Monday, November 29, 2010

Surely you can’t be serous? Part Two – Posetti et al

So last week a friend of mine, University of Canberra journalism lecturer Julie Posetti, was threatened with a defamation suit by the editor in chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell. This all happened because she was attending a journalism conference in Sydney where former journalist for The Oz, Asa Wahlquist, was speaking (it was the same conference where earlier in the week ABC Managing Director Mark Scott mentioned me in a speech, that set off a mercifully brief bit of “grogsgate”). Posetti was live tweeting the event – a thing done by many journalists during press conferences – it is basically tweeting as the you listen. Mitchell took issue with the tweets that Posetti did, because he alleged that the alleged tweets that Posetti tweeted about and which she alleged were what Walhquist said were not what Walhquist said.

Now I wasn't at the conference and I am not a legal expert, so I have no comment on who is right or wrong. I will say though that an audio of the conference has now appeared which suggests, according to the ABC that “much of the information tweeted was actually said.

Personally though, I think the entire thing is utterly silly.

I have had some experience in being the centre of The Oz’s attention, though thankfully no lawyers were involved. But actually my first direct contact with The Oz came not through the whole revealing of my name, but through a response to the blog post I wrote during the election that caused all the fuss.

The post stated (among many other things) that the media had ignored the Liberal’s policy announcement on disabled education funding. Now later in the week Matthew Franklin of The Oz got in touch with me via Twitter (a direct message, so it’s not public) in which he essentially made it clear that he knew I didn’t like him, but that that was no reason for me to misrepresent him – because he had actually written a piece on the Lib’s disability policy.

I quickly did some research and found that he had indeed written one – the day after I had written my post, so it was not completely surprising that I had not referred to it given my inability to see into the future. But nevertheless I did in my next post mention Franklin’s article and actually gave it a fair bit of discussion (yeah I bagged a lot of it, but I also gave him a big rap for being the only one to do a half decent job on it).

I should at this point say that he never asked to know who I was, and the fact that I was just “Grog’s Gamut” made me no less accountable for what I had written – and no less able to correct the record.

Since then he and I actually converse quite a bit on Twitter. I doubt we have ever agreed on anything political or media, but like mature adults we enjoy a good discussion and find enough common ground on Dylan songs and the brilliance of Heart of Darkness to get by. I will still bag his articles if I think he writes something particularly foolish, and he will defend himself on Twitter to me and others. Some others get abusive towards him, but he and I are always civil.

That is how adults behave.

That is how I would have expected the editor in chief of the flagship paper of to behave when he felt wronged by a person tweeting something that may have been read by 5,000 of her followers (less I’d assume – I follow her and I didn’t see the tweets because I was at work and not on Twitter and I, like most people, don’t go through every single tweet I’ve missed in the previous 8 hours when I get home).

But hey, different strokes. I know which way I think is nicer.


It is hard not to see all of this as part of The Australian’s ever more obvious unease with new media – blogs, Twitter etc. The amount of time they spend trying to knock such media beggars belief. And whenever the issue arises you can generally expect Caroline Overington to be sent out to play the role of full forward – especially if it can be combined with a kick to the ABC, as happened last week.

On Saturday, Overington wrote a piece on the speech by Mark Scott at the journalists conference last week, where he suggested that:

Media organisations like the ABC and The Australian need to accept that we now operate in a shared space. That the days when we exclusively controlled the agenda are gone. The space is shared by professionals and amateurs, and smart media organisations will embrace the energy and insight of the non-professionals and use it to ultimately strengthen their offering.”

Not exactly earth shattering stuff – for Overington though it’s barbarians at the gates stuff:

To Diary’s mind, it is actually offensive for Scott to argue that anyone can practise journalism. It’s insulting to people actually trained to do it. Diary in fact wonders what the journalists who work for Scott—there’s about 1000 of them—make of his statements to that effect. Do they, too, consider themselves to be people with nothing to offer the profession that can’t be done by the unskilled and the inexperienced online? That they are no better at gathering news or making contacts or assessing and analysing information, than anyone else?

Whatever Scott may think, journalism isn’t easy. To illustrate the point: there was a time when reporters would send links to one another, perhaps with a short notes, saying: “Great piece.” You could open and read it, and chances are, it would be a great piece, meaning a beautifully written, thoughtful, sympathetic, clean piece of prose, written by somebody whose work had been beaten into shape by an army of editors and sub-editors over years.

See a link to a “great piece” on Twitter nowadays, and you generally don’t want to make the mistake of opening it, because chances are it will be absolute dross, produced by some clown with a cartoon character for a picture by-line, a fake name, no sense of perspective, and a good bit of bile in their gut.

“Great piece!” his mates will crow. “You’ve nailed it!” But actually, it will be rubbish. In short, while most of us can boil an egg, Masterchef we ain’t, and while most of us can apply a Band-Aid, we wouldn’t attempt brain surgery. We can sing in front of the mirror, in other words, but let’s not pretend to be Madonna.

The work of beautiful writers and fearless reporters can’t be done by just anyone, and so we must respectfully disagree with Scott, wherever and whenever he suggests that it can.

The piece was headed:

By Scott, there’s skill involved

And she (and the sub-editor who wrote the headline) is right. There is skill involved in good journalism. Take her media diary today where she wrote about the Julia Posetti issue:

The facts are somewhat simpler: Posetti sat in on a conference where serious allegations were made about Mitchell. Posetti published those allegations without checking to see if they were true or asking Mitchell for a response. That’s the kind of mistake journalists try to avoid, but it does happen. If it had happened on a newspaper, the paper would have to apologise, correct the record, and if damage had been done to someone’s reputation, pay recompense.

I thought that a very interesting comment on what happens with journalism in a newspaper given that back in September it was reported in The Australian of my attendance at the media140 conference:

(was it a sick day, a day in lieu, annual leave, did he clear it with his supervisor?)

Because at no stage did anyone from The Australian check with me to see what was true – it was just a question posed. On seeing the article I immediately wrote on Twitter:

for the record I took a day's annual leave to attend media140

Did The Australian “correct the record”? Well no – there was nothing to correct, you see (they were just posing a question).

But look, that is all just details, facts… I’m not really up to speed on it all – not being skilful enough to be a journalist.

I was also interested to read this on Overington’s media diary today:

Soup’s off at Nine

AS of next week, the famed GTV9 television studios at 22 Bendigo Street in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond will be no more. After 54 years in the building, which was once a soup factory, Nine is now moving to the city’s trendy Docklands, and quite a few people in the industry are heartbroken at the shift. Some pretty big names got started at Bendigo Street: Bert Newton for one, Daryl Somers obviously, Eddie McGuire, the late Graham Kennedy and the late Don Lane. There was an onscreen celebration last Friday, hosted by McGuire and Tracy Grimshaw; there will also be a boardroom lunch hosted by Jeffrey Browne, with former GTV9 heads Nigel Dick, David Evans, Ian Johnson and Paul Waldren expected to attend. And there’ll be a big party at the studios on December 10.

Good yarn. Except a few things:

1. The studios will not be “no more” “as of next week”. The Nine News will continue to broadcast from there until early in 2011.

