Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Rumours of influence peddling become a police matter

"Hey mate. Got a minute? I just want a quick word." You can imagine the scenario. A senior newspaper editor gets the attention of a politician who is involved in deciding the future direction of a part of the media. The editor's company has a financial interest in that sector of the industry. So the editor offers to support the politician if the politician supports a policy direction favourable to the newspaper. Never heard of it? Neither had I, until this morning. But I had heard views expressed that would encompass such a scenario. In fact, I've expressed them myself. But I never expected the airing of the rumour to be followed so closely by mentions in the press of a police investigation.

It started on Monday, when the ABC's The Drum website published an excerpt from a letter by New York University academic and regular media commentator Jay Rosen. In the column, he neglected to pull his punches saying, among other things:
News Corp is not a news company at all but a global media empire that employs its newspapers - and in the United States, Fox News - as a lobbying arm and intimidation machine. The logic of holding these "press" properties is to wield influence on behalf of the (much bigger and more profitable) media business and also to satisfy Murdoch's own power urges or, in the case of Australia, his patrimonial legends.
News Corp is the parent company, based in the US, of News Ltd. Rupert Murdoch is the chairman of News Corp. Another subsidiary, News International, is currently embroiled in the hacking scandal in the UK that caused the closure of the News of the World.

Anyway, the fat hit the fire in a sense today when rival publisher Fairfax published a news story by security editor Dylan Welch which details alleged discussions of a deal between a Nationals Party senator and News Ltd. The News Ltd editor apparently took the Nationals senator, Bill O'Chee, out to dinner in Brisbane, in 1998, in order to get him to support a measure favourable to News Ltd's interests. You can read the whole story by following the link. Fairfax editors have let the story slip down the roster on their website this morning, evidence that other news is considered more important, or less controversial. By lunchtime it may disappear entirely. And oddly, when I went to search for Rosen's The Drum piece it took me a while to locate it. The piece didn't appear under a search for 'jay rosen' on the website, and I had to go outside The Drum and do a search in Google with the terms 'jay rosen' and 'the drum' before I could locate it.

This story could well die quite quickly amid the routine churn of daily news. Nevertheless it's strange that it appeared so soon after Rosen's column was published. It's so easy to concieve of trails of private whispers that are made in the ears of people supposedly working in the public interest. Offers of "help" are given. "Listen mate. You know that inquiry you're in at the moment? Well ..." Too easy mate.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Left press, like avant garde fashion, has oblique influence

As the Media Inquiry trundles along, a well-oiled machine under the confident, guiding hand of Ray Finkelstein, a number of journalism company managers and their underlings have written denunciations against any form of regulation of the media whatsoever. But most journalists are keeping their heads down. Even on social media they do not express an opinion about things like whether there is pressure from advertisers or whether their newspaper engages in campaigning journalism. It's not worth their jobs to do so. So all we get are blanket rebuttals from the top dogs. These often centre on the notion of freedom or liberty to publish being critical for the functioning of democracy, and the online dribblejaws repeat their claims endlessly, like windchimes. The forces at work here that are producing those winds are, largely, unexposed, hidden, and invisible.

It's a bit Harry Potteresque. You know, you go to platfom four at Paddington Station and shunt your trolley toward the second-last column from the end and - presto! - you're in a parallel universe. Suddenly you have to worry about things that never troubled you before. Or, alternatively, it's like in Murakami's recent novel, 1Q84 (this analogy is for adult readers). One minute you're stuck in a traffic jam on an elevated expressway. As soon as you descend the emergency exit to the street, however, there's something subtly different. There are things in this place that your grandmother never dreamed of. The truth is that, in that parallel universe, journalism managers are deeply worried about government regulation because it would have a material impact on their ability to do what they like to do. What the troops think of it, we can only guess. There might be a few News Limited journos, still, who have not bought into the corporate ethos. It might be true, but probably not.

