Modest Expectations – Herbert Strudwick

Benito Mussolini

Hitler didn’t need Instagram. Mussolini didn’t need to tweet. Murderous autocrats did not need to Snapchat their way to infamy. But just imagine if they’d had those supercharged tools. Well, Trump did, and he won the 2016 election, thanks in large part to social media. It wasn’t the only reason, but it’s easy to see a direct line from FDR mastering radio to JFK mastering TV to Trump mastering social media. And Trump didn’t do it alone. Purveyors of propaganda, both foreign and domestic, saw an opportunity to spread lies and misinformation. Today, malevolent actors continue to game the platforms, and there’s still no real solution in sight because these powerful platforms are doing exactly what they were designed to do. 

Writing the above, Kara Swisher says it elegantly and succinctly. Her sentence attracts attention, but when one analyses what she said, is that only because of the cuteness of her reference to the various forms of modern communication juxtaposed against Hitler and Mussolini. But what is her point? One may as well say that Julius Caesar would have been more effective if his army had Kalashnikovs.

Leni Riefenstahl

Hitler had a very skilled publicist in Leni Riefenstahl. Testimony is her film Olympia – a tribute to the Berlin Olympic games. Pictures of Aryan youth running in dappled woods, swimming in sparkling pools or dancing in diaphanous dresses were images of racial purity. Lurking in other forests were concentration camps being built at the same time to remove those that did not conform to that “purity”– not featured. Pagan imagery was never far away in the magnification of Hitler and his grasp of the world. Why ever mention Instagram?

Mussolini it should be remembered came across positively between the two World Wars, at least until his invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935.

In the United States, as noted elsewhere, he was perceived as a charming, masculine and romanticised anti-Bolshevik leader, just as Rudolf Valentino, his contemporary, rose to fame as an exemplar of the Mussolini image. That image of Valentino was refined by his ghost writer and publicist Herbert Howe. He combined ideas of traditional marriage and limits on women’s rights with antidemocratic theories that embraced forceful leadership, woman subservient. Both Valentino and Mussolini gained seductive authority thanks to such antidemocratic and misogynistic language. I’m not sure how relevant lack of the access to twitter enhances your argument, Ms Swisher.

Both Hitler and Mussolini were successful until they over-reached as Hitler did, or as Mussolini did by backing the wrong horse and moreover encumbered by a poor armed force; unlike Franco, who sat on the metaphorical railing throughout WWII. What would Franco have done if he had “snapchat” available? Another totally irrelevant musing.

Nevertheless, the comments about Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy make more sense, in that these men, particularly the former, figuratively came into the living room with his fireside chats. As I personally know so well, he had to compensate for his lack of freedom of movement. After all, he was paralysed from the waist down due to the effects of contracting polio. The fireside chats with the implied intimacy were well suited to his modulated East Coast Brahmin voice.

Sure, Kennedy was adept with television, and his televised debates with Nixon attest to that. But Nixon was such a damaged, warped individual, whose five o’clock shadow just served to emphasise the dark side of his personality that he was easy meat for the personable Kennedy. Kennedy was essentially declamatory, where his rhetoric was attuned to a positive future; Obama was obviously a student of Kennedy. Both men had an exquisite sense of timing; both exuded youthful optimism and accommodated to the whims of the contemporary media, but to what lasting effect?

Now Trump. Is it his mastery of social media? I would argue that it is not mastery but just use of an amplified megaphone. No different from Hitler spewing forth at Nuremburg, but just with a greater reach.  Much of the world recognises Trump for what he is, a potential despot given to wild accusations and outright lies, with a fanatical group who distort the Bible to justify all the vile actions they commit. The key is that Trump has a committed audience, which Clinton described as “deplorables”. It was the wrong word, however appropriate a moniker it may have been, Hilary.

