Cash for comment

I’ve been off with the flu and come back to protests about our new in-story advertisements. Marie Toshack writes: “How about a column on this new online policy of placing ads in middle of stories? There’s a line under ads in the copy which leads to Tom Burton’s explanation of this new advertising rort. Would you like to find it in your stories? I think not!”


I admit to being shocked at the idea, and for a moment took comfort in the fact that no-one would want to advertise in our ghetto on I’ve deliberately not asked Tom for the readership of Inside Out out of fear, but when he told me these ads could appear here in time, I took the plunge and he’s setting up monitoring of webdiary readership. I’ll let you know the result.


The thing is, the standard banner ads up the top of the screen don’t work for advertisers, so they’re not buying them any more. They are buying this new concept. As you know, online is NOT making money. It’s LOSING it. That means is not only a FREE service to you, but is a COST to us.


There’s two ways to at least break even – subscription or advertising. Last year, I raised the question of subscription to or this page, to be told firmly that it wasn’t on. Here’s what I wrote on November 14 (So what are YOU prepared to do about journalism?)


“Take online. Subscribers to the paper are, in effect, subsiding Australians round the country and the world who use the website for free. Would any of you in that position pay to see the Herald online?


“We have credibility, reputation, and journalistic resources to sell. Would you buy? Or if the basics remained free and specialised pages within it required subscription, would you do so?


“For example, how much would you pay, if anything, to access this web page? It’s cost is basically my salary plus the technical and back-up resources of the paper. Say no advertising was allowed on my page. The annual budget would be, say $450,000, allowing for a reasonable return on capital. Say about 5,000 people visited this site, about the same number as bought my book,. Would you be willing to pay $90 a year to subscribe?


“A big advantage, again, is that subscribers would “own” the site in a very direct way, and thus have enormous power to help shape its content. Subscribers would have confidence that the space is independent, because it would not be in the papers interests to compromise the site. I could even envisage a “contract” with subscribers, including guaranteed access to critique the site, and a transparent accountability system.

“My guess is that the answer to these questions would be no. So what value does the public place on independent quality journalism?”



David Eastwood had three objections – subscription would confine debate to an elite who could pay, the media had a moral responsibility to inform the public and should not discriminate between those who had internet access and those who didn’t, and a subscription would widen the gulf between the information rich and poor.


David Davis got angry. “If you restrict access in such a way to the media, isn’t it the ultimate in elitism and the ‘two Australias’? Let’s face it, good quality journalism is NOT a product like a quality wine, journalism is a key aspect of our democracy, our society. Let’s not start introducing haves and have nots in the world of political journalism consumers. There is something DEEPLY disturbing about it. Did you really think this through? A contract to have views heard? Are you SERIOUS? This is Margo’s “cash for comment”. I pay cash to you so I can comment??? Hell will freeze over before I pay CASH to express my opinion…I think you have lost it if you really think this way. If it doesn’t make money and Fairfax are not prepared to cross subsidise it then you should kill it off. Don’t bastardise it by making it an elite thing.”


Don Arthur preferred advertising, saying: “While I worry about advertisers I’m probably more worried about the lack of funding for in-depth journalism. Good reporting and the background work for informed analysis can consume a lot of time and money. It’s not much good having independent reporters if all they do is write stories around media releases, quick phone interviews or reports from wire services.”


Chris Abood said the question wouldn’t matter soon, because the net would end the media’s role as agenda setters because of online chatrooms and forums, and end our role as news gathers because news creators would go direct to readers. “There are greater issues facing your industry than maintaining quality, independent journalism. The sands are shifting, and shifting fast.”



Only Richard Lawrence was willing to pay. “I would happily pay the price you suggest to maintain access to the sort of journalism that is emerging from this site. In fact, I would subscribe to a site in it’s current form, if that was what it took to maintain it free of advertising and allow experiments like this.”


So there you have it. I still reckon we’re safe – who would want to advertise here? If someone does, a way to keep us advertising free within the page would be to find a sponsor for it. Oh yeah?



Barry Jones fans might note he’s speaking at a seminar on Saturday called “Relaxed, Comfortable and Stupid” at the State Library in Sydney. He will speak on “The challenge to the knowledge nation” at 10am. I’m speaking in the afternoon on “Australian newspapers: bringing back the provocation”.


Today, Tim Dunlop – like me – has Friday on his mind, Elen Seymour demands scientific activism in the research and development debate and our man in Britain Sean Cody reports on the election campaign.


