30 May 2009

Your guess is as good as mine



North Korea has detonated a nuclear weapon, and even as they condemn people are looking for guidance as to what's going on, what this means and what might happen next. The traditional place to look is the media, yet for Australians there is simply nothing on offer that can give the information required to make sense of it all.

First, Fairfax got the website guy from the Lowy Institute, and he has no idea:
As with every previous act of military bravado from Pyongyang, the latest nuclear test is being parsed and dissected for its "messages". But sometimes a nuclear test is just a nuclear test.

What a load of wank. At no time from nobody can it be said that "a nuclear test is just a nuclear test". It's the biggest and baddest weapon there is, and it's always about sending a message, every single time. Glibness is intended to convey a deep reservoir of knowledge becalmed by emotional balance, but it actually conveys the opposite: Roggeveen hasn't really considered what little he knows, and has lunged for the bucket o' clich├ęs in the hope there might be something there for him. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar", said Sigmund Freud; but at no time is a nuclear weapon just a cigar.
That's not to rule out that North Korea wanted to send a message of defiance to the United States and its allies. But this test should not be seen just as an elaborate performance for the benefit of foreigners - it is not always about us.

So what's it about? Is it some internal power play?
... there is the inescapable strategic logic that nuclear weapons give the North Korean regime what it most wants: security for itself and the country. Nothing the North Koreans do for themselves - or the US offers - will perform that task better than nuclear weapons.

So it is about foreigners after all, Sam, because if you want security from external threats you have to send them a message about your strength, don't you? Why not just say that? "The North Korean government was feeling a little insecure so it let off a nuclear weapon, with the implied threat that there's more where that came from, the end."
So what hope of a peaceful solution? Some have argued that the Bush administration took its foot off North Korea's throat in 2007 when it ended some financial sanctions in exchange for a new nuclear deal, on which Pyongyang subsequently stalled and dissembled.

Some?!?!?!? Who are these "some"?! Take down their names and send them to Greg Sheridan at once!
NORTH Korea's nuclear test and missile launchings offer sad and perhaps startling lessons. Lesson No.1: So far, the Barack Obama charm and kindness offensive has had no positive results in any conflict anywhere in the world.

Obama may believe he can change the world with a smile, a willingness to consult, extravagant official humility and a dose of undeniable charm. He is indeed not George W. Bush. Guess what? It makes not one tiny jot of difference to North Korea's Kim Jong-il or, indeed, to any of the world's dictators, terrorists, nuclear rogues or other bad guys.

Let us not forget, as Greg has, that at this point in the Bush Administration the then-US President was begging the Chinese for the return of a spyplane which they had brought down inside their airspace and which they were busy reverse-engineering. Look at that key phrase, "Obama may believe", as though Obama were just like every other Democrat happy to act as a blank canvas for the projection of Greg's silly and shallow theories.
Perhaps the financial sanctions that brought North Korea to the table once before deserve another chance.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Perhaps nothing much was achieved at that table, the venue for all that stumbling and dissembling. Perhaps it's not worth pinning your hopes on a possibility from which no progress on any issue arising from this (the security of the northwestern Pacific, the rights and aspoirations of North Korean people, take your pick). Having attempted to hose down other people's hopes and fears, it's pathetic to offer this as some sort of - well, if not a solution, then some hoped-for process.
It would also help if China and Russia did more to convince Pyongyang to change course.

That's it? Hopin' and wishin', the same strategy that has beset Western policy on the peninsula since 1953. While you'd expect Greg Sheridan to have none of that, his bombast gland has poisoned his ability to perceive reality:
Lesson No.2: China is overestimated as a geo-strategic partner and as a central player in any solution to the problems North Korea presents. ... Why? Because the status quo suits China ... If South and North Korea reunited on the model of East and West Germany the whole peninsula would become a democracy ... a reunited Korea would almost certainly remain an ally of the US. Although China doesn't like the trickle of refugees it gets from North Korea now, it would hate sharing a 1400km border with a bold, prosperous, rich ally of the US. The refugee flow would then be the other way.

Far better to have a Stalinist buffer state, so long as it does not become so erratic as to directly endanger Chinese security.

This assumes that maintaining a Stalinist buffer state is sustainable. North Koreans and Chinese from regions bordering North Korea need only travel to the great cities of southern China to know just how badly they've been had. There, jobs and prosperity beyond the dreams of these wretched people is available because of capitalism and trade with other countries - the very countries from which the North Korean regime seeks protection.
But the six-party talks have conferred splendid benefits on Beijing. They not only afforded Beijing great prestige from hosting them, they also offered Beijing a superb diplomatic lever with Washington. The US State Department bent over backwards not to annoy the Chinese in case it led to them going slow on the six-party talks. Now Kim's tests have shown us, whether the Chinese were acting in good faith or not, they have achieved absolutely nothing that we want on North Korea.

And how is doing nothing prestigious, Greg?

Sheridan's "lessons" seem to be that nothing has really changed and that recent events represent just another step on the treadmill of dealing with North Korea. It's the mentality that left us unprepared for the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and for September 11. This flatulent certitude Sheridan engages in simply isn't helpful in understanding this complex issue.
To all who pin their hopes on the US military colossus, consult an atlas. North Korea's military may be decrepit, but it can mass enough Soviet-era artillery pieces on its border to do a great deal of damage to Seoul and a number of other cities close to the 38th parallel.

Consult a history book while you're at it, Sam. Chinese and Soviet military forces put paid to American adventurism in 1953 and while Greg Sheridan might sneer at Obama today, the very idea of US military action against North Korea has been a non-starter for almost seventy years. This is a straw man worthy of Sheridan himself.
Military action against North Korea would be utter folly.

Seoul, is barely 30km from the border. Across the border is a range of gentle hills. In those hills North Korea has nestled thousands of artillery pieces. The North could cause untold devastation in Seoul in the first hours of any conflict.

Strangely, Greg is not suggesting a pre-emptive strike, like he did with Iraq. Only the geography is different (including the lack of oil): the mad and belligerent dictator and the WMDs, they're all there Greg. Smite those peacenik wimps who would have the 38th remain one of the world's festering sores. Why do they hate our freedoms, Greg?

Sam isn't afraid to dream:
Perhaps the only hope lies in attempts to reform North Korea itself. That way, even if Pyongyang never disarms it would at least slowly become a more "normal" country that is less belligerent, more predictable and a more responsible nuclear custodian.

Is North Korea flexible enough to bend without breaking, or would it (to coin a phrase) melt down, as Pakistan is in the process of doing? Would it stay a "nuclear custodian", or would these be yanked back to Russia and China like the Soviet nukes were from eastern Europe after the Warsaw Pact dissolved? Greg Sheridan considers these matters in his muddled way:
What, then, is to be done? The problem cannot be ignored. The North Koreans have an appalling record of nuclear and missile proliferation, specifically to Syria and Iran ... some things can be done. One is to make maximum effort to prevent North Korea from proliferating nuclear material and technology.

North Korean nuclear technology came from Pakistan. It illustrates another failure of realism - containment. Kennan was conceiving of containment at the very time that nuclear secrets were leaking to the Soviet Union, and to even speak now of containment is ridiculous. Sheridan himself admitted it was ridiculous, yet he has nothing left to offer but empty procedure, just like Lowy's website boy.

