All posts tagged police

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Shock Tactics: Preventing trauma in Australian teenagers’, November 2016

    A feature story for Good Weekend, published in the November 19 issue. Excerpt below.

    Shock Tactics

    As Schoolies Week kicks off around the country, emergency specialists are using hard-core methods – graphic dashcam videos, horrific injury images, emergency-room simulations – to deter adolescents from risk-taking behaviour.

    Good Weekend story: 'Shock Tactics: Preventing trauma in Australian teenagers' by Brisbane freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, November 2016

    It looks like a classroom, but today there’ll be no maths, English or history. It is a Wednesday towards the end of 2016’s final term, and no ordinary school day. Today’s curriculum will be taken largely from life experience, and the lessons will revolve around confronting simulations of what these students’ lives might be like if they don’t think before they act.

    This group of about 30 year 10 students from St Peters Lutheran College, in the inner-west Brisbane suburb of Indooroopilly, has travelled across the city to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH), at Herston in the inner-north. All aged 15 or thereabouts, the boys wear short-sleeved white shirts with maroon ties, grey shorts and black shoes, while the girls wear long white dresses with vertical maroon stripes. Just like in any average high-school classroom, the front row of seats is empty – other than two teachers overseeing the group – and the back row is mostly occupied by boys, who provide a constant stream of whispered wisecracks to one another.

    Today, the hospital is hosting what’s known as the PARTY Program. The acronym stands for Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth. It’s a concept licensed from an initiative that began 30 years ago at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and now operates out of 15 sites across Australia, including every state and territory besides the Northern Territory. PARTY began at the RBWH in 2010, and since then, 51 schools and more than 3000 students have participated in a day-long, intensive itinerary of hands-on activities and talks designed to open these bright young eyes to some of the difficult situations and decisions they’ll be exposed to as they edge from adolescence into young adulthood.

    “Some of the things that you see, hear, feel and smell today may give you some feelings you haven’t had before,” says statewide program coordinator Jodie Ross. “It’s quite normal that you might feel a bit off at points. If you feel a bit ill, or feel that you might faint, please let us know, and don’t run away to the toilet. We have had a young boy who fainted in there, and it was really hard to get him out.” At this, she is met with a few chuckles. “Today, we want you to learn from other peoples’ poor choices, because we want to see you come back here as doctors, nurses or allied health people – but definitely not as patients.”‘

    Ross has worked here as a nurse since 1996, and still puts in the occasional shift with the trauma team when needed, but coordinating this program at hospitals and schools across Queensland is her full-time job. Laidback in nature, the 41-year-old mother of two marries a warm presence with a wry sense of humour, yet some of what she has seen inside this building across two decades has informed her own parenting. “I have a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, and they already know they’re never allowed to ride a motorbike, or even think about getting on one,” she says with a laugh. “I think I’ve scared them off, which is great.”

    The morning’s first guest speaker is Danielle Brown, a paramedic who has been with the Queensland Ambulance Service for more than a decade. She wears dark green cover-alls, pink lipstick and bright red fingernails. “I’m here to tell you about consequences,” she says, as the screen behind her flicks onto an image of a car wrapped around a pole, surrounded by emergency services workers. “If you ever do find yourself in a situation with us, please just know that we’re not here to make things worse for you, or get you in trouble. We’re here to look after you.”

    When she asks whether any of the students have visited the emergency department, a few of the boys raise their hands; all sporting injuries, as it turns out. Brown talks about alcohol and drug use, and about assault injuries. “Aggression isn’t cool,” she tells the group before she leaves. “For those guys out there trying to impress girls, can I just tell you – we’re really after the gentlemen, the funny guys. There’s no point in trying to impress someone by being ‘tough’.”

    Ross moves onto discussing sexually transmitted infections, and the kids crack up at how she frames the lifelong consequences that can come from a few minutes of fun, such as having to tell every sexual partner from that point on, “I’ve got a bit of herpes – hope you don’t mind!”

    Although none of these students have their learners’ licences yet, she dwells on the topic of road safety for some time – which makes sense, since the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads is the program’s primary funding source: in August, it provided an additional $1.54 million to keep the statewide initiative topped up for another three years. During this part of the presentation, the screen shows dashcam footage from cars where teenage drivers were distracted by their phones. These videos are horrifying to watch: the drivers’ eyes remain in their laps, even as the car veers outside the painted lines and towards needless trauma.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend‘s website, where you can also see a short film by photographer Paul Harris that was recorded on the day we attended the P.A.R.T.Y. program. For more about the program, visit its website.

  • BuzzFeed story: ‘The Cop At The End Of The World: Neale McShane’, November 2015

    A feature story for BuzzFeed, published in November 2015. Excerpt below.

    The Cop At The End Of The World

    The longest serving officer at Australia’s most remote police outpost, Neale McShane is about to retire. But first, one last big weekend watching Birdsville, population 80, become an unlikely — and ill-suited — tourist destination.

