Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sex, sloppy writing and the Vulcan salute: moving beyond stereotypes in fan fiction

FAN FICTION is to the literary world what Tasmania is to Australia. It’s a pocket ecosystem hidden ‘down under’ where some people visit and have a marvellous time while others don’t understand why it’s so cold and wet. Not that fan fiction is cold and wet. But it can be an unpleasant place full of soggy, bastardised versions of much-loved classic texts.
Taking a text—be it a film, book, comic, play, musical or television show—and playing with its world and characters to create new stories is hardly new. Fan fiction is part of a grand tradition dating back to the likes of Homer and the Iliad. To a fan fiction writer, the Iliad is Real Person Fiction (or RPF) in the same way Cameron from Oklahoma’s RPF about Molotov taking over the Soviet Union after Stalin died is. Both used real people, places and events as catalysts to tell fictional stories. Epic poem or not.
Fast forward a few millenniums and we have Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a parallel narrative of Jane Eyre; Geraldine Brook’s March, which tells the story of Little Woman from the point of view of an absent character; Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which has, well, zombies in it, and is what readers call Alternative Universe (or AU) by virtue of placing characters in non-canon contexts. Then there’s My Fair Lady, a fix-it musical of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and Pretty Woman, a twisted AU of My Fair Lady.
Popular culture is riddled with fan fiction. Only it isn’t called fan fiction. To the ‘mainstream’, fan fiction is a dirty word interchangeable with soft porn and wannabe writers, a copyright minefield, and supposedly a sub-culture full of social misfits obsessed with make-believe stories. With dull writing on one side and erotica on the other, fan fiction has little space to move to boost its image. And that’s only scratching the surface. Because fan fiction is one of the most prevalent manifestations of fandom, it gets all the whips and lashings attached to notions of ‘the fan’.
In a 1986 Saturday Night Live skit during peak Star Trek mania, William Shatner told a room of geeky fans sporting Spock ears and thick, black-rimmed glasses, “It’s just a TV show! Get a life!” He was only half-joking. Shatner’s notion of ‘the fan’ as someone with “excessive or mistaken enthusiasm” (courtesy of Oxford Dictionary) is prolific in pop culture. Former New York Times columnist Julie Burchill calls it the “fan in the attic” stereotype. In a Bogart-esque thriller, CSI-like cop show or Sherlock-inspired detective novel it’s only a matter of time before the crazy, obsessed fan makes an appearance as one of the “usual suspects” for the commission of crime. All from a word that in its Latin translation means a “devotee” to the temple. Ouch.
Some fans are crazy, but craziness isn’t a derivative of fandom, and the connection is largely overstated. Erotic stories about werewolves, vampires, bodice-busting women and men with washboard abdominals all exist in their varying forms of tastelessness in fan fiction. There’s also badly written stories that somehow find their way from a year nine creative writing project to a “how Romeo feels when he finds Juliet lying in the family crypt” monologue in broken iambic pentameter. But both can be avoided and, realistically, the sex and the semi-illiterateness of some readers get a disproportionate amount of attention. That is if fan fiction gets media attention at all—which it often doesn’t. It’s the bastard child in the corner no one in literary circles likes to talk about.
All hope is not lost, however, and it’s probably only a matter of time before tongues start wagging given the prolific growth of fan fiction communities internationally. Fan fiction had its popular re-birth in the 1990s with the dawn of the Internet, and hasn’t stopped growing since. Communities popped up over the interwebs, making the slow, costly and labour-intensive fanzines that traditionally connected fans, obsolete. Texts with a short shelf life could now live forever in the minds and digital words of fan fiction’s online forums. Two decades later and the community has grown from a few thousand to a few hundred million. alone, one of the largest fan fiction archives, has over half a million Harry Potter stories; some with thousands of individual reader reviews. Considering the number of readers who don’t review or write their own work, monthly site traffic figures regularly hits a cool six million.
Australians make up a significant chunk of that figure. A study of users last year found we have the fourth most member accounts on the site, after the US, UK and Canada. That means chances are your partner, siblings, children, friends or workmates may read fan fiction. They might even write it.
Whether they’ll tell you or not, though, is another matter entirely. It’s common for authors to keep their fan fiction habits on the quiet, despite the growing number who get published. In the fan fiction community, self-publishing is a popular practice. Aspiring novelists use places like Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s CreateSpace and to produce print and online editions of their work. For popular fan fiction writers with large followings it can also turn a profit., for one, offers authors an 80/20 revenue split.
Other fan fiction writers, like Meg Cabot, have hit the big time. Cabot wrote Star Wars fan fiction as a “tween” and later went on to become the author of best-seller-turned-Disney-movie The Princess Diaries.
Before fan fiction-ers get to either of those points, though, fan fiction forums can be a good place to help novelists develop their writing skills. A good chunk of fan fiction writers ‘cut their teeth’ playing with other people’s characters and benefit from the mentorship of the fan fiction community. Older writers often act as ‘betas’ for younger, inexperienced writers by sub-editing their work and helping to brainstorm ideas.
Others find the practice of writing without the pressure of deadlines or the need to be published an effective way to free up creative juices for original works. Dana Jenks, as she is known to the fan fiction community, writes Phantom of the Opera fan fiction between working as a high school music teacher and composing an opera (Disclaimer: I am the beta for her work, “Sunset”). She finds the feedback from readers a helpful motivational boost but also a good testing-ground for ideas. “I’m interested in learning what makes a story work musically and gaining insight into the minds of music-loving fans,” she says. “Fan fiction is a giant playground where it is fun to experiment without much risk… and I can observe readers’ responses to every step of the writing process.”
