Monday, March 30

A new face delivers the Strewth!

Perhaps I missed it, but I don't think so. I collected my Australian from the flower bed well before dawn this morning and pulled out the Media section. Scanned it quickly for any reference to the summary retrenchment of The Australian's veteran columnist, D.D. McNicoll. Nothing.

Turned back to the Strewth! column [1] . There's a new face in the logo (above). Instead of McNicoll, it's James Jeffrey, who normally writes the longer – to my mind, too long – Strewth! in The Weekend Australian. In this morning's column, there's still no mention of what happened to McNicoll.

In my previous post, I said that if Media did not publish something about McNicoll's sacking, it would damage the reputation of the newspaper and of the section.

I have no doubt that if McNicoll had worked for The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age, and his employer “disappeared” him as The Australian did, the Oz would have reported it with relish.

With relish? Yes indeed. The Australian keeps up a regular sneering and jeering at its rivals, to a level which seems just plain childish. It does more to diminish its own standing than it does damage to the SMH and the Age.

Today's Media section did run a prominent inside page lead on the sacking of Lachlan Colquhoun as editor of The Adelaide Review [2] , a story which may have been of less interest to most of the Oz's national readership.

And Amanda Meade's Media Diary [3] did run a short piece about the exit of Age columnist Sharon Gray, but without answering the obvious question – did she go because she wanted to, or was she another victim of the cost-cutting now decimating Australian newsrooms?

Amanda Meade also ran an amusing par about the comic strip character Brenda Starr's being retrenched, because, as her cigar-chomping boss B. Babbitt Bottomline said, “I can't afford to pay you any more.”

But of the departure of The Australian's iconic D.D. McNicoll, not a word [forgive my misuse of “iconic”, but you'll all know what I mean].

Saturday, March 28

Strewth! Has the Australian sacked its veteran columnist?

No hint in yesterday's [Friday, March 27]Australian – yet it appears that as this Strewth! column was being printed, editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell had sacked its author and told him to leave the building immediately without clearing out his desk.

The sacking ends a remarkable father-and-son involvement in column writing which began in 1946. More of that later.

First public hint of D.D. McNicoll's sacking appeared in the backpage Diary of yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald, in the paragraph below. Somebody at the Oz, probably outraged by the treatment of McNicoll, had wasted no time in calling the Fairfax rival.

This morning I did a Google search and found that's editor, veteran journalist Jonathan Green, had posted this at 4.46 pm yesterday.

D.D. McNicoll sacked at The Australian?
An anonymous tip just sent to Crikey:
From an informed source: D.D. McNicoll sacked yesterday from The Australian. Told to leave the building immediately not even given time to clear out his desk. Today is his 60th birthday. Redundancy at News Ltd capped at 1 year. McNicoll has been there 35 years. They did not even spell his name correctly on the form he was told to sign.
Nice people
Morale not good

I'm posting this before I look closely at this morning's newspapers. If I find more information when I do, I'll come back and revise the post.

I'll also look closely at the Media section in Monday's Australian – will it carry a full and honest account of McNicoll's sacking, and will the section's editor and columnists have had to resist management pressure if they do so? If Media does not publish such an account, it will damage the reputation of the newspaper and of the section.

Now back to the father-and-son connection. D.D's father, David McNicoll, wrote this in his autobiography, Luck's A Fortune (Wildcat Press, 1979):

THE TOWN TALK COLUMN in the Sydney Daily Telegraph was the first regular front page column to appear in an Australian paper. It's a sobering thought, but I probably made as much public impact, and caused more controversy with that column than with any of my other labors in journalism over the years.
The column was the brain child of Frank Packer and editor Brian
Penton. They had seen many columns of various sorts over the years — political, comment, humorous. But Packer wanted a column of news — part gossip, part political, part exposures, part insertion of the scimitar. My style of writing appealed to them as right for the new project.
On returning to New York from South America I found a cable from Packer telling me of the proposal, and suggesting I study a few American techniques.

