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Adrian and e-commerce: understand the technology, then develop the policies

I wrote this article for Lawyer’s Weekly magazine some years ago. It’s presented here for its historical interest, in particular how prescient are interview subject Adrian McCullagh’s predictions regarding the future of e-commerce viewed in the cool light of hindsight.

As national director of e-commerce for Gadens Lawyers, Adrian McCullagh has played a prominent role in developing Australia’s e-commerce legislation. He was a member of the Federal Attorney General’s Electronic Commerce Group which reported on the proposed e-commerce framework for the Australian business sector, was also involved in the National Public Key Infrastructure Working Group and currently serves on the Standards Australia Technical Committee IT 12/4/1, which develops national technical standards for e-commerce practice and implementation. In short, if it’s to do with law and e-commerce, McCullagh’s your man.

Adrian’s work embraces not only implementation of effective e-commerce strategies for national and international business but also advising industry groups and business sectors on e-commerce and related IT issues. Laywers Weekly caught up with him at the Gadens Brisbane offices for an insight into how a former computer science student became an e-commerce law specialist and the importance of online business in today’s rapidly evolving e-marketplace.

From programmer to lawyer

It is perhaps not surprising that Adrian initially chose computers as a career focus, given that his family had a strong IT background; his uncle introduced one of the very first mainframe computers into Australia, for the Commonwealth Government treasury back in the late 1950s.

“My uncle worked for ICT – later to become ICL – out of England. Once, when I was still growing up, I was tossing up what I should do for a living and my uncle said, ‘You’ve got to get into computers’! Adrian explains. “This was back in 1972 or 73. So I did a computer science degree at the then Queensland Institute of Technology and did my project on artificial intelligence – I wrote a backgammon game where you played backgammon with a computer.

“It was pretty rudimentary, a fairly naïve approach – it was a ‘probabilistic’ approach, not the ‘decision-tree’ approach that is being used now. I then worked for the Queensland University as a systems programmer at the medical school and I was also a medical statistician at one time, working in medical epidemiology. The Medical School was negotiating a contract for a new system and I was assisting. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the attorneys we were using. I actually lost a bit of confidence in them because they were asking the most rudimentary questions about the technology and I realised I knew more about it than they did. So this led me to thinking that maybe there would be an opening in the world for an IT lawyer, which back in 1981 was a fairly unusual proposition.”

Adrian quit his job and went back to QUT, supporting himself by part-time lecturing and tutoring in computer science while studying full-time law. He remembers the time fondly: “It was quite an interesting concept, because I would be in the situation of administering an exam as a lecturer and then I would have to rush off and sit for one as a student!”

Four years later, armed with an honours degree in law, Adrian commenced his articles at what is now Corrs Chambers Westgarths. After a few years he moved to a small law firm and later became a partner, “but that didn’t quite work out so eight years ago I came to Gadens.”

At Gadens he started as a senior associate. “Four years ago, long before e-commerce really took off, I commenced the very first PhD in e-commerce issues in law in Australia and one of the first in the world.” The emphasis of the work deals with the incorporation of trust strategies in digital signature regimes for e-commerce.

“What this translates to in simpler terms,” he explains, “is that my research is looking at what we mean by trust. It may be only a five-letter word but it’s actually a very complex concept, in that it involves legal, sociological and technological issues.

“What do we mean by trust from these perspectives – especially considering that certain cultures are more trusting than others? Where does the law fit to support the e-commerce framework, which itself is going to build upon social trust and technological trust?”

In his research, Adrian has looked at the European directive on digital signatures, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysian digital-signature law, the UK Electronic Communications Act and the various electronic/digital signature Acts in North America, trying to work out what is meant by trust in this complex legal context.

“There is a myriad of approaches to dealing with digital/e-signatures, and these are really going to underpin the entire methodology of doing business in the future,” he explains. “Have the legislators understood the nature of trust, and if so, how have they incorporated those trust strategies into the legislation? That’s the basis of my thesis.”

