Friday, March 12, 2010

The chairman of Australia's major public broadcaster is critical of its global warming evangelism

He has no day-to-day influence on programming, however

STANDING in front of senior journalists and program makers and challenging them about "groupthink" and uncritical reporting is, at best of times, a dangerous thing to do. At the national broadcaster, and using the climate change debate as an example, it was bound to be incendiary.

On Wednesday morning, chairman Maurice Newman opened the ABC's annual leaders conference - attended by about 250 senior program makers, journalists and executives at its Ultimo headquarters in Sydney - to deliver an unprecedented address. It was a barely disguised attack on his perception of journalistic culture at the ABC.

"I would like you to think about how we might encourage, in our internal debates, more open minds and diverse opinions," Newman told employees. "How might we ensure that in our newsrooms we celebrate those who interrogate every truth, both convenient and inconvenient; create an atmosphere in which one can hold a view that runs contrary to prevailing wisdom without fear of ridicule from those with whom we work. "This is part of the journalistic culture we simply must get right if we are to continue to be trusted by all Australians."

At a time when the ABC is using new technology to push the boundaries of its original charter and has displayed an entrepreneurial zeal under managing director Mark Scott, Newman has set off an internal political battle Scott has so far skilfully avoided.

Scott has been forced to defend his journalists. A brief statement read by Tony Jones on ABC1's Lateline on Wednesday said: "Tonight, ABC management responded to Mr Newman's speech, saying it stands by the integrity of its journalists and its processes."

To the surprise of many present at Wednesday's speech, Newman, a Howard government appointee, spent some time outlining the case that many climate change sceptics have been making about the ABC: that there is a bias towards climate change alarmists and anyone questioning the science tends to be "labelled and mocked". "This collective censorious approach succeeded in suppressing contrary views in the mainstream media, despite that fact that growing number of distinguished scientists were challenging the conventional wisdom with alternative theories and peer-reviewed research," Newman said.

He cited the BBC's reporting, highlighting that the BBC Trust was carrying out a review of the accuracy and impartiality of the British broadcaster's coverage of science amid allegations the BBC had sat on the climategate emails from the University of East Anglia for a month. "While disturbing," he said of the controversy, "it is heartening to know that the BBC takes quality control seriously." The clear implication is that Newman would like the ABC to do something similar. It is a not-so-veiled suggestion that editorial director Paul Chadwick, installed in 2006 under Scott and Newman, should ensure editorial balance.

The responses to Newman's speech have been predictable. Some see it as management interference in the ABC editorial processes, others as a case of Newman expressing some hard truths.

Perhaps not surprisingly, first to express outrage was Jonathan Holmes, the presenter of ABC1's Media Watch.

After Newman spoke, Scott followed with his own speech but, according to those present, did not directly address the chairman's comments. He then opened the forum for questions in which Holmes rose to his feet and, according to those present, said: "It was an excellent speech, Mark, but I found it difficult to concentrate because I'm so angry about what the chairman just said", or words to that effect.

Holmes's view is that it was an inappropriate forum for the remarks. An ABC spokesman says it was an internal discussion, though a speech to 250 people at the ABC was unlikely to remain internal for long and Newman reiterated his remarks in a lengthy interview on ABC radio's PM that night.

The Friends of the ABC says Newman's criticism of the coverage of global warming was "extraordinary and inappropriate". Spokesperson Glenys Stradijot says Newman "is entitled to his personal views on controversial matters. But his expression of them while he remains head of the ABC damages public confidence in the national broadcaster's independence". She goes on: "Just as worrying, Mr Newman's comments look to be an attempt to influence ABC programming to be more favourable to global warming scepticism."

But others wonder if this argument holds, as the ABC board, as a taxpayer-funded entity, is responsible under the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act to "ensure that the gathering and presentation by the corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism".

The ABC has been under heavy fire in the past few months for its reporting on climate change, partly with reference to the climategate emails, and as public opinion shifts on the issue, particularly after the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit.

In an editorial in the Australian edition of The Spectator, Tom Switzer, a former opinion editor of The Australian, writes that ABC "journalists, with honourable exceptions (such as Chris Uhlmann), actively campaign for an alarmist cause the public no longer buys". "Around the world, media outlets both public (including even the BBC) and private (including even The Guardian) are doing real investigative work into the science and the scientists at a time when the political climate is changing dramatically. It is an embarrassment that `our' ABC is stuck so resolutely in the past."

For climate change agnostics or sceptics, Newman's speech is long overdue. Self-proclaimed agnostic Bob Carter, a geologist and environmental scientist with James Cook University in Queensland, says the ABC refused to publish an article on its The Drum website, despite initially requesting it. This followed a series of articles by well known climate change advocate Clive Hamilton on the website. Carter says he was asked to contribute after what he says were complaints to the ABC for not publishing alternative views. "They wrote to several so-called climate sceptics seeking to commission a series of five articles expressing a different point of view on climate change for publication the week after Hamilton's were run," he says.

