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The Empire Strikes Back

A peculiar thing happened in the world of online media this week. Reminiscent of the older school yard bully who wants ensure the young, brash new kid knows his place in the pecking order, an anonymous blogger – Grog’s Gamut – was ‘outed’ by a James Massola, a journalist who writes for The Australian newspaper.  It caused and mini storm in the Twitterverse as followers of Grog launched vitriolic tirades against Massola, while more moderate followers dissected the merits of anonymity and the rise of blogs and the demise of mainstream media. For media and political junkies, it was exciting stuff. It even assumed – as all good scandals do – a ‘gate’. Hence, it is now known as #groggate.

Perhaps anticipating the backlash such an action might provoke, The Australian editorialised – several times – that bloggers, if they comment on national affairs, become fair game and just as journalists who publish articles with their names attached are criticised or praised, The Australian believes it must be the same for bloggers. This small skirmish has elevated the issue of bloggers verses journalists; online versus traditional; old versus new.

While I do have sympathy for the position of Massola to ‘out’ an anonymous blogger on the premise that they have influenced national debate and therefore don’t deserve the position of anonymity, it does smack of sour grapes. Others have analysed this much better than me here and here and here.

And its indicative of the struggle traditional media faces to maintain its legitimacy as the only credible source of news and opinion. But as a regular reader of blogs, I have come to rely on bloggers as another source of information on which to developed an informed understanding of an issue. I don’t rely upon one source of news and information to keep me up to date be it The Australian or the ABC. Can everyone do this? Perhaps not. I would guess that most people have only 2-3 sources of news i.e. a large circulation tabloid newspaper and a commercial television station and perhaps a commercial radio station. Only a small proportion of people have the time and inclination to seek out alternative media. And that is perhaps the irony in this case; only a relatively small number of media savvy, politicised individuals are aware enough to feel affected by this event. The mums and dad’s of the millions of working Australian families, are probably none the wiser. Nor care.

And what of Grog himself? Well it seems Grog’s biggest mistake has been his ability to write lucid, engaging and thoughtful observations about the recent federal election campaign. His pièce de résistance was a insightful critique of the quality of political reportage in Australia. It was breath of fresh air in an election campaign in which the media were widely criticised for its fascination with inane, contrived stunts and little if any serious policy analysis. His outing, as perplexing as it has been, does not detract from the fact that his blog was popular because it engaged its readers. and he did it without the resources of a global media leviathan but rather after work at home on his computer. No wonder the main stream media are worried.

I’m a Twit Too

I downloaded the Twitter application to my iPhone two weeks ago. And I love it.

I love reading the short, pithy, wry and at times, funny and meaningless musings the people I follow have on news, sports, and politics. Short tweets are like pub banter that happens after the serious analysis is done and you just want to take the piss. This is not to say tweets aren’t informative, because they are and can be. Their real strength is that for time poor people (and who isn’t these days?) tweets can keep you informed and entertained even if you don’t have time to read or understand the whole story.

The moment when I decided I loved Twitter was on the afternoon when Australia learnt which party was to – finally – form a government. While one of the Kingmakers took an eternity to inform the nation of his decision, and in turn earning the wraith of those with short attention spans, Twitterers filled the void with some fun and ahh…venom.

To me it was like being involved in a conversation in real time with a group of friends as they fire off comments and throw away lines willy nilly. But having stupid comments on speed dial can be dangerous as this person found out. And others may not take kindly to your particular brand of humour as this person found out.

So I’m gonna enjoy it while I can because, just like Crocs, Twitter may be here one day and gone the next.

Picture This

Is it possible to control the distribution of images in the digital age?

I asked myself this question after reading this article about regulations that now require professional photographers and video makers to apply for a permit when working in the iconic Uluru-Katja Tjuta National Park in the Northern Territory.

This issue is not new. In Australia, Indigenous people have asserted that certain areas of culturally significant sites such as Uluru or Kakadu National Park should be off limits to tourists. Likewise, Indigenous people have developed protocols for culturally appropriate communication. Aboriginal artists have also called for particular works and images to be protected from illegal duplication such as this case of the famous Wandjina. However in this case, Indigenous Traditional Owners want to restrict who can photograph a natural wonder. Is it practicable and necessary?