Understanding the technological limitations

Adrian’s IT background formed the impetus for his appointment as national director of e-commerce for Gadens, which he describes as “a natural progression, really. I had the background and the honours law degree, and because I was doing the PhD I had done all this research and writing on the subject anyway, so when Gadens were looking around for someone to fill the position, they said ‘you’re it!’” Another important position Adrian holds is his role as the sole lawyer on the Standards Australia Technical Committee IT 12/4/1. “The committee is developing technical standards for public key infrastructure,” he explains. “Basically we’re concerned about the infrastructure upon which digital signatures are going to be very much dependent. What the standards deal with are what types of algorithms will be acceptable, what types of certificates will be required, the registration procedures and certification that authorities need to comply with. Really it’s setting the technological framework for public key infrastructure so we can implement digital-signature mechanisms. I’ve been involved in that for three years.”

Returning to the subject of his PhD, Adrian emphasises that the marriage between technology and law is an effort on his part to show where the two disciplines intersect and are interdependent.

“What I’m really trying to show is that in order to understand where the law fits into e-commerce, you need to understand the limitations of the technology. Then you can develop appropriate policies to support where it doesn’t cover these or at least take a procedural approach so you can be aware of the limitations; this should be the role of government, in that one of government’s regulatory analysis roles is to support commerce and society in understanding what the procedures are, what the limitations, are conducting risk analyses and so on.”

Double difficulty for government regulation

Adrian emphasises that conducting this research has led to a continual development in his approach to the issues.

“When I started the PhD it was more of an information gathering exercise, but I think now as I’ve developed greater skills through doing the research it’s become more trying to determine, through talking to the techno people, exactly where the technological and legal limitations are. We need to determine where the law should step in and conversely where it should step out.”

He points out that in this regard, self-regulatory mechanisms are very important – and sees a two-fold difficulty for the government.

“The first difficulty is that governments by their sheer nature are not in a position to react quickly. This is because governments do not alone make laws – parliament makes laws. And in parliament you of necessity have a government and an opposition and before you can pass laws you need to conduct a lot of debate. And some laws become very contentious – for example, those concerning content regulation of the internet. This has taken a lot of to-ing and fro-ing regarding what the final shape of the law is going to be. In this regard the workings of the Internet Industry Association of Australia and its executive director Peter Coroneos have been absolutely tremendous in being able to move the agenda along a very rational approach.”

Adrian says one of the new regulatory approaches starting to be adopted by government is the establishment of commissions of authority such as the ACCC, ASIC and APRA. This approach is not unique to Australia but is being used in many jurisdictions so as to keep pace with the ever-changing nature of society and commerce.

“A commission of authority will regulate and propagate rules associated with that particular industry or issue and, unlike government, these groups can react very quickly. That’s firstly because they’re less bogged down in bureaucracy (although some would disagree!) and secondly because, usually when they go into research or investigation of a particular area they can hire experts in that fields so as to get a better understanding of the emerging industry or approach.

“Therefore they can be not necessarily proactive but at least less reactive, because they can react quickly. A clear example is the role of ASIC (Australian Securities and Investments Commission). They dealt with the continued use of putting prospectuses on the internet by releasing policy statements on the subject. Now, there were no specific laws regarding this, and if parliament had had to deal with it there would have been a great time lag, but ASIC by its nature as commission of authority was able to introduce policy statement 107 and other mechanisms to regulate the publishing of prospectuses in a far quicker time frame.”

And the second difficulty with governments? Adrian explains: “Most do not have close associations with other governments across the world because of their limited time frame – they get voted in, get voted out, and can’t really build up relationships because that takes time. The commissions on the other hand, once established, are much more permanent and can therefore build long-term relationships with other authorities in other jurisdictions.

“The whole framework of dealing with e-commerce is such that down the line I would not be surprised either if one of the regulatory authorities is given the role of regulating e-commerce or it becomes such a pervasive form of doing business that the government actually sets up an e-commerce commission.”

Importance of government lobbying

“The difficulty of e-commerce is that it actually transgresses multiple regulatory authorities,” Adrian adds. “If you are dealing with electronic cash or payments systems, for example, you fall within the regulatory ambit of the Reserve Bank because they have control of the Payment Systems Regulations Act. If you’re dealing with prudential aspects, life insurance, etc you fall within APRA’s ambit. If you’re dealing with consumer issues you fall within the ACCC. How you balance whether one authority should have full control over it or not is something which really the government has yet to address. You might get certain situations arising whereby an event covers both organisations, in which case you would have two regulatory authorities investigating the same event which would obviously be a waste of resources. So you have to find the balance.”