"The Drum, after advertising that these five articles would appear, subsequently chose to publish only three - by Alan Moran, Joanne Nova and Tom Switzer - and declined to publish the invited articles by me and Sydney geologist Marc Hendrickx." Carter says the ABC emailed him saying the reason for declining the article, which was critical of visiting US climate scientist Jim Hansen, was that: "The Hanson [sic] theme feels that it's been overtaken by the interview with him that Fran Kelly did on RN [Radio National] this morning".

Carter's article was subsequently published on the conservative website Quadrant Online.

Newman cited the British newspaper The Guardian in his speech on Wednesday, saying: "The moment climatology is sheltered from dispute, its force begins to wane. Which raises an important question for a media organisation. Who, if anyone, decides what to shelter from dispute? And when? Should there be a view that the ABC was sheltering particular beliefs from scrutiny, or failing to question a consensus, I would consider it to be a dangerous perception that could lead to the public's trust in us being undermined . . .

"We can see that history has at times proven not to be on the side of conventional wisdom or the consensus view, but on the side of those who dissented from them. More significantly, we see too how media have failed us by not being rigorous and questioning enough, resulting in many misrepresentations taking too long to be discovered. We have seen so often the time of greatest certainty is, in fact, the time to be most sceptical. "If we spent more time on biopsies in journalism, as [US-based blogging journalist] Arianna Huffington has suggested, there would be far fewer autopsies."

What's clear is Newman has shifted the debate back on to the ABC, just when its managing director found himself in a sweet spot, looking to expand and take advantage of the commercial pressures his competitors (as he calls them) find themselves under as they struggle to compete amid declining advertising dollars and rapid technological shifts.

Last October, Scott spoke on the subject of "The fall of Rome", an examination of what he saw as the age of declining media empires. "When you have been so powerful and dominant for so long, it is hard to believe that empire is slipping away." he said, in a speech that also focused heavily on Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation (publisher of The Australian). But on Wednesday, Newman, a friend of John Howard, reminded Scott of the dangers of hubris.

"The ABC has never been more popular, never stronger. Never has more attention been paid to the ABC by both the public and our competitors," he said. "I think that now, when the corporation is at its strongest, is an ideal time to take a look at ourselves. Not when our critics choose to. "To question ourselves about how well we are meeting the ABC's high standards. Just as we ask hard questions of others, we need to ask ourselves: how we might better fulfil and honour the contract we have with the Australian people."

Pointedly, while noting Murdoch had been a critic of public broadcasting, at the end of his speech Newman quoted Murdoch to emphasise his argument that the ABC should not underestimate its audience, saying he was struck how Murdoch pointed to an American study that reported many editors and reporters do not trust their readers to make decisions. "This is a polite way of saying these editors and reporters think their readers are too stupid to think for themselves," Newman quoted Murdoch as saying.

The media industry's destiny then lay within the organisations themselves, he said: "In the culture and ethical constructs of each organisation, not in the latest technological innovation."

This is an alternative view to Scott's speech and in that sense Newman is leading by example, as now the ABC has a debate and a very public difference of opinion between the chairman and the managing director.


Widow sues government over faulty ambulance equipment -- equipment KNOWN to be faulty

A woman is suing the Queensland government for $1.62 million over claims faulty ambulance equipment contributed to her husband's death. In a statement of claim filed this week in the Brisbane Supreme Court registry, Carmal Corsie and her three children allege the government was negligent in failing to ensure crucial equipment was working properly when an ambulance came to collect Iain Corsie on March 23, 2007.

According to the claim, the ambulance was called to the family's Mitchelton home after Mr Corsie, 38, suffered pains in his chest and arm. Mrs Corsie claims ambulance officers checked his condition and determined he was having a heart attack. They used a Heartstart 4000 monitor/defibrillator to conduct an ECG before he was allowed to walk to the ambulance.

Court documents claim the defibrillator malfunctioned while en route to the hospital, and that the paramedics elected to divert to the ambulance station to find a replacement piece of equipment. Shortly afterwards Mr Corsie lost consciousness and died.

The Corsie family claims it later learned the defibrillator had malfunctioned in late February and then failed to pass an equipment check the day before Mr Corsie's death. Court documents allege the machine was not serviced or taken out of use.

The family is suing the government for $1.62 million, claiming it was negligent in failing to ensure proper, working equipment was available to treat Mr Corsie. They also allege the ambulance took an unacceptable 19 minutes to arrive at their address after being called, and then should have travelled directly to hospital instead of making a detour to the station. "If the defendant had not been negligent, the deceased would not have died," the claim states.


