Sarah Ferguson’s interview with Joe Hockey: Bias is in the eye of the beholder

“One of the chief Functions of a television critic is to stay at home and watch the programmes on an ordinary domestic receiver, just as his readers do. If he goes to official previews, he will meet producers and directors, start understanding their problems, and find himself paying the inevitable price for free sandwiches. A critic who does not keep well clear of the World of the Media will soon lose his sting. He might also begin harbouring delusions about his capacity to modify official policy.”
Sorry for the long intro, but that was Clive James in the preface to his book, Visions Before Midnight: Television criticism from The Observer 1972-76 – his advice guiding my time as a TV critic for The Australian newspaper in the early 1980s.
Born in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah, Clive James was, and still is, one of the best critics in the history of television. His weekly columns for The Observer from 1972-1982 were must reading, and he started writing tv critiques for the London Daily Telegraph in 2011 until last year. Despite his bout with leukemia, he still writes the occasional feature for the Telegraph: http://www.clivejames.com/essays/cjtv He is, of course, a renowned literary critic, a brilliant poet, a noted novelist and memoirist, former television presenter, and an Australian icon.
Clive James came to mind when I read about the kerfuffle over former Australian Financial Review (AFR) editor Colleen Ryan’s review of the ABC’s coverage of the Federal Budget last year. The ABC asked Ms Ryan, a highly respected journalist, to look at the coverage as part of their quarterly review of a small cross-selection of content and “give us a warts and all view of it,” according to Alan Sunderland, Acting Head of People at the ABC. Mr Sunderland said: “Colleen produced an excellent and comprehensive report. Her overall judgement was that our coverage complied with all of our policies and guidelines and the overall quality was ‘excellent.’ At significant length [45 pages], the report discusses all aspects of the coverage and provides a series of observations on ways it might have been improved, expanded or extended.” http://ab.co/1AmPLYl
Okay, so why all the fuss? Well, Ms Ryan made the egregious mistake of suggesting the tone of questioning in Sarah Ferguson’s 7.30 interview with Treasurer Joe Hockey “could have been interpreted by some viewers to be a potential breach of the ABC’s impartiality guidelines.” http://ab.co/1JsDmcJ Ms Ryan focused on the first question of the interview: “Now, you’ve just delivered that Budget. It’s a Budget with a new tax, with levies, with co-payments. Is it liberating for a politician to decide election promises don’t matter?” Here’s a link to the interview if you haven’t seen it: http://ab.co/1CQck6a The former AFR editor said “that first question set the tone for the entire interview. The Treasurer appeared surprised and in my view was from that point on quite ‘rattled’ during the interview … the language in Ferguson’s first question was emotive. I also believe that the average viewer would consider that the Treasurer was not treated with sufficient respect by the interviewer.”
Whew! Let’s go back to Clive James. He didn’t say you had to pretend you were an average viewer. He clearly wasn’t, and the wit and wisdom in his columns proved that. He watched television like the average viewer in his own home, without the glitz and glamour of publicity previews. But he took notes and knew his subject. As long-time ABC interviewer Kerry O’Brien put it: “Ryan tries to put herself in the mind of an average viewer. Who on earth is an average viewer when you’re talking about politics?” http://bit.ly/1zPwCL8
I agree with Kerry that the ABC gave Colleen Ryan an impossible task: a “warts and all” review of the coverage under the corporation’s editorial commitments to accuracy, impartiality and fairness. Colleen had to consider whether the language was “emotive, hyperbolic, inflammatory or derogatory. And was the interviewee treated with civility and respect.” Joe Hockey’s a big boy. He can handle it, and like many politicians, he said so at the end of the interview to Sarah: “Thank you very much. Great to be here.” Former Liberal Foreign Minister Andrew Downer used to say to many journalists who had just wiped him out in an interview — “Pleasure” — when you knew it was far from it for him. When I was producing the Channel Nine Sunday program, Laurie Oakes nearly made Labor MP Daryl Melham fall off his chair at the end of a particularly hard interview, watch then Opposition Leader John Howard fall silent during a 3-minute commercial break after a disastrous part one of the conversation, and have then Liberal Health Minister Michael Wooldridge “for breakfast” on Sunday – a political cartoonist portraying Oakes coming out of a CT scanner with Wooldridge inside of him, with the doctor saying: “You really did have him for breakfast, didn’t you Laurie?” Respect was shown to each of the interviewees, and the language was not emotive or inflammatory. Just tough interviews exhibiting good journalism.
Ryan said in her evaluation: “This interview provided gripping television. But was it fair and impartial? Did it grant due respect to the interviewee? Would the average viewer consider its tone (on the part of Ferguson) as so aggressive that it exhibited bias?” She then had to consider those questions within the context of the ABC’s Impartiality Guidance Notes (issued 22 July 2013, revised 21 May 2014). Sorry, Colleen, at this point, I would have discarded the notes and just watched the interview.
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It was gripping television, fair and impartial, granted due respect to the interviewee and was not so aggressive that it exhibited bias. Sarah Ferguson had 11 minutes and 58 seconds to get the most out of the interview, and Joe Hockey had the same amount of time to avoid answering the questions. Colleen Ryan pointed out two other exchanges where Ferguson might have been a bit cheeky. In the first Sarah asked: “… are you saying that individual promises made by an Opposition Leader no longer matter?” Hockey replied: “Well, we can spend the whole conversation talking about the process of promises …” She quickly added: “That’s a yes or no question.”
In the second exchange, the Treasurer talked about tax adjustments and Ferguson asked: “Adjustments? Is that what we’re going to call them now?” Hockey replied: “Well, of any substance, so any tax changes if you like or whatever you’d like to call it. Ferguson: “New taxes?” Hockey: “But whatever you’d like to call it, there’s two. You know, there’s actually fewer than any of the previous Budgets from the previous government. So that’s a good sign.” Ferguson: “They’re still taxes. I don’t need to teach you, Treasurer, what a tax is. You know that a co-payment, a levy and a tax are all taxes by any other name. Am I correct?” Hockey: “Of course they are. Yes.”
There was mixed reaction to the review especially when The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) came up with this headline: “Sarah Ferguson interview with Joe Hockey ‘breached ABC bias guidelines': review” http://bit.ly/1BWxu7t ABC’s Media Watch had a comprehensive wrap of the pros and cons of the coverage. I thought Kerry O’Brien (photo above) and Alan Sunderland’s articles were two of the best on the positive side, and one of the shortest and sweetest was Laurie Oakes’ tweet: “Bottom line in my view — criticism of Ferguson interview in review just silly.”
On the negative side, it was hard to go past Herald Sun columnist and Network Ten presenter Andrew Bolt’s criticism. In his Herald Sun column he cited four examples out of 76 from Ryan’s review: the opening question of the Hockey interview; Lateline host Emma Alberici, asking a Coalition MP: “Do you think voters are really stupid and can’t recognise a lie when they see one?”; Tasmania’s 7.30 edition for giving the microphone to “a parade of Leftist critics;” and ABC’s The Drum for “stacking its panel with two pro-Labor panellists against one lone conservative.” http://bit.ly/1vtXnJE And he continued the attack on The Bolt Report on Ten in which he described Ferguson’s interview as “contemptuous,” and said there were “only four examples of ABC bias in a week.” He then asked Sydney Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine: “Ryan wasn’t really looking very hard, was she?” Devine replied: “No, and look, so what if she did because all these so-called inquiries and bias audits and so on are just laughable from the ABC. They are a fig leaf to appease conservatives or rural viewers who are incensed by the continual dripping Green Left, inner-city bias that comes out of every pore of the ABC, with a few honourable exceptions.” http://bit.ly/1A1MJoM
In my experience, getting an Australian politician to answer questions without resorting to cliches and “staying on message” and actually making news in a 12-minute interview is extremely difficult. It takes a lot of research and the ability to follow up answers. Sarah Ferguson did that in her interview, and all the good reporters and political editors I’ve worked with, like Laurie Oakes, Kerry O’Brien, Jana Wendt, Ellen Fanning, Paul Lyneham, Graham Davis, David Speers, Janine Perrett, Helen Dalley, Hugh Riminton and Paul Bongiorno, to name a few, have also done their homework.
Quentin Dempster, the former ABC presenter and interviewer, ended his column in the SMH: “While debate rages, please have some sympathy for the interviewer. How would you go if you had just eight to 10 minutes with a politician as slippery as we breed them in Australia? With very great respect.” http://bit.ly/1Eqijkr
But the last word should go to Clive James, who reviewed the resignation speech of Richard Nixon, in his Observer column on August 11, 1974: “Nixon has come a long way as a talking head, and never did a smoother gig than his last as President. ‘I have always preferred to carry through to the finish, whatever the personal agony involved.’ He meant that he had always preferred to cling on to power, whatever the agony involved for other people – but at least the lie was told in ringing tones . . . Semantically, the whole speech was rubbish. As a performance though, it merited what respect the viewer could summon.”

