Category Archives: Journalism and media

Australia: a backwards country, going further backwards

Devolution_zps5c30acaaLast weekend, whilst driving in the Melbourne northern burbs, my wife’s phone rang.

It was friends of ours, recently back from a holiday in Europe and they had big news. They had gotten engaged in Paris.

They had been together for a number of years and we were delighted to hear they had tied the knot.

But then the realisation struck home that they cannot legally marry in this country, because Australia does not allow gay marriage –  they are a lesbian couple.

For a very brief period in December last year, it was legal for gay couples to wed in the ACT. Rather than embrace this bold move forward, the Commonwealth government successfully appealed the territory laws that had been in force for less than a week. No sooner were  gay couples saying “I do” then their marriage certificates were being gleefully stomped upon by conservative bureacrats.

This is the country we live in.

These are 17 countries where gay marriage is legal with Scotland the latest to the join the list of enlightened nations earlier this year.

First to allow gay marriage was Holland way back in 2000, the others are: England (2013), Wales (2013), France (2013), New Zealand (2013), Uruguay (2013), Denmark (2012), Argentina (2010), Portugal (2010), Iceland (2010), Sweden (2009), Norway (2009), South Africa (2006), Spain (2005), Canada (2005) and Belgium (2003).

Yes, even the country of my birth, South Africa, a developing country with many social issues, has recognised that people of the same-sex have the legal right to become husband and wife, but not in Australia. Prime minister Tony Abbott is vehemently opposed to gay marriage despite, his own sister Virginia being in a gay relationship.

Asylum seekers

This is not an isolated backwards step, Australia is moving backwards in many disturbing and insidious ways.

Our foreign minister, Scott Morrison recently drank champagne with his Cambodian colleagues after agreeing to send refugees that arrive by boat to Cambodia in a grubby “cash for people” deal that treats people like livestock.

Cambodia, one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world will take Australia’s unwanted refugees who are already living in secret squalor on the impoverished island of Nauru.

What will Cambodia get out of this – $40 million and the promise of more money if they take more people. At the same time, Australia has washed its hands clean of its commitment to provide a safe haven for genuine refugees in what Amnesty International has labelled “a new low in Australia’s deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers”.

This is just the tip of the iceberg: The 2014-15 Federal Budget, the first under Joe Hockey, cut Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program from 20,000 to 13,750 places and reduced its aid spending by $7.6 billion over five years.

Free speech squashed

Rather than enshrine freedom of speech as he had promised in opposition, Tony Abbott has done the opposite.

Journalists and bloggers now face up to 10 years in jail for doing their jobs, providing information about the secret activities of government organisations, even if their stories are in the public’s interest.  This is not all, the new national security laws also make it easier for security agencies to access personal computers and spy on Australians overseas, the very violations of individual privacy, that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed were happening on an industrial scale in the US, UK and Australia.

And while the government eventually backed away from moves by attorney General George Brandis’s love-child – plans to water down protections under the Racial Discrimination Act that would have made Australia a protected haven for Holocaust deniers and racists (legal to offend, insult, humiliate someone based on their race or ethnicity), the fact that they were drafted in the first place, speaks volumes about our retreat from enlightenment.

Other backwards movements

These are but three examples, there are many more:

Savage reductions in funding for impoverished aboriginal communities, scrapping of the two-year carbon tax, which actually worked to reduce carbon emissions  in exchange for support for the coal industry, money pulled from the national broadcaster the ABC forcing the likely cancellation of important investigative journalism programs, a $7 GP co-payment that will hurt the poorest in society. The list goes on.

It’s a depressing state of affairs for those who cherish Australia as a forward-thinking, first-world nation, that values multi-culturalism, basic human decency and a “fair go”.

As for my gay friends who are now engaged,  there’s always New Zealand as a wedding option – a country that’s not just beating us at rugby.

For a far more erudite article on Tony Abbott and his government, read David Marr’s excellent article in The Monthly here.

Twitter’s anonymous racist underbelly is a parody account.

********Spoiler alert: @ozprotectionistparty is a parody**************

If you ever want to pick up the mood among Australia’s racist underbelly,  then Twitter is a great place to start.

Some of the vilest guff comes out the mouths of anonymous twitter accounts, racist cowards not brave enough to sign their name to their bile.

Take for example I wrongly picked this fella:

ozprotectpartyI recently came across his account as part of a Twitter war involving Wendy Bacon, an academic and journalist ( , Sharri Markson, media editor of The Australian () and News Corp ultra conservative columnist Miranda Devine ().

It was a classic lefty journalist criticising a News Corp editor, which descended into a slanging match.

