Backlash Or Bust?

Everywhere you look these days there’s an online uproar about this or a social media backlash about that. Let’s face it: the media’s come to love a good online backlash the way footy fans love a bit of on-field biffo. That much is patently clear.

What’s also becoming increasingly clear is that so-called online backlashes are little more than media beat-ups based around the opinions of a vocal few. True, they probably reflect the feelings of the silent majority in many cases, but what’s also true is that they’re probably just what most people have always thought – we just didn’t know it before.

Today we have more outlets for commenting, complaining and opining than we’ve ever had; we also have greater access to a media always desperately scrounging about for headlines and so-called ‘news’. But is it really a ‘backlash’ if some lazy hack quotes one person whose perspective doesn’t significantly deviate from how most people probably already feel? For that matter, is it even newsworthy?

And that’s where my favourite TV game show Family Feud comes into it. A few months ago there was one of these so-called ‘backlashes’ to a question asked on Network Ten’s top-rating (and only) game show: what’s something annoying a cyclist might do?FamilyFeud_Cyclists_Answers

Ask anyone who’s ever used any road in any of Australia’s crowded inner-city precincts, whether as driver or pedestrian, and they’ll inevitably rattle off a list of quite annoying things that cyclists do. However much cyclists try to hide behind their minority group victim syndrome, that’s one inescapable truth.

Arguably, it’s another equally inescapable truth that drivers and pedestrians probably do just as many annoying things as cyclists – perhaps more. Would they be all agog and aghast if Family Feud asked its contestants to name something annoying that drivers or pedestrians do? I doubt it. They’d probably be the first ones to agree.

Victimisation is a very personal thing and not something to be mocked. It just always seems that minority groups with a sense of victimisation that at least appears to be somewhat disproportionate to reality always seem to shout the loudest.

So it was with one of the comments in response to Family Feud‘s ‘outrage’, which managed to get published as far afield as The Washington Post. It was from the head of a cyclist’s group, who said: “Seriously, the hatred against cyclists has to stop… We all know that as soon as you bring cyclists into the conversation you’re going to get ratings, which is really sad”.

Sadder still is that it’s probably only cyclist groups who’d believe that.

For the record, there was a fairly normal variance between Family Feud‘s highest and lowest viewing figures that week, with a ratings dip after the so-called ‘reaction’ to this issue. Myth well and truly busted, thank you very much Mr. Head of Cyclist Group.

The cyclist group fellow also went on to tell Family Feud’s producers that “The next time a cyclist gets killed on the road you’ll have to live with the knowledge that your [sic] partly responsible for the death of a fellow human”.

Wow. Anyone for a spot of histrionics? The potential irony, of course, being the magnificent own-goal it would’ve been for Mr. Cyclist group if ratings actually had increased.

Thing is, Family Feud questions don’t just come from nowhere. They’re little more than broadly understood in-jokes and clichés. Every cliché is rooted in some element of fact for it to become a cliché in the first place. These questions need to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, so they have to be about the familiar – in effect, the in-jokes, clichés and other minutiae of everyday life. There’s always a precedent and Family Feud‘s 100 survey respondents clearly felt there were eight categories of precedent here.

So was this really a backlash? Or was it actually just a bunch of things someone said about something? In other words, was this merely someone’s opinion? That level of melodrama underscores most of the so-called ‘fierce criticisms’ that are so often leveled against virtually everything these days. But it’s actually nothing new.

It’s not like anybody’s thinking differently to how they would’ve thought in the pre-social media age. It’s not even hugely different to how previous generations felt about similar things in the olden days. This rubbish is what people have always thought, the only real difference being that we now have the very great privilege of knowing it, rather than assuming it.

It used to be that people would send strongly worded letters (in the style of “Dear Sir, I wish to complain in the strongest possible terms…”) or phone the TV station to complain about stuff they didn’t like. If there was a sizable kerfuffle about something, it might’ve rated a tiny five-line report on the inside back page of the Sunday papers.

These days the average complainant’s channel of choice is social media and ‘backlashes’, like the one about Family Feud, are even thought newsworthy enough to make the print media, not just the online entertainment pages.

Today’s volume of complaints is doubtless greater than in the old days, but the definition of what’s considered a complaint is now much broader too. Often the number of complaints posted, liked and re-tweeted via social media becomes more newsworthy than what actually led to the ‘uproar’ in the first place. It’s quick, easy and essentially anonymous, so it’s hardly surprising that volumes are so much higher.

In theory people now have more time to consider what they want to say and how they want to say it. The quality of much of what’s posted to social media suggests no amount of thinking time would ever be enough for many people. For most, their immediate reaction – as opposed to a considered response some time after the event – is simply a stream of consciousness; in many cases, it’s just poorly constructed drivel.

In theory, avoiding face-to-face (or voice-to-voice) confrontation should allow complainants to control the emotional responses that would’ve been largely out of their control had they picked up the phone in the heat of the moment. But it’s near impossible to judge anyone’s emotional tone from a five-line comment in response to , particularly when it’s littered with spelling or typing mistakes and devoid of all punctuation and grammar.

Many immediate online responses sound breathtakingly aggressive – but who knows if their authors were smiling and without a care in the world when they put fingers to touchscreen keyboard? Many people never even bother to state their own positions, happier to find a voice vicariously through the liked and re-tweeted words of others.

