If you want to be happier: close your Facebook account

facebook_like_logo_1The global furore created by the data mining of 50 million Facebook users by controversial UK political consultants Cambridge Analytica (reportedly to help Donald Trump win the US election) spawned the Twitter hashtag #DeleteFacebook and a campaign calling for users to abandon the social media giant in droves.

In truth, it just one of a number of reasons for shutting down your Facebook account – if you were looking for one.

Other reasons include the constant stream of fake news flowing down your Facebook feed, the trolls, scumbags and hate speech mongerers who freely ply their trade on Facebook or just the incredible and unfettered power Facebook  and founder Mark Zuckerberg now wields with its 1.2 billion users and rivers of advertising revenue that has crippled the free press.

But there is a far more obvious reason why you should seriously consider doing as the hashtag says and #DeleteFacebook.

Simply put, the latest research shows that frequent use of Facebook is likely to make you a less happier, less well-adjusted and less healthier person.

“Researchers are finding that the curated versions that we post on Facebook and Instagram have real consequences in our actual lives,” said Shankar Vedantam the host of NPR’s Hidden Brain, a popular science and psychology podcast which looks at how people interact with the world.

“As you watch the seemingly idyllic lives of friends on social media, you may find a little voice pointing out that your vacations are dull by contrast, that your kid never scores the winning goal, that your relationships seem to be painted in grey while everyone else’s seem to be in Technicolor,” the eloquent Vedantam went on to say.

Social comparison risk

The podcast episode called “SchadenFacebook” (which you can download here), looked at a 2017 study carried out by academics at Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management, which was the first study aimed at separating out correlation (Do lonelier people tend to use Facebook?) from causation (Does Facebook use make you unhappier?) in relation to social media use.

It examined the “natural” experiences of 144 workers at a security firm who initially were not allowed to use Facebook at all and had to delete their accounts. Later, the company allowed some employees to re-open their accounts.

In this unique situation, none of the people got to choose which group they were in, so it couldn’t be that people who were unhappy were choosing to use Facebook, ruling out a correlation bias.

The researchers  collected data from the time no one was allowed to use Facebook to the time some were allowed to have access.

Surprisingly, the study found that users are not generally fooled into accepting that the experiences posted on Facebook by their friends are the true picture.

But did find conclusively that “Facebook usage increases users’ engagement in social comparison and consequently decreases their happiness”.

 

“Using Facebook makes you more comparative. You need to prove yourself to yourself over and over again,”  one of the researchers, Ohad Barzilay, told Hidden Brain.

“You compare yourself to others more often, you judge yourself, am I better or worse than my friends?  Am I happier or are they happier?”

“This [constant] social comparison engagement makes you less happy,” Barzilay said.

Harvard Business Review study

On top of that study,  I tracked down another recent and more comprehensive study on the impact of Facebook use on wellbeing, that was published in the esteemed Harvard Business Review.

Conducted by Holly B. Shakya an assistant professor of global public health at UC San Diego and Nicholas A. Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, it tracked the wellbeing of 5208 regular Facebook users over a two-year period.

It measured life satisfaction, self-reported mental health, self-reported physical health, and body-mass index.

The findings were: “Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being.

The report went on to say: “These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”

Neither of these findings really surprised me – nor do I suspect would they many other people.

Unfortunately, we often accept at face value what we read and see on Facebook and as the academic studies show use this as a disingenuous point of self-comparison: “There’s so and so having a better holiday then me…or with a nicer house or car…or with a better job…or with happy kids…or a nicer figure….”

But if we weren’t on Facebook voyeuristically trawling through the lives of others, and instead spent time on building our relationship in the real world, the latest research strongly suggests we’d be a lot less envious, a lot less depressed and a lot less self-judging.

Quitting is hard

The problem is thought that quitting Facebook – like any other addiction (and it is an addition!) is not easy.

The world’s most famous online brand (alongside Google) is completely entangled in our lives. It’s on our phones, our iPads and computers and it crops up in everything we see and do: from food packaging, to newspaper articles to everyday conversations.

The brilliance or insidiousness of Facebook, and other social network platforms like Instagram is that it takes advantage of natural human curiosity. Quite simply put: we want to know.

