Exempt from public haunt

2

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything” (As you like it)

Was thinking about blog inspiration the other day, by pure chance, not struggling with writers block, not me, nosireebob. One of my twitterfriends, HD Rebner, was wondering where his new ideas for tweets were going to come from, and for some reason Duke Senior’s words came to mind. Perhaps they in turn arose from Bill Shakespeare having a writer’s block (but heaven knows, any he did have must have been as brief as Charles Dickens’ writer’s blocks!), wondering where the next inspiration would appear.

Don’t know about other bloggers but Duke Senior’s prescription seemed pretty good for Watermelon. If I wanted to be a world famous blogger I would be a single-topic blogger – American politics, cake decorating, atheism, climate change, media – and just keep hammering away at that topic day after day. But that would bore me silly, and bore you, my faithful followers used to a smorgasbord of subjects, a pot pourri of polemic, a passing parade of media topics, an harangue about history, silly as well I think.

So on we go, exempt from public haunt, finding sermons, tongues, books, as I stare out of the windows of Wuthering Heights. But not sure about the “good in everything” – think that would bore us both too.

And blogging fame may just have to wait a little longer.

Put on your red dress

7

The previous post caused me a lot of difficulty in writing. Most of the pieces I post here flow easily, write themselves almost. I rarely re-read and almost never edit. It probably shows, although I tend to disagree with Sheridan when he said “You write with ease to show your breeding, but easy writing’s vile hard reading”. I find the opposite, although I should say that I get the post more or less sorted out in my head before I ever put one finger to keyboard, so I am not quite doing automatic writing.

But the previous post was one where the flow just didn’t flow, and I had to keep hacking about, adding bits, removing bits. Eventually I needed to stop before it became unwieldy and unreadable and you, dear Reader, lost patience with it.

I think part of the reason was that I was trying to pack several different things into it, and, although that is often the case on this blog, the trouble here was that each thing was quite large and unwieldy in its own right. So I thought I had better have a go at a follow-up post to explain what I was trying to do (indulge me for once, I never do this).

Should say hastily (and guiltily) I wasn’t really concerned with the details. Hence my egregious mistake with dress colour (and the spelling of “Kernot”, D’Oh), but good to know you guys paying attention. My purpose was three-fold:

First I have long been interested in the turning points of history. A silly phrase, in one way (rather like “transitional fossils” in evolution, every point in history is a turning point), but one widely used. Three options – the inevitable march of ideology and events theory; the Great Man theory; the horseshoe nail theory. I have always preferred the latter, and the Lewinsky-Clinton affair is a classic example. If Monica had not joined the White House Intern Program, if she had not been in contact directly with Clinton, hell, if she had taken the red, sorry, blue dress off first, or washed it, then history would have been different. “For want of a dry cleaner the White House was lost” perhaps.

Second I was trying to subvert the whole “Great Man” thing in another way too. Here was Bill Clinton, mover and shaker, most powerful man in the world, leader of the free world, nuclear codes in satchel, all that crap. And there was a young girl just out of college. Power disparity? Of course. But in another way she proved far more powerful than he did, or, at the very least, she affected his world as much, or more, than he did her’s. Strikes me that this has probably been the case on far more occasions than we ever know about.

Virginia Woolf said that “Anon” in British literature was usually a woman. The women behind the scenes of the captains and kings (and queens, possibly, in case of Queen Anne) were often (though of course not always) “Anon” too. Their roles just as unknown to history as those of anonymous writers.

Finally, something touched on, but not expanded, in the post, the use of private matters as weapons in political discourse. This seems to me, while always a possibility in the past (especially where homosexuality or adultery involved), to have grown much more prevalent since Lewinsky. It seems to me that what politicians do in privacy, what their sexual preferences are, is of no relevance to, should not be a part of, political discourse.

The only exceptions to this would be:
1 where the activity is illegal, eg, most obviously, paedophilia, or rape
2 where the activity could certainly lead to blackmail with security implications, or
3 where the politician concerned has made a political career on a platform of “family values”, or anti abortion, or anti gay, and so on.