Colleen McCullough: Thanks for the Memories

Colleen McCullough was a great storyteller and a great lady. I discovered that when I first met her on Norfolk Island in 1993, producing a story for the Nine Network’s Sunday Program, with reporter Max Cullen.
I was looking forward to the trip after getting a call from a Random House publicist, Alan Davidson, asking if we wanted to do a profile of the famous author to help promote the third book of her seven-part Masters of Rome series, Fortune’s Favourites. Her Roman novels had Julius Caesar at their heart, and the history of the Roman Republic as their backbone.
McCullough built up a virtual library on the Republic, hiring researchers to help her gather the massive volumes of historical material used in the novels.
She loved research from her days as a neurophysiologist at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children in London, and as a neurophysiological research assistant at the Yale School of Medicine in the US so it was important for me to reciprocate before flying into Norfolk Island with the crew.
I talked to Warren McStoker, a legendary producer at Nine’s Sixty Minutes, who had done a story on Colleen and became a friend. He advised me to do as much reconnaissance as possible: Colleen does not suffer fools gladly. Another friend of the author, Bernie Leo, then the chief sub-editor of the Australian Financial Review, gave me two valuable bits of information: she and her husband Ric Robinson loved to play scrabble (Bernie used to join in the game on visits); and she liked Madura Tea, cultivated in the Tweed Valley in northern New South Wales and virtually impossible to get on Norfolk Island.
After picking up a large package of Madura, I got the folder from the ACP Library (the internet was still in its infancy), photocopied all the relevant articles about her, and read as many of her books as I could in the days before the shoot – Tim, The Thorn Birds, An Indecent Obsession, The Ladies of Missalonghi, and a bit of the 945-page The Grass Crown, the second of the Roman novels, with a 92-page glossary. Max read a few as well, and we perused as much of the 804-page Fortune’s Favourites as we could. (I can’t remember how much!)
Despite that, we were well prepared, I thought. As my usual Sunday reporter that year, the late Paul Lockyer, often said: “Time spent on recce (reconnaissance) is time well spent.” Alas, don’t miss the obvious. For television stories, you try to shoot a lot of vision of the main talent to give the editor overlay for the interviews, narrative and thought track (that’s when the person being profiled looks out over the sea, or garden, or the landscape and his or her voice runs underneath).
I sat down with Colleen and Max and the cameraman, Jim Chrystal, and the sound recordist, Nick Nezval, to talk about the shoot, and she had a lot of questions. After all, she had been a successful and world famous author since the US paperback rights for The Thorn Birds went for $1.9 million in 1977. She knew a lot about television interviews. I did my best to answer them all, but I felt I wasn’t exactly scoring goals. Where was Warren McStoker when you needed him?
I pressed on and said: “Could we get started with a walk through your wonderful garden?” It was beautiful, with a rolling hill, and quite expansive. And that was my first mistake. As Max and Colleen wandered lonely as a cloud (with apologies to Wordsworth) before coming to a host of Norfolk pines and palm trees, I could tell she was getting a bit tired, but we needed that vision. What I didn’t consider was that Colleen had recently been diagnosed with diabetes and her feet were hurting. I didn’t learn this until her personal assistant mentioned it the next morning. No more walkies for Colleen McCullough!
But I apologised, and she took it well. The Madura Tea and the mention of Warren McStoker and Bernie Leo helped our cause. And she and Ric played Scrabble for our camera on their magnificent marble table. It is a game they took seriously, and she claimed on Seven’s Sunday Night program a few years ago he always beat her. Here’s the exchange, beginning with reporter Rahni Sadler’s voiceover: “They’re deeply in love and the best of friends except when they play Scrabble. To love, honour, obey and let him win at Scrabble.” Colleen McCullough: “I don’t let him win.” Rahni Sadler: “He beats you fair and square.” Colleen McCullough: “He just wallops me.”
As you’ll be able to see in the edited video accompanying this post, Colleen had a large and lovely library with a lot of reference books and novels. She told Max: “I’m not a great reader of novels, but I like to have them.” She shared her love of libraries, talking about the stacks of books at Yale University, while I waxed lyrical about the libraries at Villanova and New York Universities, and, of course, Sydney University.
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Looking back at the Sunday story broadcast in October 1993, I had a poignant moment, when arts journalist Andrea Stretton (That’s a picture of her on the first frame of the video below. She appears later), who presented a book show for SBS at the time, gave her assessment of Colleen McCullough’s literary talent. Andrea died aged 55 in 2007, and I had forgotten she had appeared in the story. She was a friend, a terrific journalist and a lovely lady. She said Colleen “will be remembered as someone who did an enormous amount for Australian popular fiction and I mean in the sense in really contributing something to the genre, and definitely for The Thorn Birds … I think The Thorn Birds is a bit of an icon in Australian writing.”
While some critics criticised the book, which won her many readers and a lot of money, for using too many exclamation points!, Colleen was never bothered by negative reviews. The Philadelphia Inquirer described her as “a woman supremely unafflicted by self-doubt,” in a 1996 profile, mentioned in The New York Times obituary. That Times article quoted her response to the critics from a 2007 Australian television interview: “I think in their heart of hearts all these people know that I’m more secure than they are, more confident than they are and smarter than they are.” http://nyti.ms/16ivsAk The Times obituary writer goes on to say: “In her nearly four decades in the limelight, it was one of her few printable replies on the subject.”
When Max Cullen asked Colleen how she replied to her critics, she said: “I don’t. Like Liberace I cry all the way to the bank.” And she broke out in that glorious laugh of hers.
She liked the Thorn Birds book, of course, but not the mini-series, one of the most watched television shows of all time. She told People magazine in 2000: “I hated it. It was instant vomit.” At one point in the interview, she told Max that Tim (her first novel) was made into “a very nice film,” but as for The Thorn Birds series: “I don’t want to talk about it. I want to heave.” It usually prompted those stomach-churning synonyms.
But Colleen McCullough had only kind words about fellow novelist, the Nobel Prize-winning Patrick White: “I love Patrick White. And I tell you, the death in the garden in The Tree of Man. If I could write a page or two like that, I’d be happy. I never will.” So there is a humble Colleen McCullough.
By the second day, Colleen McCullough was friendly and accommodating, and she gave a great sit-down interview to Max, explaining, among other things, why she loved touring and “flogging the book.” She added: “I like to talk and you’re my victim. You have to sit there and listen.”
She wrote the Roman novels because “it was a fascinating era. The thing I love about that era is how juicy it was. It was great stuff. All the marvellous little details that people think I made up probably are historic.” At which point Max added a spontaneous line: “Rome wasn’t written in a day.” Colleen laughed heartily and replied: “Rome can never be written in a day. Even Cicero would have trouble.”
Just before we left, Colleen signed some of her books for my mother, who lived in Philadelphia and was a big fan of her work. My mother passed away a few years later, but she was so excited when I gave her the signed copies after the shoot. And despite my getting Colleen to work like a Roman pleb, a forgiving author could not have been more hospitable. She then signed a copy of Fortune’s Favourites for my wife and me, “with many thanks.” No, Colleen, you deserve all the thanks … and kudos.
I’ll leave the last words to her former publicist, Alan Davidson, and Carolyn Reidy, the President & CEO of Simon & Schuster, Colleen’s long-time US publisher. Alan, who arranged the profile for Sunday, posted this on his Facebook page: “Vale Colleen McCullough. We toured together and I’ve heard your fabulous jokes followed by that raucous laugh and seen you bring the passengers in an aeroplane to life. You will be missed. Love Davo.”
And Carolyn Reidy posted this on the author’s Facebook page: “Colleen McCullough was a born storyteller of limitless versatility. Since bursting on the scene with her unforgettable novel “The Thorn Birds,” Colleen has captivated millions with stories that can take us anywhere from Ancient Rome to Australia of bygone years to mysteries from America’s recent past, all told with her characteristic historical accuracy and attention to detail, and more importantly, her wisdom and perception about the ways of the human heart and mind. It has been a privilege to publish her, and a joy to know her these many years.”
And for the shortened 12-minute video version of the Colleen McCullough story, please click below. My thanks to Channel Nine for allowing me to post this on my blog, to Richard at TCN Archives for all his help, to Mike Connerty, who edited the original Sunday story with his usual creative genius and to Steve McQueen, who cut down the story with his usual professional expertise. Photo at the top by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images; Photo of Colleen with Thorn Birds book News Corp Australia.