The problem with the Old Testament is that much of it can be interpreted as depicting God as a vengeful entity, much as Trump is. Much of creationism with its literal interpretation of the Bible reinforces a rigidity of thought easily transposed into intolerance. The poetry of the Bible is thus lost. As a young grieving teenager, I was exposed to one of these groups (the Brethren) – smiles without humour, initially for the disturbed youth a faux-understanding, quickly transposed to the wrath and psychological torture ending in isolation without any mental health tools to cope. I was never dependent, an essential part of this evangelical tyranny, so I could escape without a trail of mental brimstone.

The idea of the “Chosen People” suggesting an elite validated by their God again fits within the Trump narrative, as it emboldens his acolytes.  The platforms Ms Swisher mentions are largely dependent on the perpetuation of “Trump Truth”.

No, Ms Swisher, despite your persuasive writing, I believe it is not simply mastery of the social media. It is what the jargon call product differentiation. Two old men. One projects a golden image, however ridiculous to the educated, but one which can be related to the Exodus description of the Ark of the Covenant namely: “make an atonement cover of pure gold – two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover” – welcome to Trump’s bathroom.

The other person is just an old white metal man, who has no such glowing image but one steadily meandering up the Parkinsonism escalator. Not the right image.

Still, the emergence of a sparkling Kamala Harris from her Vice-Presidential platinum chrysalis has been noted by at least one political geo-entomologist.

Transactional Change 

This week I received a communication from Diners Club effectively terminating my credit card from April as they are no longer offering a business card. I have been a Diners Club card holder since 1971, at a time when it was the prime credit card. However, over the years, with the entry of other credit card schemes, often linked to banks, Diners Club acceptance levels have fallen. Diners Club’s rewards scheme was generous for the card holders but demanded a bigger percentage from the vendor than other credit cards.

Ad in “Time” 8 June 1998

I grew up in a world where cash and cheque were the only ways for day-to-day transactions. Then there was the village sense of familiarity and trust being able to buy your purchase “on tick” – one way of describing an informal account. One transaction, I remember very well, was after we stayed in a hotel, my mother always put a two shilling piece under the pillow for the maid who was going to clean the room. It was her way of saying “thank you”.

My parents did not use traveller’s cheques. For whatever reason I never asked, because even though they had been available since 1936, my parents never used them. In the meantime, I grew up with a piggy bank and then a savings bank account with a passbook, which I kept long after they fell out of general use. In fact, it was only after a colleague of mine showed a mixture of incredulity and disdain that I abandoned my passbook.

One grew up at a time when cash transactions were determined by the opening and closing times of the banks, and when obtaining cash after hours was often very difficult. Australia well defined death after life by Sunday; and the extreme being Anzac Day and Good Friday, when the country was draped in sackcloth. Convenience was a word applied to the public toilet.

The first ATM

Even though the first automatic telling machine was introduced in Sydney in 1969, the first user friendly computerised ATM was not introduced until 1977 in Brisbane. Even then it took a long time before I obtained an ATM card. I was the ultimate conservative in financial transactions, and the modern ways such as PayPal, I have never used. I have never progressed beyond the cheque book.

That is the price of dependency of now being anzio – and presumably of progress.

Taking Coles to Canberra to Find out what is Wool Worth?

The supermarkets do not so much give money to the political parties as they make money for them, a role that embeds them all the deeper in the political establishment. Malcolm Knox 2015

Watching the two Chief Executives being interviewed by ABC reporter Angus Grigg for the Four Corners program, which was out to pillory the supermarket monopoly (and for that matter monopsony) of Coles and Woolworths was fascinating.

The neoliberal response which has contaminated public policy since the 70’s is sewn into the belief system of so many conservative economists and has never been unpicked despite its underlying cause of the GFC disaster in 2007. Before neoliberalism, it was tariffs – one was either for free trade or for protection.

But the unstated way these hidden cartels have enabled them to distort the socio-economic fabric of this country, is exemplified by the way these two companies have manipulated the food market. At the same time it just shows how weak our governments have been over the past decade or so in assuring equity.

Brad Banducci

Most of the contumely has rested on Bradford Banducci, who resigned as Woolworths CEO after his performance on Four Corners. A great amount of attention has been drawn to the fact that the interviewer so much got under his skin that he made some unwise, if not completely incorrect, comments about a former Chair of the ACCC, Rod Sims.

