The annual yearly round-up by the brilliant Charlie Brooker (plus Adam Curtis) on a period filled with ISIS, insane amounts of inane TV and a little optimism:
My weekly Guardian column:
Political success for society’s invisible souls is rare. So when US investor Westbrook Partners announced last week that it had withdrawn from evicting families at the New Era estate in East London, it was cause for celebration. Instead of building expensive properties, the company sold its development to Dolphin Square Charitable Foundation, an affordable housing organisation. People who faced skyrocketing rents now have security and hope before Christmas.
British writer and comedian Russell Brand was key to this victory. His support of the campaigners on the ground and on social media led The Independent to describe New Era as “Proof that [his] revolution may actually be working”.
After New Era, it’s harder than ever to mock him as “the voice of the discontented wealthy”, as the Observer’s Nick Cohen did in his review of Brand’s book, Revolution. On the contrary: protest organiser Lindsey Garrett said Brand’s involvement “gave us a bigger voice. And rather than taking over, he gave us a much bigger audience to speak to”.
Accusations of hypocrisy and shallowness are also getting harder to make. When it comes to inequality, housing, income – all the things the left is supposed to be interested in – Brand seems to understand that the personal really is the political. As he wrote on New Era:
“Drawn in initially by the importance and ubiquity of the cause, housing is the issue of our time, I was compelled to stay, as if held by the heart, by a deeper issue, both social and personal. By something I didn’t even know I was grieving; the loss of community, our connection to each other.”
More broadly, his thinking on issues like climate change – he says agreements like Kyoto are “not worth a wank in a windsock” – accords with the thesis of (among others) Canadian writer Naomi Klein, in her bestselling book This Changes Everything. Admittedly, Klein’s language is rather less fruity.
Now it seems to be Brand’s turn to do the mocking: of the insular world of star fucking that permeates our culture; of the ennui and flatness of modern life; and of the insularity of the media elite.
He is convincing a legion of followers that there’s more to life than, “do a gram, drop a pill, download an app, eat some crap, get a slap, mind the gap, do a line, Instagram, little grope in the cab”. He acknowledges his luck and wealth while constantly taking the piss out of himself. He likes having money but fears losing it.
Squarely in the 1%, even as he reminds us “the richest 1% of British people have as much as the poorest 55%”, Brand enrages his critics because his celebrity and wealth give him easy access to media and money.
Case in point: he is making a documentary about inequality that’s reportedly funded by some of the big bankers he’s going after. Does this neuter his anti-capitalist message? Surely it could instead be seen as a savvy way of culture jamming an establishment that thrives on extravagance.
The filmmaker Michael Moore, director of hugely popular documentaries challenging US hegemony and capitalism, was plagued by similar accusations of hypocrisy. One New York Times bestseller, Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man, is devoted to these kinds of attacks.
So what if people like Brand and Moore are sometimes pompous, or narcissistic, or populist, or inconsistent? Or if they don’t correspond with the cliche of the ascetic Marxist revolutionary? What matters is what these multi-millionaires do with their money.
Moore has produced any number of films that both entertain and challenge orthodox views of state violence, health care and capitalism itself. Earlier this year, he joked wryly that, “Entertainment is the big dirty word of documentary. ‘Oh no! I’ve entertained someone. I’ve cheapened my movie!’.”
Or as Brand puts it: “The revolution cannot be boring.”
A public feeling economic anxiety, at turns enraged and defeated, might agree. People flock to hear the stories Moore and Brand have to tell, no matter how much scorn is poured on them by critics.
“Aren’t we all, in one way or another, trying to find a solution to the problem of reality?” Brand writes in Revolution. What his solution looks like might depend on how you see him: media darling, irritant, inspiration, guru, reformed drug addict, former husband to singer Katy Perry, author, founder of daily news hackThe Trews, opponent of voting or man of the people. Take your pick.
Plenty have picked “hate object”, which, like the accusations of hypocrisy and selfishness, will be harder to justify after the New Era win. Surely it’s time to acknowledge that Brand – like Michael Moore – is actually a working class voice who belongs in the mix?
As he told Democracy Now, “If you sort of go, ‘Hey, I’m actually from a background where people are affected by stuff like this. This is what we think. Can we talk about this in a different way?’ people are so fiercely territorial and protective, it’s interesting”.
