Thursday, January 22

Moral analysis, dubious conclusions

Perhaps it's the silly season, when newspaper editors get a bit desperate for stuff to fill their pages (although surely not this year, with the inauguration of Barack Obama!), or perhaps it's all that spare time academics have during the university vacation.

Whatever, January seems to be a month which sees Deakin University law professor Mirko Bagaric (pictured) at his most prolific with confronting commentaries, and opinion page editors at their keenest to publish them.

On Monday this week, The Australian published his attack on compulsory superannuation – “a train wreck in the making”. Two days later, The Sydney Morning Herald ran his piece attacking recent appeals for wage restraint to help preserve jobs – “Rudd's war on the middle class” (links to these and other articles will be found at the end of this blog post).

Professor Bagaric is confronting because he argues a relentlessly logical moral philosophy. One of his books is How to Live: Being Happy and Dealing with Moral Dilemmas.

But too often, it seems to me, his views reject those feelings of empathy, of “connectedness,” of pity, or the sharing of joy, which seem to mark us as members of the human race.

By his logic, the moral dilemmas of civilian casualties in Gaza seem to resolve into a heartless calculus of which action results in the fewest women and children slain over time.

It allows him to begin this week's SMH article:

The biggest enemy of "working families" is not the financial crisis. It is the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and his offensive and simplistic suggestion that middle Australia should show restraint in wage negotiations so as not to compromise their jobs.

People are not morally obliged to remedy problems not of their doing. Families struggling to afford the necessities of modern life made no contribution to the financial problems. They owe nothing to the rest of community when it comes to wage negotiations.

Yet even here, we seem to have a dilemma. Fight to get all you can for your family, and stuff the community? But where does your family end and “community” begin? Are your cousins in the family, or out in the community to look after themselves as best they can?

Bagaric isn't dead-set against the odd kindly gesture, however:

In some cases individuals need to help others or make sacrifices for the good of the community. However, circumstances requiring such benevolence are rare. They are defined by the maxim of positive duty, which prescribes that we must help others in serious trouble, when assistance would immensely help them at no or little inconvenience to ourselves.

That is why it is repugnant to refuse to throw a rope to a person drowning near a pier, but why we are entitled to decline to allow a homeless person to live in our spare bedroom.

In his argument against superannuation, Bagaric's assertions are far too sweeping – and at times, incorrect. One wonders whether he knows what he's railing against. For a start, he seems to confuse the drop in the value of ordinary superannuation accounts with the deficit in funds required to pay generous defined retirement benefits to politicians, judges, and the like.

Confronted with a sentence like this,

If the Government wants to maintain its fanatical obsession with compulsory superannuation . . .

the reader is entitled to wonder whether the author is undertaking a balanced assessment – or venting some obsessive spleen of his own.

A lawyer may enjoy the privilege of destroying unsound legal reasoning, and then walk away and ignore the consequences. But if Bagaric had more of the economist in him, he'd look to this question – if we abolish compulsory super, what would take its place? The answer must be, An even greater “train wreck”.

Despite all this, perhaps we should welcome Bagaric's contributions (and there are dozens more, if you'd like to look them up on the links below), if only because they should set us thinking. Even if it's only to show where the law professor errs, it's a debate worth having.

Bagaric's article in The Australian opposing compulsory super as a train wreck may be read here. Letters published in the Oz the next day, and today (Thurs), the Oz ran this article in reply from Fiona Reynolds. As chief executive of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, she would surprise us if she said anything else, but her arguments are convincing.

Bagaric's article in The Sydney Morning Herald mocking wage restraint, and some letters in reply (scroll down to "Rudd's right: let's work our way out of crisis together").

Bagaric has a full archive of posts to the On Line Opinion blog.

Wednesday, January 14

Reaching out to the world

Back when ol' grumpy thought he could run three related blogs at once, he used this clip art as a theme logo when adding new links to his now-disused What? Me Grumpy? blog.

I wanted to go beyond the usual exchange of links between friendly bloggers – although that remains a factor – and try to provide something of real value to my readers. I'm reviving the idea for my surviving, core blog, and this "shaking hands" logo will appear when I add new links and explain why.

