Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The politics of rape

The US election campaign never fails to throw up its quota of candidates with wacky ideas. In the past climate change got its share. In 2012 it seems that abortion is back in the limelight.

Politicians on the far right of the pro-life movement – those who oppose abortion under any circumstances – are well aware that overwhelming numbers of Americans support abortion in the case of rape victims. This has led to some quite amazing statements as the candidates scramble to find excuses to justify their positions.

Tom Smith, the Republican candidate for the Senate in Pennsylvania, likened a pregnancy resulting from rape as similar to having an unwanted pregnancy from premarital sex. Something he said had happened to his daughter.

“She chose the life – and I commend her for that. She knew my views, but fortunately for me she chose the way I thought,” he said.

After close questioning from reporters on whether rape and premarital sex were indeed the same things he replied: ‘No, no, no, but, well, put yourself in a father’s position. Yes, I mean. It is similar, this isn’t, but I’m back to the original, I’m pro-life – period.”

Quite reasonably asked to clarify this remark he said the method of conception was not important, what was that it created a life.

Earlier, another Republican, Todd Akin, of Missouri, claimed that ‘legitimate rape’ could never result in conception as the victim would be too traumatised, essentially saying that any raped woman who became pregnant must have participated in and even enjoyed the sexual act.

This incredible statement drew fire from all sides of politics and Akin later withdrew the comment calling it rather appropriately “ill-conceived”!    

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Revisiting the death of journalism

Almost two years ago I wrote in this blog about the death of journalism, or at least the journalism I have known and loved for more than 40 years. I don’t think I have ever felt so depressed by a subject. In fact, it turned me off blogging and I did not make another contribution to Towards a Better Day until earlier this month.

With more time on my hands than I have experienced since my first job in the mid-1960s I have revisited the website and, tentatively begun to resurrect it. That article is still there, now two or three down on the list, and what it says seems just as relevant and prophetic at a time when heavy staff cutbacks have affected the newspaper where I spent much of my working life The Canberra Times in Australia’s capital.

In search of something new to say on the subject I came across the transcript of a speech by the Federal Member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, until recently my local Member of Parliament.
In his address, part of The University of Canberra Public Lecture Series, Leigh analysed the problems and attempted to set out solutions to the malaise that professional journalism – and especially newspaper journalism – finds itself in today. He asserts that good quality, investigative journalism still matters, still influences public opinion and perceptions and, in some instances, can still change history. However, its voice is being smothered by, on the one hand, restructuring resulting from the continual leakage of advertising revenues to the internet and conversely, by the falling cost of getting a message out there that encourages everyone with an opinion and a computer to be a ‘citizen journalist’ (although Leigh never uses the term).  

“The big technological shift in media has been the falling cost of disseminating ideas. Cable and digital television have expanded the number of channels. Digital radio will have the same effect on that medium. Ubiquitous broadband has allowed news to be conveyed through a host of electronic media. Among Australian adults who are online, almost all use social media, with 76 per cent using Facebook, and 10 per cent using Twitter. About half of all Australian politicians tweet,” he says.

This has led to what he describes as ‘information inequality’. For people who seek the news, there has never been a better time, Press conferences are played live on television and radio, transcripts or reruns of programs missed can be easily obtained, thoughtful bloggers abound and tweets can provide the headline links to almost any subject under the sun.

But at the same time for the less engaged sections of the population, the result has been information overload. At one time everyone read the same newspapers, listened to the same radio broadcasts and watched the same television programs. For the people who were more interested in Lara Bingle than Laurie Oakes, something of Laurie Oakes filtered through. Now they can immerse themselves in a diet of Bingle, swimsuit models, celebrity chefs, with a good lashing of sport and be unaware, if not of the Prime Minister, then certainly their local MP.

“I believe that changes in the media are one of the factors making this group of Australians more disconnected from politics. In effect, technology has widened the information gap between the most-informed and least-informed members of society,” Leigh says.

He suggests a number of solutions without really recommending any: a stronger and more effective complaints mechanism; subsidies for genuinely quality newspapers; giving newspapers which subscribe to a code of conduct tax deductible gift status.

But the nub of these arguments concern politicians themselves. Ministers and Shadow Ministers have surrounded themselves in a cocoon of advisers who worship the 24-hour news cycle. The 10-second grab is worth more than the carefully explained policy. The story that makes headlines in the morning is dead by the evening. There is now a deliberate and determined attempt to dumb down the electorate’s consumption of news, to shorten attention spans. Slogans and catch-cries have replaced reasoned arguments and analysis.

Is this what the public wants? I believe it is not. But it is what politicians want because they know many of their slogans and catch-cries won’t stand up to detailed inspection. The new journalism is a golden age for the populist with a simple message.

Questions like ‘is it feasible?’ and “who pays?’ can wait until after the next election.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A very foolish man

Avigdor Lieberman has a reputation for being something of a loose cannon in Israeli politics. The Foreign Minister seems to be constantly in the headlines often for espousing policies that are at odds with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud-led coalition Government.

However, Lieberman's latest move was a shocker even by the standards of the wayward Foreign Minister.

In a letter to the members of the Middle East 'Quartet' responsible for overseeing moves towards peace in the region - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, Lieberman called for the ousting of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the grounds that he headed 'a dictatorial government riddled with corruption' and was an obstacle to peace.

