The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, July 30, 2020


Waving an old art into daily life, one night at a time                    

An invitation to a traditional East Javanese village wedding concert sounds special.  It was, but needed commitment and stamina.  It also revealed the tangled cultural diversity of a nation of 270 million isn’t easily unravelled or explained, as Duncan Graham discovered:


Any link with Jakarta is purely coincidental.  The capital is far, far away, physically and culturally.  The 760 kilometres mapped by geographers might just as well be years – and then some. 

The evening started with the dahlang giving a triple twirl of a gunungan. A deep gong beat quivered through the pillars propping a ceiling of sagging pink and blue drapes under a metal roof.  The mud-floor auditorium was open on two sides and collecting puddles; houses flanked the others, doors and windows open.  

The launch of a wayang kulit (shadow puppet) show in the remote hamlet of Krisik satisfied the nit-picking traditionalists in the audience paying the tab, while not offending the less whiskery hoping to see and hear something hotter and more 21st century.

They’d already been ignited with ‘semi-dangdut’ – a milder version of the raucous mix of Indian, Arabic and local folk music that’s knock-out popular across Java. This has to be amplified to the max.  The invitation should have added earplugs to the batik dress code.

Another sign of slight cultural shifts: The inclusion of a keyboard, synthesizer, trombone and trumpet among the metallophones in the orchestra pit.  Indigenous music-making in Java is moving, not fast but steadily.

Dahlang Rudi Gareng (right) described his style as “contemporary wayang”.   

“I want to preserve the old arts but I know they can’t stay stationary.  We need the younger generation to get enthusiastic, to keep our inheritance alive. There’s so much competition for teenagers’ attention. Western music can pull them away from their culture.  My job is to keep them here by making wayang relevant.”

He seems to have struck the right chord because he’s booked up weeks in advance
Dahlang means puppet master though in reality Gareng is more conductor, composer, singer, tale-teller, showman and businessman.

Now he’s guide to the spectral world that runs alongside and tonight merges.
Only polymaths gifted with a touch of mystique get to the peak of their craft.  Despite his relative youth Gareng, 43, is already there in a profession usually dominated by the wrinkled and toothless, their rheumy eyes peering into a past invisible to amateurs.

Dahlangs are the intermediaries between reality and the spirit world. They are popularly supposed to meditate, even slip into a trance before squatting in front of the screen, presenting their backs to the watchers.  Some seem to pray before jerking the two-dimensional puppets into well-rounded characters.

Putri Santono -RudiGareng's wife

Gareng is relaxed and casual, though this may be veneer.  His family says he sleeps for hours before changing from T shirt to black jacket and sarong with a holstered kris (wavy blade dagger) thrust into his waistband. He lights up and smokes through the hours as do most of the male musicians.  Some of the fags are kretek, with clove leaves in the tobacco.  Even the zero-tolerance quitters reluctantly find the scent agreeable.

The pear-shaped gunungan Gareng presented to get the gig going is something like a map of life starting with steps to a gateway.  However this is no sacred parchment fixed for eternity. There are variations and sizes according to the regions where they originated, and the creativity of the maker.  Everything’s as flexible as the buffalo skins used to make the contorted thin-limbed puppets, distinctively Javanese.

Likewise with the story he’s about to tell in front of a stretched white sheet serving as a screen, the shadow images projected using a high-watt lamp.  In the old days it would have been a kerosene lantern, the flickering flame adding to the spooky atmosphere.

The tale is of sharp-nosed Petruk and his successful pursuit of Dewi Ambarawati after defeating other swains in combat.  The theme is universal, as old as humanity: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl after many adventures and heroic actions.  Then they settle down together.  Happy ever after.

Petruk is one of the four Punokawan brothers, Gareng, Bagong and the leader Semar with a big belly and fat backside designed for many jokes about digestion and breaking wind. In some versions he seems to be suffering from hemorrhoids, hinting that constipation is a common complaint.

