Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bonds of Love and Hate: a review of Skyfall

The real James Bond was an American ornithologist and a world renowned expert on the birds of the Caribbean.  When author Ian Fleming was birdwatching in Jamaica, his guide would have been Bond’s Birds of the West Indies, the definitive textbook of avifauna in the region.  In 1953, Fleming wrote the spy novel Casino Royale and gave his hero the “brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon” name of the ornithologist.  James Bond, he said, was the dullest name he had ever heard and a suitable one for the “anonymous blunt instrument” of state policy.

By the time Fleming died in 1964, the Bond character had featured in 12 novels and two short stories. Perhaps more importantly he had made a successful transition to the big screen in three movies. Fleming didn’t immediately like the look of the little known Sean Connery before the filming of Dr No in 1962. “I’m looking for Commander Bond and not an overgrown stunt-man,” Fleming said.  Connery’s casting as the first Bond owed much to Dana Broccoli, wife of producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli. Broccoli was convinced of Connery’s sex appeal and a new image was born. In the end Fleming was so impressed by Connery he added a Scottish back story in the later novels.

Fifty years on, the writers of the latest Bond film have added a further Scottish twist in Skyfall, the 32nd entry in the durable franchise. The current Bond, Daniel Craig is from Cheshire (a fact perhaps responsible for his statement in the film during the word association when he equates Country with England) but the Bond character supposedly grew up on the remote Scottish property of Skyfall. Either way the Bond series has become a classic British institution and Bond himself the embodiment of British stiff upper lip and never say die exemplified by the Queen's complicity in the Olympic opening ceremony parachute landing.

And despite the confusion over nationality, Craig is a classic Fleming Bond. Craig is a silent, often morose, blunt instrument, or as Fleming put it “Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure”.  Skyfall captures most of the Bond nuances. There is the classy, brassy theme music, the femme fatale Bond girls, the malevolent hero, the vintage cars and suits, the “before I kill you, Mr Bond" moments and the usual spats with authority. As M (an almost wistful Judi Dench in her final outing in the role) noted, “orphans make the best agents” and no challenge is too big or too dangerous for our hero, who always retains a sense of style and dignity no matter how hairy the situation.

And matters do become extremely hairy when the lead villain is finally introduced 70 minutes into the film in a memorable long-take entrance.  Spanish actor Javier Bardem has already brilliantly played one baddie. His psychopathic assassin Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men won him a best supporting Oscar in 2007. Bardem’s CV is impressive and he wasn’t immediately sold on the idea of becoming a Bond villain. Director Sam Mendes promised Bardem he could develop the character and said the ideas about the way he looked and the hair colour -were Bardem's own. "I thought they weren't going to work," Mendes said.  "All of them worked.”

In one of Bardem’s most famous film performances, he plays the Cuban homosexual author Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Knabel’s Before Night Falls. Bardem recreates some of the sexual tension in that film when as Skyfall villain Silva, he interrogates Bond and runs his fingers across Bond's bare chest, before parting his legs. "What's your regulation training for this?" Silva asked him. Bond’s wisecrack "What makes you think it's my first time?" does nothing to dispel the notion a gay Bond might be possible.

If such a prospect would leave Fleming turning in his grave, he would be little happier with the other major sexual relationship in the film, that of Bond and M (or “Emma” as Albert Finch's gamekeeper Kincade insisted on calling her). Dench is a convincing hard-nosed matriarch whose tears for a supposedly dead Bond she cannot shed are instead provided by the rain outside her Millbank window. If it is love, it must remain a taboo as her firm insistence he could not sleep at her house showed. The oedipal undertones are underscored by the baddie Silva’s referral to her as “mother” and “mummy”. Bond shows more ornithological reserve but the tenderness in their relationship is obvious all the same.

With car chases and spectacular action sequences, Skyfall remains a commercial product designed to sell lots of theatre tickets. And though it has succeeded in being the best selling Bond movie yet, it is not the only attraction. As the minimalist gadgets supplied by Q show, Bond is a killing machine who must do most of the legwork himself. The audience is forced to either work backwards from Silva’s taunts or fill in the gaps themselves to put a human face on the enduring anonymous blunt hero.Craig’s “unromantic Anglo-Saxon” Bond remains, like the original’s birds, an enigma we never tire of watching.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Brian Leveson - media personality 2012

The 2012 Woolly Days media person of the year is Brian Leveson. Leveson is a jurist not a journalist but his impact on journalism and the world of media this year has been profound. 

