Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The giant sucking sound

What happened on the Dow Jones at Wall Street after the US Congress rejected the $700 billion bailout bill.

Analysis from Stephen Pearlstein from The Washington Post here.
Ann Pettifor calls for a return to Keynesian financial management principles on The Guardian. See here.

Presentation to CPRF 2008

2008 CPRF Presentation

Presentation with Jason Wilson to 2008 Communications Policy Research Forum, UTS, Sydney, 29-30 September. The full paper can be found here.

SlideShare Link

Monday, September 29, 2008

Communications Policy Research Forum

I have been at the Communications Policy Research Forum at UTS today. Congrats to Mark Armstrong and the Network Insight team for getting this one going again for 2008. The full program can be found here

As I spent most of the day trying to get online - problem was that I was using Firefox and not Safari browser - I'll direct you to a few links rather than write about the papers.

Jonathan Levy, Deputy Chief Economist, Federal Communications Commission, US on the digital transition in the US and some lessons for Australia. 

Stephen Quinn on changing journalism (Key quote from Washington post: "You either change journalists (behavioural change) or change journalists (fire the old ones and bring in the new)").

Australian Communications and Media Authority presentations on current communications and media research.  

More tomorrow.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

No country for old men?

"Late Show" host David Letterman kept up a verbal assault on John McCain Thursday, saying he felt like an "ugly date" because the GOP presidential candidate backed out of a scheduled appearance on his talk show.

The night before, Letterman had said McCain's decision to suspend his campaign to deal with the economic crisis "didn't smell right." Letterman substituted MSNBC's "Countdown" host — and critic of the Arizona senator — Keith Olbermann when McCain called him to say he wouldn't appear Wednesday.

The comic was unhappy when McCain sat for an interview with Katie Couric instead of him Wednesday — and even more perturbed to learn that McCain didn't leave New York until Thursday.

He said he felt like a "patriot" to let McCain off his commitment to deal with the economy and "now I'm feeling like an ugly date."

"That's what I feel like, I feel like an ugly date," he said. "I feel used. I feel cheap. I feel sullied."

McCain spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace said Thursday that the campaign "felt this wasn't a night for comedy."

Not a time for comedy? Then why are John McCain and Sarah Palin providing so much material? I would have thought it was the PERFECT time for comedy.

Friday, September 26, 2008


Internet guru Vinton Cerf on the future of newspapers:

Newspapers in the future

"I'd like to suggest to you that the term newspaper should be broken into two parts, news and paper. The paper part needs to be put aside for a moment, as it is only one of many potential distribution methods. The news engine is independent of the delivery mechanism, or it should be…. when you move into the online environment you know that deadline is a bit of a funny word, or at least it should be because it can go as soon as it's editorial accepted. The notion that news is continuous as opposed to an episodic thing has a lot of dramatic effects on the consumers of that information."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A swing to Obama is well and truly on

Daily Kos reporting a poll from FOX News (hardly a bastion of Obamanauts):

Bad news for McCain from our friends at Fox

Wed Sep 24, 2008 at 08:38:58 PM PDT

Opinion Dynamics for Fox News. 9/22-23. Registered voters. 3% (9/8-9 results)

McCain (R) 39 (45)
Obama (D) 45 (42)

Thirty nine? Really? Thirty-freaking-nine?

And this poll was conducted before McCain cut and run on the debates.

Update: Let's dig a bit into the internals (PDF).


McCain (R) 31 (46)
Obama (D) 36 (31)

That one's gotta hurt. That's a 20-point swing.

And speaking of swings, compared to the previous poll after the GOP convention, Sarah Palin's net favorability is down 16 points, McCain's down 11. Obama is +3 (eight points higher than McCain) while Biden is down five.

What else? Asked which candidate they'd be most likely to go hear speak, 42 percent said Obama, 24 percent McCain, 14 percent Palin and 3 percent Biden.

And this is before McCain sought to suspend the first Presidential debate, which is apparently playing very badly.

Note also that Sarah Palin is turning into a liability, particularly with the swing voters.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Media Research methodologies

Introduction To Critical Enquiry Research

In this presentation given last night (Monday), some of the points that were emphasised in the group discussion were:

  • The merits of triangulation i.e. verifying your analysis by having a diversity of sources of information e.g. primary source documents as well as interviews;
  • Having three comparative case studies if using a case study methodology;
  • Matching the scope of your research activity to the resources available to you as a PhD student;
  • The fact that most PhD student do more than is required to get their PhD, and how to think about research design in order to minimise the likelihood of this;
  • Thinking about both the significance of your project (the 'So what?' question), and the extent to which you have provided an innovative contribution to your research field.

Guest lecture to postgraduate students in Creative Industries Faculty, QUT, 22 September, 2008

SlideShare Link

Monday, September 22, 2008

Tony Burke and the Quadrant/Oz smear

I was surprised on Saturday to find my old friend and pool game opponent from UTS days Tony Burke on the front page of The Australian. In two articles (Sat and Mon) referring to the Culture Wars and 'Terror Academics' , it discussed claims made in the most recent edition of Quadrant by James Cook University academic Mervyn Bendle that Tony Burke was 'pro-terrorist', and should not hold a position at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

I'll leave it to others to judge on Tony's work (sample here) and the Bendle critique noted above. Some of the things that are notable about this are:

