Friday, 05 September 2014

Lewis' Law and online misogyny

From the incomprehensibly vicious to the boringly repetitive, the online response to women’s voices is vastly different to the experiences of men in the same space. Why do some men find relief in such venomous attacks on women in the media?

Lewis’ Law dictates that “the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism”.

This seems like circuitous logic, until you do the one thing that everyone tells you not to do on the internet: read the comments.

Writers are used to criticism - our ability to think, our political allegiances and our basic literacy skills are constantly questioned and insulted - but the comments section under an article written by a woman metastasises into cancerous hate. Because being a woman with an opinion is still one of the most outrageous things you can do.

Anita Sarkeesian was forced to flee her home after the usual wave of bile she receives for critiquing games crested into specific violent threats against her and her family. To clarify, the “usual” abuse she receives includes being the subject of a game in which users can beat her and a constant barrage of rape and death threats.

While Sarkeesian is a particularly extreme example, it illustrates the abuse women receive online when they stray from what is expected of them, namely, compliance.

Link to an article about feminism? Be told you will be forced to drink some anon’s semen. Read that you deserve the most extreme violence inflicted upon you, as if they think a threat of violence is unique to a woman’s daily existence. Do the worst and push back, and you can be threatened with so-called Islamic beheadings that will undoubtedly occur to you should you remove yourself from a white man’s protection. Post a screenshot of said trolling and another man will question why you pushed back, as though you should tacitly accept such behaviour by refusing to challenge it and accept policing from men, uncomfortable at the visible proof women are so viciously abused online.

That was 4 hours one night on social media for me last week and, to be frank, I have almost no public profile.

The abuse female writers receive online demonstrates a visceral reaction from a particular section of their audience – when that freed from social constraints by the ease and anonymity of social media and comments sections.

I’ve seen the abuse that high profile women writers receive and it is staggering, both for its violence and volume. Critics who harbour a sneaking suspicion that feminists are whining about a situation that can be controlled by ignoring the abuse have no idea of just how much energy and will plummet in the face of tens, hundreds or even thousands of threatening messages.

A recent study from Pew research found that people were less likely to debate politics online than in person for fear of social rejection. The rejection they feared existed as a threatened corrective measure to keep people under control and silent.

Using Pew’s findings as a guide and the minor presence of feminist critique or women’s voices in mainstream media, we can infer that gendered online abuse exists to silence women, to bring them back under control of the collective. Women in the media are a minority, subject to the control of the dominant voice - white men. And to maintain their dominance, they must defeat or silence all threats and challengers.

According to Rutger’s Vyshali Manivannan in Tits of GTFO, the way to defeat challengers encroaching on an established culture is to offensively drown them out. Are you a woman with a voice? Let’s drown it with misogyny, a raft of the most offensive and violent chatter we can muster to mute your energy and sink your work lest your ideas are accepted and threaten our culture. That’s why women writers are abused online - because men don’t want to hear them and need to ensure that no one else does either.

This can also be seen in recent reports indicating that men receive more online abuse than women - studies brandished to dispute women’s valid complaints about abuse. Demos, a think tank employed by British Newspaper Sunday Times, declared their analysis showed more men received online abuse than women. Take that you whining martyred feminists! Take your rhetoric and rape culture and face the SCIENCE. Good day, Madam. *fedora tip*

But when you look closely, there’s something very wrong with the research. Firstly, it only covered Twitter. Secondly, it only covered celebrities. Thirdly, it only covered this paltry list of swear words once assembled by Google. The main flaw is that it considered abuse to only comprise obscenities and not what women actually face: threats of violence. Look at this sampling of abuse to Anita Sarkeesian from one Twitter account. Rape figures prominently, so does kill, weapons are referenced, and assaults are specified. These are terms that would escape Demos’ calculations. It’s a study that claims to show men are more abused than women, without making any effort to understand how women are abused online.

Even within these restrictions, Demos found that women journalists receive three times more online abuse than their male counterparts. Can you imagine what a more comprehensive study would reveal? One that understood women are silenced with more than just swear words, but the entire spectrum of prejudice, of racism and any number of violent hate-filled phobias?

Or how sexism that seeks to silence women hide in the smoke and mirrors of misdirection. It’s a magic act where they claim they aren’t hounding a woman into silence or professional ruin because she’s a woman, oh no, it’s because they have suddenly decided she has faulted against their “ethics”. No, misogyny and the thousands of abusive messages sent to women online aren’t the issue - no, the real issue is how men face “ironic misandry”.

Women raising their voice in a media landscape dominated by men is still a radical act. There is a concerted effort to bring them under control, whether it is by increasing the volume on the male voice (and the voice of its allies) or to literally drown out a woman’s voice through prolonged abuse that distracts or deflects their future work.

But, as Helen Lewis stated, every act of abuse, every attempt to drown women out just shows how vital our voices are.

Speak up - deafen those who seek to silence us.

Published in Weekly Email
Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Triple M and "unacceptable" voices

Radio station Triple M has been in the news over the last couple of months, for a variety of reasons.

Most recently, Network head Mike Fitzpatrick made the bold decision to ban all KISS songs from playlists around the country, due to being very KISSed off at comments from Gene Simmons about mental health. During a July 31 interview, Simmons said,

“…the world is a harsh place. My mother was in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. I don’t want to hear fuck all about ‘the world as a harsh place.’ She gets up every day, smells the roses and loves life. And for a putz, 20-year-old kid to say, ‘I’m depressed, I live in Seattle.’ Fuck you, then kill yourself.”

The comments weren’t given much consideration at first, until they resurfaced after the tragic death of Robin Williams. Which was when an obviously angry Fitzpatrick pulled all KISS songs, calling the comments “misguided and insensitive” and challenged other stations in Australia and North America to do the same.

There is no doubt that Simmons’ comments were incredibly thoughtless and unacceptable, and it is Triple M’s prerogative to ban the band from their station.

Nevertheless, it will be curious to see what the station will do from this point on, having drawn a clear line in the sand. The gravity of the comments by Simmons is not in question, mental health is not a topic we should take lightly.

But would the comments have drawn such animosity if it weren’t for the tragedy of Robin Williams’ death? Will similar comments on grave topics from musicians featured on the station receive the same response in the future? Nobody suggested banning Simmons when he recently defended horrible racist Donald Sterling because, as Simmons explained, everyone says “off-colour jokes” when they are drunk, nor has the suggestion been made after any other controversial statements he has made throughout his career.

Of course, Simmons isn’t alone in his poor behaviour outside his music. Triple M favourites includes Tommy Lee, who once spent 90 days in jail for beating Pamela Anderson, AND Vince Neil, who was once arrested and accepted a plea bargain for domestic violence. In 2012, Seth Binzer from the band Crazytown (played on Triple M) was convicted of domestic violence. If a member of a rock band is arrested for assault or similar in the future, will the station take that as seriously?

The station’s own employees have also been involved in their share of controversy. Eddie McGuire, a host on Triple M, went unpunished after suggesting that AFL player Adam Goodes promote the King Kong musical, just days after Goodes was called an “ape” by an AFL supporter in an ugly episode of racism.

It will be very interesting to see what actions Triple M and Mike Fitzpatrick will take in relation to future incidents by musicians and people involved with the station.

In July, Triple M Melbourne released a promo shot celebrating the number one rating for their breakfast show. The promo shot featured 25 men, without the hint of one single woman (or a married one). Not surprisingly the shot attracted a lot of attention, and not the pat-on-the-back kind the station was obviously courting.

After getting obviously annoyed by the comments, Austereo’s Chief Content Officer Guy (lol) Dobson pointed out that Triple M is a “…male-skewed, football-calling network,” and that most of the men in the picture were former players with inside knowledge.

Ignoring the fact that rare, fragile creatures exist called ‘women’ who are also football players, three of the men in the most prominent positions in the photo were Mick Molloy, Joe Hildebrand and Matt Tilley, none of whom have a playing history. The weakness of this reasoning is more readily apparent when you realise that Triple M Melbourne and Triple M Brisbane each only list one female presenter on their major shows (off-season or fill-ins not included). All other positions across the networks and cities are filled by men, according to their own website.

But even if the station is targeting a male audience, this doesn’t mean that women should be excluded from the station. Rock music and football are not solely the domains of men, and including more women who are ex-football players, sports journalists, musicians, music experts, female comedians, or just good female radio hosts is not impossible, and I doubt that it would scare off the male audience who already listen to the station. If I were a man who is a fan of Triple M, I would be insulted that the station thinks so little of me that it assumes I wouldn’t want to hear the perspective and voices of women.

Of course, this is not a problem that is restricted to Triple M. Women comprise just 17 per cent of the weekday presenters on the major metro talkback stations across Australia.

The dominance of this particular type of personality in presenting roles on these kinds of commercial radio stations is surely key to the popularity of podcasting, which will only continue to rise.

How many times can you possibly listen to Kyle and Jackie O be absolutely disgraceful toward women – most recently asking sports journalist Erin Molan how many players she has slept with (among other things) – before people will start to switch off? Before there were other avenues and media of entertainment for consumption, people had to switch to other radio stations that might not have been much better.

