Monthly Archives: April 2013

Naming Rolf Harris and Sunil Tripathi: mainstream media’s troubled relationship with social media

Last weekend, The Saturday Age splashed this Facebook photo of Sunil Tripathi (below) a missing university student incorrectly identified by bloggers as a possible suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings across its front cover.

The story has been removed from The Age website, but can be read here in its online archives.

MissingStudentUpdate_Sangeeta-Tripathi

The photo of a smiling Tripathi was splashed on the front page of The Saturday Age below a now notorious grainy photo of the two suspects at the marathon just before the bombs went off:

0419-motives-Boston-bombing-suspects_full_600

The caption below Tripathi’s photo read: “Sunil Tripathi was reported missing by his family. He is pictured in a Facebook page set up to find the Brown University student. Sunil is reported to have been named on a police scanner as one of the suspects.”

At the very top of the same page, above the masthead, was another headline in large font and in bold:

Rolf Harris linked to UK sex abuse inquiry

The Australian entertainer’s arrest over sex crime allegations was a poorly guarded secret since November last year, with his name revealed by many bloggers.

The story that mentioned Sunil Tripathi, written by respected journalist Paul McGeough, a former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald now based in Washington D.C., detailed the events leading up to the capture and death of one of the suspects, while the other was still at large at the time.

McGeough wrote: “Police did not confirm the names being ascribed to the two men in the blogosphere – Suspect One as Mike Mulugeta and Suspect Two as Sunil Tripathi.” – contradicting what was said in the photo caption.

Tripathi had been named as a suspect on blogging aggregator news website, Reddit, after users said they thought they recognised him as the suspect wearing a white baseball cap.

That man turned out to be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now an alleged Chechen terrorist, who along with brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed in a police gun fight after the bombing, are believed to be the sole perpetrators of the attack.

Sunil Tripahti and “Mike Mulugeta” (even less has been reported of him) had nothing to do with the Boston bombings.

Tragically, the body of Sunil Tripathi, missing since last month, was found in the Providence River on Friday (April 20), much to the anguish of his grief-stricken family.

A day after the Saturday Age story appeared, the following day’s Sunday Age ran with the correct story about the Tsarnaev brothers as the Boston bombers.

There was no mention at all of the misidentification of Sunil Tripathi.

At first I thought I’d mis-read the Saturday Age story, but pulling out the paper from the recycling bin, proved that I wasn’t going crazy.

So I emailed The Age‘s editor Andrew Holden to ask him if he could clear up the confusion.

I received a response from Steve Foley, The Age‘s news director, who confirmed that the newspaper did publish the two names (Tripathi and Mulugeta) “that were circulating on Friday evening (Saturday morning Australian time) in our first edition”.

“As we went to press the story was still unfolding at rapid speed. The updated story for our second edition of the Saturday paper did not mention them. By then it was being reported that two Chechens were the Boston bombing suspects,” said Foley

“On Saturday morning, by which time our coverage was all online, we acknowledged our error – stating that we had published incorrect information on Friday night.

“We aim to get it right, every time, and despite all precautions, lapses do occur,” he added.

As I mentioned earlier, the Fairfax print archives only references the first, erroneous story about Tripathi being a suspect.

Online, there is no mention of  Tripathi being incorrectly identified by the newspaper.

However, The Age and other Fairfax websites have since published two follow-up stories about Tripathi: one under the headline “Student wrongly named as Boston bomber found dead” and another is about Reddit apologising for the grief it caused the Tripathi family for naming their son as a suspect” “Reddit apologises for Boston online witch hunts”.

(This is the official Reddit apology)

Incredibly, neither of these stories acknowledge the fact that The Saturday Age, which has a readership of 227,000, splashed Tripathi’s name and photo across its front page in error, nor has an apology been issued either publicly or privately to the family of Sunil Tripathi for suggesting their son might be a terrorist.

Is this just arrogance on the part of Fairfax or does the media giant really believe it’s entirely the fault of Reddit users for suggesting Tripathi may have been Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

I should point out that Fairfax was not the only mainstream media organisation to get this wrong.

According to The Australian‘s media writer Nick Leys, both Channel Nine and Channel Seven named Tripathi in their 6pm news bulletins, relying on the “blogosphere” as a reliable source.

