31 August 2006

Hope for the future of newspapers

The media can be incredibly self-involved, attaching an importance to its output that just doesn't exist in the lives of most people. In today's Crikey, Margaret Simons said that the media occupy a "privileged position" - really? No more so than any up-themselves spruiker pushing something I don't want. The Economist recently published a number of stories claiming that newspapers are on the road to oblivion, echoed amongst others by Mark Day. There is a good deal of wistfulness about Ye Goode Olde Days, and a bit of grumpy-old-man fist-shaking at new-fangled technology. What is missing is an appreciation of how media can add value into the future.

Day sees the value of newspapers in providing fresh, breaking news only. There are, it seems, two types of FBN: long-term investigative reporting and daily blah (i.e. recycling of press releases). The traditional economic model for newspapers is that advertising funds the content, and that the cost of the paper itself barely covers printing and distribution; the death-of-newspapers crowd complain that the internet breaks the link between content and advertising, hence newspapers are apparently doomed.

Some people fret about negative coverage in a newspaper article because they think that it will permanently colour people's perceptions of them. Old newspaper hands like Day will self-effacingly dismiss their output as "fish-wrappers", often as a way of limiting libel litigation against them. This self-effacement is quickly dispelled when you see the self-importance media attaches to itself; a change to the regulatory environment of, say, universities or uranium mining is covered much less than what happens when there is a change to media regulations. Imagine a combination of the children's games musical chairs and pass-the-parcel, throw in a flurry of accountants and lawyers, and it's much like a shakeout in any other industry.

Never mind the internet, I would have thought newspapers were used to other forms of electronic media by now. I get my raw information from the radio, supplemented by TV in the evening. If I get time at work I hit the internet. It would be hard for any advertiser to reach me during this process. I make a point of avoiding internet advertising, and will often surf sites from outside Australia. I mostly listen to/watch the ABC.

ABC local radio is basically The Sydney Morning Herald read out, featuring interviews with those quoted in the paper (who, if they are briefed in the techniques of media management, will say nothing more than that which was quoted in the paper: it is the dull and lazy radio interviewer who will be content with nothing more than that). The evening news often carries reactions to the day's newspapers and radio: this is known as "the news cycle" and it starts again the following day. It is the very definition of a short-sighted imbecile who thinks the news cycle is the be-all-and-end-all, and it is an indictment of the political and media systems of this country that these myopic people occupy senior and vital roles in those organisations.

But I need more than raw news: and I'm above-average in terms of education and income, and I'm under 40 - so advertisers listen up. People like Day are worried that Google are bringing out a facility that will aggregate information on whatever you're interested in and spoon-feed it to you. This needn't bother newspapers as much as it apparently does. I read newspapers for the analysis.

Newspapers are almost irrelevant in terms of FBN. There's the occasional long-term investigation which leads to FBN, but you get those from Four Corners and you used to get them from Sunday. They're expensive, claims Day: media organisations have plenty of money so that isn't a problem for most newspapers. What he means is they detract from the bottom-line focus, particularly if said investigations upset advertisers.

Newspapers should concentrate on is longer-term analysis of trends that affect the world; they're good at it and it is helpful in forming opinions to make decisions. I read newspapers and news magazines to get some measured analysis of events in the world. The major difference between Australian media and quality media elsewhere is the lack of this longer term analysis by well-informed people who aren't obviously pushing a barrow.

If newspapers wanted commentary on politics, they shouldn't bother asking Tony Abbott or Tanya Plibersek for a piece: they put out press releases and should be busy doing things that are worthy of reporting. If someone wanted an insight to their thought processes, one would go to their websites or read an interview. The piece in today's Australian Financial Review on opportunities for Australia with India's growing nuclear industry might have made a useful speech in Hansard, but as newspaper content it was a waste of space. Politicians like them may complain about the media but as each of them belong to parties which worked to restrict media diversity, forcing discerning readers onto the web, they can just shut up.

The nearest Australian newspapers get to this is the publication of a diverse range of considered views on fake militant Islam. Some are long-serving and distinguished Arabists, some are Washington think-tankers, some are Russell Hill defence nerds; there is a good range available to find entertaining and informative pieces within Australia and overseas. I am not convinced that a similar range of people can't be found on other subject areas. When you need broad and long-term analysis of a subject of which you have known little, you should have a newspaper to go to.

If the quality of the writing is there, I am prepared to dip into articles about other subjects: wine, opera, particle physics, areas where I can't imagine doing a Google search but where a good piece will get me involved. It would be dreary to read articles which reflected a certain line all the time; I need a provocative article to sharpen my views against, or to reconsider them. I'd subscribe to a newspaper if it did this reliably: I always buy the Fin on Friday for the Review section. I used to buy The Bulletin but it's too hit-and-miss. ACP aren't serious about producing it and neither am I about reading/buying it.