    BuzzFeed story: 'The Cop At The End Of The World: Neale McShane' by Andrew McMillen, November 2015. Photograph by Paul McMillen

    On a map of Australia, Birdsville is situated toward the middle of the country, yet its remoteness is so absolute that it might as well be on another planet. Established in 1881, the town abuts the edge of the Simpson Desert, an enormous expanse that consists of more than 1,000 sand dunes. That a town was built here at all is testament to either human willpower or outright folly. It is not quite self-sufficient, as most goods are either trucked in via hundreds of miles of snaking gravel tracks dotted with roadkill kangaroos and carrion birds, or flown in via the twice-weekly mail service.

    On windy days, the red dust from the desert blows across the town’s few dozen buildings, adding a fine film of rusty grit that bonds itself to every surface. On hot days — which is most of them — bush flies revel in the stark stillness, incessantly seeking out the moisture of sweaty human skin.

    In Birdsville, if you want to buy a coffee, you have one option: the Birdsville Bakery. If you want to visit a restaurant, you have one option: the Birdsville Hotel. If you want to buy alcohol, you can do so from either place. If you fall ill, you’ll be treated at the Birdsville Clinic, and flown nearly a thousand miles to the state capital if you can’t be fixed there. If you want to buy basic groceries, you’ll have to settle for whatever Birdsville Roadhouse has in stock. If you want to see a film or live music, you’re in the wrong town. Birdsville State School has five students. The kindergarten has three. There are no teenagers. There is no crime. There is, however, a police station. It is manned by an officer who chooses not to carry a gun, because he has no need to.

    The police station is situated at the edge of town, a short walk up the main street, toward the pub, the combined grocery store–cum–fuel station, a tiny airport, the school, and the clinic. When the airstrip’s runway-lights system is switched off at night, a stroll along this route reveals the breathtaking volume and variety of stars overhead, which flicker brightly, knowingly, free of all light pollution. Shooting stars are seen more often than cars on the main street, which might be used by 30 vehicles on a busy day.

    For most residents of Queensland, Australia’s second-largest state by area, Birdsville will only ever be a geographic curiosity seen at the edge of the map on the nightly weather report. Locals say the population is 80 people, half of whom are Indigenous Australians, but the sign posted outside of town notes that the population is “115, +/- 7,000.” After driving over a thousand miles to be here, seeing that sign somehow quickens the pulse. Once a year, during the first weekend of September, this sleepy desert town sparks to life, relatively speaking.

    To read the full story, visit BuzzFeed. Above photo credit: Paul McMillen.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Over Troubled Water: Suicide at Brisbane’s Story Bridge’, September 2015

    A story for the September 5 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    Over Troubled Water

    The Story Bridge is a beautiful Brisbane landmark – but it’s also a site of untold misery

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Over Troubled Water: Suicide at Brisbane's Story Bridge' by Andrew McMillen, September 2015

    It was raining on the morning that Troy Aggett decided to end his life. Shirtless and ­shoeless, the 39-year-old drove from Logan, 25km south of Brisbane, to the Story Bridge, the city’s key visual icon linking the suburbs of Fortitude Valley and Kangaroo Point. He obeyed the speed limit and all traffic signals on the way there. “There was no urgency to what I was doing,” he says. “There was no rush.” He hadn’t slept the night before. It was March 22, 2012, a Thursday, when he parked near the bridge at around 6.30am and hastily wrote an apology note to a long-lost friend: “Sorry I couldn’t catch up.” Helpfully, he placed his driver’s licence inside the note, so that police could identify him.

    While the rain fell steadily, Aggett strolled up to the 1072m-long bridge, which is traversed by 30 million vehicles annually. Though scared of heights, he paused every now and then to look over the edge. When he found the highest point over a pathway in Captain Burke Park below, he stopped and checked out the drop: 30m onto a hard surface. He didn’t want to land in the ­Brisbane River, as people have been known to survive the watery impact. All that stood between his troubled life and his certain death that morning was a 138cm-high fence.

    Aggett had reached this point of despair after 19 months of sick leave from his job as an ­Australian Federal Police officer, where he had turned whistleblower against what he perceived to be a poisonous and corrupt culture, triggering a drawn-out court action which he ultimately won. He was near rock bottom, having lost everything he cared about. “It was just a private moment; I wasn’t trying to cause a scene, I wasn’t trying to get people involved,” he says. What he didn’t count on was that a passerby – an off-duty member of the Royal Australian Air Force – was quick enough to grab his arm as he swung over the barrier, locked elbows so that Aggett couldn’t drop, and began a conversation. Soon, two police officers were on the scene to hear his final wish: “Just bury me when I’m done. A pauper’s funeral; I don’t care. Just scrape me up nicely, and put me in a box. That’s enough.”

