Archive for June, 2019

ACCC calls for regulation of user-generated restaurant reviews

Pinch of salt: Warren Turnbull, chef at Chur Burger in Surry Hills. Photo: Steven SiewertNow that anyone with an internet connection can share their opinions with a wide audience, user review websites such as TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon and Eatability are becoming the new word of mouth, and increasingly influential. But businesses are complaining about false, inaccurate and malicious reviews and say the system is open to abuse.

Some have struggled to remove negative comments from sacked staff, critiques posted by rivals, ”revenge reviews” written by troublesome customers and scathing reviews by hotel ”guests” who never stayed.

Concerned by the rise in paid-for and fake online reviews, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has released guidelines for businesses and review platforms and made monitoring the sector a priority.

ACCC deputy chair Michael Schaper said three-quarters of Australians used review platforms when deciding where to eat out or stay on holiday and inauthentic reviews misled consumers.

”It’s time for the industry to bring its behaviour into line with ACCC expectations,” he said. ”We would like platforms to review what’s being posted up there, as well as trying to disclose as much as possible to consumers … [about] sponsored and paid links.”

When the Accommodation Association of Australia surveyed its members in 2012 about TripAdvisor almost 400 businesses responded and 28 per cent said they had a review posted by someone who never stayed at the property. Fifty-six per cent said malicious or vexatious reviews had been posted on their listing; the same number had been threatened with a negative review.

”They’d almost extort things like upgrades or free rooms with the threat of creating a bad review,” association chief executive Richard Munro said.

Review platforms should vet reviews and restrict authorship to those who had transacted with a business, he said. ”We’d hope the companies would do that of their own accord and if [not] … we’d be pushing for legislation to make that happen. The weakness in the current system is that anyone can get on and say anything they want.”

Restaurant & Catering Australia chief executive John Hart said fake reviews were a huge problem for the association, estimating one in 10 reviews had ”some falsehood in it”.

”Generally they’re [written by] ex-staff or disgruntled neighbours or somebody that’s got an axe to grind about that venue. [They] can have a huge impact.”

Mr Hart said the ACCC guidelines did not go far enough and called for a code of conduct for review platforms.

In a statement, TripAdvisor said it fought fraud aggressively, with each review going through a sophisticated tracking system. Its 200 content specialists investigated every review noted for inspection by its system and acted on any reports received.

It does not verify reviews ”as we believe every experience counts, not just the one where you paid the bill. If we required people to submit a receipt, then a lot of people who have had a genuine customer experience wouldn’t have a voice and that goes against what we stand for.”

”People love to have a whinge or a rant,” said Warren Turnbull, the chef at Chur Burger in Surry Hills.

”If I did the most amazing dish in the world and sold it for two dollars, there would still be people complaining.”

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MH370 search: Malaysia Airlines staff detained by hundreds of angry relatives of passengers

The search for MH370

Malaysian Airlines says 10 of its staff were detained for almost 10 hours by more than 200 family members of passengers on board MH370.

They also say an airline security supervisor was attacked while on duty at Beijing’s Lido Hotel, where family members have been staying and receiving briefings on the plane’s disappearance.

Angry relatives of the passengers have for weeks accused Malaysia of a secretive and incompetent response to the disappearance of the Boeing 777 with 239 people on board during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8.

While the 10 staff members were being held in the hotel’s ballroom Chinese relatives held an overnight protest outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing.

In a statement released on Friday night the airline revealed the drama began during a scheduled briefing session at the hotel on Thursday afternoon.

The airline said the family members “expressed dissatisfaction in obtaining details of the missing aircraft”.

“The over 200 family members requested for the presence of a Malaysian official as only Malaysia Airlines staff were present at the briefing session,” the airline said.

“The 10 airline staff, then, were told to wait at the ballroom while a group of 60 family members left for the Malaysian embassy in an attempt to get a government official to attend the briefing,” it said.

“The group finally released staff at 1.44am Friday.”

The airline said in another incident security supervisor Kalaichelven Shunmugam was “attacked by a Chinese family member” while on duty at the hotel on 22 April.

“The airline staff (member) tried to stop an aggressive family member who demanded access to the secretariat, when the latter kicked the staff (member) in his left knee,” the airline said.

