Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Rise of the Fifth Estate - Greg Jericho

There's a touch of irony in Michangelo's David gracing the banner of Grog's Gamut, the humble blog that slew the mainstream media goliath during the 2010 Australian Federal elections campaign. His post Election 2010: Day 14 (or waste and mismanagement – the media) famously attacked the performance of the national press gallery. It was a gem:
Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money? Well then bring home your journalists following Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, because they are not doing anything of any worth except having a round-the-country twitter and booze tour.

It is a sad thing to say but we could lose 95 percent of the journalists following both leaders and the nation would be none the poorer for it. In fact we would probably be better off because it would leave the 5 percent who have some intelligence and are not there to run their own narrative a chance to ask some decent questions of the leaders. Some questions which might actually reveal who would be the better leader of this country.
Now Greg Jericho has reloaded his slingshot to venture onto the field of the printed page. The Rise of the Fifth Estate is much more than a Cook's tour of 'social media and blogging in Australian politics'. It is a detailed and well-researched look at how the new social media world is changing politics down under. Fans will know that Greg loves a deep dip into data in his blogging.

A hard-copy book about bloggers and twitterers/tweeters may seem a bit bizarre in the digital age. (There is an e-book version of course.) Even so, it should be on the bookshelf of every journalist and top of every journalism academic's course reading list. It is a fitting addition to that niche genre Oz books about new media begun by Antony Loewenstein’s The Blogging Revolution in 2008.

This is a thoroughly readable account of the rise of the political blogosphere and twitterverse in Australia where "we find a coverage of politics that is now broader, but with more niches; that is more intense, but also more reasoned". It lists 324 blogs, ranging across small amateur ones, the occasional politician and think tank, group blogs and professional journalists. (Two are mine.)

He explores the history and nature of the blogosphere, the apparent lack of women bloggers and its prickly relationship with mainstream media. The web is a fast moving target. Some blogs such as Larvatus Prodeo, that are referred to in the present tense, have been archived recently. has not posted since 2010.

Greg discusses the use of pseudonyms at length. He has a very personal stake in the issue of online anonymity. It is the one planted in his back by journalist James Massola of the The Australian newspaper when he outed author of Grog’s Gamut in September 2010. This skirmish in The MSM v Bloggers wars was a backhanded compliment of sorts that has had its upside in Greg’s new media life.

Followers of Greg’s twitter account will know that he’s a sports aficionado who is often overly keen in sharing American football scores and other minutiae. His running commentary echoes Latika Bourke’s media conference reports. The sports interest helps to explain his tweepy competitive streak.

There are plenty of examples of social media as a combat sport in Fifth Estate. Two chapters explore this often “cretinous” pugilistic pastime: Never Read the Comments on trolling the blogs; and One, Two, Three, Four, I Declare a Twitter war on the not-so-sociable media exchanges. It is not normally a place for the faint-hearted.

There is a fairly short examination of the impact of twitter on politics in general and voting behaviour in particular: How Many Votes Are There on Twitter. He’s a fan of hashtags but not #auspol which Greg sees as a cesspool. I find it’s best to filter it by searching only the Top tweets.

The one area of omission in this book is a detailed examination of the impact of Facebook on Australian political discourse. Online campaigning, such as the anti-sexism Destroy the Joint, has taken off on Facebook. DtJ currently has over 22,621 likes, compared with just 4352 Twitter followers. Along with Sack Alan Jones (21,004 on FB) issues related to sexism in Australia have received a much higher profile.

A quick peek at Greg’s Facebook account helps to explain this gap, as he is not a frequent user of that platform. This is also in keeping with his original desire to have an anonymous presence on the web. However, FB is a strand in the political helix that cannot be ignored in the growing complexity of the online political space.

Facebook aside, Greg Jericho is the consummate online practitioner. He has more than maintained that high standard in print. He's definitely someone worth getting connected with, even if you might start a barney together.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Kathryn Fox's Skin and Bone

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

Kathryn Fox's Skin and Bone is a good choice for summer holiday reading if you're into crime thrillers. Her third book, published in 2007, is comfortable but not challenging.

Its young female detective Kate Farrer has most of the characteristics expected of the hero in this genre. She's recovering from a traumatic close-shave that has left demons that she'll have to face. She is a loner, both personally and professionally. And of course she has a new partner at work.

The cover promises a protagonist to rival a Cornwell or Reichs character. Farrer doesn't make a very enthusiastic silent witness, in fact she'd rather skip post-mortems of burnt bodies. There is plenty of forensic detail but none of the pathologists plays a critical or central role in the story, unlike her first two novels.

With regard to detail, it is disappointing that firefighters are referred to as fireman by the author.

Don't try to second-guess the plot too much, as much of it is a bit too predictable. Just go for the ride.

The style is Modern Fiction 101. Is it the lack of adjectives that makes it difficult to bring up a mental image of the main characters?