“Journalists here and in the US threw the rule books out the window on Friday night choosing to use social media as a reliable source…journalists were blindly repeating those names with no reliable source….” wrote Leys in his Media Diary wrap last week.

This of course brings me back to the other heading on the front page of that ill-fated Saturday Age edition.

The story about Rolf Harris.

Why is that The Saturday Age found it acceptable to print Sunil Tripathi’s name and photograph based on entirely unverified accusations almost the moment they became known but waited six months to print Rolf Harris’s name, when it had been splashed across countless blogs?

Steve Foley did not respond to my questions about this issue so all I  can do is speculate.

Was it to give Rolf Harris the benefit of the doubt because he’s one of Australia’s most famous and much-loved entertainers? Was it because they feared a costly and embarrassing lawsuit if the arrest proved untrue?

Possibly both explanation are true.

So why wasn’t a young US student afforded the same duty of care?

And why has The Age not deemed it necessary to apologise to his family?

A dream within a dream: a return to an appreciation of poetry

I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of poetry.penguin book of american verse

So this is how it happened.

A couple of nights ago, I was in bed. My wife was perusing a book on child rearing and I was lying back with my head on my pillow.

There’s a stack of books on my side of the bed – from a shipment I had in storage in South Africa and only recently unpacked.

I picked up a handful of books from the floor and rummaged through them.

I came across: “The Penguin Book of American Verse” edited by Geoffrey Moore, a book from my days studying English literature at the University of the Witwatersrand (or ‘Wits’ as it more commonly known back home).

And I found myself skimming through, reading a few lines from poems here and there.

Some  I remembered from my uni poetry courses: the wonderfully cynical “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost and the inventive and disturbing poem about war “My sweet old etcetera” by E.E. Cummings.

And then I come across a poem by Edgar Allen Poe ( who is best known for his short stories of horror and the macabre) called “A Dream within a Dream” and I found myself reading it and re-reading it and later reading it to my wife aloud.

In my mind, the poem is about the loss of memory as we grow old so that we question what is real and what is not, what we actually experienced and what perhaps we only imagined or dreamed so that our past may feel very much like “a dream within a dream”.

It made me think about those things we forgot as time passes and our faculties decline – people, places, things that happened to us in childhood or adolescence.

It also made me think of those moments when a memory, buried deep in our subconsciousness awakens, triggered by some random present day event and we find ourselves saying things like:

“I complete forgot about him or her. What happened to them?”

Given that this poem was published in the year of Poe’s death (1849) when he may have been contemplating the days forgotten from his past, it has for me added poignancy.

Enjoy this haunting 24 line poem – it’s short, so give it a try.

(I have reproduced without the kind permission of the long-deceased Mr Poe. I hope he does not mind.)

A Dream Within A Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Edgar Allan Poe (1809 to 1849)

“Innocent Blood” by P.D. James: a perfectly-told tale of revenge and redemption

innocent blood“Innocent Blood” is a London crime novel by the grand dame of British detective fiction Phyllis Dorothy James, or as she is better known, P.D. James.

The words on the back cover of my paperback edition (picked up in a second-hand bookshop in Alexandra, New Zealand) says it could be read “as a mainstream novel and a considerable one”.

“As a crime novel it is a peak of the art,” the back cover goes on to say, a little awkwardly.

This is high praise, but it is richly deserved, because this is a fine book, demonstrating P.D. James’s complete command of the English language and why she has rightly been called the ‘Charles Dickens’ of crime fiction.

The plot of “Innocent Blood” is quite simple, yet unconventional for a crime novel since both the murderer and the ‘murderer-to-be’ are known to the reader early on and instead of being mysteries that must be solved, are devices to explore the lives and motivations of the two key characters.

And yet there are still some very surprising twists and an unexpected ending.

The rape and murder of a child 10 years ago brings the two lead characters together.

First there is Philippa Palfry, adopted at a young age by upper class academic Maurice Palfry, who finds out, after she turns 18, who her real mother is – a child murderer called Mary Ducton

Mary Ducton is soon to be released from prison after serving a 10 year sentence for the murder.

Philippa is an intelligent, somewhat cunning and striking looking young woman with golden hair and high cheek bones, who has aspirations to be a writer.

She is determined to know her real mother – her only true family – even after she finds out the truth of her awful past.

