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Following Hamas' atrocities in Israel, the media are awash with commentary, so I will keep my comments short. I am shocked by the willin...

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Raising the standard of public broadcasting

I very recently joined the 'Twittersphere', perhaps rather later than many. It is a fascinating and  chaotic rabble of mostly anonymous individuals and organisations, persistently launching their modest 140 characters into the ether.  Each directed towards a target or targets be they individuals or topics of interest. Each seeking attention, a mere microsecond of focus from fellow travellers to anoint their submission with a 'favourite', or a 're-tweet', or, rarely, a direct response. I guess I don't need to tell you, as most of you are more experienced than I. I still have my training wheels, yet I am fascinated and must admit somewhat hooked. I can see in the ebb and flow of the commentary, the full range of human emotions on open display.

With my inclination towards political commentary I have spent most of my Twitter time on the regular news shows like ABC's 730 Report and Lateline, and Sky News' PM Agenda and Paul Murray Live. The many followers of these shows exhibit great passion in their tweets, as if they were ringside in some gladiatorial event. Each show has its supporters; the ABC's mainly left of centre and Sky's mainly right. But they share the same lust for blood. Invariably when the presenter is interviewing someone 'from the other side', there are calls for tougher questions, some name-calling of the interviewee and eventually name-calling of the interviewer.

Consider  these examples;

 .... 'Does @leighsales have Alzheimer's? Bring back @FergusonNews to @abc730 I say

Bring back Sarah Ferguson to #abc730 As soon as possible @leighsales too kind to LNP Pollies .....

David is keeping his options open to get a job on #THEIRabc #pmagenda Tell us they aren't BIASED. Go on.. dare ya.

the poll went down because the arsole media were blathering about a russian invasion remember that @David_Speers #pmagenda

Journalistic aggression

With all the encouragement from their supporters, and indeed their colleagues, it is not surprising that many a journalist has taken taken a pugnacious stance against those 'on the other side'. Interviewing is perceived by many a journalist, as a 'blood sport'. Journos and their audience each baying for the 'gotcha moment', seeking that telling bead of sweat on the brow, or even the odd broken glass. These are hailed as a measures of success and receive general acclaim from journalists and the twitterati alike. 

Indeed some of these aggressive interviews have become icons of reportage, heralded long after their normal use-by date. Consider the Alberici interview on Lateline with the Hizb ut Tahrir representative, or Sarah Ferguson's interview on ABC 730 report with Joe Hockey on budget night.

Boxing or Surgery?

I have always found this rather distasteful for a couple of reasons. Primarily, our journalists, are the first line of our public discourse, a demonstration of how professionals deal with each other even when they may have differing views. By their large audience our media set the standard for all our behaviour. Aggressive questioning, clearly intended to attack the individual, interrupting them while they are talking, talking over them, or signs of enjoyment of another's discomfort, does not set a good example.  It is not how we want people to treat each other.

And secondly, it is also counter-productive.When a journalist takes an aggressive attitude, the interviewee, usually a politician will 'clam up'. When they reluctantly appear for battle, they become guarded, mechanical, limiting their discourse and offering less information. Often they will avoid the interviewer altogether. The consequence is we are all the losers.

Journalism, professional journalism should be about content not about style. The professional journalist should be more surgeon than boxer. With good knowledge of the topic and a quick wit they should be able to cut through the defensive shields of even the most capable politician. 

If a politician refuses to answer a question, that is his prerogative. You can ask a couple of times, but if he doesn't answer he has certainly demonstrated his unwillingness to do so, and he has shown this to the whole viewing audience. If a politician makes long-winded answers and you cannot get your questions in , that is also his prerogative. Again he has demonstrated his unwillingness to converse, in other than sloganese, to the viewing public.

PBS Newshour as the paragon

Whereas 'Gotcha journalism has become fashionable, especially on our public broadcaster, great journalists rarely have had to resort to overt emotions or aggressive questioning. The Frost/Nixon interviews come immediately to mind, but there are many others.

