Spare us the crocodile tears about Fairfax

The news that the Nine television network is set to swallow the historic Fairfax Media saddened many Australians who see media diversity and good journalism as essential in a vibrant democracy.

Having worked for the Fin Review and the SMH for many years – plus being a dedicated reader of The Age – I share this sadness.

Some of the responses to the takeover have been predictable and self-serving, like the headline of Friday’s Australian newspaper: THE DAY FAIRFAX DIED

As it happens, I know many journalists at News Corp and they are mostly not dancing on Fairfax’s supposed grave. They know the deal is a bad thing for Australian journalism (and one that does not help their own job prospects and the outlook for pay rises).

No, it’s a view trumpeted by News Corp’s editors and management who do what they think the Murdochs want, especially when it comes to the commercial and political interests of the company.

News Corp might find that schadenfreude can be cyclical, though, once Rupert Murdoch dies and takes his love of newspapers with him. But News Corp employs many fine journalists and you won’t see me celebrating that, either.

What I find particularly disappointing is that many journalists of my age or older reacted to the Nine-Fairfax deal by again lamenting the supposed end of a Golden Era in which they, strangely enough, were involved.

In the Guardian, David Marr wrote that Fairfax journalists had not given up hope:

“That’s admirable. But this time it’s over for Fairfax. No politicians are poised to save it. Readers who rallied to the cause in the past, are powerless this time. After surviving so much, the name now disappears. What happens now, none of us can tell. It’s the end of a long, decent presence in our lives. Those papers shaped this place – and that’s over.”

Some old Fairfax hands (although not David Marr) even had a cynical response a few weeks ago when the company announced it was hiring about 20 trainees. It was along the lines that these eager young people would be stuck with re-writing press released and “churnalism”.

Ease up, former members (ret) of HMAS Fairfax – nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Moreover, if you feel a warm drizzle it’s possibly because you’re pissing in your own pocket.

The same goes for old-time journalists who bemoan the 1987 takeover of Fairfax by young Warwick Fairfax. Or the supposed management guru Fred Hilmer who managed to miss the boat as Fairfax CEO on numerous ground-floor opportunities to invest in internet advertising (real estate, jobs and cars).

The best jockeys are always in the grandstand, chaps.

Maybe you could give more support to young people who – in the here and now – are trying to break into a job market which is far tighter than it was in your day? How many crap stories did you do while starting out?

It’s true that, if approved by Fairfax shareholders and the ACCC, the Nine takeover will almost certainly see job cuts and greater emphasis on earnings over quality journalism.

It’s also true that the many redundancy rounds at Fairfax over the past decade have already shrunk newsrooms at the SMH, Age and Fin Review.

As one of these who took redundancy, I’ve closely followed the subsequent performance of these newsrooms and am a strong defender of their output. Yes, there is some clickbait and fluff on the Fairfax websites, gaps in the news coverage and glitches from having less editing and discussion in news conference.

However, in the modern era, newsrooms have to marshal their forces and try to make an impact as best they can.

I believe that Fairfax journalists have done this, even in the straightened circumstances of recent years.

Adele Ferguson (often working in partnership with the ABC) has had the biggest political and social impact of any journalist in Australia, triggering the banking royal commission and exposing the exploitation of overseas visa workers.

Then there are other investigative guns at Fairfax such as Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker and Kate McClymont.

But journalism is not just about the stars: it’s more of an ecosystem. It’s about having capable professionals who can cover public and private life in ways big and small. It’s about getting information, presenting it and having two-way interaction with their audience about it.

Having a reporter at local council meetings is important because it helps with transparency and the flow of information needs to keep coming or the pipe rust.

I’m also concerned that some prominent people – women and men – have clutched at their pearls and said they would stop buying Fairfax publications if they fell into the clutches of Nine, switching to (smaller) sympatico publications like the Guardian Australia and the Saturday Paper.

