Don’t panic unless we tell you to

December 27, 2014

It was a difficult couple of months that closed out 2014. In fact, you could say I had a bit of a crisis. I was not entirely sure what I should be panicking about more: the threat from Ebola; being blown up in my sleep by a “death cult”, or the hordes of black-clad anarchists that were allegedly threatening Brisbane during the meeting of the G20 group of rich nations.

Most of us are not prone to panic attacks, but all of us lead our stress-filled lives just one little incident away from the panic threshold. It seems at the moment like a tsunami of panic-inducing threats is rolling towards us.

Doctors and scientists will tell you that a feeling of panic occurs when our normal “fight or flight” reaction to danger is over-stimulated and triggers in response to “false alarms”. In other words, we tend to panic when there is actually no real danger present. Of course, panicking in the face of a real and present danger is a psychological response to a “true alarm”. Under such circumstances fighting back or running away might seem like totally logical reaction to threats.

According to researchers, the “fight or flight” response to imminent danger (real or imagined) is based on three possible scenarios:

  • some of us have a biological vulnerability to anxiety, which can lead to a nervous over-reaction to events in everyday life;
  • some have a generalized psychological vulnerability, which the experts say can be a reaction to being over-parented and can lead us to think that the world is a dangerous place, best avoided;
  • then, there’s a more specific type of psychological vulnerability which leads to a learned fear of certain objects or situations that are, in fact, not dangerous at all.

It seems to be that, being human, all of us are perhaps subject to each of these vulnerabilities at some point in our lives, or in response to a persistent external stimulus. We can also learn to overcome our anxieties and to lessen our fear of external events or situations that might lead us to panic. But what can we do when all the information coming into our cerebral cortex from the media points at panic being the only rational response to a world careening out of control?

You see, it’s rational to think that beyond the chemical processes in our brains there are probably social causes to the psychological distress that can lead us to panic. And, to my mind, three of them relate to fear of epidemic (Ebola); fear of imminent attack (“death cults”) and fear of social breakdown (the nightmare of anarchists running loose in a major city).

But how do we know that these are things we should fear? Well, if you read certain newspapers; listen to or watch enough broadcast news, or get sucked into the vortex of unreliable rumours in social media channels, it seems like the reasons to panic are multiplying on a daily basis.

I have a friend in Brisbane and in the build up to the G20 he’s described it me as the “City of Fear”. My friend has become so alarmed by life in the “City of Fear” that he asked me not to use his name: so I’ll call him Melcure.

Melcure was watching closely as Brisbane went into “lockdown” ahead of the November G20 meeting of world leaders. He sent me daily email missives relating stories of low-flying helicopters and widening prohibitions on residents moving around the CBD as the police and armed forces practiced their counter-terrorism moves.

However, the real target of the police action appeared not to be “death cult” terrorists, but a shadowy international anarchist group known as “Black Bloc”. Luckily, the ever-vigilant news media was all over this story. The danger was talked up to such an extent that it seemed as if every anarchist on the planet was going to descend on Brisbane.

keep calm1

A year of worry, but the anarchists stayed away

But, think about it for a minute. What single prominent feature might define the world’s most dedicated anarchists? In my mind it’s the fact that they probably haven’t got a lot of money. Travelling to Australia from Europe or North America, just to throw rocks at dignitaries, seems like it would be low on their list of priorities. And also consider this; anarchists are notoriously lackadaisical about organizing. The idea that they might coordinate themselves to land in Brisbane in large enough numbers to be effective against 20,000 trained and armed riot police is laughable.

I’ve been in the political left for 40 years and to my knowledge the number of identifiable anarchists in Australia is measured in the low hundreds, not the 10s of thousands. My rational mind tells me not to panic about anarchist hordes burning down Brisbane.

If the anarchists were not going to be a threat then perhaps the “death cult” terrorists of D’aesh (ISIS) might target Brisbane. Should we have been worried about a secret operation by an Ebola-infected “death cult” adherent to infiltrate the G20 to spread even more panic and destruction?

I wasn’t sure until I heard and saw the news that PUP senator Jacquie Lambie was worried about just such an eventuality.

Let Senator Lambie do the worrying for you. That's what she was elected to do.

Let Senator Lambie do the worrying for you. That’s what she was elected to do.

This suggestion cleverly combines two panic-inducing thoughts: epidemic and terrorism. Surely here is something that we can sensibly worry about. You know it makes sense: Ebola is out there and it’s killing people; so to are the “death cult” lunatics in northern Iraq and in the eastern parts of Syria. Surely they’ve got the resources to fly one Ebola-infected suicide bomber into Australia – specifically Brisbane during the G20 gabfest – so as to cause mass casualties and mayhem.

