Murdochs survive, but the fallout is serious

Karen Kissane, London 

Prime Minister David Cameron can now afford to exhale. Rupert and James Murdoch — perhaps not quite so easily.

Mr Cameron now faces a difficult task to build consensus on how best to implement the Leveson principles, given that his deputy, the Opposition and a fair proportion of his own back-bench support the idea of a new press watchdog that is underpinned by law.

Mr Cameron, on the other hand, warns that laws to regulate the press are a danger to freedom of speech. He told the Commons, “In this House, which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries, we should be very, very careful before crossing that line.”

Whatever political process follows next will be messy and divisive, but Mr Cameron is likely to be relieved that is the worst he has to handle. The Leveson report does not seem to represent a major nightmare for his government (although its 10 kilos and 2000 pages could be consumed in a day only by a wunderkind, so it may contain small landmines that have yet to be discovered).

Here is the good news for Mr Cameron.

Justice Leveson did not savagely criticise former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his handling of the Murdoch bid for satellite broadcaster BSkyB. He merely rapped Mr Hunt over the knuckles for the unwisdom of appointing garrulous adviser Adam Smith, whose over-friendly communications with News International during the Sky bid process sparked headlines earlier this year.

Justice Leveson did not condemn relationships with red-headed media executives, or loans of horses, or in fact any particular encounter between Mr Cameron and a News International chief. Nor did the judge find that any specific policy by Mr Cameron’s government had been unduly influenced by connections with, or fear of, the Murdoch empire.

His condemnation of the undue closeness of politicians with the press was carefully couched in general terms, along the lines of “a pox on all your houses”.

The British police got a relatively clean bill of health, with a finding that there was no evidence of widespread corruption in their dealings with the media.

And several key players in the phone-hacking scandal got only the most glancing of mentions. This will be due to the law of inverse proportion that follows any arrest: the deeper the legal doo-doo in which a person stands, the less likely a judge such as Leveson would be to examine his or her conduct in any detail, for fear of imperilling future trials.

The fallout for Rupert and James Murdoch and their empire might be more serious.

The phone-hacking scandal and the inquiry it sparked have left them personas-non-grata in British politics. From figures all sought to win over — some saw them as makers and breakers of British governments —  they are now men with whom English politicians cannot afford to be publicly associated. In April, Mr Cameron told Commons, “I think we all, on both sides of this house, did a bit too much cosying up to Mr Murdoch.”

The loss of political influence in Britain has been mirrored across the Atlantic by challenges to the family hold on News Corporation in the United States, where institutional investors have been trying to oust Rupert as chairman and his sons James and Lachlan from the board. The rebels have used the phone-hacking scandal, its costs to the company (around $US 244 million) and related inquiries by US authorities to bolster their case.

The criticisms of the Murdochs by Leveson are carefully-phrased attacks on their corporate competence and, in James’s case, on the accuracy of his evidence to the inquiry. They will add fuel to the fire of already-angry institutional investors.

In the wake of the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry, Rupert Murdoch has resigned a few roles; his son has moved on from News International; and Rupert’s beloved newspapers are being split into a separate entity, so as not to sully cleaner and more profitable areas of his empire.

But in the end, does any of that that really matter to a man worth an estimated $US9.4 billion?

 First published on

Ireland’s moment of truth

IT IS said that the best way to get a bad law overturned is to enforce it. When people see its consequences, the truism goes, they will be so appalled that public support for change will build up an unstoppable head of steam. The death of Savita Halappanavar might do just that for the women of Ireland.

Savita, 31, was 17 weeks pregnant when she went to University Hospital Galway in pain. Doctors told her that her cervix had opened and amniotic fluid was leaking. Her pregnancy was ending and there was no hope for the child. Over the next three days, in agonising pain, Savita repeatedly begged for an abortion to get the miscarriage over quickly.

Could doctors not induce the labour so she could give birth sooner? According to her husband, Praveen, the consultant told them this was not possible because there was still a foetal heartbeat, and ”this is a Catholic country”. That heartbeat finally stopped after four days, and only then was Savita taken to theatre to have the contents of her womb removed. She developed septicaemia, or blood poisoning, and was dead three days later.

Savita’s homeland of India is aghast, and there have been diplomatic flurries of concern.

Meanwhile, three separate inquiries have begun, and no doubt there will be findings as to whether medical negligence was a factor.

That was a straw clutched by some defenders of the Irish Catholic Church after the scalding rage that erupted over Savita’s case. ”It has nothing to do with the church,” one deeply Catholic woman assured me. ”It sounds like medical negligence.” She was channelling Pontius Pilate washing blood from his hands.

In Ireland, politics is deeply intertwined with Catholic doctrine and the institutional power of the church, and the church’s tough stance against abortion has protected a near-total ban on the procedure. Ireland still has on its books 1861 legislation that makes it a crime to procure a miscarriage. A 1983 amendment to the constitution acknowledges the right to life of the unborn child but is also meant to give equal right to the life of the mother. In 1992, Ireland’s Supreme Court was forced to interpret that during the case of X, a suicidal 14-year-old rape victim. The government was trying to stop her going to England to abort the pregnancy that had resulted from the rape.

”The state was going to force a child to bear a child for her rapist,” said one commentator. The court ruled that if there was a substantial risk to the mother’s life – her life, but not her health – it would be lawful to terminate.

