Monday, August 31, 2009

Hatoyama’s challenges after DPJ landslide win in Japan

photo by wilbanks

As expected, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) have won a landslide victory in elections ending half a century of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The DPJ is likely to end up with 308 of the 480 seats in parliament almost tripling their representation from the last election in 2005. Incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s work will be cut out as he has made many election promises that don’t sit well with Japan’s troubled economy. The 62-year-old US-trained engineer called the victory “the starting line” but won’t announce his cabinet until he is officially elected prime minister by a special session of parliament, expected to be in about two weeks.

The outgoing Aso government crashed to defeat despite asking many legitimate questions about the DPJ’s ability to pay for its expensive campaign promises. These included a $300 a month child allowance to push up the birth rate (ageing is a principal cause of Japan’s stagnation), income support to farmers and heavily subsidised schooling. But the LDP’s own record was in tatters after the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy and they have stumbled with a succession of mediocre Prime Ministers since the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi (who won the last election) resigned in 2006.

The Nikkei-225 share index reacted well to the DPJ victory going up two per cent to an 11-month high earlier today. But there is a lot of catching up to do. Its stock market contracted by a massive 45 percent between July 2007 and February 2009. Japan was devastated by the GFC and the economy contracted by 0.7 percent in 2008 and is predicted to contract by another 2.5 percent this year before reaching a modest expansion of 0.6 per cent in 2010. Over the medium term, economic growth in Japan is expected to recover to about 1.8 per cent a year. However, exports, the main driver of the country’s economic growth, have been declining rapidly, turning the country’s trade surplus into a deficit earlier this year.

Japan has the largest fiscal deficit (as a share of gross domestic product) among the OECD economies, with public sector debt forecast to reach around 174 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of 2009. This wasn’t helped by the Aso Government’s introduction of a 10 trillion yen (US$111 billion) fiscal stimulus package in December 2008. Any further fiscal stimulus package will only worsen that situation. But after a long period of minimal growth and then severe recession there is now a strong political incentive to pursue economic growth polices. What remains to be seen is whether the DPJ can deliver. The signs are not promising. In the election campaign, Hatoyama proclaimed what The Economist called a “mushy-sounding concept, yuai, that mixes up the Chinese characters for friendship and love”. He calls it fraternity and says tariff sectors such as agriculture will be even more protected than they already are.

Another major challenge will be the environment. Japan’s Kyoto target is 7 percent reduction by 2012 on the 2000 figure. But even with recession, they are tracking at an 8 percent increase. Japan has also been criticised for its 2020 targets which is a modest 15 percent reduction using 2005 as the base year (not 1990 as Europe is using). In June the then environment minister Tetsuo Saito outlined the LDP goals for Copenhagen. Saito claimed it was following the lead of the US by starting the clock from 2005 and said the country has invested $10b in the “Cool Earth Partnership” with developing nations aimed at reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2050.

A key part of the DMJ’s election manifesto was green reforms that went much further than the LDP’s targets. They promised to lift Japan’s 2020 target to reduce greenhouse emissions to 25 per cent below 1990 levels. Hatoyama has also promised to create a mandatory domestic emissions trading scheme, again something the LDP were opposed to. While green groups are obviously pleased with these outcomes, others have issued a warning. Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the US Natural Resources Defence Council, said the DMJ would have to deal with deep-rooted opposition in the bureaucracy and business sector. "You won't see a wholesale switch,” he said. “They will still have to deal with concerns of industries and with [strong] ministries that have very different views on climate change”. Hatoyama will need every seat of his huge mandate to overcome such bureaucratic inertia.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Australian politicians and media show no interest in learning UN lessons on Indigenous affairs

Photo by
Australian politicians and media have adopted a typically hostile and defensive pose in response to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' considered statement on Indigenous issues released on Thursday. The hostility was uncalled for. James Anaya, the UNHCR special rapporteur on indigenous issues, has issued a thoughtful report which civilly applauded Australian efforts to improve human rights and conditions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) communities while saying much more needed to be done.

Anaya, an American legal scholar, released his statement after spending 11 days in six states and territories. He met with Government authorities, representatives of indigenous communities and organisations, and other stakeholder groups. He said he was impressed and inspired by the forward-looking “strong and vibrant” nature of indigenous culture he saw despite having endured tremendous suffering due to “historical forces and entrenched racism”. He said those forces are still relevant today with Indigenous people still lagging far behind in quality of life indicators such as life expectancy, basic health, education, unemployment, incarceration, treatment of children, and access to basic services.

Anaya also praised the “close the gap” federal initiatives and said these programs needed to be improved and expanded. But he also noted some serious concerns. The biggest problem, he said, was with the Northern Territory Emergency Response with its income management regime, imposition of compulsory leases, and community-wide bans on alcohol consumption and pornography. Anaya said these measures overtly discriminated against aboriginal peoples, infringed their right of self-determination and further stigmatised marked communities.

Anaya conceded that affirmative measures were necessary but said they needed to take due regard of self-determination and to be free from racial discrimination and indignity. He said there needs to be a holistic approach to address Indigenous issues nationally. He quoted Prime Minister Rudd’s apology speech and said governments needed to form partnerships with Indigenous people "based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.”

It was only with the aid of local partnerships that issues of alcoholism, domestic violence, health and education could be addressed in culturally appropriate ways adapted to local needs. He said some government programmes fail to take into account local initiatives or duplicate local services undermining Indigenous institutions. He welcomed ATSI social justice commissioner Tom Calma’s call for the government to appoint a new ATSI representative body but said that indigenous groups must strengthen their own organisational and governance capacity.

Anaya also called for constitutional change. He said there needed to be recognition of ATSI rights in a charter of rights to be included in the Constitution. He also urged continued land rights, fixing housing needs and said the Native Title Act should be amended to include UN recommendations on racial discrimination. He said the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should frame legislation, policies, and actions that affect ATSI people. The declaration, he said, “expresses the global consensus on the rights of indigenous peoples and corresponding state obligations on the basis of universal human rights.”

But despite the reasonableness of Anaya’s suggestions, it was met mostly with hostility this weekend from media and politicians alike. The Weekend Australian’s editorial claimed he missed the point and went on to indulge in a bit of silly UN-bashing. Former Liberal indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough said Anaya was “pontificating about human rights” while former health minister Tony Abbott bizarrely called him an “armchair critic”.

The stupidity of the response was matched on the Labor side of politics. Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin used the feeble excuse of protecting children to reject the main findings of the report (despite the fact that Anaya specifically justified affirmative measures in this area). Former national president Warren Mundine said the report should be binned and claimed that although racism exists in Australia, “we are actually in Australia working towards resolving those issues."

It is difficult to see how exactly those issues can be resolved when “we” cannot even treat the considered opinion of an unbiased outsider with respect. It also shows yet again an Australian inability to deal constructively with criticism. Both Labor and the Liberal have thrown out Anaya’s baby in a childish tantrum because they didn’t like the look of his bathwater. Greens’ Indigenous affairs spokesperson Rachel Siewart is one of the few to come out of the affair with any credit. She said she was not surprised by his findings. "It is good to see an independent outside voice that brings a wealth of international experience of Indigenous development airing such strong criticisms of where this ill-thought-out top-down intervention has gone wrong,” she said. “This may ultimately result in the Government listening."

We can only hope, Rachel.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Peering beyond the paywalls: Life after Murdoch

(Photo by Arenamontanus)

Perhaps the most terrifying phrase in the English language is the one that announces “all bets are off”. This is the panicky moment where there is no going back. Regret about actions and inactions is inevitable but usually momentary. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch felt that slight fear when he announced that News Corp was going to start charging for online content from 2010 onwards. This is a voyage into the unknown.

