In different voices


In the face of what the new Australian conservative government has been doing during its blitzkrieg attack (planned and directed by General Rupert Murdoch) on the country resistance seems absolutely futile. Writing a political blog like this one is like a little Dutch boy putting his finger in the dyke at precisely the moment a tsunami hits.

Tony Abbott makes Maggie Thatcher look like a kind-hearted little old lady who delivers milk to school children. Makes GW Bush look like Stephen Hawking without a wheelchair. Makes Robert Mugabe look like Nelson Mandela. Makes Augusto Pinochet look like Abraham Lincoln. Makes …. Oh well, you get the idea.

But are we downhearted at Watermelon? ….. I say, are we downhearted at Watermelon? Well, ok, yes, we are, so not going to try to singlehandedly take on Menzies House, News Ltd, and the IPA, but do something different.

Have been watching lately the very good tv series Inspector Salvo Montalbano, based on the excellent series of books by Andrea Camilleri. The Inspector works in Sicily, solving crime and doing good deeds.
…Read more



What a pity we didn’t have the modern media in earlier times. Just think of the entertainment with close-up shots of people being burnt at stake, or hung drawn and quartered. Think of microphones stuck on their faces for last-minute reactions. Or cameras for reaction shots of loved ones. Cameras set up permanently at stocks to see the tomatoes and rotten cabbages hit the faces. Run with vigilante mobs as they hunt down some suspect in the Wild West.

Those images occurred to me this week as there was discussion of some British move to have “victims of crime” decide on the sentences the perpetrators of crime will get. Already similar moves here with “victim impact statements” before sentencing.

The media are pushing, pushing, pushing to take us away from the idea of an impartial justice system with people presumed innocent unless proved guilty, and with the presiding figure of Justice herself,  eyes bandaged to avoid bias, weighing the scales impartially. In the days of X-Factor and Big Brother and Survivor where’s the entertainment value in that old-fashioned nonsense eh?

At the same time as the media pushed for revenge to come back into sentencing came another case illustrating what is happening to our justice system.

In 1991 highly respected, much-loved and valued heart surgeon Victor Chang was shot dead during a failed extortion attempt. The two killers were sentenced to very lengthy jail terms. One was released, after 18 years, a few years ago, the second, after 21 years of a 26 year sentence, was recommended for parole recently, on the grounds that he was aged 69 and suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease and dementia and hadn’t long to live. Open and shut case? Not these days.

Immediate outrage from media, followed by more outrage from populist conservative govt leading to legal challenge. That failing, followed by deportation (both killers were Malaysian nationals). Media following to airport, where vision of a frail old man with shaking hands was accompanied by a journalist voiceover saying that he showed “no sign” of the “illness which supposedly had him released on parole”. Followed by cameramen filming him during plane trip. Followed by a tv interview in which he expressed his sorrow and regret for what he had done. Followed by a “victims of crime” spokesman rejecting the apology as not sincere.

Hard to know where to begin with this. It is the classic media “whip up outrage and sell newspapers” ploy. And it gets people phoning the shock jocks, reading blog opinions. Fundamentally the media have taken the stand that all sentences should be for life and that there should be no parole. They don’t really believe this, but saying they do will agitate the people who believe we should still have public whipping and hanging. And will agitate the victims of crime who believe no punishment is too great.

Jail is meant to serve four purposes: punishment, public protection, deterrence, rehabilitation. The second and fourth of those were no longer relevant to this sick old man. The deterrence part was long gone (“hmm, if I murder someone and am sentenced to 26 years and contract Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases after 20 I’ll get parole and be deported. Hey, that’s pretty slack, where’s my gun.”). So that leaves punishment.

Punishment, as William Gilbert remarked, is meant to fit the crime. That is why we have a graded system of sentences to match a graded system of crimes of increasing seriousness. If you are going to give the maximum sentence for small crimes how will you discourage greater crimes? Australia should be specially sensitive to this given our convict past arising from a criminal justice system that could hang someone for poaching, send them to Australia for stealing a handkerchief. If you always demand a maximum sentence, if you complain about parole board decisions, however strongly based, then what we have reverted to is a legal system based on revenge, not justice. And revenge, as Shakespeare and indeed the Greek playwrights knew, puts bums on seats.

