Civil and Human Rights · News media · Public affairs

New ABC survey an insight into Twitter’s Thought Police and cancel activists

In the Roman Colosseum of old, when a gladiator fell, the watching mob often decided whether he died or lived. If the mob raised its thumbs up, he lived. Thumbs down meant he died. Twitter is the new Colosseum and its inhabitants are the new mob, deciding what opinions, facts and beliefs can be expressed, and what cannot.

As the range of opinions people are “allowed” to express in public (and increasingly in private) has narrowed rapidly in the past few years, Twitter has become the de facto arbiter of “acceptable” opinions. Those whose thumbs work the phones connected to it daily and world-wide unleash barrages of tweets demanding “wrong” views be taken down and that those who transgress issue grovelling apologies,  be sacked from their (often unconnected) jobs, or both.

This mob of the  righteous great and good on Twitter is demonstrably a small minority. Some 350 million people have Twitter accounts. If that sounds a lot, consider that 2.85 billion people have Facebook accounts. Even though Facebookers far outnumber the denizens of Twitter, consider also that the global population is 7.7 billion, so most people in the world are not on either of these platforms that dominate so much of public discourse (at least in the countries where they are not banned, principally China).

So who are these 350 million people who think they alone can decide whose views will be heard and whose will be cancelled in the “public square” which today is dominated by “social media” at the expense of the fast-shrinking old media of newspapers, radio and television, much less the “town hall” and “speaker’s corner” public meetings of not that long ago?

Clearly many tweeters are journalists. One hardly encounters a journalist now without a Twitter account. Check a few out. They are all there, tweeting at each other in an echo chamber that rebounds with what they put into the public square in their day jobs. Many tweeters are clearly celebrities. Many are academics. Many politicians are there; according to Wikipedia (which appears to be dominated by the same people who dominate Twitter), Barack Obama has the most Twitter followers of all (more than a third of everyone on Twitter!), despite relinquishing office in January 2017. But you have to be a politician with the “right” credentials. You won’t find Donald Trump on Twitter. He is banned. He’s also banned from Facebook, at the baying of the Twitter mob, which is slightly odd, because Twitter mobs hold their noses at Facebook, whose huddled masses they openly despise. You’d think they’d allow Trump there.

But put aside hearsay and observed opinion. This week the ABC in Australia gave us a valuable statistical view of the kind of people who dominate Twitter. The ABC runs an annual online survey of public opinion it calls Australia Talks. Starting in 2019, the 60,000 people claimed to be in its panel have been asked questions about the issues that motivate the ABC, such as climate change, gender, discrimination, inequality, national identity, politics and social media. The answers they give also tend to reflect the ABC’s world-view  (which in turn reflects the views of its journalists on Twitter),  but that’s just my opinion. You can judge for yourself.

In a survey of social media published this week as part of the 2021 Australia Talks results, the ABC revealed that Twitter is, as one would expect,  used by a small minority of Australians (14 pc; incidentally more than I’d have guessed, given Twitter’s  international total,  but then the Australia Talks panel will be skewed towards ABC followers, many of whom would be tweeters).

Many of them are high-income folk, earning more than $A2500 weekly or $A130,000 a year. Of the Twitter users surveyed, more of them are Green voters than supporters of any other party (47pc of Greens use Twitter, compared with 38pc of Labor voters and 26pc of Scott Morrison’s supporters).

The survey also says 64pc of Australian tweeters have reported “offensive comment” and 74pc have boycotted a corporation because of “misbehaviour or offensive messaging.”  That certainly gives weight to the view that Twitter sits like a Colosseum mob, thundering who will be heard, who will be cancelled, and who will lose their job. It seems simply extraordinary that such a high proportion of the small number of people who are affluent inner-urban dwellers not only spend massive amounts of their time on Twitter, but are also finding so much that offends them and then reporting and boycotting the transgressors.

While Australia Talks only covers Australia, I suspect from my Kiwi observations that a similar survey in Aotearoa New Zealand would produce similar results, as would surveys in the UK and probably many other countries where the public square is dominated by the Twitter mob.

Those who dwell on Twitter truly are the Thought Police. Offend them at your peril.

