Friday, March 16, 2018

Journalism will survive the digital age

I was surprised to see a series of reports on comments made by the Chief Minister of my old stomping ground, the Australian Capital Territory, dominating my news feed relating to international journalism issues the other morning.

Even more so when I found the CM, Andrew Barr, had launched a tirade partly against my old newspaper, the Canberra Times, and generally against mainstream journalism.

He described the Times as “a joke”, and that it would be only a matter of years before it closed, while the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was relevant only to old fuddy-duddies in their 60s and above.

In Barr’s new world, his message will be presented to the populace via social media channels “and that is the path we are going to be pursuing over the next few years”.

If the Chief Minister thinks he is on to some radically different idea that is going to change the world, he had better think again. For years, Local Government in the United Kingdom has tried to by-pass traditional media through its own in-house publications.

These ‘Town Hall Pravdas’, have been derided as “propaganda sheets designed solely to tell people how great the councils are”. In many cases they have been so one-sided that the UK Government’s Minister for Local Government pronounced them a waste of ratepayers’ money and ordered them restricted to no more than four editions a year.

Barr talks about the “cutting edge of communication” which presumably means his alternative platforms would be digital, given that he believes this is the news source of choice for all but a few old has-beens in his constituency, but while I am not comfortable with the brutality of his words, he does have a point.

To return to the UK, newspapers there are closing at the rate of one a week. Of the publications I have worked on around the world since the 1960s, two have disappeared and one has gone from daily to weekly.

If Barr is right when he says the circulation of the Canberra Times is now about 15,000, that is less than half of what it was when I began to work there in the 1980s.

There is no doubt that hard copy newspapers are facing a crisis, but that does not mean journalism is in crisis. Newspapers may disappear, but journalists will not. If the Chief Minister believes that he will get an open and uncritical route to the people of Canberra via cyberspace, he obviously does not know much about it.

Granted when it comes to news the internet is currently chaotic, but so was the dawn of the newspaper age in the 18th century when consumers had to choose between solid reporting, satire and horrific scandal sheets that could and did, say what they liked about anyone and anything.

It took time (and libel laws) but eventually the more outrageous rags gave way to professional, well researched newspapers. People learned to tell the difference.

So it will be today. More and more people will switch from newspapers to the internet, but increasingly they will favour the sites that provide reliable, well-researched news and comment provided by independent professional journalists, over advertising puffs from organisations that have a barrow to push — either to sell a product or get re-elected.  

Barr may try to dodge his local newspaper, but he will never be able to ignore local journalists.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Hard to believe – but the world is getting better

A United Kingdom Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, once won a General Election — by a landslide — by telling the electorate ‘you’ve never had it so good’.

It would be a brave, or extremely foolish, politician who would dare to say anything like  that today in a world beset by random acts of terrorism,  increasing tensions between nations, a possible trade war and highly unpredictable  international diplomacy.

Yet Macmillan was right when he coined that slogan back in 1959, and continues to be right today.

I pondered this after listening to Canadian philosopher Steven Pinker who asked us to put aside the 24-hour news cycle and the so called counter-enlightenment of United States President Donald Trump and consider the fact that fewer people are dying of disease or hunger, fewer people are living in abject poverty and more are receiving an education than at any time in human history.

This has been a trend in progress at least since the medieval era and has actually been accelerating since the Industrial Revolution.

In a wide-ranging interview, the kernel of Pinker’s argument was this: “It’s just a simple matter of arithmetic. You can’t look at how much there is right now and say it is increasing or decreasing until you compare it with how much took place in the past.

“[Then] you realise how much worse things were in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. We don’t appreciate it now when we concentrate on the remaining horrors, but there were horrific wars such as the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the war in Vietnam, the partition of India, the Bangladesh war of independence , the Korean War, which killed far more people than even the brutal wars of today.  

“We ought to be aware of the suffering that continues to exist, but we can’t take this as evidence that things have gotten worse unless we remember what happened in the past.”

