Tuesday, August 30, 2011

ACMA says telecommunications and media laws in Australia are broken

A new report by the peak communications body in Australia has said convergence has broken most of the media and telecommunications legislation it administers. The findings are in the Australian Communication and Media Authority report Broken Concepts: The Australian communications legislative landscape(pdf). ACMA is the government body that administers 26 Acts made over half a century, accompanied by 523 regulation requirements. Their paper examined the impact of convergence pressures on 55 key pieces of legislation and found most of them wanting. To use the ACMA terminology they were either ‘broken’ or ‘significantly strained’. The issue affects the regulation of such diverse items as video games, smartphones, tablets, 3DTVs, untimed local calls, community broadcasting, program standards, cable providers, universal service obligations, emergency calls, spam, media diversity and many others.

ACMA defined convergence by five key causes of change: 1. Technological developments 2. The development of a broad communications market 3. Increased consumer and citizen engagement with the toolset 4. Regulatory Globalisation 5. Government intervention (NBN). ACMA says digitalisation has broken the connection between the shape of content and the container which carries it. Legacy service delivery used service-specific networks and devices but digital transmission systems have made delivery mostly independent of technologies. The major consequence is regulation of content based on delivery mechanism no longer makes sense as devices develop multiple functions.

ACMA found seven major regulatory consequences of convergence. Firstly, policy and legislation no longer aligns with the realities of the market, the technology or its uses. Secondly, there are gaps in coverage of new forms of content and applications. Thirdly, there is misplaced emphasis on traditional media (television) and traditional communications (voice services). Fourthly, the blurring of boundaries is leading to inconsistent treatment of similar content, devices or services. Fifth, difficulties assuring innovative services are consistent with consumer safeguards. Sixth, new issues are handled in piecemeal fashion reducing overall policy coherence. Lastly, convergence is causing institutional ambiguity with no one sure which agency is responsible for which regulation.

The main acts that govern telecommunications in Australia are the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the Radiocommunications Act 1992 , the Telecommunications Act 1997 and the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999. All are well over a decade old and all were drafted before the Internet became a reality. These core acts have been added to by ‘band aid’ solutions to newer problems such as spam and interactive gambling. As a result, ACMA says the Australian communications legislative landscape now resembles a patchwork quilt. There is no overarching strategy or coordinated approach to regulating communications and media in a digital economy.

Media diversity is one of the major problems addressed by the report. It said regulation has given undue weight to the influence of print newspapers and the ability to personalise media consumption magnifies as well as limits the amount of influence a media service can have on an individual. Also the ability to access broadcast-like content through non-broadcasting services is running a hole through the Broadcasting Act’s promotion of diversity of content (which I would argue was honoured more in the breach by commercial broadcasters in any case). There are 53 other areas of ACMA’s reach which are equally broken beyond legislative repair.

ACMA Chairman Chris Chapman said the report highlighted the ever-increasing strain on old concepts struggling with new technology. “The constructs for communications and media that worked 20 years ago no longer fit present day circumstances, let alone the next 20 years," Chapman said. “These ‘broken concepts’ are symptoms of the deeper change of digitalisation breaking those now outdated propositions, including that content can be controlled by how it is delivered.”

The report dovetails with the federal government’s Convergence Review. The review panel is due to deliver its report in March. It toured Australia earlier this month hearing submissions and will continue to receive input until 28 October. Its framing paper acknowledges changes are required but appears be focussed more on broadcasting issues rather than the wider telecommunications issue. This new ACMA paper is a welcome wake-up call to the seriousness of the problem. Technology and its uses will continue to evolve in unimaginable ways. The trick will be drafting legislation that does not fetter that growth while providing citizen safeguards against unscrupulous behaviour.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Newsstand up and running for a media inquiry

I got an email tonight from grass roots campaigners Getup advertising the existence of a new organisation called NewsStand. It is little surprise Getup would promote NewsStand; the newbie is moulded in Getup’s image (and uses former Getup staff) but with a narrower focus in the media. The main purpose of NewsStand is to demand a parliamentary inquiry into Australian media and they want people to sign an e-petition. “We believe Australia needs a full parliamentary inquiry to publicly scrutinise the media landscape as a whole: what’s working, what’s not and what we can do to change things for the better,” NewsStand said.

The site’s about page said it was inspired by the Murdoch UK hacking scandal. NewsStand was born out of the revelations of unethical and illegal practices which showed the “extent of the power and influence that individuals and companies can have over the news industry”. It quoted a Lenore Taylor article in the Sydney Morning Herald which mentioned NewsStand’s first market research which showed 60 percent support for a media inquiry.

NewsStand’s board consists of five members. They are journalism professor and investigative journalist Wendy Bacon, Ben Brandzel who has done fundraising for Barack Obama and worked at Moveon.org, Australia Institute executive director, economist and Greens strategy adviser Richard Denniss, Centre for Policy Development executive director Miriam Lyons and communications consultant Nick Moriatis. They provide direction to a staff of two led by US political strategist Kate Walsh and supported by former Getup campaign director Ed Coper.

Like Getup, it hopes to have a blog up and running but it has not yet been launched. The idea is to encourage conversations, assess the validity of sensationalist news, conduct interviews with experts and shed light on the inner workings of the media industry. This is all laudable but it should have been up and running with the launch of the website. A blog desperately needs content to survive, not just promises. Like Getup, NewsStand is shilling for donations and is also attempting to harness social media. The @Newsstandau twitter feed has quickly built up 400 followers but disappointingly is following none of them back.