2. “Bert Newton for one”, did not get started at GTV9 TV studio. As page 119 of my copy of the Graham Kennedy biography “King” by Graeme Blundell tells me, Newton started in TV at Channel 7 in August 1957. He started at Channel 9 only in 1959. If Overington doesn't have Blundell’s book, she could have read it here in a piece by Newton himself on the Herald Sun’s website:

I came here in 1959 after two years at Channel 7. Back in those early days, everyone was learning about television.

3. “There was an onscreen celebration last Friday, hosted by McGuire and Tracy Grimshaw”. Well yes, kinda. There was an A Current Affair program on Friday hosted by Grimshaw that featured a segment with (among others) Eddie McGuire, but as everyone knows, the real on-air celebration was on Saturday Night – that event was hosted by McGuire and Bert Newton.

But these are all just details. Facts, minor insignificant facts, I’m sure everything else in her piece is right... And I am but a poor little blogger, unskilled in the world of journalism. What do I know? Guess, I should just get back to singing in front of my mirror pretending to be Madonna…

Surely you can’t be serious? Part One–Sheehan and The Greens

Seemingly in anticipation and in honour of the great Leslie Nielsen’s passing, the print media in Australia seems to be full of laughs and pratfalls.

Over on the National Times, Paul Sheehan, obviously reasoning that Nielsen’s fame came mostly from parody, decided to write a column so absurd and full of stereotype and lacking in reality that I just assumed it was him attempting to parody what a right wing anti-Greens op-ed piece would look like if it were done by the satirical news-site, by The Onion. But then a friend informed me that, no, I was wrong – Sheehan actually was being serious (and don’t call him Shirley).

Sheehan's piece is an A to Z of the Green's policies. It is also a great example of how to repeat prejudices without reference to facts. All 26 of them? oh geez, I can’t be bothered, but let’s pick out a few highlights for some laughs:

Firstly his thesis is based on the fact that “The Greens” don’t only have policies that are about Green issues:

“It is simply not a party preoccupied with the environment”.

Well hell. He certainly has blown the lid off that secret hasn’t he! I can’t wait for his follow up article that explains that the Australian Labor Party has policies that aren't about industrial regulation. How dare The Greens branch out. They’re just like the Peoples Republic of China which, I don’t know if you know but they aren’t a republic. Damn, I bet the Greens had something to do with that – not to mention that whole German Democratic Republic thing. Bloody hell, why can’t things be what they claim to be – you know like the Liberal Party of Australia.

OK, under A for the Australian Building and Construction Commission, he tells us that The Greens received donations from the CFMEU and they hate the ABCC and therefore obviously The Greens want the ABCC abolished. Sheehan thinks that is the only reason The Greens want it abolished. He never considers that it might be the other way round – you know an organisation donates to a party because that party has a policy that the organisation agrees with. Gee, never heard of that happening before.

C: China. So great is the scale of power plant construction in China alone that even if Australia enforced a policy of zero greenhouse gas emissions, it would make almost no difference to global emissions. Thus Green urgency is based on principle rather than practical outcomes.

Yes, principles are bad. So I wonder if Sheehan thinks that Hawke and Keating should have waited for the rest of the world to lower all their tariffs before Australia did (the analogous argument put forward by George Megalogenis in his Quarterly Essay). Forget that – principles are bad – tell your children. 

D: Decadal Oscillation. A major complication for climate alarmists is a weather pattern known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Atlantic Decadal Oscillation. Their cycles have been measured for 1500 years. Every 24 to 31 years they alternate global warming and global cooling phases. Australia was due for a cooling phase, and this year's flooding rain is consistent with the onset of a cooling phase.

Ah a little scientific knowledge is dangerous. Let’s first use the Wikipedia link that Sheehan gives us to explain what is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO):

The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is a pattern of Pacific climate variability that shifts phases on at least inter-decadal time scale, usually about 20 to 30 years. The PDO is detected as warm or cool surface waters in the Pacific Ocean, north of 20° N. During a "warm", or "positive", phase, the west Pacific becomes cool and part of the eastern ocean warms; during a "cool" or "negative" phase, the opposite pattern occurs.

Now, to Sheehan’s suggestion that it is a “major complication for climate alarmists”.  Well let’s call bullshit on that right now, and go over to the Skeptical Science website (which conveniently has a130 of the usual climate change denialist arguments all list and refuted.image 

Conveniently it has a graph of global temperature anomaly (ie global warming) set against that of the PDO. Rather unsurprisingly because the Pacific Decadal Oscillation oscillates – ie it goes up and down – it has no impact on long term global warming. Sure it has impacts on the short term, but if PDO was all Sheehan and his ilk say it is, those periods when there is a “cooling” the long terms anomaly would go down such that the long term trend would be flat. It ain’t.

Try again Paul.

E: Electrical Trades Union. The union gave $325,000 to the Greens campaign in Victoria during the federal election, including $125,000 to Adam Bandt's campaign.

Yes? And? Was this secret? Err no. Should the ALP be pissed about it  - well yes. But I struggle to find the point Sheehan is trying to make her. I guess he’s just stating facts and letting us discern the reasoning all by ourselves – which I’m not quite sure is the purpose of opinion pieces, but I may be wrong.

G: GetUp! This local clone of a hard-left American lobby group received $1.2 million from the aforementioned CFMEU during the federal election campaign. The money was used for an ad campaign that attacked Tony Abbott personally. GetUp! supports the Greens.

Ok. So The Greens are bad because an organisation Sheehan doesn’t like supports them. By that logic I can dislike Sheehan’s articles on the basis of the fact I don’t like someone who reads his and likes them. This step of logic is very helpful. Catch the Fire and the Exclusive Brethren supported John Howard and the Liberals, so now I don’t need to bother with any of the Liberal Party’s policies during Howard’s reign I can just say: Catch the Fire supports Howard. QED. Cheers Paul. Life is much easier now.

H: Heroin injecting room. Another left-wing obsession, and thus state-funded heroin injecting rooms is a core emotional issue for the Greens.

Oh sigh. Yep those injecting rooms are evil. I mean just look what that socialist newspaper The Australia reported last month:

Since the centre was opened in May 2001 it has been evaluated 11 times by five organisations. The most recent, commissioned by the state government, was performed by auditor KPMG.

"I think early on it was appropriate for this to be a trial," she says. "This was the first supervised injecting centre in the English-speaking world and although there were hopes for what it would do, there was no evidence."

By April this year, 12,000 individuals had used the centre, with staff members supervising an average of 200 injections a day. Since the centre opened, about 3500 people have overdosed on the premises without a single fatality. Ambulance call-outs to the area have dropped 80 per cent and the number of syringes and needles left on the street has halved.

There's no doubt the evidence is strong, says Alison Ritter, acting director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. "There's nothing equivocal about the scientific evaluations that have been done."

Yes, The Greens (and the ALP) support that. Evil. Crush them, I says!

I: Immigration. Also for Incoherent. The Greens want Australia to lower its greenhouse emissions and reduce stress on the environment, but they defeated the proposed Emissions Trading Scheme and their population policy is rendered irrelevant whenever the needs of refugees and asylum seekers are considered.