Apart from that, the fact that politics makes strange bedfellows is of no concern of mine or anyone else. It does not, as is often said, go to “character” (except in the three examples I gave above). Someone’s sexual preferences and partners go less to “character” in a politician than do, say, being an evangelical, or receiving payments from lobbyists, or being a vegetarian.

But these days the media has convinced the public that the reverse is true. In recent times there has been the horrid case of a Gay Club being “staked out” by a tv camera crew in order to film a NSW politician leaving and run with the footage for days until his resignation was forced.

More recently of course has been Peter Slipper, where, to put it even at its simplest, private sexually-charged text messages between adults were splashed all over the Press to force the resignation of a Speaker of Parliament and the collapse of a government. The former succeeded, the latter, just, not.

This stuff shouldn’t happen in Australia, or indeed anywhere else.

There, have I cleared the water, or muddied the pond?

Words, words, words

5

Not that you’ve had many lately. Sorry about that. Got through latest chemo session on Monday-Tuesday. Went ok, but an almost unbearable 6 hours plus 2 hours travel made for a very tiring day. Now going through the dreaded 5 days of steroids. That knocks me round more than the other chemicals, so much so that I find it impossible to do the deep and meaningful sustained creative writing of the kind you have come to expect.

I can tweet though, keep my scrambled brain, usually, on track long enough to write a shallow but meaningful 25 words or so. Follow me @watermelon_man if you don’t already – 2767 followers can’t be wrong. Well they can I suppose, but probably not ALL of them eh?

Speaking of twitter. It began in 2006. The US Library of Congress in 2010 took on the role of archiving. It has so far archived 170 billion tweets to April 2010  (since 2006), but new tweets are now growing at a staggering rate of 500 million a day! (). Hard to see how they can ever catch up.

Made me think though. I’ve now contributed over 50,000 of those tweets. Plus there are hundreds of millions of blogs, Facebook and all the rest. Plus all the traditional tv and radio, and even more traditional newspapers, magazines, books.  Facts, half-truths, lies, analysis, propaganda, research, press releases, entertainment are spewing out in what must be many billions a day now.

No one can keep up with a tiny fraction of that. So we get our information from a few sources we can keep up with. If we are lucky, and have chosen wisely, we get good information. If not then not. GIGO as we used to wisely say in the early computer age.

But what are you doing, still contributing to this text tsunami of words, I hear you ask. And a good question. I have stopped keeping a diary after over 20 years. Pointless, I decided, last year, thousands of scribbled, illegible words no one would read. Have stopped writing a weekly column for local newspaper after 8 years, and yesterday handed over the editorship of our little local monthly magazine I’ve edited for five years. “Simplify, simplify” said Thoreau, and I have.

But I’ll keep tweeting, and blogging, away. Good way to keep my mind ticking over if not exactly at its full throttle past. Excellent way to keep in touch with, interact with, learn from, make friends and, perhaps, influence people all over the planet.

My Word.

On the way to the forum

4

A funny thing happened after an election last Saturday in a little town called Canberra not a million miles from Watermelon Headquarters. It’s only a little local political curiosity, perhaps, but it may, if I stretch a point, have some resonance elsewhere.

The leader of the local conservatives, out of power for some years, made an astonishing speech on election night claiming “victory”. He hadn’t actually won, you understand, no one had. Trends were clear, general features of the final result reasonably obvious, but he hadn’t “won” (and nor had anyone else!). But what he was saying was that there had been a “swing” towards his party, and that, therefore (the logic was a little fuzzy) he had won the election because a swing meant that the public were unhappy with the previous government (a coalition of Labor and Greens) and so wanted him.

Now this concept, that you don’t have to win a majority of seats (the Westminster system for several hundred years) to become a government, merely get more votes and seats than you got last time was stunning in its audacity, and if applied retrospectively would considerably alter the course of history in most countries. But it was so silly that I kept expecting the room in which he was speaking to erupt into laughter “yes, good one Zed, what a joker you are”.

