Monday, October 26

Taking the moral low ground – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Rudd's inspiration?
image from Wikipedia

What a tawdry fortnight in Federal Parliament as our political leaders scrambled to occupy the moral low ground over asylum seekers heading for Australia in leaky boats.

And how easily those leaders fit Stanley Baldwin's jibe against London tabloid newspaper barons – “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”

It's a grand phrase, although (as pointed out later) it doesn't stand up to too much analysis. It is, however, apposite when we look at the attacks by Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and the Opposition's immigration shadow minister, Sharman Stone, on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's removal of the more brutal elements of the previous Liberal government's treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat from Asia.

Turnbull and Stone both went for the throat in their attacks on Rudd's policy. Turnbull, as is his practice, took up a glib phrase – Rudd had “rolled out the welcome mat” for “illegal immigrants” – and repeated it ad nauseam. On ABC radio, Dr Stone attacked Kevin Rudd but refused to answer when asked if she would go back to the old rules.

And that, essentially, is the prerogative of the opposition politician through the ages – to attack government policies, to sneer and jeer but refuse to say how they would do better. Power to attack, no responsibility to offer a solution.

More disgraceful was Kevin Rudd's apparent repudiation of the Christian values he espoused so publicly a year ahead of the 2007 Federal election in which he ousted Liberal Prime Minister John Howard.

As Rudd joined the auction for the moral low ground – dog-whistling the message, I'm treating the boat people just as brutally as they would – this angry old journo wanted to shout: “You're a Christian, for Chrissakes.”

Grumpy Old Journo acknowledges Christianity is a broad church, or collection of churches (as demonstrated in the past week when the Catholic church welcomed misogynists and homophobes who want to quit the Anglican communion – a move which should help both churches achieve their goals). Without any insincerity, Christians may adopt very different views across the political spectrum.

But Rudd, in his landmark essay in The Monthly in October 2006, was emphatic in his admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rudd left us believing he sought to emulate the German theologian. In the second paragraph of his long Monthly essay, Rudd wrote:

And above all, he was a man of action who wrote prophetically in 1937 that "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." For Bonhoeffer, whatever the personal cost, there was no moral alternative other than to fight the Nazi state with whatever weapons were at his disposal.
Three weeks before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the SS because of his complicity in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Rudd also said this in his essay:

I argue that a core, continuing principle shaping this engagement [of church and state] should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer's critique in the '30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.

Provided, one assumes, they're not in leaky boats headed for Christmas Island.

One notes, too, from Wikipedia that when the SS raided Abwehr military intelligence and uncovered the Resistance cell plotting to assassinate Hitler, they also found documents proving Bonhoeffer was involved in an Abwehr scheme smuggling German Jews into Switzerland.

A people-smuggler! “Vile”, if we use Rudd's word for people-smugglers.

Is it unworldly, appealing for moral leadership in our top politicians? What use is a politician of moral integrity when voted out of office?

Kevin Rudd is a cautious man. He remembers how John Howard won the 2001 “Tampa election” with his brutal treatment of the 438 asylum seekers rescued from a sinking boat – treatment which attracted votes from some blue-collar Labor and One Nation supporters.

But I believe times have changed, and Rudd could afford to risk a little of his remarkable political domination of Turnbull and accept the new mood.

Although most Australians still want strong border protection, few yearn for a return to the John Howard days. Most Australians now understand that almost all boat people held on Christmas Island are genuine refugees seeking asylum – and as such, it's incorrect to label them illegal immigrants.

Not only that, anyone who reads newspapers knows most illegal immigation problems are with people arriving on commercial airlines, not boat people,  as yesterday's Sydney Sunday Telegraph explained.

Should we abuse the boat people as queue-jumpers, then?

Last April, Grumpy Old Journo argued that we should prefer refugees who “jump the queue” over those who wait passively in refugee camps waiting to go to whatever country they're allotted:

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.

As an amusing diversion, you might like to read what the British Journalism Review said about “prerogative of the harlot” a few years ago.

So the famous phrase, grand as it sounds, has no foundation in sense. Its actual author, Rudyard Kipling, clearly had not appreciated the economic and social situation of the average harlot, presumably being unacquainted with them. But when he was needed he was happy enough, as a journalist whose career had started on an Indian newspaper which supported the local government and was supported by government printing contracts, to lend his eloquence to the Prime Minister. Baldwin, after all, was not only his friend but his cousin.

And you may think of Malcolm Turnbull's repetitive phases – “cash splash” comes  to mind – if you press on to read this:

There may be no kinship quite as close as that among the politicians of the present day and the people, paid or voluntary, who help to promote their policies. Nevertheless, the party in government and the parties in opposition can call on large numbers of such people, even if none of them has the facility of Kipling with persuasive words. Their purpose, as we are constantly reminded, is not to explain honestly and completely the problems the politicians face and the logical methods by which they are earnestly striving to solve them. It is to repeat and repeat whichever slogan the politicians want the electors to believe represents the most important issue of the day.