You can currently carry around a device full of your favourite songs, and this, in combination with almost unlimited access to easily downloadable podcasts, ensures radio will become less important. Podcasts give you the ability to access the minds of people who aren’t represented in the mainstream. You can listen to podcasts on literally almost any topic you can think of. You can listen to the voices of people in different countries, of different sexes, genders, races, and sexualities. Podcasting gives you the option to never listen to a straight white man again if you so choose (and why wouldn’t you).

If more people start demanding diversity of views and opinions and representations, and start switching off stations like Triple M and switch on a podcast instead, maybe radio stations will start listening to us instead.

Published in Weekly Email
Thursday, 07 August 2014

Teaching and technology

There is a huge disparity between the people who decide how and where technology is used in education and the students themselves, how they use and understand technology. Schools are failing to keep up with the changing technological world in which our children will eventually live and work. What is holding them back?

If we are to believe a recent article by Phillip Heath, Chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools in Australia, children are growing up more quickly and are at an unprecedented risk from the dangers of technology. Not only is this an exhausted generalisation with no supporting evidence, it’s also based on the most superficial of judgements.

Heath is calling on the government to address the cyberbullying in schools and he places the onus on the soon-to-be-appointed Children’s e-Safety Commissioner, who must be ‘technologically nimble in their response to dealing with cyber bullying’. For Heath and AHISA, the position will affirm to students that their safety is paramount, and that bullying and intimidating behaviour online will be answerable to a higher authority.

While students are exposed to technology and information at a rate far beyond that of any preceding generation, it does no one good to judge on differences and fail to acknowledge what is consistent. Cyberbullying is still bullying, but because it happens in a different arena, across a rapidly changing medium, teachers are uncertain in their response.

It’s an issue teachers are forever trying to deal with. How does traditional education reconcile itself with exponentially advancing technology? How can the profession counteract the division between the so-called digital immigrant educators, and the students who were born into a technologically advanced era?

For too long, schools, universities, teachers, principals and education ministers have all treated technology as a paradox. On one hand, its all-pervasiveness is accepted as a foregone conclusion, and teachers are instructed to welcome it into the classroom with a warm embrace. No longer are phones confiscated on sight, or headphones seen as a passive-aggressive stance against the learning environment. Victorian Certificate of Education study designs carry an ICT logo for learning ideas, treating them with special merit and weight not only for the students, but for the reputation of the school that implements them. Technology has become the token inclusion in schools everywhere, a shiny yet disruptive toy, distracting anyone from considering whether there is actual merit in its use.

On the other hand, education as a profession is terrified of technology. Knee-jerk policies are implemented to deal with perceived risks and dangers from its use in the classroom, and terms like cyberbullying and cybersaftey are bandied about to mask our fears of unknown mediums. Teachers are actively instructed to dismantle or lock down social media profiles and run the risk of losing their jobs merely for being an active and participatory citizen, while students are barraged with the idea that at all times someone is out to get them, steal their identity and ruin their lives in the magical ether of the Internet. Rules are created assuming the worst about students – plagiarism, cheating, bullying – and any benefits of the technology is diminished.

And while we busy ourselves considering a move toward online exams and assessments, students are still learning in a paper-and-pencil vacuum. Schools in Victoria are overhauling their traditional learning patterns for integrating iPads and laptops and social media forums into schoolwork, but by Year 11 students are asked to forgo everything and revert to set conditions with only a dictionary and a few higlighters for back-up. The VCE English exam is still three hours of handwriting essays with unsighted prompts. As a result, teachers lament the lack of quality handwriting, to the point where the latest draft of the Australian Curriculum reintroduced legible handwriting as a necessary skill. And yet this is despite the weight of research in favour of a mix between handwriting and typing, particularly preferring the latter for the extended written tasks so common in VCE. Even the maligned and limited NAPLAN testing is unable to move online, meaning parents and students still need to wait months for their results.

So which is it? Use more technology, or back to basics with handwritten assessments? The message, despite being loud, is mixed. Technology has become both the badge on which to hang a school’s worth, but also the scapegoat of our inability to create meaningful learning.

The reasoning behind this isn’t difficult to understand. Schools are built on an industrial model of the old teaching the young at incremental levels, until they are considered old enough to be knowledgeable. And yet we have a situation where the students have all the technological knowledge, but the teachers are responsible for implementing and monitoring its use; and they are outpaced at every turn.

We don’t need an e-Safety Commissioner, any more than we need special designations for assessments that use technology. Schools need to reflect the world students will one day enter, and that requires knowledgeable, flexible and lateral-minded guidance on the uses and benefits of technology. What we currently have is an education system that is terrified of technology because it has no understanding of it.

Complaints about handwriting or plagiarism are wilfully ignorant of the true value of learning in a technologically flexible environment. That these complaints come from active members of the profession illustrates how much of a divide there between teachers and students. Our education system is suffering in its constant reliance on outdated and obtuse perspectives on technology, students and learning.

In his article, Heath acknowledges the distance between the e-Commissioner and the students themselves, offering evidence that bullied children are more likely to seek assistance from those close to them. For students, it’s never about the technology, which is just a means to an end. They still understand the value of human connection, of meaningful exchanges, and take comfort in responsible sources of wisdom and knowledge.

Classrooms may be different, just as curriculum and homework may arrive by different means. Unfortunately, education in Australia is once again left in the hands of those who seem poorly equipped to take care of it. And once again, education is at risk of being confined to an archaic dungeon, particularly when it comes to the unhappy marriage of teaching and technology.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 23 July 2014

67 Women

In July 2013 Tracy Connelly was murdered in the van that was her only home. One year later St Kilda Gatehouse held a memorial for her and the 66 other women killed in that year. I was asked to speak in memory of all 67 women.

Thank you all so much for coming tonight, thank you for joining us to remember Tracy Connelly who died here a year ago, and to remember 67 women killed by violence since that night.

The team at Destroy the Joint have been keeping track of all the women who’ve been killed, that’s how we know there’s 67 of them.

Well, we know there was at least 67. But there were probably more.

I’ve read the full list, with all the details of where and how those women were killed. It’s a hurtful, heartbreaking thing. Most of those women were killed in their home. They were killed in the one place where they should have been the safest.

It’s so terrible, the grief and fear can be so overwhelming sometimes, it’s hard to find any hope, or a belief that things can change.

Because we must have that. We must believe that the people in our community can be safe, that there is something we can do to change the things when they are not safe.

In June last year Lieutenant General David Morrison made a speech about sexual assault in the armed forces. There was no messing about, no political waffle in what he said; it was straight down the line. He told them: you stop this or you get out of my army.

The other thing he said, that phrase that gets quoted over and over again is that “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”.

It was inspirational speech, and that idea of what we walk past and what we refuse to walk past is the powerful, but it’s not always easy to live up to.

What do you become if you refuse to ever walk past the standard you can’t accept?

Do you become a stereotype, like the old joke: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? That’s not funny!

Do you become that?

Do you become the person who can’t be invited to some social situations because you’ll embarrass the blokes who like to make jokes about “sluts”?

Do you become the fun police at work? The one who won’t ever let the lads just have a bit of fun?

Do you risk your job? Do you report the guy who can fire you for the way he treats the young and vulnerable people at work?

Do you become the pariah who loses your faith, your family, your community and your church when you expose institutionalised abuse?

What do you become to the friend who keeps turning up trying to hide bruises and not wanting to look at you because she knows you know how she’s getting those bruises, but won’t talk to you because she still needs to believe that she’s not being abused?

What do you become when you smile and shake her husband’s hand?

Do you become the one in danger yourself when you step in to a threat to someone else rather than walk away from it?

What about when you hear the screaming and crashing from your neighbour’s house again? Is calling the police interfering? Is it going to be dangerous for you? What if she’s too scared to tell the police the truth? What do you become if you keep calling them and she keeps telling them that nothing is going on? What if you are wrong and they’re loud but happy arguers?

And there are so many people who will tell you that even if you do become that person who never walks past, you won’t change anything.

It’s all just pointless clictivism.

It’s just humourless political correctness.

It’s interfering.

It’s wasting police time and resources.

It’s dangerous.

It’s just a joke.

It’s none of your business.

Refusing to walk past the standards you won’t accept is difficult and scary, sometimes it’s too scary. I know that. I’ve stayed silent too many times when I shouldn’t have.

But then I found out what it’s like to speak up and watch it have an effect.

When Tracy’s death was first reported in the media, every news site in the country ran an article under the headline “ST KILDA PROSTITUTE KILLED”.

At first it was just a couple of us in the public space, just one or two voices saying, no, you can’t dismiss her like that. No, you will not write about her as if her life didn’t matter and her death wasn’t relevant. She wasn’t just a “St Kilda Prostitute”, she was a woman, she was a person and what happened to her was inexcusably, horrifically tragic, it was wrong and if you’re going to write about her at all you write that.

In just a few hours, those one or two people became dozens, then hundreds. Within days it was thousands. What started as just a few voices became a chorus that, quite literally, echoed all around the world. And we told the media, unequivocally that they cannot write about victims of crime, any victims of crime, like that. Not ever. Because if they do they will be shamed for it. Every time.