While some writers use fan fiction to work towards artistic goals, others use it for pure enjoyment. For Albert, reading sci-fi fan fiction is like reading a good book (Albert, due to some of the dubious notions of fan fiction readers, wants to remain semi-anonymous). He says it’s a hobby that “relieves stress, stimulates the mind, and improves professional productivity”. By professional productivity, Albert means working as a classical pianist, recently graduating from Harvard with a degree in biology and currently studying law at Yale. (What was that about fans needing to “get a life,” Shatner?) Albert’s a busy man but fan fiction is what helps him unwind. The appeal of fan fiction lies in its ability “to explore the possibilities and ideas that other authors haven’t explored yet” in his favourite texts. It’s asking the ‘what if’, the ‘why now’, the ‘what next’.
Pondering what lies to the left of the camera or off the page, mentally picking away at gaps in a good book or threads of a story arc abandoned in a television show is what humanity does best. It’s human nature to poke and prod at the poles of human experience. What makes Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead different from Jo Blo’s re-telling of Wuthering Heights through the eyes of Cathy can be whittled down to the quality of ideas and writing. This, admittedly, can be a vast disparity for reader enjoyment. But, the action of the mind, of thinking beyond what audiences are served up in a creative text, is the same. It’s human curiosity. It’s the desire to learn about yourself and others from the texts you read. In a word, it’s storytelling.
“Storytelling is the most basic sapience of humanity. We were storytellers before we were anything else,” says Caitlin Kenny, a performance studies major at the University of Sydney. Caitlin thinks the attraction to tell stories online stems from the liberating nature of the Internet. “The Internet is this happy, faceless world where people can be very open and intimate with people they don’t know, and share opinions and fantasies about characters that by all rights they are embarrassed to be obsessed with,” she says. Obsession seems an odd word when Caitlin says it with such warmth.
In the world of fan fiction, obsession comes from the desire to be accepted, Caitlin says. Writers insert their own values, romantic interests and personalities onto characters and plot scenarios when crafting stories. Caitlin’s poison of choice is Doctor Who fan fiction and the relationship between the Doctor and River Song. Caitlin has battled in many a heated argument on fan forums about why River, and not Rose, is the Doctor’s true love. The reason why hits closer to home. “[River] is beautiful, but she’s a size 12 and sexy, and the Doctor finds her attractive. I like that because it feels like my life is legitimised with my beautiful, English boyfriend,” she says.
When thinking about it that way, they’re not imaginary characters at all. Imaginary characters have always stood-in for real life characters. A good book is not simply so because of the ‘good’ writing. What makes a text appealing is the life lessons, the individual meaning, and relevance people find in stories to their own lives. For Caitlin, reading and writing Doctor/River fan fiction is a legitimising, cathartic process for her own life choices.
There will always be Rose crusaders and River advocates at war with one another, says fan fiction academic, Joseph Brennan, because of the different ways people read and respond to texts. “In the process of reading, you rewrite the text,” he says, so Doctor Who can mean something entirely different to someone else because of the thousands of individual contextual factors shaping their response. Joseph is an academic fan (or aca-fan as coined by seminal US media professor, Henry Jenkins) half-way through his PhD on fan fiction at the University of Sydney. Far from intellectual junk food, Joseph argues that fan fiction is a useful anthropological study that reveals a great deal about society and the way it makes meaning.
One such way society makes meaning, and the focus of Joseph’s research, is what the fan fiction community calls slash. That is, the ‘queering’ of stories to reflect homosexual elements. In the slash community, Joseph says engagement becomes an exercise in asserting power and reclaiming a text to reflect the sexual diversity found in society. “When I consume texts I look for gaps, and by looking for those gaps you find problematic representations,” he says. Dean’s homophobic characterisation in Supernatural is a case point for Joseph. “Dean regularly cracks gay jokes on the show, but, by reclaiming Dean [through fan fiction] I can fix a lot of the negative stereotypes he projects,” he says.
In the process of then sharing these stories with others in the community, fan fiction can act as a support network for those who may not find acceptance in wider society. By allowing characters the happiness that is denies in the canon, writers and readers can share in a semblance of their happiness. “It’s quite personal,” he says.
Much can be learnt from this underground literary genre. Firstly, no text is safe. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is debatable depending on who you’re talking to. Readers love it; the original authors aren’t such big fans. We also know sweeping brush strokes do the subgenre little credit. There’s sex, there’s badly-written poems, but there’s also engaging and insightful work that takes characters on thrilling journeys. And, let’s face it, readers and writers don’t walk around in inter-galactic spacesuits giving the Vulcan salute. They have “a life,” thanks Captain Kirk.
At the end of the day, people ‘get’ different things out of fan fiction. It may not always be ‘good’ by literary standards but there are so many other, arguably equally valid, values other than what the English textbook taught us in high school. For some, it’s the English class they never had, a sex-ed teacher, a stress reliever, a friend, a voice for the disempowered. It’s a community and it’s storytelling. Iliad or not. Published or not. Profitable or not. The value lies in what you make of it. As’s motto says, “unleash your imagination” and make of it what you will.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Australia beats Broadway to host world premieres of musicals

