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highlight It’s not so long ago that the idea of buying and drinking bottled water seemed like a mad extravagance to most Australians, given that you can get it for free from the tap. But these days, bottled water is on sale at every café, restaurant and event, and in vending machines everywhere you turn. Most of us have bought a bottle of water at some point, even if it’s just because we were thirsty on the go, and watching our sugar consumption.

But when you apply pure logic, buying bottled water still seems, well, illogical … at least here in Melbourne, where our tap water is among the best in the world.

In a recent blind taste-test, the Age’s wine reviewer Ralph Kyte-Powell and Huon Hooke tasted 15 brands of bottled water, as well as both Sydney and Melbourne tap water. Their findings? Melbourne tap water beat almost half the bottled brands. ‘If you filter your tap water, it’s perfectly good and competitive with most bottled waters,’ said Huon Hooke, who admitted that the pair were ‘far from cynical’ about bottled water as a product.

And that’s a foodie’s point of view, based on taste alone. When you consider the cost (more than the price of petrol) and the environmental impact (including both energy consumed to make the plastic packaging and the subsequent waste), the idea of drinking bottled water seems stranger still.

’It’s one of the greatest cons ever pulled’

Bottled water is generally 2500 times more expensive than tap water. According to Peter Gleick, president of the California-based Pacific Institute, bottled water burns at least 17 million barrels of oil a year in the US alone, just in making the bottles themselves. And then there’s the added carbon impact of transporting it.

‘It’s one of the greatest cons ever pulled,’ Clean Up Australia chairman Ian Kiernan told the Age in 2007. ‘It’s just lunacy, there is no other word for it. We are squandering our oil resources.’

In Australia, only 35 per cent of bottles are recycled; 55 per cent go to landfill, creating thousands of tonnes of rubbish per year.

When it comes to imported water, there’s another issue at stake, too: the impact of diverting water from communities who need it to survive.

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Nestle CEO: Water is not a human right

Fiji Water is one of the world’s most popular brands, and America’s leading imported water (though it costs nearly three times as much as the average supermarket bottled water and is shipped from the opposite side of the world). A Mother Jones reporter described the typhoid outbreaks that plague Fijians because of the island’s faulty water supplies, and the fact that the water in Rakiraki, a small town half an hour from the bottling plant, is deemed ‘unfit for human consumption’. Grocery stores there are stocked with Fiji Water, which sells for the same price as in the US. ‘Half the country has at times relied on emergency water supplies, with rations as low as four gallons a week per family.’

Nestlé, the world’s biggest bottler of water (controlling more than 70 brands), made headlines when chairman and former CEO Peter Brabeck claimed that access to water is not a public right, or even a human right; he views it as ‘the most important raw material in the world’ and says the idea of water as a human right comes from ‘extremist’ NGOs.

In the small Pakistani community of Bhati Dilwan, a former village councillor says children are being sickened by filthy water – and that Nestlé are to blame, after they dug a deep well that is depriving locals of potable water. ‘The water is not only very dirty, but the water level sank from 100 to 300 to 400 feet.’

Do you want bling with that?: $55 per bottle

bling_h20Bling H20 is the most expensive water brand in the world: it comes in a bottle adorned with Swarovski crystals and costs $55 a bottle. (It also comes in plastic bottles for $20 per bottle, reduced from $24 after the GFC.) Apparently Paris Hilton feeds it to her dog. Created by a Hollywood producer, the brand was created because, observing actors on film sets, he ‘noticed that you could tell a lot about a person by the bottled water they carried’ and decided to create a product for the ‘super luxury market’. The success of the brand represents the bottled water market at the height of its ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ emptiness.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Bling H20 are the ethical bottled water companies, who donate all or part of their profits to improving water supplies in the developing world. In Australia, Thankyou bottled water donates all its profits. The company estimates that each bottle provides at least one month’s worth of safe water to someone in need – though it has also has also attracted controversy in the past year, due to its ties to the Planetshakers church and donations to Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian organisation that runs aid and development programs in the developing world ‘with the aim of demonstrating God’s love and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ’. One, which also gives away all its profits, was created in a London pub, by a group of friends reflecting on the fact that one billion people in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water.

So, are ethical water companies the way to go? Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania, says no. ‘It’s kind of insidious, because it perpetuates the idea that it’s better to drink water in a bottle.’

Sally Loane of Coca-Cola Amatil, Australia’s largest producer of bottled water, doesn’t see a problem with it as a product. ‘There is a market for it. Consumers like the convenience of bottled water. A lot of people believe it tastes better. It’s nice and cold. That’s what consumers want, and that’s what we’re giving them.’


Join us for On Water: Eight Speakers, Eight Stories, on Tuesday 11 March at 6.15pm.

Speakers include Oxfam CEO Helen Szoke, conservation consultant and editor Helen Doyle and Chris Ying, editor-in-chief of McSweeneys' Lucky Peach.

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25 February 2014

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highlightLate last year, the Wheeler Centre hosted a Fifth Estate discussion of food culture. ‘It seems to me it’s become out of control,’ said host Sally Warhaft, of our current obsession with food.

‘I’m interested in why every time we pick up the Saturday Age’s Life and Style supplement, we have to struggle through artisan salt to get to books, movies and features,’ agreed Maria Tumarkin, who noted that the bestselling books of 2010 and 2011 were food books – Julie Goodwin and Jamie Oliver respectively. ‘It took something like 50 Shades of Grey to really challenge the dominance of food books.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with the celebration of food, or engagement with food, it’s just that there’s so much of it.’

Food writer Richard Cornish disagreed. ‘Every culture I’ve been to will discuss food on a daily basis,’ he said. ‘It’s come late to Australia.’

‘Our very existence is determined by what we eat and how we eat.’

The foodie backlash

UK writer Steven Poole caused a sensation calling for a ‘foodie backlash’ in the Guardian last October, when his book You Are Not What You Eat was extracted.

Poole skewered the pretension of what he calls ‘foodism’ – its faux spirituality, its insistence that food is art, and the analogy of food as the drug of choice for fortysomethings who’ve given up their former vices.

He quotes Blur bassist turned Sun food columnist Alex James. ‘My 20th birthday was all about booze, my 30th birthday was about drugs, and now I realise that my 40s are about food.’

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Blur bassist Alex James: ‘If you go to Africa and play a Blur song, someone might have to translate. Give them cheese, though, and they can instantly taste it and react.’

‘Food is a brilliant way to connect with anyone,’ says James. ‘I used to think that music was a universal language. But if you go to Africa and play a Blur song, someone might have to translate. Give them cheese, though, and they can instantly taste it and react.’

Oxfam executive director Andrew Hewett travels regularly to Africa, and he sees a disconnect between the obsession with food in countries like Australia and how the 14% of the world’s population who regularly go hungry are living.

‘We really have gone over the top in the way we think about some of these things,’ he told the Fifth Estate audience last September.

‘Eighty per cent of the people going hungry are food producers themselves. They suffer from a lack of investment, a lack of support, of tools, seeds, and a lack of transport for their products. If we focused our attentions on using our overseas aid programs to support them … that’s a shortcut to helping people find their way out of hunger.’

Food as a force for good

Stephanie-Alexander Can food be a force for good? Ethical eating movements have grown in the past decade. There’s the slow food movement, which encourages people to savour their food and integrate it into their family and community lives. The local food movement focuses on reducing the carbon footprint of food transport by encouraging people to eat food sourced as close to home as possible; this feeds into seasonal eating, encouraged by chefs like Alice Waters in the US and Stephanie Alexander in Australia. Others focus on the quality of life of the animals we eat, avoiding factory-farmed cows and sheep, battery hens and dolphin-unfriendly tuna.

Maria Tumarkin says that she dislikes the popular idea that ‘if we just consume the right kind of things, we are helping’ – because it is so seductive, such an easy solution. ‘It gets us off the hook. It perpetuates our obsession with food. You obsess about the right kind of food.’

Cristy Clark has thought seriously about what she eats and why for most of her life. Aged five, she became a vegetarian; aged fifteen, she became a vegan – and 15 years later, she changed her philosophy again, to become an ecotarian, meaning that she weighs her food choices to consider the full range of ethical issues that relate to her impact on people, animals and the environment. It can be difficult, but she believes it’s worth it.

‘Including some animal products in my diet has opened a whole new dimension of complexity, but at the same time it has often enabled me to make more ethical and sustainable choices than strict veganism allowed.’

Charlotte Wood, author of Love and Hunger, also carefully weighs her eating choices in the aim of ‘treading on the earth lightly’. She tries ‘to reduce environmental damage and waste, to support small independent producers and business people who I think have integrity and who contribute to a diverse commercial ecology’, and to reduce harm to animals.

‘The decisions I make [in food consumption] are to look after people locally – and they look after you,’ says Richard Cornish. ‘That’s the way I was brought up and the way I was trained in business.’ For him, ethical eating comes with a bonus: taste. He says that generally, products labelled organic, free-range, Rainforest Alliance and similar, taste better because of the way they’re produced.

‘Our pleasure senses have been corrupted,’ he says, bemoaning the fact that many Australians prefer the taste of junk food flavoured with chilli, salt and fat over a just-underripe apple, for instance. ‘We haven’t been trained. We don’t know what tastes good and bad anymore.’