All journalists have let us down when it comes to this issue, repeating the same old crap and accepting intelligence failure as just one of those things you just have to put up with. Clearly, it isn't - this blog and the story that followed, not led, the blog are running rings around flatulent clowns in the journosphere like Sheridan and Roggeveen. We are all poorly served by their intellectual and moral laziness, and the demise of newspapers as a business cannot but follow their demise as the source of information on our world.

25 May 2009

Tony Abbott is gutless



In this piece, Phillip Coorey reckons Tony Abbott wants a debate - but he doesn't really. He wants to exert the same degree of control over a supplicant Parliamentary Liberal Party and a mendicant populace that John Howard had. The only debates Tony Abbott wants are those that don't change anything. Phillip Coorey has no right to take Abbott at his word.
Abbott, however, does feel he has a much bigger contribution to make than his current role of being down in the pecking order in the shadow ministry and not in the thick of day-to-day tactical decisions.

Aww, does he? Howard put him in the thick of it and the Coalition lost office. Julia Gillard and Nicola Roxon got where they are today by climbing all over this master tactician, and putting him back will do three things, neither of them favourable to the Liberal Party

  1. It would reward petulance.

  2. The case that the Opposition's parliamentary tacticians have failed has not been made.

  3. Every ambitious Labor politician, particularly the women, know that they can bounce off Abbott to raise their profile. Abbott will think this makes him rock-like and resolute, when all it does is make him look inert and an easy mark.

Tony Abbott cannot take on women. A man who learned his "people skills" on the rugby fields of Riverview and who fled from his first encounter with female fertility by slinking into a seminary has an Achilles heel when it comes to the subtleties of doing battle with women. The one time he was caught playing hardball with a female opponent - "That's bullshit" - reinforced his weakness, his sheer unsuitability, for the subtleties of modern politics.
Abbott's manifesto will recognise that all new Oppositions need to do some soul-searching to rediscover what they believe in and where they want to go before being fit to return to government.

Abbott doesn't want to do any soul-searching. He thinks that the hard line taken by Howard on social issues and the free-for-all on boomtime economic policies was absolutely right. Abbott believes that any opposition can be corralled neatly into a Manichean mindset that to fail to agree with everything Howard did is to be anti-Liberal. There is no evidence that Tony Abbott promotes debate - he issues pronouncements and makes ad-hominem attacks on his opponents, but no debates. Try and find a debate on his website. This is not a debater - if the elbow to the face does not take out an opponent, he is lost, bereft, useless to himself and others.
The success of the Howard government was a product of the directional debates and arguments the party had during its 13 wilderness years, Abbott believes.

Two things come from that paragraph:

  1. ... and its failure because the ideas to which Tony Abbott cleaves were cemented in place until it became impossible for the Liberals to change course without losing government. Howard won within the Liberal Party in 1995, and beyond it in '96, by reaching out to moderates. The longer he spent in office the less moderate he became, until the country just didn't recognise him any more and tossed him out.

  2. Phillip Coorey and his employer should not be plugging a book they haven't read.

Back to Phillip:
The book will be conservative in its thrust and there will be policy ideas, including advocating a more aggressive approach to fix our dysfunctional system of federation than John Howard or Rudd was willing to embrace.

Essentially, the Commonwealth should call the shots and individual states should no longer be able to veto policy.

That's not terribly conservative, Phillip. Reducing the country's original level of responsible government to the world's biggest municipalities sounds pretty radical to me. As Health Minister, Tony Abbott liked to swagger around and lord it over the states without actually accepting responsibility for the expensive, messy and often heartbreaking business of running hospitals and promoting good health. Nothing at all conservative about rights without responsibilities, as Julian Leeser could tell you.
Abbott's book, like most things he does, will no doubt be controversial because its aim is to generate debate.

Its aim is to stifle debate within the Liberal Party, to claim an authority for himself that was always scrounged, delegated from Howard.
The author believes it will become a problem only if debate dissolves into rancour.

The author will ensure, Phillip, that any debate descends into rancour so that he can use people like you to rise above it.
As recently as budget week, there was another "robust" internal debate, this time over a bill Labor introduced in March to abolish the system in which immigration detainees have to pay the costs of their own incarceration.

Coorey then goes on to give the policy background of this debate, as though the Liberals are still in government and that their policy is synonymous with that of government. It is this confusion that helps cement the Liberals in Opposition. Besides, in Budget week they had so little idea what to do that they decided to pick on the reffos?
The Opposition immigration spokeswoman, Sharman Stone, took a submission to shadow cabinet recommending the Coalition support the bill. She was rolled.

It was argued that the Opposition could not blame Labor's "softening" of policy for the latest surge in boat arrivals, and then support such a bill. Furthermore, the Coalition believed philosophically that taxpayers should not bear the full cost of illegal arrivals. The party room ratified the decision on budget day and only a few moderates, including Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan, complained.

Even when the moderate view prevails in shadow cabinet, the conservatives keep fighting. One source has described a tactic becoming more commonplace during sitting weeks in which shadow ministers meet in small groups to discuss having the party room overturn or influence a shadow cabinet decision.

In other words, the conservatives undermine the leader. Remember if you dare the sheer outrage, the effrontery that resulted from backbenches daring to hint at questioning outcomes of Cabinet. Every instance is a slap in the face of the leader. Turnbull thinks he can sail over petty needling like this, but Howard knew better and used procedural measures like this to undermine every leader he ever served, from Snedden to Downer. Turnbull should jump on the next instance of this with both feet and sack Abbott and Minchin - and replace them with moderates - should they dare to hint at doing the like again.

This nebulous term "softening" is also designed as a prophylactic on debate. At the end of the day, you can have all the debate you like, you can raise factoids like this:
Australia is the only country that charges detainees - even those found to be lawfully in the country - for their board and transport costs. The charge is currently $125.40 a day. Some accrue debts of more than $100,000, which severely hampers their attempts to settle in the country once released.

The system is costly to administer. Of the $54 million in debts accrued to June 30, 2008, only 3.3 per cent was recovered.

Before the advent of the Howard government, and Tony Abbott's political career, laughable impracticalities like that put paid to stupid policies, never to be spoken of again. It's not cost recovery, it's extortion. In the Liberal Party of Abbott and pals, you can not just defend but aggressively promote any policy on the basis of it being "hard" or "tough", and oppose anything by labelling it "soft". That's not a debate, it's a slanging match, and that's exactly how Tony Abbott likes it. It's how he's always operated Phillip, and if you're going to play the old Canberra hand you should know that, and say that.
"A shadow cabinet submission gets put under some backbencher's door. It gives the outcome of the shadow cabinet and then they caucus to get that decision overturned.

"They make sure the backbenchers do it in tandem. When they go into the party room they're quite organised. One will jump up, and then the next will jump up and it's co-ordinated."

He believes the tactic was used to ensure the Coalition opposed outright the $42 billion stimulus package.

The next Liberal Prime Minister will never put up with being played like that. Turnbull might, but even Alexander Downer could pick that for the slow-acting poison that it was when he saw it.