And a little further into the autobiography:

Back in Sydney, Brian Penton put me through a few dummy runs inside the paper, and subbed specimen columns for a few weeks. He was a brilliant writer of the concise, short sentence, and he drilled it into me. He was also the father of the Active Voice in the Daily Telegraph. Anyone who ever worked on the Telegraph knew all about the active voice; the passive was never allowed . . .
On February 8, 1946, the first Town Talk column appeared. The previous day, a young, virtually unknown artist had been sent to do a caricature of me.
His name was Les Tanner. He is today, without dispute, peerless as a caricaturist, and in the top ranks as a cartoonist. His depiction of my features gave me all the attraction of a gigolo turned pawnbroker who has just received some devastating news. The worst part was that the drawing was apparently incredibly like me, and people recognised me with a shudder as they passed me in the street.

Tanner later drew this caricature of himself holding the McNicoll caricature:

Thursday, March 26

Pot calls kettle black. The Sunday Telegraph still doesn't get it

What an extraordinary grovel by Rupert Murdoch's Sydney Sunday Telegraph the other morning. And in the paragraphs I've highlighted, what extraordinary hypocrisy!

Last Saturday night, Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen still hadn't grasped the key issue.

Some of us interested in the ethical standards of newspapers could maintain that Breen himself “lost any integrity he may have had” when he decided to publish photographs he believed were taken during a long-ago tryst between Pauline Hanson and some sleazy nobody. The rest of the Murdoch Sunday newspapers should be equally ashamed.
It's also a bit rich to accuse a pathetic nobody of losing "any integrity he may have had" when the same article says he is suffering from mental deterioration and of "having a tenuous hold on reality".
So the pictures were fakes. It's now accepted the photographs showed someone other than Ms Hanson, and Breen admits it unreservedly [1] and [2] . The Murdoch Sundays are exposed to big-ticket defamation writs, and we now know Ms Hanson lawyers had already written to the Sunday Telegraph.

Sunday's grovel could lessen the defamation damages awarded to Ms Hanson. However, I expect the newspapers to agree to settle, with the damages to be kept confidential.

Settling the case would also save Sunday Telegraph staff from cross-examination about the rigour with which they examined the photographs.

At this point last Sunday, your Grumpy Old Commentator came close to hitting the “publish” button, possibly after adding a few thoughts about privacy protection. But there was still something wrong with the Sunday Tele's story, which began:

JACK Johnson, the person at the centre of the controversial Pauline Hanson photographs affair, has emerged as a conman.
The Sunday Telegraph has learned Johnson not only offered purported photographs of Ms Hanson to paparazzi agent Jamie Fawcett eight days ago, but at the same time offered similar photographs of another prominent Australian woman in exchange for cash.
This new information makes it clear that Johnson is a conman.
The Sunday Telegraph learned the new information yesterday from Johnson himself.
Fawcett did not tell The Sunday Telegraph that Johnson claimed to have pictures of the other woman in lingerie with the Sultan of Brunei.
That claim is plainly ridiculous and exposes Johnson as a fraud.
Fawcett has refused to explain to The Sunday Telegraph why he failed to reveal this, or to defend himself from the allegation he was complicit in the hoax with Johnson.
Yesterday, he hung up the phone when asked why he had not disclosed this information.

Now let's see if I've got this right. By Saturday night, the ST knew Johnson was a conman. It also believed paparazzi photographer Jamie Fawcett (who acted as Johnson's agent in selling the pix to the ST) would have known he was a conman because Johnson had told him he also had pictures of the prime minister's wife in lingerie.

The ST phrased the allegation carefully in its story. But under the accompanying photo of Fawcett, it was unequivocal. The caption said:

Questionable motives: Photographer Jamie Fawcett knew that Jack Johnson also claimed to have compromising photos of another high-profile Australian woman.

The only source of that allegation was Johnson, of whom the ST article later said:

It is clear Johnson has a tenuous hold on reality, particularly when it comes to his past.
All along he has claimed cancer treatment and painkillers have played havoc with his memory.

The Sunday Telegraph appears to have apppropriated a power the police would envy – to judge a person guilty if that person fails to reply to an interrogation by its reporters, as it appears to have done with Fawcett and also with Hanson. And what's it matter if the accuser is a nutter?

Monday morning shed more light on the whole affair. We learned from The Australian's Media section [3] that Fawcett issued a statement on Sunday denying he was "complicit in any hoax with Mr Jack Johnson" and saying he had sought legal advice. He may have trouble financing any legal action, however, because he's an undischarged bankrupt after losing a defamation case.
The Media report also said it was understood the ST had stopped payment of a cheque to give Johnson $10,000 and Fawcett $5000 commission.