Irish governments have prevented that judgment from coming into effect by failing to pass laws that would affirm and clarify it.

Ireland has a grand history of locking away evidence of sexual shame. Ask the ”wayward” young women imprisoned and abused as slaves in the Magdalene laundries, or the illegitimate children raped in orphanages by nuns and brothers charged with keeping them from contaminating the rest of Irish society.

Now abortion is concealed. More than 4000 Irish women go to England each year to end pregnancies, according to British statistics. An unknown number go to other European countries. ”Abortion tourism,” they call it.

Years ago, it could be argued the influence of church doctrine on the Irish government was democratic; the majority believed in Catholic teachings, so it was fair enough that they were reflected in Irish law, and that church leaders were consulted about planned legislation. But that is no longer the case.

An Irish Times poll found 77 per cent now believe abortion should be permitted in some circumstances. Other polls have found the hold of the church is weakening: 77 per cent of Irish now think there should be female priests, 90 per cent want married priests, and 70 per cent say the church’s teachings on sexuality are not relevant to them.

None of which is discouraging to Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of the Irish church, who announced in August that he would promote a lobbying campaign to oppose any change on abortion. Australia’s Cardinal George Pell has expressed concern the furore over child abuse has scapegoated the Catholic Church. The Irish pro-choice movement is not scapegoating the Catholic Church but holding it up to modern accountability.

The major religions are all guilty of some form of systematic abuse of women. Victims of rape have been executed in the name of Islam; Hinduism abandons widows to homelessness; orthodox Jews in Israel spit on women they deem immodest and try to force women to sit down the back of buses (Rosa Parks must be turning in her grave).

The fact that a religion invokes God, claims to be a path to transcendence and offers society many benefits does not exempt it from outside scrutiny of beliefs that cause harm. Catholic Ireland’s judge is likely to be the European Court of Human Rights, which criticised the government two years ago for not clarifying the Supreme Court ruling. The Irish government then set up an expert panel, and has said it will respond at the end of this month.

This will be a moment of truth for the Republic of Ireland. Many old-time Irish republicans believed the country could not come of age until it was united, with Ulster returning to the national fold. But perhaps a more important coming of age involves Ireland standing tall as a secular state where civil law can differ from, and override, canon law.

One person’s religious freedom must end where it hurts another’s right to health or happiness – or, as in Savita’s case, the right to life itself. As protesters outside the Irish Parliament last week pointed out, Savita had a heartbeat, too.

First published in The Age.

We must set limits, for the sake of little girls

There’s no place for ethnic arrogance, but genital mutilation is different, writes Karen Kissane.

NINETEENTH-CENTURY Westerners, confident of their cultural superiority, had no qualms about trying to stamp out ugly foreign customs. Britain’s empire builders banned the Indian tradition of suttee, in which Hindu widows were burnt on their husbands’ funeral pyres; Europeans led the fight against foot-binding in China.

Colonialism had many evils, but it shone a few lights in dark places, stopping some peoples from eating their enemies and others from leaving their girl babies out to die. But ethnic arrogance has no place in multicultural worlds like today’s Australia. How, then, do we deal with minority group traditions that the majority abhor, such as genital mutilation of little girls? How far should tolerance for diversity and respect for the values of others stretch? It has been known for some time that people in some ethnic communities, particularly those from Africa and the Middle East, are circumcising their daughters. Some girls are done on kitchen tables here, some are sent back to the old country and others, police alleged several years ago, are done by Australian doctors. “Female circumcision” ranges from removal of the hood of the clitoris or the clitoris itself to infibulation, in which the clitoris, the labia majora and the labia minora are cut out and the remaining flesh sewn together, leaving a small opening for urine and menstrual flow.

It effectively castrates women, leaving them with sexual pain instead of pleasure and ensuring their chastity as maidens and their fidelity as wives. It is a 5000-year-old tradition that parents still inflict on their daughters in order to make them marriageable and acceptable to their own communities. While no hard figures are available, federal health and legal authorities have heard anecdotal evidence of it here and say it is reasonable to assume that migrants such as African refugees are bringing the custom with them.

Australia has been slow to deal officially with the problem. Chief Inspector Vicki Fraser, the head of Victoria’s community policing squad, warned six years ago that the issue was being ignored because of a reluctance to create tensions in a multicultural society. Federal officials contacted for this story sighed that they knew the issue had been a time bomb, but that there had been concern about how best to deal with it without creating a racist backlash. How can you publicise an issue like this without arousing anger and disgust in other Australians? How do you convince women who have been circumcised that their daughters should not be deformed this way without making the mothers feel like freaks? Mutilation, after all, is in the eye of the beholder’s culture. Our criminal law does not recognise any right to consent to bodily harm, or any right by parents to consent to bodily harm to their children.

But we do have the right to consent to medical procedures that are painful and non-therapeutic, such as cosmetic surgery. The desire to have a nose broken and reshaped, a face cut open and tightened, or tissue removed from a large breast also springs from a longing to be accepted by the community. It may be sad but it is not, in our culture, considered bizarre.

But genital mutilation is different. It deprives women of a normal physical function, leaves them with serious long-term health problems and is done when they are children and cannot give informed consent.

Australian political leaders have long condemned it and threatened legal consequences for anyone involved, but its legal status is still unclear. The Australian Law Reform Commission has argued against special legislation criminalising it, saying that offenders could be charged under existing criminal law, and that, in any case, education would be a better tool for change than prosecution. The Australian Family Law Council, which advises the Attorney-General, recommends much stronger action.

