Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Garnaut Review favours carbon price over direct action

Those fighting tooth and nail against the carbon tax found their justification on Page 17 of Ross Garnaut’s 2011 Climate Change Review released today. “Australian households will ultimately bear the full cost of a carbon price,” said Garnaut. The country's biggest selling newspaper, the Herald-Sun’s report on the review chose this sentence as their first direct quote from the review. Opposition leader Tony Abbott also used it as his headline quote from the 40-page summary update to the review. The reason why is obvious: it is the line that causes maximum political damage to Prime Minister Julia Gillard as it runs counter to her promise householders would be shielded from the tax.

That this quote is taken out of context is no surprise in the light of similar shenanigans, nor it is that the one sentence that has immediate political implications be lifted above all others in a considered economic tract about the future. As British former Tory MP Iain Dale found out when he went to parliament today, this country does a poor line in genuine debate and the response is as Professor Garnaut must have feared. When the political game is expediency above everything and the media game is primarily about conflict, a reasoned document such as this will get short shrift. The future seems very far away when there is so much shit-stirring to do in the present.

The future is very much on Garnaut’s mind. He begins by bringing the science up to date from his last review in 2008. There is a statistically significant warming trend and it did not end in 1998 or in any other year. If anything science says matters have gotten worse since 2008 and its prognosis of drastic global warming is now established beyond reasonable doubt. The projection of Australia’s emissions trajectory if nothing is done to change behaviour has grown to 24 per cent above 2000 levels (a 4 per cent above the levels expected in 2007). As Garnaut says “this will not be easily understood by other countries and is likely to bring Australian mitigation policy under close scrutiny.”

All countries will closely examine each other’s efforts to confirm that each is contributing its fair share. China is on a fastpath towards climate action and has also achieved considerable success in the implementation targets with widescale regulatory changes in energy and innovation. The Cancun Agreement has pledged Australia to 2020 targets of –5% to –25% of 2000 emissions with a review in 2014. Garnaut said it was in the country’s national interest in in effective mitigation to make the emerging arrangements work.

He then went on to look at the two models to reduce carbon emissions: a market-based approach, built on a price on emissions; and a regulatory approach, or direct action. In the market-based approach, carbon can be priced either by fixed-price schemes (carbon taxes) where the market decides how much it will reduce the quantity of emissions or by floating price schemes (ETS) win which permits to emit are issued up to a set limit. The permits are tradeable so the market sets the price. In the alternative route, regulation or direct action, there are many ways that government can intervene to direct firms and households to go about their business and their lives.

Garnaut much prefers the carbon price option. For one, it raises considerable revenues that can buffer the transition. Much of this revenue could be used to reduce personal income tax rates on households at the lower end of the income distribution and would encourage labour force participation. Some revenue should also be used to purchase carbon credits from the land sector and also to support the business sector to innovate emissions-reducing technologies. It has less short-term negative effects on productivity growth and incomes than "direct action". The other problem with direct action is that it relies on the ideas of a small number of politicians and their advisers and confidants who would be subject to lobby pressure. “While some of these ideas might be brilliant,” Garnaut said, “they would not be as creative or productive as millions of Australian minds responding to the incentives provided by carbon pricing and a competitive marketplace.”

Electricity prices will go up in that marketplace, but not as much as they went up after 2006 due to distortions in price regulation of distribution networks. There would also be compensation, which did not occur in 2006. Garnaut suggests a starting price of carbon in mid-2012 as $20-$30 rising at 4 percent a year. An ETS of some sort will be needed to be administered by an independent authority such as a Carbon Bank. By 2015 agriculture will need to be brought into the fold, perhaps in line with New Zealand’s plans to do exactly that.

Garnaut does indeed say householders will bear the full cost of a carbon price as international markets will determine returns to capital. But this is why “it makes sense from equity and efficiency perspectives for households to ultimately receive the vast majority of the carbon pricing revenue.” Tax cuts will assist household to spend money on goods and services that embody low emissions and at the same time the carbon price will set off a supply side adjustment to enable low cost emissions reductions.