Indonesia is full of contradictions; in this prim and proper Republic politicians think they’ll get electoral credit by proposing laws to regulate bedroom behaviors. The government has teams of censors puffing clouds over the slightest d├ęcolletage on imported TV films and trumpeting that hundreds of thousands of porn sites have been shut down. 

Instead of protesting the kids just yawn, then use their fingers to bypass the prudes and access their perversions through virtual private networks overseas.  The Javanese prefer to adapt rather than confront.

Smut and double entendres remain well-embedded in the wayang tradition, secure by being indigenous and not from dirty-minded Hollywood.

The low-level crudity leads some to assume the Punokawan are simple knockabouts playing much the same role as clowns in European pantomimes.  That’s a mistake for all have a serious side, a little like the fools in Shakespearean drama and jesters in regal courts.  These characters were licensed to tell monarchs truths that courtesans feared to speak. 

Don’t give Semar the flick.  According to the late American cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Semar is wise and divine, the guardian spirit of Java.  His name is linked to the Javanese word samara which translates as ‘mysterious’.
Gareng learned his skills and the stories from his late father.  If he needs reinforcement and more ideas he has only to visit his heritage by driving 30 minutes to the Siva Penataran Temple complex.  This is about 12 kilometers outside Blitar and the largest Hindu relic in East Java.

It’s not as well preserved or as old as the 9th century Prambanan Temple near Yogyakarta, and not as famous as the Mahayana Buddhist temple Borobudur which draws pilgrims and tourists from around the world.

However 12th century Penataran has something special – a vast number of carvings illustrating daily life.  So we have clear images of people living in houses with tiled roofs and riding in large-wheeled carts pulled by horses.  These wear harnesses much like those used today.  There are buffaloes, coconut trees, many monkeys and laborers turning the soil with hoes – as they do now.

There are also fables, like the buffalo and crocodile which appear on the terraced monuments and a bathing pool so clear the fish scales wink in the sunbeams. The croc gets stranded away from water so hitches a lift on the bull’s back.  Once safe the reptile attacks its savior who is rescued by other animals.

The supernatural stuff includes winged lions and snakes, and the forbidding dwarapala, squatting stone giants armed with maces and usually found by portals.  They’re not exclusively Indonesian but guard gateways in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and China though with different names.

Mixed among all the domesticity and kiddies’ tales is the Ramayana story, described by historians as ‘one of the largest ancient epics in world literature with almost 24,000 verses’.   The Sanskrit original may be 2,700 years old.  It tells of Prince Rama’s 14-year exile after being rejected by his step-mother, eventually helped to his rightful regal place by the flying monkey king Hanuman and his warriors.

It’s clearly more than an adventure story of dashing deeds by handsome heroes and coy maidens.  Watchers can extract what they like whether its moral messages, style guides for the proper life which may eventually be rewarded, or just a good night out revisiting a familiar yarn.

The carvings at Penataran don’t follow the Indian original but a local version and source of Gareng’s tales. The Punokawan are not found elsewhere so thought to be a Javanese addition.  There’s another account exclusive to Bali. The first known image of Semar is on a temple carving dated 1358.

American scholar Ann Kinney is the lead author in Worshiping Siva and Buddha, a major account of temple art in East Java.  She writes of Penataran that ‘the presentation of the Ramayana, with its deeply carved frontal figures and the complete elimination of empty spaces in the panel of reliefs is an excellent example of the wayang style developed during the Majapahit period.’ (This ran from about 1293 to 1527). 

In Krisik and surrounding towns the first language is Javanese.  Although all schoolchildren are taught the national tongue, Indonesian is reserved for formal and official interactions. Javanese has at least three styles, labeled ‘registers’ by linguists.  These are chosen according to the ranks of the users and whether they’re speaking up to superiors and the elderly, or down to peasants and kids.  

No need to list the chances of making gaffes, so best stick to egalitarian Indonesian.
Gareng interprets Petruk’s quest in a local dialect that flummoxes city folk.  That puts them in the same basket as non-Indonesians, making the storyline a tad difficult to follow.  