  1. The extent to which The Australian has established itself as an amplification point for any criticism of academics that is made in Quadrant. We have had a recent instance of this in relation to the historian Stuart Macintyre, and now another with Tony Burke;
  2. The resulting influence this gives to a small number of writers associated with Quadrant, such as Bendle, editor Keith Windschuttle, and educationalist Kevin Donnelly;
  3. How this dovetails into the campaign of the Young Liberals, which is supported by Donnelly and Windschuttle, to 'out' alleged leftists in Australian universities.
Whether a new McCarthyism is too strong a word for this is a moot point. What is apparent is that The Australian has taken on a extraordinarily partisan position in relation to scholarly disagreements, and is looking like a sounding-board for Quadrant and the Young Liberals. Bendle, Donnelly and Windschuttle have received a lot of space in its opinion pages, in what looks like an orchestrated campaign to use the paper to politically shape university teaching n directions that would be at odds with assumption about academic freedom.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Neoliberalism and state capitalism

With the seemingly endemic crisis of Wall Street and the US financial markets, and its reverberations in Britain, Australia and elsewhere, there has been talk on Larvatus Prodeo and elsewhere about we are at the end of the neoliberal era. I have thought that the term 'neoliberalism' is over-used, and that the Bush Administration in particular has grown the size of the state rather than reduced it. It was also the case that, for much of the 2000s, the Howard government was about 'tax and spend' rather than neoliberalism, although the money was always directed towards electoral special interests.

At the same time as the convusions of the US economy, there has been the steady growth of economies such as China, Russia and those of the Middle East, where the role of the state is far more directive and dirigiste. One manifestation of this change is the rise of sovereign wealth funds, and The Economist speculates as to whether this means the rise of state capitalism.

For more, see here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

... and then there's blogging

Some context: Rick has been laid off after 35 years as National Affairs reporter for The Washington Post as the office is downsized.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Cultural Policy

Cultural Policy Lecture

I am doing a lecture tomorrow night for the unit Creative Industries: Theory and Policy, which my colleague Mark Bahnisch co-ordinates at QUT, on the topic of cultural policy. My presentation is below.

Cultural Policy Lecture
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: cultural policy)

The presentation is timely as I attended the launch of The Cultural Economy. Edited by Stuart Cunningham from QUT, this book is the second volume of a series being edited for Sage by Helmut Anheier and Yudhishthir Raj Isar as part of their Cultures and Globalization series.

At the launch, Helmut Anheier emphasised the importance of conceiving of the relationship between cultures and globalization as a two-way street. Globalization is shaping and reshaping cultures of course, but cultures also shape the forms that globalization takes. This approach is in contrast to the more naive approaches to globalization common in the 1990s, which saw globalization as a force driven by economics or technology, which then acted on cultures, for good or ill.

In their Introduction to the book, Stuart Cunningham, John Banks and Jason Potts draw attention to four models of culture and the economy:

  1. A welfare or subsidy model, where the arts are seen as unique and different to the economy, and where there is no little or no correlation between artistic or cultural value and economic value;
  2. A competitive model, where the cultural industries are seen as 'like other businesses', except with some distinctive economic features;
  3. A growth model, characterizing the creative industries, where they are seen as drivers of the new economy;
  4. An innovation model, where the spectrum of practices associated with the arts and culture begin to permeate all aspects of the 21t century creative economy.

SlideShare Link

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Blue Tuesday

My brother Jeffrey lost his job at Lehman Brothers today. Based in the Tokyo office, he watched 300 people sacked last year, so was ready for what was coming.

But news is grim. 25,000 jobs lost at Lehmans, 25,000 layoffs at Hewlett-Packard, 60,000 very uncertain jobs at Merrill Lynch after the Bank of America buy-out. Suddenly we are facing up to the implications of a major financial downturn for the rest of the world economy.

My political economy and economic history classes from my undergraduate degree at Sydney University are starting to look highly recommended. For a historical take on financial crashes, I recommend Charles Kindleberger's Manias, Panics and Crashes.

Anyway, bad news for New York at any rate:

New York Gov. David Paterson on Monday said Wall Street might lay off 40,000 workers in a worst-case scenario following Lehman Brother's bankruptcy filing and problems at other big financial firms.

Paterson, speaking a news conference where he also noted the impact of Bank of America's surprise agreement to purchase Merrill Lynch and problems threatening insurer American International Group, said the impact of the financial sector's downturn may not be known for months or even years.

For more read here.

For an analysis by Joseph Stiglitz, the financial economist who has been prpared to spek out against prevailing orthodoxies, see here.

Houses of cards, chickens coming home to roost - pick your cliche. The new low in the financial crisis, which has prompted comparisons with the 1929 Wall Street crash, is the fruit of a pattern of dishonesty on the part of financial institutions, and incompetence on the part of policymakers.

We had become accustomed to the hypocrisy. The banks reject any suggestion they should face regulation, rebuff any move towards anti-trust measures - yet when trouble strikes, all of a sudden they demand state intervention: they must be bailed out; they are too big, too important to be allowed to fail.

Eventually, however, we were always going to learn how big the safety net was. And a sign of the limits of the US Federal Reserve and treasury's willingness to rescue comes with the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers, one of the most famous Wall Street names.

The big question always centres on systemic risk: to what extent does the collapse of an institution imperil the financial system as a whole?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Digital ecosystems

From Business Week

How do you make digital entertainment more entertaining? A sprawling consortium of Hollywood content providers, consumer electronics companies, and Internet players said on Sept. 12 that its members are planning to develop a standard that will let consumers buy movies and other digital content once and play them almost anywhere, on any type of device, without the onerous restrictions that have hobbled the growth of digital downloads.

