Dubai: the party seems to be over

INDICATIONS are emerging that the Dubai financial crisis will lead to a significant change in the emirate’s make-up. The Dubai government has let it be known that the debts of Dubai World, which sought a deferment of loan payments last week, is not guaranteed by the emirate’s government.

The Dubai government’s distancing itself from what was once thought to be a state-owned company indicates that it will let the company go to the wall as long as the government’s backside is saved.

Not that there has been no inkling of this – in October, the government issued a prospectus to interest investors in a $2.5 billion Islamic bond. Few who read the prospectus noticed this: “The Dubai government is under no obligation to extend support to any government-related entity”.

That little bit of prose now assumes great significance after the announcement last Wednesday by Dubai World, which is carrying around $60 billion of debt, that it would be seeking a six-month break in repayments. This came hours after the government of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum had raised something like $5 billion from two banks to cover its own debts.

Abu Dhabi, which has 92 percent of the UAE’s oil reserves, and is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, can easily bail out Dubai. But, given the tribal nature of society in the UAE, it is unlikely that any money will change hands unless Abu Dhabi can extract a price – possibly control of Emirates airline, the Dubai Ports Corporation or the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone.

Sheikh Mohammed visited Abu Dhabi on November 27, the customary trip to greet the president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, on the occasion of Eid Al Adha (the Muslim feast of sacrifice). It is unlikely that their exchanges were limited to Eid greetings.

Dubai has always been the upstart of the federation, having sufficient finances to thumb its nose at Abu Dhabi and having a much higher profile than any of the other emirates. The other five emirates have all been dependent on Abu Dhabu for handouts; the capital provides 90 percent of the country’s budget.

The other sheikhs – Al Qasimis of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, Al Sharqis of Fujairah and Al Muallas of Umm Al Quwain – would be extremely happy to see Dubai taken down a peg or two. Despite much talk of Islamic unity and Muslim brotherhood, at heart they all still remain feuding desert tribes who delight in the art of one-upmanship.

Sheikh Mohammed is the third ruler of Dubai since 1958; his father, Sheikh Rashid ruled from 1958 till his death in 1990, and his elder brother, Maktoum, ruled from 1990 until he died in 2006. But Mohammed has always been the leader since his father died, and all the grandiose ideas come from him. Maktoum was a simple man; another elder brother, Hamdan, is a canny one with money and is the country’s finance minister. The youngest of the brothers, Ahmed, is something of a playboy.

It is not only in Dubai that things seem to be unravelling for Sheikh Mohammed. In London in October, Istithmar World, the investment arm of Dubai World, sold two properties, which it had bought for £90 million, at the knockdown price of £10 million. Marcol House in Regent Street and an office building in Newman Street were sold when Istithmar was unable to pay interest on a loan.

Additionally, Dubai World’s ports branch has been reviewing its £1.5 billion London Gateway Port project. A loan of £300 million was taken in November from the European Investment Bank to rescue the project.

Perhaps people should have sat up and taken notice three years ago when it became known that several of the projects proposed for Dubailand, a $5 billion project announced by Sheikh Mohammed in 2003, had been scaled down or knocked back altogether.

The arrogance evident in the announcement can be gauged from this bit of his speech: “I would like to tell capitalists that Dubai does not need investors, investors need Dubai and I tell you that the risk lies not in using your money but in letting it pile up.”

Probably that is why Dubai finds itself in the spot it is in right now.

Dubai: the mirage in the desert

FOR years, Dubai has been regarded as a marvel. It has had the most grandiose projects, the most outrageous projects, the most fancy buildings. Everything there has been a celebration of one god – money.

Now it looks like the party is coming to an end.

It is difficult to imagine the Maktoum family, which rules Dubai, going, begging bowl in hand, to the Nahyan clan, the rulers of Abu Dhabi, but that is exactly what the former will have to do if they do not want a sudden collapse to take place.

Dubai has overstretched itself to the extent of around $80 billion; something in the region of $3.5 billion will fall due for repayment in the next few weeks and the emirate has sought an extension of six months. In other words, the cupboard is bare.