But if you’re feeling depressed or dispirited about your life and feel others are having more fun then you (when in fact their lives are not so shit hot) maybe its time to take the plunge and press the delete button.

“What, you’re not on Facebook?” your friends might ask in shock and horror.

To which you can simply smile and say: “Yes”.

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The identity of the Casefile host: why I (partly) deleted his dark secret

caseyOne of the most stunning podcast success stories in recent years, is Casefile, a true crime podcast started just over two years ago by a mystery Australian bloke “from a spare room in his house”.

Narrated anonymously, his distinctive Australian drawl has added an element of creepiness to tales drenched in blood. Every week hundreds of thousands of listeners, indeed sometimes many millions, download or stream the latest Casefile podcast.

With this viral success, the podcast has quickly become a slick, commercial venture with advertising, a creepy soundtrack and professional production qualities.

A team of engineers, producers, composers and researchers have sprung up around the Casefile creator and host.

But his identity – like some of unsolved crimes described on the podcast – remains a closely guarded secret and up until recently, had never been revealed.

In an interview with Vice.com in October 2016, the Casefile host said he wanted remain anonymous so that he could “stay out of the story and “let the facts speak for themselves”.

“I’m just a random Aussie guy, in my spare bedroom, running a podcast,” he said modestly.

As a naturally curious journalist, I decided to take up the challenge and try to found out who the Casefile host was.

It wasn’t really hard – if you know where to look.

Indeed, for someone who wanted to remain anonymous it was pretty easy to find out who he was.

And so last week, I ran a story, briefly, on this blog revealing his *identity.

If you were one of the 100 or so people who read the blog, you would know who he is and would have seen his photograph.

Soon after it was published and Tweeted and Facebooked, the Casefile host contacted me and asked me not to reveal his identity and to remove the post and all my social media about it.

casefile tweet

I was bemused by his reaction, as I thought his anonymity was a “marketing gimmick” and that it if a blogger revealed it would not make any difference to the show or how it is presented.  Indeed many of his fans crave to know who he is.

But no, he told me, it had nothing to do with marketing but affected his “real world life”  and his “ability to do the show”. (This of course begs the question, what does he do when he’s not making podcasts? Is he a spy? Does he work in some secret government department?)

casefile tweet 2

In the end I took it down, in exchange, hopefully for an interview with him that I hope might draw a few more readers to my humble blog. This he said he would consider if his secret identity remained in tact.

Let’s see what happens.

Of course, I remain intrigued as to why his anonymity is so vital to the show’s viability. No other podcasts I know of have anonymous narrators. In fact, most podcast creators and narrators like Joe Rogan and the hosts of the ground breaking Serial have become famous in their own right.

And so while the Casefile host insists on not making his identity part of the murderous stories he tells,  for me, his identity has, ironically, become the story.

As, I think it always has been for many of his faithful listeners.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

A  few identity tidbits:

*In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, the Casefile host referred to himself as Brad, which I can tell you is his real name, or Bradley to be more specific

*He lives about two hours south of Sydney (a small coastal town near Wollongong) and he’s in his mid-30s.

*His interests include poker and rugby league (Manly Sea Eagles)

Good, bad or just bizarre: some thoughts on social media

1217linkedinSocial media can be a force for good – think the #metoo campaign by women who have been victims of sexual harassment and abuse in the entertainment industry and how that has exposed decades of predatory behaviour by actors, directors, writers and entertainers.

Think too of someone like Behrouz Boochani, the Iranian journalist trapped on Manus Island who has been able to tell the real story of what has gone on in that Australian-made hell hole using Twitter and his smart phone.

Social media can also make us laugh, inform us, warn us and of course foster connections with people from all around the world.

But think also of its insidousness, how false information can be spread through Twitter and Facebook (the Russian influence on the 2016 US presidential election campaign is but one recent example) and other platforms, how people can be bullied, trolled and harassed. Social shaming can ruin lives, (read Jon Ronson’s excellent book, ‘So you have been publicly shamed’) and lead to suicide or violence towards others. A Tweet or Facebook post can be deleted but everything lives on in the archives of the internet – just ask Justine Sacco.

And think of all that Donald Trump tweeting! That surely can’t be a good thing for the progress of mankind.

 

Social media can also be…well just bizarre.