Thursday, October 22

When it's deadly, it's outstanding

"That's a blackfella word. It's the ultimate praise anyone can give you"  – performer Leah Purcell defines "deadly".

With this month's awards for top Aboriginal achievers, most Australians now know the word. But no-one seems sure where it came from.


Thursday, October 15

Read all about it . . . but not in our leading newspapers

It's an old tradition in newspapers, and I guess none of us would expect anything different. I'm speaking of articles on the news pages which boast of the paper's success in winning awards.

But now I'm on the other side of the fence – someone who pays for his newspapers, rather than being paid to help produce them – I'm beginning to wonder whether editors owe their readers something better.

"Eleven journalists writing for The Australian are finalists in this year's Walkley awards, including two vying for the Scoop of the Year." That was the Oz's intro to its Page 2 lead story (above) on the success of its people  in Australia's major journalism awards.

The Oz ran colour headshots of all 11 finalists over eight long pars. And it added one final sentence naming two journalists from the rival Melbourne Age and The Sydney Morning Herald who were also finalists for the Scoop of the Year.

At least the Oz was more gracious than the SMH, which reported that "A large number of Herald journalists have been recognised . . . " and named them, but failed to mention any finalist from its rival.

To see the full list of finalists, go to this Walkley Foundation web page (which did not seem right up to date today) and scroll down till you see a link to a PDF file and click on it.

Interesting, isn't it? At a time when media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch are claiming the moral high ground against internet companies like Google, anyone wanting an unbiased report on the Walkley finalists found they'd wasted their money buying his flagship Australian newspaper. Or, for that matter, its rivals.

To get the facts, it was necessary to turn to the internet. And to find the information there, most would have used Google.


Saturday, October 10

While we're arguing about blackface . . .

Most Australians couldn't see what the fuss was about when a nostalgic revival of the Hey Hey, It's Saturday television variety show ended in a bitter debate.

So what's wrong with five performers wearing fuzzy-wuzzy wigs and vaudeville blackface in a skit where the sixth performer wore whiteface to sing and shuffle a Michael Jackson number? And those bloody Yanks – what right have they got to be so angry at a bit of good old fashioned humour on television?

Political correctness gone mad? Well, not really.

Imagine an Australian shirtmaker advertising its products by putting them on an Aboriginal man who's saying, “Mine tinkit they fit.” Even the letters page of The Australian would be full of angry protests (I'd hope).

The long-running “Mine tinkit they fit” campaign began with a depiction of two indigenous Australians wearing what may be mission hand-me-downs, but later ads depicted the black Australian as a more satorially elegant.

I've taken the images of the Pelaco shirt ads from this history web page. The page is worth a look – historian Richard Broome describes how he tracked down these images, which were familiar to my generation of Australians in our younger days, and also how he discovered the identity of the indigenous Australian, "Mulga Fred",  who was the model for the ads.

As a young man, Fred was a successful buckjumper – a rodeo competitor who tries to stay on an angry, bucking horse – and he must have been a dashing and athletic figure. This photo, and the information on the history web page, suggest he became a fringe dweller in white-dominated country towns.

Today, any journalist would be wary of jokes based on racial or ethnic stereotypes – Abo jokes, Ikey jokes or Paddy jokes, or, if you're Indian, Sardarji jokes. I do, however, regret the disappearance of this hard-drinking layabout from our newspaper comic strips:

Today, it seems few would run Reg Smythe's Andy Capp cartoon strip, drawn for the London Daily Mirror since 1957 and syndicated in newspapers around the world. (Although political correctness did get to Andy – the cigarette stub perpetually on his lower lip disappeared in 1983 and he became a non-smoker.)

The image is from here and you'll find a brief history of the cartoon strip here.

Perhaps I read a better class of newspaper, so I felt most journalists had a good understanding of why blackface skits are offensive to Americans and should be to Australians too.

But if the letters and blogs I read were a fair sample, the journalists didn't carry their readers with them. Most Australians appear to have a limited contact with world opinion and still cling to some resentment of Americans from World War II – “two things wrong with them, over-paid and over here”.

Use an American expression, such as Kokoda “trail” instead of “track”, or “railroad” instead of “railway”, and someone will disapprove.

So we tend to overreact to criticism from Americans. But surely we can understand why blackface skits are offensive to Americans. The best explanation I saw was posted by intern Melanie Mahony on yesterday. Mahony also ran a Q and A interview with Kamahl in which the well-liked black Australian entertainer explained  why the skit was offensive. The Australian's media diarist Amanda Meade posted this, and in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald David Dale posted this in which he called Hey Hey host Daryl Somers an idiot.

Also on Crikey, Red Symons – the "nasty" judge on Hey Hey's Red Faces segment – had this to say: "As one who is guilty by association . . . I’m now in the odd position of seeing the segment defended by people that I don’t want in my corner."