Ten years ago, the fantasy projects were not underway, the emirate was doing well financially and serving as a trading post for every kind of deal under the sun. It has always had a laissez-faire attitude towards money and a man who walked into Dubai carrying $1 million in his briefcase never caused any eyebrows to be raised.

But after the grandiose projects began – the world’s tallest building, the creation of an island in the shape of the globe in the ocean and so on – the level of finance that was borrowed reached astronomical proportions. Nobody dared to suggest that Dubai could not pay back the money, everyone was eager to jump on the merry-go-round and grab a piece of the action.

Nobody ever thought it pertinent to point out that Dubai has little oil and that most of its money comes from trade. Nobody thought it relevant to point out that the entire United Arab Emirates is violating one fundamental principle of any country – it spends without a thought but the residents pay no tax.

Given that the whole country was once desert, the entire infrastructure is built on sand. Desalination plants supply water at a big price – but residents pay very little. Electricity is generated at a massive price – but again subsidised. Roads have to be built and rebuilt as they sink into the soft desert sand. In the end where does the money come from?

Ninety-two percent of the oil in the UAE is in Abu Dhabi, the capital, which subsidises the smaller emirates – Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Sharjah, Ajman and Umm Al Quwain – that, together with Dubai, make up the country. The extent of waste can be gauged by one simple fact – there are six, fully functional, international airports in this little dagger-shaped nation – two in Abu Dhabi, and one each in Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah. And a seventh is being planned, in Dubai!

Why does one need that number of international airports in a country which can be navigated by car in a few hours? One can understand if Dubai and Abu Dhabi have an airport apiece; they are not needed anywhere else. Sharjah is just 20 minutes drive from Dubai.

But this is only the first symbol of the gross over-consumption. For years, Dubai has been living beyond its means and the day of reckoning is coming. Unless, of course, the Nahyan clan is willing to come to the rescue and bail out Sheikh Mohammed.

It’s fine to cheat – as long as you don’t get caught

France has qualified for the World Cup football tournament in 2010 by cheating. Captain Thierry Henry showed the way, using his hand to guide the ball back to himself before passing it to a colleague to score.

The last time one saw a hand blatantly in use in any match connected with the World Cup was back in 1986 when Diego Maradona scored a goal against England during the league stage of the Cup.

There’s one difference – Maradona tried to spin his way out by saying it was the “hand of God” that had touched the ball. Henry is open about having intentionally touched the ball and saying it was the referee’s duty to spot such infringements.

Henry is one of the top earners in world football. All the money and ability he has does not appear to have improved his sense of fair play. He just wants to win and at any cost.

There is talk of a re-match after ireland, which was the team dudded out of the competition by Henry’s hand, complained to the world football governing body, FIFA.

France has had an up-and-down World Cup record; it won the cup in 1998 and then went out in the first round in 2002 before reaching the final in 2006. In 1986, it played one of the epics when it beat Brazil via a tie-breaker in the quarter-finals.

Henry’s cheating is just the latest such incident to illustrate the fact that in sport nowadays, given the amount of money at stake, winning is the only thing. It doesn’t matter if you cheat, you just shouldn’t get caught.

When India toured Australia for a cricket series back in 2007-08, Andrew Symonds was caught behind off the thickest of edges during a Test match in Sydney.

He stood his ground even though the nick could be heard in Tasmania. The match turned ugly later when Symonds was allegedly called a monkey by Indian spinner Harbhajan Singh.

But Symonds defended his conduct even though he admitted that he had edged the ball. Singh got away with the mildest of raps on his knuckles.

While Ireland hopes for a re-match, it is highly unlikely. FIFA has already shown some kind of bias towards both France and Portugal during the qualifying stage by allowing teams to be seeded well after the qualifying process began.

There are some teams in world football which are, evidently, more equal than others. France is one among them. And Ireland does not stand a hope in hell of getting anything like justice.

When sports bodies dictate the agenda…

RUGBY matches telecast in New Zealand on Sky TV are made highly watchable by the two commentators – Grant Nisbett and Murray Mexted. Nisbett follows the game and Mexted, a former All Black, adds some spicy comment.

But that is all in the past. Mexted has been shown the door by Sky simply because he criticised the New Zealand rugby union authorities for their decision to cut four teams from the provincial Air New Zealand cup tournament next year.