One News Limited journo who has completely bought into the corporate ethos is David Penberthy. So complete has been his personal investment that he has been promoted within the company. Penbo has weighed into the Media Inquiry debate by expelling a bit of his own wind and attempting to trash the Left press. It's so easy, right? Who is going to defend the looney Left against a senior journo from the most powerful press media company in the land? And, anyway, why would you want to? The Left press does nothing for us! It's bad! People don't like it and that's why it isn't successful. There are myriad dribblejaws online who have used this argument against those who question the balance and transparency of the mainstream media. It's a default argument, but it's a straw man. Like Penbo, they say that Left newspapers are poorly designed, contain articles that push a radical agenda, have nothing to do with everyday life, and are badly written besides.

It's like having a go at designers of haute couture for creating garments that you cannot wear on the street, or to work, or to a Saturday afternoon barbeque. But this misses the point. Haute couture influences the mainstream in subtle ways, and not always direct ones. Young women reading Vogue might never aspire to buy the most modish, outlandish design they see in the magazine. But if something appeals to them they might accessorise differently or make a purchasing choice that takes their wardrobe in a new direction. It's not about saying, "Look, this is cool. Wear it, babe!" It's about creating a tone that can influence choices made over the following year so that ordinary people can engage with the avant garde in a meaningful way, and so find a modicum of happiness in their otherwise routine lives.

Why would we want the Left press to be like, say, the Daily Telegraph? The reason why Left, or progressive, media is unpopular is because it doesn't flatter us. Rather than delivering tired narratives (more police are always good, free trade is always good, the Greens are never to be trusted, royalty is good; there's a longer list on David Horton's amusing blog) that do nothing to challenge our learned biases, the Left press explores alternative ways of viewing the world. Rather than talking about stuff that you can buy, the Left press talks about stuff that you can learn more about. It's a big difference. It's always easier to buy something new than to actually spend time to learn something new.

This is why it's called progressive media. For the same reason, the Greens are called a progressive political party. They are not out to flatter the electorate - which is the perennial practice of the Liberal-National coalition, and of the Right of the Labor Party - but, rather, they are thinking about what's going to become normal in the future. Maybe they're not always correct. Can they be? Will the latest outrageous Vogue centre-spread artifice actually be something that you can usefully wear in two years' time? Who cares? It's not important. What's important is the effort of looking, the urge to predict, the far-distant aim of the quivering arrow that challenges you by making it harder to reach your mark. Trashing the Left press is like bludgeoning a puppy to death with a ball-peen hammer. Yes, it's easy to do. But does that mean you should?

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Media Inquiry should be about creating a viable commons

Last week a government inquiry into Australia's media set up shop in Melbourne headed by a former Federal Court judge, Ray Finkelstein. The inquiry moves to Sydney next. This ambulant technique respects the need for the public to be involved but it should be kept in mind that the inquiry was set up in reaction to events in the UK, where Rupert Murdoch's News of the World was revealed by competitor The Guardian to be addicted to illegally accessing the phone voice messages of persons whose private information it considered to be of interest to the public.

Most people will know the story by now and they may even have taken the time necessary to watch people associated with the NotW appear - again, in public - before a parliamentary committee in London. In Australia, these events attained prominence especially after a very public outburst by Bob Brown of the Greens, who lashed out on camera againsts what he termed the "hate media" - meaning the Murdoch press in Australia. As a result of these public events we now have another public event - journalists such as Melbourne University's Margaret Simons, a regular Crikey contributor, were able to tweet from the chamber used for the Media Inquiry - aimed at putting together recommendations that can be given to the Federal Government about the running of Australia's media.