Adrian points out that in this regard the role of the IIA and similar organisations is very important. As he explains, “Since around the early 1990s, political parties in this country have not developed their policies internally – unfortunately in Australia I don’t know of any departments of government at universities that have investigated this trend or done any in-depth research in this area. But in the US, university research has been done and it’s been noted that up till the mid 1970s, political parties used to develop their own policies internally. From the 1970s on there was the rise of lobby groups and they would develop particular agendas, present them to governments and try to persuade them to say ‘this is the way we think it should roll out’. Then the political parties would do their own private polling to identify whether the political environment was for or against this particular issue. This is now occurring in Australia. The role of the IIA and other organisations is very influential in providing guidance for government to say this is the way it should go. Some of the larger banking and mining organisations have been using this mechanism as a form of lobbying advancement for some time.”

Influence of the internet

Like many in the legal profession, Adrian’s way of conducting business has been dramatically influenced by the rise of the internet. In fact, in his position as an e-commerce lawyer, the medium determines the whole nature of his work. As he puts it: “If I was, say, a construction lawyer, I would mainly be concerned with the issues here in Queensland from the point of view of how they affect my clients and my business. But being an e-commerce attorney I have to be aware of what’s occurring in Europe, Southeast Asia and the US – a clear example of this is that I actually start work at 5.30 every morning because I liaise with lawyers in New York, LA, Chicago, London, Brussels and Southeast Asia. In order to make sure we can make the same timeframes, you need to be flexible in this regard. You need to be aware of what’s occurring throughout the world.”

“Recently a French court has said to a very large portal that they are breaching French law because they are promoting the sale of Nazi paraphernalia. This raises all kinds of cross-jurisdictional issues. Where is it going to end? It raises the issue of what impact the laws have on my clients who are promoting goods from Australia. Are they in actual fact offending any other jurisdictions’ laws, and how do we structure their websites to minimise liability? You need to now cast your net far wider. I in fact need to know, at least in part, French law.

“In the final analysis, the internet is forcing us not necessarily to get law degrees for other jurisdictions but at least to be aware of the issues associated with those jurisdictions. It creates a greater burden upon lawyers.”

The e-business future

Perhaps the web-like cross-jurisdictional paths of the e-business world could be eliminated by worldwide unity, like the one-world-governments favoured in utopian novels. Adrian shrugs this off as unlikely, but comments, “Well, then again, who would have thought that the European Commission would become the European Community would become the European Parliament, and who could have foreseen the creation of the single currency Euro?

“What I do think is that the US dollar will survive, the Euro will survive and there may be one or two others.

“Depending on how influential China becomes in Southeast Asia, the Chinese currency will be the third, and I also think there will be a universal currency which will be some sort of e-payment mechanism. In choosing the Chinese currency I am not necessarily discounting either the Indian rupee or the Russian ruble, but their economies I think are not strong enough to withstand the power of those other three currencies. So I don’t think the Aussie dollar will survive … I think we will actually become a US dollar country … so there will be a great currency change.

“As for laws, I think you will find that there will be a greater emphasis (and we’re seeing this now) on the UN to produce more uniform laws such that countries can pick them up more easily and so that there is a uniform approach across many jurisdictions. That is certainly the position with laws on e-commerce, the UNCITRAL (UN-based) position on e-commerce. The UN involvement in international trade laws will increase and its role will be to make sure there’s uniformity.”

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Offshore market opportunities beckon for wastewater treatment

This article originally appeared in Process magazine which I edited for Reed Business Information

Aquatec-Maxcon is a successful Australian water treatment technology and equipment manufacturer which has grown form modest beginnings in a 90sqm terrace house in Sydney’s St Leonards. It is now a large operation with offices in North Ryde, NSW, a four hectare fabricating plant in Ipswich, Queensland, and an estimated 50 per cent of the Australian municipal wastewater treatment market.

Now supplying internationally through its 80 per cent share of Aquatec-Maxcon Indonesia, the company anticipates more than 30 per cent of its income will be coming from offshore markets within the next five years.