OK, I’d really like to know just how many asylum seekers Sheehan thinks we get each year. Let’s have some facts:


Settler arrival numbers 

Net permanent migration


84 100 

49 000


92 300 

51 200


107 400 

60 800


88 900 

40 700


93 900 

43 500


111 600 

52 500


123 400 

60 800


131 600 

63 700


140 100 

68 000


149 400 

72 400


158 021 

77 000 

So in 2008-09 we had 158,021 people migrating here. So lets say we get around 7,000 people come here by boat this year (probably more than there will be). That would be around 4 per cent of the total figure of the number of migrants who came here in 2008-09. If Sheehan thinks that amount has ANY significant impact on greenhouse emissions or stress on the environment (let alone the actual issue of migration), then he is a fool – or at least 4 per cent of a fool.

L: Lee Rhiannon. Classic post-Marxist. From a proudly activist Communist family.

Well hell. Run for the hills. You know, I don’t care what Sheehan’s mum or dad were or did. I’ll judge him by his own words, just as I’ll judge Rhiannon’s by her own; maybe Sheehan should do that as well.

U: Urban heat islands. Another complication for climate action alarmists is the general rise in temperatures measured in urban areas, reflecting the huge trend in global urbanisation.

Yeah, real complicated, because of course scientists wouldn't think to consider their data may be subject to bias. Oh but let’s have a look at a graph comparing rural and urban measurements:image

Hmmm. Not seeing a big skew there Paul. Maybe it’s just too darn complicated for me to get my head around.

W: Wild Rivers. Lock up Cape York. Then lock up northern Australia, while Aboriginal communities stew in the feudal squalor of progressive apartheid.

Well I guess that must be so. Let’s not suggest that there is actually a good deal of debate within the Aboriginal community of North Queensland on the Wild Rivers legislation and a good lot of them are not in agreement with Tony Abbott, Paul Sheehan and Noel Pearson. Take Carpentaria Land Council spokesman Murrandoo Yanner:

"It (wild rivers) doesn't prevent Aboriginal economic development.

"There's been 100 applications go through. There's been none put in from the Cape or rejected for the Cape."

Yep apartheid. Pure and simple.

Look I don’t particularly care that Sheehan is a right wing opinion writer. Heck I’m a left wing one (though not as left as people might like to suppose). I’m not even a Greens supporter (I’ve had a few goes at them on this blog) – though yes a few of my friends are Greens.

I certainly have  some agreement with some of Sheehan’s attacks on the Greens’ economic polices (some), but really is this the best he can do? His criticism is on the same level as me writing an article about why Sheehan is a useless journalist and writing: “S for Sydney Morning Herald: Sheehan writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, it has a awful website with stupid automatic video adverts.”

A bit of intelligence in an argument is all I ask. State your points and defend them with facts, not just state your points and either defend them with supposition or not defend them at all.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

On the QT: And now the end is… near

This was meant to be the last sitting day of the Parliament.  It won’t be, due to debate about procedure and debate – or as Lyndal Curtis nicely put it on Twitter:

Both Chambers of Fed Parliament now talking about what they'll talk about. #thisyearwillneverend

Annabel Crabb also described the process beautifully:

This is all a bit how's your father. Senate doing a suspension of standing orders to debate a motion that has not actually been disclosed

Here’s what was going on in the Senate this morning:

Motion to suspend standing orders to enable Senator Ludwig to move a motion to give precedence to a motion to vary the hours of meeting and routine of business for today.

Commenced 9:31 AM
Agreed to Senate divided: Ayes 34; Noes 32

Motion - that the motion to vary the hours of meeting and routine of business may be moved immediately and have precedence over all other business today until determined

Senator Ludwig moved that the question be put - agreed to (Senate divided: Ayes 34; Noes 32)
Commenced 10:14 AM
Agreed to Senate divided: Ayes 34; Noes 32

Motion to vary the hours of meeting and routine of business

Points of order were raised and the President responded
Commenced 10:27 AM

Motion to suspend standing orders to enable Senator Brandis to take note of the President's response

Senator Ludwig moved that the question be put - agreed to (Senate divided: Ayes 34; Noes 32)
Commenced 10:35 AM
Negatived Senate divided: Ayes 32; Noes 34

Motion to vary the hours of meeting and routine of business

Senator Ludwig moved that the question be put - agreed to (Senate divided: Ayes 34; Noes 32)
Commenced 10:54 AM
Agreed to Senate divided: Ayes 37; Noes 35

Motion to suspend standing orders to allow Senator Brandis to move a motion to amend the variation to the hours of meeting and routine of business

Senator Ludwig moved that the question be put - agreed to (Senate divided: Ayes 37; Noes 35)
Commenced 11:27 AM
Negatived Senate divided: Ayes 35; Noes 37

Motion to suspend standing orders to enable Senator Macdonald to move a motion to amend the variation to the hours of meeting and routine of business was ruled by the President as out of order
Commenced 11:48 AM

Senator Macdonald moved to suspend standing orders to take note of the ruling
Senator Evans moved that the question be put - agreed to (Senate divided: Ayes 36; Noes 34)
Commenced 11:50 AM
Negatived Senate divided: Ayes 34; Noes 36

S0 it was 12:14 before the Senate actually got round to discussing any actual business

All this is because the Opposition does not want to vote on the “No. 1–Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010”. This is the Bill to split Telstra – something that the Liberal Party is actually in favour of. The Liberal Party are hoping to filibuster long enough to delay the vote on the Bill till next year – thus allowing them to say the Government doesn't deliver on promises.

As I write the bill is in committee going through a raft or amendments. They’ll be back tomorrow and the House will be back on Monday to (hopefully) vote on the Bill.

It is the type of bullshit that makes people look at the Parliament and think, why do we elect these arse hats?

Unfortunately due to a variety of  reasons (mostly to do with being a Dad!) I haven’t been able to catch much of Question Time today. It doesn’t matter because today some policy actually got announced (once again by Senator Conroy). This was to do with the anti-siphoning list for sport on TV.

Rather amazingly he has come up with a list that the Free TV broadcasters, Pay TV operators and the AFL and NRL are pretty much happy with.

Free TV are happy because they are allowed to now show sport like AFL games and Australian Open tennis on their multi-channels. Pay TV are happy because it looks like they’ll get 4 AFL games and possibly 5 NRL games a week. The AFL and NRL are happy because they don’t need to just sell to the Free-to-Air stations, and thus can get a nice big broadcasting deal.

The new list is actually two lists – Tier A which is all the culturally vital events – Melbourne Cup, Test Matches in Australia, AFL and NRL Grand Finals (but not the NRL State of Origin). One Day Matches are still on this list which marks it as a tad out of date, but no matter, Twenty-20 matches are, but only those involving Australia in Australia, so if a decent Twenty-20 champions league takes off in Australia that won’t be on this list.

These events are “required be shown first on a free-to-air broadcaster’s main channel (with concessions to allow coverage of overlapping events, or where an event overlaps with the news).”

The events on this list must also be shown live: “they will mandate live coverage of all marquee listed events and permit only minimal delays in coverage of regionally significant events”.