However, it wasn't until a bit later we learned the real story behind The Sunday Telegraph's grovel, and its remarkably aggressive treatment of Johnson and Fawcett.

Monday's Sydney Morning Herald [4] and [5] each carried long accounts which revealed The Sunday Telegraph had gone into Saturday night with a more measured report and apology.

But late Saturday, one of its writers confirmed that the rival Sun-Herald tabloid had worked up a story which would show Johnson to be a nutter, and would report his claim that Fawcett knew it was a con.
In what must have been frantic hour or two, the ST revamped its coverage and posted a new editorial to defuse the Sun-Herald's attack (which did not come, anyway – the Sun-Herald decided not to publish its story) .

The fake Hanson photos may fuel current debate about the the newspaper industry's current Right to Know campaign and about privacy laws. If the Hanson photos had been genuine, it would all have been all right, would it? Perhaps we'll return to that topic.

Tuesday, March 17

The big gamble – go for double, or back off?

As they make their plays across the Canberra chessboard, our federal politicians seem to be locking themselves into the ultimate high stakes end game – a double dissolution of Federal Parliament.

A month ago, we did hear talk of double dissolution. Now it seems to have been forgotten as the nation entertains itself with the side play between Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and “will he or won't he” former Treasurer Peter Costello.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd could be forgiven for thinking: “Bring it on!” Only last week The Australian's Newspoll showed public support for Rudd as preferred prime minister stood at 61 per cent with Turnbull on 21 per cent.

If a general election took place today, Rudd would romp home with a substantially increased majority in the House of Representatives – but once again, he might fail to obtain clear control of the Senate. The electorate's will might still be thwarted by the Coalition joined by a petulant and flaky independent senator or two.

This week, Rudd must be hoping the Senate will reject, or agree to pass only with unacceptable amendments, those of his bills which have strong public support. Industrial relations or the economic stimulus package would be ideal. (As Lenore Taylor reports in The Australian today, the government appears to have given up on emissions trading – a wise tactic, politically, because the public is confused and fearful about emissions control in hard economic times).

Senate rejection of a Labor bill could be the first step in handing Rudd a “trigger” for a double dissolution.

And a double dissolution could hand Senate control to the government. In a normal general election, all House of Reps members but only half the senators have to face the electors. A double dissolution is the only time every member of the Senate as well as all the Reps must stand down.

Most of our federal politicians are about to head home for their long autumn holiday, leaving ministers and staff beavering away on the May Budget. What a gift for Rudd if the Senate rejected his industrial relations or stimulus package before they left!

And wouldn't it be icing on the cake if the Liberals dumped Turnbull and had Peter Costello sitting on the Opposition Leader's bench when parliament resumed!

The Newspoll last week showed that 49 per cent of Coalition supporters prefer Costello, with only 28 per cent backing Turnbull. In the parliamentary Liberal Party, it's believed Costello would win in a leadership spill.

The right wing of today's Liberals are so out of touch with mainstream Australia they believe Costello could win the next election. Weird, but they are getting desperate.

Under Section 57 of the Constitution, Rudd would have the right to ask the Governor-General for a double dissolution if:

    • The Reps passes a bill and sends it to the Senate, which rejects it, fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments unacceptable to the Reps.
    • After three months, the Reps again passes the bill and sends it to the Senate, which again rejects it or makes unacceptable amendments.

That's the “trigger” for a double dissolution. This Australian Electoral Commission site also explains the timetable from dissolution to polling date.

For Rudd, it would be good politics to pile up the “triggers” – to go to the electors with a list of popular bills rejected by the Senate, so that he could run a campaign about conservatives thwarting the people's will.

It is a high risk game. Either side could blink when it comes to that second attempt to pass the bill. Turnbull is aware of the perils of rejecting legislation for which Labor has a popular mandate, such as IR, but Costello and his supporters seem so ideologically committed they'd commit political suicide.

On the other hand, if Rudd felt the ground moving against him, he could decide against that drive to see the Governor-General.

