Category Archives: Journalism and media

Threshold to the Kingdom: Sudden departures and arrivals

The terrible, senseless tragedy of MH 17, the ending so quickly and so suddenly of so many innocent lives, reminded me of a very moving experience I underwent almost 13 years ago…

It is November 2001, the start of another long London winter and I am at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the East End.

On a screen on a wall in a darkened room  a video plays on rotation to the beautifully hypnotic chants of Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus‘.

I stand quietly and watch.

The video recording is of a drab airport arrivals  hall, shot in super slow motion.

Still from "Threshold to the Kingdom" by Mark Wallinger

Still from “Threshold to the Kingdom” by Mark Wallinger

A dark shape appears behind the glass, then the automatic doors swing slowly open. A woman in a long black coat strides through, holding a red bag in her hand, She is poised, dignified and moves with great purpose. Behind her, a pony-tailed man in a blue coat appears holding a cup of coffee and walks slowly across the screen, seeming to not notice her presence, as if she were a ghost. The woman walks out of the frame and disappears.

She glides elegantly, serenely, determinedly...

She glides elegantly, serenely, determinedly…

The harmonic chanting of Miserere continues.

The doors open again. Three more people enter as a security guard stares ahead from behind his counter: they are a businessman smartly dressed in suit and tie, a tall, casually attired man holding a green bag and a young, attractive woman running her fingers through her long hair.

Other people make their slow entrance while the uplifting, haunting music plays on. Three short, elderly ladies, friends perhaps of many years, gently embrace one another after a long absence.

threshold

Later, a man pushes a trolley through the automatic doors. He stops, looks around, confused, examines a scrap of paper perhaps looking for instructions or a phone number and continues on.

kingdom-1

I watch this all – mesmerised – with 9/11 as my point of reference: It was only two months prior when I walked back to work in Soho and watched with disbelief as jet planes crashed into the World Trade Centre towers in New York, bursting into balls of red and orange flame, obliterating lives in an instant.

At the time I watched the video art installation , I could not help but think of all the doomed passengers on those hijacked flights that never reached their destinations and of their friends and families waiting in vain (or without knowledge of their deaths) in drab, impersonal airport arrivals hall.

This brilliant piece of  video art work entitled “Threshold to the Kingdom” was by the  acclaimed British artist Mark Wallinger, intended as a play on the idea of arriving into the United ‘Kingdom’ and the arrival into some heavenly ‘kingdom’ where an industrial airport hall is transformed via super-slow motion and a Renaissance chant -  in the words of Daily Telegraph art critic Martin Gayford – into something “ordinary, yet marvellous”.

I managed to find a three-minute excerpt of the original video installation:

It fails to capture the full experience of the ‘Threshold to the Kingdom’, but did remind me of how I stood and watched the screen in the dark, entranced by the haunting 500 year old chant and the slow opening and closing of the automatic gates as passengers step over the “threshold”.

Thirteen years later, having recently experienced my own sudden loss – my son Rafferty died two weeks before he was due to be born in February this year – I reflected on all the families and friends of the passengers of flight MH 17 dealing with their overwhelming, unbargained for grief and thought about this piece of artwork which moved me so profoundly back then.

In ‘Threshold to the Kingdom’ the arrival of ordinary, unremarkable people into a sparse airport terminal are transmuted by their graceful, slow movements and the soaring chanting hymn into ghosts or perhaps angels arriving into a heaven of some kind.

Perhaps that, in the end, is all we can hope for the victims of MH 17 and those of other terrible tragedies.

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The full, haunting version of Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus:

Peter Greste and my own bittersweet memories of Egypt

Having tea near Tahrir Square, Cairo - October 2010

Having tea near Tahrir Square, Cairo – October 2010

The recent wrongful conviction of Australian and Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste and his two colleagues by a corrupt Egyptian court has stirred up memories of the week my wife and I spent in Egypt in 2010 as part of a round-the-world trip.

Before I turned to my own diaries to recall what I wrote about those days in Cairo and Alexandria in a hot October (just a few months before the start of the Arab Spring) I was moved by an re-collection of Cairo by a colleague at the Australian Financial Review, Tony Walker, who lived there as a foreign correspondent between 1983 and 1994.