Brand isn’t the messiah (or just a naughty boy, for that matter) and his messagepisses off plenty of people. So does his method, sometimes. But his apology to an RBS worker whose lunch inadvertently became a casualty of a film shoot is heartfelt:
“Jo, get in touch, I owe you an apology and I’d like to take you for a hot paella to make up for the one that went cold … When I make a mistake I like to apolgise and put it right. Hopefully your bosses will do the same to the people of Britain.”
He’ll apologise for the small things; many of the established columnists who dump on Brand won’t apologise for getting it wrong on the big-picture issues, like the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, national security and the like.
On these stories, Brand speaks for the mainstream far more than many self-described national security experts. A 2013 Pew poll in the US found that a majority of citizens were more worried about civil liberties than terrorism. His recent comments on the Sydney siege nailed the way governments implement excessive state surveillance after a terror attack – increasingly a mainstream concern.
Nevertheless, anybody famous who proclaims themselves dissatisfied with society’s options is bound to be accused of wankery and ungratefulness by some. So be it. But Brand is a fascinating man, who dares to ask a huge audience to question the causes of housing shortages, corporate power and state terrorism. He is also ready to swing his star power behind the cause of a few dozen families facing eviction before Christmas. And he makes these issues relevant to millions.
My weekly Guardian column:
The details shocked. Shackled prisoners were treated like cattle, watched by their CIA interrogators. Testimony from one observer stated that men blindfolded and tied “were made to run down a steep hill, at the bottom of which were three throws of concertina barbed wire. The first row would hit them across the knees and they would plunge head first into the second and third rows of wire”.
This wasn’t CIA torture after the September 11 attacks, exposed in detail in a recent Senate report, but the Phoenix programme, instituted by the CIA and US, Australian and South Vietnamese militaries in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972 to “neutralise” the Vietcong. The result was more than 60,000 people tortured and killed. No senior politicians, generals or decision-makers were prosecuted for these crimes. A culture of immunity, despite occasional media and public outrage, thrived across the US.
Questioned before a US House operations subcommittee in the late 1960s to investigate widespread Phoenix-inspired torture, future CIA head William Colby used language that sounds familiar today. It’s just the official enemy that has changed. The “collateral damage” was justified, he said. Phoenix was “an essential part of the war effort … designed to protect the Vietnamese people from terrorism.”
In 2007, decades after its cessation, the CIA was still worried that the public felt Phoenix was an “unlawful and immoral assassination programme targeting civilians.” Instead, they claimed, it was “pacification and rural security programmes”.
Compare this to today’s CIA head, John Brennan, who defends his agency’s behaviour in the “war on terror” as doing a “lot of things right.” This arrogance only exists in an environment that doesn’t punish those who sanction abuses at the highest level and a mainstream media that gives equal time to torturers while virtually ignoring the victims. American torture’s grim legacy in Afghanistan is one of the least reported aspects of the last decade.
While it was the French who first introduced electrical torture to Vietnam, it was the Americans, writes journalist Mike Otterman in his book American Torture, who advised the Vietnamese “how to make the torture more painful and effective. Under American supervision, Vietnamese interrogators often combined electrical torture with sexual abuse”.
Otterman reminds us that US torture wasn’t an invention after the terror attacks of 2001 but part of a continuum of unaccountable US cruelty from Latin America to Asia, the Middle East and beyond. It’s revealing that this pedigree is so rarely explained or investigated in the rush to condemn (or praise, depending on your worldview) Washington-directed brutality under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
This history is relevant during the current debate over post September 11 torture. The Senate report is an important contribution to the public record but the lack of any prosecution, censure or official condemnation goes to the heart of modern political culture. Obama has acquiesced in this position. The effect, writes journalist Andrew Sullivan, is that America has ensured that these crimes will occur again: “That will be part of his legacy: the sounds of a torture victim crying in the dark, and knowing that America is fine with it.”
A culture that celebrates television shows such as 24, Homeland and Spooks, where torture is central to capturing the bad guys and glamorises its use, makes real-life torment easier to justify or ignore. An Amnesty poll this year found 29% of Britons, higher than in Russia, Brazil and Argentina, believed torture could be justified to protect the public.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken after the release of the Senate torture report found that 59% of Americans felt that the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists was justified. This is in spite of the fact that one of the key findings in the US Senate report was that CIA torture was ineffective in hunting down extremists. Evidence from a US Senate armed services committee report into torture in 2009 found that such abuses were only guaranteed in bringing false confessions.
