of Henry (Holloway, the captain-coach) to switch him to the forwards in the final.”

It was clear he was too good for Queensland and moved to Balmain Tigers in 1966 aged 21, getting to the grand final in his first season. As Beetson recalled, the season ended in bitter disappointment after a stunning start. “We won our first 10 games and beat the Englishmen – the only club side to do it.” The season fell apart after Balmain hooker Dick Wilson negotiated a bet for a friend on Newtown to beat his own side. Wilson was expelled after Newtown won, though Beetson claimed Wilson made no money out of it. When the reserve hooker broke a collar bone in the semi-final, it left them in trouble for the final against St George. St George had won the last 10 premierships and Balmain with young Artie – picked in all three Australian international games that year - were fancied by some to slay the dragons despite losing to them in the semi.

But it was a one-sided final with St George thrashing Balmain 23-4. 1967 was a disaster according to Beetson with Balmain missing out on the finals and Beetson missing out on a Kangaroo tour. In the off-season of 1968 Beetson moved to England to play for Hull Kingston Rovers. Beetson’s second game would be one he’d never forget. It was the derby against local rivals Hull to be played at 11am on Christmas Day. Fellow Australian Jim Hull and Artie slept in after a skinful the night before and when they arrived at the ground, two substitutes were ready to start. The pair dressed hurriedly and for the first time in his career Beetson didn’t strap his ankles.

“I made a break down the sideline and the winger tried to tackle me high,” he said. “I pushed him down and he wrapped his legs around mine just as two other Hull players came over the top.” Beetson went down like a sack of potatoes, crying in agony. Beetson was in pain for months and considered giving the game away. But back at Balmain for the new season he “worked his way” back.

Balmain won the premiership in 1969 but Beetson had to watch from the sidelines. He was sent off in the finals and suspended for two matches. People kept telling him he got them there and he won a premiership blazer but he said it was a terrible disappointment. In 1970 Beetson had his nose broken in the first test match against Britain and smashed again in the second. “It rearranged my face putting my nose over my left ear,” he said. Beetson also parted company with Balmain when they refused his request for $2500 sign-on fee, normal match payments and $150 a win. When Dennis Tutty won a court case in 1971 against the transfer system, Balmain hastily sold Beetson for $15,000 to avoid him walking out for nothing.

“I thought no one would pay that but then Easts stepped in,” he said. The change of club helped him tame an eating problem and trim his weight. He thrived under the coaching of Don Furner and Jack Gibson and was a regular in internationals winning the world championship in 1975 and premierships in 1974 and 1975. When Gibson left Easts in 1977, Beetson became captain coach but had only moderate success. He switched to Parramatta in 1979 where he finally got a chance to play for his beloved Queensland.

NSW had played Queensland many times in the 1970s but the more powerful Sydney league was too good for Brisbane league and Queensland lost 15 times in a row. In 1980, a new concept was tried called State of Origin and it allowed Queensland to choose seven players playing in Sydney to represent the state. Parramatta’s Beetson was the captain. 28,000 turned up to Lang Park to see Queensland upset the favourites to win 20-10. It was Beetson’s only game for the Maroons. Beetson returned to Redcliffe in 1981 and coached them to a grand final defeat. He was to be captain coach of the Maroons that year but had to withdraw with injury hours before the game. Without him Queensland won again and a new tradition was born.

It became a tri-series in 1982 with Beetson as Qld coach and they won 2-1. It was the same in 1983 and 84 before Beetson stood down. He coached Easts to a 1987 finals defeat to upcoming Canberra Raiders. He returned to State of Origin in 1988 coaching Lewis, Meninga, Belcher, Vautin and Miles and whitewashed the Blues coached by old mentor Jack Gibson. “The side that year was as near to perfect,” Beetson said. Gibson gained revenge with a 1989 win and Queensland sacked Artie. After a stint as commentator, he returned as Cronulla coach. He could not win a premiership for the Sharks and in 1993 he bowed out of coaching. His cloth cap image did not suit a game that was soon to go into the Super League era.