Its not in the review papers but Garnaut has this to say about those who say Australia is a small contributor to the world's emissions and should not take the lead. “We matter even on climate change, even though our emissions are only 1.5 per cent of the world’s, just like the UK matters with its 1.7 per cent.” The Tory-led British Government has pledged to cut carbon emissions in half by 2025. That is “direct action” Tony Abbott and the anti-carbon tax cheer squad would have nightmares over.

Whose Australian?

Finding articles to criticise in The Australian is like shooting fish in a barrel, all too easy. It is also usually eminently resistible, like the paper itself. While the so-called national broadsheet and its weekend equivalent continue to outdo each other in paroxysms of confected right-wing rage, they are usually best ignored. However occasionally the paper publishes a particular egregious piece that so obviously serves no purpose other than the publisher’s own ends, it needs to be called out for the hyperbolic sham it is. Such an article appeared in the Weekend Australian this Saturday called “whose ABC?” penned by journalist and former Alexander Downer media adviser Chris Kenny.

The long piece appeared in the Inquirer section giving it a veneer of investigative journalism it did not deserve. This was 2,700 words of News Ltd propaganda, with complaints from a few politically motivated but unnamed sources and only one source on the record, former ABC board member Ron Brunton who despite being ideologically motivated as a member of the IPA, was only identified as an “anthropologist”. The self-serving article had a companion piece, an even more pious anti-ABC editorial that drove home the message from Kenny’s talking points.

The articles take as their starting point a piece in the Guardian (coyly described as a “progressive newspaper" by Kenny and “a left-of-centre newspaper” according to the openly more hostile editor) about ABC boss Mark Scott and his well-documented stoushes with News Ltd. The enraged Australian was anxious to do a gotcha on Scott, particularly on his use of the phrase “market failure broadcasting” which Kenny said was code for a political and cultural counterpoint to the commercial media.

Kenny achieves his aims with a remarkable leap of logic. Rather than go through the tiresome process of proving his points, he asks the readers “to assume, just for argument’s sake” the ABC critics are right. This assumption allows him to airily dismiss flaws in his argument and immediately swing into action rectifying the “problem”. Without a shred of evidence, Kenny suggests the organisation is unaccountable and then gets to the nut of his complaint, the ABC “caters for an inner-city progressive elite”. Apart from the breathtaking arrogance of ignoring how many people in the bush enjoy the ABC, it also brings in the familiar right-wing weasel words “inner-city” and “elite” which are conflated to mean “other” (never mind that it insults the paper's own demographics) in opposition to equally imprecise but culturally loaded phrases like "battlers". According to the editorial, the ABC had the temerity to turn to Qatari Al Jazeera for its Osama news instead of the less well-informed but racially more acceptable BBC or CNN. What this proves is Auntie has been the victim of "a left-wing coup" where a “coterie of like-minded inner-city” staff members “commandeered” the airwaves to broadcast to “the vocal minority that share their prejudices”.

Both editor and Kenny were keen to share their prejudices too. Kenny's ones are dated and rehashed from the culture wars of the John Howard era. There is a tired argument about Counterpoint, a program seven years old, and a tedious diatribe about David Hicks, who has not been a newsworthy citizen for over four years. He also reheats the coals of the long-forgotten Brissenden/Costello affair (which also embroiled two non-ABC journalists) from 2007 and has a moan about The Drum, the ABC’s public opinion site.

Kenny’s and the editor’s central argument is their fury over market failure broadcasting: that of “taxpayer’s funding” serving a “small audience”. The ABC audience remains a lot larger than the Australian's audience but more to the point it has always been a market failure broadcaster. Scott denied making the politically sensitive market failure statement and the actual words in the Guardian was that Scott “thinks of the ABC modestly as a ‘market failure broadcaster’”. The use of “thinks” rather than “said” suggests the Guardian is paraphrasing rather than quoting but Scott need not back away from it.

