Category Archives: Media

When the US bombed Al Jazeera, were journalists not prevented from doing their jobs?

The moment a Western journalist is treated in the Middle East in a manner that is deemed to be different to that in his own country, the West does tend to get rather heavy on the moralising and judgemental pronouncements.

Peter Greste, a journalist for Al Jazeera, the TV network that has revolutionised coverage of the Arab world, was given a sentence of seven years jail on what seems to be trumped up charges of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Brotherhood came to power in elections in Egypt after the so-called Arab Spring had resulted in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak who, at one stage, looked like having a permanent mortgage on leading the country, either on his own or through his descendants.

Unfortunately, the Brotherhood began to do what all governments do – govern for themselves – and discontent grew among people who believed all the propaganda that had been spouted in the run-up to the elections. Finally, the military, sensing the mood and knowing that their intervention would be welcome, took over and installed Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as the ruler. One thing has changed – the chief financier. In the days of Mubarak, it was the US; the Brotherhood had a money tap in Qatar and the military that toppled it owes its sustenance to Saudi Arabia which abhors the sight of an administration run by the Brotherhood. The Al Saud know that the day that fundamentalists take power in the Miuslim world, it will spell the end of their own reign and hence they do whatever they can to keep this brand of Islam in the cupboard as far as possible.

Greste has been caught up in the middle of this political snakepit. Egypt’s current administration wants to send a message to Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, and that is what this is all about.

But in the midst of all the Western raving about the seven-year sentence meted out to Greste, one fact has not been mentioned: when Al Jazeera was doing some pretty robust reporting on the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Americans had no hesitation about bombing the rooms in which the staff of the TV network were staying. One journalist was killed. There was no hubbub at the time about the Americans getting in the way of journalists who were just doing their job. Both George W. Bush and Tony Blair were in on this act.

Of course, this is not the first time, the US has attacked Al Jazeera.

That same US is now crying foul about the sentences meted out to Greste and two of his colleagues and claiming that journalists should be allowed to do their jobs! So who showed Egypt the way?

That the US has no influence in the Middle East has never been demonstrated in a starker manner. The secretary of state, John Kerry, did try to intervene, but was brushed aside. Why should Sisi listen to someone when he has a money spigot that leads to someone else? The Saudis have indicated that they will prop up any government that keeps the Islamists at bay and Sisi is perfectly happy to do just that.

Writing the occasional article doesn’t make one a journalist

THE explosion of online publishing has seen a breed that knows little or nothing about journalism assume posts as editors, writers, and so on.

But when one comes to such positions without understanding the finer points of the craft – as those who have either worked for, or been trained in, full-time publishing ventures do – the danger of overstepping one’s bounds is very real.

Writing is a tricky business: English is a highly ambiguous language. That is just the beginning of the area where one can sink.

There is also the area of where one draws the line – there are very real laws against defaming and libelling people. Even veterans of journalism sometimes go a mite over the line and face problems.

There are some writers who make a habit of pushing the envelope – here, their editors have to serve as the sluice gates and reduce the chances of a legal issue arising.

In other cases, the editor should decide what is relevant to the story and not invade other areas which do not impact on the topic under consideration.

Caleb Hannan, a writer for Grantland, an online website that concerns itself with sport, and is affiliated with the ESPN sports network, appears to have made a habit of going too far, with disastrous results.

Recently, Hannan wrote a piece about the development of a golf club – and ventured into the background of the person behind the club, discovering that it was a transgender individual. A few days after publication, the transgender person committed suicide.

Hannan’s editor-in-chief (yeah, he’s that high up) Bill Simmons made a long explanation after the deed was done. And the site also ran a guest editorial detailing the problems with the piece.

The whole business is one that resembles a situation that would eventuate if a butcher was doing a tailor’s job: these people have little idea about journalism, they are just amateurs with great titles.

It’s a timely warning to all those who think they can publish and be damned.

The site that knows it all screws up sometimes. Big-time

CRIKEY is a digital publication from Melbourne in Australia which has pretensions aplenty. It often claims to be the last – and correct – word on things. But oft times, it shows its ignorance. It shows its insularity.

Crikey sends a daily email to its subscribers five days a week. Its content also goes on its website, though only subscribers can access it. And this is a site which preaches a lot about things like freedom.

When Nelson Mandela died, Crikey ran an article by Guy Rundle, a writer who has a tendency to be unduly verbose. He revels in literary masturbation, using multi-syllable words here and there. He can never say anything in 600 words, hence most of his essays are continued off the daily newsletter. But Rundle, who delights in correcting other people, can screw up himself. And when he does it, he goes big.