This feature was a labour of love for me. As most would know, I love musicals and am an avid campaigner for more theatres in Sydney for larger-scale productions.

With Doctor Zhivago, Love Never Dies, Strictly Ballroom AND An Officer and a Gentleman all making their international premieres in Australia, I felt there may be a shifting tide in perception of Australia as a great place to launch new musicals.

If that means Australian audiences act as guinea pigs for the meccas of Broadway and West End then hooray for us.

Attracting big overseas investment and employing local talent (we have truck loads of triple threats in Australia) to stage brilliant musicals is very exciting.

It will be interesting to see how we fare in the next few years. Hopefully the trend is only in its infancy and producers will start thinking of Sydney and Melbourne as good try-out locations for brand spanking new shows.

Here's the article, published at and the Herald Sun:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Hardy v Pyne public opinion saga: celebrating hot air over hard facts

[Note: I'm loathe to publish essays on my blog, but I feel this subject matter could be hotly debated and is certainly a product of the current dynamics between politicians and the media. Also excuse the in-text referencing. I wasn't completely lazy, though, I added hyperlinks.]

Celebrating hot air over hard facts: the Hardy v Pyne public opinion saga and what it means for democracy
When ABC columnist Marieke Hardy stated in an opinion piece for The Drum that Federal MP Christopher Pyne was the most hated man in Australia and that she hoped he’d “get attacked by a large and libidinous dog,” public opinion was divided (Hardy 2010). A number applauded the accuracy and humour of the assertion while others were dismayed that public money was funding such “childish” opinions (Crikey 2010; Green 2010b). Four days later when The Drum’s editor Jonathon Green removed Hardy’s piece and apologised to Pyne for “the attack” and its “deeply personal nature,” readers were divided further still (Green 2010b). Catch cries of “democracy,” “free speech” and “satire” were mixed among labels of “personal vilification,” “patronisation,” and “shallowness” (Green 2010b). The vast number of opinions on both Hardy’s piece and Green’s decision to remove it reflect the messy, diverse and complex ethical principles that inform opinion pieces and their reception in Australian society. It will be argued that the significant freedoms Australian journalists enjoy to express (and inadvertently influence and shape) public opinion should not be at the expense of fulfilling their primary role in society to inform, educate and entertain through careful, considered and ethically sound opinion.    

Coverage of the Hardy v Pyne incident in isolation can be understood in simple terms as an instance of bad editorial judgement. On 1 October 2010, four days after publication of Marieke Hardy’s column “The Pyne Experiments” on ABC’s The Drum, editor Jonathan Green acknowledged he was “wrong” to approve the piece because it “failed to meet the standards for argument and well-thought opinion” upheld by the ABC (Green 2010b). To briefly explain the argument Hardy composed[1] before measuring it against ABC’s standards as outlined in their Editorial Policies; Hardy based her judgement that Pyne is the most hated man in Australia predominantly on his appearance on interactive political talk show, Q and A. There, she recalls, he “bleated…in his shrill voice” about the injustice of being cut off mid-sentence by host Tony Jones (Hardy 2010). She drew “evidence” to support her Australia-wide claim of dislike for Pyne from her father who “despise[s]” Pyne’s “crinkly hair,” her friend who says watching “parseltongue[2] on television gives [him] the creeps” and Twitter user Abe Frellman who says he “taste[s] a little vomit in [his] mouth” when Pyne says ‘Kumbaya.’ After these “fact-finding conversations,” Hardy compared Australia’s hatred for Pyne against their dislike for other public figures in an attempt to somewhat scientifically prove her ‘thesis’ via the process of elimination. Articulated in her own words, Pyne is hated more than Kyle Sandilands (the “fat-headed bearded man on the radio”), India (“the brown people [who] ruined our special sporting event”), “disgraced footballer” Brendan Fevola, and is hated equally as much as Chris Brown (a “douchebag” who in 2009 pleaded guilty to a highly publicised felony assault of his girlfriend).

Because this essay’s focus is not on the possible legal ramifications of Hardy’s piece but on the ethical principles it calls into question, the defamatory nature of these “opinions” will not be discussed at great length. However, it is important to note that Hardy’s piece would most likely fail possible defenses of fair comment and honest opinion as outlined in S.30 of the Defamation Act 2005[3] should Pyne take legal action[4]. Of equal importance is judgement of Hardy’s piece in relation to the ethical standards Green references in his letter of apology. These standards, as outlined in ABC’s Editorial Policies, specify that journalistic opinions should be conveyed accurately[5] (2.1), that intrusion into a person’s private life without consent “must be justified in the public interest[6]” (6.1) and that content likely to cause harm or offense “must be justified by the editorial context[7] (7.1) (ABC 2011a: 11).

In light of these standards, it can be argued that Green’s revised assessment of the piece is more suitable in that many of the sweeping statements Hardy makes are highly defamatory and do not meet ABC’s regulatory standards. First and foremost, Hardy herself cynically acknowledges her “watertight and wholly structured journalistic argument” is exactly the opposite and that her ‘facts’ are mostly baseless and defamatory in and of themselves (Hardy 2010). Secondly, her piece is that of a personal attack on Pyne’s character unrelated to his political function and thus, it can be argued, is not in the “public interest” as it is defined in journalistic codes (as referenced above). Finally, although Pyne later stated in an interview he was “not worried” and didn’t take Hardy’s piece personally, he has also noted he is “serious about defending himself and his family from statements that are vicious, and/or false” and therefore acknowledges there is cause for offence (Media Diary 2011).

Despite these reasons as to why Hardy’s piece is ethically dubious, many people, including journalists, felt Hardy’s piece shouldn’t have been censored from public opinion (Green 2010b). Interestingly, Green himself seemed to imply he wasn’t wholly satisfied in the decision to take down Hardy’s piece as he tweeted theafternoon of the removal, "I'm beginning to think I have rather quaint ideas about news value[8]" (Green in Wright 2010). A closer examination of reasons for these reactions (as predominantly sourced from comments on Green’s retraction letter) offer keen insight into how journalists and the public see their role in society and the ethical principles that inform them.

A common response to the retraction of Hardy’s piece was the insistence that Australia is a “free speech democracy” where “everyone, especially politicians, are open to criticism and attacks,” and therefore Christopher Pyne somewhat “deserved” the criticism (Green 2010b). This notion that democracy is exclusively tied to the freedom of expression[9] is a long-standing idea that can be traced back to John Milton’s notion of the “marketplace of ideas” and Kant’s duty ethics. In brief, these libertariantheories believe that anyone with something to say is morally bound to say it because such ‘freedom’ enables ideas to compete with one another until truth eventually wins over falsehood (Peterson 1963: 97). The media, particularly comment sites like The Drum, play a key role in providing such a platform for the “marketplace of ideas” because of their wide access to national audiences and their reasonably open avenues for contribution. Under this notion, therefore, it seems natural that Hardy’s piece, as an expression of her opinion, had a right to be voiced in the same way the public had the right to agree or disagree with it.

The problem, however, comes when by utilising her right to speak freely, Hardy impinged upon Pyne’s equally democratic individual right to privacy and reputation (Peterson 1963: 97). As a political figure, Pyne’s right to privacy is strongly contested. It is believed he is especially prone to scrutiny because he is constantly in the public arena as a political representative (Green 2010b). Yet, the line between what is and isn’t of public interest is largely unclear. To use Hodges’ metaphor, the media’s role in society is like that of a marriage; there are laws and regulation in place as an estimation of contemporary social and moral values, but the relationship between the two is ultimately worked out informally on a continual basis (Hodges 1986: 19). A recent study conducted by Andrew Kenyon examining the chilling effects faced by news media in Australia found that one third of opinion pieces (out of a sample of 112) contained defamatory allegations, and within that, 47.1 per cent were directed towards government officials (Keynon 2010: 451-453). These statistics alone suggest that Australian media often flirt with the seemingly grey line of defamation and fair comment in opinion pieces, and politicians are often on the receiving end.

