Doctor, doctor, gimme the news

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All over this planet, millions of species representing the end point of 4 billion years of evolution, living in ecosystems representing the end point of millions of years of ecological interaction, are being made extinct at a rate probably unprecedented in the history of Earth, and towards an end point seen only a few times in that history.

An incredible 100,000 or so species are estimated to be going extinct each year towards a total loss in just a few decades of at least half those existing just 100 years ago (when the extinction rate first gathered pace). My feeling is that estimates like “a half” represent scientists being cautious. That really the planet is faced with the extinction of 90% or more, and the last time that happened was a quarter of a billion years ago. The last time anything like the extent of the events of these two centuries happened was 65 million years ago as a large meteor exploded against the planet. The last significant set of extinctions was around 25,000 years ago as the climatic events of the end of the ice ages drove many large species, especially mammals, to extinction.
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Down down

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As I write the hunt for any sign of the missing Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 is still proceeding unsuccessfully.

These events bring out the worst in the media, and I find another reason to avoid watching tv news bulletins. The shameful sight of a paparazzi gang at the airport surrounding frightened and frantic relatives of passengers is enough to turn my stomach, and again make me wonder at the morality of the media. Also interviews of relatives on tv programs, questions designed to elicit grief and tears which alert cameramen are ready to close focus on. And nonsense about “fate” and “miracles” and prayers, and stories of people who almost caught the plane but didn’t or did catch the plane when they shouldn’t have.
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The buck stops here

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“The man who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart, but if he is still a socialist at forty he has no head.” (Aristide Briand (1862-1932)) Well, Aristide, Prime Minister of France 11 times, was certainly a Socialist when young, but perhaps felt himself as an international statesmen becoming more right-wing as he became older.

It is an aphorism that is endlessly quoted, with knowing smirks, by the Right, most famously by Churchill, trying to counteract the opposite observation – “Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.” – by John Stuart Mill. And trying to counteract modern studies showing that politically conservative people have on average a lower IQ than politically progressive people.

Not the point I want to discuss though, though related.
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Paladin

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A bit of respite for you on this blog as the climate systems of the planet start to go haywire under the relentless warming.

I have, as I told you a little while ago, been watching DVDs of old movies and old and once-enjoyed tv series. Am finding it now impossible to watch news and current affairs on tv because of their relentless triviality alternated with the promotion of Rupert Murdoch’s grim vision for life, the universe, and everything. And where once were quality drama and comedy and documentary programs there is now a wasteland of “reality tv”(!) and poor quality, mostly American, cop shows and clones of “Two and a half men” (three halves, tops). [Yes, yes, I have auditioned for a part in Grumpy Old Men, but was turned down for being too grumpy].

Have discovered that there are now companies who have available, streamed or on DVD, thousands of old series, in demand by the Grumpy Baby Boomer set, that huge market. So, one can choose the targets of ones grumpiness, or enjoyment, in the comfort of the home.

Anyway, I have discovered, among box sets of “Two and a half men”, many gems. Including one I never thought I would see again “Have gun will travel”, I had previously listed this among my best tv of all time essay and the more recent update but noted that I hadn’t seen it in 50 years and wasn’t sure how it would stand up to a re-visit. Now I have, and it does.
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Denial’s advocate

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The MSM standard practice is to interview by taking the worst most extreme antitheses, and or “talking points”, from deniers (for example), and using them as questions for climate scientists (for example). Similarly in interviewing a Labor minister the questions are obtained from the most recent talking points released by the Liberal Party. This practice has become so ubiquitous as to be accepted as merely “the way things are done”.

I guess if you asked a journalist about this they would, after expressing surprise that you were questioning this approach, express a couple of reasons for it. One would be that it saves time, that journalists in this time of media cost-cutting and job-shedding, simply are unable to research a topic in any meaningful way before doing an interview. Indeed I suspect that the idea of “research” being anything EXCEPT reading something from an opponent is now foreign to journalism in Australia.
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Can’t judge a packet by…

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This week came the very welcome news that Ireland is to follow Australia’s lead in forcing cigarettes into plain drab packaging containing only health warnings.

