With public trust in government already in serious decline over the last ten years, the downfall of yet another prime minister between elections underlines both the importance and urgency of making serious changes to our political system.
The key to renewing Australia’s democratic system is to view it as our next major reform challenge, just as economic renewal was prioritised in the 1980s and ’90s.
So far, however, the changes proposed by political commentators, academics and think tanks are largely single reforms, such as citizens’ juries to seek more public input into policy, or fixed four-year terms for federal parliament to allow more time to tackle big problems and implement complex policy.
These fall short of matching the scope of the challenge: democratic renewal requires multi-level and multi-step change addressing interconnected issues. In short, we need a comprehensive roadmap for political reform.
The dual nature of these problems underlines a critical issue. The roadmap not only needs to link up separate reforms, it also needs to be rolled out in stages to persuade a highly distrustful public that democratic renewal is in the interests of everyone – not just those in power.
The first stage is what I would call “creative governance”. The aim here is to start restoring public trust in government by making immediate and tangible improvements to the political system.
These reforms would have clear precedents or strong levels of public support. For example, national uniform caps on campaign spending, like those recently introduced in New Zealand, would reduce money in politics. This in turn would put the onus on politicians to explain their policies with more fact-based detail instead of expensive, slogan-based advertising campaigns.
Recent surveysshow that a majority of Australians support both moves and believe these would improve transparency in the political system.
Setting the scene for deeper reform
The more difficult second stage of political reform is what I call “systemic renewal”. The goal here is to realign our democracy with the fundamentally changed dynamics and expectations of how it should work in the 21st century.
For instance, a major overhaul of our federal-state constitution is needed to update a framework originally written in the 1890s. It’s replete with outdated rules, processes and responsibilities.
However, this has largely failed to capture the public’s imagination because of the arcane way experts talk about the problem and potential solutions. Reframing it as part of a broader democratic renewal to usher in a more nimble and representative political system is much more likely to gain public traction.
Major reforms are also needed to make federal parliament more effective and less dysfunctional. These might include eliminating Question Time and mandating a strict code of ethics for MPs aimed at addressing toxic behaviours like the bullying crisis rocking the Coalition government.
Reforms like these would raise the level of decorum in parliament and set a new standard for parliamentary behaviour. This would increase public confidence that politicians both reflect and are accountable to modern values.
Lastly, a “Citizens’ Assembly” could be formed of randomly selected citizens to act as a non-partisan check and balance on parliament. Such an assembly could be modelled after the citizens’ juries that have been trialled successfully around the world, including Ireland, Canada and South Australia. The assembly would be given the responsibility to chart out long-term, national policy blueprints in areas like health, tax and education.
With this kind of direct voice on a national level, the public would be much more involved in policymaking and thus more vested in the success of their government.
Thinking like reformers
What’s clear is we must do the hard strategic thinking of reformers if we are serious about fixing our political system.
Like every credible plan to reform a major institution showing multiple dysfunctions, we need more than one reform idea. We also need to test these ideas against the root causes of the institution’s malaise. And we need to organise them into a strategic and practical sequence.
The alternative is to believe Australian democracy will magically right itself. Which is no alternative at all.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have been criss-crossing the country for weeks to spruik their parties’ candidates in Saturday’s all-important byelections – a key test for both the Liberals and Labor ahead of the next federal election.
Here’s what you need to know about the five electorates up for grabs and, with a federal election likely in the first half of 2019, what’s at stake for Turnbull and Shorten.
Chris Salisbury, Research Associate, University of Queensland
Longman’s very marginal status, held by Labor’s Susan Lamb by a slim 0.8% prior to her High Court-enforced resignation, makes this race the most tightly contested on Saturday.
Seasoned observers expect this to go the way of most byelection contests – largely distanced from broader federal concerns. Local issues are at play, dominated by arguments over funding for the Caboolture hospital in the electorate north of Brisbane, as well as for local education and employment support services.
Yet, the race is also being touted by some as a judgement on the major parties’ signature economic policies, and significantly on the performances of both party leaders. Labor has campaigned hard on the merits of the Coalition’s proposed company tax cuts. The Liberals, meanwhile, have fanned fears among retirees about Labor’s proposed investment savings changes.
Longman is a typical marginal seat in the outer suburban fringe, home to what a dozen years ago would have been called “Howard’s battlers”. The electorate provides a platform for the major parties to road-test policy differentiation and campaign messages on “average voters” ahead of the next federal election.
Lamb is attempting to be re-elected to the seat she won unexpectedly from the LNP’s Wyatt Roy in 2016. She benefits from recognition as the incumbent and has the strong backing of her party leader. Shorten made a beeline for Longman ahead of the announcement of the byelection date to spruik his candidate.
LNP’s Trevor Ruthenburg also enjoys recognition of sorts as a previous state MP for nearby Kallangur. However, he might have spurned some conservative Longman voters with fresh revelations of an incorrectly claimed military service medal in his Queensland parliament biography.
Among the minor party candidates, One Nation’s Matthew Stephen will also need to overcome questions regarding his business dealings to build on his party’s 9.4% primary vote in the 2016 election.
Labor’s concerted campaigning has Lamb a slight favourite to be returned. However, a Coalition win might convince Turnbull to call an early election. This then raises the question: could a poor result for Labor put enough pressure on Shorten to prompt the party to change leaders to better combat the PM’s standing?
Michael Lester, PhD candidate, University of Tasmania
For an election that won’t change the status quo in parliament, the Braddon byelection is getting a great deal of attention.
Both Turnbull and Shorten have made multiple visits to campaign for their candidates, with support also coming from of a host of their cabinet and shadow cabinet colleagues.
Braddon is a notoriously fickle electorate, having changed hands four times since 1996, and the margins are always tight. This election is no different. All the polls indicate it is a close race.
In 2016, Labor’s Justine Keay won the seat with a 2.2% lead over then-sitting Liberal member Brett Whiteley. She was later forced to resign after her UK citizenship was revealed. Both candidates are standing again, but neither is considered to have strong personal followings.
Polls in the first week of July showed the gap between the parties has narrowed. This means the result will likely come down to the preferences of independents and minor parties, particularly the Greens’ Jarrod Edwards, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party candidate Brett Neal and independent Craig Garland. All three are likely to favour Labor.
The differences between the campaign styles and tactics of the two major parties are striking.
The Liberals have used incumbency at both the state and federal level to frame their campaign around their economic records and budget infrastructure spending, holding photo opportunities around a series of project announcements.
Shorten took most by surprise by also promising an AU$25 million grant to support a Tasmanian AFL team at a time when the Aussie game is in crisis in one of its foundation states. However, Labor seems to be getting better traction with promises to restore funding for essential services like health care and education.
The real impact of the Braddon byelection is likely to be on the political future of the two party leaders, the timing of the next federal election and the choice of the policies they choose to run on.
Rob Manwaring, Senior Lecturer, Politics and Public Policy, Flinders University
The campaign in Mayo is symptomatic of a wider problem that has beset Liberals in South Australia – a failure to lock in so-called blue-ribbon safe seats.
Mayo is now a straight two-way fight between the incumbent Centre Alliance’s Rebekah Sharkie and Liberal Georgina Downer. Downer’s success or failure could well be a strong signifier of the strength of Malcolm Turnbull’s government.