Which comes back to the original point: most of what’s pounced on by the media as an online ‘uproar’ or ‘backlash’ is nothing more than a collection of thoughts and opinions. Certainly they’re captured and disseminated differently to how they were in the past, but that’s not to say that nobody’s ever had the same kinds of thoughts and responses to similar situations before.

It’s all just the modern-day electronic equivalent of conversations, sharing opinions and the age-old practice of ‘Chinese whispers’. This stuff’s been happening for aeons. It’s just people saying and thinking stuff. 9 times out of 10, it’s not an uproar or a backlash and it’s certainly not news.

Not unless you’re a lazy hack peddling sensationalism from easy-to-access lowest common denominator rubbish.


Sydney Trains: the world’s your Opal?

Opal_card_adult_largeOK, so Sydney now has the Opal card to use across the entire Transport NSW train, bus, ferry and light rail network – whoopee! Finally, we’re just like every other modern city in the world! But what’s with the whacked pricing?

Opal may have introduced the convenience of electronic card-based ticketing and automatic payments, but the logic applied to ticket pricing is utterly ludicrous – not to mention that it’s, quite possibly, all-but unchanged from pre-Opal pricing. While those living ~75km or more from their destination benefit from the capped journey cost of $8.30, there’s little or no incentive for anyone living within relatively short distances of where they want to go to get there by train.

Example 1: I catch the train home from Town Hall station. The total station-to-station distance is 11.84km. The cost of that trip during peak time is $4.20 – or $0.35/km.

Example 2: I leave work and travel from Town Hall station to Sydenham, where I go for one or two (or a few) (or ten) refreshing beverages with a friend. Three hours later I catch another train home from Sydenham. The first trip, taken during peak time, costs $3.38, while the second one, outside of peak time, costs $2.36. The total station-to-station distance across the two trips is still 11.84km, but because I get off the first train and later join another train to complete my journey, the total cost increases to $5.74 – or $0.48/km.

But wait – there’s more. If I somehow manage to get off the first train, meet my friend, inhale a few drinks and catch the second train while it’s still peak fare time, as long as I leave enough time between leaving the station (aka “tapping off”) and returning to it (aka “tapping on”) so that the system doesn’t think I’m just making a connection, then the second trip will also cost $3.38, further inflating the cost of the total journey to $6.76, or $0.57/km.

Opal_card_pensioner_largeThe inequity doesn’t end there, either. Sydney Trains somehow believe it’s fair to charge me at a rate of $0.39/km for my first 8½km journey, but at a rate of $1.02/km for the second 3.3km journey.

In a nutshell, the closer I am to where I want to be, the greater the penalty I pay for the convenience of using Sydney Trains.

Part of me wants to protest loudly at the prejudice of it all and insist that Sydney Trains’ entire ticket pricing schedule should be laid out on a per kilometre basis, so that everyone pays for the distance travelled, whatever that distance happens to be. But then, another part of me thinks, “hang on a minute: of course that’s how it is! Of course you have to pay more! Of course those who live further away pay less per kilometre than you do!”. I guess it’s a bit obvious, to some extent – of course that’s the way it works. Or is it? Or, more to the point, why should it be?

If Sydney Trains can see fit to cap the cost of a single ticket at $8.30 – thus guaranteeing that someone travelling to, say, the International Airport from, say, Wollongong, Katoomba or Newcastle does so at a rate of between 5c and 11c per kilometre – then why can’t they also guarantee that I don’t pay $1.33/km to go the two stations from my home to the Airport? It’s even worse when the utterly absurd International and Domestic Airport “Station Access Fee” is added to the equation: while is still only costs travellers from Wollongong, Katoomba or Newcastle between 13c and 28c per kilometre, I’m charged an appalling $6.45/km to reach the same destination. In which universe is this in any way likely to encourage me not to add to Sydney’s already horribly congested roads? If it was just me, there mightn’t be any debate, but if I was heading to the airport with just one other person the choice between a cab or a train would be a no-brainer.

Opal_card_child_largeSo I get free trips everywhere for the rest of the week once I’ve used my Opal card 8 times, do I? Excellent news for anyone who either religiously takes the train to and from work more than four times a week or takes train trips to and from any other destination more than four times a week and who also doesn’t then have their routine thrown out by weather, illness, offsite work activities, rostered days off, annual leave, family commitments or anything else that might prevent them taking the eight trip minimum required to bag those freebies. Even Opal’s 60 minute interchange rule conveniences me right out of any way of rorting the system during the working day, despite Gladys Berejiklian claiming that she wanted everyone to be able to “beat the system”. No, it seems the average traveller will have to be satisfied with their two “free” trips per week, despite the fact that anyone who routinely travels within a fairly limited area is more likely to be penalised than rewarded.

And let’s not even get started on Opal users who take buses, ferries and light rail and are now actually paying more than they used to! I’ll stash that one away for another rant.

So thank you, Sydney Trains, and thank you, Gladys Berejiklian. Opal may seem a pearl to anyone who lives a long way from where they work, but for those who don’t suffer the tyranny of distance it’s not quite the gem you sold us.

It’s in the fine print


“We try harder”? I’ll be the judge of that!

This is a ‘consumer affairs’-style story that goes to the heart of why, even though the customer is supposedly “always right”, they can never win out against the fine print.

Two weeks ago I went down to Melbourne for a few days and hired a little car from Avis to get us about. On returning the vehicle to Melbourne Airport around 6:30pm on the Monday, I managed to leave my GPS case in the odd little slot between the upper and lower glovebox (who knew there were cars with two gloveboxes anyway!?).

