News and entertainment a difficult mix

e know them will effectively cease to exist within a few short years. 

Many readers will miss the familiarity and romance of print. But more disturbing is the likelihood that the dignified authority of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age mastheads will be lost when the more ephemeral, entertainment-oriented electronic edition is all we have. 

The comparative lightness of the online content is consistent with the increasingly widespread trend to blend news with entertainment in electronic and online media in general. In fact the appeal of this is such that many, perhaps most, Australians have their news delivered to them within a form of popular entertainment rather than ‘serious’ news publications and programs.

It is often breakfast radio presenters such as Kyle and Jackie O who shape young people’s perceptions of the world with their mostly offhand and anti-social jokes about events and issues of national and world significance. Or the more socially responsible but nevertheless trivialising news oriented comedy programs such as Channel Ten’s The Project, as well as short-run series such as last year’s Hamster Wheel from The Chaser and ABC1’s current Friday offering Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell.

These shows are influenced by highly successful and sometimes incisive American news comedies including The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. 

Such blending of news with comedy is the subject of acomment by Californian Jesuit James T. Keane in the latest issue of America magazine. Keane writes of the usurping of the traditional network news bulletins by the likes of Colbert and Stewart, who ‘deliver news wrapped in comedy, pop-culture references and often an ironic distance from momentous historical events’.

Significantly he is not entirely disturbed by this phenomenon. He argues that it is naïve to assume that Walter Cronkite could be trusted to deliver ‘unvarnished truth’. Moreover he suggests the comedies provide a kind of antidote to the xenophobia and introspective consumerism fostered by network news bulletins. 

Mainstream news programs routinely report on the ways in which ‘our way of life’ is being threatened or destroyed and seldom acknowledge that such ways of life are unsustainable or contrary to the public good.

It’s a positive that satire provides much-needed perspective on traditional news, and that it has moved beyond a niche to educate the masses to consume the news more critically. But regrettable that the iconoclastic tone of many of these comedians of the left lacks the values and moral centre needed to counter the xenophobia and play to self-interest of the network bulletins and the right-wing news entertainment programs such as The O’Reilly Factor on FoxNews.

If Fairfax Online remains dominated by an imperative to entertain, we should hope that it finds a way of retaining the sense of values that have long given the printed broadsheets their authority.

Coalition of the willing targets messenger Assange

Julian Assange effectively conducted an inquiry into the quality of western democracy and found it wanting, if not a sham. It is well known how he did this through the WikiLeaks organisation, which published often confidential information that impugned US and allied war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and much more.

The world was shocked, and it was up to the US to choose how to react. They could opt for contrition, or they could discredit and shoot the messenger. 

Contrition would be humiliating but could save democracy by giving it a fresh start. On the other hand, pursuing Assange — as they did bin Laden — would play well at home, but elsewhere might make the US seem like an international thug that uses human rights as a smokescreen for its totalitarian behaviour and its disregard for the lives of the ordinary citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq. 

There is little doubt that they have chosen the latter. They are confident they will get Assange in the end as they got bin Laden, and they are waiting patiently for the pieces to fall into place.

The US pursuit of Assange is being played out with what is largely the cooperation of other western democracies. Last week the legal system in the UK rejected his appeal against extradition to Sweden.

Guardian columnist Amy Goodman pointed out that the UK government could overrule the court if it wanted to. It did this when it intervened in the 1998 Pinochet extradition case when it allowed the former dictator to return home to Chile. It looks as if they did a favour for Pinochet that they won't for Assange. Are crimes against humanity more forgivable than the allegations without charges that Assange is facing in Sweden?

Meanwhile US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is enjoying a warm welcome in Sweden for what is coincidentally the first such visit from a US official for years. Not surprisingly, Assange is not listed on herwebsite among the topics for discussion. Do we need to wait for WikiLeaks to reveal the actual content of discussions, and the likelihood that Assange ranks high on the list of topics? Or have we not learned the lessons of WikiLeaks?

Rightfully Australia should have no small part to play in the fate of one of its own. But do we ourselves care whether Assange ends up with a lengthy jail sentence or possibly the death penalty for his whistle blowing? 

Some do. Last December former prime minister Malcolm Fraser and several dozen public figures called on then Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd to ensure Assange is protected from 'rendition' to the US. The signers expressed concern that 'the chances of Mr Assange receiving a fair trial in the United States appear remote'. 

Unfortunately Rudd's initial support for Assange was not sustained, and on Thursday his successor Bob Carr almost laughably reduced the issue to quantifying the support Assange has received, insisting that 'there's been no Australian who's received more consular support in a comparable period than Mr Assange'.