We are all Australian, but it’s time we sang with one voice

“We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands on Earth we come, we share a dream and sing with one voice – I am, you are, we are Australian.”
That song, written by Bruce Woodley and Dobe Newton, will be sung many times as we head into this Australia Day weekend. I thought of those lyrics as I struggled to find the right words about the terrorist attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which prompted the universal cry for freedom of speech: “Je suis Charlie.”
I tweeted that phrase, sending my prayers and thoughts to the families of the victims of the attacks: 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, including two policemen, one a Muslim shot in cold blood by one of the three Islamist radicals. Later four people were killed later in a siege of a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris and a policewoman was shot dead in the south of the city. I concluded it was all about empathy: I am Australian and American, but I have also expressed solidarity with African and Hispanic Americans, Indigenous and Ethnic Australians, Israelis and Palestinians, Irish and Spanish Republicans, black South Africans and Zimbabweans, pro-Democracy Chinese and Timorese and West Papuans, to name just a few.
But it’s very difficult to put yourself in the shoes of men and women who kill innocent people (and behead them) in the name of religion. You might have had empathy with the Irish republican movement, but you could only condemn the members of the Real IRA who murdered 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, in a car bomb attack in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh in 1998. The bombing came only four months after the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement.
Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue – praised for its freedom of speech message with its cover cartoon of the prophet Mohammed holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign and crying under the headline: “All is forgiven” – sparked anti-French riots in Niger, leaving at least ten dead, and condemnation from Afghanistan’s president and Iraq’s prime minister.
Four million people marched in France (AP photo of marchers in Paris above), supporting and celebrating free speech after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, but the country still has criminal laws against “speech that insults, defames or incites hatred, discrimination or violence on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sex or sexual orientation.” As Sharyn Mittelman points out in The Australian this week, some commentators in Australia claim “we cannot say ‘Je suis Charlie’ and support hate speech laws. But we can and we should.” http://bit.ly/1BBQkAk
But it’s still important to try to understand why the terrorists are killing the innocent. I think of the Catholic parents in Belfast who still hate the Protestants, and teach their children to do the same. I think of the white supremacists in the US who still hate African Americans. In both cases, it is getting better, but in the week we celebrate the birth of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, we shouldn’t forget there is still a long way to go. Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic campaigner and CNN commentator, had this to say: “… we should be especially mindful as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day. Today is a day of national reflection, but it is also a day of action. Remembering those who sacrificed before us is important, but carrying on their legacy and continuing to march forward is essential. The walk from Selma to Montgomery that turned into Bloody Sunday leaves us with a strong reminder of how much those before us gave for basic human rights.” http://cnn.it/1CyKQmT
Education and empathy are keys, of course, and while many Parisians marched for human rights, some encountered young Muslims who did not support the “Je suis Charlie” campaign. In fact, a group of North African teenagers in the Paris suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine told their teacher they did not believe the attack had happened. The teacher told The Sunday Times: “They’re lively, intelligent children. But most of them are convinced it’s some sort of conspiracy involving the government, Israel or the CIA. They have no faith in the authorities, in the media. The parents think the same way. It’s sad really.” http://bit.ly/1wqQTVR Sunday Times reporter Matthew Campbell said the killers in the Charlie Hebdo attack had their origins in housing estates similar to those in Vitry-sur-Seine, and the students weren’t backing the republic: “’We didn’t go to the republican march,’ said a girl sitting in a fast food restaurant. ‘That was a thing for the whites, not us.’ Her friends giggled. One piped up: ‘We’re not Charlie here’.”
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It may be hard to empathise with Islamist radicals, but we shouldn’t be surprised that moderate Muslims question the Western media’s treatment of terrorism. While the murder of 17 people in Paris attracted worldwide and prominent coverage in the print and electronic media, the killing of at least 2000 people, mostly women and children, in the village of Baga in northern Nigeria by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram received nowhere near that prominence (AP photo above of some of the thousands of homes destroyed in Baga). Nor did Boko Haram’s strapping of explosives to a ten-year-old girl and sending her to a market in a nearby city. At least 19 people died in that horrible moment of terrorism. Ethan Zuckerman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made a detailed study of the contrast in media coverage between Charlie and Baga in The Conversation. http://bit.ly/15w4d5l
It’s no surprise then, that Muslim students think the republican march was a “thing for the whites,” when violence in Africa doesn’t appear to mean as much as it does in France. King’s College London Professor and former UN official, Andrew MacLeod, has written an excellent piece about the alienation of Muslims, also in The Conversation. He makes a significant point: “If we want to unite moderate Muslims in a team against the radicals, are we doing this sensibly when we protest for a set of cartoons that offend, yet don’t protest for the many thousands more that die in their lands? Doesn’t this lack of empathy push moderate Muslims into the arms of radical Islam – united in offence to their religion, even while the moderates also condemn the murders?” http://bit.ly/15sVr8i
When I was the foreign editor of The Australian back in the 1970s, I gave a lot of space to the end of white rule in Rhodesia and the evils of apartheid in South Africa. I remember Rupert Murdoch getting into the lift one morning, and saying hello, which was nice, I thought, and he added: “I don’t know how you’re going to keep them interested in Africa.” It was a short ride, so I didn’t have much chance to reply, except to say something like: “I’m doing my best.” As most readers would know, he was very interested in American and British news then. I’ve never had a chance to say “I told you so.” Somehow, I don’t think he’d remember that bit of advice he offered to me nearly 40 years ago.
MacLeod makes another point about how the radicals are making use of social media – Facebook and Twitter and YouTube – to recruit angry young men and women in Islamic countries, and other nations like Australia, France, the UK and the US where Muslims are “disengaged, excluded and in search of a sense of belonging.” Certainly, the scores of Australians who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq felt excluded from the mainstream. Empathy could play a big part in helping to bring them back to the fold. This morning on ABC’s RN Breakfast program, presenter Hamish Macdonald asked a young Muslim lawyer Rabea Khan if there was one thing she could tell other Australians about Muslim Australians what would it be. She replied: “If you haven’t had much contact with Muslims, please by all means do try and do that. We’re really not that scary. You know, we are really diverse. There’s no doubt we’re not just one group you can typecast or generalise about, but we’re a very complex, varied community. Most of us have been here a very long time. We’re involved in all areas of Australian life and we’re really not that different.” http://ab.co/1wqKpWZ
In my days as a schoolboy growing up in a white neighbourhood next to a black neighbourhood, I didn’t get to meet, let alone know, many African Americans, except at school or sport or the occasional race riot at the local playground. When I went to Villanova University 16 kilometres from the Philadelphia CBD, I discovered that black students weren’t all that scary, as Rabea Khan says. When I began teaching black children in Harlem and returned home to the old neighbourhood in West Philly on the occasional weekend, I was called a “n-gger lover” by the regulars in the local Irish American pub. When I went to South Africa on a press mission sponsored by the South African embassy in Canberra in 1977, I asked as many Afrikaners as possible if they had any black friends, and many of them admitted they had none – though they employed black nannies and household staff. When I went on a press mission to Israel in 1990 sponsored by the Australian/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council and conducted by the Israeli government press office, I met Israelis who knew a lot about the history of Palestine, but didn’t know many Palestinians. And in Australia, I have met many Aborigines and Muslims, but I can’t say that many are close friends. I’m not alone on that score.
So in 2015, it’s time for all Australians to try to make those lyrics come true: “We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands on Earth we come, we share a dream and sing with one voice – I am, you are, we are Australian.”
With apologies to the great Dr Martin Luther King, I, too, have a dream – that we can all sing with one voice.

My Gonzo Blog: 2014 in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog, and I decided to publish it as usual. It’s been a good year although I made another decision — to write a post only when I had something to say, to avoid repetition. But the viewing numbers have been fairly good, despite that. I promise to write more regularly this year. Thanks for continuing to read the blog, and special thanks to those who have commented on my posts. The most active commenters are mentioned in the complete report (see below)

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,400 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people. There were 52 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 3 MB. That’s about 4 pictures per month. The busiest day of the year was February 11th with 246 views. The most popular post that day was Schapelle Corby: A tale of media madness.

Click here to see the complete report.