PBS Newshour, televised each day on SBS is the template I wish would be followed by all our Australian news media, and especially our public broadcaster. Its success is founded on the editorial guidelines (see table below) created by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, the creators of the program.

PBS Newhour Editorial guidelines
(also called MacNeil / Lehrer journalism.)
"Do nothing I cannot defend."
"Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me."
"Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story."
"Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am."
"Assume the same about all people on whom I report."
"Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise."
"Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything."
"Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions."
"No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously."
"And finally, I am not in the entertainment business."

Some characteristics stand out; -
  • Strong debate on topics of political and general interest
  • all journalists top of their game ( regular presenters include Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff, Hari Sreenivasan, Margaret Warner, Jeffrey Brown, Paul Solman
  • all interviews focussed on a topic, interviewers always polite, questions however are sharpened to clearly display all aspects of the the topic
  • most interviews have the journalist as an independent moderator with two interviewees representing each side of the argument
This last point is perhaps the most pertinent and should be used more often in Australia.
SkyNews does do this quite often, but could do more. Our ABC mostly fails to do this. If the ABC went out of its way to ensure both sides of an argument were presented by articulate and knowledgeable advocates, a lot of the criticism of the ABC for bias, would be dissipated.

How do we fare?

How do I rate our Australian networks and shows? Let me stick my neck out. No doubt you will tell me where you disagree.

As far as networks are concerned I think PBS Newshour is Gold, SkyNews is Silver and our own ABC is bronze.

With regard to News debate I believe SkyNews' Sunday Agenda comes closest to the high quality professional interviewing of the PBS Newshour. A straightforward panel discussion with pollies and journos asking questions, sometimes very probing questions, and sufficient time to subvert the 'pollie-waffle' escape.

SBS' Dateline and Four Corners do a creditable job on specific topics, but often strongly advocate for one side of an argument without adequately presenting the alternate view.

These are weekly programs, the dailies don't fare as well. Sky News' PM Agenda, ABC's AM and PM radio prgrams do a creditable job. Sky's PM Agenda goes out of it s way to have two advocates in debate format. ABC's 730 Report and Lateline rarely do this and often take adversarial, and patronising approach in their interviews.

I know I have left many out, but these are my regulars, and prefer not to comment on those I do not follow.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Is the world warming ...to climate change?

US and China reach Climate Accord after months of talks - New York Times - 2014/11/12

US and China Announce a Huge Deal on Climate, to Everyone’s Surprise  - Wired - 2014/11 

The Faux US-China Climate Deal - The Diplomat - 2014/11/12

U.S. and China Strike Historic Climate Change Deal - NBC News - 2014/11

Certainly the surprise joint announcement of an agreement on Climate Change by the worlds largest CO2 emitters grabbed the headlines at the end of APEC.

This is no doubt a significant recognition by world's two largest economies that they need to be seen to be acting on climate change. The media has lapped it up, with incessant coverage. As always there is a large disparity in interpretations depending on one's leanings. 

What does this announcement really mean ?

Given the brief statements and lack of binding agreements, it is appropriately in fact a statement of direction from these leaders. 

Even without looking at the contents of the announcement we can welcome some important 'soft benefits' from the announcement and the way it was made. It shows close cooperation between the two leading nations of the world on a problem which is widely accepted as one of our major challenges as we face the future.

It is encouraging the the US and China, often seen as rivals in many spheres, could work together, and in secret, for so long. 

Moreover by timing the announcement well ahead of next year's climate summit they have started the ball rolling, encouraging other nations to consider their commitments. By doing so it is more likely that the Paris meeting will yield more ambitious 'commitments'.

With regard to the commitments themselves, it is not so positive.

The table below summarises each party's updated target compared to their prior position at the Copenhagen conference .