Now, it is likely that Fairfax’s key publications – the SMH, Age and Fin Review – face a straightened existence in future years. And they face greater likelihood of future editorial interference from management, advertisers, politicians and lobbyists.

Of course, readers and viewers can do what they like.

But they but should think about it first. (At the outset, I make clear that I strongly support the defence of another Australian media institution, the ABC.)

Much of the Fairfax takeover coverage has dwelt on the expected disappearance of the Fairfax name. But it mostly overlooked that the real strength of the company lies in the titles – the SMH, the Age and the Fin Review – which still employ significant numbers of journalists.

While the Guardian Aus and the Saturday Paper are welcome additions to the Australian journalistic landscape, they lack critical newsroom mass of reporters who can regularly cover city hall, the courts, state rounds, the cops and general local interest matters.

Likewise, I value Crikey, the New Daily, the Conversation, New Matilda, the Monthly, Inside Story and many other publications … it has to be remembered that the digital era has brought innovation and lowered the barriers to new entrants, as well as eroding the business model of MSM.

I stop short of welcoming the Daily Mail Aus because – as a reader – I dislike their style and content. As a journalist, I note the regular complaints about the Mail lifting the work of others, largely uncredited.

I will also exclude the “downunder” offshoot of the New York Times . Their Australian operation has run some worthwhile stories but, for me, relies too much on quirkiness of the Crocodile Dundee/They’re a Weird Mob type with Huffington Post-style lifestyle and chat.

But the impact of the Nine-Fairfax deal is far broader than the Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra triangle.

Commentator and journalism academic Margaret Simons rightly expressed concern in Inside Story about the impact of the Nine takeover on rural, suburban and regional journalism at the 160 non-metro newspapers owned by Fairfax.Inside Story.

Let’s not forget that Joanne McCarthy won a Gold Walkley for exposing clerical child abuse – and helped trigger a royal commission – through her reporting for Fairfax’s Newcastle Herald.

A lot of other fine work is being done out the capital cities, which matters greatly in their own communities.

In a teleconference last week, Nine CEO Hugh Marks told investors and analysts that the focus of the merged entity will be on high-growth digital assets, and the regional Fairfax newspapers would do better “in some other environment.”

As the ABC reported, this has raised concerns on numerous fronts. What happens has 160 regional publications and community-based websites, including the Newcastle Herald, Canberra Times, the Border Mail in Albury-Wodonga, The Courier in Ballarat and the Illawarra Mercury in Wollongong and the Launceston Examiner.
reported

What happens in Newcastle, where the Herald comes under the same ownership as the television’s NBN News?

Fairfax also owns a lot of regional radio stations. And many younger journalists often get their start in regional and community newspapers and websites.

Proof, if needed, that local news is important to democracy can be found in the US, where at least 900 communities have faced “profound erosion” in their access to local news and information since 2004 local news.

So what is to be done?

Great media outlets have great readers and I would love to see a response from Fairfax readers that doesn’t involve an exodus of paying customers.

What I would like to see is Fairfax readers demanding that Nine management – chairman Peter Costello and CEO Hugh Marks – sign a charter of editorial independence for those titles.

Never mind the side-stepping wordplay used by Hugh Marks last week, sign on the dotted line of the charter, Nine.

The commercial truth is that Nine is mostly drawn to buying the Domain real estate operation and the other half of the Stan streaming service.

But the Nine management will find that owning the Fairfax titles will bring greater public and political scrutiny, which they will dislike.

And I say … GREAT ! From his time as Federal Treasurer, we know that Peter Costello dislikes being called to account. We also know that he lacked the gumption to challenge John Howard for the Prime Ministership and that Big Pete has something of a glass jaw.

So this Fairfax reader plans to follow the takeover closely, to be a critical consumer of their publications, but to stay involved rather than aloof.

Journalism is under threat around the world, in ways big and small. This is not the time to pull up the drawbridge and to remain, unruffled, by the winds of change. Or to wallow in nostalgia.

