All posts by Phil

Educator at UNSW, sometime author, sometime journalist, occasional entertainer/musician, creator of Mindz Brainplay, sometimes right, often wrong.

Schapelle Corby Headline predictions 2014

My three Schapelle Corby headline predictions for 2014 follow. With big TV and Magazine dollars floating around, you can be sure the ‘exclusive’ is not limited to one single media event, but a ‘calendar of sensations’.Schapelle

All headlines and lead sentences will also be on my ‘Musings’ Facebook page. Please share the this post with friends. If anyone is willing to place a bet that NONE of these will occur please let me know.  Here goes…

Headline 1: (June 2014?)

CORBY: “I HAD SEX WITH JAILER”

In an amazing disclosure, paroled drug smuggler Schapelle Corby admitted to having sex with one of her jailers twice during the first 12 months of her internment. The prison officer, who left the prison shortly after, initially told Corby he could help her in future appeals and parole hearings.

Headline 2: (December 2014?)

CORBY FAMILY IN BATTLE
OVER MILLIONS

The family of convicted drug smuggler Schapelle Corby have begun legal proceedings in a claim for over half of the supposed $7 million paid to her last March for media exclusives. Yet the family matter, led by sister Mercedes, is likely to lead to a bitter court battle over the millions that are widely known to exist, but can’t be formally accounted for.

Headline 3:(April 2015?)186898-a717eea8-2c89-11e3-9e23-6fef8332cdf9

(I reserve the right to swap ‘SISTER’S EX-HUSBAND’ with ‘JAILER’ as I believe there’s chance of either happening.)

CORBY TO MARRY SISTER’S EX HUSBAND

Ten months after her ‘marriage’ split with Ben Panangian, paroled drug-smuggler Schapelle Corby has wed her sister’s ex-husband Wayan Widyartha in a traditional Balinese ceremony in Kuta.  The ceremony was followed by a small gathering of friends in the ‘Envy’ local nightclub in Jalan Pantai. No family were present.

Advertising placement: No longer an even bet

Television began just under 57 years ago in Australia. During those years, what we see on the small (ish) screen had changed dramatically. From the content made especially for TV to the presenting style of personalities to the actual quality of the image, what we see on our TV screens has largely kept up with our changing expectations and standards. bob hope

Except for one very important area, and if the TV networks don’t take note, they’ll soon be without advertisers. We all know what that means.

Since television began, the buying and placement of advertising has been based on various criteria. The demographics and psycho-graphics of the viewer are of prime importance. It would be stupid to advertise the Holden Ute in a daytime chat-show for women. It would be wise to advertise consumer products targeting the family shopper. A no-brainer.

Geographic targeting is also obvious. Why advertise membership to the Sydney Swans in Perth?

A large criterion for advertisers is price. I single spot (30 second ad) in the State of Origin or AFL Final will clearly be beyond the budget of most small advertisers. Large viewer numbers + correct target = high price. It’s the way it’s always been and the single reason the NRL and the AFL achieved the billion dollars plus figure in their most recent TV broadcast contracts.

Yet advertisers are now considering one extra criterion, and this is a biggy! While advertisers in the past were content to place their ad anywhere in the program that matched their target and price, the new breed of marketing executive is beginning to look at what products are also being advertised within the same advertising break.

Put simply, it’s not just the program association that’s important, but the advertising association that can colour a viewer’s perception of the product. If a ‘family based product or service is placed beside a ‘non-family’ based product or service, there is a certain ‘guilt by association’ or conflict of interest. Perhaps there’s even implied consent.

In news circles, Julia Gillard does not want her photo taken when she’s standing alongside Chopper Reed. Tony Abbott does not want a happy snap taken when Kim Jong-un leaps up from backstage and pats him on the back.

In the advertising past, most ad associations were either positive or neutral. A negative association was unusual as products or services rarely attracted large consumer anger. That however has changed.

The rise of sports betting and the 2011 law change relating to the broadcast of live odds during sporting events has changed the way viewers perceive a block of TV commercials. Advertisers can no longer assume that every ad will be promoting a product that is either positive or neutral. A very large slice of the Australian population has a negative view of live-odds sports betting. To sit beside the face of Tom Waterhouse in an advertising block colours your brand in a particular way, and to most viewers, that colour is very dark indeed. No advertiser paying thousands of dollars for air-time wants that. A6-LW8GCEAAhPGn

The Australian viewing public is no longer the public of 1956. They are more educated, more selective and more closely linked through social media. An annoyed individual can become an annoyed and active group in a matter of hours. An active group can achieve wonderful things. They can also severely damage a brand and bring it to its knees.