First, new contributor Ellias Elliott in Queensland responds to Peter Kelly’s piece on citizen as punter (Webdiary Tuesday).


“I am not sure if this is just a heavily moderated newsgroup tacked onto a major metropolitan daily, or an embryonic avenue for some to mass circulation. (MARGO: Me either!) Still I feel compelled to point out toPeter Kelly that a Punt is a unit of currency. Historically of Irish origin. A punter is simply one who indicates their faith in something by putting their money into it.


“Gambling is but one form. Punters attend rave parties, rock concerts, even gallery openings and soirees. If punters are allegorically voters, I hope very few of them use the dropped pin lotto method of choice which must seem to some to be endemic.


“Of course the analogy of politics as a horse race is age old. But in our democracy, even as punters, we are free to start, join and in all ways participate in political movements. The gambler is never literally IN the horse race. The political horse, the party, is made up of people. That there is a dearth of choice reflects more on ordinary voter/punters ambivalence to participation.





The news that Friday On My Mind had been voted the best Australian song ever was an uplifting moment in a week when our two major political leaders raced each other to the bottom, hotly pursued by the mindless media, in an argument about who could think up the best excuses for not calling a tax a tax. It got me thinking about something friends and I had discussed on occasions: making Friday On My Mind the national anthem.


Such a sweet paean to anti-neo-liberalism, to unbridled fun, to act first think later, it captures an important element of the national psyche in a way that Advance Australia Fair and Waltzing Matilda never could. It would do for national anthems what the Canadian flag did for flags: make them something simple and memorable and meaningful. Youd have more national unity in a split second than you would in a decade of stage-managed events celebrating Federation.


There is a temptation to read the lyrics and the sentiment they invoke as yobbo and anti-intellectual, but this is a favourite ploy of our betters to denigrate working class and non-elite culture in general. In fact, the lyrics are a beautifully succinct evocation of the working persons week, as poignant as anything Orwell ever came up with. The fact that its all backed by a riff-to-die-for simply adds a sense of hope and elation to what could otherwise be a bitter expression of relentless downtroddeness.


And its power does not lie in its ability, these days, to evoke a lost past of 60s hedonism and yoof at the barricades. It is instead a reminder of what we could be; of what a society organised around the exaltation of the social rather than the economic could actually be.


The Friday that the song has on its mind isn’t just a day of the week: it is exactly the same thing as Chifley tried to evoke with the phrase “light on the hill” or what John Howard clumsily tried to capture when he said he wanted Australians to be comfortable and relaxed. That’s what the Easybeats wanted too; it’s what we all want.


The song allows us to think our way out of the narrow, lifeless and petty trap of economic rationalism and the small-minded, scared and kow-towing attitudes of those who we, in our desperation and marginalisation have handed the country over to.


The thing is, Howard and Beazley and Co love politics. They love all that stuff that drives most of us to distraction and with which we cant be bothered, and it allows them, therefore, to take control: remember Ellis’s first law: power devolves to the most boring person in the room. The proof is sitting in parliaments all over the country.


Most of the rest of us don’t love politics because it doesn’t do it for us; it doesn’t get our feet tapping or our mouths humming. In fact, the dullards who run it run it in such a way as to make it as boring and inaccessible as possible to the rest of us, just so we dont get involved. It’s about time we changed their tune.


I think the willingness of people, particularly those under 50, to participate at some level in politics, government or society would increase by about a million percent if we made Friday On Mind the national anthem.


It sings to the better angels of our nature and actually reminds us what politics and government is meant to be about: people. All of us. However we express it, we’ve all got a version of Friday on our minds, and it’d be nice to be reminded of the fact every time we won an a gold medal, opened a national building, or welcomed a visiting dignitary.


It’d sure (easy) beat the hell out of having to sing that our land is girt by sea or that some jolly swagman had stuffed a sheep in his tucker bag. Let’s put it to the vote.





“The science community welcomed Backing Australia’s Ability, but as a first step, the beginning of a process,” Dr David Denham said. “It was a partial solution to the issue of how Australia should invest in our national future.” (Webdiary “Another World”, Thursday May 24th.)


It was next to no solution!!!! Yes, yes the corporate rate got lowered to 30% – big deal! Still not within spit of being competitive with Ireland or Canada’s R&D concessions, or Singapore’s aggressive approach. Fail.