Take my birthday for example. I turned 44 just over a week ago. I didn’t make a fuss about it as that is my preference and expected only a small, but intimate celebration with my wife and kids (accompanied by pizza, beer and cake!) and a few phone calls from family and close friends. I didn’t tell people at work and nobody said anything. I was perfectly happy with that arrangement

But of course, we enter our birth dates into our social media profiles and so the almost 2000 people I am connected with on business social media platform LinkedIn (I used it a lot) got an alert to say it was my birthday.

And the greetings came flooding in from people I have never met or interacted with except to accept their connection request (I have trouble saying no), and from all corners of the globe.

Mostly it was just a generic “Happy Birthday” greeting, occasionally it was personalised with “Have a great day!” but it made me wonder why these people, who basically did not know me, felt they needed to wish me a happy birthday. I certainly don’t wish strangers on happy birthday, even when they pop up on my LinkedIn page.

But it got even more bizarre, because I felt this irrational obligation to thank every single person who had wished me a Happy Birthday, regardless of who they were (of course among the greetings were people I do know and interact with), where they lived or what they did.

And so I spent a good part of my day constantly replying to Happy Birthday messages on LinkedIn as they came in thanking Surya in Delhi, India, Siergiej in London, Orit on the NSW Far North Coast and Rui in Southport, Queensland. By the end of the day I’d received 40 or more birthday greetings. I’d never been more “popular”.

But why were these people sending me birthday greetings? Do you they send them to everyone they are connected with on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook? Or was I considered special in some way?

(Ironically, some friends and family who I expected to hear from never contacted me, not even through social media.)

It makes me wonder just how much of our lives we spend on social media thumbing through our Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, checking up on people on Facebook or Instagram? Surely it can now be measured – like sleep – in years lost from our lives.

But while sleep is necessary to function properly – we would literally go crazy and die if we did not sleep for a long period of time, I doubt whether endlessly checking our myriad social media accounts really adds much to the human experience, one that is becoming increasingly disconnected from the real world.

Podcasts for train journeys: 10 to get you started

Vlocity_train_at_little_river_victoriaA new, hour–long, daily commute by train into work (Gisborne to Southern Cross) has suprisingly quelled my reading habits and instead created a new obsession: Podcasts.

Where I thought I would have my head buried in a book as the rugged Victorian countryside rolled by,  I have instead been listening to a variety of audio tales spanning  true crime, politics, everyday life, pyschology and science, celebrity lives, music and comedy.

I’ve been using the Stitcher app which is great because its very user-friendly and you can download podcast espisodes onto your phone to listen offline so I don’t have to use any of my data or rely on mobile connections (this is particurlarly handy for country train rides where mobile signal disappear into black holes).

Much has been written about how Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime and others have changed television forever with all their brilliantly original shows and on-demand binge viewing, I reckon Podcasts are changing radio broadcasting in the same way.

In fact I hardly listen to live radio any more and haven’t watched live television in months.

I have listened to Podcasts before – namely the groundbreaking Guardian Unlimited Ricky Gervais Show and the first brilliant season of crime investigation Serial – but this is the first time I have truly binged on the podcast medium.

Given there are literally thousands of podcasts (and many are downright mediocre or terrible), here are 10 I reckon are worth giving a try, mostly based on recommendations from my podcast-addicted friend Jonny L.

Casefile

My first introduction to the Australian true crime podcast ‘Casefile was the story,  told in three parts, of the notorious ‘Jonestown’ massacre involving the narcissistic Reverend Jim Jones. I followed this up with the infamous ‘bodies in the barrels serial murders in Snowtown, South Australia in the late 1990s which revealed human behaviour at its most depraved.

Each grizzly story is told in graphic detail by an unnamed (and yet to be identified) Australian narrator with a chilling, deadpan voice. Each episode is brilliantly researched, taking you right inside the criminal mind. The podcast, which according to a Vice interview came about when the anonymous creator was stuck in hospital and bored, has become an international sensation with something like 200,000+ downloads per episode.

Sword and Scale

I followed up a couple of Casefile stories with another true crime American podcast ‘Sword and Scale’ with a disturbing episode about childhood sexual abuse and then an episode about Donna Scrivo who killed and dismembered her own son, Ramsay.

