Duelling imperatives

datePosted on 11:00, July 17th, 2009 by Lew

So, the National Business Review has decided to (partially) monetise its interweb presence.

In a rather petulant letter, publisher Barry Colman takes aim at the enemies of journalism and backs his team to be able to make a paid content model work where very few have done so before, and never in such a tight and competitive media ecology as we have in NZ.

As you know, there has been endless discussion for a number of years about the crazy model adopted by newspapers in most parts of the free world in which they pay the enormous costs of running professional newsrooms only to give their content away free – while at the same time slashing newsroom numbers to save money as circulation and advertising revenues fall.
And to add to the madness it has been the aggregators that have profited the most from the supply of that free news copy. Worse still the model has spawned a huge band of amateur, untrained, unqualified bloggers who have swarmed over the internet pouring out columns of unsubstantiated “facts” and hysterical opinion.
Most of these “citizen journalists” don’t have access to decision makers and are infamous for their biased and inaccurate reporting on almost any subject under the sun (while invariably criticising professional news coverage whose original material they depend on to base their diatribes).
It is only a matter of time before the model collapses. The alternative is newsrooms decimated to the point of processing public relations handouts or unedited government propaganda from their fully staffed team of spin doctors.

Good luck to them. Unfortunately, blaming competitors (yes; bloggers are competitors for reader time and attention) for the (slow) failure of one’s business never made the business suddenly work better, and this sort of competition-blaming is typically the refuge of people who believe they have an ordained right to profits. As Dan Conover says:

This spring and early summer has been a continuous parade of naked emperors and specious arguments. There’s the Cable TV argument. The iTunes argument. They’ve argued the Watchdog Case and the Piracy Case. And as the combined knowledge of the network ground each of these quickly down to dust, the salespeople moved on to the next one. Did the “blame the bloggers” approach flop? OK: Blame Google.

(Conover has links in his post, which you can follow if you go there. He was a newsman; now he’s a blogger. Go figure.)

Blame anyone except the industry itself for failing to sufficiently move with the market. But perhaps that’s what Barry Colman thinks he’s doing. There are good reasons behind the decision, chief among which is the importance of maintaining a strong and well-resourced newsgathering apparatus. He’s aware that a move to a pay model needs to be accompanied by a dramatic increase in quality, and posits the fairly reasonable idea that people will pay for it.

The trouble with artificial scarcity is partly highlighted by Cactus Kate:

For the pay-per-view am I to be reading low paid first-jobbed twenty-something children repeating the news, or will I read serious senior business journos actually breaking stories that matter?

Good question. If you withhold your best content from the market, you’re cutting off your nose to spite your brand. The imperatives which drive your business conflict: you want to put your best content in front of as many people as possible because it’s the best content (not the ordinary content) which drives your readership and reputation; by locking it away, you hide your light under a bushel so few people know about it, and even if people chance to find out about it (from those relatively few who do have a subscription) then they can’t access it anyway. This is not the way to become a news or commentary source of record. And if you don’t, And if you don’t put your best content up there, then what are you offering again?

At best it seems like this model will rob Peter to pay Paul – that is, the NBR’s ordinary content (and readership) will suffer for the benefit of those few subscribers. This is also what online commenters the NBR site seem to think, and online opinion is predictably scathing.

There has to be a better way.

Edit: I should add that artificial scarcity can potentially work if the content is strong enough. Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review is probably the best daily newspaper in Australasia, and because of its exceptional content, extremely strong commitment to journalistic practice and authoritative market position it is able to dictate such strict terms of access that it causes major headaches for media analysis companies, archivers and researchers. The AFR has no real competition, and that’s what enables it to call the shots. But the NBR is not the AFR – nowhere near, more’s the pity.