In recent decades Indigenous people around the world have fought hard to win recognition of their intellectual property rights over intangible heritage such as traditional knowledge. It has been argued that Indigenous people with their traditional knowledge, particularly of plants, have not been properly compensated for their contribution in the production of pharmaceuticals and agricultural products.

But how realistic is it to try and ban photos of natural wonders when sites such as Flickr and Facebook allow people to upload and share photos with friends and in fact the entire world if they choose?

In remote areas, tourism is often touted as an industry that could benefit Indigenous people. However, tourists obviously want to take photos if they visit. To ban photos is likely to discourage tourists to visit. Not all, but I would suggest a large majority.

Here are some questions that this ban raises:

  • If an amateur photographer takes a photograph deemed stunning enough to be commercially sold or licensed, have they breached the ban?
  • How do Australian authorities police the ban if an overseas visitor takes a photo and publishes it overseas?
  • If the photo were published in a book or magazine, how would Traditional owners seek compensation of legal representation?

What would motivate Indigenous people to seek such a ban? Obviously, some Indigenous people deem culturally significant sites so special they wish to protect the sites locality. But in the case of Uluru, it is well known where it is. So is the motivation more commercial and financial than cultural?

Regulating photos of people is understandable given the risk that a photo of an Indigenous person could be used out of context. The same could be said of any photo of any person, Indigenous or not. But do other iconic natural wonders have similar bans? Not that I can find.

Then of course there is the ‘red rag to a bull’ element to this issue that is captured in this story. If you ban something you can be assured that some – perhaps many – will blatantly disregard this request.

As an Indigenous person I am fully supportive of Indigenous peoples rights to claim cultural recognition of significant natural sites such as Uluru and to regulate access and insist on people respecting the site when physically visiting the site. But I am less supportive of placing bans on the taking of photos.

Photos can be a great way of bringing interest and respect to culturally significant sites. I would suggest that rather than restrict access by professional photographers to Uluru, a better strategy would be to train local Traditional Owners in photography to enable them to photograph and licence images of Uluru. This way, Traditional Owners can have a much stronger voice in how the image of Uluru is captured and published.

The Maverick

I like the word Maverick. Its not quite onomatopoeic but just saying the word conjures up a sense of trepidation, of uncertainty, even foreboding.

If someone says to you, “Hey, be careful, he’s a bit of a maverick”, it instantly puts you on alert that said person i.e. the Maverick, may not your run of the mill, take at face values, kind of human being.

So approach with caution. Be prepared. Don’t rush in.

Maverick.

Many people would be familiar with Tom Cruise’s character “Maverick” in the movie Top Gun. Hollywood’s version of The Maverick requires they be cocky, gifted, flawed and prone to breaking the rules. Not to mention being highly annoying and open to ridicule (beautifully captured here in Top Gun: Done in 60 Seconds).

But was he a Maverick in the true sense? Hardly. Top Gun holds lots of sentimental value for me so I’m not going to trash it, but I’ll leave it to none other than Quentin Tarantino to critique Tom’s portrayal of a supposed Maverick.

My interest in The Maverick was sparked by the just concluded national election we had here in Australia. It was a dead heat and we now have three Independents (a word that is really a kind of sanitised version of Maverick) in the powerful position of deciding who becomes our next Prime Minister.

One of the independents is Mr Bob Katter, an undisputed Maverick. He ticks all the boxes.

Confronting? Absolutely.

Unique dress sense? Of course.

Delusions of grandeur? You bet.

Egg man?

The Maverick has a knack of saying the un-sayable. “Shit, I can’t believe he just said that” can be a reaction to The Maverick. Saying what others are either too polite or ignorant to say can certainly freak people out. At other times The Maverick simply makes you smile and ponder, “Man, what is he talking about?” Not that I think all Mavericks are profound human beings, its just that while most people stick to the script, The Maverick writes his own lines. On the go. Off the cuff. Bring it on. Who cares.

