More Observations From ‘DOWN UNDER’

Politics, the media, language and something going on around us….

By Eric Williams

Joking With President Clinton in New York October 2001

Melbourne, Australia–  When looking at the local newspapers, and viewing the newspapers from back home on line, the late New York Times columnist, William Saffire, would have a field day. Now I am not professing to come anywhere near the brilliance of the late master of the origin of various English words, but one thing becomes clear for this ex-pat:  I may be in an English speaking nation, but we do not speak the same language. Or write it, for that matter.  This is especially true in the matter in which headlines are written, or the reporting of certain events.

One case in point is the recent sentencing of Judith Moran, the mother of one of Melbourne’s crime families. Here is a 60-ish woman who has lost two sons, and two husbands in this city’s gangland wars of recent years. Judith Moran was found guilty of planning out the gangland-style murder of her brother-in-law, Desmond ‘Tuppence’ Moran, in broad daylight, on a calm weekday afternoon in Ascot Vale, a wealthy Melbourne Suburb, in June 2009.

Moran, 66, had received a stiff 26 year sentence in August of this year, and the local papers screamed with headlines, and sub-titles, depicting Moran as, “A sad old hag with a tragic past.”  While the Herald Sun court reporter, Paul Anderson, started the first paragraph of his story with a quote, “Judy Moran was an evil witch who deserved a lonely death in jail.”

This is not to say that American, and especially, New York City newspapers, in general, do not use harsh terms when describing the act of a bad guy. But the use of such words, and phrases, “sad old hag” and “evil witch,” struck this writer as raw, and edgy.

Testimony during the dramatic trial had revealed a riff between ‘Tuppence’ and Judy Moran.  ‘Tuppence’ had paid his sister-in-law $4000 dollars a month following the death of his brother, and nephews, but he grew tired of that near decade-long arrangement, and confronted Judy in early 2009 about it. Judith Moran, who lived the lavish life of a gangster’s moll, had believed ‘Tuppence’ had access to a fortune of ‘Black’ money “stooked” away (as the local papers put it) by her late gangster husband, Lewis.  The secret stash of so-called ‘Black’ money has not been found, and the fate of Desmond ‘Tuppence’ Moran, is now in the record books.

What also strikes me is the use of certain English words and phrases one would never see in an American publication. Phrases such as a ‘Standover man,” used for the muscle, or enforcer by a gangster, comes to mind.  A “punter,” or gambler, and the act of “punting” is another that jars the senses. One sentence by  Andrew Rule, the noted Herald Sun associate editor, and crime reporter, who is also the co-author of the UNDERBELLY books,  would make an American reader re-read the following sentence several times. “Judith Moran had already moved in with another violent career criminal, Lewis Moran, who had graduated from pick pocketing and standover to wholesale and retail drug dealing to subsidise his punting.” If you didn’t know what ‘standover’ or ‘punting’ meant, you would be lost.

Then there was one hilarious quote of an elected official who referred to a colleague he had differences with, as a “Gormless git.” Gormless, of course, means one who is stupid, and who is not the sharpest knife in cupboard.  The quote made headlines all across Victoria, as it was about land rights for Aboriginals the two elected officials had clashed over.  The word Gormless may be a far cry from the Yiddish word “Shumuck,” but both words do pack a punch.

What also packs a punch is the striking similarity between what one reads in American publications, and in newspapers on these shores, regarding the recent Occupy Wall Street protest events.  Paul Krugman, the economic columnist for the New York Times, referred to commentary by critics as widely spread over the political spectrum from, say, NPR, to CNBC to the Fox News Cable Network.  Krugman referred to what he called, “a weary cynicism, a belief that justice will never get served, (that it) has taken over much of our political debate.”

Much could be said about critics of the Occupy Wall Street spin-offs on these shores, like, Chris Berg, the widely respected voice of reason found in The Age newspaper in Melbourne. Or, in contrast, by the Australian Rush Limbaugh-wannabe, Andrew Bolt, whose shrill commentary that there is an absence of specific demands by the protesters should translate into not taking them seriously.  Yet, reaction to that stance from both pundits has brought a surprising storm of criticism from both readers of the newspapers that carry their critiques, and the broadcast organs that air their views.

The Rupert Murdock-owned Herald Sun screamed with the headline, MADNESS, as the Occupy Melbourne sit-ins reached a head with the arrest of 95 people. New York Daily News-like photos of the skirmish dominated the first seven pages of the paper. Mounted police on horses had surged through the crowd of roughly 500 Melbournians, accompanied by attack dogs, pepper spray, and batons. The more sedate AGE placed the story on page three, with few photos, and little commentary. While the national newspaper, THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN, quite surprisingly, had no coverage of the dramatic events that took place in Melbourne’s central business district, at all.

In a quotes right out of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuiani’s playbook, Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, called the protesters “disruptive,” and that the original group of occupiers had been taken over by “professional protesters who were likely to cause trouble in the City Square.”  He defended the tough tactics by the state-run Victorian police in clearing the City Square, tactics that have been widely criticized in the public arena.

Also in the public arena is the sharp criticism of public gambling, or punting.  But again, here is the use of the word that will make an American reader look twice. From elected officials to the clergy to public analysts, they all criticize the proliferation of the ‘pokie’ machines across Australia. Pokie machines are what Americans know as the ‘one armed bandit,’ found in the gambling halls in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and in Yonkers, New York, close to the race track. Gambling is big in Australia.  So much so, that even the Australian Football League (AFL) has a hand in the pokie machine business.  One could not imagine the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball in the U.S. having a hand in such business.

This is not a criticism; I am just noting the differences here between the two countries in the matter of sport and gambling. There was no such event here, like the 1919 World Series, where members of the Chicago White Sox team had cheated, and thrown that championship contest intentionally, to the benefit of bookies, and organized crime.

AFL clubs in Victoria control about 2,500 out the more than 30,000 pokie machines in this Australian state. Public records indicate that Victorian clubs, such as Collingwood, the Western Bulldogs, and Hawthorn earn up to $30 million dollars each in annual pokie revenue.  New laws to restrict the amount punters can gamble are on the table, and owners of some f the AFL teams are not happy about it. This proposal, supported by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, has caused a crisis, and threatens to bring down her office.

What is clear to this observer is that language, politics, the media, and public officials mimic each other in similar ways. They may say it in different ways, and use different words, but the result in public policy and message is the same.