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.

Only rationality will destroy Alan Jones' joint

Management of Sydney radio station 2GB announcedon Sunday that it was removing advertising from the Alan Jones breakfast program for an indefinite period, at a cost to the station of $80,000 per day.

The action was unprecedented. It followed social mediapressure on advertisers to boycott the program after Jones violated the unwritten code of common decency in remarks he made about the prime minister's late father at a university student function.

Jones' apology was unconvincing, and many people remain appalled. It is a testament to the relatively new phenomenon of social media that it is able to empower ordinary people to bring Jones and 2GB management to heel when government broadcasting regulation cannot. 

It is perhaps an example of the 'people power' that is more usually thought of in the context of overthrowing unpopular political regimes such as occurred in the Arab Spring. 

However we need to remember that what has happened in the aftermath of the Arab Spring has shown us that people power can create more problems than it solves. The people are manipulated by other powerful groups, or their action may precipitate a power vacuum. As a result, many who supported the revolution may wish for a return to the dictatorship they loathed.

People power can also become mob rule, which is a long way from its democratic aspirations. Mob rule is tyranny of the majority and the rule of passion over reason. The rights of small people with less audible voices are not taken into consideration in the way they are with properly functioning laws and regulations. 

That is why it is better to work within the regulatory system. People power is a last resort that is justified only if the regulatory authority is unable to fix the problem.

In the case of broadcaster Kyle Sandilands, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has demonstrated its impotence, despite the restrictions it placed on 2DAY-FM's licence. There is no indication that Sandilands has reformed, in the sense of becoming contrite. Nor is it likely that the ACMA can change Jones.

With regard to advertisers on Jones' program, the social media organisers have outsmarted 2GB's Macquarie Radio Network management. But it is unlikely that the collective rage against Jones' behaviour will be sustained, respectable, and ultimately effective, unless the passion is accompanied by reasoned argument. If not, it could even vindicate Jones and 2GB management's claims of 'cyber bullying'.

It is encouraging that there are signs of reason in the Facebook groups spearheading the campaign. 'Sack Alan Jones' organisers Nic Lochner and Vinay Orekondy responded in a cool headed manner to 2GB management's decision to cancel advertising on the program: 'This campaign has constantly called for civility and decency in public debate — it will continue to do so — and we have gone to great strides to ensure that discourse is conducted appropriately.'

Similarly, the 'call to arms' of the group Destroy the Joint is 'Keep Calm and Destroy the Joint'. 

Calm is not exactly reasoned argument, but it helps to create the necessary disposition. It is important that such groups do not simply destroy the careers of rogue broadcasters, but also work to improve the regulatory system that allows them to flourish.

Another media pressure group, Friends of the ABC, appeals to a different constituency but has always maintained a good balance between activism and contributing to the shaping of public policy through activities such as the preparation of submissions to inquiries. GetUp! covers a range of issues, and is similarly involved in providing policy input. 

Forcing 2GB to cancel the advertising was a spectacular victory but the social media groups should not expect more capitulation from station management or Jones, especially if their action is not accompanied by developed rationale. Moreover it may look as if Jones is being bullied, as he claims, and the public could feel sorry for him.

Families only a means to an end

This year's Australian Catholic Bishops Social Justice Statement focuses on the family. It is put into useful perspective by the publication the Bishops' Pastoral Research Office September E-News Bulletin headlining the 2011 Census statistic that only 50 per cent of Catholics aged 15 and over are married.

The often talked about nexus between marriage, the family, and the Catholic Church makes this seem an extraordinary figure. If marriage and the family are so important in Catholic teaching, are we talking about a 50 per cent failure rate?

No. Family life is often thought to be the norm, but that is not correct. It holds no value in itself but it is an often fruitful means to a morally good life. Many mature age 'devout' Catholics who find themselves single and without families have been conditioned by their upbringing to write themselves off as failures. But their marital status, or how many children they have, is not the measure of success or failure. 

The standard by which individuals should instead judge themselves is the norm of a life of self-giving. The Social Justice Statement stresses this, and quotes Pope John Paul II: 'Self-giving ... is the model and the norm'. The family, of course, is a good situation in which to live such a good and virtuous life. John Paul II calls it 'the first and fundamental school of social living'. 

But it remains a school, and it is only one means to the end referred to. There are other 'schools' for those who do not marry or have families. Examples include voluntary work, single-minded dedication to a profession, or caring for ageing parents. Perhaps the family could be considered the 'default' unit in our society, but it is not the norm in the sense that those living outside a family are considered abnormal.

If family is simply one means among many of living a good life, why do the Bishops, and indeed governments, go to so much trouble to support the family?

The answer is that it has traditionally been the single most powerful vehicle for social inclusion and, for the Church, faith formation and fostering a life of self-giving. Those who do not live in functional families are much more likely to end up on the margins of society.

At a time of rapid social change, the family is under threat but there is no replacement model on the horizon. 

The Social Justice Statement is subtitled 'The social and economic challenges facing families today', and much of its content is devoted to spelling out perceived threats to the family such as the trend towards casual rather than permanent employment. There are many others. Similarly, governments have given preferential treatment to families in its distribution of tax cuts and carbon tax compensation. 

The problem is that governments can go too far and usurp the role of families with paternalistic policies, such as those involving welfare for Indigenous Australians. Such policies break families as Indigenous families were broken by government policy in the era of the Stolen Generations.

For all the good it does, the Church can also unintentionally break families when it demands conformity to teachings that run counter to generally accepted norms of society.