The Facebook page ‘Ban Sports TV Betting’ with over 500 followers recently undertook a campaign against Bunnings Warehouse for placing their advertisement adjacent to a live-odds sports betting ad. The Bunnings defense according to their Marketing Director James Todd was that they had no choice as to who their ad was placed next to. They were correct, yet that is exactly the problem and the problem is growing. Society has changed, yet the TV network’s approach to advertising placement has not.

For TV networks to offer honest advertising value, the concept of ‘guilt by association’ must be recognised. Advertisers must be told who their co-advertisers are before any contact is signed so that marketing executives know their products won’t be sullied by other products, services or personalities bringing a negative perception to the space. It’s a concept the TV networks, already struggling in a highly developed and competitive advertising landscape, cannot and should not ignore.

Lane Cove Pool: Sydney’s biggest shame?

Henry is not my friend’s real name. His name has been changed to protect him from intrusion.

Question: At what point does a public amenity become a public liability?

Answer: When either the amenity becomes potentially dangerous to the public or when the amenity fails to adequately serve community needs.

Unfortunately, Lane Cove Pool satisfies both of these criteria. What was once one of the North Shore’s recreation flagships has become nothing more than a rusting shed – a legal time bomb waiting for its fuse to be lit – a carcass awaiting demolition.

Yet why the harshness? Why denigrate what is surely one of leafy Lane Cove’s treasured institutions?Pool general

Twice a month I spend the morning with a young disabled man who loves to swim. Young Henry can’t talk, is blind, has cerebral palsy and is epileptic. Yet with all this, he’s one of the happiest blokes around. He’s friendly, honest and engaged in the world; far more engaged than most able-bodied people. Henry is also a member of Lane Cove Pool and his ‘Blue Fit’ membership gives him free entry. It’s a nice arrangement and Henry is always pretty happy.

Yet this is where the ‘niceness’ stops.

It is mandatory in NSW for all public amenities to have a toilet facility that can be used by people with a disability. As a matter of fact, the Australian Human Rights Commission provide extensive detail as to the provisions for disabled individuals. Anything outside of this can be considered discriminatory or illegal.

Disabled people need wide doors, special supports beside the toilet, lots of space and custom designed hand washing facilities. Yet on trying to enter the bathroom supposedly set aside for the disabled at Lane Cove Pool, Henry and I have only once been able to get in. Why? Because the bathroom is constantly occupied by families wanting a spacious room to shower and change. Parents with kids clearly too precious to use the able-bodied change room occupy the disabled area so that it is hardly ever available for the disabled when they need it.

On complaining to a pool attendant, I was told that it is also a ‘baby change area’ and that the area had to be shared. While sharing such a facility may have been OK 30 years ago, it is certainly not acceptable now! In all my time of taking Henry swimming, I’ve never seen a parent and baby emerge from the ‘disabled and change’ facility. Parents with children well over three years old emerge; children who haven’t seen a nappy in years and certainly old enough to use the normal facilities.

When a disabled person needs to be toileted, (yes, that’s the term when the person can’t look after themselves), access to the disabled facility needs to be fast and simple. Speed is essential. Making Henry wait while a family casually showers and changes is something he doesn’t understand and he shouldn’t have to. I normally rush him to the able-bodied toilets – cubicles too narrow for ‘us’ to work in and with doors that don’t lock. Dignity – heck no! But clearly Lane Cove Council couldn’t give a damn.

On my last visit to the pool with Henry, we managed to jag the disabled facility for the first time. Score! We were shocked. Ithole in disabled ceiling (2) was the first time in 10 months. Having never been to the room before, we settled in for the changing and toileting tasks believing this was our lucky day. We were wrong.

The floor to the room, a floor that should be well drained and dry, was thick with water. It puddled in areas up to a centimetre deep. Changing a disabled adult in a room like this meant that clothes got wet. It was unavoidable. It was uncomfortable.

There were no paper towels and no soap – necessary in a disabled facility. While the space was better for our purpose thdisabled toilet powerpointan the able-bodied Lane Cove Pool change room, it was ill-equipped, badly lit and dirty. The single power point was rusted and dangerous. With no ventilation besides a gaping hole in the ceiling (see photo above), the space was akin to a pool change room I visited in Delhi in 1987.

