Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Peter Debnam's Axis of Evil

Following the deposal of Police Minister Carl Scully, the Opposition has announced a strategy designed to depose a further three ministers - Joe Tripodi, Frank Sartor and Michael Costa.

And, I can reveal (perhaps exclusively), that telephone push-polling has been taking place in sensitive State seats, asking residents whether they would vote for a government who endorsed the above three Ministers.

You've got to love push-polling.

To look at it objectively, it's not a bad strategy. It is possible that Joe Tripodi may be felled by his latest imbroglio - but this would have nothing to do with the Opposition. Nevertheless, they'd hardly miss the opportunity of crowing over earning a `second scalp'. As to the others - it would be extremely unlikely. I admit to initially being extremely sceptical about the appointment of Costa as Treasurer, but I have to admit that he appears genuinely across the issues and to be doing a decent job. Meanwhile, Sartor has just been jostled back into his seat of Rockdale to avoid preselection. I'm certainly not implying that the above three Ministers are the most popular fellows in the government (when Coalition MP Andrew Fraser took a swing at Tripodi in the parliamentary chamber, it's said that a few on his own side couldn't help but quietly cheer him on - including former friend Carl Scully), but it's terribly ambitious to even suggest you might claim the head of the Treasurer.

Given the push polling, I would interpret the policy as exactly that - an attempt to highlight particular Ministers rather than make a serious attempt to bring them down.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Holding the Media Accountable

As the fallout from the Hazzard report on the Cronulla Riots continues, I note that the talkback caller I quoted and agreed with last week proved to be more or less correct. This caller suggested the report was being held back out of fear of media reprisals more than anything else. As today's Sydney Morning Herald reports:
Mr Hazzard's briefing note states Mr Scully was concerned "that the media would respond adversely to any perceived criticism of them in the report".

But Mr Hazzard said he had urged Mr Scully and Mr Moroney not to worry about this and let him take the heat for the part of the report dealing with comments before the riots by the 2GB hosts Alan Jones, Ray Hadley and Jason Morrison.
This was pretty canny advice on Hazzard's part. Shock jocks love to bash a pollie, but they can hardly find them responsible for findings about them that were made in an independent report. Nevertheless, it does show the extreme anxiety on the part of the Government and police about reprisals from a mere handful of powerful individuals.

I'd be interested to know the comments to which the reports refer, because, having suffered through a lot of Jones, Hadley and Morrison in a past life, I know that this certainly wouldn't be the first time they've made incendiary comments, but it may be the first time they've been picked up on it.

Apart from anything, it's surprisingly difficult to make a complaint about radio and television content. It's pretty easy to complain about the content of an advertisement, through the Advertising Standards Bureau, but content is another matter.

At the very least, the Australian Communications and Media Association (ACMA) has finally got a proper website, after the whole department was more or less shut for over a year after the departure of the Dr David `Dear Alan' Flint (during which the details of the second Cash for Comments affair sat gathering dust in a drawer somewhere) - a case whose results alone show us that, quite honestly, there's really no such thing as accountability in the Australian media.

Basically, the ACMA acts as an arbitrator on disputes between listeners or viewers and broadcasters, rather than a regulator. You must first complain to the station (I'm sure 2GB would throw the book at Jonesy if he came up with a clanger or two about Muslims) and only refer the issue to them if you are dissatisfied with the station's response. Issues of journalistic ethics are, quite absurdly, referred to the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, whose Code of Ethics, though of course recommended for all journalists, is entirely voluntary unless you are a member.

ACMA also suggests that complaints be made as soon after the broadcast as possible - not because this is a sensible thing to do, but `because the broadcaster may no longer have a tape of it otherwise'. This is patently absurd. Media monitoring companies retain archives of virtually everything broadcast on mainstream Australian radio, twenty four hours a day, going back years. The ACMA must surely know this.

Say you finally do get a complaint heard by ACMA. For an unknown reason, you are required to not only provide your name and address to the broadcaster, but agree to its publication on ACMA's website. I cannot think of any other regulatory body who requires this sort of invasion of privacy. Certainly, it is fair to separate out vexatious or frivolous complaints, or to identify conflicts of interest, but this is a job for the body itself, not the broadcaster. I would certainly think twice before complaining if I suspected my name and address would be publicly released, and I imagine plenty of other people would, too.

I am certainly not arguing for increased censorship - only accountability. The media can deeply effect how people act, how they think, and the opinions they hold. How is it that an official police report can find members of the media culpable for a major civil disturbance, yet the mechanisms for identifying their culpability and punishing them are so pathetically deficient? Naturally, free speech should be our guiding principle - but that certainly hasn't helped Sheik Taj al-Din al-Hilaly escape his atrocious comments. The same rules should apply to everyone. All broadcasters must take responsibility for the things they say. Current regulation allows them to evade this responsibility.

