My Orwellian odyssey: a descent into the fiction of George Orwell

George_Orwell_press_photoAs it happened, I was in the midst of reading “Burmese Days”, George Orwell’s very fine first novel about imperialism and prejudice set within a rural Burmese village during British rule, when the plans for “Operation Fortitude” were made public.

The press release, issued by Australian Border Force on the morning of Friday, August 28 detailed a sinister operation planned in Melbourne over the coming weekend when ABF officers would be patrolling the streets, scrutinizing everyone coming into the city centre and targeting “everything from anti-social behaviour to outstanding warrants”.

coming up for airMost ominously and invoking the dystopian world of Orwell’s 1984 with its constant surveillance and suspicion, the press release said that “ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with.”

As the outrage at this trampling of individual rights (and suspicions of racial profiling) grew louder and louder, it seemed  everyone from Booker prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan to protestors at hastily arranged gatherings were referencing Orwell or using the adjective ‘Orwellian’ to describe the planned paramilitary-style operation.

burmese daysGripped by it all, I finished reading Burmese Days and proceeded to re-read my tattered copy of Orwell’s Coming up for Air (1939) featuring my favourite Orwell anti-hero, the rotund, bald, bowler-hatted insurance salesman George Bowling who as the bomber planes fly overhead, casting shadows over London and bringing with them portents of the approaching descent into worldwide destruction and death, reminisces about his carefree youth and plans a return his countryside home town of Lower Binfield to seek out a legendary fishing spot.

keep the aspidstraNext up, I re-read Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – also a tattered paperback on my bookshelf – about the idealistic London poet Gordon Comstock (brilliantly played by Richard E. Grant in the film version, A Merry War), who has forsaken a promising career as a copywriter in an advertising firm in order to escape the moneying world and all its artistic-destroying influences to write something that matters. We find Comstock virtually starving in his bleak bed sit in a men’s lodging house scrawling away at an epic poem he can’t seem to finish while bemoaning his poverty, which has ironically become an even greater destructive force to his writing than a well paid job as well as to his relationships and his sanity.

animal farmAfter that, I dived straight into Animal Farm (1945), Orwell’s political fairy tale about the failings of socialism set among the world of animals who overthrow their human masters only to become slaves under the control of the intelligent, cunning pigs who are “more equal than others”.

Finally, I ended my Orwellian odyssey with 1984 (written in 1949), Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece set in a futuristic London of enormous windowless government buildings, squalid tenements, always watching’ telescreens’ and posters of ‘Big Brother’, where timid revolutionary Winston Smith, an employee in the Ministry of Truth and his lover, Julie, battle the belligerent totalitarian state, its thought police, doublespeak ideology and hunger for eternal power.

1984_by_alcook-d4z39dhSo what was my Orwellian journey like?

Melancholic and depressing give the current state of the world.

As described in 1984 and Animal Farm, the loss of individual freedoms has occurred even in democratic countries like Australia, the USA and the UK, with their gag orders against speaking out against refugee abuse, surveillance and collection of meta-data and secret actions of spy agencies like the NSA and ASIO.

Imperialism and prejudice is alive and well

As in Burmese Days, which sets its modernistic central character,  35-year-old teak merchant John Flory against the bigotry within the walls of European Club, we find ourselves in an quasi-imperialist world where the richest, most powerful countries continue to oppress minority populations, invade sovereign countries at will and turn a blind eye to the consequences: thousands of displaced refugees.

“After all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people, an inferior people with black faces” – from Burmese Days

Secondly, invigorating and wondrous. Orwell’s writing sparkles, glows and comes alive as you read it and follow the adventures and exploits of his characters. His manages to address weighty and universal themes by creating engaging characters, brilliantly plotted storylines and living, breathing places. He is a master craftsman, who true to his famous rules for writing knows that a few, carefully chosen words, expertly put together, can create vivid scenes that leaps out of the page:

In the deadly glare of the neon lights the pavements were densely crowded. Gordon threaded his way, a small shabby figure, with a pale face and unkempt hair – From Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Then there are his characters. I found myself happily inside the head of all of them, even the ones that are on the surface, unlovable like fat, unhappy George Bowling whom we find on the very first page of Coming Up for Air, locked in the bathroom of his home on a dreary London housing estate, plotting his escape from his wife and kids on a “beastly January morning”. After all, who doesn’t yearn – now and then – for a return to their youth, to a time when they were carefree and without adult responsibilities?