Mexted was apparently told by Sky that the NZRU was a commercial partner and should not be criticised.

This isn’t the first time that Sky has shown such sensitivity; earlier this year when the Indian cricket team toured New Zealand, its officials took exception to the fact that Craig McMillan, who is associated with the Indian Cricket League, an unauthorised rival to the Indian board’s Indian Premier League, was a commentator for the one-day series.

McMillan was pulled from the team after the complaint during the fourth one-day tie. He was also supposed to be a commentator for the second Test at Napier, alongside former Indian player Ravi Shastri.

Shastri is said to be the one who raised the red flag about McMillan.

The Indian cricket board is king when it comes to cricket, be it the shorter variety or Test match cricket. The Indian team is a drawcard anywhere in the world given the huge number of Indians who are interested in what is to a large extent a boring game.

This trend has been present for some time – sports bodies trying to control media coverage. In Australia, the Australian Football League (Australian rules football) has tried to dictate terms to the the media.

The AFL has its own official website and supplies official pictures of the players to the media; these pictures cannot be used by online media.

Other sports do try to extract the maximum commercial gain from an event by selling rights to an official media organ – and the sad thing is that the media goes along with this.

Which means that actions like that of Sky TV are partly to be blamed for the sports bodies acting like prima donnas. When principle is thrown overboard, the public tend to get the short end of the stick.

When will advertising come to our ABC?

Everyone in China bribes everyone all the time – presenter Jon Faine on the ABC 774 morning show

The ABC does not do advertising. The ABC does promotions. – Unknown presenter on ABC drive program

THE Australian Broadcasting Corporation is a sacrosanct institution in Australia. Both its employees and the public – who, by estimates, contribute eight cents per head to keep it alive – have a sense of ownership about the corporation.

Given recent trends, the ABC, a service funded by taxes, seems to be gearing up for advertising – even though it would take an act of parliament for it to be able to go ahead. The statements above are just two of many reasons why I think this is on the corporation’s radar.

The first statement is that of a shock jock, a statement designed to tickle the latent feelings against foreigners resident in the underbelly of Australian society. People like Sydney shock-jock Alan Jones use such devices to increase audience share. Nobody else could characterise China, a society of 1.2 billion people, in such a careless manner.

It is also an indication that the ABC has sunk so low that statements like this go unnoticed.

But why should the ABC be bothered about ratings? After all, the public picks up the tab. There is one possible reason: the only TV or radio station that is bothered about ratings is the one that’s looking to attract advertising.

The second statement is pure spin. It seeks to mask the fact that, from dawn to dusk, the ABC has a constant stream of advertising. The ad slots are so numerous that at times, on TV at least, programs begin as much as five minutes behind schedule.

In one way, this saves ABC presenters quite a bit of work. On a given day, there are any number of radio and TV programs which need to be plugged. On Thursday mornings, for example, there is a plug for Insiders, a political talkfest on TV on Sunday.

Never mind if some other political commentator can provide more incisive or erudite commentary, given that Barrie Cassidy presents Insiders, of necessity one has to listen to him.

On Wednesdays earlier this year, one had to endure an interview with someone from the Chaser team – the plug was mandatory as the Chaser team had a TV program on ABC the same night.

The ABC’s ads about its own services apart, there is a constant stream of media releases from the ABC about the same programs sent to other media outlets.

A few months back, when Phillip Adams was interviewing ABC chief executive Mark Scott to mark the latter’s completion of three years in the post, Adams made a telling statement – that there had been little or no controversy during those three years.

Except, of course, the controversy over the Chaser’s now infamous “make a realistic wish foundation” skit.

The fact that Scott’s reign has been free of controversy is again a good omen for advertisers – no advertiser likes controversy of the type the Chaser provides.

Scott’s reaction to the Chaser incident would also have served to reassure any potential advertiser – he doused any possible flame by demoting an executive over what was a perfectly harmless skit. Advertisers love that kind of thing – it means that the man upstairs is sensitive to what causes public controversy and is willing to step in to make the majority happy.

