Thursday, January 08, 2015

Office design, blind rules and the terrorism menace

This is, I fear, one of those posts that will show me to be a grumpy man out of touch with modern life!
In my present office, a new office design is going in in the name of standards (we must standardise on the standards created in the mega Department that we are now part of) and cost savings. As part of this change, all single offices apart from one belonging to the CE will be abolished; the average floor space per staff member will be reduced; cubicles will be redesigned to fit more people and to lower the height of the present partitions; while some (that’s not clear) meeting spaces will be created. Considering all this, I read this Economist article with interest.

Down in Canberra, it seems that the creation of the new mega border force will require all immigration officials to undergo compulsory booze, drug tests. Two issues arise. First, is this a good idea in a general sense? Secondly, why should officials be subjected to new tests just because a Government has decided to create a mega agency and wants to ensure that that those coming in must be subject to the same tests already imposed (rightly or wrongly) on part of the new agency?

Oh, and by the way, I know of no evidence that any of these types of changes have reduced corruption or, indeed, improved performance. They just make some people fethe pensilel better, that they are doing something.

Something of the same issues arise in the context of responses to Martin Place or the tragic events in Paris. Now I strongly support some of the responses to Paris or indeed Martin Place. This cartoon is an example. Up yours mate!

But when I read some of the stuff coming out, I want to ask well, mate, what do you want us to do? Should we in Australia ban anyone of Muslim faith coming to the country? Should we expel anybody of Muslim faith already here? No, then guide me. Yes? Well, how do we go about that?

Well, time to take my grumpy self away. I had intended to write something on Australian architecture, but all this side-tracked me.


It appears that Immigration Department staff who want to work in the merged Border Force have to undergo "organisational suitability assessment".

It appears that Fox News is unaware of the religious composition of the UK's Birmingham. In fairness, Mr Emerson did apologize. But if you are going to be a talking head, do try to get your facts right. 

 I haven't commented on the policy dynamics involved in the Australian Government's changes to bulk billing, although I have been meaning to do so. This is the latest story.I have a friend who has been sick in a non-bulk billing environment.  I was astonished at the costs involved. memo to self. Don't get sick! 


John Stitch said...

Jim- I don't know how you feel but the Paris disaster (once again) smacks of political opportunism by our politicians. First they introduce new laws that could result in journalists being jailed for not naming sources and then after this tragedy they start trumpeting the importance of journalistic independence. Which is it?

Jim Belshaw said...

Just confusion, John, from inconsistent positions. That's why it is important to clarify issues.

Anonymous said...

Looking at the cartoons after the Paris horror, really shows the power of the pen over the sword. So eloquent. I thought Pope's cartoon today on the cover of The Canberra Times was superb.

My hope is that responses to such terrorist acts will not result in hysterical bumping up of security arrangements.

You are not a grumpy old man to berate the office changes - they sound appalling - mindless at best and punitive at worst.


Anonymous said...

Jim, I fully accept that the following is confused, divergent, and maybe just plain wrong sometimes - but these are my thoughts:

1) The cartoon you published begged for an extra panel or two - "The Day After Tomorrow" and "The Year After That". I'm saying that the image offers no insight or answer to these troubles. In truth, the third panel would show the stub of the pencil again shot in half - and that is what is not addressed.

2) I was disappointed to read a piece in the SMH earlier today by Matt Martel Executive Editor for Photography and Presentation at the Herald in which he said "Yet it is an attack on free speech that strikes at the heart of every newsroom, at every drawing pad.

Regardless of protestations that we will all continue as before, cartoonists and illustrators will just pause for a second to think.

And then they will say bugger it all, and draw what they intended any way."

Stirring words! That's sort of what you were driving at I suppose? But then he wrote:

One other cartoonist suggested we publish a cartoon showing the prophet Muhammad, an idea I counselled against.

We shouldn't be scared into self-censorship, but neither should we use it as an excuse to incite or vilify.

- which I think completely undermined that first quote. See #3

3. We all have heard the trite saying "offense is taken, not given" and I suppose whoever regurgitates it can feel they have nailed it, therefore problem solved. But this completely ignores the fact that the audience of such facile words are not in fact the source of the problem. Mark Matel above at least recognises this: he basically said "we won't surrender" but then followed it with a caution to not use response as an "excuse to incite".

So now we have offending and inciting - and I am at a loss as to how to differentiate between the two - perhaps someone can enlighten me?

4. John Stitch's point is well made, and I don't know how you can so "clarify issues" as to remove the complete contradiction he points to.