Richard runs a course, Taste 101, with wine writer Max Allen, to address the problem. Together, they train people to ‘calibrate your most sensitive instruments – your senses of smell and taste – to get maximum pleasure from your own palate’.

The princesses and the peas

1peas In his essay ‘The Sound of One Hand Shopping’, New York humourist David Rakoff suggested that our obsession with food perfection might just be the height of narcissism. ‘We have become an army of multiply chemically sensitive, high-maintenance princesses trying to make our way through a world of irksome peas.’

‘I will stipulate to having both French sea salt and a big bottle of extra virgin olive oil in my kitchen,’ he wrote. ‘And while the presence of both might go some small distance in pigeonholing me demographically, neither one of them makes me a good person. They are mute and useless indicators of the content of my character.’

Andrew Hewett believes that ‘we do need to put the morality back into the conversation, and the practicality of supplying the world’s food’. But he doesn’t have a problem with our food preoccupation.

‘For me, that obsession we have with food could be a way towards starting that conversation.’


Our first Intelligence Squared debate of 2013, Our Food Obsession Has Gone too Far, will be held at Melbourne Town Hall next Wednesday 6 March at 6.30pm. Book now.

Richard Cornish will argue against the proposition, with Fuchsia Dunlop and Alla Wolf-Tasker. Matthew Evans, Katy Barfield and Wendy Harmer will argue for the proposition.

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26 February 2013

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Susan Neiman is an optimist; and a progressive. Hope is at the core of her quest to take back words like ‘moral clarity’ and ‘moral values’ from conservatives.

Her book Moral Clarity (2008) is the vehicle for that quest, passionately arguing for a set of moral values that have been largely lost by both sides of politics – and coining a language in which to express them.

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Susan Neiman: ‘The Enlightenment conception of happiness was an active conception, not the idea of accumulating as much stuff as possible.’

The New York Times said, ‘She clearly and unflinchingly sees life as it is, but also sees how it might be, and could be, if we recaptured some of the hopes and ideals that currently escape us’.

Why moral clarity matters

Her quest was sparked by the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, with many who’d voted for him citing his ‘moral clarity’ as their motivation. Rather than simply dismissing those voters as clearly ‘nuts’ or ‘stupid’, as many on the left did, Neiman asked, ‘What is it that progressives have been doing wrong that allows millions of people to say that we’re lacking in moral clarity?’

One of the questions she examined was where morality comes from. ‘An awful lot of people both left and right associate morality with religion, which is one reason progressives get nervous around moral language, language like good and evil.’ She says that Christian fundamentalist conservatives, who are comfortable talking about good and evil, had come to own those conversations.

Neiman believes it’s ‘crucial’ that progressives don’t demonise religion; that they realise the ‘liberating and progressive’ role it has often played throughout history. But she also believes religion is not necessary to back up morality; it’s just one way in which people choose to ground and express their moral convictions.

Reason and reverence: we need both

‘The fundamentalists in all three fundamentalist religions are right to see something profound in a culture where reverence is utterly lacking,’ Neiman says. She argues for a worldview in which reason and reverence are not at odds, but work in tandem. ‘In order to be decent, we must keep one eye on each.’

Neiman draws on the Enlightenment to build her moral framework, which centres on four key values: happiness, reason, reverence and hope.

moral-clarity-a-guide-for-grown-up-idealists‘The Enlightenment conception of happiness was an active conception, not the idea of accumulating as much stuff as possible, but the idea that human beings are happy when they’re active, when they’re creating, when they’re part of the world,’ she says. ‘Before the Enlightenment, the tendency was to think that whatever happened to a person was ordained by God. ‘If you were poor, you probably deserved it.’

Reason, for Neiman, means that ‘when you’re making arguments about moral and political issues, you cannot appeal to private intuition or emotion, you can’t say God told me to invade another country.’ You need to build an argument that will stand up in public.

Reverence is about recognising the limits of human beings; respect for creation – for something bigger than us. This is something, she says, that environmental movements and some religious groups are finding they have in common. Enlightenment thinkers, she says, ‘were clear about the idea that we should be grateful for the fact of creation and we should recognize that … there’s something larger than all of us, which ought to stop us from arrogance and overweening pride.’

Her final core value, hope, does not mean blind optimism, but hoping and working for a better future. Enlightenment thinkers did not believe progress was necessary or inevitable; ‘they only believed it was possible’.

Reasons for hope and noisy markets

Neiman identifies the abolition of torture as ‘one of the great Enlightenment achievements’. The abolition of slavery and the ushering in of the fundamental idea of racial and ethnic equality is another marker of real progress that has been made since the Enlightenment.

‘In the most optimistic days of the early 60s none of us could have imagined that we would live to see the day where we would be voting for a black man for president of the United States,’ she says. ‘I didn’t think I’d live to see this day.’

She admits that none of these achievements have been conclusively made; there is much work to be done. But they are major steps in the right direction, causes for hope.

The next big change in direction we need, Neiman believes, is to acknowledge the damage being wreaked by the dominance of market forces; by a culture that preaches economic self-interest as the single driving force of human action. ‘The power of the market is so strong it now drowns reason out.’

‘Obviously the world has gotten worse in all kinds of ways,’ says Neiman. But she is hopeful.

For her, hope, is about ‘believing that all of us acting together in accordance with certain ideals can make significant improvements in the world and that we’re not in fact driven by the bottom line’.


Susan Neiman is director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, near Berlin.

Susan will be giving a keynote address in our Faith and Culture series, The Politics of Belief: The Voice of Faith and the Challenge of Reason in National and International Politics, on Saturday 16 June at 2.15pm. Free, but please book.

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05 June 2012

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Most audience members for Tuesday night’s Intelligence Squared debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, murmured to each other that they were clearly in the majority company of vegetarians, vegans and animal activists.

But a pre-debate poll taken as the audience filed in from Swanston Street proved that, while passionate animal rights supporters were indeed in the majority, the audience was more divided than you might think. Well, sort of.

A majority of 65% supported the proposition that Animals Should Be Off the Menu, while 22.5% were against and 12.5% were undecided.

Peter Singer: Livestock worse for climate change than transport

singer Internationally renowned ethicist Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, began, arguing on the grounds of health, the best use of the food we produce, environmental considerations and animal ethics.

‘We can live a healthy life with animals off the menu,’ he said, citing the long and healthy lives of lifelong vegetarians – and of second or third generation vegetarians – to prove his point.

It was an argument that opposing speaker and chef Adrian Richardson (author of the cookbook Meat) would later support. A vegetarian as a child, with vegetarian parents and grandparents, he said that he has vegetarian relatives who lived ‘well into their nineties’ – as did his omnivore relatives on the other side of the family.

‘Even small portions of red meat are likely to increase your chance of dying, including from cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes,’ Singer said, citing a recent much-discussed study from Harvard University.

‘Animal production is a major factor in climate change,’ said Singer. ‘Livestock production is a bigger contributor to climate change than all transport.’ He said that 20 years worth of methane production is 72 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

And he delivered sad news for advocates of free-range beef: cattle fed on grass produce 50% more methane than grain-fed cattle. ‘There is no way to have ecologically sustainable cattle,’ he concluded.

Fiona Chambers: Animals a vital link in global ecology

FFR_Fiona_Highlight Fiona Chambers, the first speaker against the proposition, has been farming organically on her Daylesford property since 1990 and was the first person in Victoria to have certified organic pork.

‘Animals are a vital link in global ecology,’ she said, arguing that breeding rare animals for consumption is a way of preventing them from becoming extinct.

Yet, she argued that ‘animal welfare and sentience are not at the centre of this debate; ecological welfare is’.

The best way to achieve sustainability, she said, is through methods like rotating the use of paddocks.

‘Animals are important just as the earth and the sun are important, but they are not the central issue.’

Philip Wollen: If slaughterhouses had glass walls

wollen While Peter Singer was the primary crowd-puller for the evening, it was Philip Wollen, a former vice president of Citibank turned founder of the Kindness Trust, who attracted a partial standing ovation on the night, with his passionate, emotive arguments.

‘Animals must be off the menu because tonight they are screaming in terror in slaughterhouses,’ he began, going on to detail what he witnessed when he visited slaughterhouses in his former life; an experience that changed him forever.

‘In our capacity to suffer, a dog is a pig is a bear … is a boy,’ he thundered.

Though he cited a litany of damning statistics (by 2048, all our fisheries will be dead; 10,000 species are wiped out every year because of one – us), he did find some hope in the way the internet enables people to come together to address causes.

‘Ten years ago, Twitter was a bird sound and www was a stuck keyboard.’

He concluded darkly: ‘Animals are not just other species, they are other nations, and we murder them at our peril. If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we wouldn’t be having this debate tonight.’

Bruce McGregor: Eating animals means food security

Animal scientists Bruce McGregor was appropriately nervous about following Wollen’s act. ‘I’m on a hiding to nothing already,’ he joked as he began. ‘But being a St Kilda supporter, I’m used to it.’

He argued that taking animals off the menu would threaten the food security of ‘at least two billion people’ – and that these kinds of debates often tend to overlook the natural losses (or deaths) that occur in every system.

