Category Archives: Blogging

The strange, dangerous, addictive world of @Twitter

twitterA colleague at work tells me I’m the worst tweeter in the world.

I laugh and shrug, but agree he could be right  (some of the time).

Mostly, it’s to do with my inane comments on sport, particularly Australian Football, which I admit I know very little about.

Still that doesn’t stop me winding up my 1200 or so followers, some of whom are friends who support opposing teams to the high-flying Sydney Swans, the team I barrack for.

What can  I say, I like to wind people up by saying this coach couldn’t teach a primary school woodwork class or that full forward couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo – let alone guide the Sherrin through the middle posts.

My problem is that I occasionally tweet my private thought and let’s be honest everyone has some pretty dark or silly ideas running through their brains at one time or another (before Twitter came along in 2008 the worst you could do is send a text message while drunk or angry) .

Some tweets are so explosively bad, they have the potential to be disastrous.

This was famously illustrated last year when PR executive Justine Sacco tweeted to just 400 followers before boarding a long-haul flight from the US to South Africa:

Image

Twelve or so hours later, her racist remarks had been retweeted thousands of times – by people who had tens of thousands of followers creating a huge multiplier effect – and the Twitter-sphere was up in arms.

A hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trended around the world and Ms Sacco found herself with 8000 unwanted “followers”.

Ms Sacco lost her job, her reputation was in tatters and she promptly vanished from Twitter and social media to lick her wounds (though amazingly someone has hired her again!)

Of course other more famous people have gotten into trouble for tweeting including fiery cricketer Dave Warner, who tweeted an expletive-ladden attack on cricket writers and was promptly fined by Cricket Australia and Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher who tweeted to his 8 million followers his support for American college football coach Joe Paterno after he was sacked for not doing enough to prevent the abuse of children by his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

A bad tweet can end a career, ruin a reputation and cost a lot of money in legal fees – comedian Roseanne Barr was sued by the parents of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin – after she tweeted their home address. The Zimmermans claimed Ms Barr incited a lynch mob. She later deleted the tweet but the damage was already done.

Undeniably, Twitter has incredible power.

While Facebook’s influence is arguably waning, Twitter is getting bigger and bigger (pop star Katy Perry has 54 million followers) and it has that incredible multiplier effect through retweets. Give a tweet time (as in the case of Justine Sacco) and the results can be tsunami-like.

Twitter’s power is its immediacy, punchiness (just 140 characters forcing people to condense their thoughts into bite size chunks) and ability to reach so many people.

Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn and others, where there is some level of privacy (messages can be restricted to friends and networks), Twitter is a free-for-all where everything is public.

It’s an addictive place where you can read the private thoughts of some of the world’s most powerful people  like right-wing media baron Rupert Murdoch  – @rupertmurdoch  – who actually writes his own rambling tweets.

It’s where you can interact with your favourite celebrities (who doesn’t like to brag about getting a reply from a favourite actor or a retweet or mention) and get involved in discussions on politics, sport, religion and every topic in between.

There’s a strange kind of pleasure when people from far-flung places respond to your tweets. For example, this exchange after I posted my thoughts on the book Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, which I had just read. I got a reply from an actor appearing in the play of the novel in the UK.

Image

Twitter is a great place for sharing stories, thoughts, inspiration, recipes, photographs, anecdotes, jokes and grievances (nothing better than winding up a big corporation who can’t help themselves but responding to every criticism).

Twitter is where many of the biggest news stories are broken (I remember a colleague at work shouting out: “Someone has just tweeted that Oscar Pistorious has shot his girlfriend” before it became a huge worldwide story).

But you have to be careful what you write even if you are a humble journo hack like me.

A point I have to keep reminding myself every time I think I’ve thought up something witty to say and have my finger hovering over the “Tweet” button.

“Just remember Justine Sacco,” I tell myself.

Follow me @larryschles

 

The jew at the table: reflections on racism and growing up Jewish in South Africa

“Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition…our chief weapon is…surprise.”

So begins the famous Monty Python sketch heralded by the arrival of evil clergy in red robes.

nobodyexpects

Well I wasn’t wearing a red robe or any identifying markings at a recent business lunch when as discussion turned to who would pay the bill, someone remarked:

“I’ll be the Jew and leave” – or words to that effect, before they got up to go.