Next day at around 11am I advised Avis in writing that I’d left the GPS case in the car. Three days later a representative from Avis at Melbourne Airport left me a voicemail, advising she’d been in contact with the customer who currently had the car but that they’d not found anything. She also said she’d not found a “GPS pouch” (my slightly dodgy original description, not hers) in their lost property, but to call her if I wanted to discuss further.

Point of contention #1: the whole “please call if you want to discuss further” thing was really just a shallow customer service platitude, wasn’t it? Other than to clarify my description of the GPS case – if only to ensure she actually understood what she was looking for – I’m not sure what point further discussion could possibly serve, particularly given that Clause 13 of Avis’ Terms & Conditions of Rental states:






Which leads me neatly into point of contention #2: I get that this is my fault. I’m normally so anal-retentive about thoroughly checking rental cars before handing the keys back, so who knows why I wasn’t this time. I also concede that I haven’t exactly lost the Crown Jewels, but it’s now more a matter of principle: I let Avis know within a reasonable timeframe that I’d inadvertently left something in the car. Despite the dodgy name I originally used for it, I clearly described its physical characteristics and told them exactly where I’d left it, yet somehow it still wasn’t found. And it’s that proper little gem of a term and condition, right there in Clause 13, that puts the kybosh on anyone thinking they can take a lost property matter further unless they can prove that a member of Avis’ staff was somehow negligent in the course of their job – and who’s ever going to be able to do that?

At any rate it’s something of a moot point. The number Rhonda gave me to call her on goes to a generic lost property voicemail when it isn’t answered (which is every time I’ve called it so far) and I’ve left multiple messages for Rhonda to call me back, none of which have since been returned more than a week after her invitation to discuss further. Who thinks it wasn’t a shallow customer service platitude now?

I understand that it wouldn’t be at all feasible for car rental companies to reimburse or otherwise compensate every customer who left something behind in one of their cars, but if Avis had adequate procedures in place then their customers’ carelessly forgotten belongings wouldn’t disappear into thin air and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. It would only take the most basic of checks on each vehicle as it was returned for there to be (in theory, at least) no question of missing property, interrogation of next customers or debate around who should be accountable. Indeed, where a customer advises of a lost item within 24 hours and that item can’t be found either in the vehicle, by the next customer or in the lost property, why shouldn’t the car rental company be held accountable? After all, it was they who had the earliest access to the contents of the vehicle after I returned it and there are surely only a very few possibilities:

  1. My GPS case left the vehicle of its own accord. Of course it didn’t, but let’s keep an open mind to all options.
  2. The Avis woman didn’t believe my claim and/or didn’t undertake any follow-up with the next customer. Possible but, I think, unlikely.
  3. The Avis woman didn’t believe the other customer’s confirmation that my GPS case wasn’t found in the car. Again unlikely but, even if that was the case, what could she have done about it anyway? Besides which, she was hardly likely to share that opinion with me.
  4. The other customer found my GPS case where I’d left it and either disposed of it or otherwise appropriated it for themselves. Entirely possible.
  5. Someone (possibly an employee of Avis) found my GPS case where I’d left it and either disposed of it or otherwise appropriated it for themselves. Also entirely possible.

As options go, I err towards one of the latter two as the most likely outcome – and note that I offered both ‘disposal’ and ‘appropriation’ as two possibilities, so it’s not exactly an accusation of any wrongdoing per se. But let’s face it – there simply aren’t that many ways this thing could’ve gone.

In the end, if the incredibly misaligned steering and rattling rear suspension of our rental vehicle was any indication, I’d be very surprised to learn that Avis undertakes any kind of substantial checks on vehicles when they’re returned, but surely they must at least do a quick superficial inspection for lost property and/or signs of unexpected wear and tear? If so, then they should’ve found and removed my GPS case and sent it straight to lost property, linking it to my rental of the vehicle as a reference. If they don’t undertake such checks, my first question is simple: why not? It also begs the question of how much other stuff that’s inadvertently left behind by their customers remains “lost” forever.

In any case, I believe Avis should be held accountable either way. I only signed up for this car because it was the smallest rental offering manual transmission that I could find and it came with the lowest quote. What we actually got was a gutless automatic which used far more fuel than a manual would’ve, which had such grossly misaligned steering that I had to maintain the wheel at a quarter turn to the left just to go straight ahead, which had an alarming intermittent rattle in the rear suspension and which, in the end, saw me incurring additional fees and charges that were 108% of the original quote. To now tell me they’re unable to locate an item which was plainly in the vehicle when I walked away from it, then offer no recourse to any form of compensation only adds insult to injury.

Nobody reads Terms & Conditions, we all know that. Everyone checks the box to say they have, but virtually no one ever does. To some extent, it doesn’t even matter. Even if I’d clearly read the Avis Terms & Conditions of Rental would I have baulked at Clause 13 and decided not to rent from them? Just because I objected to their position of non-accountability in the event of me inadvertently leaving something behind in their car, would I have rented from another company? It’s unlikely, to say the least.

They probably all have a Clause 13 to give their customers the finger with anyway.

The Khe Sanh Effect: why 2014 actually *wasn’t* as bad as you remember

NewsKheSanhEffectYou’ll no doubt have heard the adages “people have short memories” and “the memory cheats”. Both phenomena have been around for as long as anyone can remember, perhaps longer – if only we could remember. But you may not have heard of The Khe Sanh Effect.