While the rest of the world was correctly referring to Mandela by his tribal name, Madiba, Crikey called him Mandiba in an article right on top of its website. The mistake – and that’s an understatement – was there in the daily newsletter on December 6. The website was corrected shortly thereafter.

But it took quite a while before this paragon of virtue decided to come clean.

On December 10, a full 96 hours after the screw-up, the staff at Crikey realised that someone may have seen this glorious screw-up before it was changed. And so, a small apology was added in the newsletter on December 10.

Conflicted guests compromise the ABC’s standards

THE Australian Broadcasting Corporation is a government-funded entity which operates on the lines of the BBC. It provides some of the better media content in the country, but this is not surprising since the standards of the rest are abysmally low. Murdoch-owned media constitute about 70 per cent of the country’s industry – that should say it all.

Given that it lives off the taxpayer, the ABC has many rules and regulations that govern its operations. It is meant to be accountable. But, then politicians are also meant to be accountable. And both often get away with blue murder.

The ABC’s arrogance is visible on occasion, though for the most part it hides behind the weasel words that are so much a part of public life today. The following incident will illustrate the level of contempt the corporation – living off the public teat, in case one has forgotten – shows.
Continue reading Conflicted guests compromise the ABC’s standards

Pursuing Armstrong: a journo’s tale of triumph

WHEN journalists criticise something repeatedly, those who read their offerings tend to conclude that the journalist in question has a dislike of the person or people at the heart of that issue – and that is the reason for the criticism.

But that is often not the case.

Irish journalist David Walsh was probably the only one of his tribe to be critical of Lance Armstrong when the American, on his return to professional racing after recovering from testicular cancer, won the Tour de France in 1999.

Walsh took the stand he did because he loved the sport. And he hated the idea that it was being ruined by people ingesting this drug or that and winning without deserving it.

The 1999 event was dubbed the “tour of renewal” following the drugs scandal that hit the event in 1998, when the Festina team was caught with something akin to a drugstore in a van.

But Walsh, noting that Armstrong had recorded speeds even faster than those in 1998, and also gained an incredible advantage over the rest during the most difficult climb of the Tour, reasoned that there had to be more to the story. Armstrong was not known as a climber, but even if he had been proficient in this aspect of cycling, the time he recorded was incredible.

In his recent book, Seven Deadly Sins: My pursuit of Lance Armstrong, Walsh tells the story of the problems he faced by taking what others saw to be a stance against Armstrong.

The book is written well and shows the depth of love that Walsh has for cycling, and sport in general. He was fortunate to have a highly supportive sports editor who backed him to the hilt and prevented him from going overboard when the Armstrong issue became an obsession.

Armstrong used every tactic in the book to discredit those whom he perceived to be against him; he would threaten, blackball and use lawsuits when he could. He did what he could to tarnish Walsh’s reputation and blacken his name.

Walsh traces the whole affair from its inception, tells of those who stood against Armstrong – people like US cyclist Greg LeMond and Betsy Andreu, the wife of another pro cyclist, Frankie Andreu. Then there was Emma O’Reilly, a masseuse with Armstrong’s team, who was made out to be little more than a whore by Armstrong when she lifted the curtain about his use of drugs.

Walsh is an old-school journalist, a man with principles. Chasing the story took a toll on him and his family, yet he did not give up. As LeMond put it, he knew that Armstrong’s win in 1999 had either to be the comeback of the century or else the fraud of the century.

As we all know, it turned out to be the latter. Earlier this year, some months after he had been stripped of his titles following an investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency, a stony-faced Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey that he had cheated all through his seven wins.

He lied in that he did not confess to using drugs on his comeback in 2009 – when evidence clearly indicates he did. The statute of limits for legal action is five years – and that’s why Armstrong continues to lie about this.

Walsh’s story serves as encouragement to journalists in a world where telling the truth in print, the web or on TV is becoming increasingly more difficult. It is also an uplifting tale for anyone else, a story that reminds us that there are still people of integrity left in a world increasingly filled with frauds.

US: lots of technology, poor implementations

AUSTRALIAN nationals do not require a visa to visit the United States as tourists. They merely have to fill in a form on a website, wait for approval and then carry a printout of the resultant permission when they travel.

But any Australian passport holder who visits the US to report on an event has to get a journalist’s visa, what is known as an I category visa.

Going through the process is illuminating because one discovers the level of incompetence in the American system, if nothing else.

In July, I received an invitation from SUSE Linux, a company based in Germany, to attend their 20th anniversary celebrations to be held in Orlando, Florida. As it would have been churlish to refuse, I indicated I would accept.