The Senate torture report has brought a handful of politicians demanding full transparency of their government’s role since 2001. The head of Britain’s Commons intelligence and security committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wants Washington to release all documents showing London’s role in the CIA’s rendition programme though it’s sad he acknowledges London’s relative weakness when “requesting” the USA to hand over the details.
The silence has been deafening in Australia with no major politicians demanding openness from Canberra on its role under former prime minister John Howard in sanctioning the illegal incarceration of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is one of the few modern politicians with a history of questioning the pernicious role of group-think in government. In 2004, he published a searing book, Axis of Deceit, on Australia’s real reason for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and it wasn’t weapons of mass destruction. Thus far Wilkie has not commented on the CIA report, although he has accused the Abbott government of crimes against humanity for its treatment of asylum seekers.
The failure to punish torturers in the US fits neatly into a wider social malaise. The powerful don’t go to jail; it’s the weak that suffer for their foibles. The lack of any substantial prosecutions for Wall Street illegality is symptomatic of the rot inside the political class. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi’s shows in his book The Divide how this occurs. “Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty”, he argues, “our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process.”
When “we” break the law, it’s with benign intent and good intentions (an editorial in the Australian makes this spurious case). But when “they” do it, they’re criminals who should be punished. Elites protect elites. Where was the outcry when the CIA hired private mercenary company Blackwater after 9/11 to assassinate “enemies” in Afghanistan?
Instead of trials for those accused of endorsing torture, we’re left with articles, essays and works like The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld, “a prosecution by book”, written by the Centre for Constitutional Rights’ Michael Ratner. It’s a solid tome but desperately short of what’s required in a healthy democracy for individuals at the highest levels of government who order harsh crimes.
The ability of the state to retroactively justify illegal behavior when caught is a feature of every nation on earth, not just the US. But demanding other countries abide by international law, when western nations so blatantly ignore it, is the height of hypocrisy. The shocking details in the US Senate report demand accountability but there’s little public appetite for it.
Retired Navy JAG John Hutson warned in 2008 against trials for post 9/11 crimes because “people would lawyer up”, a tacit admission that the legal system is gamed by the wealthy and powerful to escape justice. There’s hardly a more illustrative example of the modern state’s failure.
My weekly Guardian column:
The legislation on asylum seekers that immigration minister Scott Morrison pushed through the Senate last week, granting him even wider powers, is not the only area in which he is seeking to extend and concentrate his influence over the lives of vulnerable people.
The Australian Citizenship and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 is yet another attempt by Morrison to give himself and his department massive, largely unchecked power to control individuals’ futures. Most of the affected aren’t asylum seekers but may include citizens undergoing drug rehabilitation or suffering from a mental illness. They face being potentially blocked or losing Australian citizenship. The bill outlines the various ways in which the minister can deny, block or rescind citizenship for any individual, former asylum seeker or not, who he believes obtained this privilege dishonestly.
The bill aims to change the definition of Australian citizenship. The minister already has the power to sever visas but this goes further to potentially affect thousands of Australian citizens who are living productive lives today. Morrison’s moves against asylum seekers aim to drop the established norms of natural justice. The citizenship bill continues this appalling trend where the minister and his department are deemed more knowledgable than independent oversight. It’s a change that must be rejected though the public response has so far been almost non-existent.
The bill aims to grant the minister powers to determine an individual’s “good character”. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection explains in its submission to a Senate committee why the government believes the law should change: “As an elected member of parliament and minister of the Crown, the minister has the privilege of representing the Australian community and has gained a particular insight into the community standards and values.”
These “values” may be news to the thousands of asylum seekers languishing in horrific conditions on Nauru and Manus Island, forced to suffer months and years of detention for the “crime” of legally arriving by boat.
Another section of the submission demands “setting aside” decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) “concerning character and identity if it would be in the public interest to do so.” The idea that a minister, Morrison or somebody else from any political party, is better placed to decide on character is an absurd proposition that denies recent history of a mostly successful process. The AAT isn’t a perfect body, but for the immigration department to state that its position is null and void shows contempt for any independent review. This obsession with centralising power guarantees secrecy and grave errors.