News media · Science

¡Hola! Buenos días del Ciclón Hola! Or maybe not.

In recent years, the media has gleefully embraced tropical cyclone categories, telling us, for example, that Cyclone Gita, which reached Tonga on February 12 was “Category 4,” the same intensity claimed for the meandering Cyclone Hola, which the media tell us will wreck New Zealand’s Northland,  Coromandel and East Cape today.

Further, we’re often told, many of these storms are almost as big as the Category 5 Hurricane Harvey, which affected Texas and Louisiana last August (a cyclone, hurricane and typhoon are simply different terms for the same kind of tropical storm, depending where they are).

Until relatively recently, they were simply cyclones, when they were cyclones. Or just storms, when they were just storms.

It’s time to hang on a minute. For a start, Hola is so weak it’s no longer a cyclone by any definition, whatever the media are frantically telling us. It is not now even a particularly big storm, as storms go. MetService, the voice of reason, says it will be a “one-day wonder,” but if you find that at all in a news story, it will be buried at the end.

Most importantly, New Zealand forecasters use a completely different category-system than the US. What we call Category 1 and 2 cyclones are not even Category 1 in the US; their Category 1 is our Category 3. Our Category 4 is their Category 2, and so on. The only similarity is that 5 is the top category in both, and we get to 5 well before the American category does.

We use Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology Scale, which (to the media at least) makes our cyclones appear bigger than the same-digit category used under the American Saffir-Simpson Scale. Look at the chart below  this article, or read more about it on the Bureau of Meteorology Tropical Cyclone FAQ.

And stop worrying. Such storms are not becoming more frequent, anywhere. It is just the media coverage of them becoming noisier and more doom-laden. Harvey was the first major hurricane to make landfall in the US since Katrina and Wilma of 2005 — an 11-year gap — but you would never have learned that from the panic-driven media.

New Zealand has had just two real cyclones in the past half century — Bola in 1989 and Giselle in 1968. Bola mainly affected East Cape north of Gisborne. Giselle was the biggest storm by far  experienced in New Zealand’s continuously recorded history, which goes back to a little before 1800. Giselle  did enormous damage along most of the length of the country and sank the inter-island ferry TEV Wahine with the loss of 52 lives. But the way every tiny storm gets reported now, you’d think they’ve never been worse and that this week’s quite normal storm is always worse than last week’s.  And that is nonsense.

cyclone category scale

Chart: Bureau of Meteorology, Australia.

Language · News media

The Language Always Changes Department: #1754


Radio New Zealand reporters have been talking about cracks discovered in “semi-trailer” towing bars this week; cracks that could cause the trailer to come free while the truck is moving. A “semi-trailer” is what Australians call the truck-and-trailer unit New Zealanders have traditionally called an “articulated truck” or “artic”.

Just as some Kiwis decades back called a truck a “lorry” — the British word for a truck; truck came from America — it seems our artics are becoming semis. Just as railway stations are now “train stations” — the American term — not only here but also in Australia and England, where they also used to be called railway stations.

Is this a language rort? A “rort” is a vulgar Australian term for a scam, which crept into New Zealand English in the 1990s when it was used colourfully by former Aussie PM Paul Keating when he unilaterally stopped Air NZ flying domestic routes in Australia. I don’t much like “rort” but it is part of the language now and the language always adopts, adapts and changes.

The one change I won’t accept is the vowel shift in the way many Kiwis — including some RNZ reporters — say “women”. They pronounce it the same way they say “woman” which forces people who still know the difference to guess whether they mean one woman or two or more women. I’ve not heard this vowel shift anywhere else English is widely used, whether in Australia, England, Ireland, the US, Canada, or even Fiji or India for that matter.

Meanwhile, my top photo shows that some truck driver has parked his semi on the grass verge in Parararaumu. Or is that the berm? In Australia it would be called the nature strip. Whatever, it’s a fair dinkum parking rort. And below, the engraved name above the entrance to what is now called the Wellington train station.

News media · Obituaries

Vale Pat Booth, the fearless journalists’ journalist


One of the great New Zealand journalists of my time, Pat Booth, died today. He was 88.