As if Carr, as a self-professed man of letters, cannot see the broader implications of Assange's plight for the future of democracy.

Mob rule on Craig Thomson

tralian officials 'have a tendency to follow the letter of the law and refuse to think outside the box'. But she considers that a small price to pay for the increased wellbeing her family enjoys living in this country. She wrote:

Coming from a relatively lawless country, it has been difficult to adapt to the opposite scenario, where rules control people rather than the other way around. But, having said that, this is what makes Australia a functional, effective, efficient, law-abiding place, and it is precisely the reason we chose to move here.

Rules in general, and the rule of law in particular, promote the common good ahead of sectional interests. More often than not, refugees have fled lawless societies in search of the protection of the law. A well functioning rule of law is a haven for people of good will. 

It is particularly incumbent upon politicians to respect the judiciary. But on Thursday our near neighbour Papua New Guinea took a significant step along the road from the rule of law to dictatorship. Prime Minister Peter O'Neill had the country's chief justice Sir Salamo Injia arrested and charged with sedition. Sir Salamo had upheld a significant ruling that did not serve the personal interest of the prime minister and instead benefited his rival Sir Michael Somare.

By contrast, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard did little more than express disappointment last August when the High Court ruled unlawful her government's Malaysia solution, which it was relying upon to arrest the drift of political support from the Government to the Opposition. 

Former Chief Justice Sir Gerard Brennan reflected in 1997:

Should a judge be accountable to the government of the day? Certainly not. Should the judge be accountable in some way to an interest group or to the public? The rule of law would be hostage to public relations campaigns or majoritarian interests. Should a judgment be fashioned to satisfy popular sentiment? That would be the antithesis of the rule of law.

Judgment of Craig Thomson should wait for the decision of a judge in a court of law. However, popular sentiment and a populist Opposition have taken hold of the judgment of Thomson to the extent that a judge deciding not to convict him might almost expect the fate of PNG's Sir Salamo Injia.

The first conseqence of mob rule is injustice to an individual. But once it takes hold, the real casualty would be Australia's status as a desirable place to live. Migrants and refugees would no longer see Australia as the place to come to enjoy the protection afforded by the rule of the law. The politicians could finally have their wish because the boats might stop.

Give circumcision inequality the snip

There are convincing arguments both for and against infant male circumcision. Medical authorities supportingthe practice describe it as a form of vaccination. Thoseagainst regard it as potentially risky surgery that is 'unnecessary, irreversible and harmful'. Unlike female circumcision, there appears to be no certain case for the state to determine whether or not non-therapeutic infant male circumcision should take place. 

In 2009 a detailed issues paper of the Tasmania Law Reform Institute canvassed the criminalisation of the practice on human rights grounds. This was a response to calls for clarification of the law to determine if those performing the procedure could be charged with committing assault or abuse, and whether parental consent is a mitigating factor.

Tasmania's then Children's Commissioner Paul Mason said: 'Everyone is entitled to bodily integrity, to protection of their own body from injury by another without their consent.'

But doctors advocating the procedure as a preventative health measure can also mount a human rights argument along the lines of every child having the right to access the best available health outcomes. It would be self-defeating if the 'protection' afforded by one right prevented the 'access' offered by another.

The obvious problem is that infants are not capable of giving consent, and experts argue that the procedure becomes problematic once they're old enough to decide. 

Necessarily it falls to parents to make an informed and responsible decision, and there's nothing wrong with that. It is subsequently important that they have the means to exercise the option they've chosen. Regrettably this is not always the case, and their decision can be reversed by their economic circumstances. Middle and higher income families could easily afford the cost of up to $800 but low income families cannot.

The cost will become a major issue if the Federal Government goes ahead with plans to remove non-therapeutic infant male circumcision from the list of procedures that qualify for Medicare payments unless it is found to be necessary in particular cases. There is already inequity in the fact that public hospitals do not perform infant male circumcisions in most states.

Advocates are calling for an end to the ban on the procedure in public hospitals and a substantial increase in the Medicare benefit for the operation.

It is empowering for parents to have the ability to contribute to the quality of life of their children though responsible decision making, but alienating if inequitable funding models make decisions for them.

Hockey and Thatcher's 'no entitlement' is bad economics

In Australia we've just had a Federal Budget that sought to produce a surplus at all costs. In Europe they're reacting to pressure to agree to crippling austerity measures.

Yet it's quite possible that both initiatives will fail because they rely on narrow measures of economic wellbeing. Hard-line doctrinaire strategies that include cuts to social welfare can hurt people in the short term and the long term.

