Coal mining, civil disobedience and the public good

Commentators were outraged by activist Jonathan Moylan's fake media release that caused disruption to the stock market last week. But there was little concern about the the impact of coal mining on people's health and the climate, the issue that prompted what was called his act of civil disobedience. 

Decades ago, industry and government were slow to listen to the message of activists about the dangers of asbestos, and we are now paying the price. The effect of coal mining on the health of local communities is probably far less significant, but nevertheless overseas evidence suggests it could be serious and far-reaching. 

The Beyond Zero Emissions 2012 study Health and Social Harms of Coal Mining in Local Communities points to evidence of elevated mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining areas in the US. The authors stress the need to research the health effects of coal mining in the Hunter Valley and other regions. But instead governments appear to be granting mining licences indiscriminately and offering favourable treatment to the coal industry.

The study cites offshore evidence of excess deaths from lung cancer and chronic heart, respiratory and kidney disease related to living near coal mines. Its authors detail major expansion that is underway or planned in our coal mining industry, but point out that there is a 'glaring absence of local evidence to determine what impacts these projects will have on the health of surrounding communities'.

It seems governments do not want to know about the long-term health impacts of coal mining. Coal mining's short-term economic benefit is more attractive politically, and there is also strong lobbying from industry groups and others. Rod Campbell of the public interest advocacy group Economists at Largesuggests government actions go beyond cavalier and are more underhand. i

The Maules Creek community on whose behalf Moylan was acting approached Campbell's group to help make sense of the 2000 page environmental impact statement that was delivered just days before Christmas with only weeks to respond. He writes: 'Our assessment of the review is scathing. Gillespie Economics has overlooked the foreign ownership of the project and presented profits to overseas interests as benefits to the NSW community.' 

Moylan did the wrong thing in undermining public confidence in the share trading system, which in turn underpins the stability of our economy. His actions were fraudulent and supporting them would amount to affirming anarchy and rejecting the rule of law, even if governments and the coal industry don't appear to be acting with integrity and in the public interest.

He was, as he told the ABC, only making 'the announcement that ANZ should have made, that it wasn't going to be investing unethically' in Whitehaven's Maules Creek Coal Project. 

The media and the vulnerable in 2012

oking at our archive, I discovered this was a constant throughout the year.

Still current is the fallout of actions of 2DAY FM employees who appeared to have prompted the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who was vulnerable to suicide. Also recent is the criticism that, while the media were empowering church sexual abuse victims by telling their stories, the victims and their stories were providing fodder for one of the year's biggest media events, so that media outlets were in effect capitalising on lives broken by the church. Earlier the BBC was exposed for suppressing coverage of the exploitative behaviour of one of its own, Jimmy Savile.

Back in January, we were reflecting on the film The Iron Lady,and Meryl Streep's determination not to make a plaything of Margaret Thatcher. Instead she would continue her own lifelong effort as an actor to 'defend the humanity of people that we've made into emblematic figures of one sort or another'. 

Also in January, we used Pope Benedict XVI's idea of a communications 'eco-system' to mute the shrill 'Stop the boats!' political rhetoric in order to allow space for a hearing of the hope and fears of both asylum seekers and the Australian people. The Pope had urged a balance between silence, words, images and sounds, which is more likely to give voice to the poor than cacophonic social and mass media. 

Another comment observed that the iconoclastic tone of much TV comedy 'lacks the values and moral centre needed to counter xenophobia' exists in the community. The same could be said for violent video games, but there was also the view that they are easily demonised when proper funding for mental health services is also needed. Another form of media was threatening to exploit vulnerable people — online gaming and betting apps.

In March, and again in November, Sydney University's St John's College was in the news, and the media made a meal of accounts of students having to submit to humiliating rituals to gain the acceptance of student elders. 

In May we used the term 'Big Media' to suggest that large media corporations are just like 'Big Tobacco' in their relentless exploitation of captive small people for the end of shareholder profit, but that the National Broadband Network might provide diversity if the government followed recommendations from its Convergence Review rather than the wishes of the large media owners, as successive governments have for many years.

Some things never change, but we live in hope that they will, and that we will all live in a better world as a result. That is our hope for 2013.

Royal Prank blood is on everybody's hands

The weekend's media was dominated by the tragic turn of events in the 2DAY FM royal prank media saga. The 46-year-old British hospital nurse and mother of two who took the prank call was found dead after her apparent suicide.