Because that is one thing we become when we speak out – we don’t become the only voice, we become the first voice. And we open a door that lots and lots of other people want to walk through.

Change is made up of lots and lots of tiny little steps. Change has never happened quickly or easily or because of just one person. It happens slowly, in bits and pieces, and it grows over time as more and more people understand what is needed and what can be done.

Every time we refuse to walk past a standard we won’t accept, every time we help another person understand what those standards are, we become a tiny step toward change.

Because as much as we might worry about what we become if we never walk past the standards we can’t accept, I think the more important question is what do we become if we do walk past?

I know what we become then. We become part of the problem. In our silence is acquiescence. Behind every joke, every sneer, every bruise, every time a victim is blamed, every assault, every rape, every murder, is the idea that the person being attacked somehow deserves it. That their attacker’s rage, or need, or fear, mean they are entitled to dehumanise their victim. That it’s ok because they’re not real, not an actual person.

Every standard we walk past tells them they are right to think that.

Every time we refuse to walk past the standards we don’t accept, we challenge those beliefs, and when all of us do it together we become part of the overall change that makes our community that little bit safer.

Tracy, I am so sorry we couldn’t make you safe. The 67 women who have died in the last year, I am so sorry that we couldn’t make you safe either. But for all the people, men women and children, who could be the victims of violence in the future, we can do something, even if it’s only the smallest thing, but we can do something to make your world safer.

Where we can, we will not walk past you. When we do have to walk past, we’ll know, we’ll remember, we’ll forgive ourselves, but we’ll do better next time.

Finally, I would like to take a moment to remember each of the 67 women that Destroy the Joint have counted so far. Because they are not just a statistic, they’re not anonymous and they are not forgotten.

Tracy, Purvi, Kylie, Allira, Sandeep, Louise, Jill, Deborah, Helen, Elizabeth, Rekiah, Jaqueline, Suzi, Eunji, Anne, Korrine, Maureen, Tamara, Theresa, Jeanette, Victoria, Melanie, Ebony, Monika, Jodi, Sherelle, Margaret, Meena, Alexis, Maryann, Sophie, Nicole, Rani, Fiona, Barbara, Elizabeth, Judy, Fiona, Jo, Marie, Isobella, Grazeillea, Deanne, Leonie, Beth, Tia, Renea, Dong Mei.

The rest of the women we cannot name for legal or cultural reasons.

Vale all of you. You will not be forgotten.

Published in Weekly Email
Thursday, 26 June 2014

Bat country for old men

Daily Telegraph blogger Tim Blair is notorious for inflammatory personal attacks posted on his blog, particularly against women with a public profile and strong opinions. Personal abuse is everywhere on the Internet, on twitter, private blogs, and in comments. But Blair is also a journalist blogging under the masthead of Australia’s most powerful News Corp tabloid, The Daily Telegraph.

The newspaper ran a “Stop the Trolls” campaign in 2012, “aimed at stopping the vile and abusive trolls on Twitter”. Blair’s blog specialises in personal abuse and it allows commenters free rein. But because Blair is a journalist working for a powerful organisation, it’s not just his victims but also his peers who will not call him out. Other journalists are complicit in his behaviour by their silence and his employer is actively participating in it by allowing it to continue.

Blair made a splash on twitter recently with his Frightbat poll. He certainly didn’t seem to mind the attention, with a follow up post, and another follow up post and then another and a column in The Daily Telegraph as well (yes, I’ve linked to his page, no I am not concerned that this will provide advertising revenue for him*).

The Tribune contacted Blair to discuss his approach to blogging and commenters. He was polite, engaging and generous with his time. The conversation was pleasant, sympathetic, even enjoyable, and it jarred with the blog persona. It’s hard to know whether this was a genuine lack of awareness of the damage that sometimes flows from topics he raises, or a practised disingenuousness.

Blair thought the Frightbat poll was just a bit of fun, not something to take particularly seriously. He didn’t associate anything in the post with mental health issues.

TB: If I call someone crazy I’m not talking about mental health issues, that’s the common sort of talk for just irrational or illogical.

KT: So you mean it’s colloquial rather than diagnostic?

TB: Yes, very good way of putting it.

On the other hand, this is what he actually wrote in the Frightbat post:

They shriek, they rage, they cheer, they despair, they exult, they scream, they laugh, they cry! There’s never a non-emotional moment in the lives of Australia’s left-wing ladies’ auxiliary, whose psychosocial behavioural disorders are becoming ever more dramatic following Tony Abbott’s election.

Only one of them, however, can reign as our solitary monarch of madness. Only one can stand above all others, wailing and howling, while the rest look on and ask: “Where’s the Ritalin?” In the search for this nation’s most unhinged hysteric, let the BlairPoll decide!

This goes beyond the colloquial. Even if he didn’t mean it that way, it would seem that some of his commenters misunderstood him.

Tim Blair

 

Blair’s blog has been hosted by News Corp and published under The Daily Telegraph masthead since 2008. Although he is named in some places as the Opinion Editor of The Daily Telegraph, he claims that “I haven’t been the opinion editor for some years” and there is no reference to him holding that position on the site. He is however, publishing under their aegis and, in addition to his own regular column in the newspaper, he is implicitly supported by other News Corp sites like The Australian republishing this piece by Blair under their own masthead. This is not just some guy in a basement, this is a journalist hired by the largest newspaper owner in Australia.

The Frightbat Poll was not a one-off; there’s a fair bit of history behind it. Blair has been posting derogatory comments about Margo Kingston (one of the women nominated in his poll and the subject of the comments above) for nearly 14 years.

Kingston was a pioneer of online journalism in Australia. Her blog Webdiary, first published on the Sydney Morning Herald site and later independently, was one of the first political blogs in Australia. As Tim Dunlop said in his book The New Front Page: new media and the rise of the audience:

…what Webdiary delivered, is the sort of journalism that fundamentally alters the relationship between the media and its audience; the sort of journalism that breaks the fourth wall between journalists and citizens, the force field that keeps the two separate. This is an approach that, depending on your point of view, is either going to save journalism or destroy it.

Blair to his credit was also one of the early adopters of online journalism, and seemed to develop an almost obsessive hatred of Kingston and Webdiary. At that time, Blair was running his blog privately.

Kingston says that Blair, on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, published blog posts impugning her appearance, intelligence, sexuality, mental health, her professional abilities. He suggested she was an alcoholic and questioned not just her sexual orientation, but even her gender. Some of the posts from those early years and, even more, the comments, are staggering. As Blair himself said, “you can’t get away with unmoderated comments now”, but in the early days of blogging and comments sections there was a far greater concern with allowing freedom of expression than refusing to post offensive comments.

The constant barrage of insults and insinuations weren't something she could avoid by just refusing to read Blair’s blog. His commenters moved from his blog to hers (which they refer to again and again) after each post he made. Kingston says the final straw was a comment to the effect that she had hair on her palms. “Like I was an animal, just pretending to be human, but not really human at all.”

In late 2005 Kingston suffered a physical and nervous breakdown after trying to establish Webdiary as an independent site, and retired from journalism.

I couldn’t find any posts by Kingston making personal attacks on anyone, including Blair. Even Blair’s commenters noticed that she never hit back at him. She is certainly passionate about her causes, she sees herself as a voice “for the public interest” and is very firm in her opinions. But she was also determined, long before the days of comments policies and awareness of online bullying, to ensure that Webdiary maintained a highethical standard.

Blair is well aware that Kingston has had mental and physical health issues. Kingston told The Tribune that she and Blair were on a panel together for the Sydney Writer’s Festival in 2009 and, after the panel discussion, she said to him “do you know how much you hurt me?” Kingston says that he told her that he’d “decided to never do that again”.

The Frightbats Poll, the four follow up pieces on Blair’s blog and the article in The Daily Telegraph opinion section suggest that either she misunderstood him or that he was unable to keep such a promise.

Kingston also says that Clementine Ford’s response to Frightbats was an inspiration. “It helped me let go of the pain and realise that to be vilified by such a man is actually a compliment”. She is also quite clear that while she agreed to be interviewed by the Tribune about Blair in this instance, it’s a topic that she is not keen to revisit. She is working on a PhD and keen to continue with her focus on citizen journalism and the public interest causes she embraces. Blair’s obsession with her activities is something she wants to put behind her.

Sarah Capper, editor of feminist publication Sheilas and long-term friend of Kingston, can recall the impact of Blair’s relentless personal attacks during the Webdiary years.

It caused her deep anguish at times on a personal level and was of a vicious, teardown mentality. And it was constant, relentless – there was just no let-up. That old adage of ‘ignore it and it will go away’ didn’t work.

Blair has a tendency of flame throwing. Striking a match and running away.

This may be fine, for want of a better word, on a private blog-post, but as a representative of The Daily Telegraph and News Limited, I think he has a responsibility to rein in comments when they sink into low-blow, personal abuse-driven territory.

We’ve heard over and over again that the best way to deal with such things is to ignore them. “Don’t feed the trolls” is almost a catchcry of the Internet. But Tim Blair has been blogging for nearly 15 years. Ignoring him has no effect. Indeed, ignoring him simply allows him free rein to continue with his attacks on the person rather than the argument, because he is never called to account for what he does.