Necessity was the mother of Murdoch's action: News Corp posted a $3.4 billion loss in fiscal 2009. Change is difficult, but as a businessman Murdoch understands how evolution works. The alternative is death. Change has no moral charter however, and the jump from Charles Darwin to World War I took just thirty years.

The notion of objective journalism arose in the early 20th century to report on the complexities of those times. A hundred years on, faithfully reporting the facts remains the key to influence in a media-crowded environment. More than ever journalism is a crucial component of democracy due to abilities to ask questions and its first loyalty is as always to citizens. Citizens are the people and it is now easier that ever for the people to spread their own messages. The Internet has provided the means of production to the masses. The "inter network" is one of the most important innovation commons ever devised. But it is not a free entity. It owes as much to Adam Smith as to Marx. People who are horrified about paying for content on the Internet don’t seem to complain too much about paying for access and equipment.

It is important to understand how the market will bear the costs of Murdoch’s content. But it will also be useful to observe how people will exploit the new niches left vacant in the attention economy. There is plenty of information waiting to fill the gaps for those who want to find their news, opinion and analysis in a frugal fashion. Announcing a new millennial culture The Cluetrain Manifesto hailed the power of the networks and how hyperlinks subvert hierarchies. The Communist manifesto for the 21st century was a post-Weber prescription for how to do business in an age where information has gone from being scarce to being hyperabundant.

Citizens are increasing gathering a larger part of the puzzle. When the shooting of two London policemen occurred earlier this month, Sky News found the ideal picture to accompany their report on the Twitter picture service Twitpic. A man named Joe Neale had snapped a picture of the scene as he walked to a meeting. But Sky did not seek Neale’s permission to use the photo nor did they realise that Neale was an ex-employee of Murdoch at Myspace. Neale used Twitter’s terms of reference to shame them in to not only giving him attribution, but also payment. It was a piquant Neale who pointed out the consequences of their actions. “Rupert Murdoch has announced people will have to pay to access his sites from 2010, meantime he doesn’t seem to mind not paying for material and happily infringes on other people’s work” he said.

Mister Murdoch may not have fully considered the hyperlocal consequences of having to pay his suppliers but he will have considered how he can lose a large audience share and still turn a buck. His personal wealth dropped from $7.9 billion to $3.4 in the last 12 months, but he was far from alone in suffering carnage from the GFC. And he does have the industry in his blood. Michael Wolff’s feature on the billionaire publisher in Vanity Fair portrayed him as “the last mogul standing who truly loves print”. Australian journalist Frank Devine, who had a working relationship with him from 1983 up to his death last month, was probably closer to the mark when he said Murdoch was motivated less by money than by the intrigue of business. He said Murdoch finds “near total fulfilment” in constantly telephoning, travelling on whims, out-thinking rivals, balance sheets, and calculating risks”. Murdoch will have a fair idea of just how risky this is.

But he will also know the benefits. In The Sociology of News, journalism academic Michael Schudson set his readers the following riddle: When should a profit-seeking newspaper seek fewer readers? His answer was “when the readers it loses have, on average less income than the readers it keeps”. Newspapers make 80 percent of their income from advertising and for advertisers the perceived quality of a publication’s readership is as important as its quantity.

Sale price is almost unimportant by comparison. The crucial metric is instead demographic. As a Bloomingdale executive allegedly once told Murdoch, his store did not advertise in the New York Post because “your readers are our shoplifters”. News Corp is now going after the non-shoplifting reader so they can bring guaranteed wealthy eyeballs to advertisers.

Isolation is a reasonable business plan, but News Corp's content would look even more attractive if it was difficult to get elsewhere. So he has been keen to seek support. His wooing of the New York Times, the Washington Post and Hearst to join them behind the ring-fence has been compared to “Vito Corleone calling for a meeting of the Five Families”.

In Australia, the media godfather's only other serious private rival Fairfax (who themselves lost $380m last year) has also expressed interest in getting behind the paywall. Fairfax Media managing director Brian McCarthy announced he would be “happy to talk” to News Ltd about charging for online content. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has said it is watching for anti-competitive or collusive behaviour and has warned News and Fairfax to consult with it before entering into any paid online content arrangement.

But perhaps the ACCC is being a little too precious. Even if a news cartel can form a working paywall, will it really usher in a two-tiered era of the information rich and the information poor? The Internet has long interpreted censorship as damage and routes around it. It may treat large paywalls the same way. Would Australia be losing much if News and Fairfax hid their content much of which is vacuous? There are plenty of other ways of getting important overseas information and the ABC will be left as master of the local unfenced field. The former audience will become more active users of news and not mere consumers. Established bloggers who do not charge for their content may find influence expanding as well as their trustworthiness.

It is also likely there will be significant leakage of paywall content into the public commons and with it new legal quagmires. Associated Press have announced they will charge for content at $2.50 a word but re-publishers may claim fair use privilege. Copyright law will be sorely tested too. Judges who may be asked to decide on such matters must realise that, as Terry Flew says, information is a metapublic good. It generates the most positive benefits to a community when it is freely available. It is the miracle of the knowledge economy which as Charles Leadbeater says exists on thin air. Those with the best images and ideas are quicker to adapt than those weighed down by assets that have outlived their usefulness.

The question will be whether Murdoch has absorbed that lesson with his new plans. He is a flying a flag for those who believe the era of free on-line content is over. They argue pay per view is necessary to support quality journalism.

But others say that quality journalism is dying anyway thanks to the profit motive of the late 20th century newspaper where budgets were reduced and journalists were asked to write more stories per day and were given less time to check facts. Wired editor Chris Anderson argues that the age of information abundance is leading to the rise of freeconomics driven by the underlying power of the web. Everyone with the skills to become a journalist may find unexpected advertising possibilities opening when News Corp turn off the Google juice.

For now, all bets are off.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Is Media140 abandoning Twitter?

The inaugural Media140 conference in Australia is on in November in Sydney. As a totally Twitterised wannabe journalist, I’m looking forward to attending. There will be lots of great speakers and good discussions there, I'm sure. Interestingly, the event’s flyer barely mentions Twitter, the technology that inspired the 140 idea. That’s a pity in some respect because sometimes a little technological determinism doesn’t hurt. No matter what it is called, Twitter is a reforming technology.

Its name may be for the birds, but Twitter is usually imagined as a stream. Right now, it is a raging current rushing towards some eventual ocean of communication. The channel is known but it might be more difficult to work out who is saying what to whom and for what effect.

At first glance Twitter seems anchored and orderly with a precise naming system. There are hashtags denoting issues and an honest sounding at-sign denoting voices - My voice is @DerekBarry. But the information in the sign may not be reliable as it seems it is at.

Fakes about on Twitter. The real fakes acquire a fixity over time channelling other personalities. Tiny Buddha spreads 140 character wisdom, Marcel Marceau spreads a similar amount of silence. Nietzsche may have killed God but he cannot stop him/her from tweeting.

If there is genuine in the fake, there is also as much fakery in the genuine. Last week, “Media-more-than-140” gleefully published research that headlined 40 percent of Tweets are pointless babble. They were wrong to call it Twitter twaddle; the figure grossly underestimates the need for phatic conversation as a part of social bridge-building. But whatever the true ratio of signal to noise, the question has validity. It implies there is a discrete judgement about each individual communication.

Discrete communication Twitter may be, but discreet it ain’t. Yes, there are backchannels where you can sometimes privately engage in conversation via the deep and meaningful DM. But most of Twitter’s output is in the public sphere where followers can see directly and a network of others can indirectly. Twitter is a 21st century agora and a marketplace of ideas. It exists in mostly equal fashion across the Internet though there is manipulation. China and other countries can switch it off from time to time and the US can keep it on the air in an attempt to update Mohammad Mossadegh's Iranian fail whale story.