The council’s discussion paper on the issue, due out next month, recommends federal legislation outlawing genital mutilation. It also proposes making it a criminal offence to send a child out of the country to have it done elsewhere. If the proposal is adopted Australia, like Europe, will jail offending parents. The council has rejected the argument that genital mutilation is a religious custom.

The chairman, John Faulks, says religious leaders deny that it is a Muslim practice or required by the Koran. Mr Faulks says it is important that laws be passed to clarify doubts about whether such cases can be prosecuted and in order for Australia to comply with its obligations under international conventions on the rights of the child. This, then, would be the limit of multicultural tolerance.

There have always been limits. We do not allow Muslims to cut off the hand of a thief or stone an adulteress. People from polygamous cultures must respect our bigamy laws and men from more patriarchal societies must learn that in this country, children of a broken marriage do not automatically belong to the father. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not permitted to refuse a sick child a necessary blood transfusion. The right of a child to protection outweighs the right of the parent to follow tradition.

Genital mutilation should be criminalised if migrants are to get a clear message about how serious a practice it is. Opponents of criminalisation argue that it sends the problem underground, causing more hardship for the girls. But that argument, like the argument against mandatory reporting of other forms of child abuse, makes no sense; the problem is already beyond the law. Even in the countries from which these migrants come, human rights activists oppose the practice.

But change must also come from within. Education programs should be set up to ask parents to examine their beliefs and to ask mothers to remember their own shock and pain and grief. The American writer Alice Walker, whose last novel was about a woman who had been mutilated, has been asked why women have helped weave such social and religious significance around what is, in essence, a horror. She said that people carrying an unendurable hurt create an alternative reality to make the pain more bearable, and that this is what must change if we are to stop attacks on the innocent face of the vulva.

First published in The Age.

Rape may well be natural. So what?



THERE’S really only one question to be asked about the “new” theory from a pair of American researchers that men are genetically programmed to rape. And that is: So?Appalled feminists are arguing that the theory can’t be right. But even if it is right, what would that change? Little, I suspect.

It might further bruise the self-esteem of our sons, struggling to learn what decent manhood is about. It might complicate gender relationships that little bit more. It might even lead to the occasional desperate plea by an American lawyer trying to defend the indefensible in a fraught rape trial.

But it won’t change the way society deals with the problem.

The two scientists are biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig Palmer. They have used observations of the scorpion fly to argue that rape is a natural and biological product of man’s evolutionary need to reproduce, as much a part of life as thunderstorms and epidemics. They say men will rape whenever their capacity to reproduce is thwarted.

It’s a wonder women are game to leave the house, really.

That’s the first reason not to be alarmed by their claims. Most men do not rape, so any link between their evolutionary make-up and their behavior in this regard must be less than overpowering.

The second reason the theory should not be feared, even if it turns out to have some validity, is that there is already a proved statistical association between maleness and other forms of violence that could be used to argue that men are genetically
more predisposed than women to aggression. But it’s not considered an excuse.

Most violent crime, from assault to murder, is committed by men on other men. The only difference with rape is that it is more often a violent crime committed by men on women and children. Studies have found that men convicted of violent crimes tend to have higher testosterone levels than non-violent offenders and non-offenders.

Having this “Ychromosome disability” is no defence to drunken pub brawls or domestic murders. Even if it were proved that males carry a genetic predisposition to general violence (as opposed to being conditioned by social experiences), it would not earn offenders freedom from arrest for their assaults, or lighter sentences for their crimes. So why would a built-in predisposition to rape get offenders off the hook for sexual violence?

The fact that some species of spider have been known to eat their young could theoretically be linked to depressed mothers who suffocate their babies. Infanticide could be interpreted as an evolutionary mechanism; the mother kills her child to preserve herself, in the face of what she sees as a threat to her mental wellbeing, in order to live to have more offspring later.

Would that defence save a murderous mother? Not on your life. Human adults are expected to be moral beings.

Rape is a “natural” phenomenon, in that it occurs in nature. A recent television documentary on dolphins, those New Age symbols of all that is beautiful and good, had chilling footage of a gang of young males pack-raping a young female. They worked as a group to separate her from her pod and then forced themselves on her, despite her desperate attempts to escape.

But it’s important to differentiate between what is “natural” and what is normal and healthy.

Studies of rats suggest that rape becomes common in rodent communities only as normal social mores break down under pressures such as overcrowding. Young bull elephants tend to become rogues only when the herd has lost the presence or authority of older bulls, who would normally keep the lads in line.

So even with animals further down the evolutionary tree than man, social factors play a part in an individual’s aggressive behavior.

Evolutionists such as Thornhill and Palmer fail to take social factors into account. They’re so mired in biological determinism that they interpret all findings in light of that one theory.

Evolutionists also pay no mind to the mind. But human consciousness makes for a difference between blokes and scorpion flies that will always leave men culpable for rape, no matter what geneticists might one day find under the microscope.

Human beings, unlike the scorpion fly, have emotions (so that the female of the species suffers during rape) and have rational insight into their behavior (so that the male of the species is able to detect another’s distress and make a decision as to
whether to proceed despite it).

Our legal systems are based on the understanding that this ability to think makes us responsible for our actions, no matter what our animal instincts dictate.