But the very next day the federal leader of the conservatives (The “Liberal” Party, for historical reasons irrelevant for decades) joined in. Yes indeed, he suggested, good old Zed had a “moral claim” to be the next government. It was all a bit like losing a game of tennis, and later claiming that the rules were now changed and the person who hit the net the most was the winner; or a game of cricket where you claimed that padding the ball away was really worth six runs.

What both of them were intent on doing was bullying The Greens, obviously about to hold the balance of power again, into backing the conservatives, diametrically opposed politically to Greens, instead of Labor again, much more closely allied politically. The point of these statements was also, more importantly, to massage the media narrative, and through that the public expectations.

I was reminded of the 2000 US Presidential election where the Republican-friendly media prematurely declared Bush the winner in Ohio, another narrative massage, but then turned the Florida post-election legal battle into one where the people stealing the election were the good guys, and those appealing for justice and democracy were the bad guys ( representing “Sore-Loserman”). Australian conservatives have learnt a lot from Republicans, and this election night grab for power in Canberra was another example of Rovian tactics in action.

It is inconceivable that it will work of course, but even if it doesn’t it leaves behind a sense of injustice, even perhaps unlawfulness, if the media really come to the party. Helps to delegitimise the government in the same way Mr Abbott did after the 2010 election faced with a similar scenario. In fact another motive for him may well be to add support to his view he was “robbed” in 2010 by “that woman”.

Once upon a time it seemed that both sides of politics played by the rules. Fought an election hard, but then accepted the verdict of the people even in close contexts. Anything else would not be cricket. The outcome would affect the country economically, philosophically, culturally, but the ebb and flow of election results would balance all that out eventually over the years.

These days big money is involved. If you can get a conservative party into power then the government will be open to business. All kinds of restrictions will be scrapped, deals done, wars, quite possibly, started, mines opened, forests cleared, workplace wages and conditions substantially reduced. Big money for the corporations. And big money for the conservative politicians after they leave politics – seats on Boards, consultancies, media roles, and so on.

So now anything goes. War by other means. War to install conservative governments and reap the spoils of office.

Got a feeling we ain’t seen nothing yet.

The background. The Australian Capital Territory (ie the land on which Canberra, Australia’s capital, sits, and surrounding areas) with a population of around 370,000, gained self-government in 1988. It had previously been administered by a federal minister and department. Its parliament (the Assembly) currently has 17 elected members. There is a fixed term of office, with elections every four years, and a “Hare-Clark” electoral system, giving it, with Tasmania, the fairest election results in the country. Fairest in the sense of parties being represented in parliament proportional, as closely as possible, to their percentage of votes.

I won’t go into the considerable detail here. Just note that instead of 17 electorates, one per member, there are just three, two of which have five members and a larger one seven. Within each electorate, to simplify, each party gets a number of members proportional to its total vote (bearing in mind the limitation that members can’t be part people). The system is about as fair as it could be, breaking the stranglehold the two major parties normally have. As a result the ACT Assembly very rarely sees one party with a majority of seats, and negotiations and agreements have to be made with third parties (these days usually The Greens) or Independents.

Vote early, vote often

15

I missed voting in our recent Local Council elections. First time in nearly 50 years I haven’t voted in whatever local, state, federal elections (even voted in British election of 1974 when I was living there briefly) were on. My first election where I could vote (after years of waiting impatiently) was the federal election of 1963 where Menzies clawed back much of the ground he had lost in 1961 (where he had scraped in by one seat). And away I went, election after election, triumphs and disappointments, near run things and landslides.

Even went in 1969, through a contact, to the old Tally Room with its huge mechanical boards fed by people counting paper voting slips. Sat there early on, savouring the obvious Whitlam victory, then, in my own miniature “Don’s Party” (David Williamson, who must have watched with the same thoughts I had), watched the signs subtly change and the Whitlam years postponed for another three. Incidentally I think a great pity the old Board is now abandoned, it was concrete democracy in action. Computers not the same at all.

I missed voting this time with a good excuse, I was just being released from hospital, still very sick, after a serious illness, but still felt guilty. I see voting as not just a privilege but a responsibility. So yes, I am totally in favour of what conservatives angrily call “compulsory voting” but in fact is merely “turn up and get your name crossed off on election day” (or, as in my case, phone or write in with a good excuse). Not too onerous eh? No worse than turning up to get your car registered.