As the State Department found out, Twitter is useful. It is a vibrant source of news, stories, information, jokes, links, music, arguments, gossip and goofs. There are leads, information, signposts, arguments, diary entries, story, contact, and laughing. There are many expressions of boredom. It is how taste is transferred; a sort of Bourdieu on Big Brother.

Much of this milieu is familiar to other modes of communication. But there is also joy in the technology itself. Like Google, it is simple. Unlike Google there is a restriction. The 140 character limit concentrates the mind. Twitter's most ingenuous factor is the creative motif of denial. The need for brevity is paramount. Every letter of every word must be scrutinised to ensure it is working for the cause. Driven by the limit, Twitter is a 21st century telegraph on steroids. But what goes on in this digital Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay there.

Digital data is easily replicable and there is also a wonderfully organic search engine. Twitter search has its faults as it doesn’t keep a great history, but it is right up to date with the present. Anything new, interesting, informative or important will cascade quickly through its networks in the form of an accelerating power law. It can go from 0 to 140 in under ten seconds. Google might be able to tell you what something is, but Twitter can tell you what it is right now.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Krishna's birthday festival in Brisbane

Musicians providing the entertainment at Krishna Birthday festival (Photo by GWP Studio - used with permission from Taraka Sticha).

The celebration lawn at Brisbane’s Roma Street Parklands was transformed into a riot of colour and sound on Sunday as thousands gathered to celebrate Krishna’s birthday festival.

The festival is the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and celebrates India's rich cultural contribution to Australia.

The tent for the main stage was the place to be on an unseasonal scorching hot winter’s day.

There the audience was treated to a mix of music, dancing and drama while many others were tempted by the free yoga classes and the rich aromas from the wide variety of food stalls nearby.

The festival was organised by the local Hare Krishna movement.

Event co-ordinator Taracha Sticha said Krishna's birthday has been celebrated for almost 40 years in Brisbane dating back to 1971.

"We’ve always celebrated it at our Graceville temple but this is the first time we’ve moved it to the centre of Brisbane”, she said.

Ms Sticha said there were 40,000 Indian-born residents in Queensland, 85 per cent of whom lived in the south-east.

Councillor David Hinchliffe attended on behalf of Brisbane city council and Ms Sticha said he was impressed by what he saw.

“Mr Hinchliffe advised us to apply for grants and we did a lot of fundraising ourselves,” Ms Sticha said.

The festival celebrates the birthday of Krishna Janmashtami which is an avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu.

In India, Krishna’s birthday is a public holiday which is always held between mid August and mid September.

Ms Sticha said she was pleased with the turn-out at Brisbane’s celebration and hopes to repeat it at Roma Street Parklands again next year.

“I just hope it’s not too hot!” she said.

More photos I took on the day:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gov 2.0 roadshow comes to Brisbane

The federal Government 2.0 taskforce roadshow rolled into Brisbane today as part of its series of open forums in all the state capitals. The federal government sponsored taskforce’s aim is to increase public sector information and online engagement. About hundred or so people came along to 175 Eagle Street in central Brisbane to give input to taskforce about making governance more democratic and accountable. In attendance was chair Nicholas Gruen and three other members Brian Fitzgerald, Lisa Harvey and David Solomon

While the “2.0” in the name suggests the use of web 2.0 read-write tools, the biggest task for the government (if it is serious about it) will be engendering cultural change in a public service that is used to zealously guarding information. The cultural nature of the problem is shown in the taskforce’s terms of reference. Their aims are to make government information more accessible and usable; make government more consultative, participatory and transparent; build a culture of online innovation within government; promote collaboration across agencies and try out something new.

The roadshow was a roadmap of how they might approach the task. Gruen ran the proceedings. Nicholas Gruen is the CEO of Lateral Economics and a former economics adviser to two Labor governments in the 1980s and 1990s. He also writes for the Australian Financial Review and blogs at Club Troppo. He began by saying the taskforce had to engage skeptics and show that Government 2.0 was a way of delivering on the mission of agencies that was better than the way they do it now. He then threw the session open to suggestions from the floor.

Most of the first hour of the session got a bit bogged down on records management. Several members of the audience wanted to know how governments would manage public access of intermediate documents, and whether people would have the opportunity to give feedback on unfinalised documents. Gruen said government agencies had an obligation to consult on policy development and spoke about using blogs and date/time stamped wikis that can track changes to ensure a transparent history. But he also noted there was a difference between public and private spaces for conversation. He said some requests for FOI, such as a recent Daily Telegraph request for the butchers’ paper of a government conference, were “frivolous”.

Gruen then passed the baton to Lisa Harvey who is an IT specialist working in the not-for-profit sector. She said the government’s role should be one of “facilitation, feedback and watching”. What she wanted to see was a conversation between constituents about the issues that mattered to them. One audience member then asked about how this conversation would be moderated given the likely divergence of views and the possibility it could spin out of control. Gruen said we needed to be more libertarian about it. He said that on his blog (Troppo), he does not tell commenters what to do. The one rule there is: “use your common sense”. But he admitted he would have difficulty convincing governments of this.

Gruen was of the view that as much as government information as possible should be in the public domain so that citizens could comment on it. In his words, it equated to the open source mantra of Eric Raymond that “enough eyeballs make all bugs shallow”. But as almost everyone in the room agreed, it was more a matter of culture change than technology that was required. He wanted to give the government a forum where they could openly say “we stuffed it up” and look for help to fix problems.

The last day for submissions to the taskforce was yesterday. It will provide a final report on its activities to Lindsay Tanner, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation by the end of 2009 at which time the taskforce will disband and hand over to a government-appointed information commissioner. The challenge will be to show this is not merely technological determinism where society adapts to new technologies to avoid complex questions about their impact or who controls them.

What the force needs to do is meet head-on the hoopla that greeted Tanner’s announcement of the board in June. “We have to accept that when we open ourselves further to public discussion…we won't always like what we hear,” he said at the time. “But if the new technologies and ways of using them mean that government is in closer and deeper contact with citizens it serves, and is harnessing their best ideas, the government will only benefit.” Roll on, the day.

The last post and chorus

(picture adapted from original by Annie Mole).

What happens to a blog when it turns seven? Well, if it belongs to Lawrence Lessig it is retired. To be fair to the legal scholar Lessig, he doesn’t actually use the r-word. Instead he called it hibernation and a sabbatical but he did write it was “the last post in this frame”. Whatever he calls it, Lessig’s departure is the latest in a line of events that is giving the impression that blogging is passé.

Lessig named three reasons why he was cutting back. These were the impending birth of his third child, a new five-year directorship at Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard and the workload involved in maintaining a blog. He needed two friends’ admin help to cull the 10,000 spam comments that were causing pollution among the 20,000 genuine ones. Lessig said he was not abandoning web2.0. He was continuing presence at Twitter, and podcasting.

Here in Australia, Kate Carruthers picked up the theme today that newer social networks have made blogs look so 2004. While Carruthers accepted there was still a need for longer-form communication platforms, she suggested there may be a move away from the likes of Blogger and Wordpress. Carruthers said possible replacements include Tumblr and Posterous which are half-way houses between blogs and shorter messages. “They seem to sit between a short message sharing medium and a traditional blog,” she said. “They also easily incorporate multimedia content.”

Carruthers didn’t mention Lessig but did link to an article Paul Bautin wrote in Wired a year ago. Boutin’s friendly advice to anyone wanting to start a blog was “don’t”. He went further and suggested all current bloggers should also down tools. “Writing a weblog today isn't the bright idea it was four years ago,” he argued. “The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge.” He says blogging lacks the intimacy it used to have. And as well as dealing with spammers and trolls, Boutin says big media have taken over. The buzz was now at social multimedia sites like YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook which “made publishing pics and video as easy as typing text”. His message condensed to 140 characters was: "@WiredReader: Kill yr blog. 2004 over. Google won't find you. Too much cruft from HuffPo, NYT. Commenters are tards. C u on Facebook?"