Perhaps evolution has left maleness associated with rape impulses. While that would be sad for both sexes, it doesn’t seem like news. But neither is it news that humans can analyse their impulses and choose which ones to act on. That includes the impulse in some to exploit the furphy that all men are beasts.

First published in The Age.

Europe at risk from assaults on democracy

Tackling the euro crisis by reducing people power is a dangerous path.
Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.
— Benjamin Franklin
JUST before the G20 meeting in Cannes in November, Greece’s then prime minister, George Papandreou, abruptly announced a referendum on the economic bailout for Greece. The bailout was linked to austerity measures much hated by the Greeks, whose anger had erupted in months of street protests. Papandreou wanted the bailout but also wanted to settle the unrest by winning a mandate to pursue the bitter medicine.
The idea that the Greek people be allowed to vote on their future in this way appalled the rest of the European Union. Papandreou was summoned to Cannes and carpeted. France and Germany ordered him to ditch the idea. This modern-day representative of the nation that gave the West its first taste of democracy did just that. The lamb was disarmed.
European democracy has had more knocks in the months since then. Greece and Italy have had “technocratic” leaders foisted upon them, approved by MPs as a transitional measure but not elected by voters. In both nations, the new leaders are economists.
Now, in another wrenching away of power from the people, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have won in-principle agreement from governments of 26 EU nations that they will submit their budgets for scrutiny by central authorities and accept fines and other penalties if they break rules aimed at keeping economies stable. There has also been talk of taking the right of veto away from smaller EU countries so that they cannot stymie the plans of the majority, as when a parliamentary vote in Slovakia in October almost derailed the plan to expand the European bailout fund.
Europe is like an unhappy marriage in which the partners no longer get on but cannot bear to break up because the property settlement would cripple them. It is true that there is plenty of reason to be alarmed on the money front. If governments default on their debts, if banks fall like dominoes, depression looms. If the euro collapses, it will mean chaos and hardship for nations, households and businesses.
But the urgency over money has induced tunnel vision and distorted the dynamics of power. Greater unity over spending and taxes might be good for the currency but the long-term price of this “cure” might be social and political unrest. Resentful voters in individual nations may feel disenfranchised if they think their interests are being over-ridden by distant powers.
Already, there is widespread resentment of the size, wealth and power of “banksters” and their role in the crisis. Governments are blamed for not having reined in the excesses of banks and speculators — “wherever there was a reckless borrower, there was a reckless lender”, says one Irish economist — and for allowing them to have grown too big to fail.
A study published in New Scientist in October suggests there is some justification for this view. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich used mathematical models to examine ownership links between more than 43,000 transnational companies. They concluded that just 147 tightly knit companies, mostly financial institutions, control 40 per cent of the world’s revenue.
In Greece and Ireland, taxpayers resent having to suffer austerity so banks can be kept afloat. Greeks fulminate about the Greek “bailout” actually being loans to pay the interest on crippling debts to German banks. In Ireland taxpayers are angry that the government, partly because of pressure from the EU to avoid another “Lehman moment”, guaranteed failing Irish banks in order to help protect Europe’s banks. This doubled the size of Ireland’s national debt.
Now comes the dirty linen, never aired in politicians’ public utterances about European unity. What is good for the economic powerhouses of France and Germany is sometimes bad for smaller, poorer countries such as Greece and Ireland.
Greece needs a bigger write-down on its debt, which is unsustainable and is expected to rise to an eye-popping 186 per cent of GDP next year. But Germany is determined that bond holders should not suffer any further, because this would be bad for the euro — and Germany’s own banks.
Tiny, recession-struck Ireland, with its 4 million people, has been trying to ring-fence its low corporate tax rate of 12.5 per cent because it has attracted big companies such as Google and Facebook to set up shop there. But Sarkozy last week signalled that “tax harmonisation” across the zone was on the agenda, sending tremors through Irish officials.
If the EU is a family, it is becoming clear Merkel and Sarkozy are Mama and Papa, and the children are expected to fall obediently into line, even when it might hurt to do so.
But part of the reason for the crisis is that one size does not fit all. The European Central Bank kept interest rates low right across the euro zone because of fears of inflation for Germany and France. This gave the peripheral countries the cheap credit that has since ballooned into disastrous debt.
Whatever happens with the currency, Europeans seem headed for a long, dark tunnel of economic hardship. People who lose jobs and see their benefits slashed are more likely to feel aggrieved and voiceless. Reducing democratic accountability when times are tough is a high-risk game.

First published in The Age.