Rather than have a holiday in Europe before beginning her studies at Cambridge, as had been her original plan, she finds a short-let flat in London to live with her mother for a few months so they can get acquainted.

Then there is the story of Norman Scase, father of the child murdered by Mary Ducton. He is a plain, small. methodical man, who has lived an unremarkable life as a bookkeeper. He quits his job once he knows that Mary Ducton is to be released from prison in order to fulfil a promise made to his dying wife that he will kill the woman who murdered their daughter.

The novel explores Philippa’s relationship with her mother as well as her ties to her adopted father and his unhappy second wife. It follows Norman Scase as he carefully and with a steely resolve, plans the murder of Mary Ducton, while also delving into his unhappy childhood as an “ugly” child in Brighton.

The action takes place over about two months in London in the summer.

P.D. James is an unusual crime writer in the sense that while the plot-lines are very strong, she takes detours in the storytelling to focus on small details such as a minor character’s motivation and past history and rich descriptions of buildings and places: the London underground clogged with people, a bad meal eaten by Philippa in a restaurant on Edgeware Road.

In this way she creates a living, breathing world that the reader can disappear into.

The writing is meticulous, beautifully crafted and rich in detail.

A short extract demonstrates P.D. James ability to describe a scene and unsettle the reader.

One day, by accident, before Norman Scase has exacted his revenge on Mary Ducton, he comes across Philippa and her mother, “the murderess” while taking a blind woman he has met to the park:

“It was then that Philippa saw the man. He had come up the sloping path from the lake, a small, spectacled, grey-haired man… His glance fell on her, their eyes met and instinctively, and out of the lazy pleasure of the moment, she smiled at him. The result was extraordinary. He stood transfixed, eyes widened, in what seemed a second of incredulous terror. Then he turned abruptly away…Philippa laughed aloud. He was a plain, ordinary man, not repulsive and surely not so plain that no woman before had ever spontaneously smiled at him.

The novel is awash with these beautifully observed moments. Journeys on the London Underground. The tourist crowds at Oxford Circus. The stalls at a London market opening in the morning.

I have read a number of interviews with P.D. James, and in them she emphasises the importance of a good plot and story. Often, she says, working out the plot of her novels will take longer than writing them. She also says that she always writes with the reader in mind and so does not wish to disappoint.

And she certainly does not with “Innocent Blood”.

The book, published in 1980 was a huge commercial success and made her a wealthy woman.

She later received a peerage in the House of Lords and became known by the imposing title of the Baroness James of Holland Park.

She has won over a dozen literary awards for her crime fiction, most of which is in the traditional style of the detective novel (her protagonist is an unorthodox detective called Adam Dagleish) and many of her books have been adapted for television – though not Innocent Blood – it would make an exceptional movie.

Despite the success, wealth and title she has obtained, P.D. James reveal herself to be a delightfully down-to-earth women who in one newspaper interview professed her love of discovering things and learning new facts.

She once told a journalist she re-read a book of hers before a lecture (she does not normally re-read her books) only to discover, to her amusement, the murderer wasn’t whom she thought it would be.

If you are looking for an unconventional, exceptionally good crime novel, then “Innocent Blood” should be top of your pile.

The Biggest Loser tips the scales when it comes to bad taste

bathroom-scale-psd39515I confess. I watched the last two seasons of MasterChef religiously.

And yes I found all the plugs for Coles and cooking products and restaurants and celebrity chefs annoying but at its heart MasterChef was a show about people showing or developing a skill and demonstrating so under the immense pressure of knowing you are being watched, over boiling pot and sizzling pan, by a nation of eager foodies.

I don’t like Australian Idol or The Voice or The Block or even the Amazing Race, but at least contestants on these shows demonstrated some kind of ability or skill or talent, even if it’s just being able to read a map or choose colours to paint a bedroom.

On the other hand, the Biggest Loser is nothing more than exploitation for commercial profit without any redeeming qualities.

I happened to catch part of an episode the other night.

In between ads for Coles $3 pizza (Could you advertise a more inappropriate product?), I watched every contestant humiliated to the point of sobbing after being chided in video messages for being fat by family or friends.

I could only stomach (excuse the pun) a few minutes and at risk of hurling the remote control at the television, I changed channels.

The bald facts are that the Biggest Loser is a contrived freak show around which advertising is sold to make Channel Ten a lot of money.