In countries that don’t have “compulsory voting”, like the US and the UK, the result of the election is decided by, has a random element added, who can be “got out to vote”. Alternatively, as in the latest Republican strategy in the US, “how many people unlikely to vote for us can we prevent voting by a range of tricks?”. Compulsory voting takes away that random element, and the dirty tricks, and gives everyone a chance to express their preference for the years ahead. With everyone voting – rich and poor, young and old, all ethnic groups – politicians at least have to pay lip service to governing for “all the people” rather than just for the ones who come out to vote.

Anyway, my apologies to all my fellow citizens in this Valley. There was a candidate I wanted to succeed, and at least one I wanted not to, but I can’t, until the next election, complain about the results, not having contributed to them.

I will certainly make sure I am fit by the next federal election in a year’s time. A desperately important one, that everyone has a duty to help decide.

See you at the voting booth!

Telling stories

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You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.(Humbert Wolfe)

It is an image for our times, the pulling down of the statue of the dictator Saddam Hussein. We all know now it was a fake – the statue was pulled down by American soldiers (one of whom made a big mistake, draping American flag over head of statue, which had to be quickly removed). The “cheering crowds” “filling the square” were some of the Iraqi exiles brought in by the Americans, made to look like a big crowd by making sure cameras were focused right up close on this small rent-a-crowd.

The reason for this fakery? It had to be created to support a narrative. Defence Secretary Rumsfeld had claimed, as the invasion was about to begin, that the Americans would be welcomed with cheering crowds throwing flowers to the troops. That is, the narrative was a replay of American troops liberating Paris in 1944. The reality was that it was a replay of the Germans invading Paris in 1940. So in the absence of beautiful women with flowers, the “pulling down the statue” had to be faked. Had no effect on reality, of course, as the next few years showed, but the images kept the public content and were shown over and over by the compliant media.

I have considered this incident at some length because it has become the model for much that passes as mainstream journalism these days, and because politics has evolved to take advantage of it. Just yesterday Kevin Rudd turned up in a street and was, according to media, “mobbed” by an adoring crowd, thus proving his popularity. In an article headed “Rudd humbled then mobbed” we had

“Hitting the streets of Brisbane yesterday Kevin Rudd was mobbed by excited supporters ahead of Monday’s vote on the Labor leadership.” and then remarkable journalist honesty – “The Rudd’s walk through the Mall was a chance for photographers to capture the images to reinforce the message from today’s three opinion polls”

Now the thing looked staged to me, like the Hussein statue. Cameras in close-up suggesting throngs (one later from distance showing small group and many of them the media). A sort of uniform look to the young people (someone later queried a Young Labor group). I don’t know the truth, but the point is, nor did the journalists. An event had been organised which matched their perception (and some opinion polls) of Rudd as rock star, and no one was going to rock that boat. Too much effort perhaps, or not suiting the agenda of journalist or media proprietor.

These kind of stunts have become an almost daily part of Tony Abbott’s free media campaign. Day after day the media would be summoned to see Tony – in hard hat, white coat, overalls, swimming costume, goggles – gut a fish, sit in a truck, hammer a nail, swim in a race, buy some cake. All content free – just an extended photo opportunity and a sound bite, off with the goggles and white coat, on to the next stunt. And yet, each night the journalists would happily, uncritically, report this rubbish as if they were a Liberal Party advertising agency doing a paid promotion. As they effectively were.

And day after day, when they weren’t practising journalism as stenography to the powerful (and practising a journalism that relies on saying and doing exactly what your colleagues are saying and doing), they were promoting false balance, citing anonymous “sources”, and promoting, almost unanimously (some overtly, some subtly), the interests of conservative political parties.

Whenever I, and others, make observations like this, we are met with a strong reaction from journalists. Most, probably all, journalists see themselves as a noble profession, part of the fourth estate, defending the people against the first two estates (well, not the church of course. Or royalty. But, you know). In every journalist’s knapsack is a Woodward baton. And a phone on which the first Watergate call will be received.