People do have a tendency to forget, but the memory doesn’t cheat all by itself. Just ask the average Australian to name the biggest hit by iconic Aussie rockers Cold Chisel; invariably, they’ll name Khe Sanh. If radio and video airplay and a general sense of reverence since the 1980s was an accurate reflection of its original success, anyone could be forgiven for assuming Khe Sanh was the biggest selling single ever released by any artist in the history of music in this country. In fact, as Cold Chisel’s début single in 1978 it didn’t even crack the Top 40 and the band subsequently released other much bigger hits. Meanwhile Khe Sanh rose above mediocre commercial success to become Cold Chisel’s signature and secured its place in the annals of history as an icon of 70s Aussie pub rock. Ask anyone old enough to remember that original release and some will no doubt be surprised to learn of the gaping chasm between recollection and reality.

The Khe Sanh Effect is just another variation on the memory phenomena, whereby the constant stream of news that bombards us, day in and day out, skews our view of what’s happening in the world and concurrently alters our recollections of the past.

With blanket coverage across all forms of media during 2014, aviation disasters factored heavily in last year’s news. The highest profile losses were two Malaysia Airlines flights, but compounding the sense of disaster was the loss of another three flights, all during bad weather, in the last six months of the year.

Aggregated data from the world’s Civil Aviation Authorities shows that there were 120 airline crashes in 2014, resulting in 1,329 fatalities. Neither of those are nice numbers, but they’re both a very long way from being the highest numbers of either crashes or fatalities. The top five years for airline crashes were:

1. 1944 – 735 crashes
2. 1943 – 566
3. 1942 – 526
4. 1940 – 459
5. 1945 – 397

It’s largely unsurprising that these are still the highest numbers on record more than seventy years later. Obviously all of those years were during World War II and military planes (which reportedly aren’t always included in modern-day data) accounted for many of these crashes. But more recently, the reduced volume of plane crashes per calendar year is clear, as is the trending reduction:

60. 2003 – 201 crashes
67. 2008 – 190
85. 2013 – 139

87. 2014 – 120

Fatalities data suggests that the most perilous time for anyone to fly anywhere was during the first half of the 1970s, with 43 aircraft each carrying more than 100 passengers crashing between 1 January 1970 and 31 December 1974. Indeed, in 1972-73 alone more than 6,000 airline passengers were killed in more than 350 plane crashes around the world:

1. 1972 – 3,346 airline fatalities
2. 1944 – 3,334
3. 1985 – 2,969
4. 1973 – 2,815
5. 1996 – 2,798

59. 2014 – 1,329

By many 2014 will be recalled (in the short-term, at least) as a year of almost constant aviation disasters but, in fact, flying is becoming statistically safer by the year. Recent improvements are clearly reflected in statistics by the half-decade, from the first aviation disaster to claim more than 100 lives in 1953 until the most recent one in December 2014:

  • 1953-59: 3 crashes of aircraft carrying more than 100 passengers
  • 1960-64: 11
  • 1965-69: 17
  • 1970-74: 43
  • 1975-79: 27
  • 1980-84: 33
  • 1985-89: 39
  • 1990-94: 34
  • 1995-99: 30
  • 2000-04: 25
  • 2005-09: 32
  • 2010-14: 14

It’s important to note that these statistics reflect aviation disasters that have been attributable to almost every potential cause, including engine or other mechanical failures, failed takeoffs and landings, bad weather, pilot error, bird strikes, mid-air collisions, onboard explosions, hijackings or other terrorist activity and military action. It’s also important to note that individual incidents don’t always result in 100% fatalities, with the proportion of passengers who survive crashes of airliners carrying more than 100 having significantly increased over the last ten years.

If all of that still hasn’t made you feel a whole lot better about the next flight you take, try looking at it like this: in 2014 there were 33 million takeoffs around the world, a 6% increase over 2013. 3.2 billion passengers travelled somewhere on a plane at some point during 2014. What does all of that mean? Simply that only 0.0004% of all planes that took off during 2014 went on to crash and that just 0.00004% of all passengers who took a flight during 2014 were actually killed in a plane crash. In short, while the numbers of both flights and passengers have increased, the rate of accidents hasn’t. Statistically, your chances of dying in a plane crash are remote to begin with, but your chances of dying in a plane crash during 2014 were so far from being the highest they’ve ever been… and so much better than they would’ve been in 1973!

Ask anyone old enough to remember the highest profile aviation disasters of the 1970s and 1980s how 2014 compares. Some will no doubt be surprised to discover the gaping chasm between their recollection and reality. It’s The Khe Sanh Effect all over again.

The pre-viral selfie stick

This might well be the first, and possibly only, time in my life when I’ll be able to claim that I was once ahead of the times… or, at least, ahead of what’s trending online.