And it all appears during prime time television, when the entire family can gather round to watch the “fattest people in Australia” run until they think they are going to have a heart attack or until they are literally throwing up in a bucket.

The show is based around three things: exploitation, humiliation and money.

The contestants are exploited because of their size and inability to do something about it.

They are humiliated by tortuous training regimes and verbal abuse if they don’t try hard enough (not to mention those half-naked weigh-ins).

And money is the incentive to get them on the show and for Channel Ten to air it.

As a prime time show, the Biggest Loser needs an audience, a feat it accomplishes with ease because Australians are obsessed with obesity, one of the biggest health issues facing the nation.

But The Biggest Loser is not about confronting this issue, despite Channel Ten’s ridiculous claim that it is not a game show but a “social movement that aims to break the vicious cycle of generational obesity”.

If you’re wondering what sort of impact the Biggest Loser has had on changing eating behaviour or encouraging people to lose weight since it first aired in 2006, the answer is zero.

According to the most recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 63.4% of Australians were overweight as of 2011-12 with 70.3% of men obese or overweight and 56.2% of women obese or overweight.

In 2008 the rates of obesity and being overweight were 62.8% for males and 47.6% for females.

And in 2005, one year before the Biggest Loser first aired, obesity rates were 61.6% for men and 44.6% for women.

So since the show started airing obesity rates have risen, not fallen.

There was recently an excellent article written by News Limited journalist Petra Starke for the Adelaide Advertiser where she neatly summarised the real point of the show:

“It’s for people like you and me to plant our ample buttocks on our cushy sofas and watch other people being humiliated while we eat whatever fast food they’re selling us in the ad breaks.”

“The Biggest Loser is like one big schoolyard bullying session, and we’re all complicit in it,” Starke goes on to say.

I also like this summation from Fairfax’s Ben Pobjie:

“The Biggest Loser, the show for everyone who believes being overweight makes a person worthless, and that anyone who refuses to lose weight deserves loneliness, derision and an early death. And that anyone can get into shape, as long as they have a personal trainer working on them full-time and cameras on them 24/7 to prevent them ever straying from their prescribed diet. But I’m sure most people can manage that.”

Starke and Bopjie are not the only ones shaming Channel 10 for airing this disgraceful show.

The complaints and accusations are flying from all corners.

Eating disorders advocacy group Fed Up NSW Health is demanding the show be pulled from the airways, with one of its chief concerns being that for the first time it features contestants as young as 15.

One woman, Ella Graham who is involved with Fed Up NSW and has battled eating disorders for 11 years, recently told The Age newspaper that personal trainer Michelle Bridges shouting at contestants makes her “shudder”.

Graham has written to the producers of the show, Shine, warning that it is negligent because research shows that the biggest risk factor for developing an eating disorder is a restrictive diet and excessive exercise (the basic premise of The Biggest Loser).

Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton calls the show “totally unrealistic” and “done for entertainment”.

Child and adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg says there can be fewer shows more toxic than The Biggest Loser warning that “young viewers may be negatively influenced, setting them up for a lifetime of body-image issues and an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise”.

Another advocacy group, Eating Disorders Victoria has condemned the show.

The list goes on and on.

Australia is getting fatter and the Biggest Loser is just entertainment, though of the most exploitative and unredeeming kind.

One hundred years ago they used to have freak shows at the circus where you could see the world’s fattest man or the world’s hairiest woman – in the modern age of reality television, you can tune in between 7.30 pm and 8.30 pm Sunday, Monday and Tuesday on Channel 10 to get your fill, can of coke in one hand, pizzas slice with extra toppings in the other.

And sure someone will win and make a lot of money and go on chat shows and the radio and maybe perhaps host a show of their own. And perhaps they’ll even keep the weight down, for appearance sake of course, (otherwise they can kiss those lucrative media contracts good-bye).

But as for the rest, it will be back to doing it for themselves; but with the added bonus of knowing what their families really think, having already humiliated themselves on camera for the nation.

A few weeks ago I turned on the television to a promotion for an upcoming television show.

A very large woman sits down and opens a two litre tub of vanilla ice-cream.

She takes a bottle of chocolate sauce and spreads it liberally over the top of the ice cream.

She starts to eat from the two litre tub of ice-cream.

There is a time-lapse.

The tub is empty.