Its dangerous stuff and when it goes wrong, it’s horrible to watch. But that’s the allure of The Maverick. Failure is just one careless, inappropriate, misjudged and unsubstantiated comment away. And when they do fail, we – and The Maverick – quickly move on. No biggie. It’s like supporting the underdog; if they win, great. If they lose, well, that’s what we expected anyway. The Maverick knows this; we know this; so lets not get “all sentimental and shit” because Mavericks hate sentimentality. Yet we reserve a soft spot of concern for our fallen Maverick like we would for a lost, mongrel dog.

I particularly enjoy Political Mavericks, such as our mate Bob. Politics is serious stuff. The Political Maverick knows this and has far too much respect for politics to be an out and out clown. But nonetheless, they want to bring a certain “reality” to the process of government.

Bob Katter is the ultimate Political Maverick. He can be serious when needed, irreverent when it’s needed but really excels at being irreverent when it’s not needed. He’s most definitely not a details sort of bloke – that’s the role of the Yes Man (see below). He rants, he raves, and he fires up. He’s dismissive other peoples views and in all likelihood believes that if he yells louder than you in a debate, then of course his idea is much more logical than yours. Logically.

Many attempt to be Political Mavericks. But they are fraudsters that are soon found out once the pressure that comes with being a Maverick descends upon them. In the panic they try to overcompensate and end up going too far. They instead become a Goose. And in Australia that is what happened to this man.

He tried to do The Maverick and failed, big time. But do we feel empathy for him? No, because he was never a true Maverick. Poorly conceived gimmicks gave away his blind lust for Maverickism. The public saw this, they didn’t buy it and he was, largely with the help of his own hand, branded a Goose.

In the US, the Republican Party considers this man a Maverick. America has produced some memorable Maverick’s – Hunter S Thompson to name just one. But politically, the US is very conservative and this helps to explain why only those on the extreme far right could label a man so mundane, so conventional, so damn patriotic and upstanding, a Maverick. But I don’t rate him as a Political Maverick. Not at all. He’s a Yes Man pretending to be a Maverick. But I’ll let someone who knows more about US politics give you the verdict on why he ain’t no Maverick.

Now I’m not saying I want more Mavericks. Too many Mavericks spoil the broth. Nor do I want more Bob Katter’s either. And one Tom Cruise is more than enough. But love them or loathe them, we should appreciate our Mavericks because it is solitary, and lonely work. There is risk too e.g. too extroverted and you become a Goose; or too safe and boring and you become a Yes Man.

And I guess this is my point; being a Maverick, a true Maverick or simply someone unwilling to follow the rest of the herd, can be tough. But we all do The Maverick when we are surrounded by people that don’t seem to give a shit and frustration grabs hold of us and we ask a straight question and won’t give up until we get a straight answer. Or when curiosity compels us to ask a stupid question to which supposedly smart people have no answer.

Its not a bad way to live, really.

Nothing but cool…

I consider myself as someone with largely sedentary predilections. I tend to establish roots somewhere and call it home for some time. However, in the past decade I’ve moved between 2 countries (Australia & Cambodia), 2 states (Queensland and Victoria) and resided in 3 cities (Brisbane, Cairns and Melbourne).

No move was made on impulse, but rather a thoughtful decision to relocate based largely on new work opportunities. Perhaps because of this, I have gradually developed a mindset that ‘less is best’. Obviously a ‘less is best’ policy is great when moving because there is simply less junk I have to pack and hump around. So I’ve learnt to be indifferent towards things like furniture, beds, coffee tables, pots and pans etc. But what about the stuff that really matters?

Like most people, I have developed a strong attachment to my books, CDs and DVDs. That is, my pop cultural belongings. The cool stuff. And this stuff comes with me no matter where I go. Or if I cant take the lot, than I take a careful selection of my cool stuff. But even packing, unpacking and humping boxes of cool stuff can not only be tiresome, but a tad uncool, especially when it’s no longer necessary. So, some time ago – I can’t pinpoint exactly when – I became a convert to digital. Digital music, books, information, photos and films. The lot.