Yet, as has been proven in state-level races in South Australia before, voters in notionally safe “non-Labor” seats are often reluctant to give up strong local independents. Despite its disappointing showing in the recent state election, the Xenophon team retains deep residual support in South Australia.
The Mayo campaign is an intriguing confluence of local and national issues. Sharkie is pushing hard on a range of local issues, and her support to have the Great Australian Bight listed for World Heritage status to safeguard it from oil drilling also targets a perceived weakness of Downer’s – environment issues.
Downer, seeking to secure her family dynasty, is playing to different strengths – especially her close network with the Liberal hierarchy. (She is the daughter of former foreign minister Alexander.) Since announcing her candidacy, Downer has had notable visits from Turnbull and others. She boasts influence unavailable to her rivals, evidenced by her securing of federal funding for a new aquatic centre in Mount Barker.
Strikingly, immigration has become a new issue in the campaign. Downer’s comments about immigration may stoke local fears that the Inverbrackie site will be re-opened for mainland asylum seeker detentions.
Perth and Fremantle
Ian Cook, Senior Lecturer of Australian Politics, Murdoch University
Labor will win both races being contested in Western Australia in Saturday’s byelections. That’s not a brave prediction. The Liberals aren’t running candidates.
Some analysts believe it was the wrong decision by the Liberals, given that a minimal campaigning effort wouldn’t have cost that much and it’s unclear how voters will react when the Liberals do put up candidates in the federal election.
But the decision actually makes a lot of sense. Labor has held both seats – Perth and Fremantle – for much of their existence. (The electorates were created in 1901.) Labor even held on in Fremantle in the 1975 election, which was the last time it lost Perth.
On top of this, the WA Liberals had been swept from government last year as a result of a 20% swing against them across the state. And there were no signs of the federal Liberals doing much to change anything.
So, while Perth’s 3.3% margin looks close, the Liberals chose not to run a candidate there. Likewise in Fremantle, which is even less competitive, with a margin of 7.5%. The decision not only saves the Liberals money, it won’t expose their weak support in WA.
The Liberals’ decision not to run in Perth and Fremantle has brought the Greens more into the spotlight. With no other seats to talk about and no major party competition to drown them out, the Greens should be able to do something meaningful in these byelections.
Perth and Fremantle are exactly the type of inner metropolitan seat the Greens should be favoured to win, but their candidates have never gained more than 18% of first-preference voting in previous contests in the electorates. And nothing looks likely to change this time around.
If Greens candidates can’t put themselves in a position to win Perth and Fremantle in these byelections and demonstrate they are to be a meaningful political force, then they likely never will.
We and our colleagues from around the world – including experts from Australia, Canada, the United States, Russia and China – are undertaking a multi-year project to provide a definitive guide on how law applies to military uses of outer space.
The aim is to develop a Manual on International Law Applicable to Military uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) that covers times of tension and outright hostility.
The ultimate goal is to help build transparency and confidence between space-faring states.
This should reduce the possibility of a war in space, or if it does happen, reduce the impact on the space infrastructure that we have all come to rely on so heavily.
The satellites we rely on
We rely on GPS signals for many things, including navigation, communication, banking, agriculture, travel and the internet itself. It’s estimated that 6-7% of GDP in Western countries depends on satellite navigation.
Communications satellites are applied not just for direct broadcast television, but also to enable many terrestrial networks. In remote areas of the world, they may be the only means of communication.
Satellites help us get weather forecasts and improve agricultural production. They also help us to plan disaster relief, find and mine natural resources, monitor the health of the environment and many other applications.
‘Expect’ war in space
In the military context too, satellites have become essential. In June this year, US Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said a future war in space is likely and the US is investing heavily in maintaining its military dominance in space. She commented:
We must expect that war, of any kind, will extend into space in any future conflict, and we have to change the way we think and prepare for that eventuality.
The first Gulf War in 1991 has often been called the first space war, though it wasn’t actually fought in outer space. Rather, the US and coalition forces relied heavily on GPS and other satellite technology to conduct that conflict.
Since then, space-based assets have enabled even greater capability for land, sea and air forces.
There are only five global treaties specific to space. Chief among them is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, but only one of its provisions (Article IV) directly deals with military activity – it prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space.
This includes things such as anti-satellite missiles, directed energy weapons (including lasers), electronic warfare, cyber warfare and dual-use technology, such as on-orbit servicing (“mechanic”) satellites.
A combined effort
The MILAMOS project is led by three universities: Adelaide here in Australia, McGill in Canada, and Exeter in the UK. It received some funding from the Australian and Canadian governments, as well as from private donors.
It relies on expertise from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Union of Concerned Scientists and from the major space-faring states, principally the US and Russia, but also China and other countries.
They participate in a strictly personal (rather than representative) capacity to provide an authentic account of what the law is, not to negotiate what states would like the law to be.
Even so, reflecting a true consensus position on the law, in spite of the strongly held personal positions of individual experts, can be challenging. But that is what the project aims to achieve in nine workshops over three years.
Even though these manuals are not formally endorsed by states, they are an essential reference for those who work in the field. This includes military practitioners, government lawyers and policy advisors, the media, public advocacy groups and other non-government organisations.
Final publication of the manual is expected in 2020. Paradoxically, the MILAMOS contributors earnestly hope that the manual will only ever remain on the shelf and never be used.
Self-help book and works of popular psychology often instruct us in the art of apologising. Their advice is reflected, in turn, in much online discussion.
Most commonly, we’re advised to give elaborate, self-abasing apologies: apologies that go well beyond acknowledging misjudgement or admitting to wrongdoing. Withvariations, we are told to elaborate in detail just what we did wrong, describe why it was unacceptable, offer nothing in the way of justification or excuse (though sometimes we’re told we can give an explanation without justifying ourselves), and provide explicit assurances that we will never repeat the behaviour. In summary, we’re told to condemn, criticise and abase ourselves, and to ask humbly for forgiveness.
This might be needed for some betrayals of love or friendship. But for most situations it is very bad advice.
In its most serious mode, the social practice of apologising relates to actions that are later regretted, leading to deep feelings of guilt or shame. With the passage of time, or when we’re brought to focus on what we’ve said or done, we sometimes feel terrible about our own conduct.
To save space, I’ll set aside serious failures resulting from, for example, incompetence (much as these might be interesting in their own right). Let’s consider cases of serious wrongdoing. Here, one person has deliberately harmed or deceived another (or others) in a significant way. In the worst cases, the victim might be someone who legitimately expected the wrongdoer’s goodwill, special concern or even love.
In a situation like this, the victim has every reason to feel profoundly betrayed. Since the wrongdoing was deliberate and significant, it revealed something important and unsavoury about the wrongdoer’s character – what she was psychologically capable of – and especially about her attitude to her victim. In acting as she did, she showed an attitude of disrespect or even malice.
If she aims at reconciliation and seeks forgiveness, the wrongdoer will need to demonstrate that she has undergone something of a psychological transformation. She will need to express heartfelt remorse, show a clear understanding of how she betrayed the victim, and offer especially strong and convincing assurances. She will enter the territory of condemning her own moral character – as it was expressed in the past – and claiming to have changed.