Nevertheless, he committed the unforgivable sin of getting up and making to leave the interview. There is a flurry of activity as off screen the Woolworths PR flack could be heard trying to smooth things over, and Banducci returned. That was even more unforgiveable, because he came back when he had clearly lost the power of the situation to the interviewer. He should have stuck to his decision and gone.

Why? That was his normal persona – a man so used to controlling the situation that when he normally gets up to leave, he takes the power of the situation with him. In this case, if he had continued to walk, it would have taken a good interviewer to retain that dominance which he had in inducing Banducci to flee or leave, whichever way you want to interpret it. Banducci coming back certainly made the editing easier.

It showed that Banducci, South African born of Tuscan heritage, who graduated in law and commerce from South Africa’s 4th ranked University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is not used to his power being challenged.

Who is Banducci? Yes, he graduated MBA from the UNSW Graduate School of Management, his ticket to life in Australian business. Nevertheless, South Africa was obviiously very important in developing his social norms.

Yet Banducci when only eight, would accompany his mother to her fashion store in the gold-mining town of Boksburg called “The Web.” He would help with packaging and visit wholesalers. After a few years, he joined his father’s sewing machine business. The apprentice-cum-gun salesman in the making.  While he had spent most of his career climbing the Woolworths ladder where compassion and humanity are not rated highly on the list, he has recently put Woolworths money into causes defending human rights, much to the disgust of the political right. So, they also pounced on Banducci this past week.

Yet reading the “pilgrim progress” of Banducci, there is his underlying business brutality, not suffering (or mistaking) fools, culminating in losing his temper on national television. Just a normal business executive, with a faint thread of compassion. To the neoliberal right, an unforgiveable sign of humanity – but he has now more time for recreational instead of business risk-taking, kayaking, open water swimming, and whitewater rafting.

Leah Weckert, Coles CEO

I found the interview with Leah Weikert, the CEO of Coles more interesting. She is very well qualified, and since recruited to Coles has shown her management skills, extending to the demerging from Wesfarmers.

She is a completely closed personality and being almost monosyllabic proved almost impossible as such to interview. She smiles without mirth; she talks without saying much. She has learnt to become a media automaton. Essentially, she has that personality of media success – she is totally boring.  She has the defence of Coles behaviour off pat. She is somebody who should not be crossed.

Weikert went to Marryatville High, (founded in 1976 during the Dunstan era, from the amalgamation of the Norwood Boys’ Technical High School and the Kensington & Norwood Girls’ High School), where in year 12 she demonstrated the Honey on Toast principle. Using her knowledge of calculus she predicted this rapid change, from the point where the honey is hardly moving to when it suddenly drops from the spoon onto the toast.

She grew up in an environment of wholesale primary produce. The Weikert heritage is Silesian, but unlike the Lutheran diaspora refugees from 19th century Prussia to South Australia, the Weikarts were Roman Catholic.

She is not unexpectedly a very private person, admitting to two children and a husband, who is not named. Not surprising given her closed personality. She should be aware that you can block for so long, but she should beware of the skilled interviewer who has unblocked persons of her ilk, irrespective of whether being able to predict the time it takes to get your honey onto toast.

Given she is only 44, she has the opportunity to lift her eyes from the balance sheet and refine the business school definition of “humanity” – or is that word still anathema in the world of the MBA graduate.

Thank you, Four Corners, for such an interesting case study about those who traditionally screw us customers, especially when the government scuttles away, headed by such a timid prime minister.

My aim in this piece was to concentrate on what common traits were revealed by these CEOs, whose approach has led to the current situation in regard to obtaining in alia a cheap banana. The aim was not to weep over the demise of being able to discuss the quality of the banana. That has long gone, but helpful comments upon the persons who control the banana may help in ensuring the banana is ripe.