SUSE was once an independent company and was bought by Novell in 2003. Novell, at that time, was a public company and SUSE was run from the US, not exactly very successfully. In 2011, Novell was bought by Attachmate Corporation which decided to relocate SUSE in Germany and run it from there. Attachmate also took Novell private.

The US visa can be applied for online – but the form leaves much to be desired. Firstly, it is built using Microsoft technology and thus works best with Internet Explorer. Nobody tells you this – I found out by trial and error due to my technology background.

A form which is properly designed should take one from page to page, allowing for both negative and positive answers. If a particular question cannot be left vacant, then there should be an option to get past that spot.

But with the visa application form, this does not happen. For example, I was clearly not going to work for an American company during my stay in the US. But the logic (?) built into the form clearly decided that this was the case even though I had clearly indicated that I was applying for a visa for a foreign media representative. I could not progress from this page.

I had to contact the US State Department to find out what to do – and the way to contact them is not provided. No, I found out the email address by going to the website of the US consulate in Melbourne and emailing them. I got an automated reply, giving me the correct email address. What a bloody circuitous way to deliver information!

One has to upload a picture along with the application. And there are all kinds of inane questions to answer – have you ever been involved in terrorist acts? have you been involved in genocide? Sure, people who are inclined this way would genuflect and tell Uncle Sam that they are indeed so oriented. Who designs these forms?

After this, one needs to make an appointment at the nearest consulate or embassy. But the amazing thing was that when I did so, I could not select the category of visa which I had specified in my application. I was offered other choices. To get past the form, I chose the B1/B2 which is a business visa.

Came the day of the interview and I was witness to what technology guru Bruce Schneier calls “security theatre”. At the consulate, there are two solemn men in uniform who act as though everyone who comes through the door is a member of al-Qaeda. They would be comical if they did not take themselves so seriously. The process is drawn out as much as possible to make it seem as though the security is the best in the world.

Upstairs, again papers were checked. No bags allowed, no mobile phones either. One had to sit in an area where a TV was blaring American propaganda – the US is the land of innovation, the land of racial harmony (lots of footage of Muslims saying the US was a beautiful place to live), the land of education, the land of opportunity. No mention was made of the national debt which now stands at $US15 trillion.

After 20 minutes (my appointment was at 10am), I was called to the counter. I explained the problem about the visa category and was given a long list of things which I would have to do. I then asked, sarcastically why I had to be delayed because of an error in the US web form. Back came the reply, “I will speak to my officer”.

Back to the same counter after 15 minutes. Now the girl told me that I had filled in the form correctly, something I already knew. I was fingerprinted and then went back to wait.

After 40 minutes more of listening to the propaganda, I was called for an interview. No seat, it’s done standing up. There is no toilet available for use by visitors on that floor – though the staff obviously do have a place to do their jobs. Way to go, USA.

Routine questions were asked, some of them redundant. Are you travelling alone? (already indicated on the form). Have you been to the US before? (also indicated on same form). How long are you going to be there? (again, asked and answered on the form). Have you ever been arrested? I was about to say that I had been arrested 13 times but then held my tongue. Humour is not appreciated in the US these days.

I had already paid $A160 for the visa; now I was told that I would have to pay a further $A105. Maybe that’s how the US is managing its budget deficit these days, by charging such outrageous sums for visas.

Another wait to pay the fee. A total of 90 minutes in the consulate. I’ve seen things done far more expeditiously in the German and British consulates. And things done far faster in the Indian, Thai and Sri Lankan consulates too.

After three days my passport arrived in the mail with the visa duly stamped. Sad to see that the country which identifies itself with technological progress cannot even build a proper web form.

Thomas Friedman, fraud supreme

WHAT does one call a writer who pretends that the life experiences of others are his own, and passes them off as such? A fraud? A poser? A plagiarist? I have not been able to find le mot juste.

Lest there is any mystery over whom one is referring to, I am talking about the diplomatic editor of the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman.

Friedman has been ridiculed by journalists like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, and rightly so, for his ridiculous use of language and his incoherent writings which appear in what is apparently the greatest newspaper in the US. (That tells us why newspapers are closing down rapidly in that country.)

I’ve always felt that Friedman is an average reporter but a nothing writer. He cannot think straight and comes up with the daftest analogies and ideas to try and convey some meaning about complex situations. He fails, miserably. Maybe, as Taibbi puts it so eloquently, his editors are drinking rubbing alcohol.