Beetson returned to his mother’s home town of Cherbourg after his playing days were over to offer support to the Indigenous population. Then principal Chris Sarra remembers his visit to ABC reporter John Taylor, "he gave so much back, particularly to young Aboriginal children,” Sarra said. “The kids were so excited, even though they didn't quite understand how legendary he was. I got a sense that we were in the presence of almost royalty on that occasion.” As Taylor concluded, the thing Beetson enjoyed most was being there at a country game, watching the football.
“Just a game of footy on a bush oval on an afternoon,” Taylor said.
“I think that was Arthur's idea of the best of times.” He would be the best player to emerge from Roma until Darren Lockyer followed in his footsteps in the 1990s.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

God Speed

Like most people who enjoy football, I was shocked to hear about the death of Gary Speed. Aged just 42, he enjoyed a successful playing career and settled into management exceedingly well as he knocked Wales into shape. He was found hanged at home on Sunday morning and while Cheshire Police say there is no suspicious circumstances, an inquest will be held into his death. Whatever the coroner finds, Speed’s death is an enormous tragedy that must be devastating and inexplicable for his wife and two teenage boys. Friends of the family say his marriage was happy and Speed was not depressed.

Just a day before he died, Speed exhibited no sign of problems when he appeared as a guest on the BBC’s Football Focus. Speed was in a “gaggle of Garys” with fellow former Leeds United player Gary McAllister. Both men won the old (and last ever) First Division with Leeds in 1992. It was the only time either would win the championship. Leeds slowly fell from grace and both Garys would move on to many other clubs. Speed started his professional football career at Leeds in 1988, aged 18. But as he said in Football Focus “If I wasn’t playing somewhere I’d had to move and go play somewhere else.” Speed would spend eight years at the club before bowing out with a League Cup final defeat in 1996.

Speed supported Everton as a boy, so they were a natural fit to follow Leeds. Everton boss Joe Royle paid £3.5 million and Speed repaid the debt by scoring 11 goals from midfield to be the club joint leading scorer. But lack of goals was Everton’s problem that year and they finished 15th. Joe Royle resigned at the start of the following season bringing club hero Howard Kendall back. Though Kendall made Speed his caption, the pair did not get on and he played his last game for the club he loved in January 1998. Famously he told a journalist “You know why I’m leaving, but I can’t explain myself publicly because it would damage the good name of Everton Football Club and I’m not prepared to do that.”

Though never a flashy player, he was hard-working, versatile and rarely injured – attributes that made him saleable. Newcastle paid £5.5m for him and he played in successive cup final defeats in 1998 and 1999. By 2004, Speed was 34 years old and a hardened veteran of the game who had broken the record for the most number of premiership games. But he still had much to give. Bolton paid £750,000 to buy him. Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd took the money with mixed feeling saying it was always difficult to let a player like Gary go. “He is one of the best of the best,” Shepherd said. “He is totally professional and he always gave 100%.”

Speed spent another three successful years at Bolton rising to first team coach when Sam Allardyce quit. His 20 year tenure at the top table finally ended when he accepted a move to then Championship side Sheffield United. His love of the game made him a crucial member of that side until a rare injury finally ended his playing career in November 2008. He scored 109 goals in 677 games. Fans called him the "model professional". He continued as a coach for United and was appointed manager just after the start of the 2010-2011 season. He lasted til Christmas when he landed the job of manager of his country.

Speed was a Welshman by quirk. His brothers and sisters were all born in England but his parents had Gary at Mancot, Flintshire, five miles from Chester. Speed played for Flintshire Schoolboys and cemented his Welshness with games for the youth and under 21 teams. He made his national debut in 1990 in a friendly against Costa Roca in front of just 5,000 fans at Ninian Park, Cardiff. Speed was a 76th minute substitute in a 1-0 win. He went on to take the outfield record with 85 caps scoring 7 goals. Wales never played in the finals of a major tournament in that time.

It was that poor record (just the one famous World Cup appearance in 1958) that Speed set about addressing when he was made manager in December last year. After a rocky start with defeats to Ireland and England, he slowly began to turn things round with four wins in the last five outings (narrowly losing again to England at Wembley). With Speed promoting promising young players, expectations were high when the 2014 world cup fixture list was announced last Wednesday. "This is such a well-balanced group that we knew everyone would be looking for an early advantage," Speed said on the day. "As always, there had to be some give and take, but I am very glad that we did not have to use the June qualifying dates”.