APEC announcement Copenhagen target Change in emissions
China Peak emissions in 2030, 20% in non-fossil fuels by 2030 40-45% reduction in carbon intensity none committed
U.S. 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 “17% below 2005 by 2020 and 42% below 2005 by 2030”. This is ~ 30% below 2005 levels by 2025 on a straight line basis no real change

What this announcement does not mean

As the gloss is wearing off the announcement surprise, we are starting to hear many misgivings(eg see Matt Moran's "Will Obama's climate surprise deliver a global deal?").

In the past these types of 'commitments' have not achieved their stated emission cut targets. Lomborg, (Kyoto deja vu as Paris becomes Copenhagen) has reviewed some of the Kyoto results showing that many countries not only failed to achieve their Kyoto promised cuts, but ended up with increases in emissions. In fact this was true for the US, and who knows with a Republican congress and potentially a Republican president, the current targets may have the same fate. China is in a better position however as it has another 16 years before it fails its commitment.

What we cannot expect from these announcements is also significant. 

Don't expect
  • a dramatic decrease in emissions any time soon, from either of the two leading CO2 emitters
  • a dramatic decrease in global emission due to these announcements
  • any decrease in emissions than would have been achieved without the announcement
So despite the hyperbole, in large part this is business as usual.

The real benefit is a glimpse of a potentially new spirit of cooperation between the two rival superpowers. 

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Is Australia good for the environment?

Australia is "one of the dirtiest, most greenhouse emitting countries in the OECD group of developed countries." Stephen Sackur

The quote above is from Stephen Sackur of the BBC's Hardtalk in his aggressive interview targeted at our Joe Hockey (Full transcript of the interview here.) 

The implication is clear. Australia is a bad polluter, and, indeed, a worse polluter than other OECD countries. Certainly the label is rarely challenged, and tacitly accepted. 

But is it true? Is Australia, as a country, a worse polluter than the US, or Japan, or indeed other OECD countries?

If Australia is a 'polluter', then our planet would be less 'polluted' if Australia were somehow totally removed from it.

I guess we cannot just remove Australia in deed, but we can in thought. Lets remove the impact of Australia from the world and see what savings we make in greenhouse pollution.

Australia's net contribution to world green house gases comprises the CO2 we generate as a result of our consumption of goods and services, less the amount of CO2 we remove from the atmosphere due to our vegetation; trees and grassland. For a full definition see table 1 below.

'Consumption' Emissions of Carbon Dioxide

  • Production Emissions within Australia from all sources. This includes  electricity generation , transport, industry, mining, etc.
  • Plus the Carbon Dioxide component of all products we import. After all someone else had to generate carbon dioxide in order to manufacture these goods and since Australia is no longer present, these goods are not required and the carbon dioxide is no longer generated
  • Less Carbon Dioxide generated in the manufacture of all our exports. If Australia were removed then the countries receiving our exports would have to get them from somewhere else, and there is no need to believe that their alternative source would generate lower Carbon Dioxide. 
Reductions of Carbon Dioxide

  • the carbon dioxide that is absorbed within Australia due to trees, vegetation etc.. Again, if we were to remove Australia from the earth, we would have to remove the impact of the Trees and grassland on the Australian continent which absorbs Carbon Dioxide.

Data, data everywhere

There is an abundance of data on Climate Change, greenhouse gas emissions, by country by year. Unfortunately the data is not always directly comparable. Some data includes only carbon dioxide, whereas other figures include other greenhouse gases, methane, nitrous oxide, etc. Similarly the rates of absorption of greenhouse gases varies by the type of vegetation, trees vs grasslands, and indeed all these rates are subject to some debate. 

For my calculations I have used just the few sources listed at the bottom of this page.  While they are a bit dated, 2004, and some may feel they are not quite correct for whatever reason. Nevertheless, the conclusions would not be affected by the relatively small changes that have taken place in the last decade, nor indeed even by large differences in the various figures used in the calculations.