From the start of radio in the 1920s, there was a strong tradition of public ownership of broadcasting medium (except in the US where market failures are anathema) both as an information service in the service of democratic debate and decision making and also as a counterpoint to the partisan and usually right-wing press. The ABC was founded in 1932 along these lines but it also had a cultural aim inherited from the BBC. As its boss in 1934 WJ Cleary put it, the ABC’s task was to promote “the finer things in life” in order to teach people to “find interests other than material ones to live by more than bread alone”.

This paternal Reithian philosophy was conservative and hypocritical at the time - the BBC refused to cover the 1926 General Strike - and it still exists in some parts of the ABC but today’s market failure broadcasting is not about bringing ballet to the hoi-polloi. It is about defending the public’s supposed right to have free access to news in digital platforms, and this is where the ABC steps on News Ltd’s commercial toes. Whether ABC should have that right is an economic argument well worth having, though the Australian studiously avoids it in its sanctimonious stance. Perhaps they don’t want anyone looking too closely at their own market failures. One could argue given several full page ads from Telstra in the same edition, your telco bills are subsiding the Australian's own small, elitist audience.

Friday, May 06, 2011

News against the World

News Ltd are again taking the fight to its perceived enemies with extraordinary assaults against Larissa Behrendt and now Julie Posetti in recent days. Not for the first time both women are the victims of The Australian’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell’s attack dogs.

The attack against Posetti (online version not available) was disguised by a headline which read “academic warns of Twitter danger” in classic fearmongering fashion. But having quoted Posetti’s “warning” in the lead, the article suddenly switches to put in the boot in the second sentence and from there on they frame the story as a war between Posetti and Mitchell.

If there is a war, there is only one side fighting it and it’s not Posetti. The Canberra journalism academic first attracted Mitchell’s ire during the so-called Twitdef affair in December. Posetti was at an academic conference live-tweeting the speech of former News journalist Asa Wahlquist when Wahlquist told the conference her reporting of climate change issues was stymied by head office. Posetti duly posted this important admission on Twitter. Mitchell denied Walhquist said this but the audio backs up Posetti. Walhquist later backed away from the statement but the writ has never seen the light of day. Mitchell knows Posetti has a valid defence of fair report.

Nevertheless the Australian insists Posetti erred significantly in not mentioning the incident in a radio interview with Deb Cameron today about dangerous uses of Twitter. In one sense it is a shame Posetti didn’t talk about the issue. It would have shed light on some of the real dangers lurking in Twitter, such as threats from powerful people. But the fault she didn’t mention it, if fault is not too strong a word, belongs to the interviewer Cameron (herself a former News Ltd employee) who missed a golden opportunity to connect the wider story with personal experience.

Posetti was too busy answering the questions that were asked, to have time to talk about her own personal experience. That experience with Mitchell while memorable and bruising, has left her with nothing to be ashamed about. Bringing the subject up unasked in interview, if she had time to think of it at all, would have smacked of vindictiveness - a strong suit of the Australian. The Caroline Overington article makes no sense unless interpreted as a threat. "We are still out to get you so watch what you say in public", was the coded message.

Coded messages were aplenty in the hounding of Aboriginal academic Larissa Behrendt. The former Young Australian of the Year got up News Ltd’s nose recently by being one of the plaintiffs in the race discrimination case ongoing against star journalist Andrew Bolt. The Australian found a way to hit back when they found a tweet sent from Behrendt’s protected Twitter account addressed to friends which read “@rhiannaPatrick – I watched a show where a guy had sex with a horse and I’m sure it was less offensive than Bess Price @paddygibson”.

Behrendt was watching Price on Q&A at the time and unhappy with something Price said. But for News Ltd this was a slur typical of "leftist, ivory-tower thinking". It also had juicy overtones of bestiality which could be spread like muck without any heavy lifting. They launched a relentless campaign against Behrendt constantly reheating the horse sex issue. Their fake outrage was matched with fake concern for Aboriginal issues in daily airings of the “scandal”.