Blair told The Tribune that The Daily Telegraph exercises no oversight or editorial control over his blog and that he has no guidelines for the comments that he publishes - it is entirely his judgement call. He is given free rein and is, if not actively encouraged by News Corp, never restrained from his harassment of left wing and progressive writers.

Over the last 12 months or so, he’s started a campaign against playwright and The Guardian columnist Van Badham that looks eerily similar to the obsessive posts about Kingston.

He posts regularly about Badham but rarely addresses her arguments. In one of the more egregious posts, he quoted a paragraph from an article about unemployment that she’d written for The Guardian, in which she mentioned her recently deceased father. He didn’t address any of the points she made about the cause and effects of unemployment, which were the main topics of the article - his post was solely about her and her father, it opens with: “It turns out that Guardian columnist Van Badham’s capacity for indulgent hysteria was inherited from her father” and closes with another sneer.

Blair moderates his own comments. He doesn’t have any specific guidelines from News Corp or the Tele, as he told The Tribune:

KT: Do you have a specific list of things you won’t publish or is it more of a judgement call?

TB: It’s more just a judgement call.

KT: So the judgement call [to not publish a comment] is on the basis of ‘can it be proven, is it a threat, is it offensive’, is that right?

TB: Yes...you just watch out for threats and yeah, play nice with everybody

After the announcement that Badham would be on the ABC’s QandA panel in April this year Blair posted three pieces about her, striking the match and publishing comments like these:

Tim Blair

 

And this:

Tim Blair

 

Indeed.

Blair cannot be held responsible for what people say anywhere outside his site. But if he presents his readers with a target and they follow that outside his site and start attacking the subjects of his posts, does he bear some responsibility? Immediately after Blair posted about Badham being on QandA, links started appearing in her twitter feeds, many of them linking back to Blair’s posts.

Tim Blair

 

Tim Blair

Tim Blair

Tim Blair

 

Tim Blair

 

These are just a few of the hundreds of tweets Badham receives, and any observer can see a spike in the hatetweets immediately after Blair has posted about her – as happened with the QandA tweets above. If Blair knows this, or it is pointed out to him, does he have a responsibility to ask better behaviour of his readers? Or to at least ask them to refrain from joining in on hateful tweeting directed at the subjects of his posts? And does The Daily Telegraph and News Corp have a responsibility for the content published under its masthead?

Without reading everything he’s written over 14 years, it seems that most of his posts about female writers follow the same pattern. Their argument may get a mention, but the focus of the posts seems to be the writers themselves. They’re moody, old, crazy, irrational, berserk, unhinged, sweary, paranoid and loco and this is why their work should be dismissed

It’s interesting that when he posts about male left wing journalists (which he does regularly) he rarely comments on their appearance or emotional state. Little digs about where Jonathan Green bought a house aside, he will make some effort to address the argument with which he disagrees when he’s posting about Mike Carlton or Sam De Brito. None of his male subjects are castigated for their emotions - this is something that only attracts his ire in women.

This approach is, of course, not unique to Tim Blair. And it is not unique to one side of the ideological divide. Some of the women nominated in the Frightbat poll can be strident in their opinions and have tweeted offensive or personal remarks about public figures and other journalists. And in the same way that Blair should be called out when he makes or incites personal attacks, so to should anyone else. Bob Ellis, for instance, has a long history of personal attacks, straw man arguments and playing the man not the ball. And such behaviour is as reprehensible in him as it is in Blair. The difference is though, that Blair is publishing under The Daily Telegraph masthead, with the all support that complicity from a large organisation implies. Ellis is published by no one but himself. For good reason.

Blair is not pretending to publish news, he is publishing opinion. The fact that some of us may disagree with his opinions is in no way grounds to complain about his ability to publish them. Media and democracy would be much the poorer if opinion, even offensive, satirical opinion, were removed from public discussion.

However there is, or should be, a line between vigorous disagreement and vicious personal attacks.

There is such a line. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the journalists’ union, guidelines are specific about it.

Journalists will educate themselves about ethics and apply the following standards:

1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.

2. Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability.

Blair may well not be a member of the MEAA and therefore not bound by their guidelines. However, the Australian Press Council’s Statement of Principles is equally clear on this issue and Blair is a journalist, he should be held to the standards of the profession:

Publications should not place any gratuitous emphasis on the race, religion, nationality, colour, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness, or age of an individual or group. Where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report and express opinions in these areas.

One of the reasons Blair is not called to account is fear. I interviewed a number of people in the course of researching this article. Almost all of them warned me about what would happen if I went ahead. Some were too afraid to go on the record about him because of the reaction it might incur. I was told that he would go through my social media photos, searching for images that he might be able to use to shame me, as he did with Clem Bastow. He would go back through all my published articles to find things he could misrepresent or misquote. That he would post about me and I’d be attacked on twitter and by email with vicious personal slurs. I understand this risk, fear of being trolled means many people remain silent about what he is doing. This is a problem, not for him, but for journalism.

Media has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 10 years. The line between journalist and blogger has blurred to the point of being almost indistinguishable. Journalism, if it is to continue to be self-regulating, must in fact, regulate itself. This should never mean that dissenting opinions are shut down, but it should mean that where the media is doing genuine harm, it acts to mitigate that harm.

* in response to all the people who worry about clicking links to Blair’s blog on the grounds that they do not want to contribute to his advertising income. Most large advertisers, of the type showing up on Blair’s blog (Optus, Commonwealth Bank, eBay etc), are buying online ads through agencies. Typically media buyers purchase tens of thousands of impressions, not specifically with one masthead, but through a broker. The brokers are selling space on any number of mastheads and ads are served by following demographics and behaviours (recent searches in cookies etc) rather than specific blog pages. The brokers sell ad views at somewhere between $7 and $14 per 1,000 impressions and it would be unusual for more than 50% of that to get back to Blair himself. Obviously, The Tribune has no information about the financial arrangements between Blair and News Corp, or between News Corp and the ad brokers, so this is just speculation based on general information provided by industry experts. However, it seems almost impossible that Blair’s blog would provide significant direct financial reward through advertising, and just clicks alone are meaningless. Where Blair’s blog would provide value to News Corp is in maintaining returning visitors, and moving traffic around the various News Corp sites through both embedded and sidebar links. He creates “stickiness” – loyal readers, who spend significant time on the site, are engaged with the brand and return regularly.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Tales from the trenches

I spoke at the Centre for Advancing Journalism's seminar Tales from the Trenches last week. This is what I meant to say about The Tribune and why we have some level of success, but may have been stammering a bit too much to be comprehensible. 

Hello, my name is Jane Gilmore, I am the founding editor of the King’s Tribune.

As you can probably tell, I am a bit nervous, I don’t do a lot of public speaking, so I hope you’ll bear with me while I try to get the shaky voice under control and let's all hope that I don’t throw up right here in front of you.

For those of you who don’t know the Tribune, it is a small independent magazine site, focussing on politics, media and social justice issues.

The Tribune started because Justin Shaw, my deputy editor, won the air guitar competition at our local wine bar. I like to think this is the first of many things that makes us unique.

Over the celebratory ales afterwards I suggested to the owner of the bar that he should start a newsletter for the bar (which is called The King of Tonga) because it would be a great way of increasing engagement with his customers. He told me it was a splendid idea and I should totally do that. So I totally did and thus the King’s Tribune was born.

The very first King’s Tribune was a double sided A4 page we had printed at Officeworks.

I found a copy of it a few months back, and it’s truly, embarrassingly awful. The writing, editing, layout, everything about it was terrible. Every single rookie mistake you can possibly think of was right there on that double sided A4 page.

It was, however, a huge success at the time. And the reason for that, was I think, the thing that has been the key to our somewhat erratic success ever since then.

It’s a concept that’s so basic they don’t even teach it in journalism 101 because you should already know it before you get that far. And yet, the lack of it seems to be behind so many failures in journalism, sometimes at the highest level of the profession.

Know your reader.

With that first edition of the Tribune it was very easy to know all our readers, most of them we not only knew them, we knew what they liked to drink and what they were like when they’d had a few too many. We knew what they would want to read about and how they would want it written and that was what we gave them, amateurish as it was.

We moved out beyond the bar within a few months and turned into a local paper for likeminded folk around Elwood and St Kilda.

Again, we were writing for people we knew, people like us and it was easy to know who they were and what they wanted.

Two years later we hit the internet and our readership expanded beyond any idea we’d had of it in the beginning.

Even so, I can still clearly remember a time when I knew most of our subscribers, not so much by name, but by their twitter handle. We’ve never had a marketing budget, everything has come from social media, and most of it started on twitter and spread from there to other forums. (This, by the way, is still true now and is our only form of advertising).

So in the early days I knew our readers pretty well. They were people I talked to all the time, I knew what their interests were, usually because they coincided with mine which was why we started talking in the first place.

The days of knowing all our subscribers by name are obviously gone now, but I still (I hope) have a good sense of who our readers are and why they continue to subscribe.

