Could coronavirus bring back our faith in experts?



The Conversation/Wes Mountain, CC BY-SA

Misha Ketchell, The Conversation

In recent years an ugly hostility to experts has become entrenched in public life. Populists like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have defined themselves in opposition to elites, gaining high office while pouring scorn on anyone who actually knows what they are talking about. British politician Michael Gove stated it baldly when he said the public was sick of experts.

Across the world the level of aggression directed at climate scientists has been frightening. Academics, public servants, judges, scientists, meteorologists and health officials have all become used to being traduced where once they might have been respected for their unique skills and knowledge.

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Australia too has been infected by anti-intellectualism, a powerful undercurrent in Canberra. Late last year the government announced a shake-up of the public service aimed at busting the “mandarin” club. Deriding research projects funded by the ARC and NHMRC has long been a staple of tabloid resentment. As I write this universities are struggling to find friends in government, despite the urgency of their research work and a predicted loss of up to $4.6 billion in the wake of COVID-19, which will severely curtail our research capacity.




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But things are changing quickly. For weeks now we have barely seen the prime minister without Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy by his side. Writing in the Nine newspapers this week, the journalist Peter Hartcher posed the important question of whether COVID-19 could be a circuit-breaker for populism founded on hostility to experts.

The political calculation used to be that the public will tolerate it when experts get rough treatment. But now we’re being told, quite rightly, that we are in this together.

And who will solve our problems now? Medical researchers, epidemiologists, immunologists, economists, psychologists, legal scholars, sociologists. In a word, experts.

The Conversation was created in 2011 to build a bridge between academic experts and the broader public. For the past nine years we’ve been working with the world’s best academics, bringing you their groundbreaking research and drawing on their expertise to help explain the big issues and news events of our times.

Despite a large and appreciative audience, we’ve always been swimming against a tide. But it’s turning, and the research and expertise found in Australian and New Zealand universities couldn’t be more essential.

Now is the time to get behind the experts: debate them, critique them, respect them, value them. It’s what The Conversation has always done, and what we will continue to do as we look to our brightest thinkers to map a future after COVID-19.The Conversation

Misha Ketchell, Editor & Executive Director, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We should listen to coronavirus experts, but local wisdom counts too



Makeshift hospital beds at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne during the influenza pandemic of 1919.
Museum Victoria

Matthew Kearnes, UNSW; Brian Robert Cook, University of Melbourne; Declan Kuch, UNSW; Joan Leach, Australian National University; Niamh Stephenson, UNSW; Rachel A. Ankeny, University of Adelaide, and Sujatha Raman, Australian National University

Public health messages about COVID-19 have been inconsistent and changed rapidly. Many have called for a unified source of expertise to guide responses to the crisis.

However, with the federal, state and local governments, as well as international bodies, offering different advice, it is no simple task to “listen to the experts”.

In uncertain situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, biomedical and public health experts contribute facts and their own judgements about risk to our collective thinking and decision making.

The public also have important contributions to make. In response to the spread of coronavirus, community groups are setting out to care for elderly neighbours. People are remembering the importance of nurturing community connections and developing an understanding of the structural burdens placed on women in times of crisis.

Alongside traditional kinds of expertise, this kind of “real time” expertise and leadership at the local scale will be invaluable in coming weeks and months.




Read more:
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Expertise is political

Expert judgements don’t exist in a vacuum. They arise from specific social and political contexts. To understand them, we need to acknowledge the tacit assumptions embedded within expert knowledge claims, especially assumptions concerning how publics respond to expert advice.

In recent weeks there has been much debate about the federal governments’s decision to keep schools open, which has only been made more uncertain by disagreements between experts over the role of schools in the transmission of COVID-19.

Similarly, in the Ruby Princess “debacle”, different governments and agencies have attempted to blame each other and drawn on expert knowledge claims to justify their actions.

These examples demonstrate how expertise is entangled with questions of political judgement and anticipated societal responses.

For publics, it can be hard to distinguish between health experts working for the government and those criticising the government. Experts tend to look alike, sound alike, and “advise” alike, leaving publics to navigate the cacophony.

In this situation, deciding which experts to listen to can become a nearly impossible task. Little wonder many people have been slow to change their behaviour.

Understanding public responses

As recently as two months ago, during Australia’s catastrophic bushfire season, publics were seen as resourceful and resilient. That image has quickly been replaced by a characterisation as vulnerable, easily spooked, and panicking in the face of uncertainty.

However, we can understand buying food, cleaning products, face masks, toiletries, and medication for asthma and fevers as reasonable responses to questions that experts themselves are trying to address in real time. For example, medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris has argued that face mask buying sprees are a reminder we should think of epidemics “not simply as biological events but also as social processes”.