Similarly, I identified with the idealism of malnourished and unwashed poet Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, with his rallying against “money, money, always money” encapsulated in his distaste for the catchy slogans that hang from windswept, tattered advertising boards outside the secondhand bookshop he works in.

No doubt Gordon would find our advertising-saturated world with its sponsored content and brand placement even more nauseating as he would the greedy capitalism and worship of money that defines success today.

And then there is John Flory, the lonely, lost colonialist searching for companionship in Burmese Days who sees skin colour as a mystery to be explored and celebrated, but set against a world of cunning corruption and prejudice. One of the most tragic of Orwell’s characters, he is also one of his most loveable and most admirable.

Orwellian, as we understand it.

And then there is the sheer devastating power of 1984 and Animal Farm, whose much-discussed and debated themes of tyranny, oppression and the crushing of individualism find their reflection in the darker  actions of governments with their ‘Operation Fortitudes’, metadata laws and secrecy and in mega-corporations like Facebook and Google, now the most powerful players in the world of news, information and personal data.

Indeed, it is no surprise, that as I finished reading these five novels, I read also a review of anew theatrical version of 1984 running in Melbourne and the seemingly never ending articles about Orwell and the Orwellian – though I confess that Coming Up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying are my two favourites.

Read them all!

play about 1984

How to fix Woolworths: what the overpaid executives won’t find in their spreadsheets

wooliesAustralia’s biggest retailer, supermarket group Woolworths, is floundering.

It’s share price and market value is down almost 30 per cent since April last year, sales are stagnating and profits are forecast to fall 35 per cent over the six months to December.

The Woolworths business is in a mess, while its competitors Coles and Aldi continue to perform strongly and steal market share.

No doubt, Woolworths is spending millions on expensive reviews and turning to its overpaid executives for answers. But I think – judging by their latest announcement – they have probably missed the point entirely.

Scouring the seven page ASX release, I found plenty of the usual management jargon like “customer metrics” and “change programs” but not a single mention of the word “quality”.

As a regular Woolworths shopper, this says a lot, but is hardly surprising.

We buy most of our groceries at Woolworths, not out of any sense of loyalty or because we like shopping there, but simply because its convenient – there is a grocery store literally up the road from our house.

When we have the time, we prefer shopping at a nearby supermarket extravaganza called La Manna, with its funky cafe, ice-cream and dessert bars and amazing selection of fresh and exotic produce.

Indeed, the demise of Woolworths is a perfect example of having too much market power and becoming utterley complacent.

  1. The real problem is quality.

My biggest gripe is with the many crappy products sold in my local Woolworths. Often they are dressed up as bargains, but what they really are, are over-priced duds.

Many people may have laughed at the story about the Woolworths scissors that needed a pair of scissors to open the packet but  that’s just the top of the iceberg I reckon.

There were a lot of mandarin pips. A lot!

There were a lot of mandarin pips. A lot!

From the packet of mandarins I bought recently infested with so many pips they were inedible to the book-reading light I returned three times because it didn’t work, my general feeling is that finding savings, rather than providing quality products is the overriding motto at Woolies.

Not surprising “value perception” rather than “real quality” is considered a key customer metric in the latest bit of corporate spin.

  1. Stop confusing customers


I have been caught out on many occasions thinking I have bought a discounted item only to pay more at the till. This is because price labels often don’t relate to the items above them. I am certain this is a deliberate strategy. Another one is promoting items with bright labels, when there is no discount. This is highly annoying. And cutting the price by 10 or 20 cents on an item is just an insult to shoppers.

3. Keep stores properly stocked

Perhaps I am being pedantic, but I am always a bit gob smacked when I stroll up and down the aisles only to find the store has run out of such staples as skim milk and brown rice. How is this possible for a company with access to the best supply chain technology and automated ordering software in the world?

4. Make shopping a bit more interesting.

If only Woolies were a bit more like Aldi...

If only Woolies were a bit more like Aldi…

Woolworths could learn a thing or two from German supermarket giant Aldi, which mixes up the standard grocery items with strange and exotic products that change from week to week. You never know what you will find in an Aldi, but in Woolworths its the same boring stuff, week in and week out.