A general snickering followed. Someone remarked flippantly that you should be careful what you say – you never know who may be around – and it was quickly forgotten.

No one knew there was a Jew at the table.

Me.

I never said anything, nor did I regard the person who said it with any particular malice. But I was a bit taken aback. It made me feel uncomfortable; I felt inclined to say something but also reluctant to make a fuss.

Others I know would have had no indecision. They would be proclaiming their Jewishness loudly and demanding an apology accompanied by accusations of anti-Semitism.

Did the person who made this remark hold some deeply felt hatred towards the jewish race or religion, or was it just like the time I remarked, flippantly, to an ex-girlfriend of mine who was half Asian that the kitchen of the digs I shared with friends in London “resembled a Chinese laundry”.

(I also recall that she distinctly did not like the South African colloquialism “china” used in the same way Australians say “mate”).

Anyway, as the words came out my mouth, I realised what I’d said, but it was too late. An uncomfortable moment followed as I apologised profusely.

And wouldn’t this person sitting across from me at lunch, who suggested “he be the Jew” have acted similarly had he known I was Jewish.

My gut feel, is yes.

And does he harbour some ill-will towards Jews. Probably…

Would he suddenly dislike me if he found out I was Jewish – probably not.

The truth is everyone has made a remark like this at some point in their lives -and it’s hard to think of anyone I know who does not hold some kind of prejudice or quasi-prejudice against some other race, religion, sexual orientation or political belief system.

At the same time, it strikes me that my Jewish brethren appear the most sensitive of all races, colours and creeds to offensive remarks, no matter how harmless or slip of the tongue they may be.

Years of persecution – the pogroms, the holocaust, indeed the Spanish Inquisition – will often be the explanation for such an acute sensitivity.

My own experience growing up in South Africa is of a deeply racist Jewish community, with the racism passed down through the generations as it is every where else.

Words learnt and bandied around Jewish social gatherings (white people only apart from the black domestics serving food or minding the children) included the horrible sounding “schvarzte” and “shoch” meaning a “black” person and “chatis” for an Afrikaner.

These words were used regularly at dinners, family gatherings, teas and barbeques – often in earshot of the African domestic clearing away plates or bringing food to the table.

Sadly they were often spoken by those who had fled pogroms or persecution or were the children of those who had. We as kids would play cricket in the garden, while the adults (BMW or Mercedes parked down the driveway) would chat away about their privileged lives: trips overseas, new restaurants opening, community gossip. As you got older, you’d join the adults and hear the conversations, where “shochs, schvartzes and chatises” were mentioned all too frequently.

Paradoxically, these same people would often stick their heads into the kitchen to say hi to the African domestic washing the dishes, to ask about their children or their health.

But it was always in the realm of the ‘master and servant relationship’:

“How are you today Sophie?”

“I am well thank-you master.”

“How are your children?”

“They are well thank you master.”

So what’s happened to these people who I remember with their expensive cars, who would sit around discussing the cricket or rugby with the odd racist remark thrown in from time to time?

Many of them have packed up and moved to Australia. They’re living on the best streets of Bondi, Vaucluse, St Ives, Toorak, Caufield, Bentleigh and Dianella. Some – would you believe it – have even brought their domestics along to do the dishes.

Few have dropped their prejudices and most will happily tell you South Africa has “gone to the dogs since the blacks took over”.

It reminds me of something someone very dear to me (but with horribly dated ideas) once said to me a long time ago:

“I don’t believe in apartheid. But really, you can’t put the blacks in charge.”

What Mandela gave me: one glorious day and hope for the future

The voting line: a sculpture depicting Mandela and the 1994 election in Port Elizabeth

The voting line: a sculpture depicting Mandela and the 1994 election (stands in Port Elizabeth)

This post first appeared on crikey.com.au,

It is also my 100th post on this blog. I dedicate 95 of those posts to Nelson Mandela, for each of the 95 years of his life:

I will always remember voting in South Africa’s first democratic elections on April 27, 1994. It was a miracle they took place at all; far-right-wing organisations threatened civil war, and only last-minute negotiations and concessions ensured all key political parties took part in the historic vote.

Such was the fear that some people took to draining their swimming pools and stocking them with cans of baked beans, mineral water and tinned tuna in case all hell broke loose — or so the urban legend went. But certainly there were empty shelves in the supermarket and a tremendous sense of tension in the air.