Pinker goes on to show that in historic terms  global inequality has decreased, democracy has advanced and Governments have become more aware of their responsibilities to the people they serve. The figures are there, and they are undeniable.

Of course this is a massively long-term view, something which is not appreciated by human beings who see the world only in the context of their own lifetimes and perhaps those of their children — and of their immediate environment.

It would be pointless to argue with the inhabitants of Ghouta that the world is steadily improving or, on another scale, remind the residents  of an Australian suburb of the inadequacies of Victorian sewerage systems when their homes are inundated by overflowing stormwater drains during unprecedented rainfall, possibly the result of climate change.  

So the horrors remain, and through the 24 hour news cycle (created by unprecedented advances in technology) we are fully aware for the first time in history of the massive forces at work in the world.

Of course this is daunting, but understanding it is the first step to solving — not to throw up our arms and walk away saying it is all too hard.

In 1959, Macmillan got away with his slogan due to a unique set of circumstances: Memories of World War II and the post-war austerity it created were fading; new schools and hospitals were being built; televisions were going into every home; the United Kingdom still seemed to be a major global player.

Finally ‘Supermac’ (a title he secretly adored) was able to run circles around a weak Opposition that had no answer to his unbounded optimism.   

The stars aligned for Macmillan’s benefit then. Today’s circumstances make it inconceivable they will do so in the short term again, yet that is no reason to abandon efforts to work for a better world, even if that world is one we will probably never see.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Iron man Xi eyes last shreds of dissent

Two stories out of China in the past few days — one given wide international publicity, the other not so much — both aimed at stifling what little dissent remains in this increasingly autocratic and intolerant society.

First the inevitable announcement that the Communist Party will agree to President Xi Jinping remaining in office after his second five-year term expires, removing the constitutional clause that would otherwise force him to retire.

We could all see that coming. Xi has spent his first term gradually tightening his grip on the country. His much publicised war on corruption was nothing more than a planned campaign to rid him of serious rivals. In a country where corruption is endemic, he simply had to choose the right targets.

The fact he made no attempt to groom a successor as past leaders have done finally made his intentions crystal clear. The rubber-stamp Chinese Parliament will be no barrier to his ambitions.

The sycophants have been lined up to promote the decision, with the usual comments about the need for “strong leadership” and “stability”. Why these qualities cannot be found elsewhere in a country of 1.3 billion people is, of course, not canvassed.

No amount of soothing words can hide the fact this is a power grab by a man who, in the tradition of dictators such as Joseph Stalin and Robert Mugabe, has convinced himself his country cannot do without him.

Some observers believe he sees himself as the Mao Zedong for the 21st century. History tells us that Mao made a host of mistakes during his long and unfettered leadership that threw the nation into chaos on more than one occasion.

This appears to have been conveniently forgotten by the legislators apparently eager to hand over supreme power to a single individual for an indefinite period.

The second story comes out of Hong Kong with a proposal by the largest pro-Beijing Party in the Special Administrative Region’s Legislative Council that young people be allowed to serve in the mainland’s Peoples Liberation Army (PLA).

In the one area of China that still maintains some semblance of democracy, this can be seen as a convenient way of dealing with Hong Kong’s disaffected youth who regularly take to the streets to protest at what they see as the steady erosion of their freedoms.

Beijing still feels the need to move carefully here and its Hong Kong agent, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, has been quick to emphasise that service would be voluntary — but once the concept is established that could easily change.

The PLA is no longer the peasant force of former decades and a career could have attractions to some, especially with incentives such as tuition subsidies for further education as a reward for service.

As one commentator said, it might be considered more rewarding than flipping burgers at McDonalds or selling pay television subscriptions to people on the street.

Even so, signing up would also require pledging absolute loyalty to the Chinese flag and the Communist Party and this might be too much for the city’s turbulent youth to swallow.