The consortium is called the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE). Its members have been working since May to create rules that will let consumers share their purchased content on a number of devices in the home, or stream them over the Internet to laptops, cell phones, or other electronic gear.
Bloggers have commented on the absence of Apple from this consortium.

For more read here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Milne Watch #2

In a week where the Canberra commentariat universally decided that the Federal Government was too boring to pay attention to, so offered their advisory services pro bono to the Federal Opposition, there was a lot of competition for the silliest column on the question of whether Peter Costello wanted or did not want to be leader of the Federal Liberal Party.

Glenn Milne's prognostications were on a par with others - and no more silly than those of Paul Kelly, who takes himself more seriously - but this snippet from the Sunday column caught my eye:

Key former Costello supporters have now switched to Turnbull.

I ask them: "If Turnbull mounts a challenge and Costello rings to say, don't do it, what would be your response?''

They say: "Peter has now dealt himself out of the party's future; therefore, he has no say in it. We will make up our own minds''.

So there you have it. 'Key fomer Costello supporters' - whoever they are - not only receive the same questions from Glenn Milne, but collectively offer the same answers. They 'will make up their own minds'.

Repeat after me: We are all individuals!

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Internet in Australia

As a part of the World Internet Project, Julian Thomas and Scott Ewing at Swinburne University have produced a Digital Futures Report on The Internet in Australia through the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation.

Based upon a survey of 1,000 users, the key findings were:

Most Australians are internet users…
The overwhelming majority of Australians are internet users. When we talked to them almost three quarters of Australians had used the internet in the past three months. Just under four in five home connections are broadband.

Internet use varies greatly between different groups. Men, students, employed persons, younger people, higher educated and higher income individuals are all more likely to use the internet than women, retired people, home-makers, older people, lower educated and lower income individuals.

… but there is still a digital divide.
A fifth of the population have never used the internet, while just fewer than one in ten Australians are ex-users. Ex-users and non-users have different reasons for not using the internet. Ex-users are more likely to cite being too busy or not having a computer or internet connection while non-users are more likely to say they are confused by the technology or have no interest in the internet. While broadband access is growing it is worth noting that more than four in ten Australians do not have broadband access at home.

The internet in Australia is maturing and broadband is still growing
The internet is a fairly mature technology in Australia. A majority of internet users are ‘experienced users’, having used for between six and ten years. Just under one in five are ‘old hands’ (10 years or more). A very small proportion of users had taken up use in the last year. On average men have been online 16 months longer than women.

Broadband access however, is still in a rapid take-up phase. People with broadband access at home use the internet more than those on dial-up connections. For the majority of people home access accounts for most of their internet use followed by work. Other locations do not account for a high level of use across the population although for the people who use
them they are of course important.

The internet is an important way for people to keep in touch
Overall internet use has increased the time people spend communicating with friends and family. On the other hand, for a significant proportion of people their internet use has resulted in less time spent face-to-face with household members.

Email is the most popular means for communicating online. Over three quarters of our sample check their email at least once a day. Instant messaging is also a popular communications tool with one in five users messaging daily. Most people do not make phone calls over the internet but those that do use it very regularly.

The internet changes media use
For users the internet is now their most important source of information. Just under seven in ten users described the internet as ‘important’ or ‘very important’ compared to a third for television and less than a half for newspapers or radio.

Internet users spend less time watching television, listening to radio and reading newspapers than nonusers. Television watching is the media-related activity most affected by internet use. Four in ten users say they watch less television since access while less than a quarter feel they read newspapers or books less. Around six in ten users would visit an online news service if either a large international or large local story was breaking. Overall, internet users rate the internet as reliable an information source as newspapers and more reliable than television.

The internet is a major source of entertainment
The internet is an increasingly important source of entertainment, however it is yet to really challenge television or even radio for most users. The proportion of users who describe the internet as a very important source of entertainment is just slightly less than the proportion for television which points to the potential of the internet in this realm. We would expect that as broadband improves in both speed and coverage that entertainment uses will become increasingly important.

Downloading or listening to music online, surfing or browsing the web, finding out information about food such as recipes, looking for information about restaurants and visiting sites dedicated to particular artists are the most popular entertainment-related internet activities.
Internet users are more likely to access their movies and music off-line than online. Even in terms of digital music, users are more likely to copy their own or a friend’s CD than to buy online.

Almost half of our internet users would not consider downloading music or movies instead of buying hard copy at any price. Only around one in twenty users (4.7%) would be prepared to pay a price comparable to an offline version.

The internet enables people’s creativity
Users are positive about the impact of internet use on creativity and productivity. A half felt internet access had improved their work performance and less than one in twenty thought it had deteriorated. Most felt that their internet use had enabled them to share creative work they liked with others, just under a half to share their own creative work and nearly a quarter of users felt that access had encouraged them to produce their own creative work and share it with others.

Few internet users have a personal website or blog. Around a quarter post their photographs online while one in twenty post video footage.

The internet changes politics
Just under a half of users agreed that the internet has become important for the political campaign process. Close to a third of non-users said they did not know if this was the case while just over a third agreed.

Overall non-users were more sceptical about the internets’ capacity to empower citizens than users. Perhaps more importantly, a sizeable proportion of non-users simply didn’t know what impact the internet was having on politics.

People shop online but they have reservations
Just under a half of our sample of internet users purchased at least one product a month. Those who used the internet to purchase spent on average $200 per month online (the median amount spent was $100).

More than eight in ten users research products online. Making travel bookings, paying bills, banking and purchasing event tickets were all popular online activities.