Even the most complete and self-abasing apology might not be enough to regain the victim’s trust and good opinion. The wrongdoer has, after all, revealed by her actions that she was psychologically capable of acting with disrespect or worse. Furthermore, claims to have transformed in moral character are inherently difficult to believe. The victim might understandably be unwilling to restore the relationship to anything like what it previously was.
But most cases are nothing like this. Worthwhile thoughts about apologising in cases of serious wrongdoing can be very bad advice for the range of milder situations that we encounter almost every day.
In most situations, any sense of guilt or shame is greatly attenuated, even to the point where it might – quite properly – not be felt at all. Thus, words like “sorry” are uttered more as matter of politeness and social convention than to express heartfelt remorse.
Think of the following sequence of events (which happened to me a few days ago). I’d alighted from an intercity train, late at night, and was walking along a moderately crowded platform when I stopped – fairly suddenly, no doubt – to check out a vending machine. The middle-aged man walking immediately behind brushed my arm as he stepped past, and we automatically turned to each other to say, “Sorry!” We spontaneously nodded and smiled at each other, raising our hands, palms outward, as if to indicate peaceful intent and absence of weapons … and he then walked on while I concluded that I didn’t really want the junk food on offer in the machine. And that was all.
The entire exchange took only a few seconds, and neither of us had to go through any process of abasement or self-criticism. How, exactly, is this different from cases that seem far more serious?
It is different along many dimensions, and what follows is not intended to be complete. First, no one was hurt (even psychologically). At most, both of us were momentarily startled.
Second, it would be beside the point to castigate either of us in any serious way. Perhaps we could both have been a bit more conscious of what was going on around us, but at most we showed the sort of lapse in attention and concentration that happens to human beings all the time. I had not been aware of his presence behind me; he did not expect me to stop. But people frequently bump into each other in crowds, and no one is seriously blamed: it’s a normal part of life. It would, of course, be quite different if somebody recklessly sprinted through a crowd, shoving aside people who were in his way.
Third, the two people concerned had no previous relationship except, I suppose, as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. There was no relationship of special regard and trust to try to restore. In that sense, we were not exactly seeking reconciliation, although a certain smoothing of the situation was called for. I doubt, however, that this point makes much difference. Even if the man who brushed past me had turned out to be an old friend, no elaborate apology would have been needed.
Small everyday incidents such as this can be surprisingly pleasant encounters. As long as both people act in the expected way – immediately signalling goodwill and peaceful intent – these incidents make us feel better about ourselves and tend to strengthen societal bonds. For a brief moment, each person provides the other with reassurance that whatever happened was not a prelude to any malicious or violent – or otherwise unfriendly or anti-social – course of action. Importantly, each conveys that the other deserves consideration and respect.
Notice how, during these quick exchanges, we often smile or laugh; we express some mutual amusement at the little tangles of social life. In part, we laugh at our own fallibility, and we forgive ourselves and each other for it. We acknowledge that our fallibility is part of being human, and that it does not, in itself, merit condemnation.
And yet, we do say “Oh, sorry!” or use similar words. In context, this is not an admission of serious wrongdoing or guilty thoughts. We are not seeking anything as grand as forgiveness. By using such words, however, we offer clarity and reassurance. We express something like the following: “I made a miscalculation (or had a lapse in concentration, or whatever might be the case); please understand that I bear you no ill will or disrespect; you have nothing to fear from me.”
Often, this is what we really want to know from each other, and this message also has the advantage that it is usually a believable one. By contrast, an assurance by a serious wrongdoer that she will never do such a thing again might strain credulity.
Words of apology are, then, often given without accepting any blameworthiness. Since we are human – not infallible or omniscient beings – we make mistakes, get distracted, have lapses in concentration, and so on. Sometimes, indeed, we take actions that prove not to be optimal, even though they were not contraindicated on the information available to us at the time.
If you’re at all like me, you might very often find yourself apologising for things that you don’t feel especially ashamed of or guilty about. You might also receive such apologies from others.
For example, a salesperson might apologise to you if you have to wait for an unusually long time to be served, even if the delay was caused by something obviously beyond her control. The apology does not indicate an admission of wrongdoing, and it is certainly not an assurance that nothing like this will happen again (it might well!). But it offers respect and reassurance to someone who has been inconvenienced, even unavoidably.
I frequently find myself apologising to someone I’m talking to if I’ve miscommunicated what I was trying to say and thus caused confusion (or perhaps even hurt feelings). Alternatively, I might apologise if I realise that I’ve been interpreting my interlocutor wrongly: I’ve grabbed the wrong end of the verbal pineapple and thereby caused confusion. In either case, however, the miscommunication is not a reason to feel any serious guilt or shame.
For example, if I misinterpret somebody’s words the reason might be genuine ambiguity in what he said. Conversely, if someone misunderstands my words, perhaps he was being uncharitable. Alternatively, it might have been genuinely difficult to formulate the idea I was trying to get across – and in the circumstances perhaps I couldn’t have been expected to do any better.
It might nonetheless be reasonable – and it is somewhat conventional – to waive our possible defences once we realise that we’re at cross purposes in a conversation. It isn’t difficult, and it can become almost instinctive, to say things like “Sorry – I’ll rephrase that” or “Oops, sorry – I see what you mean now.”
The truth of it is, we can almost always express ourselves a bit more clearly and listen a bit more astutely. In acknowledging this on any particular occasion, we are not admitting to serious wrongdoing or a nasty attitude. Our mild words of apology can and should reflect this.
Through minor apologies, we reassure the people we’re dealing with that we view them as worthy of respect. We signal that we don’t hold grudges or assign blame over small things that have gone wrong, and that the people we encounter don’t need to worry about how we regard them or what we might do next. All this helps us get along socially, as human beings must.
A flexible practice
The more we think about the practice of apologising, the more we become aware of how varied, complex and flexible it is.
On some occasions, perhaps you should have taken more care, yet you were not outright malicious or even reckless. Perhaps you were tired or stressed or poorly prepared for a task. In these cases, something more than a brief conventional apology might be in order. All the same, mere failure to take adequate care does not indicate anything especially unsavoury about your moral character. It happens from time to time to almost anyone.
If your carelessness has caused significant harm, you might feel urgent concern for those affected and you might owe them some kind of redress. But depending on the circumstances, it might be overkill if an officious interloper demanded that you humble and condemn yourself. If you did any such thing, it would feel and appear insincere.
Irrespective of any advice from pop psychologists, it often makes sense to accompany an apology with an explanation or excuse. Indeed, explanations or excuses can be better than apologies. Allow me to elaborate.
It is often said that “intent is not magic”, and that phrase does have some point when clear-cut harm has been inflicted on somebody identifiable. In more cases than not, however, it is precisely the wrong way to think about human interaction. Often, what hurts us most about someone else’s conduct is the attitude that it seems to reveal. It might seem to show that the person views us with malice or disrespect. If she is someone we care for, that can be emotionally devastating. We might wonder whether our relationship with her was based all along on an illusion.