There is little doubt the Australia media is in poor shape. The flabby Murdoch empire will say or do anything to keep its power. Just today, artist Robert Crumb wrote an open letter to the Sydney Morning Herald saying why he was not coming to a Sydney festival. The fault belongs to the other Sydney rag, the Murdoch Daily Telegraph which published a shocker of an article bylined by Jesse Phillips which described Crumb primarily as a “self confessed sex pervert whose explicit drawings cannot be shown in Australia”. The article cited rent-a-quote moral crusader Hetty Johnson who gave the predictably juicy line about the “depraved thought processes of this very warped human being".

No effort was made to talk to Crumb or anyone who might have had a different view. The article was pure trollumnism. Crumb pulled the pin on the trip after the article and made some pertinent observations in his SMH letter. “One can see in this example how skilled media professionals with low standards of integrity are able to mould and manipulate public opinion, popular beliefs and, ultimately, the direction of politics," Crumb wrote. “The majority of the population in most places is not alert to this kind of deceptive manipulation. They are more or less defenceless against such clever 'perception management’”.

A reminder why NewsStand wants a media inquiry is pertinent: “The inquiry must examine how to promote higher standards, protect people’s privacy while guaranteeing the freedom of the press, stimulate a more diverse media marketplace, and ensure that problems and complaints can be handled simply, fairly and effectively.” Watching the Telegraph at work, it’s no wonder the Murdoch publications don’t want a bar of it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The fall of Muammar Gaddafi

“While it is democratically not permissible for an individual to own any information or publishing medium, all individuals have a natural right to self-expression by any means, even if such means were insane and meant to prove a person's insanity” – Muammar Gaddafi, The Green Book
(photo: @Politisite)

The Arab Spring has delivered a rich summer harvest. Libya is the latest domino to tumble joining his neighbours in Egypt and Tunisia and it not hard to believe Syria and Yemen might be far behind, despite the grandstanding of their own long-standing leaders. For now, it is difficult not to feel almost universal joy at the astonishing fall of Gaddafi. With the exception of members of the regime and maybe Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the world is rejoicing Gaddafi’s 42 year reign is over. It's a big moment. Gaddafi has been in power since man first landed on the moon, and of civilian leaders in the last century only Fidel Castro, Chiang Kai-Shek and Kim Il-Sung have lasted longer.

His overthrow has been supported by the left and the right though some on the left agonised hard over the NATO bombing campaign. That campaign now looks to be the crucial turning point when Gaddafi threatened to crush the rebellion in March. Then when matters drifted into a three month stalemate, NATO’s bombing of Tripoli in May proved the spark for the revolution. Gaddafi had lost the support of people on the ground, a mood the rebels sensed as they moved eastwards.

It was a long fall from grace. Gaddafi was reasonably popular at home in the 1970s and 1980s and loved among the European left for the way in which he thumbed his nose at the western establishment. Few loved him for his own eccentric political philosophies. Gaddafi’s Third International Theory was taken from the mishmash of aphorisms that is the Green Book which prognosticated on matters as diverse as breast feeding and genetic differences and attempted to steer the country in a middle (or muddle) path between capitalism and communism.

In the 1980s his willingness to help western resistance organisations such as the IRA and Red Brigades put him more on the outer leading to pariah status after the 1986 Berlin disco bombing and 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Yet his power internally was never threatened. By the 2000s, he was making a remarkable international comeback. In 2008 200 African kings and tribal leaders pronounced him “king of kings” and then more importantly African leaders and presidents (many of whom he trained in Libyan camps) made him head of the AU in 2009.

The West was also having a rapprochement with Gaddafi. Bush’s wars after 9/11 left the west needing allies wherever they could find them. Tony Blair killed two birds with one stone when he praised Gaddafi in 2004 for his support in the War while lobbying for a half billion dollar investment in Libya for Shell. In the end it was the oceans of oil that brought Gaddafi back in from the cold. Never anxious to give Britain a leg up when it comes to petroleum deals, the US normalised relations for the first time in 28 years under President Bush in 2008.

The west finally felt they could do business with Gaddafi. But it seems the Libyan public did not agree. Gaddafi stifled resistance by ensuring almost one in five Libyans worked as informants. Surveillance was a normal part of every workplace. Military service has been compulsory since 1984. Gaddafi has survived coup attempts in 1969 (barely two months into the job), 1975, 1977, 1985 and 1993 and having emerged from the military in a coup himself has abolished traditional military rank to avoid having to deal with a powerful leader caste.

Ultimately Gaddafi made enough enemies who just needed an excuse to act. The Tunisian actions lit the tinder and sparked a civil war that took the east easily but which met sterner resistance on the road to Tripoli. Gaddafi’s willingness to bomb his own people showed his tenacity to survive above all else. But as Juan Cole notes, once enough of his heavy weapons capability was disrupted and his fuel and ammunition supplies blocked, the underlying hostility of the common people to the regime could again manifest itself, as it had in February. While his exact fate remains unknown at the time of writing, Gaddafi is a dead man walking. It is a triumph for NATO. The template for military action should now be used in Syria which has also turned its military against its own population.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The building of the Berlin Wall: 50 years on

On 3 August 1961, the leaders of the Communist bloc, the Comecon, met in Moscow. It was the heart of the Cold War. The US Bay of Pigs invasion failed a few months earlier, and in July JFK requested a 25 percent increase in military spending. The East still stood strong but it had a soft underbelly it needed to do something about: Berlin.

