Tagged: Fairfax

Why I ain’t gonna work today

UNDER NORMAL circumstances, today I’d be doing what I normally do: travelling down the coast to cover an AFL match for The Age. It’s something I’ve been doing for 12 years, and consider a privileged part of my job. Not only is it fun, it keeps me on a contract for five months of the year (I won’t say six because in those 12 years the Brisbane Lions have seen September action once, and the Gold Coast Suns, in six full years in the competition, haven’t made the finals yet).

As many of you may be aware, Fairfax’s decision this week to cut another quarter of its workforce – well over 100 journalists, most of them from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – has resulted in unprotected strike action. So I won’t be going to work today. This means forgoing a week’s pay, which I can ill afford, and we are all risking our jobs, but so it must be. Fairfax’s proposed changes include auditing contracted freelancers such as myself. Exactly what that might mean for me I’m not sure yet. They also intend to further reduce contributor rates from a per word to per article rate, targeting the arts section in particular. Wages growth has been negative for a long time in journalism (unless, perhaps, you’re one of those superstar right-wing columnists – a pretty crowded field in itself these days, as everyone tries to get a piece of the outrage).

As I also write a fair bit about arts and music for both papers, these changes stand to very directly affect me and others like me. They might not quite stop me from writing, but it will absolutely impact my ability to continue to cobble together a living from what I love doing.

Fairfax Media seems to have made no real attempt to look for alternatives to these cuts. Concerns over the boss’s $2.5 million bonus, and the exorbitant salaries and bonuses of those around him (which would have saved dozens of jobs on their own), were dismissed as irrelevant. Domain, the profitable part of the enterprise which takes real estate advertising, was recently split from the business. Of course, journalism – the core of Fairfax Media – was once sustained by these revenues; now journalism itself is treated like a drain on the coffers.

It should go without saying that we need good journalism and good writing now more than ever before.

Please show your support. You can start by taking out a subscription – including to Fairfax, despite everything. We have to face up to the fact that if we want to read about something other than what happened on Masterchef, we’ve got to pay for it.

And if you want to add your voice, you can watch this video made by my colleagues, and write to Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood (he of the extra $2.5 million for further driving a once-great company into the ground).

Solidarity to all my fellows, friends, colleagues and comrades at Fairfax, both full-time and freelancers, today and into next week. Not covering the federal Budget will make things very interesting.

Bayoneting the wounded

In her classic long-form essay The Journalist And The Murderer, American writer Janet Malcolm used an opening gambit that immortalised herself while throwing a bucket of corrosive acid over her profession. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she declared. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse…

“Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and the public’s ‘right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

After one of the most traumatic weeks in the history of Australian media, perhaps now is not the kindest time to be quoting Malcolm. But I was reminded of her words last Thursday, when a nasty spat broke out over at Media and Marketing website Mumbrella after Tina Alldis, head of PR agency Mango in Sydney, penned an opinion piece for the website that seemed to do a tap-dance at the prospect of thousands of people about to hit the dole queues.

Alldis (who seems very young, if the photo accompanying her byline is any guide) argued that the restructures taking place at Fairfax and News Ltd were “great news for our clients”, saying that the soon to be diminished number of journalists “that we harass daily” would result in an increased reliance on wire services and other content that could be syndicated across networks, “with stories running across multiple platforms and extending out into social media”.

If that wasn’t enough, Alldis concluded that “with a significant number of Fairfax Media and News Limited employees likely to be on the hunt for new roles, it would be remiss not to expect that there will be an increasing number of former journos joining the ‘dark side’ of publicity. All in all, it’s an exciting time to be in PR.”

Bayoneting the wounded, as one commenter put it.

Alldis’ piece was widely tweeted and retweeted for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps her position will be among those being eyed off; in the meantime those who manage to keep their jobs will just hang up the phone the next time anyone at Mango comes calling. The company’s MD Simone Drewery hastily issued a statement (now printed below Alldis’ story) apologising for the presumably unauthorised spiel – “We have friends and peers who are impacted by the recent changes at Fairfax and News Ltd and we do not want to profit from the distress caused to them and their families” – and Alldis herself invited anyone whom she had offended to email her so she could apologise personally.

So it’s hardly necessary to castigate her further. I’m sure she’s had a pretty rough weekend, and most journalists with a modicum of self-awareness have written some things they wish they hadn’t. For me, the more pertinent question is why Mumbrella editor Tim Burrowes decided to publish Alldis’ screed in the first place: sure, it’s not his job to save errant PR flaks from themselves, but editors are quality controllers, and apart from driving traffic to the website it’s hard to see the value in handing a rope to someone about to attempt career suicide.