As the culmination of such a moment of unspeakable sadness, the behaviour of the social and mass media lynch mob was no less shocking and shameful than that of the 2DAY FM 'shock jocks' themselves.

The proliferation of ill-considered opinion is an unfortunate consequence of the advancement of media technology in the 21st century. Comparatively lengthy production processes of the past had a moderating effect on intemperate opinion and its consequences.

In the context of the fast-moving royal prank crisis of the last few days, it would indeed be tragic if shame provoked the shock jocks to follow the lead of the nurse, in line with a fear expressed by beyondblue chairman Jeff Kennett.

While 2DAY FM has a very poor track record in reining in the excesses of its presenters, the station and its shamed employees are not entirely to blame. All parties bear responsibility, including the hospital itself, whose chief executive declared in his measured statement of defence: 'Our nurses are caring, professional people trained to look after patients, not to cope with journalistic trickery of this sort.' 

But why not? It would seem that, in the modern world, accepting royal patients and being vulnerable to media trickery go hand in hand for such an institution. It is surely irresponsible for the hospital not to train its staff to cope with journalistic trickery, and it follows that its CEO is partly to blame when his fails in such preparations and there are tragic consequences.

Trickery and magic has always been integral to the world of entertainment, which often contributes to the healing and wellbeing of those suffering ill-health as much as the care provided by some hospitals. This is perhaps what was on the mind of Prince Charles when he initially joked about the prank with reporters. Indeed professional jesters have always contributed to the good spirits of royal families.

That is one line of argument that is no more far fetched than suggestions that the presenters should have known that the nurse was vulnerable to self-harm and directed their trickery elsewhere. The point is that everybody is to blame and nobody is to blame. In some sense it is a variation on the theme of social sin, which Sandie Cornish wrote about in Eureka Streetlast week. 

When tragedy occurs, the best and only response is to let cool heads prevail, and take Prince Charles' approach to the fanatics of social and other media, allowing space for a sense of community perspective to emerge. NSW premier Barry O'Farrell went further with his simple but empathetic words surmising that the shock jocks must be feeling 'terrible'. 

'I think there are some people today who are suffering, not just the family of the nurse but those who in some way were involved with what appears to be the trigger for this tragedy.'

Pro-business governments reversing Eureka Stockade achievement

Today is the 158th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade rebellion, in which around 500 miners rose against British colonial authority on the goldfields at Ballarat. It is often described as the birth of Australian democracy and the 'fair go'.

Peter Fitzsimons, who revisits the event in his new book The Unfinished Revolution, explains the cause as resentment towards the government, which was granting wealthy squatters use of large tracts of land for a pittance — 3000 acres for £10 — while the often dirt poor miners were having to pay 30 shillings to lease their 64 square feet mining plots. 

The squatters controlled the government and the miners had no influence. The former built large pastoral empires and became very wealthy. In 1839, a group got together to establish the Melbourne Club, which still exists as a meeting place for Australia's richest and most powerful men. Like James Packer. 

Packer has successfully lobbied the NSW Government to back his proposal for a $1 billion casino and hotel complex at Barangaroo, on the edge of Sydney Harbour, with no competitive tender. It fits the Government's Unsolicited Proposals policy, and has bipartisan support. 

Packer responded: 'I'm incredibly grateful to the Labor Party for not playing party politics and I'm incredibly grateful to Premier O'Farrell and the Liberal Party for doing what it has done.' He also has wide supportfrom other influential politicians and business people who possibly believe they can benefit from his investment's boost to the tourism sector.

But other voices including commentator Mike Carlton and former premier Kristina Keneally are concerned that ordinary people have been cut out. Carlton said: 'Barangaroo is public space, owned by the people of this state, who are entitled to the final say in what happens there. Yet before a sod has been turned, the normal checks and balances have been tossed overboard.'

The NSW Government website says the Unsolicited Proposals policy's 'key objective is to provide consistency and certainty to private sector participants'. Private sector investment is an easy option for governments around the country that face the challenge of having to catch up on decades of underinvestment in public infrastructure. 

Packer is funding much of the transformation of the industrial wasteland into a thriving modern urban hub. But in the end, it will belong to him and not the people, and its management will be geared towards increasing his personal wealth and influence, and not the common good. It amounts to a reversal of the enfranchisement of the people which was the achievement of the Eureka Stockade. 

Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks called Eureka 'a catalyst for the rapid evolution of democratic government in this country' and 'a national symbol of the right of the people to have a say in how they are governed'.

'No advantage' policy more harmful than leaky boats

The Federal Government is using its imagination and casting around for further ways to be cruel to asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas. Fairfax reported on Friday that the Immigration Department has invited church groups to suggest measures that would make the lives of asylum seekers more difficult, as part of its 'no advantage' policy.

The policy is the most politically palatable of the measures recommended by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers when it handed down its report in August. It promotes disincentives that will cause asylum seekers to decide against taking 'irregular maritime voyages', by ensuring that they gain 'no benefit by choosing not to seek protection through established mechanisms'.

Last week, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced conditions under which asylum seekers will be released into the community. These include a living allowance that is less than the dole and a ban on working for five years, even after they have been granted asylum.

The Sisters of St Joseph are one of the religious groups working with asylum seekers in the community. Their leader Sr Anne Derwin says life is already difficult for asylum seekers living in the community.

'No work rights, extremely limited available housing, language and cultural difficulties and an allowance of $219.20 a week without any concessions, means that quality of life is almost impossible without generous community support. Now the bridging visas with the constant threat of offshore transfer will exacerbate the distress already being felt by these most vulnerable people who seek only safety and a fair go.'

As part of getting its 'no advantage' deterrence message to potential asylum seekers in their countries of origin, the Government would have to be encouraging international media coverage of the extent of the cruelty. One wonders whether that includes when an asylum seeker commits suicide, which is the logical consequence of this policy for some people.

The fact is that if you treat people harshly, you will diminish them as human beings, and they will cease to value their own lives. Already they are prohibited from working. They will have difficulty sustaining relationships and it is unlikely they will feel that they can make a positive contribution to society, perhaps ever. This undermines the justification for the initial harsh treatment. 

One of the stated reason for the 'no advantage' policy is that dangerous maritime voyages put the asylum seekers' lives at risk, but surely no more than the 'no advantage' policy itself.

The Church should accept its humiliation

Last week we received a fine article on the child sexual abuse Royal Commission from a writer who had worked for a Catholic Church agency that deals with children. 

He told of how he’d been at a consultation that included presentations from the Church and from advocates representing victims of church-related sexual abuse. Afterwards he accidentally struck up what he called a ‘warm and constructive friendship’ with a victims’ rights advocate that led to some significant cooperation.

A few hours after sending the article, the writer wrote again to withdraw it. I was disappointed, but pleased that he subsequently gave me permission to quote from his email, in which he explained his decision:

I've been trying to figure my discomfort...
and it is something like this:
that any words we write at this time run the risk
of justifying ourselves as church people,
instead of undertaking our real task
which is to sit in silence and shame and confusion....
and repent

I believe that our writer made the correct call. It is, as he suggests, time to let the dignity of victims shine, and for the Church to set its dignity aside, without question, and accept the humiliation that has come its way. In other words, the Church needs to take its own advice about imitating the humility of Christ. It often preaches this using the text from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

‘In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.’

The consensus is that Cardinal Pell failed in that regard during his media conference on church sexual abuse last Tuesday, particularly with assertions such as this: ‘We object to it being exaggerated, we object to being described as the “only cab on the rank”.’

I also failed last Monday when I argued in Eureka Street that the mistakes the BBC made in its mistaken identification of a former government official as a pedophile should cause us to apply ‘a degree of skepticism’ to all investigative reporting, including that of church sexual abuse.

Any hope that the Church has of being a credible witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ depends upon its ability to accept its current humiliation and give glory instead to the sexual abuse victims whom it has humiliated.

Church sexual abuse in the media

If there is anything amusing about the Iraq War, it is the reality-defying propaganda broadcasts of President Saddam Hussein’s information minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, otherwise known as ‘Comical Ali’. As the Americans were closing in on Baghdad in 2003, he extolled the invincibility of the Iraqi Army and the permanence of Saddam's rule.

Those paying close attention to media coverage of clergy sexual abuse might find Cardinal George Pell’s defence of the Church hard to swallow. He suggested to The Weekend Australian on Saturday that the Church has been unfairly vilified, and is no worse than other organisations. ‘Anti-Catholic prejudice is one of the few remaining prejudices ... among some circles’. 