Meanwhile back in Blighty

The UK Post Office scandal has been the subject of a documentary fronted by Toby Walsh playing the Welsh sub-postmaster, Alan Bates, titled Mr Bates vs The Post Office. A four-part series, it has attracted the largest BBC audience ever of over 10m. This is the story of Bates’ crusade to represent 700 sub-postmasters who as it turned out had been wrongly accused of stealing money, with many imprisoned.

In reality, it was a glitch in the Horizon software program, which the firm Fujitsu had been contracted to introduce, which they did in 1999. It was a flawed program whereby the governments and public service fought to not only preserve but also perpetuate the litany of wrong decisions. The flawed program indicated that there was a massive malfeasance among the sub-postmasters as revealed by the post office receipts.

It has taken a long time to redress, but it is estimated that the UK government will pay more than £50m extra after the first payment was largely gobbled up by the lawyers.

Below is the sorry story, which prompted me to add an inglenook to my blog outlining how the response to the many episodes of questionable behaviour by Australians in authority has yet to progress to suitable retribution.

The Post Office is owned by the government. However, the Post Office Ltd board is responsible for day-to-day operations. 

Former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells resigned in 2019 over the scandal. In January 2024, she said she would hand back her CBE after a petition calling for its removal gathered more than a million signatures.

In August 2023, the current chief executive Nick Read agreed to pay back his bonus he received in relation to his involvement with Horizon. Part of that bonus included payment for his participation in the Horizon inquiry – an amount of £54,400. In May he agreed to pay some of that back – £13,600. But he has now agreed to return the remaining £40,800. He apologised for “the procedural and governance mistakes made”.

Fujitsu Europe director Paul Patterson says it has “clearly let society down, and the sub-postmasters down” for its role in the Post Office scandal.

Paul Patterson admitted there were “bugs, errors and defects” with the Horizon software “right from the very start”. He had previously told MPs that Fujitsu had a “moral obligation” to help fund compensation payments.

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey is among several politicians facing questions over the scandal.

Davey was postal affairs minister during the coalition government. In May 2010 he refused to meet Alan Bates, the sub-postmaster who led the campaign to expose the scandal, saying he did not believe it “would serve any purpose”. He now says he was “deeply misled by Post Office executives”.

David Cameron’s government knew the Post Office had ditched a secret investigation that might have helped wrongly accused postmasters prove their innocence.

Even recently Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch has denied claims from the former Post Office Chair, Henry Staunton, that he was told to delay compensation payments to allow the government to “limp into the election”.

The 2016 investigation trawled 17 years of records to find out how often, and why, cash accounts on the Horizon IT system had been tampered with remotely. Ministers were told an investigation was happening.

But after postmasters began legal action, it was suddenly stopped.

The secret investigation adds to evidence that the Post Office knew Horizon’s creator, Fujitsu, could remotely fiddle with sub-postmaster’s cash accounts – even as it argued in court, two years later, that it was impossible.

The revelations have prompted an accusation that the Post Office may have broken the law – and the government did nothing to prevent it. Paul Marshall, a barrister who represented some sub-postmasters, said: “On the face of it, it discloses a conspiracy by the Post Office to pervert the course of justice.”

Paula Vennells

The Post Office boss during this period, Paula Vennells has justifiably been subject to continuing retribution. She has yet to finish up in gaol, but all the baubles which she had accumulated are gone, except she does remain an ordained Anglican priest.

But where is the retribution for our own version – the Robo Debt scandal? The commission reported nearly a year ago with its recommendations. Maybe Australia needs an ABC documentary rather just the passing gust of a 4 Corners piece.

Oh, by the way, the Horizon program is still being used by the UK Post Offices, allegedly suitably modified to eliminate the glitch. We shall see!

Mouse Whisper

As I have run around many a stately library with venerable books piled in bookcases reaching the ceiling, I have wondered how often each of these venerable books has been opened, let alone read.

My boss tells the story of a young librarian who happened to retrieve such a long unread book in the library at Queens College in Oxford University. It apparently had not been accessed for a long time, as when he removed the book, a piece of ancient Egyptian papyrus fell out. He presumed that the last person to borrow the book was using it as a bookmark, whenever that was – two centuries ago?