An additional fact to note is that over the last three or four years, there has been a steady change in the type of people who present programs on the ABC; some of the newcomers, like Lindy Burns for example, are so light-headed in their approach as to be silly. But this kind of anodyne, unquestioning approach is precisely what big corporations look for when planning how to spend their media budgets.

For me, what has cemented the conclusion that the appearance of advertising on the ABC is only a matter of time, was the Gruen Transfer on ABC TV. Whether the program was a management idea or came from the head of Wil Andersen is immaterial – it was the ideal vehicle to test how people would react to having what was blatant advertising on the ABC.

No doubt Andersen expected to be able to use his plentiful wit and satire to poke fun at the world of advertising, much in the manner that he did on The Glass House. But he did not factor in the skills of his regular panel members, Russell Howcroft and Todd Sampson, who hijacked the show very cleverly and used it to their own ends.

Though the ABC does try to avoid gratuitously mentioning the names of companies – to the extent that it calls Melbourne’s second football ground Docklands even though the ground’s owners sell naming rights to a different company each year – Howcroft and Sampson managed to get quite a few commercial entities considerable mileage.

The ABC, apparently, was not in any way upset about this, with the only kerfuffle being a ban on showing an ad that it deemed to be too confronting; the ad was available for viewing online. The program did quite well in terms of viewership and that would have been encouraging.

The ABC has a good example in the shape of SBS – the latter has introduced advertising in the same manner that one boils a frog. No doubt the same methods will be resorted to by Aunty a few years down the track.

Apologies in Australia – what good timing!

THE prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, has apologised to 500,000 Australians who grew up in institutions, orphanages and foster care in the last century.

He has also said sorry to the 7000-odd children who were brought over to this country from Britain in the early part of last century, in the mistaken belief that their parents had died.

Many of the children were horrifically abused in a number of institutions.

The opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, made it a bipartisan affair. And there is news that the British prime minister Gordon Brown will be adding his voice to the chorus as well sometime early next year, apologising to the child migrants.

No doubt it is a morally uplifting moment for many, a time when people will keep quiet about the obvious – that the flood of apologies comes at a time when all three politicians could well do with a bit of softening of the old image.

Rudd has been trying to sort out the problem created by a group of Tamil asylum-seekers who were picked up by an Australian Customs vessel in Indonesian waters and then refused to get off the boat unless they were brought to Australia.

In the course of trying to tackle this mess, Rudd has often had to make statements that have led to others in his own Labor Party rebuking him; Labor has a somewhat more humane police towards immigrants than does the Liberal/National coalition.

The apology makes Rudd look a bit more human.

Turnbull must be welcoming the chance to say sorry even more. The man has had to resort to the base immigration politics practised by his predecessor, Honest John Howard, to try and get some traction in the opinion polls.

Gordon Brown will be the happiest of the lot; he is staring at possible electoral defeat when the polls next come around so any chance to look a bit better will be more than welcome.

The Australian parliament’s upper house, the Senate, unanimously recommended in inquiries held in 2001, 2004 and again this year that a formal apology be made.

As to why it has been done in the last session of parliamentary sittings for 2009 and at a time when both Rudd and Turnbull are sorely in need of looking human is unknown.

Liberals doing what they know best – beating up on asylum-seekers

THE Australian Liberal Party and its National Party allies were known for using the tactic of dog-whistling during their 11 years — 1996 to 2007 — in power, with any section of society the target as long as the opinion poll numbers improved.

It looks like nothing much has changed with the coalition in opposition – having gained little traction in the opinion polls against a dominant Labor Party over the last two years, the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, has finally picked on the vulnerable to try and boost his ratings.

The former Liberal leader, John Howard, was a mealy-mouthed individual who knew how to appeal to the lowest common denominator in Australia. Turnbull, despite his professed interest in the arts and a republic, appears to be no different.

Seventy-eight Sri Lankans are all it has taken to turn Turnbull into what one might call Howard Lite. The Sri Lankans were picked up by an Australian Customs ship when they were in trouble on the high seas. They are now in Indonesian waters and refusing to get off the ship.

The Indonesian government does not want them on its hands – and, not being a signatory to the international convention on refugees, is not obligated to let them enter its territory. Australia, being a signatory, has to allow anyone who rocks up through land, sea of air to apply for asylum and then judge the applicant on his or her merits.

