The Death of a once great newspaper – Vale The Age

When I was growing up, there were three daily papers in my home town of Melbourne. The Herald, an evening broadsheet of conservative persuasion, the Sun “news pictorial” – which means they won’t publish a story unless there’s picture. And The Age. Many years before there had been another daily, which delighted in the name The Argus, but it was closed by Rupert Murdoch’s dad back in 1957.

The Herald was merged with the Sun in 1990, although it was more of closure. Nothing much of it was left in the Herald-Sun, it’s bylines disappeared and it’s people moved on.

Which left the Age as the only serious paper in this town. I was raised on it, that and the ABC where the media in our house. It was a fat paper, I remember Saturday editions in the early nineties that weighed about a kilo and had four or five sections of classifieds.

The Age presents itself as a relatively unbiased news source, not inclined to tow anyone’s line, and having a declaration of editorial independence for all including it’s board members. It is what they used to call a . It wasn’t owned by any moguls, although several tried. Most recently a certain mining billionaire has bought a stake.

But as we know, times have changed for newspapers. The Age was one of the first online, starting a website in 1996, which in Internet ages was only just after dinosaurs walked the earth. It still took a long time for the internet to start really killing papers, but Fairfax, the publishers of The Age, responded very late indeed.

As circulation dropped and dropped, The Age lost news pages, lost most of its classified pages, and lost readers. The management responded poorly, losing chances to buy in or create lucrative online sites to help pay the bills.

The crisis started really biting in the last few years. But rather than, say, focusing on being a quality journal, The Age retrenched many reporters, outsourced its sub-editing, and seemed to indulge in an ongoing series of restructures. There would be an overall editor for The Age and its sister paper in Sydney, the Sydney Morning Herald, who both also had editors. Then there would be editors for sections across both papers, and separate editor again for the Sunday papers. And of course editors for the website etc. etc. Then there’d be another structure, and more people would come and go. The dance would go on, indeed still goes on.

Finally early in 2013, some big changes – the paper went to a tabloid format, so people could read it on the train. I have yet to see anyone doing so, they’ve stayed diligently attached to their devices. Now this once paper of record looks like a slightly fatter local paper.

But what of the quality of the stories? Here lies the problem. Of late they have looked like utter beat ups. And stories with misleading headlines but little or no actual content. Then stories that look like they’ve been written up from a press release by a work experience kid. The multimedia section of the website features content dredged up from somewhere – decade-old documentaries and the like. And the only updates on their site during the day seem to be run of the mill crime stories plucked from police press releases, and celebrity gossip.

But the low point, the point that has made me decide never to read the paper again, online or on actual paper, was reached this week. First there was an opinion piece entitled Abbott, the thinking person’s prime minister. This piece of inaccurate drivel turned out to have been written by a former Liberal party staffer, and contained a number of barefaced lies.

The nadir however was the front of Saturday’s paper. I’m not even going to do the “story” the honor of linking to it. Suffice to say that a major Australian newspaper, a paper of record, an unbiased reporter of facts, demanded that the Australian Prime Minister stand down for the good of the country. I can’t tell you how livid this made me – and not just me. It’s bad enough that the mainstream media have had only one story about this federal government, focusing on leadership disputes rather than, say, critiquing the policies of the government or the utter lack of policies of the opposition. No, this paper had the gall to say that this leadership issue was clouding debate on policy when they themselves have been feeding the leadership debate because they seem incapable of finding another angle to report out of Canberra.

So as of now I refuse to read The Age again. This leaves me with few options for news. The Herald-Sun doesn’t report news, it reports what Rupert Murdoch is thinking. There are not other daily papers here. The Guardian’s Australian site which recently launched is proving to be well written and unbiased. And then there’s tiny little Crikey, who have some first-rate writers and a well honed bullshit filter.

Vale The Age. I knew you well. You brought this upon yourselves. I leave you to the dwindling, aging population of people who still read day old news printed on dead tree.

Batman Preselection, Julia Gillard and the ALP

This started life as an email to Crikey, to which I’m a subscriber. They’re about the only media outlet in this country which isn’t owned by some billionaire pushing their own barrow. I present it in it’s entirety.

I’m a card-carrying member of the ALP, looking forward to voting in the likely meaningless preselection in Batman in a few weeks.

The party is broken, but it has been for a long time. There are notionally 100 members of my branch, but only seven or eight turn up regularly to meetings. And I’ve not been one of them lately, too busy with my infant son. The rest of these invisible members are presumably part of the massive branch stack in Batman.

It appears to be possible that, if you had enough resources, you could in fact buy yourself a seat in Parliament. Which fits the definition of corruption. This is not confined to the ALP — didn’t Malcolm Turnbull spend hundreds of thousands of dollars “securing” his seat?

The party is broken and needs to fix itself, but why does this have to involve at least one term of a government lead by that frightening incompetent maniac Abbott and his rich cronies? Why does the entire country need to punished because the party is beholden to the NSW Right and Kevin Rudd’s ego?

I am actually a fan of the Gillard government, it has been far more progressive than would seem possible in a hung Parliament. With the glaring exception of its handling of boat-borne refugees. That “policy” makes”me want to leave not just the party but indeed the country.