Boutin himself linked to another high profile blogger who had called it quits. Weblogs network owner Jason Calacanis also announced his retirement from blogging in 2008 despite professing to love the craft. Calacanis said blogging had gotten too big, too impersonal and too lacking in intimacy. But unlike Boudin, Calacanis was heading towards a more primitive form: a 600-750 member mail-list he was going to have a conversation with “I’m looking for something more acoustic, something more authentic and something more private,” he said.

Calacanis, like Lessig and Boudin, has good reasons to stop blogging. But are they indicative of a wider trend? It may be 12 months old, but Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere 2008 would beg to differ. Its data suggests that blogs are pervasive and part of our lives. 184 million people worldwide have started one and 346 million people read them. There are almost a million new posts every day written in 80 languages. Blogs are part of the daily traffic of 77 percent of active Internet users. Twice as many people go to a blog as those who visit Facebook. This seems like a practice in rude health, but Technorati does acknowledge one issue: the lines are continuing to blur as to what is a blog and what is not. It rightly says mainstream media sites packaging their content as “blogs”. But Technorati ignores the blurring at the micro-end of the spectrum at the Facebooks, Twitters and Tumblrs of the world. It defines the blogosphere as “the ecosystem of interconnected communities of bloggers and readers at the convergence of journalism and conversation.”

The blogosphere is a massive ecosystem with enormous diversity and engagement. Blogging evolved from early listings of websites people liked to personal journals and a community of interest that encouraged conversation. But it was also something else. Peter Merholz coined the term in 1999 when he decided to pronounce “weblog” as “we-blog”. Or blog for shot. Merholz enjoyed the word’s crudeness and dissonance. “I like that it’s roughly onomatopoeic”, he recalled. “These sites – mine included – tend to be a kind of information upchucking”.

Even granting that information is not necessarily knowledge, the need to upchuck it has not dissipated. In his response to Technorati’s 2008 report, Chris Pirillo got it right. “The idea of blogging will never disappear,” he said “But the process by content is created, will continue to undergo radical upheavals.”

The death of the blog is exaggerated.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lockerbie anguish continues as Al-Megrahi protests innocence

While many in Britain and America have condemned the celebratory nature of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi’s Libyan return, they conveniently overlook the fact he was unlikely to be the Lockerbie bomber. The Scottish government released the 57 year old cancer suffering al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds last week after serving eight years of his life sentence. But dying or not, al-Megrahi says he is still intent on proving his innocence. “If there is justice in the UK I would be acquitted or the verdict would be quashed because it was unsafe,” he said this weekend. “There was a miscarriage of justice.”

Al-Megrahi has a good point; justice has always taken a back seat to politics in the Lockerbie bombing. Pan Am flight 103 blew up over the small Scottish town a few nights before Christmas 1988 en route from London to New York. 270 people died - 243 passengers, 16 crew and 11 residents on the ground. Scotland claimed jurisdiction for the crime as the plane was destroyed in Scottish airspace.

The initial suspect was a Syrian group with the unwieldy title of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command (PFLP-GC). The PFLP-GC had a motive by acting for Iran in revenge for the American attack on an Iranian Airlines passenger plane a few months earlier. Two years before Lockerbie, the group’s Syrian leader Ahmed Jibril had publicly warned there would be "no safety for any traveller on an Israeli or US airliner". Although PFLP-GC subsequently denied responsibility for Lockerbie, the early years of piecing together evidence focussed firmly on the Syria-Iran link.

But by 1990 Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Neighbouring Iran and Syria were now suddenly proxy-allies whom the west could not afford to alienate. The Lockerbie case refocussed on the “Malta connection” and later that year the US and British governments issued indictments of murder against two Libyan men Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah. In 1991 the pair were back in Libya and the US and the UK requested their extradition. Libya refused as it had no extradition treaty with either country. Libya arrested the pair but a local prosecution went nowhere as US/UK refused to hand over their evidence. The UN then made an unprecedented move to impose sanctions for not complying with the extradition request. The sanctions lasted six years.

After years of negotiation the UK agreed to Libyan demands for it to take place in a neutral country due to concerns of safety and a fair trial. The juryless trial began in May 2000 in the Netherlands under Scottish law and three Scottish judges. The key evidence was the brown Samsonsite suitcase which contained the bomb hidden in a radio/cassette player. The clothing in the suitcase was purchased at a shop in Malta and the store owner swore that a Libyan he could not identify bought them. Al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was in Malta on the day of the purchase and stayed near the shop. He was unable to offer the court a reason for his stay on the island. This evidence plus his connections to airport security and the Swiss company that built the timer in the explosive device was enough to convict him. Al-Megrahi was given a life sentence.

The second defendant Fhimah was an acquaintance of al-Megrahi and an Air Malta employee. They both arrived in Malta on the same flight from Libya two days before the bombing. The prosecution argued Fhimah knew how to get unaccompanied baggage onto a plane but the court found no evidence to show he had assisted al-Megrahi and acquitted him. But with Fhimah’s acquittal part of the case against al-Megrahi collapsed too. How did he get the bomb out of Malta?

Also, as part of their defence under Scottish law, the pair accused the Syrian-backed PFLP-GC of carrying out the attack. A German police officer testified that PFLP-GC had the means and intention of attacking an airline but the timers and cassette player used were not consistent with other PFLP-GC attacks. A Jordanian agent Marwan Khreesat who had infiltrated the group said he had never seen radio cassette players with twin speakers converted into explosive devices. On the basis of the German and Jordanian evidence the court concluded the PFLP-GC did not make the bomb.

The UN appointed five observers to watch the trial. Of these only one, Professor Köchler from Innsbruck University, published his findings. Köchler concluded the trial was unfair based on two points of objection. He noted the extraordinary length of detention (though this had been requested by the defence to prepare its case) and said the “presence of foreigners” at the prosecution and defence tables hampered the judges’ ability to find the truth and introduced a political element to the case (though there was no evidence that the judges were swayed by the “foreigners”).

Al-Megrahi appealed against the sentence based on the strength of the evidence linking him to the fatal suitcase. There was also the startling evidence that emerged in September 2001. A former security guard at Heathrow named Ray Manley made a sworn affidavit he had told anti-terror police one of Pan Am's luggage rooms had been broken into on the night of the bombing. This evidence cast complete doubt on the whole Malta connection. But for many years Scotland fought the appeal process.

The Scottish law professor who negotiated the Netherlands trial says many people believe there was overt political pressure placed upon the judges. Robert Black says it was probably necessary to reach a conclusion that was satisfactory to the British and American governments. “I think that consciously or subconsciously, these judges appreciated that if neither of the two Libyan accused were convicted in this trial, this would be an enormous embarrassment to the prosecution system in Scotland,” he said.

But by 2003, Libya was no longer a public enemy. Gaddafy told the Americans about his weapons capability. The west lifted international sanctions against Libya after it admitted responsibility for Lockerbie in 2005 and paid about $2.7bn in compensation to the victims’ families. Libya has since got that money back and much more in oil revenues. As The Times points out, al-Megrahi’s freedom is a further product of the effort to bring Libya out of dangerous isolation. “This is as much to America’s advantage as Britain’s, but Washington has too much baggage to be openly involved,” said The Times. And 20 years on, everyone is happy except the families of the Lockerbie victims who are still no closer to knowing who killed their loved ones.