The esteemed economist Joseph Stiglitz has blamed Europe's current predicament on political pressure to yield to what might be called fundamentalist economics.

In a recent interview with The European, he talks about 'overly simplified', 'distorted', and indeed 'faulty' pre-GFC models that 'encouraged policy-makers to believe that the markets would solve all the problems'. Yet, he says, the 'narrow-minded' free-market economists responsible for the global financial crisis 'have not revised their opinions'.

The economists in question argue that demographic change, and the end of the industrial age, have made the welfare state financially unsustainable. They say that cutting debt means reducing the cost of welfare payments. Stiglitz counters that the Scandinavian countries 'all have strong social protection and they are all growing'. He is particularly critical of the economists' fixation on GDP numbers.

'I don't want to talk about GDP anymore, I want to talk about what is happening to most citizens. Even the Right is beginning to agree that GDP is not a good measure of economic progress. The notion of the welfare of most citizens is almost a no-brainer.'

Stiglitz would strongly disagree with Joe Hockey's recent landmark 'End of the Age of Entitlement'address because of his belief there is a clear and important link between human wellbeing and economic prosperity.

Stiglitz is well known for the his participation in the study commissioned by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 to assess how well GDP is able to measure society's wellbeing. Its conclusion was that most people can be worse off even though average income is increasing.

Understandably Hockey provoked outrage with his suggestion that we should rely on families rather than the state for social welfare. History could well rank Hockey's 'there's no such thing as entitlement' alongside Thatcher's infamous 'there is no such thing as society'. Thatcher declared 'there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation'.

Hockey's premise that high social spending equals debt and decline reflects the GDP fetish that Stiglitz regrets in the fundamentalist economists. It is deaf to the cries of anguish of individuals such as Dimitris Christoulas, the 77-year-old retired Greek pharmacist who took his own life because he could no longer afford to feed himself.

Moreover it refuses to countenance the perfectly sound economic argument that expenditure on the welfare of those who are marginalised is an investment in the social wellbeing of all of us.

Big media's NBN convergence challenge

The National Broadband Network (NBN) is set to level the media's playing field, and that's good and bad. 

We'll all have the ability to become broadcasters, with no need for licences and expensive infrastructure. Innovations such as YouTube have already given us a taste of that, and how 'citizen' media can contribute to our flourishing as human beings and communities. 

But because our media world will be flooded with content from overseas, our distinctive Australian culture will be threatened. This has occurred with state and regional cultures in recent decades, as nationally networked content has become the norm. State based football now receives little media coverage compared with the past. 

In the future we'll source the majority of our media content from the NBN rather than broadcast towers and newspaper vendors. The media industry as we know it will die if it fails in its various attempts to reinvent itself.

The end of big media businesses such as Seven, Nine, Ten and the newspapers would be bad for media proprietors such as Kerry Stokes and Rupert Murdoch, but not necessarily a great loss at all for the rest of us, given the NBN's empowerment of small media enterprises and the diversity that implies.  

However it also provides an uncertain future for the ABC and SBS, which exist largely to promote Australian culture and identity.

Earlier this year, ABC managing director Mark Scottsounded the alarm at a forum of commercial and public sector broadcasters:

'In the short term, in the next couple of years it looks pretty good. People are still watching television ... But if you take a longer-term view, when the NBN is here and you are battling global content, where there's seamless distribution and endless content available, that's where you have got to be quite paranoid ... and you have to be positioning yourself quite aggressively now for the uncertainties of that world.'

The Federal Government's Convergence Review report released last week provides a blueprint for media policy in the NBN era. Its vision includes many radical changes including a 50 per cent increase in Australian content obligations for commercial free to air television operators. 

More compulsory locally-produced programming will diminish the currently healthy earnings of the television networks. But broadcasting a substantial amount of local content will provide them with a point of difference that will potentially cushion them against competition from foreign content providers.

Australian programs are costly to produce, but it has been demonstrated over the past two or more decades that Australians prefer local to foreign content. 

The commercial networks are demanding that Australian content rules should also apply to the ABC. This seems fair, although extending the requirement to SBS would be another matter.

The report of the Convergence Review is a document with many layers of complexity and simplistic responses to it can be misleading and meaningless. Nevertheless we could find that the increased Australian content it recommends could mutually benefit the TV networks and the Australian public. Australians will watch free to air television to the extent that it provides Australian content, and this will ensure the survival of Australian culture.

Rupert Murdoch an example for older Australians

81-year-old Rupert Murdoch has been on display in a London court room during the past week as a possible role model for older Australians. There is a lot not to admire about his business practices, but he stands tall as an elder who is able to maintain his stature in the face of momentous challenge. His 103-year-old mother is another example of a person whose dignity remains undiminished in old age.