Yeah, I know, your rational mind (mine too) says this is a bit far-fetched and Jacquie Lambie is not the sharpest chisel in the toolbox. So, perhaps we can put this one aside. However, that doesn’t mean we can relax when it comes to Ebola.

The deadly virus may not get to Australia incubating inside a “death cult” terrorist, but it could still be on its way. So that’s why I’m grateful that my government has once again demonstrated its commitment to Fortress Australia and locked the arrivals gate to people from Ebola-affected parts of Africa.

It is the logical humanitarian response; after all we are more important and our lives more precious than theirs.

Scott Morrison is keeping Ebola under lock and key

Scott Morrison is keeping Ebola under lock and key

Never mind that this could be construed as racist; never mind that the world’s leading epidemiologists have condemned Australia’s poor response to the Ebola crisis and never mind that brave individual Australian medical workers have volunteered to help contain the outbreak at source as recommended by the World Health Organisation. WHO are they to tell us how and why and over what we should panic?

Really, the global busybodies should leave that to our government and our media. After all, it is they who know best what is in our national interest and therefore it is them who should direct our nervous energy into the right sorts of panic.

Don’t panic unless we tell you to

The lesson of the modern media is that we should only panic when they tell us to.

That is, the appropriate form of hysteria-inducing “moral panic”; the fear of the irrational that can be stirred by rousing speeches, three word slogans and a news media hungry for sensationalist headlines. A good moral panic does wonders for an unpopular leader’s approval rating and it leads to improved ratings for the news media too. That is why we see such sterling collaboration between politicians and journalists and why we see such wonderful leadership on issues like fighting “death cults”, stopping anarchist hordes, tackling a deadly virus and ending world poverty (that last one’s a joke).

The clear message is that there’s no need to panic, unless the government and the media tell you to.

That’s the only rational explanation for this recent headline on the ‘newspaper of the year’, The Courier-Mail. On Monday October 27, the Brisbane tabloid carried a fantastic, calming front-page story about the Ebola crisis. The message comes across loud and clear.

What, me worry?

What, me worry?

This is a clever front-page and one designed to make us not panic even more. Just look at that horrible virus, it’s the size of a large double-headed tapeworm and it’s heading our way. The take-out from this is that we need to learn to panic only in response to the right stimulus, such as scary and misleading front-page stories about epidemics, “death cults” and anarchist hordes.

Well, so far these panic-inducing problems have only affected Brisbane, so no need for me, living in Melbourne, to panic; But for the sake of Melcure in the “City of Fear”, who’s made more anxious by what he reads in the always restrained and accurate Courier-Mail, I’ll just keep calm and pass him the worry beads.

First published as “Keep calm and pass the worry beads”,  in The Australian Rationalist, December 2014


In the court of the Sun King, truth plays second fiddle to the gospel of Murdochracy

October 13, 2014

There is a fifth dimension; a parallel universe that revolves around a decrepit, dying and dangerous orb of hot gasses that is liable to frequent explosions raining down hot solar gusts of bile and venom on any random planetary object that displeases the ancient Sun King.

Welcome to the universe of News Corp; a solar system cut off from the rest of creation by an impenetrable wall of bias and a cult-like devotion to a host of terrible Gods. This parallel universe defies the laws of gravity and the morality of humans; it relies instead on the ancient and immutable laws of Murdochracy.

Old, florid Sun King prone to flare ups

Old, florid Sun King prone to flare ups

Even those who have served the Sun King with loyalty for many years live out their lives in fear of his vengeful minions. As former Times editor Andrew Neil famously wrote, to lose favour with the Sun King; to break the unwritten rules of Murdochracy is to be cast out from the universe to while away your days among mere mortals.

All life revolves around the Sun King; all authority comes from him. He is the only one to whom allegiance must be owed, and he expects his word to be final. There are no other references but him. He is the only benchmark, and anybody of importance reports directly to him. Normal management structures—all the traditional lines of authority, communication, and decision-making in the modern business corporation—do not matter. The Sun King is all that matters.

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Delusional free speech fundamentalists all on the same [racist] page

March 30, 2014

There are two certainties about the Weekend Australian that make a weekly reading of it a tiresome duty.

1. The newspaper propaganda sheet is tireless and relentless in pursuit of the shibboleths that occupy the increasingly erratic thoughts of Chairman Murdoch

2. The pervasive groupthink emanating from the  News Limited bunkers like the smell of a slow death, displays a remarkably consistent level of paranoia, delusion and editorial agreement among the chief journalists and writers propagandists.

Nowhere are these certainties more likely to reveal themselves than in the fevered attention the editor and his minions are throwing at the supposed attack on free speech posed by Section 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act. News Limited’s considerable, yet unprofitable editorial resources are being lavished on support for George “right to be a bigot” Brandis in his campaign to make it OK to be a racist in 21st century Australia.