They are good people, family people, loving children and pets, good citizens. And hard-working, highly trained professionals doing stressful jobs that are totally misunderstood outside the profession. Oh, and proprietor interference with what they produce? Come on, get your tinfoil hat off mate.

So why the huge disconnect between how journalists perceive their own profession and how it is perceived by a number of anonymous highly ranked commentators? Two reasons I think (I’m talking political journalists here, but the same thing would apply to sports journalists, business journalists, entertainment journalists). The first is that the journalists, whatever media outlet, seem to see themselves as something of a club, and a beleaguered club, of people misunderstood by the general public. Much in the same way as politicians and policemen, journalists think no one appreciates how hard the work is, what long irregular hours they work, what skills are required. They work alongside each other, socialise, marry each other, move between different media outlets, give each other industry awards. They no longer compete with each other for “scoops”. Instead (just as in the lack of competition between banks, oil companies) they ensure that if one person does a story everyone else will immediately do the same story in exactly the same way, so no one gains any advantage. Breaking ranks to either ignore a particularly crap story, or investigate something others were not asking questions about might leave you exposed on a limb, making a mistake. Besides, to question something your mates were accepting would be unsporting, might embarrass, expose, a friend, and you won’t do that to your friends and don’t expect them to do it to you.

But it gets worse. The journalists not only work and play with each other but with the subjects of their work, the politicians. All the same things apply. No one understands them like each other, they share a workplace, intermarry, party together, are each other’s BFF or worst enemy. They share secrets, and, like doctors and priests, journalists can guarantee the secrecy of the confessional. Say what you like, political person, and I will publish, anonymously, no more and no less than you want published to suit your purposes. You win, I win (promotions and by-lines and tv shows if secret big enough), we are all looking out for each other in parliament house. And here too, no one asks awkward questions, or friendships could be lost, access to secrets curtailed. You scratch my back, I’ll report your political stunt as if it is the Gettysburg Address. But even more than that I think. The journalists have come to see themselves as players, politicians themselves, but for minor accidents of pre-selection. They are not umpires, linesmen, referring games, reporting infringements, showing red cards, but out on the field running and tackling with the rest of the team. Will identify so strongly with particular individuals, particular political parties, that their interests become indistinguishable, and it is not uncommon to hear a journalist say “we” when they mean the political party of their preference.

And that almost does it, with one final polish. I don’t think Rupert Murdoch and other media owners (including the new intrusion of billionaire miners) get on the phone to reporters and say “spike that story” or “lose that tape” or “praise that politician” as they are said to have done in years gone by. You will often hear them and their employees denying that any such instructions are given and I believe it. Why would you bother? Much easier (and with the advantage of plausible deniability) to use the pyramid approach. Appoint a managing editor (or whatever is the senior post) who is absolutely sympatico to the owners ideas, politics, philosophy, so close as to be like Young Liberal twins separated at birth. He (occasionally she) then appoints the next level of management, half a dozen editors, say. Needless to say each of those will have the right family background, have attended the right school, and will undergo careful interviewing to ensure not a breath of heterodoxy has crept in at, say, university. Leave those editors, producers, whatever to appoint the next level of journalists, presenters etc, the public face, coal face people. Should go without saying that those people in turn, the actual, so to speak, workers, will all be of the right kind, and so on.

From then on the thing runs itself. Not only have you handpicked the team individually, but all of them having similar world views means they reinforce each other’s approaches. And since all the other media outlets have been similarly staffed, the linkages will ensure that all can be relied upon to come up with the same stories, presented in the same ways, none of which, it can be guaranteed, will make a hair on the proprietor’s head curl (although, just for the look of the thing, an occasional maverick will occupy a column). He or she can relax, knowing that their business and political interests are being soundly cultivated, and simply count their money.

And the journalists, working hard, can remain indignant that anyone could suggest there is political interference in their noble calling.

Hard to think of any losers in that system of managing the fourth estate.

Well, except for the third estate of course.