You can't train young journalists to do this analysis, but you can persuade them that it's important. Easier to start off doing that earnest noddy stuff on TV outside a court house, and start doing some reading.

What has been imported into Australian papers from the States is the intellectually lazy ideological shill: Bolt, Albrechtsen and Devine on the right, Horin, Davidson and others on the left, largely ignored by readers and generating heat rather than light only among myopic autistics referred to earlier. These people do not change votes or increase readership and they don't sell advertising. Why are they in the paper at all? Dumbing down hits newspapers hardest - they start competing with junk mail catalogues, which are free. Now, as Margaret Simons pointed out in Crikey today, the same is happening to TV (can't wait for the book).

Newspapers will survive if they're worth reading, and they'll be worth reading if they take a more considered view than is possible in media where time is of the essence. This may mean that old-school dumb-down chuckleheads like Mark Day, David Pemberthy, Peter Blunden or Eddie McGuire may have to go, but we all must make sacrifices. If McDonalds can lift the nutritional quality of their menu, News Ltd can too.

I don't pretend that what I like reading is what everyone likes reading. I think it's risible that people like David Flint or Glenn Milne criticise someone who has won and held elected office for being "out of touch with public opinion", as if they'd know! However, I think the media in Australia and elsewhere is in a state of flux, and hopefully something appealling will come out of that.

19 August 2006

Australia and the twilight of the Bush Administration

When George W Bush became US President in January 2001, John Howard was Prime Minister of Australia. Bush said recently that Howard would probably still hold his office once Bush's term expires in January 2009.

Australia's friendship with the United States is strong and long-standing, and has taken different forms over the turbulent past century. Within the next three years it will change again as we adapt to a post-Bush USA. What form will this relationship take, and how will events of the Howard-Bush era affect the future?

It takes two to tango, but Australia's interests will remain relatively constant. We will maintain a close political relationship. We will seek but not get greater access for our exports to the US. We will participate in US-led military expeditions with enthusiasm, but with limits imposed by the size of our military and by commitments in our region such as East Timor, the Solomon Islands and elsewhere which the US will largely leave to us. Even if Labor won government, the general tenor of the relationship from Australia's point of view wouldn't change much apart from political rhetoric, and even that would be a matter of degree rather than any shift in direction.

Any changes on trade will be incremental and we will continue to try to work both sides of the street in our relationships with China and the US. The spectre of American cultural imperialism is not what it was as the appeal of Chinese and Japanese films and games have diminished the power of Hollywood. American fast food companies used to loom large here but their brand powers have also waned despite Australia's obesity epidemic. For all the Howard Government's determination to be part of the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq and Afghanistan, our presence there is not large nor crucial nor hard to replace. These changes may signal shifts in Australia's attitudes toward the US over time, but it isn't clear yet what effects these changes might have.

The impetus for change over the next few years will come from the larger partner in this relationship, the US. It is possible that the next President will, as Bush urges, "stay the course" and elect someone like Condoleezza Rice or Virginia Senator George Allen who will perpetuate Bush's neo-regal policies and style of government. However, Bush has been consistently unpopular throughout this year, which will see elections for the US Congress in November.

Victories for the Democrats, vague and hesitant, cowed by Bush's weakness-is-strength electoral tactics, will encourage a change in political direction. The lack of connection between the war in Iraq and the effective control of fake militant Islam. It is likely that the Democrats will win control of the House of Representatives, and possible that they will win the Senate as well. This will certainly open Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to greater scrutiny than they have experienced to date, which will set the stage for a Democrat response to America's political situation that will resonate with voters.

The failure of Bush's outlook on the world is not only confirmed by isolated incidents like this or the inadequacies of the Iraqi government, but by the failure of the Bush-Cheney end of an acquiescent world accepting of American leadership. Iran, North Korea and others flout pax Americana with impunity, and will increasingly do so as Bush enters his endgame. More time has now elapsed since 11 September 2001 than had elapsed between 7 December 1941 (when Japanese attacked the US at Pearl Harbour) and 9 August 1945 (when the Japanese surrendered and Hitler was dead). Bush was wrong to present the war against terror as a war that could be won under his leadership.

Democrats may be more likely to expand the lopsided Australia-US Free Trade Agreement in our favour, unless the Howard Government repulse them in their affection for Bush or if sucker Mark Vaile remains as Trade Minister. They are less likely to pander to rural states with their overprotected agriculture sectors, though they may pander to them in states like Florida, Montana or Idaho. Republicans tend to give ever-loyal Australia little more than patronising lip-service.

The future of the US-Australia relationship is really up to the Americans over the next few years - how far are they going to go with neoconservatism, and if they retreat from it will there be such a backlash that we are tainted by it? Once the Americans work out what their priorities really are and what lessons they have learned from the Bush years, this close relationship will adjust accordingly and go forward.