The year 2012 will not go down as a great year for the world’s media. While the world’s business-as-usual pattern of production and consumption sees it barrelling down a path towards a 4 degree increase in temperature by 2100, the focus of most media attention is ever increasingly the deeply superficial.  

Commercial media have always fulfilled two purposes: to make money and to inform but it is the profit imperative which is winning clearly at the moment. The large multi-national conglomerates that own media stock look no further than the bottom line when it comes to meeting deadlines. Issues like news values and ethics are a poor second if there is no payback. Meanwhile shareholder disquiet of falling ratings or circulations can be managed quarter to quarter by cost cutting and doing more with less.  There is as a result according to Michael Mandel, a “shift in journalistic employment to non-traditional industries, an increased in the self-employed, a delayering of journalism, and perhaps lower pay.”

Brian Leveson admitted as much on his recent visit to Melbourne. The closure of a large number of newspapers has reduced the extent to which local government, health, education and the courts can be held to account. “Society will be less well served as a result”, he said. Yet Leveson was aware that even if journalism jobs are becoming diffused and of less value, the media they serve remain powerful players as editorialists, chroniclers, sensemakers, muckrakers and watchdogs. 

Their contract with the public to perform these roles is based on trust. The one-to-many broadcast model of television and the major papers ensured they always had the microphone to drown dissent. The internet and web2.0 changed all that and disapproval can amplify virally if compelling enough. The web further undermined the media’s privileged modus operandi by allowing a multiplicity of blog voices harvesting free online content often with more sagacity and insight than the journalists. Social media has forced big media to become more humble in their dealings with the public they profess to “serve”.

There remains pockets of strong resistance, with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp leading the counter-assault. This old fashioned news and entertainment empire (one of the few not owned by a non-news company) remains convinced it does not need to answer its critics. China is a rare failure but In the US, Fox News is highly successful while his 2011 plan to buy the 60.9 percent of British cable company BSkyB it did not own was just a whisker away from being successful when undone by fine journalism. 

Revelations by the Guardian journalist Nick Davies and his editor Alan Rusbridger brought the sordid hacking affair to light. The shadowy practices not only showed the need for profit greatly exceeded all other motives but described the contempt News had for its own audience. With the weight of evidence growing Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Justice Leveson in June 2011 to investigate the culture, practices and ethics of the British press as well as the dealings between the press, politicians and the police.

As testimony followed testimony, it was clear much was rotten in Murdoch’s hamlet.  It wasn’t just the attitude that privacy was for paedo’s as former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan espoused, it was the scene of serious crime. As November 2012, there had been 90 arrests on charges of interception of mobile phone messages, payment to public officials, data intrusion. The Inquiry would expose potentially corrupt dealings between senior members of the media, political parties and the police.

In nearly nine months of oral hearings, almost all available to transcript or watch online, involving 337 witnesses and 300 statements, the Inquiry became “the most public and most concentrated look at the press” Britain had ever seen. It enormous resonance not only in Britain but wherever British legal, ethical and press traditions operate, such as Australia. The numerous celebrities who portrayed themselves as “fair game” to an uncaring media, added to the notoriety of the charges. Australian media were quick to distance themselves from the phone hacking but there but for the grace of god go they at any lengths for a story. 

With such a wide ranging brief, Leveson’s Inquiry had important things to say about plurality of ownership, privacy laws, and regulation of the press, all of which got the media companies quivering in their boots. Leveson was at pains to stress his inquiry was not an attack on press freedom. However, he said, with rights came responsibilities and all too often the press has simply ignored them. Neither the press or the press council ever launched investigations into allegations of serious misdoings such as breaches of data protection or trade in private and confidential information. Indeed when the phone hacking issue was raised, police executing a warrant were driven off the News of the World premises while the Press Complaints Commission criticised the Guardian for publishing the results of their investigations into the cover-up. 

