Thursday, April 30

Time to say adieu to The Australian

Perhaps it's a pity The Australian chose last Monday to run a column by Giles Auty, its former art critic. It was the last day of my cut-price subscription to the Oz, and I was still tossing up whether to renew for another six months.

I never really enjoyed Auty's art criticism – it sometimes seemed a touch supercilious – but I hadn't realised he also claimed economic expertise.

Well, actually, he doesn't. In the column titled, “Neo-liberal greed did not cause recession” [1] he jeered at Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and praised former conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

From there, he merely downloaded the groupthink conservative line that blames the recession on the US Democrats for having forced banks to lend to home-buyers who would not repay the loans [read, feckless blacks].

Nothing new in that claim – the Oz's hard-right columnist Janet Albrechtsen plucked the same claim from the internet and ran it in her column last October 8 [2] (and she was a bit slow – other right-wing commentators had run it a few weeks earlier).

Still, The Australian's editors decided to run all this stale old stuff again last Monday. Why – because they wanted to ram home, once again, the conservative point of view?


On March 4, in a piece titled, “Hold the presses . . . Janet Albrechtsen comes to my rescue” [3] , I noted the Oz's bias.

. . . 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 [their earlier anti-blogger editorial], “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 waste money?

They know man-made climate change is bullshit . . .

Why read The Australian, then? Because its reporting remains strong. You won't find “churnalism” – the soft, unquestioning repetition of material, often supplied by self-interested sources, misrepresented as news. The Oz deserved the praise it won for its coverage of the Haneef affair, for example, and of the Northern Territory Intervention.

And as a conservative newspaper, it's entitled to present conservative points of view in its opinion pages. As a moderate but left-of-centre writer, I do check out conservative ideas – but not when they become tiresomely repetitious, or merely regurgitate groupthink. Such as Giles Auty's piece.


As it happened, I'd already signed up to Fairfax's subscription offer – a dollar a day for the Sydney Morning Herald six days a week and the Sun-Herald on Sundays. That's $28 debited against my credit card every 28 days.

The first SMH lobbed on my front lawn on Tuesday, the day after the Oz subscription ended. But right to the end, I still considered also continuing the Oz subscription. It's great value at $128.70 for the Oz and the Weekend Oz, home delivered six days a week for 26 weeks, although you do have to pay the $128.70 in one hit.

This week there's been a more harmonious mood at the breakfast table – Merry does prefer the SMH.


Giles Auty's column, along with the newspaper's general conservative bias, weren't the only reasons I turned against The Australian.

On March 30, in a post titled “New face delivers the Strewth!” [4], I noted the Oz's weekly Media section had failed to mention the brutal retrenchment of long-time Oz columnist D.D. McNicoll.
In my previous post [I wrote], 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.

Think about it. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Media's staff complied with an explicit, or an implied but clearly understood, direction from management or a senior editor not to publish anything about McNicoll.

News Limited, publisher of The Australian, also controls most of the nation's capital city newspapers, as well as many suburban and provincial titles. Does the McNicoll censorship mean News Limited management also censors Media's coverage of what's happening in more than half of Australia's press?

So I've let my Oz subscription lapse. But I must confess – I won't stop reading the Oz. The Australian has a well-laid-out online edition, while the SMH's website is a bit messy, and often it's dumbed down. So we're better off getting the printed SMH thrown into the flowerbed each morning.


This has become a long post, longer than I like. I'd assembled much more material, but it might be better to skip across the other points.

Giles Auty's column went on to praise an article, “George Bush and History's Croakers” [5] , by Claudio Veliz [6] in the April Quadrant. The article peddles an anti-Democrat line which has become biblical truth to US conservatives. However, it's disputed by moderate commentators and has been the subject of serious debate in the US press and among bloggers. Here's an Australian reply from [7] . And in the US, a commentator spreads the blame to Wall St [8] .

Auty said Veliz's article “should be made available to every household in Australia so that a gross distortion of history is prevented from forming.”

Giles, old chap, stick to art criticism. As a journalist, I can assure you it's not worth wasting trees to reprint Veliz's Quadrant article for distribution to the hoi polloi. Fewer than one in a thousand would read past the first few pars, where they'd still be bogged down in analysis of British attitudes to the future Lord Wellington in the Peninsular War, wondering where it's all leading to.

(Veliz is trying to say that all great leaders, such as George W. Bush, are howled down by “croakers” – the word Wellington used to describe "the despondent, defeatist grumbling, moaning, rumour-mongering enmity of too many of the island's intelligentsia.” Veliz likens Dubya to the Iron Duke!)