Hell has touched Sydney, yet blessed are the flower people

Terrorism came to Sydney this week in the guise of a deranged gunman — a self-styled Sheik, who took 17 hostages in a Lindt chocolate café in the CBD of one of the world’s greatest and safest cities.
It wasn’t Taliban terrorism where 141 people, most of them children, were killed in a school in Pakistan, but it was real terror for the hostages for the 16 hours and 19 minutes they were held captive. Two of the hostages died after police, hearing gunshots inside, stormed the café at 2am on Tuesday. Four of the captives and one policeman were injured, with the remaining innocent people escaping uninjured. But they and the city and the country will be scarred by the actions of a lone-wolf terrorist, Man Haron Monis, a man charged with being the accessory to the killing of his ex-wife and numerous sexual assault charges against women in his work as a “spiritual healer.” He was on bail and due to appear in court on the charges in February next year. http://bit.ly/1IV3cDt Lest we forget, he had also written abusive letters to the loved ones of dead Australian servicemen, in a bizarre protest against our involvement in Afghanistan. Prime Minister was one of the many Australians who asked why this “deeply disturbed individual” was not being monitored by security agencies. Other questions include how he got bail, Australian citizenship, welfare benefits, and a gun licence – although no one knows if he actually had a gun licence! Even the Attorney-General, George Brandis, could not confirm whether Monis had a licence. He told Ellen Fanning on ABC’s RN Breakfast it was the responsibility of the State, not the Federal government, and he might have had an illegal weapon. http://ab.co/1wimVrB
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As days go by, the madness of the self-described Sheik is coming to light. He was a Shia Muslim who became a Sunni radical in the last month, and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. One of his demands to the police was an Islamic State flag to replace the generic flag he had the hostages hold against the café window – which contained the text of the Shahada, the testament of the Islamic faith: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of God.” Muslim organisations in Australia condemned the siege and distanced themselves from the flag and the Sheik. Monis also demanded to talk to the PM, but it’s believed police refused to grant the demands, fearing he was just looking for notoriety, which could have led to a public execution of a hostage. http://bit.ly/1xqYx8L
Many Australians spent the day watching the rolling coverage on television, covered by all the channels, including Channel Seven, with studios directly opposite the café. A Seven cameraman, Paul Walker, had the presence of mind to leave his camera on a tripod focussed on the door where the first hostages escaped, after all the media was told by police to leave the front of the cafe. It enabled viewers and news outlets to see the dramatic footage of hostages escaping, but the networks were careful to avoid showing any pictures of violence.
The two hostages who were killed were described as heroes: 34-year-old Tori Johnson, the manager of the Lindt café, reportedly tussled with the gunman before he was shot, and 38-year-old Katrina Dawson, a prominent barrister and mother of three, shielded her pregnant friend and colleague, Julie Taylor. Nine News revealed yesterday that Mr Johnson was shot by Monis at close range, while News Corp Australia reported Ms Dawson was shot in the body by the gunman as the hostages fled the café. http://bit.ly/13xgbvf The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said in a service: “These heroes were willing to lay down their lives so that others may live.” At times like this, religious leaders often fall back on platitudes, but not Archbishop Fisher, who said quite appropriately: “Hell has touched us.”
The tragic deaths of the hostages sparked a spontaneous floral tribute in Martin Place outside the café — myriad flowers presented by myriad Australians, including the Prime Minister and his wife, with the site being visited by many dignitaries: Governor-General, Peter Cosgrove; NSW Premier, Mike Baird; Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione; and the Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, to name just a few. (Top of page: Family and friends of Tori Johnson pause to read messages of support at the site. Photo by Adam Taylor News Corp Australia)
December in Sydney is supposed to be the start of the silly season – the name the media gives to the summer months of December and January until Australia Day on January 26. All those people laying flowers at Martin Place would have normally just been shopping, having lunch, seeing the tourist sites, going to the beach – the things we do in summer. Now in the back of our minds, there may be a nagging concern – is this shop or restaurant or café or pub or stadium going to be the target of some crazed criminal, or worse, a terrorist. That is why Tony Abbott said on Monday: “Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society. Nothing should ever change that, and that’s why I would urge all Australians today to go about their business as usual.” Easy to say, but sometimes hard to do.
And there are fears of a backlash against Muslims. In a joint statement, the National Council of Churches in Australia, the NSW Ecumenical Council and Act for Peace said: “May this be a time when the Australian community – people of all faiths – unite around our common care for all life. We trust that the acts of one individual will not lead to discrimination against Australian Muslims.” As columnist Chris Kenny pointed out in The Australian, the Lebanese community leader Jamal Riffi says there has been no backlash this week, in fact, there has never been any to speak of, just isolated incidents. Kenny goes on: “At Sydney’s Lakemba Mosque on Monday night, a rabbi addressed the crowd, reading from the Torah, as prayers were offered for the Martin Place hostages. ‘This was unprecedented,’ Riff says. ‘And the rabbi was listened to, he wasn’t heckled’.” http://bit.ly/13zJSM4
But there have been isolated incidents this week, like the arrest of a man from Dural who allegedly made threatening phone calls to a mosque in Auburn in western Sydney and was later charged by police with threatening to destroy property. http://bit.ly/1qZpmPe And some media people have also been abused. Celina Edmonds, a highly respected reporter at Sky News, posted on her personal Facebook page on Tuesday: “At RPA (hospital) this morning I had a man yell at us – mainly anti-Muslim sentiment. Today I’ve been abused on Twitter and in the street. In Martin Place, I held the hand of a Muslim man who had tears streaming down his face – he’d been spat on three times coming to pay his respects. I told him that nothing could justify that behaviour towards him. I spoke to an Iranian woman who said she hoped people didn’t blame all Iranians. I assured her they didn’t.” But Celina showed her balance with this post excerpt on Wednesday: “Yesterday people were in shock. They were stunned. Today faced with a mass of flowers and another day on, they were truly grief-stricken. Many, many more tears today. People were overwhelmed not only by the outcome of the siege, but also the scale of the outpouring of grief. Pleased to report it was also a kinder day too, the anger and fear seemed to have gone or it just didn’t find me. Replaced by a calm resolve. Sydney united in sorrow.” And as far as those isolated incidents were concerned, the NSW Assistant Police Commissioner Michael Fuller said: “There has been some issues of hate or bias crime but it’s certainly minimal compared to the outpouring of support and you’ve all seen the flowers at Martin Place.”
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Finally, a word on the media coverage of the siege. Guardian Australia’s Amanda Meade praised most of the media for its restraint: “Police had asked that the gunman’s identity and the names of the hostages be suppressed and that chilling videos made by the hostages and uploaded to YouTube not be shown. Most outlets blurred the faces of the hostages who appeared at the window of the Lindt cafe. The identity of the gunman was kept from the public until police media gave the go-ahead after midnight and some outlets chose not to air graphic footage of a victim receiving CPR. One Seven source said there was horrific vision of a woman being shot that never made it to air.” http://bit.ly/1AE1joQ
On the other hand, Sydney Morning Herald columnist John Birmingham was scathing in his criticism of the media, particularly the rolling coverage: “What we don’t need next time some unhinged loon like Man Haron Monis takes hostages is the never ending shit show of rolling coverage across every available electronic channel. A maddy and grub like that, what do you think they most want in the world? They want the world to pay attention. And that’s exactly what Monis got yesterday.” http://bit.ly/1GOgg9U But Birmingham was just getting warmed up: “The special edition of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph was probably the low point in the full spectrum media coverage of Monis’s crime. It was wrong on every count. But if that was the definitive low point, there were many contenders. Some driven by malice. Most caused by the need to fill up dead air space or to beat the competition in the race for clicks and eyeballs. We at Fairfax were not immune. The ABC allowed one idiot talking-head after another to sprout dangerous garbage all over their 24 hour news service while many media outlets updated police tactical movements around the site of the siege. It took pleas by the police, the establishment of the exclusion zone and some determined social media shaming to cut off that information flow to Monis. And all that was needed was a news flash.”
Wow! I read Meade’s article and thought she was right, then I read Birmingham’s piece and thought he was right, too. I have been in television control rooms for terrorist attacks and disasters that called for rolling coverage, including 9/11, the Bali Bombing, the death of Princess Diana and the Black Saturday Victorian Bushfires, to name a few. When a big story breaks, it’s all hands on deck, and there’s always a lot to talk about. When you have plenty of pictures, it makes it easier. But the moment you go to a commercial break or resume normal programming, you might miss something important, so you need to stick with it. I was happy that the commercial networks kept going with the story, especially Channel Ten, which has lost so many news staff in recent cutbacks. I expected Sky News and the ABC to roll on with the coverage, because that’s what they’re good at. When I got tired of looking at the same shot of the Lindt café, and olay of the hostages being forced to put their hands on the store window, I switched over to ESPN where I could watch the Philadelphia Eagles play the Dallas Cowboys in a National Football League match being broadcast in Philly. Fortunately, I have Foxtel IQ on my television so I could fast forward through the game. I found myself going back to Sky and the ABC and Seven and Nine and Ten (SBS didn’t have live coverage when I switched over so I didn’t bother going back). I watched the coverage until 10.30pm, except for a brief eye doctor’s appointment in the afternoon. I had a feeling something would happen overnight, and it did.
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I didn’t know who the hostage taker was until the next morning when I heard it on ABC 702 news and AM in Sydney at 6am, and then listened to Ellen Fanning on RN Breakfast as I went on my morning walk. I recorded ABC24 and Sky so I could watch the footage of the dramatic storming of the café when I returned home. For most of the previous day, the media did not know who the gunman was, and whether he had anyone with him (or agreed to police requests not to publish or show that information or reveal the demands Monis had asked the hostages to convey to the media). So, of course, the Daily Telegraph should not have put out a special edition with incorrect information, likely to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment, eg the headline: “IS takes 13 hostages in city café siege”
ABC head of news content Gaven Morris told Guardian Australia the most difficult part of covering the siege was the lack of official information: “ … so we were left looking at the scene trying to interpret. There was information that we knew from our own sources about who he was; there was information about the demands; we had some information on who the hostages were. We took the decision not to report any of it.”
I would normally tweet information if I thought it was something new, and could be confirmed. I was monitoring Twitter and gave up. So I can understand how John Birmingham felt. But I was happy to see that all the news channels were covering what was an important story – responsibly. In fact, Commissioner Andrew Scipione publicly thanked the media for its responsible coverage.
Now all we need is a channel that will give the same sort of coverage to the murder of more than 130 children in Pakistan by Taliban terrorists – wait a minute, we’d need a correspondent in Pakistan, wouldn’t we? Will the ABC still have one next year? Or will Pakistan be part of the restructured foreign bureaux with “multiplatform hubs” in Washington, London, Beijing and Jakarta.
Watch this space, and pray that we never have a real Islamic extremist terrorist attack.
Oh, I almost forgot. Merry Christmas. And, despite the past few days, peace on earth and good will to men and women. My prayers and thoughts go to the family and friends of the hostage victims, the survivors and all the police and services who were involved in the siege … and more power to all those flower people in Martin Place.

