Drones, detention and dormant journalism in “Coffee and Papers …” at the 2014 Sydney Writers Festival

“Coffee and Papers with The Sydney Morning Herald, Jeremy Scahill and Antony Loewenstein,” Sydney Writers Festival (The Bar at the End of the Wharf, Sydney Theatre Company, The Rocks, 23 May 2014)

A lovely way to enjoy the extended Indian summer Sydney has been having in May 2014 was to turn up to this morning 1-hour panel session featuring Helen Pitt, the Opinion Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, one of her colleagues whose name I unfortunately didn’t quite catch, and guest journalists Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept and Antony Loewenstein at the 2014 Sydney Writers Festival. The panel session facilitator was Sherrill Nixon, also of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Wending my way to the session through The Rocks area and Walsh Bay, I nearly got run over by a car because my head was buried in a Google Maps print-out and I lost my way a bit around the various Sydney Writers Festival venues. I managed to reach the venue in time to buy cappuccino and chocolate brownie and settle down in the lounge area. I even managed to snatch a quick look at the Friday issue of SMH and check out my fellow audience members: a mixture of people of about mature or retirement age and some young journalism students. Everyone was in a good mood, expecting a stimulating hour of talk on current politics and issues.

Well the panel didn’t disappoint. After introductions, Scahill plunged into talking about the United States government’s use of military drones to prosecute global wars and eliminate people it considers to be major threats whether they actually are or aren’t. This topic is in connection with a recently published book of his, “Dirty Wars: the World is a Battlefield”, and a film “Dirty Wars” in which he features (and which I have reviewed elsewhere on Under Southern Eyes). Scahill in particular talked about Christopher Harvard, an Australian citizen, and Muslim bin John, a dual Australian-New Zealand citizen, who were both killed by a drone strike in Yemen in April 2014, and the reaction of both the Australian and New Zealand governments to their deaths: Australia’s reaction was silence and New Zealand’s response was to accept bin John’s death as “legitimate”.

Scahill also mentioned Anwar al Awlaki, the American Muslim cleric who was killed by a US drone strike in Yemen, in violation of his rights as an American citizen under the US Constitution to hearing and knowing the charges against him and being tried in a court of law by his peers. The journalist also referred to an Afghani family who features in “Dirty Wars”: Scahill spoke of the midnight raid on their house by US soldiers in which family members including two pregnant women were killed and a couple of men were arrested. The men were later returned to the family with no explanation of why they had been arrested other than that the whole raid had been a mistake, no apology and little in the way of compensation.

Loewenstein referred to his experiences of interviewing asylum seekers detained on Manus Island after risking their lives on the high seas to come to Australia, and the difficulties he and other journalists experienced in trying to gain access to their interviewees from prison guards and security personnel.

The panel wove these seemingly disparate topics into a whole by discussing the current news media landscape and how it hinders the public’s right to know what governments are doing or not doing in their name. Few news reporters these days question their governments or government agencies and representatives and instead parrot the press releases given them by governments and pass them off as news. Scahill and Loewenstein spoke at some length on the nature of US President Barack Obama’s administration, how it has been instrumental in sinking the US’s reputation throughout the world and the news media’s role in shaping and disseminating misinformation and propaganda. Scahill referred briefly to the hold that corporations have upon the US government.

The panel guests were forthright and articulate in their views and opinions, and demonstrated journalism-as-advocacy in its best light. In the brief Q & A session that followed the panel discussion, Scahill and Loewenstein patiently dealt with questions on conspiracy theories: it was obvious that the two have been quizzed in the past about whether they thought the US government had played some role in the World Trade Center attacks in September, 2001. The panel seemed to perk up at a question from Yours Truly on journalism education in universities and colleges and whether it was too narrowly focused on media technologies and not enough on critical analysis of the news. (The thought had occurred to me during the panel discussions that one reason that journalists these days seem so compliant and do not challenge power is that their education may be essentially vocational with an emphasis on knowing current technologies and how to use them but not on developing critical and analytical skills that a generalist, humanities-based education would give them.) The SMH representatives admitted that in recent years, new recruits often did not have knowledge or experience in sifting through and judging the worth of information. Scahill and Loewenstein both stated that their education and training as journalists occurred on the job, apprentice-style, and that they had very good mentors (Amy Johnson and Margo Kingston respectively) to guide them.

