Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A very cranky major Australian newspaper

The Age used to bill itself as one of the world's great newspapers, and there was a time when that was probably true. The paper no longer uses that slogan, and just as well. These days, the Canberra bureau apart, its standards fall far short of those set by the world's best newspapers. Things have become much worse since Andrew Jaspan, a left-wing Englishman, took over as editor in October 2004.

Jaspan, the former editor of the obscure The Sunday Herald in Scotland, has always been a puzzling choice for a self-confident Australian city such as Melbourne. His singular notoriety emerges from the astonishing story he commissioned after al-Qa'ida murdered 3000 Americans and others on September 11, 2001. Jaspan's reporter was given extensive space to make the following extraordinary claims:
"Who do you think they were? Palestinians? Saudis? Iraqis, even? Al-Qa'ida, surely? Wrong on all counts. They were Israelis; and at least two of them were Israeli intelligence agents, working for Mossad, the equivalent of MI6 or the CIA. Their discovery and arrest that morning is a matter of indisputable fact.
"To those who have investigated just what the Israelis were up to that day, the case raises one dreadful possibility: that Israeli intelligence had been shadowing the al-Qa'ida hijackers as they moved from the Middle East through Europe and into America, where they trained as pilots and prepared to suicide-bomb the symbolic heart of the US. And the motive? To bind America in blood and mutual suffering to the Israeli cause." (The Sunday Herald, November 2, 2003)

In the 1960s, under Graham Perkin, The Age threw off its staid conservative image and became a crusading liberal newspaper in the true sense of the word. For instance, it campaigned against White Australia and the death penalty. Under Jaspan, however, The Age's liberalism has morphed into a peculiar sort of bitter and twisted extremism, borrowed from Britain's The Guardian.

Nowhere is the corruption of The Age clearer than in its coverage of foreign affairs, characterised by systematic anti-Americanism, symbolised by horrible Michael Leunig cartoons showing Americans and Israelis as Nazis. It is to The Age's eternal shame that Leunig was welcomed by the mad bigots in Iran for their competition denigrating the Holocaust.

I am no great fan of the Bush administration, but there is a difference between criticising a particular president and the reflexive hostility to everything American that now pulsates from the columns of The Age. Australians whom I know do not have that visceral hatred of all things American. These are alien views. These views are being shoved down the throats of Age readers, mainly interested to read Epicure and know what is happening in Melbourne.

Even worse is The Age's news coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Since 2002 The Age's correspondent in Jerusalem has been O'Loughlin. Like many people, I have given up subscribing to The Age because of its primitive coverage of the Middle East. Getting angry over breakfast spoils my day. Fortunately, other people make it their business to monitor O'Loughlin's writing and expose his errors of fact and interpretation.

One of these is Tzvi Fleischer of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, who writes the Media Watch column for the Jewish News. Fleischer has documented literally dozens of cases in which O'Loughlin has got basic facts wrong, or else placed his own anti-Israel spin on stories. As Fleischer says: "O'Loughlin's bent is clearest in his longer features, which have generally been simply attempts to make and sell the Palestinian case to his readers." According to O'Loughlin:

* Palestinian suicide bombers are militants whose murder of Israeli civilians is an understandable reaction to Israel's brutalisation of their families.

* Israel's security barrier, which has saved hundreds of Israeli (and Palestinian) lives, is a wall, imposing apartheid on innocent Palestinians.

* Israel's withdrawal from Gaza was all part of a cynical Israeli scheme to occupy the West Bank forever.

* Israel and Hamas are morally no different, since neither wants peace and both are dominated by rejectionists.

The Age and O'Loughlin are, of course, entitled to their opinions. If their anti-Israel polemics were confined to editorials and signed opinion articles, I could just ignore them. But anti-Israel bias seeps into The Age's news columns as well, and that is another matter. The Age was an influential paper, and its systematic anti-Israel bias has a real effect on public opinion.


Teacher failures spell student trouble

Who will teach the teachers?

Young teenagers could be forgiven for misspelling words such as subterranean and miscellaneous, but what about the nation's primary school teachers? A spelling test of about 40 Victorian teachers, conducted in April this year, provides no grounds for confidence. Not one of the teachers could correctly spell all 11 words, ranging in difficulty from substitute to adolescence. The test was set at the level expected of 14-year-olds but the average score among the 39 teachers was just seven correctly spelled words.