I know that they’re politically aware, well-informed, intelligent, I know that they're snarky and hilarious and opinionated.

Most of all, I know that they’re, proud and enthusiastic supports of independent journalism. There’s a reason for that enthusiasm.

Knowing your reader is not just knowing who they are and what they want to read, it’s knowing them well enough to like them and respect them

It’s the unshakeable belief that you are one of them, not something separate, or worse, superior to them.

The internet is a large and wonderful place, I wouldn’t discount the possibility that a market exists for writing that condescends to and sneers at its readers, but I think it’s probably a niche market and there’s certainly an oversupply of writers to cater to it.

There’s an even larger supply of writers who are wrong about what they can do. Some of the glaringly wrong assumptions I see all the time are:

If you write on any given topic and don’t believe that at least some of your audience know more than you do about that topic, you’re wrong.

If you think you can write on any given topic and hide your own opinions or feelings about your topic, you’re wrong.

If you think you can write for an audience you believe are ignorant, irritating or unworthy of respect and hide this from them, you’re wrong.

English is a marvellously complex and sophisticated language, the subtleties of the words you choose, the things you say and the things you don’t say will give away far more than you know about who you are and how you think. If you think you are exempt from that, you are wrong.

I believe Phoebe, who does the Lady Melbourne fashion blog is speaking today. I’m not a particularly fashion conscious person, but I’ve read her blog and the thing about it that was immediately obvious to me is that not only does she know her readers, she like and respects them. She shares her ideas and discoveries with them, with the expectation that they will all enjoy the sharing. She is a part of her own audience and you can see that in every post she makes. I believe this is one of the keys to her success

It’s not a style of writing, it’s a way of thinking, and you can’t fake it.

One of our most popular writers Tim Dunlop, also does this very well. He rarely uses personal pronouns, but the underlying sense of his writing is that if he did he would say “we”, not “I”.

In the area in which I publish, primarily political writing, the press gallery is a good example of how to do it wrong. Their idea of “we” is themselves, the so-called experts, their colleagues. They write in terms of “you”, being the audience, as something less than the “we”. You are often wrong. We are not wrong, you're just too uninformed to be able to understand us.

The rise of independent media is driven, in its most basic form, by the idea that the “we” is the audience and the writers and the publishers. We’re all in it together.

For a small publication, one that is completely dependent on the loyalty of subscribers, I think this is the most vital concept to grasp. In any relationship, whether it be a personal one-to-one or between a Prime Minister and the entire nation, loyalty is the key to keeping the relationship strong. It will forgive and survive mistakes, but contempt will kill it dead.

There are a number of business models for running profitable online content, but all of them, whether your readers are your customers or your product, depend on producing content that readers value. You can only do that consistently if you are your own reader and you know yourself and your audience well enough to respect and love what you do and why you do it.

Which brings me to the next thing that I think is vital in creating a successful online business. You have to have a stubborn, some would say idiotic refusal to give up. In the face of all the evidence that says that making a profit will almost certainly never happen, that it takes over your life and your thoughts in the way that only a true obsession can, you have to love it too much to be able to walk away.

I think it was at least the first 4 years that I would keep telling myself that I’d give it 6 more months, if the Tribune didn’t at least get to break-even I’d stop. And every time I’d get to the decision point, I’d think, oh, well, we’ll just give it 6 more months.

I’ve stopped doing that now. I have another job as well as The Tribune, it pays my rent and sometimes it's paid to keep The Tribune going. I have just accepted now that this is the way it’s going to be, and all the time, and effort, and sleepless nights and occasional tears are completely worth it.

I may stop one day, but I tell you what, on that day they’ll be taking The Tribune from my cold dead hands.

Another point, one that frustrate me no end, is that your audience is unlikely to be solely male. This is particularly frustrating when you are writing and publishing about politics. The Tribune has published a couple of articles about the gender imbalance in the media. One by Chrys Stevenson on print media and an accompanying piece I did about online media (and a follow up piece a year later). In every case, as is repeated all over the world, men dominate the by-lines of news media. Obviously this has nothing to do with women’s ability, interest or knowledge of news and politics. When I did the first study of online media I had assumed that I was not part of the problem and I was horrified to discover that The Tribune writers were 60% male. At the time our subscriber base was also slightly distorted, about 65% male. I made a deliberate decision to correct the imbalance in our writers, without ever assigning traditionally “soft” topics to the female writers. A year later our writers were 50/50 male/female. And so were our subscribers. Both those things are still true now.

One final thing that might be valuable for writers in the audience, your first reader, your conduit to your wider audience, is your editor. So know your editor. Any editor who has too much time on their hands is doing it wrong. In whatever form your writing takes, if you are a writer who can reduce your editor’s workload you will find it easier to get work. Submit on time, understand who their audience is, pitch to their style, come up with ideas so they don’t have to, make sure you understand the brief if they give you one and stick to it. These are all things that I know are said over and over again to writers but they are also the mistakes I see over and over again. And finally, please please please, proofread your work. Spell checkers cannot be trusted.

I had an article come in a few years ago during Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership that contained the phrase “in the prime minister’s count, this is too many”. But he left the letter O out of the word “count”.

Yes, hilarious, until you realise how close I was to publishing it. I’m talking seconds from going live.

That writer, fairly or not, is now flagged in my mind as risky. I might publish him again, but only if I know I have the time to very carefully check his work, and time is something I almost never have.

So, I guess the summary of what I’ve spent the last 10 minutes saying is know your reader, know, yourself and love what you do. They all seem very obvious, too obvious perhaps to say at a forum like this, but sometimes it's the basics that we forget that can bring us down.

Thank you for listening and I think we can all feel good that I didn't throw up in front of you.

 

Published in Weekly Email

Glenn Greenwald’s book, No Place To Hide is more than just the story of the Edward Snowden leaks. It’s a description of how we are giving up freedom we don’t know we have in the name of security we don’t actually need.

Glenn Greenwald is a very good writer, a tenacious journalist, and, though I'm loathe to hyperbolise, a crusader for freedom. His early career as a constitutional and civil rights lawyer informed his respect for liberty and suspicion of those in power, private and public.

But he's no spy.

No Place To Hide's first chapter is called Contact, and opens with “On December 1, 2012, I received my first communication from Edward Snowden, although I had no idea at the time it was from him.”

Then follows a description of what must have been an agonising couple of months for Snowden, as he made surreptitious email contact (using the pseudonym “Cincinattus”) with Greenwald, imploring him to install PGP (a sophisticated cryptography tool for emails), promising a huge story. Without PGP, Cincinattus could not and would not reveal the nature of his story, but without the promise of something worthwhile, Greenwald was not ready to invest the time. Too busy and not tech-literate enough to set himself up with PGP, Greenwald let the matter slide.

In April 2013, Greenwald was contacted by documentary maker Laura Poitras, and the tale of The NSA Leaks begins. There's an interesting side-story about The Guardian's early fears of going to press with the first couple of stories based on Snowden's leaks, and the initial competition between it and The Washington Post. And there's a fair bit of cloak and dagger as Snowden, holed up in his Hong Kong hotel room, arranges meetings with Greenwald and Poitras and explains just how pervasive surveillance is - mobile phones must be switched off and put in the freezer, for instance.

Some months into his collaboration with Snowden, having installed PGP, Greenwald eventually replied to the mysterious Cincinattus, only to hear Snowden yell from the other room that he was Cincinattus. So much for joining those dots...

But this book is not so much about the leaks, or how they became public, as it is about what the existence of the NSA's “collect it all” business model really means and what its becoming public has revealed about government, surveillance, and establishment-friendly media.

Snowden, having worked for the NSA and CIA directly and as a contractor, knew not only how our lives were being collected and analysed, but why: in Greenwald's words, “a citizenry that is aware of always being watched quickly becomes a compliant and fearful one.”

From that knowledge Snowden predicted exactly what would happen, how he (and Greenwald) would be attacked, what arguments would be used to discredit him and to distract from the raw, ugly truth that we are all, always, being watched.

Snowden's decision to go into hiding, for instance, wasn't just about his personal safety - it was also, as much as possible, to keep the documents at the centre of the story. He knew that if he stayed in the open, then The Hunt For Edward Snowden would become the focus (as it did in the circus that played out in Moscow airport for a while), and that that had to be avoided, or at least minimised.

Still, he and Greenwald have been described as traitors, terrorists, spies, unstable. There have been calls for their arrest and extra-judicial assassination, and even the ludicrous charge that Greenwald has been, as the recipient of remuneration from The Guardian and elsewhere for his stories, “selling state secrets”.

There have also been the consistent claims, by the US and other governments (including ours), that Snowden's leaks have assisted terrorists by revealing the methods of the NSA and other organs of the security state around the world. This is just nonsense. For one thing, there is no evidence to support this claim: the NSA and CIA have not been able to point to one terrorist operation that was shut down by their meta-data collection, or even where the collection assisted. And the Boston Marathon bombing still happened, as have dozens of mass shootings in the US.

But also from a common sense angle, the argument doesn't hold up: terrorists and criminals know that their phones and emails and probably their cars and homes and friends and families are under surveillance, and they already take steps to avoid it. The reaction in the caves of Tora Bora and the streets of Yemen that the NSA is collecting phone and email traffic wouldn't have been much more than “well, der!

