Occupy This

16 10 2011

To steal from Network, Americans are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

The #Occupy movement, which began as #OccupyWallStreet, a protest against bankers, bailouts and corporate greed.

In my tiny mind, Americans have every right to be angry. They might be angry enough to consign Barack Obama to a one-term presidency – unthinkable a few years ago. The left is angry, the right is angry and the Tea Party is the small government, small tax version of the pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Christian base for this decade

A few fast facts on why I think Americans are mad:

The economy: No wonder President Obama is playing golf with President Clinton. The baseline in American politics is the economy, stupid. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics‘ latest release (7 October), seasonally adjusted unemployment in September 2011 was 9.1 per cent. That’s a 0.5 per cent improvement on September 2010. Breaking that down:

  • 14 million Americans are registered unemployed
  • Of that number, the long-term unemployed (people out of work for more than 27 weeks) make up more than 44 per cent, or 6.2 million)
  • 24 per cent of teenagers (16-19 year olds) are unemployed
  • 16 per cent of blacks are unemployed (c.f. with 8 per cent unemployment among whites; 11.3 per cent for Hispanics and 7.8 per cent for Asians)
  • The annual 2010 unemployment rate of ‘Gulf War II’ veterans (i.e. military personnel who have served post September 2001) is 11.5 per cent
Delving slightly deeper, while the labor force and employment figures lifted, the civilian labor force participation rate (64.2 per cent) and employment:population ratio (58.3 per cent) remain fairly static. Disturbingly, 9.3 million Americans are classed as involuntary part-time workers (i.e. their hours have been cut or they’re unable to find full-time work). In August 2011, the number was 8.8 million – an additional 444,000 people in one month. Those ‘marginally attached to the workforce’ – some 2.5 million Americans who have sought work in the last year, but not in the last four weeks, are not counted as unemployed. There are 1 million ‘discouraged’ American workers. These are the defeated and demoralised. They believe they cannot get a job, so they’ve given up. Average hourly earnings? $23.12. Average weekly earnings? $793.02.
‘Failed’ stimulus: President Obama signed The Recovery Act on 7 February 2009. The total package of $787 billion was increased to $840 billion in 2011. I bracketed ‘failed’ because it’s open to interpretation. There is certainly a perception that while some of the leading indicators have resulted in an improvement in certain sectors of the economy and regions, in my view, this is counterbalanced by one of the saddest statistics I think I’ve ever come across: $8 billion additional spend on food stamps to feed 38 million hungry Americans. (Reuters)
Dysfunctional government: the White House is caught in a pincer movement. President Obama has come out swinging at Congress recently, most notably on his jobs bill. He’s moving to Candidate Obama, criss-crossing the country selling a Bill which has no chance of passing. These people who were willing to play brinkmanship with the country’s credit card. It is pathetic.
The cost of foreign policy: President Obama got Osama bin Laden. Terrific. It doesn’t change the economic and human costs of the country’s operations in Pakistan and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the key findings of a recent report from the Eisenhower Research Project based at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies:
  • The U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan will cost between $3.2 and $4 trillion, including medical care and disability for current and future war veterans. This figure does not include substantial probable future interest on war-related debt.
  • More than 31,000 people in uniform and military contractors have died, including the Iraqi and Afghan security forces and other military forces allied with the United States.
  • By a very conservative estimate, 137,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by all parties to these conflicts.
  • The wars have created more than 7.8 million refugees among Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis.
  • Pentagon bills account for half of the budgetary costs incurred and are a fraction of the full economic cost of the wars.
  • Because the war has been financed almost entirely by borrowing, $185 billion in interest has already been paid on war spending, and another $1 trillion could accrue in interest alone through 2020.
  • Federal obligations to care for past and future veterans of these wars will likely total between $600-$950 billion. This number is not included in most analyses of the costs of war and will not peak until mid-century.
That’s just war. Don’t start me on the President’s broken promise to close Guantánamo Bay; conduct of extra-judicial killings and the disconnect between endorsement of the Arab Spring where it’s easy (Libya, for example) and wilful disregard for others (such as the Shi`a of  Bahrain).
The 99 per cent: Campaign finance reform; the disparity between tax breaks for the super-wealthy and the middle-class; corporate bailouts; out-of-control student debt it’s the beginning of a national conversation Americans haven’t engaged in for a long time.
So … it was with a general sense of irritation that I heard about the #OccupyPickAnAustralianCity protests that took place yesterday, for one reason: the great Australian propensity for whingeing. If whingeing was an Olympic sport, it would be, ‘GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!’ for Australia. I whinge, I hear others whinge and I read about people whingeing on a daily basis. It’s healthy to vent, to verbalise frustrations, irritations and feelings that systems, services and other people are failing us; but when you conflate whingeing into the #Occupy movement, you cheapen it. Yes, I am fully aware that Australia was only one of 78 countries to hold protests yesterday. I would also contend that people in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece have legitimate fears and grievances against prevailing economic conditions and systemic corruption. Australia? Not so much. While many on the ‘left’ view Tony Abbott as the Nabob of No, the Occupiers of Australia are playing his game of fear and loathing:
The economy: 5.2 per cent unemployment in September 2011. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Measures of Australia’s Progress 2011 report shows, pretty much everything (barring productivity) has improved since 2000. Including unemployment. The bad news? That increase applies to threatened animal species due to climate change. The average weekly income per full-time employed adult is $1,305. The average hourly income is between $29.70 and$33.10 (the disparity? Female wages c.f. men) (Source: ABS)
‘Failed’ stimulus: I’m leaving this one to George Megalogenis
Dysfunctional government: I am not a cheerleader for the current Government, but I am thankful that there are some quality people in our Parliament. Not naming names, but as close to the bone it has come on major issues – especially in the last few weeks – it is functional. I may not like the politics, the policies, the poor communication and quality of political discourse, but it continues to roll on.
The cost of foreign policy: Defence estimates an approximate $6 billion spend in Afghanistan to 2014. Iraq Mk II, approximately $2.3 billion. To me, the irreparable damage is in civilian deaths, leaving Australian citizens in Gitmo, irregular migration flows (UN-speak for refugees), international reputation and pathetic policy reactions to the problems we helped cause. That said, I don’t think we’ve been breaking arms embargoes, killing people willy-nilly or uneven in our condemnation for despots the world over.
The 99 per cent: according to a new release into household wealth from the ABS, the top 20 per cent of Australian households have seen their average net wealth increase by 15 per cent to $2.2 million since 2005/06, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of total household wealth. The bottom 20 per cent’s average net wealth grew by only 4 per cent. They account for approximately 1 per cent of total household wealth. That leaves almost 30 per cent of Australian households with an average net wealth of $720,000, up 14 per cent since 2005/06 – almost on par with the richest in the land and 10 per cent ahead of the poor. I contend that there is no ’99 per cent’ in Australia. Of course there is disparity in wealth; but the two major assets of Australian households (property – $520-540,000; superannuation – $60-154,000) put ‘average’ Australia within striking distance of the top 20 per cent. This is not the case in the US. It never has been and never will be.
I hope this stirs some pots & kettles. It stirred mine.