Four days later Speed was inexplicably dead sending the football world into mourning. Even the usually ultra cynical Guardian “Fiver” was shocked. His death was up there with any 'stop all the clocks' news they had ever heard, Glendenning and Ronay said. “On Saturday, we watched the Wales manager joshing along with his old mucker Gary McAllister on the Football Focus sofa,” the Fiver said. “24 hours later we were among hundreds of thousands of football fans numbed with total disbelief by the astonishing revelation that he was dead". Gary Speed was as the Fiver said, a great man gone at a preposterously young age, leaving behind a wife, Louise, and two sons, Tommy and Ed.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Noble Mendaxity: Assange and Wikileaks win a Walkley

Julian Assange has won the Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism at this year’s Australian journalism Walkley awards – a win that labels him a journalist of the first rank. Assange won for his site Wikileaks which organisers said had a courageous and controversial commitment to the finest tradition of investigative journalism: “justice through transparency.” Walkley judges said Wikileaks applied new technology to “penetrate the inner workings of government". The payback was a global publishing coup and an avalanche of inconvenient truths.

Assange’s victory at a traditional media awards night may be a surprise, as is the fact is he is listed as a journalist at all. He has never worked for a newspaper, broadcaster or major media proprietor. Apart from the occasional contribution as a columnist or blog post, he is not even a curator of editorial content. Prior to Wikileaks, he was most famous as the underground computer hacker “Mendax”. Yet he deserves the award. As Glenn Greenwald says, Wikileaks produced more newsworthy scoops over the last year than every other media outlet combined.

It remains "Assange’s Wikileaks" as Greenwald called it and the man himself never stopped reminding people. Particularly his former co-conspirator Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Assange’s biggest fear was that Domscheit-Berg, who was effectively the other half of a two-man operation, would claim to be co-founder. Assange’s towering ego made him insufferably vain and uncaring but his steadfastness to a single great idea was undeniable. Wikileaks changed the relationship of whistle blowers to media forever by deliberately breaking the link between them. The reason disenchanted staff from Julius Bär bank or escapees from Scientology trusted Wikileaks, was that Wikileaks was deliberately set up so they could never track the whistle blower. This guaranteed anonymity set it apart from all classical forms of investigative journalism.

It was a shock to Assange when Bradley Manning was exposed as the Collateral Murder and Cablegate contributor. Manning was exposed not by Wikileaks, but by injudicious conversations with former hacker Adrian Lamo. Manning has always been provocative so it was inevitable he would eventually fall foul of authorities. That does not excuse his shameful treatment by the US authorities or calls from Congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI) for his execution.

It was the depth and scale of the information Manning donated to Wikileaks that astounded. A quarter of a million US diplomatic cables with a quarter of a billion words. Released from almost every embassy of the world, they were a snapshot of international relations at a point in time. They show what decision makers were really thinking and occasionally what they really did. The embarrassed Americans hit back by making it difficult for the non-profit to receive donations.

With such a large hoard of data at their disposal, it was natural Wikileaks would want to share it with trusted media brands. The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel (the latter with Domscheit-Berg connections) began to publish their own spin on selected cables. The media that missed out were jealous of the chosen few and the few did not want to share with the many. The relationship quickly soured.

Assange could never fully trust anyone nor be trusted in return. His full hacker nickname “splendide mendax” means nobly untruthful and Assange felt he could get away with anything due to his higher calling. His acceptance speech to the Walkleys (delivered by video) shows he still has plenty of stomach for the fights ahead. “An unprecedented banking blockade has shown us that Visa, Mastercard, the Bank of American and Western Union are mere instruments of Washington foreign policy,” he said. “Censorship has been privatised".

Assange is paranoid but he has offended many powerful people so he has much to be paranoid about. He has also much to be proud of. Wikileaks may collapse under its own internal contradictions but the idea a whistle blower can anonymously pass their information to a wider public is extremely powerful. Big media could have developed this technology but didn’t. Yet the open slather of Cablegate ultimately ruined Wikileaks’s ability to pass on more mundane but equally vital information about banks and private companies. Assange’s former offsider Domscheit-Berg is developing Openleaks in the same mould, but more cautiously.