Mr Walker reminisced:

My own memories drift back to my Cairo home at 19 Gabalaya Street, Zamalek on the Nile, where I lived securely and contentedly for 10 years surrounded by Egyptians who were my friends, including my assistants, Hoda and Shahira, my late ­tennis-playing friend, Eduard Malek, who was killed in a road accident in the office ­Mercedes I had bequeathed to him at the end of my assignment…In my apartment building resided some of Egypt’s foremost citizens, including Samia Gamal, the Arab world’s Margot ­Fonteyn of belly dancers, and Faten Hamama, the region’s Sophia Lauren and first wife of Omar Sharif.

Mr Walker described the case made against Mr Greste and his colleagues as a “judicial farce” and concluded, mournfully: “Egypt, I do not know you”.

Cairo, for anyone who has not visited is a manic place – perhaps the most manic in the world – crammed with 20 million or so people (no one seems to know exactly how many), packed with buildings new and ancient in a metropolis that never seems to end and roads clogged with cars, trucks and busses, where you cross at your own peril. Cairo has both crumbling majesty in its ancient monuments – the pyramids of Giza the most famous – bustling trade in the markets of Islamic Cairo and touch of the modern city in its efficient metro system, one of only two in Africa.

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Me, in Islamic Cairo, October 2010

But my abiding memory of Cairo was of playing the Western fools, with our map spread open on Tahrir Square trying to find our way to the Nile or the Egyptian Museum and caught out at every turn by scam artists and confidence tricksters.

We were scammed almost every day in Cairo – nothing of the amount to ruin our trip – but enough to leave a sour taste in our mouths when we flew off to a “sedate” (by comparison) Mumbai.

The opening remark in my journal on Wednesday, October 6th (our fourth day in Cairo) begins: “We awoke with the intention not to be scammed today.”

Of all the cons played on us – from the jovial family man Abdullah who “just happened” to bump into us after his hotel shift on the way to catch a bus to the pyramids and who steered us straight into the arms of US dollar charging camel ride purveyor, to the man who led us straight to his uncle’s perfume shop rather than where – as promised – the felucca boats departed on the banks of the Nile,  the saddest was perpetrated by a kindly looking old man with white beard and moustache (think the Egyptian Colonel Sanders), who caught me out on our second evening in Cairo, when I was walking on my own near Tahrir Square (my wife was still battling a cold and had stayed in the hotel room that evening).

A very expensive camel ride at the Pyramids of Giza

A very expensive camel ride at the Pyramids of Giza

I had just returned back to the centre of Cairo after having a wander around the dark lanes of Coptic Cairo (home to ancient ruins, churches and synagogues of Cairo’s Catholic and Jewish descendants dating back 1500 or more years) with its mud-brick homes. tiny convenience stores and less than friendly stares of the local children.

I emerged from Sadat Station looking for somewhere to eat when I was stopped by a portly, balding man with a white beard and glasses who asked me where I was from.

“Not a minute had passed and I found him walking alongside me as if we were old friends,” – I wrote in my journal. “He looked so innocent,” I added.

At one point during our walk he stopped to write my name out in Arabic. Later he told me he played the organ in the church and that he was a sculptor.

At some point, I told him I was hungry but could not find somewhere to eat:

Next minute I was tucking into chicken, rice and vegetables. He watched me and said little except to enquire if the food was any good. He later stepped outside to chat to the owner.

After the meal – all he had was a soft drink – nothing was paid in the restaurant and in my naivety as we left, I wondered if perhaps – out of the goodness of his christian heart – he had paid for me. I wrote:

As we walked on, he said I owed him 43 Egyptian pounds, not a king’s ransom, but double what the meal would have cost me anywhere else. When I gave him a 50 pound note, he then had the temerity to ask if he could keep the change. I said no, but he still short-changed me by 3 pounds.

I walked back glumly to my hotel to recount the story to my wife. I felt both stupid and sad.

Looking back at it now, in the wake of the Arab spring which promised so much for Egypt and its struggling people, I feel mostly sympathy for the little old man who conned me out of a few pounds.

I wonder what has happened to him and if he is still trying his routine on  unsuspecting tourists – if any still visit in the wake of 2013 military overthrow and the terrible situation of Peter Greste, his colleagues and thousands of others arrested, tortured and murdered.

One further incident remains fresh in mind -

It is of my wife and I running to catch a bus outside the Egyptian Museum guided by our new friend Abdullah urging us to jump on the rickety thing while it was still moving.

Along side was a man throwing his ten bags of groceries on to the steps of the bus before leaping on himself (buses in Cairo, we learnt slow down but don’t stop to let passengers on).