Australia on shame list

Because of Australia's Leftist government insisting on net censorship despite widespread opposition

A TOP media rights watchdog has listed Australia along with Iran and North Korea in a report on countries that pose a threat of internet censorship. Paris-based Reporters Without Bordersput Australia and South Korea on its list of countries "under surveillance" in its "Internet Enemies" report

Australia was listed for its government's plan to block access to websites featuring material such as rape, drug use, bestiality and child sex abuse. Critics say the plan is a misguided measure that will harm civil liberties.

In South Korea, the RSF report added, "draconian laws are creating too many specific restrictions on web users by challenging their anonymity and promoting self-censorship". "These countries are worrying us because they have measures that could have repercussions for freedom of expression on the internet," RSF secretary general Jean-Francois Julliard said.

Russia and Turkey were also added to the watchlist, which is a category below RSF's top "Enemies of the internet", the countries it considers the 12 worst web freedom violators. These include Saudi Arabia, Burma, China, North Korea, Iran and Vietnam.

"The world's largest netizen prison is in China, which is far out ahead of other countries with 72 detainees, followed by Vietnam and then by Iran, which have all launched waves of brutal attacks on websites in recent months," RSF's report said.

A senior manager of US internet giant Google, David Drummond, said there was an "alarming trend" of government interference in online freedom, not only in countries that are judged to have poor human rights records. He cited Australia's plans as an example, saying that there ``the wide scope of content prohibited could include socially and politically controversial material". The Australian case "is an example of where these benign intentions can result in the spectre of true censorship", he added. "Here in Europe, even in France, at this very moment, some are tempted by this slippery path of network filtering."


Learning about Hayek the hard way

By Dr. Oliver Marc Hartwich, a German economist. He probably reads Hayek in the original

In his masterpiece, The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek considered the follies of mistaken policies to conclude: "We shall not grow wiser before we learn that much that we have done was very foolish." If only Kevin Rudd heeded this advice, his much-televised apologies for the government's insulation fiasco and other policy blunders would be more credible.

The Prime Minister is not the greatest fan of Hayek, as he has repeatedly made clear in several essays and speeches. Yet Hayek's economics offer some valuable explanations why the government's big stimulus package was bound to run into difficulties. Furthermore, an injection of Hayekian thought into the policy-making process could save us from similar disasters in the future.

Although Hayek was one of the last polymaths, it is fair to assume that he had never heard of pink batts. Nevertheless, he would not have been surprised that the government's drive to quickly roll out a nationwide insulation policy would run into numerous difficulties. At the core, the government's policies suffer from two connected problems: lack of knowledge and unintended consequences. Hayek had given both these challenges for public policy a great deal of thought.

Hayekian economics is built on the fundamental insight that modern societies are much too complex to be planned. The sheer number of variables to be taken into consideration often exceeds the capacity of modern supercomputers.

It was the Prime Minister, in his interview on ABC1's Insiders, who provided a good example of such virtually unmanageable complexity. Noting that Australia's health system comprised 763 hospitals, 115 million [annual] visits to general practitioners and 49 million hospital services, he mourned how difficult that made it "to get it right". Who could possibly doubt that? In the face of such complexities, all attempts to micro-manage the day-to-day workings of a system are futile. No single government agency could gather the necessary knowledge to effectively control the operation of each and every one of the nation's hundreds of hospitals.

It is dangerously naive to assume that bringing the health system under the central control of the federal government would miraculously make it more efficient. Quite the reverse may be the case.

In his Nobel lecture Hayek issued a stark warning against such micro-management: "To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power [that] enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge [that] in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm."

For any ambitious politician this is a sobering insight. It runs against all desires to "get on with the job" and "deliver outcomes". When Rudd now says that "we didn't properly estimate the complexity of what we are embarking on", this shows how he is learning the meaning of the Hayekian knowledge problem the hard way.

At the same time, his government is also learning Hayek's law of unintended consequences. In The Road to Serfdom Hayek lays out how governments, lacking knowledge and foresight, often implement policies that create more problems than they solve. This in turn leads to yet more government action with yet more unintended consequences.

This precisely has been the story of the government's insulation scheme. What began with the best intentions of stimulating the economy and saving energy has not only tragically cost lives and caused much distress, it has become a policy that keeps dragging on long after the initial reason for stimulating the economy has disappeared.

Hadn't we been promised "shovel-ready" jobs? And isn't it ironic that the Reserve Bank of Australia now has to counteract the consequences of excessive government spending with higher interest rates?

Hayekian economists had been pointing out these difficulties with the government's ambitious and rushed stimulus measures when hardly any politician was willing to listen. It is little consolation to them now when the Prime Minister tells presenter Kerry O'Brien on ABC1's The 7.30 Report: "I am disappointed in myself for not asking more questions."