Divided by the Potsdam Conference after World War II, succoured by the 1948 blockade and institutionalised by the foundation of the FDR and DDR in 1949, Berlin remained a porous city. Over half a million crossed daily in to West Berlin to get their dose of capitalism. Many East Berliners went shopping or into the cinema and discos in the West, 60,000 commuters even worked there. There was no need for some to defect as they would rather live in the cheaper east as long as the exotic frills of the west such as panty hose and tropical fruit were available just a short U-bahn ride away. Westerners too enjoyed the fruits of the border. West German Deutsch Marks were exchanged into East German DM at a rate of 1:4 and that meant westerners could get goods very cheaply in the East.

But the East was losing most of its thought leaders. The gap in income between the two sides was stark and anyone with ambition wanted to be in the west. Although some were stopped on their way, hundreds of thousands made it across the border forever. By the early 1960s, East Germany had lost 2.5 million trained professionals, 15 percent of its population. The Comecon decided this had to stop before the labour force was completely drained. At 4pm on Saturday 12 August, East German leader Walter Ulbricht issued the order to close the border. At midnight on Sunday, police and armed forces began bolting the city shut. Not only did they build the wall in a day, but they shut streets, the railway and the S-Bahn and U-Bahn. The former pulsating heart of the city at Potzdamer Platz suddenly became a no-go zone.

But it was the wall that captured the imagination and defined the Cold War. It sprung up in the middle of the night. Trucks filled with soldiers and construction workers rumbled though the sleeping city and tore up telephone wires and streets to West Berlin, dug holes to put up concrete posts, and strung barbed wire all across the border. The 100km wall completely wrapped up West Berlin. When everyone woke up in the morning, there was widespread shock. Whichever side of the border you went to bed on 12 August, you were stuck there for decades.

The wall would go through four transformations in its 28-year history. It started as a barbed-wire fence with concrete posts, but after a few days, it was replaced with a permanent structure of concrete blocks, topped with barbed wire. A third version in 1965 was a concrete wall, supported by steel girders. The fourth version built by 1980 had 3.6m high and 1.2m wide concrete slabs with a smooth pipe across the top to stop people from scaling it. By 1989 there was a 91m No-Man's-Land, an additional inner wall, soldiers patrolling with dogs, a raked ground that showed footprints, anti-vehicle trenches, electric fences, massive light systems, watchtowers, bunkers, and minefields.

About 200 people were shot dead trying to cross this labyrinth and another 5,000 escape either over or under the wall. The only people legally allowed to cross the border were foreign tourists, diplomats and military personnel. There were three crossing points. Helmstedt, Dreilinden and a third at Berlin Friedrichstrasse. Based on the phonetic alphabet Helmstedt checkpoint was called Checkpoint Alpha, Dreilinden got Bravo and Friedrichstrasse got the name Charlie. On 25 October 1961, East German border guards at Checkpoint Charlie tried to check the identification as western soldiers entered the Soviet sector. The Americans said the Allied right to move freely had been violated and for 16 hours there was an imminent threat of war. The next day, both sides withdrew after Kennedy and Khrushchev hastily cobbled together an agreement.

While the Revolutions of 1989 were startling in the speed in which they succeeded, the fall of the Wall was the most stunning of all. On the evening of 9 November, East German central committee spokesman Günter Schabowski made a surprise announcement: "Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR (East Germany) into the FRG (West Germany) or West Berlin." "As of when?" asked an Italian journalist. Schabowski hesitated and then improvised: "As far as I know ... as of now."

As locals decoded his bureaucratic announcement, it came as a shock to realise he meant the border was now open. The first East Germans tentatively approached it and found border guards were letting people cross. Within an hour, people from both sides crowded on to the Wall. Some brought hammers and chisels. Others simply hugged, kissed, cheered and cried. Schabowski, who was later imprisoned, said he remembered a Stasi member came to him and said: “Comrade Schabowski, the border is open. Nothing to report.”

Now the Berlin Wall is mostly gone and the few scraps that remain are tourist attractions. The East and West were reunited though the East continues to lag. Some argue Germany is much weaker as a united country with a reunification bill of €1.3 trillion. Yet despite the Trabants that still litter the streets, there are few people calling for the return of the DDR. The Wall the regime built was the supreme monument to the corrosive power of its paranoia and rampant distrust.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The politics of social media

“Corporations and politicians worldwide have latched onto social media to advertise their brand and get the message out. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election was supercharged by Facebook and social networking, which became the ultimate tool for gauging public opinion and speaking to the masses. But working with social media can fast go horribly wrong. US Congressman Anthony Weiner’s recent fall from grace was brutal and should be a lesson to all who merge online networking with real-time power chasing. Social media holds power potential for those who play the game correctly. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, hire someone else to do it right. And always keep your pants on.”
Paul Barry, The Power Index

Hot on the heels of British plans to shut down social networks to stop rioting, comes news they have already been beaten to it by the US. Demonstrators in San Francisco had planned a protest to condemn the shooting death of Charles Hill. Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers killed Hill on 3 July after they responded to complaints about a drunk man at a station. A week later protesters shut down three BART stations and planned a second protest last week. This time BART interrupted wireless service for three hours at some stations, to “ensure the safety of everyone on the platform." Initially they claimed they asked providers to stop service, but later admitted they did it themselves as it is allowed to do under its contracts with the providers - Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.