Still, if you really want to read his piece, click on link [5] above.

Tuesday, April 21

Asylum seekers prove their worth

Those of you who believe Old Grumpy is a bleeding-heart leftie – too soft to take a sensible line on matters of national importance – well, here's where you may find evidence to reinforce your view.

I believe most of those asylum seekers who turn up at Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island on leaky boats, especially those who've brought their families, have shown fitness to live in Australia and eventually become citizens.

Think of it this way. You own a business, and you need to fill a staff vacancy. You place a small ad – and in these difficult times, more than 300 people send you their CV. You and your secretary spend a couple of days working through them.

Nearly all would be worth a trial, but you narrow the list to several dozen applicants. Your secretary sends out emails inviting the short-listed hopefuls in for interviews.

A day later, before the interviews have begun, it's a nice day, so you take sandwiches down to the park.

A fellow comes up to you, introduces himself, apologises for intruding on your time, and – to your irritation – sits down and starts talking about your business. It's clear he's done some research, and he says he'd like to be part of your operation. He describes his education and skills and how he could use them to advance your business. He impresses you.

You do feel a bit guilty. He is, after all, a queue jumper. And you feel a bit sorry for all those people who've done it by the book when they lodged their applications.

But when you think about it, in your business you've got more than enough people who do their jobs by the book – conscientious plodders who perform well but have no zest and contribute no new ideas.


Old Grumpy spent more than thirty years commuting from Woy Woy to Central. Often our train would leave Woy Woy overcrowded, and it was such a relief to reach Hornsby and see so many passengers get out.

The Central Coast commuters would spread themselves out, and the women would go back to their intense study of New Idea and Woman's Day.

But then we'd pull into Epping or Eastwood, and a crush of new passengers would push into the carriages. The Central Coast people would mutter a bit, move closer together and resume their reading or snoozing.

Today, Old Grumpy is ashamed to admit a touch of racism. All those Asian faces crowding on to our Intercity train. Dammit, we provide a perfectly good suburban train system for people from the suburbs.

But I had to note that many of the young people who'd just joined us would pull out university notes, while some of the adults opened briefcases and worked on business papers. In later years, laptops came out and people worked on spreadsheets.

I thought then – and I still think – that these people with non-Anglo faces represent much of the future of Australia, a future in which a complacent “Lucky Country” will need their ambition and skills, their desire to make a better life for their families, to compete against emerging Asian economies.

[My contrast of “old Australians” snoozing or reading New Idea against “new Australians” full of drive and ambition may have a touch of caricature, but not enough to make my argument invalid.]


I wrote the sections above last night, but decided to think about them overnight before posting them to the blog. This morning [Tuesday] I checked the Sydney Morning Herald online, and come across Gerard Henderson's comment containing these thoughts:

There has been a world-wide increase in asylum seekers. Even so, in view of the acute risks involved in attempting to enter Australia in small boats, it seems that such trips are likely to be undertaken if the chances of success are seen to have increased.

The intensity of the debate is such that there is not much room for rationality at either extreme.

Contrary to what many refugee advocates proclaim, not all asylum seekers are refugees, not all tell the truth and not all are secular saints.

Contrary to what many of those who are hostile to them believe, asylum seekers are not security threats and most who gain refugee status become hard working and entrepreneurial citizens. Anyone who has the ingenuity to make it here - by sea or air - has a skills set which adapts well to a multicultural migrant community such as Australia. [Bold type is my emphasis – GOJ]

Exactly. Just what I'm trying to say. Perhaps I'm not such a bleeding heart after all.


Monday, April 13

Heritage Afloat celebrates classic and traditional wooden boats

Another great weekend chatting to fellow enthusiasts about traditional boats and wooden-boat building, this time at the annual Heritage Afloat festival at Toronto. It was also a great chance for Merry and I to picnic with our offspring, including six of our grandchildren.

Got in plenty of sailing too, in weather which remained unthreatening for the two days of the festival. Nice timing. As I key this in back at home, it's pouring down outside.

The top picture shows Peter Pan of Woy Woy, named after its not-so-grumpy builder and owner. We took the photo before the display area became really crowded.

Peter Pan attracted plenty of interest, but nothing like Britannia, pictured below.

Brittania is an authentic replica of the classic 18ft skiff of the same name, which is now on exhibition in the National Maritime Museum at Sydney's Darling Harbour. It's sailing out from the ramp with its most basic rig. Under way and racing, the old 18-footers would pile on an astonishing spread of sail, from spars which seemed to reach out forever.