Narrated by the disquieting Mike Boudet, Sword and Scale has more of an investigative feel blending a retelling of events with exclusive interviews, courtroom recording and radio and television broadcasts. The podcasts keep listeners guessing, only revealing certains bits of crucial information towards the end.

Desert Island Discs

In need of some light relief, I tuned into the BBC’s famous music series Desert Island Discs (Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, John McEnroe, Hugh Bonneville and Mark Rylance to date) where celebrities talk to Kirsty Young about their lives and the eight songs they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. This is actually a radio show that has been condensed into podcast format. Each are about 40 minutes long.

Here’s The Thing

Next on the menu was Alec Baldwin’s New York podcast “Here’s The Thing'” where the 30 Rock star interviews actors, musicians, politicians and other people he admires (Edie Falco, John Turturro, Dustin Hoffma, William Friedkin, Bernie Sanders, Sandra Bernhardt, Anthony Weiner and Mickey Rourke) about what inspires them, the turning points in their lives and the people and events that shaped them. It’s great because Baldwin loves and admires his interview subjects and is genuinely interested in their lives. Plus he has the perfect voice for radio: smooth and mellow, and he doesn’t take himself to seriously. (My personal favourite so far, the director William Friedkin who made The Exorcist and The French Connection).

The Moth Radio Hour

I confess I have only listened to one episode so far, but it was brilliant. The format of the show, which has been around for years, is to have a theme and then to feature real stories told live in front of an audience. The theme I listened to was Me, Myself, and I: Stories of Questioned Identity which included a great story by the writer and journalist Jon Ronson about a Twitter spambot that stole his identity. The three other stories in the podcast, including the dating adventures of a Manhattan Mormon comic, were all wonderfully engaging, funny, charming and thought-provoking.

On Point

On Point is podcast by the always reliably good National Public Radio (NPR) syndication network examining major issues dominating the American news cycle. Hosted by Tom Ashbrook, the former foreign editor of the Boston Globe, the show invites top journalists and bloggers who are experts on the chosen topic – be it the Harvey Weinstein scandal or the #Takeaknee NFL protest – to present their view-point and debate among each other. Generally panelists include people across the political spectrum which adds to its appeal.

Phoebe’s Fall (On iTunes not Stitcher)

Phoebe’s Fall is a special investigation by The Age newspaper into the bizarre, tragic and unexplained death of 24-year-old Phoebe Handsjunk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage shoot in one of Melbourne’s most exclusive apartment towers.  Presented over six episodes by investigative journalists Michael Bachalard and Richard Baker, it looks at all the key aspects of the baffling case, which seems to defy the ruling of the Coronial Inquest; that Phoebe died by misadventure. It includes interviews with Phoebe’s family, retired detectives and legal experts pulled together with an enjoyable discussion and debate between the two journalists about the key aspects of the case. It’s unmissable for podcast addicts.

This American Life

Presented by one of American radio’s most distinctive voices, Ira Glass, This American Life is one of the most listened to radio shows and podcasts in America. Each weekly episode (broadcast across 500 radio stations) exploring a different theme or topic with great nuance and insight whether it be “The Perils of Intimacy” (about relationships), or “Expect Delays” (about the banal perils of travel and journeys) or more serious topics like the rise of the Alt-Right and White Nationalism. The show is legendary and deserves its status.

Hidden Brain

Also an NPR broadcast, Hidden Brain is a science-based podcast about how we experience the world. Episodes that I have listen to look at the phenomenon of Nostalgia and Regret. The latest episode is on unpredictable behaviour. It’s presented by the highly articulate Shankar Vedantam, a former Washington Post reporter and columnist.

These are just a few suggestions from a novice Podcast listener. If you have any suggestions of your own, send me an email (freshlyworded@gmail.com).

In particular I am keen on finding a good comedy podcast. I’ve not had much luck so far.

The Lost Son of Philomena Lee

philomena_xlgThe story of Irish woman Philomena Lee’s search to find the long lost son she was forced to give up for American adoption in the 1950s was made into a moving 2013 Oscar-nominated movie starring Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as the journalist, Martin Sixsmith.

I loved the movie (it made me cry) and was intrigued to read Sixsmith’s 2009 book upon which it was based, which I just happened to find on display at our local library one Saturday morning.