While Aquatec-Maxcon’s managing director and founder Tom Lawson is happy to provide an insight into the company’s success and its philosophy, he is also concerned about the future for water treatment manufacturers in Australia, particularly with regard to current State Government purchasing policies and the consequent inroads recently made by foreign owned companies into the Australian market.

“Our company has grown in two areas – the Sydney office started in 1981 as Aquatec Engineering and in 1985 I sold half of it to Maxwell Contracting, which was a Queensland-based company who had already been in the water/wastewater industry for more than 10 years.

“The marriage has been very fruitful as the skills of the two companies were highly complementary. Aquatec had specialised more in process engineering – we were small but focused – whereas Maxcon was more of a steelwork fabricator with designs for physical separation upstream and downstream of biological treatment processes. It was  reasonably substantial but had never done a lot of marketing, nor had much exposure to overseas technology.”

One of Aquatec’s big specialties had been aeration equipment for biological treatment of wastewater and this, explains Lawson, is still a mainstay of its business:

“The bottom line is to design aeration systems at lowest possible cost – not just the capital costs of putting them in, but also lifetime costs – more effective systems which deliver the same amount of oxygen but less electric power.

“I’m a frequent traveller so I know what technology’s coming out of Europe and that’s helped our ability to keep up with the latest systems. For example in 1986 we got the exclusive agency to market compressors and blowers manufactured by HV-Turbo A/S. They’re a Danish company and their advanced technology now delivers the highest efficiency available.”

Lawson says a number of very large aeration jobs came up once Maxcon was behind the company. It subsequently won small business awards, turnover increased and there has been an upward progression since. In 1992 the second half of Aquatec was sold to Maxcon. The new structure was headed by Aquatec Environmental Ltd, a holding company which owns 100 per cent of Aquatec Maxcon and 100 per cent of Maxcon Industries.

Five years after Lawson founded Aquatec, the company had moved from St Leonards to North Sydney where it started out with 140 square metres and expanded to 2000. In 1991 it moved again, this time to Roseville with 275sqm of office and another 275swm of warehouse, where it stayed for three and a half years. The present site in North Ryde has 700sqm of office and 700sqm of warehouse.

Lawson explains how the company’s Queensland fabrication plant is involved in product supply: “The realities of transport of big steel structures means Maxcon Industries in Queensland makes the gear if the job is local, while if it’s in Tasmania for example we get a local company to do the fabrication.”

There are more than 100 shareholders in Aquatec Environmental and the company is wholly Australian owned. Approximately 70 per cent is owned through an unlisted public company and 10 per cent through staff – “We encourage the staff ownership to the degree we can,” Lawson says.

For the last few years the group has turned over around $20m, around $9m of which has been generated from the Sydney office. The remainder is from Ipswich and is split approximately $6m from wastewater, $2m from potable water and the balance from steelwork fabrication, for example for power station development in Queensland.

“Because we have to tender for nearly everything our turnover often varies,” Lawson explains. “This year it’s been extremely successful. We expect more than $30m from group turnover and $15-16m of this from the Sydney office.”

Aquatec-Maxcon’s philosophy is to build up assets in Australia and as part of that policy both the Ipswich facilities and its Sydney office premises are wholly owned.

“We’ve attained a permanency here,” Lawson says, “and it’s big enough for our envisaged future expansion. The building cost around one and a half million to buy and Ipswich was four and a half. So now we have substantial Australian fixed assets. This helps to show clients we’re serious and here to stay and we’re substantial.”

Technological independence

The company is also spending on R&D in an effort to become less dependent on overseas technology.

“While to an extent we’re still dependent, we try to do as much over here as we can,” Lawson says. “For example while we’re still importing diffusers from Europe we already do part manufacture here. We also have the exclusive agency for HV-Turbo blowers which are from the biggest European supplier of this high rotational speed equipment. It makes little sense to attempt to build this high technology precision equipment in a market of Australia’s size.”

Lawson says the market for wastewater treatment is a strong one: “In any city you have industries producing wastewater and the authorities in charge of sewerage systems often insist on pre-treatment – certainly in Brisbane where we worked for Fosters’ Brewing about 18 months ago, building a $3m wastewater plant in Yattala. We’ve done the same thing for Cadbury’s in Tasmania and Mars in Ballarat. If you’re dealing with higher strength industrial wastewater it’s very difficult to get enough oxygen in so then you switch to anaerobic treatment which is really quite tricky technology because every wastewater is different … some are more responsive to biological treatment than others.”

