Saturday, December 30, 2006

Aunty's anti-Western bias is a dangerous political tool

Ignorant and ideologically biased ABC staff need re-educating. ("Aunty" is a common nickname for Australia's main public broadcaster -- The Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Those concerned about ABC bias may be disappointed in the ABC's new director of editorial policies, Paul Chadwick. "During the selection process I made it clear that if the ABC wanted a chief censor, I did not want the job," Chadwick said after news of his appointment last week. "The fact that it was offered and the fact I accepted reflected the understanding that this is not a chief censor role."

There has been hope among critics of ABC bias that the new director of editorial policies role, which attracts a salary of at least $280,000 a year, would redress fundamental concerns over ideological bias among ABC staff. But Chadwick's emphasis - indeed, his insistence - on the point that he will not act as a censor at the ABC raises the concern that such hopes are illusory.

Accusations of ABC bias are a problem that will certainly recur in 2007, if only because the partisans of one major political party or the other are unhappy with the broadcaster's coverage. I believe that ABC bias is one of the central problems in our national media. It is a problem I have observed both at close first hand and at the distance of consumption of ABC broadcasting products.

From both perspectives, the problem reveals itself as coming from the same source: the spiritual and metaphysical rootlessness of the tertiary-educated Australian middle class. I have always contended that dealing with this problem at its roots will require nothing less than the complete philosophical re-education of those ABC staff members engaged in intellectual tasks. Short of outright privatisation, this is the only way to arrest the endemic anti-Western bias which, at our ABC, expresses itself as partisan political passion, with the institutions and figureheads of Western liberal democracy as its principal targets.

The ABC represents the Australian intellectual class in miniature. The journalists, writers and artists who make up that class suffer broadly from the confused values that have characterised Western intellectual elites since the late 19th century. There is political passion without historical knowledge. There is philosophical scepticism, without the well thought-out metaphysical beliefs to make that scepticism useful. There is a nihilistic tendency that goes beyond the call of reason, and summons those afflicted with it to a fundamentalist rejection of the society in which they live, and which on the whole treats them very well.

This is the sort of problem that I talk about when I talk of ABC bias. It is not the problem of whether seven minutes or 12 minutes are given to Liberal and Labor spokesmen on the environment in the course of a tedious ABC interview. Much more important than such technical trivia is the question of the underlying and perhaps unconscious attitudes of those doing the interviewing, the editing and the production work on the program.

In a sense, the problem is not the creation of ABC culture as such. It is rather a problem of the Australian tertiary-educated middle class. As flag-bearers for that class, media workers naturally carry most of its baggage. In most social situations, this does not matter at all. A journalist riding the train or ferry to work in the morning is no more dangerous or offensive than another kind of office worker, or the person driving the train or boat. But once at work, ensconced in a position of command over the tools of mass communications media, the ideas at the back of a journalist's mind become more significant, and potentially threatening.

Where commercial market forces impose the disciplines of punchiness, topicality and brevity in news, the menace factor is correspondingly reduced. Where journalists in this country have the liberality to do their thing, as at a commercial-free ABC where ratings are irrelevant and the only professional issue of importance is the estimation of one's peers, the danger from their philosophical disconnectedness from society correspondingly increases. Given the attitudes of the Australian tertiary-educated class, ABC bias is the inevitable consequence of having a public broadcaster that does not operate on commercial principles.

Some say that the ABC board, with all its Howard Government appointees, ensures that the ABC cannot be biased. I have always contended that the ABC board is virtually irrelevant to the broadcaster's operating culture. The board could become, to a man and woman, more right-wing than Keith Windschuttle in his most right-wing moments. This will never affect the Monday-to-Friday newsroom thinking of an ABC journalist whose day-to-day contact is with other ABC journalists. If anything, the persistent stacking of the board with right-wing figureheads is likely to merely reinforce the crusader mentality of those excitable ABC staff members who have come to believe that their own positions, and perhaps the future of civilisation as they understand it, are under threat from the Howard Government.

Similarly I do not predict any great change in ABC operating culture as a result of the creation of any number of so-called opinion programs loaded with predictable voices from various spots on the ideological spectrum. Opinion programs, particularly if they are labelled as such (and one hopes they will be), are unlikely to carry much persuasive value one way or the other. The impact of the programs will depend entirely on the quality of work done by presenters. Like the opinion pages of newspapers, opinion programs on the ABC may provide a forum for the nation's salient political ideas. But in and by themselves, they will not change the content of any overwhelming bias that lies within the hearts and minds of our intellectual class.

Perhaps those making the coffee at ABC staff cafeterias may be excused from the need to learn the basic outlines of Western metaphysical discourse: the tension between utopian political ideologies and the doctrine of original sin, for example. But any staffer who is paid to write, record, edit or in any other way contribute to the production of verbal output through the media of ABC TV and radio should be trained to recognise the key elements in historical Western intellectual discussion. Re-education, leading to a broadened view of the traditions of Western civilisation itself, is the only way to counter the deep-seated anti-Western hostility that characterises our intellectual elites in the modern era.