The strength of Fairfax has been driven by line employees – journalists, photographers, artists, librarians and others – rather than by management up and including current CEO Greg Hywood.

So how about we give the new generation a chance? Many of them will do great things and readers can play a part.

Stunning breakthrough on Timor Sea boundary

Timorkids

Photo by Mark Skulley

Timor-Leste and Australia have reached agreement on the “central elements” over a deal to settle a maritime boundary between the two countries.

The deal emerged from a series of confidential meetings in Copenhagen in the last  week.

Timor’s chief negotiator, former President and resistance hero Xanana Gusmão, hailed it as opening a new chapter in relations between the two countries.

Australia and Timor are participating in talks conducted by a Conciliation Commission pursuant to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

The Conciliation Commission today released a statement which said the agreement came as a package.

In addition to boundaries, the package “addresses the legal status of the Greater Sunrise gas field, the establishment of a Special Regime for Greater Sunrise, a pathway to the development of the resource, and the sharing of the resulting revenue.”

The statement said the parties will now turn to formalising the agreement and addressing a number of remaining issues and points of detail.

“Until all issues are resolved, the details of the Parties’ agreement will remain confidential.”

“Nevertheless, the Parties agree that the agreement reached on 30 August 2017 marks a significant milestone in relations between them and in the historic friendship between the peoples of Timor-Leste and Australia.”

The aims to finalise an agreement by the end of October this year.

The parties will also start to engage with other stakeholders in the Timor Sea regarding the implications of their agreement, in particular with respect to the Greater Sunrise resource.

Gusmão hailed the agreement and thanked the Commission for its “resolve and skill in bringing the Parties together, through a long and at times difficult process, to help us achieve our dream of full sovereignty and to finally settle our maritime boundaries with Australia.”

“This is an historic agreement and marks the beginning of a new era in Timor-Leste’s friendship with Australia.”

Timor-Leste’s Agent in the proceedings, Minister Agio Pereira, echoed the sentiments:

“This agreement was made possible because of the strength and leadership of the father of our nation, the Chief Negotiator, Xanana Gusmão, who worked with the Commission and Australia to secure the political and economic sovereignty of our nation and secure the future of our people.”

“With our joint success at resolving our dispute through this conciliation process, Timor-Leste and Australia hope to have set a positive example for the international community at large.

Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop MP, said it was a “landmark day in the relationship between Timor-Leste and Australia.”

“This agreement, which supports the national interest of both our nations, further strengthens the long-standing and deep ties between our Governments and our people.”

The Chairman of the Commission, Ambassador Peter Taksøe-Jensen of Denmark, speaking on behalf of the Commission, made the following statement:

“I commend the Parties for being able to reach an equitable and balanced solution that benefits both Timor-Leste and Australia. These negotiations have been challenging, and this agreement has only been possible because of the courage and goodwill shown by leaders on both sides. ”

“The key moment in these negotiations transpired on the evening of 30 August, and the significance of that date is not lost on the Commission. Both countries will now look back on this date fondly.”

See full Conciliation Commission statement here:

https://pcacases.com/web/sendAttach/2230

 

timorkids2

 

Australia makes historic shift on Timor Sea boundary, agrees to negotiate

xananaimg_3101

Xanana Gusmao addressing the conciliation commission in The Hague last year.

The Turnbull government has quietly overturned a 50-year foreign policy by agreeing to negotiate a permanent maritime boundary with East Timor.

A joint statement issued today the two countries emerged out of compulsory conciliation proceedings, which is being conducted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“For the further conduct of the conciliation process, the governments of Timor-Leste and Australia have each confirmed to the other their commitment to negotiate permanent maritime boundaries under the auspices of the Commission as part of the integrated package of measures agreed by both countries,” the statement said.

“The governments of Timor-Leste and Australia look forward to continuing to engage with the Conciliation Commission and to the eventual conclusion of an agreement on maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea. ”

“The Commission will hold a number of meetings over the course of the year, which will largely be conducted in a confidential setting.”