But much of the sting is removed if she gives an explanation or excuse that shows she does not, after all, harbour malice or disrespect. She might, in fact, utter conventional words of apology, but the important thing is that she reassure us in some convincing way about how she feels. The point of good explanations is that they really do explain; the point of good excuses is that they really do excuse.
In some cases, we can even apologise for actions that were not our own. For example, you might apologise (as you try to shuffle him out of a party) for the boorish and embarrassing conduct of a friend who has had too much to drink. Similarly, a media organisation might apologise for a defamatory or outrageous remark made by a guest.
Likewise, the leader of a country might apologise formally for something done by her country, even if it happened a long time ago before she was born. This is a fairly well understood public act with a potential to reconcile and heal. It makes intuitive sense because it relies on the idea that political entities have an ongoing existence beyond the lifetimes and participation of their individual citizens.
However, not just any relationship can make an apology coherent. There has to be the right sort of connection between the person giving the apology and somebody else’s behaviour. For example, you can’t sensibly apologise for your friend’s boorish actions on some past occasion when you were not even present.
In some situations, we don’t have a clear idea who may have been inconvenienced or offended by our conduct. Contrary to much advice on the Internet, it makes perfectly good sense in these circumstances to offer contingent apologies such as “We apologise for any inconvenience” or “I am sorry if I upset anyone.”
On some particular occasion, you might think that any upset from your conduct was not reasonable. You might even doubt whether anyone was genuinely upset, as opposed to grandstanding to make a point. Nonetheless, you might also feel concern about any upset that actually was experienced, even unreasonably. If so, a mild and contingent apology might be perfectly in order. It is a socially intuitive way to convey that you are not motivated by malice or disrespect. And again, it signals that whatever you did or said was not the precursor to a more troubling course of conduct.
This leads me to the sensitive topic of weaponised demands for apologies, often followed by equally weaponised complaints about “notpologies”.
Weaponised demands and complaints
As we’ve seen, it’s coherent to apologise even when you are guilty of nothing more than ordinary human fallibility – or sometimes even when your conduct was justifiable. An example of the latter is when you have inconvenienced somebody in order to deal with a crisis.
In other cases, you – or I – might be guilty of something more than ever-present human fallibility. Even then, we might have shown no more than a low degree of negligence that is easily excused. In these cases, we might feel concern if we’ve caused anyone serious harm. Usually, however, feelings of deep guilt or shame will not be fitting. (Very often, in fact, it’s debatable whether we really were careless or merely unlucky: the line can be very blurred, and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.)
In all, the practice of apologising is subtle and complex, and we should enjoy a considerable range of discretion in when and how far we engage in it.
When others demand that we apologise against our own initial judgement, it can be a form of abuse or a political weapon. At the level of personal relationships, demands for apologies can be abusive: a method of punishment and control. At the level of political, social, and cultural debate, the purpose is to humiliate and discredit somebody who is viewed as an opponent or a wrongdoer.
If we force a public apology from someone we cast as a villain, we gain a victory over them and we warn others not to behave similarly. This might have some social value if restricted to people who’ve engaged in genuinely outrageous conduct. However, through public shaming and threats to careers, humiliating apologies can be forced from people who have done little – or arguably nothing – wrong.
As we’ve seen, elaborate self-criticism and self-abasement might be appropriate sometimes. They might be called for when apologising in private to a loved one who has been betrayed in some way. But when somebody is forced through this process in public – perhaps because of her honestly stated opinion on a matter of legitimate controversy, or perhaps for the phrasing of an unrehearsed remark – it is a cruel, unnecessary, indecent spectacle.
To be clear, somebody who is pressured to apologise might, indeed, feel concern at having offended others. She might willingly offer some clarification and some mild words of apology. The latter might, for example, be along the lines of, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” In the circumstances, this response provides clarification of intent, reassurance, and an expression of goodwill. Once a shaming campaign begins, however, it won’t get anyone off the public relations hook.
Whatever mob is pressuring and shaming her will inevitably condemn her (quite reasonable) response as a mere “notpology” and apply further pressure. In this parlance, appropriately limited and contingent apologies are referred to as “notpologies” by zealots who hope to humiliate and discredit their real or imagined enemies.
When demands and complaints are made in this weaponised manner, we have a powerful reason to resist them. Each time someone gives in to a mob of zealots, and offers public self-criticism and a humiliating public apology, it encourages the mob to find new victims. Don’t give such mobs positive feedback.
Your best guide?
My subheading to this article, “Your Best Guide on the Internet”, is lighthearted but on point. As I’ve emphasised, the practice of apologising is complex. We often have to make subtle, discriminating decisions about when and how to engage in it. By contrast, most advice on the Internet is misleading in suggesting that there is a single formula that we need to learn.
Fortunately, our intuitions are usually well honed by experience during our formative years, and most of us make reasonable judgements more often than not, even on the spur of the moment. We might not always be aware of it consciously, but we sense in our everyday practices that apologies can take many forms to suit a myriad of circumstances.
None of this is intended to suggest that I always get it right in my own life! Perhaps no one does; in any event, I am not holding myself out as a role model. I have sometimes made mistakes in this area, even quite serious ones, usually out of anger or pride or self-righteousness. If I have any advice to give beyond the most obvious, it’s to try to avoid those feelings – especially in combination. It’s wise to put them aside, if we can, and in cases of doubt it’s often best to give some sort of apology even if it goes against our grain.
The ability to apologise freely, without embarrassment, should be easier if we recognise how often our mistakes come from ordinary human limitations for which we should feel no particular guilt or shame. Combined with this, most apologies do not relate to serious wrongdoing, disrespectful attitudes to others, or defects of character.
Everyday apologies usually have rather conventional and pragmatic functions: to express regret (but not necessarily culpability) for inconvenience, confusion or hurt; to assure others that we respect them and recognise their interests, and that our intentions are not hostile; and to indicate that others have nothing to fear from us going forward.
In a sense, none of this is new. I’m telling readers what they already know, but the opposite of what they are too often told. I’ve set out in an explicit way some of the complexity that we are all aware of if we’re not confused by pop psychology or a dubious ideology.
Once again: it is often worth apologising (albeit mildly) even when we’ve done nothing wrong; apologies are often quite legitimately accompanied by explanations or excuses; most apologies do not have to be lengthy or especially self-critical or self-abasing. In some situations, much-maligned “notpologies” might be all that is needed.
This complexity should be familiar, once we think about it clearly and for ourselves.
For each of us, as individuals, the social practice of apologising gives many options to match with the ever-changing situations we encounter in our lives. We can think of them as tools in our social kit. Exactly how we use them is up to us.
With Zelig-like serendipity I was in Stockholm when #lastnightinsweden went viral. While echoing the melancholic majesty of a classic ABBA song title, the hashtag #lastnightinsweden actually referred to yet another Donald Trump dump of alleged “fake news” on an increasingly exhausted world.
We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden? Who would believe this? Sweden! They took in large numbers, they’re having problems like they never thought possible.
Trump, it appeared to most observers, was alleging that an act of Islamist terrorism had just occurred in that far-off Nordic land – one that was illustrative of the existential threat faced by the American people and from which only he and his immigration clampdown could save them.