This replica is the work of Ian Smith, a Sydney boatbuilder who helped fire up the enthusiasm for traditional craft when he established Woodcraft Boats and the Sydney Wooden Boat School back in the early 1990s..

Alas, with the demise of Sydney Harbour as a working port, and the gentrification which has taken over its waterfrontages for multi-million-dollar mansions, there's no room for a traditional boatbuilder. Ian Smith now works from premises in an industrial suburb.

Ian Smith describes his construction of the Britannia replica at this page.

The Sydney Flying Squadron gives the history of the 18-footers here and also here.


Friday, April 10

See you at the heritage boat festival

Grumpy Old Journo is taking a break this weekend to show his little boat at the Lake Macquarie Heritage Afloat festival. If you're near the Toronto waterfront on Saturday or Sunday, stroll over and have a chat.

"Peter Pan of Woy Woy" has been allotted a berth in Area D, No D17. If it's not there, you may see it out on the lake. It's quite distinctive, a 15ft dinghy with tan sails. The mains'l is a standing lug and the little mizzen a triangular sail out over the stern.

The festival itself is great fun, with plenty of entertainment and activities for all the family.

Check it out at

Sunday, April 5

A trillion just isn't what it used to be

All those trillions spinning around the G-20, with an extra $US1 trillion for the International Monetary Fund to help kickstart the world economy . The mind boggles at the magnitude of these sums.

But praise be they weren't the billions and trillions of yesteryear.

For at least the first half of the 20th Century, Australia followed what was then called the British system, in which a billion was a million millions and a trillion was a million billions.

America and France used a different numerical system in which a billion was a thousand millions and a trillion was a thousand [American] billions.

The dictionary entry – from a 1940 edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage – shows the old usages. However, I'm not sure an ordinary reader checking Fowler's definitions would be any the wiser.

When did Australia switch to the US usage? There doesn't seem to be much much specific evidence. My recollection – which may be imperfect – is there was no official ruling. Newspapers began to change in the mid to late 1960s, and by the start of the 1970s nearly all would have gone over to the US system.

The change was cemented in 1974 when Britain itself switched to the US numerical system for all practical purposes.

Wikipedia has a good description of how the different numerical systems evolved.


Friday, April 3

News loses its heart, says journalists' union

Apropos of my recent posts about The Australian's summary retrenchment of its veteran columnist D.D. McNicoll, my union has led today's media e-bulletin to members with this item:

News loses its heart - The Alliance held national meetings with News Limited staff this week after the company made several long-serving journalists redundant. Staff called on the company to consult over any future redundancies, to first offer voluntary redundancies and to address the discriminatory nature of the redundancy formula for staff over 63 or working part-time. Staff also called for an end to individual contracts and for the company to consider flexible work options instead of redundancies. The Alliance will be taking these issues to management at first opportunity.

But times are tough, and newspapers have to cut costs. Here's what's happening on The West Australian, where I began my cadetship in 1957. It's the second item in the e-bulletin.

9-day fortnight at WAN - Staff at West Australian Newspapers are being asked to adopt a nine-day fortnight “to avoid more draconian methods of reducing labour costs”. Several other media organisations have adopted similar measures. If you feel you are being coerced into a pay cut or taking unwanted leave, please contact the Alliance.

As I note under my blog profile, I remain an honorary member of the Australian Journalists Association, now merged into the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.


Let's hope the Oz practises what it preaches

Wishful thinking, perhaps. But The Australian's second editorial today appears to signal a shift from a hard-right ideological stance to a more balanced, middle-of-the-road assessment of economic policy, the causes of the global financial crisis, and the best measures to try for recovery.

When I saw the heading and subheading (above), my first thought was: “Good God! The Oz is dumping on its own commentators.”

Not quite. But if the Oz follows its own advice, it will start giving a more balanced, unbiased coverage of economic issues than we've seen in the past. The full editorial [1] is worth reading, but here are selected passages:

AMONG all the pontificating about the G20 meeting, Barack Obama called for calm coverage of the event. Everybody at the G20 understood the need to kick-start the world economy and better regulate financial systems, he said, adding "there's a great desire to inject some conflict and some drama into the occasion". He was referring to press and politicians, economists and instant experts, including Australians, who seize on statistics to create a sense of disaster about the global financial crisis every chance they get. And he's right.