You can't debate with a closed book, and no one knows that better than the author. After The Costello Memoirs it should not be surprising in itself that Liberals write books. Writing a book is impressive for anyone who doesn't read much other than newspapers, and gives Abbott an authority he hasn't otherwise earned. Abbott whinged about his income going down after 2007 (if Sol Trujillo and Andrew Maiden can be rewarded for failure, why not Abbott?), the Liberal version of "relevance deprivation syndrome" that Labor accepted with better grace in '96. Tony Abbott wants to turn the Liberal Party into his ideological plaything. In the absence of any countervailing opinion, any representative of the broader public interest that tossed out the Coalition, any guts at all - it may be best that the Liberal Party go exactly where this lot would have it go, and if they get lonely in their cupboard under a set of stairs somewhere they can dare to dream that Liberalism might mean a vision for Australia that John Howard could never imagine.
Tony Abbott is not crazy enough to believe that he will ever lead the Liberal Party

Yes he is, Phillip. Costello is too gutless and all the other happy little Minchinites are too young. Let Tony Abbott's publishers do their own PR and stop accepting his assumptions as your own, and your readers'. Read the book and relate it to reality as best you can, and show us how this government is secure so long as Abbott's petulance gushes forth - whether sneaking around the backrooms or making a fool of himself in plain sight. Keep it up Phillip and you could be the next Glenn Milne.

17 May 2009

The best ever debate on Australian television



This is the best debate ever on Australian television.

It concerns a serious issue discussed seriously by knowledgeable people. None of them resort to platitudes or sarcasm. There will never be a debate in any Australian Parliament this good. No episode of Q&A, nothing ever said or written by Laurie Oakes or Michelle Grattan, no dialogue with Sister Geraldine from Our Lady of the Doogues will ever resist the urge to be snide, patronising or solipsistic as in this debate.

I wish it weren't true and that Australian politics and media could lift its game. And even though it can't, we deserve better and I'll always be pissed off that we don't get the media-politics we deserve.

13 May 2009

Feeling sorry



You'd be surprised how easy it is to avoid commentating on the hoo-ha at The Monthly, even when you're a subscriber. However, if I was a former Federal Treasurer on the day following a Budget delivered by my successor, I'd hope for a bit more decorum and gravitas than Peter Costello had shown here. The article starts with the perpendicular pronoun and plunges into a self-absorbed morass of twaddle.
To quote Eddie McGuire, Warhaft was "boned" at the magazine

The whole controversy over that comment by Eddie McGuire, then CEO of Channel Nine, about the prospect of dismissing a female employee was the crude sexism of it. Costello does himself no favours by bringing that back up and smearing it over himself. Costello is probably not a sleazy man, but why even go there? He's a former industrial relatios lawyer, he should be able to come up with another euphemism for "sacked" (if not use the word outright) to describe Ms Warhaft's state of employment.
[Sally Warhaft, then editor of The Monthly] had been inviting Malcolm Turnbull to write for her magazine and said if I was Opposition leader she hoped I would respond to those invitations. She went on to say she didn't "want to live in a one-party state." After our television appearance, Warhaft proposed to her editorial board that they publish a reply from me. She wanted to open the pages up to different parties.

Assuming, of course, that Costello and Turnbull are in different parties, and that the idea of Turnbull not being Opposition Leader because he has my full support, &c.
The Monthly is owned and financed by Morry Schwartz. He has done well out of the capitalist system and he uses his own money to publish the magazine. He has every right to decide what views he wants to publish. If he wants to criticise market capitalism then so be it. If he doesn't want a contrary view then so be it. It's his magazine.

But he cannot hold the magazine open to only one side and then claim it is open to competing views. Plainly his magazine is not open to both sides of debate.

I think you need more evidence than your own personal experience to make a claim like that. It is a lively and vigorous journal which does publish competing points of view on a range of issues: civil liberties, various controversies in the arts, questions on Aborigines and their place in our society, a range of matters which involve more sides of a debate than one or two.

If Schwartz or Robert Manne had wanted a piece on Peter Costello's views, they could just contact Peter Coleman directly. It is inconceivable that Manne and Coleman, two former editors of Quadrant, haven't met. Indeed, Coleman's book The Costello Memoirs sets out as much as anyone would want to know about this ruse whereby Costello lumbers around signing things and Coleman explains to him and through him why he did them.

This is Costello at his student politics worst: complaining that he's being "censored" when he's just being ignored. As many people as were ever going to buy The Costello Memoirs have already done so, and rather than ask for a bit of media space to squeeze out a few more sales he thunders about censorship - a frightful apparition to a liberal like Manne. We've all seen this trick before - conservatives shriek about "censorship" when they are not published in a non-conservative magazine - then once they bend over backwards to accommodate them, said magazine becomes "a confusing mishmash of styles" in unfavourable contrast to the dull conformity "strong clear voice" of the tory mags.
And this is where I feel sorry for Warhaft. She was asked on live television whether she would publish a reply to Rudd. She said she would. But in fact she was not allowed to - at least not allowed to publish one from me. What should she have said on television that night? "No we won't publish Costello because we disagree with his view."

Firstly, Costello doesn't have a view, as such. Secondly, as Costello points out, he has other opportunities to publish: a regular column in The Daily Fairfax (taking over Josh Frydenberg's old spot) and as much of Quadrant or The Strain Spectator or whatever. Thirdly, for all his pity for Warhaft, he's asking her to second-guess her superiors about a decision which hasn't been put to them. Schwartz and Manne are right to regard Costello as beneath, rather than merely opposed, to their publication.
In 1982 Manne edited The New Conservatism In Australia. This was not a book bemoaning conservatism in Australia. It was one extolling it. Manne wrote in the introduction "much of the more original and interesting social and political criticism in Australia seemed to come from those whom I regarded as being, in one way or another, on the political 'right'."

To be fair to him, when he wrote that he was going through a conservative phase. As he explains in his book Left Right Left he has now shifted back again the other way.

But it might still be true that there is interesting social and political criticism on the conservative side.

No, it isn't. The political energy that was with the conservative side of politics has dissipated since 1982, into a dark pit of Cheneyism or shallow news-cycle politics like you find from David Cameron (like the government-by-press-release we have in NSW, only the Tories aren't in government).
You'll never know if you don't hear it.

Heard it, read it, got the T-shirt. Costello is hardly the only conservative writer out there grappling with the sheer bankruptcy of their position, and even if there were a renaissance Costello would be following rather than leading it. There's nothing there, Peter, and nobody knows that better than you. There's no alternative to work with, let alone to work for - and even if you do bully your way into The Monthly like Miranda Devine has with the SMH, you'll produce nothing of value.

Time was that a small number of publishers owned and controlled media outlets in this country, and that if they had some real or imagined grievance against you, you were pretty much silenced. This is no longer the case, and Costello knows it. He could probably produce an extended piece of tendentiousness no better than Rudd's, if his father-in-law is good enough to write it for him - but that would be beside the point.

In picking an intellectual fight with some old lefties running a little magazine in Melbourne, Costello is trying to pick a fight that he doesn't have the weaponry or the guts to wage. He can't even take on Wayne Swan's mixed performance in his old job, but a couple of guys in Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar minding their own business are worthy opponents, apparently. Pick on someone your own size and you might be considered PM material; pick on the sort of people you were going after as a student activist or in the HR Nicholls Society, and you might find yourself bounced back into civilian life sooner than you might like. It is one thing to come off second-best to John Howard, or to bounce ineffectively off the sheer hide of Rudd and Swan, but at this stage Sally Warhaft has achieved about as much in her field as Peter Costello has in his. No wonder you feel sorry for her.