The perfect social media manager (via Prakkypedia)

29 08 2011

Professional communicators are often terrible at selling themselves – eight points on what sets us apart from the rest!

The perfect social media manager A lot of blogs have been written about the ‘perfect social media manager’ or, as often called these days, ‘community manager’. Social Media Today wrote about “What Makes an Exceptional Social Media Manager" and there are some great traits listed on this blog by Powerhouse USA (an older post, but still valid). As social media seeps more into organisations, employers are grappling with finding the right person to manage their online forums, Faceboo … Read More

via Prakkypedia





So much cheese gone to waste

9 08 2011

I lived in the UK between 1996 and 2001, firstly in Cardiff, & then after travelling from Istanbul to Alexandria, Amsterdam to St Petersburg, my then-partner & I settled in London. At first, we lived in a semi-detached in East Putney. Nice place. Not flash, but a solid 3 out of 5 on the chintz cushion scale of comfort. My boyfriend worked in ‘The City’ and I had various temp assignments, one as a receptionist at a housing trust in Peckham.

Each morning, I caught the Number 37 bus from SW15 to SE15. It wasn’t your average descent from posh to povo until you entered Peckham proper. The huge housing estates of London are difficult to describe. Transferred to specialist non-profit organisations by councils unable and unwilling to maintain them, they are grey and poorly designed. Tower blocks where the lifts work on a lottery basis. Abandoned flats used as crack houses. Largely home to an underclass which can’t even claim working class status, generations who have somewhere to live only because the state pays housing benefits. Private rental properties remain out of reach. Almost all on transfer rolls to get out of the huge estates and into a row of detached houses. In the 1990s, the big estates of South London were the strongholds of criminals, drug dealers & men with guns. Regardless of your circumstance, no one would choose to live in them.

Taking on bigger estates – some housing up to 4,000 people – was a huge undertaking for the housing association. I moved from being a temp receptionist to PA and admin assistant in the development department, responsible for bidding to take over estates and undertaking their physical transformation. Each estate had its own, small office. One day, a package arrived at one of the satellite offices on an estate which had recently been transferred from a council. It was a video of a man suspected of grassing on a drug dealer being ‘necklaced’ – bound by tyres, doused with petrol & set on fire. He survived. The housing association was working to revitalise the estates, physically and socially. A lot of people were very positive about what we were trying to achieve, joining neighbourhood committees and coming to public meetings where plans were discussed, argued over and amended. The video was a message that there were some people who didn’t like the idea that their turf, their power bases, might actually change.

After I split from my boyfriend, I moved to East Dulwich, then Peckham, before I ended up in Brixton, in a housing association flat on Tunstall Road. I loved Brixton. It had everything and nothing. One summer night, my upstairs neighbour stuck his head through the front window. ‘Let us in, let us in man.’ He burst through the door with a gym bag; running through the flat, he emptied the bag on my bed, about 40 bottles of perfume. He threw a Chanel No. 5 at me and said, ‘you keep that one, hide the rest’ before sprinting out the back door, through the garden & over the high wall. Billy wasn’t a ‘yardie’ but he was no innocent. He was an unemployed, 20-something living with his Mum, a West Indian immigrant. He spent a lot of time with me & my new boyfriend, a Dutch guy who listed ‘beating up hippies’ as a hobby. Dave climbed through the front room window (the door was still open, but hey, he was nuts), laughing hysterically, barely able to speak. ‘Where’s Billy? Oh, you got to come and see this.’