The supervisor suffered only slight injury.

The airline says it has filed a police report on the incident.

Before the statement was released, media reports said tension had boiled over at Thursday’s briefing at the hotel where Malaysia Airlines has been paying for the relatives’ accommodation.

“We want somebody from the embassy to come out and tell us why they didn’t come,” said relative Steven Wang.

He said about 100 people had waited outside the embassy overnight.

Police were guarding the embassy on Friday.

Dozens of relatives staged another noisy protest outside the embassy last month.

Malaysia has promised to release a preliminary report next week into the plane’s disappearance.

The government has copped a barrage of international criticism over its cautious approach not to release or confirm information obtained by an international investigation group unless it has first been verified and corroborated.

Police conducting a separate criminal investigation have released only scant information about their findings.

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Roger Bushell’s life story is a great escapism

THE GREAT ESCAPER: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ROGER BUSHELL By Simon Pearson. Hodder and Stoughton. $32.99.

Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, stories of key people and dramatic wartime events are still coming into sharp focus for the first time.

One of these people, about whom little was known until recently, was Roger Bushell, mastermind of what became known as ”The Great Escape” of British POWs from Stalag Luft III in 1943.

One of the prisoners involved in the planning of that breakout was Australian author Paul Brickhill, and he wrote a bestselling book called The Great Escape about Bushell and the whole enterprise.

Sadly many people today only know the story because Hollywood turned it into a silly American ”epic” with actor Steve McQueen making his bid for freedom on a motorcycle.

Many years ago I read Brickhill’s The Great Escape, together with his other bestsellers, Reach for the Sky and The Dambusters.

One day when I was visiting a convalescent hospital in Sydney I met Brickhill, who was a patient, and chatted with him about his books. He had no other visitors that morning and we had a long yarn. He showed me the proof copy of his latest book, The Deadline (1962), which had just arrived from Collins, the publishers.

He knew Roger Bushell in the POW camp and I wish I had asked him more about his memories of the Great Escape. Like Bushell, Brickhill had been a Spitfire pilot, shot down and taken prisoner in North Africa.

It was, in fact, only two years ago that Bushell’s family donated his personal papers and diaries and letters to the Imperial War Museum. Now at last it became possible to research the life of an almost-forgotten hero.

The author, Simon Pearson, is chief night editor of The Times and his journalistic skills help to make this a most readable book.

Bushell was born in 1910 into a wealthy British family in South Africa and was educated in England at Wellington College and Cambridge, where he studied law. He was passionate about athletics and skiing and fluent in French and German. This biography gives a glittering picture of his expansive London social round in the 1930s.

Gradually the shadows of Nazi expansion closed in and Bushell, who loved flying, joined the Auxiliary Royal Air Force. He was appointed to command 92 Squadron in October 1939 and made squadron leader soon after.

It was in May 1940 that the so-called phoney war came to an end and Bushell experienced his first (and last) combat. As he wrote to his parents from Germany, he was shot down near Boulogne on May 23 in a big battle with Messerschmitts. ”I got two of them first so I have done something to win the war,” he wrote.

Now Bushell and many others found themselves in captivity. His thoughts constantly turned to a young lady named Peggy Hamilton whom he planned to marry.

Allied to that was his other passion, which was to escape and get home. A fellow POW wrote: ”Roger was the organising genius of all our escaping exploits.”

His repeated escapes from various camps shows that ”genius” was not too strong a word. He was truly ”the great escaper”. There burned within him a deep hatred of the Nazis and a determination to regain his freedom, and to make life difficult for the Germans in the process.

Roger Bushell made three escapes but was recaptured each time. The first was in June 1941 and he was recaptured within a few metres of the Swiss border and freedom. The second was while a train carrying the prisoners stopped at Hanover during a transfer to another camp. Bushell and another POW were able to spend some time in ”safe houses” in occupied Prague. But in the manhunt following the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the Holocaust, in May 1942, they were rounded up by the Gestapo.