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Stocking up to prepare for a crisis isn’t ‘panic buying’. It’s actually a pretty rational choice


Science studies scholar Brian Wynne has said the idea of public trust in expertise is too simple. The relationship between publics and experts is complex and ambivalent, he argues, and qualified by “the experience of dependency, possible alienation, and lack of agency”.

Public responses to COVID-19 are not as simple as a mass panic, but they signal something more worrying. The public lacks confidence in public health infrastructure and its ability to contain the virus. “Toilet paper panic” is the response of a population for whom expert advice is one factor among many that affect their feelings of security and wellbeing.

For experts seeking to contribute to public decision making, researchers have empirically demonstrated the productive value of collaborative approaches. For example, sociologist Steven Epstein has documented how collaborations between researchers and broader “lay experts” during the AIDS/HIV epidemic in the 1990s played a key role in the public health response to the disease.

Engaging public expertise, even in times of crisis

But how do we achieve meaningful engagement between publics and experts? Broadening our understanding of expertise would be a start.

Expertise might include the outpouring of creative expression prompted by
COVID-19, or the surge in creation of mutual support groups.

Likewise, efforts to translate health warnings are essential for engaging vulnerable communities. These networks of varied expertise are likely to prove invaluable when existing governance is over-stretched or breaks down.

Diverse, diffuse, and local initiatives are likely to continue during periods of chaos, with the added advantage of feeding further expertise from the ground back into the knowledge system.

The need for a diversity of expertise is already being recognised in responses to COVID-19. The WHO recommends risk communication strategies should “promote a two-way dialogue with communities, the public and other stakeholders”.

The ABC’s Coronacast podcast is one such two-way channel that responds to public concerns and questions. Scientists are also seeking volunteer researchers in the effort to address COVID-19, and many viral social media threads sharing notes on patients’ experience of triage and care have been important sources of information for healthcare workers.

Attending to the dynamism and diversity of expertise does not diminish its invaluable roles in society.

Understanding that the crisis of COVID-19 is also a social one should raise questions of how our traditional reliance on expert advice relegates local expertise to the sidelines.

It is critical that we recognise how local expertise is filling the gaps in government policies and expert advice, and is likely to continue to do so in crises such as the recent bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have an opportunity to appreciate that community responses are characterised by their own expertise. We ought also to listen to those experts.The Conversation

Matthew Kearnes, Professor, Environment & Society, School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW; Brian Robert Cook, Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne; Declan Kuch, Research Fellow, Environment & Society, School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW; Joan Leach, Professor, Australian National University; Niamh Stephenson, Associate Professor in Social Science, UNSW; Rachel A. Ankeny, Professor of History and Philosophy, and Deputy Dean Research (Faculty of Arts), University of Adelaide, and Sujatha Raman, Associate Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A matter of trust: coronavirus shows again why we value expertise when it comes to our health



AAP/Dan Peled

Aaron Martin, University of Melbourne; Andrea Carson, La Trobe University, and Erik Baekkeskov, University of Melbourne

The viral spread of mis- and disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, just like the viral spread of the disease itself, has led to unprecedented media coverage. This has included a welcome return to prioritising expert knowledge.

Amid widespread criticism of the sharing of “fake news” about coronavirus, seven of the world’s most influential technology companies have banded together to prioritise the public health messages of experts. Companies such as Facebook and Google have now committed to “elevating authoritative content on our platforms and sharing critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies around the world”.

As the death toll from COVID-19 has climbed, the world’s technology giants have faced the same question confronting all of us: who to turn to for information, and how much trust we have in that information.




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To better understand questions of public trust, the University of Melbourne’s Policy Lab last year conducted a representative survey of 1,000 Australians.

In this survey, we asked where people would turn to get information about a health problem. Respondents nominated their “local doctor” and “24-hour nurse hotline” to be among the most important sources of information.

We then asked which of the sources were the most trusted. Respondents listed their local doctor as number one, the 24-hour nurse hotline number two and the public hospital website as number three.

Given escalating attacks on experts in recent years, the survey findings reveal a rare piece of good news for evidence-based knowledge in the so-called “post-truth” age. Our findings suggest medical experts and public authorities remain the most frequently turned to, and trusted, sources of information when it comes to health.

Another Policy Lab study from 2019 arrived at the same conclusion. That peer-reviewed research found Australians were much more likely to support a health policy intervention put forward by “medical scientists” than if the same policy was put forward by “the government in Canberra”.

This finding sits well with the Australian government’s decision in March that the group of Chief Medical Officers around the country – known as the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee or AHPPC – would be “the paramount source of medical advice to the nation”.

Together with the establishment of a unique “war cabinet” called the National Cabinet, the nation’s chief medical officers are the principal source of advice to state and federal governments.

And while there may be differences of approach between experts, it is within the confines of expertise, rather than random online opinions, that debate is best had in times of medical emergencies.

Like other national studies this decade, our survey showed that Google searches and social media were among the most used sources of information. Yet, when we asked how much they trusted these sources, participants nominated Google and social media as the least trusted sources.