‘DAVE! I’ve got half a Chanel counter on the bed! What the fuck is going on?’ He just ignored me, the overgrown toddler high-on-red-cordial look on his face. ‘Come, come outside.’ We walked out onto Tunstall Road. There was a group of about 40 people running in an out of Morley’s Department store. They were looting a Brixton institution, & I was a receiver of stolen goods. The riot police arrived & people scattered, running past the flat. I started panicking about the loot on my bed. ‘Don’t worry about that baby, just put it in a drawer until Billy comes back,’ Dave said, shrugging his shoulders. ‘As if the cops are going to come in here. We’re white.’

Dave & I thought it would be OK to go out for cigarettes. I was too scared to try & get on to the High Street, through the police cordons, so we walked up Tunstall Road, and around a corner to a small off-licence and literally into a wall of riot police on horses. ‘Go home,’ one of them said. Dave, ever respectful of authority, was having none of it. ‘Man, I just need to get some smokes, you know. We’re just going to the shop?’ ‘No, you’re not’ was the blunt reply. I grabbed Dave’s shoulder & hauled him away. Billy eventually came home and collected his plunder. I gave back the Chanel No. 5 – only because I didn’t like it. However, I had committed a crime – I had handled stolen goods; and that’s when I started thinking about what Dave had said. Firstly, if I turned myself in at the police station, would the police have charged me or simply asked for information on Billy? After all, the riot police had not questioned what we were doing outside. They accepted what we had said and told us to go home, no questions. I wondered whether the answer would have been the same if I had been with Billy. Would we have been stopped and searched? Race relations in Brixton had changed utterly, to steal from Yeats, since the 1981 riots, but the area was still overwhelmingly black and the Metropolitan Police were viewed as the enemy, particularly after the Stephen Lawrence case. I experienced a new feeling: I didn’t want to get my mate into trouble. I didn’t want him identified as one of the looters. He hadn’t hurt anyone, I figured. It wasn’t right, but I said nothing.

So what leads people to riot and loot in their own neighbourhoods? There was no ‘reason’ for the looting that summer evening a decade ago. No warning. The current riots in the UK have spread from members of the Tottenham community peacefully rallying around a family with a grievance against the police like a case of herpes, with cars, businesses, buses, and houses ablaze across the city. The vioence and looting has blistered, my old stomping grounds of Peckham and Brixton hit, and now other cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. The pattern is similar to that of riots in France in 2005, when the deaths of two teenagers pursued by police sparked violence from the outer suburbs of Paris across the country, from Lille to Lyon and Bordeaux. The rapid outbreak and spread of violence may be alike, however, those riots were more heavily identifiable with racial tensions. In the UK, the looters are not stereotypical, but share one common denominator: impunity. At a micro level, this stems from the personal envy that builds when you see other people, everyday, in your neighbourhood, leading lives that you are not (while Tottenham is one of the poorest areas of London, it is not the worst; and areas including Hackney and Brixton have undergone substantial gentrification as the cool kids moved in). The death of Mark Duggan (under investigation by the coroner) was hijacked for people behaving with impunity, taking  and destroying symbols of the state and success. Why not take or destroy what doesn’t belong to you, from whoever has it, when you don’t? Who cares if you set fire to a furniture shop in Croydon if you don’t work there and can’t afford what they sell? Then there is systemic impunity. This year, UK student protests against massive hikes in fees were interspersed with outbreaks of violence, which made for pretty pictures for the TV crews. What was lost as people smashed windows at the headquarters of the Conservative Party was the fact that tertiary education is now out of reach for many – not simply the ‘underclass’. The real message may have been lost in the media coverage, but it still resonates with young people: even if you buy into the idea that you can change your circumstances by working hard at school, there may be nothing for you at the other end.  Britons were hit hard by the failures of their financial institutions and the impunity with which they and tax-dodging corporations acted; the ‘Big Society’ promised by their new, fresh government undermined at once by budget cuts that unleashed the broader ‘UK Uncut’ movement. The establishment has been engulfed in scandal, from MPs expenses, to Hackgate and the corruption of the police – and so we have a collision of immediate and impersonal impunity; an unfocused, bewildered rage. ‘I don’t care’ meets ‘neither do you’. 

Australia being Australia, every overseas news story must have an Australian angle. One of the most compelling was that of The Ledbury, a 2-star Michelin restaurant in ‘fashionable’ Notting Hill. Notting Hill, like Brixton, was a traditionally Afro-Caribbean suburb, most famous for its annual carnival than a movie starring Hugh Grant. Like Brixton and Hackney, gentrification means that houses costing hundreds of thousands of pounds sit cheek by jowl with estates where water runs down the walls from condensation and your kids have nowhere to play, so they hang about, ripe for the picking by people who exploit their boredom and undirected, simmering resentment. The Ledbury’s Australian chef, Brett Graham, was interviewed by Mark Colvin for ABC Radio’s PM programme, and described young ‘kids’ smashing their way into the restaurant, stealing from customers, even smashing a Bentley parked outside with the driver inside. Graham said (aside from the Bentley episode) that ‘they weren’t smashing cars …they were targeting businesses where people were, so we got done, the pub got done’. His words reminded me of the opening scene from Pulp Fiction where the characters consider the benefits of robbing a restaurant. You get the business takings and rob the customers as well – and no one is expecting to be robbed. No one deserves to endure a terrifying, violent attack on their person, from the appalling vision of an injured man himself being robbed to the experience described by Brett Graham and one of his diners in this blog; but it is hard to ignore these lines:

“I was sad for the wonderful smelling cheese cart that had glass littered all over it.