A few of my links are quirky. Desert Candy is there not just because I enjoy Middle Eastern food, but also because I like the blogger and her philosophy. Four Candles, because it's just the tonic if you're feeling down.

The AJA Code of Ethics to show what to expect of me.

Woy Woy Steve gets a guernsey not just because he's helped me with encouragement and advice (and provided a link to Grumpy Old Journo), but because my friends who live on the Woy Woy peninsula will find his site informative.

I had a link to Barista well before blogger David Tiley offered a long, supportive comment. I believe his "heartstarter for the hungry mind" blog is worth a few minutes of your time.

Blogs come and go. The long-running Road to Surfdom switched off late last year. To replace it in my links, I'm adding Larvatus Prodeo, a moderate Left blog which now offers a platform for contributors who share its philosophy. [This link should take you a Larvatus post about Surfdom's demise and about the continuing need for independent blogging.]

While checking for Larvatus's web address, I came across homepageDAILY. It's been around since May 2007, but it's still under development in a beta version. It describes its aims:

HomepageDAILY presents the best of the net, updated each day to take you behind the headlines. We offer original content and views beyond the news, including videos and breaking stories from media mavericks, bedroom bloggers and global icons. HPD serves up the soul of the web, so you don't have to gag on the scraps.

HPD is complex, fully featured and professionally designed – a little too much for the average web surfer, perhaps –but it looks like a valuable tool for the savvy internet user. The link above will take you to HPD's "About Us" page. When I set up a link over on the side, it should take you to the home page instead.

I'm sure there are similar sites, and I'll list them if they come up to scratch. The general idea of a site which indexes and provides links to articles from all over is not new – Arts & Letters Daily has been doing it for years. If one wanted to fault ALD, it's that there's too much of it.

Perhaps we small independent bloggers could get together and do something similar. Nothing as ambitious as HPD or ALD. But perhaps we could agree on a way to assemble a brief, simple daily email and send it to our supporters.

Note added Wed, January 15: I've just gone back to check HPD, and found a link to this useful advice for independent bloggers.

Monday, January 12

Which way now? The questions Grumpy Old Journo must ask himself

This is an incomplete draft, an outline of my thoughts as I consider the future of this blog. As they develop, I'll return to flesh them out. I'd welcome any suggestions as we go along.

If you read my New Year's Eve thoughts (two posts back, "Even in the down times, we can make this a bright new year") you'll know I've been down about the failure of Grumpy Old Journo to attract readers. If you read the comments to that post, you'll see that two experienced internet posters responded with generous and helpful advice.

I've also talked it over with a friend who is an experienced webmaster and blogger. She also was generous with sound advice – not all of which I'll take. I'm reading up on relevant topics. At present, my thinking is running on these lines:

1. The times they are a'changing

Move on. As my previous post (about the Quadrant hoax) acknowledged, Australians are now bored with tired old arguments from tired old men. But as we shift away from the conservative Right (as well as the One Nation crowd), we must guard against going over to the rent-a-crowd Left.

We're not talking just politics. We're talking about the nature of Australian society. About the Australia we hand on to our offspring. Is our future with a social democratic Left or with a resurgent, centrist wing of a Liberal Party which has rediscovered compassion? Or some hybrid yet to emerge?

Will a move to the centre make us more civil, tolerant and rational? Can we see a better future for most Australians?

Another question. Today, should a man say, "Respect me – I'm seventy years old" ? Or does he have to earn that respect in his dialogue and his dealings with people of all ages and backgrounds – people who may not share his ideas and values? Do we listen when younger writers have their say?

Some reading: In the Weekend Oz, writer Larry Buttrose expores the paths the Left could take. On Monday, letter writer Chris Curtis spells out his hopes for a Left ascendancy in Australia. Liberal Party "wet" Christopher Pyne says his party must move to the centre or die (or read his full article by downloading The Sydney Institute Quarterly).

In this post about Katherine Wilson's hoax, Crikey media commentator Margaret Simons makes it clear she believes Wilson's activism is bad journalism – yet Simons had been Wilson's supervisor for an honours thesis on – wait for it – Advocacy and Journalism.