The most alarming and depressing observations in No Place To Hide come not from the confirmation that Your Government Are Bastards Who Spy On You, but on the role that establishment media play in supporting the Bastards.

Some of Snowden's and Greenwald's most vicious criticism has come from other journalists, and exposes those journalists' attachment to government. On the talk show Meet The Press, Greenwald referred to a top secret judicial ruling from the top-secret FISA court, which deemed “substantial parts of the NSA's domestic surveillance program unconstitutional...”

Host David Gregory argued with Greenwald that the ruling didn't say that, but “based on people I've talked to, that the FISA opinion based on the government's request is that they said....”

Moments later, Gregory “raised the spectre of arrest for [Greenwald's] reporting”. But Gregory had just referred to the same top secret document, which had obviously been shown to, and analysed for him by the government. He had just broadcast what he knew to be Top Secret information, but because it had been given to him in the understanding that he would push the government line, there was no wrong committed in his, or the government's mind.

Indeed, Gregory would likely be incapable of understanding that his disclosure and mine were even comparable, since his came at the behest of a government seeking to defend and justify its actions, while mine was done adversarially, against the wishes of officialdom.

Greenwald gives many more examples of MSM duplicity and complicity in the US and elsewhere. It's our own Canberra Press Gallery circle-jerk of drip-fed leaks and co-dependent relationships writ large and far more dangerous.

For all its revelations and opinions, No Place To Hide can be summed up in a couple of paragraphs from Chapter 4:

But the true measure of a society's freedom is how it treats its dissidents and other marginalised groups, not how it treats good loyalists.

We shouldn't have to be faithful loyalists of the powerful to feel safe from state surveillance. Not should the price of immunity be refraining from controversial or provocative dissent. We shouldn't want a society where the message is conveyed that you will be left alone only if you mimic the accommodating behaviour and conventional wisdom of an establishment columnist.

Buy this book.

 

Published in Weekly Email

The fraught relationship between politicians and the electorate is distorted by the media sitting in the middle setting the basis for discussion. Often this isn't outright bias, it is simply a by-product of the professional desire to achieve “balance”. So, as frustrating and dangerous as the avowedly biased media can be, it is often the journalists who claim the high middle ground who are distorting the picture even further. It is all part of why our politics is broken.

It was as predictable as cat videos on the internet. On Monday morning, The Australian editorialised that political dishonesty was suddenly okay by them:

Unfortunately for the public’s understanding of the challenges confronting the economy, much of the pre-budget commentary in the popular media and on supposedly serious programs such as the ABC’s Insiders has concentrated ad nauseam on whether promises are about to be broken rather than on what would be good for the nation. Promises need to be broken because both sides of politics took unrealistic platforms to last year’s election and because Australia has lived beyond its means for too long.

Ah, yes. Promises need to be broken. As if the Gillard Government and media coverage of their broken promises had never happened.

As I say, it was predictable. But it was still sort of shocking to see it there in all its shameless and unexamined black-is-white glory. Promises need to be broken. Pinch yourself.

It is a powerful reminder that the mainstream media do not simply report, they create. For all their pretence of objectivity, they are part of a mediation process that filters and chooses and spins information. Then spits it out on daily basis, in what amounts to a blancmange, not just of facts, but of opinions, angles, nuances, views, truths, half-truths, quarter-truths and outright lies from which we, the citizen public, are expected to make sense.

Bernard Keane had some interesting things to say along these line on the same day. He argued, for instance, that Tony Abbott is on track to be our first post-modern prime minister, describing him as “a leader unencumbered by any belief in the value of truth or consistency.”

Keane went on to say:

[P]arties like Labor….in Australia, and the Democrats in the US, have struggled to find a way to counter how politicians of the Right have freed themselves from the shackles of consistency and evidence.

This is something I think progressives really need to get their head around. I think it is particularly hard for good journalists to decipher because it means rethinking a lot of the norms of their profession.

So let’s start with the contention that “politicians of the Right have freed themselves from the shackles of consistency and evidence”.

There’s seem little doubt about this. We see it in regard to everything from climate change to austerity economics to Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Ideology trumping evidence. A veritable legion of right-wing commentators and journalists willing to say almost anything in the name of group fealty.

The extract from The Australian editorial at the top of this piece is a variation on the theme. It’s not just that they have backflipped on the matter of broken promises, and are willing to give Tony Abbott a pass on something they would never have given to Julia Gillard and Labor. It’s that the whole piece is predicated on the idea that “cuts are necessary to re-establish the conditions for growth and prosperity”.

This in turn buys into the government’s claims that there is some sort of Budget crisis facing the country and that that is being driven by other crises, most specifically those to do with healthcare and pensions.

In other words, the whole contention that “promises need to be broken” is built upon a range of conclusions about the economy that are simply wrong. The alleged crises do not exist. Even if we wanted to be incredibly generous and allow that the underlying contentions are at least debatable, we would still have to note that they are not actually debated in pieces like that editorial. They are merely asserted. They sit there as the unexamined assumptions fuelling the whole “debate”.

In pointing this out, I am certainly not arguing that the economy is perfect or that everything Labor did in regard to it was laudable or that, like any economy, there are not long-term structural matters that have to be managed. But any sort of realistic discussion of the economy simply cannot make the sort of presumptions that the editorial does.

Keane’s question is really, how do the right get away with it? The flip side of which is: why can’t the left?

The answer is actually pretty straightforward. The public space in which these discussions happen are dominated by right wing ideas and commentators. Huge amounts of money, often filtered through think tanks, are spent on ensuring that certain ideas not only dominate public discussion but are normalised as common sense.

In brief, media commentary skews right, and given this, you can just about guarantee that ordinary, everyday journalism will also skew right, pretty much by default.

Let me unpack that.

It is not just that there is a right wing media that dominates and is biased. It is that the opposite of right wing media isn’t left-wing media, it is sensible journalism.

Sensible journalism is what you get when media organisations or individual journalists try self-consciously to be neither of the right nor the left. They try instead to be “balanced” or “objective”. They see this as being professional. But what they end up doing is simply discounting left wing positions and arguments and thus by default give credence to right wing ones.

To put it more clearly, the middle ground to which they are trying cleave is actually occupied by right wing assumptions.

Look at what happened on QandA the other night. Some protesters managed to infiltrate the audience and make a noise about education cuts. When the small kerfuffle was over, host Tony Jones declared:

We had a little musical interlude there while we get democracy back on track.

That is not what we want to happen on this program. That is not what democracy is all about. And those students should understand that.

I don’t doubt Jones believed what he said, but the sheer adamancy of his assertions speaks to such a conservative understanding of democracy that it can’t help but reinforce right-of-centre preferences. “Protest is bad because it is disruptive and rude” is a totally ring wing cocktail, and Tony Jones had clearly swallowed it in one gulp.

Individual journalists at the ABC may tilt left as some polling suggests, but Aunty is at heart part of the establishment, and Tony Jones, in that outburst, was wearing his establishment heart on his conservative sleeve.

Or look at these comments by Guardian journalist, Katharine Murphy. It is a discussion of Labor’s attempt to censure the Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop. Murphy, who I think works really hard to engage with all her readers, openly states that Labor “has a valid point about Bishop and the speakership” and that “the public would be better served, by the Speaker playing it down the line”.

But then comes the “but”:

That said, Christopher Pyne pulled out a bravura performance on the floor. He neutralised the attack in the moment with his signature blend of truly astounding chutzpah – (misogyny, against Bishop, good grief); a sharp instinct for the weaknesses of his opponents (of course Labor is mourning this transition to opposition, the loss of incumbency – so hit them where they hurt); some precision ridicule and satire – and of course, he had the structural advantage. This was a debate the government could not lose. There was no prospect of a loss.

It's been a bad week for the government. Pyne's job to today was to deliver a Chinese burn to Labor, and lift the morale of his troops by dishing out his arch commentary on the road to certain numerical victory.

A simple mission. His success with that venture could be seen in everyone's body language afterwards: Abbott's grin, Bishop's extra tartness from the chair and her newly squared shoulders. The odour of retribution wafted from the front of the House.

Politics imposes a brutal hierarchy and Labor had been reminded of its place in the scheme of things – taking its lumps, out of power, out of numbers – back to that slow drilling through hard boards.

So what started as a discussion of the rights and wrongs of how the Speaker does her job - clearly a topic of major importance - morphs unexamined into a discussion about parliamentary tactics. Once that happens the government is deemed to be the winner.

And notice that final paragraph. It is simply wrong. Our entire system of government - the whole notion of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition - is built on the fact that you get to have your say no matter what the numbers are, that the rights of the minority are protected. Democracy only becomes the brutal numbers game that Murphy describes because those who help shape public opinion and who help influence the norms of political engagement give that aspect of the contest priority.

So in trying (justifiably) not to be “pro Labor”, the discussion ends up being pro government.

And notice the further upshot of all this: an article along these lines biased towards the right would’ve simply concentrated on Pyne “winning” the numbers game and would’ve presented it as a victory for the government. It would’ve been biased and misleading.