“The governments of Australia and Timor-Leste remain committed to their close relationship and continue to work together on shared economic, development and regional interests.”

The announcement marks a major shift by Australia since the conciliation proceedings began last year in The Hague.

However, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has yet to explain the reasoning for the dramatic change in policy

Last year, Australia argued unsuccessfully that the five-member conciliation commission did not have jurisdiction to hear the dispute. It also argued that pre-existing treaties were legally binding.

The conciliation outcome will not be binding on the two countries, but today’s announcement indicates the Australia’s representatives have a mandate to negotiate.

Today’s announcement confirmed that Timor has given written notice that it planned to terminate the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) which was struck in 2006.

Link to joint statement:

http://foreignminister.gov.au/releases/Pages/2017/jb_mr_170109.aspx?w=tb1CaGpkPX%2FlS0K%2Bg9ZKEg%3D%3D

ABC decision to can Pacific shortwave radio broadcasts is plain dumb

suvapoolimg_3231

Olympic pool, Suva.

During a recent reporting visit to Fiji, I was delighted to hear a new phrase – the “Coconut Wireless”.

This is local slang for the spread of information and rumour over long distances, including vast expanses of sea, and often by word of mouth.

One of my contacts in Suva said her mother once telephoned her from a distant island to say that she had heard of a tsunami warning in the Fijian capital.

My contact told her mother that no warning had been issued. She attributed it to the “Coconut wireless” being at work, in much the same way that the Bush Telegraph operates in Australia.

On the same trip, I repeatedly heard about the importance of radio in the Pacific as a source of news and information.

Hence, I was stumped by this week’s muted announcement by the ABC that the national broadcaster had decided to end shortwave broadcasts within Australia and internationally from the end of January 2017

Link to ABC statement: http://about.abc.net.au/press-releases/shortwave-radio/

As things stand, Radio Australia broadcasts shortwave services to PNG and the Pacific islands nations which are important (and strategic) neighbours for Australia.

The ABC claims the savings from decommissioning the service will be reinvested in a “more robust” FM transmitter network and an expanded content offering for the region that will include English and in-language audio content.

The ABC’s director of radio, Michael Mason, argued that while shortwave technology has served audiences well for many decades, it was “now nearly a century old and serves a very limited audience.”

“The ABC is seeking efficiencies and will instead service this audience through modern technology,” Mason said.

The story was picked by Radio New Zealand, which said the decision had caused “upset around the Pacific” because shortwave remained a vital communication link in remote areas.

The report noted that many remote islands had no access to the internet and the ABC planned to shut down the shortwave service in the middle of the cyclone season.

Radio NZ interviewed Lowy Institute fellow, Sean Dorney, who worked for decades as a foreign correspondent in the Pacific for the ABC.

“There seems to be a belief in the ABC in Sydney that there’s no one living in the Pacific, let alone listening to shortwave radio,” Dorney said.

“For instance my wife is from Manus Island in Papua New Guinea … her brother who lives in the village, still listens to Radio Australia on shortwave.”

“So there’s a listenership out there. I think this I probably a money saving venture but I think this is a very, very sad decision, especially for those people in the Pacific who have relied quite considerably over the years on Radio Australia.”

Link to Radio NZ report:
http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/programmes/datelinepacific/audio/201826840/pacific-listeners-upset-at-abc-ending-shortwave-service

Within Australia, most publicity over the planned shut down of the ABC’s shortwave radio had dealt with the impact on remote areas in the Northern Territory, which also needs to be considered.

But the decision seems to be shortsighted when it comes to the Pacific, another instance of Australian officialdom not weighing the modest costs of a service against the value it provides in our part of the world.

It came during a bipartisan visit this week to the Solomon Islands, Samoa and Vanuatu and Samoa by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, and her Labor counterpart, Penny Wong.

Maybe these two perceptive politicians can put in a good word for Radio Australia’s shortwave service to the ABC management.