To show how we ignore young writers, Simons posted this link to a Melbourne Age article of May 27, 2007, which included :

Behind the scenes of Australian cultural life there's a revolution going on, but editors of mainstream publications just don't seem to know it. As the first edition of Gangland argued, the issue at the heart of this revolution isn't simply to do with age.

It's to do with the way Australian culture remains stuck in the 1970s, reliant on backwards-looking aesthetics and modes of understanding, unwilling to add new voices and ideas to mainstream discussion. It's to do with the enormous amount of pent-up energy and will for change and renewal, for new solutions to old problems, that have remained unheard for too long.

2. Is there still a place for a conversational blog?

Both Woy Woy Steve and my friend urge me to specialise on a topic. My friend says Grumpy Old Journo spends too much time on what she calls chat over the back fence. Yet I still like the idea of blogging as a conversation between intelligent people with varied interests. Many of the blogs I enjoy lighten up at times with domestic trivia. I'll think some more about this.

3. Keep up with technology

The old style blogs, such as this one, are easy to post – which allows the blogger to concentrate on content. But with high-powered and heavily promoted newspaper blogs muscling in, amateur bloggers may need to keep up with new technology to promote their offerings. That may mean RSS feeds, posts to Twitter and perhaps Facebook, videos on YouTube, and a better understanding of how search engines work.

Twitter describes itself on this page. People post messages of 140 characters or less, beginning with one simple question: What are you doing? It sounds childish, but look at this dramatic coverage of Bangkok riots. Learn about Stilgherrion, then explore his blog.

check this out in the American Journalism Review: "Can Facebook and Twitter save the beleaguered mainstream media? Maybe not by themselves. But news organisations increasingly are turning to social networking tools in their efforts to compete in a challenging and fast-changing media landscape."

4. Develop networks with like-minded bloggers

Co-operation between bloggers is already common with the exchange of links, but it's possible like-minded bloggers could do much more for mutual benefit. I hope to expand on this idea after chatting to other bloggers.

5. How much time, and how much ability?

Blogging can become obsessive. Is that the way you want to go? Keep time to have a life. You'll be a more interesting blogger if you do. Have fun. If it's not fun, why are you doing it?

6. Write for your readers

Keep your readers in mind. Don't talk down to them, try to understand their interests and how your writing should engage them. That's basic journalism, but let's face it – blogging does make it too easy to preach.

7. Keep to a posting schedule

Woy Woy Steve emphasised this. Even if I can post only once a month, make it a regular, scheduled day. If I fail, post a note to explain what's happening.

As I said, these are preliminary thoughts. Please come back and see how they develop.

Saturday, January 10

Quadrant? Hoaxed with a spoof contribution? How could anybody tell?

Assuming you heard about it, what was your reaction to the hoax which led to right-wing magazine Quadrant running an article containing nonsense?
  • I enjoyed seeing editor Keith Windschuttle exposed as sloppy and/or biased
  • It was an outrageous example of fraudulent journalism and an unethical attack on a staunch defender of Australian cultural values.
  • Boring. Can't we move on to something interesting.

It's clear that most Australians, even if they heard of the hoax – revealed on by media commentator Margaret Simons last Tuesday and followed up by newspapers such as The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald the next morning – just didn't care.

The story would have died in a day or two. But then hoaxer Katherine Wilson released Simons from a confidentiality promise and allowed Simons to publish her name – but not her phone number or address.

Wilson outed herself only after journalists from the Melbourne Age and The Australian, as well as some bloggers, had sniffed out her identity. The hoaxer was about to go into labour with her second child (not a hoax, Ms Simons assured us) and refused to talk to reporters or be photographed.

Whatever, the naming of Katherine Wilson gave the story extra legs, but it's dying fast. Probably all but a hundred thousand or so Australians would pick the third option – Boring!

Among those who did bother to comment, a surprising number would tick the second option. It seems they don't believe an editor has a responsibility to check on an author's credentials, show the copy to someone who understands the topic, or do some basic fact-checking which would have exposed the hoax.

They believe that if a story is well-written and reinforces their preconceptions, it should get a run. It's criminal fraud by the author if it turns out to be nonsense. Does that says something about Quadrant readers?