In The Weekend Australian 29-30 March 2014 there are no less than six pieces supporting the campaign to have the ‘Bolt’ amendment passed in Parliament.

That alone is an indictment of their bleating claims that debate is being shut down and that 18C has a chilling effect on free speech. These dribblejaws are able to prosecute their case freely and at great length with the support of an editorial and acres of newsprint.

The only issue I have is that it is not a debate as such in the pages of the Weekend Australian. It is all one way traffic, it is propaganda without answer. Perhaps it is wishful thinking to argue that a newspaper that claims to take freedom of speech and debate so seriously would allow an oppositional voice. But hey, it is the party news organ of the coalition, so I won’t be so fucking stupid. How about you?

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When a spade’s a spade, let’s not be afraid to say so

March 19, 2014
This piece was published today on New Matilda.

Andrew Bolt’s ‘hurt’ over Marcia Langton’s comments was confected to force another humiliating backdown from the ABC, at a time when it’s already under threat, writes Martin Hirst

Andrew Bolt’s crocodile tears over being called a racist fool” by Marcia Langton were calculated to stir up more anti-ABC bile among his hardcore fans.

Despite claims to the contrary, Bolt himself would not be too much bothered by Langton’s comments; he is, after all, a champion of verbal abuse, nasty insinuation and downright mistruth. That makes this week’s apology on the the ABC’s Q&A program by host Tony Jones even weirder and more inappropriate.

If there was any offence at all, surely it was delivered by Langton and not by the program itself. That the ABC would apologise on behalf of a guest’s informed personal comment is extraordinary.

Where will it end? Will Mark Colvin have to apologise every time a guest or interviewee on PM criticises News Limited or the Prime Minister? Will Fran Kelly have to apologise to The Australian for daring to continue breathing?

This week, Langton herself apologised to Bolt on-air, on a different network, but in my view it was an apology born of hectoring and badgering, a token “sorry” offered to get Bolt and his trolls off her back as much as an indication of Langton’s real regret.

Langton issued a 19-page clarification, published on the Q&A website after the episode went to air, in which she said that she had only apologised for causing offence and hurt feelings, not “for my beliefs or my intention of trying to explain my beliefs”.

“I conclude that his singling out of ‘fair skinned’ Aboriginal people goes to the issue of ‘race’ and could be construed as racist,” Langton continued.

Anyone who pays even passing attention to Bolt’s disjointed meanderings in the Herald Sun can see for themselves that he is a hardened campaigner and a warrior for all that is good and right. A few pointy words would hurt him as much as a slap with a feather.

After all, in Eatock v Bolt, the Racial Discrimination case Bolt lost in 2011, he was judged to have failed to act “reasonably and in good faith”. His infamous comments about “light-skinned” Aborigines that landed him in court in the first place “contained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language”, according to Justice Mordecai Bromberg

Let’s not forget he was not keen to apologise for that offence and also claimed to be the victim in that case.

If Bolt was serious about taking offence at Langton’s comments he could have made an official complaint to the ABC, which I understand he did not do. Instead he chose to make a media circus out of the issue in order to maximise the damage to the public broadcaster.

He was successful in that aim. Jones’ apology on behalf of the network was another abject pre-emptive retreat by the ABC in the face of ongoing and concerted bomb-chucking from the News Limited bunkers.

The conservative commentariat is emboldened by such moves and by the tacit support given to their feigned outrage and conveniently hurt feelings by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his senior ministers.

That the Prime Minister also considers it appropriate to comment on an ongoing legal stoush between the ABC and another News Limited hack, should signal that this government knows no bounds in its desire to nobble any independent and critical reporting of its actions.

His thinly-veiled warning that Cabinet will consider cutting the ABC’s already stretched funds even further in the May budget, because the public broadcaster has dared to defend itself in the Chris Kenny “sex with a dog” defamation suit against The Chaser, should send shivers down the spine of every comedy producer in the country.

If satire can be curtailed so easily through defamation actions, and a flagship current affairs program bullied into an unnecessary and uncalled for apology, then those of us who appreciate the ABCs independent take on the world will need to mobilise.

If we stand back and watch as the political attacks on the ABC gain in strength and frequency, we will only have ourselves to blame when the national broadcaster goes down in flames.


Right to know: the ‘nation’, the ‘people’ and the Fourth Estate

December 15, 2013

We might forgive politicians for putting the “national” interest before the “public” interest. But when the news media makes the same mistake, it is time to be worried.

The Guardian and the ABC rightly pursued the story of Australia’s spying activities on both Indonesia and Timor Leste. Not only have the revelations been embarrassing, they should also cause concern for anyone who values fairness and humanism in international relations.

It is therefore puzzling that News Corp broadsheet The Australian has so vehemently denounced the reporting of Australia’s spying activities. Why would one news outlet – one that so fiercely claims to be a champion of freedom in other realms – be so sharp in its criticism of fellow journalists who are really only doing their job?