The second list – Tier B has events like the Olympics, Wimbledon, normal AFL and NRL games etc. These events are those which “free-to-air broadcasters may premier on a free-to-air multi-channel”.

The events on this list must be shown within 4 hours – so yes, non-Rugby League states might still get the State of Origin at Midnight.

This policy doesn’t mean we will now see all the tennis from the Australian Open, nor does it mean the end of coverage being cut to go to the news. Yes they might show them on their multi-channel, but they’ll only do that if what they would have been showing on their multi-channel (Go! GEM, 7TWO etc) would not rate as well as (for eg) the tennis. All stations care about is ratings. The rest is just background noise. So I don’t trust that this will suddenly lead to us seeing a lot more sport live. After all Channel 7 during the Beijing Olympics got Matt White to lie to viewers about the fact that they were not showing Steve Hooker winning the Gold Medal in the Pole Vault live – and that had nothing to do with the anti-siphoning list – it was just because they are crap broadcasters who treat viewers of sport with contempt (as they did again this year for the Bathurst 1000).

But let’s be a little bit optimistic. At least Conroy has come up with a list that makes some degree of sense – unlike the old one that had events like the French Open tennis on it.

I leave the Parliament year with some long viewing (about 30 minutes) but it is well worth it. It is Lindsay Tanner interviewing George Megalogenis on the impact of polls and the 24 hours media cycle on politics. It is great viewing.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On the QT: Lift and separate (structurally)

And so Julia came to the rescue.

After a fair bit of bluster and a good deal of brinkmanship by the Senator Xenophon, Julia got into the room, did the deal and released the summary of the NBN Business Plan. It is being reported as a 50 page summary – but it’s only 36 pages. 

So what does the summary tell us? Well for a start it tells us that perhaps the ALP needs to work on its strategy.

The document is one the ALP should want out in the public domain.  They should have been handing it out last Monday morning. The only possible reason I can think for them to keep it in reserve and thus get to a point where releasing this innocuous document would be classed as a back down, is because they were worried that if they released it earlier, Xenophon would be demanding more – more perhaps than they really wanted to give out. 

As such I guess you can say it is good poker by the PM. She kept quiet, let Turnbull and Abbott make more and more out of the business case than it ever was going to be (seriously did anyone expect a business case from NBN Co to say that there was no business case for NBN Co?) and thus when Xenophon started saying he wouldn’t vote for the structural separation of Telstra unless the Government released the business plan, she was able to come in and save the day by getting him to agree to just having the summary released.

It is good politics, but I do worry a bit that politics over policy seems to be the order of the day.

What it also shows (again) is that Julia is a master negotiator. Doing what Rudd was pretty loathe to ever do she actually got involved with negotiations with Senators and got the job done. image

Let me be bold and say this right now: we will have a price on carbon before the next election*. It will be a shitty, God awful, drag-down, knock them out negotiation, and then Julia will get involved and the deal will be done. This is a woman who knows how to work with people, and most of all she bloody well likes to win.

So what is in the NBN business plan? Well to be honest, not a hell of a lot more than we already knew. Some interesting bits are the Product Release Road Map: a series of five “Product Drops”. The second of these was “Emerging Entertainment Capability” – ie being able to deliver TV through the internet (called triple play because it will be delivering TV, internet and telephone services).

I won’t go too much into it, because it is not my field and I’d only make a fool of myself (yeah , I know, why stop now), but this document is not a real financial business plan. It is a political business plan. The entire point of this summary is not to get people to buy shares in NBN, but to get Xenophon and Fielding to buy into it politically. So for all those who bleat and blather about it not being enough, about there not being enough figures, about it not being what a private company would be required to provide, I say, sorry, you’ve missed the point. Gillard this week does not care what you or Turnbull are saying: she only cares what Xenophon is saying, because he had the vote. She did enough to have him coming out and praising her:

YNDAL CURTIS: Nick Xenophon, have you won a back down from the Government?

NICK XENOPHON: This is not about a back down. This is about a sensible compromise being reached and this is good for consumers, it is good for businesses and it is good for certainty for Telstra shareholders as well.

LYNDAL CURTIS: You met Julia Gillard twice on this, talked to her again today. Was her decision to get involved in negotiations over this the key factor in changing your mind?

NICK XENOPHON: I met with Julia Gillard twice last night and I think it is fair to say that the Prime Minister's intervention did make all the difference to bringing this to a conclusion, to a good conclusion.

At this point Julia was going to do just enough to get that result – why pay over the odds for a vote?

And just in case the policy gets forgotten, the result of all of this? Telstra will be separated – the wholesale and retail arms will be split.

This is no small thing.

This is the absolute holy grail of communication's policy. 

Many commentators (myself included) have been pretty hard on this Government's lack of reform. George Megalogenis on News Radio this morning made the point that Labor under Rudd and Gillard too often seems to think reform is doing things that are popular and easy.

Well this may be popular (though probably not greatly – who really sits around talking about the governance of Telstra) but it sure as hell was not easy. Any one who thinks Telstra was going to allows itself to be split without a big fight is kidding themselves. Yes they are getting a big payout here, but they are giving up the things they held most dear – its copper network and exchanges. Howard kept the two arms together so he could sell Telstra for the biggest price (its so easy to pay off debt when you just sell something – beats the hell out of imposing spending restrictions on your budget). After that the Libs tried to get them to separate “operationally” – ie put up Chinese walls etc etc. The industry knew it was bollocks – that is unless you think Optus was treated by the wholesale arm of Telstra the same as it treated the retail arm of Telstra?  If you think that you’re at odds with the ACCC.

Now it is split. Well done Conroy (by the way ignore pieces that says Conroy is in trouble, the guy has had a very, very good year), and well played Julia.


QT was dominated by the Liberal Party quoting The Australian. Nothing new there I know, but they were quoting some leaked minutes of the ALP Caucus meeting the day Rudd got knocked. The big thing was Rudd made a speech were he apologised for everything. Apparently this means that everything he says is true. I guess we should ignore the emotional roller coaster the guy had been on and that he had most likely not had any sleep and that he was feeling lower and more pissed off than he would ever have felt in his entire life. But let’s ignore that.

He said his Government had made mistakes. 

Take for example this bit of his speech:


The Oz and the opposition claimed this was Rudd admitting to everything they had been saying. Well no. Yeah mistakes were made in the implementation of the insulation scheme, and yes there was some waste and mismanagement of the BER. But the biggest mistake Rudd made was allowing The Australian and the opposition to report and talk about that waste and mismanagement out of context. Finding some poorly designed and constructed buildings is all well and good, but a proper media would acknowledge the 97 per cent of cases where good work is done. And a better advocate as PM would have made such a fact impossible for the media to ignore.

But still this is all old hat. Elections are amazing things. They do wipe the slate clean, and oppositions who continue to fight on issues that existed prior the last election are doomed to fail at the next election. Take Julie Bishop’s question to Gillard. She referenced Rudd’s speech where he said that Gillard and Swan had advised him to dump the CPRS, and she wanted to know why did she call for it to be dumped.