5. The new rewards program sucks

Woolworths new rewards program is a badly thought out idea and feels like a bit of a fraud. The newly introduced scheme does not pay out loyalty discounts on items immediately as it did in the past. Instead you accumulate them on your rewards card until they reach a certain value.

So instead of immediately getting a bit of reduction in your bill, you have to make multiple visits to the store to get anything back. Whichever marketing genius came up with this idea, should be sacked or at least forced to eat some of those pip-infested mandarins.

So, those are just a couple of ideas for whoever replaces Grant O’Brien as Woolworths CEO.

And here’s another tip for those overpaid Woolies executives. Forget the high-powered meetings, power point presentations and slick marketing campaigns. Get out of your wood-panelled boardrooms and take a stroll instead down some of the aisles of your supermarkets to get the real picture.

And stop and have a word with some of your shoppers, you might learn a thing or two.

Note: I have made changes to this story. The original version made comments about my local Woolworths supermarket staff. This was wrong and I apologise. The problem is with its management.

Anzac Day: an immigrant’s education

6968598698_f28850d25b_z This Anzac Day, my eleventh in Australia, was a milestone for me.

While I didn’t attend a Dawn service – something I would still like to do – for the first time I got an education about April 25, 1915 and what it means

(And…what it clearly doesn’t mean to a fair proportion of Australians, including SBS sports journalist Scott McIntyre, sacked for his disparaging views.)

Firstly, I wanted to understand why “April 25” and what in fact was being commemorated.

An excellent article by Age journalist Tony Wright “Nation forged by heroes & horror” was a great starting point. Wright wrote his account of the significance of Anzac Day in Gallipoli ahead of the commemoration services.

While evoking the horror of the battles below the cliffs at Anzac Cove –  “shells roaring a few metres overhead, the bodies piling up and the flies and the lice” – Wright provided a neat summary of the important facts and figures:

– that about 40 per cent of the male population between the ages of 18 and 44 enlisted to fight in the Great War (the Returned Services League provides the exact number, 331,781)

– that they were all volunteers (this came as a complete shock)

– that they all thought they were going on a “fine adventure’ (another shock), the RSL says they “rushed to enlist for an exciting war”.

– that 8709 young Australian men died at Gallipoli on a patch of land ” barely larger than an Australian farm” and more than 21,000 were injured, (and that more than 60,000 in total died during the War and more than twice that number were wounded).

– that the invasion of Gallipoli by the Anzacs was a military failure, that achieved “precisely nothing for the invaders in the course of World War 1”.

The innocence, bravery and naivety of the Anzacs astonished me, the loss of life monumental for a small country of just 4.9 million at the time (though I disagree with Wright that the numbers are unimaginable: as a Jew, the slaughter of six million by the Nazis in the holocaust is truly unimaginable).

First Anzac Day, Hobart Domain, Tasmania - 1916

First Anzac Day, Hobart Domain, Tasmania – 1916

Another excellent article, by Tony Stephens, author of The Last Anzacs entitled “Legend outgrows the men who fought“, provided an understanding of what was achieved from the point of view of actual Anzac veterans.

Peeling back the almost cult-like, untouchable heroic status that Anzac Day has undoubtedly achieved among many Australians (among them, the “poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers” McIntyre derides in his contentious tweets) there thoughts are sobering and cautionary:

– Tom Epps of the 27th Battalion: “It provided a lesson in the futility of war.”

– Harry Newhouse of the 4th Battalion: “The Turks never did anything to us and we never did anything to the Turks. We did not think we were going to fight them, poor buggers.”

– Albert White of the 25th Battalion: “I never understood what we were fighting for. I went because most of my cobbers went.”

– Ted Matthews, of the Ist Division Signals: “Some people called us ‘five-bob-a-day murderers’ but the politicians were the murderers. Politicians make up the wars. They don’t go to them.”

Stephens writes that Gallipoli built national pride and confidence, but that it’s a “tired cliché to say it marks the birth of a nation, or a coming of age”.

Other events, he says like Federation in 1901, prime minister John Curtin defying Churchill in the Second World War and bringing troops home to defend Australia against Japan, the 1967 referendum that included aborigines in the Census ( I would add the 2008 Rudd government apology to the stolen generations), could all be said to be defining moments in the continual evolution of the shifting Australian national identity.

Many Australian I know – educated, smart, well read – don’t care much for Anzac Day, or how it is remembered.