Safely on the bus, I found myself staring at a little kid – perhaps 12 – sitting in the ticket seller’s seat as we sped past Cairo University who demanded I buy a ticket from him.

Just before I handed over a few coins, Abdullah stopped me.

“He is not the ticket seller, just some kid.”

Having reassured us that he was our guardian, he then proceeded to scam us.

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:

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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.

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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

 

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 Torrentfreak.com.

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

thrones-cast

“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.

The economic (non)sense of hunting in Victoria

hunting fool

98 per cent of hunters in Victoria are blokes

This week, among the many silly press releases that arrived in my inbox, was one from the Victorian government, titled: “Hunting’s $439 million boost to Victoria”

It proceeded to explain how much recreational hunting is worth every year to the Victorian economy, how it supports the equivalent of 3,500 full-time jobs and that those who hunt (the 46,000 game licence holders in Victoria) contribute to local economies across the state as they buy “hunting and camping equipment, food, fuel,and other supplies related to their pursuits”.

Reading through the government’s PR spin, it became apparent that this was  really nothing more than a thinly disguised election year publicity stunt, designed to garner a few more votes from would-be rambos running around bushland shooting at things.

“The Victorian Government will invest $17.6 into game management over the next four years and the new Game Management Authority, an election commitment from the Coalition, comes into effect on July 1,” said Agriculture minister Peter Walsh in a pledge to the trigger-happy rifle brigade.

The economic benefits highlighted in the press release were based on a detailed 116 page report commissioned by the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) and undertaken by three private consulting firms. RMCG, EconSearch and DBM Consultants.

The report followed some very bad press for the hunting fraternity and the government after the Box Flat duck massacre at the start of Duck hunting season. This was the illegal slaughter of 800 ducks by hunting louts in the state’s north west, their carcasses left to rot in the water. The victims included 104 freckled ducks, one of the world’s rarest duck species.

What’s really silly about the press release is the implied logic: that hunting is good because it makes economic sense:.

Such reasoning could be used to justify any number of socially abhorrent activities that make money but have virtually no societal benefits such as plundering wildernesss areas for mineral deposits or manufacturing illegal drugs like heroin or ice and selling them to addicts.

That hunting is an absurd blood sport offering little benefit to wider Victorian society (except allow the 46,000 licensed hunters to ruin the natural calm of he bush with gunshot and blood) is abundantly clear in the findings of the survey by the consultants in the same government report.

More than 90 per cent of the 1000 hunters surveyed said they “strongly agreed” with the statements that hunting “let them enjoy nature” and helped them “connect with nature”.

Perhaps they interpreted “connect” to mean the moment a bullet connects with deer or duck brain matter?

Even the economic benefits of hunting are minimal.

Hunting is in fact a tiny part of the Victorian economy and represents well under 5% of the $9 billion of revenue derived from tourism activities every year.

The $17.6 million set aside for game management could easily be directed to encourage economic and socially beneficial outdoor programs that support nature conservation and eco-tourism.

And hunting is not popular among the wider electorate: In a 2012 survey, more than three-quarters of Victorians opposed the shooting of native water birds, an activity which is being banned in NSW, Queensland and Western Australia.

In the UK, the cruel but traditional sport of fox hunting with hounds – favoured by rich landowners and Tories – has been banned since 2004. A survey this year found that more than 8 out 10 Britons supported the ban, after British prime minister David Cameron considered removing it.

The Australian (and Australia’s) propaganda war against boat people

boat peopleI was dismayed – no gutted – to read a story in The Australian newspaper last week.

The story ran under the headline “Lowy Institute poll shows strong support for asylum-seeker policies”.

It’s first paragraph said: “More than 70 per cent of Australians support the Abbott government’s Sovereign Borders Policy, including the idea that boats should be turned back when safe to do so.”

This information was correctly reported and seemed to confirm that, depressingly, most Australians have bought the propaganda – dished out regularly from both sides of politics about asylum seekers.

This is, that asylum seekers are queue jumpers, possibly terrorists and that if they want to come to this country, they should get in line and wait their turn – regardless of the circumstances in their home country. If they arrive by boat, they should be sent back to where they came from.

This sentiment was spelled out 13 years ago when former prime minister John Howard said in his election victory speech: “We will decide who comes here and the circumstances under which they come.”

He was referencing the Tampa affair, where a Norwegian freighter carrying rescued asylum seekers was denied access to Australia. This hard line attitude has been stamped into the heads of the voting public ever since.