Unclear notions of what is in the public interest when discussing politics has seen the Australian media recently come under fire by politicians, journalists and academics who argue that political debate is being “dumbed down” by the rise of “personality politics” (Gallop 2011; Hyland & Gordon 2011; Carney 2011). Hardy’s piece is an apt example of opinion about a politician being (albeit temporarily) passed off as a form of political analysis. Beyond the use of Pyne, a politician, as the piece’s subject, Hardy makes no reference to his ability to develop policy or represent his electorate (as would be in the public interest as a matter capable of affecting the people at large). This was particularly a missed opportunity considering Hardy placed her discussion of Pyne within the context of his appearance on Q and A where he discussed a number of political issues in depth. Instead, Hardy focused predominantly on his voice and overall persona; which arguably contributed nothing to policy debate[10].

Nonetheless, Hardy’s piece is representative of the marked shift towards an opinion cycle as opposed to a news cycle in Australian media; or as Stephen Rosenfeld (2000: 7) calls it, “celebrating hot air over hard facts” (Burman 2006). This movement towards “instant opinion” supplanting “legitimate investigation and scholarship” most often presents itself in the form of character analysis taking place of political analysis[11] (Rosenfeld 2000; Gallop 2011).  Former Australian minister for finance, Lindsay Tanner’s book, Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, acutely documents the Australian media’s apparent retreat from their traditional role of reporting serious political issues towards coverage focused on trivia, gimmicks, and personalities (Tanner 2011). Perhaps most interestingly, Tanner feels modern politics, which has been equally criticised for the unsavory use of spin, 'announceables', slogans, and stunts, is a direct result of these changing media dynamics (Tanner 2011). These dual developments have led critics like Carmen Lawrence (in Hyland & Gordon 2011) to suggest media and politicians are partaking in a “dance of mutual destruction” that is slowly removing the policy from the politics.

Criticisms such as these have large impact on analysis of current professional media ethics and bring into question whether the Australian media’s license to express their opinion within current regulatory framework is being abused largely due to their seemingly mistaken understanding of what is in the public interest. The wealth of stories focusing on Julia Gillard’s appearance, Tony Abbot’s athleticism, Pyne’s ‘unlikeableness’ and even David Campbell’s sexuality suggest, ironically to use Jonathan Green’s own words, “the media mistakes public interest for public amusement” (Green 2010a). It then follows to more critically ask whether such habits have the ability to significantly impact upon the health of Australian democracy. Indeed it is harder for voters to form informed judgments about major issues when the media as the key mediators between the government and the voting public do not consistently fulfill all three of their primary functions to inform, educate and entertain (ABCa 2011: 11). The extent to which they do not on a larger scale is beyond the scope of this essay but a topic of considerable interest and import.

It should briefly be noted that an obvious point unaddressed in this essay is the fact that Hardy’s piece was satirical, and thus not to be taken in all seriousness[12]. Those in favour of satire encouraged other readers to ‘lighten up’ and appreciate the humour for what it was (Green 2010b). Yet, as this essay has explored, whether politicians have thick skin when it comes to attacks of a personal nature is mostly beside the point. The issue at hand is that, as written in defamation law and regulatory media frameworks, a politician’s privacy should be protected when it isn’t in the public interest.

Everyone has an opinion, but that is not to say all opinions are equally relevant. Celebrating hot air over hard facts as is exemplified in Marieke Hardy’s opinion piece not only poses potential legal problems for journalists but also importantly puts into question the media’s professional ethical standards and primary function in society. Hardy’s missed opportunity to engage in pertinent political debate and analysis regarding Christopher Pyne consequently reflected poorly not only on her own ethical judgement but on the wider media trend of unbalanced emphasis on “personality politics” in the news cycle. This has altogether raised questions over the negative effect such pieces can have on the health of Australian democracy.

      ABC (2011a). Editorial Policies: Principles and Standards, ABC, 11 April 2011. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      ABC (2011b). "Guidance Note: Differentiating Analysis," Editorial Policies, 11 April 2011. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      AFR (2010). “Election 2010 Results,” Australian Financial Review, 23 August 2010. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Burman, Tony (2006). "News, opinion and a fuzzy shifting line," CBC, 25 September 2006. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Carney, Shaun (2011). “We get what we deserve from politicians on both sides,” The Age, 15 March 2011. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Crikey (2011). "A landmark legal test case?" Crikey, 16 February 2011. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Gallop, Geoff (2011). "What price an ethical media?" The Age, 28 March 2011. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Green, Jonathan (2010a). "Public amusement not equal to public interest," The Drum, 21 May 2010. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Green, Jonathan (2010b). "Editor's note: The Pyne experiments," The Drum, 1 October 2010. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Hardy, Marieke (2010). "The Pyne Experiments," The Drum, 27 September 2010 (republished on Slack Bastard, 4 October 2010). <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Hariman, Robert (2008). “Political Parody and Public Culture,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 94: 3. Pp. 247-272.

      Harry Potter Wiki (2011). “Parseltongue,” Wikia. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Hodges, Louis (1986), “Defining press responsibility: A functional approach,” in Deni Elliot (ed.), Responsible Journalism. Beverly Hills: Sage. Pp. 13-31.

      Holmes, Jonathan (2009). "You say opinion, I say analysis," The Drum, 8 December 2009. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Hyland, Tom & Gordon, Josh (2011). “Dumb and dumber: why Australian politics is broken,” The Age, 20 February 2011.  <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Keynon, Andrew (2010). “Investigating Chilling Effects: News Media and Public Speech in Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia,” International Journal of Communication. Iss. 4. Pp. 440–467.