From austerity to oblivion, Europe looks for the least worst option


After leaders failed to agree on strict financial rules for all 27 EU member nations, Karen Kissane explores the prospects for unity.
As the debt-ridden, fractious European family gathered in Brussels for what was billed as crunch time to rescue its shared currency, analysts coined a term for the potentially apocalyptic chaos predicted to ensue if the euro fails: “Eurogeddon”.
Moves to tighten fiscal bonds by changing the EU treaty by all 27 nations were abandoned yesterday after the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, failed to win concessions from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. Talks will now focus on the 17 members of the single European currency – and six non-euro nations – with a deadline for an intergovernmental agreement set for March next year.
Even if Merkel and Sarkozy push through their proposed changes, which include imposing central oversight on national budgets and punishing countries that break strict budget rules, this will only set up structures they hope will prevent such a crisis happening again. It will not fix the urgent problem of a European debt mountain that is weighing heavily on the confidence of financial markets.
To be successful, rescue measures must convince markets debt will be repaid and not merely shifted from one part of the zone to another. There also needs to be a plan to recapitalise Europe’s banks. With so many complex factors in the mix, there are many possible outcomes for Europe.
The proposal from Berlin and Paris was for all 27 members to agree to treaty amendments that establish tough new rules to keep deficits down.
However, this approach has failed to win support across all 27 EU nations and any deal will now rest with the 17 nations in the single currency.
Berlin and Paris wanted all members to adopt a “golden rule” of balanced budgets: automatic sanctions if deficits exceed 3 per cent of gross domestic product and a tax on financial transactions. They also wanted more direct control of national budgets by bodies such as the European Commission, with the ability to force austerity measures on recalcitrant countries.
But changing treaties has become ever more difficult as the EU expanded to 27. The Lisbon Treaty that now governs the EU took eight years to negotiate. Reopening it would have required a convention of all national governments and the European Parliament. Any proposals leading to states ceding power to EU authorities would then have to be ratified by all 27 parliaments as well as the Irish people by referendum.
A split has now emerged between the 17 nations in the euro zone and the 10 that are members of the EU but do not use the common currency. That split is threatening the future of the European political project.
Merkel said the future of the euro was so important that, if agreement could not be reached among the 27, a new pact would be forged between the 17 euro countries. However, there are structural barriers to this idea: under the Lisbon Treaty governments agreed not to make separate agreements among themselves in areas already covered by the treaty, for one. The European Commission and the European Court of Justice cannot enforce sanctions related to non-EU treaties – a problem for the Germans, who want the Court of Justice to be able to fine countries that break budget stability rules.
The President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, suggested one way around this would be to change not the treaty but the articles in the annex attached to it, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Sarkozy suggested last night that an intergovernmental agreement covering the 17 nations could be achieved without parliamentary ratification.
Greece might still be forced out of the common currency due to overwhelming debt, as its huge repayments are likely to cripple any prospect of economic growth.
This would mean great hardship for Greeks. Contracts, pensions and wages would be converted back into the drachma, a drama in itself as EU leaders encouraged nations to destroy their old currencies when they changed over. The drachma would then be heavily devalued almost overnight. This would cause sovereign debt, which was taken out in euros, to balloon. A run on banks would be likely as panicked depositors would seek to withdraw euros before the changeover; if bank accounts were not frozen, this would trigger bank collapses.
On numbers alone, Greece would not pull down the euro. A small country, it accounts for only 2.2 per cent of euro zone GDP and 4 per cent of the EU’s public debt.
But if investors then turned their worried gaze on Italy, the next weakest country and the euro zone’s third largest economy, refusing to lend it money, that contagion could shoot down the euro as Italy is believed to be too big to bail out.
The EU’s founders did not set up a legal mechanism for exiting the currency without leaving the union and it is not known how this would be managed.
If the euro went under, one possibility is that the former EU would split up into a rich northern zone and a struggling south. A greater “deutschmark zone” might be created to take in Germany and its more frugal neighbours, such as Austria and the Netherlands, possibly with France, leaving about 10 national currencies on the periphery. Those rich countries might also choose collectively to leave the euro if they get sick of bailing out their poorer neighbours.
Such a move, however, would cause these northern countries to suffer too, with their banks struggling with toxic debts lent to those poorer nations. This would require government help and ramp up their own sovereign debt. Their markets would also shrink as demand in poorer countries collapsed.
Any kind of euro bust-up would likely trigger financial chaos and the biggest mass default in history, followed by recession or even depression, certainly in Europe and possibly across the world.
Eurogeddon would not only be the end of a currency but the end of a long cycle of prosperity – as well as the death of a continental dream that was born out of the ashes of World War II.

First published in The Age.