Then in his Sunday Telegraph column yesterday, he wrote: ‘It is hard to name any other Australian organisation that has done more to produce a safe environment for young people [than the Church]’.

When you are being attacked by the media, it is natural to defend your turf, especially if you’re a Church leader and you firmly believe that the good the Church does far outweighs the evil. 

But in the context of a massive outpouring of public anger and emotion – not to mention an overwhelming body of evidence – it is surely better to approach sexual abuse in an empathetic manner before attempting to put facts on the table. Some kind of catharsis is needed as a precondition for reconciliation.

This is where Bishop Bill Wright of Maitland-Newcastle is leading the way. Fairfax reported yesterday that he plans to attend next month’s launch of Holy Hella book dealing with the abuse of an altar boy by a priest who later died in jail. 

The author is the boy’s mother Patricia Feenan. She has already lauded the bishop for his decision to attend. ‘He's a brave man. Almost as brave as my son who will come up from Tasmania for it,’ she said. 

Listening to victims without prejudgement could and should become the order of the day for the Church, perhaps in a systematic fashion, as long as it does not interfere with state inquiries. In the process, it may become clear which claims justify the most attention.

Empathy is something media investigations do well in that the victims can feel the benefit of powerful public support and understanding. But it is important that the reports not jump to conclusions and take the place of the court system.

The lesson from yesterday’s news of the resignation of BBC Director-General George Entwistle is that investigative journalism is fallible. One of the most highly regarded media investigation teams in the English-speaking world got it wrong, with its mistaken identification of a former government official as a pedophile by the BBC's Newsnight team. 

The announcement that all investigative reporting on the BBC Newsnight program is suspended indefinitely is a signal that we should regard the judgments of all investigative reporting with a degree of skepticism, though there is still important value in the catharsis that its interviews often produce. We should also remember that the much derided Comical Ali was eventually vindicated for one of his improbable claims, which was his assertion that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. 

Cup Day losses to soar with betting apps

Australians are expected to spend $60.6 million in betting on tomorrow’s Melbourne Cup, an increase of 7.5 per cent since last year according to market researchers IBISWorld. The majority of bets will still be placed in person at the TAB, but it is especially significant that mobile betting is increasing rapidly, with more Australians using smartphone betting apps.

It is no coincidence that more betting and higher losses coincide with the convenience of betting apps and other online means of placing bets. The traditional walk to the local TAB and the requirement of having to wait in the queue acted as a restraint on betting that amounted to pre-commitment. 

In the past, punters using the TAB needed to decide how much their day’s wager would be before they reached the end of the queue, for it is unlikely that they would be motivated to return to queue again to top up their betting. But online betting enables continual betting until the running of the race. It is similar to the way poker machines are used. Some gamblers will stop only after their bank account has been emptied.

Pre-commitment, along with $1 maximum bets, is the central platform of the compromise National Gambling Reform Bill, which was introduced into the House of Representatives last week. It forces gambling venues to offer voluntary – rather than mandatory – pre-commitment by the end of 2016. Anti-gambling campaigners are taking the view that voluntary pre-commitment is better than nothing.

Pre-commitment is the principle that allows us to control our impulsive behaviours. 500 years ago, it was used by the Jesuits’ founder St Ignatius Loyola when he formulated his Rules for Eating. His idea was that you plan what you’re going to eat for the next meal directly after the previous meal, or at another time when you’re not hungry. In this way, rationality rather than impulse controls your eating habits. 

Excessive consumption of anything – especially gambling ‘products’ – destroys human well-being. We all need a variety of supports to enable us to behave rationally and avoid the excess that ad hoc behaviour leads to. These days, that means not just encouragement from those around us, but the development of technology that is geared to enable us to act rationally and not designed to exploit our weaknesses.

Poker machines in particular promote gambling based on impulse rather than rational choice. That is why there must be laws to ensure that gamblers are able to make rational choices when they bet. Laws controllingonline gambling are still in their infancy, but it is important that the governments include online gaming – especially smartphone apps – when they draft legislation to help problem gamblers. The principle of pre-commitment needs to be built into the functionality of gambling apps.

Sins of the Church and the BBC

The Jimmy Savile scandal in Britain shows the Catholic Church is not alone among trusted public institutions that have been undermined by their own culture of silence and denial.