What of the ‘able-bodied’ change room?
Yet the families who overtake the disabled facility can’t be fully blamed for doing it. The change rooms and toilets for able-bodied people are also worse than those in the Delhi pool. The change-room floor is puddled with water that simply won’t drain away. The toilet doors don’t lock and the hinges are rusted. On one occasion a door was off its hinge as rust had eaten completely through. Tiles are gaffa taped together to prevent them falling off. The change areas are so crowded that people end up getting dressed in the shower areas. Ventilation is non-existent.

Is this the facility we want in 21st century Sydney?

Change table one minute, lunch table the next – perfect!
Now if the lack of suitable change or toilet areas for able-bodied or disabled people isn’t enough to make you shake your head, perhaps this next truth will.

On several occasions when Henry and I are in the spa, I’ve looked across the toddler’s pool to see a baby being changed on one of the plastic café tables near the kiosk. Faeces, baby-wipes and dirty nappies abound. Far from an unusual occurrence, it’s quite common (see photo). Once changed, mum or dad toddles off to leave the table free for the next family to have lunch. How very considerate.baby changed

Once again, the blame can’t be entirely laid on the desperate mum or dad. The entire complex boasts one baby change table and this dear reader, is in the disabled toilet. Go figure!

I can only urge visitors to the centre to refrain from eating at a table. Perhaps it’s better not to eat at all.

Language and signs
The spa pool proudly boasts a sign stating that under 16 year olds aren’t allowed. That’s all very fine if the area is patrolled by lifeguards enforcing this law which it isn’t. Parents often hold their young children in the spa in open breach of the request.

Yet why? These parents look reasonable and intelligent. They certainly don’t look like belligerent law-breakers.

The reason is simple. At least 40% of those attending Lane Cove pool are from non-English speaking backgrounds. Of this 40%, it is my educated guess that some struggle with reading English. If this is the case, and from teaching in schools and universities across Sydney I believe it is, then why don’t the pool managers erect multilingual signs catering for their target market?spa hygene

Is the leafy north shore too good for this? Is there a failure of reality somewhere in Lane Cove Council? Are multilingual signs simply too expensive?

Rust, rust and more rust
Everything and everyone gets old. Rust is to metal what grey hair is to us. It’s a natural part of metal’s lifespan, yet in most 21st century facilities, the rust is removed or the entire rusted ‘piece’ replaced.

The metal surfaces within the Lane Cove Pool complex are so rusted that it’s only a matter of time before something major collapses. Handrails are rusted and dangerous. The pylons at the southern end of the pool are brown with rust. I hope they don’t support the roof as if they do there’s big trouble ahead!rusty rail 2

Lane Cove Pool has a problem, and while some of the blame can be placed on the Bluefin tenants, most of the blame sits squarely on a council that is seemingly too scared to face the painful reality that their facilities are an embarrassment not only to the North Shore, but to Sydney and indeed NSW.rusty ppylons 2

If money is the problem, perhaps the good council should pull its head from the Garigal sand and start to generate some serious cash. Parking meters seem to work as a cash cow in many councils and enable facilities to be maintained to expected standards. Parking in Lane Cove is hell. Perhaps meters could not just raise cash but fix the parking problem.

If local businesses object to parking meters (which they probably would), perhaps rates in the area could increase for a 12 month period in exchange for better community facilities. Perhaps the good council could have a lamington drive or even a fete! Maybe a meat raffle? Perhaps they could sell the Mayor as ‘slave for a day?

Yet what about Henry? If he could talk he wouldn’t have a bad word to say about anyone. He doesn’t understand about the spa signs. He laughs when I tell him about the rust and the gaffa tape because the word ‘gaffa’ sound a bit funny. He certainly doesn’t laugh when he needs to go to the toilet and the room is occupied by families.

As the carer of Henry, and someone who understands the law and 21st century expectations very well, I don’t laugh at all because in reality, Lane Cove Pool, on Sydney’s leafy North Shore, is no laughing matter.

Let’s make for a fair drug debate

This piece was first published by ‘Online Opinion‘ on May 24, 2012.

The drug debate and whether to decriminalise some illegal substances is getting fair coverage lately and rightly so. It’s a topic needing new ideas and realistic perspectives. Yet can the drug debate ever be fair? The simple answer is no.

While anti-drug campaigners use emotional arguement often surrounding the death of loved ones as their primary and very public banner, decriminalisation campaigners have only logic, statistics, theory and research to sway public opinion. Put simply, apples are just not being compared to apples. In any argument between emotion and logic, there is only ever one winner. The emotional position and the ‘real-life’ tragedies that colour their banner so well will win every time. Just ask anyone in advertising.