The move prompted hacking group Anonymous to hit back. They have planned Operation BART which they said was “meant to teach BART a lesson about the dangers of censoring people...and is supposed to be an educational experience for the operators.” Yesterday, they defaced BART affiliated websites and released user info for the website mybart.org but said they “are just warming up.”

Anonymous compared the San Francisco moves to government censorship in the Arab Spring. “In Egypt and Tunisia, we saw people struggling to make their voices heard,” Anonymous said. “We have seen companies such as Telecomix delve into the nastiness of political corruption in an attempt to free those censored individuals from their prisons of silence.”

Whatever the truth of that comparison, the Arab regimes remain suspicious of social networks. This week, an Egyptian has been charged with using Facebook to incite violence. The Egyptian Military Prosecution has arrested activist and blogger Asmaa Mahfouz, 26 for defaming the junta and calling for armed rebellion. The court said Mahfouz used Facebook to call for the assassinations of Supreme Council of Armed Forces members and judges. “If justice is not achieved and the justice system fails us, no-one should feel upset or surprised if armed gangs emerge to carry out assassinations,” Mahfouz wrote. “As long as there is no law and there is no justice, anything can happen, and nobody should be upset.”

Mahfouz and others may be helped by the Telecomix site mentioned in the Anonymous post about BART. Telecomix is an international organisation “dedicated to informing the public about internet freedom issues”. Telecomix member Peter Fein said it was guerrilla informational warfare. "We're kind of like an inverse Anonymous," Fein said. "We operate in a very similar way to Anonymous not just IRC (Internet Relay Chat) but also the non-hierarchical structure. Except they break things and we build them.” In Egypt when authorities cut off the internet and telephones, Telecomix filled a a need for internal communication. “Not for people to be able to talk on Facebook or Twitter to the world, but amongst themselves ... so there were a number of tools, mesh technology and so on — that we tried to help people figure out,” Fein said.

The experiences learned in North Africa may need to be re-applied to the Western world. British Prime Minister’s knee-jerk “kill switch” proposal for social networks may sound idiotic and undemocratic but that does not mean it will not be tried if he thinks there are votes in it. All there is to go on is Cameron’s statement to MPs: "We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."

The short answer is, no it would not. People will plot violence regardless of the availability of social networks. But as the current Australian Government has shown with its internet censorship plans, draconian moves to limit free speech are justified using tropes such as “not acceptable to civilised society” and protecting “young children”. China too has successfully mastered internet censorship with its Golden Shield (though 30 second Internet response times are starting to throttle innovation) with equally vague excuses about protecting citizens from dangers. As Electronic Frontiers Foundation says of the Australian proposals, successful technology isn't necessarily successful policy. “We're still yet to hear a sensible explanation of what this policy is for, who it will help and why it is worth spending so much taxpayer money on,” said EFF.

Yet it is hardly surprising politicians are so wary of the technology. Many of the social media most widely used today are still in their infancy and their uses and potential effects remain difficult to understand. As the Paul Barry quote illuminates, there is a coming of age of online political engagement, According to researchers Jim Macnamara and Gail Kenning (E-electioneering 2010: Trends in Social Media Use in Australian Political Communication) three-quarters of Australia’s federal politicians had a Facebook presence of some kind in 2010 and local studies have shown that 57 per cent of citizens would like opportunities to comment on policies online and 36 per cent are interested in communication with their MPs online. But old habits die hard. Macnamara and Kenning found most politicians used social media primarily for one-way transmission of political messages, rather than citizen engagement or listening to the electorate. Maybe that will change as the technology matures, but equally likely it will be shackled to keep out of powerbrokers' pants.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Assad's moment of truth or dare

The Syrian city of Hama remains defiant despite a week-long assault by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. On Thursday Syrian forces took Turkish journalists around the city to show them they were back in control. While the government claimed it was ridding Hama of “terrorists”, residents had a different story. They told of told of indiscriminate shelling by the army, snipers aiming at civilians and corpses piling up in the streets. Human rights groups say 1,700 people have died so far in the crackdown with casualties highest in Hama. (photo of Hama July protest:Wikipedia)

It is little surprise Hama should be at the heart of the revolution as it has long been a hotbed of anti-Ba’athist activity. Shortly after the Ba’athists first seized power in Syria in 1963, Islamic groups in Hama rose against the new secular regime. That rebellion was crushed as was another in 1982. Tens of thousands were killed in what became known as the Hama Massacre and parts of the city were flattened. There were echoes of that in July when 136 people were killed in Hama in the “Ramadan Massacre”. Syrian forces attacked demonstrators using tanks, artillery, and snipers.

Hama and Homs were among the earliest city to join this year’s Arab Spring but the two biggest cities Damascus and Aleppo (home to half the country’s population) have been mostly quiet. But that may be about to change. Reports just in from Al Jazeera north east Damascus is the focus of a major government offensive. As one protester puts it, the regime is feeling time is against it after strong Arab and international reaction against the crackdown. The security forces want to end anti-Assad protests within one or two weeks.

Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect which has ties to Shia Islam. Alawites are 12 percent of Syria’s 22 million people but hold a vastly outsized portion of the high-ranking positions in the government and the military. Sunnis consider them heretics. When the French ruled in the early 20th century, they granted the Alawites their own state and they were autonomous Syrian independence in 1946. In the 1930s, the French rejected calls from Sulayman Al Assad against union with Syria. Since then, the Assad family has built its power in the Alawite political movement in Syria. When Hafez Al Assad seized power in an intra-party coup in 1970, most of the Alawite community lined up behind him. Hafez was a hardline ruler and it was he who authorised the 1982 Hama massacre. Bashar al Assad absorbed the lessons well after becoming president in 2000 on his father’s death.

Bashar was an accidental president. When his father died in June 2000, it only took hours for the Syrian parliament to vote to amend the country's constitution to allow al-Assad to become president lowering the age of eligibility of the president from 40 to 34. It had been elder brother Basil who was originally groomed as Hafez’s successor, and was chief of security. Meanwhile Bashar studied medicine in Britain, receiving a degree in ophthalmology, and headed the Syrian Computer Society. But in 1994 Basil was driving his Mercedes to the airport at high speed during a fog. He slammed into a roundabout and died instantly. Bashar was rushed home from London to rejoin the army.

The army remains Bashar’s greatest ally today. Like the president, most of the top brass are Alawite. Assad's brother Maher controls key military units packed with Alawite soldiers. One security expert told Reuters the regime had been careful about placing Alawite loyalists in all key positions. Some Sunni officers have risen to high ranks but have very little power to command troops. It is unlikely the army will switch sides any time soon.

If pressure has to be brought to bear, it must come from outside. The US added to its sanctions on Syria on 10 August to blacklist telco Syriatel and the Commercial Bank of Syria, a Syrian state-owned institution and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank. They add to existing sanctions including freezing assets and bans on business dealings, personal sanctions on Assad, as well as Syria's vice president, prime minister, interior and defence ministers, the head of military intelligence and director of the political security branch. Internally, the protests have reached a point of no return. As the Economist puts it, the savagery of the regime’s response has convinced protesters that the movement has to continue or face revenge of unimaginable proportions.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Of Nika and Basmati Rice: another twocents worth on the London riots

“Cameron aims to ‘address a broken society’ with more CCTV, less social media, battering rams, water cannons and maybe the army” @abcnewsintern
(Photo: Photoshoplooter)

In 532 Constantinople was besieged by what remains the worst riots in history. Known as the Nika riots, they resulted in the destruction of half the city and 30,000 deaths. It started when a member of a popular elite sporting group was arrested for murder and quickly got out of hand from there. But there were wider issues. Emperor Justinian was negotiating peace over an expensive war in Persia and there was simmering resentment in the city over high taxes. Three days after the murderers sought refuge in a church, the angry mob turned its resentment on Justinian at the Hippodrome races. Just when it looked like he would be chased out of the city, he bought out half his opposition and his army slaughtered the other half.

I was thinking of Justinian as this quaint notion takes hold the British riots exist in a thuggish vacuum. As the papers would tell you, lowly scum have risen up in some mysterious “now” that seems to pay no attention to everything that has gone before it. It seems the chavish untermensch are incapable of collective memory or nor is it possible to admit the notion they might have grievances. Thugs are thugs only because “they have nothing better to do”.

Whatever the motivation to cause mayhem and smash other people’s property, the idea the government, the media or the police are trusted institutions to deal with the problem had well and truly been smashed long before the first pane of glass. The suspicious death of a black man was a proximate cause, a spark, but the tinder was bone-dry and sooner or later there would have been another excuse for a conflagration. The materialism at the heart of British society takes no prisoners and even an army of brooms sweeping Kristallnacht 2011 under the carpet won’t change the reality the disenfranchised will be back for more.

The British media cares not to dwell on this fact. As the Murdoch scandal showed they are now part of the problem. The BBC’s contemptuous treatment of an old black man speaking truth to power or the wall-to-wall newspaper coverage of thugs and scum reveals a frightened press desperate only to hang on to their privileges in the old order. Politicians too, needing to speak reassuring words of toughness to scared constituents, retreat behind paeans to law and order. There is a magical belief this will keep the disaffected off the streets.

Who is there to trust? The glue that holds communities together is losing its stickiness. Family bonds are harder to keep. Education works only for the wealthy. Religion is irrelevant. Culture is complicated and foreign. International capitalism is a stinking corpse bloated by greed and selfishness. Big business is venal, politicians are corrupt and police are inept. The cult of individualism is rampant, neighbours don’t talk to each other and everyone is suspicious of "the other". Racism is endemic, the climate is going to hell in a hand basket and no one seems to care. A Norwegian goes berserk and tries to wipe out a political generation. But rather than examine all that, the media is besotted only by the daily minutiae of two useless wealthy royals.

30 years after the riots of her own making, Thatcher has been proved right: There is no such thing as society. Why should the rioters behave? What’s in it for them? A fat pile of nothing, and there is no deterrent. If people are willing to commit a crime for $2 of basmati rice then clearly the slim prospect of jail time or a criminal record is not going to stop them. The criminals at the other end of the scale seem to be getting away with their crimes, so why shouldn’t the small fry try too? Their looting is caught on camera but the liars that run the business world put their hands in the back pockets of millions without youtube evidence.