The fuse seems to have been lit by Wendy Bacon. She tweeted in response to an article by Sharri Markson about how journalists that tweeted their own opinions (examples included Bacon herself, Crikey star writer Bernard Keane, former Channel Ten broadcaster Paul Bongiorno and journalist and blogger Margo Kingston) were putting journalism at risk.

sharri
It was a provocative tweet no doubt – Bacon was clearly incensed that her opinions had been cast as a threat to journalism.

Miranda Devine leapt to Sharri Markson’s defence in typical fashion:

devineAnd then it all erupted as you can see with all the retweets and favourites.

I won’t go into all the comments – it was essentially a slanging match between ultra-conservative tweeters and left-leaning thinkers.

Amongst it all,  @ozProtectionistParty caught my eye with this bogan-esque comment:

ozprotect1Then I read through OzProtectionistParty’s Twitter feed. These are just a few highlights:

On refugees:

ozprotect2Homosexuals and same-sex marriage (SSM):

ozprotect3
Women:

ozprotect4Renewable energy

ozprotect5
And so it goes on…

The twitter account is a  parody – which I understand to be that he is actually mocking the right wing/racist elements in Australian society.

Otherwise and were it not for the spelling mistakes, it seemed would be an almost perfect synthesis of all the worst right-wing stereotypes – refugees are illegal queue jumpers, feminists are power-hungry bitches, students are bludgers – cloaked behind an anonymous Twitter handle.

Ten years ago, this fellow – were he real – would be spewing this stuff down at the pub with his mates rather than on the public forum that is Twitter.

There’s thousand of REAL PEOPLE out there who are not a parody like this account, barometers of what’s lurking beneath the surface of people you might stand next to on the train on the way into work or who are in front of you in the queue at Hungry Jacks.

Eager funnels for every right wing ideology and stereotype that comes out of the mouths of white/male/conservative/bigots.

Just hope you don’t bump into one of these REAL PEOPLE on a bus or train:

Back to print: Is the Saturday Paper any good?

The_Saturday_Paper_-_Front_Cover_1_241_338_85_sThere were more than a few raised eyebrows (and conservative commentators choking on their muesli) when property developer and left-wing publisher Morry Schwartz launched The Saturday Paper roughly six months ago.

Schwartz, who also publishes features magazine The Monthly and long-form politics bible The Quarterly Essay (and in his spare time runs developer Pan Urban) said in March he saw an opportunity to enter the newspaper space with Fairfax and News Corp Australia “at their weakest”.

He said The Saturday Paper would target “readers like me”  meaning presumably forward thinking, inner city liberals with good jobs and good educations and that its launch fulfilled a 40 year ambition to have his own newspaper.

But is it any good?

Last week, I picked up a copy in Readings bookshop on Lygon Street, Carlton and ready it cover to cover.

Schwartz has hired an impressive stable of former ABC and Fairfax journalists including Mike Seccombe, who is the paper’s Sydney editor, Richard Ackland, its diarist and legal affairs editor and Helen Razor (Crikey among others) who is the paper’s television and gardening critic.

There’s also a whole bunch of “star” freelance writers including David Marr, Guy Rundle and ‘The Slap’ author Chris Tsiolkas.

As for the content, there was a lot to admire about the package of stories in the issue I read. Even if you’re political persuasions are right leaning, you’d find a number of articles of interest.

morry schwartz with erik jensen
The two front page articles were knock-outs.

The lead story was about the Essendon drugs saga and ensuing court room battle as told by chief correspondent  Martin Mckenzie-Murray. Schwartz has talked about “narrative” journalism and this was the first article I had read on the subject that actually told the story of how James Hird became the Essendon golden boy and his dramatic fall from grace. Having only come to Australia in 2004, I finally understood the hero-worship.

The second cover story was about the battle to usurp power from Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore. Written by Mike Seccombe, it’s the classic ‘People’ versus “Big Business’ tale with Moore pitched against right-wing adversaries including shock jock Alan Jones and ultra-conservative homophobe the Reverend Fred Niles. It’s a ripping yarn about power, influence and revenge.

Canberra journalist Chris Wallace provided thought-provoking analysis of the recent troubles of Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey, arguing convincingly that Hockey is part of a new breed of privileged Liberal politician, who unlike John Howard, are out of touch with the Australian public because they’ve never had a non-political job in their lives or ever known what its like to be a battler.

David Marr’s comment piece on asylum seeker rights – centred around a Pakistani shopkeeper thrown into detention following a negative ASIO assessment – was as expected, eloquent and powerful. Guy Rundle did a good job savaging the recent gaffs by government ministers.

Another standout was Chris Tsiolkas’s tribute to Robin Williams, which dispensed with the gushing praise, highlighting instead the many bad films Williams made and pointing the finger at Hollywood  for lacking the courage to give him roles that showcased his prodigious talent. It’s the kind of observation that alone justifies the $3.50 cover price.