No one doubts the terrible grief experienced by the parents of Anna Wood, Daniel Smith or hundreds of others who die of illicit drug related deaths every year. The death of a child is horrific and something parents can never overcome. The premature death of anyone is terrible. Yet how many deaths are there from illicit drugs each year? Is death by illicit drug a universal and unavoidable truth?

According to research from both the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 1,400 unintentional deaths occur each year from illicit drugs or an immediate by-product like Hepatitis C. In comparison, an average 3,500 people die from alcohol related illness and a staggering 15,000 die as a result of tobacco related causes.

Of all the recreational ‘drugs’ available to Australians, illegal ones constitute only 7% of the total drug deaths each year. Legal drugs dominate in the death stakes – a fact many anti-drug campaigners fail to mention. What’s more telling is that the 7% of illegal drugs deaths includes death from the ‘hard drugs’ like heroin or mandrax, with most of these deaths coming as a result of hepatitis B or C through needle sharing. Deaths through ‘Softer’ recreational drugs like ecstasy, cocaine or cannabis, drugs without needle requirements, rate very low indeed.

Yet in the media game, the game of public opinion, it’s the emotional argument complete with pictures of grieving parents and once smiling children that have the greatest impact.  Newspaper articles depicting the young face of Anna Wood combined with the image of her two distraught parents leaves an indelible mark on our psyche. The true-life drama commands more attention and indeed wins more votes than the harsh yet very real statistic. The modern true-life drama of George W Bush’s search for ‘weapons of mass destruction’ captured the world’s imagination and drove us all down a road we didn’t need to travel. The harsh reality proved the drama had no basis in fact. Many dramas don’t. They may have a basis in one truth, yet certainly not a universal truth.

Closely related to this emotion versus logic imbalance is the fact that there is virtually no one on the decriminalisation side willing to own up to a current or past positive use of illegal recreational drugs. They would either be out of a job or in prison within the week, and that’s too high a price to pay for honesty. To put it simply, those who could put a human, experienced and alternative face to the decriminalisation side can’t even join the debate!

Let’s face it, many older, respected community members indulge or have indulged in occasional recreational drug use. Some may do it once a year, while others once a month. Some did it years ago and simply enjoyed it. Amazingly, most of these members of the community did not end up in intensive care nor develop a life-damaging habit.

During my work in both government and the private sector, I’ve known lawyers, doctors, actors, teachers, journalists, accountants, government officers and even old-age pensioners to follow a path of ‘safe occasional and soft’ recreational drug use – a path they often defended as being far less damaging than a regular habit of alcohol or tobacco. Were they nice people? Most certainly! Were they brain addled skeletal, addicted sub-humans? Certainly not! Did they contribute positively to society? Yes indeed.

Yet none of these individuals would risk ‘coming out’ and declaring their ‘sins’- either past or present – in support of ‘softer drug’ decriminalisation. Not because they don’t believe in it, but because the spotlight would be turned on them by the anti-drug coalition, their employers and the law in a way that could potentially ruin their lives.

In any argument where one side practices outside the law, and the other within it, there can be no balance, no fairness and no truth. If the drugs debate is to be fair, the custodians of information must firmly separate the emotional from the rational. Alternatively, emotional and logical arguments should be fostered for both positions in a climate of safety.

Safety however, when it comes to any open declaration of illegal practice is impossible to guarantee. Truthful, honest debate suffers at a time when it’s most needed.  For the sake of this vital discussion, let’s for once try to leave behind the emotive tabloid images of ruined families and lives lost too soon, and compare apples with apples.  Without this level playing field, any new policy stance or potential social change will be forever doomed.

Shedding the facebook facade

New Year’s Day in my family has traditionally been about chucking out old clothes. We stuff old T-shirts, shorts, dresses and business shirts into bags to take to the nearest charity bin. It’s a sign of renewal and growth – that by shedding our old skins we’ve moved on from who we were. It’s also an understanding of aging, and that with the progression of years come different tastes and different waistlines.

This year, I gave away a pair of slim-fit jeans I’d never worn. The tag was still on. Bought as an incentive to lose weight, they failed miserably. I remain fat. The jeans remain slim. It was a good idea at the time.

Yet this year we added a new angle to the clothes disposal routine. This year, amid prodding from computer-less octogenarians, we embarked on a ‘Facebook friends cleanse’.  More specifically, we decided to research just what ‘friends’ were really friends and if we were actually as popular as we thought.

With many of the family spread across the world, us ‘cleansers’ were mostly over 40 years old. My 17 year old daughter, with over 500 friends would probably have refused to participate anyway. I was proud of my 96 friends and looked forward to reaching my century. I’m a cricket fan and remain largely competitive.

