How a political luddite got smashed in cyberspace
It was the week in which the words “Macquarie Banker” finally became rhyming slang after a member of the millionaire’s factory was caught perving on jpegs of Miranda Kerr during a live cross about interest rates.
The week in which the words “cyberbully” and “tweet” were listed for inclusion in a Macquarie of a different kind.
It was also the week in which one of the most old-fashioned politicians in Australia, a man who seemed puzzled enough by the 20th century and is really struggling with the 21st, blundered into a raging cyber-storm which had the potential to blow away a government seeking re-election in just seven weeks’ time.
Technology has the potential to trouble us all but nobody has been as confused of late as poor old Mick Atkinson.
The South Australian Attorney-General, who is famous for riding a rusty treadlie around his inner-western Adelaide electorate, is a noted ascetic and social conservative.
Atkinson thinks the Catholic Church became a bit too poppy when it stopped conducting mass in Latin; he has campaigned for the right of parents to use corporal punishment on their kids, he once rang when I’d written a profile about the last living president of the Australian Communist Party, who was pretty much on his deathbed in Port Adelaide, and thundered that I’d penned an intellectually lazy paean to a Soviet apologist who had Stalin’s blood on his hands.
He’s an expert on the Coptic Popes of Alexandria. He’s fabled for having never missed a single ethnic community event in his culturally diverse electorate. He wears knitted vests.
He’s comfortable with his eccentricities, and while he often drives his colleagues (and the entire judiciary) nuts, he’s one of those public figures who makes life more interesting for the rest of us.
Atkinson made life a little bit too interesting for Mike Rann this week. Despite starting his career as a journalist, which you’d think would give him some enduring sense of the value of unfettered debate, the Attorney-General decided it would be a good idea to shut down that fandangled internet contraption in time for the state election.
Not quite shut it down, but amend the Electoral Act so that anyone commenting online on any political report must provide their real name and postcode, with a $5000 for failure to comply.
Sounding like a cross between Travis Bickle and a Salem preacher man, Atkinson declared that the digital arm of The Adelaide Advertiser, www.adelaidenow.com.au, was “not just an open sewer of criminal defamation but a sewer of identity theft and fraud”.
For an exciting 12 hours, during which the website almost collapsed under the weight of furious reader comments, the Rann Government looked like it was going to tough it out.
Political sanity prevailed and Rann announced - on Twitter, groovily enough - that the amendment would be repealed and that no-one would be prosecuted for failure to comply during the campaign.
Now this might sound odd, but Atkinson was actually dead right about the standard of much web commentary. The tone and quality of many comments is abysmal, and it’s a problem which stems in large part from anonymity.
Indeed, the reaction from many readers on the AdelaideNow site confirmed his criticism, with halfwits going by zany handles such as AtkinsonSux making the usual rank and ahistorical comparisons to Nazi Germany (Hitler being a real hardliner on the internet question, successfully preventing anyone in 1930s Germany from using it at all.)
It’s not a phenomenon limited to populist websites such as AdelaideNow either. The Washington Post, venerated liberal organ that it is, allowed reader comments some years ago but launched with a matronly warning that it would not tolerate profanity, hate-speech and name-calling, and were forced to shut it down within days and re-group as it descended into a moshpit of abuse.
The sanctimonious people at Crikey, who make a modest living chastising the mainstream press, published a memorable comment from someone called Johnno2066 after the death of columnist Frank Devine last year teasing his daughter, journalist Miranda Devine, about the fact that her father had “snuffed it”. (It would have given the great man joy to know that even in death he is still giving lefties the shits.)
We have tried on The Punch to plead with readers to use their real names, often emailing them back ourselves asking them to give a name; most don’t, and would not comment at all if we insisted. Only last Saturday we busted one weirdo who had spent the weekend - probably in Mum’s spare room - sending emails under 14 different names refuting climate change.
But the issue wasn’t that the Rann Government had suddenly decided to take action to improve online debate. The Rann Government decided to take action to stop people criticising the Rann Government. And it was an absolute disgrace.
It was rightly attacked as such, and in great number, by many sensible readers of the AdelaideNow website, many of whom were first-time commenters who knew government impertinence and abuse when they saw it.
The other issue which the Government had to deal with, but which Mike Rann had the good sense to defuse, was one of hypocrisy.
If Atkinson is fixed firmly on the luddite axis of the technology spectrum, Mike Rann is very much the early adopter. More than any other Australian politician, Rann has championed and employed social media such as Twitter as a way of communicating directly to the public, spruiking great SA events such as the Tour Down Under, taking potshots at his opponents and so forth.
It’s a dynamic and interesting way of engaging with people and anything which brings politicians and the people who pay their wage into closer contact is a good thing.
But you can’t swan boldly into the social media world, knowing what a jungle it can be, and then jack up when an empowered punter, anonymous or otherwise, decides to tweet back that you’re a fraud and a phoney, possibly even a conman or a crook. If it’s good enough to receive a plaudit for bringing Lance Armstrong to SA, you have to cop rugged abuse from those who think you’ve wasted money by doing so and are using him as an election stunt.
It was Atkinson who placed the Premier in this position by pushing this crazy law, with the backing of an unwitting Opposition, as part of a suite of amendments late last year.
And it was Atkinson who took the rap for the shambles, even to the point of meeting publicly for a humiliating coffee with a Mr Aaron Fornarino, to whom he apologised for citing him as an example of the silly, made-up names people use online.
Just like the bloke at Macquarie Bank, who’s become a global superstar purely by dint of opening a couple of attachments a bodgy mate emailed him for a laugh, Mick is probably at home in his vest oiling the Malvern Star and yearning for simpler times. Those times are as gone as his silly electoral amendment, but hopefully his point about civility is something that will endure.
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