So much cheese gone to waste!”

Dave says Billy is dead. He had joined a car-stealing racket and crashed a BMW trying to make a getaway.

So much cheese gone to waste, yes; and so many lives.

 





Cadel, le vainquer

25 07 2011

I didn’t really have many words last night … just a feeling.

In 2007, Cadel Evans went into the starting house within reach of Alberto Contador. I had watched the Spanish man dance on the pedals in the mountains, & thought, ‘now this is not merely sport, but art’. I didn’t know how he would time trial. I knew Cadel could time trial, and he did. He rode the race of his life and at every checkpoint, he took time from Contador. It wasn’t enough. ‘Bertie’ showed he could do it to0. He won the Tour by 23 seconds. 

In 2008, the man wearing the yellow jersey, Carlos Sastre, having destroyed his follow ‘heads of state’ on the hairpin bends of the Alpe d’Huez, went into the starting house holding a 1’34″ lead on third-placed Cadel. I think everyone expected him expected to fade. He didn’t. More importantly, Cadel didn’t time trial as well as everyone thought he would. Sastre won the 2008 Tour de France by 58″.

Thge 2009 Tour was awful. He finised 45′ behind Contador. From two 2nd places to 30th. Clearly the relationship between Cadel & Silence-Lotto was over, despite the addition of Phillipe Gilbert (PhilGil) to the team.

Then that day at Mendrisio … world champion. The announcement that Cadel was looking for new challenges & would leave Lotto. Signing with BMC Racing Team. Winning Fleche Wallone and the holding the maglia rosa at the Giro. He didn’t win, but as he and Alexandre ‘Vino’ Vinokourov slugged out stage 7 on the strada bianche like a muddied Frasier / Ali, there was just this feeling that this year would be the year. New team, rainbow jersey, solid Giro in the legs. Now for the Tour. We know now what happened, but at the time it seemed like that was it. After taking the yellow jersey, Cadel ‘cracked’ on the next mountain stage. He lost something like 8 minutes & collapsed in tears in the arms of his teammate at the end of the stage. He had fallen the day he took the jersey. Still, there was an assumption that the effort of the Giro had caused him to crack. The gruelling Tour of Italy had certainly taken it’s toll, but we learned later was that he had broken a bone in his arm. He finished 26th. That he finished the Tour at all is incredible; but there seemed to be a sense that time was running out for Cadel to win the Tour, that the rivalry between Bertie and the brothers Schleck would dominate.

This year, I watched Cadel ride and win Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Romandie. I didn’t watch the Criterium du Dauphine, where he finished 2nd. I have watched every moment of this Tour. BMC’s Team Time Trial showed how determined, & more importantly, cohesive the squad was. For the first time, watching him guided through the peloton at all times by a black & red-clad teammate, rarely in trouble while almost all of the top riders fell (some injured so badly they were forced to abandon) … there was a sense that it really was his for the taking. After denying Bertie on the line of the Mur de Bretagne, Cadel took the podium for the first time as a stage winner at the Tour (he was awarded his first stage – the first 2007 TT – retrospectively, following Vino’s positive test, but was denied the honour of a podium). Why were they racing so hard? Well, Contador had to make up big time. But Cadel? To me, it was a perfect stage to go for. As he kicked past PhilGil, it was only Contador who could go with him. These men both know the meaning of ‘every second counts’. They have won and lost 3,000km races by a handful of seconds. Cadel threw his machine at the line. He won.

All I could think at that moment was how much Cadel wanted the victory & smiled. I smiled as his team rode hard in week one, even though Cadel wasn’t in yellow. A lot of people questioned why. I liked it. It was a psychological message to the teams of the other big boys. We’re here. We will race hard every day. Every day, for every second.

As they reached the Pyrenees, Cadel was still there. Every move marked. We transitioned to the Alps. Where the Tour is won and lost. The team gave its all. Leopard-Trek did what they do in every mountain stage – set an excruciating tempo to isolate the other elite riders so that Frank & Andy Schleck could attack and counter-attack their rivals. It didn’t work on the first day. They couldn’t shed the yellow jersey of Thomas Voeckler, let alone Cadel.

They had to switch tactics. On the path to the Galibier, Andy Schleck attacked early. He rode solo, to victory for 40 kilometres, and deservedly so. Meanwhile, Cadel reduced a 4′ gap almost entirely by himself to just two. He saved his Tour. He towed a pack of men up the climb with him. He had to. He wanted it.

Then, the feared show down on the Alpe d’Huez. Same-same … Leopard-Trek would try and explode the peloton early, even though it was a short stage. But Bertie – his chances of a Tour win seemingly over – launched an even more audacious attack with 90km to go. The vanquished champion, battered & unlucky, had failed to stay with Cadel on the Galibier – and now he was attacking before Leopard-Trek had time to organise it’s tank-style group attack. This was racing – this was panache – and threw the script out of the window. Already disoriented by what was unfolding, as the cameras lurched back to Cadel several times at the side of the road, until he changed bikes, he had lost 70″ on the leaders, and with it, I feared, the Tour de France. To me, BMC’s directuer sportif, John Lelangue, made the difference. Cadel went back to the peloton, back to his boys, instead of chasing solo, as Voeckler did. For me, it proved the difference. He was given the support he needed & saved the energy he needed at the end to go up the Alpe d’Huez, clawing every second back. The only downside was watching Bertie unable to reap the stage victory on what was one of the most audacious rides I’ve ever seen, befitting the champion he is.