Pandora’s Boxers: Crikey's "serious questions" about women

“The sight of women talking together has always made men uneasy, nowadays it means rank subversion," Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, 1971.

On the whole, I like Crikey and its editor Jonathan Green. Green runs one of the few lively and independent voices in big Australian media and I enjoy their skewering of Australian political and media sacred cows. However, I did not think much of the “serious question” Green asked on Twitter last week. Why, he pondered, don't women subscribe to the online newsletter? Crikey has about 15,000 annual subscribers who pay $100 or thereabouts for a news and current affairs email five day a week. 70 percent of these are male, says Green. According to Green the “unbalance was weird.”

There were five reasons I didn’t think much of his question.

Firstly I am disposed to be cynical and say this is a disguised advertising ploy. Green may want to get people talking, but it wouldn’t hurt to lift his readership by 5,000 people. Secondly there is an assumption that the ratio of male to female readers is somehow an important matter that requires fixing and not merely a reflection of individual taste. Thirdly, if Crikey’s content is geared toward males, then they can solve it themselves. Half of their newsroom are female, as deputy editor Sophie Black reminds us. Though Black wanted “more talk on this”, perhaps they would be better served with more action. Fourthly the question ignores the cost of Crikey and the time investment required to read it. It is a great publication but also a luxury that requires discretionary wealth and time to take up the subscription.

But the fifth and biggest reason I didn’t like it was that Green was doing the “annual airing” of the whole tiresome battle of the sexes argument without a clear agenda as to where it might lead. What then did Green want to see as an outcome if it wasn’t simply about getting more readers for Crikey? Did he not know that many women would use this as an opportunity to remind Green that equality of the sexes remains a distant dream in 21st century Australia. As “a journalist since before you were born”, there are issues Jonathan Green might have been able to foresee.

But there were many who did take Green’s question seriously, including Crikey’s own Scott Steel aka Possum. The writer of Pollytics was inclined to do soul searching about the gender mix of his own readership. He said the ratio of male to female comments on Pollytics and fellow Crikey pseph blog Poll Bludger ranged “between about 4 to 1 on a good day, through to 10 to 1 depending on the topic.” He also bemoaned the “lack of big female political bloggers” and would eventually run into heavy traffic when he damned Hoyden About Town with the faint praise that they “touch[ed] on politics occasionally”.

And then the argument spun off in all sorts of directions. Lisa Gunders took the question head on. Assuming an acceptance of Steel’s premise (which she did not necessarily share), she mentioned two factors. Women wrote about different forms of politics which wend “under the radar”, she said. But the biggest reason was a lack of time. “Women are still carrying the major load in terms of housework and the relational work required to keep a household running these days,” she wrote. “Much of this work isn’t recognised and is so piecemeal that it chews up hours without you having anything to show for it.”

Sarah Stokely noted the women bloggers were there but could not be seen. She linked to Geek Feminist’s question “where are all the men bloggers?” which effectively skewered this particular blindness. Larvatus Prodeo also used the metaphor of sight and the male gaze. Anna Winter’s post there suggested that women were creating alternative niches in the public sphere away from the sexism, the "shrill and angry tone”, and the dismissal of women’s experience they find in the “hard politics blogs”. Winter said that if men were noticing the absence of women wherever they go, then “perhaps the more relevant question is why they are avoiding you”.

Hoyden About Town also weighed in about invisibility. Viv (Tigtog) and Lauredhel’s blog is one of the heavyweight feminist Australian blogs and its comment ratio is closer to 70 to 30 percent in favour of women. But unlike Crikey, it seems to be happy enough with the split, and does not indulge in any hand wringing about changing it. Lauredhel posted five of the comments (three men, two woman) from the Pollytics thread which its readers ripped into. Softestbullet wrote that Jason Wilson’s “Big-p Political” comment means “about dudes.” Lauredhel pointed out that woman also post about gardening, and food, and parenting, and life. “For me,” she wrote, this was “part of that is a deliberate political strategy.”

FuckPoliteness, as the name of the blog suggests, was not inclined to give much truck to Crikey’s arguments. While the big P penis people discussed big P political issues, said the blog's author, women were “just discussing media, law, rape, issues with the medical profession, disability politics, invisibility, breastfeeding discrimination, conduct of politicians, live blogging elections, internet censorship, race politics, divisions in feminism, transphobia, homophobia, talk back radio, life/work/study/family/friends/leisure balances, and about a million other things.” She said that the public sphere that existed in the comment sections of blogs such as Larvatus Prodeo was a race to the bottom where women faced aggression and smug superiority.

That blogger may want to fuck politeness but she does want a place where she could discuss these issues in “open and respectful ways”. But males are everywhere and do not always behave well – despite the best efforts of Crikey, Pollytics, Jason Wilson or Larvatus Prodeo. In a snark-infested internet, perhaps an open and respectful public sphere can only be found in a forum moderated by women. As Lady Psyche in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Princess Ida reminds us:
Man will swear and man will storm-
Man is not at all good form-
Is of no kind of use-
Man's a donkey - Man's a goose-
Man is coarse and Man is plain-
Man is more or less insane-
Man's a ribald - Man's a rake,
Man is Nature's sole mistake!

Friday, August 21, 2009

How Sky caved in to Joe from Twitter

(Photo by Joe Neale @Joe - used with permission).

As Londoner Joe Neale has just found out, News Corp wants to charge for content on the Internet while not being averse to using other people’s content for nothing.

Joe's story began two weeks ago on 5 August with events that seemed to have nothing to do with him. On that day two police officers from Kennington police station in London were patrolling near Waterloo station when they stopped to question a man on a bicycle. As the officers approached him, the man dumped the bike and ran away. As he did so, he fired shots at the officers leaving two of them injured in the vicinity of Southwark tube station. It was Joe Neale's fate to be walking past the tube station at the time. He snapped a picture of the crime scene (see photo above) which he immediately loaded to Twitpic with the caption “Holy crap police man shot at Southwark tube station!”

Neale had to rush to meetings so did not immediately notice that others were paying close attention to his picture. The shooting of two policemen in London is meat and drink for News Corp's Sky News and they were quick to publish an article about it. They found Neale’s Twitpic and used it to illustrate the story. Sky captioned the photo with the credit “Joe from Twitter”.

But it turns out that Joe is not just anyone from Twitter. Neale is the original @joe on Twitter with 20,000 followers and is the head of End User Programmes at software licencing company Symbian. Sky could have found all this out by looking at his Twitter page. There they would also have found out he is a former Murdoch employee. Neale’s previous job was MySpace UK Content Manager. This meant he knew who to talk to in News Corp.

Friends of Neale told him that Sky was using his picture. His first reaction was one of delighted amazement. Neale sent a couple of tweets to Jon Gripton, news editor of Sky News Online saying he was “really pleased” Sky had used the photo. He asked them to change the attribution from “Joe from Twitter” to “Joe Neale”. Gripton responded after 5 hours saying “Will do Joe - give me a minute to talk to the team”. Gripton also requested Neale to follow him in Twitter so that he could send him a direct message. Neale appreciated the response and asked jokingly “how many beers” the picture was worth. A day later the pair were following each other but Neale complained he still had not yet gotten an email response.

Sky changed the attribution but were in no mood to divulge how many beers they thought it might have been worth. But Neale was no longer joking and found out for himself. He checked the terms of service of Twitpic which specifically said "All images uploaded are copyright © their respective owners". He sent Sky several emails but got no response. But after two weeks of silence from Sky, Neale hit back using the power of social media. Two days ago on Wednesday 19 August, Neale published the content of the email on Twitter using the #skypic hashtag. Part of the email read as follows:
My photo was used without permission on the sky news website on the 5th of August 2009, and was taken from my Twitter feed without my permission(I have 20000+ mainly UK based followers including a large section of press/media folk).