There have been two great skewerings of the affair. Tony Martin effortlessly used a bit of research and a lot of humour to expose the campaign as humbug. He unpacked the horse sex issue and forensically looked at the most well known proximate cause. Behrendts, said Martin, was “one of the nine people who, as Miranda [Devine] would say, ‘identify as’ Aboriginals, and who are currently dragging the Herald Sun’s biggest drawcard [Bolt] through the courts. So, of course, she has to be taken down, even if it’s on trumped-up charges.” Larissa Behrendt expressed a strong view in less than 140 characters that may have been read by as many as 400 people, Martin noted. “She really has to be stopped”.

Then Chris Graham weighed in today with a deeper cause of the problem. He said the campaign was not because of the Bolt connection but rather a successful defamation case she won with NITV CEO Pat Turner against Mitchell’s paper in 2007. The Australian settled for an “undisclosed amount”. Mitchell may appear to act unhinged, but his behaviour is cold and calculating. For him revenge is a dish best served cold – and continuously.

CORRECTION (7 May 2011). I was contacted by Larissa Behrendt who told me about one factual error in my account. Behrendt wasn't watching Q&A but Deadwood which was on at the same time.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Obama and Osamarama

The joke Donald Trump is demanding to see Osama’s death certificate will wear thin very quickly if the US doesn’t scuttle rumours he is still alive. According to the president, America finally got its man. The body of Osama Bin Laden was taken into “US custody” after a firefight in Pakistan on the weekend. After facial identification and DNA matching was confirmed, he was buried within 24 hours of his death which was according to Muslim tradition but the burial took place at sea, which wasn’t. Osama was responsible for thousands of deaths, but so were the people who killed him. The least the Americans could to do was to bury him with dignity.

I don’t jump for joy Bin Laden is dead but I don’t mourn him either. His 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania showed no respect for neutrals in his war. His actions killed over 200 people mostly Kenyans and Tanzanians and were designed to do one thing: goad the US into retaliation by waging an unwinnable win in Afghanistan. Backed by Pakistan he succeeded handsomely, surviving ten years as the world hide-and-seek champion before intelligence possibly produced under torture finally gave the US enough clues to his whereabouts.

Born in Riyadh in 1957 of a Yemeni father and Syrian mother, Osama was the inauspicious forty-third of fifty-three siblings. His father Muhammad Bin Laden was a wealthy builder and the family was adopted by the Saudi Royal Family after Muhammad died in a plane crash. Osama was educated at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah where he studied Islamic trends under Muhammad Qutb (brother of the Egyptian Father of Islamism Sayyid Qutb) and Abdullah Azzam. Azzam encouraged Osama to join the Afghan mujahideen in 1982 and fight against the Soviets. Osama set up a database of Arab fighters he called al qaeda – meaning the base or foundation.

Osama spoke out against the US invasion of Iraq in 1990 because it put troops on Saudi soil. It was a sacrilege to have the infidel so close to Mecca. He emigrated to Pakistan, Afghanistan and then Sudan to organise a new jihad against the foreign invader. From Sudan, Osama launched his first attack – on Yemen - and also fought against the Americans in Mogadishu in 1993. Under increasing international pressure in 1996, Sudan president Bashir told him he could no longer protect him from assassination. After meeting Mullah Omah, he moved to Afghanistan and threw his weight behind the Taliban. That year he also sent his declaration of war against Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holiest Sites to British based Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan.

Atwan was one of the last to interview Bin Laden at the Tora Bora Caves in the winter of 1996. He was struck by how modestly Bin Laden lived. His austerity contributed to an air of a champion of revolution and rebellion to many Muslims. After the Taliban overran the Northern Alliance, they refused Americans demands to hand him over. These requests continued "until just days before” 9/11.