It is far too early for anybody to understand whether tax cuts or cash payments are the best way to kick-start consumer spending or what amount of money governments around the world need to borrow, or print, to recapitalise banks and expand employment programs. There are cases for all these options, but in the absence of evidence it is puerile for commentators and politicians to denounce whatever governments do, just because they can. There is certainly more sound than sense in the Opposition's strident warnings that the Rudd Government is racking up a dangerously large deficit, when much of the money is being spent to stimulate the economy in the worst economic crisis in 80 years.

It's time for politicians seeking to score political points to calm down and for commentators to stop seizing on reports from international agencies as infallible evidence in support of their ideas about each economic indicator. This unprecedented crisis makes predictions pointless . . .

The electorate's economic literacy is one of Australia's strengths, ensuring people are not seduced by snake-oil solutions. But the fact the voters understand the crisis is the very reason why they neither need nor want instant analysis, every hour on the hour.

The Australian's new stance flows from the overnight G20 agreement. If the G20 achieve nothing else, they may have steered the Oz into more balanced coverage. The world's leaders meeting in London will have done something worthwhile.


You might call it bias. I call it intellectual rigidity. Economics editor Ross Gittins is far kinder. He calls it “priors”.

Gittins, in a piece in The Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age on March 16 [2] , “The GFC and secret economists' business – Your guide to the ideology behind the global financial crisis”, explained:

LET ME let you into a little secret that will help you make more sense of the never-ending debate over the global financial crisis, what caused it and what should be done about it.

As all the professional participants in these debates understand but rarely acknowledge, whatever theory or empirical evidence they quote, the position they take gets back to their "priors" — their previously formed beliefs and values.

A few weeks earlier, he had offered this "tutorial" [3] to incoming Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, explaining the economic debate.


Wednesday, April 1

Save yourself time and money . . . here's the Time number Telstra doesn't tell you

My twice-a-year ritual. Wake on Sunday morning. Pick up wristwatch, reset time with second hand poised at 12 o'clock position. Ring Telstra's Time number. Listen until the voice says, “At the third stroke it will be precisely four-fortythree [or whatever].” Right on the third beep, push the watch's knob back in.

Then go around and reset all the other clocks. For me it's about a dozen – wall clocks, bedside radios, microwave oven, conventional oven, workshop, car, office, and a few others I'll remember later. Perhaps I have a time fetish.

Just make sure of the number you should ring – 1194.

We old timers usually remember 1194. When we can't, we worry about old-timer's disease. But perhaps some of you youngfellas don't know of it, because it's been years since I've been able to find it in a Telstra phone book.

The old Time number disappeared from Telstra directories about when they began to list many “Premium” services – almost all of them directing you to independent service providers which charged like wounded bulls.

Perhaps even Telstra became ashamed as it tried to increase revenue by steering its customers to rip-off merchants, because it now lists fewer “premium” services and some of the prices seem less outrageous.

The only Time number I can find in my phone book is under 190 premium services. It's 1900 911 481, charged at a flat 77c. Call it, and you hear an introduction explaining the charge before inviting you to press a number to proceed. Then it asks you to press a button for your region. For research purposes, I did so.

What's this! Surely this is the voice you hear when dial 1194?

So, it seems that if you call the premium number, you pay 77c to press a few buttons which switch you to a number you could have dialled yourself for the cost of a local call. *

Maybe this advice will be useful to some of our readers. In south-east Australia, daylight saving ends next Sunday, April 5, at 3am summer time. Clocks should be put back one hour. [1] , [2]

* NOTES: I seem to remember 1194 was charged as a local call, but since it's now not in the phone book, I haven't been able to check today. The only time the premium service would be useful would be to get exact time in another Australian state, and how often would that be? Also, don't forget you should have accurate time displayed at the bottom of your computer screen.


The idea for this post first came when this popped up in my inbox:

For anyone contemplating using the Sensis directory service number, 1234, DON'T!
Sensis, as you may or may not know, is a subsidiary of Telstra. The 1234 number is replacing the Telstra 12456 directory assistance number, but this time with outrageous costs attached:
40c to call the number, then
By law, Telstra have to provide a FREE directory assistance number, because they are still majority owned by the government. They choose however not to pass this number on to
the public.
What's the free number? 1223

There's one problem. These claims are not all true. Perhaps they were once (the email may have been circulating since before the Australian Government sold its majority stake in 2007).

On the inside front cover of my phone book, Telstra clearly lists the three types of directory assistance service, the different phone numbers, and explains what they deliver and what they cost.

As it says, “It's your call.”