As I was writing this came yet another disturbing development. The West Australian government announced the launch of a web site carrying photos and details of paedophiles. As the lawyer’s association pointed out, this is a clear invitation to vigilantism, and the attendant problems of misidentification and the discouraging of rehabilitation.

Look, dunno about you but if, Rumpole forbid, I ever found myself entangled in the legal system, I would rather my fate was decided by a qualified judge and a jury of my peers and an experienced parole board, than by a sensationalist media, populist politicians, and wannabe lynch mobs.

Time the tabloids (of print, television, radio) cooled it on the legal system, or before you know it you might have policemen bribed, phones tapped, people followed, all in the name of sensational stories from court cases. And then, who knows, members of the media might find themselves in court, being covered by other media…

It’s in no one’s interest for the justice system to be turned into a branch of the entertainment industry.

To be hanged with the bible


When the bible was written humans* didn’t know:
About bacteria and viruses and parasites
Blood circulation
Earth going around sun
More than 5 planets
About galaxies
There was a southern hemisphere
Earth round
What lightning is
That whales aren’t fish
What mental illness involves
About genes and inheritance
About Chinese, Aztecs, Zulus, Aborigines, Navaho, Japanese, Papuans, Bushmen, Mayans, Eskimo, Indonesians, West Africans, Britons
Composition of matter
Any history
Composition of moon
About fossils
There was a western hemisphere
The age of the Earth
About the great apes
About continental drift
About kangaroos, lemurs, opossums, emus, iguanas, alpacas, platypus, kiwi, gila lizards, sloths, tree frogs, humming birds, horseshoe crabs, peripatus, tasmanian tigers, rhinoceros

When bible written humans had never:
Travelled faster than a horse can run
Communicated except by speaking directly
Elected a government
Swum under the ocean
Read books
Looked through a telescope
Looked through a microscope
Warmed themselves by anything except wood fires
Been cured by antibiotics
Had a surgical operation
Seen a hospital, school or factory
Seen a town of more than few thousand people

When bible written humans were happy about:
Women as chattels
Divine kings
Child marriage
Destruction of environment
Gods living on mountains
Child labour
Human sacrifice

And yet there are people in 2012 who believe everything written in the bible. There are people who use it to determine who to vote for, where to send their children to school, how they feel about burning environmental and social and economic and cultural issues. And if that wasn’t bad enough, incredible enough, we can’t just smile wisely and say “there there, one day you will grow up” as we might to a child who tries to live their life by, say, the Harry Potter books, because there are people who want to insist that the rest of the world obey these silly old books as well. There are people making all kinds of pronouncements about the environment, about bringing up children, about justice, about science, about art and literature, based not on some independent and rational analysis of an issue, but on what they think is said in the bible about it. And in turn appearing in the media, influencing politicians about it, indeed running for political office themselves. Some countries, notably Iran, Saudi Arabia, and America, are now theocracies run by people who know nothing except what someone has told them an old book says.

Angry? You betcha. The modern world is difficult enough, will become more difficult in the future, without the drag on political life from people living in the past. Can’t laugh at these people any more, this is serious.

*By “humans” in what follows I sometimes mean “the whole human race” and sometimes “the humans who wrote the bits and pieces of old manuscript that got collected together and called ‘the bible'”, which is which will be obvious and not of much importance anyway.

Counting out his money


What slogan is above the door of the free marketeer’s think tanks? No, it’s not “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”, you naughty people. It’s “Government small enough to drown in a bathtub”.

These people believe that “government” should leave banks and financial institutions alone, get rid of regulation, has no business in business, as it were, should “get out of the way” of private enterprise, and so on. Any suggestion that the “government” should do something about CEO salaries, risky investments, fees, interest rates, is met with the outrage usually reserved for apostates from a religion. And the outrage in turn is largely met with acquiescence by the media, themselves determined not to be regulated in any way. Faced with the unanimity of “think tanks”, media, and of course the financial institutions themselves, politicians from both “sides” have quickly jumped in to say “oh my goodness gracious me heavens to betsy why no of COURSE we wouldn’t want to regulate banks etc. Reckon we are socialists or something?”

So let’s think about this for a moment. Twenty two million Australians elect several hundred people from among their number to represent their interests. Each one has gained the confidence of tens of thousands (in the case of Senators hundreds of thousands) of people. And yet, these people, combining to form a “government”, are told, by a handful of people with a bizarre ideology, that they must not attempt to have any control over the organisations that not only serve the financial needs of the 22 million, but through their activities fundamentally control the economy of the nation.