But this kind of intellectual dishonesty aside, I never suspected that Friedman was also making up the anecdotes that go into his reporting. That was until I read this great piece by the late Alexander Cockburn.

Cockburn writes of a time in 1984 when his younger brother, Patrick, was in Beirut as the Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times. Friedman was doing the same job, for the New York Times.

One day, the pair returned to the Commodore Hotel, the place where most foreign journalists were staying, after a bloody day in the field – Lebanon was in the midst of a civil war. Friedman went upstairs to write his copy, Patrick found his way to the bar and sat down with a glass of whisky.

A little while later, a Shia gunamn entered the bar and proceeded to smash all the bottles in the premises. He did not spot Patrick, who was, according to Alexander, left with two conclusions: one, that “journalists drinking Scotch were unlikely to be viewed with fondness by the fundamentalist gunman”, and secondly, “he was drinking the last Scotch likely to be consumed in the Commodore for quite a while”.

According to Alexander, when Friedman descended later, Patrick told him about the incident. A few days later, it duly figured in one of Friedman’s despatches. But by the time Friedman wrote his first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, in 1989, the incident had morphed into something that happened to Friedman! I checked it – you can find Friedman’s deceit on page 225 of the book as published by Fontana Press. “My first glimpse of Beirut’s real bottom came at the Commodore Hotel bar on February 7, 1984… I was enjoying a ‘quiet’ lunch in the Commodore restaurant that day when…”

Alexander put it down to Friedman’s monumental conceit. He is probably right.

But this is also fraud, pure and simple. It follows in the great American tradition of stealing and then calling something your own.

Money does tend to blur the perspective of many

One can understand Matthew Ricketson’s despair over the criticism levelled at the report of the media inquiry of which he was part; after all, one never likes to see one’s work, especially when it is so high-profile, being regarded as the output of a government toady.

(Ricketson, a journalism academic, assisted a retired judge, Ray Finkelstein, in conducting an inquiry into the media in Australia recently.)

But then, Ricketson has only himself to blame. If he thought that news organisations would take kindly to the idea of oversight by the government, then his connection with journalism in the field is obviously rather tenuous.

As an aside, it is curious that though Ricketson expressed a wish to see the media industry reporting on itself without spin, the good professor himself was rather reluctant to tell readers that he was paid, and handsomely too, for his labours alongside Justice Finkelstein. A day before his outpouring which is linked to in the first paragraph of this piece, there were reports that he had received $2500 per day, or a total of $175,000, for assisting Justice Finkelstein. That’s much more than a year’s salary for most journalists who work in the newsrooms of the bigger newspapers in this country.

After receiving wages like these – Justice Finkelstein received $308,000 or $4400 per day – if the public were to judge the recipient as wanting to please, even a little, his paymaster, then that public would surely have to be forgiven. As with all humans, the tendency to avoid biting the hand that feeds us exists within our beings. It is part of human nature.

Consultants, analysts, call them what one wishes, always make sure to avoid annoying those who provide them with handsome commissions – else the danger of missing out when the next chance arises is very real.

No reflection on Ricketson or the good judge – they are human too. Thus, if either of them were to say they were not influenced by the commissioning authority, one would have to take that with a pinch of salt. Not to say that this happened consciously; it happens subconsciously to all members of the human race. We avoid conflict whenever possible.

It is surprising that someone who has been a journalist can ever condone a solution to a media problem which involves the government. Perhaps, apart from the influence of the commissioning authority, one can put that down to the individual never having lived in a country where government has more than a passing involvement in running the media.

From a personal point of view, I find the suggestion of a government-funded overseer abhorrent. My thinking may well be influenced by having witnessed government excesses towards the media during the 26-month emergency promulgated by the late Indira Gandhi in India between 1975 and 1977 – at a time when I was still in university – and also having actually felt the clammy hand of the government censor when I was chief sub-editor of the Khaleej Times in Dubai in the 1990s, at a time when that august publication was the biggest English-language daily in the Middle East.

The obvious argument put forward by those pushing for government funding of a regulatory body is that a situation such as those described above could never eventuate in Australia. Given the extent to which the government already tries to twist its version of truth before it reaches the media here, and the extent to which politicians try to influence what appears in print or is broadcast, by fair means or foul, I would much rather err on the side of caution.

The Australian Press Council may be a poor alternative but, after some beefing up, it is a much better solution than giving the government the ability to twist arms. The powers-that-be are already trying to scare the hell out of people as much as possible by bringing in more and more oppressive laws, the latest being the proposed two-year data retention legislation.

To actually hand the power of regulation of the one entity that can bring the government to heel to that same government would be rather foolish, to put it mildly. Do we really want to put the cat in charge of looking after the canaries?