He proposed staging new elections in the West Bank to bring about a government that would be 'more realistic and legitimate'.

While no one really quarrels with his description of the shortcomings of the Abbas Government, the letter is a blatant intrusion into the affairs of the Palestinian Authority and comes at a time when the level of violence is beginning to subside.

In addition, an election held now could only have two possible outcomes - the reelection of Abbas or the emergence of a more radical administration led by Hamas, the current rulers in the Gaza Strip, increasingly popular among Palestinians but regarded by Israel as a terrorist organisation.

For the moment at least, there is no real alternative to Abbas, with all his faults, remaining in power and any attempt to tinker with that arrangement would be the height of stupidity.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Tomorrow's Tory top man?

There is a rising star in the ranks of Britain's Conservative Party. Mark him well, because despite being in Parliament just two years he has designs on the Tory leadership and, at 38 has time on his side.

Dominic Raab wants to re-brand the Conservatives in his own image - and for many in Britain that picture would not be pleasant. He wants to truncate unfair dismissal laws, abolish the minimum wage and renegotiate The United Kingdom's membership of the European Union with a list of demands that would probably end with it leaving the EU altogether.

The current David Cameron-led Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is failing. Two years of  tough economic measures since its election in the wake of the global financial crisis appear to have brought little benefit. The economy stagnates, unemployment is high (for Britain) and the perennial anger with the European Union is reaching high water marks. On top of this there is talk that the Liberal Democrats, who have seen their popularity plunge since joining the coalition, may leave and go into opposition in the hope of regaining lost popularity. This has led to widespread speculation that the Government will not last until the end of its term in 2015.

If that is the case an early election would almost certainly see the return of a Labour Government that narrowly lost in 2010. It would not take much of a swing in voter sentiment to bring this about, but how Labour might deal with the malaise it inherits is problematic and there would certainly be very little in the way of a honeymoon period from an electorate remembering the last dismal years of the Blair-Brown administration.

This is where Raab may seize his chance to grab the Conservative leadership with a campaign rather like the Thatcher call for action in the late 1970s. A weak and indecisive Labour Government would be a juicy target and who would bet against a return of a new look, right-wing Tory party around 2018?

A lot of what Raab says is sheer nonsense. Britons are not, as he claims, among the worst idlers in the world, working among the lowest hours, retiring too early and with no interest in bettering themselves. Britain's work rates compare favourably with many of those in the EU and, further afield, Australia and New Zealand. The unions do not dominate working life in the way they might have done 30 years ago However, Raab's simplistic catch cries are music to the ears of the Tory faithful and - of course - to the big business the party needs to mount a successful election campaign.

Should Raab ever climb the greasy pole he will moderate his views in office. There hasn't been a Prime Minister in recent times who has not faced the need to compromise. But just how far he will be prepared to go - and whether he take his party and a majority of the nation with him - will be interesting fodder for speculation over the next decade. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

End this brand protection stupidity

Now that the London Olympics are over, isn't it time to review some of the ridiculous and heavy handed tactics relating to advertising and 'brand protection'.

Of course a sponsor who sinks millions of dollars into supporting a major sporting attraction does not want to see its main competitor getting a look-in for free. Of course genuine 'ambush marketing' has to be prevented for the good of the advertiser and the reputation of the organisers of the event who struck the deal in the first place.

But some of the lengths to which organisers go in their enforcement of branding restrictions are just plain stupid and verge on harassment. The latest Olympics have produced the usual crop, but there are instances that date back to the Sydney Olympics and even before.

Take the example of the corner Olympic Cafe. The Greek owner had proudly named his establishment some 25 years previously, but suddenly found that he was in contravention of legally enforceable branding restrictions and was ordered to remove the sign. After negotiations it was finally agreed that he only had to obliterate the 'O' of Olympic for the games period.

A group of ticket-holding football supporters were told they could not enter a stadium because they were wearing shorts that sported a rival brand to the sponsor of the tournament. They were finally allowed to watch the game in their underpants.

Pimms, a long-standing and beloved English liqueur, which is as much a part of the annual Wimbledon tennis championships as strawberries and cream, had to be renamed 'No 1 Cup' for the Olympic tournament because it was not a sponsor. Pimms did not want to put up signs or claim that it was in any way supporting the competition, it simply wanted to be on the drinks menu as it had always been. The organisers were firm in banning the P word.

The Goodyear Blimp became simply the blimp during the Olympics and journalists who turned up at the Games with Dell and Apple computers had to have the logos of these non-Olympic sponsors taped over.

The Australian team - who else - breached the blockade by smuggling in Kangaroo Condoms - for the gland down under - manufactured by Ansell, a rival of the official condom supplier (yes they even have one of those) to the London Olympics.

This last example is a healthy reaction to the over-zealous attitude to brand protection. Event organisers may claim that  advertisers demand exclusivity, but this should not be at the expense of individuals' freedoms to wear what they like (providing this does not contravene other laws relating to obscenity and racism), buy computers that they like, or drink their favourite tipple.

In the end, advertisers need the Olympic Games, the World Cup football finals and a host of other major events around the world. If they didn't they would not support them and the problem would not arise.