SelfieStick1995JapanA series of pictures popped up on Twitter a few days ago and, apparently, ‘went viral’. The pictures appear to be of a brochure for a product, developed in Japan in 1995, called the Self-Portrait Camera Stick. Apparently it was largely dismissed at the time as being a bit pointless and nobody ever heard of it again, if indeed they’d ever heard of it in the first place. I’m certain I’d never heard of the 1995 Self-Portrait Camera Stick until today, though I find its dismissal difficult to fathom. I can clearly recall many a time in the pre-smartphone digital camera age (to say nothing of the Kodak Disposable Camera age) when I really could’ve done without the awkwardness and potential loss involved in handing an expensive camera to a complete stranger, before striking the requisite pose and hoping with every fibre of your being that you wouldn’t have to ask them to take the photo again. Most often over the years I forewent both the awkwardness and the potential for myself and my absurdly expensive camera to involuntarily part company. That meant that I ended up with thousands of photos so utterly bereft of human life – or any that was personally known to me at least – that they might just as well have been emblazoned with “Greetings from <name of holiday destination>!”.

Last year I embarked on an utterly self-indulgent six-week extravaganza across the United States as a memorial to the 40th anniversary of my birth. The driving and history fanatic in me was to spend four of those weeks travelling alone, crossing the country from Las Vegas to Chicago following as much of the original Route 66 as I could find and one thing was for sure: I wasn’t about to end up with thousands of photos that provided zero evidence of me ever having been physically present at the time. So about six weeks before jetting off to sunny California I went online, in the hope that old reliable (aka Google) would reveal to me what it was that I thought I was looking for. And I mean that in the most literal sense – I had no idea if such a device even existed. I didn’t know what to call it or even what words to use for the best search results, so I typed “smartphone”, “photo”, “selfie” and, believe it or not, “extendable arm”. Who woulda thunk it? Right there at the top of my search results was a link to an Ebay item that did exactly what I was looking for. It was ludicrously cheap and arrived from China four days after I bought it. I couldn’t have been more impressed by such a simple thing: a spring-loaded grab handle, a 1.5m extendable arm and a leather wrist strap, all of which would allow for many perfectly framed selfies of me and the great Mother Road – what more could I have wanted?

SelfieStick2013Those who know me well enough or who were actually with me at the time will recall that I’d dubbed the amazing gadget my “selfie stick”. There was no such reference on the eBay listing, nor on the item’s packaging, nor the invoice, nor anywhere else that I saw. I just called it that coz I thought it sounded vaguely amusing, as well as it being something of a “does what it says on the box” descriptor. I don’t recall anybody who saw it saying they’d ever seen anything like it before (it’s possible someone did say they’d seen one before, but why ruin a good story with facts?).

For most of my six weeks in the U.S. and Canada, my selfie stick and I were inseparable. Much of the time it was the cause of a slightly odd but not entirely unpleasant bulge in my pocket and it was extended with great frequency. Wherever I went people would point, smile and comment. I had so many friendly Americans, young and old, asking me what it was, where I’d gotten it and how they could get their own. Initial enquiries invariably lead to interrogation of my accent, where I was from and what I was doing in America, but the parting salvo would always be “So – eBay, China, Selfie Stick, right? I’ll remember that”. Never mind the friendly, adventurous Aussie who introduced it to you.

But even if they forget me, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I actually came up with “selfie stick”? Maybe I should’ve patented that name? Maybe I’d be getting rich now if I had.

Fast forward nine months and, apparently, selfie sticks have gone viral. Apparently they now come with Bluetooth connectivity and remote controls and were one of the ‘must have’ gifts of the recent festive season. Apparently they’ve even begun spawning spin-off devices, although the first such device will surely only reduce any purpose the original might’ve genuinely served to a joke. It’ll become a short-term fad that’s only remembered as the extendable stick used to take photos of titillating body parts – mark my words.

But it’s gone viral now. It’s trending online. That means the life will be sucked out of it and everyone will move on to something else before the first Selfie Stick Online Celebrity Dick Pic Scandal even happens. If that’s how it turns out, it’ll be a very sad thing; putting the stomach-churning narcissism of Gen-Selfie to one side, the modern take on the Self-Portrait Camera Stick has more to offer than merely snapping vacuous poses for social media or getting a glimpse of your arse.

Still, for a while back there I felt a bit unique. I created a bit of a buzz. And I was ahead of what was trending online. F*** you, social media!

Ten Things I Hate About News

TVNews_StandingNewsreaderForgetsOnAirTV news presentation sucks! No really, it’s rubbish – and it gets even more rubbish by the day.

The television news bulletin has morphed from the traditional sit-behind-desk affair into the hybrid love child of a soap opera, a chat show and lowest common denominator current affairs, its news content needlessly hyped up, dumbed down, sensationalized, personalized, dramatized, emotionalized, serialized and hypothesized.

But news is just news. It’s stuff that happens and then it’s done. Sometimes, stuff that happens is more dramatic or sad or horrifying or beautiful than other stuff that happens and when that’s the case, believe it or not, viewers work it out for themselves. The drama, sadness, horror or beauty of the news doesn’t need to be augmented by tones, looks or words, but that’s increasingly how both commercial networks and public broadcasters seem to like it delivered.

There’s a raft of things I’ve come to dislike about TV news presentation over recent years. This – in no particular order – is the stuff I absolutely loathe with a passion.

1. Standing up.
Just sit down! Preferably behind a desk. How can I trust a newsreader who isn’t sitting behind a desk? The only people who need to stand up are reporters and the weather presenter. I don’t need a newsreader to stand in front of the world’s largest plasma monitor showing a stock image and a dumbed-down caption to help me understand what they’re talking about – I’m happy to rely on the words they use for that. But I’ll only take them seriously if they say those words from behind a big desk. The desk must be big – preferably shiny – and have at least a mouse on it, if not a keyboard, laptop or tablet.. There has to be a bunch of A4 pages in front of the newsreader, which they pick up at the end of each bulletin and straighten them all up by tapping them three times on the desk. And they must have a pen in one hand, with which to occasionally scribble something indecipherable on the top page. But most importantly, they cannot be standing up. What they sit on is largely unimportant, just as long as they’re not standing up.