Now while I still have a handful of CDs and books in my possession, to access and use my cool stuff  I have an iTunes account, MacBook Pro,  iPhone, two digital cameras, a Facebook account and two external drives to back all my stuff up. If I had to, I could pack it all in a single suit case with some clothes and be online and connected to friends, family, news, photos, music etc anywhere in the world. Well, almost anywhere. I have also adopted a habit of not buying new books or magazines, opting instead to visit libraries, and if I need practical, hands on information I prefer to go here or here. Its been dubbed digital minimisation and it seems to be catching on.

Yet when I discuss it with friends, it seems I am alone as a digital convert amongst many of my Gen X brothers and sisters. Nothing it seems, can convince some of us to ditch our vinyl records, CDs, book and old Rolling Stone magazines. So it may take longer for Gen Xers to ditch our attachment to our ‘things’. Interestingly while digital minimalism is on the rise, so too is the sale of vinyl records. I still own some vinyl but I suspect this trend may be more to do with the ‘über cool’ (that is, people so cool they are moving on from the current trend just as the rest of the world is getting their first whiff of it) deliberately adopting the antithesis to digitisation i.e. getting back to basics.

Without doubt the digitisation of cultural material i.e. books, music and films, is challenging our long held belief that to project one’s depth and breadth of cultural knowledge, one’s self worth or to simply show how frickin’ cool we are, it is necessary to have your lounge room dominated by boxes of vinyl records and bookshelves sagging under the weight of must read classics and the latest esoteric novel by critically acclaimed but totally unknown writers.

So, is the ‘new cool’ to have so little cool stuff on conspicuous display, you appear, at least on the surface, manifestly uncool and therefore cool? Or should i just let people ponder what my iPhone, MacBook Pro, Kindle, Sennheisher noise reduction headphones and Crumpler travel bag say about me? Discuss.

Think rugby league, and you can be forgiven if you don’t immediately think ‘social media’.

But think of, say, I don’t know…‘knocking blokes out cold’, ‘scandal’, and ‘home renovations’, and of course, rugby league is your answer!

But social media? WTF?

So it was with much interest that I read that the Souths Sydney Rabbitohs have appointed a Supporter Development and Digital Media Co-ordinator to manage the club’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

Hardliners and traditionalists are no doubt rolling their eyes at this latest initiative by the Rabbitohs globetrotting Hollywood owner Russell Crowe. But CEO of the Rabbitohs has explained that in this ‘online, connected, can’t wait’ world we now live in,Souths fans want the latest news as it happens, straight to their desktops and mobile phones.

So there you have it. Souths Sydney, that bastion of tradition and logical choice of the working man who follows rugby league has joined the Twitterati. And while a premiership seems out of reach in 2010, at least the Rabbitohs can claim a win over other teams when it comes spreading the game in the virtual world.

How Soon is Now?

This week I went along and saw a one person play entitled “Half A Person; My Life As Told By The Smiths”. Yes, I am a Smiths fan. And a pretty big one too.

While the play it self was okay, one particular moment in triggered a memory that really made me think of how times have changed. No I’m not just talking about how crap music is these days. I’m talking about how we access, engage with and discuss music. In the play, the central character, William, tells us of his shock of finding out The Smiths have broken up. In this case decades after the actual event.

But I do remember when they broke up. It was 1987. And while there had been rumours of Morrissey tempestuousness and unkind behaviour towards the other band members and their general unhappiness, I put that down to the pressures of fame etc. There was never, in my mind, a chance the band would fall up apart. So when the news came it was a shock.

But looking back on how and when I heard this news, it is downright funny. Why? Because I found out almost a month after it happened. That’s right, a month! That’s 30 days, people. Or 4 weeks. Or 744 hours. Or a staggering 43,200 minutes AFTER the event actually happened.And how did I find out? I waited patiently for the monthly edition of Rolling Stone magazine to hit the shelves of my local newsagent and then forked out ten bucks to buy it. Now, how 80s is that!