The Blue Sox: A neighbourhood gem in Blacktown

It’s a neighbourhood gem, with great pizza and cold beer at excellent value, friendly service, terrific atmosphere and superb entertainment. And, it’s located at Blacktown in Sydney’s sometimes maligned western suburbs.
No, this is not a restaurant, but the Blacktown International Sportspark where the entertainment is good quality baseball.
You don’t have to take that from me, but a real expert, Bob Turner, who happens to be the Chairman of the Sydney Blue Sox, as well as the former coach, general manager, managing director and part-owner of four National Basketball League teams, including most recently, the man behind the resurrection of the Sydney Kings.
I was sitting next to Bob at the Blue Sox-Perth Heat game on Saturday night and he told me: “I came here four years ago, and watched the games and said, this is good baseball.” I agreed with him, of course, then he pointed out the Sox third baseman, Zach Shepherd, who’s only 19, and played this year with the Detroit Tigers’ minor league team, the Gulf Coast Tigers. A real Major League Baseball prospect, like a number of others, he mentioned, like Tim and Matt and Sam Kennelly, all brothers who play for Perth Heat.
I wound up in Blacktown after a long-time colleague and friend, Laurie Patton, chairman of the marketing committee of the Blue Sox, promised to take me to a match after we chatted at the Los Angeles Dodgers-Arizona Diamondbacks game back in March at the Sydney Cricket Ground. I wrote a post about the two MLB Opening Series games between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, watched by 80 thousand spectators at the SCG http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-go, and shown live around the world. It was a significant event, and Bob Turner said the historic games had a good impact on the Australian Baseball League, “adding another layer of credibility.”
In fact, the MLB Opening Series won three major prizes at the 2014 Australian Event Awards: the Australian Event of the Year, the Best Sporting Event and the Best New Event. They are the events industry’s pinnacle awards, so it was quite an achievement for baseball in Australia.
So did the Dodgers-Diamondbacks game translate into “bums on seats” for the ABL, and the Sydney Blue Sox, in particular? Well, I’ve only been to one game, but there were about 1200 spectators at Blacktown last night in a ballpark that has a capacity of about 2000, and judging by the noise, they were all having a good time.
Let’s be honest. The Blacktown International Sportspark is a lovely venue, but it’s not the SCG, and it’s a long way from the city. No one disagreed with me when I suggested the club needed a stadium with greater seating capacity and to be closer to Sydney. Bob Turner said the board had some meetings where they discussed a bigger facility and even moving to Spotless Stadium, which is the home of the AFL’s Greater Western Sydney Giants at Homebush. They had discussed it with the NSW Premier Mike Baird, who played baseball when he lived in New York in the late seventies, and is a great fan of the legendary New York Yankees. Baird was an active member of the board of the Blue Sox, until he became premier, but he remains a Sox supporter. The NSW Sports Minister, Stuart Ayres, who’s the Member for Penrith in the Western Suburbs, has also attended a Blue Sox game, so baseball in Sydney certainly has some government support.
It would attract more spectators, even if it were only a bit closer to the action, like Parramatta, which is starting to rival Sydney as the premier regional city in the metropolitan area. The manager of Sydney Blue Sox, Jason Pospishil, was honest about the need for more fans in a post-match interview with Michael Crossland, live streamed on ABL.tv: “We need this to become a more permanent fixture and the guys really appreciate the support. In the long run, this league’s not going to survive unless people come to watch the game. I think it’s like any other sporting team in Australia, if you are winning and play well, people will come and watch you.”
Well, the Blue Sox are winning. They are 11 and 8 after Saturday night’s big 7-1 win over Perth and Sunday’s rain-delayed suspended game, which was halted by a 4.15 curfew when the Heat had to catch a 7pm flight back to Perth. The live stream was hampered by lightning, which knocked out two of the cameras. They played the last of the seventh like it was the bottom of the ninth. The game ended in the top of the eighth at 4.15pm, with Perth Heat up 2 to nil. The final result is under league review.
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The baseball was good: On Saturday night, Blue Sox pitcher Luke Wilkins gave up only one run on six hits in his seven innings, and Alex Glenn (photo at the top by Joe Vella SMP Images/ ABL Media) batted in three of his team’s seven runs. On Sunday, the Heat’s Ben Shorto (pictured above and a footnote, the 19-year-old has been fighting leukemia for the last two years http://bit.ly/1v0GgYG) allowed only one hit and no runs to the Blue Sox, with 17-year-old Lachlan Wells giving up six hits and two runs, while walking four. The Sox won 2 of the four games against the Heat, with the final game result pending. Here’s a link to yesterday’s match: http://bit.ly/1zGRsOq
Will I go back to watch the Blue Sox? I will, as it was a lot of fun. To be honest, I would not enjoy the trip back and forth to Blacktown, from the North Shore, especially on a bad traffic day. But to return to my restaurant analogy, the food and grog (entrees) were good, the atmosphere (stands and fans) was great, and the main course (baseball) was entertaining.
I was especially taken with the way the club looked after their guests, like the Hastings Baseball Club and the Clay Valley Juniors. Each of the players went to their positions with the juniors dressed up in their uniforms to stand and listen to the National Anthem. Here’s a link to the video of that and the rest of the game if you’d like to watch the replay: http://bit.ly/15L74YE Near the end, you can see another one of the highlights, the “running the bases,” where 100 plus kids, ranging in age from 16 years to 16 months (okay, this one was being walked by his Dad), ran around the bases. The kids loved it. Another funny moment was a seven year old boy singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” during the seventh-inning stretch, the way they do it in the US.
Beer and baseball go together, and the newly installed beer garden looked particularly inviting, but at my seat behind home plate, I only had one beer, a Samuel Adams, for $5 (bought by my mate), which was good value, and a small special pizza, delivered to my seat. About the fourth or fifth inning we were escorted by Blue Sox CEO Mark Marino, a former minor league player with the California Angels, to the function room, where I met some of Australian baseball’s elite, and had a second beer, a Coors.
Among the Australian baseballers reminiscing about the old days were President of Baseball Australia, David Hynes, who played baseball for 15 years in the US; the “Babe Ruth of Australian Baseball,” Lionel Harris, an Australian Baseball Hall of Fame member, who’s now the executive officer of the Blue Sox; and another Hall of Famer, Gary White, who played for the Philadelphia Phillies in the Major Leagues, and a 10-year veteran with the Sydney Blues/Storm in the Australian National League. They all love baseball, and sat around exchanging tall tales, most of them true, I’m sure, while keeping one eye on the Blue Sox game.
Lionel Harris, who was a Claxton Shield All-Star for four seasons in the early eighties, and hit 6 six home runs in 33 games for the Parramatta Patriots in 1989-90 and was fourth in the ABL in slugging, said: “Baseball is my life since I retired.” Given all that he does for the Blue Sox, he doesn’t seem to be the retiring type.
Also upstairs was the CEO of the Australian Baseball League, Peter Wermuth, who was born in Germany, and played baseball for Pomona College in California. He has two decades of coaching experience under his belt, including guiding the German national team to historic wins over Team USA and Team Canada. Laurie Patton made an interesting observation: “Peter grew up in Germany, but he never thought of baseball as an American game.” Wermuth’s role as an international ambassador for baseball augurs well for the future of the ABL.
And for those who watch the Sydney Blue Sox on ABL.tv livestream, there’s another ambassador for baseball, an inspirational one. Michael Crossland is an inspirational speaker who has told his amazing story of surviving cancer to various organisations, schools, companies around the world http://michaelcrossland.com/, and the Blue Sox are lucky to have him as a commentator on their YouTube videos.
If you are just learning what baseball is all about, watching and listening to Michael and his sometime commentator partner, Chris Hauso, is informative and fun. And for those who know their baseball, Michael and Chris are still valued commentators.
Michael may even inspire you to make that trip to Blacktown, no matter where you live in Sydney. And don’t forget the pizza and beer.
UPDATE: If you’ve read the post above and are interested in seeing for yourself the standard of baseball in Australia, the 2014 Australian Baseball League All-Star Game will be broadcast live in Australia and New Zealand on ESPN tomorrow (Wednesday, Dec 17) starting at 7.30pm (Aust Daylight Saving Time). The game will be played between Team Australia, consisting of ABL’s Aussie stars, and the World All-Stars, the ABL’s best-performing international players this season from six baseball nations, including the United States, Canada, Taiwan and Korea. The match will also be broadcast on delay to over 70 million households in the US via the MLB Network, and seen in over 30 Asia countries on Fox Sports Asia.

G20: What’s wrong with mentioning climate change?

President Barack Obama sent me an email last week. It’s not unusual, as he’s been doing it for six years now, ever since he ran for the White House and won.
I’ve voted for Barack Obama twice now, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the Democratic National Committee, and Organizing for Action (OFA), have been sending emails to party supporters like myself … myriad emails on behalf of the Congressional candidates in the recent midterm elections.
I don’t mind, even when they ask for money I don’t have, because the Republicans have always had more money. All’s fair in love and war and politics.
But I was extremely disappointed, as was the President and the party faithful when the Democrats lost control of the Senate, and the Republicans now have the majority in both houses of Congress. The President hasn’t had a great year – glitches in Obamacare, still the most important part of his legacy; some hesitancy in the management of the Ebola crisis; and more hesitancy in how to handle ISIS, after his staff played down the threat of the Islamic State. But unemployment has fallen to a six-year low of 5.8 per cent; 214,000 new jobs were created last month; and President Obama and the Democrats are still fighting for equal pay for women, raising the minimum wage, reining in corporate polluters, curbing Wall Street excess, and protecting the voting rights of minorities.
A few months ago, Barack Obama admitted the Republicans’ cynical strategy was working: “There has been a certain cynical genius to what some of these folks have done in Washington. What they’ve realised is, if we don’t get anything done, then people are going to get cynical about government and its possibilities of doing good for everybody. And since they don’t believe in government, that’s a pretty good thing. And the more cynical people get, the less they vote. And if turnout is low and people don’t vote, that pretty much benefits those who benefit from the status quo.”
But, of course, it wasn’t just a cynical strategy, but a growing number of Americans who wanted the President to be another Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who could rally the troops and had a united country behind him. Barack Obama inherited high unemployment and low consumer confidence when he took office in January 2009. Here’s what he said in his email: “I want you to remember that we’re making progress. There are workers who have jobs today who didn’t have them before. There are millions of families who have health insurance today who didn’t have it before. There are kids going to college today who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college before. So don’t get cynical, Tom. Cynicism didn’t put a man on the moon. Cynicism has never won a war, or cured a disease, or built a business, or fed a young mind. Cynicism is a choice. And hope will always be a better choice.”
Okay, Mr President, in spite of being a long-time journalist, I’ll try not to be cynical. But here’s one thing I’d like you to do for me. Keep making speeches like the one you gave at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. I was watching it as it was beamed in live to my office at Channel Nine. It was an inspiring performance, starting with a mini-autobiography and working up to a stirring climax: “If there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It is that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as one American family: E pluribus unum, out of many, one. Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there is the United States of America.” I said out loud to no one in particular: “Barack Obama is going to be the president one day.” I wasn’t the only one. Clarence Page, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist of the Chicago Tribune, wrote: “A superstar is born. It is difficult for many of us to contain our enthusiasm, yet we must try. We owe that to him. We should not reward his blockbuster performance last week at the Democratic National Convention by loading his shoulders with the fate of the nation. Not yet, anyway. That can wait, perhaps until, say, his 2012 Presidential campaign?”
Well, Clarence was more cautious than most of the pundits, and I also thought it would take Barack Obama until 2012 to become president. But after the re-election of George W. Bush and the defeat of John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama was fast-tracked by the Democrats, and became the first African-American president in the historic 2008 election.
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I think he’s done a better job than George W. Bush, and he’s certainly raised the bar for US presidents travelling abroad. His performance at the G20 Summit in Brisbane at the weekend proved he can still deliver a great speech. He allegedly “shirt-fronted” Tony Abbott by ignoring the host’s hopes that the summit would focus on the global economy, and not global warming. But Barack Obama has long been a supporter of action against climate change. Perhaps Tony Abbott and his party were more upset with the cheering by students at the University of Queensland (photo at top of post) when the President put climate change on the agenda: “As we focus on our economy, we cannot forget the need to lead on the global fight against climate change … I know there’s been a healthy debate in this country about it. Here in the Asia-Pacific, nobody has more at stake when it comes to thinking about and then acting on climate change.”
Barack Obama has charisma; Tony Abbott does not. I’m not having a go at our prime minister, just stating the facts. The Australian Financial Review’s respected political editor Laura Tingle said the president gave Tony Abbott a lesson in power on how to set and control an agenda. http://bit.ly/1yQo33P
Okay, as mentioned above, the president hasn’t had a great year, but he doesn’t deserve this bit of criticism from The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan. He claimed that Barack Obama blindsided the Abbott government in Brisbane “pretty viciously. Through his remarks on climate change, he has damaged the government politically.” Those comments, to which Sheridan is entitled, are definitely over the top, but he went further: “The damage may not be long lasting because the US President’s remarks bore little relation to anything he can deliver or will do. Instead, they reprise the most ineffably capricious and inconsequential moments in the Obama presidency: grand gestures, soaring visions; which never actually get implemented in the real world.” (Unless you are a subscriber to The Australian or wish to become one, the following link will not work. Sorry.) http://bit.ly/1Af9ScZ
Whew! Greg Sheridan was also critical of Gough Whitlam’s soaring visions, but I think Gough inspired a generation of Australians, including me, and Barack Obama has also inspired many young Americans, and young Australians. Just listen to these vox pops of students after the president’s speech.
Sophia Aston, 17, from Mt St Michael’s College in Brisbane, told the ABC she admired the president’s appeal to young people: “I’m really interested in law and human rights, and potentially politics, so it was really inspiring to me. It’s nice to realise there is potential and they have the capacity to support us – it makes the world seem a lot smaller.” (http://ab.co/1xccsxZ)
Another high school student, Lily Treston, 17, also praised the speech: “I think for us it will help us finish the year with a very positive message. For young women to hear from such an influential person about how we can have a better and brighter world for our gender and generation was inspirational.”
I would walk an extra mile to hear Barack Obama speak; and sometimes Tony Abbott states the bleeding obvious as he did when he addressed the world leaders at the beginning of the summit, complaining about his inability to get Australians to pay a $7 doctor fee, and bragging about repealing the carbon tax.
Robyn Dixon of the Los Angeles Times was critical of the Prime Minister for being parochial when he was striding the world stage: “The Group of 20 summit could have been Australia’s moment, signalling its arrival as a global player, some here argued. But in all, the summit had Australians cringing more than cheering.” http://on-msn.com/1yaDEeI
But Tony Abbott probably doesn’t care. After signing an historic Free Trade Agreement with China, he told a special sitting of parliament (to hear an address by Chinese President Xi Jinping): “We trade with people when we need them; we invest with people when we trust them.” Greg Sheridan continued his onslaught on Barack Obama: “A US president comes to Australia with the specific intention of damaging the Australian government politically on climate change, while a Chinese president comes here with nothing but gifts. Xi Jinping’s accomplished, well-considered speech to parliament yesterday contained no references to climate change and no implicit criticism of Australia … The contrast with Barack Obama was staggering.” http://bit.ly/1wUKHWL
I wonder what President Obama did to Greg Sheridan to treat him like an enemy – “specific intention of damaging the Australian government” – he must be a mind-reader as well. Did he ever consider that the US President actually believes it’s time to fight global climate change? In fact, Mr Obama signed an agreement with China to cut greenhouse gas pollution last Wednesday, and, of course, the Republicans, led by the new House majority leader, Mitch McConnell, attacked the President, denying that climate change was a problem. But Mr Abbott, when it comes to trust, who would you trust first – the Chinese or the US Government? Oh, that’s right, you believe the Chinese president promised China would be fully democratic by 2050. Unfortunately, as the authoritative New York Times blog, Sinosphere, pointed out, Mr Xi made no such promise. He has a different definition of democracy. http://nyti.ms/1tc39Yz
It will be a long and possibly painful two years for the Democrats until the presidential election, but I sincerely hope Barack Obama continues his campaign against climate change, as well as fighting for Obamacare, trying to make sure millions of Americans get access to health insurance. In another email last week the president appealed to Democrats to get involved: “If it’s raising the minimum wage for hard-working Americans or fixing our broken immigration system that fires you up, I need you to stand up for it. If it’s gun violence prevention, speak out. If it’s marriage equality, or women’s rights, or getting serious about fighting climate change, your voice is needed like never before.”
Barack Obama might be a lame-duck president, but I doubt that he will act like one. I think he will fight for the issues he believes in – and if he can persuade a Republican Congress to work with him, he will leave quite a legacy.
UPDATE: The Sydney Morning Herald reports: After talks with the French President Francois Hollande in Canberra, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has called on countries to set strong binding emissions reductions targets at next year’s major climate conference in Paris.
And after years of arguing that Australia should only move faster once major polluters also moved, Mr Abbott has now described climate change as “an important subject” and one “the world needs to tackle as a whole.” He must have been listening to President Obama’s speech last Saturday. http://bit.ly/1qu9OD0