In the lead-up there had been bomb blasts at Johannesburg airport instigated by the paramilitary AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) and, a year before, the terrible slaying of Communist Party leader Chris Hani carried out by a white Polish immigrant named Janusz Walus as part of a right-wing plot that had pushed the country to the brink of anarchy.

But the doomsayers were all proved wrong.

On April 27 the front-page headline in Johannesburg’s The Star newspaper proclaimed boldly “Vote the beloved country”, a play on Alan Paton’s famous novel Cry, The Beloved Country about apartheid’s injustices, which we all read at school. Underneath the headline was a photo taken from a helicopter showing a snaking line of people stretching beyond the confines of the photograph waiting patiently to vote for the first time in their lives.

A mural in Cape Town depicting voting in South Africa in 1994

A mural in Cape Town depicting voting in South Africa in 1994

People queued for hours. In the big cities. In country towns. In townships. In rural villages. On hillsides.

Apart from getting married and the birth of my daughter, it was the single greatest day in my life. It was a privilege to be alive and still young (I was 21 at the time), but old enough to play my small part in such a defining moment in our troubled country’s history.

I remember it as a glorious crisp, early autumn day. Blue skies. Electricity in the air.

I voted at the nearby primary school just a short drive from home. I am not someone who shows his emotions, but as I drove past the line of people waiting on the pavement, there were tears in my eyes, and my heart felt like it was ballooning out of my chest.

In that queue was Nelson Mandela’s vision, why he had spent 27 years of his life imprisoned on Robben Island and why he had emerged not to proclaim war against those who oppressed him but to suggest a vision of the “rainbow nation” where everyone, no matter the colour of their skin, could feel proud to call themselves South African.

That queue outside the primary school in leafy suburban Jo’burg, in queues all over the country from Cape Town at the bottom of the country to Messina on the Zimbabwean border, the rainbow nation was brought to life for the world to see.

“… white middle-aged Jewish women in designer outfits, who for years had kept domestics (or “maids” as we called them) to raise and feed their children, stood quietly behind those they employed.”

Having parked my car some distance away, I took my place in the line. Ahead of me white middle-aged Jewish women in designer outfits, who for years had kept domestics (or “maids” as we called them) to raise and feed their children, stood quietly behind those they employed. Dapperly dressed old African men, once forced to carry “passbooks” regulating their movements in white areas under apartheid, stood beside Portuguese-born restaurateurs, Italian hairdressers and sun-loving British immigrants. Petrol attendants stood next to lawyers, suburban housewives, next to black mini-cab drivers. Black gardeners stood side-by-side with white doctors and accountants. Petrol attendants in blue overalls stood next to white old ladies with permed hair and tissues tucked under their sleeves, who stood behind Indian shopkeepers and coloured fruit sellers.

There was something in the air that day. Yes the tension remained, but there was the sense the dream could be real, that we could all learn to get along and in doing so rebuild and repair centuries of inequality, injustice and brutality. It would not be easy, but it was possible.

Soon after, the votes tallied, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as our first president.

The following year, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup; Mandela famously wore his No.7 jersey alongside Francois Pienaar (I retreated to my bedroom, head under my pillow, too anxious to watch the dying seconds of the match before Joel Stransky’s wondrous drop goal) and we all danced together in the streets, waving our new and strange-looking flag with gusto. The following year our soccer team, Bafana Bafana (“the boys”), won the African Cup of Nations in front of 120,000 screaming fans in Soweto.

Of course the euphoria over those early days of freedom have faded into reality. There are many challenges still facing the Rainbow Nation: crime, AIDS, inequality, corruption. But the new South Africa, even with these big problems, is a vastly better place than I remember through the rose-tinted glasses of my privileged white upbringing.

I never met Mandela, though I often drove past his imposing Houghton house a few suburbs from my own on my way home from work. With a bit more luck I might have bumped into him as his picked up his medications at the local pharmacy in the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Norwood, a few kilometres down the  road. Sadly, it never happened.

What would I have said to him? Perhaps, thank you for those glorious days in April. And for giving us hope and a glimpse of what might still be.

Your word is your worth: why journalists shouldn’t write for free

6861197374_17a9d96b5eAbout six years ago, having been made redundant from a role in Brisbane I applied for a number of journalism jobs in Sydney.