    This story has a happy ending. After three hours of negotiation – most of which took place while Aggett stood holding on to the outside of the railing with three fingers of his right hand, near-naked and shivering – he gave permission to be strapped into a bright red firefighter’s ­harness and brought back over the railing. Within moments he was covered with a fluorescent yellow raincoat to shield him from the cold. Spent from the exertion of holding himself in a precarious position all that time, he dropped to the bitumen. A policeman leaned down and pressed his head against Aggett’s, while nearby officers comforted him with pats on the back. A female officer lent over the barrier and gave the thumbs-up signal to paramedics who had gathered beneath a tree in the park below to shelter from the steady rainfall, stretcher at the ready. A fire engine with its cherry picker ladder extension that had been waiting out of sight, in the shadow of the Story Bridge, was no longer needed. Raincoat-clad police officers waiting nearby were at last able to breathe a sigh of relief.

    On that morning, some two dozen emergency services staff were focused solely on bringing Aggett back from the brink. His life was all that mattered. What’s remarkable about the scene, however, is that its final minutes were captured by a member of the public who happened to be filming from a high-rise apartment across the Brisbane River, on the outskirts of the CBD. A zoom lens framed the scene in extraordinary detail as the amateur director shakily panned to ensure that every emotion was writ in high definition. The care and compassion on display in the four-minute video is humbling. It was uploaded to YouTube on the day of the incident, tagged: “Australian trying to commit suicide”.

    Aggett found the footage around two years later. He has watched the video of this low moment in his life several times, enthralled and a little embarrassed. Today he’s 43, healthy, married, running his own flooring business, and able to speak frankly about that day on the bridge. “I keep an eye out for people who do jump: where they jumped, how many jumped, whether it was successful or not,” he says between sips of a cool drink at a Brisbane cafe, his wife by his side. “It’s just curiosity, I think. It’s hard to explain, but it feels like I’ve got a connection to these people now. I know what they’re going through, inside.”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

    World Suicide Prevention Day coincided with RUOK? Day on September 10 2015; details at wspd.org.au. For help, contact: Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, Lifeline 13 11 14, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, Headspace 1800 650 890, Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636, Survivors of Suicide Bereavement Support 1300 767 022.

  • The Vine feature: ‘A Guide To Cannabis Law In Australia’, December 2012

    A feature for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    A Guide To Cannabis Law In Australia

    “Marijuana Use Most Rampant in Australia,” read a New York Times headline in January 2012. Cannabis – marijuana, weed, pot, hash; whichever other name you prefer – remains the most widely used illicit substance in Australia today by a big margin. Approximately 1.9 million Australians aged 14 years and over have used cannabis at least once during the past year; more than a quarter of a million smoke cannabis every day, according to data compiled by the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC). Keep in mind, too, that these figures were taken as part of the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey; plenty more users were either unaccounted for, or chose to lie about their drug usage, so the true figures are probably even higher. This reality can be viewed one of two ways, depending on your personal politics.

    Either: it’s great that so many Australians enjoy the occasional puff, as its illegality is an arbitrary hangover from conservative generations past, and its negative effects are significantly less serious than those incurred by alcohol abuse or tobacco addiction.

    Or: it’s outrageous that so many Australians smoke up, as cannabis is a devil weed whose availability should be pushed further underground lest its psychological and subversive effects further corrupt otherwise sensible citizens.

    Illicit drug use is not a topic that attracts moderate views. Weaned on the powerful moralising of media sensationalism, political cowardice, and harsh words from the police force, many Australians are raised to believe that drugs are bad; the province of losers and law-breakers.

    Progressive views are slowly prevailing across the Western world, though, as many realise that the Nixon-led ‘war on drugs’ – which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011 – did very little to break the cycle of power, violence and addiction that has forever plagued illicit drug culture. (For a succinct primer on the topic, my brother Stuart McMillen recently published a 40-page comic, ‘War On Drugs’, which outlines why drug prohibition hasn’t worked.)

    Immediately following the 2012 Presidential Election results in November, cannabis users worldwide rejoiced at the surprising news that two states in the war-on-drugs heartland, Colorado and Washington, had voted to legalise recreational use under state law. Colorado users will be able to grow up to six plants; in Washington, users will buy from state-licensed providers, and the sale of cannabis will be taxed and regulated, much the same as alcohol and tobacco already is. If you’re over 21, the drug will be legal to sell, smoke and carry – as long as you don’t drive while high.

    Australian pot smokers wondered whether they might see a similar decision – if not soon, then at least in their lifetimes. TheVine snooped around on your behalf, with a view to determine Australia’s current cannabis laws on a state-by-state basis and look to its future legal status.

    Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, points out that Australian states don’t have ballot initiatives like the one that led to the recent weed votes; in fact, most US states don’t. “Australia will not see ballot initiatives on taxing and regulating cannabis like Colorado and Washington states,” Wodak tells TheVine. “Our cannabis reforms started in the 1980s in South Australia. We have had two decades of creeping liberalisation of our cannabis laws at the state/territory level. I think this process will accelerate now, but that it will still take a couple of decades before Australia taxes and regulates cannabis in all states and territories.”