The problem of course is it was dumped only after the Libs dumped it – so they can’t very complain that Gillard dumped it when they themselves did it as well – or do they want Gillard to bring it back? The point is NOW Gillard is for a carbon price, so too is Rudd, so too is Swan. The Libs can talk all they want about events in early 2010, but they won’t win the CPRS fight twice. The caravan has moved on, Abbott and Co need to keep up.

And so we have one day to go. It looks like the Government will end on a high note – the passing of the Bill splitting up Telstra – and Abbott leads a party bereft of ideas. Sure the ALP is reform-light – reform in the 80s,90s style of let’s cause some pain. But in the next 12 months they’re going to attempt to  put the NBN into reality, bring in a mining rent tax, and put a price on carbon. If they achieve all three it will be had to say they are a do nothing Government, and it will be very hard for the Libs to win in 2013 with a policy program that consists basically of “Stop the …”.

This past fortnight in QT the opposition have pretty well targeted Gillard only. Usually in the early part of a Government the opposition likes to find a weak link Minister and go them . To do that however requires some sort of policy to challenge them on, and the opposition doesn't really have anything at the moment, and so Gillard fields the questions, and the rest put up their feet and wait for their turn at a Dorothy Dixer.

Next year the Opposition will need some policy so they can test out some of those Ministers, because Julia ain;t going to fall.

*yes I realise saying she’ll get a price on carbon is a massive jinx. Blame me if it doesn’t happen. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On the QT: If The Australian publishes such crap, how can the Government build the NBN?

I think it is fair to say The Australian has not coped well with Julia Gillard becoming leader, and less so with her winning the election. If you were to run a contest to decide the absolute dumbest, knuckle-dragging, spite-ridden, misogynistic, couldn’t find logic with a flashlight and a road map article written about Gillard in The Oz, you would struggle due to the plethora of choice.

My nominations for the award are the execrable front page treatment by Kate Legge writing about Julia’s earlobes:

The ears have it, in a deluge of distraction from campaign themes

"HECK, there must be a surgeon who can help," worried one voter yesterday in a web debate over Julia Gillard's pendulous earlobes.

Yep, hold the front page.

Then there was The Australian's editorial:

Needed: A policy for Julia, direction for Labor

Seemingly sensible and and yet deciding within the piece to come up with this stunner:

We wear Senator Brown's criticism with pride. We believe he and his Green colleagues are hypocrites; that they are bad for the nation; and that they should be destroyed at the ballot box.

(And yes I realise that is not a criticism of Gillard, but geez, it is so brain dead level stupid it deserves entry within this list)

In September we had the genius of Glenda Korporaal:

Julia enjoys the high life free of old bags

JULIA Gillard may have chosen a dress for her first visit to the Governor-General as the newly elected Prime Minister of Australia, instead of her traditionally efficient power pants suit.

But she continues to show her superwoman characteristics by walking into events sans handbag.

Seriously, someone got paid to write that. And even more seriously someone decided it was good enough to publish (oh how full of chagrin am I that I will never be good enough to be a real journalist).

Early this month even the usually intelligent and sensible Peter Brent got involved:

Where’s the Gillard gravitas?

Are Gillard’s hand movements contributing? She insists on inserting the things into every head and shoulder shot and waving them around. It was learnt in politician school - something about trust and open palms, nothing up sleeves. But her words, however convincing, are negated by those flapping hands.

But no, none of these even comes close in the race for the prize of most arse-hat level stupidity as that achieved today by Niki Savva.

Savva is now generally described only as “the author of So Greek: Confessions of a Conservative Leftie” and left unsaid is the fact she worked for nine years as advisor to Costello and Howard (yeah, an irrelevant aspect really when you’re considering someone's views of an ALP Prime Minister). I can’t wait for Lindsay Tanner to write a book so that whenever he does an op-ed piece he can just be described as “the author of…”

Savva in her wisdom based on many years spent being a journalist and then working for Costello and Howard decided it was time to hand out some advice to Julia:

Smarten up, PM, and do not wear green

The headline of course is not hers, but sadly in this case it does not distort the ever so stupid analysis by Savva:

She devotes a whole 2 sentences to some policy ideas (well not really):

First, though, she needs an agenda: something politicians usually acquire in order to attain leadership. She had no time to do that and ever since she became Prime Minister, she's done little else but pick over Kevin Rudd's leftovers and whatever the Greens toss her way.

But this is just a sideshow for the main line of attack that Savva has planned for the day:

She has to sharpen up in every way, every day. Some people welcomed her recent performances in parliament as feisty. To others they were scratchy and screechy.

Her humour often lapses into bitchiness or condescension. As Prime Minister, she has to be measured and respectful. She needs to delegate the attack dog role.

“To others” eh Savva? C’mon show some guts and say whether you think that or not – don’t hide behind bullshit “others”. And of course Savva wouldn't know anything about bitchiness or condescension…

She continues:

She should sack her hairdresser (sorry, Tim) get a decent cut and colour, pack up all her clothes and send them to the Smith Family. There are plenty of stylists who can buy her smart clothes that fit her properly. She needs to hire a good one or get the name of the Governor-General's dressmaker.



Yes, my friends this is the type of hot-shot analysis for which The Australian pays. (Yeah I know, I’ll never attain that level of brilliance – I’ll never get to that level of “can I pull something out of my backside and see if anyone is dumb enough to print it” writing ).

Savva, full well knowing she is being a complete idiot, tries to justify herself:

If all this sounds gratuitous, it isn't. The photograph of Julia Gillard in Sydney's The Daily Telegraph yesterday, wearing a coat that looked as if it was made out of an army blanket by one of the infantry, said it all.

How you look is as important as what you say and how you say it. And the rules apply equally to male and female politicians.

What utter bullshit. It sounds gratuitous because it is. It’s not every day you see a brain-fart getting put on the pages of the national paper, but here we see it.

The rules apply equally to men and women do they? Has Savva been comatose for her entire life? Has she ever worked in the media? Has she ever even read a newspaper like… oh geez I don’t know The Australian which publishes shite about Gillard’s earlobes, lack of handbag, haircut, hand waving etc etc?

Tony Abbott has spent good portions of the past year running around in a pair of speedos, now ask yourself what sort of treatment Julia would get if she were seen regularly in a bikini, or even a one-piece swimsuit?

Think real hard (ie do something Niki Savva found herself incapable of doing when she wrote this piece). Actually don’t think hard, it’s not required, anyone who has seen any type of media coverage in the last say 1000 years knows women are judged much, much more harshly than men when it comes to their appearance – especially when it comes to women in positions of power. And Savva seems to think that should continue.

Just in case you didn’t think Savva could get any less intelligent, or you didn’t quite get the message she was selling, she gives us this:

A bit of exercise wouldn't go astray either, a healthy body and a healthy mind and all that.

She is in diabolical trouble, and she has to be in the best possible shape for the fight ahead.

I’ll give Savva credit for not writing, “And by the way Julia, your arse is fat”. Guess that was in the first draft.