… and so the Battle through the Alps finished. It would go down to the ‘race of truth’. Cadel versus the Schleck brothers and the clock. Would the maillot jaune give Andy Schleck the wings it gave Sastre?

This time, after those two huge efforts & refusal to lie down because of some bad luck with the bike, and despitemy nerves jangling, I believed he could do it. I believed he wanted it more. As every time check passed, & it became increasingly clear that Cadel Evans was riding the time trial of his life & would take the maillot jaune into Paris, I realised how much this moment meant to me & to millions of people around the world. All of the disappointments, all of the bad luck, all of the criticisms that he didn’t attack … all erased. Cadel rode so brilliantly he almost beat time-trial wunderkind, Tony Martin to finish second. He not only recouped the time Andy Schleck held, he smashed it. He left it all on the road and was presented with the maillot jaune on the only day it matters. To wear it into Paris.

Thank you to the riders, the teams, the SBS crew led by Mike Tomalaris for bringing us each stage, and to everyone who has shared this beautiful race with me, on Twitter & by reading my blog posts (especially Chiara Passerini!)

Chapeau, Cadel Evans. Le vainquer du Tour de France 2011.





A Simple Message to Cadel

22 07 2011
Dear Cadel,

You’re a fine man & a champion athlete. You have shown that time & again. Last night was no different. You rode your own race … and a few others’ as well.

Tonight: the Alpe d’Huez. Tomorrow: the race of truth.

Marcus Burghardt said it best in a tweet after stage 4:

Today we saw what BMC Racing Team can do with 9 riders and 19 staff pulling for one goal

Now, there is a million-plus army clad in the black & red of BMC.

A whole country willing you on.

Your bella Chiara – her humour & grace beloved by all.

All pulling in the same direction.

One goal – to see you in the maillot jaune on the only road that matters … the Champs Élysée.

Two more efforts. Chapeau. Forza

 

Close to Flying

One man against the clock
Chiara Passerini and her World Champion, Mendrisio, 2009
BMC Pro Racing, on their way to 2nd in the Team Time Trial, 2011 TdF




Procycling: I love you

14 07 2011

In October last year, as the World Road Cycling Championships were being hosted in Geelong, a doping scandal broke in professional cycling. Not just any doping story – the doping story: three-time Tour de France winner, Alberto Contador had tested positive for the banned substance, clenbuterol. The news hurt; as Australia watched the best procyclists in the world go around, arguably the best cyclist of his generation, who had not only won Le Tour, but taken out the three grand tours – the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta e Espana – had added his name to a list of drug cheats so long that the sport was beyond a joke to many people, and another cut to the ranks of those who see it as an unmatchable combination of athletic ability, teamwork, tactics and individual belief. As I wrote here, I desperately wanted the news about ‘Bertie’ not to be true. As it stands, hewas cleared byhis home cycling association of any wrongdoing, but the World Anti-Doping Agency & Union Cycliste Internationale (International Cycling Union) appealed the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The case was supposed to be heard before the start of this year’s Tour; so Contador rode – and won - a tough Giro d’Italia. The case was postponed: for whatever reason, WADA & the UCI agreed to Contador’s lawyers’ request for an adjournment. That sparked a predictable, ‘should he or shouldn’t he race the Tour’. For what it’s worth, I am firmly in the yes, he should ride camp. Legally, he is entitled to compete. If he was barred, without WADA / UCI appeal being heard, let alone won, the vanquer of this year’s Tour would always have the, ‘could he have beaten Contador?’ tag around his neck. This week saw the undignified bundling into a car by Team Katusha of their promising young rider, Alexandr Kolobnev, who returned a positive A sample for a diuretic masking agent. He was pulled out of the race after a bizarre statement from the UCI that virtually forced the team to do ‘the right thing’ and after the rest of the world learned of the result via the French sporting newspaper, L’Equipe (owned by the same French consortium which organises the Tour) before Kolobnev was himself informed. But this post isn’t about doping. It’s an open letter of love and respect to the men and women who ride bicycles professionally.

Firstly, the prayer of a stranger from the church for the fallen. Among the cyclists seriously injured or killed this year, the death of Team LeopardTrek rider, Wouter Weylandt, in this year’s Giro was perhaps the most horrific because it happened in front of those watching. His helmet was no match for the fall, and he died from the terrible wound the road inflicted on his brain. It was a shocking thing to witness, the death of an athlete young, to paraphrase Housman. His bib number, 108, has been retired from the race. Yet in the midst of their anguish, his teammates and best friend, Garmin-Cervelo sprinter, Tyler Farrar, rode the next stage of the race. As the peloton grouped behind them, they locked hands and crossed the line to end a stage of a grand tour not in a furious assault, but bowed, finally, in sorrow. It is a moment in sport – any sport – that I will never forget. If you missed it, or have no interest in professional cycling, and have never heard Wouter Weylandt’s name, this is all you need to know: 

Then, two weeks later, came the news – unbelievable – that Spanish cyclist, Xavier Tondo had been killed in a freak accident, crushed beneath a garage door. The Movistar team rider another missing from the peloton. Last week, glued to the Tour and watchng advertisements for the Amy Gillett Foundation (established in the name of the Australian cyclist killed by a car while on a training ride in Germany), Australia lost another cyclist in the same way. Carly Hibberd was struck by a car while training in Italy. Cadel Evans tweeted, stunned, from the Tour:

I’m very, very sorry. I ride that road too.