    Legal weed in Australia? “It’s now inevitable,” continues Wodak. “There are so many contradictions and issues undermining cannabis prohibition. Sooner or later, the bosses of one or the other major [political] parties will realise that it is in their interest to get there first. But all social policy reform is slow.”

    To illustrate, Wodak points out that 2012 is the 40th anniversary of South Australia becoming the first state to begin reducing the emphasis on the criminal law in relation to homosexuality. Jailing someone on the basis of the sexuality is a social policy that looks completely abhorrent and archaic nowadays. “I might be wrong,” he says, “but I think taxing and regulating cannabis will be slow to happen in Australia, and we will first go through many stages of watering down our criminal laws.”

    So what is the current state of Australia’s cannabis possession laws? The answers might surprise you. As The New York Times put it earlier in 2012: “The prevalence of marijuana use in Australia is widely accepted, if not openly condoned, and at least three states have moved to decriminalise the possession of small quantities for personal use.”

    For the full story, visit The Vine.

  • Why it took nearly three months to remove offensive graffiti from my street in New Farm, Brisbane, October 2012

    “FUCK NIGGERS,” read the graffiti in large, white, spraypainted letters.

    I know the graffiti well because we lived on the same street in New Farm, an inner-city suburb of Brisbane – population 12,500 – which, up until recently, I’d understood as one of the city’s most socially progressive neighbourhoods. Yet there they were, two words utterly incongruous with social progression painted onto the brickwork of the ‘Bowen Gardens’ apartment complex, 484 Bowen Terrace, right beside the eight mailboxes that its residents check daily.

    When I first saw the words on 2 August 2012, I stopped and pondered the paint. It was unsettling to see it displayed so prominently, on a highly-trafficked road that runs parallel to Brunswick Street, the suburb’s main thoroughfare. I was compelled enough to take a photo on my phone. This wasn’t right.

    As a fan and student of hip-hop, I’m familiar with – and fond of – both words being used in abundance. Expressed in these terms, though – one word followed by the other, in isolation – I encountered a feeling of deep discomfort. Of shame.

    After I took the photo, I walked home and told myself that someone else would deal with this problem. I thought about the broken windows theory, which posits that the best way to deal with vandalism and anti-social behaviour is to fix problems when they’re small, lest those small problems become large. Surely, the residents of Bowen Gardens would band together and paint over the graffiti, or at least cover it up. Surely they were embarrassed to see those words every day.

    It’s impossible to know whether the words were written with hate in mind, or whether the graffitist was being playful, or ironic. In the absence of context, the imagination of the passerby fills in the blanks. I chose not to see a playful joke. I saw no irony. I saw a statement which jarred with my reality of life in New Farm, Brisbane, circa 2012.

    The phrase “FUCK NIGGERS” doesn’t belong anywhere in my life, hip-hop appreciation aside. I don’t want to read those words as I walk down my street. From the moment I first saw the graffiti, I was disgusted. Yet the longer the graffiti lived on, the more it consumed my thoughts; the more it became a part of my life.

    Weeks passed. I walked by the words several times each week; to and from the local basketball court, to and from the supermarket. Each time my eyes passed across the text, I asked myself why nothing had been done.

    My thoughts turned to buying a can of spraypaint and modifying it myself; perhaps by replacing the second word with “BIGOTS”. I questioned what the ongoing display of these words said about New Farm, about the residents of Bowen Terrace.

    I questioned what the words said about me, for I was similarly to blame for this ongoing broadcast. I’d done as much as anyone else: namely, nothing. Since my inaction had formed a kind of tacit acceptance – I’d acknowledged to myself that the graffiti existed, yet I chose not to intervene – I wondered what the graffiti said about my own cowardice.

    I thought about the nature of offence, which cut to the heart of why the graffiti unsettled me so: in base terms, it offended me. I found the tag offensive because I read it as a targeted, malicious comment toward a group of humans. I did not sympathise with the sentiment of the comment – “FUCK NIGGERS” – and so I was offended. Again and again.

    One afternoon, it all became too much. While practicing basketball at the local court, after walking by the text for perhaps the thirtieth time, I drafted a letter in my head to the residents of Bowen Gardens. It read:

    “Greetings! I am a journalist who lives further up Bowen Terrace. I’m writing to enquire about the graffiti that’s been spraypainted onto the front of Bowen Gardens. You may have seen it. You might even have glanced at it today before opening your mailbox to find this note. I would like to ask you a few questions about this graffiti, at your earliest convenience. Please call, message or email me using the details below. ”

    I printed and signed eight copies of this note – seven for the residents, one for the body corporate – and pushed them through each letterbox at 3pm on Wednesday, 19 September.

    I didn’t expect a reply from any of the residents, as I had effectively drawn attention to their tacit acceptance of the statement. This would undoubtedly cause embarrassment to all who read the note, as it reminded the reader that other locals, too, had eyes and were unimpressed with the graffiti: its content, its permanence, their inaction.