The problem with papers going behind a paywall is not that you’ll have to pay for things which you now get for free, it’s that you know they will bundle it all up so you’ll be able to get George Megalogenis and decent breaking news but only if you also pay for the bottom of the bird cage musings of Savva and her ilk. That deal might fly in print, but in the on-line world people only want to pay for what they want – it’s why people kick up a stink when artists say they only want iTunes to sell their albums entire and not their songs separately.

The type of rubbish Savva vomited onto the page was out of date twenty years ago, and considered a disgrace at least ten years ago. Now I guess it’s opinion worth paying for. 

But anyway, congratulations Savva, you win the award.


A Newspoll come out this morning that showed the ALP back in front 52-48. It is utterly meaningless as I’d wager a good third of the population seriously could not give a stuff about politics – and not in an “oh I don’t know, I guess Gillard is better” kind of way, I mean in an “I don’t give a stuff” and then hang up on the pollster kind of way. So sure they’re getting results, but seriously who cares?

Well of course the politicians care – they have to. After all caring about polls makes up for caring about policy. On that score the Libs care a very great deal about the polls. The Newspoll result pretty well knocked the stuffing out of their “The government has lost its way” schtick. And so taking a  cue for the Government in yesterday’s QT, the Libs decided today to link everything to the NBN. It was laughingly done. Try Scott Morrison:

"Given that since February 2008 there have been more than 9000 illegal arrivals on 190 boats, how can the prime minister now be trusted to get other policies right, such as the $43 billion national broadband network, when she couldn't protect our waters?"

I don’t think there has been a statement made more lacking in want of logic since Michael Kroger on Lateline said “If you can’t stop the leaks, you can’t stop the boats”.

Gillard dispatched it away with ease – calling Nauru “Camp Detour” because 96 per cent of the asylum seekers that went there ended up in Australia or New Zealand.

We also had Chris Pyne saying the BER was a stuff up and so “how can the prime minister now be trusted to get other policies right, such as the $43 billion national broadband network

Gillard again was all over that one coming out with the response:

Just because you come into question time and make things up doesn’t make them true….

You wouldn’t want to risk your life and limb by getting in between and opposition member and a BER opening especially when there are scissors and red ribbon involved.

She ripped into Andrew Robb (who must have been foolish enough to interject too loudly) about his turning up to a local BER project in fluro vest and hard hat.

The one issue that should have had the Opposition’s full attention rather than the scattergun, easy to dismiss approach they took, was to ask Gillard, and Swan etc about the NBN Business Plan.

imageTurnbull (in an a question that very lamely tried to tie together all the disparate questions that had proceeded his) asked Gillard about the “secret plan” to pay some consultants to review the NBN Business Plan. Julia pretty well skipped down the pitch and put it over the fence:

He has been carrying on in this Parliament day after day suggesting that the Government was not doing enough due diligence on the NBN and now he is in here today criticising me for doing too much due diligence on the NBN.

Poor Malcolm did really bowl a long hop there – he should forget about the consultants and focus on the business plan itself. It’s one of those things that is more important than it really is. It sounds important – “business plan” ooh that must be important it’s about business, and it’s a plan. No one knows what is in it, so the opposition can make it out to be whatever they want it to be. And being able to make stuff up is Abbott’s forte, so really that is the only thing the Libs should be caring about.

What they shouldn't do however is look to the Newspoll on the NBN for any guidance. The Australian was running with the headline:

Call for broadband costs undermine support: Newspoll

Utter bull.

Here were the questions asked:


Look at that last one – imagine being asked on the phone if you agree with the statement, “Should the NBN not go ahead in its current form at all?” First off, asking someone to agree with a question? And secondly, if I answered yes to that I’m not 100 per cent sure if that means I am for the NBN or against it…  Dumb, leading statements which give no real insight into what people think. Everyone is best to ignore this poll, and The Oz is best to come up with some better material the next time it wants to slant the facts to suit its agenda.

One interesting answer given by Albanese in QT today referred to a report to a Parliamentary Committee in 2002 chaired by none other than Christopher Pyne. The report was titled:



In the second paragraph, of the report’s Executive Summary it has this line:

No wireless broadband technology is able to handle the data rates of the best wire-line technologies…

As Albanese pointed out, that is pretty much game-set and match.

The ALP though needs to be a bit careful because both sides would be able to cite the report for its own purposes. The sentence that Albo read out in full is:

No wireless broadband technology is able to handle the data rates of the best wire-line technologies but there are many situations where the latter cannot yet be used or is simply unavailable (such as in remote and regional areas, and even in some suburban metropolitan areas).

The report also states:

Given the fundamental fact that different wireless technologies serve different purposes and that they are constantly evolving, the government should take a technology-neutral approach to both wireless and wire-line services.

The Committee concludes that the solution to the ‘last mile’ service involves a mixture of technologies, both wire-line and wireless.

It also had this conclusion:

Many submissions and other inputs to the inquiry emphasised the diversity of technologies and the pace of change. The future will see a mix of various technologies and the market should be permitted to determine which ones best suit particular applications. While it is entirely appropriate for governments to set standards and allocate spectrum for particular uses, governments should remain technologically neutral with respect to developments in telecommunications.

Now that would seem like game-set and match for Turnbull, but the problem for him is that the entire document is notable mostly for how archaic it all is. Take this sentence:

The definition of broadband is open to interpretation and therefore remains fluid. The minimum data speed that could be considered broadband is probably 64 kilobits per second (kbps) and the most common definition is 200 kbps.

Ooh 200kps, what a magical dream world that would be…

But do not worry – the future is near!

The Canadian document referred to above noted that, with new applications, the capacity of wireless broadband could increase to 4-6 Mbps

So were Turnbull to start launching into Conroy etc on the basis of this report he would be instantly (and rightly) ridiculed for using as his evidence a document that regarded a broadband speed of 64kbs as good enough.

Ah well, 64 kps would be more than fast enough to download a Niki Savva article… so perhaps the lesson of the 2002 report is that we need is less speed not more.

Monday, November 22, 2010

On the QT: O tempora, o mores!