Comprehension comes from closely watching the puppets’ body language.  They put their hands on their hips, wag fingers, wave hands, point decisively, stalk off stage or rush on – in short much the same as actors.  It doesn’t take long to figure out the personalities.

The music helps.  When armies clash so do the gongs, when romance looms the flutes take over.  The demons are so grotesque it’s difficult discovering their benign side, though Javanese lore teaches that none are wholly bad.

Fortunately for foreigners there’s nothing rigid or solemn about the art and its rituals.  Apart from being barefoot on stage the protocols are minimal.  The 100 puppets get a mighty thrashing in their adventures and battles between good and evil so repairs are often necessary. Gareng designs his own and has staff patiently perforating and coloring the leather.

The characters are multi-dimensional and so complex philistines would be tempted to glance and depart.  They’d miss the spectacle and the revelation that the location, the wedding, the environment, the music, the play, the assaults on all senses are scrambled with no chance of separating the yokes and whites, then scooping them back into the smashed shell.

For some the gunungan represents a mountain as the first six letters of the word mean ‘mount’ as in Mount Kawi, with Krisik on its Western slope.  It’s a dead volcano (2,551 meters) and an important spiritual site mainly for ethnic Chinese seeking business breaks, but also pribumi (native born) who follow the Kebatinan beliefs of old Java and add a shake of nationalism. 

Among Kawi’s attractions are the graves supposedly encasing the remains of Mbah (leader) Imam Sujono who died in 1876 and his colleague Mbah Djoego, also known as Kiai Zakaria, who died five years earlier.

The spelling of the names often differs.  In keeping with the rest of this feature so do the stories. The principal theory is that both men were supporters or relatives of the high-born Diponegoro who led a rebellion against the Dutch.

The prince was caught in 1830 at Magelang, Central Java, and exiled to Makassar, South Sulawesi, where he died 25 years later. His colleagues fled to Kawi where they helped restore religiosity and improve cropping techniques.

Visiting the graves is supposed to bring good fortune.

Does it work? The best known case, real or imagined, is that of Ong Hok Liong who established the Bentoel tobacco company after meditating on the mountain.

For years he'd unsuccessfully sought the right name for his cigarettes. Then the sight (or dream) of a hawker selling edible bamboo roots known as bentoel set the heavy smoker and drinker on the road to creating what became the nation's second biggest tobacco company, though now owned by a multinational, and an early death from liver disease.

At least he didn't have to sit for hours or longer under the sacred dewandaru (Eugenia uniflora) waiting to catch a falling leaf, another alleged path to prosperity. The tree has outgrown the original railings so a bigger fence has been built to stop the impatient giving the branches a shake to rain down wealth.

If the classification is correct, the tree is a recent import from South America where it's known as the Surinam cherry.

This slice of science prunes the myth that the shrub was cursed to stay small by a holy man because it snagged his clothes. The sage was trekking through the area to divide the territories of King Airlangga. That was in the 11th century. On Gunung Kawi fiction trumps facts.

By now you’ll realize that the lush wilds of East Java aren’t just the rich deposits of volcanic eruptions making the island the world’s most fertile, but layers of mythology, history (plain and embellished), ancient values and modern mysteries.  These bubble to the surface like air trapped in hot mud, ignoring the top coverings of the monotheistic religions which all Indonesians are supposed to follow.

Overseas visitors to Kawi are welcome, though tend to find the beliefs confusing and contradictory; this is the wrong place to apply Western reasoning. 

Although Krisik is about 1,000 meters from the summit, when the three-day ceremonies involving the marriage of groom Setiono and his bride Cicik Erfita were underway the peak was obscured by low clouds and heavy rain.

It’s hard to find Krisik on maps but this is spirit central.  It isn’t just saturated by the heavens it’s also deep in traditions and superstitions, ideal for Gareng to pay homage through his performance.

No-one seems to know when the village was established. The nearby Rambut Monte (Monte’s hair) temple and lake is a Hindu worship area so possibly a Majapahit settlement.  Swimming is prohibited to pacify a ‘God Fish’ so local authorities have built a pool alongside hoping this might lure tourists.  It might – if the roads were repaired.