    I did, however, expect that the words would be removed by the body corporate, or at least covered up, soon after I’d mailed those eight notes.

    I was wrong.

    ++

    On the morning of Wednesday, October 3, an acting detective sergeant with the Queensland Police Service (QPS) knocks on my front door. He’s here because I’d emailed a request to the executive director of QPS media and public affairs the previous morning, stating that I was writing about this particular piece of graffiti. In the email, I wondered if I could show it to a police officer and interview them before the Bowen Gardens brickwork.

    My request was passed through a few hands until it landed with the detective sergeant, who works with the Brisbane City Council’s cutely-acronymed Taskforce Against Graffiti. Over the phone that afternoon, he had asked me whether the graffiti was painted on public or private property. I told him that I wasn’t sure; the brickwork is part of a private dwelling, but it extends onto the footpath and is displayed prominently.

    The last question he asked me was, “Do you find it offensive?”
    “Yes,” I replied.

    While the detective sergeant and I walk down Bowen Terrace together – he isn’t authorised to give media interviews, so I won’t identify him – I think about how bizarre it is that this seemingly simple concern has now drawn the attention of a high-ranking police officer.

    This is a privilege afforded to me as a journalist, of course: any request from the news media is dealt with seriously, lest an error, inaction or omission land QPS in hot water. We arrive at the graffiti, which has now stood loud and proud before Bowen Gardens for over two months, broadcasting its residents’ apparent bigotry to all and sundry.

    If the detective sergeant is shocked by the words, he doesn’t show it. I tell him about the note I wrote to the seven residents and their body corporate two weeks ago, inviting their comment on the graffiti. I tell him that I haven’t heard back from anyone. He writes “FUCK NIGGERS” in his notebook, in quotation marks.

    “I don’t like it, either,” he says. He explains that the brickwork is indeed private property; the Brisbane City Council is responsible for the footpath, but not the brick structure itself. He tells me he’ll knock on some doors in an effort to contact the body corporate. The detective sergeant hands me his card, shakes my hand, and we part ways.

    All of a sudden, while walking back up the hill, I feel foolish. I had approached this as a concerned New Farm resident first, journalist second, yet by escalating this concern to the Queensland Police Service I’ve leapfrogged the ordinary council graffiti-removal process available to New Farm residents: namely, to fill out an online complaint form and wait for a response. Perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.

    The detective sergeant calls me soon after, saying that he’d spoken to a female resident of Bowen Gardens. She said that the residents had asked body corporate for some chemicals to remove the graffiti. Their attempts to do so had evidently failed. He tells me that he’ll put a removal request through to the council, and that it’ll be gone within 24 hours. We thank each other, and say our goodbyes once again. And that, it seemed, was the end of that.

    ++

    Not quite. Sadly, it took another fifteen days for the tag to be removed. I followed up with the detective sergeant via email on October 10, one week after we’d met and inspected the graffiti together. “From memory, you told me last Wednesday, 3 October, that the incident had been reported and that the graffiti would be removed within 24 hours,” I wrote. “Is this correct, or did I mishear? As of 12pm today, the graffiti is still there.”

    I got a reply on October 15, five days later. “I was informed that the Graffiti is usually removed within 24 hrs of reporting if the material is deemed to be offensive which of course it was!” he wrote. “I will take up with the Brisbane City Council and see where they are with this job that was logged that very day that I spoke to you!”

    I offered for the detective sergeant to put me directly in touch with the council graffiti removal team. He wrote back: “I will get a response Andrew and let you know as I was of the opinion that it should have been done!”

    Three days later, just after midday on Thursday, October 18, another email from the detective sergeant arrived. “Good afternoon Andrew, I have been informed that the Brisbane City Council removed that graffiti this morning and the wall is now clean. Thankyou for bringing it to the attention of Police and the Council.”

    I walked down the street to fact-check. He was right.

    I’m glad that the graffiti is gone, but my eyes will be drawn back to that spot on the brickwork as long as I live on Bowen Terrace. Every time I pass by Bowen Gardens, I’ll think about those two words and their 80-odd days of existence. I’ll wonder how long they would’ve stayed there if I hadn’t intervened. (Or if I hadn’t followed up with the detective after our meeting, even.)

    I’ll look at the bricks and I’ll wonder why I didn’t act earlier. I’ll wonder why no-one else made a complaint. And I’ll vow to never again let my inaction bleed into tacit acceptance of a malicious, hateful statement made public, writ large, in my own neighbourhood.

    Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist. 

  • ZDNet story: ‘The Digital Beat: policing social media’, July 2012

    A feature story for ZDNet; excerpt below. Click the image for the full story.

    The Digital Beat: policing social media

    Your business may not have to deal with issues of life and death in social media, but there are lessons for everyone in how Australia’s police forces interact with the public.