It hadn’t, of course. No atrocity had occurred in Sweden that weekend, Islamist or otherwise. It’s true, there was a minor riot the evening after Trump’s speech in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby when two cars were burnt out and a policeman was yelled at by a man who was possibly Muslim, but it’s more likely that Trump’s remarks caused that ruckus than that he was reacting to it. Even Trump’s most-dedicated admirers don’t believe he can foretell the future.
The hashtag #lastnightinsweden became a global media story – a paradigm case of fake news, as it has come to be called, first by Trump and his advisers and then by the rest of us, ad nauseam.
Since his election in November fake news has become a powerful, ubiquitous meme, replicating and evolving with every iteration of the news cycle until one can’t open a newspaper or download an edition of Breitbart without being greeted by the words “fake” and “news” in some combination or other.
Barack Obama wiretapped the Trump campaign? Fake news!
The Australian accused senator Nick Xenophon of planning to increase taxes? Fake news!
Mike Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner and who knows how many other Trump advisers are in cahoots with the Russians? Fake news!
Everyone is familiar with the term by now, indeed over-familiar. Far too many people use it when they shouldn’t, and a lot of people are confused as to what it means. When a word or phrase can be applied to anything, it means nothing.
Brian, they ask me: as a professor of journalism, what is fake news, exactly? So, let me offer a brief user’s guide both to what fake news is, and what it is not.
First, though, let’s remind ourselves that fake news isn’t news. By which I mean not that it isn’t news, which it is at present (stick with me here); but that it isn’t new. On the contrary, fabrication, fakery and falsehood have been part of journalism since the first journalists put quill to parchment.
Award-winning journalists such as Janet Cooke have been exposed as cheats. Her Pulitzer Prize was snatched back La La Land-style when it turned out that her heart-rending story of an eight-year-old heroin addict, little “Jimmy” from the ‘hood, was entirely invented.
In the late 1990s Stephen Glass of the New Republic was found to have fabricated dozens of major feature articles for one of the US’ most-prestigious journalistic publications – also known, at least until Trump took over, as in-flight reading for Air Force One.
In 2002 Jayson Blair of the New York Times became a major news story for plagiarising other journalists’ content, and then making up some more lies all on his own.
In 1997, a Channel 4 documentary production team were caught out faking a story about male prostitutes in Glasgow, and the company was fined. Around the same time Channel 4 also broadcast a fake documentary about Colombian cocaine smugglers.
A few years later the venerable UK Guardian printed a front-page story about Chinese police brutality that turned out to be entirely made up.
So, the idea that journalism is sometimes fabricated, and news sometimes faked, is hardly controversial. Even the term isn’t original.
Jon Stewart’s Daily Show was often referred to as part of the fake news genre which emerged in the 1990s – in his and Stephen Colbert’s case it meant savagely sarcastic commentaries on, and satirical parodies and pastiches of, “real” news as produced by the US networks.
They, and more recent comedians such as John Oliver, had and have great fun with the absurdities and pretensions of Fox News in particular, although they are deeply serious in their underlying purpose: to blow the whistle on bullshit of the type that Fox pours out daily.
They and publications such as the UK’s Private Eye, The Onion and Daily Currant have succeeded by providing a form of “fake” news that is obviously untrue and functions as commentary on the mainstream news media, but is just close enough to the real thing in style and form to be genuinely funny as satire.
These “fakers” are not journalists, as Oliver stressed in an interview with the Sunday Times this week, although they can be at least as influential as the most po-faced of pundits.
So, fake news is not in itself news. What is particular about our era, however, is that the term has become a widely used political tool, to denounce journalistic content with which one disagrees on the one hand, and to attack free and independent media on the other.
Because of its use by Trump and his supporters, the concept has become a core political issue, now impacting on the freedom of the media in the US and elsewhere. Questions around the veracity and authenticity of journalism have become central to concerns about the health of journalism and the Fourth Estate more broadly.
These debates are not merely academic, but essential to the evolution (and perhaps survival) of liberal-democratic societies in the 21st century.
The capacity of the digitised, globalised, networked media space to disseminate news and information of all kinds, including unsubstantiated rumour, malicious gossip and content which is fake or in some other way problematic, has coincided with a particular political moment where journalistic objectivity and professionalism are under challenge from state and non-state political actors as never before.
Some call it a “crisis” of objective journalism – and it is. But I hate crisis narratives so I won’t.
Remember that the critique of objectivity goes back to Einstein, and was then reinforced by postmodernism and cultural relativism. The left, exemplified by the likes of Noam Chomsky, never believed in objectivity anyway, while the right didn’t care about the truth of anything as long as it made money. Fox News is a Murdoch company, and Murdoch claims to believe in objective journalism.
What is new, though, is the politicisation of this struggle over truth.
Globally, Vladimir Putin has since 2010 or so deliberately cultivated disinformation, propaganda and myth as part of his hybrid warfare campaign against liberal democracy and unmanly things like gay rights and Pussy Riot.
His people didn’t shoot down MH17, oh no. That was the Ukrainian neo-fascists, or the CIA, or the EU.
He didn’t order the killing of Boris Nemtsov, or Alexander Litvinenko, or Anna Politovskaya, oh no. That was the Islamists (whom he hates just as much as Trump).
The Trump campaign studied the Putin playbook carefully, and has brought it into the Oval Office. Flood the global public sphere, it instructs them, with lies and conspiracy theories for long enough – birther movement, anyone? Pizzagate? – and some sucker, somewhere, will buy it.
Alas for America and the world, Putin was right. Just enough of those useful American idiots bought into the Trump mythology to give us Melania as First Lady, Ivanka as counsellor-in-chief and alt-right white supremacist Steve Bannon as the One-To-Rule-Them-All.
But we are where we are.
Fake news is not journalism you dislike or disagree with, for whatever reason. That’s just journalism, dude, as practised in the democratic world for four centuries and more. Get used to it.
Fake news is not stuff that other people say that you don’t like or agree with. If Pauline Hanson says she thinks Australians would like Vladimir Putin as leader – which she did on ABC’s Insiders the other day – that’s not fake news.
Fake news is not the unintentional misleading of audiences by journalists and news organisations, if they are sincerely applying the conventions of objectivity but producing erroneous content because of human error or organisational dysfunction. Mistakes happen.
And fake news is not the unintentional misleading by media of their audiences, when it is rooted in intentional deception and misleading by dishonest sources. When The Guardian led with that story about Chinese brutality, that wasn’t fake news.
All of the above are part of journalism’s history, and we must be vigilant in calling out errors and sloppiness in the news production process. But they are not fake news as the term is currently being used.
Fake news, in the contemporary context, is simply this: intentional disinformation (invention or falsification of known facts) for political and/or professional purposes, such as the fabrications of Stephen Glass or the activities of paid-for Kremlin trolls trying to prove that Russian troops are not in Ukraine and that Russia didn’t annex Crimea.
Fake news is when Michael Flynn Jr., the son of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn Sr. (he who lied about meeting the Russian ambassador to reassure him that once that uppity Obama was out of the way, sanctions would be lifted), disseminated the Pizzagate story before the US election (the story that leading Democrats were involved in a paedophile ring centred on a Washington burger joint).
Fake news is when organisations like Fox News and Breitbart report these stories as credible, knowing them to be fairytales.