A majority of users are ‘very’ or ‘extremely concerned’ about credit card security online. In relation to privacy issues involved with e-commerce the figure is just under a half.

For more, click here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Smart Services CRC scholarships in Audience and Market Foresight

PhD Scholarships in Audience and Market Foresight with Smart Services CRC

The Smart Services CRC is a $120 million, commercially focused collaborative research initiative, developing innovation, foresight and productivity improvements for the services sector. Services are the largest sector of the economy representing approximately 80% of Australia’s GDP and 85% of employment. Within the services industries Smart Services’ initial programs will be customer-focused with outcomes translatable across the whole services sector. Initial research outcomes and demonstrators will principally be associated with the digital media, finance and government sectors.

In order to achieve these goals, Smart Services CRC will be supporting research higher degree students at PhD and Masters level through scholarships, top-ups and in-kind support for research, travel, conferences etc. As a partner in Smart Services CRC, the Queensland University of Technology is offering scholarship packages for 2009. Research higher degree students with CRC scholarships will have access to the full range of resources offered by QUT (access to equipment and facilities, Grants-in-Aid, teaching opportunities etc.), as well as the opportunity to work with leading industry partners in the media, finance and government sectors on projects of direct real-world relevance through Smart Services CRC.

The Audience and Market Foresight program in researching how audience and industry use of media is changing in the context of market and audience fragmentation, as well as underlying drivers such as user-created content, increasing use of social media, and the proliferation of mobile communications tools and devices. Led by the Creative Industries Faculty and the Faculty of Business, the Audience and Market Foresight program provides the opportunity to work collaboratively with industry partners such as Fairfax Digital and Sensis on aligning research activity with industry goals and strategies in the emergent digital media environment.

The following topics are of interest to supervisors in the Audience and Market Foresight research project team:

Professor Terry Flew (Creative Industries Faculty, QUT)
  • Audiences and markets for online and mobile media;
  • Digital futures for news media;
  • Mobile and digital media content production.

Dr. Axel Bruns (Creative Industries Faculty, QUT)
  • Drivers and motivations for users to participate in social media Websites;
  • Future developments in online social media and social networking;
  • Business models for social media sites.

Dr. Christy Collis (Creative Industries Faculty, QUT)
  • Emerging uses and users of locative mobile media;
  • Audiences and markets for online, mobile, and cross-platform media.

Dr. Edwina Luck (School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations, Faculty of Business, QUT)
  • Future drivers of participation within virtual social media
  • The role of ‘electronic word-of-mouth’ in product and service marketing
  • Hyper-targeting and advertising within virtual social networks

Dr. Larry Neale
(School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations, Faculty of Business, QUT)
  • Network and device convergence
  • Future entertainment business models
  • Delivering digital customer service

Smart Services CRC is a research and development partnership between 12 major industry players and six Australian universities, funded by the private sector and governments under the Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centre program. Its aim is the creation of research-enabled commercial outcomes for its partners.

For more information on scholarships at QUT, go here.

Information for prospective research students in the Faculty of Business can be found here.

Information for prospective research students in the Creative Industries Faculty can be found here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Have think tanks had their day?

Gerry Hassan argues in Open Democracy that, with the declining fortunes of New Labour in Britain, that the 'think tank' has had its day, at least as a vehicle for policy and ideas on the left.

He argues that while think tank such as DEMOS and the IPPR had an impact in the early days of New Labour, this impact has declined. Moreover, he argues that the model inherently leads to elite 'capture' of the policy process, as think tanks invariably attune their arguments to their funders and political benefactors. These are seen as greater problem for centre-left politics, which needs a vibrant exchange of ideas from outside of the corridors of power more than conservative politics does.

Hassan's arguments could have interesting implications for Kevin Rudd's Federal Labor government. Its focus on 'evidence-based policy' should be fruitful ground for think tanks, but the argument is that this can present real dangers for Labour governments.

Once upon a time governments developed their policies through either party avenues such as a composite motion if the Labour Party, or a carefully worded resolution from a loyal association if the Conservatives. Both parties also had powerful research departments, while the civil service was a source of ideas when either party was in office.

This model began to unravel as politics became more technocratic and managerial, and policy more specialist and political at the same time, with the arrival of ‘special advisers’ in the Wilson Government of 1964-70, and even more so following this with the explosion of think tanks around Westminster in recent decades.

This essay addresses the unprecedented explosion in think tanks in the United Kingdom, what the consequences are for our democracy, polity and politics, and where it leaves those of us who care about the state of our democracy.

First, it is important to give a little background on the term and evolution of ‘think tank’. The phrase has its origins in the Second World War in the USA when it was used to denote strategists who discussed war planning. The establishment of the RAND Corporation in 1946 became the first body to be recognisably called a ‘think tank’ (apologies to the British Fabian Society established in 1884, but who were not called a think tank until much later).

The RAND Corporation are one of the key organisations in the making of the post-war modern world and a body which came from deep within the American military-industrial complex, and who gave us such concepts as futures thinking, scenario planning and ‘the missile gap’ between the US and Soviet Union.

Post-war the United States has developed an extensive infrastructure of think tanks – which has been driven by the adversarial nature of US politics, the alternation of bureaucracies with parties in power, and the lack of party resources for policy development.

From the 1970s onward, conservative and right-wing think tanks have contributed to the creation of an influential ‘conservative movement’, which remade the Republican Party, and shifted US politics rightward. The Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and Cato Institute are all multi-million pound operations which dwarf the comparable operations of Democrat and centre-left bodies, and have a zealous, ideological drive to push forward their agenda.