08 May 2009

Calling shenanigans on Media Waste



Media Watch has always been a funny show, an attempt to demonstrate that a bunch of people similarly employed are actually a profession, rather than a trade, a craft or even a rabble. It is not designed for "the little people" (and stuff Littlemore and Jackson for even using that term), it is a show trial without any teeth. The only members of the public engaged in this solipsistic activity are those genuinely outraged when the local TV presenter in Launceston splits an infinitive or when a headline in the Northern Territory News gets single-entendre rather than double.
Fortunately, nowhere did we get a sense of the uncomfortable fit of having journalists or ex-journalists televisually transformed into moral guardians of the entire craft. And they didn't even need to get a special licence to do it.

Why have journalists sit in judgment on it, then? In every other field (except, perhaps, Ackland's other profession - the law) the quality of output is judged by consumers. If you buy a pie and there's something in it which shouldn't be, you don't write to Bakery Watch and have some supercilious baker raise and eyebrow at someone they used to work/drink/sleep/spar with back in the day.

This is why Richard Ackland can underestimate the dire state of his part-time occupation with a snide description like this:
... miles of tasteless, corrupt, venal, nasty media shenanigans ...

Groupthink, rehashing proven failures, proven gutlessness and other examples of professional failure are not "shenanigans", Richard. Media Watch doesn't go after real examples of professional failure. It dare not. Nor, however, does it go after issues so trivial that journosphere insiders like Ackland or Richard Glover could just brush it off.
The market for intrusive and shoddy journalism has never been better ... The commercial TV current affairs shows keep dishing up the same old malarky.

In the 20 years since Media Watch went on air, Australian consumption of mainstream news media has plummeted. This is because what fascinates journalists (i.e. news producers) and what fascinates news consumers are not the same thing. If Media Watch is an inside job, then one bit of malarky is just as good/bad as another and see you at the pub Richard.
Maybe there was a temporary clean-up of the payola and plugola that corrupted journalism, and/or "entertainment", but I wonder whether the edge might be wearing off and in more troubled times journalists are not as fussed about subsidies from undisclosed sponsors. The naming and the shaming will have to go on for centuries before there is a real change.

Either that, or what the journosphere is up against here is doing professional standards in a half-arsed way. Anyone can be a journalist, and any recorded output by someone employed by a journalist is journalism. The assumption there is that all journalism is fit for consumption merely by virtue of it having been produced. The idea that journalistic standards would be developed and enforced by the addition of a token disclosure thing before, after or during some obtuse news story is to miss the point.
In the end the market will have a bigger say in determining the tone and shape of journalism than Media Watch.

If you're ready to accept that self-regulation has failed in banking, you can accept that it has failed in journalism too. For all his world-weary cynicism, Richard Ackland is the last journalist in Australia who is still in thrall to The Market as the source of all wisdom (well, other than Terry McCrann).

That said, Ackland does have a point when he hints at consumers and the extent to which they are informed and entertained by news media. Like Paola Totaro, I expect this will be short-lived and that Ackland will slip back into judging journalism solely by the standards of those who produce it, in the echo-chamber of the journosphere.
Where else can they turn for protection against Channels Nine and Seven poking cameras into their messy lives?

If you turn to those channels, Richard, you can see that some people quite like having cameras poked into their messy lives. At least the various incarceration systems in this country don't compound prisoners' humiliation by making one's every word and deed the subject of water-cooler discussion, like Big Brother did. Indeed, if you go to other sites on this here interweb you'll see some very messy pictures indeed emanating from people's messy lives. It is no more a "reality" to protect "the little people" (or force them/us into a corner) than it is a reality to shove a camera in someone's face to prove nothing other than Heisenberg was right.

It's interesting that there appears to be a news/current affairs apartheid, to which Ackland, Media Watch and other "professionals appear wilfully blind. For example:

  • Highbrow media will interview, say, the Treasurer about unemployment rising/falling, whether welfare benefits will increase, homelessness or housing prices.

  • Lowbrow media will investigate welfare recipients abusing the conditions of their payments, or tenants who trash their accommodation.

Neither make a connection: it is a legitimate public policy question as to what to do with tenants who don't respect property or recipients who breach a public trust while at the same time having no other means of support. Ask the Treasurer about welfare bludgers or the Housing Minister about unruly tenants - that's the real reason why these shows are exploitative, they run the same old stories and nothing gets done, simply because they want to run the same old stories.

As ratings plummet and their impact dissipates, they console themselves that they run the same old stories. What consoles the media is not the same as what informs people.
The editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, is of another view. He thinks Media Watch is composed of left-wing journalists who "hate the poor".

Can the team that puts this show out simultaneously hate the very people they are protecting?

If indeed they are protecting them, Richard. It is possible that someone's stated aims differ from the consequences of their actions. It is possible that Chris Mitchell's staff consist of the only people in Australia who are dumber than he is. It is also possible how easy it is to brush off a hackneyed insider game like Media Watch when you stand up and say: I don't want to play any more.

News Ltd and the ABC have strong internal cultures which protect insiders against the herd mentality of the Australian media. A journalist who occasionally comes up with a story that goes against the received wisdom of the journosphere can (but not always does) find support within those organisations to build a case that proves a long-standing assumption no longer applies, and indicate what the new reality might be - which is the essence of quality journalism. They don't always do it, but quality journalism is possible from within those organisations. The same is true about SBS to a lesser extent, because it is more fragile and more interesting for that. This used to be the case with Fairfax and Channel Nine, but no more. It has never been true about Seven or Ten.
... humour is a more powerful weapon in exposing media double standards than all the tub-thumping and sonorous lectures put together.

Yeah, but all that happened was that Ray Martin was replaced and that the same old crap continued. Laughter is the best medicine only if you regard the role of medicine as palliative rather than curative. Could it be that "tub-thumping and sonorous lectures put together" - a summary of the running sheet for every episode of Media Watch - was selected precisely because it was designed to change nothing of any significance?
Last night's show ended with the current Media Watch executive producer, Jo Puccini, saying the program has concentrated more of its energies on examining online journalism. She added that the future of journalism is in a state of flux.

This is like saying that she's going to investigate TV rather than radio - it's not the medium, nor (at the risk of scotching another media cliche) the message either. The issue is whether or not the journalism has missed the point, the extent to which it has used the information available and presented it in such a way that the consumer is better informed about whatever it is they/we care about.

If you wanted to leak something today, why would you contact a journalist, explain to them the background and context of what it is you're leaking, and then hand it over so that they can top-and-tail it, possibly finger you for the sake of their worthless "contacts" and get a Walkley (the mirror-image of Media Watch)? Just put it up online, say on Wikileaks, and hope that someone finds it before a ministerial staffer does.
At the moment newspapers are dropping like flies in the US ...

Live and vigorous flies don't just drop, Richard, only dead and dying ones do that. The question is to examine why they're dropping.
There is a US Senate committee under John Kerry looking at the future of newspapers. Evidence is being taken from, among others, Marissa Mayer, the vice-president of Google, David Simon, creator of The Wire and formerly of The Baltimore Sun, and Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post, one of the fastest-growing online news and commentary sites.

Kerry is trying to work out why the flies are dropping and all he's doing is interviewing people holding cans of insecticide. He's not going to the heart of the issue, Kerry is just celebrity-fucking. No wonder the guy could not even beat George W. Bush.
The Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett, says he would never sink more money into newspapers because "they have the possibility of nearly unending losses".

It isn't Huffington, Mayer or Kerry who decide that newspapers have had their day, nor is it people like Buffett who decide the phenomenon he is describing. It is consumers: I buy 3-4 newspapers a week but I read several each day online. The business challenge for Australian newspapers is to get people like me to buy more newspapers, while insisting on producing the same old crap.