Despite the government claiming that it would only ignore the AAT in cases where decisions fall outside community expectations and standards, the Law Council of Australia opposes the proposal, saying it “undermines the independent review process which is provided by the AAT.”
The Law Council’s submission is concise and powerful. It praises the AAT as “generally designed to promote good decision-making and provide individuals affected by adverse decisions with a relatively straight-forward, inexpensive mechanism by which to seek review.” This echoes Morrison’s aim to restrict the ability of individuals to challenge rejection by his department.
The Law Council also condemns the proposal that the department could make decisions on citizenship “in the public interest.” It argues that such a term “should be defined and limited to decisions affecting the Australian economy, affecting Australia’s relations with other countries, concerning national security or concerning major political controversies.”
Another disturbing section of the bill revolves around granting the minister the right to determine “fraud” or “misrepresentation” of an Australian citizen, including children, and then potentially revoking that person’s papers. Crucially, as the Law Council details, “this is regardless of whether the person was convicted of an offence in relation to the fraud or misrepresentation.” Australia would be a country where a minister determines guilt “outside of any criminal proceedings.” The presumption of innocence is trashed in this bill.
Melbourne-based Carina Ford, an accredited immigration law specialist who works in this area, says that the bill revolves around a belief that, “the executive thinks that they’re in a better position to make decisions than tribunals.”
“I have concerns with a minister having the power to overrule AAT tribunal decisions. Australia has a system of separation of powers and it’s problematic when a minister can overrule it. This government has been doing that in terms of citizenship and character. We should have faith in our tribunals, they are able to make the right decisions.”
Ford argues that the Abbott government’s platform of securing Australia’s borders partly explain this bill. She worries that unjust decisions are assured. These are “draconian powers if somebody has provided a fraudulent document. It will be very difficult to get citizenship, even if it may have been 10-15 years ago for a person who has been paying tax and living safely here. A decision made when you’re 18 may come and bite you when you’re 28.”
Morrison’s thirst for power follows a global trend. In Britain the current issues of immigration and citizenship are inexorably tied to the rise of Ukip and prime minister David Cameron’s quest to toughen his country’s stance against European citizens. Across Europe the rhetoric against immigrants is growing, fuelling public insecurity about jobs and the economy. The Cameron government has made obtaining citizenship much harder.
In America, the power of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is staggering, affecting the options of millions of current and future citizens. Scapegoating for simply being immigrants is routine and lacks any serious accountability mechanism.
Morrison’s push to grant himself even larger influence should be resisted for the simple reason that his department proudly avoids scrutiny. The Abbott government, so fond of excluding critics in its Team Australia campaign, should not be trusted to decide the “good character” of vulnerable citizens.
My weekly Guardian column:
The terms of the current battle in Australia over the ABC, its budget and place in public life have been set by its most vociferous critics, mostly in the Murdoch press. If only the lines weren’t so predictable. Their campaign fits neatly into a global trend: to reduce the public’s faith in public broadcasting, and to prepare for its selloff to corporate competitors.
Neutering the BBC and ABC, and the US public broadcasters NPR and PBS, is part of the Murdoch empire’s core business. As many of its papers continue to lose money every day, it’s no surprise that their fixation on halting so-called digital “mission creep” is a worldwide obsession.
In 2013, Rupert Murdoch tweeted about his favourite enemy, the BBC: “huge lack of balance in UK media with 8,000 BBC left wing journalists far outnumbering all national print journalists.” He added that the BBC was a “massive taxpayer-funded mouthpiece for tiny circulation leftist Guardian”.
And in 2006, James MacManus, executive director of News International, said it was “outrageous” that the BBC was able to run on public money because the broadcaster had “blatantly commercial ambitions” and was trying to “create a digital empire”.
The same criticisms were made of ABC managing director Mark Scott in the papers last week: that he is creating a “superfluous digital empire” that impinges on the commercial realities of privately-owned media.
The message from Murdoch and other commercial enterprises is that their investment in journalism and innovation keeps a vibrant press alive – and that any limit to their commercial operations is an intrusion on free speech.