Social media and online discussion plays a central role in public communication about coronavirus. But they are also a source of mis- and disinformation that can ramp up public fear and – even worse – be a source of dangerous, unqualified advice. The decisions by technology companies to prioritise experts is an important step forward in a world awash with untrustworthy information.

The headline finding of our research is that most Australians turn to and trust medical experts, such as doctors, when a health concern arises. For everything that is said about the “death of expertise”, doctors and scientists appear to hold an esteemed position in society — at least when it comes to health.

There are clear policy implications that stem from this.

The first is that health seems protected from the erosion of trust that has affected other areas of society. This may be because health professionals’ objectives are easy to understand – to save lives.

Secondly, while governments and health authorities play a vital role in countering public misinformation, they no longer have the stage to themselves. This is a shift from when journalists were the main gatekeepers able to prioritise authoritative sources.

This new reality requires a delicate balancing act from our experts and leaders in which they must try to communicate risk while mitigating the harm that such information can cause when communicated in a selective way through various platforms.

Thirdly, as we are now seeing, tech companies such as Google and Facebook are realising they can no longer avoid making decisions about when to censor online information that may be harmful to its users.




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This is obviously a thorny issue as censorship goes against democratic values. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has warned about the dangers of his company becoming the “arbiters of truth” in the absence of government regulations.

Yet, coronavirus has reminded all of us that how information circulates on these online platforms is now, quite literally, a matter of life or death. It is significant that the technology companies that have resisted censoring political disinformation, that arguably harms the democratic process itself, have agreed to band together to censor disinformation about coronavirus.

Those who have attacked the “establishment” and “experts”“ in recent years are the same people now looking to medical experts for advice.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, it would appear that the death of expertise has been “greatly exaggerated”.The Conversation

Aaron Martin, Associate Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne; Andrea Carson, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy, La Trobe University, and Erik Baekkeskov, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Which leaders and health experts will be on the right side of history on COVID-19 policy?


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

After the coronavirus nightmare has passed, harsh judgments will be made about which political leaders and health experts were on the right or wrong side in handling this crisis.

Politicians like to cast back to the global financial crisis and play the blame game. The stakes were very high then – this time they are multiplied.

And there are many with futures or reputations (or both) on the line.

This week we’ve seen a high-profile clash of opinions and expertise on display. Given the exponential rise in cases, the calls for everyone to be on the same page must be secondary to the imperative of getting the right strategy.

One school of thought says, put health first and go nuclear now, with a full lockdown. The other school favours a stepped approach, tightening the screws but trying to keep as much economic activity alive for as long as possible.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (Labor) and New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian (Liberal) are hardliners. Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton spoke out forcefully this week. The two premiers have given notice their states are set to move to lockdown (where people would be confined to their homes). Jacinda Ardern has already taken New Zealand there.

With the divide crossing partisan lines, Andrews and Berejiklian are working closely together.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is the prime advocate of the gradual approach. Resisting a full lockdown, he argued strongly this week he didn’t want to throw people out of jobs where it was possible to avoid doing so, and he feared the consequences of the stresses the economic crisis would put on families.

For Morrison, it’s a balancing act, in the face of “a twin crisis, a crisis on a health front, which is also causing a crisis in the economy as well. And both of them can be equally as deadly, both in terms of the lives of Australians and their livelihood.”




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Labor has aligned with the position taken by Andrews and Berejiklian. From the start, the opposition has been urging faster action; this week Anthony Albanese sharpened his criticism.

He disputed “there is a tension between dealing with the health issues and dealing with the economic issues. That is a false distinction.

“The government has a responsibility to deal with this health emergency. That is the first priority. Then, it needs to deal with the economic consequences of the health emergency and the appropriate response. It needs to be done in that order.”

Those who argue Labor is just playing politics and should be sticking to the government line are off beam. This is a policy crisis too and policy arguments are legitimate and indeed necessary.

Among federal officials, the secretary of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, is reportedly a hardliner.

Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy (who has been appointed secretary of the Health Department) and his deputy, Paul Kelly, have been strong public defenders of the gradualist path.

Yet in the health world many in academia are advocates of an immediate lockdown.

The prime minister has found his hand being forced by the states (as in Sunday’s argy bargy on shutdowns) or bypassed (on schools).

Morrison has been a firm advocate of keeping the schools open, arguing it’s vital so health workers can continue in their jobs, and also because children shouldn’t lose a year of education.

This week Berejiklian advised parents to keep children home, while Andrews brought forward the school holidays. Western Australia is now encouraging remaining at home as new arrangements are prepared. Next week Queensland schools will be “student free” (apart from children of “frontline workers”). South Australia is likewise planning for the future.




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Academic experts are at the centre of the policy battle, and this carries its own politics.

Take a paper, commissioned by the federal government, reporting the advice of 22 experts from Group Of Eight universities. Dated Sunday, it put forward two views.