Once you have understood the ubiquitous knowledge problem and the law of unintended consequences, policy-making does not become easier. But at least it alerts you to the limitations of politics. A certain Hayekian humility would certainly suit our politicians well.

How this may look in practice was demonstrated nicely by former Conservative British cabinet minister Peter Lilley. As minister, he famously instructed the civil service to always include one item on the list of policy options that was usually forgotten. In Britain this became known as "Lilley's option" and it was very simple: "Do nothing." Lilley later explained that he was convinced that "sometimes doing nothing was less bad than doing something".

It's an experience from which the present generation of politicians could still benefit. Unfortunately, most of them follow neither Lilley nor Hayek but Winston Churchill: "Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm."


Indonesia to jail people-smugglers for five years

People-smugglers caught in Indonesia will face five years' jail under tough anti-trafficking measures unveiled yesterday during a historic speech to federal parliament by visiting President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. In the first speech by an Indonesian leader to Australia's parliament, Dr Yudhoyono announced that a new law would make people-smuggling a crime in Indonesia - a move designed to discourage the Indonesian fishermen who have carried thousands of asylum-seekers into Australian waters.

The President's announcement followed a day of high drama in which Indonesian counter-terrorism police confirmed the death of the country's most wanted terrorist, Bali bombing mastermind Dulmatin, on Tuesday during a raid targeting a militant hideout in Jakarta.

Dr Yudhoyono was reading an earlier speech to a state luncheon in the Great Hall at Parliament House in Canberra when a military aide passed him a note. "I have great news to announce to you," the President told guests. "After a successful police raid against a terrorist hideout in Jakarta, we can confirm that one of those killed was Mr Dulmatin, one of the top Southeast Asian terrorists that we've been looking for," he said through an interpreter.

At 2.30pm, the President was escorted into a House of Representatives chamber packed with MPs from both houses, where he was introduced by the Speaker, Harry Jenkins.

Praising the Australia-Indonesia relationship as "solid and strong", Dr Yudhoyono warned of new "non-traditional" threats posed by terrorism, people-smuggling, drugs and natural disasters, for which Canberra and Jakarta should be prepared. He said both governments acknowledged that the vexed issue of people-smuggling was a regional problem, requiring a regional solution. "And to strengthen our legal instruments, the Indonesian government will soon introduce to parliament a law that will criminalise those involved in people-smuggling - those found guilty will be sent to prison for five years," Dr Yudhoyono pledged to loud applause.

His promise came as Australia's Border Protection Command confirmed the interception of the 21st asylum-seeker boat this year.

The Australian understands Indonesian authorities are preparing to deal with another situation - the 248 Australia-bound Sri Lankan Tamils refusing to get off their boat in the Indonesian port of Merak after a four-month standoff. This newspaper has been told Indonesia is preparing to remove the Sri Lankans by force if necessary, and send them to Tanjung Pinang immigration detention centre for processing by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "These people will be transferred to another location in West Java soon," a senior Indonesian official said. Dr Yudhoyono described a "love-hate relationship" between two countries, which he said had evolved into a model partnership - not without its challenges, but one that was drawing world envy.

He said government-to-government ties between Jakarta and Canberra had never been better. But Dr Yudhoyono warned against complacency. He said he was personally concerned about ill-informed perceptions of Indonesian society by Australians, and vice-versa. "There are Australians who still see Indonesia as an authoritarian country or a military dictatorship or as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, or even as an expansionist power," the President said.

On the other hand, there were Indonesians afflicted by what he called "Australia-phobia - those who believe that the notion of White Australia still persists, that Australia harbours ill-intention towards Indonesia," he said. "We must expunge these preposterous mental caricatures if we are to achieve a more resilient partnership."

Earlier, Mr Rudd heaped lavish praise on Indonesia's achievements following the end of the Suharto regime in 1998. "The people of Indonesia enjoy a free media, an open society and religious tolerance," Mr Rudd said. "They live in a multi-party democracy in which transitions to power take place according to law. "In Indonesia, democracy now has strong foundations."

During talks earlier yesterday morning, Mr Rudd and Dr Yudhoyono agreed to further strengthen relations with an annual leaders' retreat and a meeting of foreign and defence ministers.

Tony Abbott said he supported Mr Rudd's remarks but used his speech in parliament to criticise Labor's policy on border protection.

In a three-hour meeting yesterday morning, Dr Yudhoyono and the Prime Minister discussed the three Australian drug smugglers facing the death penalty in Indonesia. "He indicated to the President that should any member of the group seek clemency, he would support the request directly with the President," a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said last night.

Work will soon start on a prisoner exchange agreement between Indonesia and Australia.

Both leaders also discussed the 1975 killings of the Balibo Five journalists and expressed sympathy for those bereaved by the tragedy.

The Indonesian leader flew out of Canberra last night to Sydney for talks with business leaders aimed at boosting trade links.


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