In November 2012 Leveson released his findings in a 2000 page report and 48-page executive summary.   Leveson proposed an independent replacement for the Press Complaints Commission which he said had no regulatory powers. It would have a dual role of promoting high standards of journalism while protecting the role of the individual. The new body would not include serving editors or politicians and it could impose fines and direct the appearance of corrections. 

Leveson said participation needed to be universal for the body to be properly funded and succeed in its purpose. Those that declined to be involved would forfeit the right to the in-built arbitration process and therefore could not claim costs of any civil action even if they won because they had refused the cheaper route to justice. Leveson said such a body would not regulate the press.  He did not advocate prior restraint (a point of honour with the British press since Milton’s Areopagitica in 1644). He acknowledged how the important role media plays in society “as a critical witness of events” and accepted that media and journalists have several necessary privileges under the law as “one of the true safeguards of our democracy”. Leveson said his legislation would in fact enshrine “for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press”.

However, the media did not see it that way.  Every newspaper in Britain except the Guardian rushed to denounce Leveson’s key recommendation. Biggest selling paper The Sun said it was “deeply alarmed” by the prospect of “State control of newspapers.” “Such a law could allow State officials to walk into papers like The Sun and censor stories,” it said. The Express also worried about political aprons: “To put politicians in ultimate regulatory control of newspapers and then expect them never to seek to use that power to constrain criticism or scrutiny is to place in them a degree of trust they frankly do not deserve.” 

Prime Minister David Cameron – himself implicated by the evidence of the over-close relationship between press and politics – plumped for the press over Leveson. He expressed his reservations over the legislation for the independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body.  “For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land,” Cameron said. “We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.”

High profile hacking victims such as JK Rowling expressed dismay at Cameron’s speech. “"Having taken David Cameron's assurances in good faith at the outset of the inquiry he set up, I am merely one among many who feel duped and angry in its wake," she said. The Hacked Off coalition gained 100,000 signatures calling on the government to comply with Leveson’s findings. Cameron’s coalition partners the Lib Dems are among them, so the matter rolls on, awaiting further political arbitration in the new year.

If Cameron didn’t reckon for the public outcry, then Leveson certainly did. He predicted the victims and the public would not accept the outcome “if the industry did not grasp the opportunity”. Following seven inquiries into the British press in 70 years, it “did not make sense to contemplate an eighth.” Whether short-term interest will prevail is a moot point, as is the longevity of the media’s powers of influence. What is not in doubt is that Brian Leveson has done us all a favour by pointing a strong light on its problems. Maybe then, the media can return to the problems that affect the rest of us. 

Previous Woolly Days media personalities of the year

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Allan Macpherson and Mt Abundance

The first European in the Maranoa was likely either Thomas Mitchell or his son Roderick in 1846 (though Finney Eldershaw claims he beat both Mitchells by four years in his journey of 1842).

Roderick Mitchell was the deputy Crown Commissioner for Lands in NSW who charted several branches of the Balonne River and may have got as far as the Bungil and Bungeworgorai Creeks. His journeys, and probably his maps, undoubtedly helped his father Sir Thomas Mitchell, then surveyor-general of NSW on his trip to the Maranoa in 1846. Sir Thomas Mitchell took the same route up the Darling River system into Queensland. He was the first person to describe Mt Abundance and the rich area around it.  He called it the Fitz Roy Downs in honour of the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Charles Fitz Roy.
It was no coincidence it was Mitchell followed his son, nor was there a coincidence about the man that followed Sir Thomas to become the first white settler of the Maranoa.

His name was Allan Macpherson.

Macpherson's father William was the clerk of the NSW parliament and just as important as Mitchell.
They were both from Scotland and good friends too. Mitchell was also fond of William’s son Allan, a determined and ambitious young man. Allan was an adventurer who ran cattle and sheep on his Keera property in the remote Gwydir district of northern NSW. While the hilly country reminded him of his native Scotland, it wasn't profitable. Macpherson was captivated by Mitchell's description of Mt Abundance as "champaign country" and was determined to claim it for himself.