“One view, influenced by our position on the epidemic curve, the limitations of wide community testing and surveillance and the experience of other countries, argues for a comprehensive, simultaneous ban across Australia.

“The other, influenced by the fact that a large number of our cases are a direct/contacts of importation (which have now been stopped), influenced by the large variation in case density across Australia and the adverse consequences of closure and the sustainability and compliance to an early closure, argued for a more proportionate response”.

The first view was “a dominant position in this group”, the paper said. What it didn’t add was that this was the overwhelming view.

When asked about the paper at a Tuesday news conference, both Morrison and Murphy were noticeably uneasy. Morrison flicked the question to Murphy who said: “Any measures we place, we believe need to be for the long haul. The idea that you can put measures in place for four weeks and suddenly stop them and the virus will be gone is not credible. So we are very keen to put as restrictive measures in place without completely destroying life as we know it.”

Another paper circulating, including to senior business figures, argues “the case for a short, sharp lockdown in Australia”. It has been contributed to by Raina MacIntyre, who heads UNSW’s Biosecurity Program; Louisa Jorm, director of the Centre for Big Data Research in Health, UNSW; Tim Churches, health data scientist at UNSW; and Richard Nunes-Vaz, from Torrens Resilience Institute at Flinders University.

“We are deeply concerned about the prospect of Australia losing control of the epidemic to a degree which would exceed health system capacity and result in far greater numbers of cases, more health and economic losses, and a longer time to societal recovery,” the paper says.

“A short, sharp lockdown of 4-8 weeks will improve control of the epidemic in Australia, reduce case numbers and bring us to a more manageable baseline from which phased lifting of restrictions and economic recovery can occur.

“If we fail to do this, we face continued epidemic growth, potential failure of the health system, and a far longer road to recovery.”

The lockdown would be used to ramp up a massive testing operation to identify and isolate cases, enabling the subsequent ease-off to be done more safely.

On Thursday the federal government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly suggested challenges to official advice made for public confusion and should be kept behind closed doors.

Not if the challengers turn out to be right.

Morrison received praise in the early days for his handling of the crisis. Now he and his closest health advisers are increasingly finding themselves the odd men out.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Federal government unveils ‘National Energy Guarantee’ – experts react


Alan Pears, RMIT University; Anna Skarbek, Monash University, and Dylan McConnell, University of Melbourne

The federal government has announced a new energy policy, after deciding against adopting the Clean Energy Target recommended by chief scientist Alan Finkel.

The new plan, called the National Energy Guarantee, will require electricity retailers to make a certain amount of “dispatchable” power available at all times, and also to reduce the electricity sector’s greenhouse emissions by 26% relative to 2005 levels by 2030.

The government says it will save the average household up to A$115 a year after 2020, while also ensuring reliability. Below, our experts react to the new policy.


Read more: Infographic: the National Energy Guarantee at a glance


“The federal government will be even less important in energy policy”

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

Business, state governments and the energy industry have been clamouring for more certainty from the federal government. Now they have it: the federal government will be even less important in shaping energy and climate policy than in the past, leaving states and territories, local government, business and households to focus on driving the energy revolution and cutting emissions.

The new policy will impose a reliability obligation on energy retailers, who will presumably have to select an appropriate mix of energy suppliers to meet it, and the devil will be in the detail. If the required proportion of dispatchable electricity is reasonable, and if retailers and new renewable energy generators are free to decide how to deliver it, then the cost and difficulty of compliance may be modest.

For example, retailers and generators could piggyback on the demand response capacity volunteered for the ARENA Demand Response project. This could help accelerate the rollout of a variety of energy storage solutions, in turn reducing the market power of the big generators and driving down energy prices.

On the other hand, if the options are limited, the obligation could increase the market power of the gas industry, meaning no relief from high wholesale prices.

It will also be interesting to see if the obligation is applied across all new generation. If so, it could significantly increase the cost of new coal generation, as retailers would have to cover the risk of failure of a large generation unit, as well as managing its slow response to changing demand.


“Australia’s electricity sector can cut emissions more”

Anna Skarbek, Chief Executive, ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

The key question is whether the emissions guarantee will be strong enough for Australia to meet its current and future climate obligations under the Paris Agreement.

Electricity creates more than one-third of Australia’s total emissions. If we don’t reduce the emissions in our electricity, then we don’t unlock other emissions reduction opportunities such as electric vehicles.

If the National Energy Guarantee aims at cutting emissions by only 26% by 2030 then other sectors across the economy would have to make greater emissions
reductions sooner.

But our research shows that Australia’s electricity sector can cut emissions by 60% below 2005 levels by 2030. Harnessing this potential will help us to reach future targets that progressively increase under the Paris Agreement.

If you don’t achieve deep emissions reductions in the electricity sector, a major strengthening of policy will be needed for the other sectors where there is less momentum currently. For example, stronger action would be needed in transport, buildings, industry and land.