But The Australian article conveniently forgot to mention another finding of the same Lowy Institute survey.

This was that the majority of Australians (57%) polled disagreed with the former Rudd government and current Liberal Party government policy that ‘no asylum seeker coming to Australia by boat should be allowed to settle in Australia’.

This statistic is nowhere to be found in Rowan Callick’s article – and which, if it were included, might have led to a different headline or at least told the full story.

Now, the margin of error in the poll was 3% so it could be that as many as 60% of Australians believe that asylum seekers who arrive by boat should be allowed to come and live in Australia, should there claims be genuine.

At worst 54% of Australians are opposed to the policy which is seeking to settle asylum seekers who arrive by boat on Papa New Guinea, Nauru or possibly even Cambodia in grubby cash-for-people deals.

So the end result is that I feel a little bit better about my country (of adoption) and my fellow countrymen.

But then again, reading numerous other articles and following the social media conversations, it is clear there are many Australians who feel like I do – that we are behaving abominably to the most desperate and needy in society.

For more balanced views, try:

Sadly though too many people appear to have been brainwashed following years of propaganda and believe – against all factual evidence – that asylum seekers arriving by boat are the first wave of potential invading hoards.

boatproportion

Source: Crikey.com.au

This is in no part due to the aforementioned article in The Australian, but also do to News Corp popular columnists like Andrew Bolt who regularly rounds of his tirades against Labor, the ABC, Fairfax, the Greens etc with thoughts like: “it is grossly irresponsible to allow thousands of illegal immigrants from countries very different from our own to crash our borders when we know it exposes Australians to extra risks they don’t want and never accepted.”

Or comments like this: ” Tens of thousands of ‘refugees’ would swarm each year through the Greens’ open door, more than we could safely accept, and the thousands rejected as refugees would not just go home.

All designed to stir up fear and hysteria of invading hoards and keeping John Howard’s 2001 message alive and well.

Reject the propaganda and form you own, educated view. Don’t be an ignorant fool.

(For more of my articles on this topic, go here.)

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.

buzfeed

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.

Of trains, trams and tiny apartments: Melbourne’s collapsing public transport network

Could this be a Melbourne train in a couple of year's time?

Could this be a Melbourne train in a couple of year’s time? Source: http://sachinkhosla.com/fun/pakistan-train-bizarre

Those, like me, who suffer the daily train commute into Melbourne will know of the train driver who enjoys performing his stand-up comedy material.

One of his favourite lines, when the train is overcrowded, is to remind squashed passengers that “a packed train is better than no train at all”.

This, I suspect, may reflect more the prevailing Metro Trains’ attitude towards its service, than an attempt at lightening the mood.

The truth is that Melbourne’s transport network is no joke, unless you like your humour black and enjoyed from underneath a stranger’s armpit.

The city seems to be grinding towards eventual standstill and gridlock: train and tram cancellations and delays are daily occurrences; timetables have become objects of hope and derision rather than of any practical use.

Train stations have become places of confusion and chaos; on board, commuters endure sardine-like conditions, the sighs and grunts of frustrated fellow commuters, and worst of all, bad jokes from train drivers. None of this is helped by the disinterested, robot-like announcements of platform announcers, who deliver the unwelcome news with the indifference of someone reading the daily shipping report.

About the only good thing about a packed train is the lack of room for authorised officers (transport police) to patrol the carriages sniffing out fare evaders, though I wouldn’t put it past them to try.

But these problems are only the tip of the iceberg.  Rapid urbanisation and a desire to embrace Manhattan-style apartment living is bringing more and more people streaming into inner-ring suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. In just one example, Melbourne’s Yarra City Council says it expects half a dozen new apartment developments to spring up along the Victorian-era streetscape of Smith Street, each adding dozens (sometimes hundreds) of new residents who will need to catch the train, tram or bus to the city.

The Victorian facades of Smith Street, Melbourne

The Victorian facades of Smith Street, Melbourne

The council claims there are no “glaring deficiencies” in transport services on Smith Street but that it is monitoring the situation and “understands” there are improved tram services planned. Hardly reassuring, when local residents claim you can’t get on a tram that runs up and down the street as it is. This scenario is being replicated in dozens of inner-city suburbs in Melbourne and Sydney, where transport infrastructure is at breaking point.