Statement by Bishop on her visit with Wong:

http://foreignminister.gov.au/releases/Pages/2016/jb_mr_161206.aspx?w=tb1CaGpkPX%2FlS0K%2Bg9ZKEg%3D%3D

fijigardenimg_3335

Rising body count of Australians in Syria and Iraq

 

At least 58 and up to 66 Australians are believed to have been killed in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, according to new Federal government figures.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection included the figures in evidence tendered in a case before the Fair Work Commission this week, in which the DIBP sought to end protected industrial action at Australian airports on public safety grounds.

Most of the evidence from the Australian Border Force’s assistant commissioner strategic border command, Clive Murray, is covered by confidentiality orders and cannot be published.

However, one statement by Murray – which is not confidential – said the recent industrial action at airports posed particular problems because it was being staged as 30-minute rolling stoppages nationally, which could be held at any time over a fortnight.

Murray, who was previously managed the AFP’s international network on serious and organised crime, said the national terrorist threat for Australia set by ASIO remained unchanged at “PROBABLE” over the last two years.

He summarised the current threat and response to terrorism in Australia as:

*48 people charged as a result of 19 counter-terrorism operations since September 2014 when the national terrorism threat level was raised to the current level

*15 convicted terrorist offenders in jail, with 37 before the courts on terrorism-related charges

*four attacks and ten major counter-terrorism disruption operations since September 2014

*around 110 Australians currently fighting or engaged with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq

* around 200 Australians have travelled to Syria/Iraq since 2012, with more than half of them still active in the conflict zone

* at least 58 and potentially up to 66 Australians believed to have been killed in Syria/Iraq

* about 40 people have returned to Australia after travelling to Syria/Iraq and joined groups involved in the conflict

* some 200 people in Australia being investigated for providing support to participants in the Syria/Iraq conflict, including for “funding and facilitation” or seeking to travel

* around 185 Australian passports have been cancelled or refused in relation to the Syria/Iraq conflict

abf2img_3379

Some of the figures given by the ABF’s Murray seem to tally with figures given by the Director-General of ASIO, Duncan Lewis at Senate estimates hearings in May this year.

For example, the ASIO chief quoted an “unchanged figure” of about 110 Australian citizens who were “actively engaged in hostilities or directly supporting hostilities in Iraq and Syria, fighting with ISIL.”

Lewis also said about 190 further Australians were involved in “direct support” with just over 400 “high-priority investigations going on”.

“There are 50 Australians that we can confirm have been killed in Syria and Iraq. That figure may be as high as perhaps 59, but I just am not in a position to speak further on that difference. But it is certainly 50 confirmed.”

Lewis added said that 177 passports had been cancelled while 33 had been suspended, which also seems to tally with the information given by Mr Murray.

However, the evidence given in the Fair Work proceedings by the ABF’s Murray refers to “at least” 58 fatalities in Syria/Iraq and potentially up to 66 deaths, which is higher than the figure quoted by the ASIO chief.

Murray said his confidential evidence contained more details on known or likely threats, but unknown threats were a “much more significant concern”.

“Without knowing what threats may manifest, in which ways, and at which times, ongoing vigilance taken through the application of ongoing effective borders control is critical.”

It should be noted that the CSPU argued that airport personnel in key security roles were exempted from the industrial action to protect public safety, but the Department had failed to manage the industrial action.

The Fair Work Commission terminated the bargaining covering DIBP employees, which puts an end to legally-protected industrial action in pursuit of a new workplace agreement after almost three years of fruitless bargaining.

However, the decision allows the CPSU to push for the Commission to arbitrate a new agreement, an outcome that was opposed by the government which is trying to cap public annual public sector pay rises at 2%.

FOOTNOTE: It seems I was the only journalist who attended the Fair Work proceedings, which is a common occurrence in tribunals and courts nowadays.

So, I thought it worthwhile putting the information on the public record, even though I have some scepticism about the claims made by Australian security agencies when it comes to domestic terrorism levels.