Veronica Ridge: Making the crowd hungry

The Age’s Life&Style editor (and former Epicure editor) Veronica Ridge spoke like a true foodie; arguing that taking animals off the menu doesn’t mean saying goodbye to inventive, delicious meals.

‘There has been a revolution in vegetarian and vegan cooking in the last decade,’ she said, before going on to describe some of those meals in salacious detail. Refrains of ‘you’re making me hungry’ briefly filled the active Twitter feed (#iq2oz).

Like Singer, Ridge concluded that ‘there is no such thing as humane slaughter’.

Adrian Richardson: ‘If it has a pulse, I’ll cook it.’

Meat-loving chef Adrian Richardson opened his argument with a resounding bang. ‘If it has a pulse, I’ll cook it,’ he declared.

Rebutting Singer, he declared that, yes, too much meat kills you. ‘Or too much chips, donuts or processed crap.’

‘A few meat-free days and lots of leafy greens will do wonders for the planet and your health.’

In a burst of Mars/Venus humour, he declared that he needed to say, for his wife and ‘for the ladies’, that chocolate is part of a balanced diet.

art_MEAT-Cover-200x0 ‘If you want to stop factory farming, don’t eat supermarket meat,’ he said. ‘Go to your local butcher: remember him? I’m sure there are some ladies here who do. As long as death is quick and painless, eating animals is okay. Fiona’s pigs are delicious.’

He said the proposition that Animals Should be Off the Menu is ‘ridiculous’.

‘Don’t you think we can all enjoy a tender, juicy, grass-fed steak occasionally? Eat meat responsibly.’

Audience input: schooled by a kid

As the votes were counted to decide who won the debate, the audience got their chance to speak, for one minute each, for or against the proposition.

One of the last speakers was a 12-year-old schoolboy.

He said, ‘I am for taking meat off the menu. I don’t think it is appropriate to throw meat on a grill and smother it with barbecue sauce. How would you feel if that was you? Or your children? Or your siblings? Or your mother?’

One tweep quipped in reponse, ‘We borrow the earth from our children. Sorry negative team, but you just got schooled by a kid.’

Changing minds

No one was especially surprised when the debate was resoundingly won by the ‘for’ side, who argued that Animals Should Be Off the Menu.

The post-debate statistics read 73.6% for the proposition, 19.3% against, and 6.9% undecided. So – a significant number of audience members were evidently swayed by the speakers.

But the movement wasn’t all one-sided. One tweep told the Wheeler Centre they started off on the ‘for’ side and moved to the ‘against’. Why? ‘I didn’t like the FOR team’s emotional manipulation and black and white thinking. Sustainable and humane farming is the way forward.’

Surely, that’s a mark of success for an exchange of ideas: people left with new ideas and changed convictions, on both sides of the argument.

The video for this debate is now online; watch it here.

Anna Krien will be speaking about her Quarterly Essay on our treatment of animals, in Us and Them, at the Wheeler Centre on Wednesday 4 April at 6.15pm. The event is free, but bookings are recommended.

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22 March 2012

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In the past week, we’ve heard from vegan-turned-ecotarian Cristy Clark and interviewed passionate food lover Charlotte Wood on how they frame their ethical approach to how they shop, cook and eat.

Today, in the last of our series on ethical eating, we talk to committed vegan Lisa Dempster, food blogger, former editor of the Veg Good Food Guide and director of the Emerging Writers' Festival.

You’re a passionate vegan. What are your reasons for not eating animals or animal products?

highlight I became interested in veganism for environmental reasons. It’s hard to be a meat-eating environmentalist, as the saying goes! I’m disturbed by the amount of meat we eat and the impact it has on our planet. Additionally, I am disgusted by most modern farming practices and the increasingly inhumane direction our production of meat and dairy has taken. After five years, veganism does just kind of become second nature as well. As a vegan I feel energetic and I eat a huge variety of delicious foods, while knowing that my diet is compassionate and environmentally friendly. That my diet is in line with my ethics just feels really right for me.

I read that Peter Singer inspired you to become a vegan. How did this happen?

In reality, my transition to veganism started several years before I turned. I was reading all sorts of books on food production, like Not on the Label and Fast Food Nation, and becoming increasingly aware of the impact that our diets can have on the environment and on our bodies. So I had been thinking about, and trying to make, ethical food choices for quite a while. I had never really considered veganism because I’m not particularly radical. But then I read Peter Singer’s The Ethics of What We Eat, which sent me into a tailspin. It made me think again about how I felt about the foods I was eating, and examine my diet closely to see how I felt about it. And I didn’t feel great about it. So even though I had previously discounted veganism as ‘not for me’, I decided that I couldn’t justifiably knock it till I tried it … so I decided to go vegan for a month to see what it was like. I found it really easy, and when the month drew to a close I just stuck with it.

How did you make the transition to veganism? And how hard was it?

I had a really easy transition actually, despite the fact I went straight from omnivore to vegan. After I tried it out for a month, I just kept going. The test run worked for me because it eliminated the mental barrier of ‘becoming vegan’. Although my commitment to veganism was intellectually there, I didn’t picture myself as a vegan and was worried that it would be hard. By giving it a trial run, I was able to try veganism on for size without feeling any pressure. When I decided to commit to veganism at the end of 30 days I was already living the lifestyle, so I didn’t have to worry about making the switch.

vegan_pav sml

‘If you don’t want to eat animal products, as I don’t, it’s not much of a challenge to avoid them.’

A common misconception about veganism is that it must be really hard to maintain such a restrictive diet. But actually, if you don’t want to eat animal products, as I don’t, it’s not much of a challenge to avoid them. The hardest bit I guess was that you start spending a lot of time reading labels – and getting shocked about what kinds of things have animal products in them! So it’s time consuming at first, figuring out what stuff in your shopping is vegan or not, but you soon get quicker at it.

The vegan food community seems a close-knit one; you’ve written about making new vegan friends since your transition to veganism. What are the advantages of being part of the vegan community? And how are these connections forged?

When I first turned vegan I was blogging about food a lot and then I edited two editions of The Australian Veg Food Guide, and through those channels I got to meet a lot of vegans, which was fabulous. A group of vegan food bloggers started having potlucks together, and we became good friends. When I was a new vegan, having those support networks were critical. In addition to sharing information about where and what to eat, it’s just a relief to hang out with people who get it.

vegan_brunswick Now, with social media, it’s easier than ever to connect with other vegans in your city, which I always recommend new vegans do. I don’t know about the vegan food community all being close-knit, though we often tend know each other. Being vegan is kind of like being in a weird club – you soon find out if anyone else is a member. I’ve been lucky to meet loads of vegans through my blog and by doing vegan food writing, and we’re a pretty diverse bunch. Vegans in Melbourne are punks, they’re professionals, they’re athletes, they’re academics… we’re kind of everywhere. I call us the Vegan Mafia!

You became a vegan for ethical reasons. Are there health benefits too? If so, what benefits have realised?

There are a few common misconceptions about veganism – one is that vegans are all health nuts, the other is that vegans are all sick, frail and weak. It’s quite funny. In fact, veganism in itself is not inherently healthy or unhealthy, though studies have shown that vegetarianism reduces your risk of developing things like bowel cancer, obesity and heart conditions.

I’m pretty healthy, but I know plenty of junk food vegans, which is possible in Australia, when you consider that things like beer, Barbecue Shapes, Oreos and Baker’s Delight are vegan. I’ve had people, on hearing that I’m veg, tell me about a sickly vegan that they know. I can’t help but laugh: I’ve cycled across the Nullarbor on a vegan diet, hiked 1200 kilometres in Japan, I ride my bike about 200 kilometres a week, I work out at the gym … I’m the opposite of frail. I have loads of energy, which I put down to the variety and abundance of foods that I eat – my diet is way more varied now than it ever was when I was an omni.

vegan_food

‘Getting drawn into arguments is not pleasant, especially when you’re eating, so I tend to keep my politics off the table as much as possible’

What are the challenges of being a vegan?

There aren’t many, really. It’s just a habit for me now and in Melbourne it’s possible to be vegan with no real hassles; travelling can be a bit more challenging. The only difficult part is dealing with other people, sometimes. People can be pretty intense when they hear you’re vegan. Some get defensive about it, like you’re judging them, others go on the offensive and try to argue with you or tell you what you’re doing is wrong. Or they try to ‘catch’ you eating something non-vegan, which is actually kind of funny.

I’m fairly inured to it these days, and am good at defusing any given situation or shutting it down outright. I have a policy of not policing what anyone else eats and not letting anyone else police me; getting drawn into arguments is not pleasant, especially when you’re eating, so I tend to keep my politics off the table as much as possible.

Lisa Dempster is the director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival and author of Neon Pilgrim. She blogs at www.lisadempster.com.au.

Join us tonight for our Intelligence Squared debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, at Melbourne Town Hall at 6.30pm. Speakers will include ethicist Peter Singer, chef Adrian Richardson and the Age’s Veronica Ridge. Tickets are $20 or $12 concession. You can book online.

All food photographs on this page are taken by Lisa Dempster.

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20 March 2012

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Charlotte Wood is best known as one of Australia’s favourite novelists, but she’s also becoming known as a passionate food lover. She blogs regularly about food at How to Shuck an Oyster – and her next book, Love and Hunger, an ode to good food, will be published in May.