I really think – and here I have observed Tim Blair’s warning about a sense of humour in WebDiary “Copping it Sweet” Friday May 25 – the science community should not be so compliant and welcome any and every statement of projected investment, like some kind of grateful beggar. I know they are starving but its time for some self-respect and some militancy please!


And instead of wasting money and training (as per the chief scientist Robin Batterham) on giving scientists and engineers the appropriate selling skills it would be better to give them activist training! Maybe scientists should take a leaf out of the self-funded retirees book on “how to extort more money out of the government”.


Take off your lab coats guys and don the cardigans instead! At the least scrape together the last of your research dollars into an aggressive media scare campaign, or maybe one featuring prominent sports people saying nice things about R&D.


The problem is not only a reluctance of governments to “do the right thing” but that science – unless its about D.N.A. or involves some cool thing in outer space – is B-O-R-I-N-G. Scientists have no political clout because no-one cares. The only time people think about it is when scientists start cloning sheep and talk about genetic modifications.


My expat scientist husband likes to joke about the desired closure of the Lucas Heights Reactor by saying “What, and have a lot of angry unemployed nuclear physicists running around?” But does that scare anyone? Do scientists have a tenth of the scare power of farmers?


This brings me to the more serious stuff of “myths” and the strange, paranoid comments in Webdiary “Gen-Xers are Serious Young Insects” by the PhD in electrical engineering “Brian Jones”.


First Brian’s “Myths”.


(1) There is a lack of people doing science, engineering and IT. This is absolute rubbish! The numbers in engineering and IT are on the increase. The real problem is that many companies only want the very best and experienced people. When recruiters and companies say there is a shortage of skilled people they really mean skilled people of a very high calibre.


Yes, it is true that IT is probably flooded with less than high calibre people – if Oz is anything like Canada you probably have heaps of adverts in print media and television for IT qualifications along the lines of “Can you read to the end of this advert? You can! Congratulations – you qualify for a career in IT!” But there is a genuine decline in enrolment in the sciences, as Barry Jones stated, as the Institute of Physics has stated over the past few years, as most science faculties could tell you.


And you can’t just blame it on recruiters and posters in bus shelters, you have to ask why there is a lack of skilled people of a very high calibre? Not because idiots are enrolling, but because they lack proper research and industry experience, and are not suitably qualified.


Why? Could it be because there are few enough positions for qualified scientists and engineers in industry and government research bodies, let alone for cadets or traineeships or just summer work experience? Could it be the steady drain from universities into research positions in industry and the lack of proper university funding means second rate equipment, inadequate library facilities, frustrated cynical staff, all adding up to mean the education they receive is more closely approaching adequate than outstanding?


Could it possibly have something to do with the fact that there is a brain drain to the US and Canada and other countries leaving behind fewer and fewer mentors for the next generation? Could it be that scientists and engineers and academic staff are having to spend more time being “managers” and out seeking funds, leaving less time to supervise, less time to give a damn?


(2) People leave Australia because the salaries are poor. Consider this. You’re talking about salaries ranging from $50K to $120K for corporate R&D. Ask someone who is earning less than $30K (either in the city or rural areas) if these are poor salaries! People leave for three reasons: careerism, lifestyle interests and even more money.


Hello, have you checked the value of the Australian peso lately? Even leaving aside the sorry state of the dollar, to compare research salaries to $30K is a bit of a cheap shot!. Well of course $50K plus is more money than $30K. However, remember the wild, crazy idea that remuneration is commensurate with experience and education? That a PhD would give you more salary power than a Bachelors, all other things being equal? That is what happens in Canada, that is what I suspect is happening in Finland, that is what happens in the USA – that is what happens in a society where researchers are valued! You get paid more.


And what kind of qualifications are usually required in research? Post docs, PhDs and Masters. That is why they get paid as much as they do and quite often a lot less than people in my profession(the law) who rarely have Masters, post docs or PhDs.


Brian wrote: “Big deal if the chief scientist Robin Batterham says there are no Porsches in the car park. I receive an annual package worth close to six-figures and I ride a $200 bicycle to work. Do you think I care?”



The point Robin Batterham was making was *symbolic*. And there are plenty of Porsches in the carparks of research labs in Ottawa. Not all of us are able to withstand the siren song of materialist possessions either.