Whatever the result of the forthcoming US Presidential elections, this imbalance in political power and finance will continue; the infrastructure of the ‘conservative movement’ and its think tanks, churches and groups will sadly not disappear.

A Short History of the UK Think Tank Revolution

The UK think tank revolution arrived first as a challenge to the ‘Yes Minister’ way of doing things and the Oxbridge consensus of managing decline. This was evidenced by the emergence of a number of right-wing think tanks: the Institute of Economic Affairs set up in 1955 and subsequently the Centre for Policy Studies, established by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher, and the Adam Smith Institute, both formed in the 1970s.

These began as ‘outsider’ groups challenging the post-war settlement, the growth of government, public spending and welfare, and played a major part in the thinking of the Thatcher government which came to reshape Britain.

The Labour Party, reeling from three election defeats responded by setting up the Institute for Public Policy Research in 1988, and after a fourth defeat, independent centre-leftists associated with Marxism Today formed Demos in 1993.

These were meant to counter the influence of the right-wing think tanks and replicate their success. This completely misread the situation. The success of the Thatcher government was not mostly due to think tanks, but the failures of the post-war settlement and changes in Britain and the world economy from the 1970s onward. The Thatcher government also had from its beginnings an over-arching philosophy and sense of direction which it had begun to flesh out in opposition.

Labour after four defeats had lost any sense of confidence or direction it had in the post-war era and looked to the think tank model to replace this. Subsequently, the era of New Labour saw an unprecedented explosion of think tanks in the Westminster village. These two facts are related. As the political classes coalesced around a post-Thatcherite consensus, debate about policy and ideas became about technical and managerial matters and issues of delivery.

This suited think tanks and the way they operated. A shark’s infested sea of think tanks paradoxically offered less choice, and more of the same, as they jockeyed for position and told politicians increasingly what they wanted to hear. The UK has spawned such a large number of think tanks that in 2001 Prospect magazine set up its Think Tank of the Year competition which was won in 2006 by Policy Exchange for its ‘zip’ and ‘high impact’, and IPPR the following year in what the judges acknowledged ‘hasn’t been a vintage year in the British think tank world.’ (1)

A little bit of nuance and subtlety should be acknowledged here. It is impossible to tarnish all think tank work with the same brush. The Institute of Public Policy Research did undertake serious, rigorous work in its early years, particularly around the Commission on Social Justice; and Demos in its first years did produce a lot of vibrant and evangelical, if somewhat superficial ideas: ‘joined-up governance’, ‘social entrepreneurship’ and many others.

In the last few years, the most substantial thinking in this world has come from those challenging the conventional think tank world. There has been the idea of ‘the do tank’, moving from just thinking to doing, the ideas of Tom Bentley, when Director of Demos of ‘everyday democracy’, the Young Foundation, addressing issues around ‘community’, and the Centre for Social Justice, set up by Iain Duncan Smith. Most impressive as a challenge to the increasingly dogmatic and narrow bandwidth of political debate has been the work of the New Economics Foundation. What these examples show is that there is something significantly up with the conventional idea of a think tank. (2)

The conventional think tank model is a very Anglo-American model of politics shaped by money and influence, and one we have increasingly exported around the world – as we have proven arrogant enough to sell our view of deregulation and privatisation of even the most basic utilities.

Step forward with pride the UK Government whose Department for International Development has bankrolled the Adam Smith Institute to advise governments across the African continent of the merits of privatisation. Clare Short, supposedly a left-wing minister, said as Development Minister in 2002:

Privatisation is the only way to get the investment that poor countries need in things like banking, tourism, telecommunications, and services such as water, under good regulatory arrangements.

The Lack of Self-Reflection in the World of Think Tankery

What is revealing is how lacking in self-criticism and renewal are many of the people involved in the think tank industry. Richard Reeves, newly appointed director of Demos, has recently argued that think tanks ‘win their influence through intimacy with their principal political ‘clients’ or through independent technical expertise.’ This leads, Reeves believes, to the political class listening to them the way ‘you might listen to your spouse or your GP.’

Reeves did not address why think tanks are the best arbiters and providers of this ‘expertise’, or consider Jim Knight, Labour MP’s point that they are ‘ultimately very elitist, top-down institutions’.

There is now discernable doubt around Westminster about the quality of much of think tank work, the influence of corporate funding, and how success is judged by insider access to politicians and media coverage generated. The think tank world began as a set of outsiders challenging the old establishment. In its place it has become part of the new establishment, defending an even more narrow, undemocratic and doctrinaire view of the world.

This can be seen in the journey of IPPR and Demos. Under Matthew Taylor, IPPR moved from a ‘think tank’ to a ‘speak tank’ which Taylor used as a platform to support his burgeoning career as a media commentator (something he has continued at Royal Society of the Arts). Post-Taylor, Nick Pearce attempted to bring a more serious and thoughtful research ethos, getting into issues which challenged the narrow consensus, and distance IPPR from the wreckage of New Labour. Now it is breaking new ground headed up by a job share: Lisa Harkin and Carey Oppenheim.

So far the world of think tanks has been at senior level a very boys’ environment. Demos post-Tom Bentley has had three directors: Madeleine Bunting, Catherine Fieschi, and now Richard Reeves, with neither woman lasting very long.

Think tanks have also become in recent years more about ‘mood’ than substance, providing ‘independent’ backdrops for politicians to position themselves. Thus, in the last few years, as the limits of New Labour centralisation grew apparent, think tanks grew excited about the possibilities of ‘localism’. This led to David Miliband coining the phrase ‘double devolution’ which the think tank world thought might lead to a realisation of the perils of over-centralism. No real policy change occurred at all as a result of this rhetoric and debate, but some in the centre managed to look better and look like they might consider doing something.