On the eve of tomorrow night’s Intelligence Squared debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, we talked to her about food, ethics, offal and going vegetarian for a month.

Reading your writing about food, you clearly have an ethical framework you apply to what you eat. What is it, how did you come to it – and how does it influence how you cook and eat on a daily basis?

highlight My ethical framework is as rickety as anyone else’s, I fear. But my approach to food is just an extension of the ethics I try to live by in the rest of my life – doing my bit to ‘touch the earth lightly’, I suppose. To reduce environmental damage and waste, to support small independent producers and business people who I think have integrity and who contribute to a diverse commercial ecology, if I can put it that way.

In recent years, I have come to include attempts to reduce animal suffering in my consideration of food. When I’m eating out, it’s much harder, particularly as we tend to eat at local, cheapie ‘ethnic’ restaurants where none of these issues are particularly on the radar (or at least they’re not discussed with customers) and I am not the kind of person who enjoys questioning waiters about the origins of the chicken at the local Thai. Which means I am pretty much ethics-free in eating out, I suppose. Sigh.

love_hunger_webBut in cooking at home, trying to behave ‘ethically’ with food means shopping at independent food stores as much as possible – we have good grocers and fish shops nearby and a weekly farmer’s market within walking distance of home, so that is very easy for us to do. I try to buy as little as possible of anything – and certainly almost no fresh food apart from milk – from the big two supermarkets because I hate their domination of food production in this country, the way they screw farmers, and I don’t believe their prices are as competitive as we are led to believe.

I also try to keep an eye on the kinds of seafood we eat, because I have only recently come to understand just how detrimental seafood farming and fishing practices are. I try to buy stuff with the least amount of packaging possible, so I don’t buy vegetables in bags or on Styrofoam trays and so on as much as I can help it.

Almost all our meat now comes from Feather & Bone, a really fantastic small company in Sydney run by people who are committed to sustainable agriculture and humanely raised meat – they buy direct from farmers, visit all farms in person to inspect their premises and practices, as well as visiting abattoirs to ensure they are satisfied with the meat processing practices.

I try to avoid chucking food out because of the greenhouse gases produced by green food waste, along with the general philosophical aversion to waste. So that means using leftovers to make other stuff, freezing bits of this and that, and chucking any possible odds and ends into the worm farm rather than garbage. Recycling packaging as much as possible is a matter of course.

Writing all this down makes it sound rather earnest and plodding, but actually, we do it all so automatically and instinctively that it feels completely easy and natural and pleasurable.

We are not very health-conscious people and our food choices come down far more on the side of pleasure than health. But we do only eat fresh unprocessed food, mainly because of the pleasure I get from cooking it, we think it tastes better – and it’s just the way we were both brought up.

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‘Cooking and eating good fresh food is a very, very easy way to live for us – there’s no sense of drudgery about it at all.’

Working at home probably means I have more time than most people to devote to cooking, and not having kids means I don’t need to cook separate meals or coax reluctant little people to eat fresh food and so on. So cooking and eating good fresh food is a very, very easy way to live for us – there’s no sense of drudgery about it at all.

You’ve said that in recent years, you have thought a lot about your love of meat, and eating it has caused you ‘guilt and unease’. What is it that makes you feel that way? And how have you come to terms with that?

Two things: environmental degradation from meat production, and animal suffering. I suspect I will always feel conflicted about eating meat, and in one sense I think that’s good – it’s the only way to consistently calibrate my own ethical behaviour towards animals.

As Jonathan Safran Foer so baldly puts it, the most frequent contact most of us have with animals is eating them. I can easily avoid cruelty to animals by not actively harming them – but almost every time I eat a piece of bacon in a cafe, I am participating in extreme cruelty towards an animal more intelligent and perceptive and sensitive than most dogs. If I refuse to think about that, I’m not sure I can perceive myself as the civilised person I would like to be.

That said: I still eat some meat. I don’t eat nearly so much as I used to, but the major way I have come to terms with eating meat is to support, as much as I can, small environmentally responsible producers of ‘humanely’ raised and processed meat.

dongdopork2 This means buying real free range pork (difficult as there are so few producers) and free-range chicken, and – as much as possible – lamb and beef that have not been finished on grain. This is relatively easy for me to do, given my access to what I have come to think of as my ‘meat conscience’, Feather & Bone. I have a very strong relationship with the owners, and over time have come to completely trust them to do the research for me, to observe the farming practices not only from a humane treatment of animals’ perspective but an environmental one too.

They buy whole animals direct from the producer (unlike other so-called ‘ethical’ butcheries where meat comes from wholesalers where provenance cannot be guaranteed and blind eyes are turned to vague origins of meat that is then sold to well-intentioned consumers under questionable labels) and many of their producers grow ‘rare breed’ animals, increasing genetic diversity in agriculture beyond the limited breeds used in large-scale production.

All their producers are located in my home state to reduce ‘food miles’, some are slaughtered in their own on-site certified abattoirs, and all are committed to trying to improve the land the animals are raised on, for example some run beef on native grasses, having comprehensive land regeneration and soil improvement programs and so on. Some producers are certified organic or biodynamic while others use chemical-free farming practices but are not certified for various logistical reasons. All the animals are raised outdoors as much as possible – not just having ‘access’ to sunlight and water but really living outdoors and being free to roam and express their natural instincts.

Because I live in a large city where a service like this is available, it’s far easier for me than for people with less access to this stuff, less time and less money and so on.

Seafood is a whole other kettle of fish (boom-tish) and something I am just starting to address – but for starters, we are eating more sustainable species as advised by sites like Good Fish Bad Fish and Sustainable Seafood.

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‘Seafood is a whole other kettle of fish … and something I am just starting to address.’

Another conscience-easing tactic I have is to promote and talk about ethical and sustainable producers and businesses wherever I can, and to discuss these issues quite often on my blog while trying not to preach. I think my approach is far from ethically pristine, but I’m happier with this compromise than if I didn’t do anything to address the ethical issues at all.

You’ve recently undergone a couple of fascinating experiments in your cooking and eating. First, you cooked and ate offal for a week, after realising that your aversion to eating some parts of an animal runs counter to your beliefs about ecologically sustainable food. How was this experience?

I think I basically failed the test.

I wanted to overcome my own illogical aversion to handling, cooking and eating innards of animals that I would normally avoid, so at the suggestion of Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine, I spent a week working my way through the organs of one animal, the cow – and wrote an article about it.

tripe1The philosophy that offal-lovers promote is that whole-beast eating is more ethical than just choosing parts you like and chucking the rest. I found the experience rather confronting (as the article attests) – there are deep psychological barriers that the psychologist Paul Rozin has researched, relating to our fear of mortality and so on, but also I just found the taste and texture of much of the meat unpleasant. This was absolutely more to do with my inexperience in cooking it than the meat itself. But there are also long, involved processes needed for some of it – like brining, boiling and peeling of the tongue, for example before pan-frying it – that also make cooking it more complicated than just slinging a piece of steak into a pan for five minutes.

The ecological argument comes undone a bit when you are told, as I was in a letter to the editor following the article, that no part of animals are ‘thrown away’ in abattoirs – many organs are exported to countries where they’re much more popular than ours, and other parts are made into pet food and other products. For me the upshot is that as long as someone is eating or otherwise using it I’m happy and don’t feel obliged to stuff a heart again anytime soon!

Last month, February, you embarked on your own version of FebFast, going vegetarian for a month. What led you to that? What were the challenges? And what, if anything, did you learn from it?

This was almost a direct result of the offal experience. I was kind of overwhelmed by the physical fact of eating red meat for seven days in a row – something we would never normally do. But also, I had been dimly aware that almost everyone we know has at some time in their life had a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian phase (only eating fish, for example) but that I had never even gone a week without eating some part of an animal at some stage. Our Veg Feb was purely experimental, just to see what it felt like to stop eating meat and seafood for a while.

tuscankale That said, we had a couple of caveats in place that meant it would never be a proper vegetarian month. First, while we told our friends what we were doing, we would not refuse meat if served it in their homes or socially out with them if it felt rude to refuse meat. And second, I thought living without anchovies, fish sauce and shrimp paste would kill me, so I decided we were allowed to cook with them. All in all, we ate some kind of meat (sometimes just a mouthful) five times in that month.

The surprises were that:

I never once craved meat of any kind.

I actually only used anchovies and shrimp paste twice and didn’t miss it otherwise.

Eating out as a vegetarian is still pretty difficult to do long-term, as especially the cheaper end of the cafe market seems almost opposed to vegetarianism, there are so few options.

The expected weight loss didn’t happen (too much cheese!).

I did grow quickly bored with having to plan for some protein intake each day, and eventually tired of the limited protein options available.

We did some fantastic cooking and ate many wonderful meals, but found that more planning and consideration was required to eat really interesting, varied and flavoursome vegetarian meals than there is if you can include a little meat or seafood in your diet.

I was surprised to learn how much the structure of a meal mattered to me – bowls of mish-mashed veg stuff are kind of depressing.

Textural variety was more important than ever (see mish-mash comment above).

I concluded much the same as Michael Pollan did in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: that conviviality and the easy sharing of food with other people matters more to me than sparing the life of an animal, especially if it is humanely raised.

