The Brisbane Writer’s Festival, which hosted over 200 writers from Australia and overseas, is over for another year.

Controversial London-based American author and Orange Prize winner, Lionel Shriver, gave the opening night address. Her message was blunt: writers should offend, be as politically incorrect as possible and to hell with the consequences. Artists should provoke, stir and challenge, she argued. Her wearing of two black gloves only added to the intrigue.

One of the more interesting sessions, on protecting journalists’ sources, featured ABC journalist and former foreign correspondent Mark Bowling (whose new book, Running Amok, details his years working in Indonesia) and Sarah Stewart, a Walkley-award winning journalist currently working for Agence France Presse in Malaysia.

Bowling said that the ABC was always under scrutiny in Canberra, and it mattered little that the organisation was pursuing “good journalism.” He revealed a forthcoming ABC editorial policy that will protect journalists from outside attempts to reveal sources that may place professional relationships in jeopardy.

It was an encouraging sign, if implemented properly, as most speakers warned of the “chilling effect” of the Howard government terror laws on actively pursuing stories that challenged the accepted political wisdom of the day.

Stewart offered some welcome perspective, and said that although problems existed in Australia with protecting sources and ever-increasing government interference, local media in many parts of Asia received no legal protections at all. While Western journalists knew their governments would probably help them if they faced political difficulties, using local talent required sensitivity by not placing them in excessive risk.

Another session featured London bombing survivor John Tulloch, ABC journalist Leigh Sales and Labor MP Carmen Lawrence, who discussed “fear of the other.”

Tulloch was a fierce presenter, angry at Western governments’ unwillingness to understand the root causes of terror (something even the Howard government may be finally acknowledging).

Lawrence challenged politicians who suddenly discovered patriotism, flag waving and defining Australian “values” (a clear dig at Kim Beazley’s infantile attempt to out-Howard Howard). She reminded the audience that Howard had form on these matters, as he told parliament in 1984 that ethnic groups sometimes abused their women, but Anglo-Saxon groups did not.

The dog whistle is as subtle as a sledgehammer and as pointless as bombing Iran (now being game-planned by mainstream commentators).

Perhaps the strangest comment was by Robert Manne during a Q&A, who disputed the idea that the US or UK were committing state terror in Iraq, despite his harsh criticisms of the mission. One wonders what else he would define as state terror, if not in Iraq.

Peter Fray

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