I was not disappointed. It is a great piece of journalism and imagination, with Sixsmith piecing the sad story together and retelling it through his conversations with Philomena and all those in America who knew her son, Anthony.

Another good reason to read it, even if you have seen the film, is that it has an entirely different focus.

The movie told the story of Philomena’s search for her lost son. The book, which was orignally called “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” is devoted to telling the story of the life of Philomena’s son, Anthony Lee, or as he became known in the US, Michael Hess.

His story begins, when aged just three he gets on a plane bound for Chicago and then St Louis with his ‘sister’ Mary (a young girl in the convent the Hess family adopted at the same time) for a new life in America.

He leaves behind a heartbroken Philomena, whose story Sixsmith (somewhat frustratingly) does not return to until the last 30 pages of the book. By that time almost 50 years have passed since she watched Anthony be driven away from the unwed mothers and babies home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea near Dublin.

Philomena yelled ‘Antony! Look up here! and Margaret (Mary’s mum) banged on the window. But the noise of the engine seemed to blot out their voices and neither child responded. As the car pulled away, Philomena wailed, ‘No! No! Not my baby. Don’t let them take my baby. And at that precise moment Anthony twisted in his seat and climbed up to peer through the rear windscreen.

That was in 1955.

The book begins in 2004 when Martin Sixsmith meets Philomena Lee through a mutual friend. The previous Christmas she had broken down and finally told her grown-up children they had a brother living in America.

Having agreed to help her find her son, Sixsmith plunges the reader back into repressive Ireland of the 1950s and the silence and servitude of Sean Ross Abbey, where Philomena gives birth miracously to Anthony, who is a breech baby.

Michael_hess_lawyer

Michael Hess, chief counsel to the Republican National Committee

We spend nearly four years with Philomena in the cold-hearted confines of the abbey, where she is forced by the nuns to sign away her motherly rights to her son, and where she must work long hours in the intense heat of the laundry awaiting the day when he will be ripped from her, without notice.

In a cruel twist of fate, the Hess family (whose story Sixsmith also tells in great detail) had only planned to adopt Mary, but because Anthony is her protector and because he is such an affectionate child, they decide to adopt him as well.

Sixsmith goes into great detail describing the cruel forced adoption system that existed in Ireland in the 1950s, where the government, under the complete control of the Catholic Church, allowed up to 60,000 illegitimate children to be ripped from their young mothers against their will, and given to American familes in exchange for hefty donations.

Then over the next 300-odd pages Sixsmith combines his talent as an investigative journalist with the imagination of a master novelist to tell the story of how Irish adoptee Anthony Lee became handsome Washington lawyer and powerbroker Michael Anthony Hess, who by his mid-thirties had risen to be chief counsel of the Republican National Committee, one of the most powerful legal positions in the country, who hobnobbed with the political elite including the Reagans and the Bushes (Look him up, he has his own Wikipedia page).

Through Sixsmith’s book, we learn that Michael Hess, despite his professional success, could never come to terms with the idea that he had been abandoned by his mother (the truth, that she was forced to give him up against her will was kept from him by his adopted family and by the nuns of Sean Ross Abbey).

Despite years of counselling, he suffered what I imagine is the classic abandoned child’s dilemma of believing he never deserved the success, love and happiness that came his way because even his own mother had not wanted to keep him.

Amid the trials and tribulations of his young adult life, Michael Hess decides to visit Ireland in 1977 in the hope of finding out who his mother was and possibly even meeting her. But after what turned out to be a fruitless and frustrating visit, Sixsmith writes that Michael Hess turned to “hopelessness and self-loathing”.

Now all the setbacks and rebuffs seemed to him the result of his own inadequacy: the orphan’s rootless insecurity, his sense of not belonging, left him feeling adrift, helplessly tossed by life’s tempests.

The story of Michael Hess – as told by Sixsmith – is of epic highs and sinking lows. Sixsmith paints a picture of a man who was both brilliant, funny, charming, warm and tender, but who could come spectacularly off the rails and descend into heavy drinking and promiscuity. By day he was involved in shaping the crucial redistricting laws that would change the course of political power in the future, but by night he often cruising gay bars for casual sex.