Join us for our Intelligence Squared debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, at Melbourne Town Hall this Tuesday 20 March at 6.30pm. Speakers will include ethicist Peter Singer, chef Adrian Richardson and the Age’s Veronica Ridge. Tickets are $20 or $12 concession. You can book online.

All food photographs are taken from Charlotte’s blog, How to Shuck an Oyster

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19 March 2012

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Melbourne-based writer Cristy Clark has always been passionate about the ethics of her food. She shares her story of how she shifted from vegetarian to vegan to ecotarian – and why sometimes animal products can be the most ethical choice available.

I was five years old when I first became a vegetarian. I was sitting in my grandma’s kitchen eating chicken when suddenly it dawned on me that a real chicken had been killed for my dinner. I imagined that I could hear it speaking to me.

‘Why are you eating me?’ it asked. I had no reply.

highlight At the age of 15, I became a vegan. My growing awareness of the practices of the meat and dairy industry made it hard to see an ethical distinction between supporting the breeding and killing animals for meat and clothing, and supporting the way that they were treated by the egg and dairy industries.

As a teenager I found the absolutism of veganism appealing. I even relished the austerity and sense of deprivation (this was before soy milk and vegan cupcakes flooded the cafe market). I was suffering for my cause and I felt that my ethical framework was clearly the superior approach to consumption. Species-ism seemed to be the last acceptable form of discrimination – and vegans were at the forefront of challenging it.

Fifteen years later, my moral clarity had begun to unravel. The ethical issues raised by the fair trade and organic farming movements, the corporatisation of the food chain and the impacts of intensive agricultural practices are not addressed by veganism in any straightforward way. For example, highly processed, heavily packaged ‘soy cheese,’ cold transported from the US and sold by our supermarket duopolies, is vegan. But its methods of production and distribution mean it is far from the most ethical choice. Even Coke is vegan.

It became clear to me that the mere absence of animal products was no guarantee of virtue.

For a while I was able to respond to these issues while remaining vegan. My partner and I bought locally grown produce; we avoided the supermarket and its heavily packaged and processed goods; we even made our own soy milk. We felt we were fairly successful at navigating the myriad ethical issues thrown up by the production, distribution and consumption of food in the capitalist system.

Then, one day, our neighbour offered my daughter an egg.

We were wandering through the veggie garden next door; our neighbour had just introduced us to her chickens. Their eggs were warm and freshly laid, and I couldn’t think of a single valid reason to refuse the offer to take them home. Here was a source of protein that had travelled almost nowhere to get to us and while it did come from an animal, I had no objection to the way these animals were treated. These eggs clearly had a lower environmental impact than any of our vegan sources of protein.

Accepting those eggs opened up a wave of unexpected emotions that shocked me with their intensity. I examined my reaction – and realised that my reluctance to accept that sometimes animal products can be a superior ethical choice was bound up with a personal attachment to the identity of being a vegan.

iStock_000017413971Large_Size4 It wasn’t just that I enjoyed being part of the (mostly online) community of vegans, who both are inspiring and supportive. I was also reluctant to admit that I had lost faith in my previously steadfast ethical compass – even though it had, in reality, been shifting for years, from straightforward veganism to a more holistic environmental and rights-based approach to food. Those first eggs were really just one more step in this direction, but at the time it seemed a radical departure into the unknown.

Rigid guidelines are incredibly comforting when trying to navigate the ethics of consumption. It is far easier to reject all eggs, for example, than to have to figure out whether the eggs in a particular piece of cake are free range or factory-farmed. Including some animal products in my diet has opened a whole new dimension of complexity, but at the same time it has often enabled me to make more ethical and sustainable choices than strict veganism allowed.

Through this process I have learned to be more comfortable with accepting that there is no perfect approach to food. We cannot help but have an impact on the planet and on the lives of others, human and non-human. Trying to minimise these negative impacts, while making choices that are healthy for our bodies, our community and our planet will always be a balancing act. Facing up to this reality has been difficult, but it feels right to me.

I tend to avoid using labels these days, but when pushed I use ‘ecotarian’. Being ecotarian means that whenever I make a decision about consumption, I try to consider the full range of ethical issues that relate to the impact of our choice on people, animals and the environment.

It’s a far from infallible framework and a less-than-catchy label, but it is working for my family – and helps us remain connected to the food we eat and the ecosphere from which it comes.

Join us for our IQ2 debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, at Melbourne Town Hall next Tuesday 20 March at 6.30pm. Speakers will include ethicist Peter Singer, chef Adrian Richardson and the Age’s Veronica Ridge. Tickets are $20 or $12 concession. You can book online.

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13 March 2012

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One of non-fiction’s most enduring ethical dilemmas is balancing the public interest against the interest of its subjects. The dilemma has come to the fore again following news that Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad has won an appeal that clears her of a claim that her book, The Bookseller of Kabul, invaded the privacy of its subject. In 2010, a court ordered the author and the publisher to pay about US$18,500 each to Rais.

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The 2002 book of reportage – an international bestseller, since translated into 42 languages – was researched while Seierstad lived with Shah Muhammad Rais and his family for three months in Kabul soon after the Taliban government was toppled. It depicts Rais – a bookseller and intellectual – and his extended family, painting a portrait of an educated man who has suffered greatly as a result of government repression. It also depicts Rais as an authoritarian patriarch whose wives and children are obliged to lead highly cloistered lives.

Although Seierstad changed the names of her subjects, Rais claimed that locals recognised him in the book and that his family was made unsafe as a result. He withdrew his support of the book following its publication, claimed that it insulted him, his country and his religion, and flew to Europe to campaign against it. He wrote his own memoir, Once upon a time there was a bookseller in Kabul – which, predictably, was not an international bestseller – and in 2005 sought political asylum in Norway.

The case gained a great deal of media attention in Norway, leading Seierstad to admit that she harboured some regrets about the book. More recently, she’s retracted those sentiments. “There is nothing I would change,” she told The Guardian. “To change it I would have had to write a totally different book.”

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14 December 2011

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As Italian pensioners prepare to cop the brunt of bank foolhardiness, one minister has found it all too much. Italy’s welfare minister, Elsa Fornero, was delivering news of cuts to pensions at a press conference announcing a $30 billion austerity program when – on the cusp of uttering the word ‘sacrifice’ – she began to weep, cutting the press conference short. Fornero is part of a team of technocrats who deposed Italy’s democratically elected government to discipline Italian government spending. The move was part of a plan devised primarily by France and Germany to save the common European currency and, by extension, major French and German banks. These banks hold much of the debt held by southern European governments in crisis, such as Greece and Italy.

Pensioners being impoverished to pay for bankers' mistakes is precisely the kind of paradox that has triggered Occupy protests around the globe. There’s been a glut of excellent coverage of the debate, which we’ve visited a few times. Since then, we’ve enjoyed The New Yorker’s profile of Kalle Lasn and Micah White, two key figures behind Adbusters magazine and the Occupy movement, while Business Week profiled another key occupier, anarchist anthropologist David Graeber.

Two giants of the comic book world are publicly feuding over Occupy. Sin City creator Frank Miller has dubbed the movement “garbage” while Alan Moore, of V for Vendetta fame, sees it as “just ordinary people reclaiming rights which should always have been theirs”. The Guy Fawkes-like masks he devised with artist David Lloyd for the Vendetta series have been co-opted by Occupy protesters and Anonymous hackers alike – and Moore doesn’t mind a bit. “It turns protests into performances,” he recently told The Guardian. “The mask is very operatic; it creates a sense of romance and drama.”

Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury has tied himself in knots trying to devise a theological argument for ending the Occupy London protest, which is encamped on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London’s financial district. In an article published in the Radio Times, Rowan Williams has written that Jesus wouldn’t necessarily have been on the side of the Occupy protesters. The Australian reports that Williams answers the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ with, “He would first of all be there: sharing the risks, asking the long and hard questions. Not just taking sides but steadily changing the entire atmosphere by the questions he asks of everybody involved, rich and poor, capitalist and protester and cleric.” So Williams' Jesus – the same Jesus who mumbled some gobbledegook about camels and needles – is a Jesus who doesn’t take a fixed position on wealth inequality but instead asks lots of people lots of interesting questions. Perhaps then a modern-day Jesus would be a journalist rather than a carpenter, in which case he would be joining a long line of media pundits who suffer from a Messiah complex.

This is precisely not the kind of journalist that Amanda Hoh describes in her report on The Age’s website on citizen journalism in Egypt. Mostafa Bahgat is a young Egyptian videographer whose footage takes realism to new extremes. Warning: this footage is not for the feint of heart, nor for anyone who believes journalism should always represent both sides of an issue.

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06 December 2011

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A Columbia Journalism Review feature called ‘Confidence Game’ has taken up the case for newspapers. Dean Starkman argues that a group of intellectuals he calls the ‘Future of News’ group, or “FON consensus”, is championing a new kind of journalism based on peer-production at the expense of the traditional news media. Starkman argues that this new kind of journalism can’t ever hope to produce the public interest journalism of the traditional news media – the kind of institution-centred journalism typified by Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who broke the News of the World scandal. Starkman calls his preferred model of journalism the Neo-Institutional Hub-and-Spoke model. He advocates “[r]ebuilding and shoring up institutions” that can give professional reporters the time they require to produce journalism in the public interest. The reporting is published by the institution and disseminated and commented upon by social media.