RMIT professor Michael Buxton, a renowned authority on urbanisation and planning, expects a proliferation of six-to-nine-storey apartment blocks along all Melbourne’s Victorian retailing streetscapes in the next few years with little restriction on height, the number of apartments or their sizes, allowing developers to chase maximum profits. Last year, a developer called Sixth Lieutenant received approval for 28 apartments, some as small as 33 square metres (about four Toyota minivans lined up side by side), on a tiny 142-square-metre site on Smith Street, Fitzroy.

Plan Melbourne, the Victorian government’s so-called blueprint for development of the city to 2050 when the population is forecast to reach 6.5 million, acknowledges the increased congestion on roads and public transport and talks loftily about a long-term plan of developing a more efficient, faster “metro train service” that does not share train lines with regional services.

It’s an admirable vision, but many, many years away, if it happens at all.

The truth is that the Victorian government’s transport plans are lagging far behind huge demographic changes favouring inner-city living, when they should be leading them or at the very least, keeping pace.

In Mexico City, the best functioning megacity I’ve yet visited, a subway train comes every two or three minutes, and end-to end-journeys cost three pesos – about 25 Australian cents. In New York, an extensive, efficient and usually reliable subway network removes the need for cars.

The Mexico City Metro is the second biggest in the Americas after New York's subway system

The Mexico City Metro is the second biggest in the Americas after New York’s subway system

But in supposedly the world’s most liveable city, we find ourselves cursing as the train announcer drones on about another delayed or cancelled service. I wonder just how long it will be until those scenes of Japanese passengers being prodded and shoved into trains by uniformed platform officials become part of the daily commute here. It can surely only be a matter of time.

(This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.)

L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology founder, apartheid supporter and “neighbour”

L Ron Hubbard in 1950

L Ron Hubbard in 1950

I’ve always found Scientology, the “religion” founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard creepy. For one thing, there’s those people standing outside train stations and shopping centres offering free “stress” tests via a device called an “e-meter”.

Then there’s the wacko celebrity endorsement from devotees like Tom Cruise (who infamously claimed in 2005 in a television interview that neither psychology nor psychiatry “worked”) and the claim at the core of Scientology that through elimination of the “reactive mind” (the unconscious mind) devotees can increase intelligence, eliminate unwanted emotions and alleviate a wide range of illnesses (including asthma, arthritis and sexual deviance, which is deemed to include homosexuality).

Scientology_Recruiter

A Scientologist carries out a stress test using an e-meter

But did you also know that L. Ron Hubbard was a supporter of South Africa’s white supremest apartheid government during its darkest days?

I came across this little-known fact while reading a book about alleged ponzi scheme mastermind Barry Tannenbaum called “The Grand Scam” by investigative journalist Rob Rose.

I also discovered that in 1960, L. Ron Hubbard lived in a house on Linksfield Ridge, Johannesburg just a few minutes drive from where our family once lived, though of course, separated in time by more than three decades. In a sense, we were neighbours, and I never knew it.

L Ron Hubbard came to South Africa in September 1960 and made his home on Linksfield Ridge, an outcrop of grass and rock. rising up over Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, dotted with gated townhouse complexes and multi-storey mansions.

(During rugby practice, I remember having to run up a windy, steep road to the top of the ridge, all the blokes complaining as our calves and thighs burned.)

map hubbard

Map showing L Ron Hubbard House, our family home at 50 Club Street and location of my high school, King David High School, Linksfield Ridge

The L Ron Hubbard House, Linksfield Ridge

The L Ron Hubbard House, Linksfield Ridge

The Scientology house on Hannaben Street, which has impressive views over the tree-lined northern suburbs towards upmarket Rosebank and Sandton, has been restored as a museum. Had I known I would surely have visited.

Of course the L. Ron Hubbard website, which has a special section devoted to Johannesburg, makes no mention of his admiration for former South African prime minister Dr Hendrik Verwoed, the architect of apartheid’s harshest laws.

A polished, sycophantic video confirms Hubbard arrived in Johannesburg in September 1960, but that the home was a place for him and others to discuss and send off letters to the South African government detailing “his plans for equality in South Africa”.

Quite, how he planned to do just that, cocooned in his luxurious castle in the heart of white Johannesburg is not explained though it does include the highly duplicitous claim that while there he delivered “Scientology spiritual counselling to the improve the lives of his African domestic staff”.

Clearly then, L Ron Hubbard, was content to not just to live in luxurious surroundings, far, far away from the liberation struggle, but he was also happy to enforce the master-servant relationship that existed between white South Africans and black domestic workers, in his own home. This irony is not noted on the website either.