As a starting point for my post, I want to refer readers to Simons' National Times piece, published today, in which she says the following:
After the media inquiry's first week of public hearings, a few areas of consensus were emerging. Almost nobody was arguing for licensing of newspapers or heavy-handed government regulation of journalism. Very few wanted fines or other punitive sanctions for journalists. Nobody wanted to ban campaigning journalism, even when they suspected the motivations of the campaign. I agree.
Well, I don't. Firstly, let's take a step back and consider the Australian Press Council. Simons seems to approve of this body and, in her opinion piece, says basically that the APC should be getting government funding as well as industry funding. Beef it up, in fact. Currently, it only gets funding from the industry. But I wonder if anyone can remember a recent example of APC intervention in any part of the media. No? Me neither. The ABC's Media Watch has a far higher profile and attracts a loyal following of political wonks every Monday night, when it runs for a measly 15 minutes just before Q and A. Back in the late 90s, this program exposed the "cash-for-comment" scandal that ended up severely embarrassing a number of the more offensive shock jocks operating on Australian airwaves, and changed the way that segment of the industry works. In the case of the APC, you might get a notice published in an offending newspaper some months after the relevant events have passed by, by which time everybody has forgotten about what caused the fuss in the first place. The retraction is published in silence, unnoticed, and nothing changes. The term "toothless tiger" came up in the tweetstream.

Now let's take a step sideways and look at the kind of tweets that were appearing in the #mediainquiry tweetstream on Twitter on the days the Media Inquiry sat. Noticeable for their sheer strangeness were the libertarians, who come in on the Right of the political spectrum. Their poster boy was Chris Berg from the Right-leaning Institute of Public Affairs, a Melbourne think tank. Paranoia about government involvement on the part of conservatives is highly suspect, and is redolent of the kind of nutty rumour that peppered debates surrounding the Obama healthcare reform. You had people talking - quite seriously - about "death panels" and the like. Truly weird but unquestionably dangerous because utterly untrue. It seems to me that Berg and Simons are tapping into a similar feeling of fear about government involvement in Australia's media, with the calculating spectre of some silent government censor with a big, red marker pen hiding in the shadows like an Orwellian bugbear.

Why government regulation must be, a priori, "heavy handed" is beyond me. This reminds me of the public debate that raged a year or so ago in the US when it became obvious that journalism was in terminal decline in that country. Any suggestion as to government funding was rejected, I remember, by people I was following on Twitter as somehow immoral, or at least questionable on the grounds that government should be kept out of the media at all costs. Shades of those "death panels" again! But the fact is that in Australia the most balanced and fair media organisation that we have is the ABC, which is entirely government funded. Government attempts to stifle the activities of the ABC - such as those threatened by the Howard government - always attract vocal public outcry.

And that's the way it should be. So I propose a government-funded regulator that would be established with a sunset clause. Implementing a public regulator would generate enormous amounts of discussion, and this should be the goal of the Finkelstein inquiry. Remember the Conroy internet censorship venture? When the conservative senator who wanted it in place exited the Senate and the Labor leadership changed, the plan was quietly scrapped. We haven't heard a word about it for at least six months. The public reaction to it was too intense. Nobody wanted it and it died.

Finkelstein should be trying to generate a similar intensity of discussion. Not so that the far-Right loonies can start trolling the webz, crying "Liberty!", but so that the public can get its mind around the real issue - what started this whole process in the first place - which is the unreliability of the Murdoch press. Simons doesn't think campaigning journalism is bad? Really? Murdoch owns a disproportionate quantity of the press in Australia and his editors have managed to fundamentally shift the markers defining public debate in this country. When Malcolm Fraser appears on TV he sounds like a leftie wet compared to the "feral" (thanks Laurie Oakes) guardians of the Right we now expect to see in our living rooms every day. What this inquiry should be about is giving back the commons to the public, realigning the field markers so that they more accurately reflect the actual spectrum of political beliefs held by the public.