At a Wheeler Centre event earlier this year, ‘Taking Liberties With the Press’, media commentator Margaret Simons spoke in defence of ‘public interest reporting’ but admitted that the notion was a difficult one to define. “Journalism relies on the unauthorised disclosure. That’s what most journalism that isn’t public relations is … The question is where do you draw the [ethical] line and why, and the answer of course is the public interest. But what I would say is that journalists in general and certainly journalists in this country don’t give enough thought to what we mean by that.”

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15 November 2011

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The words ‘psychopath’ and ‘psychopathy’ have a chequered history in psychiatry. Widely used in the mid-20th century, they’ve become more contested in recent decades as the psychiatric community tries to define a psychopath with scientific rigour. Deborah Cameron, a Scottish feminist linguist, wrote in 1987 that the word ‘psychopathy’ has become an “infinitely elastic, catch-all category”. An article by R. Blackburn the following year in the British Journal of Psychiatry argued that the word was more of a moral judgment than a scientific category.

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Around that time, a psychiatrist called Robert Hare developed a checklist to determine whether or not someone was a psychopath. That checklist became the basis for Welsh journalist Jon Ronson’s investigation of psychopathy, The Psychopath Test (previously mentioned here, here and here).

These days, psychopathy is back in vogue, largely thanks to Ronson. His research found that psychopaths, as defined by the Hare checklist, make up one per cent of the general population – but that there are four times that number at the highest levels of business and politics. (To see the video of Ronson’s recent Wheeler Centre appearance, click on the image below.)

It’s an assessment that Conrad Black, a Canadian former media baron and owner of The Age, might well agree with. Just today, in an article in the Business section of the Huffington Post, Black has published a damning assessment of Rupert Murdoch in which he labels his nemesis a psychopath: “My admiration for his boldness and acumen and our previous 25 years of more than civil relations make it unpleasant, despite his unspeakable assault on me, to have to conclude that he is, in my personal belief, a psychopath. I think behind his nondescript personality lurks a repressed, destructive malice. His is, and has been proved to be, in some measure, a criminal organization.” Of course, Black’s diagnosis is highly unreliable: he’s now serving time in the US for white collar crimes after long having been the subject of News Limited newspaper opprobrium.

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25 October 2011

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In a feature published in today’s Age, US psychologist Christopher Ryan likens monogamy to vegetarianism, saying a monogamous lifestyle is possible but not necessarily what human beings are predisposed to adhering to.

Christopher Ryan is the co-author – with his wife, psychiatrist Cacilda Jetha – of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. He’ll appear at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday, delivering this week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox on the topic of ‘Sexual Vegetarianism’.

In this video/podcast of a previous Lunchbox/Soapbox on the same theme, writer/comedian Sue-Ann Post argues the case against monogamy.

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03 October 2011

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Today’s edition of Crikey features a link to a YouTube video of a BBC interview with London-based independent trader Alessio Rastani speaking with unusual forthrightness, if not downright nihilism, on the morality – or lack thereof – that drives market logic: “The governments don’t rule the world, Goldman Sachs rules the world.” (Speaking of Goldman Sachs, here’s video footage of senior NYPD police pepper-spraying a peaceful anti-Wall Street demonstration on the weekend.)

Crikey also links readers to a piece in the international online edition of German daily Die Spiegel reporting on a study suggesting share traders are more reckless than psychopath. Swiss researchers have found that, according to the report, “stockbrokers' behavior is more reckless and manipulative than that of psychopaths.” The study echoes the findings of Jon Ronson in his book, The Psychopath Test, in which he found that the incidence of psychopaths in the boardroom is four times higher than that in the general population (previously covered here).

What is a psychopath? And should psychopaths be allowed to rule the world? Author Jon Ronson will be appearing at the Wheeler Centre next week. This event has already sold out, but we’ll upload the video/podcast soon afterwards. Sign up to our e-newsletter, follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook to be kept up-to-date.

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27 September 2011

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The Australian yesterday published an extensive piece by editor-at-large Paul Kelly in which the newspaper’s former editor responded to the current issue of Quarterly Essay, penned by Robert Manne. Subtitled, Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation, Manne’s essay argues that the News Limited national broadsheet has had a negative influence on Australian democracy. It’s an argument Paul Kelly rejects in no uncertain terms. Under the headline ‘Robert Manne throws truth overboard’, Kelly writes, “There is another possibility beyond the realm of Manne’s mind – that The Australian has struck an effective balance of strong editorial independence within a global corporation headed by a strong chief executive committed to newspapers.”

Both Paul Kelly and Robert Manne will be appearing together at the Wheeler Centre next Wednesday evening for a moderated panel discussion exploring the themes of both the Quarterly Essay and Kelly’s response published in today’s Australian.

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15 September 2011

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As part of the 2011 Melbourne Writers Festival, a two-day conference called ‘New News’ was held at the Wheeler Centre last weekend. The keynote speaker was Jay Rosen, who chairs the journalism faculty at New York University. Jay has published his address on his blog, Press Think. Here’s an excerpt.

Imagine the entirety of the political reporting and commentary produced by the New York Times or the political staff of the ABC and plot it on a grid. On the left side of the page: appearances. On the right side: realities. On the top of the page: arguments. On the bottom: facts. Appearances, realities, arguments and facts. All political news should be divided into these categories, and journalists should organize their daily report into my four quadrants.

Under appearances we find everything that is just that: the attempt to make things appear a certain way. All media stunts. Everything that fits under the management of impressions. Or politics as entertainment. The photo ops. The press releases issued in lieu of doing something. […]

My suggestion is to report appearances as just that: mere appearances. Which would be a way of jeering at them, labeling them as not quite real. So the appearances section would be heavy on satire and simple quotation. In the US, Jon Stewart has become a huge star by satirizing the world of appearances. This would be a way to get in on some of that action. Appearances, then, means downgrading or penalizing politicians who deal in the fake, the trivial, the merely sensational. In other words: “watch out or you’ll wind up in the appearances column.”

Under realities we find everything that is actually about real problems, real solutions, real proposals, consequential plans and of course events that have an integrity beyond their fitness as media provocations. This is the political news proper, cured of what Tanner calls the sideshow.

But then there’s my other axis. Arguments and facts. Both are important, both are a valid part of politics.

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A new paradigm for journalism, courtesy of Jay Rosen’s blog, PressThink

So imagine my four quadrants.

Bottom left: Appearances rendered as fact. Example: the media stunt.

Top left: Phony arguments. Manufactured controversies. Sideshows.

Bottom right: Today’s new realities: get the facts. The actual news of politics.

Top right. Real arguments: Debates, legitimate controversies, important speeches.

Now imagine all of today’s political news and commentary sorted into these four quadrants. This becomes the new portal to political news. Appearances and realities, arguments and facts. To render the political world that way, journalists would have to exercise their judgment about what is real and what is not. And this is exactly what would bring them into proper alignment with our needs as citizens.

You can read the entire post here, and you can watch or listen to the video/podcast of a Wheeler Centre event of earlier this year, ‘Dumbing Down Democracy’, featuring George Megalogenis in conversation with Lindsay Tanner following the publication of Tanner’s book, Sideshow.

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01 September 2011

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A two-day conference being held tomorrow and Saturday as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival is taking a look at the impact of digital technologies and culture on the business and practice of news. ‘New News’ is a program of events – most of them at the Wheeler Centre – that will explore a dazzling variety of topics and feature some of Australia’s most highly respected journalists and media commentators.

Topics will include political journalism (here and here), science writing, universities and journalism, innovation, spin, journalists and trauma, ‘democratic’ news, rural affairs and sub-editors, among others.

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25 August 2011

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“If journalism and the media industry in Australia are serious about rebuilding their absolutely disastrous standing, the work starts with reforming the self-regulation media ethics system.”

Johan Lidberg at New Matilda explains there are instances of media self-regulation that have worked in the public interest.

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17 August 2011

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Among our favourite moments during the televised parliamentary inquiry into phone hacking at News International was when James Murdoch was asked if he was familiar with the legal term ‘wilful blindness’ (he answered he wasn’t). Here’s a New Statesman essay on the concept as it relates to mega-corporations like News Corp.

Now, news from the UK would suggest James Murdoch, among others, might not be guilty of wilful blindness after all, but of something more serious following the publication of a letter directly implicating senior News International management in the hacking. It seems News Corp is preparing for the scandal to traverse the Atlantic, if the firepower of their legal team is any measure.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the ongoing News International saga is how the story has been reported by Murdoch-owned mastheads. Yesterday’s Australian published a piece by Stephen Brook arguing that News Limited is not as dominant in the Australian market as is commonly thought.

“I believe it has become too easy, too simple and too convenient to blame Murdoch for all the ills of society,” wrote veteran News Limited journalist Mark Day, also in yesterday’s Australian. Day was writing, in part, about his experience as a Wheeler Centre guest last week for the event, ‘Taking Liberties with the Press’.

We love a review, especially when it’s from a participant, so we thought we’d link to it today to continue what was a fascinating conversation. You can watch our video of the session below or, if microblogging is more your speed, read all the tweets related to the event here – thanks to all those who tweeted on the night.