My sympathies go out to the small businesses that suffered greatly across Britain in the last few days – no doubt Constantinople’s unfortunate merchants paid an equally high price in the Nika Riots. They are on the frontline of a civil war that has a long way to go and must expect, like any soft target, to be picked on again and again. Cameron is no Justinian, nor is the equally ineffectual Ed Miliband. Britain must wait for the reliable rain to relieve the riots, not its robotic politicians.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Birdsville and Lake Eyre - Part 2

It was an early and dark start on Saturday for the trip to the lake. With Birdsville as far west as you can go in Queensland, it wasn’t until 6.45am that the first rays of light sneaked over the horizon. We were already on the road wandering across to the airport to check out the six-seater Cessna 210 we would be taking to Lake Eyre. Josh, our young pilot from Central Eagle Aviation was waiting for us and told us we had enough time to sneak across to the bakery for an early morning coffee. Then at 7.30am we were up and away. I was banished to the back seat this time as Greg sat up front for pilot talk with Josh. But with no one in the seat next to me, I had great uninterrupted views to the left and right as we flew down the Diamantina floodplain down into South Australia.

Like Roma, the Diamantina River is named for the wife of Queensland’s first Governor, Lady Diamantina Bowen (née Roma). Like the Cooper Creek, the Diamantina meanders in many channels. Also like the Cooper it feeds into Lake Eyre after joining up with the Warburton River to the west. 80km south of Birdsville lies the Goyder Lagoon, a 1300 km2 swamp on the junction with Eyre Creek.

The Lagoon is named for George Goyder, South Australian Surveyor-General from 1861-1893. Goyder became famous for his SA “Line of Rainfall” which set the limits for drought-free land considered safe for agriculture. The Lagoon that bears his name is a large ephemeral swamp but is still teeming with water after summer floods in the channel country.

The Birdsville Track is close by on the eastern side of the Diamantina floodplain. The track is 520km long from Birdsville in the north to Maree, SA in the south. Legendary outback postman Tom Kruse (who died recently aged 96) used to have corrugated iron sheets stored along the track to help him get his truck through the very soft sand dunes. At times it would take a day or more to travel 10kms. These days the track is easier and a constant stream of 4WD wind their way up and down during the winter months. The older Birdsville Inside Track in the middle of the floodplain is the original track that was used by the drovers but is now disused as it becomes impassable after rains.

More lakes appear the closer we got to Lake Eyre in the gap between the Simpson and Strzelecki Desert. Eventually the river plain becomes wider as we arrive at the mouth of Lake Eyre almost two and a half hours into the flight. The browns and greens give way to the blue but not without a fight. The watery channels take a long time to coalesce and evaporation and the shallow depth mean the lake is getting smaller by the day. There is still plenty of room for someone to emulate Donald Campbell and his Bluebird world land speed record attempt.

Eventually there is clear blue water and lots of it. We fly over the west and the south of Lake Eyre North (by far the bigger of the two Lakes Eyre) and then head east to the mouth of the Cooper Creek. That mouth remains closed for now though not for much longer. The water from the north is almost at the door of Lake Eyre but is still taking its time to fill in the smaller lakes near the entrance. It should spill over into Lake Eyre in the next few weeks giving it a fresh top-up of water.

We follow the Cooper eastwards to where it cuts the Birdsville Track in two. It has forced a diversion 10km east where a free ferry takes vehicles north and south over the creek. Then we crossed the barren Strzelecki Desert looking out to the massive Moomba gas fields to the south east. We flew over Innamincka but would return in a minute. Our first stop was back across the dingo fence in Queensland at the Burke and Wills Dig Tree.

The 1860-1861 Burke and Wills expedition to traverse Australia south to north was a fiasco. Arrogant Europeans knowing nothing about the tough country they were about to cross, they sent off with camels and a piano taking two months to get to Menindee, NSW when a stagecoach could do it in a week. At Bulloo Bulloo Waterhole on the present day cattle station of Nappa Merrie, just inside the Queensland border, they established a depot at Camp 65. Burke, Wills and King made a dash to the Gulf from here telling the others to wait three or four months if they could.

The men waited at Camp 65 for 4 months and 5 days from 16 December 1860 to 21 April. They left provisions under a tree marked “Dig” (now worn away by age) which were found by Burke, Wills and King when remarkably they arrived back later that day. Too weak to chase them, they set out for a SA property but failed and returned to the dig tree. The original party sent a scout back but found no sign Burke was there and they left again without leaving a sign of their own. Burke and Wills died horrible deaths but King was nursed back to health by local Aborigines to tell the story which has been etched in Australian folklore.

Certainly it was not hard to feel the magic of this beautiful spot and the tragedy that befell the men here – even if it was entirely their own making. After an hour or so we hopped back in the plane for the short 10 minute flight back to Innamincka for lunch. Burke died just to the east of here and a plaque marks the site. Innamincka township did not exist until 1890 and remained a tiny settlement until oil and gas was found by the South Australia Northern Territory Oil Search (Santos) in the 1960s. The welcoming pub does a roaring trade in tourist traffic and we enjoyed a great lunch there before flying back to Birdsville.

I wasn’t expecting much from the final leg of the journey but it was perhaps the most spectacular. We went through the magnificent Coongie Lakes which are a world heritage region. The Lakes system is recognised for its unique environment for desert plants and animals. Wading birds are plentiful, and the surrounding bush is full of desert bird species and is a bird watchers' dream. The smaller lakes scar the landscape as far as the eye can see and all were teeming with floodwaters. The last hour back to Birdsville passed by in the blink of an eye.