Rob Rose writes: “What Scientologists don’t want you to know is exactly what was in those letters to the South African ministers. He continues:

They’ve gone out of their way to airbrush Hubbard’s craven fawning over the apartheid government, specifically, his gushing praise for the father of the racist ideology, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd.

Rose goes on to quote from a letter written by Hubbard to the Verwoerd government:

May I state that you have conceived and created in the Johannesburg townships what is probably the most impressive and adequate resettlement in existence. Any criticism of it could only be engaged upon by scoundrels or madmen, and I know now your enemies to be both.

For those wishing to verify this quote, you can find it here in a digital version of the Kotze Commission.  This was set up in 1970 to investigate Scientology, and which then banned it for two decades (one of the few intelligent things the government at the time did).

Of course, even if you dispute this transcript, it would take some distorted logic to understand why someone who claimed to believe in racial equality would choose to move to South Africa during the height of apartheid and live in an affluent white neighbourhood with black servants tending him hand and foot, rather than choose to live amongst African people in Soweto.

Sadly, many South Africans are unaware of this fawning over the apartheid regime or choose to ignore it.

According Rob Rose, since its unbanning in the 1990s, Scientology has gained 150,000 devotees in South Africa and earns about $10 million a year for L. Ron Hubbard’s church and estate.

Missed opportunities: a review of “Killing Fairfax” by Pamela Williams

killing-fairfaxI read Pamela Williams’ book Killing Fairfax about four months after joining Fairfax Media as a property reporter on the Australian Financial Review (AFR).

The book about the online maelstrom that sucked the life out of Fairfax and the part James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch played in facilitating this was published to great acclaim at just the time I was in discussions about a role on the AFR.

It certainly caught my attention as I contemplated moving from an online venture, Property Observer, to a newspaper group; so I made a mental note to read it once I’d settled in.

On the cover pose Packer and Murdoch with a distinctly smug expressions, the apparent victors in a battle against the old foe, Fairfax.

By backing three websites – seek.com.au, realestate.com.au and carsales.com.au – they helped destroy the “rivers of gold” – the classified advertising revenue that funded Fairfax’s journalism and its newspaper empire.

The distaste both have for Fairfax is apparent in the opening pages. Williams describes a triumphant lunch at famed Sydney dining spot Rockpool in August last year:

“Fairfax just didn’t see any of this coming. They thought it was all beneath them. They thought we were idiots. You know I think we killed Fairfax.” said James Packer.

The two men looked at each other for a moment.

“I think so,” said Lachlan Murdoch.

One lifted his glass in a toast. And then the other

Also sitting at the table though not mentioned in the narrative was Pam Williams. The reference notes at the back of the book state “author present”.

A 26 year veteran of Fairfax, where she had risen through the ranks to become one of its senior journalists, I wonder how Pam Williams felt at this celebratory lunch. It surely must have been an uncomfortable moment.

Hello Pam

I spent my first week at Fairfax in the Sydney office at Darling Point Coincidentally, sitting in the cubicle next to me was Pam Williams. I introduced myself and we spent a few pleasant minutes chatting about common acquaintances. As the day wore on and people paused to chat with her, I formed the view that she was highly respected by her colleagues and a formidable presence in the office.

“Killing Fairfax” is a page turner, a corporate thriller about billionaires with giant egos and the battle for control of Australia’s media industry through buyouts, takeovers, deals, schemes and plain good luck.

In a wider context, its one of many stories about the impact the digital age and social media has had on traditional print journalism – or to steal from a media analyst quoted in the New York Times documentary “Page One” -  “It’s a fucking revolution”.

Large newspaper groups like Fairfax and countless others around the world have struggled to shift their business models in the face of the emergence of online “pure plays” as Williams terms online publishing businesses with a singular focus.

As a Fairfax employee, the narrative grated at my nerves as I thought about what might have been had Fairfax taken the opportunities to invest in the three start-up entities when they were worth nothing. Time and time the opportunities came along to buy controlling stakes in realestate.com.au (now called REA Group), seek.com.au and carsales.com.au, but were lost or spurned.

The great power of Williams is her ability to use her burgeoning contacts book (the back of the book details all her information sources – emails, conversations, meetings she attended) to take you right into the Fairfax boardroom and the very private, wood-panelled meeting rooms where James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch struck their deals.