Note: Just because Leftists use the term "re-education" in an Orwellian way, it does not mean that everybody does. Sometimes it means only what it says!


Your government will protect you

More bureaucratic "child welfare" incompetence -- this time in South Australia

South Australian authorities did not investigate thousands of reports of suspected child abuse in the past year because they believed fewer than one in five could be substantiated. Figures obtained by The Advertiser also show that of the cases followed up, thousands were not investigated within set timeframes. Nearly 45 per cent of cases in which children were considered at risk of some harm and almost 10 per cent of cases in which a child was determined to be in immediate danger, were not investigated within the timeframes. Another 12,584 reports were deemed not worthy of any investigation.

The revelation has outraged child abuse advocates, social workers and MPs, but Families and Communities Minister Jay Weatherill and Families SA chief executive Beth Dunning yesterday defended the department's processes. "Of course, we still investigate the most serious cases urgently, but we are deliberately attempting to move our resources away from investigating all cases, to supporting families," [whatever that means] Ms Dunning said. "Child protection agencies around Australia are moving away from investigation and focusing on intervention."

The founder of volunteer organisation Children in Crisis, Nina Weston, said every report not urgently investigated could place a child's life at risk. "I am very concerned about that, obviously, because it means these children are not getting the help that they need because they are still at risk," she said. "If no one is seeing them, it is possible they are being re-abused."

Ms Dunning said less than 20 per cent of child abuse reports were substantiated. Investigations strained relationships among the department, parents and guardians found not to have abused their children. "When reports are incorrect, it often leads to families becoming less receptive to accepting help," she said.

Nearly 3500 cases in 2005-06, in which children were determined to be at risk, were not investigated within the target of seven days. The cases of 57 children considered to be in immediate danger were not started within the target 24 hours of notification. In 4228 other cases, families were contacted and invited to meet officials after it was determined the child was at low risk of harm in the short term.

Mr Weatherill supported Families SA's policy change, suggesting spending money on investigations could exacerbate problems. "Other states have gone down the path of pouring billions of dollars into investigations for no benefit in terms of keeping children safe," he said. "There's an argument to suggest it's actually made things worse."

Opposition families spokeswoman Vickie Chapman said she was appalled by the department's handling of child abuse cases. She blamed a lack of funding and resources for putting children's lives at risk. "Here we have a situation where even at the acute end of the cases, the Government is failing these children," she said. "They are not delivering on it. They are not supplying resources. They would rather build a tramline than look after children."

Family First MLC Dennis Hood called for mandatory investigations of all child-abuse reports. He said further funds were needed and shifting resources from one area to another was unsatisfactory. Independent MP Nick Xenophon said the emphasis on prevention would be "cold comfort" for children being abused. "It's also very disturbing so many cases are not being investigated on time," he said. "It has to be an absolute priority." The National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect state president Richard Bruggemann said the number of cases investigated promptly needed to improve.


Greenhouse gases 'not to blame' for Australia's partial drought

The drought gripping southeast Australia is due to natural variations in climate rather than the greenhouse effect. The finding, based on CSIRO research, undermines claims by South Australian Premier Mike Rann at a water summit in Canberra last month that Australia was in the grip of a one-in-1000-year drought. "It is very, very highly likely that what we are seeing at the moment is natural climatic variability," researcher Barrie Hunt told The Australian, saying the CSIRO's model of 10,000 years of natural climate variability put the current drought into perspective. "When people talk about it as a 1000-year drought, they haven't got the information. They don't understand that according to natural variability we could get another one in 50 years or it might be another 800 years, and there's no way of predicting it."

The CSIRO's global climate model incorporates measurements of air pressure, temperature and wind at different levels of the atmosphere, sea surface temperatures and rainfall. Mr Hunt's research focused on three 500 sq km sites in Australia: one on the Queensland-NSW border, going down to the coast; southeast Australia, which included Melbourne, Sydney and much of the Murray River basin; and southwest Western Australia, including the Perth region. He looked at the frequency of dry sequences lasting eight years or longer. "In each of those places there are about 30 occasions over 10,000 years where you get one of these eight or more years sequences," he said. "The longest sequence was 14 years in Queensland-NSW, 11 in the southeast and 10 in the southwest."

Mr Hunt said the Queensland-NSW area had had an 800-year period without an eight-year dry, "but there is another period of 462 years where you get five of these". Mr Hunt said the onset, duration and termination of the long dries could not be predicted because they were due to random processes. He said the current drought was an example of a dry sequence that began with an El Nino weather system. "It starts a drought and you get sea-surface temperatures flickering backwards and forwards a bit. The rainfall may go back to fairly near normal but it is still below average, and then you get another El Nino," he said. "This can go on for a decade. Eventually it breaks. You don't know why, it is a random thing. This is just part of the beauty of the climatic system."