Doing filtering right

datePosted on 09:20, July 17th, 2009 by Anita

Once upon a time quite a long time ago I was involved in the implementation of a porn filter at a public institution. At the time part of my role included “inappropriate use” investigations. I’ve spent far too many hours sifting through web and other access logs, writing up material for handover to the authorities, seizing equipment and seeing the flow on effect of a search warrant executed on someone’s home. I’ve sat across a table from someone I knew and made eye contact while I explained how I had discovered evidence he had repeatedly accessed a bestiality porn site. I wish I wasn’t so aware of just how bad porn has to be before it becomes illegal.

I strongly support voluntary at the border filtering for child porn, if I ran an ISP I would implement it and I would be grateful for any help the government provided. But… the government’s support and actions must be scoped, controlled and open to public scrutiny.

DIA should be doing this, but they should also be doing it right:

  1. The process should be public
  2. The scope should be public
  3. Both should be open to public scrutiny and comment (including a without prejudice process for challenging the filtering of a site).

Releasing the list of sites would be counterproductive but we do have a right to know what they’re up to. Is their mandate only child porn (2(a) of the definition of objectionable) or the other criteria as well? Who will make the decision? What is the review process? Will any monitoring be undertaken? Could that trigger an investigation? Will they guarantee it is only objectionable material? Is there scope for political interference? What does “voluntary” mean? Will there be negative consequences for ISPs that don’t opt in?

I totally support DIA’s stated intention, but the way they are approaching it is just plain wrong.

Following on the theme of my posts on the Honduran coup, but from a different angle, this month’s “Word from Afar” column at Scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0907/S00170.htm

Missed opportunity

datePosted on 11:44, July 15th, 2009 by Lew

… to reuse a proper old-fashioned consonant headline.

This Stuff title could have read “Bigger than Potter”, to better match the more-famous misquote of Lennon’s statement about Jesus, or better yet, could have stolen the headline best employed by the promoters of Twilight: Hotter than Potter, because ultimately that’s what this story (and image) are about: Emma Watson as the new see-brainy-girls-are-hot-too icon.

2595686The choice of secondary image in the story itself (at right) possibly hints at a different characterisation: quirky, awkward-but-in-a-cute-way, ordinary, unthreatening.

Watson might have better career prospects according to her fans but I reckon Daniel Radcliffe, by taking on serious and apparently demanding adult roles such as Equus, has made stronger moves to avoid ending up typecast.

It seems that life after Potter will be easily more interesting than the series itself.


Provocation and victims of domestic violence

datePosted on 19:39, July 14th, 2009 by Anita

[I just wrote a rather long comment at The Hand Mirror about battered women and provocation, in response to people suggesting we need to maintain the partial defence of provocation to protect battered women. I am reproducing it here as it shows that the provocation does not help battered women, in fact it only protects their abusers]

The Law Commission has done a lot of work on this, and it appears that the provocation defence is not of value in “battered women syndrome” killings, so we lose no protection for women victims of domestic violence by repealing it.

Some Criminal Defences with Particular Reference to Battered Defendants

The Law Commission did a piece of work which focussed solely on defences for battered defendants completed in 2001 (Some Criminal Defences with Particular Reference to Battered Defendants – NZLC R 73. It shows that provocation is not an effective defence for battered women, and even that it has been successfully used by a perpetrator of domestic violence.

In R v Tepu a man successfully used provocation as a partial defence when he beaten his wife to death – her provoking act? going to the Police when he severely beat her

Partly in response to recommendations in that report the mandatory life sentence for murder was abolished in 2002, and judges have sentencing discretion for battered defendants.

The Partial Defence Of Provocation – NZLC R 98

From 2004 to 2007 the Law Commission did work specifically on provocation (The Partial Defence of Provocation) resulting in a recommendation for its repeal. As part of that they rechecked there would be no disadvantage for battered women and, in fact, did some handy stats.

Of the 81 homicide trials they looked at (2001 to 2005, Auckland and Wellington) in 15 provocation was used as a defence. In only one of those was provocation used as a defence by a woman. In that case, while the killer had experienced domestic violence, she killed her husband because he said he was leaving her. I won’t copy the description here (see p103 of report if you really want to), but it’s exactly the kind of killing-someone-because-they-say-they’re-leaving that we shouldn’t allow to be called manslaughter.