Gough Whitlam: We will never see his like again

Gough Whitlam, who died today at the age of 98, was my first Australian hero.
When I arrived in Sydney in 1971, I got a job teaching at Cabramatta High School in the western suburbs. I didn’t know a lot about Australian politics, but one of the first things a fellow teacher at the school showed me was the Whitlam home in Cabramatta. It was an historic site even then and he wasn’t Prime Minister yet. His daughter Cathy was a former student at the high school so all the locals knew where Gough and his wife Margaret and the family lived. Gough Whitlam was the local MP for Werriwa, and the Cabramatta High School patron. Margaret worked at the school canteen. (The love of his life, Margaret was also a great Australian.)
It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the Australian Labor Party and its leader, Gough Whitlam. I grew up as a Democrat in the United States, and the ALP and the charismatic EG Whitlam stood for everything I believed in: Medicare, multiculturalism, free university education, Aboriginal Reconciliation, a revival of the Arts, an independent foreign policy and a recognition that the Vietnam War was a failure, to name a few. I’ve written about Gough before so please excuse some repetition. http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-aC (Yes, I know my previous post repeated a bit, too. But I had to write about Gough Whitlam. I promise to keep it short!) Gough also had a wonderful sense of humour; in fact Deane Wells compiled his bon mots in a book entitled The Wit of Wisdom (Outback Press). Combine all these policies and qualities and compare them to what Richard Nixon stood for, and you can see why I was a big supporter of Gough Whitlam. Okay, Whitlam’s economic policies weren’t the best, given the Iraqi Loans Affair, in a bid to finance development plans, which was an unmitigated disaster for the government. But give me Gough any day.
When I was supervising producer for the Sunday Program at Nine, I often tried to get Gough to come on the program as a guest, to be interviewed by political editor Laurie Oakes, who was a friend of the former Prime Minister. One day in the late nineties, I called his office, and he came on the line. He couldn’t appear on the program that week, but we started to chat about my ethnic origin. “Krause,” he said. “That’s German isn’t it?” “Yes,” I replied, “but I’m more Irish than German as my grandparents on my mother’s side are from County Mayo. But I was born in the US, and came to Australia in the early seventies.” Up until this point, it was just a pleasant chat, until I said: “But I’m an Australian now. In fact, I became an Australian so I could vote for you in 1975.”
At this point, the former Prime Minister boomed down the line in that distinctive voice: “Your credentials are improving!” Gough Whitlam eventually appeared on the program on the 20th anniversary of Sunday, November 18, 2001. He was, as always, a tremendous guest.
When Gough was dismissed as Prime Minister by the Governor-General, John Kerr, on November 11, 1975, I was devastated, along with most Labor supporters (see photo below of Whitlam on that day as the G-G’s secretary reads proclamation dissolving parliament). I maintained the rage as he requested, but the paper I worked for, The Australian, was a leader in the campaign to make sure he wasn’t re-elected in 1975. The journalists were so angered with the anti-Labor bias, we even went on strike for a day in protest against the coverage. As a result, I was not a fan of Malcolm Fraser who defeated Gough in that election, but the former Liberal leader has now become a statesman and backs many of the policies Labor did then. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Mr Fraser describe Gough Whitlam as a “great Australian” on the ABC. One great Australian talking about another great Australian. I never thought I’d say that about Malcolm Fraser in 1975.
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I said I’d keep this short so I have one more story about a conversation I had with Gough Whitlam. When I was editing the book pages for The Australian in the early eighties, a political volume — perhaps one about the dismissal — landed on my desk (sorry, I can’t remember the title). The only problem was the pay rates for reviewers. The Australian paid $50 for the review, and of course, the book was free. I didn’t tell him the rate, knowing it was pathetic, even for the early eighties, I just asked if he could review it. He must have known the paltry sum, as he said: “Yes, but I have to tell you, I must ask for a dollar a word.” I told him I’d get back to him. I went to see then editor Les Hollings, and asked if I could pay Gough a dollar a word. Les looked at me, smiled and said: “No, Tom, definitely not.” Les was not an aficionado of Gough, but you could have guessed that! So Gough Whitlam did not write for The Australian literary pages when I was editing them.
I do remember sending the book to Sir Howard Beale, a former Liberal Party minister and Australian Ambassador to the United States, who didn’t mind reviewing for $50. It’s ironic in a way as I’ve just heard the present leader of the Labor Party, Bill Shorten, who was married to Sir Howard’s granddaughter, and is now married to the daughter of the former Governor-General, Dame Quentin Bryce, pay tribute to Gough Whitlam: “A giant of our movement, a great leader of our nation, Edward Gough Whitlam has left us.” Mr Shorten was addressing the Labor Caucus, and he was followed by Gough’s long-time friend and colleague, Senator John Faulkner, who said his tribute was going to be “the most difficult speech I have made and will ever make in this Caucus.” Senator Faulkner, who made a two-hour television documentary with Gough for SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) in 2002 http://bit.ly/1FtnNgs, told the Caucus: “Gough Whitlam was a towering figure in our party and in our lives for as long as I can remember.” He also talked about the excitement and enthusiasm of the election campaign in 1972 when Gough was elected on December 2. It was in my experience as happy a day as the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 after a long eight years of Dwight Eisenhower and the election of Barack Obama in 2008 after an even longer eight years of George W. Bush. Senator Faulkner also talked about the achievements of Gough Whitlam in modernising the party, making it electable, and inspiring a generation of Australians: “I am one of them,” he said, “and I know I’m here with many others in the Caucus today.” And he didn’t forget the wit of Whitlam either. Senator Faulkner said Gough was very pleased when the 2002 documentary was nominated for a Logie (the Australian equivalent of an Emmy Award). But he had to tell him the sad news that the Logies had informed him before the ceremony that the doco wouldn’t win: “Gough was crestfallen for at least five seconds, and said to me: ‘Comrade, I suppose an Academy Award is out of the question.” The Caucus laughed and so did I.
Goodbye, Gough. We will never see your like again.
PS Readers of this blog who might want to know more about Gough Whitlam, here’s a link to an obituary written by Tony Stephens in the Sydney Morning Herald. http://bit.ly/1zipnBn There are many additional stories as well.