The answer – in part – lies in unpacking the conceptualisation of the news media as the “Fourth Estate”, and also in differentiating the “national” and the “public” interest in these matters.

The media as the Fourth Estate

The “Fourth Estate” describes the journalists’ role in representing the interests of “the people” in relation to the business and political elites who claim to be doing things in our names.

The idea of the news media as the Fourth Estate has a chequered history. It began life as a term of abuse for the scurillous and ill-principled scribes of the press gallery at the Palace of Westminister. Conservative Anglo-Irish MP Edmund Burke coined the phrase as a way of mocking the gentlemen of the press.

However, in the intervening centuries, the Fourth Estate has come to mean taking a principled position to – as Australian Democrats senator Don Chipp would have put it – “keep the bastards honest”.

It is with this frame in mind that the news media should approach the Snowden materials and any story that arises from a careful appraisal of the revelations, allegations or speculations they contain.

National interest versus public interest

If we accept the premise of the Fourth Estate, we also have to ask ourselves if the “national” and the “public” interest are the same thing. It might be easy to think that they are, but it would be a mistake.

Both are abstractions and both are problematic. They exist as ideas, but in reality the nation and the public are not homogeneous. In a capitalist world both are divided along class lines. In this context, the national interest is about state secrecy and keeping things from us. On the other hand, the public interest is about disclosure and our right to know. As citizens we are “the people”.

The intellectuals of the 18th and 19th centuries who gave us the conception of the Fourth Estate as a civil watchdog to keep an eye on those in power also provided the philosophical argument for defining the public citizenry and the nation-state as two separate entities with differing interests.

This is clear from the writing of Thomas Paine and others, who pointed out and also acted upon the idea that we may have just cause to overthrow the state if it is seen to be no longer acting in our interests.

Today, governments that claim to act in the “public interest” must face daily scrutiny of their actions. They must be called to account when overstepping the bounds of what citizens will support, or when taking actions that are clearly not in our interests. We rely on journalists and the news media to do this job on our behalf.

This separation between the people and the state becomes more important when the economic interests of the powerful so frequently dominate society. In our modern world, the interest of “the nation” is no more than the collective interest of those who wield political and economic power. Today, the state is the executive branch of the ruling class.

The news media – as the tribune of “the people” – must be constantly on guard and alert to actions of the state, particularly when those actions may harm the interests of citizens.

The Snowden leaks

In the context of the Snowden revelations and, in particular, in relation to the allegations that Australian spy agencies were tapping the phones of the Indonesian president and his wife, we have to ask ourselves: Was that spying really in the interests of ordinary Australians?

We now also know that Telstra is collecting our phone metadata and that it can be accessed by government agencies without a warrant. Can we really see a benefit for ourselves in this action?

The answer to both these questions is a resounding “no”.

The Snowden materials should be published in all their embarrassing detail. Snowden is not a traitor or a “rogue”. He is a principled whistleblower whose actions have uncovered a global system of espionage and surveillance by powerful state security agencies against not only other states and agencies, but against anyone and everyone.

It is our right to be outraged at the actions of state agencies that eavesdrop on our conversations, emails and text messages without our consent. We should be more outraged that the spies and their masters then claim to be taking these actions in our name and in defence of our interests.

The actions of The Australian in denouncing the ABC and The Guardian and defending the government are therefore a complete betrayal of the Fourth Estate principles.

When a newspaper claims to speak to and for the nation – that is, to and for the people – but instead appears to speak for the government, it abandons any claim it may have had to independence of thought and action.

[This piece was first published on The Conversation on 11 December, 2013]


The Daily Telegraph has no credibility on journalism standards

December 15, 2013

It is simultaneously amusing and sickening to see News Limited newspapers attempting to lecture the ABC on standards in journalism.

Coming from the organisation that brought you the Abbott government, whether you wanted it, or not, it is a bit rich to complain of un-Australian, left-wing bias at the national broadcaster.

The chief stenographer at the Daily Telegraph is gainfully employed re-writing press releases and disguising advertising as news and the columnists are at the bar dictating their arid thoughts to the keyboard chimps.

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The ABC is right to pursue the Snowden documents; The Australian is so predictable

November 24, 2013

Oh dear, the predictability and monotony of The Australian‘s whining about the ABC was taken to new heights this week on two fronts: firstly, the revelation that the national broadcaster has to pay market rates for its premier on-air talent and, secondly, feigned moral outrage that the ABC would cover the very newsworthy disclosure that the Defence Signals Directorate wanted to listen-in on the phone calls of the Indonesian President and his wife.

Any reasonably briefed chimpanzee would be able to write the coverage of these issues for the News Limited papers. There’s a template, a formula and a draw full of boilerplate copy that oozes vitriol, arsewipe and stinking double standards.

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