What that means in practice is quite different. To the Murdoch empire, a “free” press means the right to, for instance, sponsor the tricks of prominent British Murdoch reporter Mazher Mahmood – the “fake sheikh”.
For a well-resourced and independent BBC, the Guardian’s Peter Preston argued in his commentary on the BBC’s Mahmood expose, freedom is the “in-house means to dig, expose, take risks, and clear its decks for action” – vital journalistic functions that serve democracy.
Although many in the UK still like and admire the BBC, the institution has fallen greatly in the last ten years. Scandals, mismanagement and the perception that the broadcaster remains too close to the political establishment have harmed the BBC’s reputation. The cover-up of the crimes of serial paedophile Jimmy Savile was a watershed moment for the BBC – nearly half the British public lost trust in the Beeb after the scandal broke.
The difference is, every scandal at the public broadcaster is ammunition for the critics and privatisers. As British journalist Charlotte Higgins wrote earlier this year in the wake of ongoing crises in the BBC:
“It is in the nature of BBC rows to escalate quickly to question the very basis on which it is run. Some of the corporation’s enemies clearly hold the view that if one undermines the foundations, the edifice might be more swiftly destroyed: like digging a mine in a medieval siege.”
Murdoch would be pleased to recently read that the foundations are indeed getting shaky: BBC management is considering placing leading current affairs shows into a commercial subsidiary, yet another arm of the organisation that could suffer hits to their credibility were it exposed to commercial realities. David Cameron’s government has always been amenable to Murdoch’s grander ambitions – in opposition he argued the BBC “was squeezing and crushing … commercial competition” in Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. Labour leader Ed Miliband has also had a cosy relationship with the media mogul, despite a recent critical turn.
PBS and NPR
The American public are fighting an even more important battle. A mere six corporations control 90% of the press, and consumer confidence in the media is at an all-time low. Publicly funded outlets PBS and NPR have been marginalised and starved of funds for so long that they now sometimes take corporate largesse, diluting their integrity.
Republican critics of US public broadcasting argue that the high salaries of top management, and the success of its childrens’ programmes like Sesame Street, are arguments for cutting it loose from taxpayer funding. Again, parallels can be drawn with the Australian example: just look at the intense interest in Quentin Dempster’s salary and the children’s show, Peppa Pig.
Were PBS or NPR to be diminished, a handful of multinational media outlets would completely dominate the US media market. Murdoch’s burning desire to still consume Time Warner would guarantee an even larger voice for the multinational.
During the 2012 US presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said Washington should “stop the subsidy” to PBS, due to his ideological set against state funding for media. In reality, like with the ABC and BBC, government support is tiny and decreasing. NPR and PBS received $445m from 2012 to 2014, .012 percent of the federal budget.
Stations in rural areas are closing and shrinking and public radio states are decreasing, leaving only corporate alternatives. A 2012 poll found 55% of voters opposed cuts in public television spending. Murdoch, through Fox News, New York Post and Wall Street Journal, tirelessly campaigns and backs candidates who argue that the digital revolution makes public media obsolete.
We hear exactly the same rhetoric in Australia. The Lewis review urged the ABC to dump digital radio and charge for online content, opening the way for Murdoch to capitalise on a reduced ABC footprint.
The aim isn’t to kill public broadcasting outright but to force a long war of attrition that slowly chips away at public’s respect and broadcasters’ desire to fight. It’s a messy strategy, but it’s working: trust in state-owned media like the ABC is in slow decline, even though it still leaves its critics for dead.
It’s a sign of how far this debate has skewed that the vast majority of heated conversations on public broadcasting are framed in purely economic terms. Can we afford it? Should we pay for it? How much does it cost? Can we sell off divisions?
We’re never discussing that terms of the debate disallow or discourage dissenting points of view. It’s far easier to obsess over the dry economics of an industry that doesn’t make anything tangible, like manufacturing or agriculture. The ABC is forced to explain its relevance in the face of ongoing attacks, when its charter prioritises the very things its commercial critics would see diminished: multiculturalism, education, diversity – and independence.