What really caught my eye in the ensuing discussion, though, was the following: “Why do journalists think they are better than PR professionals? You certainly love us when we give you an exclusive on topics that meet your approval. As journalists you get people to trust you so that one day you can betray them and yourself. Tina you came across as a bottom feeder, but so too do many journalists, many days of the week.”

The comment illustrates the nasty corollary to the often uneasy ethical relationship between journalists and their subjects exposed by Malcolm: the equally awkward embrace of the journalism and publicity industries. Central to this is the modus operandi of PR itself: it exists to create content favourable to the client, whether the client is a pop star, a politician or a corporate entity. And Alldis actually has a point: with fewer journalists attempting to feed a hungry 24/7 beast, there is a real danger of an increasing reliance on spin in place of real original content.

When an approved journalist from an approved organisation is fed an “exclusive” (or, in political reportage, a leak) it’s invariably to serve the purposes of those granting it. A journalist perceived to be sympathetic to the client’s interests is targeted. By being brought inside the tent, they are made to feel important, and the splash they make with their feature wins them the additional favour of their editors as a news-breaker, kudos from readers, and possible promotion up the food chain.

Rare is the journalist that spits in the eye of apparent good fortune. One fine example is Jack Marx, famously courted by actor Russell Crowe. Crowe needed a booster for his feeble attempts at rock stardom and targeted Marx, who went along for the ride, then won a Walkley Award for ruthlessly exposing Crowe’s brazen attempts to curry his favour. Perhaps, in a way, it was a betrayal of his subject – Marx could have just told Crowe he wasn’t interested from the outset – but it was a blow for journalistic integrity in the face of a star’s glad-handing.

On the front page of The Australian today is a different kind of exclusive. Reporters Michael Owen and Rebecca Puddy have been granted access to the submission by the Northern Territory Police Association into the death in custody of a 27-year-old Aboriginal man Kwementyaye Briscoe, who died in the Alice Springs watchhouse on 4 January after being put in protective custody. He was heavily intoxicated, with a blood alcohol concentration of seven times the legal driving limit.

“Grog-fuelled violence swamping police,” reads the headline (probably not written by Owen or Puddy). The story praises the submission as “powerful”, describing a police force that is buckling under the strain of incarcerating drunk people, work that is apparently so “mind-numbing, desensitising and soul destroying as to be heroic”, highlighting “the extreme difficulties police [are] faced with daily in dealing with a problem others had washed their hands of”. It’s a story clearly sympathetic to the interests of the Police Association.

I don’t doubt the severe duress that police working in disadvantaged Aboriginal communities are under – read, for example, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man for a beautifully balanced dissection of what it did to the Kurtz-like figure of Christopher Hurley, charged and later acquitted of the manslaughter of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004. But what Owen and Puddy’s story fails to mention at all is the fact that, at the time Briscoe died, probationary constable David O’Keefe was listening to his iPod and surfing the net. Repeated distress calls from other prisoners couldn’t get him to budge from his desk.

“I was distracted by other things,” he told the inquest, admitting he didn’t do a single check on Briscoe on his watch. “I was lazy, I guess.”

Trust has always been the cornerstone of reporting. What makes the travails of the heritage media in the digital age so acute is that it coincides with a collapse in trust in the Australian polity generally. An Essential poll on 12 June showed a collapse of our trust in federal parliament (from 55 percent last year down to 22 percent this year, a staggering fall). Trade unions were also down to 22 percent, from 39. Business groups fared no better, from 38 down to, you guessed it, 22. And on it goes.

The news media fared especially poorly. Print media rated just 26 percent for trustworthiness. TV and online news was even worse. The only institution to lift its trustworthiness in the eyes of consumers was the ABC (so often attacked for alleged bias), from 46 to 54 percent.

There’s a lesson in all that, not only for editors but for media investors and would-be owners, too. If we want readers to pay for quality journalism online, winning back their trust will be the first order of business. And to do that, journalism’s relationship with the various hands that feed it needs re-examination. Because readers aren’t stupid. They’re awake to partisanship (even though, paradoxically, they may also seek it out to serve their own pre-existing biases). They’re awake to fluff padding out quality (even as they devour “news” on reality-show winners). They’re awake to spin.