Sadly for Michael Hess, his bouts of wild sex with strange men would prove his downfall; coinciding with emergence of the AIDS epidemic in America and the reluctance of the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan to do anything to address what was then considered a gay man’s disease.

In another ironic twist, Michael Hess’s quest for acceptance and success in America led him to serve a political party, which, delayed the start of medical research, which might have saved his life.

While the book proved controversial (aspects of it have been discounted by those close to Michael Hess) if you take it at face value its a wonderful retelling and re-imagining of Michael Hess’s life by Martin Sixsmith, and a fitting tribute to the son that Philomena Lee so tragically never got to see again.

Philomena-Lee

Philomena Lee

However, it seems an injustice that so few pages of the book were devoted to Philomena’s story, a formidable and brave woman.

I suspect this is partly due to the fact that she lived a mostly unremarkable life after she left the abbey – marriage, children, domesticity – especially in comparison to the amazing life her son Anthony lived in America.

In that sense it is pleasing to think that a Hollywood movie has shined the spotlight so brightly on her again, and it seems, turned her into an important figurehead for all the women in Ireland, who had their children ripped from them so cruelly.

And while Philomena Lee was horribly robbed of the chance to know her son as the brilliant man he became because of a merciless system, there must be some comfort for her in his life coming alive so vividly in the pages of Sixsmith’s enthralling book.

 

 

The sad path tread by the anti-Muslim brigade

riding a camel

Me, riding a camel in the Sahara (Morocco, 2010)

Here’s a random scene from the life of Larry, a 43-year-old liberal-minded agnostic, Jewish South African/Australian:

A little while ago, upon alighting the train at Southern Cross Station, in the centre of Melbourne one busy weekday morning, I was asked by a young, traditionally dressed Muslim woman if I knew where the place was where you registered births. As I had been to the exact building before, I happily pointed out where she needed to go and walked with her part of the way through the busy station. She was shy, but sweet and thanked me as she headed out of the station and across the busy intersection of Collins and Spencer Streets towards her destination.

Here’s another in my illustrious life…

A few weeks ago, needing a haircut before a wedding,  I drove to our local shopping strip, parked my car, withdrew money from the ATM and went in search of someone who could cut my hair. Soon I found a funky-looking barbershop that had opened recently (it used to be a frozen yoghurt shop) and took a seat. A little while later, a young Middle Eastern-looking man with an accent like Turkish Delight showed me to a seat, asked me what kind of haircut I wanted, and then proceeded to cut my hair. We had one of those rambling, but friendly conversions you have when someone cuts your hair – I asked him how long the shop had been open and how it was doing and he asked me what my plans were for the weekend and about my family. 15 minutes later my head was neatly trimmed. I thanked him, paid and left.

And here’s one more…

A month ago my infant son was sick and we were in the Royal Children’s Hospital. A young trainee doctor with a Muslim name came in to check on us. He was a bit nervous, but politely asked a few questions about why we were in the hospital, what had happened and how things were now. He listened to my son’s chest, asked a few more questions, and then said goodbye and moved on.

These three random and unremarkable moments keep popping into my head like flashing lightbulbs whenever I encounter the opinions of Australia’s vocal Anti-Muslim brigade led by Pauline Hanson, the leader of far right political party One Nation, who believes all Australian Muslims should be treated with suspicion “You can’t tell a good one from a bad one” she said recently.

Others like cartoonist Larry Pickering told a dinner hosted by the Anti-Islam Q Society: “I can’t stand Muslims” while conspiracy theorist and aspiring politician Kirralie Smith from the paradoxically named Australian Liberty Alliance believes Halal-certified food is funding Islamic terrorism and should be banned.

I keep wondering how these three people live there daily lives in one of the world’s most multicultural societies, where you only have to step onto a train, bus or tram to encounter 10 different nationalities, three or four ethnicities and half a dozen different languages

How do they react when a Middle Eastern man dispenses their medicine in the pharmacy, swipes their items in the supermarket, delivers their new television or asks them directions to the shopping mall? Do they yell abuse, ignore them or cross to the other side of the street?

Do they avoid the local grocery store because its own by Lebanese people, or move to new seats in the cinema if they find themselves seated next to a Muslim family? Do they carefully read every food label before purchasing in case it happens to have Halal certification?