TVNews_LiveCross2. Live crosses.
A few years back I read that the way of the future for news reporting was the live cross. It’s a very North American thing that’s been rightly parodied for decades. Apparently the live cross makes for a more “engaging” bulletin. Thankfully every commercial network in Australia has expanded its main nightly news bulletin to at least an hour, so we have so many more opportunities to appreciate this more “engaging” style of news journalism, just in case we missed it during the early morning, mid-morning, midday, mid-afternoon or late-afternoon bulletins, or during any of the regular news updates throughout the day. A word to the wise: live crosses are almost always rubbish, particularly if nothing’s actually happening at the time. Live crosses used to allow viewers to witness something significant as it happened. The rest of the day’s events were adequately handled by the newsreader behind the desk or via pre-recorded segments created by a reporter and a cameraman earlier in the day. The folks behind our TV news said that live crosses eliminated the need for reporters to bring stories back to the studio for post-production, but these days most of them also include pre-recorded material anyway, so it seems the live cross has become just another set piece in the ever more contrived world of TV news.

3. Unscripted reporting.
One of the more grating aspects of the live cross is unscripted reporting or, at the very least, reporting without an autocue. In the olden days, most reporters could speak eloquently and confidently during a live cross about whatever issue they were there to report on and could answer any question thrown at them by the newsreader in the studio. These days, it seems no amount of rehearsed studio enquiries or obvious leading questions can make it easier for live reporters, who frequently lose their way, forget the rules of basic spoken grammar and use more filler words like “umm”, “aah”, “of course” and “as you know” than they do actually saying anything meaningful. It would be far kinder on both reporters and viewers if this hackneyed reporting style was permanently abandoned.

4. Satellite delays.
Another of the more tedious elements of the live cross is the stupid delay between the presenter firing the leading questions at the reporter and the reporter finally hearing each of the words we’ve already heard and being able to respond. In the olden days live crosses were often via satellite to reporters or interviewees overseas, so the delay was expected. These days the studio can cross to a reporter standing right outside and the delay is greater than it was for a cross to “the London bureau” in 1985.

And on the topic of delays, given everyone seems aware of them when crossing to someone not in the studio can they not just forego all the inane pleasantries at the end of each cross and go to the next story? Once the studio’s done with them, just move on. Their returned closing civilities add no value to what’s often a fairly pointless live cross anyway, so keeping them on air until they’ve said them benefits no one.

5. Headline-style story preview.
Headlines are for print. They don’t need to be spoken. I’m already watching the news, so premising the summary of an up-coming story with a two-word tabloid-style spoken headline doesn’t actually grab any more of my attention than they already had or were ever going to get, had they just told me the facts of what happened. They’re going to briefly summarise the main stories at the top and tail of the bulletin anyway and when the newsreader gets to the story itself there’ll inevitably be a caption on the monitor behind them as well – save the headline for then.

TVNews_NewsStudioDesk6. Weather as news.
You want a newsflash? How about this one: weather isn’t news! It’s like time – it just happens and it’s gone. Sometimes weather gets a bit extreme but it’s the results of that extreme weather that are somewhat newsworthy, more so than the weather itself. As a day-to-day proposition, weather just isn’t news. Everyone knows the weather report comes at the end of the bulletin. It’s not the highlight of the program, even though for some it’s the only reason they watch at all. But the weather doesn’t need its own headline-style teaser at the head of the bulletin; it doesn’t need a “coming up” preview halfway through the bulletin either; and weather presenters certainly don’t need to be prompted for each detail by the newsreader. Today’s weather presenters have their maps, their clickers and their pointers and most of them actually seem pretty clued up on all things meteorological, so information doesn’t need to be extracted from them via a back-and-forth conversational tête-à-tête with the newsreader, which just sounds forced, fake and silly. Weather is weather. It has a forecast, it happens and it’s done, just like most of what makes the news. Only, it’s not news – it’s just weather, so stop trying to make it news.

7. “Of course”.
“Of course”… yuk! It’s the TV news equivalent of a corporate ‘weasel word’! It’s an overused gap-filler that conveys a meaning that’s utterly contrary to why it’s actually being used. It’s most frequently employed by reporters on live crosses or the presenters speaking with them, or by presenters when ad-libbing to camera. Breakfast TV presenters are the worst offenders, throwing “of course” about with gay abandon! Perhaps when they’re still half asleep “of course” seems more professional than “umm” when they can’t get their brain into gear? Either way, it’s annoying. “Of course” suggests that something is obvious or somehow expected – so if it’s all so obvious, why say it at all? Yeah I know, it slows you down and gives you time to think of the next few words. There are ways of doing that which don’t involve repeatedly invoking “of course”. Why not try simply making a statement of fact and leaving “of course” out of it? At very least try mixing it up a bit by substituting “of course” with “obviously”, “naturally”, “needless to say”, “clearly”, “as you know” – anything but “of course”.