I daresay that, should the broadcaster have come from the ABC, they would have had the book thrown at them. Ironically, the whole thing would have ended up on Media Watch, perhaps the last arbiter media accountability left.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Carl Scully Quits

No sooner had I stepped out of tonight's Fabian Society forum and into a delightfully windy evening, than a friend turned to me to say that she had just found out that Carl Scully had resigned. At this point, I didn't know whether it was as Police Minister or from politics (at the moment it appears only to be the former).

What a turn of events, I thought, still rather shocked as I walked home, desperate for my laptop (my kingdom for a BlackBerry!) So many implications, so many potential repercussions. For years, he cultivated the backbench in order to gain credence as a potential leader, only to be knifed by his former friends in the poisonous Right. He's still regarded as one of the most effective performers on the floor at Parliament. Nevertheless, he will certainly not hold another ministry, and you couldn't blame him for retiring at the next election, though he holds his seat with a very comfortable 25% margin.

Transport Minister John Watkins will assume Scully's former portfolio, while the rapidly rising David Campbell - only made a Minister in the 2003 cabinet reshuffle - has taken up his prestigious position as Leader of the House. Eric Roozendaal also gets a leg up as Assistant Minister for Transport (I once said they'd create a position out of thin air if it were to hoist Roozendaal further up the slippery pole, and I've been proven right). Watkins has held the police ministry before, and it will be interesting to see whether he dismantles some of the more extreme policy positions Scully advocated for in his time in the portfolio, something which, it is said, made him fairly popular with the police themselves.

Were Scully's error worthy of resignation? Certainly, he acted foolishly and eventually dug himself ever deeper as obfuscation became mistruth but, as I said before, I really don't get the sense that the Cronulla Riot report was being withheld for political reasons. I may be in the minority there, but I truly believe that the events leading up to this were overplayed by an overheated media and a sweaty-browed Opposition. I can't help thinking that other Ministers have done worse with less reprimand.

Nevertheless, Scully is gone - either by mutual agreement or the decree of Morris Iemma, both risky things politically.

Why was this risk taken? Well, there's one obvious point - Laura Norder is always the queen of the ball at election time. No government can afford to appear to be indifferent to it. Perhaps Scully's deposal will be seen as an affirmation of Ms Norder. The crisis may have been used to delicately slide aside a Minister who had been falling out of favour, politically speaking, for some time and pledge a new era of law enforcement, much the same as Iemma himself proclaimed the start of a new government rather than the continuation of an old one when he began his term as Premier.

However, it is inevitable that the public will see Scully's resignation from another, and far more potentially damaging, point of view: as the first real hit laid on the Iemma Government by an Opposition so weak it would be a travesty if it came to govern. Perception is all in politics, and if a public perception grows that the Opposition are mighty enough to depose a senior Minister - something that occurs increasingly rarely in Australian parliaments - it could be a serious problem for the Government. Evidently, they have not assessed it as large enough a risk to convince Scully to stay on, but it sets a dangerous precedent. The best way to be in a winning position is to look like you are. I still maintain that it would be nearly impossible for the Opposition to win, but I certainly don't want them coming a close second.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Future of Maxine McKew

Today's announcement that veteran ABC reporter Maxine McKew will not be renewing her contract next year came as quite a surprise. There's certainly been no obvious sign that she has become disinterested in her work, other than a reduction in her activities. If her decision was made based on the recent changes at the ABC - and I hasten to add that she has made absolutely no public suggestion that this was the case - it would be a terrible shame.

However, McKew has made all mentions of her future pretty hazy, though she obviously has plenty of productive years ahead of her in some field or another. Without further ado, let me be the first to suggest that McKew may have a very particular new career in mind.

Mark Latham was the first to put on record the fact that McKew had been approached by the ALP to stand for a Federal seat, but a deal could not be reached. McKew is of course married to former ALP National Organiser Bob Hogg, so has sometimes been seen in a non-professional capacity at ALP events. The next election will be held in about a years' time, making it the ideal period to scope out new candidates.

I'll certainly miss McKew's calm, commonsense reportage, but should my prediction be true, I think she'd be a brilliant, thoughtful and whip smart MP. If nothing else, it could certainly make for some interesting interviews at her former workplace ...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Stott-Despoja to Quit

Democrats senator Natasha Stott-Despoja has announced she will not recontest the next election in order to spend more time with her family.

