A legend in his own mind

The latest kerfuffle over volunteer firefighter Paul Parker manages to encapsulate, in a single vignette, the way the Australian media handles politics. It’s not an edifying story. After shooting to fame with an expletive tirade against Prime Minister Morrison at the height of the bushfire catastrophe, Parker attained the status of a minor folk hero. That was that, until he appeared on Channel Ten’s The Project to say that he had been “sacked” for his actions. The Rural Fire Service (which had earlier suggested Parker had been “stood down due to exhaustion”)  issued a not-quite denial, which was eagerly embraced by the PM.

Predictably enough, the left wing of Twitter erupted and generated a trending hashtag #IStandWithPaul. Equally predictably, the government’s supporters mobilised in response, exploiting the revelation that Parker was a One Nation voter. The usual leader in such a case would be The Australian, which (as Crikey has documented) routinely sets its attack dogs on anyone who gets in the way of the government. This time, however, the job was done by Chris Uhlmann, political correspondent for Ten’s rival, Channel 9.

Uhlmann had the brilliant idea of pwning Twitter by tweeting the information about Parker with the observation that ‘There is only one politician in Australia he [Parker] doesn’t think should “get f-ed”. Guess who?’ https://twitter.com/CUhlmann/status/1229257594973249536 The idea was that the left Twitterati would react with horror and dump their erstwhile hero.  

Sadly for Uhlmann, things didn’t go to plan. His Tweet got over 1000 comments, far more than the 471 retweets it generated (the Twitter term for such a fail is “ratiod”) and, almost without exception, the tenor of those comments was summed up by this one “Literally nobody cares who he supports politically, Chris. Nobody but you. This changes nothing.” https://twitter.com/_ClaireConnelly/status/1229308593486188544

Some journalists, with such a large amount of egg on their faces, might simply delete the tweet and move on, or even admit error.  But Uhlmann is made of sterner stuff. He published a followup account in the Sydney Morning Herald, in which everything went to plan. According to Uhlmann

When this nugget hit Twitter, it was like watching a train pull into Central Station as most of the mob got off. In the all or nothing era, St Paul can’t be part of what we hope for, he has to be with us on everything. He can’t be blemished by views that trigger delicate sensibilities.”

On Twitter of course, this fabrication was derided, and Uhlmann himself became a trending topic (presumably this will be material for a later piece decrying social media pile-ons). But readers of the SMH learned nothing of this. Amid more than a hundred supportive comments (“So true” “Best article I’ve read in a long time! “) only a handful od readers pointed out that Uhlmann’s Twitter story was the opposite of truth.

What accounts for this striking difference? It would be tempting to assume that it is the result of the partisan bubbles about which Uhlmann was writing. Sadly a more prosaic explanation presents itself. In a tradition dating back to the days of the Letters to the Editor page, the SMH moderators (whose implied role is one of deleting obscene and abusive comments), can simply delete comments they don’t like, producing a selection that suits the response they would prefer to receive.  I tested this with a couple of politely worded comments calling for a retraction, neither of which was published.

Apart from some echoes on Twitter (which has a marginally longer attention span than the mainstream media), this episode is fading into the rear view mirror. The social fabric is frayed a little more, and trust in the media justifiably eroded.  And so it goes.

Update: I was too quick to let the Oz off the hook. There’s a piece there today enjoying the imaginary discomfort of lefties over the great exposé saying (with zero evidence) “I suspect [The Project] has suddenly had a change of heart about Fireman Paul.”

21 thoughts on “A legend in his own mind

  1. I don’t get this hankering after perfect heroes. Who’s interesting, Arthur and Lancelot, or Galahad and Percival? The great weakness of the Oresteia is that Orestes is too good to be true. His mom-or-pop dilemma is written on a blank sheet of paper. Shakespeare IIRC avoided this trap and usually presents us with flawed heroes like Henry V.

  2. Given the demographics and location, you’d probably have 20% or more support for ON among RFS people.

    Given the demographics and location you’d probably have 90% or more morons and arseholes among Murdoch columnists.

  3. Firefighter Paul Parker is part of that great Aussie tradition of disrespecting leaders who patently don’t deserve respect and saying so openly and in colorful language. Nothing wrong with that. Then we find he has feet of clay. No surprise there, we all have feet of clay.

    What is truly nonsense is the way our society (or is it just our inane media?) wants to build up and tear down “heroes”. There are no heroes, just people.

  4. “that great Aussie tradition of disrespecting leaders who patently don’t deserve respect and saying so openly and in colorful language.”