There views may not be as extreme as Scott McIntyre, but what they really want is some authenticity about how Gallipoli and the Anzacs are remembered and they revile the crass commercialisation, hijacked by the likes of VB, Anzac biscuit makers, Woolworths and others.


There were hundreds of people, including senior politicians like Malcolm Turnbull who welcomed the sacking of McIntyre for airing his views, but debate about what Anzac Day should mean is healthy and necessary if it is to have resonance for immigrants like myself and our children.

I agree with Guardian columnist and satirist Geoff Lemon, who wrote in light of the sacking of McIntyre, that while his tweets were historically “flawed”…

“…the greatest insult you can offer the fallen is to lie about who they were and what they did – to whitewash their sins and burnish their glories.

Keeping Anzac Day alive and strong starts with education – in my case self-education – not deception, myth-making, political spin and marketing tricks.

I feel a greater affinity with my adopted country, armed with a bit more knowledge about its history.

Lest we forget (…what really happens in war-time)

In memorium: the suburban video store

The joy of browsing for a movie...fading fast

The joy of browsing for a movie…fading fast

We watched a lot of DVDs on our recent family holiday on Phillip Island, courtesy of the local video store. We found Phillip Island Video Hire by chance, on the second evening of our holiday, while taking a stroll after dinner. Behind the counter, the spectacled, purple-haired proprietress, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt saved us from a twentieth viewing of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (in video format!) and the ultimate horror, enduring Jar-Jar Binks again and ‘The Phantom Menace’. Our holiday home was a cozy little cottage with a wood-burning fireplace, a TV the size of a postage stamp, one of those technological relics – a combination video and DVD player – and a small pile of reject videos and dust-covered DVDs. Thank god for the local video store! In the evenings, once our little girl was sound asleep, we’d brew tea, bring out the Tim Tams and stretch out in the darkened lounge, illuminated by the flickering orange fire, and watch a movie. (Our selections included the excellent ‘Kill the Messenger‘, the very watchable ‘November Man‘ and Australian-made crime drama, Son of a Gun) While it’s perhaps not that surprising to find a video store still in operation in a coastal holiday town like  Phillip Island (alongside second-hand bookstores and surf shops) in the suburbs of Melbourne and around the world, video stores are dying out in their droves, losing customers to a plethora of cheap video streaming services (Stan, Presto, Netflix, iTunes to name a few) that deliver movies instantly to your home TV, illegal downloading and DVD piracy. Rising rents have also hurt. In the past six months, two local stores – a Blockbuster and a Video Ezy  – have closed in Niddrie, leaving our northern suburb without a video store. (For more stories on video store closures read here, here and here). In place of our local Blockbuster, there is now a giant Pet Warehouse (with DIY dog wash) while a little further down the main road, Video Ezy has been consumed by the neighbouring medical centre. Like the demise of newspapers, the internet or ‘technological progress’ has killed the suburban video store – what was once a fixture of every retail strip, high street and shopping complex alongside Chinese takeaways, bottle shops and pizza joints. More than that, it’s killed a tradition that I, as a child growing up in South Africa in the late seventies, eighties and nineties, remember fondly. In those day, a trip to the local corner video store in Germiston – a mining town about 20 minutes from Johannesburg –  was something to get excited about. It was a family outing!


We had a Betamax player, similar to this

Our store, Cachet Video, rented out not just movies, but video players as well, firstly Betamax and later VHS players, decades before the arrival of DVDs. I remember, fondly, our top-loading bulky brown Betamax player with a remote control that connected to the machine by cord and which was at one point, the envy of our street. There was the fun of browsing and choosing and I loved turning over the age-restricted movies – when no one was looking – to see what scenes from the movie were on the back. The video store proprietor stood behind a counter in the corner, like the lord of home cinema (also the owner of the attached convenience store South Africans call a ‘cafe’), who would pull out a hand written card bearing our account information when the time came to exchange our empty boxes for actual movies. Having checked we still had credit, he would then disappear into a cavernous back room and return with the precious movies.