Knowing that "first come first served" meant possession under British law, he set off north-west along the river system for the promised land in July 1847. Macpherson had more than just Mitchell's maps, he had an armada of help: ten thousand sheep, hundreds of cattle, dozens of horses and drays and twenty men. The going was slow - they travelled just 60km in the first two weeks - but by the end of September his team was at the natural ford or "rocky bar" on the Balonne that Mitchell (senior) called St George's Bridge because he arrived there on the saint’s day,  April 23.

St George was not just the patron saint of England, it was also the last settled part of the English realm.
Not a single white man or woman lived north of the bridge. MacPherson crossed his Rubicon but was forced to halt for lambing season. Leaving the sheep behind, he finally gazed on Mt Abundance on Friday, October 15, 1847. Macpherson found Mitchell had not exaggerated about the quality of the land. "A glorious prospect!" he enthused.

He claimed a farm 30km across from the Cogoon River (now Muckadilla Creek) in the west to Bungeworgorai Creek in the east. The sight of the first natives two weeks later scared his men witless. Macpherson shamed them as cowards and he spent the following months building huts, cattle and sheep yards and fencing. Macpherson built several outstations including a cattle station on the spot of what would later become Roma.

The distance to the port of Newcastle was forbidding and Macpherson hoped to find a closer route to Brisbane via the Darling Downs. Urgent farmwork tied him down at Mt Abundance and after Christmas he went back to Keera for more supplies and drays. In January 1848, Macpherson got caught up in what would be a formidable foe for all who would live in the area: summer floods. Macpherson was constantly wet and bogged in heavy and impassable country with swollen fast-moving creeks.

He eventually made it to Keera but his return to the Maranoa was also delayed by floods. It was again a fleeting visit as Keera and Sydney demanded his presence on urgent family business. It was on his third return to St George's Bridge, Macpherson received the bad news Mt Abundance had been attacked.
Two men in outstations were speared to death and the rest were fleeing south.

Macpherson found them where the Cogoon met the Balonne but was able to convince only one of his men to accompany him back to Mt Abundance. The blacks were gone but there was a lot to be fixed. The experience redoubled his efforts to find a more direct route to the Darling Downs. The furthest he got was to a nearby station east of the Bungil owned by James Alexander Blythe.

Blythe was one of the earliest travellers to the Maranoa after Mitchell and had come back to establish a property between Roma and Wallumbilla. Macpherson was also fortunate to survive a skirmish with Aboriginals on his return home to Mt Abundance but his servant Charley was missing presumed dead. By the end of 1848, Macpherson became convinced it was too unprofitable to run sheep due to "blacks, losses, native dogs and overcrowding."

He turned Mt Abundance into a cattle property but the native attacks continued and three of his workers were speared in March 1849.After two more wool-carriers were killed, Macpherson and the new Commissioner of Crown Lands John Durbin patrolled the area with mounted troopers gathering the wool and taking it south. But Macpherson had had enough.

He went off to Scotland to get married and Mt Abundance remained an expensive and unprofitable out station. He sold it on his return “for a song". As Macpherson said, "it was by no means the first pioneers that reaped the golden returns, but those who were prudent enough to follow in their wake."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Business Issues: On 2DayFM and the death of a woman in London.

When looking for culprits in any suspicious death,  it is safe to assume someone running away from the scene, has something to hide. On Saturday, two of Australia’s largest companies,  Coles and Telstra were seen running away from Southern Cross Austereo’s radio station 2Day FM with indecent haste after one of Sydney station’s prank calls apparently led to the suicide death of a nurse in a faraway London four days later.

It is safe to assume that despite their infantile behaviour with the prank, 2Day FM DJs Michael “MC” Christian and Mel Greig never intended to cause harm to any of the participants. After being hiding for several days, the company wheeled them out to tell their stories to Channel's 7 and 9 tonight. They have both apologised which is more than can be said  of station management and its legal advisers who reviewed and approved the tape before it was played on air. No doubt the justification for not spiking it was the media attention it was going to get for so easily breaching royal security.

Today seems so far from last Wednesday, when two jolly 2Day FM station hosts were conducting the breezy on air patter beloved of  morning FM radio stations across the planet, They told listeners they had hold of the telephone number at King Edward VII Hospital in London where Kate Middleton was  staying. Michael “MC” Christian informed listeners they would “try and get Kate Middleton or even Prince Wills on the line”. They did not tell listeners this was not live.