Twenty-two of the 78 have now agreed to get off and be processed in Indonesia after Australia provided some assurances of a fast-track in processing. The remainder are still holding up and there are reports that Indonesia wants Australia to settle the issue within the next two weeks.

If one were to rationally analyse the arguments put forward by Turnbull, the whole thing is a joke. Countries like Pakistan face a problem with millions on their borders; Australia gets a few hundred and starts shouting about border protection.

There is some mythical queue which is often referred to when it comes to asylum-seekers. That no such thing exists is never pointed out.

People who come looking for asylum in Australia are referred to as illegal arrivals. It is never pointed out that once a country has signed up to the international convention on refugees, any son or daughter of a sea gherkin can come to the borders – air, land or sea – of that country and ask for asylum. It is the responsibility of the country concerned to assess the claims and either allow the person in or send them back.

There is nothing like an illegal arrival once a country has signed up to this convention. None.

But one needs a modicum of intelligence to understand that. It should be explained in clear terms to the masses. Neither major political grouping is prepared to do that. Both have their eyes on the next general election which is a year away.

It is easy to prey on differences — of caste or creed or colour — in any country. Politicians who do this deserve to be treated with contempt. Unfortunately, as a politician in Israel, an extreme right-wing type once said, “I am only saying what deep inside you believe.”

Australia had harsh laws in place to deal with would-be migrants during the 11 years of coalition rule. The laws have become somewhat more humane after Labor came to power. The ugliness is coming back again as Turnbull attempts to capitalise on divisions in a country which is made up more or less exclusively of migrants. The only people who are native to this dry, harsh land are the Aborigines – everyone else is a migrant.

But Turnbull is an ambitious man and known for either crashing through or else simply crashing. He wants to be prime minister and if he gets there on the back of a few Tamil asylum-seekers it really wouldn’t prevent him from sleeping peacefully at night.

At times like this, I am ashamed to be an Australian citizen.


Are video referees a help or a hindrance?

TECHNOLOGY has given us many benefits – of that there is little doubt. At times, however, one does tend to wonder whether technology does more harm than good.

This has been brought home to me recently by two incidents – one, a statement by the authorities who run Australian rules football to the effect that they would look at having video referees to help the referees on the ground, and two, an incident during an Australia-New Zealand rugby union game.

Australian rules football — which the Australian state of Victoria is crazy about — holds its final in September and this year the team that won did so by a margin of 12 points. In this code, that means two goals. And for a goal to be awarded, it has to go through without touching the posts.

There was one clear instance in the final where the winners were awarded a goal even though the ball clearly touched one post. When the ball touches the woodwork, only one point is awarded — it is called a behind.

There was a second instance when a goal was awarded to the winning team even though the person who kicked it had committed an offence on an opposition player just before collecting the ball to kick the goal.

Instead of awarding a free kick against the infringing player, the referee let him play on and kick a goal.

There was a third instance where the referees missed blowing the whistle when one of the losing team was heading goalwards and had his jumper yanked to prevent his progress. Whether he would have kicked a goal or not is open to speculation but that was clearly an infringement deserving of a free-kick.

That meant a total of 17 points was in dispute – and the final was won by 12 points. Hence the statement about video referees by the official of the Australian rules governing body.

Of course, there is a lobby which does not want technology to be part of the refereeing process at all. They argue that once video replays are accepted as a means of judging one thing, then there is the likelihood that people will want everything to be adjudicated by means of video replays.

Clearly, that would add a considerable amount of time to the game and annoy the audience. It would also remove one element, that of human unpredictability.

And you don’t want 90,000 people involved in a fracas – that’s about the crowd that the Australian rules final attracts each year.

In the case of the rugby union game, there were some additonal factors at play. The game was staged in Tokyo which meant that a fairly decent sum must have been paid to the Australian and New Zealand boards by the Japanese authorities.

Union has four officials in all – one in the field of play, one on each sideline, and one television match official. In this game, one of the linesmen and the television match official were both Japanese.

Hence when there was doubt over the grounding of the ball by an Australian player in the first half — getting the ball down firmly would have meant five points — the television match official was called on to make a judgement.