Where Cachet Video once stood, an iconic childhood memory

At one time ,the premises of Cachet Video, Germiston, South Africa

A rental transaction always concluding with my mother or father asking: “How many moves do we have left on our account?” Being a conservatively-minded family, my parents only allowed age appropriate selections, but I confess, that on holidays, when my parents were at work and my siblings were elsewhere, I’d race down to the video store on my maroon-coloured 24 speed bike, rent a movie like Police Academy or Revenge of the Nerds, where there was a guaranteed fabled topless scene. The proprietor looked me up and down – shaking his head, or so I imagined – but never said anything when I sheepishly handed over the video box. Then I’d race back to watch the film, fast forwarding to the ‘important scenes’ and then furiously cycle back to return the movie, before my parents returned home. Later in life, when slightly more mature (and having a car), I made many trips to Johannesburg video establishments like Video Spot on Jan Smuts Avenue, Hyde Park, with its vast collection of art house films and foreign movies to choose from.I remember what I thought at the time were ingenious arrangements of films by actor (Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino etc), director (Coppola, Spielberg, Scorcese, Allen etc) and franchise (The Godfather, James Bond etc).

The Blockbuster store, Golders Green

The Blockbuster store, Golders Green

Later, living in London, there were numerous trips to the Blockbuster video store on Golders Green High Street  (now also closed). In the afternoon, we’d wonder down in a group to choose a weekend movie or two, stopping on the way back home at the local Turkish Shop for cheap wine, pita, dolmades, dips and snacks. On one occasion, we forgot to return a movie before going on holiday for three weeks – the Blockbuster bill was about 60 quid. Living in Sydney, my wife and I and often the dog walked up William Street, past the drunks and prostitutes to the video store in Darlinghurst to rent episodes of The Office and The Sopranos. In Melbourne, it was Blockbuster of Video Ezy (or Video Sleazy as some called it) where browsing the aisles for a movie became a regular weekend fixture, invariably accompanied by a Thai curry. Even in the comparatively boring Niddrie Blockbuster, there was always the $2 section of classics, where you could find an old Woody Allen or re-acquaint yourself with a Clint Eastwood early Western. And there were the familiar faces – the small Asian man who ran the shop (and dished out the fines) who was close to tears when it closed down, the geeky guy with the half-formed goatee often on the phone reminding customers their movie was due back three days ago and the nerdy film buff – plus the huge selection of American candy, merchandise and figurines. Now all that’s left are a couple of self-service kiosks where there’s invariably someone standing behind you sighing heavily, while you try to choose something from a pathetically inadequate collection. So, I shed a tear for the video stores of my youth, my adolescence, my adulthood and my fatherhood and raise a glass to the nerds, geeks, rude bastards and eccentrics who worked in those stores. In fitting tribute, the classic video shop scene from Clerks:

Would you like to ‘go large?’ ‘Super Size Me’ and McDonald’s a decade on

super-size-meHere’s an old joke. A man walks into a McDonald’s…

He order a quarter pounder with cheese meal.

Before he has time to lay a $10 note on the table, the fresh-eyed young lady behind the counter asks: “Would you like to ‘go large?”

Doesn’t she just mean ‘super size’? he wonders to himself. Sensibly, he declines the upgrade.

A minute late, his meal is on a tray in front of him…

It’s just over 10 years since Morgan Spurlock made Super Size Me (the film was released in September 2004), a low-budget documentary about the fast food industry, where he nearly killed himself eating a McDonald’s meal three times a day for a month, and where he forced himself to ‘super-size’ his meal whenever it was offered.

I watched Super Size Me for the first time recently (it aired late one night) and thought it a very engaging, thought-provoking and entertaining film, if you can stomach watching a young bloke quickly push his previously fit and healthy body toward’s ruination to prove a point about the evils of the fast food industry.

The film was made for just $65,000 and grossed almost $12 million. Made two year’s after Michael Moore’s groundbreaking Bowling for Columbine, it cemented documentary film-making as a mainstream film genre, earned an Academy Award Nomination and dozens of other film prizes.

Anyone who remembers the film will remember that famously gross scene, when Spurlock eats a double quarter-pounder supersize meal about the size of his car steering wheel and then, soon after, vomits it all up out the window of his car.

Morgan Spurlock: My arms… I feel like I’ve got some McSweats goin’. My arms got the McTwitches going in here from all the sugar that’s going in my body right now. I’m feeling a little McCrazy.

Over the course of the film Spurlock develops numerous medical conditions – high cholesterol, strange bodily sensations, depression and finally fast food addiction with his team of doctors and specialists flabbergasted at the decline of his health.