At the moment the gargantuan Murdoch machine has too much money, too much power, and too much say in the way public debate is conducted in Australia. Simons' well-intentioned light-handedness is overly optimistic and simply inappropriate for, rather than that imagined Orwellian bugbear, we have a real 500-pound gorilla in the room. And it's not going away. Punitive sanctions for journalists? I don't think so. But senior editors and company managers can, and should, be fined for egregious flaunting of journalistic codes of practice. Institutional bias in the private sphere is far worse than government influence in the public domain.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The incremental commoditisation of me by social media

It's happening, folks. You are being commoditised more and more effectively by your social media providers. It starts with an innocent "Location data cannot be found" message line in Twitter, suggesting to people viewing the tweet that there would be nothing more natural than the person who tweeted adding their location data. In fact, it started a long time ago - in 2007, in my case, when I first signed up to Facebook - when the social media platform of choice asked for my date of birth. This vital piece of data has spawned an industry. My cousin complained on Facebook recently that all her ads in the sidebar were for wrinkle creams. "Why do I want wrinkle cream ads," she cried. "I've got a mirror!" Anyway it turns out that what she wants are quite other things. This means that the model fails if the only piece of data is your date of birth, which leads to the conclusion - no doubt one reached by social media managers everywhere - that more data, not less, is required to really, truly, effectively deliver targeted ads. It means, of course, a type of Big Brother that not even Orwell could have dreamed up.

This morning while I was innocently scanning my Facebook feed I noticed some action items in my right-hand sidebar. Facebook wanted to know if "these photos were taken in Sydney CBD?" It actually wants me to confirm, directly through an interface action, that the photos I had loaded - god help me - two years ago, were taken in a specific place. This is just further evidence that social media is after more and more of your personal information so that they can increase the value to their advertisers of your attention.

This kind of ploy on the part of Facebook is like encountering bucket people on the street or in a park. "Have you got a minute?" the young man wearing a branded T-shirt might ask, as he approaches you armed with a clipboard. "I just want to talk about logging." If you waver, he'll move a little closer. If you stop walking you're dead meat. I subscribed to a credit card in a shopping centre one day under these circumstances. Shopping centres are full of these bothersome people. What you want is to find a toilet and there they are, sliding out into the stream of foot traffic with their branded T-shirts and clipboards and smiles. "Just want a few minutes." No, thanks.

This kind of sly activity is getting worse, too. Another piece of intrusive marketing-data gathering by social media is the "Social Reader" exercise that Facebook is now embarking on. You might see a list of stories in your news feed, next to the dinkus of a few friends. Click on one of these stories - which the friend had recently read - and you might be directed to a signup page where your permission is sought to access certain pieces of personal information, such as date of birth, or 'likes'. Now, the simple act of reading a news story online is able to be tracked by Facebook, further improving the quality of your personal behaviour profile and further enhancing their ability to market you around to advertisers like a bunch of sentient spinach.

And it's not just social media that wants your data. I had the experience recently of updating the operating system on my smartphone. There was a massive glitch which caused me to spend half and hour on the phone with a technician. He took me through the process OK, but when the phone eventually started to boot up successfully we shifted apart slightly in our intentions. The phone wanted to geotag everything. "No," I said into the receiver as this item appeared on my phone's screen. "You want that," the technician said. "No, actually, I don't want that," I insisted. "OK," he said, as I moved on to the next setup item. The desire for information about you is insatiable, it's constantly evident in small requests for location data, date of birth, confirmation of the accuracy of a computer's calculated surmise.

And where will this quest for total knowledge about you, end? There's no way to know. Just as Orwell could not know that Big Brother would not be an all-seeing political leader but, rather, an all-knowing computer database, we cannot know the future. What is certain, however, is that new uses for your information will emerge in future. You cannot know how your profile will be exploited. All you can be sure of is that it will.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Book review: Boomerang, Michael Lewis (2011)

This book is a sort of sequel to Lewis' The Big Short, which came out in 2010 and which I wrote about in May that year. Lewis talks about the genesis of Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour in his acknowledgements at the back of the book when he thanks "Graydon Carter and Doug Strumpf, at Vanity Fair, for encouraging me to go [to the places he visits for the new book]". And yesterday I saw a link to a segment of the book on the Vanity Fair website, so they're using material from it directly. I can almost hear the conversation between VF editors and Lewis, who has become one of the hottest properties in literary journalism due to a string of solid, interesting titles over recent years. "That was great, Michael, but this global economic crisis is not going away quickly so why don't you try to get a handle on what happened in these other problematic markets?"