An article biased to the left would’ve highlighted the fact that Labor was correct in trying to censure Bishop because she is not doing her job correctly. But that left-bias would also happen to be objectively correct.

The article we have - the one that tries to balance left and right - ends up favouring the right.

I would contend that this sort of thing is actually built into the way a lot of journalism is done. Trying to be balanced in an environment where the basic thrust is right wing ends up being right wing by default. In such circumstances, “objective” actually means “playing down left wing presumptions”.

So getting back to that original quote from Bernard Keane and the question it raises, we can say that the right have “freed themselves from the shackles of consistency and evidence” because the media spaces in which political debate happen are imbued with a right wing sensibility.

Tony Abbott and other right wingers get away with their “postmodernism” because, on balance, nobody holds them to account. The presumptions shared by the right pervade public debate and are thus normalised, and so inconsistency and lack of evidence are not punished but excused or rationalised.

I mean, how else could right wing politicians get away with being inconsistent and lacking in evidence unless the environment in which they put forward these views was biased towards them?

But let’s go a little deeper.

Take the line about Tony Abbott being our first postmodern prime minister. In effect the label is simply a euphemism, and as such and by definition softens judgement of him and as serial deceiver. He’s not lying, he’s being postmodern.

That’s one part of it.

The other is that, to the extent that the media that supports him has freed him from the need for consistency and evidence, “postmodern” might be a workable description. But at the end of the day, even postmodern Tony is pulled up by reality.

Yes, he is breaking many of the promises he made before he was elected, but the reason he is breaking them is because reality is forcing him too. He simply cannot run the economy as if facts don’t matter. He might’ve promised no new taxes but the reality is, the revenue side of the Budget needed attention too, and so some sort of tax increase is necessary to deal with it.

Think about that: it means that The Australian editorial is right. Promises did need to be broken!

But the truly insane thing is that Abbott is the only person who, in our media environment, can do this.

If Labor tried to increase taxes - and they did - they would be subjected to a barrage of abuse and interference from the media and the opposition - and they were. But Abbott, freed from the constraints of consistency by a media that has his back no matter what he does, can do what he likes.

It’s a variation on the conceit that only Nixon can go to China: the only people who can get certain things done - like raising taxes on the wealthy - are the ones who have sworn black and blue that they will never do it. It is their commitment to never do it that makes it possible for them to do it.

It is all so monumentally stupid. And dangerous.

It becomes stupid squared when the Greens and Labor then turn around and say they will not support the tax increases on the grounds that Tony Abbott is breaking promises or, more likely, because they think they can win support by promising not to raise taxes.

In other words, they are trying to play the very game that was so successful for Tony Abbott in the first place.

The trouble is, this can’t work for them. They can’t get away with it because the media environment doesn’t allow them to. It punishes them in a way it doesn’t punish the conservatives.

So the alleged progressive parties end up delivering themselves a double whammy: they try and play a game whose rules are rigged against them, but worse, they end up abandoning principle, accept the terms of politics as defined by the right, damage their standing amongst those most likely to support them, and ultimately enter into the conditions for their own irrelevance.

As I noted on Twitter the other day, the funny thing is, Labor were so on the nose over their leadership nonsense that Tony Abbott would’ve won the election even he had told the truth about everything.

The fact that he didn’t, that he felt that he couldn’t, that he decided the only way to win was to promise a bunch of stuff he has now abandoned, should offer no comfort to the left or the right, to progressives or conservatives.

Just try and get your head around the doublespeak, backtracking, rationalising, up-is-down, black-is-white “logic” that pervades the entire matter of what we call public debate.

Of course, it goes a lot deeper than messaging problems and a slanted, structurally incompetent media. It all points to something fundamentally broken in our politics, though without doubt the brokenness of our politics can’t be separated from the brokenness of our media and other avenues of public discussion.

Both major parties have become so divorced from the electorate that the only reason they continue to exist is because Australia’s institutional arrangements keep them alive by default. Hooked up to this life support, and with nothing meaningful to say to voters, they construct these ridiculous “campaigns” that the media report as if they were the only viable alternatives available to address complex problems.

As it stands, we are living off our democratic capital and not engaging in the sort of rebuilding that is necessary to maintain a society that is both free and fair. The nature of work and a myriad of other social relations have shifted over the last few decades and our institutions are ill-equipped to respond.

What is becoming increasingly obvious is that this is a situation that we can neither argue nor vote our way out of. More fundamental change is needed.

 

CODA: The Budget was brought down just as I finished this piece, and you didn’t have to look hard in the coverage to find examples of the sort of journalism I am talking about above.

This piece by Ross Gittins is a classic of genre.

Gittins increasingly seems to see his role as taking some sort of “sensible” middle ground, offering himself as a savvy wiseman observing and commenting on the comings and goings of the rest of us with detached, gentle weariness.

He goes straight for the faux balance, the killer line to establish his savvy credentials:

This budget isn't as bad as Labor will claim and the Liberal heartland will privately think.

The next line is an explicit rebuke to all those out there (unnamed and unquoted) who dare to suggest that the government might be moving in the direction of other right wing governments around the world and to those who, by implication, worry about the undermining of the welfare state:

It's undoubtedly the toughest budget since John Howard's post-election budget in 1996, but it's hardly austerity economics.

Notice the intent is always to calm the horses, to reject Labor’s views, to reject any interpretation that might suggest we are moving too far to right. As I noted above, what happens isn’t explicitly right wing commentary, but it establishes its (alleged) fairness and reasonableness by setting itself against left wing positions.

He then he offers this overt rebuke to anyone silly enough to have taken Tony Abbott at his word:

Anyone surprised and shocked by the budget can be excused only if last year's election was their first. Any experienced voter who allowed themselves to be persuaded that ''Ju-liar'' Gillard was the first and last prime minister ever to break an election promise should pay their $7 and ask a GP to check for amnesia.

If you thought a man who could promise ''no surprises, no excuses'' was a man who could be trusted to keep his word, more fool you.

This is the ultimate savvy position and it is just dripping with condescension. It is not so much directed at any particular group - I mean, who out there really does think that politicians will keep their promises? - as it is about asserting his own insidery superiority for understanding how these things work.

The insidious thing about it is that invites us in to share in his savviness rather than to actually try and analyse what is going on.

That Gillard was crucified for her change of position on pricing carbon, while Abbott is applauded for his reversals is not considered. Savviness is its own reward and once again, this allegedly objective and reasonable discussion of politics ends up providing a soft landing for the conservatives.

And then there is my favourite section:

I give Joe Hockey's first budgetary exam a distinction on management of the macro economy, a credit on micro-economic reform and a fail on fairness.

...Only those people right at the bottom of the ladder have been hit hard – unemployed young people, the sick poor and, eventually, aged and disabled pensioners – but who cares about them? We've been trained to worry only about ourselves, and to shout and scream over the slightest scratch.

Just think about all that.

The entire article is predicated on this smug mentality of playing down broken promises, of telling us that things aren’t really as bad as that nasty Labor Party would have us believe, of insisting that this isn’t really austerity, and then it has the audacity to imply that people don’t really care about the disadvantaged?

I mean, FFS. You just told us that the Budget wasn’t that bad. Do you really not see the connection between your attempts to play down the consequences of this sort of economic management and what you allege is a lack of care for the disadvantaged?

You say we’ve been “trained” to worry only about ourselves, but it rather begs the question, doesn’t it? Who trained us, Ross?

It is precisely this sort of pathological “balance” that is facilitating the country’s rightward drift.

Published in Weekly Email

The media can and does play a large role in pressuring governments to change or create laws in response to community outrage. So they have role to play in shaping the public response to intimate partner violence.

There is nothing new about the News Media playing politics.

The editors at major newspapers have been picking sides, pushing barrows and running campaigns since before Australia was even a country. Political partisanship is not really anything new, although the hypocrisy and mock outrage at those inclined in the opposite direction may be slightly more feverish in the face of desperate competition for clicks.

Other media campaigns have flaws that are not politically partisan, but rather are aggressively and notoriously populist. And, most commonly, focussed on criminal law.

The criminal law is, in many ways, the most fraught area of governance, particularly when the media gets involved. It is easy for newspapers to conjure up a “problem” you can “solve”, and there are few more effective ways to stoke fear in the reader and thereby increase clicks and sales. The price we as a community pay for this is that unwarranted fear of violent crime destroys one's quality of life, and governments, deeply aware of the need to be perceived to be “doing something”, will spend public money on unnecessary protections and constrain public freedom with needlessly restrictive laws.

The “Coward Punch” kerfuffle this year in NSW was a good example.

The Daily Telegraph led the charge, although the Sydney Morning Herald scurried to join in once they realised they had missed the boat.

Despite the fact that crime states clearly show the incidence of violent crime in the Sydney CBD to be falling, the story took on a life of its own and the politicians were “forced to act”.

The Telegraph's campaign was carefully planned, well thought out, and was targeted to hit readers at their emotional core. One could easily see the story that the editors had decided they wanted to tell, and they unfurled the campaign with militaristic precision.

A number of commentators, me included, were critical of the media's actions, and scathing at the government's response.