Not only did Spurlock show how unhealthy McDonald’s food is – very high in fat, salt and sugar – but also how the fast food industry had gained control of America’s lucrative high school lunch menus and how it spends billions of marketing dollars every year to virtually brainwash young kids into consuming its products via its catchy advertising, bright colours and cheap meals.

Morgan Spurlock: In 2001, on direct media advertising…McDonald’s spent US$1.4 bn worldwide…[By comparison] In its peak year the [US] Five-a-Day Vegetable Campaigns total advertising budget in all media was a lowly $2m.

At the end of the film, and thankfully not dead, Spurlock declares a victory of sorts with McDonald’s announcing an end to its super size offer.

Or has it? It was me who ordered that McDonalds meal. Was there anything really different in principle (yes the quantities may be a little smaller) between “going large” and super-sizing’?

Over the years some things have changed. McDonald’s has introduced healthier menu items like salads, water and yoghurts, while in 2012 it started including kilojoule labelling in all its restaurants.

But deep down, it’s the same philosophy driving the company: greasy burgers, made cheap, sold in their millions.

If it had changed, the woman behind the counter would have asked if I wanted a salad or fries with my burger (as is a healthier option). Instead, she asked me: “Would I like to go large?”

Of course I am an adult and can make an educated choice, children are far more impressionable and McDonald’s is fighting harder than ever for it’s new generation of customers.

It continues to promote its ‘Happy Meals‘ complete with toys and popular movie tie-ins. (In its PR spin it makes the ridiculous claim that toys are “a response to the desire of parents for their child’s Mcdonald’s experience to be a fun and special occasion”.)

McDonald’s also continues to sponsor local youth sports events including athletics, rugby league, union, AFL, soccer and netball.

In Melbourne, my home town, McDonald’s has kept its restaurant contract with the government’s Royal Children’s Hospital and will also have a restaurant in the new Monash Hospital, when it opens in 2017.

It also has the backing of the recently appointed Labor Victorian government with premier Daniel Andrews – a former health minister no less – defending the company from suggestions that its hospitals should perhaps consider a healthier food offering.

Mr Andrews told people – including parents, doctors and nutritionists – to “get over themselves” and said McDonald’s at the children’s hospital was “here to stay”.

McDonald’s will argue that it gives millions of dollars to sports programs, children’s charities and community events and that it creates jobs, which is true.

But what it gets back is billions of dollars in revenue –  the fast food giant has about 20 per cent of the $17 billion Australian market – and millions of new customers, many of whom are young and impressionable.

This in a country with one of he highest rates of obesity in the world – double what it was 20 years – it seems we are losing far more than we are gaining.

As for the end to McDonald’s super sizing, which Morgan Spurlock proclaimed a decade ago was a direct result of the popularity of his film, it seems a pretty hollow victory now.

(Admission: the author does occasionally eat fast food, including McDonald’s. I usually wish I hadn’t).

Downloading a movie is wrong, but is it the same as stealing a car?

Perhaps you remember this ad:

It was an anti-piracy commercial warning the DVD viewer that downloading pirated movies was the same as stealing a car, or a handbag or a television.

People who downloaded movies were very bad people, the ad insinuated, a message that was replicated around the world in similar campaigns like this:

illegal download campaigns2

M-Tv anti-piracy ad

I was reminded of this campaign strategy after reading that the Australian government under the direction of Attorney General George Brandis planned a fresh move to crack down on movie pirates. Mr Brandis said:

“The government will be considering possible mechanisms to provide a legal incentive for an internet service provider to co-operate with copyright owners in preventing infringement on their systems and networks.

“This may include looking carefully at the merits of a scheme whereby ISPs are required to issue graduated warnings to consumers who are using websites to facilitate piracy.”

It’s unlikely this will succeed.

In 2012, an Australian High Court ruled that internet service provider iiNet (the second biggest ISP in Australia) was not responsible for the conduct of its subscribers and could not be ordered to terminate services of repeat copyright offenders.The five high court judges in the case ordered Warner Bros, Disney, Fox and Paramount Pictures and 29 other companies including Australian independent distributors and TV networks under the umbrella of the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft to pay $9 million in court costs.

In addition, prosecutions of individuals who pirate material remain rare and are primarily restricted to those who make and sell pirated DVDs (the kind you can pick up overseas or in a dodgy market for a few bucks) and the websites that host them.