The Taliban wanted proof of his involvement in criminal offences; the US demurred. They would never offer the Taliban a face-saving way out of the impasse and continued to insist bin Laden face trial in the US justice system. Even after 9/11, the Taliban offered to handover Bin Laden. Spokesman Amir Khan Muttaqi said in late October 2001, "we do not want to fight. We will negotiate. But talk to us like a sovereign country. We are not a province of the United States, to be issued orders to. We have asked for proof of Osama’s involvement, but they have refused. Why?"

The answer was that Osama had nothing to do with the American demand, nor was there any convincing evidence linking him to 9/11. The PNAC had their sights set on war in Afghanistan and Iraq and capturing Osama would not aid that outcome. But the Americans seriously underestimated him. As Guy Rundle said, for Osama surviving the war by three months was an achievement, but 10 years was a major victory. “Bin Laden won this one, every year since 2001, a shelf of premierships, the phantom West versus the phantom al-Qaeda,” Rundle said. “If he lost in the Arab heartland, where it matters, it's because, as a conspiracy rather than a movement, it was always going to, as a real historical process took over there.”

Though many in the Arab world supported Bin Laden as a hero after 9/11, his reputation has been nosediving in recent years. Al Qaeda's indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Jordan and Iraq gradually alienated many Muslims as did his links to hardline Wahhabi extremism. The recent wave of Arab pro-democracy revolutions have also left the terror groups feeling irrelevant. Paul Mason at the BBC said Osama died politically on 25 January due to the events in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

His real death was not long in coming. The CIA found him through a Libyan named Abu al-Libi, who was with Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Al-Libi later fled to Peshawar. A courier named Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan contacted al-Libi and asked him to work for Bin Laden. Jan wanted al-Libi to collect donations, organise travel and distribute funds for families in Pakistan. In 2003 al-Libi moved to Abbottabad and worked the link back to Peshawar. The US captured Al-Libi two years later and he was among a network of couriers the CIA interrogated to pin down Bin Laden’s whereabouts.

He was found in the flash suburb of Bilal in the city of Abbottabad named for British army officer General Sir James Abbott. Abbottabad is a military-cantonment city in the hills north of Islamabad, where much of the land is controlled or owned by the Pakistani Army and retired Army officers. Here Osama was housed under state control safe from international action, protected by the human shield of a sympathetic Pakistani military and ISI, or so he thought.

On Sunday, US helicopters stormed the area. One eye witness stood on his roof and saw people attacking a house where women and children could be heard screaming and crying. The women and children were loaded onto a chopper with “some other stuff” and flown away. “Geronimo EKIA,” the mission team reported back to the White House and Obama went on air at 11.55pm Eastern Time to tell Americans the news.

Obama said his troops had killed Osama. The justification was 9/11, “carried out by al Qaeda - an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which had openly declared war on the United States and was committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe." Death was the simplest solution, as Robert Fisk said a court would have worried more people than Bin Laden. America never wanted more than his body “in custody”.

Obama would never admit this but did say an intelligence lead in August led them to Osama in Abbottabad. “Last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.” Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA who ran the mission, was rewarded with the Defence Secretary job to replace the retiring Republican appointee Robert Gates.

Now other Republicans want some of the credit for this “justice”. It was the strict laws and waterboarding Bush put in place, they argued, that laid the groundwork for the capture. As left-leaning Talking Points Memo acidly put it, the credit had to extend to two presidents: one who didn't find bin Laden, and one who did.

It is well Obama soak it up while he can. This was the night he probably won the 2012 election he was probably going to win any way. Or perhaps not. For everyone saying this was a massive boost for Obama there were others who said it was not. Of more importance is what does Osama’s death do Obama’s attitude to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Salman Rushdie has called on the world to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. The narrative propelling the $1.3 trillion war on terror and the Western presence in Afghanistan will almost definitely prove harder to sustain. The truth of Bin Laden’s death will also struggle against the weight of conspiracy theories with Pakistan Taliban among those saying he is still alive.