So Lewis visits Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany (which is relatively healthy but where the banks had a wide exposure to dodgy subprime-based financial instruments leading up to the crash in 2007), and California. Why California? Because Lewis thinks it is the metropolitan liabilities in the US which are dragging down the economy. So he visits the worst state - financially speaking - and the worst city in that state: Vallejo. There he finds a bankrupt city council operating on a shoestring because pay claims from the arms of public security - police, fire brigades - have pushed the city to its limits, and beyond. The city is so poor that the mayor only has money to pay for one admin staffer, and when she goes to the toilet during the day she has to lock the mayoral offices.

In fact, Boomerang is a great, big, extended belly laugh aimed at crushing economic stupidity in each of the localities it concentrates on. The style is much looser than was the style of The Big Short, which tended more toward the forensic rather than the broad-brush. There's a diabolical undercurrent in Boomerang that tends toward the cynical and is, for this reason, unsettling. You get the feeling that Lewis is a bit tired of having his worst suspicions constantly reconfirmed by way of the arrant idiocy of so many people in so many places around the world. Whether it's the insular and close-knit financial community in Iceland, that brought the country past the verge of bankruptcy, the corrupt and every-man-for-himself Greeks who refuse to pay their taxes and whose political leaders cooked the books for decades in order to be allowed to join the Euro club, or the credulous Germans, who took a rating agency's triple-A rating at pure face value and so endangered Europe's biggest economy. Oh, and the Irish? They just seemed to believe in fairies.

In the end, the book is philosophical, if not downright pessimistic. Our bodies and minds, having learned for millennia to expect scarcity, can hardly bear the burdens of surplus. We are used to getting as much as we can. But there is now a requirement for a different, more consultative and less confronting paradigm. It's up to us how we manage our economies in future but, says Lewis, the health of an economy depends on how each individual in it behaves. It's no use blaming our masters, he says. We're all accountable.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Book review: 1Q84, Haruki Murakami (2011)

The first thing I need to say at the outset here is that there will probably be a few spoilers in this review, so if you haven't read the book and don't want to have outcomes disclosed at this point, then stop reading at the white rabbit and come back at the fat twins.

As I say at the end of the review, there's more to the novel than just a clever plot. Reviews I've read have been a bit anodyne and have pretty much said the same things, so you normally get mentions of the cooking, the classical music, the magical elements that Murakami uses in his meditations on the nature of good and evil. I've also come across the word 'existential' for later Murakami novels, and I'll admit the potency of this label because it says something about what happened to Murakami's output since Sputnik Sweetheart (2001).

In that novel, a young woman who was not usual and who had mixed feelings about her life vanishes one day from the face of the earth. In Kafka on the Shore (2005), we had the cat-eating Johnny Walker stalking through the protagonist's reality like a spruced-up zombie. And in After Dark (2007) we get the theme of violence against women. A central theme in 1Q84 is violence against children - the first time Murakami has touched on this confronting theme. All these novels are irresistable in the way that any Murakami novel is. It's not an accident that his books sell in huge numbers, even though the author himself seems to be unaware of how much money he possesses. But they're different, I think, in tone from the stuff that preceded them, which is the reason for this 'existential' label I've recently heard about from a reliable source.