However, in a contest of wills between supporters of Hong Kong’s freedoms outlined in its 1996 Basic Law and the new iron man in Beijing, it is not hard to see who would win out in the end.   

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Changing values in a brave new world

Some years ago an elderly friend told me about the time her husband applied for a job in the Australian Public Service after leaving the army at the end of World War II.

Then in his mid-20s, he was delighted to be told he had been accepted. The next question was “do you want to retire at 60 or 65?”

The assumption then, and for many years after, was that the first job would also be the last. You would start off in a relatively lowly position and work your way through the ranks until you reached as far as your abilities could take you and there you would stay until you left the workforce.

In my profession there have been instances of the newspaper’s copy boy who rose to become its editor, elsewhere the chairman of the board who began by running messages. Stirring tales of loyalty, dedication and grinding hard work.

We know that it’s all very different today; what is surprising is the speed at which the changes have taken place. The attitudes I have described above existed well into the 1990s and in some cases beyond.

What is truly disturbing, and even frightening to some, is that these changes continue to accelerate to the extent that some educational institutions are advertising courses for jobs they say do not yet exist — how they can possibly know the requirements of such occupations is another matter.

It is no coincidence that with the decline of unionism, Governments have jumped on board the change bandwagon. ‘Flexibility’ and ‘job ready’ are the catch calls of Ministers for Employment around the world; universities must no longer educate their students for a rich and fulfilling life, only for the workplace.

Schools are being dragooned into emphasising science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM subjects, the practitioners of which Governments are continually telling us, will rule the future world.

Children who are simply turned off at the thought of these subjects might still prosper if they have a bent for languages, but heaven help the rebel who wants to study English literature, medieval history or philosophy.

In Australia Ministers thump their chests and point to 16 months of job creation, neglecting to mention that a third of these are classed as ‘part time’, which can mean anything from three days a week in a Government Department to weekends in a retail outlet.

 ‘Under-employment’ is a phrase Governments do not like to mention.

In a world where we are constantly told to download this or that app, or store things in the cloud, where industry ‘disruptors’ are in great demand, it is well to remember there are still people alive, many highly educated, who do not own a computer and would not know how to access the internet if they had one.

This is not an argument against change, or even for slowing its pace, rather a warning that education should not be narrowed down to studies on how to code the next app.

The brave new world that is opening up before us suggests that technology is as much part of the problem as its solution. Without the moderating influence of good class humanities educations the future could be dark indeed.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Defamation weapon used against workers

In what is believed to be a first for Thailand, a court in Bangkok is hearing a defamation trial against 14 migrant workers from Myanmar.

Their offence is simply to have claimed they were overworked and underpaid which, given the treatment of migrant labour in the country, almost goes without saying.

Thammakaset, the owner of the Thai chicken farm where they worked, filed a complaint claiming the workers’ actions had cost the company business; that they had defamed the company and given false information to public officials, offences that could land them in jail.

Thammakaset said Betagro, a multinational company to which it supplied meat, had cut its ties as a result of the publicity surrounding the case.

The workers’ defence lawyer said they had been forced to work 20-hour days without overtime, lived in squalid conditions and had their passports confiscated.

“The workers just filed a complaint because they thought their rights were violated and asked for an independent body to investigate," the lawyer said.

A ruling on the case is not expected for several weeks.

Migrant workers are not allowed to belong to trade unions, and often the only avenue open to them is to turn whistle-blower and appeal to human rights activists.

The case is significant because if successful, employers may see the defamation weapon as an effective way of silencing worker complaints.

In Thailand’s corporate culture, judges may well regard damage to companies’ reputations as a more serious offence than labour exploitation – especially if non-Thai citizens are the only ones involved.

Sonja Vartiala, Director of Finnwatch, a Finnish civil rights group that regularly reports on labour issues in Thailand, said the workers were being punished for speaking out about the abuses they had suffered.

“It is simply wrong and points to serious problems in Thailand’s defamation laws,” Ms Vartiala said.