Neale went on to tell Sky the conditions he demanded for using the photo without permission. It would be £300 for the initial use on the front of the site and then charged at five percent for each of the two weeks it was used by the site (note: Neale's picture has now been removed from the Sky report of the shooting linked above in the first paragraph).

To hammer home the point, he sent out further tweets using the tag #skypic, which read: “Newscorp use your photos without permission but have plans to charge for reading their content” or “Newscorp vs citizen journo”. Neale’s network got involved and put out 200 retweets of #skypic.

After 24 hours, Sky caved in and promised to pay £330.75. The promise came in an email they sent Neale yesterday which read: “I’m sorry my colleagues didn’t get back to you as soon as you would have liked. We always acknowledged your copyright, & I’ve forwarded on your invoice for payment – here it is attached with the relevant SY number inserted in case you’ll need that if you need to chase it up. Just be aware that payment should take approx one month to get through the system.”

The game is not over till the cheque is in Neale’s bank but for now the score is Citizen Journo 1, News Corp 0.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

New Airport Link tunnel shaft causes ire in Wooloowin

The Queensland State government is prepared to accept that local inconvenience is necessary to accommodate unexpected changes to the $5 billion Brisbane Airport Link tunnel project.

That is the message from the Minister for Infrastructure and Planning, Stirling Hinchliffe who says he will not intervene in the Coordinator General’s forthcoming decision on a 42m deep temporary shaft in the Wooloowin area despite a high profile community protest against the proposal.

“The Coordinator General will make a decision on the proposal based on its merits - as Minister I have no role in the decision making process,” Hinchliffe told Woolly Days.

The 5.7km tunnel linking Herston with their airport hit an unexpected snag in June when difficult ground conditions in the Kedron area caused builder BrisConnections to alter their excavation plan.

To avoid a significant delay on the 2012 project end date, BrisConnections asked the Coordinator General to approve a new work site on vacant government land at the corner of Rose and Kent Sts Wooloowin to build a shaft and access passage. This is needed to ensure the preparations for the digging of the tunnel remain on time for the arrival of the massive tunnel boring machines which are currently digging westward from Clayfield.

According to Brisconnections’s change request, all other options would delay the project by eight months which would affect thousands of people living near major worksites stretching from Toombul to Kedron and Lutwyche who would have to put up with a longer period of disruption.

BrisConnections say the Wooloowin site will be operational for 29 months before being fully remediated.

But Kalinga Wooloowin Residents Group spokesperson Brian Nally says the real reason for the worksite is to ensure that BrisConnections CEO Dr Ray Wilson does not miss out on his salary bonus for completing the project on time.

According to documents on BrisConnections own site, he will pocket almost a million dollars on top of his base annual salary of $650,000.

Hinchliffe said the remuneration arrangements of BrisConnections’ CEO has no relevance and that the Coordinator-General will make an independent and rigorous assessment of the proposal.

About 150 local residents and business owners have made submissions to the Coordinator General as part of his call for public comment.

Nally says the unexpected proposal is adding to the misery of local residents who have had to put up with noise, disruption and adverse impact to property values due to the Airport Link and nearby Northern Busway projects.

“Locals are sick and tired of being subjected to lots of inconveniences,” Nally said.

“This is not about NIMBY [Not In My BackYard] but there have been issues with parking in the area and access to the local [high] school.

“This is the last straw,” he said.

However, Kedron High School principal Myron McCormick said the school has a good relationship with the contractors and supports the change as long as it addresses parking and safety issues around the school precinct.

“While I can sympathise with local residents affected by the change, sometimes you have to look beyond to see what is best for South East Queensland going forward,” he said.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rasmussen primes the world for Afghanistan military surge

As Afghanistan counts down to its presidential election on Thursday, NATO's new Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has claimed the country could become the “grand central station of international terrorism.” Rasmussen said NATO would support the Afghan people for “as long as it takes” and called on “anyone who believes in basic human rights” to support the mission. While the former Danish right-wing Prime Minister’s terror claim needs to be treated with caution, Taliban forces did their bit to help his cause by ramping up attacks on military and civilian targets in an effort to discredit the election. (photo credit: Soldiers Military Centre)

Eight years after the US invaded Afghanistan, the country is no closer to peace and is instead awash with suicide bombers, AIDS victims and a resurgent Taliban. Drug barons run the country that produces 90 percent of the world’s heroin. There are over 100,000 multinational forces in Afghanistan under NATO and American command. Casualties have increased markedly since February and 75 foreign soldiers have been killed in the month of July alone. Yet General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan is asking member countries for a significant increase in international troop numbers.

Yesterday US President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to wind down the US operations in Iraq and to re-focus efforts in Afghanistan. America has 62,000 troops in the country and will deploy another 6,000 by the end of the year. But as Terence O’Brien wrote in the May/June edition of the US Foreign Policy journal, Afghanistan has a host of forbidding problems that make it a challenge that exceeds that of Iraq. These issues include the country’s size, its rugged geography, poverty, ethnic diversity, mistrust of centralised government, cross-border sanctuaries as well as its opium economy, plus the tenacity of the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

In March, Obama admitted America was not winning the war and said dialogue with moderate elements of the Taliban ‘should be explored’. “Part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us,” said Obama at the time. In response President Hamid Karzai appointed his brother Qayim as envoy to the Taliban. The leader of the Taliban Mullah Mohammed Omar reportedly approved entering into peace negotiations but recent activity suggests that positions have hardened. The Guardian reports that overnight a rocket struck the presidential palace in Kabul and a second hit the Afghan capital's police headquarters.

But it is in the south where the Taliban is strongest, particularly in the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan (where Australian forces are stationed). The west is not winning the battle of hearts and minds in these areas. Jan Forrester says the Afghan rumour mill tells people of the increasing number of civilians being wrongly targetted and killed. So many locals now believe foreigners are
in Afghanistan just to promote their own interests, she says.

What exactly Australian interests are in Afghanistan have never been properly explained by either the Howard or Rudd Governments other than referring to vague threats of terror. However, Australian Major Mick Bassingthwaighte has given an intriguing insight into operational matters in a recent edition of the Australian Army Journal. Bassingthwaighte commanded a Security Task Group in Afghanistan during 2007 and 2008. In an article called "Taking tactics from the Taliban" he says the fight against the Taliban is run according to the following principles drawn from previous wars in the region:
- Limited and poor condition access roads to narrow valleys make it difficult to use conventional motorised forces
- Afghans are aware of psych op campaigns and are easily alienated if promised action does not arise,
- individual Afghans change sides at whim,
- most ambushes occur on the way back to base camps,
- helicopter support is crucial to preventing such ambushes, and
- it is “a platoon leaders’ war” of engaging small forces which will only fight when the terrain and circumstances are favourable.

While it is difficult to disagree with Major Bassingthwaighte’s military expertise, the worry here is that none of these principles look like changing any time soon. And without an exit strategy, Australia and the other nations of Rasmussen’s coalition could be waiting a long time for a train to get them out of Afghanistan’s “grand central station”.

New foundation aims to revive public interest journalism in Australia

(picture by Guano)

A group of media, academic and business figures have formed the first board of a Foundation for Public Interest Journalism aimed at exploring new models for reporting in Australia. The foundation will be looking to philanthropists and individuals to fund public interest journalism projects that may be underreported or neglected elsewhere in the media. The group’s interim chair Margaret Simons announced the news on her Crikey Content Makers blog this morning and says the new board plans to meet next month, and after that “things will probably move fast.” This will be a change of direction for Simons who has been tied up writing a biography of Malcolm Fraser for the last five months but leading this new board is a perfect fit for one of Australia’s most astute media commentators.