In 1Q84 there are two trands of narrative that intertwine like the two strands of a piece of DNA. One strand belongs to Tengo, a young writer, and the other belongs to Aomame, a fitness instructor. A third strand is introduced in the third book and it belongs to Ushikawa, a sort of private investigator who also works as a general factotum for the religious cult Murakami has invented, called Sakigake. This Ushikawa strand adds considerable tension for the reader in the third book as this man efficiently stalks the two 30-year-olds, who also happen to be long-time lovers: their romance began in primary school and has remained unconsummated but steadfast ever since. There are more characters than this, of course, as you would expect from a novel that runs to 925 pages. And while the length makes reading a bit of a challenge - I read in bed, and have to hold the book up with one hand - the novel never flags.

Aomame is more than just a fitness instructor, of course. She also doubles as a hired assassin. Her agreement with the potent Dowager includes topping men who perpetrate violence against women, using a special technique she has perfected over the years that involves a long, thin ice-pick-like implement that Aomame carries around topped with a specially-soft cork inside a hard case. Aomame uses her trained fingers to locate a point at the back of her victim's neck and then uses her right hand to deliver the fatal blow by hitting the upward end of the implement downwards. The benefit of this method is that there are never any signs of violence on the corpses. The men seem to have died of natural causes. The Dowager presented me with a problem, however. Ensconced within a magisterial manor located in the heart of the ritziest postcode of Tokyo, and watched over by a gay ex-Self Defense Force soldier, the Dowager enjoys sitting in a hothouse filled with butterflies, listening to classical music and sipping hot tea. Aomame seems to be enchanted with her but I found her cold.

This may be because 1Q84 doesn't really 'end'. Apparently Murakami has admitted that there might be a sequel, and I hope there is because there are a lot of loose ends left untied. The Dowager and her assistant, Tamaru, are one loose end. If Aomame comes back to reclaim the significant sums of money she had secreted away, what will these two do?

There are other loose ends, too. We still don't know much about the Little People, nor about air crysalises. Fuka-Eri's story is as deserving of development as Ushikawa's, but she just disappears. One day she's hiding out in Tengo's apartment, the next day she's gone off somewhere. As the daughter of the Sakigake cult's Leader she played a pivotal role in the story by writing the story Air Crysalis, which Tengo rewrote so that it would become a best-seller. On the night Leader is despatched by Aomame in her usual efficient way, Fuka-Eri has sex with Tengo and Aomame becomes pregnant. If Fuka-Eri is unable to concieve because - even at 17 years old - she has never menstruated, then she must be an incomplete entity, a type of manufactured simulacrum tied in some way to the methods of the Little People, a dohta in fact.

It's almost monstrous that Murakami has invented yet another alternate reality within which to discuss such things as good and evil. And it is here - and in the excellent writing that characterises this book - that the real action plays out. These subtle meditations belong to Murakami, just like the constant production of effective metaphors and images belongs to him, in the same way that seemingly-rambling meditations speckled with concise logic belong to Kenzaburo Oe, the other great living Japanese writer (the one who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature). Reading Murakami is a joy not just because of the clever plotting and devilish complexity of his stories' logic, but because he is a very artful writer who always seeks out the most efficient way to convey meaning. If this requires the inclusion of poetic devices, then Murakami does not shy away from the challenge.

But it is in the interplay of meanings thrown up by the characters and their trajectories that Murakami is most to be admired, I think. There is surely something magical about Japan, the magic exists on the everyday streets and in the quotidian houses. It is a subtle mechanism of this nature that Murakami brings into his novels - into 1Q84 no less than into the others - and which provides the reader with the greatest satisfaction. The mind races back and forth between actual reality and the reality of the novel like a shuttle on a loom, weaving a semantic tapestry. It's great fun to read Murakami, and this novel should not disappoint anyone, even if they have never read one of his books before.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

WikiLeaks counters corrosive effects of routine media management

It's really funny. News emerges that Julian Assange's case before Britain's High Court has resulted in a refusal by that body to prevent his extradition to Sweden. There's the prospect of appeal, but little hope that such action will be successful. Meanwhile, I go apeshit on Twitter - in all-caps - trumpeting the undesirability of Assange's extradition to Sweden to face rape charges. And then ... Nothing. Not a peep from anyone. No retweets, no replies, no comments. I get one share on Facebook, and that's it. All my energy wasted, all of it washing up against the crushing apathy of the general population like a moth crushed against the radiator grille of an articulated truck thundering down the highway at 100km per hour. It's depressing.