Couple of things struck me. One was that the media report felt obliged to seek the “reaction”, in the interests of balance you understand, of a spokesperson for the biggest tobacco company in the world. Now you, I’m sure, like I, will be amazed to learn that the BAT man was opposed to the Irish government’s move. Shocked I was.
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Gresham’s Second Law

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Rupert Murdoch’s dominance of the Australian media is usually spoken of in terms of the 70% share his newspapers have in the Australian market. That is almost three-quarters of the Australian public are exposed (often with no alternative) to the Gospel according to Rupert every day. Every day exposed to his neoconservative ideology and his absolute determination to destroy those left of centre parties Labor and The Greens.

But the problem is much worse than mere market share. Mr Murdoch, no fool whatever his other failings, realised very early on that, just like a large share holding in a company leads to control of the company, 70% media saturation can be turned into 100% control of political discourse.
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Read the news today, oh boy

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I first became aware of “news” in 1956, which was, in retrospect, not a bad year to do so. My own personal news was that this was my last year of primary school, last year of childhood you could say, and 1957 would bring the first year of adulthood, the simultaneously frightening and exciting prospect of high school.

Unaccountably the rest of the planet seemed blissfully unaware that I was, at least in my head if not out loud, singing “Watch out World, here I come”. They seemed preoccupied with other stuff in that year of my awakening awareness of news that was to continue for a lifetime.

Plenty of other stuff had happened since I was born (the years known as AD for After David), small matters like the end of world wars, atomic bombs, Berlin Wall, Long March, Korean War, Indian independence, a new Queen of England, death of Stalin, the voting out and voting in of Churchill, and so on, but I had been too young to take much notice of (or understand had I done so) those interesting times I was living in.

But then came 1956, and my mind sprang to attention as the world seemed to erupt in serious, newsworthy events, most with long-term implications. Suez! Hungary! Olympics in Melbourne! TV in Australia! Elvis Presley! First commercial nuclear power plant! Black protests (Rosa Parks having done her courageous thing in December 1955) increasing in America!

From then on of course, year after year, newsworthy events kept happening until you felt like screaming “stop the world I want to get off”. There was Sputnik in 1957 (the whole world, it seemed, including me, stood outside their houses at night, getting cricks in their necks as they stared upwards at a tiny manmade star moving, it seemed unbelievable, through space. Or, almost as incredibly, it was possible to listen, on a radio, to the high-pitched beeping sound that was the star communicating with Earth. Advanced technology, completely indistinguishable from magic, and destined, though few of us knew at the time, to revolutionise communications among other things).

There was the election and killing of JFK, the build-up in Vietnam, the Beatles, Castro, riots in Paris, the Prague Spring, Woodstock, the assassination of Allende, the end of the Vietnam War, man on the Moon, and on and on as Sixties became Seventies and beyond.

All through these decades, as the world settled back into a new order after the end of World War Two (like a city rebuilding after an earthquake), serious news was related to us in serious ways. Morning newspapers gave sober facts, thoughtful editorials, expert analysis, on the significant events of the previous day at home and abroad. Television and radio had major evening news bulletins to do likewise. Oh, of course there was also frivolous stuff all through the media, but there seemed to be a recognition (especially from the ABC, but other media outlets as well), that there needed to be a core of seriousness for serious times. That there were things that an educated public needed to know.

But then, somewhere along the way to the 21st Century (and this won’t be news to any observant human being), everything changed. Oh, there was no shortage of significant world events, but the way they were, or weren’t communicated to the public changed.

On the pretext that there was more news to report, the “24 hour News Cycle” became a self-fulfilling description, and 24 hour news channels came into being. Instead of single major news bulletins in an evening, short news grabs were pumped out all through the day, and lasted no longer than a ay. And because when you got down to it there weren’t any more significant events than there had been, “news” had to be padded out with a white noise of trivia.