The late Jimmy Savile was the legendary BBC entertainer whose sexual abuse of more than 300 young women was recently revealed amid accusations that the BBC suppressed its own reporting of the abuse because it feared tarnishing its brand.

Colm O'Gorman is an Irish activist who founded the clergy sex abuse victim support group One in Four. He wrote in The Tablet at the weekend of the hypocrisy of the BBC and his own involvement in the public broadcaster's investigation and reporting of abuse crimes in the Church.  

When [a powerful institution] either discovers serious wrongdoing within its own ranks, or indeed is itself guilty of wrongdoing, it often acts to cover up such corruption in an effort to protect its reputation and its authority.

He goes on to make the point that silence is the culprit; 'the silence of those who shared rumour and gossip but who failed to act to protect desperately vulnerable children and young people'.

Rumour and gossip lack credibility. They serve the damaging silence because they ensure the incriminating information is cloaked with uncertainty. They neutralise its potential to damage the institution but also to bring justice to the individuals who have been harmed. 

Another indication of cover up is managers doing everything that is required but not the one thing necessary. This might have been the case after then BBC head Mark Thompson was told at last year's Christmas party that BBC Newsnight's Savile investigation had been terminated. He gave this account to the New York Times:

I talked to senior management in BBC News and reported the conversation ... There is nothing to suggest that I acted inappropriately in the handling of this matter. I did not impede or stop the Newsnight investigation, nor have I done anything else that could be construed as untoward or unreasonable.

The 'one thing necessary' would have been to blow the whistle if there was a reasonable possibility that what was being said in hushed tones was true.

Whistleblowers are respected individuals willing to sacrifice their own professional future in order to help victims, who do not themselves have a credible voice. 

Thompson's professional future is set to lie at The New York Times Company, where he expects to take up the position of CEO two weeks from today. But in an interesting twist to the story, the cautious approach that would have pleased the governors of the BBC could prove his undoing at the New York Times.

That is if the paper's public editor Margaret Sullivan had her way. Sullivan, seemingly an afficianado of bold journalism, wrote in her blog last Tuesday that: 'His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism — profoundly. It's worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events.'

Australia's cluster munitions shame

After Australia was elected a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council on Friday, Foreign Minister Bob Carr said: 'It's the world saying "we see Australia as a good country, a fine global citizen".'

For the next two years, other countries will take their lead from Australia when they are urged to act on matters of global importance. We have the opportunity to make a substantial contribution to creating a better world for all people.

However there are already signs that we are compromised and could be predisposed to squander that opportunity. 

Earlier last week Australia acted in a shameful manner when we cynically ratified the international treaty to ban cluster munitions only after the Federal Government created a loophole that will destroy its effectiveness.

Cluster bombs release many small bomblets over a wide area, posing serious risk to civilians both during and after they are dropped. For years to come, innocent Syrians will continue to be maimed by Russian-supplied cluster munitions being used in the current conflict.

In 2008, 108 countries signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, transfer and stockpile of the bombs. But before Australia finally ratified the Convention last week, the Senate passed into law the Cluster Munitions Prohibition Bill, which allows Australian military personnel to operate alongside US forces deploying cluster munitions, as occurred in 2003 in the Iraq war. 

Moreover, according to former Defence Force chief Peter Gration, the Bill enables the United States 'to stockpile cluster bombs in Australia' and 'transit cluster bombs through Australia either by ship or by plane'.

He was one of 47 eminent and expert Australians who signed an open letter warning the Defence Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister and Attorney-General not to pass the legislation without removing the exemptions.

Malcolm Fraser wrote that the legislation is 'scattered with alarming loopholes that, to my mind, directly undermine the spirit and intention of the convention. These exemptions are unnecessary at best and add little or nothing to our national security. At worst, they run directly counter to the treaty's intent by setting a precedent which explicitly facilitates the ongoing use of cluster bombs.'

The legislation was passed in August, clearing the way for last week's ratification of the Convention, in compromised circumstances. Australia has set a regrettable precedent that is likely to be followed by other countries who look to our example when they introduce their own domestic legislation to ratify the treaty. 

Australia is hardly leading other nations towards a better world. We are not the fine global citizen Bob Carr says we are. If the Security Council seat is intended as a reward for exemplary conduct on the international stage, we don't deserve it.