Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Norway forced to deal with gruesome genies

I’ve just watched the Breivik Video Manifesto, an odious, misogynist and ridiculous grab-bag of far right anti-Muslim ideas with a childish appeal to crusader and templar nonsense. I won’t be linking to it, go search it out yourself if you want to see it. No doubt my viewing it along with countless others is exactly what the mass murderer wanted to happen. American journalist Kevin Slaughter found more ravings in the aftermath of Anders Behring Breivik's slaughter in which a quiet, dangerous lunacy shines through. The hint of menace is there throughout, though the capacity to carry such ideas to their illogical conclusion still defies reason.

Breivik’s actions puts him in a different category to Martin Bryant, Michael Ryan, Thomas Hamilton, Cho Seung-Hui or countless other madmen who destroyed multiple lives randomly in mundane settings. Breivik’s aim was to wipe out an entire political class, both the current generation at the Oslo offices of the Prime Minister and the next generation at the youth camp in Utoya, leaving almost 100 dead people in his grisly wake. The first hand account of Prableen Kaur on Utoya is more chilling than anything Hollywood could dream up by way of terror. Nor was it the end of the matter. Unlike most of the other mass murderers, Breivik did not do the decent thing and turn the gun on himself. Instead he gave himself up and spoke freely of his actions in the start of the second act of his deadly charade.

Breivik’s careful planning of his actions took into account the aftermath. In setting up his recent Twitter and Facebook accounts, he knew the media would trawl all over his digital footprint in the wake of the atrocity. He was relying on mass media to get his message out beyond the lunatic fringe. This was why it was so important the judge closed the court when Breivik appeared this week. He desperately wanted an open court and be seen wearing a uniform. Some painted it as a press freedom issue, but the question needs to be asked “press freedom to do what?”

Judge Kim Heger agreed with police there was nothing to gain from giving him a soapbox. Heger did the right thing by kicking the media out and placing Breivik in solitary confinement for four weeks. Despite the need for transparency in the law, the media could simply not be trusted in the matter. On Saturday, many established journals were led astray by the feverish demands of the media machine, and blamed Islamic extremism for the events without a shred of evidence. Nature and the media abhor a vacuum and the information gap was filled with “fact free conjecture” as Charlie Brooker put it.

Afterwards there was the inevitable mad scramble to find out as much as possible about the life and motivations of the killer. Most picked up the crumbs of evidence he deliberately left behind. Others rushed into the arrant nonsense that the shootings somehow “destroyed Norway’s innocence.” Nor was Norway “suddenly exposed to the banality of evil.” This clich├ęd rot says nothing other than express a maudlin faux-sympathy for those who suffered a terrible loss. Many people have lost relatives or friends but that is no reason to infantilise the tragedy. Norway is a complex first world country not an eight-year-old child.

Immigration is on the rise in Norway as it is across Europe. Many are uneasy with the changing demographic though few would be prepared to be violent about it. Islam is the country’s second largest religion and there has been a corresponding rise in support for the anti-immigration Progress Party, now the second-largest party in Parliament. Lilit Gevorgyan, Europe analyst at the IHS Global Insight think-tank, sees the killings as a chance to be a catalyst for an honest discussion of the issue in the political centre. "If the twin attacks fail to trigger an honest discussion of the issue, exposing often scare-mongering arguments used by the extreme right, this may marginalise the radical groups and worsen the situation, which in turn could bring more similar attacks in the future," Gevorgyan said. "This is not just an issue in Norway. Across Scandinavia and also in Western and Eastern Europe, you have a lot of people who are very frustrated by the lack of open debate.” Maybe this is giving in to Breivik, but he has released the genie and it will be impossible to put it back in the bottle.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Australian rages against the changing tide

“Little men tapping things out - points of view
Remember their views are not the gospel truth” The Jam

The insufferable arrogance of the Murdoch press in Australia knows no bounds. While News International reels from one disaster to another, with government inquiries subpoenaing both Murdochs, Rebekah Brooks hung out to dry and Andy Coulson facing criminal proceedings, the local organisation acts as if they are the ones wronged. A siege mentality has descended upon News Ltd as the certainties of its untrammelled power begin to crumble. Politicians throughout the world are finally using Murdoch’s difficulty as their opportunity to develop a backbone. Yesterday The Australian lashed out against The Age for its own dodgy behaviour in accessing ALP records, though The Age has a legitimate defence of public interest, so conspicuously lacking in the numerous Murdoch hacking cases. The passive voice of “Age accused of hacking hypocrisy” hides the fact it is News Ltd who are making the accusations.