‘It won’t be pretty’ – father and son brace themselves for public grilling

The scheduled grilling of Rupert and James Murdoch by British MPs today will be a piece of high theatre or a dreary exercise in evasion. It might, in the end, come down to the kind of legal advice each side receives about how to navigate the legal minefield.
The main issue is what the law calls “sub judice”. When people have been arrested, their cases should not be publicly canvassed before they are heard in court, where all the proper rules will be in place and both sides can test the evidence.
This means the Murdochs might be able to refuse to answer many questions, for fear of prejudicing all the phone-hacking and bribery cases under police investigation.
The former News International chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, may escape appearing altogether given that she has now been arrested.
The two Murdochs have reportedly spent the weekend closeted with public relations advisers along with their lawyers. The PR advice, experts speculated at the weekend, would range from “sit up straight” – if you sit crooked, you look crooked, apparently – to “make eye contact”.
They might use the air-time to apologise again for hacking. After steadfastly refusing to for more than a week, the company ran full-page advertisements in the national press at the weekend.
In terms of the Murdoch agenda, Rupert has said that he wants to address “some of the things that have been said in Parliament, some of which are total lies … We think it’s important to absolutely establish our integrity in the eyes of the public … I felt that it’s best just to be as transparent as possible.”
The MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee were reportedly considering placing the Murdochs under oath. Lying under oath to the Parliament would be contempt and would attract penalties such as fines, or even, theoretically, a stint in the long-unused parliamentary cell.
The more likely outcome of any impropriety, however, would be grounds to challenge the Murdochs as “fit and proper” holders of media licences.
The most pressing questions for James Murdoch are why he authorised payments of hundreds of thousands of pounds to hacking victims – was it to buy their silence? How could he not have had the full picture, as he claims, when he signed the documents?
The Guardian reports that Rupert Murdoch was quoted as saying no such payment had been made.
Did his son conceal it from him, and if so, why? And how did the company come to mislead the Parliament last time it faced questioning, when executives promised this was the work of one rogue reporter?
That line was held by the former chief executive Les Hinton, who resigned from Dow Jones last week; the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson; the editor Colin Myler; and Tom Crone, then News International’s senior lawyer and another one recently resigned from the Murdoch empire.
Paul Farrelly, a Labour MP on the committee, said: “We are going to ask James Murdoch which of the people who came in front of us, as far as he knows, told us the truth.”
The MPs might also want to know why a large stash of the company’s hacking-related emails, dating back to 2006, was only given to police in January. Both the Murdochs are likely to be asked when it was that they realised phone hacking and other illicit activities had been widespread, who they knew to be involved in it and what they had done about it once they found out.
In the unlikely event that Rebekah Brooks appears, they might ask her about the truth of claims by The Mail on Sunday that she told the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to take on Andy Coulson as his media chief.
They might also question her about how hacking could have been so routine in her newsroom without her knowing – she claims she had no idea. And they might ask how she could have read the story about hacked missing girl Milly Dowler and not wondered how her reporters had got the material in it. Whether the questions will elicit useful information is, in itself, a question.
A leading media lawyer, Mark Stephens, told The Independent: “The flaw in the system is that MPs are not forensically trained like barristers to cross-examine the eye-teeth out of people.” But the Murdochs have not been forensically trained either.
One of Rupert Murdoch’s biographers, Michael Wolff, said the media baron would be worried because public appearances do not play to his strengths, which lie in the backroom deal.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“He is awful at this sort of stuff. He is pretty inarticulate, mumbles all the time and is incredibly defensive … It won’t be pretty and he will be taking his preparation very seriously.”

Politicians turn on Murdoch after sniffing changing wind


THE phone-hacking scandal has been the best of times and the worst of times for both journalism and democracy. It was five years of stubborn, upright investigation by the The Guardian that exposed the vicious, grubby tactics of the News of the World. Now Britain, shamed by the exposure of many of its leaders as craven and corrupted, has vowed to restore the integrity of its political system.
But for Rupert Murdoch there has been nothing but trouble as he tried to stare down what might turn out, in hindsight, to be his Citizen Kane moment — the point when his dreams turn to ashes.
It has been a long time coming.
The British establishment donned the bovver boots with grace, with MPs this week turning on a brilliant show of rhetoric over highfalutin principles that few publicly gave a toss about a week before. But beneath it all flowed a long-dammed torrent of venom towards the Australian interloper they call “the Dirty Digger”.
Murdoch is being likened in the broadsheet press — the parts of it he doesn’t own — to the Arab dictators being overthrown because of abuse of power. Labour peer David Puttnam said Murdoch papers were like the Stasi. Andreas Whittam Smith, founder of The Independent, suggested Murdoch had begun to pose a threat to British society something like the Mafia in Italy. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee said the push to take on Murdoch broke Britain’s “omerta” (the Mafia code of silence).
How did the boy from Oz earn such fear and loathing? His critics say it is because he abused his power as a media baron to manipulate the political process and intimidate those within it.
Some analysts pinpoint the start of it all to 1992. Labour had been expected to win an election led by Neil Kinnock. Murdoch papers campaigned against him, with The Sun saying on election day: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” When he lost, the paper declared: “It’s The Sun wot won it.”
An alarmed Labour Party sought to disarm its new enemy and the Conservatives were not far behind. The links between the empire and politicians on both sides have been strong. Former prime minister Gordon Brown, this week so scathing of The Sun’s treatment of the news of his baby son’s cystic fibrosis, was among those currying favour — and his wife Sarah reportedly helped organise the 40th birthday party of Rebekah Brooks, the head of News International who resigned yesterday. Former prime minister Tony Blair is reported to have had regular private meetings and phone calls with Murdoch. It has been claimed Murdoch rang Blair encouraging him to join the invasion of Iraq.
Writes Marina Hyde of The Guardian, who describes herself as “a recovering Murdoch employee”: “Rupert Murdoch was the only figure powerful enough to be able to state explicitly, without consequence, that he was backing war on Iraq to bring down the price of oil. So his ‘free press’ all cheer-led for said war . . .
“The whitewashing report into the death of a scientist who questioned the basis for that war was mysteriously linked to Murdoch’s papers . . . while others in his pay hacked the phones and emails of those casualties of war being repatriated in body bags, to be monetised as stories all over again . . . This is a land where a change in prime ministers constitutes the mere shuffling of Rupert’s junior personnel.”
It is claimed that those who refused to play the game or who fell into disfavour were often punished. An MP who declined to back a NoTW campaign initiated by Brooks to name and shame paedophiles was then targeted by one of the paper’s private detectives who searched for him on a police database, The Guardian reports. He was one of a string of Labour leaders and MPs allegedly campaigned against.
Last month Cameron and Opposition Leader Ed Miliband attended Murdoch’s annual summer party in London. Cameron is also reported to have visited Murdoch in his yacht off the coast of Greece in 2008. Before the scandal broke, he was friends with Brooks and with Andy Coulson, the editor who presided over the News of the World during its phone-hacking phase, but whom Cameron nevertheless hired as his media adviser.
“Politicians were too busy feeding bananas to the tabloid gorilla to notice it was crapping on the carpet,” wrote Michael White in The Guardian.
Now the leaders are channelling Pontius Pilate, washing the suddenly visible Murdoch taint from their hands and trying to work out whose “execution” would best fit their purpose. The political row has been presented as a grand defence of democracy but it is also a Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest. It’s just that since the news broke about phone-hacking of bereaved families, enraging the public, the political definition of “fittest” has been transformed.
For his wit in perceiving where that might lead, the points are with Miliband, who took a bold risk that forced Cameron into a humiliating series of back-steps. But every move by each of them has been made in self-interest as they sniffed the changing wind. Democracy? Or hypocrisy? Perhaps both.
Even when he was at risk of bankruptcy in the 1990s, Rupert Murdoch was never so besieged. His bid for cable-TV station BSkyB is withdrawn, maybe forever. He and his son and Brooks have been summonsed by the House of Commons to give evidence. His company faces investigations on both sides of the Atlantic. The succession of James is now problematic. Some investors have called for the Murdoch family to relinquish its dominance of News Corp.
And a call from Citizen Murdoch will never again be received in quite the same way.First published in The Age.