There has been considerable debate regarding the measure that should be used when ranking countries as to their greenhouse gas emissions. Convention is to use emissions generated within a country. The alternative, and, arguably, more rational measure, is to use the so-called 'consumption emissions'.These start with the emissions generated within a country but are adjusted for the CO2 content of imports and exports as specified in Table 1. Indeed it is the availability of Consumption Emission data that has made the calculation of Australia's net emissions readily calculable.

The calculations are shown in table 2 below.

Datum Value Unit Source
Consumption emissions per person /yr 16.7 tonnes CO2 Ref[1]
Population (2004) 20.1 million Ref[2] 
Total Consumption emissions 336 MtCO2/yr

Australia Land area 7,633,565 sq kms Ref[3]
Percentage covered by forest 19 percent Ref[4]
Area covered by forests 1,450,377 sq kms
Absorption of CO2 per hectare of forest/yr 25 tonnes/hectare Ref[5]
Total Absorption 3,626 MtCO2/yr

Net Emissions -3,290 MtCO2/yr

Myth is Busted!

The emissions of CO2 based on the consumption of goods and services in Australia in 2004 amounted to 336 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2. Whereas the absorption of CO2 by vegetation on the Australian continent were ten times greater at 3,626 Mt of CO2. The net emissions were a negative 3,290 MtCO2 or Australia is a net absorber of CO2.

It turns out that Australia with its large land area and low population is not a 'polluter' at all. In fact it absorbs more than 10 times as much CO2 as it emits. 

Without Australia, our planet would be far, far worse off, from a greenhouse emissions viewpoint. 

Perhaps, given the often stated label that Australia is "one of the dirtiest, most greenhouse emitting countries in the OECD" (Stephen Sackur), these results are surprising. Perhaps Mr Sackur was really talking about per capita emissions, and was ignoring the absorption of greenhouse gases or indeed the impact of exports and imports. Irrespective of the measure he meant, Australia is not a polluter at all, absorbing more CO2 than it emits.

Per Capita measures are misleading 

While this result does not disprove the claim that the 'per capita' emissions by Australians are relatively high, it brings into question the validity of such 'per capita' measures. 
Since governments are responsible not just for the emissions due to their population but also due to their land use, ranking of countries needs to look at both emissions and absorption by the country as a whole. On this basis Australia is clearly helping to clean the emissions from other parts of the world. 

But wait there is more...

On a net emissions basis, I am guessing, Australia is one of the best performers in the OECD.  But how does Australia really compare? 

I will leave that for another day.


1. Steven J. Davis and Ken Cadeira, PNAS, Sustainability Science Portal, March 23, 2010, vol.107,no 12, 5687-5692,"Consumpion-based accounting of CO2 emissions" 

2. Australian Bureau of Statistics,3311.0.55.001 - Demography,Australia, 2004 Final

3. Wikipedia, List of Countries by Area

4. Australia forestation, Wikipedia -Forest of Australia

5. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2005, Contents/Environment/Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Monday 3 November 2014

Is our poverty line straight?

I was surprised to learn that according to the recently published report by Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) some 14 percent of Australians are below the 'internationally accepted poverty line"( http://www.acoss.org.au/policy/poverty/).

One in 7 Australians living in poverty is a terrible indictment for a rich country like Australia.

However, in view of Australia's increasing standard of living over the past 15 years (see http://www.natsem.canberra.edu.au/storage/Cost-of-Living-September-2013.pdf ) and Australia's ranking as number 2, behind only Norway, in the Human Development Index (see http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/table-1-human-development-index-and-its-components), it made me curious. What are these figures? Where do they originate? What is this poverty line?

So I did a little research. I downloaded the rather lengthy report from ACOSS. You can download it here.

I also followed up on Wikipedia to see what other countries were doing and how Australia compared with other countries.

As you delve, there is a lot to learn, and I confess I have more questions than answers. Nevertheless I have gleaned a few snippets.

What does ACOSS mean by 'poverty line'? 