Also in yesterday’s Australian, the news that Prime Minister Julia Gillard was thinking of launching her own media inquiry was treated with the fatuous headline “this is no time for the PM to bow to Brown”. The paper’s consistently-biased political reporter Dennis Shanahan called the inquiry an “incendiary into an already febrile political debate” and a “distraction”. The report also fed into the long-running campaign the newspaper has waged against the Greens with increasingly deranged editor Chris Mitchell openly calling for the party to be obliterated at the polls: “We believe [Senator Bob Brown] and his Green colleagues are hypocrites; that they are bad for the nation; and that they should be destroyed at the ballot box.”

The Australian follows the party line laid down by News Ltd CEO John Hartigan. For Hartigan, the News of the World hacking affair was a classic case of rotten applies, an isolated affair in one small infected branch of the company. It was, said Hartigan, “an affront to all of us who value the integrity and credibility of good journalism, the reputation of the company and our own reputations as professionals.” Perhaps Hartigan did not see the joke in his words or perhaps he did. The credibility and reputation of News Ltd in Australia was poor well before the hacking scandal. Its metro tabloids are on the nose and suffering declining circulation. Like them, its flagship broadsheet is a walking advertisement for the Liberal Party and despite its own hypocritical bleating pushes a dangerous climate change scepticism that inhibits government leadership, delays effective policy action, and allows clowns like Tony Abbott a free run in which to destroy the long-term future of this nation.

Yes, there are good journalists aplenty at the Oz and when it gets its hands out of Abbott’s pockets it is capable of good and sometimes great journalism. But as George Monbiot points out, the purpose of The Australian and all of Murdoch’s 300 or so publications across the globe is to “ventriloquise the concern of multi-millionaires”. Monbiot says corporate media is a gigantic astroturfing operation: “a fake grassroots crusade serving elite interests”. This is true everywhere to some extent but it is the Murdoch empire which has it encoded into institutional memory.

Nevertheless I don’t agree with Monbiot a Hippocratic oath is needed. Journalists and their editors need to follow their existing code of ethics and stand up to internal pressures. The biggest threat to the media industry worldwide is not declining circulations but spineless leaders in the industry who are responsible for a deepening lack of trust and a cancerous cynicism in the audience. It is time for that cancer to be cut out. It is also time to move on from Murdoch's reign of terror. Bring on Gillard’s inquiry.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Carbon Tax: Which companies will pay?

I was writing an article on Monday for my paper about the carbon tax. The Government released a vast amount of information on Sunday about their new proposal. I had interviewed a couple of the local gas companies, Santos and Origin, a few weeks prior and I was keen to write about the coal seam gas industry impact of the tax, which had local implications. In her speech to the nation on Sunday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said around 500 big companies would pay for every tonne of carbon they produce. Climate change minister Greg Combet confirmed it in one of his releases. I assumed the gas majors I spoke to would be on the list.

However a very quick look at the new government website “cleanenergyfuture” showed the list was nowhere obvious. ABC chief political correspondent Sabra Lane said those affected would be “mining, steel companies and aluminium manufacturers”. There was no mention of coal seam gas. So I set the task of finding the 500 to a keen young journalist who started here last week. I thought it might be a tough task for her because this is one of the more incendiary consequences of the legislation and therefore one the Government might not be keen to publicise. I gave her 15 minutes to find it.

After 10 minutes of silence, I realised this must be harder than I thought and I went looking for it again. I was no more successful than my new journo, so I thought it was time to ask Twitter. Turns out it wasn’t obvious there either. “Good question” was the best response I got; others were on the line of “let us know if you find out.” In the end what we wrote in the newspaper was “precise information on which companies were in or out were not available when the Western Star went looking.”

Annabel Crabb did find more precise information when she turned her attention to the problem yesterday. Crabb wondered who was in the “Misfortune 500 and said the biggest companies may not be the biggest emitters of carbon. "Can we get a list?," she asked. “No - we can't" said the Government. The 500 companies are not an identified list but an estimate of how many companies in Australia would be caught by the scheme's eligibility rules.

I eventually found the Government page that talks about the 500 companies. “Most are companies operating large facilities (with over 25,000 tonnes annual CO2-e emissions) that directly emit greenhouse gases, such as power stations, mines and heavy industry,” the site said. “Some are public authorities responsible for emissions from landfills.” A fact sheet gave a breakdown of where the companies were. NSW and Queensland had half the companies, 100 were involved in coal, 60 each in electricity and heavy industry, 50 in other fossil fuel and 40 in natural gas. I assumed the latter category covers my local companies, but could not confirm this as there were no company names in the fact sheet.