In his book Inside Wikileaks, Domscheit-Berg says Assange tried to do too much, too soon. “The sources uploaded the documents, members erased the metadata, verified the submissions and provided context,” Domscheit-Berg said. “At some point it became impossible to do all these jobs adequately.” That has never stopped Assange from trying. He is now immersed in a court case which will eat up considerable energies but he will continue to be a freakish force of nature. The Walkley Trustees said Wikileaks was not without flaws. But by constructing a means to encourage whistleblowers, they said, "WikiLeaks and editor-in-chief Julian Assange took a brave, determined and independent stand for freedom of speech and transparency that has empowered people all over the world.”
Hail to the editor-in-chief.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

British Bread and Circuses

While the Leveson Inquiry brings revelation after revelation about the sickness at the heart of British tabloid journalism, the tabloids themselves continue to look elsewhere. The Sun could be expected to ignore its owners problems, its front page was more worried about George Michael’s pneumonia. But none of its competitors saw it as a major issue either. The Express hails an anti-Euro victory, the Mail was talking about fat women, the Star fixed its eyes on Beckham, and the Mirror was fretting over Gary Glitter.

There's a reason none of News's enemies are keen to turn the knife. While the Inquiry examines the techniques at the News of the World, it is also gradually throwing light on a sick industry where the overwhelming need to get the story trumps all other priorities. The stark testimony of Millie Dowlers’ parents and the McCanns and the other victims show an industry that is out of control and beyond self-policing. Hacked Hugh Grant is right: a section of the British press has become toxic using tactics of bullying, intimidation and blackmail.

None of the papers are prepared to argue the truth of Grant’s charge. But it is instructive to listen to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s Orwell Lecture. When the Guardian first exposed the Gordon Taylor hacking in July 2009, it was the messenger that police criticised not NotW. News International claimed the Guardian had "deliberately misled the British public". Glen Mulcaire and Clive Goodman were jailed for illegally intercepting phone messages from Clarence House but they were just rotten apples.

It wasn’t until Nick Davies produced the “for Neville” emails at a House of Commons select committee that the apple defence fell apart. One of the documents seized from Mulcaire’s home had details about the News of the World’s systemic hacking in an email he received with instructions it was for Neville Thurlbeck, the paper’s chief reporter. The document was among 11,000 police seized from the house but lay neglected in a plastic bag until plaintiff Gordon Taylor’s team got them in a court order.

When Taylor’s team advised NotW’s head of legal Tom Crone they had the For Neville email, Crone immediately went to see James Murdoch who had been appointed CEO of News International in 2007. Murdoch agreed to pay £1m in a secret settlement: £300,000 for their own outside lawyers, £220,000 for Taylor's lawyers, and £425,000 to Taylor himself. Crone and NotW's former editor Colin Myler told the Select Committee Murdoch was briefed in 2008 about For Neville and the phone hacking before authorising the payout. But Murdoch has denied the allegations twice to the same committee.

The New York Times called his performance "unflappable" but perhaps they meant "unethical". These were hard times for the News empire, NYT said, with the folding of NotW, the loss of the even bigger $12 billion bid to buy BSB and the exit of many of its top executives. Murdoch had admitted he knew about the emails but said he had never seen them or understood their significance. Crone and Myler were wrong, he told the committee.

But the Tory member of the committee Philip Davies said if Murdoch was right, then it was incredible he paid out so much money to fix the Taylor problem without understanding it first. Paul Farrelly, another committee member, said a 10-year-old would have asked how Clive Goodman could have been the only hacker when he was the royal reporter and football boss Taylor was "clearly not a member of the royal family.” When committee member and hacking victim Tom Watson told him he was the first Mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise, Murdoch responded it was “inappropriate”.