18 August 2006

Lest we forget

Forty years ago today, 108 Australian soldiers were ambushed by about 2500 VietCong near the village of Long Tan, Vietnam.

John Howard was happy to apologise for the way Vietnam veterans had been treated (no cost to him; no political consequences as Liberals broadly agree, including those gutless ones who played down the war and its participants in the face of the Whitlam juggernaut). Howard did not, however, address the issue that Long Tan veterans were not rewarded adequately by officialdom. He did so in a particularly weaselly way and it robbed his "apology" of any moral force.

The shabby way Vietnam veterans were treated is also an indictment on Whitlam's legacy. A man with classic education should know that those who return from the battlefield should be honoured and put on a sound economic footing for the sake of the state. After all this time he should be able to transcend the long-haired activists of old who burnish his legend and recognise that Vietnam veterans did important and often exemplary work under impossible circumstances.

Any culture where moral greatness is not rewarded and moral failure unpunished is doomed to mediocrity, and the Australian military is no exception. Yes, it's hard work, with a bureaucratic storm ahead and probably a lot of long-buried private pain which will get wrenched into the public domain. With Imperial honours, the Australian Government will have to go cap-in-hand to the Poms in a way that it no longer has to do in any other area of policy. However, it is worth doing. It will give substantive justice to a section of the community long wronged (including other veterans, not just from Long Tan, similarly overlooked and fobbed off).

To re-examine aspects of our military history would spur the very sort of study of key events on Australian history that the recent history summit would have young people do. No amount of windy rhetoric would have this motivating force. It also adds another dimension to Australian history: whatever you might think of Australia getting drawn into Anglo-American wars, there are significant achievements by Australians worthy of recognition and respect.

Appropriate recognition of our brave and clever service personnel will make it easier to reform the appalling failure of military justice for serving personnel. If you can go back through the records of those whose careers are over, it will make it easier to embellish or eviscerate those currently in uniform. This failed system, which ensnares good and bad equally, makes the profession of arms profoundly unappealling in a time of low unemployment. The fantasy of those supporting the status quo is that effective warriors are potentially denied to the military, when a properly-functioning justice system bids good riddance to bad rubbish. It ultimately hinders our military capabilities and adds to cost.

Accountability is a joke while layers of crusty cover-ups clog this vital organ of state. We can neither criticise the Japanese over Yasukuni or "comfort women", not the US military over Hicks - even if we wanted to.

It is very important to revisit the honours given to Australian servicemen, and Howard's inaction hurts us on so many levels.

14 August 2006

Lessons from the ACT

If your financial performance has been this bad, don't you start developing a social conscience or whingeing about the Constitution. It didn't work for Whitlam and it won't work for Stanhope either.

I think gay/lesbian civil unions are absolutely equal to heterosexual de facto relationships. Marriage is different, but nobody is talking about gay marriage in this debate - asking why gays/lesbians can't get married is like asking why Muslims don't take Holy Communion. Opponents of this measure are few but active - still irrelevant in a democracy with compulsory voting. Just because something isn't forbidden, it doesn't mean it's now compulsory - the very essence of liberalism which, despite five hundred years of Enlightenment, churchy people just cant grasp. There are bigger issues to focus on, but you can't blame those for whom gay issues are deeply personal issues, nor those of us who regard homosexuality as part of the human condition whose recognition costs non-homosexuals nothing.

The ACT is basically a jumped-up council. It would be fair to call it a one-off were it not for the example of Brisbane, a proper city council that executes its functions in a responsible manner. The sheer degree to which these Brindabella hillbillies are out of their depth is a clear example of why the fringe movement to break down the states and introduce regional councils like this is a non-starter. There is a critical mass for the kind of services that State governments deliver, and the ACT is attempting to limbo under that.

The transition costs would never be recouped, and regional areas would go backwards even faster than they are now. Take this guy: his solution for New England is to devote their hard-earned to buying some sheep runs and building a New Canberra between Tamworth and Armidale (and not just local money - you know he'd be panhandling from growth centres in Sydney and Brisbane to make his absurd dream work). The best thing this joker can do for New England is to stay in Hornsby. Earle Page is dead, so is the idea that country people are better and more special than other Australians, as well as the idea that they create all the wealth for this country. OK, it's not dead as long as there are characters like the New England dreamer and the ACT incompetents, but hopefully they'll find reality bracing if not discouraging. If regional areas think they're being neglected now, they should try cutting themselves off politically from the cities.

Except for the ACT, the States are configured such that they all contain a major city, a number of regional centres, and some remote and sparsely populated areas. When COAG comes together on the big national issues like native title, mental health or terrorism, everyone's sitting up and taking notice. If that were extended to a multitude of regional councils it would be a dialogue of the deaf, amid an orgy of waste. Political ineptitude exists despite the Constitution, and not because of it.