Thursday, October 31, 2013

Tony Abbott – a man for his people

There are many things I don’t like about Australia’s 28th Prime Minister, but there is one quality which I have to concede to him – his honesty.

Tony Abbott is not afraid to hide the fact he has a particular vision for the kind of society Australia should be - and feels he has a mandate to achieveit. He might well agree with the words of former American President George W. Bush: “You are either with us, or against us.”

Abbott recently hosted a media party at the Prime Minister’s residence in Canberra. Invited were journalists and commentators such as Piers Akerman, Janet Albrechtsen and Miranda Devine, all resolute pumpers of the Abbott message during the election campaign. In fact News Corp was overwhelmingly represented while the ABC was absent.

The lopsided guest list was an accurate reflection of the Abbott philosophy. “There tends to be an ABC view of the world, and it’s not a view of the world that I find myself in total sympathy with,” he was quoted as saying.

“But others would say there’s a News Limited view of the world.”

After more than four decades of reporting on election campaigns in several different countries I have become heartily sick of the routine victory speech by winning leader in which they say they intend to govern for all, including those who opposed them.

It is a ritualistic reaching out to defeated opponents which means nothing and is forgotten after election night; the first election promise to be broken. Governments govern for their supporters, for the policies and philosophies they espouse and those who don’t like it can go hang. If there is any compromise, it will be forced upon them by political realities – such as in Australia’s case, a hostile Senate.

The Abbott Government will not be governing for people who want curbs on fossil fuel mining; who want a moratorium on logging in old growth forests; who want a continuation of the carbon tax or its replacement with an emissions trading scheme.

He will not govern for those who want a super-fast fibre optic broadband system; cheaper tertiary education or an increase in overseas aid; not for the supporters of Sea Shepherd, those who believe Australia should have a fast train network rather than more roads, or for those who believe gay people should have exactly the same right as heterosexuals to marry.

But none of this will matter because he will lead a Government for the people who voted for him and will be doing his level best to make sure they get as much as he can give them to keep them happy between now and the next election.

It is the way all Governments have played the game since Federation. In many ways it is an inevitable part of any democratic system.

At least Tony Abbott has the courage to admit it.   

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Information management at new heights

Journalists who deal with public institutions have been used to information management or ‘spin’ for many years now, but in recent times, especially it seems among conservative administrations, it is taking on a more aggressive and distinctly sinister form - to the point where the ultimate result could be loss of freedoms and the undermining of democratic traditions.

Before I am accused of paranoia let me present a few examples, in Australia and around the world.

In Queensland NGOs have been told it is a condition of receiving State Government funding that  they do not criticise the Government in their area of expertise. So an organisation, say a regional art gallery, which has its annual grant cut in half, can’t go to the media to complain because it is still receiving the smaller amount of money and if it speaks out could end up with nothing at all.

In Canada, a survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service has found that 90 per cent of Federal Government scientists feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media about the work they do.

The Institute found that 86 per cent of the scientists, faced with a departmental decision that could harm public health, safety or the environment, thought they would face censure or retaliation if they spoke up.

According to the survey, nearly half (48 per cent) were aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, industry and/or other Government officials.

Institute President Gary Corbett said the scientists were working in “a climate of fear”.

In the United Kingdom dozens of local councils are bypassing traditional media and putting out their own newspapers. These are far more sophisticated than the occasional newsletters of the past, appearing in newspaper form and at frequent intervals.

Inevitably, the councils who produce them portray themselves in the most favourable of lights.  

The Government at Westminster has been critical of these ‘Town Hall Pravdas’, saying they are a waste of ratepayers’ money, but to date has done nothing to halt the practice.

There are more subtle – and widespread – ways of ensuring ‘inconvenient truths’ don’t get into the media, the main one being to stonewall. Calls are not returned; information is withheld. When a reply is made it is often by email couched in dense, bureaucratic language that could mean anything, or nothing.

In the past this would not have mattered so much when skilled journalists cut though the blather, found other sources who were willing to give the real story and threw the rubbish back in the faces of its presenters. But today media outlets are under unprecedented pressure as declining circulation, ratings and advertising forces cutbacks in staff. Often media releases and statements are taken at face value with little or no critical examination.