The only reason it was inappropriate was that Murdoch knew of the criminal goings on. Much like today’s tabloids, his preference was to ignore it. Many of the crowd who turn up to the hearings are there to see the stars giving evidence and don’t care about press freedom or responsibility. As Murdoch and his fellow publishers know, the nefarious doings of the press doesn’t sell newspapers. And it will never appear on the front page – not while Freddie Starr is eating my camel. Given their abject surrender of the fourth estate, the industry can have no complaints if Justice Leveson takes away some of their privileges.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gillard wins Harry's Game

An extraordinary last day in parliament has left Julia Gillard’s Government more likely than ever to see out its three year term of office. Never mind the possibility of Labor abandoning its pokies promise to Andrew Wilkie. It won’t, because chances are it will still need his vote on occasions to come. But Labor now has a buffer against the possibility of any Labor MP falling under a by-election bus. It offers the Government more certainty to allow it power ahead with its reform agenda for the first half of 2012 before it starts to work on the difficult but increasingly plausible business of getting re-elected. (Photo: Fairfax)

It was Speaker Harry Jenkins who set today’s drama in motion as he announced his shock resignation as the first item of business today. The word was out quickly that Labor would move to install deputy Speaker and LNP renegade Peter Slipper into the position, giving the Government a net benefit of two in the parliament. “Slippery Pete” has a dubious history as a parliamentarian and has been increasingly on the outer in Coalition circles. He was in trouble recently for hosting Kevin Rudd while John Howard was in the electorate.

Many now wonder whether today’s events were canvassed in the meeting, a charge Rudd denies. It seems unlikely Rudd would have accepted such a kingmaker role, given his own royal ambitions. Slipper also faces a strong preselection challenge for his Queensland seat of Fisher from former Howard Minister Mal Brough. Tony Abbott's warning today that anyone from the party accepting the position of Speaker would be axed, was always a fairly benign threat to Slipper. He saved Abbott the bother by resigning as first act of Speaker. Once in office, Slipper didn’t take long to dispel doubts he might favour the Coalition by firing four of their MPs out of the chamber during an unsuccessful censure motion.

The man Slipper replaced was the ideal Labor Speaker. Harry Jenkins holds the very safe Northern Melbourne seat of Scullin that only he and his father have held since its creation 42 years ago. He is Labor’s longest standing MP and was second deputy Speaker for the entire Howard era. He was the obvious candidate for Speaker after Rudd’s 2007 win but after Gillard’s knife-edge win last year, the Libs turned down a proposal to pair the Speaker and maintain a two-vote buffer.

The problem of how to claw back that vote has always been at the back of Gillard’s mind. When the moment finally arrived, it led to an hour or so of high farce. Labor nominated Slipper while manager of opposition business Christopher Pyne called it a “day in infamy” and counter-nominated Labor's Anna Burke. Burke declined as did another eight Labor MPs Pyne spruiked for the job - Dick Adams, Sid Sidebottom, Sharon Bird, Kirsten Livermore, Steve Georganas, John Murphy, Maria Vamvakinou and Yvette D'Ath. Slipper was then elected unopposed. Labor then proposed Burke for the deputy Speaker while Pyne proposed current second deputy speaker (and my local MP) Bruce Scott. Burke squeaked home 72-71. Scott remains second Deputy Speaker.

The opposition’s “infamy” charges won’t wash - they have form in this game. In August 1996, Labor refused the new Howard government request to make Mal Colston deputy president of the Senate. The Liberals nominated him and he resigned from Labor, with former colleagues calling him a “rat and a snook”. Yet Michelle Grattan has a point when she said the vote may tarnish Gillard. Slipper’s issues are well documented and Tony Abbott had a fair point in being sarcastic about the PM’s declaration she only found out about Jenkins’ decision at 7.30am this morning. Given the enormous consequences of the resignation, it seems difficult to believe this wasn’t orchestrated long in advance.

Nevertheless as Grattan also observes, most people couldn’t care less about the Speaker. Bob Carr noted today Gillard's “coup” sent a message to media and business that they will see out a full term: “we are here, get used to us.” Carr said success fed success and Gillard’s recent wins will reverberate in the community and give her a growing reputation of a tough operator and survivor. “In the New Year the nagging, neuralgic issue of poker machines will be subjected to a compromise and the anxiety of backbench Labor members, especially in NSW, will dissipate,” he said. Carr may be over-optimistic but it is also plausible. Not for the first time since the 2010 election, Gillard has blindsided Abbott. Today’s events will give the Government marginally more certainty in the difficult business of governing the country in 2012 and that is no bad thing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gillard renews Australia's commitment to Afghanistan

Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave Australia’s annual justification (hansard transcript) for the Afghanistan war to parliament yesterday. Since last year's speech, 11 Australian soldiers have been killed bringing the 10 year death toll to 32. Almost 3,000 coalition troops have died in that time as well as countless thousand Afghans. Gillard admitted it was a long and difficult war that with Iraq has cost Australia $4 billion (it costs Americans that every two weeks). But she said it a “just cause” – with a time limit. By end 2014, international forces will hand over security to local forces when Gillard expects Australia’a aim for Afghanisation will be realised: “a functioning state able to assume responsibility for preventing the country from being a safe haven for terrorists.”