The report defines the 'internationally accepted' poverty line for a single adult as 50% (or 60%) of the 'middle income' (median) single income household. There are different 'poverty lines' for different types of household. ACOSS however uses an adjusted figure by excluding housing costs, arguing that 'in this way , it compares different households' ability to meet their basic living costs apart from housing." Let's take that at face value , for now.

Wikipedia provides a less dogmatic definition noting that while many developed countries use the above definition, others also use the average rather than the median, and more importantly poorer countries tend to use an absolute definition of poverty based on daily earnings of but a few dollars per day. 

More questions than answers

The method used by ACOSS to calculate their published figures from the definition is still a bit of a mystery to me and has left me with a number of questions (see below). However there is an overriding problem with the definition. 

Simply, the 'poverty line' as defined, does not measure poverty in the normal sense of the word, ie a level of deprivation. It provides a sort of measure of distribution of income across a society, but not what we commonly mean by poverty.

Ok, I need to illustrate. 

Recall that ACOSS defines the poverty line as an income level  of 50%(or 60%) of the median household income for any family group. 

So imagine, one day miraculously, every employer decides to double everyone's income but without a commensurate change in the cost of goods. Yes I know this is unlikely, but hear me out it is only to illustrate this point. 

If everyone is earning double what they used to earn, with costs not having changed, you would expect that there should be less people living under the poverty line. But according to the ACOSS definition, not one person who was below the poverty line before this sudden increase in wealth is raised above the poverty line.  This is because the poverty line definition is based only on income distribution, totally ignoring the cost of living. Whereas we know poverty is not based on just income but what that income will purchase.

So clearly the definition is flawed, and really badly flawed. 

Now I am not saying that people living below the ACOSS poverty line are not deprived. I fully accept that there are significant numbers of fellow Australians who live in poverty. My point is that the ACOSS poverty line is NOT an appropriate measure for who is and is not in poverty, and therefore it should be replaced by a measure that takes into account both income and living costs for each family group.

Further questions

Even if we did accept the ACOSS definition, other problems arise. ACOSS does not break down the income distributions by geographic region. This is despite large variations in both the income and the cost of living across states, cities and rural regions. 

For example in 2011, 13.7% of households in Regional Tasmania earned between $400-$599 per week compared to 9.3% aggregate for Australia as a whole and 4.7% of households in the ACT. (see  http://profile.id.com.au/australia/household-income?WebID=170 )

This shows very wide variation in incomes by geographic region.  The same is also true for the cost of living. For example You would need around $5,500 in Hobart to maintain the same standard of life that you can have with $7,100.00 in Sydney, assuming you rent in both cities (see http://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/compare_cities.jsp?country1=Australia&country2=Australia&city1=Sydney&city2=Hobart)

Once again the ACOSS poverty line can grossly mis-assign poverty. A person in Hobart with an above poverty income may find it a real struggle to live in Sydney. 

Clearly any measure of real deprivation should take into consideration the cost of living and the income in the geographic region in which the household is located.  Without this all that can be concluded is that the ACOSS poverty line gives some , rather ill-defined, measure of income distribution.

Why does this matter?

We are a rich country and want to be generous to our citizens, so this poverty line is a measure of our success as a society , at least in some senses.

Whilever there is competition for our tax dollars poverty rates will be amplified as a weapon against tight fisted governments in order to increase welfare spending.

ACOSS serves its purpose well in publishing headline poverty rates that are perceived as high, and increasing year on year. 

I share the common ethos of most Australians to provide generously for the disadvantaged. Therefore I take no issue with ACOSS' role seeking to limit poverty. However using false and misleading measures will tend to be discounted and can turn counter-productive. I believe the method of measuring poverty should be revised. ACOSS' poverty line, based only on income, should be replaced by a measure which really reflects both income and cost structures across geographic zones.

In the end, the best remedy for poverty may not be though increasing welfare payments, but through the availability of jobs and training.  More spending on welfare can be counter productive, as it removes responsibility from the individual and also the satisfaction that comes from doing an honest days work, but that is a discussion for another day