That is forget the word “government” as used pejoratively by this little band of reverse Sherwood Foresters, instead say to yourself – these financial bodies are supposed to have no oversight by we, the people of Australia? Really? How did that come to be a thing?

Well it came to be a thing because the banks and the think tanks kept saying it, and a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth for all practical purposes these days.

Look, money isn’t a get out of jail free card. Oh, sorry, yes it is of course. Let’s start again.

Just because your major activity, your role in society, involves money, doesn’t mean you can do what you like. I mean, banks aren’t churches, are they?

In almost all other major kinds of activities in our society we, as a people, through our government, decide how we want those things to work. If you are in medicine, teaching, building roads, serving food, police, flying planes, and all the rest, you work within structures, within limits, for the good of society.

Once upon a time only the church was, as they say, a law unto itself. the reason was obvious, they had you over a barrel, in an explicit, and exquisite form of blackmail – try to rein us in and we will damn your soul to eternal hell, no white robes, harps, bunches of grapes or virgins for you. So they were left alone and for centuries did very nicely thank you. Still do pretty nicely actually with tax exemptions, and ability to make their own laws, and avoidance of laws on discrimination, and largely a freedom from discrimination. Nice work if you can get it and they got it.

And then a second group achieved a similar status floating above and beyond ordinary mortals – the media. Achieved in the same way – hey, try to control us, even look sideways at us, and we will hack our phone, have you on the front page of a fish and chip wrapper; or running the perp walk between serried ranks of cameras and blonds with microphones as weapons, outside your own front door every morning. Wouldn’t like that would you mr politician, we know where you live, and we know where your children go to school, oh, and we have a copy of that ill-advised video you and your wife made on holiday in Bali. Any questions? Right then, piss off and leave us alone.

And now the third of this unholy triumvirate. The blackmailing style the same, the weapons slightly different. Not being poked by imps with red hot pokers for eternity, or junior reporters with red hot microphones, but worse, much worse, blackmailed by the guys, and gals, with the keys to the treasure chest. You want us to do what? Cut CEO salary from $20million to $19million, pass on interest rate savings to home buyers, lend more to small business, reduce fees on breathing while in bank, stop playing risky games with dodgy financial brothers? Right, we’re out of here, got a place to go to in Panama, Liberia, Burma, Zimbabwe, no nonsense about regulation there, few dollars to the country’s president and you can do what you like. See ya.

No wonder solidarity from the media, playing similar games. No wonder support from libertarians who mistake a license to print money for a statement about human freedom. No wonder that other industries, seeing the way these groups have got away with murder as effectively as Al Capone, are adopting the same tactics. MIners, clubs, supermarkets, manufacturers have all been at it, when faced with royalty payments, or regulation of problem gamblers, or food labelling.

So time we the people told our representatives we want the bluff called. Want banks behaving responsibly before we count to ten. Nine, ten, knockout. And the blackmail? To hell with it. Do you really think a rich country with 22 million people can’t develop new community banks if the others pick up their notes and coins and go home? Some genuine competition from groups prepared to work with community for a modest return rather than against it for greed would quickly emerge. Competition, you see, remember that quaint concept? Bit old-fashioned, but then I’m just an old fashioned guy with an old-fashioned idea about millionaires.

And with that victory under the belt the government could then tackle the media, and then, gulp, the church. Let’s move from the 14th to the 21st century in one giant leap. And put the fear of god into these other wannabe blackmailers while we are at it.

Oh, and that sound you hear? Tents being folded in the night as the freemarket think-tankers, no longer a job to do blocking regulation here and no money to be earned from doing so, head for Zimbabwe and freedom.

Writing on the wall


The world is divided into two kinds of substances – medicines and non-medicines. You will notice this doesn’t leave room for the pseudo-category of “alternative medicines”, those are substances that don’t exist.

Yet there appear to be moves to regulate the “alternative medicine” industry, with things like registration, regulation of activities, training requirements and so on. There are already, apparently, organisations whose membership comprises the various branches of quackery.

At first sight such moves might be welcomed, making sure particularly bad operatives were removed, raising standards, providing a recourse for “patients” treated badly. But it’s a two-edged sword and the negative side is much sharper than the positive. Why the quacks want such a system is apparent respectability. They would be “government approved”, could add some letters after their name “member of …”. Certificates of registration and membership to put on otherwise bare office walls, mimicking those that actual medical doctors have.