Now compare this to the death of Michael Jackson. Today, it is hours, even minutes before news is either beamed globally via satellite on TV. Or tweeted or Facebooked. No waiting for a magazine to be printed and then shipped to a newsagent. It is reported as it happens. Sometimes it is reported even if it hasn’t happened as Richard Wilkins famously found out. Harmless Bill Cosby found out what happens when a rumour takes hold online and had to issue not one, but two tweets on his Twitter account declaring himself not dead. And it would seem he is still wondering what the hell happened. Granted, The Smiths weren’t as big as Mickey J or Bill Cosby, but if they broke up today, this news would be online almost the moment it happens.

Like everything else, online technology has forced the music industry to catch up. NME was once considered the Bible for music aficionados. here, two of its former journalists talk about the magazine and where did it all go wrong? Andrew Collins, one of the journalists sums up the predicament for music media by saying: ” There’s no new generation of NME readers, or, I suspect, NME writers, coming through. When the paper advertised for “hip, young gunslingers” and ended up with Burchill and Parson, it was an attempt to connect with a new generation. I fear that a similar advert now would elicit little more than a trickle of interest. If you want to write about Bloc Party in 2008, you’ll have already set up a website and started doing it. You don’t need the permission of Time Warner”.

And what of The Smiths? How are they faring post break up in the online world? It would seem not much has changed. There is no “official” The Smiths page on Facebook or Twitter. Same for Morrissey. Nothing. But while my annoying namesake tweets incessantly, it’s us fans of The Smiths and Morrissey that ensure our favourite band has an online presence. And perhaps thats whats so good about online media. Its the fans that get to write the story, any time they want.

Hooray! It’s an election…

I am somewhat of a pessimist when it comes to thinking about the quality of media reporting in Australia on a day-to-day basis. So, you can imagine the excitement I feel when the election campaign is in full swing.

For me elections are an ideal time to take a close look at our media and assess the quality of reporting that constitutes “news”. It’s a bit like watching the form you’re your football team at the ‘pointy end of the season’. If they are good, they are a pleasure to watch. If they are terrible, it’s excruciating. I find the current quality of political journalism in Australia to be the latter.

Combine the intensified atmosphere of an election with the usual 24 hour news cycle, and the challenge to find and generate “new news” that is intelligent, insightful and relevant is huge. Maybe impossible.

So how are our media acquitting themselves this election?

It would seem that a number of media commentators are disappointed at the low brow, sensationalist tripe that represents political debate in present day Australia. This from a contributor to Crikey.

Predictably, some in the media blame our politicians saying they behave as semi celebrities and so any reporting is bound to lack substance. Others blame the effectiveness of the parties to keep each other honest and provide the media with an issue to report on.

Still beyond the politicians, there are the policies. You know, those pesky things that will actually impact on you and I after the media circus of the election has died. A rather serious business type had this to say about the much maligned Henry Review and is lamenting how something so important to our national economy, hardly gets a mention now the election campaign is underway.

So, given policies are off the agenda but celebrity and entertainment most definitely in, debate this week as has moved on to the question of “Who is realer?” Phony Tony or the new, Real Julia?

This is a frustrating, but predictable news story that excites our national media. As election promises worth billions of dollars are thrown about with gay abandon, our media focus on the promise from Julia Gillard that she will abandon the rule book and free style it a bit more in the run up to polling day.

There should certainly be questions raised about the integrity and genuineness of our politicians. But anyone with an ounce of commonsense would know that ALL politics and politicians are stage-managed. Very rarely do we get politics unplugged. And even if we think that’s what we are getting, somewhere in our minds we know that a lot of planning, checking and vetting has gone on to make it all look so….umm…natural.

This reminds me of a blog I recently read about the risk of pretentiousness that comes when someone attempts to be someone they really aren’t. In this case it was that icon of Australian masculinity, the “Knockabout”. Like “Real Politicians”, the “Knockabout” in its most raw form is sometimes too much for the average punter. So we need a more polished, better dressed, manicured, rehearsed and stage managed type of Knockabout. Or Politician.