For others the gunungan suggests a place of worship – a position strengthened by including a pop-eyed, multi-fanged kala atop the image of stairs, trees, tigers and buffalo symmetrically facing each other.  On the reverse another kala with claws and surrounded by tongues of fire.  This links the wayang to the culture, so some background should help fit things together.

The kala is the sculpted visage found above gateways of Majapahit temples like Penataran.  The East Java kingdom, based around an inland port on the Brantas River, controlled or traded with much of Southeast Asia. 

Nationalists reckon this was Java’s golden time with the navy defeating a Mongolian Yuan army invasion and forcing the fleet to flee back to China.   The hero of the era was the ‘prime minister’ Gajah Mada, a figure still revered.  The main public university in Yogyakarta (Central Java) carries his name.

When the empire collapsed in the 16th century either through volcanic eruptions, in-fighting among the royals over succession, or the arrival of Islam ousting the existing hierarchal faith, is still debated by historians.  Maybe all three combined to send the regal families and followers east.

Most eventually settled in Bali which is why the island is predominantly Hindu.  There are also breakaway pockets of Hindus in East Java around the hilltown of Malang, the port of Banyuwangi facing Bali and in mountain villages like Krisik.

Upscale hotels in Yogyakarta and Ubud in Bali often promote wayang. These cut-down tourist-specials usually last less than an hour to match the attention spans of outsiders unfamiliar with the art, for the real McCoy only stops come sunrise.

Which is the case in Krisik where the families of the newly-wed couple have found Rp 35 million (US $2,600) to hire Gareng’s Cakra Budaya (Chakra culture) group to entertain guests and villagers.  For this they got 44 performers and a ten-hour concert.

Among the artists seven pesinden, women singers in elaborate make-up which they apply while sitting on the floor in a house lounge, doors flung wide.  They’re watched by several little girls learning to be women and the odd bloke who tries to look as though he’s mislaid something though secretly seeking the thrill of seeing the transformation of plain Sri to Princess Srikandi. 

The singers seem unconcerned; they’ve added their eyelashes, painted their lips and powdered their cheeks in villages so many times voyeurs no longer annoy.  They’ve also mistressed the art of changing from dowdy street wear to sparkling gowns without revealing bare flesh.

 Burly blokes drove three trucks two hours from their base near Blitar to Krisik.  One carried a 50 kVA generator; the production sucks so much power it could blow fuses using the State system.  It took four hours for six stage hands to set the scene.  They reckon it will take three to demolish and repack.

Crew boss Sadik Kalish, 48, said it’s tough to find men to do the job because they have to spend much time away from their families.  “On one tour we never took a break for 113 days,” he said.  “We just sleep in the cabs.”

The work isn’t arduous, though lifting heavy boxes bigger than coffins of wayang kulit characters needs muscle.  Much time is spent arranging the puppets in the right order and waiting for the show to start and end.

In the play’s second hour there were about 500 in the audience scattered around all sides. Men and women, boys and girls sat together.  Headscarves were rare.

People came and went.  Some watched and focused, others chatted. Inattention didn’t seem to bother the musicians.  The respect given by sober-faced audiences to players in Western symphony orchestras was absent.   Kids ran around with balloons daubed with Disney cartoon images.  Fortunately popping deflated the alien intrusion.

Those who drifted away bought snacks from hawkers who’d driven up the mountain to cook, sell and tease. The bored chanced their luck on kletek, a crude board game involving balls rolling down a slope and into numbered slots.  Gambling is illegal in Indonesia but that didn’t seem to be a problem for the dozens of men clustered round the croupier.

While playing they could follow the plot broadcast through giant speakers. Any who wanted more checked a live video feed, though the connection was weak. 

Much stronger was the smell of cattle for Krisik’s 350 families make their money by selling raw milk to the Nestle multinational’s processing plant at Pasuruan on the north coast. Tankers collect daily. The animals are hand-fed in byres alongside homes, the cattlemen cutting and carting loads of grass on motorbikes.