Incidentally, some of the newspapers I cited above as having bought were actually picked up for free at various places around Sydney where piles of papers are dumped. If newspapers insist on counting those dumped copies in their circulation figures then they can also count the $0.00 that I pay for them.
The ideas of salvation twittering around on the net are also endless: newspapers can survive with fewer journalists if they get rid of the cheese reviews; newspapers are niche products anyway so they can easily increase their cover prices; charitable trusts or non-profit foundations should take over the publication of quality papers; democracy does not depend on newspapers so why care if they go to the wall?

We're almost at the end of the article, so Ackland had decided finally to confront the beast that is devouring his beloved medium. Just a quick whip-round mind you, a melange (if not a melee?) of unexamined, unevaluated, unvalued ideas. There's an article, if not a thesis (or even 20 years of Media Watch) just on those ideas.
Not for an instant do I think newspapers will go to the wall. Rather, in the lifetime of those young enough to be looking at Media Watch without a hearing aid, newspapers will still be part of the mix of ways of publishing information. And journalism in all its awful and great manifestations will thrive.

The blogosphere opens up reporting to citizens as well as professionals. Journalism itself is not particularly expensive. What is expensive is the production of newspapers.

How to make journalism relevant and profitable without inking up as many pulped trees is what should keep Media Watch preoccupied for another 20 years.

OK, so according to Ackland:

  • Journalism is cheap but newspapers are expensive, yet they will still thrive even though fewer and fewer people want to read them.

  • Newspapers carry stories about how environmentally unsustainable wood pulp is, and about increasing regulation (and, yes, market pressure) to stop unsustainable practices. Yet, people like Ackland and John B. Fairfax haven't twigged to the idea that this represents a fundamental threat to a key material underpinning their business.

  • Blogs are as good as journalism and thus, also because it isn't expensive, journalism should conform to whatever standards it feels like.

  • "Inking up pulped trees" is key to the survival of newspapers, or not. Whatever.

For all Richard Ackland's acuity over the various professions involved in law & order, he is hopeless on journalism. Anything that journalists do is good enough, no point trying to change it or hope for something better.

This sort of hopelessness reminds me of that old joke about the distillery worker who's drowning in a vat of whiskey, his workmates try and save him but he fights them off bravely. Ackland has no idea what the future of Media Watch is, let alone what it is that Media Watch watches. Mind you, nobody does, and to that extent Ackland can be forgiven for going along with the herd.

You'd hope Ackland would have something to say about quality and the degree to which the Australian media is and will be worth consuming, but that seems to be too much to ask. It's all the more surprising given his clear grasp that the justice system is not a make-work scheme for police, judges or lawyers. You'd be surprised how many blogs would disappear if the quality of journalism improved, in ways that practitioners of journalism are trained not to imagine.

06 May 2009

Bonfire of the dead wood



And I just hope that you can forgive us
But everything must go
And if you need an explanation
Then everything must go ...


- Manic Street Preachers Everything must go


This article by Milney shows both of the tricks that his fans know and love: the anonymous source inflated to titanic proportions, and the absurd extrapolations.

As Liberal preselections begin to open, you'd expect it would be open season on the halt and the lame within the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, but you'd be wrong because the Liberals hang onto their failures. NSW has a tradition - neither something of which to be proud nor ashamed, just a tradition - of putting dud MPs into safe seats for many years, which had caused other states to disdain NSW and shut it out of senior leadership roles. This changed with the rise of John Howard, where he invoked the dud rule after Stephen Mutch proved harder to get rid of than to keep in 1998.

There is a horror in taking on an MP who doesn't want to go, which is combined with a wonder that "fresh blood" is neither attracted to nor retained within the Liberal Party. Because the Liberal Party is still convinced “we wuz robbed”, and that all they need is some better PR, it will not have a spring clean – the only Liberal MPs who’ll go this side of 2010 are those who want to quit, or those who lose their seats.

There is no way that said donor is one of the donors powerful enough to drive Coalition policy, to set out their wish lists on Liberal/National letterhead and call it policy: the carbon denialists. Half those people are stalwart carbon-denialist loyalists, particularly the one whom the old stager left to three paragraphs before the end:
In the interest of completeness I should say there was one other intriguing name on the list being circulated, that of former senate leader and Howard cabinet minister, Nick Minchin.

Ha! I just thought you named 13 people because you can't count, Milney. Minchin has run out of ideas and is actively suppressing those that crop up, and the idea that he's the only one left with any policy experience is just sad.

Most of Milney's column is just plain bitchy, and I was thinking about at least 14 others he (or his "informer") chose not to name. Then I had a look at the entire membership of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party - at a time when employers are drawing up lists of employees to be cut, let us help the Liberal Party on the road to recovery - Dump or Keep?

  • Abbott, The Hon Tony, Member for Warringah: Dump. See below for reasons why Strutting Hamlet has had his day.

  • Andrews, The Hon Kevin, Member for Menzies: Dump. Offered nothing in government, is a wet blanket on new ideas in opposition, and will offer nothing to the next Liberal government.

  • Bailey, The Hon Fran, Member for McEwen: Keep this election as she is doing a solid job for bushfire victims, then in the next term ask her to step aside as she's had her day, again think of the next Liberal government and she did get to be the "bloody" Tourism Minister you know.

  • Baldwin, The Hon Bob, Member for Paterson: Keep, as the only one capable of winning Paterson and is taking Defence personnel issues seriously. It's no mean thing to put a Cabinet minister on the ropes, if not quite on the canvas; hard-working local MP.

  • Billson, The Hon Bruce, Member for Dunkley: Keep for the sake of ministerial experience.

  • Bishop, The Hon Bronwyn, Member for Mackellar: Dump. 22 years and no ability to convert the heat of self-publicity into the energy of public policy. Go have a kero bath.

  • Bishop, The Hon Julie, Member for Curtin: Dump. Go and do something else, you've done the politics thing and been a minister but now your credibility is shot.

  • Briggs, Mr Jamie, Member for Mayo: Dump. Garden-variety hack, plenty more where you came from.

  • Broadbent, Mr Russell, Member for McMillan: Keep for now, see Fran Bailey above.

  • Ciobo, Mr Steven, Member for Moncrieff: Dump. Garden-variety hack, plenty more where you came from.

  • Costello, The Hon Peter, Member for Higgins: Dump! Dump! Dump! Had nothing to offer when Howard was around, has nothing to offer now that Howard's gone. Makes Kim Beazley look like a titan, Mark Latham a paragon of reflection and self-discipline, Simon Crean a fearless and visionary reformer.

  • Dutton, The Hon Peter, Member for Dickson: Dump. Garden-variety hack, plenty more where you came from.

  • Farmer, The Hon Pat, Member for Macarthur: Dump. Don't want to be on the team, get off the field.

  • Gash, Mrs Joanna, Member for Gilmore: Dump. Been around too long, contributed nothing, no future.

  • Georgiou, Mr Petro, Member for Kooyong: Going, and more's the pity that the former Prime Minister wasn't big enough to bring him on board.

  • Haase, Mr Barry, Member for Kalgoorlie: Dump. See Joanna Gash.

  • Hawke, Mr Alex, Member for Mitchell: the original RWDB, can make no positive contribution to Australian society. See Wilson Tuckey below for appropriate disposal.

  • Hawker, The Hon David, Member for Wannon: Dump. See Joanna Gash.

  • Hockey, The Hon Joe, Member for North Sydney: Keep.