The statistics quoted by the ABF’s Clive Murray are not stated in the decision by Fair Work Commissioner Nick Wilson, which is available here: https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/decisionssigned/html/2016fwc7184.htm

Finally, I don’t know whether the figures on travel to Syria and Iraq include the former Coalition MP and junior minister, Wyatt Roy 🙂

Worries over press freedom in Timor-Leste

 

timorpresspack

The Timor-Leste government faces a stern test of its attitude towards press freedom when two journalists appear in court on Friday on charges of “slanderous denunctiation”.

The charges relate to a story published late last year in the Timor Post about the Prime Minister Rui Aria de Araújo and his former role as a finance ministry advisor in a state telecommunications tender.

The story contained an error, which was acknowledged and corrected as required under Timor-Leste’s press law.

But journalist Raimundos Oki, and a former editor of the Timor Post, Laurenco Martins, face up to three years’ jail if convicted.

A range of media freedom groups, including the International Federation of Journalists, have called for the charges to be dropped. They argue the charges amount to criminal defamation and will set a worrying precedent.

During a visit to Dili in May, I asked the Prime Minister about the charges during an interview that mostly dealt with the maritime boundary dispute with Australia and the Timorese economy.

In reply, de Araújo made one semi-valid point and one claim that is simply implausible.

The PM insisted he could not direct the State prosecutor to drop the proceedings – as suggested by international press organisations – because this would amount to the executive interfering in decisions taken by an independent legal office.

But de Araújo he also argued that he had sent details of the publication to the prosecutor as an ordinary Timorese citizen, not as the Prime Minister.

This last claim is nonsensical because, well, he is the Prime Minister.

Besides, his overall stance is contradictory. On one hand, de Araújo is arguing it would be improper to direct the prosecutor to drop the case, but on the other he reckons that it’s perfectly fine for the PM to lob a dossier complaining  about a media report into the prosecutor’s in-tray.

TimorPM

The broader point is that the entire Timorese leadership – from Xanana Gusmao , Jose Ramos Horta, President Taur Matan Ruak and PM de Araújo – have to decide if they want their country to have a free and independent press.

If the answer is yes, they should address the Media Law that came into force in 2014.

The charges against the two journalists are under the Penal Code, but both pose threats to press freedom.

Here is a piece about press freedom in Timor-Leste for the Walkley magazine on August:

http://www.walkleys.com/in-timor-leste-hurt-feelings-could-land-journalists-in-jail/

Here’s a link to a petition calling for the charges to be dropped:

 https://www.change.org/p/timor-leste-prime-minister-drop-defamation-charges-against-timor-journalists

Here’s a link to an article on regional press freedom by ABC journalist and Walkley trustee Michael Janda:

 http://www.walkleys.com/six-places-where-journalists-are-worse-off-than-in-australia-and-one-bright-spot/?utm_content=buffer119fb&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

 

 

 

 

Why is the board of Chevron Corp visiting Australia, all at once?

A cavalcade of five private jets landed at Fiji’s Nadi international airport on Saturday that reportedly carried the upper echelon of the oil giant’s board and management.

The Fiji Sun newspaper reported on Sunday that the jets were ferrying the board of directors of Chevron Corporation to meetings in Australia.

blogchevronjets

The paper said the Chevron jets were in Fiji five years ago, so the visit is not a first.

A spokesman for Chevron Australia confirmed that members of the board were visiting Western Australia for a few days.

However, the company did not respond to questions on the purpose of the visit and whether any major decisions were pending.

The interest of the board is understandable, given an interrupted mid-year start to production at its $US54 billion Gorgon LNG plant on Barrow Island which has endured big cost blowouts in the construction phase.

There have also been delays at Chevron’s $US29 billion Wheatstone project in WA

So there’s a lot for the Chevron chairman and chief executive, John S. Watson, to mull over  with the rest of the board (https://www.chevron.com/about/leadership).

blogjets