Tacticians in the federal parties are watching the Queensland elections closely, as you'd expect. If an unimpressive politician like Lawrence Springborg can win, it will give an enormous boost to the hard-right federal Libs.

It's going to be fascinating year in federal politics.

Saturday, March 14

Hard times and easy marks

If you have elderly relatives living in Woy Woy – is there anyone who hasn't? – it might be time to give the old dears a ring. While you're chatting about petunias and bowls, casually ask if anyone they know is considering a “business plan” which promises to turn $180 into $70,000 in a couple of months.

Chain letters are back. Perhaps they thrive in bleak economic times, with more people eager to suspend normal scepticism and accept any proposition which offers to deliver them from the squeeze of diminishing nest eggs and rising household bills.

This one (partly reproduced above, with the five-cent coin sticky-taped to the top) turned up in my letterbox the other day. With no markings on the envelope, it probably was hand-delivered. This suggests hundreds of other households in Woy Woy, and perhaps more widely around the Central Coast, are now receiving the same scam letter.

It is a scam. Throw it out. If your oldies in Woy Woy have received it and not done so, you may need to explain why it's a scam.

And even if you concede the authors appear reasonable and honest – philanthropic, even – you should be able to explain why the scheme just cannot work.

I spent a bit of time browsing the internet to find something which explains clearly, in plain language, why such chain letters will end in disappointment.

I came across many pages explaining they're illegal, they're scams, they probably come from conmen, and you should throw them out.

Of the many pages from government consumer protection agencies, this one from the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission seems as good as any.

But the government warnings still have a Big Brotherish feel ("I'm from the government, trust me and do what I say"). They fail to explain why the chain letter cannot work beyond a few early rounds (although this US page may help).

The letter which turned up in my box is a basic, unadorned chain letter. In the middle of a superbly drafted spiel, you see a grid with five handwritten names and addresses, ranked one to five.

The letter urges the recipient to send a $10 banknote to the person named on the top line. Then strike out that name, move the others up a notch, and put your name on the fifth line.

Make at least 200 photocopies – not forgetting to affix a five-cent coin to the top of each front page – then mail or distribute them to names taken from a phone book. Here's what should happen, according to the chain letter:


You have sent your $10 note and mailed at least 200 letters. Your details are printed at number 5 position on each of them. Your work is done - sit back and relax, you deserve it!
If only 3% of 200 people respond to your letter, then 6 people will mail 200 letters =1200 letters with your name and address at position number 4.
If only 3% of 1200 people respond to your letter, then 36 people will mail 200 letters =7200 letters with your name and address at position number 3.
If only 3% of 7200 people respond to your letter, then 216 people will mail 200 letters =43,200 letters with your name and address at position number 2.
If only 3% of 43,200 people respond to your letter, then 1296 people will mail 200 letters =259,200 letters with your name and address at position number 1.
If only 3% of 259,200 people respond to your letter then 7,776 people will send you $10, your
name and address in the receiver position at number 1 [sic]. You will therefore receive $77,760 in $10 notes!
If the response rate is more than 3% of people send more than 200 letters, you will receive even more!

You could ask your oldies whether they understand geometric progression, or exponential growth. (If they do, you shouldn't have to explain why a chain letter cannot work for long!)

If they don't, you could point to the final pars of “How the system works . . .”

If 7776 people each send you $10, each of those 7776 people will expect to reach No 1 themselves after four more rounds, when each of those 7776 people will expect about 7776 people to send them $10.

At that point, more than 60 million people [7776 x 7776 = 60,466,176] should each be stuffing a $10 note into an envelope and sending it on. And that's not accounting for the thousands of $10 notes harvested by other names as they rise to the top, and those raked in by any other chain letter doing the rounds.

What was the population of Australia, again?


Wednesday, March 4

Hold the presses . . . Janet Albrechtsen comes to my rescue!

Whatever can I have been thinking when I put up the previous post? Suggesting The Australian is not even-handed in some of its reporting – am I trying to live dangerously? Will I find myself flamed by the Oz in these terms?

The self appointed experts online come instead from the extreme Left, populated as many sites are by sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper.

On almost every issue it is difficult not to conclude that most of the electronic offerings that feed off the work of The Australian to create their own content are a waste of time. They contribute only
defamatory comments and politically coloured analysis.