Murdoch and his mother are privileged in that personal wealth has afforded them the best aged care money can buy. Obviously Murdoch does not yet receive 'aged care' because his good health sets him apart from many of his contemporaries, who are afflicted with Alzheimer's and other conditions of old age. His well-funded lifestyle and health regime is geared to ensure the longevity of his working life.

Murdoch and anybody else who can afford to fund their retirement and aged care costs should do so. They have a potential to maintain their dignity and quality of life in old age that those of slender means lack. The Government needs to fund the retirement and aged care of those who cannot pay their own costs, but there is no reason why it should give funding to those who can.

That is the thrust of the Federal Government's new aged care blueprint, which was announced last week and welcomed by most stakeholders and, it seems, the Opposition. Tony Abbott's response to the plan is essentially that it's good but too good to be true. Let's hope it's not.

The essence of the blueprint is that aged care is an entitlement rather than a luxury. That is a departure from the rather muddled and undefined position of the past, when a greater number of people died before reaching old age and there was less call for aged care.

There has been an imperative for the Government to update and articulate aged care entitlement as a core value linked to what it means to be Australian. There is no such entitlement in certain other countries, notably in the United States, where there is resistance to the idea of support for those who cannot pay.

It is a vast understatement to suggest the increasing population of older Australians has stretched resources. Martin Laverty of Catholic Health Australiaspeaks of 'sustainability deficits'. He said 60 per cent of our aged care services have operated in the red for the past few years, and a paltry 1800 of the 24,000 applications for aged care at home were successful.

'The government fell short of adopting all the Productivity Commission's plans, which, if adopted, would have set up aged care services to meet the needs of older Australians for the next few decades. But what the government did offer is a blueprint that will improve what is a pretty dire situation.'

There's a lot of work to be done to ensure that the reforms are legislated and implemented without the political and media obstruction faced by that other great reform the NBN. To that end, Lin Hatfield-Dodds of UnitingCare has called for an implementation group with bipartisan representation from federal and state governments, as well as the non government sector. 

Unlocking the culture of clergy sex abuse

We do not criticise the police force as a whole when there are revelations of corruption. We tend to believe that police men and women protect us and do at least a fair job of upholding the law. Our condemnation is confined to police drug rings and the like and, most importantly, the evil culture that sustains them. 

There is every reason why we should apply the same principle in our response to sexual abuse within the Church. In other words, let's avoid scapegoating the Church in general and focus instead on convicted abusers and, most particularly, the culture that has sanctioned their actions, even if identifying it is a lengthy and costly process.

Bishop James Moriarty led the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin in Ireland until he resigned in 2009 after he was criticised in the Murphy Report into the handling of clerical child sex abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese. He was one of many church leaders who effectively allowed sexual abuse to occur under his watch. 

'With the benefit of hindsight, I accept that, from the time I became an auxiliary bishop, I should have challenged the prevailing culture,' he said in his statement of resignation.

Identifying and describing the culture that prevailed should count for almost everything in the investigation of clergy sex abuse (as indeed with corrupt behaviour in the police force and other professions). Individual abusers, and those in authority who failed to act, were a product of a culture that accepted, at best, the existence of sexual abuse as an abhorrent fact of life and, at worst – among offenders – that sexual gratification at the expense of those subject to one's authority was a 'perk' of the job (like funds from crime for corrupt police). 

Specifically every inquiry into sexual abuse should draw significantly on ethnographic and historical expertise. Ethnography — referred to as 'thick description' — aims to provide a detailed, in-depth description of the unwritten rules by which we live our lives. It has the potential to unlock the secrets of a culture and, in connection with sexual abuse, explain why some church personnel abused minors. 

History is important because much of the abuse occurred at a time when social and religious mores were very different, even though it may have been only two or three decades ago. Irish Jesuit Father Gerry O'Hanlon describes it as 'trying to understand how a truth that seems so blindingly obvious now [but] was, at another but quite recent period, so opaque'. 

O'Hanlon has written several essays on sexual abuse and the Murphy Report in the theological journal The Furrow. He uses the poet Seamus Heaney's well known line about the Irish Troubles — 'whatever you say, say nothing' — to characterise the behaviour of many Irish bishops in relation to sexual abuse. 'This, in the terms used by the Murphy Report, is the culture of 'don't ask, don't tell'. And so bishops, for example, did not talk about this even among themselves and were unaware of how widespread the problem was.'

