Diarist-at-large Richard Ackland flys about the nation. By Richard Ackland.

Dangerous minds

The oh-so-cutting-edge Festival of Dangerous Ideas this week saw an old, discredited idea hailed as super-fresh. Here was Tim Duggan, described as a content director, banging on about how a third of the revenue of his sites inthemix, Junkee, etc, comes from “native advertising”. Or, as we used to say, cash for content.

He proudly told of “an amazing piece of journalism, I suppose”, in which five young Australians go across the US in a converted school bus and a travel agency pays for the 5000 wonderful words that would soon result. 

Probably before Duggan was born, back in 1976, Xerox sponsored former New York Times associate editor Harrison Salisbury on a journey across America for Esquire magazine. His 23-page piece took six months, he was paid $US40,000 plus $15,000 in expenses. Esquire got $115,000 worth of advertising.

Out of the blue, E. B. White, the great essayist, paused from his almost 40 years of seclusion among Maine hens and hayfields, opened his typewriter to persuade Xerox to abandon this idea. 

“I have great respect for all newspapers and magazines,” he wrote, “and this Xerox-Esquire arrangement would mean that any rich corporation or rich individual could pick out a reporter and put $50,000 on him and that would be the end of freedom of the press.”

Clearly another panellist, Peter Fray, deputy editor of the Oz, is unaware of this, for he talked of how terrific it would be if, say, a corporation sponsored Fairfax’s Kate McClymont in covering ICAC. The session was called “Cat Videos Will Save Journalism”. We found that ABC boss Mark Scott tweets cat pictures, which Fray retweets. We also found how to sort old and new media: Duggan, Simon Crerar of BuzzFeed and chairman Tim Burrowes of website Mumbrella are trendily hairy, while Scott and Fray shave.

1 . The world according to Tim

Cry Freedom … and Freedom Boy is on the stump taking his rather blurry message about rights and freedoms across the land. He has just issued a spellbinding discussion paper where he narrows the key freedoms to: freedom of expression, freedom of thought and worship, freedom of association and property rights. 

Freedom from arbitrary detention had dropped off the list of key issues, probably because the government has so many people arbitrarily banged up on Nauru, Manus and other freedom-loving places. 

Importantly, Timbo Wilson gives us a potted history lesson about the evolution of human rights, citing the Magna Carta of 1215 and the English Bill of Rights (1688) among the wellsprings of liberty. 

Obviously we went to different history classes, but I always thought the Magna Carta was about transferring power from the king to a bunch of feudal barons and the Bill of Rights was about getting Protestants onto the throne, but with limited powers, and the liberty of citizens to take up arms against Papists. 

It’s tricky, because here we have a Freedoms Tsar who doesn’t believe in campaigning for a Charter of Rights. He doesn’t think protections should be implemented by way of laws. Laws are for pussies. Instead, our rights should be protected by a sort of fuzzy free-market-induced cultural change that sweeps the land. 

Forums around the nation will ring to the sound of Timbo’s gobbledegook.

2 . I would not be Iago?

Meanwhile, Freedom Boy’s surrogate father, Senator Bookshelves Brandis, was himself on the stump with a rousing speech to a security conference, warning the delegates about the dangers of traitors lurking within their ranks. 

You’ve got to be so careful because these rats are everywhere. Examples tumbled from the AG’s lips: Macbeth, Brutus, Edward Snowden, Guy Fawkes, Judas Iscariot, Chelsea Manning, and someone called “Diargo”. 

Isn’t there a copy of Othello on Bookshelves’ bookshelves? 

3 . Heaping coals of fire on her head

From freedom-obsessed Queensland, Gadfly hears news that Wynnum West woman Kym Garrick was sacked from her post as a security officer at the Port of Brisbane. 

She lives near the train line along which 150,000 uncovered coal train wagons pass every year. 

“My washing gets coal dust all over it, and my animals must be breathing in the dust,” Kym said. So she decided to do something about it and put a sign on her car: “Coal Dust Free Brisbane. No extra coal trains. Lids on wagons. Cover stockpiles.” 

That provoked Corporate Protection Australia Group, which terminated her employment on the grounds that she was “protesting against coal” and refused to remove the sign. 

Let’s hope Timbo flies to Brisbane immediately and sorts this out. 

4 . Mum’s the word on Tassie post 

Tasmania’s governor Hollywood Pete Underwood died about a month ago and the search for his replacement has been ongoing. 

A marvellous suggestion has sprung from state Labor MP Madeleine Ogilvie, who thought her mother would be ideal for the job. Mum, as it turns out, is the deceased governor’s widow. 

Maddie suggested Frances Underwood could be some sort of Regent, serving out the rest of Hollywood’s term, which was due to expire in April 2016. 

It’s pleasing that the vibe of the Act of Succession is so taken to heart in the Apple Isle. Keeping things in the family provides a sense of consistency and permanence, which the masses crave. 

The decision, of course, will be made by Tasmanian Oberführer, Erich Abetz

5 . Serving up a bewdiful Elixir

Here’s your Gadfly at Mazda’s Opera Australia and Simon Phillips’ production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love

And what a production. Set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell placed the show in the Australian bush with corrugated iron sheep, cows and horses. 

To match, the surtitles for Felice Romani’s libretto had also been translated into Australian. Nemorino, Dulcamara and Adina were belting out invocations such as “drongo … bobby dazzler … Scout’s honour … scorcher … corker … up yourself”.  

The star of the show was the elixir itself, which turned out to be an endless supply of Coca-Cola. By any chance could this have been a nifty bit of product placement? Lets’s hope OA cashed in on the endorsement. 

6 . A tedious narrative

A look at the week’s narrative is kinda weird. In her Fairfax Sunday column Annabel Crabb tapped out “… the church’s brutal use of legal strategy to minimise its financial liability creates a simple and irresistible narrative …”. 

A few pages into The Sunday Age and Jo Chandler writes on violence against women in PNG, including, “Optimists might find hope in this narrative”.

Blow me down, next day another distinguished professional, Neil Chenoweth, pops up with the same word in the Fin Review, when dealing with the revenues at Murdoch’s local outpost: “It suggests another narrative to what was happening at News Corp.” 

Over at the Oz, pulse taker Rod Cameron was quoted talking about the first 12 months of the government: “The absence of some narrative is bizarre.” 

How pleasing, then, to see that at least one great organ, The Washington Post, puts the word on a list of those banned. It may only be used when referring to a style of writing. 

Never mind, it wasn’t so long ago that hacks were banging on about “tropes”, then there was our old friend the “Zeitgeist”, which got a great run. Four years ago an adventurous soul found “at the end of the day” used in more than 21,000 articles carried in the Factiva database over just 15 months. It beat “split second”, “about face”, “unsung heroes” and “outpouring of support” as the most-used cliché of its time. But “the narrative” is coming up on the outside.

This piece was modified on September 8 to clarify the revenue Sound Alliance draws from native advertising and to correctly name its site, inthemix.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 6, 2014 as "Gadfly: Dangerous minds".

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Richard Ackland is The Saturday Paper’s legal affairs editor. He publishes

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