Five teachers correctly spelled 10 words, putting their level at 13 years and nine months. One teacher was unable to spell any of the words while two teachers got only two of the words correct. Overall, 22 teachers misspelled subterranean, 17 couldn't manage embarrassing or miscellaneous and 16 had trouble with adolescence.

The test was held during a two-day course conducted by teacher Denyse Ritchie, who has run programs for the past 11 years giving primary school teachers the basic literacy skills to teach reading. Ms Ritchie, executive director and co-author of THRASS (Teaching Handwriting Reading And Spelling Skills), used by thousands of schools around the nation, said the spelling results were typical of the standard she saw.

She said teachers trained over the past few decades had been influenced by the "whole language" method of teaching reading, in which the letter-sound relationship underpinning written language is only one strategy used to teach reading, and not necessarily the first. "Rather than teaching children the 26 sounds of the alphabet, they need to learn the 44 letter-sound combinations that comprise the English language." Ms Ritchie said teaching children the letter 'c' only as the sound in cat made it impossible for them to work out how to read words like chair, chef and face. With the sound 'f', students are taught that the letter f makes the sound but not that the letters 'ph' make the same sound.

Ms Ritchie said the biggest problem was that teachers were not taught how to break words into their composite sounds and so could not explain it to children. "Teachers are ignorant of the 44 sounds in English and all the spelling choices that make up those sounds; they have a very limited understanding of it. "You can learn to read without knowing phenomics (the sounds that make up words), but when you spell, you have to have a good phenomic understanding to help spell words like said. "Unless you're taught that 'ai' as well as 'e' can make an 'eh' sound in words like said and again, you will spell said as 'sed'. "But many teachers don't have that inherent knowledge,"

The teachers' phenomic knowledge was also tested. When asked to break words into the constituent sounds or phenomes - such as how many sounds in 'cat' (c-a-t) - the average score was 4.1 out of a possible 10 correct answers. When asked to identify the third sound in a word like scrunch (r), the average score was 4.5 out of 10 and the average mark for breaking words into syllables was also 4.5 out of 10.

Ms Ritchie said teachers commonly answered that the word scrunch comprised two sounds (scr-unch) when it actually has six sounds (s-cr-u-n-ch). "Teachers and students need to know that letters don't have a sound," she said. "They need to know that letters are only symbols that are used continually in different combinations to represent sounds."

In Britain, the Government has stipulated that from the beginning of this school year, reading will be taught using "first and fast" synthetic phonics, which teaches students the letter-sounds and how they are blended to form words. But the British teachers association persists in arguing that teaching reading using an intensive phonics approach is inferior to an "inclusive reading program" that has children predict words based on the context of the sentence or the type of word it is.

In a position paper on reading and phonics released by the English Teachers Association of NSW in July, it suggests a child reading the sentence "The car drove along the s..... at high speed" could guess it says street because the word starts with s. If the child said road, the paper says, the teacher will "have to weigh up whether to take the student back to the word" to read it correctly. "They may NOT because they recognise that meaning is most important, that we ALL make such mistakes EVERY time we read, and that this mistake shows that the child understands what they are reading," the paper says.


Another new Premier to reform Freedom from Information laws

What a laugh! Believe it when you see it

New Queensland Premier Anna Bligh yesterday set the stage for a more open government than that of her predecessor Peter Beattie, announcing an overhaul of the state's outdated freedom of information laws. Speaking after chairing her first cabinet meeting as Premier, Ms Bligh also announced an independent audit of the state's troubled ambulance system and said she had placed her ministers on a "campaign footing" even though she did not expect to calla state election for another two years.

Ms Bligh said an independent overhaul of the 1992 Freedom of Information Act would be conducted by a three-member panel chaired by David Solomon, a barrister, journalist and former chairman of Queensland's Electoral and Administrative Review Committee. The committee paved the way for the abolition in the early years of the Goss government of the state's notorious gerrymander.

Ms Bligh said she wanted to provide the public with greater accessibility to information and greater transparency. "It is now 15 years since Queensland saw its first freedom of information laws," Ms Bligh said. "Freedom of information was introduced in Queensland at a time when the worldwide web didn't exist, when emails were a completely unknown phenomenon and when text messages were not part of our lives."