My article appears today in The Guardian:
British multinational Serco is in trouble. After years as the favoured outsourcer for public services in Britain and countless countries around the world, the latest figures show a financial crash of unprecedented proportions. The firm announced it is writing down its business value by nearly AU $3bn with no dividend for shareholders and a plea for an injection of a billion more dollars. This is a “bitter pill”, according to its chief executive Rupert Soames.
Revealingly, the corporation admitted that without its Australian detention network, its profit would have been even worse. In other words, imprisoning asylum seekers in poor conditions for extended periods of time in remote locations is good for business. Serco won the contract to manage all of Australia’s mainland facilities and Christmas Island in 2009 – I was part of a team that first published the contract between Serco and Canberra in 2011 – and the profits have soared ever since.
From a $370m contract in 2009 to well over $1bn today, surging refugee boats have been invaluable to Serco’s bottom line. Serco has benefitted from an opaque reporting process and desperate federal politicians and bureaucrats who needed corporate help with an immigration system that ran out of control when asylum seekers started arriving in large numbers from Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond. Neither the government nor Serco could handle the influx, and both detainees and guards suffered.
During the writing of my book Profits of Doom, I spoke to a senior Serco manager who told me how his superiors gamed the system to increase income. Staff are reduced to “keep profits high” and managers are routinely moved from the most difficult centres such as Darwin and Christmas Island because they’re told that “if they get abatements [fines from Canberra], they’ll be fired’’.
Another senior Serco source recently told me that his company had planned to turn the Australian centres into less prison-like environments. A spike in boats ruined that dream, he lamented.
It’s a sign of the times that a company like Serco, with murky financial statements masking its true economic shape, is continually rewarded for failure with new and larger contracts. Just this week, the Australian government announced a “cop on the beat” system within the immigration department to strengthen oversight. This is little more than window dressing after years of Serco and government obfuscation over assessing self-harm inside detention, profit margins, guard misbehaviour and a culture of secrecy that pervades everything the firm does in Australia and Britain (I recently witnessed this when visiting the notorious Yarl’s Wood facility in England).
Vulture capitalism has become the ideology of our age, with Serco just a symptom of wider economic failure. Outsourcing remains hugely appealing, with Mitie now becoming the UK Home Office’s largest provider of immigration detention. A clean-skin, without the troubles of G4S and Serco, proves that it’ll take more than a Serco collapse to arrest three decades of privatised failure.
Privatisation doesn’t deliver better and cheaper services for our society, or even shareholder democracy. The public knows it. It’s time to empower individuals who want to wrest power from the corporations and return it to the people.
My weekly Guardian column:
Yarl’s Wood is a Serco run immigration removal centre in Milton Ernest, built in an industrial park more than an hour from central London. Allegations have been made against Serco staff, including of sexual assaults by guards against detainees, yet the British government continues to use the facility.
During a visit inside the centre, I briefly experienced the prison-like conditions suffered by immigrants on a daily basis. After submitting myself to a biometric reading of my index finger – a Serco brochure in reception helpfully informed me that the information could be kept indefinitely because the Data Protection Act is so vaguely worded – I met a young couple from Sri Lanka who were confused and anxious.
The woman was pregnant, and told me Serco staff often didn’t believe her when she said she needed to visit a local hospital for care. She was depressed and worried about her baby. She regularly missed meals and begged me to help them get out. Thankfully, they were released shortly after my visit, to an undisclosed location.
Emma Mlotshwa is the head of Medical Justice, an NGO that provides doctors to immigrants in detention. They offer independent assessments of asylum seekers condition while campaigning for the end of prolonged incarceration. She told me that the system was making people sick.
“The lowest price wins the contract”, she said. “They cut corners, which results in less care, lower paid staff, lower qualified staff – and at Yarl’s Wood, this deliberately aims to fudge responsibility between Serco and the Home Office. Serco often tries to stop us visiting, saying detainees can’t be found or we have the wrong paperwork.”
One thing is clear: keeping the Sri Lankan couple locked up for months was about punishment; they weren’t a security risk, nor flush with funds and able to disappear into the community. This brutal treatment is supposedly a deterrent for future migrant arrivals landing in a country where politics is increasingly defined by leaders who talk tough against the most vulnerable.
The desperation of immigrants behind bars was repeated during my visits to the Geo Group-run Harmondsworth and Serco-managedColnbrook sites, both near Heathrow airport. The centres will be taken over later this year by Mitie, a less well-known British provider than G4S and Serco.