But by happy coincidence this padding served another function. Because so much “news” was being pumped out by the media it was hard to make people (whose parents and grandparents had once clustered eagerly around a radio to hear the 7pm Bulletin) take any interest in news bulletins. So they had to be turned into entertainment. Short snappy tabloid style reports replaced longer factual ones. Nothing could be reported that didn’t have video footage to accompany it. Analysis from experts was replaced by opinions from small numbers of regular ideologues (some employed, some on contracts). Sport dominated bulletins that had once kept it to a minimum, including at times running sporting stories as the lead.

Bulletins had to end on a happy note, so funny animals, whacky people, strange events, of a kind once restricted to tabloid newspapers or sideshow alleys, appeared, often taking more time than a report of, say, World War Three breaking out. And then began to be dotted through the bulletin to lighten it up. Conversely, to add suspense and interest, in the way of a lurid crime novel, the networks began including scare campaigns in which anything and everything in your kitchen could kill you, strangers could slaughter you, children be abducted, yellow hordes invade, aircraft crash, and so on. Every day some new thing to fear – keep reading/watching, we will keep you alert and alarmed, keep you warned about what to be fearful of.

So news bulletins, once so fundamental to a well-informed democracy, turned into glossy gossip magazines with moving pictures. And the “24 Hour News Channels” going the same way except at greater length with much repetition, and slabs of talking heads from right-wing think tanks or shock jock radio or Retired-Conservative-Politician-Land.

Then to compound (if ’twere needed) the problem, politicians, seeing the way the electronic wind was blowing, and realising that the days of thoughtful, longer, discussions of policy or events was long gone, began speaking in sound bites themselves to fit into the new news style. And, to be helpful, associating political stunts, as colourful and entertaining as possible, to go with the three word slogans and three sentence propaganda. There you are, a small package beautifully tailored for insertion straight into “news” bulletins 2013-style.

So a torrent of news noise washes across this land. Little or no information, in fact often deliberately misleading information through the stunts and slogans, just a scrap-book of sound and fury signifying nothing. And, as an unforeseen consequence, a view of the world promoted in which everything is of equal significance, or that nothing is of any significance. Wars and rumours of war of no more interest than skate-boarding dogs or surf-skiing hamsters. No ability of the public to distinguish what if anything is of concern and importance among all the fake fear campaigns and funny animals.

No way now that a child born in 2002 could see 2013 as a memorable year of great world events, or understand what they mean.

Nor could anyone else.

Reality has a science bias

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We (when I say “we” I mean sentient beings) have long complained about the fake balance/false equivalence practices of modern journalism. You know, where the work of 100,000 scientists on climate change is represented by one scientist, blinking in the unaccustomed studio bright lights, debating, on apparently equal numerical terms, a lone nutter funded by energy companies, and with the experience of 100 tv debates behind him.

But it is much more insidious than that. “Science” in the media is presented as if it is just one of many stakeholders, pressure groups, lobbyists, special interests, arguing for”its” share with, say, big business, farmers, social services, schools, hospitals, small business, migrants, what have you.

But, as I saw someone remark on twitter “science is a verb not a noun”, and this remark helped me to consolidate what had merely been mulling. Science is not just another lobby group but the only way (the scientific method) we have of revealing reality. So the “debate”, if you like, is not between the interests of science and the interests of big business, but about how the latter match with the real world.

Similarly there is no such thing as “scientific opinion” and therefore it cannot be matched against the opinions of, say, a right-wing think tank using free market libertarian ideology to serve business interests. Facts are facts, and you can’t have your own even if you have paid handsomely for opinions.

So there you are. Wanna have a debate between, say, farmers, miners and developers about land use? Go for it, let them put their cases, their proposals, their predictions of outcomes. But then let’s see what the science actually says about the real world outside the bubble of get-rich-quick schemes which, of course, are completely sustainable.

Instead of a chair on which a single scientist sits, imagine the tv studio bathed, like cosmic background radiation bathes the universe, in the light of reality. And imagine the special interest wanna-be-richer guys shielding their eyes from the light as they try to argue against facts with opinions, to the derision of a live studio audience.

Now that’s balance.

Put on your red dress

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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?