Then come the words: “The Biggest Loser: The next generation starts this week.”

Australian arrested: the mainstream media is right not to name him for now

2924824370_909cbdd97dIn August 2000 The Guardian reported the story of Dr Yvette Cloete, a specialist registrar in paediatric medicine at the Royal Gwent hospital in Newport, forced to flee her home after “self-styled vigilantes” daubed it with graffiti in the middle of the night.

The vandals wrote the “paedo” across the house she shared with her brother in South Wales, after apparently confusing her professional title of “paediatrician” with that of “paedophile”.

This, I sense, is the type of confused logic and misappropriation of information that has driven some bloggers to howl at the mainstream media for not naming the 83-year-old Australian arrested last week as part of the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Yewtree, set up following the Sir Jimmy Savile scandal.

Newspapers – even the usually forthright ‘name and shame them’ tabloids – have not named this person.

The UK tabloid press usually behave like a bunch of sharks – one sniff of blood in the water and they go into a feeding frenzy, competing for the most attention-grabbing sensationalist headlines, the bigger the font, the better.

But not this time.

Britain’s biggest selling newspaper, The Sun merely published the press statement issued by the police while it’s rival The Daily Mirror went one step further by publishing an interview with the entertainer’s wife – she said it was “easy making historic allegations against showbiz names”- but the paper did not provide clues as to who he may be.

Australian media have gone one step further by calling him “Australian”.

But the only mainstream media outlet (if you can call him that) to explicitly name the person in question is Derryn Hinch, the “human headline”, who has done so on several occasions via Twitter, and seems to have appointed himself judge, jury and executioner even before a charge has been laid.

As have many in that diverse, unchartered universe, the blogosphere.

Bloggers, some with large followings and a significant profiles, have demanded that the main stream press name this individual; that they have in fact a duty to do so.

Their principle source of corroboration appears to be Mark Williams-Thomas, a former UK detective specialising in major sex crimes, who has since become a media personality and television criminology expert.

So what exactly has Williams-Thomas said in relation to this latest arrest?

According to his Twitter account (Williams-Thomas is a prodigious tweeter) absolutely nothing.

He did tweet this in November last year:

Breaking : XX XX currently being interviewed under caution at police station as part of #Savile  other #sexual offences

This tweet – four months old – appears to be the primary source of corroboration used by bloggers for naming the suspect charged by last week, after the Metropolitan Police tweeted this:

An 82-yr-old man from Berkshire [‘Yewtree 5′] was arrested today 28/3 on suspicion of sexual offences. He’s been bailed to a date in May.

Williams-Thomas may be right, but it strikes me as strange that he’s not said a word following the Metropolitan Police’s March 29 tweet and press statement about the arrest.

He hasn’t even bothered to retweet it – this being someone who uses their Twitter feed as a channel to name and shames anyone accused or convicted of sex offences.

So it seems bloggers have very little prima facie evidence for naming this person and certainly less, you’d think, than the major newspapers and television networks, who remain defiantly silent.

As to why the mainstream press is keeping quiet for now, there is one very obvious one:

Fresh in the minds of most journalists will be two recent examples of wrongful accusations made against prominent people in relation to child-sex offences.

Last year, the venerated BBC current affairs program Newsnight got it horribly wrong when it mistakenly named Lord Alistair McAlpine, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and Conservative Party treasurer, as being linked to child abuse claims in North Wales.

The claims were repeated on Twitter and on other social media platforms.

Lord McAlpine received £185,000 pounds in damages from the BBC plus costs, its director general resigned while those on Twitter who defamed him, have been pursued, including the writer George Monbiot, who had tweeted on the case to his 55,000 followers and who agreed to carry out £25,000 of work on behalf of three charities of his choice for defaming Lord McAlpine.

(I note that one UK blogger, who has outed the Australian personality continues to call Lord McAlpine a “paedo”.)

In another case, just over a week ago, former BBC producer Wilfred De’ath arrested by police last November was freed without charge after claims he molested a 14 year old woman were withdrawn.

And there are others who have been accused of sex offences and later not charged – 11 people have been arrested so far.

Bloggers currently screaming for tabloid headlines to be splashed across newspapers should not be so sure that their relatively small pockets and size protect them from civil or criminal charges should their contentions prove false.

But even more importantly, they should take greater care when a person’s life and reputation hang by a thread.