  • Hunt, The Hon Greg, Member for Flinders: Keep. May yet do something worthwhile on environmental issues.

  • Irons, Mr Steve, Member for Swan: Keep.

  • Jensen, Dr Dennis, Member for Tangney: Dump. Defence science credentials having no effect, climate denialism increasingly shrill and silly. Nothing to offer the future of party or nation.

  • Johnson, Mr Michael, Member for Ryan: Dump. Embarrassment of hack-ness, cannot get over self long enough to contribute to debate or community.

  • Keenan, Mr Michael, Member for Stirling: Keep.

  • Laming, Mr Andrew, Member for Bowman: Dump. See Michael Johnson above.

  • Ley, The Hon Sussan, Member for Farrer: Keep.

  • Lindsay, The Hon Peter, Member for Herbert: Dump. No future, has to be a better alternative.

  • Macfarlane, The Hon Ian, Member for Groom: Dump. Has-been who never was.

  • Marino, Ms Nola, Member for Forrest: Keep, benefit of doubt.

  • Markus, Mrs Louise, Member for Greenway: Whatever.

  • May, Mrs Margaret, Member for McPherson: Dump. See Joanna Gash.

  • Mirabella, Mrs Sophie, Member for Indi: Dump. Should never have been there in the first place. Bronwyn Bishop without the wit or intellect. The only person in Australia who could make people feel sorry for Belinda Neal.

  • Morrison, Mr Scott, Member for Cook: Keep, and serves him right. His branch members are toxic dickheads and he's a hack who can't handle anything other than steady-as-she-goes. Would almost certainly be replaced by someone worse. If Labor win this seat they are in for a decade, because the local branches will only put up the kind of candidate you wouldn't use for burley.

  • Moylan, The Hon Judi, Member for Pearce: Keep, make her Shadow Minister for Immigration.

  • Nelson, The Hon Dr Brendan, Member for Bradfield: Dumped self, a chancer who's had his chance. Bye bye.

  • Pearce, The Hon Chris, Member for Aston: Whatever. A sales manager promoted out of his depth. Keep him if the alternative is worse, dump if better.

  • Pyne, The Hon Christopher, Member for Sturt: Dump. Slightly less bad than Bronny as Aged Care minister, but not Cabinet material either - mind you he's as tough as Abbott would like to be and anyone who sticks it to Minchin can't be all bad.

  • Ramsey, Mr Rowan, Member for Grey: Keep, benefit of doubt.

  • Randall, Mr Don, Member for Canning: Dump. The junkyard dog, the go-to man for the bludgeon that Tony Abbott is too weak to use himself, dumping him would be a poetic justice.

  • Robb, The Hon Andrew, Member for Goldstein: Keep.

  • Robert, Mr Stuart, Member for Fadden: Keep, benefit of doubt.

  • Ruddock, The Hon Philip, Member for Berowra: Dump. Not a Liberal, actions too far from any semblance of humanity let alone Liberal policy, no capacity to be inspirational other than to time-servers.

  • Schultz, Mr Alby, Member for Hume: Dump. A chancer who's had his chance, no capacity to contribute to future of country or party.

  • Secker, Mr Patrick, Member for Barker: Dump. Get your off-farm income somewhere else, Patrick.

  • Simpkins, Mr Luke, Member for Cowan: Keep, benefit of doubt.

  • Slipper, The Hon Peter, Member for Fisher: Dump. See Joanna Gash.

  • Smith, The Hon Tony, Member for Casey: Dump. Costello's mini-me. A spell outside the pollysphere might give him the chance to work out who he is, if anyone.

  • Somlyay, The Hon Alexander, Member for Fairfax: Dump. See Joanna Gash.

  • Southcott, Dr Andrew, Member for Boothby: Dump. Human pabulum. Alexander Downer without the gravitas.

  • Stone, The Hon Dr Sharman, Member for Murray: Dump. Was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt until her effort on boat people recently.

  • Tuckey, The Hon Wilson, Member for O'Connor: Dump, and bury in a lead-lined casket several kilometres underground, with cloves of garlic and tonnes of carbon-capture sludge just to be sure.

  • Turnbull, The Hon Malcolm, Member for Wentworth: Keep.

  • Vaile, The Hon Danna, Member for Hughes: Dump. Be brave and true somewhere else.

  • Washer, Dr Mal, Member for Moore: Keep. Occasionally says sensible things on healthcare issues, most successful at maintaining non-Canberra mindset.

  • Wood, Mr Jason, Member for La Trobe: Keep. A hard-working marginal seat MP who deserves the benefit of the doubt.

There's your balance between experience and freshness. Watch the Liberal Party stuff it up.

The Senators are even worse. There was a time when the Liberal Party machine would throw up tough, competent and sensible politicians like Bob Cotton, John Carrick, Ivy Wedgwood and Margaret Guilfoyle, and dedicated public servants like Don Jessup and Alan Missen. Today, they're still party hacks but very much the backwash from what happens after a political party loses its mass membership. It's quicker to list those Senators that have earned their keep and have something to offer the future:

  • Birmingham, Simon - Senator for South Australia

  • Boyce, Sue - Senator for Queensland

  • Trood, Russell - Senator for Queensland

I was going to do the same for the Nationals, but the good folk of regional Australia will do that for us. Barnaby will probably replace Bruce Scott and the Nats will go down to about 5 MHRs and three Senators (one each from NSW, Queensland, NT).

I look to the future it makes me cry
But it seems too real to tell you why ...

03 May 2009

White, paper and The Plastic Gangster



When the government releases a White Paper on Defence, the Foreign Editor of a major newspaper should be expected to provide an intelligent and considered response. Not, however, if that editor is Greg Sheridan. He has had a go at the Defence White Paper, and frankly it's poor Greg who comes off second-best.
THE defence white paper is an almost incoherent blancmange of oddly unharmonised flavours.

A blancmange does not have harmonised flavours, Greg. It is pretty much a single flavour all the way through.
It reads like a biblical commentary in which 50 Talmudic scholars, each representing an alternative school of thought, have been allowed to write alternative sentences.

Biblical commentators tend to be Christian while Talmudic scholars tend to be Jews, Greg. What has this got to do with blancmange? Do you mean "alternate" where you've written "alternative" (and are you man enough to own the error rather than blame the subbies?)? I challenge you to provide any biblical commentary that reads like the Australian Government Defence White Paper 2009.
The internal contradictions in the document are so staggering it looks like sentences have been bolted on almost at random, like pieces in a Meccano set manipulated by a two-year-old.

As the parent of a child who is past his first birthday but yet to experience his third, I can tell you that much of any Meccano set would not be bolted together but inserted into the mouth.

No part of a Meccano set would be bolted onto biblical commentary, or to a blancmange, by a two-year-old or anyone other than the foreign editor of a national newspaper. He's not succeeding at being funny, nor at conveying meaning, nor at helping us understand what our government is doing with our money to provide for our defence. That is what Sheridan's job is here, and he has failed.
That's a bit unfair, of course.

More than a bit. You are accusing the document of lacking a coherence you don't have yourself.
For all that, the Government has mostly come up with the right decisions: 100 Joint Strike Fighters, 12 new submarines, the continuation of the army expansion program, new, big surface ships and so on.

How do you know it's made the right decisions? Based on what? Where's your in-depth thinking on defence issues, other than taking that shopping list and working backwards? Why 100 JSFs, and not 200, 50 or none? Should the army go for quantity or quality? When you say "big surface ships", do you mean aircraft carriers or Queen Mary 2?
In defence, to some extent equipment and budget are real policy, the rest window-dressing.