However, this Grumpy Old Journo would not hesitate to tick the first box – it's a pleasure to see Windschuttle get his comeuppance. In the past, the Grumpy Old Journo blog has listed some of Windschuttle's arguments which go against reasonable, unbiased interpretations.

A little digression: GOJ has just checked Wikipedia and (at 5pm Sydney time, January 9) finds somebody has already updated its entry on Windschuttle. Perhaps the Quadrant editor's foes almost tripped over one another in the rush. The entry now includes:

In January 2009, Windschuttle was tricked into publishing a hoax article in Quadrant magazine. An [sic] bogus author using the pseudonym "biotechnologist Dr Sharon Gould" submitted an article claiming that the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation had planned to produce food crops engineered with human genes. However, "Gould" revealed that s/he had regarded the article as an Alan Sokal style hoax. Windschuttle accused the online publication Crikey of being involved in the hoax, a claim which Crikey denied. Two days later, Crikey revealed that "Gould" was in fact the writer, editor and activist Katherine Wilson. Wilson agreed to being named by Crikey, as her name had already appeared in online speculation and it seemed likely that her identity was about to be revealed by other journalists.

Windschuttle has a first-class honours degree in history. He knows how to ferret through source material. But even a first-class degree does not guarantee the holder will interpret his sources reasonably.

For example, I cannot reconcile my reading of Surveyor-General John Septimus Roe's journal account of the 1834 “Battle of Pinjarra” skirmish south of Perth with the conclusions Windschuttle drew from the same pages.

In 2002, in the first volume of his The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Windschuttle checked the references and footnotes of writers who argued that Aboriginal people were badly treated in the European settlement of Tasmania. He found many errors, many of them trivial. But they led to the conclusion that all such historical accounts were false.

Indeed, only two weeks after Windschuttle published that first volume, conservative newspaper columnist Miranda Devine – once a member of the Quadrant editorial committee – wrote that Windschuttle had refuted the black armband view of our history. Not just made a strong case against it, mind you, but refuted it.

Refute means to disprove. Do not say “Indonesia today refuted claims that . . . “ unless the context makes it clear that Indonesia has, in fact, disproved the claims. Use denied, rejected or rebutted. – from News Limited's 2001 Style book (which may be in error about rebutted, which I'd call a synonym for refuted).

Windschuttle is passionate in his defence of freedom of speech – when defending it against left-wing attackers. He has criticised the student protests against historian Geoffrey Blainey in Melbourne and pyschologist Hans Eysenck half a century ago in London.

Yet when director Dawn Casey's labels at the then-new National Museum upset the conservative commentariat, Windschuttle was in the pack baying to get rid of her.

They succeeded. Prime Minister John Howard initially extended her contract for just a year, then failed to renew it. The Quadrant mob may defend fellow conservatives' right to free speech but they show a glint of satisfaction when they get an opponent sacked. There's a word for people like that, but I'd better not say it.

In mid-2007 with Paddy McGuinness as editor, Quadrant had acknowleged we're right to worry about global warming, and that governments should be doing something about it. Under Windschuttle, Quadrant has again become a bible for deniers of man-made climate change.

So thanks, Katherine Wilson, you've brightened my week. Apart from that, you haven't achieved much.

When Australia voted Prime Minister John Howard out of office and out of parliament, they also signalled they were bored with tired old men peddling tired old ideas. Back when the Quadrant conservatives had duchessed Howard into adopting their ideas as policy, we were right to be concerned.

Today, Windschuttle and Quadrant are not worth worrying about. People are bored with them.

Only a few newspapers bothered to run the hoax yarn. In today's Sydney Morning Herald (the issue for January 10-11), acting letters editor Harriet Veitch listed the issues which fired up letter writers in the past week – Gaza, dog control, George W. Bush's awarding the Medal of Freedom to John Howard and the Howards' stay in Blair House, and cricket. Quadrant, Windschuttle and the hoax didn't make the list.

But what about Grumpy Old Journo? Look at me – I'm posting this long, heavy analysis of a subject most Australians now find boring. No wonder I have so few readers.

There is hope. My previous post, in which I referred to my concerns, attracted some really helpful advice, and I've talked it over with some knowledgable friends. I expect my next post will consider a new approach for Grumpy Old Journo. I'll try to put something up by midday Monday, January 12.