The best article of the day was that by Dennis Glover who wrote on the value of oratory and posited that had Kevin Rudd been able to make some decent speeches he would still be PM. Now yes you could argue that if he had been a bit better at listening to Cabinet Ministers he might have been ok as well, but Glover is right when he states: “good speech can both make careers and change the world, for good or ill”.
It is true – oratory will convert sceptics, convince doubters and strengthen supporters. But while this is nice, what truly matters to people is also what is said – oratory is only important if it delivers (or fails to deliver) good policy.
Rudd’s oratory was woeful (the only bit of rhetoric he mastered was rhetorical questions), but crucially what he was saying was just as bad. Oh it would be lovely if we were to have a Cicero walking the carpet of Parliament House in the guise of our Treasurer, but that is not the case, and no amount of my wailing that I wish Keating were still with us will make it happen, so let us focus on what is said, if we can’t always improve how it is said.
Oratory – and how an argument is put – is important because the Rudd Government failed miserably selling both the CPRS and the RSPT. The first failed because Rudd’s treatment of the issue in speeches was woeful – it was always about the end of the planet, the destruction of our way of life etc etc – and not only that Rudd also wanted us to believe it would be solved by something that wouldn't involve any increase in the cost of living. Now yes the CPRS might have been the personification of “flawed policy”, but at no stage did Rudd, or others in the Government charged with the responsibility – yes, Penny Wong, I’m looking at you –  explain just why and how the CPRS would affect the economy and thus help the environment.
When the RSPT came round, the job was done marginally better by Swan, but once again Rudd missed the point. He seemingly spent the entire time talking about increases in superannuation and infrastructure, which was all nice and good except it didn't help anyone understand why the RSPT was a good idea. A tax is either good or bad because it is either good or bad, not because of what expenditure may be spent with the revenue.
Since the election, Julie Gillard has pointedly changed tack on the merits of a price on carbon – it is all economic: the price of electricity will go up – that’s the point. It is much more effective, and while the Opposition will bleat about her having broken her promise, the point is that she is selling it well because she is speaking well about the issue – not falling into Ruddish speak about the ephemeral benefits.
Which brings us to the National Broadband Network.
The Government is in danger of stuffing this up – not because of whether or not it is a bad policy – but because of how they are selling it; how they are talking about it.
In Question Time today the wonders of the NBN were spruiked by every Minister who had been able to finagle a Dorothy Dixer – Garrett on education, Roxon on Health, Gray on openness of Government (yeah, you heard me!). We were back in Rudd world, where the NBN was good because of what it would bring.
If the Government keeps going down this line they will lose the debate.
People know the NBN will bring all manner of goodies. They know that there are things in the future that we have no idea about today which in ten years time we will look back and think, how the hell did we do without this. We live in 2010. Any adult can remember a time when email was not commonplace. And adult can remember when a site like YouTube would have been pointless because it took 3 hours to down load 3 minutes of video. Any adult can remember when you weren’t able to book a seat online, print out the boarding pass and show up at the airport 1 minute before boarding.
We know this – the Government does not need to sell us the wonders of the future.
It needs to sell us the wonders of the NBN. It needs to sell us that the NBN is the best way to do it.
Now everyone knows it is not the “cheapest” way to do it – because the cheapest way is to let Telstra do it, and we all know how good that has worked out so far – ie don’t live in a low density area more than a mile from an exchange. But then why is the Government doing it the way it is doing it? Why is the NBN in and of itself good? Why is the NBN in and of itself better than the way Malcolm Turnbull is suggesting?
You see talking about the benefits of e-health and e-education and e-open government is a waste of time and words.
A complete waste of time.
A complete waste of words.
Why? Because Malcolm Turnbull will say he can deliver exactly the same thing – only cheaper.
So there are two arguments here (and neither of them have anything to do with the glories of e-education): the technical and the economic.
Whenever any mention of benefits flowing from the NBN, it must be explained clearly in small, memorable, but non-focussed grouped-sounding words why the NBN will do it, and why Turnbull’s vision of a wireless glory land won’t.
Now that’s the easy part of the argument – the laws of physics are very helpful here.
But the economics? Ain’t got nowt to do with kids and their desks doing book learning over the internet.
It all might sound wonderful; it all might sound like a great idea for education – but what’s the cost? And why are we paying it? And why shouldn’t we pay a bit less and still get much the same?
The last question is really the only main bit of the economic argument tied up with the technical aspect – it needs to be hammered: will Turnbull be able to deliver essentially the same to everyone as would the NBN? If not, tell us clearly, brutally, and repeatedly why not. After this debate, if nothing else, every voter should have a much better understanding physics than they did before. The Government needs to package up a physics lessons on IT that voters can take with them down to the pub on a Friday night and use to refute anyone who says, “Yeah but Turnbull reckons he can give us the same for less cost”.
Asymmetric speeds? What the hell are they? In six months the drawback of asymmetrical speeds needs to be as clearly obvious to the non-tech voter as is the difference in the fuel economy of different cars.
Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, Anthony Albanese, Stephen Conroy – you’ve got 3 minutes to tell me why the NBN is the most effective and efficient way to deliver high speed broadband to the nation and you’re not allowed to mention the benefits of fibre. Go.
It’s hard isn’t it? The Government is trapped into talking about the benefits, when the debate is shifting to the economics. Assume people know the benefits, assume people agree with the benefits, and go from that starting point. 
Rudd thought if he convinced people of the nice booty that would come from the RSPT they would not care about the RSPT. It was a futile way to go about it – people know infrastructure is all nice and lovely – but they'll wonder why can’t you just cut something else to provide for it. Bring in a new tax, and you better be damn sure you can explain why we need the tax –and your argument better be deeper than because we can then spend a lot more money.
Today in Question Time the Government tried to have some fun with the fact that Turnbull has invested around $10m in “Melbourne IT”, because it is a company that makes its money out of the internet and will obviously do well out of the NBN.  Gillard and Albanese got up and had some fun – coming up with the line “put your mouth where your money is”.
But seriously, who gives a shit? It is a minor, nothing of a sideshow. Turnbull hasn’t invested in NBN Co; he’s invested in an IT company (a company which as Malcolm Farnsworth pointed out o Twitter charges exorbitant prices – $75.70 for what GoDaddy will sell you for $12.15). The ALP’s argument is like saying if Turnbull invested in a trucking company that means he supports the way the Government is spending money on roads. image
It was the type of oratory that Costello would indulge in, and which would have the press gallery in orgasmic raptures.
It reality (like much of Costello) it was petty, puerile and pointless.
The opposition was asking stupid questions all ending with “the Government has lost its way”, but that doesn't mean the ALP needs to respond by being equally as pathetic.
What the Government should be more concerned about is that people are wondering why the Government won’t release the business case on the NBN till after parliament has risen. Joe Hockey dopily asked Gillard if she had read the business case and if so why can’t everyone else. She was far too dismissive in her response – he had in fact given her a perfect opportunity to explain the reasons and essentially use Hockey as a punching bag. Instead she gave a one sentence response. (She was much better slapping Abbott away when he was asking her about the “deal” done with The Greens on the sale of the NBN – she pointed out it wasn’t any deal at all, in fact nothing had changed).
I have no idea, but I wouldn’t mind betting she hasn’t read the business case yet – after all it would have been presented to Conroy. He would be the one reading it, studying it and getting multiple briefings on it, and he’ll be the one who then takes it to Gillard.
Most likely it is being released in December because that’s how long it will take for the Government to work through it bureaucratically and politically (in Cabinet). They would be dopey to rush it through – Government is about incumbency, part of which making sure you only go public when you’ve got everything sorted. But the timing in this case is not fortuitous. The NBN business case should be something the Government is excited about – it should be as looked forward to as was the Orgill Report into the BER (a report, which anyone who was at all across the entire context of the BER, rather than merely focussing on the stuff ups, knew was not going to hurt the Government). 
The NBN like every damn thing in Government comes down to economics. The Government needs to win the economic debate and needs to get damn hot on the business case. Possum tweeted re the business plan “Grow balls & recall the Senate in December post-release”. This is unlikely to happen, but the Government does need to get its argument in order. Because of the timing it can’t afford to take a December holiday form politics – and unfortunately most of the public will have.
Boring speeches, boring oratory, and far too many sights of slogans – three words and others – have left the public completely disengaged. I haven’t given one damn about any poll put out since the election – the ALP is behind 49-51? Who cares. It means nothing at the moment.
I am a political junkie and I hardly even bother with the 7:30 Report or Lateline anymore, so why on earth would I expect those more saner people who don’t live and breathe politics to care in the slightest who or what the Government is doing. 
It has been this way since Oakeshott and Windsor made their call. No one – politicians, media or public wanted things to start up again. Everyone just wanted a break. Since September everyone has been looking to the Christmas break.  It is why I believe all future elections should be held in November. In 2007 Rudd won, then we went on a break and in 2008 everything started afresh. Nothing since the 2010 election has been “fresh”.
Unfortunately for Gillard and Co this makes it all the bit harder to make their case on the NBN: to convince people they first have to get them to listen.
And to do that they’ll need more than to be told Malcolm Turnbull has made some money investing in shares…