Australia’s climate policy, which is being reviewed before the end of the year, will need to cover more than just the electricity sector. Other measures should include the introduction of vehicle emissions standards, a more stringent
national building code, a dramatic improvement in the uptake of energy efficiency measures across industry and stronger incentives for reforestation.


How the reliability guarantee will work

Dylan McConnell, Researcher at the Australian German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

Under the NEG retailers are responsible for ensuring continuous supply of energy. But retailers don’t always generate the energy they sell. In order to meet the NEG’s reliability obligation retailers will most likely enter into cap contracts with generators.

Unlike other kinds of contracts, which impose a fixed price, cap contracts only come into play when high demand pushes energy prices over a certain pre-agreed level. At that point, generators with flexible dispatchable power guarantee that they will provide extra energy.

The extreme peaks, where the price heads to A$14,000 per megawatt hour – only come a couple of times a year, if at all. To compensate generators for building all that extra capacity, retailers pay a daily premium. Cap contracts essentially act as insurance: they protect retailers from extremely high prices during intense demand, and they offer generators the chance of steep profits.

Cap contracts are a standard part of the market, and retailers already used them to manage their risk exposure. The Energy Security Board has said:

This reliability guarantee would require retailers to hold forward contracts with dispatchable resources that cover a predetermined percentage of their forecast peak load.

If the new reliability standards are in line with retailers own internal guidelines, the impact on the market should be minimal. But if the government imposes higher standards, retailers will have to purchase more cap contracts (or build their own dispatchable power plants).

If demand for cap contracts increase, it would most likely encourage investment in gas and hydro power plants.


The ConversationThis article was updated on October 18.

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University; Anna Skarbek, CEO at ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University, and Dylan McConnell, Researcher at the Australian German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Just do the weather’: does it matter if TV weather presenters aren’t experts?



File 20170801 14795 1nt14ty
The stereotype of the conventionally attractive female weather reporter is alive and well on Australian television.
Azuzl/shutterstock.com

Lawrie Zion, La Trobe University

This is an edited extract from The Weather Obsession by Lawrie Zion, published by Melbourne University Press.


When Olympic swimming champion Giaan Rooney was asked to fill in presenting the weather segment on Melbourne’s Channel Seven weeknight news program just before Christmas 2012, she was taken aback. She pointed out that she knew nothing about weather and that her credibility was in sport. “Don’t worry, just do the weather,” was the reply from the network. Six weeks later, the 30-year-old Rooney was invited to continue in the role, replacing the 52-year-old presenter and trained meteorologist David Brown, who had been presenting on Seven for 20 years.

As it turned out, Brown remained with the network and eventually went on to present the weather for Seven’s Sydney weeknight bulletin. But the switch from Brown to Rooney illustrates a dilemma that has never been resolved. Just who should present the weather on television?


Read more: How World War I changed the weather for good.


Commenting on Rooney’s appointment soon after the announcement, the Sunday Herald Sun’s Susie O’Brien wrote:

…the old adage that people like a mature man to tell them the serious news and a pretty face to tell them the weather still seems to apply. The real question is why we need a nice-looking woman who isn’t a meteorological expert to tell us the weather at a time when climate issues have never been more
important. The fact that we are still having these debates is a sign we have a long way to go. Sadly, I think we will continue to see women used as decorations on network TV for a while to come.

What O’Brien saw as an anachronistic decision needs to be understood in the context of the role of weather segments in television news bulletins, and the changing demographics of broadcast news audiences.

Weather presenters have long been a crucial component of any television news team, and are promoted as such. For many in the audience, they’ve also been the main conduit of weather information. Ten years ago 90% of Australians received at least some of their weather information from television. This has since fallen to 71%, according to a Bureau of Meteorology survey. But that’s still a lot of eyeballs. And with their segments usually perched at the end of bulletins, the extent to which weather presenters connect with viewers helps to determine whether their station can carry the valuable news audience over to the start of the next program.

When it comes to sheer numbers, TV news audiences may have generally held up well with older viewers, but younger viewers aren’t drawn to these programs to anything like the extent that their parents were. The result is that around half the audience is over the age of 50, and therefore more likely to go for the familiar than the experimental. So while the steady evolution of graphics means that weather reports look very different now from how they appeared in the early days of television, the format has remained more predictable than the weather itself.

We all know the ritual: What happened today? What will happen tomorrow? And beyond tomorrow? Across the country? If it’s a local bulletin the state and/or city forecast will precede the sign-off. As Channel Nine Brisbane news presenter Andrew Lofthouse has put it: “The weather reports are still one of the constant reassuring things that people can rely on.” This might partly explain why changes to who presents the weather attract so much attention within the media itself.