One of these was to write for Lawyer’s Weekly. Part of the application process was to write an article for the publication about the implementation of Basel 2 banking reforms on the legal profession (Yes, a very dry topic I know). I spent a great deal of time researching the topic and did a number of interviews before filing a story.

For whatever reason, I never got the job. However the editor at the time – a fidgety Englishman – said Lawyer’s Weekly would publish my article and pay me $100 or thereabouts for my 1,500 word story – or less than 10 cents a word.

I was outraged. I remember I wrote an angry email to the editor, demanding better compensation for my time and effort. He refused to budge. I later received a copy of the edition of the trade mag with my article splashed across two pages and a check for $1o0. It didn’t seem like a fair trade.

I sold the very same article (slightly re-jigged) to an education group I was doing freelance work for at the time, Tribeca Learning (now part of the Kaplan professional training group) for about $1,500 and gave Lawyer’s Weekly the one-fingered salute (figuratively).

It was immensely satisfying.

The issue of journalists, writers and photographers not being paid for their work has come to the boil over the past few weeks in a series of exchanges between my current employer (Fairfax) and former employer (Private Media).

Fairfax’s The Age newspaper had highlighted that Private Media does not pay bloggers for their posts on subscription news and analysis website Crikey and that it had no contributor budget for arts website  offshoot the Daily Review. Instead, it rewards bloggers on a system based on the number of hits the post receives. (I should point out that contributors and those commissioned to write for Crikey are paid, but the rate is to my understanding, pitiful).

The Age’s Ben Butler explained the pay per hits policy for Crikey bloggers:

Blog entries that get 25,000 page views a month earned a ”bonus” of $193.50, those with 50,000 hits $387 and so on, with the system topping out at $4000 for a post ticking past the 500,000 mark.

Critics of the policy included freelance writer Byron Bache who launched an online protest on his blog supported by a number of writers, including former Crikey journalist Amber Jamieson. Bache wrote:

It is ethically reprehensible for a company to expand and actually stop paying the people who produce its product. A company which asks its readers to pay for content doesn’t feel the same obligation when it comes to its writers.

He also pointed out that the Daily Review’s two full-time staff were being paid a reported $100,000+ a year and that it was a distinctly commercial venture i.e. one designed to make a profit and provide a return to shareholders in Private Media.

I should point out that Crikey is a terrific and valuable website with about 18,000 paying subscribers. Blogs are not behind the paywall so readership could in theory be quite high. However, I would argue that few if any stories have ever reached anywhere near 500,000 hits to secure the $4,000 payment and that even reaching 50,000 hits ($387) would mark an article or blog as incredibly successful. So the possibility of getting paid anything meaningful is virtually zero.

The feud between The Age and Crikey/The Daily Review played out over a number of days in The Age’s gossipy CBD column with headings like “Putting the free back into freelance”,  and “Crikey! Writers want to get paid”.

In response, Crikey decided it should publish an explanation of its editorial policies under the rather mushy heading “three cheers for our writers” with an “unreserved apology” for not being open about it’s payment policy plus a link to this policy.

A few days later, Bethanie Blanchard, a Crikey literary blogger, wrote what was clearly a difficult column for her  in the Sunday Age (but for which she was paid for) criticising the Daily Review for not paying freelance writers for what is a commercial venture.

Blanchard admitted that it was “deeply troubling personally to criticise a company we [freelancers] have been incredibly proud to write for” but that there were places were writers could and should write for free to test themselves and fail, such as student newspapers, street press and emerging journals, but not the Daily Review, a “commercial venture”.

I should at this point own up.  I have in fact written for Crikey for free on a number of occasions and happily did so. I never thought to ask for payment since I was a fairly well-paid full-time member of Private Media’s staff and nor did I expect it. I was just pleased to appear in a publication I highly respect (I should also mention that I was paid very fairly for a series of ebooks I wrote for Property Observer outside of work hours).

But writing for Crikey for free was my choice. I certainly wasn’t asked to do so.

It’s a different story if writer’s are approached to contribute to a publication and expected to work for nothing beyond the euphemistic “exposure” or for the possibility of payment if they reach an impossible readership target.