    Nope. That’s yet another great (as in “big”) sad Aussie myth. Heckling from the cover of a crowd, shouting at a passer by who wouldn’t have a clue who the shouter was, or anonymous graffiti left on a dunny wall just doesn’t cut it. Aussies hang back with the least of any people when it comes to speaking truth straight up to power. it’s not due so much to kick down kiss up, although there’s plenty of that, as it is to fear and class. Professional satire is a different kettle of fish, and even then is mostly indirect, tangential, and rather similar to how Aussies or anyone else every day talk about power behind its back.

  5. PS. The exception proves the rule.


    Australian citizen Julian Assange’s extradition hearing is set to start at Belmarsh Prison, London, on February 24.

    The United States government wants to extradite the journalist and whistleblower to face charges under the Espionage Act for conspiracy to receive, obtain and disclose classified information. Much of the prosecution’s case relates to files released that exposed crimes committed by the US in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and which Australia was, and is, a willing participant.

    Here’s a list of the protests being organised in Australia next Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

  6. “that great Aussie tradition of disrespecting leaders who patently don’t deserve respect”

    LOL. Australians are the most obedient and complaisant people in the world.

  7. “Australians are the most obedient and complaisant people in the world.”

    Can we get over our exceptionalism?

  8. Interesting observation John. I have the same issue with the comments editors at the SMH. Up until a couple of months ago my comments were always published and often the ‘most respected’. I must have done something to offend them as I’ve never had another comment published in the last 2 months regardless of how polite and on topic it is.

  9. Lloyd, one thing worth checking: are you sure you’re signed in correctly when posting a comment on these online mastheads? Things to look for : do you have multiple or only one account (subscriptions)? If multiple – are you logged into the correct one ie. is that subscription paid up and currently active in their system? It could be worth logging out and back in again before trying your next posting. It might also be worth checking with the accounts dept to verify your account it currently financial and active.
    I only make these suggestions as a current (and past) subscriber to the Age these kinds of issues have caught me out before.

  10. Ullman’s assertion: “‘There is only one politician in Australia he [Parker] doesn’t think should “get f-ed” is in my opinion crap, as I would bet on Paul Parker also telling Pauline to well and truely get eff’d. Anyone asked him?

    Ikonoclast says: “Firefighter Paul Parker is part of that great Aussie tradition of disrespecting leaders who patently don’t deserve respect and saying so openly and in colorful language.”…

    Could you explain please Ikonoclast you following feet of clay ref? Does it negate or render “claytons” to saying so openly? 

    I am leaning towards Nope. Witness … France. But we have civilised protests 400k petitions, GetUp, and extincrion rebellion. Unions now are pretty well neutered. And what about Milgram electric shock experiments?

    And after reading Hirst below I am going to read his work.

    Svante says: “Nope. That’s yet another great (as in “big”) sad Aussie myth”

    Smith9 said; “most obedient and complaisant [sic] people in the world”

    “There was a lovely backstage chat ridiculing the audience and our meek obedience of instructions – ‘Clap along now’.”

    “I am asked to speak to the new students from overseas. My task is to tell them what sort of society they have come to. Most of what I say is very conventional and would not surprise you. But one thing I say I ask them to keep secret from the Australians they will meet. I tell them that Australians are a very obedient people. I advise them to keep this secret because Australians imagine themselves to be the opposite of obedient. They think of themselves as anti-authority. They love a larrikin. Their most revered national hero is a criminal outlaw, the bushranger Ned Kelly. Their unofficial national anthem honours an unemployed vagrant who commits suicide rather than be taken by the police troopers for stealing a sheep.

    “All this is true. So I am careful to give the evidence for Australian obedience.

    “We were the first nation to make the wearing of seatbelts in cars compulsory. We have gone further and made the wearing of bike helmets compulsory for the riders not only of motor bikes but push bikes as well.

    “We led the way with compulsory breath tests for the drivers of motor cars to ensure they are not driving under the influence of alcohol.

    “Our laws against smoking in public places are very severe. Smoking is banned at our greatest sporting stadium—the Melbourne Cricket Ground—even though it is open to the skies. At games of Australian rules football the spectators yell foul abuse at the umpire and then at half time they file quietly outside to have a smoke.

    “The founding population of Australia came from Britain and by the nineteenth century the British were a very law-abiding people. Is that the reason for our obedience? The great sociological work on political cultures written by the American scholars Almond and Verba,The Civic Culture, judges the British to be an obedient people because of the survival of deference to a ruling class.[1] That can’t be the reason for the ongoing Australian obedience. We have no respect for anyone who thinks they have a natural claim to rule us. We very certainly have complete contempt for the politicians who make our laws.