So there were go, the Law Commission has worked really hard on the issue, and provocation is not helping battered women who kill to protect themselves.

It is what it is.

datePosted on 13:52, July 13th, 2009 by Pablo

Having returned to my Asian redoubt after 5 weeks in the USA at the family homestead, I can now take stock and reflect on the tone and tenor of American public discourse. Every time I make the yearly pilgrimage back to my native country I notice changes in how people phrase the moment. A few years back, when Dubya was leading his crusade against evil-doers, it was all about “bring it on,” and “opening a can of ass-whuppin.” Last year it was about, paradoxically, ‘change we can believe in” and “being thrown under the bus.” This year’s social motif is caught in the phrase “it is what it is.”

From public officials, to celebrities to the (wo)man on the street, the answer to most thorny questions or complex issues is captured in that phrase. This is remarkable because normally Americans have a strong sense of optimism and unbrindled faith in controlling their own destinies. But the public mood this year is one of resignation and fatalism, if not powerlessness and pessimism. People appear universally resigned to being pawns in a larger game, to be at the mercy of “powers that be,” to being unable to shift the course of their lives based on hard work and idealism alone. Cynicism abounds, apathy is on the rise once again, and people just expect to be disappointed by their leaders or do not expect much from that at all. Somewhat perversely, this debased threshold of consent gives the Obama administration added cushion or leeway when pursuing its policy reforms–anything it manages to accomplish in the policy field will appear to be unexpected and seemingly heroic. Coupled with Obama’s personal charisma, this means his administration really has to do very little in order to impress the mass public.

For the moment the dark mood is pervasive. When asked about personal indiscretions or ongoing subservience to corporate interests (most evident in the stilted debate on national health care), politicians reply: “it is what it is.” When asked about lawsuits, deaths and scandals, celebrities reply: “it is what it is.” When asked about job losses, foreclosures and stifled dreams, average Joe replies “it is what it is.” When asked about the utility of either of the the two wars the USA is fighting, the universal response is that “it is what it is.”When asked if Sarah Palin’s resignation speech was drug-induced or merely incoherent, the reply inevitably is “it is what it is.” This is the 2009 version of the 1970’s adage “s**t happens.” In each instance the point of the phrase is not only to convey resignation; it also signals an end to the conversation on a particular subject.

There also has been is a signal turn in the American social psyche. In a country that already saw little value in public intellectuals and critical discourse, the turn symbolised in this one-sentence fatalism is a sign of despair. It also may be a sign of social rot.

In that spirit I am compelled to ask a few questions myself. Why is it that the Republican Party is the party of moral hypocrites, racists and corporate thieves? What happened to the party of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Rockefeller? Why does it not have any responses or initiatives to counter the Obama administration’s projects on a variety of fronts? Why does it continue to cater to religious extremists, social bigots and media charlatans? Why does it allow Dick Cheney, of all people, to be the defender of the faith? Why is it mired in McCarthyite fear of “socialism” or “communism?” Why does it deny any wrong done by the Bush 43 administration, be it the constitutional subversions of the “war on terror,” the trillion dollar national debt, the national financial melt down or the erosion of US international prestige and power? Why does its de facto leaders openly call for Obama’s downfall, in an abject display of disloyal opposition? Why does it not see the need to undergo serious self-examination and rejuvination along new ideological lines given the abject failures of the Bush 43 administration and the electoral massacre suffered in 2008? 

All of this is the stuff of Democratic dreams, and short of arrogance born of unchecked power, the Democrats pretty much have a free run through 2012 (and beyond) so long as the Republicans continue to pursue their 1950s Barbie and Ken dreams in a country where Barbie is increasingly of mixed race and Ken just might be gay. Therein lies the problem, because devoid of a real political opposition that offers substantive alternatives on matters of policy to them (and which extend beyond the tired opposition to abortion and gay rights), the Democrats will, inevitably, succumb to their own greed and indifference. We might call the latter the Clinton syndrome.

