Wednesday, January 30, 2008

What Your Reading Material Says About You: Dodgy Facebook Stats Edition

In a feat of statistical analysis only a market researcher could love, these people have correlated Facebook users' self-reported favourite books with their colleges' mean SAT scores. Yeah, I know, but it's all in good fun. And there's a lot to like about the results, even if the methodology's suspect: Lolita and García Márquez are awesome, 1984 is way better than Animal Farm, and the less said about university students who still list "The Holy Bible" as their favourite book, the better. Also, turns out crappy schools are more likely to attract people who don't realise Hamlet is a play, not a book. Sounds about right to me.

Mick Keelty and the Logic of Public Scrutiny

Is it just me, or has cop-in-charge Mick Keelty been acting a little… unhinged ever since the Mohammed Haneef case?

Exhibit A for the prosecution: Keelty's address to the Sydney Institute last night, in which he criticised the media for reporting on high-profile terrorism cases and subjecting the powers-that-be to rigorous and sometimes unfriendly scrutiny. You know the drill. I think it's known in some circles as "doing their job".

Keelty's complaint is that the media have been so busy reporting on cases such as the Haneef prosecution, airing facts in the public sphere, humanising the would-be defendants, and so forth, that the judicial process doesn't stand a chance. Which is just a little rich on a few different levels. Namely:

1. Time and again, the media has wielded its opinion-making power in a way that is most favourable to the public prosecutors. I'm looking at you, Murdoch press. One hardly needs to open the Daily Telegraph to encounter an example of journalists and editorial writers whipping up a public frenzy against the minor recalcitrant du jour. Due process? Forget it. Keelty might be disappointed that this handy little coin has a flip side, but he can hardly claim to be surprised.

2. Er, the burden of proof rests on the prosecution. Innocent until proven guilty, as the legal phrase has it. The media are supposed to cover criminal cases as though the defendant is innocent. Remember? If the cops can't make the case for the defendant's guilt in the face of a little media scrutiny, they can't make the case at all.

3. Re. the Haneef case: it's been so long that perhaps our collective memory of the events is a little hazy. So, a little refresher on Haneef-case chronology. First, the AFP themselves released highly selective excerpts from the interview, the cumulative effect of which was to lie about Haneef's association with terror suspects. Then, Haneef's lawyer, Stephen "Atticus Finch" Keim, released the whole transcript to set the record straight. Now, it's understandable that the AFP were embarrassed by the release of the full transcript, in all its computer-illiterate, geographically shaky, Ramadan-ignorant glory. But that's hardly the media's fault. Is it really Keelty's contention that justice would've been better served had the media's knowledge of the case been based solely on AFP-approved "facts"?

4. While we're on the subject of extraneous bodies influencing judicial matters, how about a little shout-out to then Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, who, at the behest of the Australian Federal Police (yes, that AFP) cancelled Haneef's visa, thus effectively overriding the decision of the judiciary to grant Haneef bail? Or are we not supposed to be concerned about that kind of extrajudicial interference?

5. If you purport to be concerned, as Keelty does, about the erosion of public confidence in your institution, you're probably not doing your cause any favours by waxing totalitarian. So rather than calling for "a halt to criticism of public institutions", how about you focus on cleaning up your own act? The media can only report on what happens, after all.

Attempting to preserve secrecy is not, of course, an uncommon reaction to the threat of terrorism. But it is an irrational one. The seriousness of the charge lends more, not less, weight to the importance of due process; and the heightened powers of the police render it more, not less, important that the media scrutinise that process. Confidence in public institutions can only be achieved if the workings of those institutions are exposed to the public. In the Haneef case, the AFP and Andrews failed the accountability test miserably. But that is cause for greater accountability, not easier tests.

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UPDATE: Writing in Crikey for us subscriber-freaks, Greg Barns has a similar take: "The idea that Keelty and his colleagues should be allowed to brief editors of media outlets on a secret basis in terrorism investigations, while at the same time preventing lawyers acting on behalf of those being investigated speaking to the media, is so absurd, that one wonders if this man has really lost the plot."