And what about when they travel overseas for work or holidays? Do they deliberately avoid flying Arabic carriers like Etihad or Emirates Airlines even if they happen to have the cheapest fares or the best reputation for food and service? What do they do if their flight to Paris or London refuels in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur?

in Putrajaya

Me, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, 2010

What about sport, that great Australian tradition? How do they feel when Australia plays cricket against Pakistan or Bangladesh or a soccer match against Iran, Iraq or the United Arab Emirates? Will they watch Australia at the next FIFA World Cup in Kuwait? How do they feel when cricketer Usman Khawaja, the first Muslim cricketer to play for Australia, scores a brilliant test hundred or when Richmond midfielder Bachar Houli, a devout Muslim, scores a goal at the MCG and the stadium erupts?

How do those people who worship at the altar of anti-Islam navigate their daily lives? Do they constantly have to remind themselves to hate and despise fellow citizens based on their ideological position or does the mask slip from time to time?

Do they ever question any of their beliefs? Are their views malleable or fused into some solid form of rage that is impenetrable? Do they doubt anything they believe? Is there any chink in their armoury?

egypt

Me, in Cairo, 2010

Thankfully, I don’t have to navigate any of those daily challenges. I take everyone at face value and like to think I make no pre-judgements of anyone.

Also, I have been lucky enough to have travelled to many Muslim countries in my life – Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia to name a few.

Most of my experiences in these countries have been extremely positive – nowhere is perfect – and enlightening. I have learnt about fascinating and ancient cultures, seen beautiful architecture and art, sampled new delectable cuisines and shared stories with  warm and charming people.

I say this not to boast of my travel exploits, but to make the point that I think you can only be anti-Muslim from a position of ignorance.

Indeed, a recent poll by Pew Research asking people to estimate the proportion of their country’s population that is Muslim shows just how uninformed we are.

In France the estimate among respondents was that 31 per cent of the population was Muslim when the real figure was 7.5 per cent, in the US the perception was that one in six Americans were Muslim, whereas the actual figure is one in 100.

Australians thought Muslims made up 12.5 per cent of the population when the true figure was only 2.4 per cent.

None of this should detract from the heinous actions of Islamic extremists, who make up a tiny proportion of the 1.6 billion Muslims whom we share the planet with.

Indeed Muslims themselves are the targets of many of these brutal acts, as the recent horrific chemical attacks orchestrated by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against his own people have shown to the world.

And let’s not forget the role the anti-Muslim movement plays in creating the next generation of extremists.

“…trying to demonise all Muslims is only confirming the lying, dangerous message of the terrorists,” said Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull in a recent rebuttal to the bigotry of Pauline Hanson.

Avoiding PR fails: How to win friends and influence journalists

human-652827_960_720I recently sat down over an informal lunch with a large real estate group in their high-rise office.

It was an opportunity to meet some of their new team members at the start of the new year and make new contacts.

But it was also an opportunity for them to ask me questions about the how the newspaper business works and essentially explain how stories  – perhaps their own property deals – might end up in the paper I write for, the Australian Financial Review.

As we chatted over sandwiches, it occurred to me that I was answering many of the same questions I’d answered a number of times before at similar “meet the press’ type meetings and that it might be useful to others to summarise some of the things we discussed.

So here it goes, from the horse’s mouth: A journalist’s top tips for dealing with…journalists:

1. A short email or phone call is often better than sending a press release.

Every journalist is bombarded with media releases. Dozens appear in our email inboxes everyday and throughout the day. It’s impossible to carefully read every one and find the time to work on stories at the same time. A much better option is a short email outlining the story idea in a few dot points and a contact number for the journalist to ring to get more information.  If you are going to send a press release, keep it short and to the point. No journalist has the time to read an 8 page press release. Alternatively, pick up the phone and call, but not before you have read point 2 below.

2. Don’t ring a journalist when they are on deadline.

It’s incredible how many experienced PR consultants still ring journalists at my newspaper at 4 or 5 pm in the afternoon as we are frantically filing stories for the next day’s paper to pitch ideas or just to “chat”. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a conversion, even if for a few minutes about something that’s either irrelevant or can wait while you are trying to finish a story. Incredibly some people go on pitching stories even after you say you are on deadline .If you’re going to ring a journalist find out when the best time to call is. For those writing for newspapers, the morning is usually the best time to ring.  If you are going to ring on deadline, make sure it’s a REALLY, REALLY BIG story.