Stott-Despoja became one of Australia's most high profile politicians after entering Parliament at the young age of 26 - notoriously, shod in Doc Martens. She became the benchmark to which other young women entering parliament, such as Tanya Plibersek and Kate Ellis were subsequently compared. She was deputy leader of the party for several years, and briefly the leader, following Meg Lees' resignation, but was herself forced to resign after losing the confidence of the party, the start of a long period of shambolic leadership which continues to this day. It's fair to say that elevating Stott-Despoja to leader based on her high profile has universally been regarded as not only a mistake, but perhaps a fatal one. Nevertheless, she always seemed like an interested and passionate legislator to me, so her resignation is a shame. It was great to see someone demonstrate that a parliamentary career is an option for a young, socially aware woman.

All of that aside, this surely is the end for the Democrats, especially in their spiritual home of South Australia. It's unlikely that they will win back all four Federal Senate seats they currently hold; in fact, depending on the dynamics of other third-force parties, they may not win any. Senator Andrew Bartlett would be a particularly unfortunate loss to the Parliament. Their prospects don't look much better in the only two states in which they still hold seats, with both sitting members, the long-serving NSW MLC Arthur Chesterfield-Evans and the outspoken SA MLC Sandra Kanck, announcing their plans to retire before the next election.

This is the sad lot of a party formed to `keep the bastards honest' but who, fatally, didn't manage to hold Meg Lees to that credo.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Vote 1 Ron Kind

As this year whooshes to a close, NSW residents are facing a rare conjunction in the new year - both a State and Federal election in one year.

Spare a thought for our American cousins (never forget that statistically, for every bible-thumping, Fox News-watching, flag-hoisting, Iraq-bombing Good Ol' Boy, there's slightly more than one other person who didn't vote for George W. Bush in 2000), for two main reasons:

1) They cop two elections in every electoral cycle (technically, three) - one for the President, and another, every even-numbered year, for the rest of government.

2) They must endure TV advertising campaigns that make the Liberal Party's screed against Labor's economic policies look like a simple schoolyard stoush. Such as This. And This. And, not to forget - This.

It'd be quite funny if ... well, actually, it's just quite funny.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Exit Strategy Begins

I've never seen Alexander Downer look as steamed up as he did during Question Time this week as the Opposition relentlessly pursued him over the ever-worsening situation in Iraq. All the usual excuses were used - freeing the Iraqi people from a tyrant, cutting and running would let the terrorists win, and so forth - but it looks like the excuses may finally be running out. Yesterday, George W. Bush did not deny comparisons between the situation in Iraq and the notorious Tet Offensive.

The feeling is groiwng that a `new approach' is required in Iraq. Whether this is prompted by the upcoming US mid-term elections or the fact that 73 American soldiers have already died in Iraq this month alone is hard to say, but the main thing is that a break in the stalemate seems imminent. Any Australian reaction will inevitably follow the American, and there is evidence that this has already begun, and figures such as Downer are beginning to look increasingly like General Westmoreland, the US army general who told reporters covering the bombing of the US Embassy in Saigon - while in fact standing in the rubble of the embassy - that there was `no evidence' that the enemy had managed to breach the building. In another example of the power of journalism, Lyndon Johnson is reputed to have finally decided to withdraw troops following a negative editorial by Walter Cronkite.

It's hard to say whether there will be a definitive moment that inspires the Coalition of the Willing to change tack entirely, or even a piece of symbolism that crystalises public dissent, as did the famous photo of the execution of prisoner Nguyen Van Lem during the Vietnam War. Sadly, public dissent has never seemed a factor in the decision to go to war with Iraq, as any of the estimated eight million people who attended peace rallies across the world in 2003 will remember. John Howard spoke a rare true word when he admitted his decision to send Australian troops was the least poll-driven move he had ever made. It is only when political will changes that the situation will change.

In any case, it is very worthwhile to read Cronkite's statements in the context of the current situation.

The Other Riots

It's been quite a week in State Parliament. On Tuesday, we saw the extraordinary - I imagine, unprecedented - scenes of disendorsed Liberal MP Steve Pringle actually ripping up his party ticket in the Parliamentary chamber and, much as Patricia Forsythe before him, making serious allegations about the complete collapse of internal party democracy and pointing the finger squarely at one nasty piece of work named David Clarke. Hilariously, John Howard has dismissed the rorts as `a colloquial branch stack' (whatever that means, and however it makes it better than a flat out branch stack), while a pretty shattered Peter Debnam described Pringle's move as `designed to embarrass me and embarrass the Liberal Party'. Well, hell yeah! So it should! It has taken only a year for such allegations to become explosive to routine, and for them to move from the 7.30 Report to the parliamentary chamber. The more the NSW Liberal Party attempt to sweep this under the floor, the more unelectable they'll become, and that's saying something.