But with so little qualification in the real world the alternative medicine industry has set up a kind of parallel universe where virtual qualifications can be obtained. “Colleges of this” and “Institutes of that” give courses about nothing (as Seinfeld might say) and issue degrees when they are passed (wonder if anyone has ever failed?) – “Diploma of this”, Certificate of that” on the wall looks good to the casual visitor. But even more disturbingly, just in the corner of my eye, I seem to sense that some real universities are now offering units of mumbo jumbo too. I guess this is like the media offering “balance”, “she said, he said”, between rational thought on climate change and the denial industry.

In all of this the homeopaths, naturopaths, chiropracters, chinese herbalists, iridologists, reflexologists, and all the rest of this medieval superstition passing as medicine, are following the same path as those other believers from medieval times the creationists and the neoconservative libertarians. Creationists establish bible based “universities” which in the free speech US of A are seen as valid, and “museums” with exhibits of human-dinosaur coexistence. Libertarians set up “think tanks” funded by those public-spirited people from industries like tobacco and oil. In both cases the motive is the same, to give people spouting garbage a platform and a piece of paper on the wall, a set of letters after the name, that will convince the gullible that they are talking real science, real economics.

Hard to decide which of these three groups of charlatans is the most damaging. Possibly alternative medicine by a whisker (and the eye of a toad) if only because people can die horribly when they put their trust in the quack practitioners instead of real doctors. But the other two are damaging the minds of children on the one hand, and our society on the other.

Next time someone says to you “trust me I am from the college of libertarians” (or homeopaths or intelligent designers) look carefully at the fine print on the certificate on the wall. It’s probably a clause disclaiming all responsibility for your well-being. Treat it as an escape clause. Go and see a real economist, scientist or doctor.

Without the law

At various times and places your chance, as an ordinary member of the public, of being the victim of injustice were very high indeed. Kings could throw you into a dungeon and leave you there without charge or trial forever. There were witch hunts and vigilantes and posses, all determined to take the law into their own hands and punish whoever it was that they thought was guilty of something (not infrequently just guilty of having the wrong coloured skin, or the wrong religion). There were neighbours induced to spy on neighbours (in Nazi Germany, East Germany, and, most recently, in Libya). There were people forced to incriminate themselves in Stalin’s Russia and Joe McCarthy’s America. Poor people with poor or no lawyers rotted in jail or were hung for crimes later DNA evidence showed they were innocent of. Bullying can drive children out of school, gossiping can drive families out of neighbourhoods. All of it has been a trial by ordeal.

These days we have trial by media. I have written about this before, but it is getting steadily worse. It began with the adoption of the American style of silly young reporters sticking their microphones in front of the face of the accused as they entered court hoping, it seemed, that the not yet proved guilty person would break down, sobbing, on the courthouse steps and confess their guilt to the private confessional of the Channel nine reporter’s microphone. This continues (how can you lose? Even if, unaccountably, no person on trial has yet saved the taxpayer’s money by admitting their obvious guilt, you still have the footage of the silly young reporter asking the questions and the accused trying to shiftily avoid them) but the corruption of the legal process has now gone well beyond that. Current affairs programs will now run whole interviews with the person deemed, by the press, to be the most obvious suspect. Astonishingly, it seems, the obvious person is never the guilty one, as they will seriously explain to the viewing audience. That’s all right then, wonder who did do it? Such interviews have a considerable potential to affect a jury in a subsequent trial, but, who cares, ratings are all that matters. Television reporters will happily discuss all the evidence available to them, are permitted, these days, to follow the police squad as they break down doors, stop cars, search premises. Occasionally the reporter, will, as they learnt in long ago journalism school, throw in an “it is alleged” but almost invariably in the wrong place. Again, the likelihood of unsubstantiated, untested allegations being broadcast as fact and linked to an accused will almost certainly influence any twelve good men and true. Neighbours will be interviewed, prompted to say how surprised they were to discover they were living next door to a drug lab/terrorist/serial killer/sex fiend in such a quiet street which had never been raided by tv crews before.