TVNews_StandingNewsreader8. Overly emotive descriptions of the facts.
Something that actually happened isn’t made any more dramatic or sad just because the newsreader engages emotive terms and a sombre tone. Whether they’re telling us about a terrorist atrocity, a mass murder, a plane crash, a building collapse, the events of 9/11, the impending execution of drug smugglers in Indonesia or a massive tsunami across the south-east Asian coastline, the facts speak for themselves. It’s the news and they’re there to read it. They don’t need to tell us that something was a “horrendous act of violence”, that something resulted in “a devastating loss of life”, involved “terrifying final moments” or conveyed “a chilling message of destruction” for us to understand that any or all of those things was more than likely the case. Histrionics aren’t necessary to conveying the facts and, without them, audiences will still understand what happened and will make up their own minds about how chilling, horrendous, devastating or terrifying it must have been.

9. Rolling live coverage of “breaking news”.
Seriously, it has to stop! It’s too much to take in and, in most cases, it’s all based on not much more than speculation or, worse still, drawn from social media – hardly the last bastion of journalistic integrity. More importantly, it hasn’t even had a chance to become proper news before it’s reported! And then, as if not enough wasn’t already enough, they make a live cross of it! To talk about what, exactly? Case in point: the recent shooting of a civilian by police in the NSW Southern Highlands town of Bowral ten days ago. The presenter crosses to the reporter, who appears to be standing right in the middle of the road, with a McDonald’s over her right shoulder. Here’s what went through my head as I attempted to follow the reporter’s seemingly endless list of unsubstantiated details:

That’s apparently where the shooting occurred. Or at least the man who was shot had been there… doing something. I think. He might’ve been armed…. or he might not have been. There were reports of him possibly acting erratically… it’s ‘reported’ that he may have been violent towards staff and/or patrons… he may have drawn a weapon on them… or something. So, someone possibly did something then, it seems. Maybe there. Or somewhere else. There might’ve been a showdown between the police and the deceased in the restaurant… or in the car park… or on the street outside… where the deceased became violent…. or acted erratically… or drew a weapon. It’s apparent that someone was shot, possibly. There may have been sounds of gunfire, residents report hearing something… it may have been a backfiring car. One resident who lives directly opposite the car park said they didn’t hear anything at all, that they weren’t aware of anything happening in the early hours. The deceased was known to local police …. so far we don’t know how or why or over what period of time the deceased may have possibly been known to local police. There’s no confirmation of exactly what happened…. we don’t know if this was a domestic situation… we don’t know if there were others involved or if there have been any other injuries sustained by anyone else. We don’t know why the police opened fire. Nobody knows if he was ill or had taken drugs or if something else happened… 

TVNews_Seated@DeskFive minutes later, even after all those words and footage and interviews with so-called witnesses and even with all that on-the-spot reporting by the live reporter, ever-ready and ever-roving, I still had no idea what the hell had happened… or didn’t happen… or might’ve happened… or can’t be confirmed. I didn’t know who shot who or how many people have been shot, injured or killed, or why. By that stage I would’ve been lucky to even remember where it was that they claimed this thing that might’ve happened actually happened! So thank you, roving reporter, for breaking that news to me. It was possibly the least useful live cross I’ve ever watched.

10. Sad music for news items.
No! No! No! No! No! It’s just wrong! If a news story’s about something sad, it’s about something sad. Sad is sad. News is news. Sad news is news about something real that actually happened and was sad. It’s not a soap opera or a TV drama. It doesn’t need a soppy soundtrack to make it seem sad. Sad music playing under a news item is the equivalent of canned laughter on a sitcom – it’s fake and utterly redundant. It’s like admitting that you’re only running the story for the tears it might generate, while at the same time acknowledging that it probably isn’t as much of a tear-jerker as it could be, so let’s add some melodramatic music to get it right up there with the death scenes in ET, Beaches and Titanic. It’s so awful that it’s offensive. Please don’t ever do it again.

…but is it racism?

Racism-flagsIn the 21st century, ‘the R word’ gets thrown about decidedly more often than it should.

Ever since the turn of the century – and in the age of the absurdity that is political correctness – the ‘racism’ card is played with increasing frequency, to the point where it now seems that every bad thing that happens is the product of either terrorism or racism; the fact that there’s only ever a very blurred line drawn between the two only compounds the situation.

But racism is just one of an almost endless list of discriminatory behaviours that we see all around us every day. There’s a higher-level phobia at work here, something with more power over the average Australian than mere racism.

Recently I found myself thinking about the oft-discussed ideals of Australia’s perfectly integrated fully functional multicultural society (…guffaw!) and it occurred to me that it’s actually nothing more than a pipe dream that will never be fully realised, just as it’s never been fully realised anywhere else in the world.

I imagine some readers are already beside themselves with the kind of righteous indignation that’s become de rigueur in the social media age, but the statement I just made wasn’t racist. It’s merely an observation of human nature.

First, it’s important to note some key distinctions.

Racism is the distinguishing of a race as either superior or inferior to another race, based on the belief that all members of one or both races possess characteristics, abilities or qualities that are specific to their race. “All Chinese people are really clever”. “All African-Americans are awesome singers”. “All Muslims are extremists and terrorists”. “All Australians descended from the original European invaders are spoilt, lazy and harbour an inexplicable sense of entitlement”. “All New Zealanders enjoy unnatural relations with sheep”. “All Poms are whingers”. Or “coloured people are less intelligent than white people”. While not always derogatory to the subject of the statement, they’re generally baseless, unfounded or unverifiable all the same – and all equally racist.