While there wasn’t a lot in the session that was new to me or other audience members – apart from Scahill exclaiming that Australian journalism was old-school muckraking journalism – I did come away with a better appreciation of what he, Loewenstein and other investigative journalists are trying to do and what they are up against in a news media world that acts on the whole as a public relations front and cheerleader for governments and large private corporations. I may not always agree with the likes of Scahill on issues like the civil wars in Syria and Ukraine and Russia’s role in these but I respect that he and others are chipping away in their own way against the arrogance and indifference of powerful forces destroying freedom and democracy, and the despair and anger of people at their governments around the world.


Ag-Gag Laws: The Bid to Silence Animal Advocates – a powerful presentation for animal rights advocacy

David Ritter and Will Potter, “Ag-Gag Laws: The Bid to Silence Animal Advocates”, Voiceless 2014 Animal Law Lecture Series, Corrs Westgarth offices, Sydney, 2 May 2014

I had the opportunity and privilege to attend this very powerful seminar given by Voiceless, an animal rights and advocacy organisation, and its guest speakers David Ritter of Greenpeace Australia and Will Potter, an American investigative journalist, in the Sydney offices of the law firm Corrs Westgarth. The theme of the talks given focused on the rise of ag-gag legislation which is designed deliberately to target and silence animal rights advocates and reporters, preventing them from documenting and reporting on the suffering of animals in factory farms and abattoirs.

After introductions in which the audience learned about the work done by Voiceless since its inception in 2004 on animal rights, principally in the areas of the rights of animals living in battery conditions on farms and of the commercial hunting of kangaroos, the talks by the guest speakers began in earnest. David Ritter concentrated on the issue of dredging for coal in one part of the Great Barrier Reef off the Queensland coast in the main. His speech also included a summary of marketing campaigns undertaken by animal rights activists in the past and the effectiveness of these campaigns. Not many visual aids were used but those that were – a brief film of an ad campaign linking a corporation’s palm oil product with the deforestation of rainforests in Indonesia and the effects on the orang utang populations was included – proved to be very moving indeed.

Despite his jet lag which affected his voice, Will Potter proved to be a passionate and determined speaker, and a highly entertaining one into the bargain, holding most people if not everyone spellbound with his and other people’s experiences as animal rights and protection advocates and their brushes with the law. He spoke at length on the recent history of animal rights protest and advocacy and moves within the US government to curb such activity at the behest of lobby groups acting for agribusiness. The experiences of two activists he personally knew were quite horrific, with one of his friends re-arrested, thrown back into jail and even threatened with solitary confinement for speaking about his time in the slammer. Potter also spoke of how various acts pertaining to animal protection have been amended over the years until the language and particular definitions have been changed to mean something very different, even diametrically opposed, to what their original intention and meaning were.

Especially insidious was Potter’s mention of how terrorism and the meaning of the word “terrorist” have been re-defined to include environmental and animal rights and protection activists and campaigners. This is one example of many of how the US government uses fear and the language of fear and defensiveness to divide Americans against one another and control the public’s thinking and behaviour. The manipulation of public opinion through the news media and advertising campaigns is apparent. At the same time the manipulation can be jaw-droppingly arrogant and crude, with ad hominem attacks, false associations and cut-and-pasted language copied from past campaigns to denigrate activists.

The time passed very quickly and the presentations finished ten minutes later than originally scheduled but an informative 90-minute session was had by all.



Metaphysics goes to the movies with “On Meaning and Purpose: ‘Blade Runner’ Frame by Frame”

Ray Younis, “On Meaning and Purpose: ‘Blade Runner’ Frame by Frame” (The University of Sydney / Centre for Continuing Education, Saturday 8 February 2014)

Not often does a person get an opportunity to attend a discussion on metaphysics and its central concerns based on a dissection of a science fiction film so of course when I found out about this particular one-day seminar, I just had to go! I have attended quite a few of Ray Younis’s one-day adult education courses in the past at the University of Sydney so I had high expectations of what he would talk about and I was not disappointed in this respect.

Younis is quite an avid fan of Hollywood sci-fi films that dwell on issues like meaning and purpose to life, what it means to be human and the nature of freedom and free will. If there was money to be had in combining film reviewing and philosophy in an online or print newspaper column, he ought to be there. Unfortunately not even the ABC, SBS or Guardian Australia is quite up to this level of sophistication. The class basically ran through a screening of the entire film in its director’s cut version and particular scenes were analysed in detail with respect to cinematography, the genres that were referenced (science fiction and film noir) by the film, the use of lighting and shadow, and the scenes’ relevance to the film’s themes and the philosophical concepts and values expressed.