The ‘cleanse’ involved asking three simple questions about our friend’s photos. Question 1. Could we name them? Question 2. Had we ever met them? Question 3. Would we go to their funeral?

What eventuated was not surprising to the octogenarians and disappointing to us young ones. On average, we could positively answer all questions for 30% of our ‘friends’.  We smugly knew around 80% of their names and we’d met a staggering 93% of them. The major stumbling block was the dreaded ‘funeral’ question. If 70% of our ‘friends’ died, we wouldn’t attend their funeral.

Now this finding wasn’t so harsh until one of the octogenarians, one who is known for their blunt comments about weight gain and baldness, reminded us that should the research be valid, 70% of our friends wouldn’t attend our funeral either. As one of us had only 12 friends, this left a funeral procession of three people. She optimistically observed that at least the wake would be cheap.

As Facebook starts its eighth year as the world’s most popular social networking site, it’s time to put the concept of friendship and what it means under scrutiny. If attendance at a funeral is at all associated with care and even respect, our New Year’s Day research indicates that we don’t really ‘care’ about 70% of our ‘friends’.

The normally vocal defence to this by those with friends to burn is that many Facebook friends aren’t ‘real’ friends and everyone knows it. ‘Friendship’ is just a term used to help boost our numbers, a term not indicative of real life. Equally not representative is the seemingly endless ‘amazing’ life adventures ‘friends’ seem to have every day – a life where even doing the washing requires a Facebook post; a life where every holiday snap is excitedly posted. For a while I had friend-envy. I thought I was the only one not excited about doing the washing or walking the dog. Now I know better. If they knew that 70% of their friends really couldn’t give a damn perhaps their posts would be less ‘amazing’.

Yet as the younger generation and a battalion of middle-aged wannabees increasingly view Facebook as the necessary life platform, it begs the question as to what these generations are doing on a platform that’s largely not real or representative. As Australia’s magazine sales plummet, perhaps Facebook is replacing them as the place for ‘amazing’ gossip or ‘incredible’ adventures. I’m half expecting a friend to post a fad diet soon or perhaps a guide to better orgasm?

This week we gave four clothing bags to charity. This year, we’ve resolved to shed friends. Not the real ones, yet the ones who like the old clothes or slim jeans, just don’t fit any more or perhaps have never been worn. Perhaps facebook could introduce a special section for newly shed friends, where like our clothes; they could be adopted by others and reused. Now that would be ‘amazing’.

A 7.30 Affair

On the ABC TV news recently, the newly bespectacled Juanita Phillips promoted the following ‘7.30’ program by stating that the program would cover four issues concerning Australians. Asylum seekers, the carbon price, the leadership debate and the sort of sex that women really want.

At 7.30, Leigh Sales flagged the program’s bonus segment which was the growing food allergy problem among Australian children. Political Editor Chris Uhlmann then spent seven minutes giving the history of the asylum seeker, carbon price and leadership debates using past footage and interviews. As riveting as it was to see interview grabs from 2007, nothing new was offered.

Five minutes was then spent covering the children’s allergy issue. While a short piece, reporter Nikki Wilson-Smith at least didn’t rely on footage from 2007.  The longest segment of the program, a hefty eight plus minutes, was spent with Leigh Sales interviewing novelist Nikki Gemmell about what 7.30 described as “the long awaited follow-up to The Bride Stripped Bare”. Strangely enough Nikki Gemmell is an ex ABC journalist. If the novel becomes a best seller and Ms Gemmell pays off her mortgage, some thanks must go to the 7.30 team. Well done. Copies of the extended interview are also available on the 7.30 program’s website and on Ms Gemmell’s facebook page.

Now I fully realise that Australia is a big place and that many may well see these issues as pivotal in their lives. 7.30 and its predecessor ‘The 7.30 Report’ have a history of quality journalism and they really shouldn’t be questioned.

Yet I will.

If the asylum seeker issue is on the tip of everyone’s tongue I’m prepared to eat my cat. While the issue may be interesting (to a point) and while it does revolve around bigger issues of justice and human rights, it is not a large issue driving everyday Australians. As a matter of fact, it probably isn’t even in the top 40. The leadership debate on the other hand is quite different. The asylum seeker debate at least exists. The leadership debate may not.