Workers from Myanmar, which borders Thailand, make up the majority of millions of migrant workers in the country, employed in fishing fleets, factories and farms.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Carillion debacle exposes privatisation’s limits

The collapse of the British-based multinational construction and services company, Carillion, has once again raised the issue of the extent to which Governments around the world should pass on their responsibilities to private sector operators.

For decades small government has been the mantra for politicians of the right, repeated so often it has become so engrained in the psyche of political leadership that even when centre-left administrations come to power they choose not to seriously challenge it.

It has become political holy writ — private industry can do the job more efficiently, for less cost that a cumbersome bureaucracy run by closeted Public Servants who have no understanding of the real world.

Yet increasingly the public, the forced consumers of privatisation in an ever-widening field of activity, are beginning to question its worth. Many believe the Carillion debacle is just the tip of the iceberg.

The company’s crash into insolvency has revealed that it had a mind-boggling 450 contracts with the Government. Most knew it was involved in the construction of the United Kingdom’s High Speed-2 rail link, but it also provided thousands of school meals, maintained prisons and military bases.

It was building hospitals and roads; in Canada a subsidiary provided snow clearing and road gritting in areas of Ontario Province. Many of its sub-contractors face bankruptcy over money owed they will never see.

Governments of all levels are scrambling to the rescue. It is likely that all essential services and many less essential will be maintained, but the question remains: Why has this been allowed to happen?

Unless there has been a cover-up of management incompetence on a massive scale, or dirty dealings — neither of which appear to have been the case here — huge companies do not go bad overnight. There must have been warning signs, and these should have been spotted by an alert Government before things got out of hand.

Obviously this did not happen. Instead, contracts continued to fed to Carillion and it continued to eagerly gobble them up without, it seems, any thought that it might be overreaching itself.

Is this the efficiency and cost reduction that politicians of the right so eagerly parrot? And what next? If proper due diligence was not done with Carillion by a sophisticated First World administration — and obviously it was not — what of the other private sector organisations that hold these contracts with Governments, in the United Kingdom and around the world?

Under challenge here is the very notion that Governments run on business models guarantee success – the worldwide chaos wrought by the businessman in the White House should be evidence enough that this is nonsense.

Governments have to take into account a vast range of issues which never come up in the boardrooms. Making money and saving money cannot be the major priorities of administrations that truly wish to serve their peoples. 

This is not an argument for blanket re-nationalisation. There are some things, such as developing and building infrastructure, where the best talent will always lie in the private sector, and it should be fully employed there when required.

Outside that and a few other examples, there is a real need for politicians to question whether the best interests of their people are served by the Friedman concept of the free-market or whether other systems — Keynesian and even Marxist — should be worked into the mix.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Public Service News from around the world

Unkind cut for trainee doctor

PARIS (January 5): A French public hospital’s decision to reject an Egyptian trainee doctor because of his beard has been upheld in court.

The court ruled that the hospital, like other State institutions, must remain secular under France law, and the beard could be seen as indicating a specific religious practice.

The doctor, known only as Mohamed A, was sent from Menoufia University in northern Egypt for a one-year training course at Saint-Denis Hospital in September 2013.

In October, hospital managers told him to trim his beard “so that it could not be seen by staff and users of the public service as an obvious sign of a religious affiliation”. After he failed to comply, his training course was terminated in February 2014.


Audit spotlight on PS corruption

NICOSIA (January 9): Cyprus’ Auditor General says the impunity once enjoyed by the country’s Public Servants was on the wane due to the work of prosecution authorities and changes in the mindset of the public.

Odysseas Michaelides said that Public Service corruption and mismanagement was no longer tolerated.

Congratulating Mr Michaelides, President Nicos Anastasiades said it was necessary to severely crack down on misconduct.

Citing data from European surveys on the cost of corruption to the taxpayer, Mr Michaelides said that audits and controls in general could only benefit the economy.


Chad rethink on PS pay cut

N'DJAMENA (January 9): The Government of Chad has suspended a plan to reduce the salaries of its Public Servants.

Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke said the plan, which had aimed to ease the strains on a Budget badly hit by a nearly four-year slump in oil revenues and a rise in borrowing, had been opposed by trade unions.

Public Service salaries in 2017 totalled $US720 million ($A903.6 million), roughly the equivalent of the combined revenue from income tax and customs duties, according to official figures.

Chad is under pressure to cut costs to meet performance targets under an International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid program. The country is one of the poorest in the world.


Pakistan changes promotion rules

ISLAMABAD (December 2): The Pakistan Government has directed that the criteria for promotion in the Public Service be changed, giving more weight to the completion of training courses and less to the recommendations of superiors.

The Establishment Division within the Ministry for Public Service said the changes were necessary because of inflated performance evaluation reports that the bureaucrats were getting from their superiors despite poor performances.

However, critics said the increased weight on training came while there was still no standardisation of training courses in Pakistan.

They pointed out that the civilian-run National School of Public Policy and the military-run National Defence University (NDU) had different training modules and evaluation criteria, with the NDU criteria regarded as more stringent and robust.


Concern over Brexit inexperience

LONDON (January 4): Only one in five Public Servants working on the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (Brexit) can remember a time when the UK was not in the bloc.

An analysis of Government personnel data reveals that the average age of staff at the Department for Exiting the European Union is 31, with 83 per cent of officials under 40.

The figures from the Institute for Government show that the Department, which was set up after the EU referendum and now employs nearly 600 Public Servants, has relied heavily on young graduates to fill its posts.

Insiders say that the dependence on younger employees has worsened the Department’s high staff turnover, creating internal confusion.


Another PS death in Nigerian State

LOKOJA (January 5): A senior Public Servant in the Nigerian State of Kogi has died of a heart attack just three days after being told he was sacked.

Alphonsus Ameh had been Director Administration and Finance at the Kogi State Pension Board.

A niece of the deceased said Mr Ameh (61) was among a group of Directors and Permanent Secretaries who were suspended in February 2016. He had not received any salary since then.

Last year two Kogi Public Servants committed suicide after not receiving their salaries for extended periods.


Police protest over officer’s jailing

HONG KONG (January 7): The union representing junior officers in the Hong Kong Police has warned of a “morale crisis” in its ranks following the recent jailing of now retired Superintendent Frankly Chu for hitting a bystander with a baton during a protest.

Chair of the 20,000-strong Junior Police Offers Association, Joe Chan Cho-kwong, said the incident “lays bare the huge changes that have been imparted on Hong Kong society amid the political disputes of recent years”.

“It highlights the inadequate protection of police officers on duty and how certain requirements of police officers on use of force have become outdated,” Mr Chan said.

Hundreds of police sympathisers took to the streets to show “support for police enforcement”. They demanded an independent commission be set up to monitor how judges handed out jail sentences.


No money for Uganda PS pay rise

KAMPALA (January 2): Uganda’s Public Servants have been told there will be no pay rise for them this year and that they will have to tighten their belts further.

The Treasury has rejected a proposal from the Ministry of Public Service for phased pay increases over four years, saying there was no money available for the measure.

Instead it recommended a freeze on all new recruitment except when replacements were absolutely necessary and an indefinite halt to a plan for 13 new Districts and 200 Town Councils — measures already approved by Parliament.

"Relatedly, the policy of one secondary school per sub-County and a technical school per constituency will be reconsidered. In addition, Government should stop grant aiding of private schools and hospitals,” the Treasury said.


 Recruitment drive comes up short

LUXEMBOURG CITY (January 6): Of the 2,459 vacancies in the Luxembourg Public Service over the past four years, only 1,989 have been able to be filled, Minister for the Public Service, Dan Kersch has announced.

Most vacancies occurred in the areas of education, tax administration and police, despite an intensive recruiting drive, the Minister said.