In October 2013, a large fire broke out in Mitie’s Campsfield detention centre. Subsequent investigations found no sprinklers had been installed. Mitie’s CEO, Ruby McGregor Smith, told me that when her firm took over the facility from the Home Office, she wasn’t asked to install a sprinkler system.
She was confident that she had a “good team” to manage what would soon be, according to the corporation’s February press release, the “largest single private sector provider of immigration detention services to the Home Office, less than three years after entering the market”.
I asked McGregor Smith why she thought her company could run these centres any differently than other contractors. She talked of a more “humane” policy towards asylum seekers – she damned G4S and Serco for their failings in Australia, and argued that both firms were clearly incapable of managing remote facilities, but didn’t admit this to the government in Canberra.
She also slammed competitors for having a “prison culture”. “There’s a danger”, she said, “that if you bring in companies who have run some of the toughest prisons in the world to run detention centres, you won’t get anything different. That’s all they know.”
Nick Hardwick, Britain’s chief inspector of prisons, told me that contractors like Serco, G4S or Mitie aren’t entirely to blame for problems in detention centres. “What causes people’s despair in immigration removal centres, the bulk of them, why they are such unhappy and sad places, is because of people’s distress in how their immigration case is being handled. It’s not generally about the centre itself.”
When detainees are released, they still often face indefinite insecurity. In Sheffield, I visited G4S housing in one of the poorest areas of the city. On a windy summer day, with Roma children playing in the streets, I saw squalid houses, with up to nine men packed into small rooms. I heard stories about the Home Office taking years to reach a decision on immigration claims, which precludes many migrants from building a decent life, given their lack of work rights.
G4S in Sheffield is opposed by local campaigners, such as the South Yorkshire migration and asylum action group. The privatisation of asylum seeker housing has led to allegations of corruption, incompetence and wilful blindness. A senior Serco source in Australia told me last year that his company wanted to run all Australia’s asylum housing, concerned that the immigration centres would empty and their bottom line suffer.
The political class in Britain rarely highlights the personal cost of outsourcing the most basic social services. The complete privatisation of welfare services is a real possibility, despite G4S and others failing to assist the unemployed after being paid by the state to do so. Across the UK, Europe and the world, the same few companies are competing for an ever-widening range of contracts.
What I saw and heard across Britain confirms the startling facts: poverty is soaring and the government and corporate media response is to pass these people into the warm embrace of multinational bureaucracy.
My weekly Guardian column:
The Sri Lankan Navy band was busy last week, learning the tune to Waltzing Matilda. They played it to welcome Scott Morrison, the Australian immigration minister, who was visiting to launch two patrol boats donated by the Australian government. A photo of the moment,tweeted by journalist Jason Koutsoukis, showed Morrison sitting alongside president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Perhaps it didn’t worry Morrison that there are growing calls to prosecute Gotabaya Rajapaksa for war crimes, because of his actions in 2009 during the Sri Lankan civil war. Australia has been aware of Sri Lanka’s breaches of human rights for some time.
Australia is now closer to the regime than ever, because of their assistance in implementing Morrison’s tough border protection strategy. As Emily Howie, the director of advocacy and research at the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre, reported in 2013, “the Australian government is actively funding and supporting Sri Lanka to undertake these interceptions [of asylum seekers].”
Her report was based on interviews she gathered in Sri Lanka with people who wanted to leave and were stopped, interrogated and often tortured. Howie wrote in The Conversation that arbitrary detention, beatings and torture are routinely meted out to those in custody, Tamil and Sinhalese, with Canberra’s knowledge.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) works closely with its Sri Lankan counterparts, providing training, intelligence, vehicles and surveillance equipment. This has been happening for years. From time to time, stories surface alleging that AFP offers have been present during Sri Lankan police beatings and interrogations of returned asylum seekers. If true, this fits into a wider pattern of Western officials colluding with thuggish militias and authorities over the last few decades, including in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Britain has had its own peculiar involvement in the darkness of Sri Lanka’s recent past. A groundbreaking new report by British researcher and journalist Phil Miller, a researcher at London-based Corporate Watch and regular contributor to Open Democracy on detention issues, outlines how brutal British tactics utilised in Northern Ireland were brought to Sri Lanka in its war against dissidents and Tamils.