      Longstaff, Simon (1992). "Politics, ethics and the role of the media," Living Ethics, Iss. 6 Summer. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Maiden, Samantha (2010). "Pyne's just asking for the naughty corner," The Australian, 1 October 2010. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Media Diary (2011). "Marieke Hardy, Christopher Pyne," The Australian, 16 February 2011. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Pearson, Mark and Polden, Mark (2010). The Journalist's Guide to Media Law, 4th ed. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

      Peterson, Theodore (1963). “The social responsibility theory of the press,” in Siebert, Fred, Peterson, Theodore and Schramm, Wilbur, Four Theories of the Press. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Pp. 73-103.

      Rosenfeld, Stephen (2000). "The Op-Ed Page: A Step to a Better Democracy," The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 5.3, pp.7-11.

      Tanner, Lindsay (2011). Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy. Carlton: Scribe Publications. Book blurb: <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Tartnell, Paul (2010). "ABC apologises and pulls Pyne-hate article," Sydney Morning Herald, 1 October 2010. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Wright, Maryann (2010). "Pyne and Hardy and Green. Oh my!" Waxing Lyrical and Philosophical, 1 October 2010. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

[1] It should be noted that quoting potentially defamatory material also opens myself up to such offences. In defense, however, discussion of the contents of Hardy’s opinion piece is undertaken in this essay for academic purposes of critical reflection, not gossip.
[2] Parseltongue refers to the language of serpents, assumed to have a negative connotation, in the Harry Potter novels (Harry Potter Wiki 2011). 
[3] Honest opinion and fair comment are what Pearson and Polden (2010: 234) call the “bread and butter defenses” of comment pieces. In Australian defamation law, for opinion to be taken as fair comment it must be a matter of “public interest” and based on provable facts “adequately referred to” (Pearson & Polden 2010: 234).
[4] At the time of writing this essay, Pyne has not taken legal action against the ABC but has threatened to sue on two occasions, one as recently as March this year (Media Diary 2011; Crikey 2011).
[5] The ABC’s accuracy standard (2.1) notes that an opinion, “being a value judgement or conclusion, cannot be found to be accurate or inaccurate in the way facts can” but must still be conveyed accurately “in the sense that quotes should be accurate and any editing should not distort the meaning of the opinion expressed (ABC 2011a: 4).
[6] Public interest is defined by the Australian Press Council in its Statement of Principles as “involving a matter capable of affecting the people at large so they might be legitimately interested in, or concerned about, what is going on.” (in Pearson & Polden 2010: 453)
[7] The increasingly blurry line between fact and opinion and how this potentially effects The Drum’s editorial decisions and thus the “editorial context” of opinion pieces such as Hardy’s, is outlined in Jonathan Holmes’ opinion piece, “You say opinion, I say analysis” (Holmes 2009).
[8] Green’s tweet occurs within the context of numerous other tweets, news stories and opinion columns on news sites that questioned the credibility of The Drum as a site for “analysis” on “issues of the day” in light of the editorial judgement to run Hardy’s piece and leave it up for four days (Wright 2010; Maiden 2010; Tartnell 2010).
[9] It should be noted that the freedom to express oneself in Australia is not an inherent right but an implied constitutional freedom (Pearson & Polden 2010: 31).
[10] The timing of the attack was particularly interesting considering only two months earlier Pyne was re-elected into the House of Representatives with a 2.5% two-party preferred swing (AFR 2010), suggesting the personalised angle Hardy chose was quite inconsequential to the voting public.
[11] This is not to say there are never times when the character of a politician is an issue at hand, but more often than not, particularly in the case of Hardy, this was not one of them.
[12] The genre of satire works in great part by exceeding tacit limits of expression and stepping outside the norms of deliberation, civility and “good taste” (Hariman 2008: 247-251). Therefore, because satire constantly pushes the limits of what is acceptable, it is difficult to draw the line between when humour becomes tasteless and unnecessary; and this was seen in responses to the Hardy case.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Gaming and violence - the ACL's flogging a dead horse

Mark Dapin has eloquently demonstrated today in his Good Weekend feature why arguing that playing this:

leads to this:
or more realistically this:
makes you sound really stupid.

Playing violent video games does not turn you into a blood thirsty murderer.

The hypodermic needle model, however you apply it, never works.

I could give you lots of boring references to support this but I won't let you suffer through three years worth of media effects theory. Start here if you are interested.

I'm referring to the comments Jim Wallace, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), made about why he opposes people of all ages playing violent video games.

The two main points Dapin portrayed Wallace as making are:

- 150 "scientists, scholars and researchers" argue that violent video games have been found to increase the likelihood of aggressive behaviour, thinking, and so on.

- All you have to do is look at the Port Arthur, Columbine and the most recent Oslo massacre (yes, he went there) to see what he (Wallace) means.

Dapin aptly pointed out:

- Martin Bryant, who killed 25 people in Port Arthur in 1996, apparently enjoyed action films with violence and "video nasties" (which could read pornography or graphic video games). He also liked Babe and The Sound of Music.

- Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who murdered 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999, played sci-fi first-person shooter, Doom. Connecting the dots, Wallace said some Wii games allow people to "use the actual weapons". Wii didn't exist in 1999.

- Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 69 people in Oslo just under a month ago, said Call of Duty was part of his "training simulation". He was also a right-wing extremist who confessed his purpose of attack was to free Europe from a Muslim takeover. Video games, naturally.

I genuinely believe the ACL have an important role in Australian politics. I don't think harping on about this subject is doing them any favours.

Just because 150 'experts' (and I would love to read their report. It's on the to do list) support Wallace's claim doesn't mean there aren't another 150 who would disagree entirely.

The debate over an R18+ rating opens up another can of worms. In this case, I think their opposition to the rating is actually detrimental to under 18s. Black market, watered down games, and so on. That's for another blog.

If, for a moment, we step back from reading one psychologists report after another, I think it is fair to say that frenzies over the increase in violence is unsubstantiated. This Australian Institute of Criminology report gives a host of reasons why.

Beyond statistics, Dapin's article outlines a few reasons why we don't see people out on the streets emulating what people do in video games sourced from people who, you know, actually PLAY the games.

More than anything, does Wallace really believe using Anders Behring Breivik as the poster child for gamers is in any way fair or appropriate?

Sometimes I wonder whether anyone who opposes such violent games has actually spent a weekend playing them.