The Tories have caught up with this game under David Cameron. In the early days of his leadership, Cameron showed he was a different kind of Tory by giving an address to Demos, the centre-left think-tank. George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor, aiming to outflank New Labour gave a recent speech about ‘fairness’ without any real specifics. All of these examples: Miliband, Cameron and Osborne are about politicians using think tanks not for ideas or research, but to aid spin and perception.

The respective fortunes of think tanks do tell us something about the political weather. There is usually one or two ‘hot’ think-tanks: the Centre for Policy Studies and Adam Smith Institute in the 1980s, Demos, post-1997, and currently, Policy Exchange, David Cameron’s ‘favourite think-tank’, at least until its recent report on the failure of regeneration of Northern English cities, which he called ‘barmy’ and ‘insane’. Policy Exchange are all by all accounts awash with money at the moment, whereas several of the centre-left think tanks are finding things harder.

It is true that Scotland has managed to create a policy environment around the Scottish Parliament without a think tank industry, with only one properly resourced think tank in operation for the last decade, Scottish Council Foundation, which has not had major influence on government despite its resources. The SNP have come to office without the support of a sympathetic think tank or the resources and networks to establish one, and so far it does not seem to have done them any harm.

The Welsh political environment has witnessed the work of the Institute of Welsh Affairs established by John Osmond. Northern Ireland in the crucial and sensitive transition period of the 1990s had Democratic Dialogue run by Robin Wilson, which ran out of funding when Northern Irish politics ‘normalised’ with the end of ‘the Troubles’.

There is something in the experience of the devolved nations and the absence of a think tank industry as new polity environments have emerged in each place. This is about the smallness of the political class in each, along with the ease of access and lack of corporate funding. It has long been a point of some political observers in Scotland to bemoan the absence of an infrastructure of competing think tanks thrashing out ‘new ideas’ and policies which sink or swim in the marketplace, but from where we sit now and the experience of UK think tanks, Scotland may have been blessed by this experience.

The Emergence of a New Establishment

The think tank industry is an increasingly narrow, incestuous one, emblematic of the lack of difference between the political parties, and shaped by a narrowing and professionalisation of politics, where similar ‘bright things’ inhabit Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems, and the world of think tanks. These oscillate around Labour and Conservatives at Westminster and tend to ignore the Lib Dems, as this is about power, influence and who has the potential to form an administration, not the cerebral pursuit of ideas.

If we were to address think tanks through the lens they see policy, and ask who are they serving, we would find that the vested interests which gain, are the world of corporate interests, accountancy firms and lobbying. If we asked what ‘new ideas’ have they brought forward and advocated in the last decade or so which has benefited the way government and policy is enacted which have aided the general populace, the answer would be threadbare.

After the Thatcher revolution, the think tank industry became a means by which the political class outsourced policy and built a new anti-democratic way of consolidating the new consensus which emerged. The think tank industry is part of the new establishment which has arisen in the post-democratic order and it is even more self-interested and self-serving than the previous one, which while it had faults, was also influenced by ‘duty’ and ‘public service’.

The world of think tanks has spanned an environment of incestuousness, of the blurring of boundaries between government and business, which has resulted in bad policy and government, and the pushing of marketisation, privatisation and corporate influence into previously unheralded areas of public life.

We need to ask penetrating questions about whose interests have been aided by the emergence of this new order, who gains from its maintenance, and who is paying for and perpetuating its existence? What is required of progressives is to imagine how we think of policy and ideas beyond the conventional idea of think tanks.

How can we imagine a more rich, pluralist and democratic network of institutions which think about policy and ideas, and which challenge the orthodoxies of the last few decades and the corporate interests? This is not just a narrow British story, but one with global consequences and implications from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East and Far East, as the disciples of free-market dogma take their mantras around the globe.

In the UK and even more in the United States, this requires that we think about the kind of agencies and institutions which can nurture, nourish and support progressive values, and the kind of ‘think tanks’ which can challenge the prevailing order, alongside a plethora of other bodies from trade unions, NGOs, campaigning groups and the net.

Think Tanks as Part of the Post-Democratic Elite

The think tank revolution in the UK is a story of the decline of party, which can be seen in the dilution of party research departments. These had a proud record of developing party policies – the Conservative Research Department under Rab Butler played a huge role in Conservative rethinking in the 1940s and acceptance of the Attlee Government’s programme for example.

Nowadays, we can see across all the mainstream UK political parties the dislocation of party leaderships from their party structures, and their shift of attention towards the world of post-democratic elites, of which think tanks are a part. This leads towards the corporatisation of politics and the ultimate outsourcing: the privatisation of policy making.

We have already seen in the United States that think tanks have been better suited to the politics of the right-wing, and this looks like it might be proving to be the case in the UK as well. One explanation of the changing fortunes of think tanks is to see this as a mere cyclical phenomenon: with first the rise of the right, then the centre-left, and now, the centre-right, corresponding to political fortunes. This seems a superficial explanation, with more profound and deep-seated forces at work.

The recent model of UK think tanks has seen the centre-left copying a right-wing model. As Adam Curtis’ groundbreaking series ‘Century of the Self’ showed the Clinton/Blair approach of ‘focus group’ politics and triangulation did not build a new centre-left politics – giving a temporary advantage, but creating a powerless, disconnected citizenry. The same is true of think tanks.