Despite an overall tendency to play it safe, what this actually means tends to fluctuate, with appearance, personality and specialist credentials all deemed to be relevant factors to varying degrees. As O’Brien put it in the context of Brown’s replacement by Rooney: “Presumably Channel Seven has tired of the serious approach and in the midst of falling ratings is going for the well-worn route of installing an attractive female to freshen things up.”

Hiring attractive women as weather presenters is a time-honoured global tradition. Writing about the history of TV weather in America, Robert Henson points out that it became clear in the 1950s that women could be accepted as weathercasters, as long as the focus was kept on clothing, hairstyle or anatomy. “So began the brief ascendancy of ‘weathergirls’, a term that speaks volumes about the differences in status between these women and their male counterparts in weathercasting.”

But while the weathergirl craze abated in the United States by the early 1960s, in Australia, where television had been introduced relatively recently, it was just beginning. In 1961, an item in the Bureau’s in-house publication, Weather News, noted that in Brisbane, “the majority of stations appear to favour the glamour-girl type of telecaster for weather presentations”, and that “Bureau staff have had the pleasure of indoctrinating and briefing two ‘Miss Australias’ and one ‘Miss Queensland’ in the short time that television has been operating in this State”. The background training included explaining the need for weather information to be presented seriously and faithfully, “and particularly for the more glamorous the need to submerge their glamour behind the prosaic highs and lows”.

In 1965, Melbourne’s Channel 9 hired model Rosemary Margan to present the weather. One evening in 1969, she appeared in a fur coat before stripping to a bikini during her live segment, sparking a steady stream of responses from viewers. In the 1970s, when searching for a replacement for the then pregnant Margan, the station hired the 15-year-old schoolgirl Kerry Armstrong, whose job application had led them to believe she was 22. While often appearing in short, tight garments, Armstrong, who went on to become a celebrated actor, did on one occasion break away from the standard weather script, when she informed viewers that “due to the drought, 1,000 head of cattle died. But don’t worry, beachgoers, it’s going to be another great day tomorrow with a top of 35 degrees”.

Decades later, the “weather girl” tag has proved hard to shake, as current Melbourne Channel Nine weather presenter Livinia Nixon told The Age in 2010. “TV and radio are very much boys’ clubs; they’re industries that are still very, very male-dominated,” she says, acknowledging that a male who presents the weather is a weather man, whereas she is a “weather girl”. “I wonder at what point you lose the ‘girl’?” she asks, having presented the segment on Nine’s 6pm weeknight news since 2004. “What age do you have to reach to not be called a girl any more?”

What if the woman presenting the weather has a relevant tertiary qualification? Back at Seven in Melbourne, Giaan Rooney remained in the role of weather presenter until taking maternity leave, when she was replaced by model and television personality Jo Silvagni, who was in turn replaced in late 2014 by Jane Bunn – who, as it happens, is also a qualified meteorologist. Her appointment also attracted media attention. When Nixon was asked about her new on-air rival, she told the Herald Sun that she didn’t think this would lend Seven’s bulletin any more clout. “I think it’s fantastic that Jane’s a meteorologist – hats off to her for doing the hard yards – but I’m confident working in conjunction with the Bureau (of Meteorology),” she says. “I feel very confident relaying all the information we get from them. Their accuracy rate has gone up over the years.”

Did Nixon, who had replaced the veteran weather presenter Rob Gell on Nine in 2010, have a point? A trained meteorologist of either gender might make the weather segment seem more credible to some, but would they enhance the substantive quality of information that is delivered? Historically the Bureau has insisted that provision of its information comes with a requirement that the media doesn’t mess with the message. TV stations can and do use the services of private weather companies to provide graphics, but the actual forecasts are still meant to be broadly consistent with the Bureau’s. So whichever nightly news channel you watch, won’t the next-day forecast be essentially the same?

With this and others questions in mind, I went to Melbourne’s Seven studios in Docklands to meet Bunn. After completing a Bachelor of Science at Monash University and a Graduate Diploma in Meteorology, Bunn worked for the Bureau in Sydney before turning to presenting the weather on television. “I loved the forecasting part of it but hated it when the message was being changed in the
media by people who got their terms muddled, so I decided I wanted to present it,” she tells me, citing an incident where a forecast of “fine and mostly sunny” was abbreviated to “mostly fine”. “You can have trust in what we are saying because that message might be jumbled up elsewhere. You’re better off
getting your weather from a meteorologist than a presenter because you know it’s as good as it can be.”

But Bunn doesn’t simply recite the Bureau’s forecast. Before her main segment goes to air at 6.55pm she checks the forecast models from Europe and Australia, which are updated after the Bureau releases its late afternoon forecast, to see if there are developments that might require some additional interpretation. She also analyses those same models to take the Bureau’s seven-day forecast one step
further, providing viewers with an eight-day outlook.