Meanwhile, NSW Police Minister Carl Scully is under fire for not releasing a police report on the Cronulla Riots. While I can't help but see this as a bit of a storm in a teacup - several quite legitimate reasons have been named for the holdup, such as the protection of witnesses - things don't look brilliant for Scully, with Morris Iemma refusing to rule out sacking him.

One caller to ABC 702 this morning brought up an interesting theory. He suggested the report had been suppressed because it is so critical of the media - specifically talkback radio - something no government can afford as an election approaches.

I think this is a pretty interesting theory, and it does demonstrate the way strong media is, as I've said before, integral to strong democracy. The whole ugly affair is a perfect demonstration of the impact of a weak (that is, unethical) media. Firstly, the report found that the reports of a Middle Eastern youth `assaulting' a surf lifesaver, outrage over which sparked the riots, was universally misreported, and was nothing more than a small and apparently non-racially balanced fracas. Secondly, it found that several talkback radio hosts directly stoked the fire and precipated the riots (I'm unaware whether they named Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, but I just did).

The media were extraordinarily unsympathetic to Morris Iemma early in his term, but the tide seems to have changed in recent months. I imagine the government has no desire to give the Alan Joneses of the media reasons to get angry about them.

Speaking of Alan Jones, the day is almost upon us: exclusive extracts from Chris Masters' `Jonestown' will be published in tomorrows Sydney Morning Herald, and plenty of people aren't looking forward to it, much less Jones himself. In announcing the extracts several weeks ago, David Marr made the brave and typically Marrish step of naming Jones as `a gay man'. Now, it's very silly that this is a move that should be branded `brave', but it goes to show exactly how much psychological power Jones exercises. Will `Jonestown' break that power? Will we hear Alan Jones coming out to his 2GB listenership on Monday morning? Probably not, but wouldn't it be amazing ...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Gutting the ABC

If changes to the ABC are approved by arch ABC enemy Gerard Henderson, you know they're a worry.

New ABC Director General Mark Scott has announced wide ranging policy changes, including the establishment of a new internal position of a `director of editorial policies'. That sounds dangerously like `director of keeping the lid on controversies that may make the Government look silly'. Such controversies include the Vivian Solon affair, almost entirely prosecuted by the ABC's Lateline, and the revelations of underhanded dealings between Alan Jones and Telstra by Media Watch - a show which, incidentally, was singled out by Scott as worthy of a `revamp'. Perhaps the sort of `revamp' Tony Abbott threatened to impose upon the aforementioned Lateline during the last Federal Election after Tony Jones' interview with him about whether he had attempted to influence Catholic Archbishop George Pell to oppose Labor's education policy.

The fact that journalists are being put in such an ignominious position is not a demonstration of an anti government bias - it's a demonstration that the ABC is now the only Australian network that doesn't shy away from testing the sitting government rather than passing off fat-busting, neighbours-arguing, cure-for-back-pain guff as current affairs. Governments - both Liberal and Labor - have always feared the ABC for this reason. It's for this reason that the ABC is one of the dwindling list of news sources I actually trust.

The government's own enquiries have failed to uncover the sort of bias the government would like to find in order to prove their eminently silly assertion that the ABC is a Marxist lobby group in disguise (extending to Piers Akerman embarrassing himself with his quite hilarious - and, as was subsequently proven, entirely inaccurate - claims that even the kiddies are being indoctrinated via Play School). Constant and permanent monitoring of the ABC for bias is an idea that has been raised before, and, knowing a little bit about the media monitoring industry, I know that this would cost an absolute fortune.

Media and democracy are so tightly enmeshed today that weakening the integrity of one is weakening the integrity of the other. Both of these qualities are under serious attack.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

SBS and Advertising - Sneaky Bastards Selling

Swinging back over to the media side of things for a bit, how sneakily did SBS introduce in-broadcast advertising breaks? This move, though announced with little fanfare a few months ago, was introduced last Monday. It received absolutely no mainstream media coverage that I can uncover, even despite representing a fundamental shift - some would say a deliberate misinterpretation - of the broadcaster's charter, which deems that advertisement be permitted only in `natural breaks' in the programme.