Tuesday, October 6

Back to the future for Grumpy Old Journo

Two years ago, your Grumpy Old Journo abandoned his associated blog, What, Me Grumpy. Now I plan to resurrect it.

Three things changed my mind (although I'm still wary of making my blogging life more complex). They are:
  • Last week in Sydney, Google and the Walkley Foundation hosted an exclusive presentation for journalist members of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance on new Google search tools and tricks – some still in development – to gather, sort and analyse news and data. I learned it's still an exciting world out there, and I want to remain part of it. 
  • Before I walked over to the Google offices, I had several coffees with a friend and mentor who has long urged me to make Grumpy Old Journo better focused. I've finally accepted her advice. I still want to write the occasional self-indulgent post about my family, my motor-cycle trips, or my mulberry tree – but now they'll go into What, Me Grumpy? 
  • While checking the settings and presentation of my blogs, I tried Google Blogger's new editor. It makes the insertion and editing of images much simpler, and in general allows more tweaking without having to switch to HTML editing. That should make life easier. 
Check out What, Me Grumpy as it was (along with what was then meant to be its final post). When I post again to it, I'll put a write-off and link on Grumpy Old Journo. PS: I'll still try to find excuses to run Tony Rafty's caricature of me (right), just now and again.

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Now to flick through some topics from the past week:

Fairfax's conservative Catholic columnist Miranda Devine seems to dislike the moderates of Australia's Liberal Party almost as much as she loathes pedophiles or people who believe in man-made global warming.

Last week she turned on Liberal MP Alex Hawke, once a member of the party's hard right but now associated with the moderates.

Hawke, 32, was once a protege of the upper house Liberal MP David Clarke, the putative leader of the traditional right faction. Clarke is unfairly maligned as a sinister religious extremist because he is socially conservative, a fan of John Howard, goes to Mass on Sundays and is married to a member of the Catholic organisation, Opus Dei. He and Hawke had surfed the wave of Howard conservatism, sweeping away two decades of control by the soft left wing of the party, and in 2007 he helped Hawke win the safe north-west Sydney seat of Mitchell.

But with Clarke and his supporters unpalatable to the federal and state Liberal leadership, Hawke must have seen his political future as brighter without the baggage of his former boss. So he has embarked since October on a systematic power grab to oust Clarke at his next pre-selection, say Clarke's allies.
Thanks, Miranda. You've just reinforced my views on David Clarke.

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One can understand newspapers urging readers to go to their online sites – the more clicks the better. That's why print stories often end with the lines, “Have your say on . . .” (Does anyone really care what the readers of, say, Sydney's Daily Telegraph think?)

But it's a bit rough when the Sydney Sun-Herald sets out a quiz for readers, then tells them they'll have to go online to get the answers.

What about the readers who've paid for the newspaper, and who are not connected to the internet​?

Check out David Dale's article on his Sun-Herald blog – just read down to his October 5 post about the questions in the new citizenship test. I must admit I didn't waste too much time on it, but at first I couldn't find the answers there anyway. However, if you click on “more” at the end of the post, it comes up all over again – but this time with answers.

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What was the biggest story of the past week – the death and devastation of flooding, earthquakes and tsunamis in the Philippines, Samoa and Sumatra, Federal Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull's ultimatum to his party members, or the quirky naming of a blend of cream cheese and Vegemite?

At times it was hard to tell. The blogosphere exploded into fully fledged inanity as its denizens vented their anger at the name iSnack 2.0.

Was it a stunt by the Kraft marketing people – after all, is there now anyone in Australia who doesn't know about the new product? By that measure it was a successful stunt.

Or was it a humiliating miscalculation by the Kraft marketing people. That seems more likely, but we'll never know for sure unless someone confesses.

But as the marketing writers debated this question, few reporters told us what the product was.

It's a matter of interest to your Grumpy Old Journo. After trying to extend a misspent youth well into his sixties, GOJ is now required to read food labels very carefully indeed.

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Helen Greenwood had a go at describing iSnack, but she still didn't tell GOJ what he needed to know. You see, I'd already discovered Vegemite and Philadelphia cream cheese go well together. A favourite snack is a low-fat crispbread biscuit spread with cream cheese with some Vegemite smeared across the top.

But it wasn't until consumer affairs writer Kelly Burke, also in the SMH, rounded up a posse of outraged nutritionists that I learned iSnack had more than 17 per cent fat. That included 11 per cent saturated fat. For me, that's a no-no.

The Philly cream cheese variety I use has under 5 per cent fat (it's actually a blend of cream cheese and cottage cheese to achieve that low fat level). And that's what I'll be sticking to, rather than iSnack or whatever it's to be called.

The point of this item is that if newspapers are to survive, they must provide usable information to people who need it. Journalists should ask, have I included all the information readers need to know?