Among this collision of real and imagined, old and new there are flies and mud, crumbling cobbled roads and plunging hillsides, lowing bovines and rattling motorbikes. The nearest basic hotel is 40 minutes distant, so accepting a wedding invite in this region is not for those who put comfort first.

But for the curious wanting to experience an ancient but still throbbing culture in the raw, and a glimpse into Java’s secret worlds – seek now.


First published in Strategic Review, July 2020:

Monday, July 27, 2020


 The dragon in the room next door

He’s one of China’s most high-ranking and experienced diplomats yet he was caught on TV squirming when confronted by video showing manacled men shunted onto trains.  The prisoners were alleged to be Chinese Uyghur, a Muslim ethnic group.

The interrogator was the BBC’s Andrew Marr in faraway London getting stuck into the Chinese ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming.  The video has been watched around the world. Scores of countries have expressed outrage. Although only 4.4 per cent of the UK population is Muslim, China’s alleged mistreatment of the Uyghur is a major international human rights issue.

Logically it should have been equally important in Indonesia where 88 per cent of the 270 million citizens are said to follow Islam, and disquiet about China’s activities is widespread.

Commented Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch in Jakarta: ‘If human rights violations of this scope and scale were taking place in Europe or the United States, one would expect Muslim-majority countries, including Indonesia, to have erupted in protest. But so far, there has been little to no response. Why? Because these abuses are taking place in China.’

The expanded answer lies in Indonesia’s economic dependency on the superpower, and Chinese success in manipulating public opinion.  The Wall Street Journal reported last year: ‘Beijing has run a concerted campaign to convince Indonesia’s religious authorities and journalists that the re-education camps in China’s north-western Xinjiang region are a well-intentioned effort to provide job training and combat extremism.’

Some beneficiaries of their hosts’ largesse bought the Chinese version of jolly students in vocational training centres and not concentration camps, so persuaded the government to mute complaints.  Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said she’d raised concerns in private meetings with her counterpart Wang Yi, but didn’t elaborate.  

The Palace later told journalists the government will not interfere in China’s ‘domestic affairs’.
Indonesia has first-class TV talent and robust talk shows, but some issues are handled with great caution or not at all.  Among them is the Army-managed killing of an estimated half-million real or imagined Communists in 1965-66.  Another is overt criticism of China, Indonesia’s banker and business partner.

One of those bucking the norm has been the video production company Narasi TV which has made a documentary claiming Indonesians have been hoodwinked by Beijing’s propaganda. 

Narasi (narration) was founded in part by Australian-educated Najwa Shihab, the sharpest presenter on Indonesian TV.  The company says its values uphold ‘anti-corruption, tolerance and participation ... bringing forward issues that are often neglected by the mainstream national media.’

As in Australia, some find it handy to conflate the Chinese state, ethnic Chinese individuals and Communism.

Founding president Soekarno was a friend of Russia and China during the Cold War. After the 1965 coup, he was replaced by General Soeharto who embraced the West.  Communism was officially forbidden along with Chinese calligraphy.  Diplomatic ties were suspended.

Dr Philips Vermonte reckons that although most bans (but not Communism) have since been removed, their legacy still infects domestic politics.   

Last week the director of the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies spoke at an Australia-Indonesia Centre webinar on geopolitics.  He said his country walked a ‘fine line’ on handling China: ‘Indonesians do not understand China and the Chinese don’t understand Indonesia.’

He could have said the same about Australians.

As reported earlier in this column, although Indonesia officially has only three million Orang Tionghoa (ethnic Chinese citizens), they wield huge business influence, drawing resentment which sometimes turns violent.

Like Australia, the world’s fourth most populous nation relies heavily on trade with China, taking AUD 48 billion worth of goods last year.  It’s also Indonesia’s largest export destination, sending minerals, oils, timber and other produce worth AUD 39 billion.