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16 August 2011

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“There are some people who don’t like change. For everyone else, there’s WikiLeaks.” A viral YouTube ad produced by WikiLeaks and featuring Julian Assange is using guerrilla advertising techniques to raise the funds it needs to continue operating. The ad targets MasterCard’s globally-successful “Priceless” campaign to draw attention to the banking blockade that has prevented WikiLeaks from receiving some US$15 million of donations.

“Censorship, like everything else in the West, has been privatized,” began a media release WikiLeaks published in late June to coincide with the launch of the campaign. “For six months now,” it continued, “five major US financial institutions, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union and the Bank of America have tried to economically strangle WikiLeaks as a result of political pressure from Washington… The attack is entirely outside of any due process or rule of law.”

Last week, we published an excerpt of an op-ed originally published in The Atlantic by Lowy Institute scholar Mark Fullilove. Fullilove’s op-ed claimed the News of the World phone-hacking scandal was morally comparable with WikiLeaks. Whatever the merits of his argument, financially, there is no comparison between the two: while WikiLeaks is a non-profit organisation, News International can rely on bottomless pockets to defend its interests in the courtroom, as explained by John Dean (a former White House lawyer) in The Guardian this weekend.

In a video/podcast of the recent Wheeler Centre event, ‘Does WikiLeaks Matter?’ published today, Guy Rundle argues that WikiLeaks does indeed matter. WikiLeaks, Rundle says, is “one way of doing something in an era in which the whole constellation of power, information and the state is changing as epochally as it did in the 17th century, when the modern state and political systems were born.” [Click on the link below to watch the video.]

As we recently reported, last month Julian Assange was the keynote speaker at the Splendour in the Grass music festival. Delivered on Skype due to his house arrest, Assange’s address claimed that, among other things, “This generation is burning the mass media to the ground.“ Assange will be a guest at the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas in October, arguing that WikiLeaks has not gone far enough.

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(Click to watch video.)

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15 August 2011

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The Enthusiast reports that legendary US comic artist Robert Crumb has cancelled a scheduled appearance in Sydney later this month following a Daily Telegraph report he believes misrepresented him. The Telegraph report begins with the introduction, “A self-confessed sex pervert whose explicit comic drawings cannot be shown in Australia is to deliver a talk and hold a special exhibition at the Sydney Opera House.”

As viewers of the classic documentary Crumb will attest, Robert Crumb is one of comic art’s most recognised names and an emblematic figure of the US counter-culture movement. He’d been scheduled to appear in conversation with American comic book editor, publisher and critic Gary Groth as part of the Sydney Opera House’s ‘Graphic’ weekend of 21 and 22 August.

In a story in The Australian claiming he is “miffed”, Crumb says he feels anxious “about having to confront some angry sexual assault crisis group” and offers no justification for his work: “I do these crazy cartoons … I have no defence. I just have to throw up my hands.”

“Crumb might be overreacting,” The Enthusiast concludes, “but mature Australians lose out once again to a vocal, philistine minority and puritanical, puerile journalism.”

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10 August 2011

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What’s the difference between WikiLeaks and the News of the World? More than meets the eye, according to Michael Fullilove, director of the Global Issues Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. In an Atlantic opinion piece entitled ‘The News of the WikiLeaks: Both Share a Dangerous Rationale’, Fullilove has found all kinds of connections between the two.

“Both,” he writes, “adhere to the same dangerous rationale, that no one is entitled to confidential information. As Assange said in April: "The government doesn’t have a right to secrets.” But would the world be safer or saner if governments could not hold confidences? How could wars be averted in such a world? How could peace agreements or trade deals be negotiated?

“Both hacks and hackers eschew the balancing of competing imperatives: the tabloids in the pursuit of profit; Assange in the pursuit of an ideology.

“Both institutions are blasé about breaking laws to obtain information they say we all have a right to see.

“Both are willing to play God. There is no human frailty or weakness the tabloids are not prepared to expose and judge. Rarely do they show mercy or compassion. Assange has his own capricious ethical code, which he summarized last November: ‘I like crushing bastards.’

“Both exhibit the same reckless disregard for the innocent victims of their actions. Tabloid editors are prepared to ruin bystanders for the sake of a scoop. In his early reluctance to sift through and redact the cables he had acquired on Afghanistan, Julian Assange was wilfully blind to the fate of Afghanis who had assisted the NATO forces. According to journalists from the Guardian, when they pressed him on this issue he replied: ‘These people were collaborators, informants. They deserve to die.’”

The Wheeler Centre is hosting a Talking Point event, ‘Taking Liberties with the Press’, tomorrow night at 6:15pm. Panellists will be Margaret Simons, Mark Day and Professor Rod Tiffen; the event will be chaired by Richard Ackland.

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09 August 2011

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Natalie Sambhi, co-editor of the blog Security Scholar, attended last week’s Intelligence Squared debate on the merits of Australian involvement in Afghanistan. She’s reviewed the event on Security Scholar blog. This is an excerpt.

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On a chilly Thursday night, we descended upon Melbourne Town Hall to listen to our friend and colleague, Raoul Heinrichs, partake in the Wheeler Centre debate on Afghanistan. We came to hear whether the war effort would be savaged, whether Australian lives would be needlessly lost, whether there was hope for the Afghan people, or whether we, as a country, were wasting our time. We came to hear a lawyer, a scholar, a prominent feminist, a retired general, a young Afghan woman, and a philosopher. We came to hear their perspectives and experiences. We came to observe the public’s reactions; to hear how everyday people received and digested narratives of Afghanistan. I wanted to see whether people still remembered we were in war.

The topic of Thursday’s debate, “There is no justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan”, was always going to be hard to stick to. There was a sense of mission creep; a tendency for speakers to appeal to the broader merits of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, rather than centring on the specific risk to Australians (civilian and military) serving there. The affirmative team took the view that the intractability of the conflict dictated that no further Australian lives were worth risking. While each speaker had their own spin on this theme, they all concentrated on what they saw as the dire security situation on the ground, the lack of proper resourcing, and the lack of strategic interests beyond the ANZUS treaty (which, in Heinrichs’ view, we have already satisfied). Read more.

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04 August 2011

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The Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas released its program today, and for many Melbournians, the festival’s most dangerous idea is that we would have to skip the AFL Grand Final to attend. The line-up features some impressive names pushing some controverisal wheelbarrows. Julian Assange, for example, will deliver the festival’s opening address on Friday, 30 September, arguing that WikiLeaks has not gone far enough. The following day, an Intelligence Squared debate will argue the proposition that the media has no morals. Things get really dangerous on the Sunday, when Jon Ronson will speak on how psychopaths make the world go ‘round (previously covered in the Dailies) and Slavoj Žižek, dubbed the 'Elvis of cultural theory’, will argue the case for communism. Here’s the full program.

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Julian Assange recently made a (virtual) appearance as the keynote speaker at the Splendour in the Grass music festival in Queensland (keynote speeches are a recent trend at music festivals). He spoke about a generational change in perspective currently underway: “This generation is burning the mass media to the ground. We’re reclaiming our rights to world history. We are ripping open secret archives from Washington to Cairo. We’re reclaiming our rights to share ourselves and our times with each other – to be the agents and writers of our own history. We don’t know yet exactly where we are, but we can see where we’re going.” Here’s a report from Mess & Noise and here’s the YouTube footage.

For more on Assange and WikiLeaks, revisit these two Wheeler Centre videos/podcasts on WikiLeaks (here and here).

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02 August 2011

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“[A] reviewer is entitled to be spiteful as long as she is honest,” wrote Mr Justice Tugendhat last week in his summing-up notes of the first libel case against a national newspaper in the UK since 2009. The judge ruled that £65,000 damages ought to be paid to Sarah Thornton, the Canadian writer of Seven Days in the Art World, by the Telegraph Media Group, publisher of the Telegraph, which in 2008 published a review of Thornton’s book by noted critic Lynn Barber.

In the review, Barber referred to Thornton’s book as “pompous nonsense”, and the judge was at pains to say that Barber was well within her rights to do so. Where Barber overstepped the mark was in fibbing in the review. The book was based on a series of interviews with noted art world figures, including Barber. But in her review, Barber claimed to have been shocked (her eye, she wrote, “practically fell out of its socket”) to have seen her name on a list of interviewees. In fact, she had been interviewed, and Thornton sued. The author refused to settle out of court when an apology was offered. Here’s one blogger’s summary of the case.

In the UK, the case has revived the debate about the ethics of reviewing, which was only recently in the local news when Australian playwright David Williamson wrote to Crikey to defend his play Don Parties On, following a negative review by Jason Whittaker. How should a critic write a negative review? The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner writes, “If you really want to undermine an over-inflated production or performance, then wit and light irony are often the best weapons.”

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01 August 2011

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The News International scandal, or ‘Hackgate’, set the Australian public imagination alight this week. For proof, we need only be reminded that every single television network, other than SBS, beamed the appearance of Rupert and James Murdoch before a parliamentary inquiry live into our living rooms late Tuesday night. Other than royal weddings and the 9/11 attack, there are few precedents for this kind of coverage. That it was a parliamentary inquiry into an affair that remains – at least for now – confined only to the UK adds to the extraordinary nature of the story. Is it a reflection of the strong cultural ties between Australia and the United Kingdom? Is it because the Murdochs are, at least in part, still an Australian clan? Is it because the story reflects some kind of malaise in the local media landscape? Or is it because of its tragic dimensions, in the full Shakespearean sense of the word? Perhaps a little of all of the above.