Smug, self assured, delusional swagger is no substitute for getting it right.

These three passages occurred in “History a better guide than bias”, the long tirade against bloggers published as the Oz's lead editorial on July 12, 2007. Bloggers had angered the Oz's editors by mocking political editor Dennis Shanahan's claim that a twitch in John Howard's support, revealed by The Australian's Newspoll, suggested he could bounce back to win the November 2007 Federal Election. [Howard, of course, went on to lose both government and his own seat of Benelong.]

Failed journalist? Delusional swagger? Waste of time? Oh dear! Dare I incur the Oz's ire?
And yet I only wanted to suggest that the Oz – which is, I believe, already Australia's best newspaper – would be a better newspaper if it reported differing points of view in its news stories.

The Oz editors do not see themselves as biased. The first sentence of that tirade, “The measure of good journalism is objectivity and a fearless regard for truth”, would, I believe, describe the way those editors see their performance.

So when the Oz reports only one side of an argument, it's not because the editors are biased.
The editors know children should learn to read by phonics alone – they know every other approach is discredited. Me? I'd like to make up my own mind by evaluating the differing arguments. I'd like the news reports to lay out those arguments, even briefly.

Similarly, the Oz's editors know Keynesian-style counter-cyclical government investment is wrong. They know fiscal stimulus will not help ease a recession. They know the Federal Government's stimulus package will not save jobs, so why try?
They know tax cuts are the only way to go to fix the Global Financial Crisis.

They know man-made climate change is bullshit, and if it's not, they know emissions trading cannot do anything to help.

Perhaps we should change the tense, as time goes by – they knew climate change was nonsense . They knew the guarantee Rudd gave to the banks was deeply flawed. They knew government deficits are evil, and they knew stimulus spending would not save jobs.
And they knew Howard was clawing his way back in the last months of 2007.

So what's that bit about Janet? It doesn't happen often, but this morning I found myself agreeing with most of her piece. Perhaps The Australian will treat me leniently if I'm willing to entertain opinions by its hard-right commentator. Read them for yourself here.

She's largely right about corporate governance. If shareholders are distressed about excessive executive salaries, they should vote off the directors who failed to represent their interests. An interesting suggestion, if you believe Sol was grossly overpaid.

And I refuse to join the mob baying for blood over Pacific Brands' decision to move manufacturing overseas. PacBrands deserves some credit for sticking it out in Australia as long as it did.

Sunday, March 1

Literature, literacy . . . The Weekend Australian knows it all

As the editorial writer suggested, I read it again, and yes, the passage (above, highlighted) did get muddier every time I did so.

But the sentence might have been a little less confusing if The Weekend Australian's editorial writer had quoted it correctly.

Flick back to education writer Justine Ferrari's Page One report (below), on which the editorial comment is based. If you look hard, you may spot the difference.

It might seem trivial, but one would expect an editorialist who pontificates to the nation about literacy would understand that omission of the hyphen changes the meaning of the sentence. “Meaning-making” does not say the same thing as “meaning making”.

And surely a professional journalist – and I presume the editorial writer to be one – knows he or she should not modify any part of a passage placed within quotation marks. The editorial writer has omitted two commas from the material he purports to quote. Trivial, perhaps, but careless too.

But then, the editorial writer may have taken his quote from copy sent to the artists (probably from a sub-editor) for the graphic reproduced below. The copy sent to the artists also omitted the hyphen and the commas.

I may look like just another blogger attacking The Australian. That would not be right. I believe the Oz to be Australia's best newspaper.

It's thrown over my front fence six days a week. Well, yes, on a discount deal. A call centre person rang me and offered me The Daily Telegraph for $4.95 a week. You'd be joking, I said. How about the Oz? Done!

It's not the perfect arrangement. The Australian has an excellent website, and I was happy to read it there. I'd rather read The Sydney Morning Herald in print. Although it has dumbed down its news website, the print newspaper remains readable and, on controversial issues, even-handed.

The Australian is good but should try to do better if it is to dominate as Australia's national newspaper. Too often, its editors' ideological positions show in its news coverage.

I'll return to this topic soon. In the meantime, you may choose to read Justine Ferrari's report, the editorial which fired me up, and the Oz readers' letters on Monday, March 3.