Michael was to act the role of Prince Charles, Mel was the Queen and another staff member provided the yelps for a royal corgi.  How the hospital did not see beyond this half-baked plot remains a mystery especially when the fake upper class accent of Greig (supposedly the Queen) asks to speak for “Kate, my granddaughter.”
Nurse Jacintha Saldanha  didn’t ask for any further proof of identification (glossing over the fact the Queen is not Kate’s grandmother) and passed the caller onto Kate’s ward. There another nurse was further duped by Mel, Michael and the corgi’s increasing ludicrous vaudeville acting into revealing matters of the patient’s health.

Saldanha may have died of the shame of being so duped and breaching a trust of confidence but no one comes out of this smelling of roses.

This is astonishingly poor risk management by Austereo, particularly as they must have known they were dealing with material of international important given the worldwide prurient interest in the Royal Couple and their future baby.  There is a case the material should be in the public domain, particularly as an expose of poor hospital security protocols but Austereo presumably didn’t think they could make money that way.

So they played it for laughs.  There was some negative reaction in the days that followed but mostly they got away with  it.  Grandfather-to-be Prince Charles joked about it asking newspaper reporters “How do you know I’m not a radio station?  Meanwhile British newspapers gleefully repeated  some of the juicy titbits the second nurse gave to 2Day FM.

Then Saldanha died on Saturday, and no one was laughing. British media  and social networks became holier than thou and launched a firestorm of protest against the station and its two DJs. Mel and Michael were whisked away into hiding and their twitter accounts summarily deleted.

Others fled quickly too with reports of Telstra and Coles speedily ceasing their advertising with 2DayFM (but not Southern Cross Austereo’s other stations).  Telstra told AAP they had suspended “advertising on the station until an investigation into the issue has concluded”. Neither they nor Coles issued media releases to confirm their actions. A check of Coles newsroom boasts “there’s always something new happening at Coles,” but they didn’t see their abandonment of 2DayFM in their moment of crisis newsworthy of a media release.

What Coles did do was put their justification on Facebook.
We understand Australians are clearly angry and upset by what appear to be tragic consequences of the 2Day FM UK hospital prank,” the retailer wrote.
“We have wanted to let you know we have instructed 2Day FM to remove all Coles group advertising from the station as soon as possible.”

That post brought almost 2000 comments with also half the respondents thinking Coles’ reaction was over the top.
 “It was a funny joke, get over it", said Anthony Paino before reminding Coles of other things they should boycott. ‘ How about your remove all caged eggs and pork from your shelves," he said.

Helz Jessop asked would they stop selling alcohol if they killed someone drink driving while Abbi Hamilton was looking for patriotism: “Why not do something proper and remove all imported food and drinks from your aisles?" she said.

Phil Young said it was advertisers like Coles that  made the radio stations "untouchable and unaccountable,” Young said. “Now that Coles have suddenly got a conscience they might look at some of the other stuff they are involved in that causes harm.”

Coles can attempt to take the high ground with their move. But the fact remains they only boycotted it after Saldanha’s death - they presumably thought the content was not objectionable at the time as it was played.

The big companies' rapid stampede to the exit after the media firestorm on Saturday caused the station to cover their tracks similar to the way it handled stablemate Alan Jones’s “died of shame” comment. A spokeswoman for Austereo, Sandy Kay,let the cat out of the bag when she confirmed to AAP that there would be no advertising on 2Day FM over the weekend. 

"We have suspended advertising at least until Monday on that radio station in Sydney out of respect to advertisers until business issues can really be addressed,' Kay said.  It was respect to advertisers Austereo was worried about, not respect to the dead woman.

And what did Kay mean by “business issues” that could be resolved in a couple of days? Perhaps she was thinking the Jones boycott lasted only a couple of weeks and advertisers were desperate to be associated with their high-rating product no matter how juvenile or crass the consequences.

Mel and Michael were idiots but they were just doing what the station and their advertisers expected of them. As radio DJ Jason ‘Jabba’ Davis said audiences want to be in on the joke.
“As broadcasters we want to make people laugh, but we need to pull it off without dishing out grief to the undeserving,” Davis said.
 If you are feeling suicidal, don’t mess around. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14