In line with this Aquatec-Maxcon has recently acquired a US aerobic system called Air-O-2, though, Lawson says, “We would like to be as Australian as we can, doing R&D to maximise Australian content and to be less dependent on overseas technology, but without being stupid about it. We’re keeping our eyes on overseas and when we see something we can’t realistically do here then we use it.”

Market size and potential

“The wastewater industry is not necessarily as much a high growth market as some think it is,” Lawson stresses. “Australia is 18 1/2m people and the reality is that controlling pollution has been recognised as a priority over the last 20 years so billions have been spent on it already.

“Having said that, there is still money being spent on the highest standards of pollution removal. Also in wastewater and not being taken out is nitrogen and phosphorous and the Environmental Protection Authority, particularly in Queensland is making moves to remove these.

“Another area which has a lot of potential is upgrading of plants built more than 15 years ago. This could be a more than $50m pa market in terms of equipment.”

Another market the company has moved into is Indonesia, which despite its higher population is far behind us in pollution control, according to Lawson. “They haven’t yet got to the point of stopping pollution before it happens.

“At the moment they’ve only got 10% of what they need there in wastewater so over the next 10 years it’s a huge market that the Japanese and the Europeans are all beating a path to, and our choice is whether to carry on operating in our backyard or join the push.”

The Rules are There for a Reason

Something that bugs me: the way technology has turned everyone into self-styled experts, even those with no qualifications, no training, no skills and no aptitude for the very things they profess to be expert at.

Just one example: here’s a book review I just stumbled across on a blog, written by someone who professes to be an avid reader. The book under review is a favourite of mine. It doesn’t matter who wrote it or what’s it called, what matters is the quality of the review, an excerpt of which follows:

“all in all it was a decent story. i would suggest it to others and found that it was very enjoyable. The problem was the delay I experienced putting myself in the storyline. The clumsy (yet precise) speech and the conversations the characters had were the problem. The characters are all witty and seem to share constant inside jokes, without the courtesy of letting the reader in.”

As is (I hope) obvious, this person has no business writing book reviews, but here’s his blog up on the web, alongside god knows how many thousands of others, a morass of ill-conceived, incomprehensibly expressed, uninformed opinion in the name of free speech and the offensive, illogical, but somehow currently widespread idea that because everyone is entitled to hold an opinion, it follows that everyone’s opinions are of equal worth.

Back when I was a cadet journalist in the 1980s, desktop publishing had yet to take off. There were only two computers in the office, both brought in from home by the publisher. Our stories were typewritten, sent off to a typesetting service to arrive back on bromide sheets which were sprayed with adhesive, then cut up and stuck down on backing boards with headlines assembled independently and margin borders stuck down on transparent tape. It was a laborious process and one which required great attention to detail and care.

Then along came “DTP” applications and within a few years anyone who bought (or more commonly pirated) one could layout, even publish their own work. No need to know any of the rules of good typography, compositing, or layout. No need to know an emdash from an endash, a sans serif from a serif typeface – hell, all of a sudden there were no more typefaces, just “fonts” (a misuse which has stuck seemingly forever, thanks to the ubiquitous Microsoft Word). There were no more emdashes because the word  processing software couldn’t guess when one was required in the type. For a while, until Microsoft Word evolved a bit, there were not even any more “smart” quote marks (that’s the curly type, as opposed to the straight up and down ones). Because, just like those “self-playing” piano keyboards that are claimed to make a musician out of anyone, DTP was supposed to give a monkey (or at least a monkey who could operate a computer keyboard) the skills of a layout artist and professional typographer.

Needless to say, it didn’t work, and despite the advances in sophistication of the apps which have followed in the past quarter century, it STILL doesn’t work.

Instead we have seen a hideous dumbing down and knowledge loss, culminating in today’s internet era populated by who-knows-how-many websites out there wherein every rule of good layout, good design, good typography ever evolved has been trashed as if they never existed.

The same now appears set to follow for all the rules of good writing, grammar, journalism … thanks to the decline of newspapers and the rise of the blogosphere.