It is not just the theorists having loopy moments, the media are too. There were fake pictures and a fake quote but Twitter bignoted itself best by breaking the news in “a CNN moment”. The firefight was live tweeted by someone who had no idea what he was seeing and then broken by Keith Urbahn, Rumsfeld’s chief of staff who heard rumours of the operation.

This is not the first time the activity has been conflated with the tool, but it was easily the biggest. Within hours, the Internet was awash with speculation and memes. If social media really is the future of news it is a serious worry. As Twin Laden pointed out (and I was guilty of several of these sins in the last 24 hours) we “only deal with news through a prism of pop culture references, manic hysteria and unfettered ego”. Osama’s death will end up adding to the myth of his life.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The slow lingering death of journalism

Not everyone seems impressed, but in my view Lindsay Tanner raised substantive points in his interview with Leigh Sales this week in the 7.30 Report (sorry but I hate the almost invisible new title of the show). Tanner was arguing from his new book Sideshow where he says the media are largely to blame for the shoddy state of our polity. The argument was never fully teased out. The interviewer took the adversarial role of blaming the politicians for the problem and so the central issue of media behaviour was ignored.

Never did Sales address the problems Tanner was there to talk about: “gotcha journalism”, the treatment of gaffes, the trivialisation of politics as a game, and the glorification of the aggrieved whenever reform is proposed. Not once did Sales, an interviewer I respect and admire, accept the blame on behalf of the media and push on from there. Instead she took the easy line, pushing back on the duty of the politician to rise above the shackles the media has imposed. As Kerryn Goldsworthy pointed out, it was a textbook example of the problem Tanner was describing.

Sales kept asking why politicians couldn’t rise above it, but never once explored the other half of the problem, or even acknowledge it existed. It is as if the commodification of news is a taboo topic, which is somewhat understandable. After all, what media will admit to its audience the inconvenient fact they are part of the problem they are analysing?

Certainly none of the media organisations that spent millions of dollars giddily covering Friday’s Royal Wedding would make any such admission. As Dan Rather pointed out, we should remember this next time a media company closes a bureau or is unable to cover a “foreign story with full force”. This week-long extravaganza saw hundreds of journalists stationed in Green Park with nothing better to do than seek mind-numbing excreta on the edges of the wedding. For instance, the one snippet I caught of Channel 7’s Sunrise on Wednesday morning featured an in depth article on Kate Middleton’s stripper cousin or to use the parlance beloved of media pretending not to be prudish while being prurient, Middleton’s “saucy cousin”.

I don’t blame the journalists involved. Short of taking News of the World tactics and hacking the Royals’ phone service, they are not going to get an exclusive royal story outside the long lens. So they’re hard working hacks who devote their talents to a Kevin Bacon game to find news in saucy strippers two irrelevant stages removed from something that struggles to be important in the first place. The only newsworthy elements of the Royal Wedding are the fuss over the Bahraini ambassador, the snub to Blair and Brown, and the censoring of the Chaser’s attempt to satirise the wedding. Tanner’s Sideshow has moved into the centre stage.

The problem is, as Robert McChesney puts it, media companies are a government sanctioned oligopoly, owned by a few highly profitable corporate entities. They guard their privilege through legislative influence and through control of news coverage; they distort understanding of media issues. According to Eric Beecher it is a convergence of economic, technological and societal trends which is threatening “quality media” in an unprecedented way. He blames a media obsession with celebrity, fame, trivia and lifestyles as serious analysis cannot attract a broad constituency “without large dollops of celebrity gossip and soft lifestyle coverage.”

The Royal Wedding is easy news - controllable, glamorous and unthreatening to the journalists covering it. None of them are taking chances like Mohammad Nabous or Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. Their deaths show courageous journalism still happens. These men died trying to understand things people don’t want you to know. But as Lindsay Tanner points out, the companies they work for don’t want you to know either. The model is borked. Investigative and analytical journalism do not pay their way any more. With the likes of the ABC too entrenched in the status quo, only the unpaid fifth estate is showing any interest in saving democracy. But without the power and kudos of the fourth, I don't fancy their chances.