He had to communicate his decision through the Japanese linesman who would then tell the referee what it was.

But after two minutes and 50 seconds — I counted — there was still no decision and the referee, who had been growing impatient by the second, awarded a try to Australia. In the end it did not matter because New Zealand won the game. But had they lost, this would have been a point of contention.

In my judgement, the decision was wrong and I was unable to fathom why the television match official took so long and could not yet see that no try had been scored.

But the point is that with the best technology at hand — and Japan is second to none when it comes to technology — the video match official was of no use.

I guess technology has its place but it is not infallible. It is only as efficient as the humans who use it.


The video library – a dying species

LAST night, after nearly six months, I dropped in on my local video library to kill some time by browsing around while my son was at his karate class. It’s never hit me so hard – this business is badly out-of-date.

Most of the new releases were ones I had either seen as much as three months ago or films I had known were being released around the same time. It looks very much like the greed of the film industry will be its own downfall.

Let me explain. Most film studios want a film to exhaust its saleability in theatres before the DVD is released; only a few have seen the light and are now allowing the film to be released on the big screen and in DVD format simultaneously.

Hence, by the time most films come to the video library, they have been released for at least a couple of months. Who is going to wait that long to see a film – especially when copies, not very kosher ones, can be obtained from other sources?

In countries like the US, film channels like Hulu are being tested over the internet. Hulu does not yet offer a service in this part of the world so it is not possible to say what kind of bandwidth is needed to see a film without the transmission being jerky. That will be a limiting factor in countries like Australia because bandwidth is very expensive and though a national broadband network has been promised, it is unlikely to be in place even by 2015.

Even when people are prevented from seeing a film or TV programme by law, it just doesn’t seem to prevent copies of the prohibited programme(s) being distributed and, at times, even sold. A well-known case in Australia was the Underbelly crime series which could not be shown on TV in the state of Victoria for legal reasons. It was shown in neighbouring New South Wales.

The speed at which copies of this series began to circulate in Victoria was simply amazing. It looked very much like the production studio itself was leaking the prints to grey market sources and it became possible to see the series well before it was shown on TV at all.

The same goes for films. The case of X-Men, the Hugh Jackman blockbuster, is the most recent. The film gained a lot of publicity due to the prolfieration of news that it was being downloaded by all and sundry.

Australia is quite backward when it comes to technology, no matter what the media says. In Britain, the sale of video recorders was discontinued in 2005 by retailers; in Australia it is still possible to buy a VCR at a retailer, though you won’t find too many of them these days. The last time I visited JB HiFi, the biggest retailer of electronic goods, there were a couple of VCRs lying around. And this was six months ago.

So what does the poor video library owner do in this case? Even in Australia, the video library owners must be seeing the writing writ large on the walls. Nobody will buy a video library now – it has no future, it is part of the past.

A lot depends on how the upper layers of the film industry react. If they decide to act like the music industry did when music first became available on the net from unauthorised sources, then they will stand to lose. The music industry kept hanging on to the old formats – CDs – because the profit margins were huge, not realising that going the digital route would mean a massive increase in sales volume.

That’s the reality – when anything goes digital, volume sales increase and costs decrease. Profits will decrease but there will be profits for those who adapt and adopt the new technology.

It’s doubtful whether Australia will be one of the enlightened countries in this regard – just yesterday a decision was taken by the Australian federal government to protect the book industry by prohibiting parallel imports. This is protectionism that harks back to an earlier era and retrograde thinking of the worst possible kind.

But this is the kind of thinking that prevails at the level where decisions are made. People are scared of technology and afraid of losing control. Businesses like video libraries will have no choice but to be governed by laws that are framed by people who are, themselves, past their shelf-life.

No amount of copy-protection or legislation will prevent piracy; those who can break encryption are far ahead of those who design it. Film studios have to come up with a scheme that protects their entire food chain – and that include the lowly video rental outlets.

Else, if you are a video library owner prepare to do business in some other sphere.


The rise and rise of blogs

THERE was a cartoon that was popular some years ago, one of a dog sitting on a chair and surfing the net. The caption read: “On the internet, nobody knows you are a dog.”