I’m not seeing such self-awareness in too many journalists. A re-read of Malcolm might be in order. In the meantime, mostly they’re just turning their bayonets on themselves.

Gina buys the chook run

In the early part of his political career, former Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen – aka The Hillbilly Dictator – had a jaundiced attitude to the pesky officers of the press corps. “The greatest thing that could happen to the state and the nation is when we get rid of all the media,” he said. “Then we could live in peace and tranquility and no one would know anything.”

No one, maybe not even Joh, knew exactly what he meant by that – you could say that about a lot of his most famous public utterances, actually – but it’s widely suspected that he was serious at the time.

It was Joh’s press secretary, Allen Callaghan, who convinced him that the press, if manipulated effectively, could be used as a political weapon. And Joh, as reactionary a figure as any to have appeared on the Australian political landscape, proved he could adapt. Soon, he would refer to the media as his “chooks”: “I have to feed them every afternoon,” he said.

“Feeding the chooks” has long since entered Australia’s journalistic lexicon to describe the relationship between politicians and their interlocuters. But what if you simply bought the chook run?

Bjelke-Petersen’s good friend, the Western Australian iron ore baron Lang Hancock (who also donated large sums of money to Joh’s political campaigns) understood this. In 1969 he founded the Perth-based (Sunday) Independent, which lasted until 1986. The relatively short-lived National Miner followed in 1974. Both were transparent attempts by Hancock to exercise his extraordinarily right-wing political beliefs through the fourth estate.

In his book Wake Up Australia! (1979) he suggested the power of government could be challenged in this way. “It could be broken by obtaining control of the media and then educating the public,” he said.

Gina Rinehart takes after her father. Her raid on Fairfax yesterday – expanding her stake in the company to around 12 percent – makes her close to the biggest shareholder in the newspaper, digital and radio conglomerate. This is on top of her 10 percent stake in Channel 10. And she’s not doing it for the money, honey. (Who, let alone the world’s richest woman, would bother investing in Fairfax for that these days?)

She’s doing it because, quite clearly, she wants a far greater say in how things are done in Australia. Leading street marches, let’s face it, looks pretty tawdry for a woman in pearls. Donations work, so too advertising, but editorial is so much better. It’s worked pretty well for Rupert Murdoch over the years and, well, since her wealth has just doubled by about $10 billion, why the hell not?

It’s a naked power play that’s already been greeted by fear and hostility in some quarters (Melbourne musician David Bridie summed up the green tenor by tweeting that should Rinehart take control of Fairfax, “the revolution starts tomorrow”) and scepticism by some economists that her push will translate into anything like the kind of influence she craves.

How successful she is will also depend partly on any changes recommended by the government’s imminent media convergence review, and the results of Ray Finkelstein‘s media inquiry. But perhaps the most telling comment came from media expert Margaret Simons (in Crikey), who cut through to the core of the issue when she pointed out that “The main way a board exercises influence over editorial is in selecting the editor.”

Rinehart’s not on the Fairfax board yet. And even if/when she does take her place at the table, that doesn’t immediately translate into effective control. But you can bet she’s wondering how The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age might look under the direction of someone like, say, The Australian‘s Chris Mitchell.

I suspect Joh Bjelke-Petersen would have been befuddled by the internet. He might even have wanted to stop it at the Tweed, along with condom vending machines, prostitution and gaming. Of course, he wasn’t very successful in stopping any of those things. Were he still around, though, he might have wondered what his old mate Lang Hancock thought about it all.

And I suspect Hancock, were he still around, might have told Joh something along these lines: in the information age, living in a world where no one would know anything is impractical, impossible and undesirable from either a political or business person’s point of view.  The key is getting people to know only the things that you want them to know.

In Gina Rinehart’s world, we are all a bunch of chooks.

Pokies: rent-seekers win again

The gnashing of teeth over Julia Gillard’s betrayal of Andrew Wilkie over pokies reform has been entirely predictable. Is this some kind of political masterstroke? Is it just another demonstration of Gillard’s fundamental untrustworthiness? It’s all as telegraphed as an old boxer’s jab, and irrevocably lashed to the 24-hour news cycle. About the furthest anyone’s looking into this situation is the polls, and what it does to Gillard’s chances of re-election.

The far more important point about what Gillard’s backdown says about Australia’s rotten political culture has been almost entirely overlooked. And that is that the rent-seekers have won again.

