Get out of Telstra before the mobile guilties suck you in

Now that Telstra shares are comfortably settled above the $5 mark, you may be wondering whether this would be a good time to sell or whether you should be happy with the generous dividend. Here is something that may help you make up your mind: if you sell, you won't be among those having to pay compensation in the future for something you didn't even know you were guilty of.

I refer of course to the alleged health dangers of mobile phones. There are dozens of internet sites warning us about the long-term effects of using these gadgets: people get permanent ringing in their heads, their ears fall off, they get swooped by homing pigeons, they talk aloud in crowded places.

And if you want to find out what happens in such cases, take a look at what the legal profession calls precedent. Let me explain.

As teenagers and young adults, millions of people smoked. They weren't forced to smoke, although some progressive schools provided special smoking rooms. Sure, there was tempting advertising that suggested smoking would make them look like a manly cowboy glinting into the sunset or that it would help them feel at home - any'ow - among the tuxedo classes who pay huge amounts of money to listen to depressing Tchaikovsky concertos. If someone smoked, it was their free choice; to prevent them from doing so would have been an infringement of their civil liberty.

Now what happens? These same smokers are taking the tobacco companies to court and getting compensation for doing what they (the smokers) chose to do in the first place in order to look cool.

And it doesn't stop there. In this paper last week there was an account of a case taken by a former soldier against the Australian army because they allegedly (!) encouraged smoking. The case was lost, though only after appeal.


There is surely a warning in all this litigation. Twenty years from now, the thousands of lawyers turned out every year by our universities will be happily and lucratively suing the pants off companies like Telstra and Optus for what will by then have a trendy medical name with a catchy acronym: something like EMAPS (Electromagnetic Aural Pollution Syndrome - it is essential that the word syndrome be used.)

As with the cigarette situation, some soppy judge will order the payment of huge sums to people suffering as a result of mobile phone use. And who will pay the bills? Holders of shares in mobile phone companies, of course. And remember they weren't forced to buy those shares. There was only the occasional befuddled voice of dissent from dimwits like me who advised them to sell while the going was not too bad.

As if the health dangers of telephones were not bad enough, did you know you can now buy telephones with a built-in lie detector? Apparently, when a person lies, there is a barely detectable quiver in their voice. You can sometimes hear it in the media when a particularly outrageous untruth is being peddled: a radio jock assuring us he is not biased, a politician swearing he has full confidence in his leader, a farm chief saying it has always been the policy of his organisation to curtail the use of agro-chemicals. Most people can pick up the telltale quiver which indicates that these people are lying.

But what about the teenager who rings home to say he is spending the night at the home of a trusted family friend? Teenagers are such practised liars that only the finest of electronic detectors can pick up the telltale quiver that indicates a lie. But with the latest phone attachment, parents can now worry about which den of iniquity their offspring will be spending the night at and in whose malign company. Of course, the civil liberties crowd will squeal about this electronic invasion of children's rights, but they already whinge about so much that no one takes any notice of them anyway.

The result of all this? Teenagers will stop using the telephone - and only those who have teenagers will realise what that would do to the telecommunications industry.

Or consider the thousands of business deals done every day over the phone. Since many of these are based on some form of deception by one or both sides, people just won't do business over the phone because the lie detector would pick up their chicanery. It may well get to the stage where people won't use the telephone for business unless they have a lawyer present - if there are any left over from suing Telstra.

Anyway, that's what I think.

Frank O'Shea is a Melbourne writer.