The funny thing about all this is that people still seem to intuitively recognise and respond to those websites with good quality layouts, those blogs with good writing and correct grammar. Even though they can’t tell you WHY they’re better, they can still recognise that they ARE.

All of which proves the truth of what I was told back as a cadet: the rules are there for a REASON.

And good writing, good layout, good typography is something that can’t be done well by dummies, not even dummies equipped with the very latest apps.

ADDENDUM: I wrote this in Microsoft Word and when I cut and pasted it into its original home in Facebook Notes, all of a sudden I had words running into each other at odd intervals … Facebook had simply taken out the empty spaces between my words at random. Point proven.

Suspended Coffee scheme allows your cafe to make a difference

Suspended Coffee is a philanthropic concept that started in Naples, Italy (as “Espresso Sospeso”) and is now a worldwide initiative. Simply put, it gives cafes and takeaway business serving coffee the opportunity to help those in need by offering them coffee and/or other foods like soup and sandwiches, which are funded by existing customers.

Here’s how it works: your customer comes in to buy a coffee (or soup, or sandwich, etc) – but they pay for two. The second coffee is “suspended” – you take the money, but keep the coffee until someone who can’t afford to buy one comes in to ask for a “suspended coffee”, or hands over a voucher from a community help organisation like the Salvos or Vinnies.

Suspended Coffee is taking off in foodservice businesses across the country thanks to Maureen Watts, who runs her own not-for-profit organisation and has a background in sales and marketing. “I heard about the concept a few years ago, then it hit social media earlier this year and I thought, why can’t I make this happen in Australia? So I set up the website (suspendedcoffee.com.au) and Facebook page and emailed out to a heap of coffee shops. Within six minutes I had my first response from a café saying we love it, what do we do?

“It grew organically – the Facebook page got a lot of likes, we’re up to 2,700 now. It’s taking off all over the world but Australia is really embracing it in a big way.

“I’m actually keeping it very simple – I’m just acting as the information conduit for cafes and community organisations who want to get involved. Groups like Vinnies and the Salvos and Red Cross are participating and I’ve also had smaller community groups approach me, asking can I help them out. Because there are a lot of people out there and how can we judge who is and who isn’t in need? I know of one lady who’s a single mum with seven kids, she hasn’t been able to put coffee on the grocery list for the last month – now thanks to Suspended Coffee, she can go into a coffee shop for ten or 15 minutes, have a break and put her feet up. So it’s not just people who might be homeless who are in need. I try to say to people, it’s not about the coffee, it’s about responding to somebody who needs kindness.”

Maureen describes the response from foodservice businesses and the general public alike as fantastic – “it’s really demonstrated to me there are people willing to make a difference. Cafes from all over the country have contacted me, people are asking how they can make it happen in their area. I’m sending out written proposals so people have something tangible they can present to their local coffee shop.

“There’s a real interest in getting involved – and not just from the traditional bricks and mortar businesses, but also mobile coffee vans, even a coffee distributor who wants to support this in the shops they supply has contacted me.”

Much of Maureen’s energies are taken up with promotional support – “we’ve got A4 flyers explaining the concept, we’re running the Facebook page and the website, and I’m currently trying to get a sponsor for instore window stickers. I’m keeping everyone up to date with what’s happening and we’re also using the Facebook page to link back to the Facebook pages of the participating cafes, which helps promote their businesses as well. And we’re compiling a list of all the establishments who are taking part, sorted by area.”

Currently there are participating businesses everywhere throughout Australia except for the Northern Territory and Maureen is hoping to have an NT café onboard soon. For those interested in getting involved, she recommends first visiting suspendedcoffee.com.au.

“There’s a link on there to our Facebook page along with my contact details and a contact form. It’s a lot easier for people to contact me that way because then I have their email address and I can email them with all the information and keep them up to date. And of course I’m very happy to talk through the concept and answer any questions. The important point is it doesn’t cost anything to come on board and make a difference – in fact it’s very easy to do.”

Mr Moffat’s tenuous take on time travel

Despite having received high ratings and critical acclaim in the British media, this latest season of Doctor Who (the fifth since its 2005 revival) was a great disappointment to myself and many other fans who’ve been watching the program most of our lives.