The story reached its dramatic apex on Tuesday night. It’s hard to imagine better drama than Rupert Murdoch announcing that it was the most humble day of his life, or that the term ‘collective amnesia’ was a euphemism for lying, or James Murdoch claiming to be unfamiliar with the legal term ‘wilful blindness’, or a celebrity-starved comedian copping a savage right hook from Mrs Murdoch. If only News of the World were still around to report on it all. This was where tabloid and broadsheet journalism came together in the perfect Murdoch moment, the kind of drama his empire was built on.

But the circus moves on, and how – too quickly for many of the key players. Already, the local reaction has shifted at least twice. The government, seizing the moment, took up the cudgels. So too did the Greens, calling for an inquiry into media ownership and regulation. Precisely what kind of inquiry was unclear, although a few ideas were mooted at New Matilda. Nevertheless the media’s reaction was hostile pretty much across the board. Yesterday morning on ABC 774, Melbourne’s top-rating talk-back host Jon Faine expressed fears it would lead to “third-world” media regulation laws.

Media academic Tim Dwyer was hopeful the affair might lead to more diversity in the local media landscape. “The meltdown at the News Corporation is already having positive effects on the way we think about the role of the contemporary news media,” he wrote. “First among these is an acknowledgment that media ownership diversity really matters a great deal in democracies.”

But in the course of the day the focus shifted again, this time towards regulating for privacy protection. Again, reactions have been mixed. Margaret Simons doubts hacking could happen in Australia, ironically because of the lack of media diversity. David Maguire reminds us of the difficulties of legislating for virtue while Bill Birnbauer writes, “General principles and codes that encourage independent, honest and transparent behaviour are useful but the variability of on-the-ground reporting makes it almost impossible to regulate media behavior in any way that is meaningful. In any event, rules and laws are no substitute for a moral compass.”

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22 July 2011

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Image via WikiCommons

Expensive, time-consuming, redundant – and still necessary. News of the death of investigative reporting has been greatly exaggerated, if Hackgate is any barometer. The story that has dominated (some) headlines in recent weeks has been labelled a “triumph for investigative reporting”, not least for reporter Nick Davies. Nick Davies has been reporting on the failings of the global media industry for years. When Julian Assange wanted The Guardian to publish Bradley Manning’s explosive stash of cables, Nick Davies was the man he approached. They later had a much-publicised falling out.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has written for Newsweek on how the newspaper covered the story. Remembering the million-dollar damages paid to a News of the World journalist who’d been bullied by Andy Coulson in 2009 – ignored by other newspapers – Rusbridger writes, “There seemed to be some omertà principle at work that meant that not a single other national newspaper thought this could possibly be worth an inch of newsprint.” The omertà ended when it became clear that phone hacking was not just a prank played on celebrities but involved a murdered 13 year-old girl.

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21 July 2011

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In today’s New Matilda, Mark Fletcher asks, has News Limited done anything wrong? For those looking for a neat summary of why the Hackgate story is such a big deal, not just in the UK but for the media in general, look no further than a piece by the Columbia Journalism Review. We recommend reading the whole piece, but here are the key points:

“For starters, executives, editors, and reporters at News Corp.’s UK unit have: bribed the police; illegally hacked thousands of people’s phones, including a 13-year-old then-missing murder victim’s; tampered with evidence while the victim was still missing. They interfered with a second murder investigation; misled police and Parliament, repeatedly, when questioned about these activities; knowingly employed an ax-murder suspect who had been convicted and imprisoned for planting cocaine on an innocent woman in a divorce case; paid millions of dollars to victims explicitly in exchange for their silence; paid large sums to former employees after they had been convicted of crimes committed at the behest of News Corporation employees; continued to pay for convicted former employees’ high-powered lawyers. It has further been revealed that a senior News International executive deleted millions of emails in an ‘apparent attempt to obstruct Scotland Yard’s inquiry’; hid the contents of a top journalist’s desk after he was arrested; stuffed documents into trash bags and took them away as detectives came into the office to investigate; put the scandal’s lead police investigator, whose inquiry was a bad joke, on the News Corp. payroll with a plum columnist job.”

How did the constabulary react? The CJR piece says the police “stuffed thousands of pages of convicted hacker Glenn Mulcaire’s notes in plastic bags, leaving them unexamined (or at least uncataloged) for years; did so while insisting publicly, and before Parliament, that the scandal was limited to two people and, crucially, that a full investigation had been performed; hired Neil Wallis, who was News of the World’s deputy editor while the crimes were committed, to advise the police on how to handle their own PR problems stemming from the hacking scandal; Wallis ferried information back to News Corp.; the police notified just a handful of people that their phones might have been hacked despite having evidence that in fact thousands had been; concealed their payments to Wallis for a year. Meanwhile, top police officials dined repeatedly with News International executives during the investigation.” Hence the resignations.

The British government has come under pressure too. This is why: “Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron hired the News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who oversaw a newsroom in which criminal activity was commonplace, to be a top aide, despite warnings that Coulson was personally implicated in the scandal; Labour leader Ed Miliband hired a Murdoch journalist to be top flack, and he promptly told the party to tiptoe around the scandal; regulators came very close to approving a massive TV deal for News Corp. that would have furthered its stranglehold on Britain’s private media, all while the scandal was continuing to worsen.”

The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal has published an editorial defending its parent company, which the American Journalism Review has labelled “misguided”.

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21 July 2011

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Tony Wilson reflects on his eerie, and entirely unintended, prescience.

My novel is coming true. It happened with my last novel too. No sooner had I written Players (Text 2005) – the story of a Sam Newman-like character pretending to have cancer to shrug off a scandal – than came the news that Sam Newman actually had cancer and was receiving treatment live on 60 Minutes. I gave my character testicular cancer. Newman’s was prostate. Missed by five centimetres.

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For Making News (Pier 9, 2010), I turned my attention to the British tabloids. I’d read Fleet Street memoirs such as Wensley Clarkson’s hilarious Dog Eat Dog and Piers Morgan’s masterpiece of self congratulation The Insider, books which detail the disturbing and occasionally hilarious skulduggery of the newspaper world. Buy ups, beat ups, break ins and stake outs. Cannonball Run-style car chases between reporters chasing exclusives. Piers Morgan even writes about a royal pubic hair being sent through the post to a prospective admirer.

In my novel, the celebrity Dekker family is at war with The Globe, a notorious tabloid edited by the suave, erudite boy wonder, Anton Giles. Giles was based on the foppish and yet silver-tongued Piers Morgan, although it could quite easily have been Andy Coulson or Rebekah Brooks. All are marked by their ambition, ruthlessness and ability to curry favour with the world’s most powerful mogul.

To bring down Giles, I managed to include phone tapping, but didn’t think invasion of privacy could topple a media empire as large as News International. Nor did I dare to toss in prime ministers, press secretaries, police corruption, dynastic revolution or murdered teens. To think I spent a year bathing in the filth of the fourth estate – and didn’t get dirty enough.

The surprise has been that News of the World would extend its periscope beyond the lives of celebrities. The tide of public opinion would never have turned if the targets had remained the rich and famous. We need our toe sucking scandals. We relish those post baby bellies sagging into the surf. But the idea of leeching information from the dead and grieving at their most desperate moments, it beggars belief.

If only I could do one more draft.

In light of the News of the World scandal, Making News has received a UK release. It is available here.

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20 July 2011

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The panel discussion featured in this video is the intellectual equivalent of the Big Day Out, Lollapalooza or Glastonbury. Three of the world’s most outspoken figures in philosophy and journalism appeared on stage together in conversation at London’s Frontline Club earlier this month. Journalist Amy Goodman spoke with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, described by Goodman as “the most widely published person on Earth”, and Slavoj Žižek, “the Elvis of cultural theory”, according to the New York Times. They discussed the WikiLeaks effect on world politics, the release of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and Cablegate.

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19 July 2011

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Any hope senior New Limited executives might have harboured that fallout from the phone hacking scandal might be quarantined in the UK seems to be fading. The Nation, an openly progressive weekly, has republished a 2008 report in which a former executive of Fox News, which is openly conservative, alleged that the network engaged in phone hacking.

This comes after the FBI last week announced it was launching an investigation. The investigation was prompted by allegations by a New York City police officer, who claimed he was offered payment to hack into the phone records of victims of the 9/11 attacks, and/or their families.

One fascinating contribution to the debate was made last week by disgraced media mogul, Conrad Black, who once owned The Age. Writing in the Financial Times, Black compared Murdoch to another “great bad man”, Napoleon. Black paints a vivid and ambivalent picture of a powerful man, but lays the blame elsewhere: “The fault is the British establishment’s and it must not be seduced and intimidated, so profoundly and durably, again.”

In this video of a Wheeler Centre event from February 2010, a panel of journalists, chaired by former editor of The Age, Michael Gawenda, discuss the importance of ethics to the business of journalism.

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(Click to watch video.)

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18 July 2011

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