No, the idea of the White Paper is to determine what our defence needs are. The Budget and the shopping list you are so fixated on comes after, not before, a detailed examination of what Australia's defence needs (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) are.
Australia's neighbours in the Asia-Pacific will look at the equipment commitments more than anything else.

Yeah, they'll see all those second-hand tanks that the Yanks foisted on the Howard government, the ones that are too big to go over bridges and across sand in island counties to our north and northeast, and they'll laugh. A big silly tank or a submarine won't stop another bombing in Bali, Greg.
They will see the air force, the navy and the army getting bigger and more capable.

Capable of what, Greg?
That's all that really counts.

What?
The white paper will reinforce Australia's reputation as a formidable defence power.

Not bad for a biblical blancmange with Meccano stuck in it.
But a couple of sentences on China are, by white paper standards, remarkably direct and will confirm for everyone that the Rudd Government believes Beijing could do a much better job reassuring the region that its extensive defence build-up is not threatening.

The white paper comments: "China will be the strongest Asian military power by a considerable margin. Its military modernisation will be characterised by the development of power projection capabilities. But the pace, scope and structure of China's military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours pause for concern if not carefully explained and if China does not reach out to others to build confidence regarding its military plans.

"China has begun to do this in recent years, but needs to do more. If it does not, there is likely to be a question in the minds of regional states about the long-term strategic purpose of its force development plans, particularly as the modernisation appears potentially to be beyond the scope of what would be required for a conflict over Taiwan."

These are inelegant sentences and seem bizarrely to accept the proposition that it is entirely legitimate for China to build up forces designed to devastate and destroy Taiwan if it feels that's the decent thing to do.

No Greg, what that says is that China is developing the power to project force well beyond Taiwan. It describes this force build up in neytral terms befitting a fact, rather than conferring legitimacy, or using redundancies ("devastate and destroy") followed by more value judgments ("if it feels that's the decent thing to do").

If he can't get that right, could it be that he's wrong about the whole document?
This plastic gangster, faux hard man approach aside, however, these sentences state without much ambiguity that the white paper authors - that is to say, the Australian Government - believe China's military build-up is destabilising, inherently concerning and, given that the white paper says defence planning must be based on others' capabilities, not their declared intentions, something Australia should hedge against.

That, believe it or not, is a single sentence. I don't know what it means either. I recognised "the Australian government" and "China's military build-up", but that's about it. If it was complex defence-international relations jargon, I could understand it being incomprehensible - but seriously, that's just a poorly worded para-sentence, and not the only one in this piece.
Asia-Pacific nations will pay some attention to these sentences. Their inherent judgment will be shared in every capital except Beijing. Beijing will be annoyed by them. So be it.

Yeah, because the sentences don't make it through Babelfish.
... at the same time it avoids the intellectual myopia of former defence bureaucrat Hugh White, who argued recently that the rise of China was virtually our only fundamental strategic consideration.

I think you've misrepresented White there, Greg. He said that the rise of China was fundamentally important and that other considerations, while important, were less so than China. This isn't myopia, it's prioritisation and well-balanced judgment - and after the mish-mash you've presented to Australian readers, you should be a bit more humble in discussing the work of people who know what they're talking about.
It's in favour of self-reliance and the defence of Australia, but it's also in favour of an expeditionary military culture, the need to be able to undertake a vast range of operations within the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, and everything else as well.

It's in favour of building a capability where we can lead an operation if we have to, much as we did in East Timor or the Solomons, without waiting helplessly for the Americans.

At this point Sheridan goes on to point out a contradiction between the rise of China and the relative decline of the US, without wishing to offend the US at all. Sheridan has lost all credibility so that you wonder if he actually made the quote up, or cut out something that might help understand this phenomenon.
... the Government has gone a bit wonky on funding, projecting the 3per cent real increase only up to 2018, when the real big expenditure items start to kick in.

There are at least three elections between now and 2018. Has there ever been a nine-year budget projection in any area of government (or outside government) which has actually held up, ever?
In the end, the main decisions are sound, the accompanying verbiage dubious. That, of course, is much better than the other way around.

Given that Sheridan makes no decisions, and that "verbiage" is the tool of his trade, this article is an example of poor writing and a pathetic attempt to disguise ignorance of defence issues that should be inexcusable in a so-called foreign editor. It's sad when a two-year-old Talmudic scholar who eats blancmange with a Meccano set would make more sense on Australin defence issues than the foreign editor of The Australian, but that's what happened in Sheridan's analysis of this key document.

02 May 2009

Journalist wakes up, rolls over, goes back to sleep



This article shows dangerous signs of understanding by a journalist as to what is really happening with her profession. Chuck her out of the MEAA at once! Off with her head!
Sent to one of the British Prime Minister's most trusted advisers, the text message arrived with a chilling portent: "What is best in life? To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, to hear the lamentations of their women?"

Three days later its recipient, Damien McBride, was forced to fall on his sword, his political career ended by a dirty tricks email scandal leaked to the text's sender, Guido Fawkes, an incendiary political blogger.

This construction makes McBride look like the innocent victim of a set-up. The quote is only "chilling" if you don't know where it comes from: it is a famous scene from the famously bad Conan the Barbarian, a pop-culture cliche. In this context, it shows a couple of gutless wankers who thought they were tough guys, a myth that journalists should do more to puncture in covering politics. While Totaro explains it eventually, she tries to draw her reader into a feeling of sharing insider knowledge rather than judging this behaviour against normal (non-insider) standards.

Recent coverage of the "Swinging Dicks" in the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party showed the appropriate level of derision - Totaro, in setting up the vile McBride as more-sinned-against, is practicing old-school insider journalism at its worst. It's an appalling lead-in to the real import of this article, which is just how badly her profession has failed.
Totaro's contempt for bloggers is obvious:
... Fawkes and a couple of his most influential colleagues, including the Tory blogger and author Iain Dale, were briefly coaxed away from their computers to chat about the ever-expanding online universe. Ensconced at a table in the shabby elegance of London's Foreign Press Association, they looked like suburban bankers: smug, chubby faces framed by neat hair and pressed white collars ... Guido Fawkes, the nom de plume of 42-year-old Paul Staines, is an internet cowboy ... a "convicted criminal, one-time national video-games champion, former acid-house party organiser ... turned blogger after declaring bankruptcy after a disastrous stint as a hedge fund trader.

As though journalists don't spend their time at computers, rewording press releases and taking phone calls from people like McBride. As though journalists aren't smug, chubby or neat, aren't cowboys or failures at other occupations. Totaro should have had the decency to explain Fawkes' alias, rather than leaving it hanging and going the smear.
But behind the benign English facade bubbled an unapologetic disdain for politicians and media, and a warning the blogosphere is hell-bent on forcing a political revolution. And first on the list to go are the so called "lobby rules" - the conventions that govern the authorised media's Westminster coverage.

First, this nebulous term "blogosphere". A sphere has a surface equally distant from a fixed point; nothing could be further from an apt description for political bloggers. Is "hell-bent" an appropriate expression here?

What exactly is the "authorised media"? Authorised by whom, for what purpose? Definitions of terms like "Smeargate"?