Several stakeholders drive the current affairs agenda. On commercial TV, the agenda is driven by owners and shareholders needing to attract viewers who will buy the products advertised in the program. This translates to more advertisers, higher add rates and greater profit. As women are the ones who are often the ‘family shoppers’ and therefore more susceptible to advertising, it’s no shock that issues of family, cosmetic surgery, weight loss, and grocery prices are commercial current affairs favourites. The ratings say so.

On tax-payer funded TV like the ABC, TV not dependent upon ratings to sell airtime, current affairs content is more determined by actual news and public interest. The stakeholders here are often political parties, special interest groups, big business PR consultancies and anyone savvy enough to spin an issue into one of significant news value.

There’s no doubt that Asylum seeker advocacy groups and the opposition have a real interest in escalating the border security debate. A barrage of media releases and media-trained talking heads chatting smartly on an emotional issue offer easy pickings for current affairs producers.

Any leadership debate is nearly always driven by the opposition, a disgruntled government back-bencher or business interests feeling threatened by impending government policy. Issue of National interest? Probably not. Issue of special interest? Most certainly.

While what women want in bed may be a saucy dinner party topic, it’s not a topic of national interest worthy of the ABC’s flagship current affairs program. Ms Gemmell would definitely fit the content profile of ‘Today Tonight’ or ‘A Current Affair’, but not tax-payer funded television. The Gemmell-ABC connection, while probably innocent, is also troublesome. Relevance aside, an eight-minute book promo on prime-time TV by an ex ABC staffer is worth investigation. It’s not the actuality of the relationship that matters, but the perception. We could easily be forgiven for assuming an incestuous connection.

The Australian conversation is about health, education and youth alcohol culture. It’s about our struggling retail sector and the exorbitant wages paid to senior executives. It’s about transport systems, childcare and identity. It’s increasingly about the elephant in the room – our aging population and the potential for 70% of us to live our last years in a nursing home we didn’t choose and don’t like. It’s not about what Kevin Rudd said in 2007 and we’re not all awaiting a new novel.

Perhaps ABC current affairs’ staff should get out more. Perhaps they could be reminded that what interests them may not always constitute the national conversation. Whatever the case, ‘7.30’ should be wary of becoming a ratings driven showpiece. We can tolerate ‘A Current Affair’, but ‘A 7.30 Affair’ will not be an affair to remember.

Postscript: On lodging a formal compaint to the ABC, they replied that “It is a mystery to the ABC what you base your claim on, that this interview does not fall within the content parameters” of the program. This broadcast contained no unduly frequent or unduly prominent commercial references.”

You be the judge.

Dumping romance for the sake of kids

This piece was first published in Online Opinion on 29/9/2011.

Child Protection week saw its noble focus placed heavily on preserving marriage for the sake of children. Numerous pundits, including Patrick Parkinson from the International Society of Family Law urged governments to support programs aimed at helping marriages stay committed ‘for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health’. The intention is admirable and no-one doubts that.

The discussion has managed to place marriage and relationships firmly back on the public agenda. Yet child protection commentators, in pressing for greater commitment from adults within the marriage union are missing the crux of the problem entirely.  The problem for children isn’t their parent’s lagging commitment to marriage, but our very definition of an institution which is outdated, restrictive and increasingly unpopular.

The myth of romantic marriage and the nuclear family ideal that evolves from it has never been in deeper trouble than it is now. Today’s divorce statistics place marriage very much in the high risk basket. If the institution was a bank it would have very few investors. Only the mad would invest in a bank with a 46% failure rate.

Why is marriage, which seemingly worked well for hundreds of years in so much trouble?  Perhaps the simplest reason is that as our knowledge, wealth and life span have increased, we’ve realised that one person cannot possibly meet all our needs for the rest of our lives. Our average age of death since 1790 has moved from 45 to 80 years, and the ‘rest of our lives’ is a bloody long time! As medical science has increased our life expectancy, it has decreased our marital satisfaction. As we’ve become wealthier, we find we don’t ‘need’ our significant other for survival.

Mum and dad cannot possibly mean all things to each other because in our fast-paced, connected world, ‘all things’ means a hell of a lot.  In a small, isolated community it’s far easier to be all things to one’s partner. We possibly even need them to survive. When the world is at our fingertips, our choices are limitless and the ability of one person to address them all has its bounds.

Yet another reason is perhaps the most important. As education levels have increased, the penny has finally dropped that nuclear families do not provide the safest and healthiest way of bringing up children. Far from providing a protective umbrella of care as in extended family or community systems, the nuclear family through the institution of marriage creates a narrow funnel of care; a funnel firmly fixed on mum and dad; a funnel of responsibility too great for any couple to realistically bear.