Then, when a case is over, a guilty or not guilty verdict reached, a sentence handed down, will come the interviews with victims, family members, random people passing in the street, who will all agree that the sentence was too lenient or (occasionally) too harsh; the not guilty verdict outrageous, the guilty verdict unsound. Stern faced old journalists, or fresh-faced young ones, will happily point out, on the basis of their extensive experience and training in the law, and their detailed examination of all the evidence in a particular case, where the judge “went wrong”. Trying to destroy people’s confidence in the legal system, encourage vigilante action? Surely not …

But we have gone even beyond this. Not only do tv crews get to ride along on “drug busts”, but the whole field of law enforcement has been turned into a reality tv circus. Whether it is the customs service, highway patrols, random breath testing units, the approach is the same – ordinary people encountering the law will be turned into objects of derision, fun, humiliation. People who the television reporter decides are guilty of something, or appear to be guilty of something, or are of an ethnic group that is likely to be, he thinks, guilty of something, the judgement is made, the audience invited to witness the trial by ordeal for their entertainment. And later all of this information can be put together to form a program in which family friends of the convicted person say they don’t think he was guilty and “re-enactments” contradict evidence contested in a trial; or a whole series of dramatised “re-enactments” glamourise criminals and “crime matriarchs”, turning them into celebrities like any other celebrities.

It seems to me that in these quiet Australian streets 500 years of evolution of a justice system are being quickly trashed by media outlets intent only on making a profit, and we are returning to those earlier times and places where law meant nothing.

Are they guilty do you think?



The most striking Australian political event at the end of 2010 was possibly the election of a Liberal government in Victoria. In one sense it wasn’t that startling, since Labor had been in power for 11 years, and Australians are in the sometimes misguided habit of cheering on the underdog and thinking it’s time they had a go. Some commentators claimed that the size of the swing to the Liberals was the surprising thing, given that John Brumby was such a laid back kind of guy that no one, not even the opposition leader, seemed to have a bad word to say about him. But this completely misses the point that the swing was as big as it was precisely because even the Liberal leader couldn’t find a bad word to say about his former schoolmate. You would think if the Labor Party had learned anything in the last couple of years it would be that if you have a Labor Party behaving exactly like a Liberal Party (as they do at state and federal level these days) people will decide they might as well vote for the real Liberal Party, given any kind of excuse.

And the Victorian Liberals gave them the excuse with the familiar conservative Law’n’Order campaign, featuring the usual suspects of “more police on the streets” “armed guards on train stations” (!) and mandatory sentencing. I understand the feelings that people in cities have. As the cities become bigger and bigger and more crowded, crime in total grows. The disparities in wealth don’t help either, nor poor educational resources and lack of employment in outlying suburbs, nor the war on drugs. But mostly statistics show actual crime rates (taking into account population growth) falling, while what isn’t falling is the constant and growing media emphasis on crime in news bulletins. And crime presented in such a way that every citizen in the city (especially those living in “quiet streets”) is meant to feel afraid, very afraid, that at any moment they may be mugged in the street, have bullets fired into their house, suffer a violent home invasion, or be brutally murdered. Every such event is presented to the tv cameras as if it is some random piece of violence that could happen to anyone; only the small print, or a very low key piece days later, point out that most such events happen between people who know each other as a result of domestic disputes, or criminal (often drug related) activity.

But because the media is constantly running a fear campaign on law and order it is very easy for politicians to piggy back on it and indulge in bidding wars in which the two political “solutions”, more police, mandatory sentencing, are ratcheted up ever higher. No one pausing to ask whether people really want to live in a society in which armed police are everywhere in our cities, and where our jails fill up (as in America) by people with ever increasing minimum and mandatory sentences for often minor crimes. Nor does anyone pause to ask what the politician claiming to be “tough on crime” is going to do about the root causes of that crime in terms of education, employment, and economic viability.

Don’t get sucked in by all this – treat the media, and politicians, talking about crime and law and order with the same skepticism you apply to them talking about anything else. I have a feeling that if you had a quiet chat with most Australians and asked them what they want their politicians to do, the answers would involve better hospital services, more funding for public schools, more aged care and child care support, attention to local infrastructure (bridges are dear to my heart after the flooding of December), intelligent support for farmers, and a determination to leave the environment of state or country in a better state than when they took office (returning more water to rivers, and stopping tree clearing would be places I might start). Sure we all support our local police, and a commitment to improving their pay, facilities, and technology would go down well with everybody. But this is not what “law and order elections” are about, and when you hear a politician using this as the main reason to vote for them you might ask yourself, and them, what are they going to do about the really important, and real, issues we all face.