Getting back at 3pm we had to immediately get back into Greg’s plane and do the final one hour leg east to Windorah. This small town was unremarkable though the 150kw Solar Farm near the airport was impressive and the rodeo grounds were packed out for the annual campdraft and rodeo. We preferred to stay in the pub which had the delightful name (for me anyway) of the Western Star. It was back to Roma on Sunday to my own Western Star with plenty of memories and photographs of a great hidden part of Australia.

See Part 1.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Birdsville and Lake Eyre - Part 1

I got a message on Wednesday to contact a friend in Roma named Greg who has a pilot’s licence and his own plane. The message was simple “Greg wants to take you over Lake Eyre”. Greg popped into the office later that day to confirm the plan. He was taking three people out to Birdsville on Friday and onto the Lake on Saturday and there was a late cancellation. Was I interested, he asked. Of course I was. With the Lake reputedly full after the floods earlier this year, I agreed on the spot and got excited as Friday approached.

On the Friday morning we gathered at Roma Airport. Greg’s plane is a Cessna 182 four seater and the other two passengers squeezed into the back. I sat next to Greg as “co-pilot” though I what I knew about flying planes could be written on a matchbox. I could read maps however and enjoyed following the route on the charts on Greg’s ipad. Greg did allow me to steer the plane for 10 minutes or so while he consulted charts, something I did with a mixture of elation and terror.

We set off southwest towards Cunnamulla and got there after a hour and a bit’s flying. We weren’t stopping there but enjoyed the flyover view of the town and the Warrego river slowly ambling south towards the Darling. Our first stop was Thargomindah another hour to the west.

We followed the path of the Adventure Highway past Eulo and beautiful Lake Bindegolly National Park.
We stopped in Thargomindah and Greg had to rapidly deal with a vicious cross wind that almost dragged us off the runway on landing. After that excitement, there was the more mundane task of refuelling and eating a packed lunch at the deserted airport.

Then it was aboard, heading northwest to Birdsville. Greg took this circuitous route because he reckoned the Channel Country was more spectacular this way. He was right. The Cooper Creek stretched out like the Nile Delta cutting the brown landscape with a magnificent swathe of green. We passed Durham Downs station, a huge property just to the west of the creek, often cut off for months at a time when the Cooper was in full flood.

On the other side, a huge lake bore into view to the north. We diverted to take a look at Lake Yamma Yamma (formerly called Lake Mackillop). Yamma Yamma seldom sees any water but was full now, feeding off the waters of Cooper Creek while nearby claypans etched into the landscape.

We went briefly across the border into the moonscape of northern South Australia below Haddon Corner before angling back into Queensland for the descent into Birdsville. Perched precariously at the edge of the Simpson Desert, Birdsville survives on the infrequent waters of the Diamantina River, which like every other system in Queensland is flowing freely at the moment.

The town was founded in the 19th century to collect tolls from the droves of cattle moving interstate. Originally called Diamantina Crossing, it was given its current name in testament to vast amount of birds who call the place home. Many of them were perched over the runway making descent difficult and forcing Greg to keep the nose of the plane up on landing so if they did hit us, they would do less damage on the undercarriage. No such drama occurred and we got out to notice the iconic Birdsville Hotel handily placed across the road from the airport. The racecourse was further away on the other side of the river and will be full for the annual races at the start of September.

The town was quiet enough, though there were plenty of caravanners making the pilgrimage along the famous Birdsville Track into SA or into the Simpson Desert. We made the short walk to the caravan park to find the cabin we booked for the night and then to the impressive tourist office to pay for the charter over the Lake tomorrow. Greg decided he would rather be a passenger than a pilot for this leg and who could blame him.

Then it was onto the Birdsville Bakery (which in typical outback style is licensed to serve alcohol) for a coffee and a camel burger (which I was assured was genuine dromedary – though someone at the pub later reckoned it was beef). A walk around the spread-out town found the ruins of the Royal Hotel, the old hospital turned into a museum and Blue Poles gallery owned by the remarkable Wolfgang John.

John is a German who has made Birdsville his home for 18 years. His mother escaped eastern Germany ahead of the Soviet army in 1945 and he was brought up in Bremerhaven and then in southern Germany. But he found his true home in the Australian outback. The gallery is full of magnificent paintings of the desert he so clearly loves. I asked him was the gallery named for Pollock’s painting. No, he replied, the poles out on the veranda are blue.

All this playing the tourist made me thirsty and it was time to check out the pub where I rejoined my aircrew. Everyone went outside to catch the last rays of the sun disappear behind the airport before packing out the restaurant for a lovely dinner. Then it was back to the cabin for a coffee and an early night with the big Lake Eyre expedition to follow at 7.30am in the morning.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Australia puts high speed rail back on track

The Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, invoked the spirit of a wartime Prime Minister when he announced a new report into high speed rail in Australia today. “I wonder what one of our most revered leaders, Ben Chifley a former train driver would make of high speed rail?” Albanese asked. “As one of the greatest nation builders of the 20th century, I am confident he would have seen its potential and the possibilities it could bring.” As a topic that has been around for decades, Albanese said he looked forward to the national conversation on the topic. “It’s a conversation the Government wants to have with the community,” he said.

The report for phase one is part of a two phase strategic study into a high speed rail network (HSR) on the east coast of Australia. The study looks at potential routes from Brisbane southwards to Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, as well as the economic viability of such a network. It talks about likely corridors, options for station locations, high level costs, and forecasts about patronage, and comparative analysis of potential social and regional development impacts. Albanese has asked for feedback on the report in the next two months.