Pat is best known for his work at the Auckland Star investigating the police case against farmer Arthur Thomas, who was framed for murder, but freed, thanks to Pat’s tenacity, after almost a decade in jail.

He was a journalists’ journalist, of the tough, self-taught kind too-often looked down on by today’s mass-produced journalism graduates. I had the privilege of working with him at North & South magazine, where he was deputy editor when I started there in 1989.

Of course, I was in awe of working with such a legend. I remember him for his ready smile, his gruff voice and his total lack of political correctness. He would try to make me bite with some terrible lines. Writing about the new airline, Ansett NZ, he mentioned the aircraft’s tail markings and added: “Speaking of tail, the hostesses’ uniforms….” Of our first Maori governor-general, Sir Paul Reeves, he said: “Paul? I knew him before he was a Maori.” It was awful stuff, but said with a big smile and without malice. And whatever he wrote, Robyn printed it unchanged. You can’t edit a legend.

The Auckland Star for years had a motto that was typified by Pat’s work there, but seems quaint if all you know is today’s news media:

For the cause that needs assistance
For the wrong that needs resistance
For the future in the distance
For the good that we can do.

He republished it right at the front of his 1997 memoir, Deadline.

Pat died today in a rest home in West Auckland. What a sad end for someone so full of life, a journalist never afraid to chase a story, no matter where it led.

Picture: Pat in the Auckland Star printery in 1976 with printer Leo Smith.  Almost all males wore ties back then!


News media · Public affairs · Reviews

Golden age of newspapers recalled in The Post, a film that could not be set today

Every journalist brought up admiring Woodward and Bernstein will be seeing The Post, though of course, this film is set (just) before Watergate, and features Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) rather than America’s most famous reporting duo.

The film is about an important footnote to America’s war in Vietnam, the 1971 newspaper scoop-publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department true history of successive American government machinations in that hopeless war. The documents were leaked first to the New York Times, and then the Washington Post, by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, whose pyschiatrist’s office was later infamously burgled by Richard Nixon’s “plumbers” (the leak-fixers behind the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington DC’s Watergate complex).

Hanks and Streep play Bradlee and Graham much as I remember them from books and their reputation at the time, as being the stubborn newspaper editor wanting to bring his “small-town” paper to national prominence, and the proud establishment proprietor of a family firm.  Their close working relationship and the challenge that taking on the power of the state means for both the company’s finances and freedom to publish is the heart of this film. The film also references Bradlee’s close relationship with John F Kennedy (they met every week till his death) and Lyndon Johnson, which had given the Post the whiff of being a Democratic Party mouthpiece, accusations still thrown by conservatives against America’s traditional liberal newspapers.

But what leapt from the screen for me was the film’s stunningly accurate recreation of the newspaper world I began working in in the late-1970s and which is now long gone; the clattering typewriters, the rows of chain-smoking reporters yelling into telephones at their paper-piled desks under fluorescent lights, the Lamson (pneumatic) tubes that whooshed canisters holding the paper pages of typewritten stories from the news desk to the printers down below; and above all, the clanking ancient Linotype machines that cast newspaper stories (yes, type-cast!) line by line in hot lead for fitting in the big metal page frames from which printing plates were made. And, oh what an experience, the rumble and shaking of the whole building as the huge presses built up speed to thunder out tens of thousands of thick, inky newspapers an hour.

Hanks Post linotypeTom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, posed beside a Linotype machine.

I don’t pine for those days; today’s technology is superior, cheaper and produces a better physical product, let alone the online access. But The Post reinforced for me that the film is set in what really were the golden years of newspapers, years when newspapers, routinely,  actually broke very big news stories, when most households in most Western countries had the paper delivered not just daily, but every morning and afternoon. An era when politicians respected, and sometimes feared, the power of the press rather than manipulated it with photo-ops and sound bites. I became a journalist near that era’s end, but at least I was part of it before the decline.

Nixon’s White House took the New York Times and the Washington Post to the Supreme Court to try to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers. The court ruled six to three that the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”) trumped the desire of a government to keep its deepest secrets secret.

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black famously wrote in his judgement on the case: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

It all seems so quaint in this new age of a news media world-wide mostly obsessed with clickbait, celebrities and bread and circuses.