If the ACL want to take a firm stance against violent video games and be taken seriously, they are going to have to do a lot better than trying to validate their argument by flawed references to massacres. The fact that it takes a massacre to get their point of view in the media is sad enough (the media should also partly take a wrap for this, since it always becomes a catalyst for the debate).

Anything less just makes Jim Wallace look misinformed, stereotypical and a little bit stupid.

Twitter and defamation: a... likely pair

"Twitter is becoming an essential tool for journalists, but it comes with some pretty tricky ethical and professional problems too.” (Posetti 2009)

Twitter is a rapidly growing social-networking and media-sharing website that attracts over 50 million tweets a day (Beaumont 2010). It would be fair to say that the Twitter phenomenon is changing the way people, in particularly journalists, communicate (Atkinson 2009: 30). Benefits of using Twitter as a journalistic tool include; access to a wide range of sources and news streams across the globe, up-to-the-minute live reporting on events and crisis’, and the ability to expand upon ones journalistic reputation through the accumulation of ‘followers’. However, as Posetti alludes to above, these advantages, if not supported by traditional journalistic codes and practices such as fact-checking and sub-editing, can quickly lead to serious pitfalls that eventuate in run-ins with the law. One of the most common legal and ethical dilemmas that have arisen from journalists’ use of Twitter is the breach of defamation laws in Australia. In this piece, the underlying tension between Twitter and media law and ethics will be examined in light of the 2010 #twitdef saga.

On 25 November 2010, former rural reporter for The Australian, Asa Wahlquist, spoke at a JEAA journalism conference at UTS about her experience covering climate change, of which she directly responded to criticism that there had been uneven exposure to competing views during the 2010 federal election campaign (Whittaker 2010). Journalism lecturer at the University of Canberra, Julie Posetti, live-tweeted during Wahlquist’s presentation, among which were:

Walhquist: “In the lead up to the election the Ed in Chief was increasingly telling me
what to write.” It was prescriptive.

“It was absolutely excruciating. It was torture”: Asa Walhquist on fleeing The Australian
after being stymied in covering #climate.

#jeaa2010 Wahlquist:"Chris Mitchell (Oz Ed) goes down the Eco-Fascist line" on


The next day, The Australian’s editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell, announced he would sue Posetti for defamation on the grounds that Wahlquist “may or may not have said what [Posetti] alleges” but more importantly, that the claims were false and as such, “there is not protection from the law in repeating accurately allegations falsely made” (Dodd 2010a).

A transcript of audio tapes taken at the conference leaked days later by the ABC confirmed that, while Posetti did not quote Wahlquist word-for-word, her tweets were a fair report (ABC 2010; Media Diary 2010). Nonetheless, Mitchell’s lawyer, Blake Dawson, sent a public letter to Posetti on the 29th holding that the tweets were defamatory of Mitchell because they imputed Mitchell “bullied”, “intimidated” and “personally caused Ms Wahlquist to change her articles to represent [Mitchell’s] views” (Blake Dawson 2010). Underlying such claims was the belief that the allegations were false and, because Posetti did not seek to verify the material, she is liable for the publication and the resulting damage to Mitchell’s reputation as an editor.

What eventuated from these events was a public outcry from fellow journalists at the irony of a newspaper suing for defamation; particularly when Mitchell had been vocal years earlier about “Australia’s ludicrous defamation laws, which act to suppress free speech and enrich lawyers” (Editorial, The Australian, 2004 in Holmes 2010a). On the one hand, Posetti and a host of other journalists -- who discussed the issue on online opinion sites and Twitter via the hashtags #twitdef and #posettigate -- argued that the tweeted quotes were a matter of public interest concerning journalism and politics (Dodd 2010b; Holmes 2010a; Pearson 2010).

However, whether one believes Mitchell’s stance that The Australian gives fair and balanced commentary on climate change (a summary of refutations can be found in Holmes 2010a)
, defamation law in Australia clearly outlines that if you correctly quote and publish a defamatory statement, you are also liable for defamation (Pearson and Polden 2011: 204). Twitter is a public medium, and by choosing to publish Wahlquist’s comments without cross-checking her facts and pursuing balanced reporting by way of getting Mitchell’s other side of the argument, Posetti exposed herself to libel.

Arguments in the Posetti v Mitchell case is representative of a much larger ethical debate in the often clashing journalism and legal worlds. That is, the grey line between ‘fairly reporting’ a matter of public interest that took place in a public forum and a ‘defamatory matter’ where ones’ reputation is likely to be harmed by publication of information about them (EFA 2006). This balance between protection of individual reputation and freedom of expression that defamation laws seeks to uphold is ethically problematic. On the one hand, the threat of defamation, or ‘libel chill’, can have a stifling effect for the media and on the other it promotes meticulous and quality journalism. The specifics of the Posetti and Mitchell case could be explored in further detail, however, should Mitchell have taken Posetti to court, both would have had defences that battle over (what can be understood in ethical terms as) social responsibility theory. That is, that the search for truth requires considerable freedom balanced against the private rights of others (Peterson 1963: 97-8).

Social responsibility theory works off the assumption that people generally speak in good faith and are in an earnest quest for truth, and yet the theory also acknowledges that the law should protect those who don’t assume their moral responsibilities along with those who do (Peterson 99). Peterson (99) suggests that when one abandons their moral claim to free expression they also undermine their legal claim, however, what constitutes freedom of expression is highly contested. As it currently stands, Mitchell chose not to pursue Posetti for damages and instead demanded an apology over the comments, of which Posetti, in an equally public letter from her lawyer, refused to do (HWL Ebsworth 2010). Therefore, both parties are clinging equally to their legal and moral rights- only their interpretations are distinctly different.

Another significant concern that should briefly be addressed is the dangers of using Twitter as a journalistic tool. There is a great irony in that only a year after Posetti made the opening quote of this piece she would be a case study for her own precautions. To use Posetti’s argument, Twitter may be a useful addition to a reporter’s “kitbag” but it is also a largely uncharted, potentially dangerous medium
(Posetti 2009). The question stands whether Twitter should be used for live-tweeting when there is no time for a journalist to check their facts, have it edited and 'legaled', tweet with perfect accuracy, and make the context of the tweet clear in 140 characters.