The question then is why, in an age of fatalism, the Republican Party does not respond to the challenges of the moment in something other than retrograde fashion?The answer it seems is that it is what it is.

From this morning’s DomPost

Nineteen young women have been sexually assaulted after partying in Wellington’s central city this year, with most too drunk to remember what happened.

Police say the number of attacks on drunk young women is growing. “They are binge-drinking, make poor choices and can’t keep themselves safe,” Detective Senior Sergeant Paul Borrell said. “That’s a worry and that’s the preventable part of it.”

I won’t even try to compete with Queen of Thorns ability to express (out)rage, so this is after several deep breaths.

Is Detective Senior Sergeant Paul Borrell seriously intending to say that women are responsible when someone sexually assaults them? And that addressing rapists’ behaviour is not the way to prevent rape?

To be fair to him, he does go on to say that

“It’s up to friends of victims and potential offenders to do something about it. In my view, if something does happen, all of us have failed that person.”

So apparently it’s not entirely the young victim’s fault, it’s also the responsibility of her friends and (yay) the rapist’s friends, oh and pretty much everyone except the rapist (whose behaviour is apparently unpreventable).

I’ll leave the final words to Helen Sullivan, Wellington Sexual Abuse Help Foundation general manager, who says what the Police should have

“Why should the whole responsibility for a situation be put on women? The bottom line is we should be able to walk down the street or do anything without the threat of sexual violence.”

Credulous about copyright

datePosted on 16:02, July 12th, 2009 by Lew

This morning’s Insight documentary on NatRad is an example of what happens when journalists who know almost nothing about a given topic are tasked with putting together an in-depth, large-scale piece of investigative journalism on that topic. is based on the misleading assertion that copyright grants its owner an inherent right to an income.

Kim Griggs’ journalistic technique is fine – she’s talked to the major stakeholders, given both sides of the story and generally done very well at covering the issues. But she’s labouring under a delusion about what copyright grants. Specifically, she says:

Put simply, copyright is a bundle of rights which exist once an idea is given concrete form. That form can be a song, a film, a book, a cartoon, a map, or even an email, and the copyright owner has the right to decide how it’s used and to get paid for it.

My emphasis. But there is no copyright law anywhere which grants creators a right to get paid – all they have is the right to control the exploitation of their work, and if they can turn that into payment, then good on them. In the documentary John Key also makes this error, conflating “compensation and recognition” into the right to get paid.

It’s this false idea – that copyright owners have an inherent right to be paid regardless of how broken their business model might be – which prevents the development of better business models which mean they don’t need to treat their customers like the enemy in order to make money. Even the copyright lobby accepts this; they’re just so far behind the curve that their old models have failed before their new models are even off the drawing board. Of course, if they want to keep applying the stick, rather than employing the carrot, that’s their right.

The content owners have pulled a snowjob on Kim Griggs, which It is unfortunate, because there’s already too much uncertainty and misinformation on this matter, without more confusion being added by people who should be clarifying the issues.

Edit: Kim Griggs has emailed me to outline her extensive experience and expertise in the copyright industry in NZ, and Pippa makes many of the same points in a comment. On that basis I have apologised to Kim for the statement above about her expertise, and for suggestion she was fooled by the copyright lobby.

Nevertheless, my broader criticism stands: the statement I highlighted is wrong in fact and is unhelpful to the cause of reasoned debate because it blurs issues around economic rights, moral rights, contract law and industry practice into a blank statement that copyright == money.

I’ve offered Kim an opportunity to put her case here, if she chooses.


Polysemic text, context and objective meaning

datePosted on 14:16, July 11th, 2009 by Lew

If a door is closed, karate chop it open.

If a door is closed, karate chop it open.