No, no, 350 billion times no, say Greeks

Endemic structural flaws underpinning the European Union are partly to blame for Greece’s economic woes, writes Karen Kissane in London.

THE Greeks have a national holiday for saying “No!” On October 28, they celebrate the anniversary of a day in 1940 when their prime minister rejected a demand by Mussolini that Axis troops cross into Greece.
Legend has it that despite knowing it would mean war, he simply said “Ohi!” (pronounced o-hee). Greeks who had heard the story then poured into the streets shouting “Ohi!” in solidarity. The Italians did invade but were eventually driven out.
For weeks now, angry crowds outside Greece’s parliament have called on that history of patriotic resistance, waving banners that again proclaim “Ohi!” This time, the “enemy” is their government’s austerity program and it is not yet clear if the people will win.
The rest of Europe hopes not. Greece owes €350 billion ($A473 billion) — more than 1 times the country’s annual output. It cannot afford to pay even the interest on those debts. Since May last year the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund have been bailing Greece out with a €110 billion loan and are now considering a second one.
In return, this “troika” insists that Greece balance its books.
For years, Greek governments have spent more than they earn. The country’s leaky and unfair tax system — which captures ordinary wage earners but lets many self-employed and big-business people off the hook — did not bring in enough money to pay for its large public sector and its welfare programs.
Greece is now stigmatised as the potential cause of a euro-zone collapse. If it defaults and chooses bankruptcy, this might frighten investors who are already anxious about the financial problems of Portugal, Ireland and Spain, who, together with Greece, are now known by the graceless acronym “PIGS”. This could cause “contagion” — fear spreading through markets — triggering a credit freeze that sucks the rest of the euro zone or even the rest of the world into recession.
But the cause of Greece’s catastrophe does not lie entirely with Greece. Underlying faults in the structure of the European Union allowed the debacle to develop.
Greek analyst Petros Papaconstantinou asked in the newspaper Kathimerini: “If . . . little Greece is capable of causing such contagion throughout Europe, couldn’t the problem lie with Europe’s immune system?”
The European Union is a giant experiment, magnificently idealistic but flawed.
The euro zone has a single currency for countries with widely differing levels of wealth, frugality and financial nous. Interest rates were kept low by the European Central Bank to prevent deflation in wealthier countries but the easy credit seduced “PIGS” nations.
The EU then proved to have poor systems for supervising member countries’ national accounts and for regulating the levels of capitalisation of European banks, which run on lower deposit ratios than American banks. It also failed to recognise the danger of fearsomely large bubbles in places such as Ireland and Greece.
The EU was set up on the understanding that no member would be required to prop up another. But in most nation-states with a single currency — such as Australia or the US — poorer areas are given a boost through higher per-head funding or projects that bring work to a place with less employment. The EU has a couple of ways of doing this, but they are relatively low key.
Nation-states also have a national debt for which the entity as a whole takes responsibility. The EU does not.
The EU has tried to have an economic zone that is united in some regards (over currency and interest rates) but fragmented: countries are free to decide their own tax and spending targets and run up their own debts.
“The perception was that the euro zone was rather like living in a neighbourhood with individual houses and individual gardens,” says Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “You want all the houses and gardens to look nice, but ultimately everyone has a responsibility for his or her own building.
“It’s more like an apartment building. When there’s a flood or a fire in one of the flats, everyone is affected.”
This is why some analysts now talk of the EU either becoming more integrated or fracturing entirely. It could decide to develop closer ties over money to stabilise the zone, or Germany might finally buck up over endless bailouts. Greece might decide that default could not be any more painful than its current suffering. Everything old will be new again, in a Europe with Deutschmarks and drachmas.
It is now seen as inevitable that Greece will default at some point and further bailouts are viewed as ways of buying time: for Greece to get back in the black before it has to manage on its own; for Ireland, Spain and Portugal to become stronger; and for Europe’s banks to regain their balance.
Spain has its “indignants” protesting against austerity. The Irish complain their debt repayments are strangling any chance of recovery. This week, 500,000 Britons took to the streets to oppose cuts to pension plans.
Greeks are not the only ones shouting “No!”