Just to prove that The Saturday Paper is not just full of the “usual mawkish left-wing pieties” as The Australian’s editor, Chris Mitchell suggested it would be when it launched, there  was also a very interesting profile of Anthony Cappello, Australia’s most successful publisher of ultra conservative books.

Thankfully, not everything had a serious tone. Helen Razor wrote hilariously about the challenges and obsessions of those that grow their own tasty tomatoes  while basketball star Liz Campage made a good Q&A subject. There was a recipe for shakshouka and observations about the dish from chef Andrew McConnell plus book reviews and other bits and pieces. The cryptic crossword by Mungo MacCallum was beyond my abilities.

There are disappointments too.

Romy Ash’s on-set interview with actress Sigrid Thornton was pretentious, dull, waffly and full of self-important actorly observations that made you wince while Richard Ackland’s diary piece was too insidery and obscure to be of any interest to this humble reader.

Overall though, I’d say The Saturday Paper is definitely worth picking up on a Saturday morning to dip in and out of over coffee over the weekend. It was quite harshly judged when it launched in March, but editor Erik Jensen said it would take time to find its feet, and it appears to have done so (with plenty of high-end advertising thrown in too.)

Overall, I give The Saturday Paper 8/10 for the quality of the writing, choice and range of subjects and knowledge imparted  – or 6.5/10 if you’re a conservative reader.

Death by @Twitter: Do my tweets matter that much?

A strange thing happened to me on Twitter a little while ago.

It was at the time that the Australian Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was being sent to jail on outrageous, fabricated charges in Egypt and I tweeted something like:

I think the Abbott govt would have made more of an effort to help Peter Greste if he worked for News Corp.

The tweet was in bad taste, but I had blundered even further by being completely unaware that the verdict had just been handed out in a Cairo kangaroo court.

It stayed up a couple of hours while I was out at the movies.

When I returned, my Twitter notification box was lit up: half a dozen people had seen my remark and hurled abuse at me – via tweets calling me an insensitive so and so.

Others had retweeted their condemnation of my tweet. The wheels – I thought – were in motion.

For a moment, I was in a blind panic. Would I suffer the fate of Justine Sacco, the PR executive who tweeted about going  Africa and getting AIDS and become a social media sensation (for all the wrong reasons) and get sacked?

Justine SaccoWould #whereisLarry? start trending?

In a cold sweat, I frantically deleted the tweet and tweeted my apologies to the most incensed in the Twitter-sphere (Complete strangers actually).

We all made up – and life went on.

Looking back on it now, I can’t decide if I completely over-reacted or on the other hand – had defused a ticking time bomb.

I think perhaps the former: My tweet was not nearly provocative enough and it was neither racist, sexist or xenophobic, the kind of tweets that really land you in to trouble.

In fact, now I kind of wish I’d left it up – just to see what might have happened.

Andy Warhol famously predicted in 1968 that in the future, everyone would get their 15 minutes of fame. He probably never thought that so many people would achieve it via social media or reality TV?

Had I missed out on mine?

Greed is not good: Our dangerous love affair with American-style capitalism

capitalism_a_love_story_xlgIn one of the early scenes of Michael Moore’s scathing 2009 documentary on free market corporate greed “Capitalism: A Love Story”, the filmmaker interviews a farmer and his wife, who are having their property repossessed.

It’s recurring image in the film, the sheriff knocks on the door, working class people are thrown out onto the street with their furniture, and the house is boarded up, later to be sold for a quarter of the price.

The farmer, his life packed into the back of a van, says he tried everything “except robbing a bank” to save his farm.

“I’m thinking about doing that. It’s one way someone can get their money back. They did it to me. I don’t know why I can’t do it to them,” he says.

As the camera pans back over the abandoned farm buildings, Moore narrates:

“This is the capitalism of taking and giving…mostly taking.”

Later, Moore questions how capitalism allows commercial airlines to pay pilots less than $20,000 a year forcing them take second jobs or apply for food stamps.

To which he answers: “I guess that’s the point of capitalism, it let’s you get away with anything.”

Australian-style capitalism

That’s the exact sentiment I felt when reading about the multi-million dollar handouts to executives at the scandal-ridden Commonwealth Bank financial planning division. People like retiring CBA banking executive Grahame Petersen (total pay $5.6 million), who oversaw the division responsible for the systematic destruction of customer retirement savings through investment in risky products recommended by the bank’s licensed financial planners in return for millions of dollars in commissions.

I thought that the retirees who had lost everything to this free market system that rewarded greed and deception could be forgiven from thinking about doing something similar to the American farmer: walking into a Commonwealth Bank branch and “asking for their money back”.