Crikey: Hypocrisy with a capital ‘h’

THE Australian newsletter Crikey is a publication that thinks it is top of the pile. It is always lecturing all and sundry about standards, journalistic and otherwise. But when its own shortcomings (and they are legion) are pointed out, one doesn’t even get an acknowledgement. I sent the following missive to the editor about the edition of June 1. No response at all.


On many occasions I have put finger to keyboard to write a letter to the editor, pointing out the shocking editorials in your newsletter. But then, I’ve just put it off, due to my own laziness. Today, after reading the last issue, I probably was more annoyed than usual, so I’ve pulled your editorial apart.

“As Alexander Downer noted today,…”

If you have descended to the level where you have to quote Lord Downer, then things have gone well below the gutter.

“…claims we’ve reached a new low in parliamentary behaviour should be treated sceptically.”

Really? A “new” low? As opposed to an “old” low, I presume? That’s called tautology, in case you were unaware.

“Every parliament has its bad moments; its undignified, sordid, shambolic or disgraceful moments.”

Oh boy, if that isn’t stating the bleeding obvious. How about something original for a change?

“In any event, it’s hard for contemporary observers to judge standards from before the television age, which reshaped political tactics and altered parliamentary behaviour. And not necessarily for the better.”

Really? How did the broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings change things? Politicians have always behaved like grubs. Another untested statement.

“As Bernard Keane notes today, both the media and politicians face the problem of disengagement by Australians.”

Really? Lord Keane’s statement is just another opinion, so how can it be quoted as gospel?

“The general tone of vituperation….”

How clumsy can you get? “The general vituperative tone” would read so much better.

“– and childish behaviour of Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne in the now-famous flight for the exits”

Famous? How did the incident become famous? It has no relevance to anyone outside this country. And it’s famous? Exactly how many cliches do you pack into one editorial?

” — is unlikely to do anything other than accelerate that disengagement, particularly when the Prime Minister herself is seen by so many voters as untrusworthy.”

I haven’t heard of untrusworthy. I have heard of untrustworthy. Even the spell-checker in my free text editor catches that kind of f***-up.

“If the standards of parliamentary behaviour are bad, we’ve also rarely seen a time when the country’s two most important political leaders were regarded so poorly by voters.”

Is that the way to reinforce a statement? Why doesn’t the writer go back to school and do a course in basic grammar? Anyone with basic education would use “Not only…” to begin that sentence.

“But both sides know that. However poor their behaviour, voters will still be required to attend the polls at the next election, and compulsory preferential voting will mean that, in all but a small number of seats, their votes will eventually filter through a major party candidate of one kind or another.”

Wrong again. Nobody is required to vote. One only has to turn up at the polling station and get one’s attendance noted. You can then do what you like with the ballot paper and stuff it in the box. And you are at the forefront of accusing others of getting things wrong. Pot, kettle, black.

Major party politicians have the game rigged.

Which game? Politics? Journalism? Badly-written newsletter editorials? After all the screw-ups, this conclusion seems based on nothing more than the writer’s imagination.


I doubt there will be any response. When the emperor was told he had no clothes, he just continued on his merry way.

Journalism of the very best kind

CHANNEL 4 has done journalism proud, with a follow-up to its documentary on the war in Sri Lanka. Last year, in June, the television network screened a documentary titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields which provided powerful evidence of war crimes by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers during the civil war which ended in May 2009.

The follow-up, titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, screened on the night of March 14 in London; it is available on YouTube and is a powerful reminder that in a day and age when journalism is often referred to as a dying profession, good investigative reports are worth more than their weight in gold.

The documentary presents four cases of killing, all of which graphically point to planning and execution at the highest level of government. One case is that of the 12-year-old son of Tiger supremo Velupilla Pirapaharan who was executed after being questioned.

The fact that so much footage continues to emerge is a clear indication that many of the soldiers who took part in the war had reservations about what they were asked to do. The footage could only have been taken by soldiers, nobody would have been able to approach the areas in question.

There is some footage taken by Tamil sources, including the media unit of the Tigers, but the main evidence of targeted and planned killings could only have come from inside the army.

There is no over-dramatisation; presenter Jon Snow is sober throughout. The footage that Channel 4 obtained speaks for himself and the Sri Lankan government will be hard put to deny these charges.

The program has gone to air just as the US is getting ready to bring a resolution before the UN human rights council, which is meeting in Geneva, urging Sri Lanka to investigate the allegations of war crimes and seek reconciliation.