They won in 2010, when some of the world’s largest and richest mining companies saw off the Resources Super Profits Tax with a $22 million advertising campaign that, in the end, helped kill off a popularly elected Prime Minister (not that Kevin 07, perhaps soon be be known as Kevin 12, was exactly blameless in his demise, but that’s another story).

That occasion saw the likes of Gina Rinehart, Twiggy Forrest and Clive Palmer marching in the streets and carrying on like they’d all be rooned, I tells ya. The sight of Australia’s richest men and women playing the victim card – Rinehart (wealthiest of the lot) leading the chant of “Axe the tax!” – was so galling in its cheek that it’s a wonder the #Occupy movement didn’t start in Perth 2010, instead of New York 2011. Haven’t we heard all this somewhere before?

Let me digress for a minute longer before I get back to the pokies debacle. As reported yesterday, Rinehart’s wealth practically doubled last week by a cool $10 billion. She is so stupidly rich (it helps that she’s the dual beneficiary of her father Lang Hancock’s estate, and the longest resources boom in the country’s history) and her fortune growing so fast that, according to the revealing profile by Jane Cadzow that accompanied yesterday’s story, “it’s difficult for financial analysts to keep track of it”.

These days, when she’s not digging stuff up and squabbling with her children over control of her empire, she lends her considerable financial influence to matters of public policy. And it’s not just the millions she and her buddies poured into the anti-RSPT campaign. It’s the $165 million she sunk into buying a 10 percent stake of Channel 10, money seen as crucial to arch-brute Andrew Bolt getting a TV pulpit to add to his print and radio platforms. Then there’s the $120 million that’s bought her about four percent of Fairfax.

There’s also the money she’s used to fund the tours of fellow climate change sceptics like Christopher Monckton and lunches with Ian Plimer last year, as she railed against the introduction of the carbon tax.

Had the RSPT been introduced, according to 2010 Treasury modelling, the average worker would have been $450 a year better off. Gross Domestic Product would have increased by 0.7 percent; investment would have increased by 2.1 percent and prices on food, clothing, housing and transport were all expected to fall. This was meant to be the cure to our current two-speed economy, where mining of finite resources is galloping ahead of a field otherwise stuck in the starting blocks.

In an excellent op-ed late last year, Sydney Morning Herald economics writer Jessica Irvine wrote that rent-seeking used to be carried out away from the public eye, through political donations and long lunches. Now, with well-meaning laws aimed at circumventing such bribery, it’s done in public, through advertising campaigns.

Which brings me, finally, to Clubs Australia’s expensive and very successful “Won’t work, will hurt” campaign, despite polling showing overall support for the introduction of mandatory pre-commitment technology to poker machines running as high as 62 percent – but perhaps not in the marginal seats where the organisation is targeting its campaign.

Like Big Tobacco’s absurd astroturf-fronted putsch against plain packaging of cigarettes (which, in the interests of balance, I should mention that the government has so far stared down), “Won’t work, will hurt” is based on a logical contradiction: that a measure aimed at restricting the amount a person is able to gamble, via mandatory pre-commitment, can be completely ineffective – according to Clubs Australia boss Anthony Ball, it “won’t help a single problem gambler” – while at the same time killing off businesses, jobs and entire communities.

It’s an argument so inherently rhetorically unstable that it totters before you even need to produce figures to blow the whole teetering edifice over, starting with the fact that, according to the Australia Institute, Clubs Australia has overestimated the cost of implementing the technology by a factor of 10. Add to this deception the leaked industry document which revealed that the estimated drop in gaming revenues through the pre-commitment scheme would be 10-20 percent – half of that publicly estimated by Clubs Australia.

While not as obscenely cashed up as the mining industry, Clubs Australia hasn’t minded splashing the dough around in protecting its interests – around $3 million for its public campaign so far (remember “It’s UnAustralian“?), with plenty more in the bank. That’s not including the $200,000 it poured into the New South Wales Liberal and National Parties last year, according to The Power Index. Forty percent of the nation’s pokies are in New South Wales. In the lead-up to the NSW election last month, Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell signed a memorandum with Clubs Australia giving them $300 million of tax breaks on pokie revenues.

As Bernard Keane pointed out in Crikey yesterday, we shouldn’t be too surprised that Gillard has bailed on Wilkie as soon as it was practical to do so (ooh, about as long as it took for Peter Slipper to get comfy in the Speaker’s chair). Taking on the the clubs lobby in search of a meaningful solution to problem gambling was never Labor’s idea of a good time.