Finally came the so-called ”Great Escape”. Bushell planned three tunnels, known as Tom, Dick and Harry. These were to allow up to 200 men to get away and 600 men were involved in construction. The result was a tragic failure. Only 76 officers finally got clear of the camp, far fewer than Bushell had envisaged, but it was still the biggest British breakout of the war, and Bushell was the mastermind. Of the 76 who got away, 73 were recaptured.

The highest levels of the crumbling Nazi regime, under the orders of Hitler, decided that 50 of the escapees should be executed, including Bushell.

He was shot by the Gestapo. He is buried in the Poznan Old Garrison cemetery in Poland. After the war his murderers were executed as war criminals.

The life and death of Roger Bushell shows an unshakeable determination to challenge Nazi tyranny no matter the cost. His commanding officer said that Bushell was one of the greatest of his generation.

Robert Willson is a regular reviewer.

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Kim Philby’s tale of betrayal


Where is there room for a new book on the Cambridge spy for Moscow, Kim Philby, given the abundance of earnest, straight-up-and-down accounts of his perfidy, as well as the wonderfully engaging, inside-out perspective in Robert Littell’s novel, Young Philby?

The slightly unconvincing answer offered by Ben Macintyre, an English journalist, is that Harold Adrian Russell Philby might be better appreciated through his relations with one of the innumerable colleagues he betrayed, one Nicholas Elliott of MI6.

According to Macintyre, Elliott loved Philby, “with a powerful male adoration that was unrequited, unsexual and unstated”.

Despite that trio of un-s, the friendship was not intrinsically uninteresting. Macintyre may not be correct in arguing that “to many readers, Philby remains opaque, like the Cold War itself, often alluded to but little understood”, but he might just have a point in observing Philby “in a different way, through the prism of personal friendship”.

Macintyre proffers “two men bonded by class, club and education but divided by ideology … the most intimate of enemies”.

Both were brought up largely by nannies and concealed a certain shyness, but – thankfully – Macintyre’s delving into psycho-analysis is terminated at that point.

Elliott could have served as a role model for Woody Allen’s Zelig, as an offsider who stands off to the side, someone present at great events but not exercising decisive influence on them, a friend who stood up for Philby when he should have stood up to him.

Macintyre may lack the finesse and flair Littell displayed throughout his Philby book (many of us do not shine by comparison with Littell), but he is a quite talented writer nonetheless.

Macintyre is especially adept at sketching characters, setting a scene and telling stories, even tales of Philby already written down at least once too often.

He also has a remarkably keen eye for whimsically eccentric detail.

Elliott had a great uncle who bet that he could smoke his height in cheroots every day (and died trying). Elliott’s first domicile as a spy was a soundproof cell in Wormwood Scrubs prison. Philby’s father was married to a Baluchi slave girl given to him by an Arabian King. Here, a cook confects vodka in a bathtub, a secretary brushes her teeth with Turkish Cointreau (and finds that concoction refreshing), and a German spy at Cambridge is tagged in the most winning way.

“His name, unimprovably, was Engelbertus Fukken.”

Macintyre may falter when he tries to sum up Philby, other than by disquisitions on his charm. He notes that Philby “enjoyed deception”, after having suggested that, “in some ways, Philby’s story is that of a man in pursuit of ever more exclusive clubs”.

Familiar stories can be retold in quite clever, skewed, cock-eyed ways; Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia is a rich tribute to another famous Englishman who went astray. Macintyre’s Philby, though, is given little that is new to say or do, while Elliott seems too much like a cipher who devoted his life to ciphers.

Macintyre’s book contains an unexpected, welcome bonus. John le Carre has contributed an afterword, describing his own talks with Elliott.

Again, digressions in the form of anecdotes lift the narrative. As a spy himself, Graham Greene tried his hardest to use the code group for “eunuch”.

A London prostitute would not sleep with a particular asset from the Middle East because the designated place of assignation was close to the House of Commons, where her father served as an MP.

Both Macintyre and le Carre could be invited back on the strength of their stories alone.

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Mixing fact with fable in a tall tale

THE EMPRESS LOVERBy Linda Jaivin. HarperCollins. $29.99.