For all her specialist knowledge, however, Bunn’s appearance has also been a talking point both in social media and in the gossip columns. “Jane Bunn had the farm boys panting when she was the weather girl on regional television,” began one Herald Sun story, before conceding that “she doesn’t fit the weather girl stereotype”. Bunn accepts that her image is to some extent constructed by others. When I bring up the subject of how she is characterised in social media, she points out that other people have considerable input into how she appears before the camera. “I’ve purposely made it so hair and make-up and wardrobe decide what I actually look like – and that allows me to concentrate on my craft which is forecasting.”

As well as presenting all the usual weather details, Bunn has the scope to discuss seasonal forecasts and weather news in her segment, which provides her with the opportunity to embed her meteorological knowledge in her reports. Despite such individual touches, however, weather presenters in Australia, including Bunn, stick far more closely to the official forecasts than their American counterparts. In the United States, it is commonplace for local TV stations to hire meteorologists to present the weather, and many of these develop their own forecasts, which may be based on National Weather Service (NWS) data, or on those of other private providers whose predictions may also differ from those of the NWS. And television has long been a much more popular source of weather forecasts than the NWS. A 2006 survey of more than 1,400 Americans found that 72% of them caught a local TV forecast at least once per day, but less than 20% obtained daily forecasts from NWS websites, with just 4% tuning in to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio each day.

The ConversationIt might be just as well that Australia has not gone down this track. As American data journalist Nate Silver has noted in the American context, “the further you get from the government’s original data, and the more consumer facing the forecasts, the less reliable they become. Forecasts ‘add value’ by subtracting accuracy.” This is particularly the case with precipitation predictions. Non-National Weather Service forecasters, it turns out, tend to overestimate the probability of rain. There is a logic of sorts to this “wet bias”, says Silver. “People don’t mind when a forecaster predicts rain and it turns out to be a nice day. But if it rains when it isn’t supposed to, they curse the weatherman for ruining their picnic.”

Lawrie Zion, Professor of Journalism, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Vietnam stepping up religious rights abuses, experts say


Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.

"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.

"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.

The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.

Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.

"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."

The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.

International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.

In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.

One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.

"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."

Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."

"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."

The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.

Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.

"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.

"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.

Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.

"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.

"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."

A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.

"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."

Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.

"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.

The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.

"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.

Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.

"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.

International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.

"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Russian Patriarch unveils Kremlin icon hidden since 1917


A fresco of Christ on the Kremlin Wall in Moscow rediscovered after being plastered over during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution has been presented in a ceremony attended by Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, reports Ecumenical News International.

"The history of these icons is a symbol of what happened with our people in the 20th century," said Kirill at the 28 August ceremony. "It was claimed that true goals and values and genuine shrines were destroyed, and that faith had disappeared from the lives of our people."

The fresco of Christ is located over the Spasskaya, or Saviour, tower of the Kremlin, near St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. Experts say it dates to the middle or second half of the 17th century.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Christians Accused of ‘Blasphemy’ Slain in Pakistan


Two leaders shot outside courtroom after handwriting report threatened to exonerate them.

FAISALABAD, Pakistan, July 19 (CDN) — Today suspected Islamic extremists outside a courthouse here shot dead two Christians accused of “blaspheming” Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

The gunmen shot the Rev. Rashid Emmanuel, 32, and his 30-year-old brother Sajid Emmanuel, days after handwriting experts on Wednesday (July 14) notified police that signatures on papers denigrating Muhammad did not match those of the accused. Expected to be exonerated soon, the two leaders of United Ministries Pakistan were being led in handcuffs back to jail under police custody when they were shot at 2:17 p.m., Christians present said.

Rizwan Paul, president of advocacy group Life for All, said five armed, masked men opened fire on the two Christians amid crowds outside Faisalabad District and Sessions Court.

“Five armed, masked men attacked and opened fire on the two accused,” Paul said. “Sajid died on the spot,” while Rashid Emmanuel died later.

Rai Naveed Zafar Bhatti of the Christian Lawyers’ Foundation (CLF) and Atif Jamil Pagaan, coordinator of Harmony Foundation, said an unknown assailant shot Sajid Emmanuel in the heart, killing him instantly, and also shot Rashid Emmanuel in the chest. Pagaan said Sub-Inspector Zafar Hussein was also shot trying to protect the suspects and was in critical condition at Allied Hospital in Faisalabad.   

CLF President Khalid Gill said the bodies of the two Christians bore cuts and other signs of having been tortured, including marks on their faces, while the brothers were in police custody.

As news of the murders reached the slain brothers’ neighborhood of Dawood Nagar, Waris Pura, Faisalabad, Christians came out of their homes to vent their anger, Pagaan said. Police fired teargas cannons at Christian protestors, who in turn threw stones.

“The situation is very tense,” Gill said. “Police have arrested eight people for damaging property and burning tires.”

Paul of Life for All said tensions remained high.

“The situation in Faisalabad has deteriorated,” Paul said. “Indiscriminate shootings between Christians and Muslims have ensued. The situation has become very volatile, and local police have initiated a curfew.”