Of course we all want order in our society (and my goodness, Australians really don’t have to worry too much about lack of order in any rational assessment of our society), but a more important question to ask, of those who want to govern us, is what kind of a society do we want the order in?

Merely players


And so the Premier of South Australia wants television cameras in courtrooms. And television stations wonder, oh so hesitantly, whether this might not be a good idea for the justice system. Of course America, famous for the quality of its justice system, and the size of its prisons, lets cameras in, and this is one area where we haven't yet followed their lead.

How could you possibly argue against the proposition? After all, there have been endless television reality shows based on the police, rescue services, hospital emergency, surf life saving, operating theatres, customs, police recruits, fire brigades, airports, and I may have missed one or two. They all work in the same way – because the activities involve humans in traumatic and emotional circumstances, there will always be tears before bedtime, either from the people concerned, or from the professionals working with them, or preferably both. And all you then need to bump up ratings is a cameramen able and willing to get his lens so close to the crying face that the tears will glisten like small diamonds – and they can practice on funerals. Plenty of funerals.

While there is a rich harvest of tears, from protagonist and family, when people are drowning, or having livers removed, or bags searched, or doors kicked in, or houses burnt down, you can never have too many. And so the rise of artificial tears (like the rise of artificial pearls – produced on demand and cheaply) which can be made in the laboratory, by formula, in quiz shows, and talent quests, and weight loss contests, and obstacle races, and in families manipulated by swapping wives or parents, and, the big daddy of them all, in shared houses where one contestant is going to be removed each day until only one, newly rich, remains.

But somehow there is still not enough. Oh, many nuggets of gold among them, but they are desperate for the gold mine that would produce Welcome Stranger nuggets week after week. And that gold mine is the law. Sadly there are now no public executions where people are torn apart by lions, or hung drawn and quartered, and some killjoys even stopped public hangings and then all hangings, but there is still plenty of potential gold in the law courts, day after day, year after year. It's not as if the television cameras haven't made some use of the mine. Cameras are thrust into the faces of criminals and victims and lawyers entering and leaving court. Cameras are banged against the windows of police vans and police cars, anything to get a glimpse of the person trying to stay private inside. Stupid questions are asked of those on trial "Did you commit these murders?" as they enter court on the first day. Stupid questions are asked of the families of convicted people on the last day of trial. Do they stay silent? Well, there will still be tears. Do they get angry at our intrusion? Great television. And victim's families, always good for a tear if asked, once again, to relive the event.

So only one small step for a cameraman to get inside the court, one giant leap for mankind though. And once inside, are they there to serve the public by filming judge's verdicts in detail, as I heard one well-meaning proponent say? Yeah, right, course we are, nudge nudge. No, inside the court they will behave just as they now do outside, searching for those precious tears, worth their weight in gold. Just one more reality television show to feed the insatiable demand the public apparently has for raw emotion, people in trouble, stress, heartbreak, fear, depression, hatred, drama.

All the world's a stage. Or it soon will be.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.

The guilty party


The other day a man was released from jail in WA after serving part of a long sentence for a crime he was found, thanks to the magic of DNA, not to have committed. This seems to be a pattern in WA although I think it is not that the state convicts more innocent people, just that activist people and politicians keep pushing for justice. Other states, take note.

But I don't want to comment on the particular case in detail, except for one fact that jumped out at me. He had done it particularly tough in prison, victimised by guards and other prisoners, because he had refused to admit his guilt. Had refused to show remorse. Think about that for a moment. Would have had an easier time if he had confessed to doing something he hadn't done.

Conversely, just this week, a man was given a sentence less than the maximum applicable, because he had "shown remorse".

This business of "remorse" has been developed by the television media in recent years. I can't remember anything being made of it even ten years ago. And then taken up by populist politicians and now judges.