So it is with great sorrow when I read comments, supposedly made in jest, that it is somehow fun to watch cyclists crash. ESPN sports commentator Michael Smith was forced to apologise for this barrage of inanity  (captured in its entirety on the excellent Tour de France Lanterne Rouge blog) about an appalling accident on Stage 9 of the Tour, where Vacansoleil’s Johnny Hoogerland and Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha could also have lost their lives when a car from the French broadcaster France 2/3 tried to barge its way ahead of the breakaway group they were riding in. Watching the accident with a friend, we could not believe what we were seeing. Flecha was lucky not to go under the car, while Hoogerland was flung on to a barbed wire fence. This on the same stage that saw another serious accident end this year’s tour for Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov, Omega Pharma Lotto’s Jurgen van den Broeck and Frederik Willems, as well as Garmin-Cervelo’s David Zabriskie. Sky’s main GC hope, Bradley Wiggins was also forced to abandon after a crash, while Contador has been involved in a number of falls.

Again, from the ‘Tour de Carnage’ as Australia’s Stuart O’Grady (Team LeopardTrek) named it, came great courage. The battered, bleeding Hoogerland and Flecha both finished the stage, and in another triumph of the will, collected his polka dot King of the Mountains jersey. Overcome with emotion, he wept silently on the podium, earning the admiration of everyone who loves the sport. As Hoogerland said, “… I’m still alive. Wouter Weylandt wasn’t that lucky.”  They both continue to ride, heavily bandaged and stitched up. They ride in pain, in the company of men who suffer their own agonies, whether it’s hanging on to the peloton as it forms an echelon in the whipping wind off the Bretagne coast, or climbing hills (soon to become mountains), or give every ounce of effort to throw themselves at the line in a bunch sprint.

Cycling is often seen as an individual sport, particularly as we start ‘the real Tour’ tonight with the first mountain stage. When a peloton of 170 riders are defeated one after another by relentless climbs until a handful of the strongest riders, fighting for the golden fleece on the podium of the Champs Elysee, attack and counter-attack until one proves himself as a class above the best. It’s easy to understand that perception of individualism; each rider with their idiosynchracies; the cat-and-mouse games played out by an elite, taunting each other with a burst of acceleration in the hope they won’t be caught. The truth is far from it. Cadel Evans chances of winning the Tour de France were often talked down by the inability of his then-team, Silence Lotto, to provide him adequate cover and support. This year, after a calamitous result where he was lucky to finish the tour, having ridden his one day in yellow with a broken bone in his arm, he has had a purpose-built racing programme with one goal in sight: to win the Tour de France. His team, BMC ProRacing, is there to fulfil his ambition. “What can be achieved when 19 people (riders, management and staff) are pulling in one direction,” his teammate, Marcus Burghardt, said after their stunning (and unexpected) 2nd to Garmin-Cervelo in the Team Time Trial. Evans has ben guided, protected, nurtured at the front by his Praetorian Guard, led by 16-Tour veteran, George Hincapie. He has the confidence of winning a stage, and sitting in third place overall. BMC has also demonstrated its strength by frequently driving the peloton, doing the pacemaking despite their leader not wearing the yelloy jersey. To some, it seems a peculiar waste of effort; to me, it is a test of mental toughness, a clear message to the “big” teams that BMC is ready to take the tour by the neck and wring every drop of lactic acid from themselves and their rivals in order to complete their mission: the top spot on the podium for their leader, and the maillot jaune in Paris.

This is my love letter to these men of the peloton; those we have lost, and those who honour the sport with their refusal to give in to bodies screaming for the stage to just stop, those who fall and right themselves, race on back to their brothers in the pack. Those like Thomas Voeckler, who snatched the overall lead in that momentous stage 9 by daring to breakaway from the group, and stay away, only to see the stage go to another man, Luis Leon Sanchez. It is for the unsung heroes, the domestiques, who work their guts out to deliver their team’s star a victory. It is for the ‘lesser’ teams, those with no real hope of getting a place in the top 20, let alone a jersey of any description, but who ride with as much heart and hardness as the big names. It is for the superstars of the sprints, such as HTC’s Mark Cavendish, and the men of the Basque country, Euskatel-Euskadi, whose famed mountain prowess should come to the fore in the Pyrenees. It is for the most consistent rider wearing the maillot vert, and the innovative rule changes to the intermediate sprint points. It is for the startling individual ability of a man against the clock in the Individual Time Trial, the penultimate stage and ‘race of truth’. Most of all, this is a love letter to the sport, the vainquers and the vanquished; the pundits, ‘roadside randoms’ and fans.