The basic critique I and others have made about the s59 referendum question is that it only makes sense if you accept the implicit assertions with which it is loaded. Linguistic or semiotic texts don’t have wholly objective meanings – their meaning is partially subjective to the interpreter, and meaning approaches objectivity only to the extent to which people can (or will) agree on the interpretation of a text. What we call ‘objective’ meaning in a text really describes a particularly strong agreement on interpretation within a notional audience, and frequently what we call an absence of understanding or comprehension of a text really just describes an absence of agreement on the interpretation between one part of a notional audience and another. It’s easy to overstate this: usually within a given audience there is a reasonable degree of agreement on interpretation, and this is particularly true with regard to ordinary or mundane language or imagery. Some texts are more complex than others, and some are more controversial and will tend to divide the agreement of an audience more than others, but this is not a pure subjectivist or hyper-relativist argument that there is no useful meaning in anything or that definitions or the understanding of common referents are irrelevant or somehow unattainable. Just to say that meaning is not strictly encoded in a text but is as much a function of interpretation. Texts with more than one reasonable reading for a given notional audience (such that ordinary people within an audience group can reasonably differ on interpretation) are called ‘polysemic’, which is just a fancy technical way to say they have multiple meanings.

Broadly speaking the task of a propaganda campaign, or of political speech in general, is to pose a monosemic question or scenario – one which a reasonable person from within the target audience group can only read or answer in one way. This often relies on loading one’s text with as much implicit context as possible so as to avoid the possibility of part (or all) of your audience misreading it; shipping with instructions, as it were. In a strategic sense, it is not the text itself which is the payload – the frame and its implied norms enable the propagandist to construct (manufacture) the audience’s consent for their preferred reading of the wider text.

Returning to the s59 referendum question, it is a fair and credible attempt at freighting a question with an implicit value judgement which renders the answer obvious if the question is read naïvely. But it goes too far; reasonable people don’t need to try very hard to see the payload, which is the implication that (a) a smack can be part of good parental correction and (b) such a smack is a criminal offence. In a successful propaganda campaign of this nature, the textual agenda is more obvious and the contextual agenda less so, and the referendum’s supporters have been working very hard to try to shut down contrary readings of their campaign in order to de-emphasise the frame and context, and emphasise the naïve text. They’ve failed in this, but it is instructive nevertheless, and that isn’t to say they haven’t achieved any of their objectives. The problem is that the referendum question and campaign is essentially preaching to the choir – it makes sense to a conservative segment of the population who care a lot about this issue and are riled up by the constraint on their “freedom” to smack, and it speaks to them because they already accept its premises. But it isn’t much use as a polemic device because, for those who don’t accept its premises, it just looks like a stupid question. This is the problem with developing political strategy in an echo-chamber – just because you believe your own hype doesn’t mean everyone does. To pervert Schneier’s Law: anyone can design a political campaign so clever that he or she can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t agree with it. This feeds back into my ongoing critique of the state of Labour politics: toward the end they believed their own hype, in much the same way as the AAS lobby believes theirs.

Campaigns which employ symbolic or propaganda methods, whether for beneficial purposes or not, are ultimately about social control. A society which responds uniformly and predictably is, all else equal, easier to control than a diverse society, so a great deal of effort is put into the crafting of messages, delivery systems, textual and contextual input to a society which will generate predictable output. Public campaigns, to be successful, require their audience to share strong agreement about interpretation and common understanding of context for their payload to be effective. Robbed of context and freighted assumptions, even something as apparently intuitive, important and uncontroversial as a FEMA public readiness campaign can be highly puzzling and confusing if read naïvely.

Edit: And sometimes, when the context seems obvious, it’s not:

Get the context at BAGnewsNotes or YouTube. If you read the video right, he’s being a gent, not a cad.


What if it were Worth?

datePosted on 12:57, July 10th, 2009 by Lew

The current spotlight on the provocation defence invites consideration of some interesting counterfactuals which dwell upon the gender, sexuality and power relationships in play.

Such as, would either (any?) of the women who alleged sexual harassment by Richard Worth have gotten away with pleading manslaughter if they’d killed him in response to his sexual advances?


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