Think tanks are more suited to the politics of the pro-business, corporate world of the right than the left. That is why the interesting work on the left is happening far away from the narrow world of Westminster and the conventional think tank.


1. Winners of Prospect’s Think Tank of the Year are: IPPR (twice), New Economics Foundation, the Centre for Economic Reform, New Local Government Network, Institute for Fiscal Studies and Policy Exchange.

2. It is also true that specialist think tanks such as the King's Fund and the Work Foundation have built up reputations for expertise in their respective areas. Therefore, this emerging critique may be more relevant about the limitations of the conventional, generalist think tank which has no specific expertise and only has its brand and wits to live on.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Jay Rosen on the Sarah Palin strategy

NYU professor Jay Rosen on the US Republican party's media strategy arising from the Sarah Palin Vice-Presidential nomination:

PressThink, by Jay Rosen

September 3, 2008

The Palin Convention and the Culture War Option

John McCain's convention gambit calls for culture war around the Sarah Palin pick. And now The Politico is reporting just that: Palin reignites culture wars. An option is forming. This is my attempt to describe it before her big speech in St. Paul.

“She’s from a small town, with small-town values — but apparently, that’s not good enough for some of the folks out there attacking her and her family. Some Washington pundits and media big shots are in a frenzy over the selection of a woman who has actually governed rather than just talked a good game on the Washington talk shows and hit the Washington cocktail circuit.” —Fred Thompson addressing the Republican convention, Sep. 2, 2008.

John McCain’s convention gambit is a culture war strategy. It depends for its execution on conflict with journalists, and with bloggers (the “angry left,” Bush called them) along with confusion between and among the press, the blogosphere, and the Democratic party. It revives cultural memory: the resentment narrative after Chicago ‘68 but with the angry left more distributed. It dispenses with issues and seeks a trial of personalities. It bets big time on backlash.

At the center of the strategy is the flashpoint candidacy of Sarah Palin, a charismatic figure around whom the war can be fought to scale, as it were. The Politico is reporting just that: Palin reignites culture wars.

I have no idea if the ignition system will work; nor do I claim that “this is what they were thinking” when they made the decision to nominate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Other interpretations may turn out to be truer than mine. This is my look at the bets McCain and company seem to be placing. I am not recommending the strategy. I am not predicting it will succeed. I think it was improvised, like my description here.

The storm around Sarah Pailn overtakes the story of the Republican convention and merges with it, like a smaller but stronger company taking over a larger but troubled enterprise. Behind the storm a “wave narrative” builds as her appointment generates headlines on multiple fronts. The irresistible force of fact-fed controversy meets the immovable enthusiasm for Palin as cultural object: charismatic everywoman straight from the imaginary of conservative small town America.

* The basic strategy is: don’t fight the “crisis” narrative. Rather, do things that bring it on, and in that crisis re-divide the electorate hoping to grab the bigger half.

The evangelical wing, and other social conservatives are strongly moved by her candidacy. More and more of their commitment to McCain is vested in him through her. As Andrew Sullivan writes: “The emotions involved - especially among the Christianist base who have immediately bonded on purely religious and cultural terms with Palin - are epic.”

* The strategy: sell the epic version of her candidacy. Allow her to become bigger than McCain in narrative terms. And let the two mavericks together overawe the Republican party, a damaged brand.

Continued bad news on the investigation front adds further drama, new fact streams and more protagonists to the Sarah Palin story. As more comes out about the decision to name Sarah Palin to the ticket, it’s harder to see how anyone on the inside thought it McCain’s best choice for president-in-waiting.

* Strategy: Give no ground, pile on the praise for her performance in Alaska, pump up her governor’s experience to death-defying extremes, hope for theatrical confrontation with characters in the mainstream media who can star as the cosmopolitan elites in the sudden politics of resentment the convention has been driven to.

Bloggers and open platforms continue to publish riskier—and risque—material, some of it unfit for family consumption, some of it false, salacious and reckless, some of it true, relevant and damaging, a portion of which is picked up by the traditional press.

* Strategy: confound and collapse all distinctions between closed editorial systems (like the newsroom of the New York Times), open systems (like the blogging community DailyKos.com) and political systems, like the Democratic party and its activist wing. Whenever possible mix these up. Conflate constantly. Attack them all. Jump from one to the other without warning or thread. Sow confusion among streams and let that confusion mix with the resentment in a culture war atmosphere.

As more emerges about how the McCain camp made the decision, the appointment looks more and reckless, the decision rushed, the vetting inadequate. This leads to advanced jeering from the left, intense criticism in the press, damaging leaks from within the Republican party, fueling calls from within and without for Sarah Palin to remove herself.

* Strategy: stick with “she was fully vetted” no matter what comes out. People who don’t believe it are trying to bring down Palin’s historic candidacy; or they don’t accept that a conservative woman can be the one to break the glass ceiling. If some establishment Republicans are skeptical or trying to stop her, that’s good for the crisis narrative, and good for two maverick candidates.

Sarah Palin under intense pressure then gives a charismatic performance on Wednesday of convention week and wows much of America, outdrawing Obama in the ratings and sending a flood of cash to McCain and the GOP.

* Strategy: bingo, that’s your big break. A wave effect is unleashed by a stunning televised performance. It is shock and awe in the theater of the post-modern presidency.

Journalists watching all this keep saying to themselves: wait until she gets out on the campaign trail. Wait until she sits for those interviews with experienced reporters and faces a real press conference.