A dysfunctional boardroom

Certainly, the impression of the Fairfax board that Williams creates from the early 2000s up until recent times is one of complete shambles and dysfunction with rival factions, egos and hidden agendas – think the Labor Party under Rudd and Gillard. It reaches its apex following the merger between Rural Press and Fairfax and the appointment of Rural Press boss Brian McCarthy (a man who apparently refused to use email program outlook to schedule meetings) as chief executive in 2008, replacing the forward-thinking David Kirk.

As Williams writes:

“But it was in the boardroom where the real divide occurred, in ways almost unparalleled in corporate sagas of dirty washing. From the very start, tensions between the directors from Rural Press and everyone else had revolved around power, the company’s debt and whether making acquisitions for future growth had been the right or the wrong strategy.”

The other great aspect of the book is its chronicle of the changing media landscape with every major manoeuver chronicled including James Packer’s decision and the steps he took to sell out of the media empire created by his father and grandfather to get into casinos (disastrously at first), the battle for control of pay television, how the three start-up websites came into being and grew into giants, Lachlan Murdoch’s fight to convince his father that realestate.com.au should remain a key part of News Corp and the unsuccessful attempts by mining magnate Gina Rinehart to gain control of Fairfax.

What becomes clear is that Fairfax certainly was not oblivious to the growing threat of the internet as some have claimed – the company set up a string of its own websites – Domain, Drive, Mycareer  and made online acquisitions (TradeMe being the biggest)- before the nimble start-ups began eating into their revenue.

Fairfax, like so many other newspaper groups, was caught up in the bind of how to invest in new online businesses, which offered advertising ten times cheaper than print, without cannabalising its own earnings.

In hindsight, it may have seemed obvious to invest in independently run start-ups with strong brands, but looking back, most things appear that way. For a company the size of Fairfax, with its proud newspaper history, it was never going to be easy to change so profoundly or at  a speed to capitalise on these opportunities.

Who is James Packer?

But what of Packer and Murdoch? Should they really be so smug?

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the portrait of James Packer that Williams paints: a sensitive, highly emotional and physically aggressive character struggling to emerge from the shadow of Kerry Packer, it’s certainly neither a sycophantic nor a sympathetic portrait of one of Australia’s richest and most powerful business leaders.

One particular incidence sticks in my mind – when Packer confronted former Fairfax chairman Ron Walker at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in 2006. Walker, chairman of the games organising committee, saw Packer – an old friend – and invited him and his girlfriend Erica Baxter into the enclosed VIP area with the possibility of meeting the Queen:

[Walker] lifted the red tape to beckon them in.

But Packer had something else on his mind: he purposefully took the long way around the tape to Walker; and then put an arm around his neck, pulling him tight and close in anger. Packer was completely furious…

The anger was the result of Walker welching on a deal to buy Packer’s ACP’s magazine group in New Zealand, which he considered an act of bad faith while conveniently forgetting that he’d tried to gazump Walker on a deal to buy NZ website TradeMe (after saying he had no plans to buy the business).

The irony was not lost on James Packer, he later apologised to Walker for his strong-arm tactics.

Earlier in the book, Williams describes Packers agony at the collapse of One.Tel and his suicidal decline at the shame of this very public failure. It’s hard to feel sorry for some born into privilege, unimaginable wealth and opportunity, but when you consider who his father was, you feel a slight twinge.

While Packer and Murdoch should rightly be lauded for having the vision to invest in the “pure play” businesses that cost Fairfax so dearly, Williams reminds readers that James Packer lost around $1.7 billion through disastrous US casino investments on top of the One.Tel fiasco.

Less is divulged of Lachlan Murdoch apart from shrewdness and an eye for a good opportunity – but the impression one gets is of men playing with the billions inherited from their fathers (It reminds me of one of Ghandi’s seven deadly sins: “Wealth without work.”)

For both James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch, it seems their ambition is to make more money with money rather than producing anything of value for the greater good of society (They are true capitalists).

Fairfax, despite its depleted ranks, decimated earnings and challenges employs some of the hardest working people in Australia. I know because I work with them every day. Journalists on Fairfax publications recently took home a clutch of Walkley Awards – testimony to the quality of the work they do.

Among the Walkey Award winners was Pam Williams, who deservedly took home the Book of the Year award for this very entertaining and thought-provoking corporate saga.

In her acceptance speech she declared that Fairfax had in fact not been killed – I wonder what James Packer made of that comment?