Most of Victoria is in a 10-year dry sequence, the Murray River is in its sixth year of drought, while Brisbane and much of NSW are also experiencing a six-year dry.

"It is important that people realise that natural variability says it will break. It may not break next year, because one of these things went on for 14 years, but it will break," Mr Hunt said. Mr Hunt was previously leader of the CSIRO's climate modelling program. He said a problem in assessing droughts -- and giving them titles such as a one-in-1000-years drought -- was that Australia did not have extensive records. Mr Hunt said climate change due to increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere built on naturally occurring patterns and would be felt in the coming years. "At the moment I think natural variability dominates. Increasingly, over the next few decades you would expect to see the greenhouse effect start to dominate, particularly with things like temperature," he said.

Mr Hunt said the dry sequence in the southwest was different, with a decline over 30 years, which included the odd year of above-average rainfall. "It isn't violating what I am saying, but it is a very unusual sequence of events there," he said.



On Sunday night, 2006 will be farewelled with bells, whistles and more than a few drinks. It's what we do. The inclusion of a chosen tipple or two in our festive and year's end celebrations is the norm; to not down a few yourself or offer a drink to a guest on New Year's Eve is still considered unusual, even in this era of health concerns.

Alcohol has always been a part of our culture. We use it to celebrate achievements, mark milestones and when we are enjoying the company of friends. Our high-quality alcoholic products [wine, beer and rum] are world renowned. Alcohol adds to our economy and culture.

Why then are we so shocked when teenagers drink? For generations, sneaking and sipping has been the way of youth. For generations it was snickered about and older people shared a wink and a nod when a young one nicked a mouthful and got caught. But the red flag had been raised on teen drinking, as well it should.

Australian Secondary Students Alcohol and Drug Survey 2005 data released this month showed that while tobacco and cannabis usage were down on similar surveys on 2002 and 1999, anti-drinking ad campaigns had done nought. Teens' drinking behaviour in Australia has remained relatively unchanged since the 1990s. Almost all 16- and 17-year-olds have tried alcohol, with more than half of those surveyed describing themselves as current drinkers and revealing they had consumed alcohol in the week before the survey. Commonwealth Government statistics show one in 10 teens drink at harmful levels in Australia. About seven in 10 boys and girls aged 14 to 17 drink alcohol and a third engage in high-risk behaviour at least once a month after binge drinking. Oh, yes. Teenagers are certainly drinking.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, underage drinking accounts for 20 per cent of all alcohol consumption in the US. It's hard to imagine the consumption would be very different here in the land of beer and booze-ups.

How to address this issue is complex and thorny, but what is startling in recent times is the propensity to see it as linear: blame the parents and blame the teens. Alcohol consumption by 17-year-olds during the Schoolies celebrations this year was blamed squarely on parents for providing their children with booze. Forget about context, or that most parents realised their teens would obtain alcohol and wanted to have a say in what was consumed; forget that most parents agonise over the drinking dilemma; or that by-and-large this generation of mums and dads have swung away from the autocratic approach of their parents and try to listen and be fair: Critics are quick to judge the parents of teens as bad, bad, bad.

It is clear drinking excessively is unhealthy and dangerous. The National Health and Medical Research Council says male teenagers should have no more than six standard alcoholic drinks on any one occasion and teenage girls should have no more than four. Go beyond these limits and the chances of being involved in drink driving, unwanted sexual advances and physical and verbal abuse increase. Their bodies suffer, too.

The solution to teenagers binge drinking or drinking alcohol at an age that is dangerous to their development and safety will not be found in blaming parents, or the teens themselves. The solution can only lie in making the whole of society take an interest. It is our social behaviour that feeds the problem, our embracing of getting "sloshed", our rules governing the promotion and advertising of alcohol, our inclusion of alcohol in everything special and important. We all must bear the consequences of our choices and we must share the load of responsibility for this problem.

Most of those who bellow loudest about the culture of underage drinking must not have adolescents themselves, as this is a group like none that has gone before. They are savvy, aware, bold and stressed: the way in which alcohol is pitched and presented could be just for them. The fact is that most teens, even if they do drink, are heeding the warnings. Most consume moderately and deliberately. Still, urban myths grow and one-off tales of alcohol abuse and teenage misbehaviour are expanded on to create the impression of a damned and dark generation.

In June, the Government launched its National Alcohol Strategy for the next three years. It said it was developed as a response to the prevalent high-risk alcohol consumption in the nation. Each year, about 3000 people die as a result of binge drinking and about 65,000 people are admitted to hospital. The annual cost to the Australian community of alcohol-related social problems was estimated to be $7.6 billion. All this and more could be waiting for some of our teens unless we take collective responsibility and get real about expectations. We need to get serious about offering real help instead just extending real judgment and real criticism.


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