The point made by some commentators (most notably by Bernard Keane at Crikey) was this: street assaults have been falling for years. This is manufactured outrage.

street assault rates

The Telegraph was predictably immune to the shame that their detractors tried to heap upon it. The Sydney Morning Herald, however, took a tack.

To the surprise of almost everyone, the Herald responded to the criticism with this: Revealed: The women we failed

Whilst this and the other pieces written by the Herald about intimate partner violence lacked the venom and drama of their coward punch series, one cannot fault them for finally bringing attention to what should be a far more pressing problem for the community than drunken violence on the streets.

The stats tell us that NSW Police deal with 370 instances of family violence every day. That's over 130 000 a year.

That statistic is all the more shocking once you realise that only around half of family violence incidents are reported to police.

Most tragically, approximately 2 women per month die at the hands of their partners.

The Herald should be commended for shining light onto this issue, but the difficulty they will have in turning it into the sort of ongoing public campaign that worked so well for the Tele and the “coward punch” series is that intimate partner violence has no emotionally satisfying outcome they can demand of government or police.

The real kicker is not the absence of easy solutions. Coward punches and street violence don't have any easy solutions either, and yet we were treated to days and days of headlines on the topic.

The problem with the media and intimate partner violence is that there are no intuitive solutions. There’s no unmet demands they can use to stir up outrage and clicks.

The Women We Failed article spoke of a concerning fall in the proportion of people who said slapping or pushing was very serious. It quoted Family Violence NSW project manager Moo Baulch, who was pushing for an increase in the funding to “services”, without being clear about what those services would be. NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione urged people to “break the silence” and contact police, without explaining what police can do or how they will respond. The problem was fairly clearly outlined, but solutions were much less clear.

You don't need to have experience in criminal justice to know that intimate partner violence is an incredibly complicated.

First and foremost, there is shockingly large number of men who see fit to use violence against women. Some do it deliberately, to control and subdue their partners. Others have terrible tempers they cannot or will not learn to control. Others are violent drunks – kind, loving and attentive when sober, and dangerously violent when drunk.

None of those causes lend themselves to easy solutions. Some find their root in many generations of family history, whilst others are a manifestation of human frailty that the perpetrators never learn to control.

Another complex problem is that many women are often not able to safely remove themselves from abusive relationship.

Along with sexual violence, intimate partner violence is shrouded in secrecy. Victims are terrified of retribution from perpetrators if they involve the police. They are often ashamed, wrongly believing that the violence meted out to them was somehow justified by a perceived slight or infraction.

Moreover, the statistics tell us that the days and weeks after a woman ends a relationship with a violent man is the most dangerous period, as men dish violence as revenge or an outlet for their anger or even grief at the ending of the relationship. There are many dedicated and effective services available, but the resources are limited and may appear too alien, too overwhelming for women already overwhelmed by fear.

Surprising as it may be to many of us, distressingly large numbers of people still see violence between partners as being acceptable, or even necessary. This attitude is not confined to particular ethnic, social or socio-economic groups. Across the board, men (and women) can be found who think there are excuses or even good reasons for someone to use violence to control their. This attitude, as subtly expressed as it often is, adds to the complexities of persuading perpetrators that violence is wrong and victims that they are not to blame.

From a criminal law point of view, the problem that causes police the most difficulties in removing, charging and prosecuting the perpetrators is the number of victims who withdraw complaints or refuse to cooperate with prosecutions.

Obviously this is almost always caused by fear of the perpetrator, or sometimes an attitude that intimate partner violence is on some level necessary or appropriate in some circumstances. But there can be no doubt that, every day, across the state, women forgive and indeed seek to protect the men who have assaulted them.

That may seem incomprehensible. But it occurs every day.

Women do not report assaults because they fear what the consequences might be for their partner. They don't turn up to court to give evidence because they have accepted tearful apologies. They justify and excuse the inexcusable because they have been conditioned to accept it.

These women are not stupid, or incapable, or in any way to blame for what happened to them. But they have been conditioned, frightened or even threatened into accepting the status quo. Horrifyingly, as Leslie Morgan Steiner said, many women in these situations may not even recognise that what is happening to them is abuse. There is no legislation that can overcome this kind of manipulation.

That is the problem those opposing intimate partner violence face - there are no easy solutions.

Yes, we need to ensure women who want to leave their partners have somewhere to go, and can easily access emergency support for them and their kids. This is probably the simplest solution we can offer.

The far more complex problems, where we need to change the ideas and feelings about intimate partner violence, cannot be undertaken by criminal law.

We need to change the idea that intimate partner violence is sometimes ok, or at least excusable; or if not excusable then a private matter, not something we should interfere in. We need everyone (men and women) to know that any relationship where violence occurs is abusive and that violence is never the fault of the victim. We need the wider community to understand that many victims of violence protect their attackers from the consequences of their actions

That may not be your view, but you know someone who thinks that. Maybe they don't express it, and they may not even realise that is their attitude. But there can be no doubt that until we all agree that intimate partner violence is not acceptable, that cycle is going to continue down the generations.

It is going to take more than a few headlines to change that attitude - but the Herald broke some new ground with their pieces on intimate partner violence. Public debate, cultural depictions and media representation can do a surprising amount to influence social attitudes. Sometimes this needs to be a deliberate long term choice, not just a momentary flash in the pan.

The true test will be whether the news media now begins to cover this issue and start the process of convincing all of us as a community that intimate partner violence is unambiguously wrong and will never be tolerated.

Published in Weekly Email
Thursday, 30 January 2014

Island of Stories

The media outrage about the cost of a journalist’s visa to Nauru seems entirely justified, until you take a closer look at the media’s use of journalist’s visas for Nauru.

I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space

- Shakespeare, Hamlet

Recently in The Global Mail, Nick Olle noted that one of his colleagues was going to be charged $8000 for a journalist’s visa to visit Nauru. The fee is not refundable if the visa is refused. It is believed to be one of the world’s most expensive visas. It provoked much consternation in the media when this news first came out, but there are two clues in Olle’s article as to why they needn’t have bothered:

... making it prohibitively expensive for the media to report from the Pacific island republic where Australia now detains hundreds of asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

Really? How expensive is it for media outlets to station Australian correspondents in London, a location well served by media outlets and where a case for a distinctively Aussie voice is hard to make. If The Global Mail finds a business expense of $8k “prohibitive” then maybe its future is dimmer than one might hope.

Australia detained thousands of asylum-seekers on Nauru from 2001 to 2008, and again since 2012. It had been an Australian dependency for decades: politically that ended in 1968 but economically it has never not been the case. The country has a matrilineal social system. The most popular sport on the island is Australian Rules football. Why there wasn’t at least one, just one Australian reporter, stationed there during that time, is an indictment of the initiative of Australia’s media.

One reporter experimenting with quadcopter-mounted cameras, getting to know staff and suppliers at the detention centre, observing flights into and out of there – and observing the proceedings of the Nauruan Parliament – might have reported a great deal and vindicated old-school journalism in the process.

According to Mr Stephen, Nauru’s top visa officer, only “three or four” media visas were granted in 2013 ... two of them were for a US media outlet reporting on diabetes in Nauru.

The diabetes angle is not unimportant, given that Nauruans are the world’s most obese people and accordingly have a very high incidence of Type 2 diabetes. Australia is not far behind on either of these rankings and could well learn much from and offer much to such a place.

Nauru had developed a reputation for money laundering in the recent past, and a journo with a bit of finance and IT knowledge could still get some big stories. Before the Nauruan government lifted its game in the period 2003-05, those stories might have been bigger and hotter. Oh well.

Back in 2013 the cost of a Nauruan journalist visa was $200. Journalists could’ve been more productive there than, say, writing another innuendo-laden but low-fact report on that AWU slush fund. Back in 2003-05 the visa was even cheaper, and still only 3-4 hours from Sydney or Brisbane. We’re supposed to feel sorry for poor old media outlets grappling with technology, but it seems they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

In the olden days trainee journalists were taught how to touch-type and take Pitman shorthand. They assembled information-intensive but low-news-priority items on court reports, shipping news, even vice-regal notices. Some journalists look back on that work with rosy nostalgia and disdain today’s university-educated young journos, and with them important information-age skills like being able to dissect a budget or whack up a database.

These days, a stint on Nauru would be the very sort of posting that would make (or, admittedly, break) a young journalist. For a slightly more experienced journalist who remains more committed to their career than their employer was to them, eight grand could be quite the investment.

Now Nauru has effectively done away with its legal system, which means that judicial functions are now to be exercised by its executive and legislative government. When Australia began to send asylum-seekers to Nauru in 2001, and again in 2012, Foreign Ministers Downer and Smith insisted that Nauru was a suitable destination because it operated under the rule of law. This is no longer the case, yet the asylum-seeker arrangement has not yet been invalidated.

For Australian journalists – particularly those in the Canberra press gallery – to moan about a visa for a country they were happy to talk about but never visit is absurd. It certainly puts into perspective their half-hearted push for a plush new aeroplane to ferry them about – one which is almost guaranteed never, ever to visit Nauru.

Published in Weekly Email
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