These days, everyone and his dog has a blog. There are so many of them that there is an aura of confusion over what a blog is, where the species came from and what it is meant for.

Seven years ago, there were hardly any websites which could be referred to as blogs. The traditional term meant a web log, some kind of a diary maintained by someone who was necessarily web-savvy since it meant using processes like FTP to transfer files and having a website of one’s own.

In 2002, things changed markedly, and one has to give one of the world’s great semi-literates credit. George W. Bush began a campaign to send American troops into Iraq and the falsehoods that he and his administration used to try and con the American people began to annoy those who were wise to this kind of deception.

The problem was compounded by the fact that American journalists appeared to have lost every ounce of courage and most backed the push for invading Iraq. They simply repeated the administration’s lies, functioning as cheerleaders and forgetting that they are not known as the Fourth Estate for nothing.

There were brave souls around though and some of them began to write about the lies spread by the administration on their own websites. The number of those indulging in this exercise grew by leaps and bounds, in direct proportion to the cowardly politicians and journalists who refused to condemn Bush and his cohorts.

The number of blogs mushroomed at this time. They were marked by being run by individuals, most of them politically aware and able to articulate their thoughts clearly.

By the time the Americans had got a number of countries on-side and invaded Iraq, there were a lot of websites that were opposing the war. The lack of uncensored information from Iraq led to a further explosion of such sites and this was crowned by the efforts of one Iraqi blogger who went under the name Salam Pax.

The trend continued. By 2004, many mainstream media organisations had noticed the phenomenon and some journalists had decided that this was an easier way of communicating with people. Blogs, which had until then rarely been used for breaking news, became sites where everything that some journalists produced was hosted.

Journalists went this route simply because a trend that has now become alarming – the fall of both ad revenue and circulation – was making itself evident. Newspapers were said to be serving a corporate agenda and hardly bothering about issues that concerned the people.

There were two occasions in the US in 2004 which are noteworthy – one when retiring American politician Strom Thurmond was exposed by bloggers as a racist; this came after there were suggestions that he would have been a worthy candidate for the presidency.

A second instance was when the well-known CBS news anchor Dan Rather was accused by bloggers of using documents about Bush that had not been properly authenticated. Rather finally apologised on air.

Mainstream online publications slowly began to add blogs to their sites. Over the next couple of years, it became trendy for a site that was mainstream to also have its own blogs. The meaning of the word – an individual’s diary – had changed by now.

Mainstream media blogs could contain news, views, or interviews. Some journalists choose to use their blogs more or less for everything they write. The same care that goes into editing is not present; a blog is raw and more immediate. That, many feel, tends to attract readers. Others differ and their blogs are subject to the same process of editing to which print journalism is subjected.

Lone bloggers often get confused when they encounter blogs which are part of mainstream media. They have one meaning for the word and cannot relate to the mainstream media blog. They get confused – they only know of one kind of blog, the type they own.

The development of blogging software like WordPress and MovableType and the free blogs on offer from web giants such as Google has given even more impetus to the growth of blogs – if any was needed. It is trivial to create and publish one’s own blog these days.

But as the number of blogs grows and the faddists drop out, blogs, like online media, are coming under as much scrutiny as mainstream media. There are many who blog who do not know what they can and cannot say; some even seem unaware of the reach of the internet.

The case of Australian mining magnate Joseph Gutnick who sued the journal Barrons for defamation in the Australian state of Victoria has changed the way people approach online media. Barrons contended that the case could only be tried in the US but was overruled and Gutnick won his case which was heard in Victoria.

This set down the precedent that, unlike a newspaper, the place where something is read can be used as the location for a defamation action. More recently, a Chinese games website has filed a case in Sydney, Australia, against a British blogger. Exactly how this will turn out remains to be seen, but the man will definitely be inconvenienced by having to travel all that distance. And any Australian verdict can be enforced in Britain.

As blogs come under more and more scrutiny, the trend will change. The growth will level off and it will slowly become something of a cottage industry. These days many bloggers make a little money off their blogs, at least enough to cover their bandwidth and hosting charges. Original material will be at a premium and, like all trends, it will level off to the point where only those who have something original to say will remain in business.