Mr Bligh follows in the path of another newly appointed state leader, Victoria's John Brumby, who also announced freedom of information reform as one of his first acts as Premier. The Beattie Government was notorious for its secretiveness and obstruction of freedom of information, though Ms Bligh denied that wheeling documents into cabinet to make them exempt from FoI inquiries was a common practice. Ms Bligh said the aim of the overhaul was to ensure the state Government achieved the right balance between the public's right to information about themselves and the workings of government, and "the privacy of individuals and the need for government at times to conduct its policy-making processes on a confidential basis".

Ms Bligh said she had told herministers that they faced a tough challenge to win the support of Queenslanders at the next election. "I've effectively said to them that ... we are now on a campaign footing for the next two years," she said. "I want them to be working alongside me to earn the respect and the votes of every Queenslander."

FoI expert Rick Snell said last month the planned Victorian reforms should be adopted across the nation. The University of Tasmania law lecturer told The Australian that all of the nation's FoI laws were out of date and needed an overhaul. Mr Snell said restrictions on what information could be made available were particularly severe in Queensland, where FoI requests were viewed with suspicion by public servants.

The report on the so-called "Dr Death" inquiry into Queensland's hospitals by respected lawyer Geoff Davies QC in 2005 found that the Queensland cabinet had a "culture of concealment" in which hospital waiting lists and other material were hidden.

Ms Bligh's other announcement from her first cabinet meeting as Premier was an audit conducted by Treasury officers of Queensland's ambulance system. The state of the ambulance system has become a major political problem over the past few months as it has been plagued by complaints of slow responses and high levels of staff on sick leave and stress leave.


Money for blacks ends up the usual way

A TINY Queensland town which says it must beg for government funding is furious after learning taxpayers' money was handed to a privately owned pub which went bust in seven months. Isisford, 100km south of Longreach, has a population of 100 and two pubs. One of the pubs, Clancy's Overflow Hotel, was financed by the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which spent more than $400,000 helping a former bankrupt without proven Aboriginal heritage. The loan was handed out six years ago but has only now come to light, angering locals who had struggled to convince federal and state governments to fund community projects.

Former Gold Coast Council candidate Philip Horne has told The Courier-Mail that ATSIC loaned him $220,000 after he told them "one of my ancestors had helped Aborigines". Mr Horne put up $100,000 alongside the ATSIC money to buy the hotel but he says he was given incorrect financial records and the pub was placed in receivership seven months later. It earned only $1000 a month in revenue, far below the $10,000 a month estimated to ATSIC, he said. Mr Horne says ATSIC spent at least another $200,000 to keep the property in receivership for a year and to sue him before he declared bankruptcy again. He now wants to sue Isisford Shire Council and the Federal Government to recover his $100,000.

Isisford Shire Council CEO Robert Bauer said he was amazed to learn of the loan when contacted by The Courier-Mail yesterday. "It annoys me that they gave him $5," Mr Bauer said. "There's a lot of things we could have done with that kind of money to upgrade facilities and improve the lives of our people and their children."

ATSIC was disbanded in 2003 with former indigenous affairs minister Phillip Ruddock attacking its handling of commercial loans and grants.

Mr Horne said the hotel was a "retirement dream" ruined after he was ostracised by town residents when he evicted patrons using drugs in the pub. "What I should have done was kept my mouth shut and turned a blind eye to everything that was going on and I'd still be there," he said. He blamed ATSIC for not properly checking his loan application, although he admitted he hadn't properly investigated the hotel's business potential. "I'm half to blame for it. I didn't ask for the bank statements. I should have looked at the business traffic. Hindsight's a wonderful thing," he said.

But Mr Bauer said Mr Horne paid a "ridiculous price" for the pub, which was later auctioned for a third of the cost. "Isisford is just a friendly bush town," Mr Bauer said. "Ninety-nine per cent of people didn't like him. It had nothing to do with drugs."

Police reports show Mr Horne was bashed with a club outside the pub in 2002, suffering head and chest injuries. A female friend who also worked in the pub also said she was thrown to the ground by the same man, who was sentenced to community service for the attack on Mr Horne.

Mr Bauer said it was "probably the only assault in the town in the last eight years I've been here". "The beating didn't cause his problems. It could have been worse," he said.

A spokesman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough said the bad loan was "a common story during the ATSIC era". Indigenous Business Australia had taken over many of ATSIC's loan functions, with tougher accountability and governance, he said.


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