The government of President Joko Widodo has been desperate for overseas money to improve the Republic’s crumbling and rusting infrastructure.  China has supplied AUD 6.75 billion, making it the second-largest investor after Japan.  Most is for public works, like toll roads, new railways and ports, though not without conditions many resent.

These include the use of imported Chinese labour – supposedly senior engineers with specialised knowledge to handle tricky projects – but also for lower-level jobs that unions say could and should be done by the pribumi (indigenous Indonesians).  Project managers claim workers need to understand instructions in Mandarin.

There have been outbreaks of hostility towards the outsiders.  Widodo has been keen to damp down criticism lest unrest leads to riots, frightening away not only the investors but also cashed-up citizens ready to flee should Sinophobia erupt.

There have been pro-Uyghur demos in Jakarta but they’ve mustered only a few hundred wavers of well-printed placards carrying slogans in English.  

Commented Harsono:   Many of these groups have also rallied against Indonesia’s religious minorities such as Christians and Ahmadiyya (an Islamic sect), so their actions seem more self-interested than principled.’

Chinese PR has cleverly exploiting the pandemic by getting Indonesia to enter a cluster seeking a Covid-19 vaccine.  This is being researched by Padjadjaran University’s Med School in Bandung, West Java.  The lead partners are Chinese biopharmaceutical Sinovac Biotech and the Indonesian state-owned pharmaceutical company Bio Farma.

Bizarrely, Widodo has told the State uni to have a vaccine in production within three months, leading to media stories implying the race has been won.  Hard-headed scientists have warned that testing will be arduous and any prize elusive, but like Trump’s flawed pronouncements the President’s orders have caught the headlines.

The US and Australia have together given 200 ventilators; media photos showed boxes stamped USAID.   We’ve also sent AUD 4.9 million to UNICEF to help response and recovery, but missed out on the hoo-ha.  

Chinese donors have flown 40 tonnes of medical supplies into Jakarta, garnering positive publicity. Mask-laden Boeing 777 freighters touching down make for better pictures than press statements.

There’s been nothing soft and subtle about Washington’s activities in the region. This month it has been video of screaming jets, swivelling missile launchers and the USS Ronald Reagan cruising the South China Sea to keep the vital trade passage ‘free and open’.   

Gathered around the nuclear-powered supercarrier like ducklings paddling around mum, have been one Japanese and five Australian warships.  One was the RAN flagship HMAS Canberra making the point the exercise isn’t token.

Admiral George Wikoff told the WSJ: ‘The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability.’  

That should please Indonesia but it hasn’t joined the fleet. The Republic’s foreign policy strategy has long been ‘free and active’ with the definition malleable. It’s nervous of getting close to any major power.
This is despite concerns at China’s maritime territorial claims and fishers poaching in Indonesian waters. 

Indonesia has upgraded defence at the Natuna Islands (about 1,000 km north of Jakarta) and told the world its sovereignty is ‘non-negotiable’. 

Tagging along with the Westerners would have reinforced that message and provided useful training, but the PRC might have labelled Indonesia’s leaders as Trump’s lackeys.

Indonesia doesn’t export barley, beef or wine.  But it knows what happens to countries which do sell such goods and offend their patrons.

(Update:  Officially more than 95 thousand confirmed cases and 4,665 deaths – a rate of 4.9 per cent.  Australia’s is around one per cent.)

First published in Pearls and Irritations 27 July 2020:

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


                                                    How academics are killing freelancers           
Thou woldest han oure labour al for noght.
The hye god, that al this world hath wrough
Seith that the workman worthy is his hyre.

Geoffrey Chaucer:  The Summoner’s Tale.

What fools we journalists are to study the father of English literature and not harken to his ‘little treatise.’  Now we harvest the sowings.

The journos ‘let go’ by the ABC and other media might ponder freelancing along with the 3,000 who’ve lost jobs this decade past. Can they put food in their school kids’ lunchboxes by staying with their trade? Unlikely.