But as Irvine wrote back in October, we need to work out that we’re the ones ultimately being played for mugs by an advertising industry that’s helping to convince the public that what’s good for business is good for the country and good for you, too.

Because, well, they would say that. Wouldn’t they?

All about folksonomics: the intellectual recession we didn’t have to have

A week ago, a piece appeared in the Life & Style section of Fairfax’s online mastheads which depressingly illustrated the toxic spread of disinformation through once credible news outlets. Written by a freelancer, Marj Lefroy, it purported to illustrate “Vaccination’s vexed link to autism“, opening with the provocative line “for many parents, vaccinations are this century’s abortion debate” (no, I’m not aware of the abortion debate being magically resolved last century either, but let’s leave that for now).

Claiming to speak on behalf of “the voices of concerned parents and carers”, she referred to a case in the US where the federal government had conceded that vaccines had “aggravated a young girl’s mitochondrial disorder to the point that she developed autism”, with the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program subsequently paying out $1.5 million upfront to the girl’s family, in addition to ongoing reimbursement of $500,000 pa.

“There are things we can and must do,” opines Ms Lefroy in conclusion, a nicely vague way of advising readers not to vaccinate their kids. “We must have the courage and maturity to listen to everyone, including the mothers and fathers dealing with the unacceptable, potentially avoidable consequences. They’re the canaries in the coal mine, and the real reason why this case is not closed. It’s just that science, likes the law, takes a while to catch up.”

The comments section predictably exploded. “Of course, the decision whether or not to accept the current system of vaccination is not easy,” went one of the less strident replies. “I dread the day when I will need to make this decision about my child’s health.”

You. Are. Freaking. Kidding. Me.

Yesterday, the column was mercifully answered by a Sydney GP, Dr James Best, who also happens to have an autistic child. From where he sits, the “debate” about vaccination isn’t as hotly contested as Ms Lefroy claims: perhaps one in 100 of his patients in his paediatric practice refuse to follow the standard immunisation schedule. Yet that one in 100 still causes a real headache: over the past 18 months, he writes, he has diagnosed around 30 cases of whooping cough; in more affluent areas of eastern Sydney and the north coast of NSW, where vaccination scares have taken hold, rates of the diagnosis are even higher and climbing.

Dr Best also debunks Ms Lefroy’s selective use of evidence to prosecute her case. In regards to the US government payout to one apparent victim above, for example, he writes:

“Ms Lefroy then brings up the case of a young girl with a rare genetic mitochondrial disorder who received a substantial payout under the US National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program when she developed an encephalopathy with ‘features of autism’—not ‘autism’ as Ms Lefroy claims—after receiving several vaccines. (Encephalopathy is an extremely rare but recognised side effect of some vaccines. That’s why the US government didn’t contest the case.)

“What she doesn’t mention was that this case was originally part of the much larger Omnibus Autism trial, a class action representing almost 5000—yes 5000—cases brought by families who claimed their child had developed autism from vaccines. And what happened to the other 5000 or so cases? After hearing months of testimony and reviewing mountains of evidence on the test claims, the independent Special Masters of the Vaccine Court dismissed them; in fact they were scathing in their judgements of the lawyers who pursued the action based on such flimsy evidence. ‘Not even close’, was one judgement.”

The comments section exploded again. “Your article is great and I totally understand where you are going with it,” says “hmmm” from Sydney. Perplexingly, she then goes on: “I am going to be an ‘older’ mother and one thing is for sure – I DON’T TRUST vaccinations. It is about time this debate gets finalised and some serious research is done without hiding behind the curtain of the government or any other governing body. As far as being a busy GP – I don’t trust them either.”

I’m sure Dr Best is thankful that she “totally understands” where he is going. Then there’s pure gibberish like this:

“As a non-parent,and dislike doctors with an intensity,the fact this man and and being a father does the complete opposite to me when he thinks he is well qualified.And then the torrent of being in a middle class practice.Then a court specifically for vaccines,as it reads as article!Doesn’t make you think, does it!?Seeing most of the anti-vaccination activists are women and not doctors,there is some degree of insisted superiority in this combination of the opponents of said women and non medical degrees.The real answer to the presentation by this doctor would be a anti-vaccination father who won’t have a bar of going to a doctor if he can avoid it,and with sound reasoning,whereas I can find,if I want to a number of experts who have been associated with being in normal courts as experts and in some instances winning the case completely..So ,lets get a number of things clear about this article.The intention of it is to show the sparsity of the opponents of vaccination in terms of degrees,parenthood wisdom ,by a means that disallows a useful type of response in a number of words and characters.Thus the elitist nose of the profession does the attack job over and over again,and why,when simple the problem of autism is not their right either to play god,with children whose manifestation of a disease,as a disease,may have complications that the doctor as parent maybe only able to see.Unless their is some fiesty parent or two ready to take on the bloody profession for the sake of their kid’s health and others.Is the parent the real skilled!”