First published in The Age.

Teen adds tech touch to wrath of a woman scorned

It has become a parable of the internet age: a girl, a laptop and a swath of destruction through high-profile football careers. Cyberspace is full of mocking laughter over the posting of naked photos of St Kilda footballers by a vengeful teenager – ”The Girl who played with Nick playing with himself”, she’s been dubbed, while her enterprise is ”Dickileaks”.

Meanwhile, the combined might of several powerful institutions has proved hapless, if not helpless, in attempts to silence her. Even with her name shielded, the girl’s following on Twitter had last night swollen to more than 6500 followers (up from about 200 the day before) and the hissing spat that has developed between her and some of St Kilda’s finest reached new heights – or should that be lows?

St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt said it was hard to understand why a girl he did not know had posted explicit images of him and his teammates on social network sites.

In one image, Riewoldt is standing staring at the camera with a sheepish expression, his hands framing his genitals, while clothed fellow player Zac Dawson grins. Another photo shows Nick Dal Santo on a bed in a rapt state of self-communion. Both images have written across them in elegant, cursive script, in Santa-red ink, ”Merry Christmas Courtesy of The St Kilda Schoolgirl!”

Unsurprisingly, Riewoldt said yesterday that the publication of the pictures had caused him distress, shock and disappointment, and urged the girl to stop posting them. He claimed the photo with Dawson had been taken 12 months ago by teammate Sam Gilbert in a hotel in Miami and he had asked for him to delete it. Riewoldt, Gilbert and the club claim the pictures had later been removed from Gilbert’s computer without his consent.

If the naked boy-play was about male bonding, it has gone horribly wrong. Yesterday Gilbert had to issue an apology to the teammates hurt by the pictures.

The girl who kicked this hornet’s nest has another version of the truth entirely and appears to have, as yet, no inclination to mercy. In a series of media interviews, she said she planned to continue posting images and had no sympathy for Riewoldt, who she claimed knew her and had treated her badly.

She also said it was ”incorrect” to suggest that she had not taken the pictures herself. ”I took the photos and uploaded them on Sam’s computer and sent them across from Sam’s email address to mine,” she told The Age from Queensland, where she is on holiday with her parents.

Her Facebook profile was taken down following a Federal Court order to remove the photos on Monday. She said she had not broken the law because she still had not been presented with any court order.

”I don’t really see myself as an outlaw, more like someone who actually stands up to the football players. In a way, I guess it’s kind of bad what I’ve done, but I’m happy with it as well because I know there’s a lot of girls out there who thank me for having the guts to actually do it.”

The girl has made it clear she is acting out of revenge. She claims to have become pregnant with a child – or, in some reports, twins – to a St Kilda player, but to have lost the pregnancy to stillbirth in October. She laid a complaint and there was an investigation by the AFL and by police that found no grounds to proceed with charges.

She has said she was partially motivated by abusive Facebook messages and voicemails from footballers that she had received over the past few months.

When her Facebook site was closed, the girl went to Twitter and posted a link to the pictures.

For Gilbert and the other men, the court order to remove the photos came too late. The pictures had by then gone viral. A legal system designed for careful, leisurely consideration is flapping its black robes in consternation as it tries and fails to chase internet rabbits down their many and varied caches.

Meanwhile, the girl still sends out her 140-character messages-in-a-bottle on Twitter. Here, she complains about the burden of her newfound celebrity – ”29 radio interviews, 4 video interviews, so tired!” – and curses those who cross her with punctuation-free fluency. ”Want to know who the f—ing little snitch is that released something to the media. Can I trust no one?” she asked on December 20.

She likes Queensland and strawberry cheesecake, sings to herself ”when I feel I’m going insane”, and says to one contact, ”I’m used to being the one in control and the one that’s manipulating you, not the other way round.” She also tells one apparent critic, ”You don’t know either of us, so don’t judge.”

She earlier told The Age she was writing her autobiography – bridling at a suggestion that this might be a little early, at 17 – and is looking for an agent.

She said she was not concerned about what repercussions her actions would have on her later life. She said, ”I don’t really want to know what’s going to happen in the future. I take every day as it comes.”

Her online photo shows a lean, tanned girl in a bikini. She is on all fours in the shallows on a beach, her knees spread wide, gazing at the camera with a provocatively tilted head and the pout of a model. She describes herself as ”Athlete. Model. strong”.

Last night she posted a video in which she said, ”I think girls should stand up more to football players. When the whole thing came out in May, I had more than 500 messages saying, ‘Can I have some of the football players’ numbers? I think they’re really hot.’

”I said ‘No you f—–g don’t, trust me, God.’ They are hot. They are famous. They do have money. I guess that’s what turned me on when I first met them. But basically I am saying to all the girls out there, unless you’ve been in a world like that before, I’m saying don’t get involved with them, honestly.”

She was unsure whether she would upload more photos, after all, she said, because she was confused about the legal hearing, but ”I am going to keep on saying what’s the truth, and I’m going to f— these footballers up, OK?”

She said ”mwaah”, kissed her fingertips and laid them gently on the camera lens.

A child of the age of narcissism, using the uncontrolled medium of the age, acting out the age-old wrath of a woman scorned.