3. Think before you speak

Once you tell a journalist something, it cannot be untold or unremembered. (Think of us as bottomless receptacles of information rather than sieves). Before you call, think about what you are going to say and write down some key points. It’s amazing how many people ring journalists, provide all kinds of great insider information, slag off their competitors and then are amazed when these quotes appear in the newspaper the next day. The same goes for facts. If they are true and you tell us them, we will report them. (Of course journalists also love salacious people like this and…there are equally some people who love dishing it out, but just be prepared to see it in print the next day as a direct quote).

4. Exclusives are what we want

Exclusives are the life blood of journalists and newspapers. If you can offer a journalist an exclusive and it’s a worthy story, you are almost assured of getting a good run in the paper. However, there is nothing more annoying for a journalist to read the exact same story they have been pitched and are writing appear in another publication. Of course you are perfectly entitled to pitch your story at multiple publications but you should be upfront about that and let the journalist know that they don’t have the story to themselves.

5. Be patient

Even a good story may take a few days, even a few weeks to get a run. This may be because of space (in the case of a print publication) or resources (journalists are generally working on a number of stories and have to prioritize based on what their editor wants) or the type of story: for example rural stories may run on a certain day of the week.  A good story will always get a run. By all means follow-up on the story – NOT ON DEADLINE! – but don’t bombard journalists with multiple daily emails. If the story needs to run by a certain date, then let the journalist know. If they can’t meet that date, then you are perfectly entitled to take the story elsewhere, but tell them first if you want to keep a good relationship.

6. Expect journos to quote you accurately but don’t expect a certain type of story

Journalists that deliberately misquote or take remarks out of context are to be avoided. Mistakes do happen. However, good writers don’t simply regurgitate press releases verbatim. Remember we are story tellers and are writing for our readers – not for you or your clients. Often those two audiences will overlap, but not always. Sometimes a passing comment or a small point may have greater and wider resonance – in the eyes of the journalist or their editor – then the main subject of a press release or briefing. Have an open mind about what you might read in the paper or online.

7. Don’t pester a journalist’s colleagues with the same story

Most journalists work in a team, whether it’s a specific beat like politics or property or the arts. We often sit together and discuss story ideas. It’s amazing how often a PR firm will contact a journalist with a story idea that doesn’t get traction and then ring all their colleagues with the same idea. This is not a great strategy. It smacks of desperation. If you really think a journalist is missing a good story my suggestion is to ring them and ask them why they won’t cover it. If you still think it has legs tell them you will contact their editor to pitch the story or a colleague, but don’t just send it out – scatter-gun style – to all and sundry.

8. Don’t give misleading information

This may seem an obvious one, but it’s quite common for someone to embellish a story idea or even a formal press release with inaccurate information, half-truths or outdated information to generate interest. Good journalists will verify facts, but we expect to be given accurate information in the first instance especially if its in a formal media release. If you are not sure, then say so. Being deliberately misleading is the quickest way to get you on a journalist’s blacklist.

9. Share market intelligence to build rapport

A great way to build a relationship with a journalist is to share information you have about the market and what your competitors are doing “off-the record” (see point 10). This may not get your name in the paper, but will help when you pitch your own story idea. Journalists treasure market tip-offs as much as they do exclusives.

10. Understand what “off-the-record” means

A lot of people I think have misconceptions about what it means when you tell a journalist: “This is off-the-record”. This does not mean that a fact or tidbit won’t be reported. All it means that if it is reported, it will not be attributed to you. Either it will be stated as a fact or something along the lines of “market sources said” or “people close to the deal said”. One thing I would stress is be wary of sharing information off-the-record that could only conceivably come from you. (See point 3 again). That always ends badly – for you, not the journalist.

11. Don’t pick fights with journalists

Of all the idiotic things President Donald Trump has done, one of the silliest has been to pick fights with the main stream media. It’s incredible that he has gone to war with some of the most respected global publications like The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN which have huge audiences. Pick up the phone if you are unhappy with a story, don’t send a ranting email or abusive text message – we have thick skins and long memories.