So, what about #lastnightinsweden? Was that fake news, or just Trump being Trump?
I was in Stockholm when the story broke, as I mentioned before, and here is what I learnt from the journalism students I was teaching that week.
Trump, as was made clear by his own “alternative facts” people in the following days, was referring not to an actual thing that happened “last night in Sweden”, but a Fox News item he’d watched “last night”, in which an alleged documentary-maker by the name of Ami Horowitz had described some of the integration challenges faced by the Swedes after they took in nearly 200,000 migrants from the messy and out-of-control war George W Bush started back in 2003.
The young journalism students in my class confirmed that, yes, there were issues around the integration of so many foreigners into such a small and relatively homogeneous country in such a short time. But nothing “last night”, and nothing that one wouldn’t find in every country which had taken in migrants over the decades and centuries (not least the US, with its long history of migration from all over the world).
One student pointed out that Horowitz’s documentary had been condemned by one of the policemen quoted in it. The Swedish cop’s words had been edited out of all context, and this student named Horowitz as a “far-right activist” not to be trusted as an honest reporter of anything to do with Sweden.
On the way to the airport when leaving Stockholm, my Uber driver told me that he was an Iraqi Jew, a refugee from Saddam decades before, who had found a home and a life free from persecution in Sweden. He spoke five languages, he told me with pride, and had children in Australia as well as Sweden (we discussed the weather down under with some longing).
He told me that he, as a Jew, had been subject to anti-Semitic abuse by other taxi drivers, young Muslims in particular, and suggested Trump was quite right in his attitudes to Islamism.
Was #lastnightinsweden fake news or not, then? I’d say not.
What it was was a famously lazy populist latching onto a poorly researched piece of journalism that reflected his worldview (Horowitz’s documentary), which he had come across while watching the “fair and balanced” Fox News – his preferred news source when not reading the National Enquirer.
Fox News was only doing what it always does, as was Trump. Calling #lastnightinsweden fake news elevates it to a level of calculation and conspiracy that probably wasn’t justified (it’s always possible that Bannon or some other nutjob in the inner circle planned it as a diversionary tactic).
In the end, it was just crap journalism, endorsed by a wannabee despot who knows that stirring up ethnic hatred is what his followers respond to best.
As for what to do about fake news? I’ll come back to that. For now, remember the revolutionary power of laughter, and watch the Daily Show for the real news.
Those in the West who provoke Muslim extremists are not the ones who will suffer, they say.
ISTANBUL, October 5 (CDN) — Christians across the Middle East said they will be the ones to suffer if a group of anti-Islamic protestors in the United States goes through with its plans to publicly tear up or otherwise desecrate the Quran.
They roundly condemned the proposed actions as political stunts that are unwise, unnecessary and unchristian.
“This kind of negative propaganda is very harmful to our situation in Muslim countries,” said Atef Samy, assistant pastor for networking at Kasr El Dobara, the largest Protestant congregation in Egypt. “It generates uncontrollable anger among the people around us and gives the impression that all Christians feel this way about Islam.”
Samy said U.S. Christians who are protesting Islam need to think about the results of their “irrational actions.” The desecration, he said, will lead to protests and will incite people to commit anti-Christian violence.
“How do they expect Muslims to react?” he said. “And has anybody thought how we will pay for their actions or even their words?”
Tomorrow and Thursday (Oct. 6 and 7), political activist Randall Terry will host “Hear Muhammad Speak!” a series of demonstrations across the United States that he said are meant to “ignite national and world-wide debate/dialogue/education on the anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and at times violent message of the Quran.” During these protests, Terry plans to tear out pages from the Quran and encourage others to do the same.
He has said he is conducting the protest because he wants to focus attention also on the Hadith and the Sunnah, the recorded sayings and actions of Muhammad that Muslims use to guide their lives. Terry said these religious documents call “for the murder, beheadings, etc. of Christians and Jews, and the suppression of religious freedom.”
Known for his incendiary political approach, Terry is founder of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion rights group. After stepping down from Operation Rescue, he publicly supported the actions of Scott Roeder, who murdered a Kansas physician who performed late-term abortions. Terry also arranged to have a protestor present an aborted fetus to then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
On this year’s anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Terry stood outside the White House and denounced Islam as one of five other protestors ripped out pages from the Quran and threw them into a plastic trash bag, which along with Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ planned (though ultimately cancelled) Quran-burning provoked isolated attacks across the Islamic world that left at least 19 dead.
Terry is part of a seemingly growing tide of people destroying or threatening to destroy the Quran as an act of protest against Islam or “Islamic extremism.”
Terry has said that he wants to “highlight the suffering of Christians inflicted by Muslims” and to call on Islamic leaders “to stop persecuting and killing Christians and Jews, and well as ‘apostates’ who leave Islam.”
But Christian leaders in the Middle East said protests in which the Quran is desecrated have the opposite effect. They are bracing themselves for more attacks. Protestors in the West can speak freely – about free speech, among other things – but it’s Christians in the Middle East who will be doing the dying, they said.
“This message of hate antagonizes Muslims and promotes hatred,” said Samia Sidhom, a Christian and managing editor of the Cairo-based newspaper Watani. “Thus churches and Christians become targets of counter-hate and violence. Islam is in no way chastised, nor Christianity exalted. Only hate is strengthened. Churches and Christians here find they need to defend themselves against the allegations of being hateful and against the hate and violence directed at them.”
Martin Accad, a Lebanese Christian and director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, agreed with Sidhom.
“We are held guilty by association by extremist Muslims, even though the vast majority of Muslims will be able to dissociate between crazy American right-wingers and true followers of Jesus,” he said.
Leaders in the Arabic-speaking Christian world said Terry’s protests and others like it do nothing positive. Such provocations won’t make violent Muslim extremists re-examine their beliefs or go away.
“Islam will not disappear because we call it names,” said Samy, of the Egyptian Protestant church. “So we must witness to our belief in Jesus without aggressively attacking the others.”
Accad, a specialist in Christian-Muslim relations and also associate professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, said positive engagement is the best approach for Christians to take toward Islam.
“Visit their places of worship and get to know them, and invite them to yours,” Accad said. “Educate your own congregation about Islam in a balanced way. Engage in transformational partnerships with moderate Muslim leaders who are working towards a more peaceful world.”
The element of the protests that most baffled Christians living in the Muslim world was that burning or tearing another religion’s book seemed so unchristian, they said.
“In what way can burning or ripping the Quran serve Christianity or Christians?” Sidhom of Watani said. “It is not an action fit for a servant of Christianity. It merely expresses hate and sends out a message of extreme hostility to Islam.”
Accad called publicly desecrating the Quran an act of “sheer moral and ethical absurdity.”
“These are not acts committed by followers of a Jesus ethic,” Accad said. “They will affect the image of Christianity as badly as the destruction of the World Trade Center affected the image of Islam.”
Accad added, “Since when do followers of Jesus rip an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?”
Such protests also defeat the purposes of churches in Islamic nations, Christians said. H. Ramdani, a church leader in Algeria, said Christians must strive to build bridges with Muslims in order to proclaim Christ.