Remembering the heroes of Harlem

I found an article I had written back in 1982 among some documents from my days as literary editor and TV critic on The Australian. I thought I’d publish it on my blog as it still has some validity (and it wasn’t published back then). And sure enough, halfway through my revision, I discovered that two of the main participants were still alive and still contributing to the education of children. Here is how the story began in 1982:
Education is alive and well in Harlem. If you had told me six weeks ago that I was going to write that about the famous black community in New York City, I would have said: “You are out of your mind.”
But it’s true. I saw it myself: black and white teachers working together so black children can make it in the outside world, still run by white people; parents and administrators pooling their resources to help kids get an education in a city that is by no means financially secure; and, most important, the children themselves, learning despite the disadvantages they have inherited from society.
It happened at Wadleigh Junior High School 88, just off Seventh Avenue and 114th Street in west Harlem, which is overwhelmingly black – east, or Spanish Harlem, is predominantly Hispanic. The reason I chose this school? Twelve years ago in 1970, I was a teacher there, an experience I have never forgotten [and still haven’t 44 years later!].
I taught there in there in 1968-69 and 1970, during teachers’ strikes, Cambodia and Richard Nixon, the killing of student protestors by national guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio and myriad protests against the Vietnam War and the draft.
Conscription and idealism were the two main factors in teaching in Harlem. One sure way of avoiding the draft and, almost inevitably, Vietnam, was to teach in a so-called disadvantaged area. It seemed to me, and I’ve said it many times since, much more preferable – and reasonable – to be teaching black kids in Harlem than to be killing Vietnamese kids in Vietnam in a war I didn’t believe in. It was an opinion shared by most of my generation.
As a relatively young and inexperienced teacher, I had my quota of bad days at Wadleigh – when the only thing that kept me going was the thought that I was contributing to society. And to be honest, that the day would come when I would turn 26 and no longer be eligible for the draft: April 30, 1970 was a day of freedom. Ironically, five years later on that same date, Saigon fell and the war was over.
During this time, my best mate, James McCausland, used to say: “Every time I pick up a newspaper, I expect to see your name in the headlines: either saying you killed a kid or a kid killed you.”
He was referring to the violence in the schools and on the sometimes mean streets of Harlem. Among the incidents which stand out in my memory are: a sixth-grade pupil of mine waiting outside a classroom with a broken bottle in his hand to pay back a teacher who had slapped him earlier in the day (fortunately, he gave the bottle up to me without a struggle); another student spitting in my face which prompted me to chase him down the stairs, out the door, and down several streets, before I realised I was a white man running after a black child in Harlem; and getting mugged for 35 cents as I walked across Morningside Park after school to climb the stairs to Cathedral Parkway and my bank. I was in more danger from the elderly white resident screaming “help” from the top of the steps. There was a fleeting smile from one of the young black guys as I explained I only had 35 cents to my name. It was not an easy gig teaching in Harlem.
In hindsight, I can see that many of the confrontations were due to my inexperience in the classroom, but there was a lot going on outside the school. The society was tearing itself apart in the late sixties and it was reflected in the classrooms and the corridors. Toward the end of the 1970 school year, dozens of children were roaming the five-storey building. False alarms were being pulled so often, the deputy principal had to resort to the PA system several times to announce: “This is a real fire, I repeat, this is a real fire. Everybody out of the building.”
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. There was the Faculty Follies, whose proceeds went to the ABC (A Better Chance) scholarship program, helping Wadleigh graduates get into prestigious prep schools and high schools and on to university. The program was (and still is) run by Edouard E. Plummer, mathematics teacher, and it was supported by many of his celebrity friends, including the late singer and actress, Lena Horne, and the famous author, James Baldwin.
The teachers were special, and I always considered them heroes because they stayed in Harlem – while many of us left when we turned 26. (I mentioned this to the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott when he was the Shadow Aboriginal Minister and wrote about it in a previous post http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-24.) When I returned to Wadleigh to see if the school had changed during my 12-year absence, it was the teachers I talked to first – colleagues like Ed Plummer, Doris Brunson, Ken Chevers, Carmen Matthew and Jim McGann. They had more than 100 years of experience, all of it at Wadleigh Junior High School. Ed Plummer put it best: “I was teaching blacks before it was fashionable to teach blacks.”
One person I’ll never forget is Doris Brunson, who began teaching at Wadleigh in 1957, and refused several better-paying jobs to stay at the school until she retired. She helped found the ABC program with Mr Plummer, and was an award-winning teacher for her contribution to the education of children in schools like Wadleigh. When I went back in 1982, she asked me if I wanted to teach one of her English classes. As you can see from the blackboard in the photo above, I taught a brief lesson about Aboriginal Australians, as their anthology had a story about Evonne Goolagong Cawley and how she became a successful tennis player. The story also gave me the opportunity to talk about Aborigines in Australia and their problems – problems in discrimination similar to ones they faced.
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But Ms Brunson demonstrated why she was a master teacher (1982 photo above). Her lesson to her eighth grade class was based on a teleplay about a blind girl in the same anthology. Miss Brunson read the stage directions and told the children to “put some feeling into your voices.” They did. Nothing is forced and when something in the text needed explanation, she did it … almost automatically. After the reading was over, she had some of the students come to the front of the class, put on blindfolds and try to guess what objects are being handed to them. A simple, but effective follow-up.
Later over coffee, I asked Ms Brunson what kept her at Wadleigh for so long: “Despite all we have against us, we have a nucleus of people, who have hung in there and done their best. There are teachers here who care. That’s one of the beautiful things about Wadleigh. I think that’s the reason I stayed. There were times when I was really ready to chuck it in. When there was pressure on me to produce and make sure that the children get what they are supposed to get, even though your energies are rapidly dwindling. You feel as if the children are pawns in a game and it angers you. Then you see those kids and you compare them to other children getting all the benefits and all the goodies, and you say, ‘I’m going to try another year’.
“I’m glad I did. I have a more positive attitude to the classroom. I made certain personal changes and I really enjoy the children. I felt I was a good teacher and was producing at a satisfactory level. But now I have become even more involved with the children in the classroom in a much more intense way. I feel as if I’m in touch with each child. It’s a very, very thrilling and exciting experience and it carries me on.”
Ms Brunson stopped suddenly and said if there was one person I should mention in my article it was the assistant principal and trades teacher, Ken Chevers: “I want you to be sure and give credit to Ken because without his help, we would have really gone under completely. He did his job and other people’s jobs. You began to think you were seeing him in triplicate. He was on this floor, that floor, he was all over the place.”
Ken Chevers was then a 24-year veteran of Wadleigh, a small man of 60, who didn’t look a day over 40. As tough as they come, he was all heart. The kind of bloke who could silence a school assembly, with one sentence, looking the recalcitrant n the eye, and saying: “If you don’t want to bounce, shut up.” The student shut up. But he could also tell the same eighth-grade assembly: “You’re the cream of the school. You set the example.” He was proud of the kids and they knew it. And whenever I had a problem with the kids in my class, Ken would show up before I called him. It must have been a Chevers triplicate.
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And that’s where I’ll end my 1982 story. It had to be updated when I made contact with Ed Plummer. I was going to transcribe what I had written about this magnificent teacher from my 1982 piece, then I Googled him and up came the “Wadleigh Scholars Program” (http://www.wadleighscholarsprogram.org/). And there he was, pictured with some of the scholarship students, and a photo with a white-haired, but still beautiful, Doris Brunson (see recent photo above). Fifty years on, at the age of 86, Ed Plummer is still working on the scholarship program. I called to find out how he was. It turns out Ed had a stroke in June after the 50th anniversary of the program had been celebrated at a special ceremony at Columbia University. He is still in hospital, but is due to get out in a few weeks. No prizes for guessing what he plans to do: “I can’t wait to get back and work on the program. It’s my legacy.” And what a legacy it is – getting more than 500 students into 108 boarding and prep schools in the past half century. Will it keep going? “Don’t worry, they’re keeping going.” He now has someone working with him on the program, Derek Wallace, “who’s very, very good.”
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Ed tells me to get a copy of a lovely piece by David Gonzalez, which was published in the New York Times on June 8 this year, before the celebrations at Columbia. Gonzales talked to Ed at his office – a small room in the Wadleigh Secondary School (Gonzalez’s photo above) – where he reminisced about some of those 500 students whose photos or clippings are on the wall: “This one went to Lawrenceville, then Yale. This one, Peddie. Hotchkiss, St Paul’s. This one went to Harvard undergrad and Harvard Law. This one’s a doctor. He ran for Congress.” http://nyti.ms/1uSrJmn
In 1982, I talked to Janice Simpson, then a correspondent for Time Magazine where she worked for three decades. She’s now the co-director of Arts & Culture Reporting at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism, and writes a blog Broadway and Me http://www.broadwayandme.blogspot.com.au/. Janice Simpson was in the first ABC program at Wadleigh, and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. She told me: “The teachers in the ABC program were very important to us, but they would have been even if there weren’t a program. They were what people think of teachers in the old sense – they cared and they pushed you. At the 15th reunion, we told the teachers what they meant to us, and they thought we were just saying that to make them feel good.” But Ms Simpson said the ABC program was “like another family. There is a community of experience and a real strong concern for the classes that follow. Teachers like Miss Brunson and Mr Plummer are rare today in this era of ‘Me First’.”
In June, David Gonzalez spoke to a program alumnus, Christopher S. Auguste, now a partner at the law firm Kramer Levin in Manhattan, who got into the prestigious Phillips Academy in the early 1970s thanks to the ABC program. He said: “Plummer was way ahead of his time. His focus was on black and Hispanic boys. He was seeing there was an issue brewing, which has become even more of a tragedy now.”
And what’s happening at Wadleigh now is what I feared would happen. Mr Plummer told Gonzalez that fewer children come from the neighbourhood around the school, where new luxury buildings and cafes have forced minority residents to move: “Blacks and Latinos are not going to be helped, they’re going to be pushed out. They can’t afford it. Nobody gives a damn. Most of our students used to come from this area. Now, most don’t.” A study mentioned by Gonzalez confirms Mr Plummer’s assertion: New York City’s public school system is one of the most segregated in the United States: http://bit.ly/1EF9ViI
And yet, I have to say in my five and half years of teaching in the US and Australia, before returning to journalism, I never worked with better teachers than Ed Plummer and Doris Brunson (and I worked with a lot of good ones). They worked their guts out in difficult conditions, never losing their cool and always caring about the kids in their care. Mr Plummer believes one of the reasons for the failure of schools in disadvantaged areas is poor teaching. Thirty-two years ago, he told me: “How can you expect students to live up to standards set by teachers when those same teachers don’t live up to the standards themselves?” I asked him at the weekend if he still believed that, and he said: “Yes.” In 1982, he told me about a young female teacher who came to observe him, and her supervisor asked what she thought. “She said I was like Hitler toward the children. This was the same lady who ran out of the building in tears later in the day,” says Mr Plummer. “The children chased her out of the classroom.” Ed Plummer was a stickler for discipline. His students had to wear a coat and tie, and line up at the door of his classroom (the latter was a tactic I borrowed in my teaching days in Australia). Another graduate of the scholars program, Larry Jennings, told me in 1982: “Mr Plummer was tough. But when I think of him, it wasn’t really fear that he used. He wanted us to succeed and he gave 110 per cent. You did your best and you got his support.”
I’ll leave the last word about teaching in Harlem to Ed Plummer, who told the New York Times what he said to his first class of scholars 50 years ago: “You are as good as anyone else, or better. There will be people who don’t want you there. But you have to go. You are the Jackie Robinsons* of education. If he could do what he did, you can open the doors to those who follow behind you.”
*I’m adding a footnote here because a good friend in the US suggested Australians might not get the reference to Jackie Robinson. He was the first African-American baseballer to play in the major leagues. I have written about Jackie in a previous post when I reviewed a biography of Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought him into the majors in 1947. The biography is by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jimmy Breslin, and it’s a book that says a lot about baseball and racism. http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-3F Highly recommended.