According to the Executive Summary (pdf) the study is divided into two phases. The first phase looks at costs, corridors and demand while a future phase two will look at financial feasibility, best route alignment and patronage and cost estimates and potential financing options.

At this stage, the total cost of the project is estimated as anything from $61 billion to $108 billion depending upon the corridors selected. The costs include land acquisition, stations and city access, maintenance and stabling facilities, power infrastructure, civil and rail infrastructure and IT and ticketing systems. They exclude management costs (add another 15%) and operating costs. The four corridors considered are Brisbane to Newcastle via the coast, Newcastle to Sydney, Sydney to Canberra and Canberra to Melbourne. Urban access would be by tunnel and stations would need to be in the central business district of each city.

Regional stations would be at Gold Coast, Tweed, Coffs Harbour, Gosford, Wollongong, Mittagong, Wagga, Albury and Shepparton. The Newcastle to Brisbane link is by far the most expensive leg probably due to the need to get through the mountainous Scenic Rim area on the NSW-Queensland border.

The report said people make over 100 million long distance trips on the east coast of Australia each year, and this is set to grow to 264m trips over the next 45 years. By 2036 54 million people may use an HSR network each year. The study showed inter-city non-stop running times could be around 3 hours between Brisbane and Sydney and Sydney and Melbourne, 40 minutes between Newcastle and Sydney and One hour between Sydney and Canberra. The network infrastructure would be a double-track standard-gauge electrified line with maximum operating speed of 200 km/h in the cities and 350 km/h outside. Services would be operated by eight car sets moving to 12 or 16 depending on demand.

The report identified five key issues for resolution in phase 2. These are 1. Overcoming the topographical and environmental constraints of the Sydney to Newcastle leg 2. Determining if the Sydney station is in the CBD (more costly) or in Homebush or Parramatta (reducing patronage) 3. Fitting in the Illawarra region despite its geographical challenges 4. Determining if Melbourne Airport will be on the route 5. Determining if Canberra is on the main line or on a branch.

The next phase is a Phase 2 report, due in 2012. If approved, services may be running between Sydney and Newcastle by 2020 and Melbourne and Sydney by 2025.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Horn of scarcity: Anatomy of an official famine

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has a very dry definition of a famine. More than a third of children must be suffering from acute malnutrition. Two adults or four children must be dying of hunger each day for every group of 10,000 people and the population must have access to well below 2,100 kilocalories of food per day. On 20 July, the UN decided two regions of southern Somalia met those criteria, the lower Shabelle and Bakool regions. A prolonged La Nina has led to one of the driest October-December rainy seasons ever, the second consecutive such poor season and very poor livestock production has also contributed to the crop failure which led to the drought which has led to the famine.

A new UN regional overview said the famine is likely to spread to the rest of the region. The region is suffering severe food insecurity due to drought and high food prices and there are significant refugees on the move from Somalia. The trigger for the move of tens of thousands is directly attributable to the drought but also the 20 year conflict in southern Somalia which has hindered access for humanitarian agencies.

Now those agencies are struggling to cope with the influx of Somali refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya. Malnutrition and mortality rates are alarmingly high in many parts of the region. The OCHA estimates 12.4 million people are in need of help in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. One quarter of Somalia’s 7.5 million are displaced with 3.7 million needing assistance. A further 4.8 million in Ethiopia and 3.7 million in Kenya also need help.

Feeding over 12 million people is not easy in war torn Horn of Africa but that is the task UN food agency WFP has set itself. Large parts of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda are suffering in a drought that is likely to continue to next year and with several conflicts in the region, the WFP they barely reached 40 per cent, leaving six million malnourished people who are slowly starving to death. Airlifts have started to Mogadishu and the south at the heart of the famine, with support also arriving in the camps in the border towns of Kenya and Ethiopia.

Dadaab in Kenya is getting 1,300 new arrivals every day while Dollo Ado in Ethiopia has taken in 54,000 this year with half the children malnourished. CARE operates three refugee camps in Dadaab which are home to almost 400,000 refugees, mostly from Somalia. Thos arriving suffering from malnutrition and medical problems are referred to supplementary and therapeutic feeding programs and stabilisation units in camp hospitals. Families are provided with two weeks' worth of food rations and other essentials including tents, kitchen sets, firewood and fuel-efficient stoves while awaiting registration and access to general food distributions.

The situation will worse before it gets better. The current food security emergency across the region is expected to persist at least for the coming three to four months with the number of people in need of urgent aid increasing by as much as a quarter. The crisis in southern Somalia is expected to continue to worsen through 2011, with the entire south slipping into famine. This deterioration is likely given the very high levels of both severe acute malnutrition and under-five mortality in combination with expected worsening pastoral conditions, a continued increase in local cereal prices, and a below-average crop harvest.

Australian foreign minister Kevin Rudd has just returned from the region and he said the international community has a double challenge. Firstly to ensure UN agencies have enough funding to deal with the crisis before it becomes a catastrophe; and secondly to give UN humanitarian agencies enough flexibility to make sure people get to the aid despite the war zone.

In the medium term, OCHA says interventions to rebuild and support livelihoods will be critical. “Securing long-term food and nutrition security in the Horn of Africa requires focussing on a range of issues affecting the region, including conflict, preservation of humanitarian space, nutrition, disaster risk reduction, health and education services, and climate change adaptation,” the OCHA said. “Building resilience in the agricultural sector will be essential to avoid recurrent food security crises in this region.”