Friday, January 11, 2008

US Candidates: The Issues

Doing the rounds of the internet at the moment: a political compass test for US presidential candidates. See how you compare!

Here are my results:

Rather comforting, actually. After all the commentary I've read about John Edwards being the true progressive in the race, I was beginning to worry that my Obama/Clinton leanings were informed by white liberal guilt, or feminist overcompensation, or misplaced nostalgia for the Clinton era, or the fact that Obama looks good behind a lecturn. Well, they probably are, but at least now I can claim 81% policy convergence with Obama, and 78% with Clinton. John Edwards is just behind; Bill Richardson, whose staffer emails I have unaccountably received all campaign, is my least favourite Dem (but he dropped out this morning, so that's ok). And I detest everything Fred Thompson stands for, which is fine by me.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Hampshire Intrigue

For those of us who just can't get enough of politics, US primary season is already up and running. (And we complain about our six-week election campaigns.) The commentariat was abuzz on the weekend with the twin surprise out of Iowa: Huckabee over Romney, Obama over Clinton. Now we're in New Hampshire, where John McCain has won in a big way, and Clinton has reversed the tide yet again with a narrowish win over Obama, just as people were beginning to predict an Obama domino effect. Isn't politics fun when you have no vested interest in the outcome?

Conventional wisdom in much of the non-US world has it that Barack Obama does not stand a chance: the American electorate is just not ready to elect an African-American president, especially not a Democrat. Obama, though, is a uniquely appealing candidate for people who might otherwise be subconsciously wary of electing a non-white. He's young. He's nonthreateningly handsome. His rhetoric is cerebral rather than muscular. He speaks not with the populist outrage of John Edwards – that would be a bridge too far – but inspiringly, optimistically. He loves to invoke lofty ideals like unity and "post-partisan politics". He makes people feel good about voting for him.

And perhaps as a result, moderate Republicans don't hate him; at least, not nearly as much as they hate Senator Clinton. Obama's big achievement in Iowa was to mobilise self-identified independent and even Republican voters. Pretty good for a guy who voted against the Iraq war from the outset. Of course, the campaign hasn't been entirely free of nastiness - the 'rumour' doing the rounds that Obama is a 'secret Muslim' comes to mind - and one can certainly expect an escalation of this kind of thing should Obama win the nomination. But so far, so good, at least as far as race-baiting goes.

Now Obama's problem, such as it is, appears to take a somewhat different form: people – certain people - don’t take him seriously. I'm calling this phenomenon Obama's Jonathan Franzen problem. Franzen, you may remember, was none too pleased when Oprah endorsed his critically-acclaimed novel The Corrections as part of her book club. The author felt this cheapened him as an artist, robbed him of his intellectual credibility among the elites he felt to be his natural readership.

Famously, Oprah has now endorsed Obama for President, providing him with a useful injection of popular support. Oprah is staggeringly influential, and when she says Vote Obama, people - certain people - listen. (The cultural implications of this I will leave for a later discussion.) But it's also had the effect of tagging Obama the Oprah Candidate, which, while not particularly damaging in itself, manages to encapsulate a lot of the arguments of the anti-Obama camp: too young, too inexperienced, style over substance, celebrity over policy.

Much of this criticism is valid; 46 is young for a President, and one term in the US Senate is not exactly a substantial resume. But Obama is no fresh-off-the-turnip-truck naif, either. Besides, as job descriptions go, being POTUS is utterly unique. Every other 'experience' up to this point can hardly be expected to prepare the candidate for the actual presidency - even, dare I say, the experience of being married to a two-term prez.

At any rate, given the New Hampshire result, the race for the Democratic nomination is looking suddenly more interesting. Meanwhile, those crazy Republicans vacillate between McCain and Huckabee… it's nice to see the conservatives riven by internal conflict for a change.