The main problem: new head writer/executive producer Steven Moffat’s cavalier disregard for one of the program’s most important underpinnings – the “laws of time”.

There are two big potential problems when you’re writing about time travel. The first is the removal of jeopardy: a time-travelling protagonist can solve any problem by getting in his time machine, travelling into the past and changing it so the problem never arises. This has traditionally been addressed (as in HG Wells and others) by incapacitating either the time machine or the time traveller.

The second problem is the creation of paradoxes: every time the time traveller “crosses his own timestream”, ie travels into his personal past or future, he could conceivably meet himself. Do this enough times and there will be numerous different versions of himself all co-existing, able to advise and help each other. This in itself is paradoxical, but what’s even worse is that in time travel stories the protagonist sometimes escapes from an unescapable situation by having another version of himself travelling back in time from some future date to free him. But the future version of himself would never have been able to travel back in time to free him if he hadn’t been free in the first place. Hence the story’s internal consistency collapses in a heap, as does the suspension of disbelief.

Some daring science fiction writers have said “who cares about internal consistency” and proudly displayed their paradoxes for all to see. This may be OK for the pages of Astounding Stories but it’s not such a good idea for a regular weekly TV series like Doctor Who.

The creators of Doctor Who obviously understood the dangers of time travel and worked in a clever solution for the original series back in 1963: the Doctor had a time machine, but he couldn’t control it. Consequently he could never be sure of where it would take him, apart from the fact that it never took him where he had programmed it to. This meant the Doctor COULDN’T travel back in time to solve problems.

As the program progressed into the 1970s, the Doctor temporarily lost the use of his time machine. That didn’t stop the writers from using time travel stories in the program, and in 1972 the “Day of the Daleks” addressed time paradoxes with a silly story about terrorists travelling back from the future to assassinate a diplomat who they thought was responsible for creating the nightmare world in which they lived.

This story was notable for being the first Doctor Who to comment on the problems of time travelling. The Doctor’s companion quite correctly asked, if the terrorists fail to assassinate the diplomat on this attempt, what’s to stop them just time travelling back into the past and trying again and again until they get it right?

The Doctor said, “Ah, that’s the Blinovitch Limitation Effect,” but before he could explain further, the door opened and the terrorists burst in. So we never learned what the Blinovitch Limitation Effect actually was, but at least there was some explanation that ordinary humans couldn’t travel through time in the manner suggested – an effort to keep the storytelling internally consistent.

The next major step was the introduction of the Laws of Time upheld by the Doctor’s race the Time Lords. Again, we didn’t learn much about what they were, but at least there WERE Laws of Time which couldn’t be broken.

Again: it was all about the writers and producers trying to keep the stories consistent, have them make dramatic sense, and use time travel as a plot device to get the Doctor from point A to point B, without further intruding on the storytelling.

When the program was revived in 2005, the Time Lords were gone, leaving the Doctor as sole “guardian” of the Laws of Time. The storytelling made it very clear that this was a heavy burden: the Doctor could “see” which points in time had to remain fixed and which points were in flux. Again great importance was attached to the idea that certain things could not be altered by time travel: in particular, it was not possible for the Doctor to travel into the past to prevent the destruction of the Time Lords. This was a wise decision.

Now, with the current series just aired, the head writer and his team seemed to have scrapped all this groundwork. We have had an entire series showing the Doctor progressively becoming more and more cavalier about travelling backwards and forwards across his own personal timestream, regardless of all the storytelling problems it raises.

The culmination of this last series was a two episode story packed full of paradoxes and time travelling which saw characters freed from unescapable situations by future versions of characters who should not have been able to be there.

This was a huge mistake. The very structure of Doctor Who storytelling is threatened. Viewers will now surely ask, if the Doctor can do that in this story to escape, what’s to prevent him doing that in every story? And there goes jeopardy, and with it internal consistency.

The only thing the program can do now is the same thing it has done on a couple of past occasions when the production team made embarrassing blunders: simply ignore them.

As in season 25 when we suddenly learned the Doctor was apparently omnipotent and omniscient (another huge mistake in dramatic terms), or in the 1996 telemovie which told us he was half-human. The program has only survived in the wake of these undesirable revelations by pretending they never happened. Are we now going to have to pretend this with all of last season?