Somewhat put off by the flakiness of Linda Jaivin’s early novels, I wondered why such a brilliant China scholar would write them – unless she was broke. Then in 2009 she produced an accomplished, well-researched novel of Japan and China in the heyday of G.E. ”Chinese” Morrison, A Most Immoral Woman, without losing any of the fun.

Prodigiously hard-working, Jaivin has won praise for her fact-based books on China’s tumultuous recent past, and this year a Quarterly Essay, Found in Translation, consolidates her reputation. Now, for admirers hungry for another novel, she has served up a steaming feast, with some unexpected taste thrills.

In a hilarious episode Linnie, Jaivin’s persona, overhears a conversation between two Australian women in a sauna, in which every sentence ends with a rising interrogative. Such is its banality that Linnie, who has studied Chinese at ANU with Geremie Barme and Kevin Rudd in the 1970s, decides on the spot to leave Sydney and go back to Beijing. There, freezing in her rented hutong room, Linnie, needing an income but no slouch at procrastination, has 24 hours to subtitle an incomprehensible film and then an enticing rendezvous to keep.

So her story, complete with distractions, flashbacks and yearnings for Q, her faithless lover, takes place in a day and a night, in the manner of Proust and Joyce; and its recurring theme is memory. Much of human experience falls down a universal memory hole, and becomes ”dark matter”, she reflects, and all around us the ”sensual cacophony engulfs memories like quicksand”.

We are led to understand that the old manual typewriter print font used at the beginning of the book, and later, was the transcription done by Reinhard Hoeppli of a manuscript given to the Swiss doctor by his dear friend, Sir Edmund Backhouse, who wrote it on his deathbed in 1944.

How it reaches Linnie, and her connection with Backhouse, is revealed in striptease fashion as the story proceeds. But readers will remember Backhouse (also pronounced Bacchus) from the hatchet job done on him in 1976 by the historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper.

He was one of those minor English noblemen whose Greek, Latin, French and Italian were impeccable, but whose sexual predilections were so outrageous that his family were pleased when he fled his creditors and sailed to China, never to return.

No lover of Britain, Backhouse was on good terms with the likes of Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine, and Frederick Rolfe (the self-styled Baron Corvo, another bizarre figure of whom Australian author Robert Scoble wrote an account, Raven, last year).

Sir Edmund was soon at ease in Mandarin, as he was in the fleshpots of China and in the beds of numerous Chinese men. His China under the Empress Dowager appeared in 1911, but his memoirs, Decadence Mandchoue, were not published until a century later. Although G.E. Morrison thought him ”wonderfully clever but morally unsound”, Backhouse’s appreciation of Chinese culture evidently impressed Imperial courtiers.

One thing led to another and eventually to the Empress Cixi’s bed. Even curiouser, the 30-something Backhouse claimed he and the dowager, nearly 70, had a son, who was discreetly removed to England. All of which, and his connection to Chinese-looking Linnie – whose Australian foster parents told her she had an ancestor who was a prince – really is, as she says, stranger than fiction. You have to read it to choose to believe it.

”Great fun,” Linnie remarks of these carryings-on, ”but nothing to be taken too seriously.” The best fun is to be had not with Backhouse’s kiss-and-tell, but with Jaivin’s observations of Beijing throughout the book.

The heirs of Chinese culture are proud of their past, yet are destroying it: ”The old city [is] disappearing at the speed of memory.” Chinese of the 1980s generation recall the Tiananmen experience like a recurring nightmare, yet young Chinese know next to nothing of it, nor of the Cultural Revolution.

Jaivin has written repeatedly about Tiananmen, and here Linnie’s ex-lover Q is consumed by it. Yet knowing him only from her account he seems aloof and self-absorbed, and I find him less entrancing and his fate less devastating than she does.

More interesting is Q’s philosopher friend, the Sage, who runs a bar in an obscure corner of Beijing.

Linnie arrives there at midnight and he treats her hypothermia with mulled claret. Her hunt in the snow for the place, and her eventual encounter there, apparently with Dr Hoeppli himself (who must have been dead for decades), is the most atmospheric passage in a highly charged book.

It remains an enigma, and is the novel’s real climax, while the Tiananmen event which follows it is not.

Dr Alison Broinowski, a research associate at ANU, reviews and researches Asian Australian fiction.

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