5 Santayana's "Only the dead have seen the end of the war" seems to me the most likely outcome. I think it a nonsense that our politicians speak of "defeating" this unreasoning enemy. I think it is simply juvenile to expect this modern form of asymmetric conflict to be ever resolved - most especially by an appeal to "reason" or to "civilised behavior".

I'm saying that all the words certainly do read well, and I nod along and chuff to myself "quite right!", but they are, in the end, completely ineffectual - and dangerously so - because they pick away at our ultimate need to respond in kind.

And these ineffectual words will be the ultimate cause of our inability to "end this conflict" in any practical sense.


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, all.

My response to JS was shallow, kvd. Like you, I agree with the point he made in the last two paras. I also hope like Sue that it just doesn't lead to yet more security.

Now I want to respond to kvd's last comment:

"I'm saying that all the words certainly do read well, and I nod along and chuff to myself "quite right!", but they are, in the end, completely ineffectual - and dangerously so - because they pick away at our ultimate need to respond in kind.

And these ineffectual words will be the ultimate cause of our inability to "end this conflict" in any practical sense."

My entry point here is your comment on the cartoon needing multiple panels. The pencil breaks, reforms and breaks again. That is just what happens. That is why Peter Greste and all the other murdered and imprisoned journalists are important.

Now we come to a contradiction. How do we reconcile free speech with the need for a modicum of discretion? Specifically, and I am thinking especially of the satirical and attacking press, how do you distinguish between a deliberate intent to incite and the fair expression of views?

I am not making a case here, simply stating that this is an area for discussion.

Now turning to the source of the problem. Here step one is to define the problem. What is the problem we are actually dealing with? That's not clear to me.

Step two is to define what we might do about it. Here we have to distinguish between those things we cannot control and those we can. Keeping it very simple, often we can only control our responses.
We also have to take into account the costs of our responses, especially where they may damage or destroy the very things that we valued in the first place.

Problems are rarely single dimension, although the responses often are. Sometimes we have to accept that there isn't an immediate solution, simply a second best response which may mean no action at all. Our inability to accept this is one of the reasons for very bad policy that occurs all the time, especially at the micro-level where it is subject to least scrutiny.

How do we end the current conflict? First, what is the conflict that we are seeking to end? That's not clear to me. Secondly, having defined the conflict, can we end it or do we simply have to manage it?

In my earlier writing on the so-called war on terror, I suggested that the semantic structures we adopted in defining the problem that then conditioned our responses were likely to create the very thing we feared. That is what happened. Now we risk doing the same thing again.

The point of my questions was to try to force people to articulate responses based on their perception of the problem. Those responses then illustrate the complexities involved and force us to redefine the problem. If the problem is in fact without practical solutions then our only choice is to redefine our responses. This may include accepting that some bad things will happen from time to time, something that is very hard for people to accept.

I will stop here for the moment to allow for responses.

Winton Bates said...

Jim, there must be something wrong. I can't find anything to disagree with in what you have written.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a serious worry, Winton!

Augustus Winston said...

Jim. I have been away for sometime but John Stitch's observation and your response got me thinking.

Maybe we are looking for inconsistent positions where there are none. It's possibly just another self promoting free ride by our politicians on the back of some incident or disaster.

I sometimes wonder if there is a matrix in Parliament that determines the appropriate level of response by politicians to a disaster or tragedy. This might range from low level "tut tut" to high level "condemnation and outrage" followed up by some adjustments to our rights and civil liberties. And if some matrix does exist there must be some weighting based on the proximity of the event or whether or not Australians were involved. Clearly the murder of 132 Pakistan children didn't rate highly compared to events in Sydney recently or Cairns.

The problem for politicians is, now that they have started this conga line of condolences to catastrophes is they cannot be seen to shun a public appearance at a funeral, wake or memorial lest they be seen as heartless. Some cultures have gotten around this by employing "moirologists" or professional mourners. Whaddya reckon?


John Stitch said...

Jim - I think you owe KVD an apology. Me and KVD haven't always seen eye to eye but really "My response to JS was shallow, kvd. Like you"

Jim Belshaw said...

AW, Perhaps TA has a new role? Now JS, that's a gross distortion!

Anonymous said...

Winton how could one disagree with Jim's comment? It contains no content with which one could actively engage.

I expect that is the result of far too many meetings with like-minded souls who just wish to get through their day in time to make the 6.43 to whereever.