This toxic nuclear family ideal, and the myth of romantic marriage that gives birth to it, must accept some responsibility for the extent of child abuse in this country.

In an attempt to forge a way out of the divorce mire, the idea of the limited marriage contract is once again on the table. The language used in this discussion is decidedly removed from any ideal of ‘forever love’ and firmly placed in the practical world of 21st century relationships. Yes, any talk of a marriage contract instantly pours cold water on romance just as finding the mortgage payment pours cold water on the ideal of home ownership. Time to grow up.

These contracts talk about finance and housing; about land entitlement and health; about family responsibilities should the couple separate before a child’s 18th birthday. If as research states, the chance of children reaching the age of 15 without two parents at home has doubled over a generation, what extended family or community links exist to ensure children’s safety?

21st century contracts will realistically appraise marriage as an investment with a 46% failure rate. If couples absolutely need to invest in the marriage ‘bank’, they must understand what it means to be a part of that 46%.

The modern marriage contract will have an expiry date with an option to renew. This expiry date could be shorter should the couple remain childless or longer should children arrive.  The relationship under the contract may change over the years and the individuals may not always live under the same roof. The couple however, maintain a core understanding for the well-being of the children. Mothers will always have important maternal contact. Fathers will always remain involved in their children’s lives.

Interestingly, American researcher Kyle Pruett found that fathers who are significantly involved in the daily physical care of their children are far less likely to be involved in the abuse of their own or anyone else’s children.  In the light of this, perhaps those pressing for more ‘commitment’ within marriage could also press for less industry time demands on dads.

An intelligent society questions the institutions that generate concern. Savvy investors question companies that fail to deliver. Rather than blindly invest in an institution with a 46% failure rate, it’s time to reappraise marriage and the family unit it generates. Perhaps then will children be the focus of a less romantic, yet highly possible relationship platform.

Fluoro vest? Just say NO!

This piece was first published in The Australian Media Section on 1/8/2011

Last week on the TV news, Tony Abbott, wearing a fluoro-green safety vest, lifted a fish above his head and criticised the carbon tax. Ten seconds later, he lifted another fish and criticised the carbon tax again. New words, same message, different fish.

In the same bulletin, Julia Gillard, dressed in a fluoro-orange safety vest, hard hat and safety glasses, praised her carbon tax and tried to cut a small piece of timber with a bandsaw. After her attempt she removed her safety glasses and again praised the tax. Different words, same message, new look. It was riveting television.

Many things are deeply troubling about the two pieces of footage. One is that the fluoro safety vest has now become de rigueur among politicians from all sides and looks like being THE fashion must-have of 2011. Sources tell me David Jones is looking to Christmas sales of fluoro vests to revive their flagging share price. Another concern is the welfare of Abbott’s fish. Were they harmed in any way? Was a vet on hand to oversee the event? If dead, were they humanely put down?

Yet the most troubling aspect of the footage is that the news editor thought these two obviously constructed photo opportunities newsworthy enough to broadcast in the first place. Neither contained anything ‘new’ that would alter the political landscape or impact our daily lives. Indeed, neither was newsworthy at all. Visually interesting – perhaps. Newsworthy – no.

As a past practitioner of the dark art of Public Relations, I know exactly how the newsroom was contacted and why journalists were assigned to cover the fluoro fish and timber shows. TV news editors, desperate for colourful footage, and having no budget or time for investigative journalism, have become the PR practitioner’s lap-dogs.  It’s estimated that 60% of our news comes from media releases written by PR people pushing ‘a particular truth’, not necessarily ‘the’ truth. The ever thirsty TV news beast can be full of real news, or constructed stunts, real colour or fake fluoro, one truth or THE truth … as long as the bulletin is full, the job’s done.

Having our news broadcasts largely at the mercy of political spin doctors creates a formulaic news cycle that’s predictable and sanitised. Our news audio becomes tit-for-tat argument while our visuals become stage-managed theatre. The TV news package becomes soap opera entertainment – ‘Days of our Lives’ in a different time slot.

Love them or hate them, Barnaby Joyce will at least say something unscripted by media advisers just as Bob Katter doesn’t need a fluoro vest to be interesting. These two don’t have advisors flapping around trying to maintain positive public opinion and constructing photo opportunities. Feeding the TV news beast is clearly not a priority. They are at least ‘real’.

In these days of potential media regulation, TV newsrooms must become what their name implies – not merely passive camera crews rushing to creatively orchestrated photo stunts. News editors could begin to cover stories that are not so easy and not so cheap. While the stage-managed easy, cheap and fast story may provide palatable, entertaining viewing while we eat our TV dinner, it is not usually newsworthy.