Racism: The curse of our times

Racism is based on fear and ignorance.
I know that sounds too simple, but I’ve been studying it, both literally and figuratively, for a long time – more than 50 years. Regular readers of this blog will know that. I’ve gone back over my 150 plus posts, and at least 15 of them – probably more but the early ones aren’t as well archived — have racism as a theme.
They range from racial taunts aimed at the Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, an Indigenous star of the Sydney Swans, now Australian Football League minor premiers, to my racist upbringing in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. The latter post, published in 2012, was an admission that my wonderful and loving parents were, like many Americans and Australians, unconscious racists, and that I was a racist, too. http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-2x
I told tales of what my father used to say to me on the subway surface cars taking us to the city centre: “Don’t sit next to a coloured person on a trolley, they stink.” As I wrote in my 2012 post, “growing up in a white neighbourhood next to a black one, separated by a playground and years of stereotypes and racial incidents, certainly led me and my friends to distrust, if not hate, our black brethren. It wasn’t until I got to university and met African Americans, who were smarter and nicer and sweeter-smelling than me and my Irish-Catholic mates, did I realise what a load of rubbish I’d been taught over the years. It was a valuable lesson to learn, because you’ll never stop being a racist until you admit you are one.”
And that lesson is yet to be learned in the US, I suggest, after what happened in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9 when a policeman shot dead 18-year-old Michael Brown who had his hands in the air in the universal sign of surrender. Police claim Brown was trying to grab the officer’s gun, but protesters in the St Louis suburb have been chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” ever since the killing. (Photo above by Michael B. Thomas/AFP)
Policeman Darren Wilson is white, and he shot Michael Brown at least six times, so if he was trying to defend himself, I would imagine he was frightened of a young black man who towered over him, even if he presented no real threat. The suburb of Ferguson has 21,100 residents, about two thirds are black and about 30 per cent are white. In 2000, 50 per cent were black and 44 per cent were white. http://wapo.st/1q7GRtT That seems to me a classic case of whites fleeing a suburb – it happened in my old neighbourhood in Philadelphia. Fear plays a factor in white flight: racial tension increases, older residents say it’s no longer safe, and all you need is one mugging to confirm it for many white residents.
My upbringing instilled such a fear in me, and I thought I was over it, after teaching three years in Harlem in the late sixties and early seventies, where I was mugged once. Then I went to South Africa in 1994 to produce stories on the country’s first multi-racial elections for the Channel Nine Sunday Program. Here’s how I described an incident just a few days before the polls in my 2012 post: “I was walking down the streets of a still tense Johannesburg when I heard someone running behind me, and next thing I knew a black man jostled me. I was scared shitless, until he said very politely: ‘Excuse me.’ I saw a fleeting smile cross his face, as he realised how scared I was, and I felt like an idiot.”
I wondered if other white people felt like this, and I came across a blog by Portland, Oregon computer scientist and writer, Rachel Shadoan, called “Being Shadoan” (http://beingshadoan.wordpress.com/). Her incisive post is titled “I am racist and so are you” (a better headline than my 2012 post), and this is what she has to say about fear: “How do I know that I’m racist? Once, while living alone, I heard a noise that I took to be someone attempting to break in to my house. Instead of transforming into the Valkyrie I’d always imagined I’d be in such a situation, I proceeded to have the kind of reaction I usually reserve for brown recluse spiders. Which is to say, I hid and called my boyfriend to come rescue me. When he arrived, finding the only other occupant of my house to be my wildly overactive imagination, he asked me, ‘What were you so afraid of?’ Unbidden, the image of a tall, young black man popped into my head. I don’t remember what answer I gave my boyfriend, but I doubt it was ‘young black men’.”
Rachel goes on to recount several other incidents involving black men which provoked fear, and convinced her she was racist. And she poses a question to her readers: ‘Hang on, though, Rachel.’ I can hear you now. ‘Just because you’re afraid of black male strangers doesn’t mean you’re racist. Have you considered that your fear of black men is justified?’ She considers it, but comes up with statistics that show that 69% of whites (72% of the US population) commit violent crimes against white people while 13% of blacks (13% of the US population) commit violent crimes against whites. So she concludes her fear is racism, as I concluded a long time ago on the mean streets of Philadelphia. And racism kills people like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot to death by a neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, George Zimmerman, in a gated community in Florida in 2012. I wrote a piece about that incident then, and praised President Barack Obama for his comment about the case: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-46
My last paragraph was: “Whatever happens in the Trayvon Martin case will provide a good lesson to teach Americans and Australians what’s right and what’s wrong about justice in ‘the greatest country in the world,’ as one of the prosecutors described the US this morning.” George Zimmerman’s trial ended on July 13, 2013, with his acquittal on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. It was a better-run trial than the court in Cairo that convicted Peter Greste and his two Al Jazeera colleagues of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading “false news” about the military coup, but I believe there are a lot of black and white Americans who have doubts about the jury’s verdict on George Zimmerman. (On the other hand, there was a jury unlike the Kangaroo Court in Cairo.)
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I mentioned unconscious racism earlier, and I remember a former white principal of the junior high school in Harlem where I taught addressing for the first time the teaching staff, mostly black, about problems that needed to be overcome, and he said: “It’s time to call a spade a spade.” We fell about laughing, and he didn’t last long as principal.
Tony Abbott, who has become an advocate of rights for Indigenous Australians and visits Cape York every year to help young students, had a similar gaffe last week. On launching a project on defining moments in Australian history at the National Museum of Australia, the Prime Minister said: “… the arrival of the First Fleet was the defining moment in the history of this continent. Let me repeat that, it was the defining moment in the history of this continent. It was the moment this continent became part of the modern world.” That remark drew criticism from a number of prominent Indigenous Australians, including the chairman of his advisory panel, Warren Mundine: “Well it was a defining moment, there’s no argument about that. It was also a disastrous defining moment for Indigenous people.” The head of the Stolen Generation Council for New South Wales and the ACT, Matilda House, told the ABC’s Sarah Dingle what was wrong with the PM’s comment: “I think politicians really don’t think when they make these one liners and I can’t fathom how a ship or a boat sailed into Sydney Harbour can overtake the 60,000 years before.” http://ab.co/1u7qD3v When I talked to Tony Abbott before he visited Cape York for the first time in 2008, I told him about my days teaching in Harlem, and said: “You’re going to go up there and spend two weeks teaching and helping Aboriginal children in Cape York. But the real heroes are those teachers who stay. I often think about the staff who stayed behind in Harlem. Remember those who you leave behind in Cape York.” http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-eo He agreed and has mentioned the heroes who stay behind several times since when talking about Cape York. But Matilda House is right, politicians should think before they speak, especially on something as important as defining moments.
At least he’s talking about it, and a conversation about Indigenous rights and racism is sorely needed in Australia, as it is in America. To return to Ferguson, Missouri, a former member of the school board there, Charles Henson, told Mark Follman of Mother Jones that while police had made mistakes (photo above Charlie Riedel, AP), some of the criticism against them was unfair, and there was hope: “The real hope now is that a light has been shined. There is a lot of work to be done in this community, and if folks in the city government feel that there’s not an issue with regard to bias and race, then we’ve got a problem. Because that’s fuel for another situation like this to happen again, and we can’t take another one of these.” http://bit.ly/1pb8Y6s
And the last word about the St Louis suburb where religion has a strong influence on the African-American community should go to Jane Brandon Brown, ambassador for the Kingdom of God International Ministries: “We have to have a conversation, people don’t want to have a conversation about race, and we need this conversation. We have to talk about the racial issues, we have to talk about the racial tensions, and then we have to talk about how we can eradicate it.” http://bit.ly/1tkNStZ