Ironically, one of the reasons UK councils give for the Town Hall Pravdas is that mainstream journalists are no longer available to properly cover local affairs.

As a result, the initiative for generating ‘news’ is shifting from traditional media to the sources of news themselves and that is a very disturbing trend to anyone who believes our national institutions need to be held to account.  





Thursday, October 24, 2013

Print revival? Afraid not

I have come across an article written a few weeks back by Eric Spitz, part owner of an American media company whose flagship is the Orange County Register based in Santa Ana, California.

I was intrigued by the headline – ‘US in the midst of a print revival’ – news to me, but worth a read.

As it turned out, the only evidence of this ‘revival’ was at the Register itself which, under Spitz and his business partner, Aaron Kushner, has undergone something of a renaissance. According to Spitz in the past 12 months the Register has hired 350 people, established 25 new sections, revamped its weekly community papers and launched a weekly set of magazines.

He states there has been a rise in both subscription and advertising revenue, although he doesn’t give exact figures, and on the basis of that makes two assertions. One I have sympathy with, the other I must reject.

Spitz says that media companies the world over made a huge mistake when, with the advent and growth of the internet in the early 1990s they put their content on line for all to see – for nothing.

“I don’t know many industries that can survive pricing their core product at zero,” he says. Quite right: Media companies were sucked in to the early internet hype and thought they could use their webpages as shop windows for their print editions. It didn’t work and when networks such as CNN and, in Australia the ABC, began to put all or most of their content online for nothing, newspapers felt they had to follow suit.

As a result while consumers are quite happy to buy everything from groceries to motor cars online they have become used to – and expect – to get their news for free. Good luck to Spitz and the Orange County Register if they feel they can turn back the tide. As examples of the successful use of paywalls Spitz quotes the Wall Street Journal (specialist news unavailable in the same content or quality elsewhere) and Groupa Reforma, which apparently is the largest media company in Mexico (hmm..). We shall see.

Maybe the bolting online news horse can be persuaded back into the stable, but Spitz’s other assertion, that newspapers will remain the prime location for advertising, is completely wide of the mark. He maintains that digital advertising does not work, that people almost never click on to online advertisements, while overlooking the massively popular websites that sell cars, homes, relationships and 101 other things.

I spoke to a real estate agent quite recently who said he now does all his business online. A survey taken last year shows that 80 per cent of prospective home buys go first to

It is the classifieds - the ‘rivers of gold’ - rather than display advertising, that are lost to newspapers, probably for good. It is a body blow to the industry that may not be fatal, but will certainly change it radically in the years to come.   


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Rudd going now is stupid

Leaving aside former Attorney General Nicola Roxon’s highly-charged and emotional attack on her one-time boss, Kevin Rudd, as a bastard, her view that he should quit Parliament at once for the good of the Labor Party is downright stupid.

Roxon is not alone in this opinion – a number of Labor Parliamentarians have said Rudd should go without, it seems, paying any attention to the likely outcome of such a move  

Rudd retained his seat in Griffith by a slender margin at the election. The fact he was Prime Minister and constantly in the national spotlight probably got him over the line. Should he resign now Labor would face a by-election before the end of the year with an unknown candidate and while the Abbott Government was still in its honeymoon period.

In other words, Griffith would likely be lost, adding to the conservative majority in Parliament and providing yet another highly-publicised body blow to a disheartened party struggling to get back on track with its new leader.

 I believe Rudd will go just as soon as he sorts out a job for himself at the United Nations or some other international agency, but far better it be somewhere into the New Year, say in April or May, when the Coalition has had time to make a few mistakes and get itself offside with the electorate.

A by-election then could have just the opposite effect than one held in the next few weeks – a strong Labor win would bring new energy to the membership and credence to the view that it can bounce back to make a real contest of the election in 2016.  

Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen was being polite when he reacted to Roxon’s outburst by saying all former Labor leaders deserved respect.

Instead he and new leader Bill Shorten should tell the Rudd Must Go faction to zip their lips and leave it to the former Prime Minister to decide when he departs the scene.