How about that long-promised book?  Possible if you’re M B Turnbull or M L Trump  but the one I’m still hawking is knocking on the doors of deskless offices, unplugged cables dangling from ceilings.
Much of what you now read in the media is unpaid work – and that includes this rant.  My excuse is that Pearls & Irritations is a not-for-profit maintained by people of repute, concerned public discourse is dominated by philistines shouting louder and reasoning less.

Some journos have survived downsizing: The smarties got out before being told, swapping newsrooms for sandstones. Respected names like Michelle Grattan and Peter Manning saw the press was facing a tsunami of change and debt, so headed to the uplands of tertiary education and the safety of stipends.

A few turned from loss to boss.  After leaving the big chair at The Age in 2008, Andrew Jaspan hired sub-editors to clean and sharpen turgid academic papers for an independent non-profit free website. The Conversation was a bold idea that’s thrived, thanks to a claimed 20,000 donors.

Unfortunately Jaspan’s gown-to-town deal is killing the hopes of those who think chasing the story to witness and tell is what our trade once did well. We’re following lamplighters and town criers into extinction.  

Newspapers, the ABC and this website cherry-pick The Conversation’s Creative Commons copy from screen-bound scholars.  

The Conversation is blessing many academics. Rather than being published in some obscure quarterly with a double-digit readership, they can have their work read by thousands.  In the free-fire zones of academe, it’s be cited or blighted. 

(After 14 years with the University of Technology Sydney, business academic Dr Lucy Zhao was fired for not meeting research publication targets.   She won her unfair dismissal claim through the Fair Work Commission this year.)

The West Australian (aka Harvey Norman Times) is where I started as a cadet and left long ago. Last year it sought to republish a recent story.  The features editor wrote:  “I’m afraid I don’t have a budget to offer you payment!’ The exclamation mark was his. 

I replied: “Journos not getting paid?  We should have become plumbers.”

The tabloid is owned by Seven West Media and like other traditional media is in strife. The company’s shares are now worth 12 cents. In 2007 they traded at AUD 13.57.  It’s chaired by Kerry Stokes with a reported net worth of AUD 4.7 billion.

Presumably he pays the plumbers who unblock the toilets in his Dalkeith mansion.  Cheating on tradies is an Australian cultural crime.  Unfortunately people who tap keyboards rather than pipes are excluded.

Parsimony isn’t parochial. The Diplomat is a prestigious international online current affairs magazine started in Australia, now in Washington.  It’s sometimes bought my words. 

Now it includes a question to contributors:  Do you want to be paid?  Tick ‘Yes’ and guess the result.
The ABC reportedly buys freelance copy, but don’t expect a reply to your inquiry. Likewise with The Saturday Paper, The Guardian and almost all the rest.  They’ve pinched Centrelink’s ICS (Ignore Client System) minus the lie:  ‘Your call is important to us’. 

The Web is full of traps for the new jobless, baited with fairytales of thousands paying to read aggregations of lifted stories peppered with the author’s thoughts, what used to be called ‘vanity publishing’. There are e-mail list platforms which claim to help freelancers thrive.  

Here’s one spiel: ‘Our top writers make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by doing the work they care about most and serving their communities of readers.’  Added are examples of newsletters on parenting, music and psychedelics supposedly maintained by subs.

For narrowcasters delivering inside info, or expert at decoding government decisions on issues like superannuation, there may be a market.

 If you write about alleged celebrities’ wardrobe malfunctions, or gush about travel, some may contribute what one critic called ‘digital tip-jar’ payments.

Though not for news and current affairs when there’s peak quality journalism for a pittance.  Just 25 US cents a week will get the New York Times in your e-mail box. The latest Washington Post offer is $29 a year.

The average annual wage for Ozzie journos is AUD 54,000.  Anyone expecting to make even a tenth freelancing is fluttering in the land where cloud cuckoos dwell.  Better off finding a red-brick offering a wrench-ready STEM subject, government subsidised.

If you’ve spent your career handling leaks, then plumbing should be just right.

 Duncan Graham was ‘let go’ by three publishers in one week when Covid-19 hit.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 22 July 2020: