Paul Howes is starting out on a journey

Paul Howes has bravely entered the new-old media argument with blog post at the Daily Tele. He is a remarkably courageous man. Who would have guessed that he would come out on the same side as The Australian in condemning new media? I was surprised, given that he is already such an avid Twitter user, and that his job has for a long time demanded amazing resilience in the face of both anonymous and named criticism. The post is just a bit of a thought bubble, really, but it has been picked up in the Twittersphere and I wanted to share my thoughts.

Howes’ main point was that people should show more respect for those in public office.

Who can dispute the virtue of respect? Anyone who calls for more of it will always be welcome. As Anakin Skywalker said in The Phantom Menace, “the biggest problem in the universe is nobody helps each other.” We could start by not calling each other names like “You incompetent corrupt clown.” Howes is on safe ground here.

Why are public figures subjected to this? Everyone is subjected to it, of course, but the more people who hear or read someone, the greater the chatter about them. In a free public sphere, whatever that is, some of that chatter will inevitably be ignorant, prejudiced, unfair, disrespectful, ad hominem, etc. It always has been – but, we must admit, “new media” has added a more public, immediate and interconnected dimension to the sphere, and those negative aspects of public discussion are more potent than ever.

It may make you angry if you are a public figure, and a human being, putting forth your humble and constructive view on a matter of import to society on a website. You know the criticism isn’t all rational. The rational way for you to respond would be to accept that you can’t please everyone. If you still need reassurance, remind yourself that the criticism really doesn’t matter and eleven twelfths of it will be forgotten by lunchtime.

Maybe you can’t respond that way so easily. Maybe, as Paul Howes’ suggests, you are concerned about the impact that a slur like “gutless muppet” could have on your family.

Ask yourself this: would you want your wife to read in the paper that you are “trash”, “an absolute disgrace”, and “utterly incompetent”? Would you want your children to read that? Would you want your elderly mother to read 200+ comments highlighting what a worthless waste of space you really are?

Maybe you are concerned about the impact it could have on future generations’ preparedness to run for political office.

But the way things are going with the new media, I sometimes wonder if anyone will much want to put their hand up for the job in the future.

Or maybe it just stings your pride. Maybe your stomach sinks, and your appetite for the meal you planned on heating up in a couple of minutes disappears, as you read the queue of comments that effortlessly judge the inadequacy of your work.

In a private forum on a website I used to moderate, I once poured hours into refining a detailed and well-organised post outlining what I thought the administrators should do in a certain area of the site. It couldn’t have been read by over a couple of dozen people, absolutely no more than 100, and the actual number of replies didn’t reach more than 6 or so. But they were all comprehensive, rational, forceful and persuasive in rejecting every aspect of my post. The embarrassment seemed to hit me physically, as my face glowed hot, my palms were sweaty, my stomach dropped, and I had to leave for a walk.

This is laughably tame compared to what public figures offer into the public domain, and the torrent of visceral opinion they endure in return. I don’t believe you last long in politics without a thick skin, but you don’t stop caring what people think about you altogether, either.

Will people actually be discouraged from running for office by this kind of crazy opinion free-for-all? I don’t think so (and surely Howes doesn’t, either). However awful this new media comment-fest is, it is laughably tame compared to current process of winning preselection for either major party. Let alone the day-to-day condemnation and denouncement that the parties exchange throughout the year.

Which is why the general response to new media among politicians may be disinterested, like most of them, or disillusioned like Joe Hockey, but you’ve probably noticed: as a group, they’re not out to stop it or change it. Maybe that’s because their staff, with a few exceptions (like Malcolm Turnbull, who could probably withstand the heaviest bombardment of character abuse without blinking), are constantly moderating and deleting the critical comments from their blog posts or Facebook pages.

At any rate, the full and direct criticism of “new media” is actually coming from those involved in the political process – journalists, lobbyists, trade union officials – who have not had to fight an election (or preselection) before, and so haven’t been subject to such sustained and potent criticism before.

For these people, who entered their present jobs and had this ugly surprise dropped on them by forces beyond their control, it is undoubtedly a rude shock. This is probably where Paul Howes’ sentiment comes from – maybe some of these people would not have chosen their professions if they had known they would face such commentary.

If that is the case, it does not follow that there will be nobody left to take those jobs in the future! For they are still interesting and potentially constructive, not to mention influential. The new recruits will just be different in at least one key way: they’ll know how to handle the rough and tumble of free-wheeling internet conversation, which includes trolling.

There are different types of trolls. Some of them, like the ones from 4chan currently assaulting Tumblr, need moderation pure and simple. Others which engage more in provocation or slurs should be ignored (read: don’t feed the trolls). Others, like the kind Malcolm Turnbull seems to encounter via email, are shocked if the target of their criticism should happen to reply to their visceral tirade in pleasant terms, and when they climb back onto their seat they are apologetic and completely reasonable.

An uncomfortable majority of commenters probably reside between the second and third categories, implacably critical but lucid and persuasive. These ones aren’t trolls at all.

Many people growing up now who use forums, blogs, social networks and opinion sites will gain competency in handling trolls instinctively. They’ve known for ages that the internet is an inherently argumentative place, probably because any kind of anonymity decreases people’s inhibitions, but they never for a minute entertained the strange idea that this detracted from the value of these media as a space for debate. Tim Dunlop’s post is spot-on in indicating that this approach is not exclusively accessible by hip Gen-Yers, but it can in fact be learned by old people like Paul Howes, too.

How far does Paul Howes’ criticism of new media go? It’s hard to tell, because he’s pretty sure there’s a problem – new media is engendering less respect for public figures – but he doesn’t share his thoughts on what he wants done. This is important because there are many different things that could be done.

Probably, he just wants people to respect these public figures more. Think twice before posting that snarky comment, don’t call people names and maybe even spare a thought for that person’s elderly mother who stubbornly reads through all 200 comments calling her high-achieving cherub a waste of space.

However, because Howes doesn’t say how much social media is to blame for this lack of respect, we don’t know if just being more respectful would be enough to counter the influence of social media.

But if his solution was to go any further, then his suggestion that unregulated speech via new media is bad for democracy leads to a surprisingly heavy-handed approach to internet comments. Many sites already moderate comments to some extent. Howes would seem to desire that all sites from now on filter comments based not only on spam, trolling, etc. but also on a broader kind of criteria based on disrespect. If a comment is not respectful towards the author, it should not be published.

This shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, as there is often a strong link between respect and constructiveness. If news sites wish to remove ad hominem attacks in comments and allow only relevant responses to the issues in an article, I don’t think that is necessarily harmful. However, that link is not always present, and sometimes a legitimate perspective is expressed forcefully and in a way that might sting the author of the article. It is because of these situations that I would rather news sites stuck to a general principle of allowing all comments by default, removing only those which are “high level” dedicated trolls and maybe some spam, rather than enforcing a subjective criteria like respectfulness.

Moderation policies obviously require a great deal of detail, not only regarding the overarching purpose but also how stringently each kind of unwanted material is to be deleted. Howes isn’t specific about what he wants except more respect, so there isn’t much use trying to guess more.

He probably overlooks the practical considerations because he is not setting out to provide an intellectual critique of new media. The post is an emotional response to the kind of ignorant and uninhibited insults he saw directed at his friend Joe Tripodi. Those comments would make anyone angry, but it’s a stretch to blame the very medium through which those comments were made. As others have pointed out, Howes’ next logical target should be talkback radio.

Howes struck a nerve with some tweeps with his tangent about anonymity. This has very little to do with the new-old media debate because anonymity is not new. We’ve been down this road before, which is why any suggestion that anonymity is a sin should rightly be slapped down quicker than you can say “Grog.” The Australian was never able to make a credible case for a “public interest” in identifying people who reach a certain level of influence; Howes stands an even worse chance at proving that every commenter should disclose their identity regardless of their influence.

As Paul Wallback points out, there remains in general a significant power imbalance between those who write articles on news sites and those who comment. It’s natural not to trust the rather confronting new environment, but others before Howes have already managed to make that leap, knowing that trolls can be handled, that good content attracts defenders as well as attackers, and that anonymity is a total red herring. Paul Howes has an exciting journey ahead of him!

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We’re under attack!

You take a big risk when you publish something online in the hope it won’t be identified with you. I have firsthand experience of this, but I won’t share it because, well, now I know.

I got quite a jolt when a then-pseudonymous @GrogsGamut wished me luck with this blog on Twitter – I had not thought about this page for a long time, and recoiled at the idea that any of my idols who should decide to follow my tweets might actually click this link.

But speaking of Grog, this has been a terrible week for alcohol. Everything alcohol stands for – slurred speech, blurred vision and walking in crooked lines – has taken a beating.

Slurred speech took a beating over the long weekend, as it does every time there is a major debating tournament. Sydney University hosted the Australian Women’s Debating Championship, and yesterday afternoon they won it. In the final, they overcame the first Macquarie team to reach a final in many years, which is my main cause for celebrating. Alcohol is in plentiful supply at most tournaments, but the finalist debaters are pillars of reason and coherence, and sometimes even sobriety, and livetweeting can do them no justice.

Blurred vision suffered a blow last Thursday at the Media140 “OzPolitics” conference in Old Parliament House, Canberra. OzPolitics brought together a range of local and international guest thinkers and talkers from across the fields of politics, journalism, the public service and diplomacy. In attendance were the kinds of people who would listen to guests like this, including many people in the very same fields. This led some to criticise the “navel gazing” that characterised some of the discussions. Without missing the point of this criticism, this kind of introspection is a necessary part of a day that brings together people who use social media to discuss these uses. It is even partly what we signed up for, and some amount of it is healthy.

We might just feel queasy when we see our reflections in the giant dual twitstreams framing the stage. Even faultlessly intelligent tweeps have gut reactions to things, they’re just better at rationalising them as criticism of others rather than natural emotional responses to themselves. This is a little bit like hearing your own voice on an answering machine. We cringe, but our words can still be constructive, and we are free to adjust our tone in future if we find ourselves snarky. As long as we do not gather resentment for each other, on balance we are better off.

Social media is chaotic, so a coherent take-home explanation of it would have been highly suspicious. But this was a day for throwing ideas out into the open, and for us in the audience to catch as many as we could. I certainly came away with a more developed understanding of some issues that social media raise. I keep coming back to US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich’s eloquent analysis of the Obama campaign’s social media strategy, and its discovery of the principle that most social rules in the real world translate directly into the virtual world.

If ever the witty one-liners overcome the revelations and insights from the day, it is because they evoke a more interesting story. The message for communicators is to use stories in their presentations, as Claire fluidly did, and the message for the rest of us is to take good notes – and not to panic, because big ideas can manifest themselves sometimes in more subtle ways.

It may have been a busy day for our brains, and we might not know the exact direction in which things are going, but the most obvious thing must be that these matters are complicated. If we understand more of the complications then that’s a victory for clear vision over blurred.

Of course, we know that more transpired at OzPolitics than was in the program, and that led to the weekend’s issue of walking in crooked lines, which is something The Australian did quicker than you can say “No, I’m Sparticus.”

In matters of newsprint, lines are considered to be crooked if the ordinary reader is distracted by what is between them. That happened to James Massola’s piece about Greg Jericho, which is Grog’s Gamut’s real name, by the way. This 900 word article was a spitball in the Twittersphere’s eye, and it got angry.

This anger was, from my point of view, overtly influenced by the high regard in which Grog is held online. He is a child of New Media – articulate, an insider, and anonymous like the internet. The anonymity of the internet has long been known to lead to a sort of hive mind (see: 4chan) (that’s not a recommendation), and the Twitterati hive sensed it was under attack. Massola represented the old-school journalist who feels threatened by encroaching bloggers and tweeps, who can do his job just as well as he does, but for free, and anonymously if they choose. And why can they write so well? Because they stay truer to old journalistic values like analysis of boring policy rather than horserace style reporting.

I find that position fascinating – new media junkies claiming to be truer traditionalists than traditionalists. You can imagine why it would get up any old-school journo’s nose.

An interesting actor in this has been the ABC, which is very old school, but it’s not threatened because the fact journalism has never made a profit is basically its reason for existence, rather than the threat to it.

The ABC and The Australian certainly are holding each other ferociously to account, with the The Drum posting Grog’s response to The Australian yesterday afternoon. Jonathan Green hit back at The Oz today with a war metaphor and words like “spurious.”

It’s a war between the freewheeling blogosphere and the stuffy traditional newsroom.

Monkeys all over the internet keep typing nonsense into their typewriters, and with disturbing frequency, they produce cogent criticism of the esteemed journalism establishment. One side in the war explains this by arguing that the monkeys are capable of rational, critical thought, and if their writing is good, it deserves no lesser standing than a piece by a professional journalist. The other side maintains that professional journalists deserve greater standing, because no matter the quality of the content they actually produce, they are qualified to write Hamlet.

The Australian is the perfect stereotype of the latter side.

It is a war of words, but words can do more than make arguments. One cool thing they can do is reveal a pseudonymous blogger’s identity, then ask “What’s wrong, Greg Jericho, public servant in the film section of the former Department of Environment, Heritage, Water and the Arts? Don’t you want to be like a real journalist?”

Twitter, to use one of my favourite expressions, duly lit up like a Christmas tree of hate, mounting a counter-attack on the article’s motives, hypocrisy, newsworthiness and reasoning.

To state the obvious, we can only speculate on the (assuredly evil) motives of James Massola. But any attack on his motives will be ineffective, even if they happen to be correct, because they don’t preclude the story from being legitimate. If James Massola has an axe to grind, then presuming no conflicts of interest, the story could still be fair and balanced.

These attacks are also ineffective because they can be ridiculed as a conspiracy theory, which among other things, gradually siphons legitimacy into The Australian’s own conspiracy theory bank.

It is hard to distinguish a conspiracy from a campaign in this context, as both are potent accusations to level at a journal which takes itself as seriously as The Australian does. Even if there is evidence of a wider campaign, and that campaign can be proven as bias, it is difficult to prove beyond doubt that this piece was caused by that campaign.

Hypocrisy attacks don’t advance the war, either, although they are a fun game for those who already accept that The Australian is biased. Stephen Conroy landed a swift blow in the last seconds of Q&A last night, pointing out that in the South Australian election earlier this year, News Ltd condemned revealing the identity of anonymous bloggers as an attack on free speech. The Oz is undoubtedly hypocritical for doing exactly that, and it knows this, so it will just ignore this attack (one advantage of being a news outlet is the influence you have in selecting the news).

But hypocrisy doesn’t make someone wrong now – it leaves open the possibility that the person was wrong before, and has now corrected their mistake. The hypocrisy attack can do no more than undermine someone’s credibility by suggesting they draw careless or prejudiced conclusions. This might be useful in, dare I say, a broader campaign, but it is insufficient to prove the paper is wrong now. As for the paper, it would have been smart to pre-empt the attack by acknowledging its previous stance and explaining either why the current situation is different or why its new principle is better than its old one.

Newsworthiness attacks are more substantive. As Jay Rosen was quoted on The Australian’s site today, just because there is no ‘right to anonymity’ doesn’t mean some justification isn’t needed in this situation. Tobias Zeigler on Pure Poison, whose virtually instantaneous post contained probably the most developed analysis so far, made a strong case that the article was far more in the newspaper’s own interest than the public’s. He pointed out that Grog’s readers showed remarkably little interest in his identity, which undermines this assertion by Massola today:

“Jericho was anonymous, and public interest in his identity was growing parallel to his influence.”

This may be true, in the sense that these two lines are parallel also. But the misuse of ‘parallel’ is not what makes this sentence confusing – it is the very assertive use of “public interest,” whether the term is referring to something the paper is duty-bound to report, or alleging that a sizeable proportion of the community is growing ever more curious about Grog’s true identity. Then there’s the term ‘influence,’ which also needs explaining – how is it measured, what shall be defined as ‘critical mass’ and why is The Australian the arbiter of it?

But if there is a valid argument beneath this unflattering disguise, it lies in that hurried sentence.

Which leads finally to the attacks on The Australian’s reasoning, which are the most potent. The assertion of some public interest being served, the suggestions that the “partisan” nature of Mr Jericho’s posts was improper and that he might have not taken leave for his day at Media140 are all dodgy. From the posts I have read so far (which is far from them all!), there seems to be a consensus that Massola would have been better off leaving this stuff out.

The act of outing Grog was nothing if not interesting, and the burden of proving this act was not improper is actually fairly low. The fuss that has been kicked up proves there are many issues to discuss here.

Massola had an opportunity to lead this debate intellectually rather than to bluster self justification. As I tweeted this morning, this is what it sounds like to me – Massola was wrong-footed by the backlash from his article, and reflexively defended himself with the nearest available indignation and ideology, without realising the simple, rational arguments for what he did and the wider impacts on politics and journalism.

This is horridly easy for me to say, though – as an unaffected outsider with the benefit of hindsight, who is probably only aware of half the issues this event raises because of all the analysis I’ve read written by smarter people than me over the last few days. And besides, I’ve had a fairly good week. A well-known public servant I admire called @grogsgamut followed me on Twitter and encouraged me to write more, so I’m sort of on a high.

What this seems to boil down to is that Massola was well within his rights and his profession to write his story, although he does seem to be a bit of a prick (when you’re done explaining why your actions were allowable, try explaining why they were nice…). And his bluster since then has been unconvincing, only fuelling the criticism that the paper has attracted recently. But as a private enterprise, The Australian is of course welcome to take any editorial lines it wants, and to post the identities of people it wants. It is limited only by the law. It could consider itself a relatively prestigious or trustworthy institution, and frequently flout this standard in the eyes of some portion of its readers, and it would not be doing anything wrong per se.

But it is our only national broadsheet, so we might hope for better.

I’m sorry for the difficult situation in which Grog has been left. It won’t be helped by assigning blame, but for the sake of public discourse, let’s continue the debate Massola seems to inadvertently have started, the bastard.

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Twitter is Iron(ing) Man Food

Another day, another slip from Tony Abbott. Rudd’s ETS will raise the cost of electricity for housewives who iron. Clearly he believes women are the only ones who iron! That’s not what he said, but as Tony Abbott, he didn’t have to. It feeds easily into the established picture of Abbott in the media.

Abbott’s slips don’t help him, but they don’t seem to hurt much, either. Most of the disquiet seems to be coming from the political junkies. One of the few articles I’ve seen that attempts to find a layperson’s view is from the ABC, but that was interviewing Helen McCabe, host of Sky News’ Playing Politics.

Political junkies are quick to make indignant comments in the media and on Twitter, but the wider electorate seems less interested in jumping on poor choices of words (especially in exchange for a straight-talking opposite number to the Prime Minister).

Twitter in general is the perfect medium for judging slips of the tongue. As soon as a public figure makes a mistake, in the glare of the spotlight and the heat of the hotseat before a live television audience, those in the gallery above or the armchair at home can race each other to mock them or smugly admonish them in real-time.

Well, not quite real-time; Twitter is fast but it isn’t instant, and there’s time to check your tweet before you hit Submit. I know this because I do it, too, and it’s great fun. I imagine it’s even better if you’re a girl, once you’ve finished the ironing.

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Loving the Emirates experience. They have the best entertainment! On the flight to Dubai, I watched two episodes of Frasier and one of Inspector Morse, listened to Poker Face, played Freecell and Hangman, and watched our progress in a beautiful 3D rendered model. Like Air Canada, the first international airline I flew, half of everything is in another language (this time Arabic), which is far less comprehensible to me than French, and a reminder that even if Worlds is conducted mostly in English, I’ll be quite out of my depth with the language barrier once I land in Istanbul.

The first impression of quality comes from Emirates’ gifts on the seat, for before I discovered the expansive entertainment options (called “ICE,” for Information, Communication, Entertainment), there was a blanket and pillow on my seat, besides large headphones and a remote control. Meals came with steel cutlery, even knives (funny, as I wouldn’t want to take one through security). The cabin crew are apparently fluent in nearly a dozen languages, from Arabic to Swahili.

I sat in an emergency row, so had extra leg room. The man next to me was grumpy from the moment our Chinese flight attendant asked him to put his shoes back on for takeoff, and to get off his iPhone. He did eventually, but grumbled to me about what danger was posed by his shoeless feet. By the end of the flight, after we’d begun the descent to Dubai, he wanted to use the lavatory and the flight attendant said no, so he went anyway, and when he got back, started a smug yelling match with her about not smiling enough, and promised to speak to the captain. “You didn’t smile once.” People who start these ludicrous fights should consider the awkwardness that follows when seated in an emergency row, directly facing the strapped-in flight attendant for the next ten minutes until the plane lands. Afterwards I was tempted to ask the flight attendant for a photo as everlasting proof that she did smile on the flight, but I didn’t.

Dubai International Airport was wonderful for the brief time I was there. My taxi driver from Wahroonga had told me Dubai was like another America, and he was right. The duty-free shops were all recognisable Western brands, and no line of Arabic was left uncaptioned in English.

The Emirates lounge offered free newspapers, one or two of which were in English, plus an Economist which I took. They also had free wireless, so I checked my e-mails and found Macquarie had deposited my travel grant straight into my bank account.

On the flight to Istanbul, I ate ravioli, listened to UK number ones from ’52 to ’09, and lost chess to the Emirates computer. Virgin and Emirates both market their entertainment as award-winning, but I doubt they’ve been in the same contests.

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Checking in

In the future, if there is any chance of leaving home later than originally planned, I’ll remember not to book a hotel room near Sydney Airport. I’ll still get limited sleep and I’ll still have to arrive uncomfortably early, but I’ll save the expense of a second cab, and that of the room in which I spent about three and a half hours.

On the plus side, I arrived at the terminal on time and survived a leg-numbingly slow check-in process. Late in the game I decided that it was worth withdrawing some euros in case of surprise expenses when I landed in Istanbul. This itself was a surprise expense – as Ashlea already advised me, Travelexes at airports are as cynical as Borders ceasing their coupon offers the week before Christmas. I checked the exchange rate before I left home – it’s just north of 62 cents (not a good start), but Travelex lowered it further to 54, before adding its own commission of $10. So my 100€ set me back $200. Remembering my $100 taxi ride to the Formule 1 hotel, and my additional hop over to the terminal, I realised I’d spent more than $300 without having yet left the country.

The check-in process was slow because the person indexing and assigning seats was plodding along. The lady checking me in seemed most disinterested in her job, but she was actually sweet. She took frequent sips from a coffee cup and I heard her telling the man at the next counter that she’d slept barely an hour and twenty minutes because of the heat. We waited for a fair while for my seat number, and during that time she asked where I was going and what for. She said my parents must be proud of me. Maybe if I post these notes I thought.

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The Bunny and the Crabb

Annabel Crabb was the guest speaker at last night’s Art After Hours celebrity talk, at the Art Gallery of NSW.  I am not a regular patron of the Art Gallery, and my knowledge of art is limited to everything I learned in 52 issues of Art Magic in 1998.  I learned about this celebrity talk from Annabel Crabb’s Twitter, which makes this the first time the site has been useful, not just interesting.  So yesterday morning I gave Angus a call, because I visit the gallery so rarely that I instinctively call the last person who visited it with me, and we arranged to meet up and attend the talk together.