“One of the criteria for entering the Civil Service is good knowledge of the three working languages, French German and Luxembourgish, which has been a problem,” Mr Kersch said.

He again floated the idea of allowing more foreign residents to enter the Public Service, something which has been a sensitive issue in the past.


Phone jammers to counter exam cheats

MUMBAI (January 5): Mobile phone jammers are to be used in centres where candidates are taking the examination for the Indian State of Maharashtra’s Public Service.

The State’s Public Service Commission said the move was necessary to prevent cheating.

Deputy Secretary of the Commission, Sunil Awatade said the jammers would prevent the use of cell-phones and related electronic devices.

Public Service candidate and a member of the group demanding reforms in the examination system, Mahesh Bade said jammers should be used in all Government recruitment exams in order to make sure that genuine candidates did not suffer.


Crackdown on PS extravagance

HARARE (January 3): Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s promised crackdown on the Public Service extravagances of his predecessor has begun with the dismissal of more than 3,000 youth officers and 500 unqualified officials.

The Treasury has also begun turning down vehicle purchase requests from senior officials and trimming their fuel and mobile phone airtime allocations.

Landline telephone use is being closely monitored across all Government Departments while fiscally-supported foreign travel has been curtailed, with recruitment for non-critical posts frozen.

The Civil Service Commission is also calculating packages for all its 65-year-old and older employees and will retire them by the end of the month.


PS development model adopted

ASTANA (January 5): The Kazakhstan’s Agency for Civil Service Affairs and Anti-Corruption has announced that neighbouring Uzbekistan will adopt the Kazakh model for developing its Public Service.

The decision follows a meeting between high-level officials of both countries during which methods for promoting efficiencies, including one-stop-shop service centres and e-government systems, were discussed.

Director of Kazakhstan’s State Services Department, Adilbek Mukashev said his country’s achievements in this sphere were presented to the Uzbek side.

Kazakh representatives briefed their counterparts on the Digital Kazakhstan State Program that was designed to reduce corruption and inefficiencies, ensure transparency in Governmental bodies and better protect the rights and freedoms of citizens.


Up your commitment, officers told

ABUJA (January 5): Nigeria’s Federal Public Servants have been urged to show more commitment and dedication towards performing their duties in 2018.

Head of Civil Service of the Federation, Winifred Oyo-Ita made the call in Abuja while addressing Public Servants in her office after the return from the New Year holiday.

“However, I must also congratulate you Civil Servants that stood with this administration through thick and thin even in the face of the fuel crisis that ended before the New Year,” Mrs Oyo-Ita said.

She commended President Muhammadu Buhari for keeping his promise of paying salaries and promotion arrears despite the challenges faced by the country in the previous year.


State’s public education ‘in crisis’

KARACHI (January 8): The Chief Minister of the Pakistani Province of Sindh has declared a “public education emergency” in the face of falling standards.

Murad Ali Shah said the problems in the Department of Education were serious and complicated.

He announced a 10-year education reform program “to overhaul the entire system”.

Proposed reforms would include improvement of textbooks, proper and professional training of teachers, more efficient and transparent mechanism of teachers’ recruitment, performance-based promotions, increments and incentives for the best teachers, and improvements to the classroom environment.


‘No confidence’ in Department head

EDINBURGH (January 8): A Scottish Government Department is reported to be suffering a crisis in morale that is undermining the ability of solicitors to challenge Ministers over their policies.

An internal Public Service survey covering lawyers in the Directorate for Legal Services found only 47 per cent of staff had confidence in the long-serving Director, Murray Sinclair.

This was significantly lower than the average confidence rating (57 per cent) for Directors in the Civil Service People Survey, which was carried out last October.

The survey’s findings were catastrophic among staff covering children, education, health and social care. Of the 17 solicitors in this area, only one said they had confidence in the decisions made by Mr Sinclair, who has been at the helm for 11 years.

The full Public Service News international news service resumes on January 23 at