Victoria's parliamentary committee has much it could learn from a study of the Murphy Report and the analysis of O'Hanlon and others. It has already been heavily criticised for lacking expertise and resources, and there is widespread expectation that the result will be superficial and lack credibility.

One committee member, Frank Maguire, has already resigned after declaring he was not up to the job. It could take further resignations before the State Government rethinks its decision to act in haste.

Philip Adams in schism with the Dawkinsonians

ation in that it was promoted as a fight rather than comedy. In a sense this is much closer to the contest of ideas that we would hope to see in an exchange between a believer and an unbeliever. But it lacked the mutual respect that any form of dialogue requires.

The Sydney Morning Herald's Leesha McKenny referred to the 'barely concealed mutual disdain between Dawkins and Pell', implying that hostility was the defining characteristic of the event. Neil Ormerod also made this point in Eureka Street last Wednesday when he contrasted the Q&A 'match-up' with the 'gentlemanly affair' that was February's Oxford debate between Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Dawkins ('on his best behaviour').

In the shadow of the blockbuster Q&A and Global Atheist Convention was a much more poignant encounter earlier this month between broadcaster Philip Adams and the Jesuit Fr Gerald O'Collins. Adams is the longtime (but arguably fallen) doyen of Australia's atheist movement, while O'Collins is one of the English-speaking world's most published and respected Catholic theologians. 

The conversation took place on Adams' Late Night Live program on ABC Radio National, and there was not merely a degree of respect, but positive affection. In the opening moments of the interview, Adams referred to 'the bridge between us', and O'Collins said to Adams: 'We always think of you with affection and gratitude.'

Such an instant bond need not soften the positions held. And it didn't. Adams attempted to chisel away at O'Collins' belief in the Resurrection as an actual event. O'Collins stood firm in declaring the physical Resurrection 'central and obvious' to him in his life. Adams countered by admitting that while he does live in a universe that is ultimately meaningless, he's very happy, and life as an unbeliever 'is not too bad'.

But there was far more agreement than disagreement, especially with their common distaste for religious and atheist fundamentalism. 'I find fanaticism hard to take,' said O'Collins. Adams mentioned with a degree of pride: 'I've fallen out of favour with many Australian atheists because I'm not sufficiently Dawkinsonian.'

In view of the natural bond between Adams and O'Collins, it seems there could also be an affinity between the one-eyed Dawkinsonians at the Global Atheist Convention and fundamentalist believers of all religious faiths. It's a pity that they are more likely to engage in fistfights than dialogue. Or maybe not.

The slow torture of kids in detention

Julian Burnside taunted his audience at La Trobe University in 2010 with the suggestion that we take a couple of children out of detention and publicly execute them.

'And if killing seems a bit tough, well then what say we just take half a dozen kids from detention and torture them for a while. Publicly, so that everyone will get the message.'

The idea of his 'thought experiment' was to illustrate that we are not bothered by the torture of children in immigration detention because it is out of sight. Burnside's logic was that if the torture was conducted publicly, and not behind razor wire, most Australians would be bothered. The politicians would act immediately to stop child detention.

The torture is also out of sight because it is mental and there are no physical wounds. The evidence will only come to light in the form of mental illness, which the children will suffer in years to come. 'The torture is slow and unseen and the damage much harder to fix.'

Sister Anne Higgins has been involved with families in immigration detention for over ten years. She says it's well documented that people detained for even three months suffer mental illness. She stresses that children are especially vulnerable.

'I recall in particular a 12-year-old girl who arrived at a detention facility with her parents and younger sister.  She was a bright-eyed child relieved to be safe from the danger experienced in her country of origin.'i

Higgins was alarmed to learn that after several months, the young girl was suicidal. As in many detention cases, the refugee determination and review processes were drawn out. 

'Her parents were powerless; they could not change the situation. The local guards also did not know what to do. As the child's life was now in danger from her situation, the doctor attending the centre placed her in hospital. This bright-eyed, engaging young girl had now become a sad, listless child. After many more months the family were eventually accepted but severe damage had already been done to this young person and to her family.'

According to the International Detention Coalition (IDC), Australia currently holds 528 children in secure and remote facilities. Last week it released its Captured Childhoods report at the 19th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The authors spent two years listening first-hand to the stories of children and parents from all over the world who have experienced or been impacted by immigration detention. 

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen responded with a statement that that the 'Federal Government is continuing to move children and vulnerable families out of detention facilities'. Effectively it underlined how slowly this is taking place, as if there is no urgency. 

The Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition said nothing. It was left to the Greens' Sarah Hanson-Young to urge legislation to outlaw child detention and to declare that it is 'shameful that Australia is on the list of countries that locks children up simply for seeking refuge and safety'.