We can learn from the #twitdef affair that journalists who use Twitter should be aware of the legal hazards of live-tweeting controversial speeches. Furthermore, the case begs the question to be asked, and this is something that could be followed up in discussion, whether specific guidelines for social media may be necessary to ensure ethical journalistic practices are upheld. For example, is everything said in this public space on the record or do you need to get permission to quote someone in a tweet? Furthermore, and this question was posed by Posetti (2009) herself, what’s the impact of constant tweeting on a journalist’s capacity to produce considered, original and quality journalism?

Note: After this piece was published Posetti informed me Mitchell is still threatening her with defamation.


ABC (2010). “Audio backs tweets in editor's defamation row,” ABC News, 29 November 2010. <> [Accessed 7 April 2011].

Atkinson, Cliff (2009). The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever. Berkeley: New Riders.

Beaumont, Claudine (2010). “Twitter users send 50 million tweets per day,” The Telegraph, 23 February 2010. <>[Accessed 7 April 2011].

Blake Dawson (2010). Letter to Julie Posetti re. “Defamatory material contained in Twitter posts 25 November 2010”, 29 November 2010. <> [Accessed 2 April 2011].

Dodd, Andrew (2010a). “The ‘torture’ of writing about climate change at The Oz,Crikey, 26 November 2010. <> [Accessed: 2 April 2011].

Dodd, Andrew (2010b). “Posetti receives letter of demand from Chris Mitchell, and a special invitation,” Crikey, 2 December 2010. <> [Accessed: 2 April 2011].

EFA (2006). “Defamation Laws & the Internet,” Electronic Frontiers Australia, 12 January 2006. <> [Accessed: 2 April 2011].

Elliot, Geoff (2010). “The Australian's Chris Mitchell to sue Julie Posetti for defamation,” The Australian, 26 November 2010. <> [Accessed: 2 April 2011].

Holmes, Jonathan (2010a). “140 characters of legal nightmare,” ABC The Drum, 30 November 2010. <> [Accessed: 2 April 2011].

Holmes, Jonathan (2010b). “Editor's letter makes for a bizarre Posettigate twist,” ABC The Drum, 3 December 2010. <> [Accessed: 2 April 2011].

HWL Ebsworth (2010). To Robert Todd of Blake Dawson re. Julie Posetti and Chris Mitchell, 9 December 2010. <> [Accessed: 2 April 2011].

Media Diary (2010). “The Posetti Tapes,” The Australian, 30 November 2010. <> [Accessed: 2 April 2011].

Pearson, Mark (2010). “Most journalists…” Crikey, 3 December 2010. <> [Accessed: 2 April 2011].

Pearson, Mark and Polden, Mark (2011). The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law, 4th ed. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin.

Peterson, Theodore (1963). “The social responsibility theory of the press,” in Siebert, Fred, Peterson, Theodore and Schramm, Wilbur, Four Theories of the Press. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. PP. 73-103.

Posetti, Julie (2009). “Twitter’s Difficult Gift to Journalism,” New, 16 June 2009. <> [Accessed: 2 April 2011].

Posetti, Julie (2010). Status update on 25 November 2010. <> [Accessed: 2 April 2011].

Whittaker, Jason (2010). “Gillard thanked us for being fair and balanced: The Oz editor,” Crikey, 10 September 2010. <> [Accessed: 2 April 2011].

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sydney adds another bow to its musical cap by securing world premiere of Strictly Ballroom musical

Only hours after discussing The Addams Family musical premiering in Sydney in March 2013, we have an even more exciting announcement from Events NSW; Strictly Ballroom the musical will make its world premiere in Sydney in September 2013.

In a style similar to Doctor Zhivago, producers have decided to test run a musical version of Baz Lurhmann's iconic film in Australia before it has to compete with the 'big boys' on Broadway or West End.

If Australian audiences are the guinea pigs I say all the better for us.

It means local casts and crews are being employed, which supports the great deal of talent we have in Australia.

Furthermore, international attention will fall on little ol' Australia to boost its musical theatre 'image'.

Best of all, the world premiere will help foster a theatre-appreciating audience who feel privileged to be the first to experience the show.

"Last week we announced Sydney was chosen for the Australian Premiere of The Addams Family. I said we’d bring major events back to Sydney - here's the proof," Premier Barry O'Farrell said.

While I hope he doesn't think we are stupid enough to think when he magically jumped into office in March this year all the important contracts that would have been milling for months (if not years) had been signed, this is another win for Sydney's theatre community.

All debts haven't been cleared yet, O'Farrell. If you give us a 1,500 plus seat theatre then I think you can start boasting about how you are moving Sydney forward in the right direction.

Addams Family musical to premiere in Sydney in 2013 but lack of theatre venues keeps more international productions at bay

SYDNEY has won the bidding war to the Australian premiere of The Addams Family.

The award winning musical comedy is set to open at the Capitol Theatre in March 2013.

Based upon the cartoons created by Charles Addams (made famous by the 1960s television series), it depicts a ghoulish American family with an affinity for all things macabre.

The show has enjoyed a successful run on Broadway since it opened in March 2010, having already grossed over $60 million.

Addams Family
has also been a crowd favourite among theatre circles, winning's 2010 audience award for favourite new musical and a 2010 Tony Award nomination for best new score (Andrew Lippa).

Minister for Major Events, George Souris, believes that considering Sydney is a 'global city' it should have world class musicals.

“As the preferred location to open this world-class musical in Australia, this is a clear vote of confidence by the producers in Sydney as a major events destination,” Mr Souris said in a press release.

Souris' comment hints at a long-standing rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney for the title of Australian musical theatre capital.

Sydney secured the Australian (and world) premiere of Doctor Zhivago this year, but Melbourne is clearly in the lead with Hairspray, Love Never Dies, Fame, and Mary Poppins- all recently premiering in Melbourne before touring to Sydney.

Events NSW estimates that popular musicals can generate around $3 million per month in revenue for the State or almost $20 million in direct economic impact over a 6 month run.