My parents had asked me, when I told them about the event, what a political journalist would have to say about the art of Rupert Bunny – the subject of her speech, and of a current exhibition at the gallery.  I didn’t know.

Annabel cleared this up immediately, remarking that this was the third time she had been recruited to speak on the subject of art, and that each time previously, she had managed to plausibly relate the occasions to politics.  She expressed doubt – well-placed, as it turned out – in her capacity to pull off the trick again.

But her first political quip showed that she had judged her audience correctly.  A politician, she noted, had once described the parliamentary art collection as “avant-garde crap.”  An appreciative laugh rose from an audience who knew what was coming.  “Can you guess which one?” asked Annabel, and the audience’s response gave a definitive answer.

Yes, anyone who attended the evening hoping only for enlightenment on the exploits of that enigmatic expatriate, Rupert Bunny, would have been disappointed.  But all signs indicated that few members of the mostly senior audience had come with such expectations.  During a brief talk with Annabel afterwards, she was regularly approached with grateful, perhaps relieved feedback.  “You didn’t disappoint!” enthused one lady.

Annabel’s knowledge of Bunny, an Australian-born impressionist who spent most of his life in Paris, might be limited, but this inconvenience failed to diminish her sparkling talent for storytelling.  Astute observations of Australia’s self-conscious culture and particular expectations of its expats were weaved with thoughts drawn from Stephen Fry and anecdotes involving Germaine Greer and pointed advice on the optimal disposal of one’s placenta.  And of course, with apologetic mischief, recurrent attempts to return to the subject of Bunny quickly gave way to gleeful political commentary.

When Rupert Bunny did achieve a mention, the audience listened with attentive respect.  So did Annabel cheat them?

It would be a different matter if there had not been so much laughter throughout the rest of her remarks, especially at those jibes which rested on implicit punch lines.  My impression, from the back of the central court, was that we were all willing participants in her tangential digressions and irrelevances.  I fully suspect this is what most of us came hoping for.

Perhaps not everyone, of course – Annabel Crabb is popular, an unusual adjective for those in her field, but her recent move to the ABC has flushed out some feedback that her presence contributes little substance to the Australian political scene.  Take some of the comments from her recent article for The Drum comparing the upcoming Rudd-vs-Abbott showdown to a high school election.  “Too informal and familiar,” no “accurate analysis amongst all those metaphors and analogies,” she “writes as though for a gossip column,” and, from another reader, the ABC “wasted six figures.”  Like die-hard art fans of Rupert Bunny might have been disappointed at her limited analysis of his work, die-hard political junkies seem sometimes to be turned off by her attention to political personalities sometimes ahead of policy.  “Perhaps exploring policy issues might not be as whimsical, but at least you know what you’re getting when you place your vote,” wrote one of the readers quoted above.

Well, that’s partly true.  But in a representative democracy, we don’t elect policies, we elect people.  This is in contrast to a direct democracy, where all issues would theoretically be put to a popular vote (a referendum).  Analysis of policies and their consequences are crucial – after all, public opinion is still meant to hold these representatives to account – but there is much to be gained from a political journalist who delights in investigating what makes our elected individuals tick, and distilling her discoveries into stories we understand.  Politics, like art, is not only about policy and facts, but very much, and probably more, about people and society.

That said, Annabel’s final attempt to raise Rupert Bunny, like those before it, barely survived a sentence.  “My final point on Rupert Bunny,” she began, with conscious irony that brought yet more appreciative laughter, “is that he is not even the most famous expatriate Rupert.”  The Art Gallery of NSW central court promptly dissolved in hysterics, with some applause from those who could manage it, as Annabel digressed yet again, this time into a series of poignant observations about Murdoch’s influence in Australian and overseas politics.

Annabel has the comedian’s talent to deliver her comments with open amusement, not at her own cleverness but at the situation that led to such observation being possible.  It is a talent not to give amusement but to share it.

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