Australia’s mission was clear, the PM said. Protecting Afghans, training security forces and building the capacity of the Afghan Government. She said there was progress and the sight of “ramp ceremonies overseas and funerals at home” were only part of the story. Australia has 1,550 troops on the ground, two thirds in Oruzgan Province. Troops rotate every nine months with many on second and third deployments. Aussies patrol Oruzgan with US troops with contingents also from Slovakia and Singapore.

They are training the Afghan 4th Brigade to remove explosive devices and search for components. They maintain patrols up to 75km from Tarin Kowt and join operations in other provinces to cut out “rat runs” to Oruzgan. The Special Forces units target rebel leaders, bombmakers and the heroin trade. In the last year the Afghans have been taking the lead while Australians provide mentoring and support. Gillard said Australia was one of the top 10 aid bilateral donators to Afghanistan spending $125m in 2010-11. Programs include primary schooling, agricultural training, small business loans and mines removal. Australian Police are offering training too as are civilian administration. In Oruzgan they are setting up basic infrastructure in health, education and rural development.

Gillard said 2011 was a good year which brought the death of Osama but it also showed the complexity of the war. She said it has claimed 35,000 Pakistani lives, mostly civilians, but Pakistan needed to do more against extremists. After 10 years, the Taliban have not been defeated though the Afghan National Army is improving. She said Afghanistan’s wealth went backwards from 1960 to 2002 but is climbing again. Education is up from 1 million to 7 million students including access for 2.5m girls. Access to basic health reach has climbed from 10 percent to 85 percent of the population. The economy has grown 11 percent each year since 2002, she said (though that statistic is debatable.)

Gillard admitted the rogue army attacks on Australians (and others) had “grave significance”. She said they killed Afghans and Aussies alike and they are a small number in a force that was now 300,000. She said the attacks did not represent a pattern and the 4th brigade was on track to take the lead role in Oruzgan security in 2014, or possibly earlier. The US will reduce its number by a third to 68,000 in 2012 but the shape of the US commitment beyond 2014 was not known. The Afghan presidential election that year will also be a big test.

Gillard said the new Australian embassy in Kabul was a “bricks and mortar” symbol of investment in the region (though information on the embassy remains scanty). She said vigilance was still needed against al Qaeda and the groups it has inspired though she could not confirm if Australia would play a longer term counter-terrorism role. She did say a continued Special Forces presence beyond 2014 was “under consideration”.

Gillard thanked the ADF for the burden they had endured since 1999. As well as the dead, over 200 Australians have been wounded including 18 this year. She said the best tribute to those who died was to “live by their example”. Gillard said Australia would defend its national interests. “We will deny terrorism a safe haven in Afghanistan. We will stand by our ally, the United States. We will complete our mission of training and transition in Afghanistan,” she concluded.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

To CSG or not to CSG, that is the question for NSW

New South Wales is finally grappling with issues in its burgeoning coal seam gas industry that Queensland has had to deal with for several years. As early as 2008 Lucas Energy described NSW as “full of opportunity” for CSG companies. But the State was slow to catch on. Currently, gas makes up 10% of the NSW energy mix and more than 90% of that gas is imported from other states. But that is rapidly changing as companies attempt to exploit its rich resources to feed the Asian and local gas market. The State Government has approved exploration wells and extraction projects in Gunnedah, the Hunter Valley and Sydney’s southwest and applications are in place for the Illawarra and Gloucester. But as the industry flexes its muscles, it is beginning to run into some stern resistance.

The Greens’ Jeremy Buckingham has introduced a private member’s bill in the NSW Upper House which proposes a 12 month moratorium on “the granting of exploration licences for, and the production of, coal seam gas; and for other purposes”. It also wants an end to mining in the Sydney area.