Yet it is surprising that NSW continually fails to win premieres that are known to generate the most buzz and revenue due to both inter-state and international travel for the first few months of the show.

Producer John Frost will be the first to tell you why- Sydney doesn't have enough theatres.

The Capitol and Lyric theatres are the only venues big enough to house large-scale productions, and the Theatre Royal (with 1200 seats to the Capitol's 2000) is often deemed too small.

Add the refurbishments due to begin on the Opera House shortly and you have the opera and ballet companies who also need new homes.

The result is that theatres are booked up with musical productions years in advance, with only a very limited number able to be shown per year (if companies are to be able to recoup their costs by having longer runs).

In an excellent article detailing this theatre shortage, Elissa Blake quotes Frost as insisting Sydney urgently needs another 1600-seat theatre- and not one "that sticks out like a pimple with nothing around it. It will need to be surrounded by apartments, hotels, restaurants and bars. The public has a ferocious appetite for big musicals and they need to be fed.

"But the government will fart around forever ... you and I will be retired before they approve a new building. The bureaucracy will drive you nuts," he said.

Sydney is set to host the premiere of Legally Blonde in June 2012, which is a positive step for the city. However, I think the greater problem amidst talk over 'winning' new shows is the underlying issue of lack of venues that severely blocks the flow of wonderful international and (arguably more importantly) local works. (The lack of venues and funding for the development of Australian musicals is a story for another time.)

While it is important to celebrate another international musical coming to Australia, especially so soon after its Broadway debut, I think at the same time it is also important to remind the State government of ways it could be championing over the Melbourne theatre market if it only invested in theatre venues.

It really is a case of a lack of State infrastructure blocking supply more than it is an issue of a lack of demand on Sydney audience's part. Consistently sold out houses at Wicked, Jersey Boys, Mary Poppins and Doctor Zhivago have proven that.

Review: Mary Poppins the musical in Sydney- magical and fun to boot

AS the audience packed into the Capitol Theatre to see Mary Poppins last night (Sunday 22 May) there was an excited buzz swarming around both children and adults alike.

Of those that I spoke to, women gushed over how they had grown up with the Disney film (based on the stories of Australia's own P.L. Travers) and were excited to re-visit that moment of their childhood. The children simply couldn't wait for the spectacle to begin and milled around the front of the stage to look into the orchestra pit covered by a semi-translucent black cloth.

Part of the joy of seeing live theatre is the sense of community and solidarity you feel with the hundreds of people who have chosen to switch off their televisions for one night and get dressed up for a few hours of live entertainment. Most people gathered with their family or friends have the biggest smiles written on their faces as they anticipate what lies behind the large stage curtain.

The audience weren't disappointed.

From the first scene, an unmistakable energy and fast pace was set as the cast zipped through the show, from big number to big number.

There is so much to entertain and delight in this show. From the characterisation of 'practically perfect' nanny, Mary Poppins, who is playful and witty yet maintains a (dare I say it) darker, more mysterious charm, to the bright and bubbly Bert who melts the audience's hearts with his cheeky smiles and sprightly jigs.

Both Verity Hunt-Ballard as the leading lady and Matt Lee as lovable Bert do a fantastic job, each serving their characters very well while at the same time adding a spice of their own personalities to the mix. I particularly enjoyed Hunt-Ballard's 'Mary Poppins' voice which had a more nasal and twangy sound that gave Poppins a bit more edge, as well as the unmistakable dancing talents of Lee whose tapping is a joy to watch. Veteran performers Marina Prior, Phillip Quast, Judi Connelli and Debra Byrne also head up a fine supporting cast.

Classic numbers like "Jolly Holiday," "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," and "Step in Time" all packed a punch and got the feet tapping with their lively beats. New songs such as "Practically Perfect," "Brimstone and Treacle" and "Anything Can Happen" composed specially for the musical are all fabulous additions which fit seamlessly into the show and rival the above ensemble numbers for best tune.

Favourites for me were "Jolly Holiday," which launches the audience out of the stale and dull world of the Banks family into the imaginary world of heightened colour that Mary Poppins adventures in and out of throughout the show.

"Step in Time" was also visually spectacular, with Lee literally climbing the walls and tapping on the roof of the theatre as one of the many tricks the production has in store. The number is especially captivating due to its tempo changes that slowly draw the audience into the world of the chimney sweeps on the rooftops of London and then quickly blast them into the no longer peaceful but exciting world above with snappy, high-energy dance routines.

"Anything Can Happen" ends the show on a wonderful, magical note, with Mary Poppins flying out into the audience. Not only does the song deliver a heart-warming message, but the stage craft of its delivery quite literally gives you shivers. The moment Hunt-Ballard took off from the stage and flew right above my head while looking down and smiling to the audience with Poppins' trademark elegance and poise will stay with me for a long time. It crystalised for me what is so special and enlivening about musical theatre- that no matter your troubles of the day or worries over what is to come, in the almost three hours at the theatre, you can leave them behind and engulf yourself in an imaginary world filled with so much pure joy and happiness.

The yet unspoken hero of the show is the first class staging, lighting and sound design, costuming, and special effects. The production is a visual feast, but it goes one step further with its clever set design. Most enchanting is the large dolls house that literally opens out to be the Banks' home, within which holds many tricks. From a kitchen that can in one moment almost completely fall apart to then be re-assembled without the human hand moments later in "A Spoonful of Sugar," to the bottomless pit of Mary Poppins' bag in "Practically Perfect," there are many 'wow' moments. Even sitting in the front row it was hard to pick out all the secrets behind the tricks.

Mary Poppins in many ways epitomises what musical theatre is about- a big heart. The show holds appeal to all ages not only because of its didactic storytelling and memorable showtunes, but because no matter how old we get, I think we can always find the child within us that revels in bright, beautiful colours, magic tricks and mystery. Mary Poppins is all those things, and is totally fun to boot.

The show is testament to the top-notch productions Sydney and Australia are capable of putting on. We know how to entertain audiences and put 'bums on seats,' and we have loads of talented people who a brimming with energy to do it, so here is to the long and healthy life of musical theatre in Australia. Hip, hip hooray!