Brian wrote: “Consider what happens when you have another group of people who all earn over $100K and have somewhat right-wing tendencies? In my experience, scientists and engineers are not the most sympathetic group of people towards low-income earners, farmers, and the disadvantaged. There’ll be greater affluence for a few people.”


Oh and lawyers and doctors and financial consultants are much more sympathetic I suppose? My argument is based on the idea that increased R&D in Australia is to safeguard Australia from becoming a banana republic, a nation left behind.


Brian: “The end result could simply be the creation of another elite group. If you listen carefully to groups such as the Institution of Engineers Australia, you’ll find that what they really want is for engineers to have more power and influence, and not necessarily higher salaries! I think Australia has done well not to let scientists & engineers have as much influence as in countries such as France and the USA. We don’t want to be giving too much power to another group of specialists, and highly paid specialists at that.”


What influence do French and US scientists have that is questionable in its wisdom, what kind of decisions are they improperly impacting upon, what policy are they inappropriately guiding? This fear of the specialist is precisely what *Barry* Jones’ deplores in the “The Cult of Management” subsection in his speech to Macquarie University, April 27 (see WebDiary waiting for the Knowledge Nation, Wednesday May 16) It disheartens me to see someone who has survived the cutbacks and secured themselves a good position in reward for their hard work should be so uncaring of their fellow travellers.


Finally, thanks for all the cheques Margo, keep ’em coming!




Spin and Substance


By Sean Cody


Channel 4 has been running a series of documentaries in the past couple of weeks under the umbrella heading of “Politics Isn’t Working”. Monday’s show was titled “Party Crashers”. Three young people were asked to pose as volunteers and try to infiltrate the party headquarters of Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, then to keep a video diary of what they saw and experienced while working in the party machines.


While some would not agree with this style of investigation, it was a fascinating expose of how certain matters are dealt with by the three major parties in this election campaign. The following appears to be acceptable behaviour.


You are the leader of the ruling Labour Party. Because of an epidemic of foot and mouth disease you find it necessary to postpone the Local Authority and General Elections until later in the year. Instead of informing the public relations staff in Labour Headquarters, you get in touch with the editor of the Sun newspaper and inform everyone via a leak in the morning paper. Your party headquarters are thrown into confusion but you don’t seem too worried.


You are a senior apparatchik with the Liberal Democrats arranging an interview/PR exercise with the leader Charles Kennedy and the Lib Dem candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds. You appoint as press officer for the occasion not one of your experienced media liaison people but a volunteer with no experience, but coincidentally, is an Asian woman.


When deciding which of the candidates will be given a chance to say something, you veto most of the candidates because you believe that the moment any of them open their mouths the spin doctors will have to go into overdrive to repair the “damage”. You decide that only Kennedy should speak at the interview.


Finally, you try at all costs to avoid the fact that virtually all of your candidate showcases of ethnic diversity are standing in unwinnable seats.


You are a PR guru with the Conservatives. You move most of the elderly volunteers out of the party’s call centre and replace them with young, dynamic types from differing backgrounds, wheel in the news cameras, Hague follows, and bingo!! Instant campaign launch for the press and public, highlighting the tireless, young and vibrant Conservative Party workers that sacrifice their time for the good of England. The stand ins are removed and the original workers led back in.


Later you bring into the same call centre a young model no-one has seen before who is in a wheelchair, put a headset on her, stick her in front of a terminal, and take photographs. She leave, never to be seen again until a party platform leaflet is handed around and she is on the cover.


You are a Labour spin doctor with concerns about stories being covered by the BBC. So phone one of the production staff at BBC1 and demand to know the running order for the Today show (a morning current affairs program) and the daily news. When the staffer won’t tell you, you respond with school bully tactics – “Do you know who I am?”, “What’s your name?” and “Let

me speak to your supervisor”. You get in touch with a more senior employee and suggest stories the BBC should be covering on Labour’s campaign. You joke with colleagues about feeding information to “tame” journalists, even to the point of writing the stories for them.


You are a member of any of the three main parties in this election committed to achieving success for your party. You cultivate relationships with people in other parties and place moles in the headquarters of the other parties. These people give you immediate access to information from your opponents such as press releases and survey results. You either leak this information to the press, or use it to get some your people on the ground at the opposition’s campaign launches to cause a ruckus.


Is it any wonder, when activities such as these appear to be common practice and don’t even raise an eyebrow, that most people feel jaded and disillusioned by politicians and their antics?