The other thing I wanted to say was that I have now seen some of those cartoons, and they are crap. I mean that as a comment upon both their execution, and their content. (waits for some not so clever dick to pick up on the word 'execution') On the other hand, some of the response cartoons are really quite brilliant, in context.

It is just a sad thing that 'we' the people of the world are now forced to defend what are basically juvenile taunts against a many-headed enemy which takes such murderous offense from such complete childish rubbish.


Winton Bates said...

I think we should distinguish between our views on what is ethical and what should be lawful.

I think it is unethical to offend people by seeking to ridicule their religious views.I don't think it is unethical to seek to ridicule people who are prone to react violently when they are offended. Poking fun at violent people can sometimes get them to change their behaviour.

The law should not attempt to protect people from being offended. We should avoid giving people an incentive to claim to be offended because would inevitably end up restricting freedom of expression to an intolerable extent.

I will be most offended if anyone disagrees with those views and will not be responsible for my actions :)

Anonymous said...

Winton, as always you make me read more slowly. You say "I think it is unethical to offend people by seeking to ridicule their religious views"

Serious question: why so? Why "unethical"?


Winton Bates said...

I see it as an application of the golden rule. I don't like it when people people ridicule my religious beliefs, so I try not to ridicule their religious beliefs.
People who feel that nothing is sacred would reject that view, but they might be persuaded to have regard to norms of ethical behaviour that are widely accepted in the community in which they find themselves.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comment Winton - I think I now see what you are driving at. But again, it begs the question as to the offendee's reaction. You say "the law should not attempt to prevent people from being offended" which I agree with. But the unfortunate fact is that some are offended, and murderously so - and no amount of intellectual back and forth will alter that.

Also, on re-reading my comment above about Jim's response @7.42 a.m., I can see it might be taken not as intended. I was trying (badly I now think) to point to the fact that his response could be taken as the opening discussion summary for almost any problem faced - Sydney traffic congestion, swimming pool deaths, drought, climate change, price of milk, etc.

Just re-read his words, but put up "traffic congestion" as the lead-in problem to be addressed :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Morning, all. The way I phrased the comment with its questions was indeed applicable to other things, kvd. That's hardly surprising, since I tend to adopt a standard approach to disentangling issue. That doesn't make the approach wrong. In this case, I left the questions open.

My starting post had an Australian focus. It was written against the background of some of the responses in this country to Martin Place and the French situation. It dealt with the nature of Australian responses where the proposed cures were either impractical or likely to have worse results than the perceived threats. Even if we won the battle, the price would be unacceptably high.

Seventeen people died in France. According to newspaper reports, as many as 2000 may have just died in a Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria. The response to the French murders is out of proportion.

I feel the need to pose more detailed and to answer a hierarchy of questions, but that will have to wait!

Winton Bates said...

I agree that it is an unfortunate fact of life that a small proportion of the population respond violently when offended. I think we (as a community) should be saying very clearly that we hold them responsible for their actions, whether or not they are under the influence of religion (or drugs). Provocation does not excuse their actions.

I think Jim was making a point about the need for media organisations to balance prudential concerns against a desire to allow free expression of views. Media organisation have to make their own choices, but I don't think it is difficult to distinguish between offending and inciting from a legal viewpoint in the context of a country like Australia where race riots are rare. We should make it clear that we expect residents of this country to be able to cope with all manner of verbal offence without reacting violently (or inciting others to be violent). If current law has muddied the waters, then it should be amended.

Anonymous said...

[NYT executive editor Dean] Baquet told me [NYT "public editor" Margaret Sullivan] that he started out the day Wednesday convinced that The Times should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression....

Ultimately, he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers. To many of them, he said, depictions of the prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious; those that are meant to mock even more so. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”

“At what point does news value override our standards?” Mr. Baquet asked. “You would have to show the most incendiary images” from the newspaper; and that was something he deemed unacceptable.
- from New York Times.

Just for the record, without comment, from the "all the news that's fit to print" paper.


Jim Belshaw said...

This all gets into very sticky areas, kvd. If you look at Winton's comments, there is a difference between inciting and reporting. Even in reporting, papers draw the line at certain visual material such as the portrayal of death scenes. Here, too, there is a difference between use of visual material to attract people and reporting. But then,, papers have to be sold or there is no reporting.

Blowed if I know.

Anonymous said...

I much enjoyed 'The life of Brian' and especially the debate that ensued which included the deeply-offended Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark with John Cleese, etc. Can you imagine what would have happened if the Python team had got stuck into the prophet Mo?


Jim Belshaw said...

I can, DG.