    “So here is the puzzle I want to consider. The Australian people despise politicians, but the politicians can extract an amazing degree of obedience from the people, while the people themselves believe they are anti-authority.

    “So the function of government changed in Australia; it was not primarily to keep order within and defeat enemies without; it was a resource on which settlers could draw to make money.

    “Government is without social character; it is an impersonal force. That makes it possible for Australian egalitarians to give it the great respect which its record deserves. Australians are suspicious of persons in authority, but towards impersonal authority they are very obedient.

    “Macduff is critical of the public performance of the pledge and its content. She makes two key criticisms:• The ritual situates the Australian ideal citizen as being obedient, compliant and law-abiding; and• Although the pledge includes words such as ‘democratic beliefs’, ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms, these words of the pledge do not clearly convey the active agency of Australian citizenship”

    “Replicating Milgram Would People Still Obey Today?

    “Obedience rates in the 2006 replication were only slightly lower than those Milgram found 45 years earlier. Contrary to expectation, participants who saw a confederate refuse the experimenter’s instructions obeyed as often as those who saw no model. Men and women did not differ in their rates of obedience, but there was some evidence that individual differences in empathic concern and desire for control affected participants’ responses.”
    DOI: 10.1037/a0010932 

    “Obedience without orders: Expanding social psychology’s conception of ‘obedience’

    “This argument is developed with reference to an extended case example from one of Milgram’s experimental conditions in which a participant completed the experiment in the absence of direct orders. It is argued that such participants can still be understood as obedient if we consider the implicit demands of the system in which participants find themselves. The study concludes by presenting a new definition of obedience that omits the need for direct orders.”
    DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12272

    Here is Hirst…
    “Hirst’s study of Federation, The Sentimental Nation, was also a ground-breaking work, arguing that national sentiment was more important than economics in uniting the nation.” [ what say you JQ?]

    “Hirst described himself as an old-fashioned social democrat.[9]” (
    [Paul Bongorno in obit. said Hirst said John Howard was a social democrat.]

  11. Iko: “There are no heroes, just people”. You can’t visit Yad Vashem I think and come away thinking there are no heroes: the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, Raul Wallenberg, the Trocmés, Schindler. Yad Vashem has run out of land for the trees in memory of “righteous Gentiles”. They don’t outweigh the villains, and history is mainly made by the “ordinary men” and women who follow both.
    I’ not sure we really disagree here.

  12. Thanks Smith9. You learn something everyday.

    “Complacent means self-satisfied, smug, or contented to a fault. Complaisant, a relatively recent loanword from French, means cheerfully obliging or tending to go along with others.”

    “The noun complaisance entered the language by way of French about two hundred years after complacence. It retains its French spelling and the meaning of being pleasant to others. A complaisant person is eager to please.

    “I think of complaisant as an old-fashioned Jane Austen word, but it is still to be found in current usage: “By closing down one plant and punishing its workers, workers in other plants would be forced into more complaisant behavior.””

    “They cannot rightly be called complaisant, since they do not know, but they are good creatures who cannot see farther than their nose.”

    By Guy De Maupassant
    “Bah!” exclaimed Karl Massouligny, “the question of complaisant husbands is a difficult one. I have seen many kinds, and yet I am unable to give an opinion about any of them. I have often tried to determine whether they are blind, weak or clairvoyant. I believe that there are some which belong to each of these categories.

    “Let us quickly pass over the blind ones. They cannot rightly be called complaisant, since they do not know, but they are good creatures who cannot see farther than their nose. It is a curious and interesting thing to notice the ease with which men and women can, be deceived. We are taken in by the slightest trick of those who surround us, by our children, our friends, our servants, our tradespeople. Humanity is credulous, and in order to discover deceit in others, we do not display one-tenth the shrewdness which we use when we, in turn, wish to deceive some one else.”

    “At dessert champagne was served, and the commandant rose, and in the same voice in which he would have drunk to the health of the Empress Augusta, he drank: “To our ladies!” And a series of toasts began, toasts worthy of the lowest soldiers and of drunkards, mingled with obscene jokes, which were made still more brutal by their ignorance of the language. They got up, one after the other, trying to say something witty, forcing themselves to be funny, and the women, who were so drunk that they almost fell off their chairs, with vacant looks and clammy tongues applauded madly each time.”

    More reading for me.

    I would still bet on Paul Parker also telling Pauline to get *!#d well and truely.