With love and admiration,

Kimberley





None of the News

14 07 2011

I was a ‘copykid’ at News Limited’s Holt Street, Surry Hills, headquarters in the early 1990s. I have written previously, & very briefly about my experience there, on a rare journalistic duty known as a ‘deathknock’. What I haven’t written – or ranted about – is the sum of that experience; how it opened my eyes to the guts of an industry from the way that I think has fallen by the wayside – interacting with everyone on staff, from the ‘Brothers’ in the printing room, to the drivers; the late night paper runs, where we swapped bundles of the Daily Telegraph-Mirror (as it was then) and The Australian in return for the Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review – a cute little deal that meant if one had a great splash, the other could write a few pars & get the Day Editor & Chief-of-Staff onto the yarn so they could report how it was progressing at the morning’s news conference. We rotated shifts: mid –dawns; 7am-3pm; 3pm-midnight, seven days a week; we rotated desks – from the radio room, an airless goldfish bowl where you listened to police scanners for breaking stories; to general news (generally shit, the editorial floor’s dogs body, with tasks ranging from getting then-DTM Editor, Col Allan’s cigarettes, to ploughing through the newspapers’ photo library and paper files for back stories and pix. Oh, and buying Ray Chesterton’s chips). I was lucky; my starting roster was on the Weekend Australian Magazine. They were a good crew, and the pace was, well, I started at nine and finished at five, bought coffees, did the file gathering and sometimes some proof-reading. It was great. It was also sheltered from the maelstrom of the editorial floors.

When you work shifts, your body and mind inevitably rebel. As soon as the rosters went up – unless we were on a regular assignment such as the magazine – 20 plus copykids, almost all with degrees and aching with ability – zoomed to the ‘head of the copykids’ office to check it out. Invariably, there would be a week of 7-3s followed by a mid-dawn week in the radio room, starting Sunday night. The worst weeks involved changing shifts daily. 7-3, 3-7, 9-5, 11-7 … a 40 hour week, without scheduled breaks, for $17,000 a year. Raised in a union household, I was shocked to learn that because we weren’t on a recognised award, the Australian Journalists’ Association (now the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance) would not accept us as members, or fight for even the most basic of rights. It turned me off unionism for life (despite working for Labor governments, I have never joined a union). Again, if you were working on a good desk, like the DTM features desk (my all-time favourite; bursting with talent and sound people to work alongside), it was a case of, ‘hey, do you need me for 15 minutes? I just want to go out and grab something to eat, I’ll be straight back’, and eating without interruption. If you were on a shithouse roster, like the newsdesk, there would be two copykids so you could at least take a piss, and cover for each other while you saw what delights the canteen held for you. Invariably, it was hot chips. Invariably, you inhaled them or ate them cold, with the shout, ‘COPY!’ snapping you to attention and ensuring you were beside the person who called before the shout came again.

After two cadet exams and two failures to escape the ‘copy’ grind for a prized cadetship, I bid Holt Street farewell. My desire to change the world with electronic typewriter (yes, I am that old) and SLR steadily eroded by seeing the way shit worked: the nepotism; the sensationalism; seeing good journos doing good things, knowing they were capable of much more (many of them have gone on to prove me right). It was also an exciting time – the merger of Sydney’s two tabloids into one; being part of the end of an era – the last of the copy runners, the last of the trucks leaving Holt Street as the presses moved to Chullora and the sub-editors got to grips with doing their normal jobs as fact checkers, word-slashers & general layout to becoming the new ‘band of brothers’.

OK, so this is a rambling way of getting to the biggest media story of the year: the implosion of News International. I’ve eaten this up, just because I left News Ltd almost 20 years ago doesn’t mean I don’t care about the company. Care is the wrong word. There were (and are) plenty of good people at News. I have never worked at Fairfax but I have had a decade’s worth of liaising with both Fairfax and News and they are both employers of writers capable of fine journalism and scum producing real bottom of the barrel tat and opinion dressed as news.

The only thing I can add to the debate about whether the British disease may have spread to Australia (much of it quite spiteful, ill-founded and agenda-focused from a variety of players – not all of them News Ltd employees) is another of the tasks performed by the 3-11pm or 4pm to midnight copykids: faxing the first couple of pages to each of Mr Murdoch’s offices, so that wherever he was, he knew exactly what was in every one of his papers. In those days, there was only one Mr Murdoch. AsI fed the fax machine a page at a time to Mr Murdoch on a regular basis, I often wondered how he had the time and energy to read every title owned by News Corporation and its subsidiaries – I think there are about 170 (from the suburbs of Sydney to the Wall Street Journal; excluding minority shareholdings in Fijian, PNG, and Russian titles). I wondered, but always went back to the adage that Mr Murdoch had ink in his veins. He loved newspapers the same way Kerry Packer loved Channel 9. He famously parlayed the legacy of his father, Sir Keith, (main asset? The now-defunct Adelaide News) into the world’s second-largest media and entertainment conglomerate. It takes balls of steel. As we have seen in the case of News International, it means that the ink in his veins appears to have dried.