NSW Labor has done a 180 degree turn in opposition and now supports Buckingham’s moratorium. Labor leader John Robertson announced a new policy this week of supporting a moratorium on coal seam gas licences, the issuing of extraction licenses and applications to expand existing operations. Robertson said the Government should not be allowing CSG extraction to proceed until a water-tight regulatory framework is in place based on “independent scientific research and conclusive evidence”.

Their party comrades north of the Tweed are still in Government but face opinion polls of 39-61 and are likely to lose next year’s election. With three major projects approved, the incoming Queensland LNP are unlikely to change their mind and support the ongoing moratorium calls from farm and environmental groups. And a NSW moratorium won’t succeed without the support of the NSW Liberal Government. The voters may be uneasy about CSG, but the new NSW Government is looking enviously at Queensland’s royalties.

When NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell was elected in March, he immediately announced a 60-day moratorium on CSG exploration licences citing concerns about the contamination of prime agricultural land. When that expired, NSW Resources and Energy Minister Chris Hartcher imposed further regulations on the industry including banning the BTEX chemicals banned by Queensland, a continued moratorium until the end of the year on fracking, the need for water licences, a ban on evaporation ponds and new public consultation guidelines. Hartcher continues to tiptoe around the issue. He said it was important the inquiry heard all views, including that of industry. "Everybody's interests need to be looked at and considered including those of landholders, the industry and the government,” he said.

But the Libs have constituted an Upper House Inquiry conducting statewide public hearings on August 5. It was tasked to “inquire into and report on the environmental, health, economic and social impacts of coal seam gas activities” and also examines CSG’s role in “meeting the future energy needs of NSW”. Its report is due on April 6, 2012.

Local government officials are telling the Inquiry they are unhappy with the industry. Lismore City Mayor Jennifer Dowell told the Inquiry her council was opposed to CSG developments. Dowell cited issues such as produced water, evaporation ponds, irrigation groundwater contamination, methane leakage, loss of prime agricultural land, landholder agreements and social impacts. At the same hearing Ballina Mayor and presidential of the regional group, Phillip Silver agreed with Lismore but recognised an inconsistency in that resolution; “Similar to climate change, fluoridation and other scientific matters there probably never will be a unanimous scientific view,” Silver said.

It is the proposed exploration well in the inner Sydney suburb of St Peters that is been particularly controversial because it is close to residential properties and the well would penetrate an aquifer. Dart Energy hold a Petroleum Exploration Licence for the Sydney Basin covering 2385 km2 of the Sydney Basin from Gosford on the Central Coast to Coalcliff south of Sydney. Sydney Mayor Clover Moore says they want a halt to the issuing of exploration licences. Sydney’s submission argues that aquifers and groundwater systems could be significantly impacted. "Gas can help us transition to a greener future, but that can't happen unless the environmental safeguards are in place," Moore said. "Gas is not greener if we destroy our farmlands to get there."

Major industry player Santos fronted the Inquiry on Thursday. They have been producing CSG in Queensland since 1995. Not surprisingly their submission is in favour of coal seam gas mining. They said the practice was safe and environmentally sustainable. Of importance is the fact Santos have bought NSW leading player Eastern Gas for just under $1 billion which builds on Santos’ existing interests in the Gunnedah Basin. Eastern Star Gas Limited's Narrabri Power Project supplies gas from the 11.3 PJ Proved and Probable gas reserves at the Coonarah Gas Field, (12 km west of Narrabri), to the Wilga Park Power Station under a 10 year agreement with Country Energy.

The word is that Santos needs NSW gas to meet their first train commitments in 2014-2015. Santos vice president for eastern Australia James Baulderstone told the hearing on Thursday Santos's acquisition of Eastern Star made it the principal CSG exploration and ultimately production business in NSW. Baulderstone said Santos have withdrawn the controversial 270km Mullaley pipeline from Narrabri to the Wellington power station.

However he argued strongly against issuing a moratorium on CSG exploration until more scientific data is available, as CSG opponents have requested. "Let's be frank, many of those that oppose our industry know that stopping exploration now will stop the long-term development of the industry in NSW," Baulderstone said. "Ongoing exploration activity provides the additional scientific data and knowledge of the geology and water resource that everyone agrees is needed." Barry O'Farrell will have to decide come April, if as is likely, the Government doesn't support the private member's bill.