    If you were in Queensland during the floods of January 2011, Kym Charlton’s iPad may have saved your life.

    The device itself has since been superseded and effectively retired, yet its weathered, black leather case still features a hastily scrawled note, which, at the time, acted as both a mnemonic and a reality check. Two words in thick, white text: DON’T PANIC.

    As executive director of the Queensland Police Service’s (QPS) media and public affairs branch, Charlton [pictured above, centre; to her left, senior digital media officer James Kliemt] was bunkered down in the State Disaster Coordination Centre while then Premier Anna Bligh and her team of emergency-services specialists alternated between internal briefings and live-streamed press conferences.

    The matter at hand? How best to deal with an uncanny series of weather events that would ultimately leave 90 per cent of the state declared a disaster zone.

    iPad in hand, Charlton was responsible for posting live updates to the QPS social-media accounts — vital information which, for some Queenslanders, meant the difference between fight or flight; home ownership or homelessness; life or death.

    Having convinced the deputy commissioner to sign off on a six-month social-media trial in mid-2010, Charlton and her media team had grown the QPS Facebook page to a respectable following of 6500 by the end of the year. As rain saturated the state throughout December, QPS was in the ideal position to establish itself as the state’s singular, trustworthy news source in a time of need.

    “It was quite an organic thing for us,” Charlton said from her office in the QPS headquarters just outside of the Brisbane CBD. “We’d been using social media for six months, so we immediately moved to get the information out through those channels, because time was so critical.”

    Charlton is a calm and confident narrator, having had plenty of time to reflect on this topic both in private and public — including a presentation at the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism in Marrakech last year — yet it’s clear that the urgency and quality of the work that her team produced in January 2011 is never too far from her mind. The numerous framed awards hanging on her office walls make such matters difficult to forget, in any case.

    The QPS social-media presence meant that Charlton didn’t have to waste time with the clearance processes that ordinarily hamper police news dissemination. “Rather than me sitting in a disaster-management meeting, listening to the premier being briefed, taking notes, going out and giving it to someone to write a media release, then spending the rest of the day chasing around incredibly busy people to clear the information, I started to post status updates as I heard the premier being briefed,” she said. A self-imposed limit of 140 characters per update meant that the news could be bounced from Facebook to Twitter with ease, and without diluting the message.

    “We were able to pump out a whole lot of information that we knew wouldn’t make the mainstream media; they just wouldn’t have picked up that volume of information. It was quite low level, but it was really important if it was about your area,” she said.

    “For example, the day that the Lockyer Valley flooded was the same day that Brisbane and Ipswich realised there was going to be a major flood. All of a sudden, you had the entire population of both cities desperately trying to work out if their houses were going to flood. A lot of people weren’t here in 1974; also, there are way more houses [now] than there used to be. We saw a huge jump of people coming to the page to find that information.” On that particular day, 10 January, Charlton sent her first and last tweets at 4.45am and 11.45pm, respectively.

    The numbers surrounding 10 January are astonishing. The QPS Facebook page received 39 million individual story views — the equivalent of 450 page impressions per second — while being updated by staff every 10 minutes or so. (“That amount of traffic would have crashed both our public website and our operational website,” Charlton noted.) Their Facebook audience grew from 16,500 on 9 January to 165,000 within a fortnight; many of those joined the page during the 24-hour period following the Lockyer Valley torrent. Overnight, the QPS social-media accounts had become a lifejacket to which many Queenslanders clung.

    Though neither QPS staff nor their newfound legion of followers would have realised it at the time — it’s fair to say that there were far more pressing matters to consider, like whether their houses would go underwater — this confluence of events exemplified the great big promise of social networking that Zuckerberg et al proselytise: to connect humans with one another, and to share meaningful information immediately.

    Charlton’s decision to establish and nurture the QPS social-media presence the winter before that unforgettable summer was fortuitous. “We were in that wonderful position where we knew enough to be able to use it [during the floods],” she said. “It wasn’t a decision where anyone said, OK, we’re going to focus on social media’. We just started doing it because it worked.”

    For the full 3,700 word story, visit ZDNet. Above photo credit: Andrew McMillen.

  • Brisbane Times story: ‘Online scalpers bad medicine for music fans’, December 2010

    My first story for brisbanetimes.com.au. Excerpt below.

    Online scalpers bad medicine for music fans

    A ticket scalping website continues to operate in defiance of Queensland law, a week after 100 music fans were left stranded when their tickets to Bon Jovi’s Brisbane concert were cancelled.

    Suncorp Stadium staff cancelled all tickets purchased by TicketFinders.com.au to last week’s sold out Bon Jovi concert after being alerted by two customers claiming to be ripped off by the company.

    The Sydney-based website’s operators continued to list tickets for sale on the day of the concert, despite being notified by customers that their tickets had been cancelled.

    While the band’s fans are understood to be out of pocket for the tickets, both Queensland Police and the Office of Fair Trading say they remain powerless to investigate the company without official complaints.