But why is Assange important? Why should we care, even now after the bulk of the scandals have passed over our heads and disappeared into the aether like a flock of migrating bloody swifts? I feel special, is all I can say in defense of the attitude I adopted on learning of Assange's failure in Britain's High Court. As a freelance journalist I have had my share of experiences with government spin doctors and, let me tell you, the reality in that low-level arena reflects the reality of high-level government secrecy in its most ominous form. Media management is pervasive, even if not always extreme. It may not always warrant headlines, but it's always regrettable. If you work as a journalist - especially if you work as a journalist outside the mainstream press - you soon learn the rules.

The term "facelsss men" is a bit overused in Australia, but in the case of media operatives it's quite deserved. These people will always try to organise things so that their operating unit - say, a government department - appears in the best light. I'll provide a few examples to illustrate how this works, and what it means for published stories - the same type of stories that everyday people rely on to stay informed of major (and minor) events. Here's why I went apeshit.

Example one is a government department that I contact because I'm writing a story. My angle is likely to be critical of the government. At least that's the way it plays out when I talk to the media guy. Anyway, I email a few questions to him and within half a day there's a response in my inbox. The response is written. There's no hope of going back to the media guy to ask for an interview. I'm never going to get it. So I incorporate the comments from the "departmental spokesperson" into the story. I do more work and find I want to go back to the department for further comment. The media guy shoots back an email in which he says, basically: "look mate, I've spent enough time on this request and you've got your answers, so piss off." I piss off, finish the story and submit it to the editor. It gets published.

Example two is even more hilarious. I'm working on a long investigative piece and for the purposes of gathering information, one day, I visit a facility of a government health provider - not a department, just a minor operating unit. The woman I talk with tells me, to my face and without prompting, that there is a conflict of interest between her unit's service provision and the fact that the unit is funded through gambling revenues that are channelled through a government deparment. I contact the media person and send a list of questions - as requested. Six months later I manage to line up the interview. When the woman I initially talked to - who I am now interviewing on the record - starts to venture into proscribed territory, the media person says "we can't talk about that" and the interview soon ends. I do not write this story. It's too hard with my limited resources.

Example three is another government agency, related to the discpline of science. I do an interview with a reseracher, after which I send her the draft story for comment. She marks up the draft with change tracking turned "on" and sends that back to me. I unreservedly incorporate all her changes (even ones within quotes that she had given me, on the record) then she tells me I have to submit the result to the media guy. I send it off dutifully. I'm still working on this story.

I could go on. There are many, many more examples of a like nature in my experience. Such tales of routine control of information destined for the media and for publication are too normal for a journalist to even comment on. In extreme circumstances - say, access to asylum seekers being controlled ruthlessly by the federal Department of Immigration or, another example, access to field operations that are being undertaken by the Department of Defense - the media management takes on a Mephistophelian character. The aim of all this manipulation (it can be just as simple as a request to "see the story before it's published") is to make sure that the government is portrayed in as positive a light as possible. In the worst cases the same tendency aims to cover up malpractice on the part of government operatives. This is where WikiLeaks steps in.

WikiLeaks deserves our support in the same way that good journalists do: they're on the side of the angels. Large, well-funded organisations are constantly managing messages that will appear in the media in order to achieve aims that are driven by internal policies. The scope of control exercised by these organisations over information destined for the media is overwhelming and so routine as to be beyond question. What WikiLeaks does is to question the dynamic that rules relationships between governments and the media. As such, it performs a unique and invaluable service from which all of us ultimately benefit, and it deserves out support. Support Julian Assange. Stop him from being extradited to Virginia to face a US grand jury. You owe it to yourself.