Metaphysics refers to the discipline of philosophy that deals with abstract concepts outside the physical world such as whether God exists and what the nature of that god might be, whether humans or their souls survive death and/or have immortality, and questions of freedom, free will and what it means to be human. The issues that “Blade Runner” addresses are those of what makes a human being human, what is the purpose of individual human beings, and what are worthwhile goals of human beings as opposed to mere beings. Tied up with these issues is the issue of how human beings should conduct themselves within a community of other beings, some of whom might qualify as “human” and others not by the standards of the community’s leaders, and whether those standards are fair or unfair, moral or immoral. How should humans behave towards others and live lives of purpose and integrity in societies that operate on principles and with values that are clearly at odds with living with purpose, dignity and respect for others?

The film portrays a hierarchical society with enormous social inequalities and a complicated class structure in which a small human-only elite dominates a vast underclass of both humans and replicants (cyborg beings created to perform the most dangerous or disgusting work). The human characters throughout the film, and the blade runner (professional killer of runaway or rebellious replicants) Deckard in particular, are portrayed as ciphers content with their allotted status in life and not knowing anything more than what is necessary for them to do their jobs and survive. The replicant characters are complex beings who know more than what they should, who have achieved self-awareness and can quote poetry, play chess and plan chess strategy, and talk philosophy. They thirst for more life because they are all too aware that their life-spans are limited and time is running out for them. Though the plot is fairly standard – Deckard hunts down the runaway replicants and manages to dispose of most of them – the narrative turns the plot elements on their head: the hunter becomes the hunted, humans are shown as dehumanised and the replicants end up teaching Deckard what it means to be human and to have a worthwhile purpose in life.

Pivotal scenes in this respect (and these were discussed in the class) were those in which Deckard confronts Zhora, Leon, Pris and Roy Batty in turn: what these characters say and do to Deckard is important as a wake-up call to him. Zhora is shown as a trapped prey during Deckard’s pursuit of her in the crowded Los Angeles streets. Leon’s last words to Deckard are  “Wake up, time to die” before he himself unexpectedly is killed. Pris chooses to go down fighting even though she knows she has no chance against Deckard. Batty resists his programming as a replicant designed for combat and assassination duties by saving Deckard’s life and shows Deckard that he too can choose a new path in life and resist orders from an oppressive authority. Deckard is reminded of what he has lost in his career as a blade runner: honour (he killed two women in the back in cold blood), mercy and compassion for others weaker than he is.

Significantly though the replicants know they are going to die, they insist on choosing the mode of their deaths and if they have to die violently, they face their deaths as bravely as they can. Zhora, a combat model, keeps running for as long as she can and exhausts Deckard in the process; Pris, a pleasure model (and presumably not programmed to resist), fights Deckard hard with whatever resources she has; and Batty perhaps even accelerates his death by using up his strength to rescue Deckard from a fall, then calmly faces the inevitable with Deckard as his witness. In acting as they do, they go beyond their programming and exercise choice and will: they finally realise what it is to be human.

Other important scenes include Batty’s confrontation with Eldon Tyrell in which he converses with his maker on genetics and Tyrell tells him patronisingly that a life that burns twice as bright is only half as long. In his few scenes, Tyrell comes across as smug and somewhat slimy: the irony is that as the de facto ruler of the new Los Angeles, he is also constrained by his role and status and becomes less of a human than the creatures he created.

The frame-by-frame analysis of the film allows viewers to appreciate the ways in which elements of the film noir genre was employed to suggest the panopticon-style society that characterises Los Angeles in 2019: the use of flashing lights  in certain scenes reinforces the 24/7 surveillance and the prisons, both mental and physical, that bound Deckard’s character as he hunts down the replicants. Various motifs such as eye images, the repetition of musical melodies at particular points in the film, blue lighting, hazy atmosphere and the film’s setting in a dingy, rundown part of the future Los Angeles help to paint a picture of a complex yet brutal society in which just about everyone is an insignificant being of some sort.

Although there wasn’t much mentioned about the film’s themes that I wasn’t already aware of – for me, the film possesses great clarity – I did appreciate additional insights about aspects of the film’s messages that either reinforced or challenged my views.

My original post of my views about “Blade Runner” can be read here.