    Meanwhile, TicketFinders.com.au continues to flout the law.

    Queesland legislation passed in 2001 as part of the Major Sports Facilities Act states that it’s unlawful to sell tickets for events held at eight Queensland venues – including Suncorp Stadium and the Brisbane Entertainment Centre – for above 10% of their face value.

    Last night, TicketFinders was listing ‘category A’ tickets to April’s Justin Bieber concert at Brisbane Entertainment Centre for $300, despite their $95 face value.

    Bad medicine

    Two disgruntled TicketFinders customers, Steve Taylor and Julia Foster, discovered the website in early July after Googling “Bon Jovi Brisbane tickets”.

    The Palm Beach couple said they ordered two $299 ‘diamond class’ tickets from the website, the day after tickets went on sale through the concert’s official ticketing partner, Ticketmaster.

    Initially wary, Mr Taylor said he rang and spoke with representatives from the website on several occasions before paying, “just to reassure ourselves that we weren’t throwing $600 away”.

    But when their tickets arrived four months later, their face valued was clearly labelled at $99 each, and the location of the seats was much further away than the ‘diamond class’ they’d requested.

    Mr Taylor said he called TicketFinders, assuming he’d been sent the wrong tickets.

    “They virtually laughed in my face and told me to get stuffed,” he said.

    Mr Taylor’s next step was to contact Suncorp Stadium and report the situation. The venue’s response was to ask for the tickets’ barcode, and soon after, all tickets purchased by that seller – around 100 in total – were cancelled.

    For the full story, visit brisbanetimes.com.au.

    This story came about after the couple quoted, Steve and Julia, commented on my last blog entry about ticket scalping, for my Junior ‘issues’ story in October. Thanks for your help, guys.

    Also of interest: this was also the first time I was told by an attempted interview source to “go fuck myself” and that, as a journalist, I’m “the lowest of the low”. Read the story, and see if you can work out who might have said that to me.

  • The Vine: Top Things of 2010 – TheVine Critics Poll, December 2010

    A list of my ten favourite music-related things of 2010, for The Vine.

    Andrew McMillen: The 7 Best Songs and 3 Best Gigs of 2010

    Songs:

    Big Boi – ‘Shutterbugg’ (feat. Cutty)
    Precis: Impossibly addictive; the single standout track from an album full of ‘em.

    From the album Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty, reviewed in July for The Vine: “Built around a compact backbeat and unique usage of the talkbox, Boi’s chorus hook in ‘Shutterbugg’ – “Now party people in the club, it’s time to cut a rug / And throw your deuce up in the sky just for the shutterbuggs” – is irresistible. It’s one of the best singles of the 2010, regardless of genre.” (Link)

    Crystal Castles – ‘Baptism’
    Precis: A gripping vision of an electronic apocalypse.

    From the album Crystal Castles II, reviewed in May for The Vine: “‘Baptism’ is the best thing they’ve ever written, surpassing Crystal Castles I standout ‘Air Wars’ by a considerable margin. On ‘Baptism’, they do everything right. Sheets of urgent synthesisers give way to a dainty, circular keyboard melody pasted over a pulsating beat, before Alice Glass’s pained vocals are met by the synthesised opening phrase cut into staccato triplets. ‘Baptism’ concocts an air of foreboding unlike anything they’ve summoned before.” (Link)

    Foals – ‘Spanish Sahara’
    Precis: Slow-burning pop songwriting perfection.

    From the album Total Life Forever, reviewed in May for The Vine: “‘Spanish Sahara’ sits in the album’s centre; in turn, it forms the beating heart of Foals’ revised artistic direction. In stark contrast to their previously-accessible singles, the epic song’s payoff occurs over halfway into its seven-minutes. Singer Yannis Philippakis urges listeners – and himself, perhaps – to “Forget the horror here / Leave it all down, here / It’s future rust, and then it’s future dust”, as the song slowly builds upon a sparse introduction to climax amid an ethereal lead guitar melody, thundering tom rolls and, ultimately, a somber, circular synth pattern. As an artistic statement, ‘Spanish Sahara’ is peerless among indie pop circa 2010. (Link)

    Surf City – ‘Icy Lakes’
    Precis: The definitive noise pop track of 2010.

    (Listen)

    From the album Kudos, reviewed in November for Mess+Noise: “It’s a saccharine rave so wide-eyed and beautiful that you wish it to never end. While the rhythm section stays pinned to a groove, the guitarists shear off great chunks of the surrounding landscape with abrasive, Jesus & Mary Chain-like chords. Needling lead phrases punctuate each section, while the singer says “When your icy lakes swallow me” in the chorus over and over (or so I imagine; it’s pretty hard to tell through all the reverb). The result is a song more deserving of that idiotically-overused descriptor “widescreen” than any song that came before it. The best part is that the band is acutely aware of the rare musical alchemy they’ve tapped into, and opt to extend the jam to nearly eight gorgeous minutes.” (Link)

    My Disco – ‘A Turreted Berg’
    Precis: Musically ominous; lyrically, even darker.