For political reasons, petrol and agriculture are exempt and Crabb explained other problems with the eligibility rules. “A company with 20 facilities each emitting 24,000 tonnes of CO2 a year would not be liable, while some poor boob with one factory emitting 26,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and 19 clean green beansprout-fired tofu smelters would still have to cough up.”

Crabb found the compulsory reporting that is done under the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act 2007. The National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting on “Greenhouse and Energy Information 2009-2010" has a list of 300 companies that emit more than the 2009-10 annual threshold of 87,500 tonnes a year. It does not break the data down by facility but it is difficult to see how companies like Macquarie Generation (23.4 million tonnes), Delta Electricity (20.45m), CS Energy (16.8m), TRUenergy (15.6m), Blue Scope Steel (10.8m), Woodside Petroleum (8.4m), Alinta (7.8m), and Alcoa (6.75m) can avoid paying some of the tax. There were only 300 companies in this list, so 200 others need to be added.

Both of the coal seam gas companies I was interested in were on the list, Santos at 3.57m and Origin at 1.87m. So the likelihood is, as I suspected all along – they will both be in the 500. At $23 a tonne I estimate Santos will have to pay $85m a year and Origin $43m. Macquarie Generation (getting their message out through the sympathetic Australian) are up for a bill of $538 billion. Despite what the Government said, it should not have been that hard to find out. Watch out too for fiddling along the edges as companies try to make the most of that “facilities” loophole.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The end of the world as we know it: Time for Rupert Murdoch to stand down

Never mind the News of the World for a moment, what the Murdochs are doing is thrashing the reputation of journalists everywhere. It wasn't the likes of Clive Goodman or Glenn Mulcaire who gave false hope to the parents of Milly Dowler by deleting a dead girl’s phone messages, not was it Rebekah Brooks or Andy Coulson, this one goes right to the top:Rupert and James Murdoch. It was the Murdochs too who invaded the personal space of 4,000 others in the name of getting the story. Most blatantly was the Murdochs who then washed their hands of it by sacking 200 innocent staff and thrashing a 168-year-old brand to rid them themselves of the problem and give them a perfect start to setting up a Sun on Sunday with low overheads. It is the actions of people with no regard for anyone except themselves.

The Australian-born US-citizen Chinese-wifed Rupert Murdoch encouraged a culture of getting the news at all costs so assiduously pursued by Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks. The people at the bottom of the food chain did it because they know the company would turn a blind eye. “Get the story, no matter what,” is the amoral mantra actively pursued by Murdoch publications throughout the world.

But apart from screwing up the lives of all the people they hacked, they also stuffed up the reputation of every other journalist who will be tarred with the same shitty brush. I'm fairly new to to the game, but I value my reputation, which Murdoch has just besmirched. In my paper last week, I took a very heavy editorial line against the local council. Now people are well within their right to ask, why should they treat me seriously, this bugger is probably hacking people’s messages.

This is what I have to say about the matter in my editorial this coming Tuesday: “logging on to phones to hack people’s messages is criminal and wrong. If there is information I want, I’d expect to find that through legal channels. I care about my actions because I want to be trusted. People will judge me for my behaviour just as councillors are judged for theirs."

The media is full of shonks but this affair confirms News Corporation are rotten to the core despite John Hartigan's pious bullshit as anyone with a passing exposure to Fox News or the Sydney Telegraph would know.

Or maybe they wouldn’t. 70 percent of Australia’s media is controlled by Murdoch and it is unlikely anyone reading them would get a full flavour of the problem now dominating world headlines. Even some of the most powerful international media commentators of the world cannot be totally honest about what is going on in the industry locally.

NYU Professor Jay Rosen tweeted “If the story of criminal intimidation tactics at News Ltd. in Australia ever came out, today's events in the UK would look different,:”
However he refused to elaborate on what he meant when asked by Woolly Days and others.
“Can't help you, sorry,” Rosen said to me.
“The events of which I spoke are not public knowledge. That is why I said, "if the story was known..."
I then accused him of being a tease. Rosen responded, “Best I can do. The other option was silence.”
Narked, I wrote back quickly saying “I think you can do better”.
On advice and reflection, I later apologised to Rosen for being abrupt.
Rosen replied saying he was not offended.
“It's your media culture, not mine,” he said.
“Australians have to learn how to stand up to the Murdoch forces.
“I was simply trying to reach the people who can do that.”

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The editing conventions of Johann Hari

I’ve just sent an email to journalist Johann Hari from the Independent about the plagiarism allegations surrounding him. I got an auto-response saying he was away till Wednesday and if he does respond I’ll publish it here.

This is what I said to him:

My argument is that what you did was not plagiarism but the introduction of an editing convention that is generally not accepted by readers. It is perhaps accepted by writers - who face similar challenges to you - which might be why none of your subjects complained.

Indeed, it is not much different to say, changing around the order of answers in an interview or the TV habit of re-recording the questions at the end of an interview.

Nonetheless, I wouldn't want your convention to be too widely adopted because there are other ways - usually involving attribution - of solving the problem.

Do you think I'm being fair?

-end of email quote-

Johann Hari is an award-winning young British journalist now in the wars over allegations of plagiarism. Hari has made a high profile for himself and plagiarism is one of the biggest sins in journalism so it is no surprise the charges have warranted close attention. He was outed by the anonymous blog Deterritorial Support Grouppppp. On 17 June, DSG found a 2004 Hari interview with Italian philosopher Antonio Negri. It compared that interview to one of Negri in the 2003 book “Negri on Negri” by Anne Dufourmentelle and found many parallels. “It’s rather ironic that an article whose main premise is that Negri negates a ‘truthful memory’, essentially attempting to fabricate history to fit his own political agenda, seems to be based upon an encounter...which is almost entirely fabricated,” DSG observed.

The DSG findings were incendiary and split Britain across political lines. Most on the left forgave Hari what they thought was a minor indiscretion. Daily Telegraph Blogs editor Damian Thompson took a predictable Torygraph sideswipe against everything Hari stood for. His description of those who follow Hari’s writing was “student radicals re-tweet[ing] his tirades against Tories, bankers, Catholics, Americans etc before rolling out of bed at noon.” It was only when Thompson moved beyond the lazy party line, he made some good points. He said Hari was like an athlete caught doping: his fans would ask whether any of his past triumphs were quite what they seemed.

With these triumphs including the Orwell Prize under a cloud, Hari responded on 27 June in a blog post called "interview etiquette”. Hari said he only used the technique whenever the quality of the interviewee’s answer was inarticulate and the talent had made a more coherent answer elsewhere. “It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the point...as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview,” he said. To Hari, this seemed the most "thorough means" of getting a point across.

This seems hopelessly naive. As a writer of strong and controversial pieces laced with often barbed (but usually very well-written) opinion pieces, it is hardly surprising Hari would make enemies. Nor is it surprising as a public figure his words would be parsed very carefully. With enough eyes all bugs are shallow and enough eyes went through Hari’s work to spot some heavy-handed use of other people’s work without attribution. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this would be seized on by those he bugged.

Indeed, no sooner did he post his feelings on the matter did Irish journalist Brian Whelan pop up and find further examples. Whelan found similarities in Hari’s interview with Gideon Levy with an article in Haaretz six months earlier. “I know many hacks lift quotes and thats not a crime but Hari appears to be passing off copy-pasted text from Levy’s writings in Haaretz and interviews with other hacks as an exclusive interview,” Whelan concluded.

Whelan said Hari appears to perform churnalism but appearances can be deceptive. As I said in my email to him, what he was doing was a creating (or least reinventing) an editing convention. Hari intended the convention to get an articulate point across in a way that does not detract from the flow and confines of the interview. In this sense, it is not dissimilar to the way “noddies” are later edited into TV interviews or written interviews presenting in a different order to the way the way the questions were asked, or even the way photographs are cropped for news purposes. These too are editing deceptions for the purposes of narrative flow, but they are generally accepted by audiences with the proviso they are not too blatant and there is no outright lying.

Hari’s convention, however, is not so generally accepted. Hari did not lie but he didn’t tell the full truth either. Even if he didn’t intend it, his readers could be forgiven for thinking Negri or Levy made those comments directly to Hari in the interview setting. To find out they didn’t, destroys the atmosphere of trust he is trying to build with his audience. Hari said his interview subjects never minded. Possibly, but all this means is his convention is accepted by writers, who are faced with similar issues of flow and comprehension. Readers are right, however, to expect more honesty and precision.

The subterfuge is all so unnecessary. Hari missed an opportunity to turn his obviously fine research skills into an advantage. He said he wanted to stay in the mode of “direct interview” but it would not have been too much damage to the flow if he took time out to quote some other authority and name the source. It would have shown he wasn’t plucking these ideas from thin air. It might take more time and imagination but Hari could have then segued back to his own interview without unduly disturbing the sense of tempo. Online it could be as simple as a hyperlink, though newsprint might be tougher. Either way, attribution is a common courtesy and one which Hari failed. I hope he will learn the lesson well as he is a young man and a fine writer. Handled properly, this painful experience will make him an even better one.