The logic (to the extent that there is a logic separate from the constant thirst by the media for tears, tears, and more tears, with as close up focus as can physically be made) seems to involve a desire to confirm that justice has been done. These days the television cameras, and the reporters clutching microphones, thrust into the faces of people entering court, assume guilt as charged. In Australia in 2009 it is assumed that whenever someone is arrested, or even merely mentioned by police, the punishment begins. Unflattering photos are published, background information supplied, old girlfriends interviewed, shock jock theories reported as fact, fictionalised tv series go into production, victims demand death penalties, judges are condemned for light sentences, all just one big party. Once upon a time judges used to worry about the leak of small amounts of information preventing a fair trial. Nowadays a fair trial is effectively impossible for anyone caught up in the media circus. And the television people, though driven by ratings, know this, and therefore need the accused to admit guilt, show remorse, in order to justify the lynch mob behaviour that has accompanied arrest, trial, and conviction. And someone who refuses to play the game, show remorse, will be vilified even more in the media.

This kind of legal system was once known to us only through books and films, the middle ages accounts of witch duckings, and stocks, and dungeons, and crowds witnessing executions, and the wild west with its tarring and feathering and gunfights and hangings from the highest tree. We thought we had reached a point where an independent legal system ensured that everyone could get a fair trial and a thoughtful sentence if guilty. We thought that it was better that nine guilty people went free than for one innocent person to be wrongly convicted. And that remorse was something for the prisoner to consider in the privacy of his own conscience.

Old fashioned, eh? On with the entertainment. No time for remorse by television journalists.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.

It’s a knockout

I don't suppose any of you will have noticed, but there was a very minor Press kerfuffle last week about some football player accused of rape. While the television reporters were paying lip service to the idea that he hadn't been convicted yet, they were already speculating, indeed running viewer polls, on whether he should be punished by being stopped from playing football. Television reporters do have trouble with that whole "innocent until guilty" malarkey on which our justice system depends, and seem to have missed the class which explained when to drop in that magic word "alleged". But they have also, it seems, lost any sense of self-awareness of the consequence of their own actions that my three year old grandson already has. One network reported that the girl's lawyer had asked that the family's privacy be respected, and they read out that sentence while running a bit of film footage of the girl and her father rushing for their car at the court, obtained by some intrepid and principled cameraman pushing his camera through the gate of the courtyard. They had though, in some confused sense of morality, pixellated the faces.

There was then a discussion about how the football club concerned should stop the players drinking, outraged that these players should get drunk. The television channels of course revel in champagne corks being popped after victories, will cheerfully and laughingly report that football players and supporters are still on a two day binge after a major win. Will suggest in interviews that a player should go out and have some beers. Will happily promote alcohol in adverts, including on football jumpers. Self awareness gone missing again.

In a not unrelated story came news of a new fad among schoolboys, indulging in brawls (one which was fatal) of the "Fight Club" kind, egged on by cheering crowds and recorded on mobile phones for YouTube distribution. Again I saw much discussion by television pundits, and much tut tutting by presenters, wondering what the youth of today was coming to, how could this be happening? This is, I remind myself, the same television that delights in showing knockdowns in boxing matches, and turns winning boxers into media darlings. Which shows brawls in football and basketball, murmuring approval. Which dismisses any demands for less brutality in football, scoffing that the demanders are girly wimps, and football is a man's game. Which relishes people being hurt, bruised, broken by fast bowling in cricket, replaying incidents over and over in slow motion. That runs ads which use likely violence between rival teams to promote coming games. Which runs reality shows in which film sent in by viewers showing people being hurt in accidents is used for laughter and entertainment. In which a game show glories in people being hurt on an obstacle course. That makes glamorous heroes of violent underworld figures. Which delights in protests being violently broken up by the police. And all of that before we even get to the constant diet of American cop shows in which extensive violence is a necessary ingredient. But no self-awareness about all this in television land.

I wonder where the youth could have possibly gotten the idea that violence is desirable and glamorous, as Australian as meat pie and coca-cola?

I know the owners of the television networks (allegedly) keenly follow this column, seeking answers as to where Australian society has gone wrong in the last 50 years. As soon as they have finished reading, and become aware of the problem, they will, no doubt, be on the phone to their programmers, demanding changes. Pointing out that words have meaning, actions have consequences, and that a constant promotion of alcohol and violence among the young might be having an effect. And stating firmly that it is not just the violent content itself that matters (as is often glibly said) but the context of warm and enthusiastic approval that surrounds it on modern television broadcasts. Telling producers, presenters, sports reporters to get their act together, change their ways, show that violence is not to be tolerated. Except to the extent that such actions might impinge upon ratings and revenue of course. But leaving that aside, any action to reduce television-sanctioned violence will be fully supported.

But I wouldn't bet on a knockout in the tenth round. Would you?

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.