Many of those joining Simons in the Foundation board already work in the field of public interest journalism. The full board includes
- University of Queensland (UQ) journalism head Michael Bromley
- Norg Media boss Bronwen Clune
- National Indigenous Times editor Chris Graham
- Crikey editor Jonathan Green
- Multi-Walkley winning journalist and author Chris Masters
- Griffith Review editor, ABC board member and academic Julianna Schultz
- Journalist and author Melissa Sweet
- strategic consultant Steve Harris
- The Smith Family CEO Elaine Henry.
- Swinburne University media professor Julian Thomas

Professor Thomas is also director of Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research in Melbourne which will be the home of the foundation. He told Woolly Days today that project was driven by how the Internet is changing the future of journalism. He said that Simons, who also lectures at Swinburne, has been researching alternative models of journalism for years. The idea for the foundation was born out of a conversation last year between Simons and Melissa Sweet, who are both freelance journalists and authors. Thomas said the foundation will be looking for people to pitch ideas to them and is intended to finance journalists with good ideas and connect them with publishers who may want to give them an audience.

The challenge will be raising the funds to support the journalists. Simons said they would be “seeking support from philanthropic organisations and individuals who appreciate the importance of a healthy, active media for our society.” Professor Thomas said that the board would be meeting soon to work out a research and development program and have a website up and running by the end of the year.

Simons said that website would be the foundation’s first project. It is intended for journalists and the public to come together to organise “journalistic projects without the intervention of Big Media”. She said the site will be partly modelled on American experiments such as According to their “about” page, is an open source project dedicated to “community funded reporting.” It belongs to the non-profit Center for Media Change and is funded by philanthropic groups.

Like Spot.Us, the intention for the Australian foundation is for the public to commission journalists to do investigations on important and perhaps overlooked stories. Simons says that projects will be assessed on their capacity to serve the public interest, with priority given to issues that are under-reported by the traditional media.

The question will be whether the board can get enough funding from Australia’s notorious small philanthropic sector. Simons perhaps unwittingly alerted her audience to a solution to the problem when she concluded today’s media release by saying the foundation will also be looking to make a major contribution to journalism education and research. Given the proven difficulty of making money from this type of journalism, it seems likely the universities will make or break this necessary venture.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Belgian PM pledges support for Philippe Bogaert’s release from Qatar

Belgian Premier Herman Van Rompuy has pledged to do everything possible to get countryman Philippe Bogaert released from Qatar where he is currently appealing a three year prison sentence. Van Rompuy (report in Flemish) claimed that Belgium was doing everything it could for Bogaert “taking into account the limitations that the legal frameworks of both countries impose.” The prison sentence was handed out after several cheques failed to clear which he guaranteed while managing director of a Qatari subsidiary of a Belgian company. Bogaert is not actually in jail at the moment but has been stuck in a Kafkaesque scenario for almost a year unable to leave the country.

Philippe Bogaert is stranded in Doha because his employer’s sponsor refuses to grant him an exit permit to leave the country. Like most Gulf states, Qatar requires foreigners who wish to work in the country to have a local sponsor. However, unlike other Gulf countries, Qatar gives sponsors the right to say whether their employee is allowed to leave the country. Bogaert claims he has been “held hostage” by his sponsor since the company he worked for fell into financial difficulty last year. The sponsor is holding him personally liable for QAR16m ($AUD 5.2m) that the company is alleged to owe debtors, including former staff’s unpaid salaries and rent.

Bogaert has been fighting back using the power of social networks. There is a Facebook group called “Philippe Liberation Front” with almost 6,000 members and he been updating a Twitter page @HostageinQatar since 23 May. One of his earliest tweets read “Don't sign any guaranty checks in Qatar. As a signatory, you are personally responsible and they could eventually get you in jail.” On a regular basis he tweets “I am a hostage in Qatar and this is my Twitter SOS” while telling his back-story to the world 140 characters at a time.

The 38 year old married father of two is a TV producer who says he was offered a “dream job” in April 2008. A communication consultancy company called Dialogic SA, which he had worked for in Belgium, was looking for a broadcast manager in Qatar. He would be working with the Qatar Marine Festival which was run by Sheikha Mozah, the Qatari Emir’s wife. Like all foreign workers in Qatar, Bogaert needed a sponsor and his was Farukh Azad a 28-year-old assistant to the executive director of the Qatar Foundation. Farukh was to play an important role in Bogaert's later difficulties.

What Bogaert did not know was that Dialogic was already in trouble in Qatar. A Few months before he arrived, a powerful Qatari official had asked Dialogic’s management in Belgium for a bribe. Brussels refused and the marine festival organising committee retaliated by refusing to pay its invoices. Shortly after Bogaert's arrival, the committee served Dialogic Qatar with a default notice saying they were not delivering to their standards. The firm’s Belgian managing director was fired and Bogaert was given the job to mend fences.

But after just ten days in the job, the Qatari committee cancelled Dialogic’s contract and Bogaert's new job was to wind up its affairs. The problem was that he needed company sponsor Farukh’s agreement to liquidate but he boycotted meetings arranged to strike a deal. In October, the frustrated Bogaert handed in his resignation which was accepted by the company’s Belgian CEO. But Farukh refused the the resignation and wouldn’t sign the exit permit. Bogaert was placed on a no-travel list and was now effectively a hostage.

He contacted Qatari security police, who called Farukh to settle the matter. Farukh told police that Bogaert had created a lot of problems for the company and accused him of criminal intentions which he said he could prove. Because he was the sponsor, he could have been held responsible for Dialogic’s debts under Qatari law. So instead he launched a court case of his own to make Bogaert personally responsible for the debt.

Dialogic Belgium refused to intervene saying the debts and Bogaert's imprisonment was the sponsor’s decision and responsibility. Stranded and out of cash, he went to the Belgium Embassy in early December. The ambassador apologised and said he could not help him leave but offered to put him up at his own residence. To earn money, Bogaert turned to an old skill and began singing and playing the piano in bars and restaurants around Doha. Despite the support of Amnesty International, Qatar’s Human Rights Committee, and Foreign Affairs bureaus in Belgium and Qatar, no one would intervene in the court case.

On 31 May, he finally had his day in court for a liquidation hearing. Bogaert found it difficult to follow the Arabic proceedings but found out the judge had ruled that Dialogic Belgium were not represented and delayed the hearing to 1 November. By now foreign media were beginning to get interested in his story and he was interviewed by Le Soir, The Independent, the Huffington Post, the Gulf Times and Belgian radio.

On Friday 19 June, he was back in court facing criminal charges on a bouncing cheques case. On Monday 22 June Bogaert was found guilty and sentenced to three years imprisonment. On Twitter, he said: “I can pay 500 Riyals to freeze the judgment and appeal. Then I will have to be represented by a Qatari lawyer during the next hearings.” Bogaert told “If I raise the money, I can appeal so won’t go to jail (yet). But unfortunately, I’ll still be far from free.” Thanks to his publicity, he raised the funds and on 29 June his lawyer told him he had successfully appealed with a new hearing date of 12 October.

Bogaert's use of social media has met with mixed support. While it has undoubtedly given his case a wider audience, Bogaert admits the Belgian ambassador is not very happy with the strategy. “I put [up] an open letter to apologise to officials,” he said. Interestingly Bogaert has not been supported by any media freedom organisations: "I am a TV broadcast manager, not a journalist,” he said. “Although I might become a journalist [in order to receive more support]”.