But many incidents and statements that invariably have the ‘racist’ label slapped on them actually aren’t. Given the thought process that, by definition, must feed into the taking of a racist position, it’s fair to say that much of what’s described as ‘racism’ is actually xenophobia – simply, a prejudice against people just because they come from another country. Xenophobia’s no less toxic than racism, it’s just different – and ‘different’ is very much the key concept here.

The big issue is neither racism, nor xenophobia – it’s simply a fear of difference.

Believe it or not, the term that best applies to a fear of difference is “heterophobia” – but thanks to the popular understanding of the term ‘homophobia’, we might avoid using ‘heterophobia’ in this context. Nonetheless, by and large human beings don’t like difference. They shun otherness and gravitate towards what they know and understand. While there’s a subset of almost every community which openly embraces difference, most human beings enjoy a ‘comfort zone’ in most aspects of their lives and they cling tenaciously to it. It’s an unavoidable fact: people everywhere have always gone out of their way to avoid things they don’t understand.

For millennia, wars have been sparked by an inability or unwillingness on the part of one side to accept that the other side would be able to hold different religious beliefs without negating the ability of both sides to live together harmoniously. The violent and fatal reality of how far extremists are prepared to take their attempts to punish or eliminate religious difference has been all too prevalent the world over since September 11, 2001.

It’s not all about a difference of faith, though. Teenagers struggle through their adolescent years, desperate to conform. So many of them believe – and are encouraged to continue believing – that being different isn’t for the best, that not standing out from the crowd is by far the safest course to chart. Many parents are among the worst offenders for encouraging this way of thinking, sometimes with the best of intentions but generally with little regard for the potential harm they could be doing, or how they may be influencing later behaviours in their offspring.

For centuries discrimination has been waged against all manner of physical, psychological and geographical traits over which human beings have no control whatsoever: the colour of our skin; our gender; our ethnicity; our sexual orientation; our height; our weight; our looks; our mental capacity; our injuries, disfigurements or other incapacities. Virtually anything considered ‘different’ is ripe for avoidance or some other form of discriminatory behaviour.

Much of our avoidance of difference is born of an innate need to seek out others with whom we share similar tastes and interests, through which we form bonds via a mutual understanding of the world in which we live. Sydney is a prime example of how this reality plays out every day across a population of some five million people. Arguably one of Australia’s most ‘multicultural’ cities, Sydney is full-to-overflowing with ethnic ghettos. There are pockets of Greeks and Italians in certain areas, Chinese and Korean folk in others, while Poms and Kiwis are known for settling around the eastern suburbs, specifically Bondi. Are they ‘racist’ for doing so? Could they realistically be accused of xenophobia? They’ve come to a new country that promotes multiculturalism and encourages integration, if not assimilation – so why would they only want to live among “their own kind”, speaking the language they learned as toddlers, eating the food they’ve been accustomed to eating since they were children and living the only culture and values they’ve ever known? How racist!

Well, no, actually it isn’t. It’s not even xenophobic. It’s just human nature. We crave familiarity and the company of others who want, know and understand the same things. Ask any British or Irish backpacker who’s ever travelled to Australia and ended up in share accommodation with hordes of other British and Irish backpackers; ask any Australian 20-something who’s ever travelled overseas how many fellow Australian travellers, Australian bars and other Australian-centric zones they purposefully headed to during their travels. It’s exactly the same thing and it happens all over the world.

Culture is such a complex concept anyway. Some people have a hard time getting to grips with all the nuances of their own culture, so it’s hardly surprising that many people know little or nothing about other cultures; usually what we do learn is superficial at best. Sometimes, as we learn about the differences between other cultures and our own we also make observations. Whether something strikes us as a funny way to do things, a bit strange, weird or simply something that isn’t for us, they’re just observations – it’s not being racist. That would be like suggesting that because your friend likes drinking water but you don’t, you’re somehow being racist towards your friend which, of course, is a ludicrous suggestion. Observing that a feature of another culture isn’t something you’d care to undertake yourself is not being racist in any way.

Some ethnic groups who settled in Australia have held on to some truly xenophobic views of other ethnic groups who also settled in Australia. In many cases these rivalries go back centuries and have been passed down from generation to generation. In other cases, the broad dislike of one nation by another can be traced back to a specific event. For example, in the years – and, indeed, decades – immediately following World War II few Australians had anything positive to say about either the Germans or the Japanese. This wasn’t the result of everyone who felt that way having fought in a war against members of either nation’s armed forces, but more a rendering of the broader social sentiment of the time. In a slightly different way, we’ve repeatedly seen similar responses to the Muslim community since September 11, 2001 and, again, it’s not necessarily been because everyone who reacted that way was directly impacted by whatever ‘Muslims’ were believed to have been the perpetrators of, much less taking a racist position. It’s generally a case of fear spread through misinformation, generalisation and the highlighting of cultural differences which, in most cases, aren’t just misunderstood but utterly irrelevant.

People will always seek familiarity and cultural differences will (hopefully) always exist – as will racists, xenophobes, bigots and extremists. The media needs to take a more responsible, measured approach and concentrate on facts, rather than on airing ill-conceived views and melodrama. At the same time it’s critical that everyone understands and acknowledges that it’s OK not to be familiar with specific aspects of other cultures, that shying away from things we don’t understand is perfectly normal and that neither of these things has anything at all to do with being racist.