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Flick of the week: “Hold on to yourself, Bartlett. You're twenty feet short”

This week’s Flick of the Week takes us with Richard Attenborough and his role as advisor to Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth to his role as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Big X) in John Sturges’ World War II classic, The Great Escapethe-great-escape-poster

Last week when I bemoaned the lack of historical accuracy in Elizabeth I wrote that I was a bit of a film hypocrite on the issue. Sure enough here we have a film that strays a fair bit from the script. This film about the greatest ever attempted escape from a Nazi Prisoner of War Camp had a hell of a lot of exciting reality to deal with – but in true Hollywood style is gave it a little oomph.

Firstly the events are contracted, and secondly the Americans have a much bigger role than in reality. On both issues I have to say I don’t give a damn.

Yes we can read in Australian Paul Brickhill’s  excellent book (he also wrote The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky) on the escape that the Yanks were involved but were certainly much more minor players, and no Americans escaped because they were transferred to a separate compound just before the escape. 

And of course no one tried to jump the Swiss border on a motorcycle.

But for some reason it just doesn’t matter to me.

I can understand people disliking the fact that the Yanks get a bigger role, but this film certainly doesn't put the Brits and other Commonwealth soldiers in the shade (like say a modern WWII POW film like Hart’s War). Perhaps because Englishman James Clavell co-wrote the screenplay, the Non-Americans get their due: Bartlett as Big X is definitely in charge of the show and Gordon Jackson as his MacDonald “Intelligence” is the Scot who keeps everyone in order. Plus for us Aussies, there’s the Sedgwick the Manufacturer (not totally convincingly played by James Coburn). There are only three yanks, and in reality only two get much screen time – James Garner as the Scrounger, Hendly, and Steve McQueen in the Steve McQueen role, Hilts, the Cooler King.

My history with this film goes back a long, long way. It is not the first “grown-up” film I ever saw – The Sound of Music gets that title. But my first viewing of this was a seminal moment in my life. On seeing not only was I enthralled with this film, but I am pretty sure from this moment on I was enthralled by movies. I just loved every single thing about it – from Elmer Berstein’s amazing score, to the planning of the escape, the tension involved, the horror at the murders, the exhilaration of Hilts trying to get into Switzerland. It is also most likely the film I have watched the most (not including all the many, many Pixar movies I have watched by virtue of being a parent!).

Everything (yes even Coburn’s accent) just fits perfectly. If you’re going to have a bird-watching forger who goes blind, why who else could play it but Donald Pleasance? You need a mono-sibylic Polish tunnel digger? Charles Bronson is your man.

The history of course is glamourized – POW life was not nearly so easy as the film depicts – Brickhill writes of the gnawing hunger which all felt most the time – and how this affected the escape as well – starving men don’t have a great deal of energy. But this is more a product of its time, where gritty realism wasn’t the done thing.

The film has a number of indelible moments – Hilts in the cooler with his baseball, the discovery of the tunnel “Tom”, the escape itself, the stuff up by MacDonald, the execution of the men, Hilts’s jump… Many have received the ultimate pop-culture compliment of being parodied in The Simpsons.

It is easy to dismiss the film as just an action film, but so much of it is done so well that it demands attention. Quentin Tarantino in the 2002 Sight and Sound poll of the 10 Greatest Movies of All-time, put it in his top 12 (also included in his list were The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Rio Bravo, Taxi Driver, His Girl Friday, Rolling Thunder, They all Laughed, Coffy, Carrie, Dazed and Confused, Five Fingers of Death, and Hi Diddle Diddle – an eclectic list to be sure – and no, I don’t know why he listed 12 and not 10). The way the film is edited and shot is so completely foreign to what an action movie looks like now that it seems a relic. Firstly the pace is much, much slower. Hand-held camera? What’s that? The music swells, but it is a score, not a soundtrack. And here’s the real kicker – the entire thing is a monumental stuff-up. Two Hundred and fifty POWs were meant to escape, in the end only 76 got out, and of them only 3 got back to England. Fifty were caught by the Gestapo and murdered (one of the crimes for which Hermann Goering was tried at Nuremburg).

500fullThat ain’t happening in any film made now. You think history was tinkered with back in 1963? Pah, made now, the entire escape plan would be the work of Hilts – he’d get it all organised – Bartlett would be his helper perhaps. The Forger, Manufacturer, the two Tunnel Kings, Intelligence? Gone. Played by nobodies in small parts. Hendly as smart guy who knows how to get things? Hilts can do that himself – after all the star must be the star – give him everything. If the screenwriter is particularly dopey, or is pushed around enough by the star we’ll have a flash back to the Hilts and his wife. Heck the whole bloody film will probably start from Hilts getting shot down, and him arriving at the camp a year later with the biggest reputation in the entire POW camp system for escaping.

Do they escape? Well maybe not – Hilts in a bit of pathos would most likely die helping Bartlett get across the border. The fifty? Not murdered, but perhaps killed in a shoot out with the Germans.

And 172 minutes? Well that might be the one thing that doesn’t change, but Michael Bay would make sure as hell a lot more of those minutes were used showing the motor bike chase.

Ah yes, I can see it now, fade to black, try not to throw up in to your popcorn bucket.

That is why this film succeeds. Yeah the final bit with Hilts on the bike is bullshit, but it’s not superhuman bullshit, and it fits with the character, it never goes too over the top, and most of all – he fails. The rest of the film though is played straight. It doesn’t turn into an Alistair Maclean film (as much as I love those) because it always has as that end result the fifty getting murdered.

It is perhaps the only action film based on a war crime. It succeeds because not only is the film done to entertain, it is also done to honour the dead. The film thus has a heart that is lacking in so many action films today – films where the main purpose seems to be to hopefully make enough money so the sequel will get green lit.

Were The Great Escape made today it’d be up for Best Picture – and treated as a drama. I have to say, looking at what won in 1963 – Tom Jones, and what else was nominated: America, America; Cleopatra; How the West was Won; and Lilies of the Field not only should it have been nominated for Best Picture that year (hell Elmer Bernstein didn’t even get nominated), it should have won. 

Here’s a few scenes of Bartlett and MacDonald (there’s not much of it on YouTube):

The Great Escape