Campaigns like “You wouldn’t steal car…” and more recent ones by the Intellectual Property Awareness Foundation which appeal to the public’s guilty conscience have also failed.

Australians are downloading pirated movies and TV shows in record numbers, as seen in the recent download stats for hit HBO show Game of Thrones, where they accounted for the highest proportion (around 11 per cent) of the 7.5 million people worldwide who downloaded the finale of season four within days of it being shown on pay television, according to website

By comparison, about 500,000 people watched the episode legally on Foxtel when it premiered.


“Australia, I am sorry to say, is the worst offender of any country in the world when it comes to piracy,” Senator Brandis told the Australian Senate.

But, contrary to what’s being said, people who download or stream movies illegally (between 25 per cent and 55 per cent of Australians depending on what survey you read) are not also stealing cars or handbags or televisions. They’re not trying to put someone out of work (about 6,000 jobs are lost each year as a result of piracy) or send a production company bankrupt.

Most go to work, pay their taxes, pay their mortgage, pay for their groceries at the checkout counter and pay for their petrol after filling their tank. They’re your friends, your work colleagues, your bank manager, the guy making your chai latte at your favourite cafe, your kid’s kindergarten teacher – everyone is doing it.

The main reason people download shows illegally are convenience, to save money and anger and frustration at the cost of paying for it legally.

The internet has made it incredibly easy and safe to download or stream favourite show just by clicking on a link.

Many people are rebelling against the high cost of movies (now above $20 for some time slots), and the inflexibility and arrogance of providers like Foxtel, which does not allow subscribers to pick and choose their movie channels they want (channels are bundled) and which has a virtual monopoly on pay television in Australia, (though this is being challenged by online competitors).

There’s also the anger at service providers like Apple iTunes, which charges Australian customers between 50 and 100 per cent more for movies and music than they do customers in the US (as highlighted in the ABC’s The Checkout) for the same products

The relative cost of buying the movie "Life of Pi" in Australia and the US (from The Checkout)

The relative cost of buying the movie “Life of Pi” in Australia and the US (from The Checkout)

There’s nothing like the feeling that you are getting ripped off to encourage you to try and get something for free.

There’s also the harm factor. While some Australian companies may be impacted by lost revenue to piracy the public will also be aware that the really big entertainment companies are still doing rather well despite it.

Time-Warner reported revenues of US$7.5 billion for the first quarter of 2014 and earnings of $1.5 billion primarily from shows like Game of Thrones, True Detective and The Lego movie. Nobody at Time-Warner is crying poverty.

Australia’s biggest entertainment group, Seven West Media (owners of Channel 7) reported a 4 per cent rise in television revenue to $683 million for the six months to December 2013 and profits of $190 million.

Foxtel – half-owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp – has 2.5 million subscribers (not far off one in two Australian households) and last year had revenues of $3.1 billion and earnings of almost $1 billion.

Add the $20 – $30 million plus some Hollywood stars get paid to appear in a single movie  and you can understand why some people’s attitudes to movie piracy is this:

illegal download campaign - parody

Or this:

illegal download campaign - parody2

Intriguingly, while pay television companies, cable networks and cinema owners shake their fists at the public for being pirates and Australian attorney general George Brandis threatens tough new measures, others are taking a far more realistic view.

Jeff Bewkes, CEO of entertainment giant Time-Warner, owner of network HBO, which produces Game of Thrones, said during an earnings call last year that having the most pirated show of the year was “a tremendous word-of-mouth thing” and “better than [winning] an Emmy.”

He wasn’t alone. Game of Thrones director David Petrarca said piracy contributed to the show’s “cultural buzz”, while author of the novels, George R.R. Martin also called it a “compliment,” (though one he would rather not receive).

Mr Bewkes compared piracy to “cable-splitting” (illegally sharing a cable subscription) and said it had in fact contributed to HBO subscriptions and greater penetration of the HBO brand.

Also interesting to note is that US movie streaming service Netflix uses piracy data to decide which shows to buy, a back-handed compliment to the tastes of online pirates.

And perhaps also a concession that piracy is part of the entertainment industry like popcorn and paparazzi – and something that they will have to learn to live with even as the authorities threaten a clampdown.

All the news that’s fit (and not fit) to print: new buzzwords in journalism

read all about it“It’s not change. It’s a f*cking revolution,” said a media analyst in the brilliant New York Times documentary Page One.