* Strategy: double down on defiance by never letting her answer questions, except from friendly media figures who have joined your narrative; like Cheney with Fox. No meet the press at all. No interviews of Palin with the DC media elite— at all. De-legitimate the ask. Break with all “access” expectations. Use surrogates and spokesmen, let them get mauled, then whip up resentment at their mistreatment. Answer questions at town halls and call that adequate enough.

Meanwhile, the investigation of her performance in Alaska puts more and more pressure on the Palin appointment as things come out that would ordinarily disqualify a candidate from consideration or cast doubt on her truthfulness in a grave way.

* Strategy: Comes from Bush, the younger. When realities uncovered are directly in conflict with prior claims, consider the option of keeping the claims and breaking with reality. Done the right way, it’s a demonstration of strength. It dismays and weakens the press. And it can be great theatre.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Thursday, September 4, 2008

HASS in the Capital - Day #2

Day 2 of HASS in the Capital, hosted in Canberra by the Council of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. A lot of the discussion was about process and futures for CHASS, but the main event was the address to the National Press Club by Senator Kim Carr, the Minister for Industry, Innovation, Science and Research. The full text of Senator Carr's speech can be accessed here.

Senator Carr's speech contained a number of new initiatives, including the Australian Laureate scheme to replace Federation Fellowships, new policies to promote international research linkages, and a new Head of the CSIRO. For those who think that the arts and humanities have something to offer national innovation policies, Senator Carr is very interested in developing such links at a practical level.

What was striking was that the questions at the National Press Club are only asked by the assembled (small) group of journalists, who receive the speech in advance. It was fascinating to note that of the 10 questions, only two could be said to relate to the Minister's themes in the speech around education and research, and one of those was asked by the moderator, Ken Randall. Others came with set question about the car industry, the textile industry, carbon reduction policy (two questions, including one by Glenn Milne (see earlier post)), and one on whether it would be innovation if the Minister's department started using green pens instead of red pens.

A game of two halves. Good speech; crap questions from the media. This may be about how CHASS has to do more to make its issues more relevant to the media, but it also showed a high degree of laziness among the assembled journalists.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

HASS in the Capital 2008 - Day #1

I am at HASS in the Capital 2008, the annual gathering of leaders in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) organised by the Council for Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS) in Canberra.

Tuesday night involved a dinner at the Old Parliament House, where the keynote speaker was Professor Mary O'Kane, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide, chair of the recent review of Co-operative Research Centres, and now the CEO of the Australasian Centre for Interaction Design (ACID).

Key points from Mary O'Kane' talk were:

  • universities need to be agile in allowing new knowledge fields to emerge that cross disciplinary boundaries;
  • there is a need to let go of discipline areas as required as new opportunities emerge
  • if the 20th century was one where science and technology fields were the key knowledge driver, this will not be the case in the 21st century, as the underlying conditions have become much more complex
  • this presents a big opportunity for the HASS sectors in explaining the changes that underpin new technology developments
  • the HASS sector is being strongly encourage to have a greater role in Co-operative Research Centres (CRCs)
  • CRCs are to put a lot more emphasis on 'market failure' issues and generating research rather than commercialisation outcomes.
As someone from the HASS sector involved in a CRC (the Smart Services CRC, to have its Brisbane launch on Thursday), these observations were interesting, particularly as they relate to the under-representation of the services sectors in current CRCs.

HASS will today discuss future directions. There is not a meeting with parliamentarians this year.

There will also be a lunch-time speech by Senator Kim Carr, the Minister responsible for research and innovation in the Rudd Labor Government. I'll post on that later.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Milne watch

Today marks the beginning of an occasional blog piece on this site noting the contributions of News Limited Federal politics pundit and occasional pugilist Glenn Milne.

I am particularly interested in examples of:
  1. Shameless spruiking on behalf of Peter Costello;
  2. Passing off comments from Liberal Party staffers as original political insight (e.g. "ute men decided the Gippsland by-election").
If you have any examples of this or other characteristic forms of Milne-speak, please pass them on.

Today's edition of The Australian provided us with a very good example of the first of these.

The dinner demonstrated that Costello has taken the Liberal Party hostage. And they love him for it. But in this case Costello is both hostage taker and saviour.

The central contradiction at the heart of this gala night was that it clearly showcased why Costello should be leading the Liberals and then offered no resolution as to how - or even whether - this would happen.

First, Tony Smith, Costello's former staffer and now the Opposition spokesman on education, recited his ex-boss's achievements in government: "Commonwealth debt eliminated, surpluses replaced deficits and funding freed up in key areas of national concern."

There followed a video of Costello's killer moments in parliament. The baby-faced shadow attorney-general destroying Ros Kelly's career over the sports rorts affair, an assault that shredded the credibility of the Keating government and presaged its defeat in the 1996 election. Through to his devastating ridicule of Peter Garrett selling out his core beliefs, replete with an imitation over the despatch box of the former Midnight Oil frontman's mechanical twitchings and a rendition of Beds Are Burning.

The ecstatic reaction of the faithful served to remind everyone of Costello's capacity to instantly turn the mood in parliament. The question hanging in the air was: What if it was him, rather than Brendan Nelson, sitting opposite Kevin Rudd?


On the evidence of Friday night's cracker of a speech to the faithful, Costello still remains a riddle inside a question. The address was textured, by turns funny, warm, personal and packing a political punch. Having walked into the venue declaring the event neither a farewell nor a resurrection, "just a thank you", Costello observed that usually in politics you have to wait until your funeral to hear people say nice things about you.

Not while Glenn Milne's writing.