“It’s destroying what we are doing and what we are planning to do,” he said of the protests. “People refuse to hear the gospel, but they ask the reason for the event. Muslims are more radical and sometimes they are brutal.”
At press time Compass was unable to reach Terry by phone or e-mail for a reply to the Middle Eastern Christians’ complaints about the planned protests, but after he staged a Sept. 11 Quran-tearing event he released a statement expressing “great sadness” over the deaths that followed while denying that it was right for Muslims to react violently to such protests.
“Such logic is like saying that a woman who is abused by her boyfriend or husband is guilty of bringing violence on herself because she said or did something that irritated him,” Terry stated.
In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack, Terry Jones, leader of a small congregation in Gainesville, Fla., made his mark in the media by threatening to burn a stack of Qurans in protest of Islam. At the last minute, after wide condemnation from around the world, Jones stated that he felt “God is telling us to stop” and backed out of the protest.
Despite Jones’ retreat, protestors unaffiliated with him burned Qurans in New York and Tennessee, and demonstrations swept across the Muslim world. In the relatively isolated attacks that ensued, protestors set fire to a Christian school and various government buildings, burning the school and the other structures to the ground. In Kashmir, 17 people were killed in Islamic assaults, and two protestors were killed in demonstrations in Afghanistan.
A Chinese pastor and his wife were slain Aug. 31 at Penglai Christian Church, where Lottie Moon, an icon of Southern Baptist mission work, served in the early 1900s in Penglai, China, reports Baptist Press.
Pastor Qin Jia Ye and his wife Hong En He, both in their 80s, were killed in the church’s office on Wednesday.
The suspect — a 40-year-old former church member — was arrested within an hour of the early morning incident.
The couple’s violent death is a shock to many, both in China and the United States. The church was closed for 49 years after communists came to power at the end of World War II, reopening in 1988 with only 20 people.
Qin reported 300 baptisms several years in a row. Today, there are 3,600 members.
Chinese newspaper accounts state that the suspect entered the church office carrying an axe and struck the pastor and his wife, killing them both.
The church eventually outgrew Moon’s original structure and built a modern 1,500-seat sanctuary next to it with the help of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.
"From the moment I met Pastor Qin, I could sense a Christ-like spirit," said Bryant Wright, Johnson Ferry senior pastor and current Southern Baptist Convention president. "We are incredibly saddened by this tragic event, but we know one of the Lord’s faithful servants is with Him forever in Heaven."
Qin graciously acted as tour guide for a large number of Southern Baptist leaders passing through Penglai who wanted to connect with the community where Moon served.
Wanda S. Lee, executive director-treasurer of Woman’s Missionary Union, visited the church during a 1997 China tour. In spite of numerous church responsibilities, Qin and his wife welcomed the group warmly, Lee said, and it was obvious they were well-loved and respected.
"We are deeply grieved at the news of [the] death" of Qin and his wife, Lee said. "It is a great loss to the Christian community."
Candace McIntosh, executive director of Alabama WMU, took seven college students to China in 2008 to experience firsthand the history and work of Southern Baptists. Penglai Christian Church was a stop on the tour.
McIntosh remembers admiring Qin’s humble and quiet strength as he prepared for worship, as well as his ability to state the message clearly for all to understand. After the service, Qin spent a great deal of time talking with the team of young women about Moon’s legacy.
"He was so encouraged that younger women were there, learning about the history of Lottie Moon and the Chinese church," McIntosh recalled. "I know the legacy of Lottie Moon will live on, but one of its greatest communicators is no longer with us. I know Qin’s legacy will live on, too."
New Christians in northwest violently compelled to return to ancestor worship.
HANOI, Vietnam, January 18 (CDN) — A Vietnamese man violently forced to recant his fledgling Christian faith faces pressure from authorities and clansmen to prove his return to traditional Hmong belief by sacrificing to ancestors next month.
Sung Cua Po, who embraced Christianity in November, received some 70 blows to his head and back after local officials in northwest Vietnam’s Dien Bien Province arrested him on Dec. 1, 2009, according to documents obtained by Compass. His wife, Hang thi Va, was also beaten. They live in Ho Co village.
Dien Bien Dong District and Na Son Commune police and soldiers led by policeman Hang A Senh took the Christian couple to the Na Son Commune People’s Committee office after police earlier incited local residents to abuse and stone them and other Christian families. After Po and his wife were beaten at 1 a.m. that night, he was fined 8 million dong (US$430) and a pig of at least 16 kilos. His cell phone and motorbike were confiscated, according to the documents.
Christians Sung A Sinh and Hang A Xa of Trung Phu village were also beaten about the head and back and fined a pig of 16 kilos each so that local authorities could eat, according to the reports. The documents stated that the reason for the mistreatment of the Christians was that they abandoned “the good and beautiful” traditional Hmong beliefs and practices to follow Protestant Christianity.
Christian sources reported that on Dec. 15 police took Po and his wife to members of their extended family, who applied severe clan pressure on him to deny their faith. When police added their own threats, Po finally signed recantation documents.
“I folded – I signed when police threatened to beat me to death if I didn’t recant,” he said. “Then they would seize my property, leaving my wife a widow, and my children fatherless – without a home.”
Following Po’s written recantation, authorities subjected him to further family and clan pressure and “fines,” as well as rites to satisfy traditional Hmong spirits said to have become upset when he offended them by becoming a Christian.
Po faces the ultimate test to prove his recantation is sincere on Feb. 13, Lunar New Year’s Eve. He remains under severe threat, the documents report, unless he voluntarily offers sacrifices to his ancestors at that time.
The documentation of the forced recantations in northwest Vietnam indicates authorities are contravening Vietnam’s 2004/2005 public religion policy.
All three men had received a summons dated Dec. 11, 2009 to appear at the Na Son Commune Peoples’ Committee office at 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 15 “to take care of business relating to following the Vang Chu religion.”
The officials’ use of the Vang Chu religion in these documents was said to be significant. Vang Chu is a mythological Hmong savior who, it is believed, will unite and deliver the Hmong. For some time Vietnamese authorities have deliberately misnamed Protestantism as Vang Chu in order to give Christianity a threatening political character. Any real or imagined political opposition provides Vietnamese communists with a carte blanche excuse to apply repressive measures, Christian sources said.
One of the other Christians arrested, Xa, has received another summons handwritten by the chief of Trung Phu village, Hang A Po, “to solve the issue of the Vang Chu religion.” The summons ordered Xa to appear without fail at the home of village chief Po in mid-December and to bring sufficient food, including a 15-to-20 kilo pig, to feed everyone.
“Here is Vietnamese jungle justice on full display – show up at the home of an official to be tormented and bring plenty of food and liquor for your tormentors,” observed one source.
The summons purports to represent district and commune police who will be present, as well as the village chief.
“It is clear that in spite of public national policies outlawing forced recantation, to the contrary, Dien Bien government policy to force new Christian believers to recant is being vigorously implemented,” said one source.
This conclusion is consistent with other findings. In November 2009 religious liberty advocates acquired a Vietnamese language booklet entitled “Some Documents Concerning Religious Belief and Religion.” The 104-page document “For Internal Circulation” was published in November 2007 by the Dien Bien Province Department of Ethnic Minorities.