Yet, I have this gnawing suspicion that he still gets the first five pages of his titles sent to an iPad somewhere in the world; dictators may look upon their chosen successors benignly, but they remain dictators to the very end. The Mr Murdoch that I worked for, all those years ago, knew what was going on in Holt Street. Why would Fleet Street (or Wapping) be any different? I am not buying the Sergeant Schultz defence that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks are selling. I don’t care how much Mr Murdoch may care for Rebekah Brooks (some say she is viewed as another Murdoch child), the man we all knew as ruthless when it came to business (and he viewed editorial as business), would never have suffered an editor who said, ‘sorry about that guy busted for phone hacking, I didn’t know it was happening’. Their heels wouldn’t have touched the floor on the way out. James Murdoch’s tortuously crafted statements about standards don’t cut the ice with me, either; if he didn’t know what was happening on his watch, then he’s either incompetent, a fool or both. I don’t believe he is. His father’s refusal to address the issue publicly to any greater extent than a terse sentence (even on his own Fox News Network, with a business reporter who called him Mr Chairman, which made me snort water out of my nose as I imagined Mr Murdoch waving his mighty ‘red tops’, a version of Mao with Little Red Book in hand) is the ultimate con. He is a man with a compulsive desire to know things. He was bidding for the greatest prize, 100 per cent ownership of BSkyB, which would stamp his name in history as the greatest of the great media tycoons (they have always existed: people who believe The Australian is a poisonous vessel of the right under the Twitter #auspol hashtag probably don’t remember the UK Mirror Group pensions scandal under Robert Maxwell, poor Czech immigrant turned MP and media proprietor, let alone have any notion of the influence wielded by Max Aitken (the 1st Baron Beaverbrook – indeed, ‘the first Baron of Fleet Street’) who published every morsel of King Edward VIII’s affair with Mrs Wallis Simpson, while personally imploring him to give up her up. His friend, Churchill made him a Minister during World War II; he met with Roosevelt and Stalin; Evelyn Waugh thinly-disguised the media tycoon in his triumph, Scoop, Lord Cooper, on Beaverbrook. Murdoch is not the first, he won’t be the last. However, Mr Murdoch is looking a little fragile. As King of kings, more Ozymandias than Ramses the Great.

Why have I written this? For almost 20 years, I have felt very guilty about something I did to further my career at News Limited. While working on the DTM features desk on Good Friday (can you imagine, the slowest of slow news days), I went out to grab some coffees for the skeleton crew. I happened to spot the notoriously private film director, Jane Campion. Ms Campion was hot property, having just returned from Cannes, with the Palme d’Or for The Piano. I loved the film. I came back, and with a studied insouciance, dropped the tidbit as I put down the coffees. The CoS loved it, a photographer was dispatched and boy was I feeling good about providing a lead that would fill a story-sized hole in the paper. The snapper came back, unhappy. Ms Campion’s partner had lost his temper, their quiet party of four was ruined and the photos were awful. The reason? Jane Campion’s first baby, 12-days-old, had recently died. The story was published, and must have been incredibly hurtful to her & her partner, and it was my fault. There was no public interest in pursuing a woman who had not pursued personal fame; let alone snapping her having what may have appeared as a nice little chat about her French triumph, but was possibly a first outing with friends as they struggled with their grief. To my shame and regret (knowingly, or unknowingly, it doesn’t matter), I caused someone else pain to advance my stocks at News Limited because as a ‘celebrity’ she was fair game. I believe it was that single event which made me reassess what I wanted to do with my life. Telling tittle-tattle wasn’t it.

For the record, I despise what News International has done. I also loathe that while it was ‘just’ affecting celebrities and politicians, the status quo prevailed; there was no groundswell of anger when the News of the World was literally, The News of the Screws - only when it became about real people. My experience with Jane Campion made me relate to the pain inflicted on former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and his wife, Sarah, by Rebekah Brooks, who personally saw that News International’s Sun newspaper broke the news that their baby son had cystic fibrosis. I cried when I read it in The Guardian. I’ve worked for some monumentally self-serving people in politics and in business. I’ve seen first-hand some who I consider to be morally bankrupt; people who bully others in a manner bordering on sociopathic. I’ve known people who have been dragged before, or deserved to front, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. I’ve also had stand-up brawls with journalists who will stoop to innuendo and float base lies to fool people. I have seen people hurt, careers ended, by stories that served no public interest. I have had lazy hacks call for stories they can present at news conference, written a press release ‘exclusively’ for them and seen my words printed verbatim, with their name attached to it. In the same edition of the paper, they will roll out a bullshit yarn about the millions of dollars spent by governments on ‘spin’, which always included the salaries of secretaries, receptionists and policy advisers. I have personally had the staff of ‘shock jocks’ call me – a Ministerial press secretary – to resolve the problems of their callers – basically ‘queue jumpers’ – and then take the credit for it on air. The lives of ‘spin doctors’ and journalists are symbiotic; we, accused of being all-powerful, deceitful obfuscants of the truth; they, facile hacks who struggle to write a decent lead and selectively use one quote or statistic to suit their agenda, even when third parties object in Letters to the Editor. I have heard off-the-record phone calls between a Minister and an Editor which haven’t even finished before their press gallery reporter is on the phone, demanding a statement from me about what my boss genuinely believed was a personal conversation. I have had the threat, ‘we’re running this anyway’. I’ve also developed relationships with journalists to the point that they will tell me what pages their stories are running on, so a Minister can piggy-back off tomorrow’s unpublished headline, pre-record radio news grabs and know that TV crews will turn up for the vision we lovingly put together for them to fill their bulletins; or alternately, craft an ‘appropriate’ response to a shit sandwich. Anyone who thinks for one moment that one or the other has the complete upper hand on a positive or negative story is deluding themselves. Their news, your news … a lot of it is not news.