  13. KT: And what about Milgram electric shock experiments?

    Those are solidly in the non-factual department, and sadly don’t support the Murdoch narrative (plus they’re elitist anyway). There’s a whole lot of dubious stuff during the experiments that cast doubt, and various attempts to replicate the ideas have not gone well. IIRC the “positive” parts amount to “when a psych researcher pays students to do something, they will likely do it even if it requires not believing some obvious falsehoods” (like, say, that a university ethics committee has given the ok to kill people).


  14. There’s also the question of *when* our Paul gets to talk to politicians. I suspect that if Hanson had been in sight at the time of the original outburst she would have copped an earful. But equally, if she popped in right now to offer support he’s probably be quite polite.

    It’s not everyone that will voluntarily approach someone like Abbott, let alone doing so with the intention of nutting him. And likely we should all be grateful for that, given the way other governments respond to their subjects demonstrating unrest. I can’t imagine “we can secretly detain you for two weeks without access to a lawyer if we think you pose a threat to the government” (the current legislation) somehow turning into “people attempting violent revolution will be quietly encouraged”.

  15. @ Lloyd McDonald

    My short, respectful and factual comments have also been removed at SMH, most recently under an article attempting to lionize NSW State MP Andrew Constance.

    It seems they preferred readers not know that in Mid- December Mr. Constance had, as bushfires closing in on Batesman’s bay, posed with a made for TV family with fishing tackle, crowing about his role in summarily revoking nearby marine sanctuaries and quite literally pleading for tourists to “come on down the the South Coast.”

    Given that I’ve heard similar things from others who’ve taken the time to comment, my guess is that comments that don’t support the preferred narrative are simply left unpublished.

  16. Strange, coming here for a touch of sanity after listening to Radio National discussing reality TV and Justin Bieber, who seems like Michael Bubble but weirder because he is a millennial who used drugs before finding the Hillsong Jesus, as well as staying basically weird but in a different mode and keeping his money.

    So, Twitter is just a wrinklies version of reality Teev and mobile phone subculture as constituted by Bieberite Millenials?

    I actually got into Twitter for a bit before being censored for wondering if politicians in Canberra might choke in fumes of the bushfires they did so little to prevent. Perhaps it was just an algorithm, but I couldn’t get the thing unblocked because I don’t have a mobile phone, an increasing problem for someone who doesn’t believe in the culture; also I don’t feel I should do the work to undo their error; clearly just about ever post I read on Twitter was fouler than anything I said in the post they censored, including most of my own.

    Thing is, like all of this other stuff, Twitter is addictive like poker machines or Reality Teev, so I have had to balance the loss of sharing with contributors to that outlet that I like, against the massive amount of time and energy suddenly freed up and the adventure of doing things post addiction, a strange whole new world opening where you actually talk to people to their faces, walk the sunshine, get chores done and find the ability to concentrate on other media.

    Earlier I was watching Planet America and the lunacy their system and thinking of our own weird system in Australia, then thought of Housewives of Orange County plastic mutants discussed later in the evening and the intense attention people give the minutiae it and stuff like it generates. I think of a Brave New world of Masses with brains hollowed out by earworms and dulled by inane smut of a type that make it impossible for them to understand politics in the sense that people at sites like this understand politics, eg relative to something closer to reality as to where this country actually heads.

    Can not the Morlocks eventually have us where people in Yemen, say, are already?

    What struck me about Quiggin’s lead-in was the use of jargon and explanations of the esoterica of how the New World functions. I come to the conclusion that it no longer of much point trying to figure out why the public doesn’t “get” water policy or FTAs or energy “policy” or the sell off of agriculture and resources to offshore entities both in the anarchic capitalist west and Oligarchic east Asia, post FTA.

    So, for the moment I am happier, although I feel alienated even from more personally favoured media examples like The Drum who now seem also increasingly infected by bubble cultural reasoning.

    What has just been written will probably not understood by the rest of you and it is ok, its just me journaling to get other rubbish out of my head, some thing prophylactic if you like because I am fearful of what happens when my post Twitter honeymoon wears off and, Trump wins in the US and Morrison regains the lead in our own op polls and wondering about the the optics my virtual island will look like when I am rid of ll of the rest of you, or more likely you are rid of me.

    You see, I look at this Brave New world which applies to 20% of the world and think of the (un?) reality of the lives of people ground down in the paddy fields of Asia or war zones in Africa and the Middle East and slums in South America and cant “get” what is reality or what many people including media people see as “reality”.

    What is this self sabotaging element in humanity, or the current global culture, or whatever?

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