The collection of documents, including some marked “Secret,” clearly shows Dien Bien religion policies and directives relative to Protestants are different than the “new religion legislation” of 2004/2005. The Dien Bien documents reveal a secret “Guidance Committee 160” is overseeing repressive policies initiated before the new religion legislation of 2004/2005 that continue to guide officials.
“These events and findings in Dien Bien clearly show that the excuse given by our government that such events are isolated exceptions perpetrated by a few bad officials is not believable,” said one church leader.
Should the threat to traditional media from the internet really be a cause for concern?
The new social media — blogging, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube are current faves — revolutionising the publishing world, for better and worse. Let’s look at both the better and the worse in perspective.
The current tsunami of personal choices in communication is slowly draining the profit from mainstream media. These media traditionally depend on huge audiences who all live in one region and mostly want the same things (the football scores, the crossword, the TV Guide, etc.). But that is all available now on the Internet, all around the world, all the time.
One outcome is a death watch on many newspapers, including famous ones like the Boston Globe. As journalist Paul Gillin noted recently: “The newspaper model scales up very well, but it scales down very badly. It costs a newspaper nearly as much to deliver 25,000 copies as it does to deliver 50,000 copies. Readership has been in decline for 30 years and the decline shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile, new competition has sprung up online with a vastly superior cost structure and an interactive format that appeals to the new generation of readers.”
Traditional electronic media are not doing any better. As James Lewin observes in “Television audience plummeting as viewers move online” (May 19, 2008), mainstream broadcasters “will have to come to terms with YouTube, video podcasts and other Internet media or they’ll face the same fate as newspapers.”
Radio audiences have likewise tanked. Overall, the recent decline of traditional media is remarkable.
Some conservative writers insist that mainstream media’s failure is due to its liberal bias. But conservatives have charged that for decades — to no effect. Another charge is that TV is declining because it is increasingly gross or trivial. True enough, but TV’s popularity was unaffected for decades by its experiments with edgy taste.
Let’s look more closely at the structure of the system to better understand current steep declines. Due to the low cost of modern media technology, no clear distinction now exists between a mainstream medium and a non-mainstream one, based on either number of viewers or production cost. Today, anyone can put up a video at YouTube at virtually no cost. Popular videos get hundreds of thousands of views. Podcasting and videocasting are also cheap. A blog can be started for free, within minutes, at Blogger. It may get 10 viewers or 10,000, depending on the level of popular interest. But the viewers control that, not the providers.
The key change is that the traditional media professional is no longer a gatekeeper who can systematically admit or deny information. Consumers program their own print, TV, or radio, and download what they want to their personal devices. They are their own editors, their own filmmakers, their own disc jockeys.
Does that mean more bias or less? It’s hard to say, given that consumers now manage their own level of bias. So they can hear much more biased news — or much less. And, as Podcasting News observes, “Social media is a global phenomenon happening in all markets regardless of wider economic, social and cultural development.”
Understandably, traditional media professionals, alarmed by these developments, have constructed a doctrine of “localism” and, in some cases, called for government to bail them out. That probably won’t help, just as it wouldn’t have helped if the media professionals had called for a government “bailed out” of newspapers when they were threatened by radio, or of radio when it was threatened by TV. Video really did (sort of) kill the radio star, but the radio star certainly won’t be revived by government grants.
Still, the news is not all bad. Yes, new media do sometimes kill old media. For example, no one seriously uses pigeon post to send messages today. But few ever thought birdmail was a great system, just the only one available at the time. However, radio did not kill print, and TV did not kill radio. Nor will the Internet kill older media; it will simply change news delivery. Sometimes in a minor way, but sometimes radically.
Media that work, whether radio, TV, newspapers, books, blogs, or any other, thrive when there is a true need. Today’s challenge is to persuade the consumer to look at alternatives to their own programming decisions.
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.
Dr. Steven Collins, the unassuming archeologist from New Mexico, was at a crossroad. The site he was helping to excavate in the West Bank (Ai) from 1995-2000 closed down due to warfare and political maneuvering in the region. Steve, and project director Bryant Wood, had to close up shop.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he told me in a recent interview. “For the past five years, my life had been consumed by this dig. Then it was gone. I was dumbfounded.”
But this closed door proved to be an opening for something more amazing.
“It was then that I decided to conduct some research on a thought I had in 1996. During an archeology tour, I found that the traditional site for Sodom (known as the “Southern Theory”) didn’t match the geographical profile as described in Genesis 13-19.”
“As I began to research it more, and read through Genesis 13-19 several times, I had a thought that I had to pursue: they have the wrong location.”
“Many think Sodom is in the South (modeled after the famous archeologist, William F. Albright’s views), but the text seems to indicate that the site is in the Northeast,” he continued.
As “Indiana Jones” as Steve’s thoughts were, the conclusions and findings could be even more monumental than any blockbuster movie.
Essentially, Steve took the literal text of Genesis 13-19 and created a theoretical map, using the research methodology of Dr. Peter Briggs. This “map” utilizes a scientific approach to determine the validity of ancient texts. The conclusion? The texts in Genesis are reliable geographical indicators.
Working with Briggs, Collins developed a theory that the location was not in the Southern region, but in the Northeast.
From there, Dr. Collins began to flesh out his thoughts in a formal paper. This 250-page research paper was highlighted at the Near-Eastern Society Conference.
In his research, Collins focused in on five key areas: the geographical indicators, the chronological indicators, the terms of the destruction, the architecture and pottery, and the facts themselves.
“What I didn’t want to do,” he said, “was trample down the well-worn theories of past commentators and scholars. Basically, I wanted the text to speak for itself.”
“At the NES meeting, I received favorable comments from men of whom I have the utmost respect. I knew we were on to something quite thrilling.”
The one thing left to do was further research and the beginning of a dig.
“So my wife, a couple of students from Trinity Southwest University, and I headed off to Jordan to do research. We were in Jordan by 2002.”
“When I was doing research in the U.S., many of the maps and books were conspicuously absent of any detailed information regarding the north eastern region of the Dead Sea. Sadly, many of the scholars had ignored the text in Genesis.”
In Jordan, Collins found a host of helpful material.
“While in Jordan I found many maps, books, and archeological information at the American Center for Oriental Research library. In particular, a book by the journalist Rami Khouri, gave me the foundation I needed to get started.”
“Though this book was a popular work, it quoted from—and made reference to—many scholarly works. From that point on, we used Khouri’s book as a guide to the Jordanian literature on the sites north of the Dead Sea . We spent hours copying as much material as we could.”
“What we discovered seemed to coincide with our findings: Sodom was not in the south, it was northeast of the Dead Sea.”
“We were able to locate some information from one of the last major digs that occurred in the area. We also paid close attention to a 1975/1976 survey of the Jordan Valley. This survey stated that the area of our interest had many ancient sites.”
“So we headed off to the area northeast of the Dead Sea and began to look around. What we found amazed us. There were at least ten sites that could possibly be ancient Sodom.”
“Sodom is mentioned first in the Bible—consistently—thereby giving it prominence as the largest city in that area. So based upon the text and our previous research we chose the largest site. And let me tell you, this find at Tel-al-Hammam turned out to be much greater than we ever hoped for.”