As former SBS staffer Emma Dawson suggests at New Matilda the move is potentially deleterious to SBS's status as main media provider to non-English speakers. Several news broadcasts catering for nationalities with small representations in Australia have already been cut, despite the notion of catering to small constituencies being the raison d'etre not only of the station since its inception, but of public broadcasting in general. It could even be argued that if SBS is receiving low ratings, it's fulfilling its charter. Concerns have grown in the past few years about SBS's continuing drift from its charter, with film critics Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton the highest profile defectors from the network. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the concept of multiculturalism has undergone significant political repositioning since SBS began in 1980.

The particularly silly thing is that research commisioned by SBS itself has revealed that the move is overwhelmingly unpopular. Free-to-air TV is already facing a crisis of relevance now that the sort of shows that once formed their bread and butter are now available (ad free) on DVD soon after - or even before - broadcast. If I wanted to sit through endless advertisements, I'd have subscribed to cable. Likewise, I wonder where the `natural breaks' will be found within SBS's well-regarded roster of world movies.

Errol Simper of The Australian suggests viewers vote with their remotes, but as one of the numerous whingers who let Channel 7 know of my displeasure at their introduction of the now-ubiquitous corner water mark station identifier, I can tell you that this doesn't work. They simply outsmarted me by making their entire prime-time lineup completely unwatchable.

Naturally, the next question will be how long the ABC will hold out before joining the bandwagon.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Pause In Transmission

I have no excuse for the fact that I haven't been posting regularly than that I haven't felt inclined, even despite the passage of the final coffin nail - new media ownership laws - only today (thanks yet again to Backdown Barnaby). Perhaps it's the fact that I'm head down in the last stretch of my Masters, or perhaps it's that sometimes things seem so hopeless that it's useless to simply note that they're occurring. `Pompeii, midday. Couple of ashes, funny smell, whatever. Pompeii, Two o'clock - just saw some guy on fire. Meh.' And so forth.

In any case, I apologise and invite you to check out the quality links over there on the right hand side of this page in the meantime.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Attack of the Ideologues

I have to admit that my jaw dropped when I heard of Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop's plans to take over the setting of state school curricula. That's before I heard reports that the original version of a speech she delivered yesterday claimed state-based education had been taken over by `left wing ideologues' whose policies come `straight from Chairman Mao'.

I mean, please.

As so often, what the Right get away with bald faced would be condemned from every corner had such extremism come from the mouths of the Left. Can you honestly imagine a Labor Education Minister proclaiming that Aussie children would henceforth be singing from the choirbook of Sydney and Beatrice Webb? Hardly. The arrogance is quite astounding.

What's even phonier is the debate over Australian education. Both Bishop and John Howard have claimed that national standardisation is an imperative because Australian education standards are so low. This is, quite simply, rubbish. All major indicators show Australia as one of the top countries in the world for literacy and numeracy. The OECD's most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) report lists Australia as amongst the top five in the world for literacy, numeracy and science skills. Australia comes second only to Finland in literacy levels. This has been achieved despite the fact that the amount of money spent on public education has been falling steadily since 1995, while the amount of public money spent on private education is comparatively high on an international scale.

I won't even start on the History Wars, covered at length elsewhere. History is notoriously mutable; it is pulled in the direction of whoever interprets it. But whitewashing events that undoubtedly happened - for example, the Stolen Generations (yes, I've met members of them), even the fact that the establishment of European Australia involved the near-annhilation of the culture and people that preceded it - I'm sorry, but that's the work of ... what's the word? Ah yes. Ideologues.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Ruddock: Sleep Deprivation `Not Torture'

Philip Ruddock, interviewed on this weekend's Insiders about the new trial plans for Guantanamo Bay detainees, claims that sleep deprivation is not torture, but a legitimate coercive technique.

Well, is it?

Experts on torture tend to disagree. The Geneva Convention itself is hazy on the topic, though it does prohibit `any form of torture or cruelty' to prisoners of war' - something the US has neatly sidestepped by declaring Guantanamo Bay detainees `enemy combatants'. Human Rights Watch have identified the difficulty in defining a `cruel and inhuman' practice as a barrier - and perhaps a deliberate one - to enforcement. Recent legislation passed in the US Senate does nothing to assist this problem.

But let's put all of this aside. Sleep deprivation is considered reasonable by the Ruddocks and Rumsfelds of this world on the basis that it may help extract evidence that will foil major terrorist attacks and save lives. The effects of sleep deprivation can be profound - hallucination, psychosis, hearing voices, and unawareness of time and place.

Sounds like the perfect way to elicit an iron-clad, perfectly accurate, legitimate confession from someone, doesn't it?

Sleep deprivation is not only inhumane, it's a stupid way of gaining evidence. If world leaders don't have sufficient humanity to work out what's torture and what isn't, perhaps the Convention needs to be redrafted to take recent international developments into account.