The courthouse shooters escaped, and Punjab’s inspector general has reportedly suspended the superintendent of police and his deputy superintendent for their failure to provide security to the slain brothers.

 

Lynch Mob Mentality

The report by handwriting experts to Civil Lines police station in Faisalabad presented a major setback to the case filed against Emmanuel and his younger brother under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy laws.

Muslims staged large demonstrations in the past week calling for the death penalty for the brothers, who were arrested when Rashid Emmanuel agreed to meet a mysterious caller at a train station but was instead surrounded by police carrying photocopied papers that denigrated Muhammad – supposedly signed by the pastor and his brother and bearing their telephone numbers.

The Muslim who allegedly placed the anonymous call to the pastor, Muhammad Khurram Shehzad, was the same man who filed blasphemy charges against Emmanuel and his brother and was already present at the Civil Lines police station when the pastor and an unnamed Christian arrived in handcuffs, said Pagaan of Harmony Foundation. Civil Lines police station is located in Dawood Nagar, Waris Pura, in Faisalabad.

Pagaan said that on July 1 Rashid Emmanuel received an anonymous phone call from a man requesting to see him, but the pastor declined as he was due to lead a prayer service in Railways Colony, Faisalabad. After the service, Emmanuel received a call at about 8 p.m. from the same man, who this time described himself as a respectable school teacher.

Pagaan said that Emmanuel agreed to meet him at the train station, accompanied by the unnamed Christian. As they reached the station, Civil Lines police surrounded them, showed them photocopies of a three-page document and arrested them for blaspheming Muhammad.

Sources told Compass that police released the young, unnamed Christian after a couple hours, and on July 4 officers arrested Emmanuel’s younger brother, a graduate student of business.

On July 10 and 11 hundreds of enraged Muslims paraded to the predominantly Christian colony of Dawood Nagar calling for the immediate death of the two Christian brothers. Some chanted, “Hang the blasphemers to death immediately,” sources said, adding that the mob hurled obscenities at Christ, Christians and Christianity.

Islamic extremists led the protests, and most participants were teenagers who pelted the main gate of the Waris Pura Catholic Church with stones, bricks and shards of glass and pounded the gate with bamboo clubs.

Some 500 protestors gathered on July 10, while on July 11 more than 1,600 demonstrated, according to Joseph Francis, head of Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement. Fearful Christians locked their homes, while others fled the area, as the demonstrators had threatened a repeat of the violence wreaked on Korian and Gojra towns in July and August 2009.

Nazim Gill, a resident of Waris Pura, told Compass that Muslims burned tires and chanted slogans against Christians last week, and that on Friday (July 16) announcements blared from mosque loudspeakers calling on Muslims “burn the houses of Christians.”

Khalid Gill contacted authorities to request help, and police forbid anyone to do any damage.

Saying “continuous gunshots have been heard for the past five hours now,” Kashif Mazhar of Life for All today said that Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif had ordered the provincial inspector general to restore law and order and arrest the murderers of the Christian brothers.

 

Other Victims

Khurram Shehzad had filed the blasphemy case on July 1 under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are commonly abused to settle personal scores.

Section 295-C states that “whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punishable with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall be liable to fine.”

Section 295-A of the blasphemy laws prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment.

Khalid Gill said Khurram Shehzad, a merchant of Rail Bazar, Faisalabad, filed the charge after his servant told him that the two Christians had put up blasphemous posters at a truck station.

The Emmanuel brothers had been running United Ministries Pakistan for the last two years in Dawood Nagar, area Christians said.

The last known Christian to die as a result of a false blasphemy charge was Robert Danish on Sept. 15, 2009. The 22-year-old Christian was allegedly tortured to death while in custody in Sialkot on a charge of blaspheming the Quran. Local authorities claimed he committed suicide.

Area Christians suspect police killed Danish, nicknamed “Fanish” or “Falish” by friends, by torturing him to death after the mother of his Muslim girlfriend contrived a charge against him of desecrating Islam’s scripture. The allegation led to calls from mosque loudspeakers to punish Christians, prompting an Islamic mob to attack a church building in Jathikai village on Sept. 11 and the beating of several of the 30 families forced to flee their homes. Jathikai was Danish’s native village.

Three prison officials were reportedly suspended after Danish died in custody.

In other recent blasphemy cases, on July 5 a Christian family from Model Town, Lahore, fled their home after Yousaf Masih, his wife Bashrian Bibi and their son-in-law Zahid Masih were accused of blaspheming the Quran. Some 2,000 Muslims protested and tried to burn their house, Christian sources aid.

Police have filed a case against them due to pressure from Muslim mobs, but local sources say the allegations grew out of personal enmity.

Faisalabad was the site of the suicidal protest of Bishop John Joseph. The late Roman Catholic bishop of Faisalabad took his own life in May 6, 1998 to protest the injustice of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Report from Compass Direct News