The ABC’s Media Watch highlighted the offer of ‘exposure rather than payment’ recently in an excellent expose on Tennis Australia inviting freelance photographers to take photos of tennis players ahead of the Australian Open without payment in what is a $200 million revenue generating enterprise, paying $33 million in prize money at the Grand Slam event.

Another publication under fire is ‘mommy blogging’ website Mamamia which does not pay bloggers or anyone apart from a handful of its staff, but which appears to be a highly successful commercial venture given the high media profile of founder Mia Freedman.

mamamia

Let’s be clear. Offering ‘exposure’ is fine for people who are marketing themselves and for whom journalism is not their bread and butter. There are many people who will happily write for free such as mortgage brokers, investment gurus, entreprenuers and real estate agents with their columns serving as a free advertisements.

But if you’re a journalist, photographer or artist who values their craft, you should expect to be compensated fairly for your efforts.

It is also understandable that as the newspaper and publishing industry undergoes its biggest upheaval since the invention of the printing press that new ventures should look to cut costs where possible and stay lean and nimble.

But it is unacceptable to expect people who spend many hours researching, interviewing and crafting stories and who have families to support and mortgages to pay to expect nothing in return but a pat on the back.

Prize-winning author Anna Funder has also weighed into the debate, likening wealthy media companies expecting her to work for nothing but “exposure ” as to suggest she is “running some sort of porn site”.

“That’s a very quick race to the bottom,” she told the first national writers’ congress.

Like everybody else in society, we are doing something useful, something that has value. It has a kind of political value of speaking truth to power, it has an aesthetic value of giving pleasure and delight. And we deserve to be paid. We also deserve to be able to function in the world as human beings with children and mortgages – and they cost money.

Here, here! I say.

Giddee up: why horse racing is an absurd sport

Horse Racing-hdhut.blogspot.com (8)I rarely gamble. Not because I am puritanical about it, but because I never win. I figure I’m better off burning the bank notes in my wallet for warmth than taking a punt.

On Tuesday, on Melbourne Cup Day I won $5 in the office sweepstakes. The horse I picked up was Verema. That horse is dead. It was put down after breaking a bone in her leg in the race. Not quite sure why I won $5, but it was out of sympathy I think and I shall donate the money to some animal charity in return.

I took the incident to be a kind of omen – about betting mainly – but it also made me think about horse racing and what an utterly absurd sport it is.

Mainly, it’s the idea that horses are somehow willing competitors and participants in these so-called carnivals.

Michael Lynch, a sports writer at The Age, writes in a column that the death of Verema was “sad” but not a “tragedy”.

A tragedy, he said, would be if a jockey were to die as happened in Darwin recently.

Horse racing, he says like all sports come with risks, somehow suggesting that these horses have agreed (perhaps they signed a contract with their hoof?) to take on these risks.

He writes:

“But the reality is that in any sport or recreational pursuit involving horses (or livestock of any kind) there will be casualties.It’s part of the risk inherent in such activity.”

He then goes on to attack those people who will use the example of the death of Verema to accuse the sport of being barbaric, when in fact very few horses die – one out of every 2000. He writes:

“For those who won’t ever approve, one is too many.For those of us who love racing, it is a sad statistic, but one that will be judged acceptable on a risk-to-return basis.”

I am sure his statistics are accurate. He is of course entitled to his opinion, but I found it heartless and in poor taste, and what really annoyed me was this line:

“Verema was a horse that gave her all.”

The notion that the horse had any idea that it was racing and trying to win.

Michael, Do you really think the horse cared whether it came first, second or last?

It makes me think of a classic Jerry Seinfeld joke about horse racing where he muses about whether horses, after the race, walk back to the stables saying: “I was fifth, while I was third…” and why if the whole idea was just to finish at the point they began, could they not have just remained where they were!

Take a listen:

To be fair, Michael Lynch is not alone. Commentator after commentator will talk about horses as if they were consciously involved in the sport. They talk of horses that “race solidly”, that “never let go” that “bolt ahead” as if these animals are cognizant beings, able to make judgements and decisions, to strategize and plot, when really its all about the little man on their backs manipulating them.

Horse racing is not grand. It’s not a spectacle. It’s quite silly and boring. It’s why people get blind drunk on cup day and frequently dress up in silly outfits.

Sometimes it can be cruel. And I doubt it’s ever all that much fun for the horse.