This is something Michael Moore does in the documentary in his typical sardonic style, walking up to the head office of Goldman Sachs in New York to perform a citizen’s arrest of chairman Lloyd Blankfein (2013 annual salary: US$23 million), after accusing the bank of “stealing’ US$170 billion of American taxpayer’s money to save it from collapse. Later he wraps police crime scene tape around the whole building.

henry paulsonAs Moore explains in the film, the bail out of the banks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers that sparked the Global Financial Crisis, was orchestrated by former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry ‘Hank’ Paulson (one of 25 people Time magazine blames for the crisis happening in the first place).

The then US Treasury Secretary cut a backroom deal that gave the banks $700 billion of US taxpayers money to keep them afloat. Paulson was apparently unaware of the irony that he had broken the basic law of capitalism – that you don’t ask the government for help, you either sink or swim on your own.

It seems this form of failed American style free-market capitalism – so brilliantly depicted in Moore’s film – is what the current Australian government wishes to mimic with its plans to increase the cost of car fuel, doctor’s visits and university education while Australia’s poorest paid workers earns a minimum wage that is the lowest in history relative to average full-time pay (currently $640.90 a week, or $16.87 an hour).

The 3% pay rise they got this year was more than double what the The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – the powerful lobbying body, which represents big business, wanted. It suggested a 1.25% pay rise, less than half the projected cost-of-living increase of 2.7%.

Perhaps Treasurer Joe Hockey – a man who proves himself time and time again to be completely out of touch with most Australians – and his investment banking advisors should watch Moore’s documentary to see the longer term outcome of such policies in the US before and after the GFC: hundreds of thousands of job lay-offs, the poorest people unable to afford basic health care, the boarding up of whole suburbs and ruination of cities like Detroit and Cleveland.

Of course, there is also a message of hope at the end of Capitalism: A Love Story as Moore documents the fight back by ordinary Americans against the systemic free market failure (this appears to be happening in Australia too, at least in political opinion polls)

He tells the story of the employees of Chicago Republic Window and Door factory, who, having been told they will lose their jobs in three days time without being paid their wages lock themselves inside refusing to leave until they get what is theirs. The local community rallies around them providing food and encouragement. Then there’s the story of the Warren Evans, Sheriff of Wayne County, Detroit who decides to stop all home foreclosures, when he realises the hypocrisy of what is happening to working class homeowners after the US$700 billion hand-out to the banks.

More widely, Moore reports of how Barack Obama’s form of democratic socialism has been embraced by young American voters (33%), with only 37% favouring capitalism and the rest undecided.

As explained by Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders, democratic socialism means “the function of government is to represent middle-income working people rather than just the wealthy or the powerful”.

He goes on to say that America “worships greed”

“We put on the front cover of magazines guys who have made  billions of dollars, rather than the cops, fireman, policeman and nurses, who are doing so much in the lives of people. We have to change our value system.”

Sound familiar?

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————

You can watch the whole documenatry ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’ for free on YouTube.

Threshold to the Kingdom: Art, MH17 and sudden departures and arrivals

In November 2001 I visited the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the East End of London.

In a darkened room  I watched a video art installation called “Threshold to the Kingdom” by the acclaimed British artist Mark Wallinger

It showed the gates at an airport arrivals hall opening and closing in super slow motion as passengers emerged and made their way home after a long overseas flight.

In the background, rang out the 500-year-old chant of Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus‘ – a psalm about a man asking for God’s forgiveness written to be sung in the Sistine Chapel.

Their slow movements and the haunting music transformed the arriving passengers into poised, graceful dancers, as if each movement of arm and leg were in perfect rhythm.


(A 3 min excerpt of the 13 minute art work)

I remember being completely mesmerised,  in a state of Zen-like contemplation: I saw the passengers coming through the automatic gates as angels arriving into some earthly heaven, not one full of puffy white clouds and cherubs playing harps.

This  interpretation may sound strange, but it was only two months earlier that I had walked back to work in the West End and watched with sheer 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.

In that darkened art gallery room, I thought of people that never arrived and those they left behind in airport arrival halls.

The recent shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH 17  brought the memory of that London afternoon vividly back in my mind.

As I did back in 2001, I think now of all those bright, happy people, returning from family holidays or on their way to an exciting destination- and then gone in an instant, never to arrive at their final point of disembarkation.

Perhaps they have not disappeared, but have arrived someplace else. It is that feeling which “Threshold to the Kingdom” instilled in me so powerfully.

Daily Telegraph art critic Martin Gayford  wrote of the effect of the artwork:

 It gets its strange power from the conflation of Allegri’s soaringly spiritual music with the banal, anonymous setting of an international airport. Yes, the gates of heaven might be like this – ordinary, yet marvellous.

Reflecting on all the families and friends of the passengers of flight MH 17 dealing with their overwhelming, unbargained for grief, I remember “Threshold to the Kingdom” with ever greater poignancy.

It seems a fitting memorial to the victims of MH 17 as it was back then – in my mind – to the victims of 9/11.

———————————————————————————————–

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.

DSCN9258

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.