He was referring of course to how the online world has ripped up the traditional business model of newspapers replacing highly profitable print advertising and classifieds ads (the so-called “rivers of gold”) with cheap, interactive and intuitive online offerings.

Fairfax journalist Pam Williams did a brilliant job telling this story in her book “Killing Fairfax” – reviewed here – but is by no means the whole story.

The wheels of change continue to spin and at an even faster rate.

Two of the hottest and most provocative concepts becoming entrenched in the new age of publishing are “native advertising” and “corporate journalism”.

‘Native advertising’ – where paid-for, sponsored or branded content is produced and published on news sites to have the look and feel of a genuine article  – was the focus of a recent episode of the ABC’s Media Watch 

“Corporate journalism” – content produced by an in-house editorial team focusing on issues that matter to the corporation and its stakeholders – was in the spotlight following the launch of ANZ Bank’s new website BlueNotes in April, billed as “the first corporate digital publication for news, opinion and insight of its type in the Asia-Pacific region”.

The launch of BlueNotes sparked healthy debate on Twitter kicked off by Australian Financial Review columnist Christopher Joye who wrote that the ANZ site was likely to be “part bank brand-building, marketing and spin, opening up a new channel through which to project ANZ’s voice; and part bona-fide research and insight that will be of value to ANZ’s constituencies”.

What BlueNotes was unlikely to be, Joye wrote, was independent journalism of the sort produced by Fairfax and other traditional independent media. Nor would it be an “intellectual free-for-all that interrogates issues and disseminates opinion on topics germane to ANZ’s customers, but which can also conflict with ANZ’s profit motive”.

I tweeted Joye’s article and said that I agreed with him that BlueNotes is “not really journalism” to which former AFR senior journalist Andrew Cornell, the managing editor of BlueNotes, responded that it then begged the question: “What really is journalism?” and…was it restricted to “no-for-profits?” (A cheeky remark surely alluding to the fact that once-powerful media empires can’t seem to make a buck out of journalism anymore).

Cornell is a firm believer that corporate journalism – of the kind produced by his team – is the future of business journalism. It was a remark he repeated often in his last few weeks at the AFR.

twitter conversation1Amanda Gome, a former colleague of mine at Private Media and Fairfax, and now head of strategic content & digital media at ANZ, tweeted that BlueNotes was “new journalism” or “corporate publishing” – (and in another tweet, that it was definitely not native advertising).

twitter conversation2

Paul Edwards head of corporate communications at ANZ said if the site “started doing ads” then it would “fail”. Rather, he said, it aims to “engage thought leaders not sell stuff”.

twitter conversation3

On reflection, I agree with Christopher Joye that there is merit in what ANZ is doing with BlueNotes.

The views of its experienced executives, economists and commentators while slanted towards the bank’s view of the world,  are insightful and important (though I would argue they are better served as part of a balanced article in the mainstream media drawing on the views of others as well).

Only time will tell how many people find value in its offering, but it should find a niche among the myriad of online news and commentary sites finding an audience in Australia ranging from academic sites like The Conversation to mummy blogger uber-site Mamamia.

In its defence, corporate journalism like BlueNotes does not attempt to hide the fact that is an ANZ-produced publication, focusing on issues that are of important to the bank, its shareholders and clients.

But native advertising is less honest, muddying the waters between news and commercial interests and breaking down the traditional editorial division between church (editorial) and state (advertising).

Farhad Manjoo, a journalist with the Washington Post wrote of the deceptive quality of native ads that while they “usually carry a tag identifying them as ‘sponsored,’ they appear alongside and share the look and feel of the search results, tweets, status updates, blog posts and other content that you don’t immediately suspect of containing paid messages”.

He makes the point that there is a place for native advertising provided that it is clearly branded as sponsored content (he mentioned a story paid for by Toyota about 20 coolest hybrid animals to promote its hybrid cars that ran on BuzzFeed as a good example) but is sceptical of how this will play out over time.


The Buzz Feed ad/content created for Toyota

Native ads he says, “create incentives for misbehavior by advertisers, publishers and services like Facebook—and, over the long run, the incentive structure is sure to translate into looser disclosure standards and generally trickier content”.

The agenda of BlueNotes on the other hand is all in the name – unless of course you’re looking for a Miles Davis record.