Stations of the cross: The tenth anniversary of The Cluetrain Manifesto

The notion that Jesus is the most important person that ever lived is not necessarily rooted in religious belief but rather in the acceptance of his centrality in the calendar of the western world. People who might otherwise disagree on the meaning of Jesus will all agree on what year we are in. While this value is arbitrary, it does have meaning. And an artificial and incorrect calculation of the date of his supposed birth led to a deep millenarianism one thousand and again two thousand years later. The most recent pre-millennial tension was at its height ten years ago. In late 1999 the dotcom bubble was still inflating and Y2K was approaching. Though the latter was the butt of million jokes and millions had been spent on remediation, no-one could honestly say how the millennium bug might manifest itself.

Into this frenzied atmosphere came a book called The Cluetrain Manifesto that defined what 1999 meant. Written by four American business-savvy geeks (Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger), the book was Weber’s Protestant work ethic updated for the end of the 20th century. Its Lutheran overtones were shown by the 95 theses it posted to the paywalls of the Internet. Most of the 95 dealt with the failure of corporate culture to see how the connectedness of the web was transforming the marketplace. Their message was summed up in the first thesis: “markets are conversations”.

Despite the buzz around the best-selling book, the markets did not pay immediate attention. The Y2K tensions dissipated when nothing much happened on 1 January 2000 (or on the other event horizon two months later on 29 February), but the dotcoms crashed in a vainglorious blaze later that year. The death of the new world order was confirmed the following year when the Twin Towers came crashing down. Business continued in its mostly one-way conversation mode.

Yet despite predicting none of this, Cluetrain has retained its status as an influential tract. It did get many things right, including understanding the power of the networks and how hyperlinks subvert hierarchies. Ten years on, it is still a much quoted work. Its idea of conversation has taken a new and instantaneous global edge with the social networks of web 2.0. Cluetrain predicted this too: “through the Internet people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed.”

In July Jeff Jarvis said big companies such as Microsoft, Dell, Sun, Comcast are beginning to get the message. They have all been enriched by enabling their people to talk with us as people, says Jarvis. In a Club Troppo piece about Adam Smith and intellectual property, Nicholas Gruen wrote that Smith would have understood the “markets are conversations” meme as the web2.0 engine is the same as that Smith saw behind society “the dialectic of human sociality.”

But as Stilgherrian pointed out a few weeks ago, there is a contradiction inherent in the manifesto. Many people have read the first thesis round the wrong way and think that “all conversations are markets”. The problem, says Stil, is that the focus of The Cluetrain Manifesto is business and markets. “All that buying and selling stuff. Other important conversations in human society are being forgotten,” he says.

The concern is that the public spheres of social networks are becoming polluted by a nasty power law of marketing agendas. But writing in the new 10th anniversary edition released this year, one of the original Cluetrain authors Christopher Locke retains an optimism despite these difficulties: "It's hard to imagine the Era of Total Cluelessness coming to a close. But try. Try hard. Because only imagination can finally bring the curtain down."

Jesus may yet want Cluetrain for a Sunbeam.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Xinjiang’s history of oppression

Hundreds of Uighurs rallied in Kazakhstan yesterday to call for the independence of Xinjiang from China and to mourn the 200 people killed in clashes in Urumchi with authorities last month. Most Uighurs in Xinjiang don't go as far as the Kazakh protesters and simply want be recognised within the federation. China says that the Han were mainly the victims of the most recent clashes but their claims simply cannot be trusted in this matter. Their clumsy attempts to shut down Rebiya Kadeer’s visit to Australia are the latest in a long history of subjugating the Uighur population in China’s westernmost province by whatever means possible including the media.

The large, sparsely populated land the Uighurs call home has always been at the crossroads of Chinese and Muslim culture. Han Chinese influence pre-dates Islam by a thousand years. Chinese leaders they have ruled the province on and off since then. But the startling rise of Islam beginning in 934AD complicated political allegiances for the next millenium. In 1877, the Chinese empire asserted its control of what it called Sinkiang (Xinjiang) Province. When after the Manchus were overthrown in 1911, China settled in to a long period of fractured rule. Xinjiang was ruled by a succession of mostly Chinese warlords who were hated by the local Uighur population. The province was ravaged by typhus and then ethnic wars in the 1930s until it was brought to an end by the Russians. The Red Army invaded in 1934 and Stalin saw Xinjiang as a counterbalance to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. The USSR exploited Xinjiang for its oil and the province would remain under Soviet control until 1942.

With Russia engaged with the Nazis on three fronts, local Muslim leaders took the opportunity to take control. They renamed the territory the Eastern Turkestan Republic. The new ETR fought against Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang with Russian support. In the summer of 1949 most of the new republic’s leaders were killed in a plane crash and a third enemy took most advantage. Communist Party forces overran the province from the east in what Chinese history books now call a “liberation”. While there still great hostility between local Han Chinese and Uighurs, the Communist regime was generally accepted, partially because they were the first rulers to bring peace to the area in 40 years.

Mao’s philosophy
was to integrate the Uighurs into the Chinese political system. But they were never trusted by local administrators and Xinjiang maintained the impression of a colony. There were forced labour camps, forced re-settlement, an influx of poor Han Chinese, and discrimination against Muslim practices. Mao’s portrait was hung in every mosque, Shari’a law was abolished and the teachings of imams were converted into pro-Communist lectures. In 1958, China insisted Xinjiang drop its use of the Cyrillic alphabet and use a Roman one with a few Chinese words. The effect was to weaken Uighur identity, especially across generations brought up with different alphabets.

Nothing much changed until the Deng-inspired reforms of the early 1980s. China officially acknowledged Uighurs were Turkic in origin, they allow mosques to be re-opened and they permitted some Muslim literature. This brief flower of openness ended with the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Xinjiang had its own violent riots at the time with Muslims protesting about their lack of religious rights. A frightened China cracked down hard on the province, banned many Muslim practices (including attending mosques and observing Ramadan). They also introduced the one child policy which Muslims were previously exempt from and enforced it with compulsory sterilisations and late-term abortions.

Dissent was not tolerated. In 1990 authorities opened fire with helicopter gunships and mortars on a major protest at Baren. At least 50 people were killed. The Chinese justified the killing on the grounds the protesters were calling for jihad and the expulsion of the Han. After Baren, China stepped up its military presence in the province and placed cameras in all mosques. Relations worsened and another serious riot erupted in 1997 at Gulja caused by the tinder of the police arrest of two religious students. Despite a crackdown in which several people died, rioting continued for days afterwards and the city was sealed off for two weeks.

Uighur separatists gathered renewed vigour from Gulja. They responded with the anger of the poor man's air force - crude attacks against soft targets including one bomb in Beijing. In 2000, 60 people were killed in a massive explosion in the provincial capital Urumchi. The Chinese media reported it as an accident but it was more likely a truck bomb. After 9/11 gave this behaviour a bad name, China was able to use the western trope of a “war on terrorism” to justify further crackdowns on Xinjiang. China is worried by what it sees as unreasonable Islamic fanaticism, and particularly fears Hizb Ut-Tahrir, a growing pan-Central Asia movement which wants to establish a single caliphate from Xinjiang to the Caucasus. But most Muslims in Xinjiang have less grandiose ambitions. They want a decent life. While the Communist regime insisted on training, education and efficiency, they ignored the real issues of migration, unemployment, corruption, and lack of democracy that were alienating the Muslim population.

The Uighurs’ ultimate fear is extermination. In 1949, Xinjiang had 5 million Uighurs and 300,000 Han. Fifty years later it was 19 million to 12. And with increasing internal immigration and aggressive policing of the “one child policy” Uighurs fear they are moving ever closer to demographic suicide. Chinese policy experts don't help with patronising attitudes. They continue to refer to the autonomous regions as “backward ethnic-minority areas” and say the Han would help them “accelerate development and achieve common prosperity". But prosperity remains uncommon in Xinjiang and what economic benefits that have occurred have accrued to the immigrants. It is hardly surprising then that Uighur resistance to what they see as an occupation is growing.