The federal ALP, looked at from a policy and economic perspective, does not deserve the extraordinary level of vitriol that’s been directed at it . Listening to Julia Gillard in Parliament, she comes across as tough and smart, and the government sounds far saner than the clowns in opposition who treat the place as a circus. But there’s some weird disconnect between the performance of the government and the way is perceived by voters. Partly because of News Ltd running a sustained campaign against them, partly because of the way Gillard came to the office. But I hate to say it, it’s also been because of the extraordinary ongoing misogynist shit-storm around Gillard. It’s awful to watch, makes me lose my faith in my fellow countrymen. The answer to the often-asked question “is the country ready for a female prime minister?” is no, and that makes me sick to my stomach.

So we can all look forward to an Abbott-led recession, the winding back of environmental and social policy, and no doubt more outright sexist policies. And if we’re really lucky more drowned refugees. A great outcome for all.

Restarting This Blog

Disturbed to realise I haven’t posted to this blog in nearly seven years. I’ve renewed this domain three times in that period – which means in fact that I’ve renewed this domain more often than I’ve posted blog entries here.

Recent events, however, inspire me to start blogging again. More accurately, the extraordinary anger that has welled up inside me because of recent events motivates me to blog again. I’m talking mostly about politics here in Australia, and… well, you’ll see.

[Edit] that this blog is still using some ancient theme that I liked at the time will also give you some sense of it’s age. I might get around to updating it, more than likely I won’t since it looks amusingly quaint to my eyes.

Iraq, November 2006

[Note: this is adapted from a speech I gave to my toastmasters club a few weeks back. What I say in the first paragraphs has held true, and the situation has changed yet again since I wrote this. Events have a way of getting ahead of everyone in this conflict. But most of this still stands – particularly the bad news.]

Recently, I set myself a task: to try and find out what exactly is happening in Iraq. To work through the conflicting reports, through the smoke and the spin to try and figure out what exactly is going on, on the ground.

This is a hard thing to do, because every time I sat down to write it, the situation was different. Every few weeks, it’s a different situation. In fact it’s changed since I first wrote this a fortnight ago.

So what is going on in November of 2006?

First, the good news.

That brutal dictator Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. And after months of wrangling, the country has a elected government. Apparently ninety percent of the country are calm and relatively safe. Particularly the northern Kurdish area, which have been effectively self governing since the end of the first gulf war.

In some areas, reconstruction is taking place, albeit slowly. When it’s not fighting, the US army has been doing the job, since they have the engineers and the machinery, and the ability to defend themselves.

And that’s it by way of good news. I looked long and hard for more, but that was it, that was all I could find.

So, onto the bad news.

Every week, on average, the US is shipping home fifteen flagged draped coffins. The military death toll will hit three thousand sometime this year. This is as nothing compared to the civilian death toll, which, depending on who you ask is between 50,000 and 600,000.

The number of car bombings in Baghdad has reached a frenetic level, which seems to no longer be news. It’s not news any more that every week there are over twenty bombs detonated. These have become more and more targeted, hitting the mosques of the opposing Islamic factions and the like. And anyone even remotely associated with the Americans – army recruiting posts are a particularly favoured target. And apparently the most dangerous road in the country is the highway from the airport to Baghdad.

The US has started talking about keeping force levels in the country at their current levels through to 2010. While at the same time the English military is looking for a way to withdraw, saying that the presence of foreign forces is actually making the place more dangerous. Strangely, they don’t like having their country occupied. And US is now talking about getting Syria and Iran involved in stabilizing the place, which rings of desperation.

The fledgling Iraq security forces certainly aren’t up to the task. The new police force has had four thousand members killed in the last two years, and the new Iraqi army can occasionally field just one combat ready battalion (compared to the fifteen the Americans have in the country.)

The new Iraqi government took so long resolving its infighting, which started after the elections late last year, that it might be too late. The power vacuum that has existed for the last three years has been filled by gangs, militias, foreign fighters and fundamentalist organizations. The government having a hard time exerting any influence at all.

All of the top level US intelligence agencies now describe the Iraq as the breeding ground for generations of terrorists, much as Afghanistan in the 80’s spawned Al Qaeda. So much for making the world a safer place.

And the phrase which is being used more and more to describe the situation is “Civil War”. Religious based groups are routinely attacking each other, the ethnic cleansing has begun, with hundreds of people killed and then dumped their bodies, simply for their religious affiliation. The place is starting to sound like Somalia or Rwanda or Yugoslavia in the 90’s.

I could easily go on. Frankly, it couldn’t be much worse.

So is there a winner in all of this? Yes, actually there is, and it may surprise you who it is.

The winner out of the events of the last couple of years is… Iran.

I’ll tell you why. Its two main regional rivals were Saddam’s regime and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Both have been conveniently removed. Plus, the new Iraqi government, such as it is, is dominated by the same Islamic branch which runs Iran, indeed there have been many high level trips by its leaders to Tehran. And Iran’s main international rival, the US, is so overstretched they can’t now credibly threaten them. Hence the recent nuclear posturing by the hard-line Iranian president.

Despite everything, the Iraqi people are a wily and resourceful bunch. They’re also a young nation – 40% of the population are under 14. Left to themselves, under less violent circumstances, they’d be well able to create a functioning and successful state. They have abundant oil, and a well educated population – although those that can are leaving. But the country and the region has been plunged into a kind of chaos which might take decades to sort out.

We helped make this mess. All of us, even people like myself who marched and protested against this war. We sent our fighter jets and our people, when we might have waited Saddam out the way we did with Quaddafi in Libya. We helped make this mess, and it is incumbent on us to somehow try and help sort it out.