And yes, fuck the "lobby rules". This is a convenience for people too lazy to get off their backsides and get out of the lobby to hunt down real stories that affect people, their wishes for reform and their accommodations with what gets dished out from government.
[Fawkes/Staines] argues self-censorship is the greatest scourge of fearless political reporting, but that it is endemic in Westminster and other Western democracies. McBride's history of bullying and vicious texting, for example, had been well known, he said, but nobody dared expose it until the Smeargate emails were leaked and McBride stepped down.

"That is my big hobby horse, self-censorship. If you upset a talking head, a minister, then you won't get access to them. If you upset party leaders, they will deny you interviews, deny you stories and exclusives … This game has been going on forever and it has become industrialised [sic] now." (When Kevin Rudd's angry outburst to an airline hostess was published last month, marring the Prime Minister's trip to the London G20 summit, there was grumbling among travelling Australian parliamentary journalists who had heard the bad temper stories but hadn't checked or reported them.)

No explanation of why the "[sic]" was inserted - it's not a grammatical error, are you disputing the word "industrialised" Paola? You were a flack for Bob Carr and have no excuse for being so lacking in self-reflection that you can't bear to consider whether or not it is so, and why.

Why is the Australian experience in parentheses, like it's irrelevant? Just because you're a European correspondent does not make issues affecting we provincials somehow by-the-by. It is the function of foreign correspondents to explain what is happening elsewhere to Australians, not to condescend to your readers as though Westminster tittle-tattle is more important than the behaviour of Australia's Prime Minister toward those less powerful than he.
Staines is adamant that politics is best reported from the outside in.

Yep, there's something in that Paola, if only you'd think about it. You don't have to be a video-games champion to point this out. Politicians are meant to be representatives of the society they govern, yet most political journalism - in Australia, the UK and elsewhere - reads like it is the society that reacts to political initiatives, or that insider gossip is more interesting and relevant than it really is.
Dale says the power of the blogger is his status as an outsider: "He will go after anyone, Labour or Conservatives … It doesn't matter."

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's legendary media adviser, is more sceptical. A diarist-blogger too, he pooh-poohs claims of cosy relations between Labour and the press gallery but is candid about the recent email scoop: "Any journalist worth their salt would have jumped at running what was a great story … but [Fawkes] still had to put it into newspapers for maximum impact."

The fact that Alastair Campbell can be taken at face value for such a claim is outrageously poor journalism on Totaro's part. Campbell is guilty of many of the crimes and misdemeanours ascribed to Staines.

Firstly, Paola, it was Campbell's job to build those cosy relations (he wouldn't be "legendary" without them). Secondly, things have changed since Campbell's day. There were hardly any blogs in 1997, and it is understandable that the relationship today might not be as cosy as it was after a dozen turbulent years. Thirdly, "any journalist worth their salt" who ran frank and fearless stories against Blair got rocketed by Campbell and shut out of the profession in the manner described by Staines above - in the manner that you did to NSW press gallery journalists who wouldn't swallow Bob Carr whole and on his terms.
he is also cautious about the real import of the political blogger: "I think they are running away from themselves. They are still all about positioning themselves, getting on TV or radio and trying to become alternative news channels. But my feeling is that they are still tiny in terms of reach. I think the jury is still out on the blogosphere's long-term future or its real impact."

It is Campbell who is running away from himself, playing at blogging while keening for attention from the mainstream media. Campbell, a self-confessed alcoholic and marathon-addict, has a long history of running away from himself. I hope he doesn't consider himself part of a jury that is determining his future and impact.

This blog is "tiny" in terms of reach, just like most stories on Radio National, or all those stories that darling! Simply everyone! was writing about burning issues like Howard-Costello or who'd get what under a Crean Government, or other examples of insider tattle that failed to resonate outside the journosphere.

As for this blogger, I've been doing this for three years and have been contacted by four mainstream media journalists, all at their initiative. I'm not looking for mainstream media exposure because I don't respect the groupthink and the redundant conventions that make Australian media consumers so poorly served by those who would identify events of the day and interpret it to them. I've got a real job and a real life and I do this in my spare time, working out just why exactly I think the Australian media sucks so hard as it does. Restaurant critics can critique restaurants without being opposed to all food, but the only critiques of Australian media apart from this blog are:

  • Crusty old Mark Day, who insists that old-fashioned tabloid muck is all we need;

  • The ABC's Media Watch, which is only fronted by journalists and which largely penalises transgressions by non-journalists like Alan Jones, and does nothing to examine or explain why mainstream media plays a decreasing role in the lives of Australians;

  • Occasional pieces in Crikey;

  • Richard Glover (on ABC 702 Sydney) who rhetorically asks "is the media to blame?", which is always resolved in the negative;
  • Lame undergraduate debates; and

  • Nope, that's pretty much it.

I'm not keeping the media bastards honest, but I am showing why they're incompetent bastards.
Criticism of the relationship between parliamentary journalists and governments is not new.

Maybe not, Paola, but the question for you in an opinion piece is: is it valid?
Nick Jones, a former BBC political editor and author of Sultans Of Spin, was ostracised and dismissed as a maverick when he published his critique of Blair, the media and New Labour.

Including your mate Campbell, however much he might "pooh-pooh" it.
Now this veteran reporter, too, has turned blogger. Says Dale: "When people like Nick blow the whistle on systems that are effectively corrupt that is what happens: they are dismissed, not taken seriously."

This is why it's so hard being a whistleblower: if you've got hot docs to inject into the public domain, are you going to go to a press gallery journalist who wants to be/is sleeping with a press sec, or are you going to post it to Wikileaks?
The [British] Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, must find accusations of cosy relationships between Labour and journalists galling. He has received unrelenting bad press for more than a year.

And unrelenting good press, thanks to your mate Campbell and dullards like the prelapsarian Jones, for more than a decade before that. It's that culture that created the vacuum that blogging is trying to fill. Criticism of the relationship between parliamentary journalists and governments is not new, but blogging represents an example of what might/should fill that void if the journosphere huddles against it.
[Brown's] government - struggling and fighting the leaks of the end of an electoral cycle - appears to have sparked a national ennui with the political class.

The fact that Brown is struggling against leaks, rather than more substantial issues of governing Britain, is part of its problem. If Totaro had bothered to explain the origin of Fawkes' blogname, she might have discovered that this "ennui" is hardly novel.
Australia may be half a world away but it, too, has Westminster-style parliaments and a similar media, albeit much smaller and less pluralist. Chances are that an equally spirited - perhaps even dangerous - political blogosphere isn't too far away.

Less pluralist and more cowed by latter-day Campbells, Paola. Australia already has plenty of spirited political blogs, a pity that you're too lazy to access them from your Euro-eyrie. Fairfax is dying, Paola, and so are the "lobby rules"; could you make it as a content provider, or even an intelligent commentator, on your own observations in a society that didn't revolve around insider tittle-tattle? Could you bear to live a life in a community which shaped, and was shaped, by decisions of government and which judged those decisions by its own standards rather than "lobby rules" or hysterical self-abandoning frauds like Alistair Campbell? Take a step outside the journosphere, Paola.

As to whether blogs are "dangerous" - dangerous to what? Dangerous to whom?

Paola Totaro is bewildered by the world in which most of us live, which is why her attempt to take "Smeargate" and turn it into something we can all use is so ridiculous. The fact that Fairfax has canned its graduate program looks like less of a tragedy once you realise that Lady Paola's idle ponderings about the possibility of an Australian blogosphere represent a standard to which journalists are supposed to aspire, rather than transcend.