If you could get through that, congratulations. I presume some lackey at Fairfax does have to filter this guff, lest they not be left open to potential defamation suits, but obviously beyond that there’s not a whole lot of moderating going on. Newsrooms, driven by the need for content and a 24-hour cycle, are busy places. Who on earth has the time?

Nonetheless, the drivel above does actually contain the nub of what I want to address here: the persistent denigration and dismissal of expertise in online news environments especially, and the subsequent rise in publication of mischievous disinformation (in the name, presumably, of free speech and fostering debate).

This is not a fashionable view. Bernard Keane, I’m sure, would be all over me about who gets to decide what constitutes mischievous disinformation and what is accurate, balanced and truthful. Fair enough. But when the culture of blogging and citizen journalism – where old hierarchies of knowledge have been flattened – infiltrates previously esteemed mastheads at the expense of reasonable public health objectives, I think we might have a problem.

In his book Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life And Beyond, academic Axel Bruns characterises these new public spaces for debate as “folksonomies”. The rise of what he calls “folk intelligence” raises questions of where this leaves the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge: the experts in specific fields of information. In this new environment, the traditional pathways of original research and peer-reviewed publication may be dismissed; the wisdom of the online community is king.

Actually, Bruns’ argument is a bit more subtle than that. “If there is a conflict between ‘experts’ and ‘folks’ on the pages of the Wikipedia, then, it is not one which can be described simply as pitting hierarchy against anarchy, control of knowledge systems against freedom of speech (however far off the mark that speech may be in terms of representing existing knowledge),” he writes. “[R]ather, it is a struggle between two different systems of representing knowledge: one, the expert paradigm, which ultimately and ideally aims to develop well-behaved, universally accepted and internally consistent understandings of the world, and two, the folksonomic paradigm, which allows for multiplicity, conflicts of interpretation, and the existence of a number of alternative representations of extant knowledge which are accepted only by a subset of the entire community (but which nonetheless are based on an interpretation of actual evidence).”

You only have to look at the climate change debate to see what Bruns’ folksonomic paradigm has wrought on the Australian mediocracy, not to mention two former opposition leaders and (soon to be) two ex-prime ministers. The steady creep of talkback radio culture into print media – where comments equals hits equals advertising revenue – has helped make superstars of Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine, skilled rousers of rabbles whose reach and influence (measured recently by The Power Index) stands in inverse proportion to their knowledge of what they’re talking about, at least when it comes to global warming.

But hey, it’s all about balance, as The Australian screeched a couple of weekends ago, in response to Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s actual climate scientists might think we’re going to hell in a handbasket, but that doesn’t mean acres of print shouldn’t be given over to anyone who says it’s all a great big lefty conspiracy involving NASA, the CSIRO, the EU and John Howard. News Ltd (soon to be News Australia, as leaked to Crikey yesterday) purports to represent Middle Australia. We love your opinion, we value it. Oh, and will you please fill out our online survey?

We place our faith in the engineers that design our bridges, and the cars we drive over them; we worship the geeks who invent our Macbooks and iPads, oblivious to the scientific principles which have to be tested, repeated and then applied to the technology that makes them possible. And until recently, we trusted the doctor who jabbed us as kids with a biological synthetic of polio, so that our immune systems would learn to recognise and destroy it, allowing us to live free of the fear of paralysis or worse.

So thanks, Ms Lefroy, for your considered contribution to the immunisation debate. Should rates of measles, whooping cough and poliomyelitis rise in the near future, at least you’ll be able to say you just wanted to save the children from autism. And thanks, too, to Fairfax for giving her a good run. At the risk of spoiling this rant in the last paragraph by falling foul of Godwin’s law, I expect that a major news masthead in Australia will soon be giving space to holocaust deniers and various 9/11 whackjobs. All in the name of balanced debate.

All they need to do is give a crank a platform. Oh, wait…