    (Listen on TheVine)

    From the album Little Joy, reviewed in November for Rolling Stone: “Album closer ‘A Turreted Berg’  – characterised by a subterranean bass hum, a simple backbeat and screaming guitar squalls – is the single best song they’ve released. ” (Link)

    Die! Die! Die! – ‘Frame’
    Precis: Frantic, emotive, timeless.

    From the album Form, reviewed in August for The Vine: “Closing track ‘Frame’ proves the singular highlight. It might be the most satisfying, most perfect song that Die! Die! Die! have ever released. Its sparse verses shiver in anticipation of the release offered by the towering chorus (“Give up the ghost, you can’t escape / We’re too close; I am here now”). ‘Frame’ is a masterpiece in three-point-five minutes.” (Link)

    Tokyo Police Club – ‘Bambi’
    Precis: Clipped electronica and sharp drums, intercut with a killer pop chorus.

    If you asked me to pick a song released in 2010 that best evokes ‘joy’, this would be my first choice. It remains as exciting in December as when I first heard it in August. You should play it five times in a row, at least.

    Gigs:

    Metallica – Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Saturday 16 October (review)

    “For the first hour, it’s exciting enough just to be in the same room as Metallica. Metal bands don’t come bigger than these four men, and since it’s been six years between visits, there’s electricity in the air. From the moment the lights dim and their introduction music – ‘The Ecstasy Of Gold’, the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – plays, we’re transported. We forget we’re in a big, shitty shed 20 clicks from the city centre. This show is about spectacle, and nothing’s done by half. It’s something special to witness a band who still sound fresh in a stadium despite having been in the game for nearly 30 years, and having punched in this weight division for more than half of that. This is their norm. By their standards, playing to 13,000-odd fans probably qualifies as an intimate show.

    As they rip through the climactic vocal section of ‘One’ with blistering intensity (“Landmine! Has taken my sight! Taken my speech! Taken my hearing!”), I realise what a rare talent they have, to make some these tired-ass songs sound fresh. And then they follow up ‘One’ with ‘Master Of Puppets’, one of the greatest metal songs ever. There’s no-one not grinning, headbanging or fist-pumping. For some artists, reminiscence is a dirty word. Not so for Metallica, who dip deep into their back catalogue tonight, all the way back to their 1983 debut Kill ‘Em All. The house lights are requested for their finale, ‘Seek & Destroy’, during which dozens of Metallica-branded beach balls are dropped from the ceiling and punted around by both band and fans, and by this point, I can’t stop grinning. I’m not alone.”

    Massive Attack
    – Brisbane Riverstage, Tuesday 23 March (review)

    “They wield a back catalogue that makes lesser artists tremble, and they’re not afraid to use it. British trip-hop production duo Massive Attack close out their first Australian tour since 2003 with a commanding performance at the Brisbane Riverstage that delivers on all fronts: sonically, visually, and emotionally. Speaking to The Vine (link) on the eve of their Perth show nearly two weeks ago, Grant Marshall – a.k.a. Daddy G, who forms half of the core duo alongside Robert del Naja (3D) – spoke of how he’s learned that “you’ve got to give people something that’s quite memorable”. Check that box. Take a song like ‘Teardrop’. It’s that rare kind of musical composition whose impact is felt across generations, gender and race. Tonight, it’s performed by longtime Massive Attack collaborator Martina Topley-Bird, whose talented, vocal loop-heavy support slot proved a fascinating precursor to the main act. Their most distinguished tune has been reworked into an arrangement comprising little more than a backbeat and her beautiful voice that sings of love, loss and hope. It’s a touching moment for the thousands stood in silence, and as the song climaxes, I decide that it reaches a summit of human expression through music that few others can lay claim to.”

    Faith No More
    – Soundwave Festival @ RNA Showgrounds Brisbane, Saturday 20 February (review)

    “Immaculately dressed in pale suits, Faith No More immediately establish rapport with the tens of thousands who crowd the main showground bowl to witness the reunited headliners after their 12 year absence. Opening with a full-band lounge version of ‘Reunited’ by vocal duo Peaches & Herb, it’s made immediately clear that their ‘Second Coming’ tour is no half-baked cash-grab; instead, the band are serious about doing justice to what was left behind in 1998. Serious, that is, while maintaining the playful, casual air for which they became known. (During set closer ‘Just A Man’, Mike Patton hijacks a video camera and – mid-song, without dropping a note – forces the operator to film his cock, which briefly appears on the giant screens that flank the main stages – video of the incident.) Any doubts about their reformation were squashed the moment the suits walked onstage.”

    To see the rest of the critics’ choices, visit The Vine.

    Elsewhere: my 10 favourite Australian albums and five favourite Australian songs of 2010, for Mess+Noise.