This novel would probably make a thoroughly watchable tele-movie where those aspects could be developed. In fact the book is more skeleton than skin and could have been fleshed out a bit more.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Georgia Blain's Candelo

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

There are mysteries at the heart of Candelo. Violetta takes her family on holiday at Australian coastal town Candelo: narrator Ursula who is fourteen, her brother Simon and younger sister Evie. They are joined by Mitchell Jenkins who Vi is fostering. Mitchell's magnetic presence changes their lives, and his own, irrevocably.

The story moves between Candelo flashbacks and Ursula as an adult. Her troubled relationships with Vi and Simon are reflected in her struggle to make sense of her own life and loves.

Ursula blames her mother, believing that Vi put her political activism ahead of her children. As she explores both past and present, we visit many dark places and wounds that could not heal without the kind of openness that none of them have displayed.

There is some hope at the end, if not resolution. Prepare to be challenged.

Australian Women Writers: Mariam Issa's A Resilient Life

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

It is a cross post from ThinkBrigade.

A Tale of Two New Years

On New Year’s Eve 2009, fireworks in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton threatened to re-open old wounds from Mogadishu 1991. Somali-born Mariam Issa struggled to overcome memories of war nearly 20 years earlier. It was not typical of her. She describes herself as someone “who goes out with a smile”.
Mariam’s life has been a series of new years: changing countries, changing cultures, changing roles and responsibilities. Her self-published autobiography A Resilient Life was launched at the old Brighton Town Hall in Melbourne’s bayside suburb on 4 December 2012. It is self-published by Harsons Graphics.
It was a large crowd for this kind of event: family, friends and people from the local community. This is a stirring example of Mariam’s belief in a “resilient and adaptable community”. She stresses the importance of breaking barriers. Her life so far has certainly fitted that tag.
Her inspiring speech at the book launch is captured in this video:

Growing Up in Africa

Mariam was born in Kismayu, Somalia, in the tumultuous year of 1968, before moving to Majengo in Kenya where she started school. The importance to Mariam of Hooyo (her mother) and Ayeeyo (her grandmother) is reflected in the book’s dedication and her vivid memories of these strong women throughout the book. With Hooyo’s support, Mariam managed to finish secondary school despite strong opposition from her father.
As a young woman, she moved once again to join her husband Mohamed in Qatar. A move back to his hometown of Mogadishu was short-lived. While her husband was away, the outbreak of war forced Mariam to flee to Kenya, with her two small children Abdul and Abdi. They faced a four-day ordeal on a leaky, overcrowded boat with little food or water. It almost ended in disaster when the authorities at Mombasa tried to prevent them from landing.

A New Continent

Eight very tough years in Kenya as refugees followed. The family of seven, including their daughters Sumaya and Sarah and third son Yusuf, finally emigrated to Australia in 1998 through the family reunion scheme. After 14 years in Melbourne, Mariam has completed what she calls her “integration project”, which has certainly had it challenging moments.
Cook with Mariam
She has re-invented herself once again. Now she is a budding entrepreneur with a cooking school Cook with Mariam and a passion for permaculture. She shares these interests with a group named RAW (Resilient Aspiring Women), which has been developing a community permaculture garden.
Her detailed accounts are well worth reading. “I don’t have to talk about myself anymore,” Mariam said at the launch event. “Read the book if you want to know about me.”
Her priorities in life are clear: family, friends and community; religion and culture. Like most Somalis, she is a practising Muslim. Two factors that have also helped in her journey have been her lifelong love of reading through her access to English books and her independent spirit.
At the launch, Margaret Gambold praised her friend:
“Great fortitude, bravery and determination mark Mariam’s journey – and over the intimate times we shared I grew to immensely admire her – one could say – tunnel vision to integration – despite any and many obstacles.
She is in every way one of the pioneers for all African refugee women. A leader, an encourager and most of all a caring and sharing individual who has opened the gateway for those who dare to follow.”
Mariam talked of Somalia’s culture of storytellers and the way it helps to humanize, empower and educate one another. “We can visit one another’s reality with compassion … and just understand the other person.”
It is impossible to believe that Mariam will stop talking about her remarkable story. To learn more, you can obtain a copy of A Resilient Life here.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Romy Ash's Floundering

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

Romy Ash's Floundering is a first novel. It's a relationship road story. Narrator Tom, and his older brother Jordy have been living with their grandmother. They are spirited away by their dysfunctional mother Loretta across the Nullabor to Western Australia.

The beach caravan park, where they camp up, is no place for things to go wrong in her last ditch attempt to get back into their lives. It's home to sundry misfits who present a frightening introduction to the darker sides of humanity.

Tom leaves childhood behind as the boys face some rude awakenings and loss of innocence. The arid, stark landscapes are a fitting backdrop to the harsh reality in which they find themselves.