Above all, we the news-hungry public could begin to not only question the media, but question our own passive digestion of daily news. Our society, at risk of becoming physically obese on fast food, is becoming mentally flabby on a diet of fast TV news we rarely analyse.  We seldom ask where it’s come from. Just as our food is a choice to be considered, so is our news. It’s time to shed some flab. Questioning our news content, and especially its source, is a great place to start.

The 2016 HSC: Time for the digital exam

This is a 2016 update of the piece that first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 6, 2011.

In October each year, tens of thousands of teenagers from across NSW sit their first exam of the Higher School Certificate (HSC). After 12 years of formal education and sometimes umpteen hours of private coaching, they will raise their pens and begin the frantic, anxious scrawl that for 50 years has epitomised this rite of passage. As an ex-teacher, I supervised this herd anxiety many times. Thankfully now non-teaching supervisors do the job. It’s horrible to watch.

In 1967, when the first HSC examination was held, students filed solemnly into school halls or double classrooms to write rushed pen-scribbled essays in paper booklets. Their wrists ached from gripping the pen and the booklets were often smudged with sweat. These booklets were then sent to HSC marking centres where markers, teachers who wanted extra cash and supposedly knew their stuff, worked hard and long to read the scrawl and assess whether students had addressed the syllabus. That prehistoric system has clearly changed dramatically in our digital age. Not!

In 2016, students will still file solemnly into school halls or double classrooms. They will still rush their essays using pen and paper booklets. Their wrists will still ache. Their papers will be taken to marking centers, where informed (or not) teachers wanting extra cash will mark to standardised guidelines. Possibly the only difference is that the essay scribble this October will be far less legible due to this generation who’ve been taught to use technology rather than pen and paper. I pity the markers. hsc-stress

In 2016 again, the Board of Studies has given millions of dollars to the advancement of STEM subjects in NSW schools. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. I guess hundreds of years ago, pens and pencils may have been a terrific STEM concept.

Today’s students from the age of three have sculpted their lives around their computers and the websites that frame their social experience. Their school life has revolved around the typing and digital editing of projects.  Often assignments must be submitted electronically through plagiarism programs like ‘Turn it in’ before any hard-copy is given to the teacher. Compulsory technology subjects have been allocated time in the curriculum to prepare them for the world of work or further study where absolutely everything has to be digitally generated.

Why then, after so much technology focus, are these teenagers forced to use pen and paper to get the best marks in a test that largely decides their future? Surely the writing of an impressive essay on Othello requires word processing and editing, a skill taught to these students throughout their school years? School principals are asking the same question. Students are asking the question very loudly indeed.

The NSW Board of Studies however states that “the HSC is a hand-written examination”. Not even students with hand injuries are allowed a computer in case they gain “unfair advantage” over those scribbling with pen.

Yet according to Board of Studies data, some students receive special provision in HSC exams that could well be construed as ‘unfair advantage’. In 2009 for example, 41.7 per cent of HSC candidates from a Sydney Rudolf Steiner school received special provisions largely due to anxiety.  These provisions can mean extra time given as periods of rest in an exam, or a writer to actually write dictated material. The difference between fair and unfair advantage can hang on a drop of sweat.

No-one doubts that the introduction of laptops into the HSC has issues. All web-based research by a candidate needs to be blocked. Keyboards can be noisy and this could disturb others (yet many students find the hush of an exam room very disturbing indeed). The constant back-up of entered material needs to be foolproof.

Yet compared to pen and paper issues, these problems seem small. My recent poll in the popular Facebook page HSC Discussion Group 2016 revealed that 78% of HSC students believe the exams should HSC Survey No 3be a mixture of handwritten and computer based depending on the subject. Only 7.5% believed the HSC should be all computer based while 15% wanted to stay entirely with handwriting. These figures show incredible common sense among year 12 students and a willingness to accept that some subjects do warrant the longhand approach.

The introduction of digital testing centers into universities shows that mass equitable testing is possible. Thousands of students now submit both essays and multiple choice tasks via centers equipped with ID checking and security systems.  In 2009, the Board of Studies set 2012 as a target for testing HSC software. It’s already four years late. According to a spokesman, “The pilot and testing of computer technology will happen but there’s no specific date.”

The Board of Studies, so quick to include technology in the K-12 curriculum yet so slow to actually use it, need to set a firm and realistic target so that both teachers and students know where they stand. Digitization of the HSC is inevitable; just don’t throw away your pens yet!