The report uncovers new evidence of government and mercenary elements colluding to put down Tamil independence and calls for equal rights. From the early 1980s, London denied any official involvement in training Sri Lankan “para-military [forces] for counter-insurgency operations” but documents show how the British were working closely with Colombo to stamp out the Tamil Tiger insurgency.
Britain saw a unique opportunity to maintain influence with Colombo by training a generation of Sri Lankan officers. London set up a military academy there in 1997, supplied a range of weapons to the army, assisted Sri Lankan intelligence agencies, protected Sri Lanka in international forums against abuse allegations and pressured various governments to ban the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
One month after the end of the civil war in 2009, Britain was working to assist the growth of Sri Lanka’s police department. There was no concern over the serious allegations of massive human rights abuses of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan military. The agenda was economic and political, with Liam Fox, the British defence minister, explaining in June 2011 that Sri Lanka played a vital role in combating international piracy.
“Sri Lanka is located in a pivotal position in the Indian Ocean with major international shipping routes between the Far East and the Gulf within 25 miles of your coast”, he said.
Russia, China, Israel and America have sold military hardware to Colombo both before and after 2009. Wikileaks cables show the US government recognised the Sri Lankan military’s role in atrocities during the civil war. Although the Tamil Tigers undeniably committed terrorist acts, state terrorism by the Sri Lankan establishment was far worse. Australia’s view has been consistent for decades: Canberra rarely recognises state terrorism if committed by an ally.
Australia’s former high commissioner to Sri Lanka, Bruce Haigh, stationed in the country from 1994, recalls how the high commission in Colombo would regularly liaise with its Sri Lankan counterparts, run training programs and accept Colombo’s line that any and all Tamils associated with the liberation struggle were terrorists.
This mindset existed long before September 11. Little has changed, though. Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, has gone even further than his mentor, John Howard, by expressing sympathy for a Sri Lankan regime that tortures its opponents and refuses to endorse an independent investigation into the end of the civil war.
How nations like Australia should relate to Sri Lanka and other human rights abusing countries is a tough question, when Canberra itself routinely breaches its international obligations. At the very least, we should call for rights to be recognised and improved in foreign lands and at home.
My weekly Guardian column:
Australians feel very comfortable with spying on our friends and enemies. During his visit to Canada this week, Tony Abbott, the prime minister, backed the Five Eyes intelligence sharing structure between America, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and Australia, saying “our intelligence gathering has got to be done in a way that is decent and fair and which doesn’t betray the fundamental values that we are doing our best to uphold”.
According to the recently released Lowy Institute 2014 poll, the majority of Australians agree: 70% of us feel it’s appropriate to monitor the activities of nations with which Canberra has poor relations. Half argue it’s acceptable even against friendly states. Australians have no issue with Indonesia, East Timor, France, Japan, America and New Zealand being spied on by their own government.
Despite there being vast evidence that Australia is arguably essentially spying for commercial purposes against a poor neighbour such as East Timor over its valuable oil and gas reserves, these facts don’t appear to concern Australians.
What the Lowy poll doesn’t ask is how Australians feel about Canberra and its US allies spying on them. One of the invaluable revelations of former NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was confirming the US government’s mass surveillance of its own citizens. Would Australians feel happy knowing faceless spy agencies are recording, collating, monitoring and storing private details about their lives? I hope not.
In Britain this week, actor Stephen Fry slammed the British government for its “squalid and rancid” response to the Snowden revelations. Yet in Australia, there has been very little dissent over them at all. With bipartisan, political backing for American influence on the Australian homeland, it’s revealing how few public condemnations have been heard (with some notable exceptions). For this reason alone, intelligence agencies, the federal government and media backers feel little pressure to be answerable for their secret business.
The Lowy Institute should have probed these issues far more, instead of rehashing tired questions about Australians’ love of the US alliance. The poll report muses on the “continuing relevance and durability of the US alliance for our nation’s security” while never allowing any questions that may challenge this notion. Does the US alliance make Australia a client state of Washington (as former prime minister Malcolm Fraser states in his new book)? Should Australia continue to buy overpriced weapons and planes from multinational US arms manufacturers?
I’m reminded of the classic Noam Chomsky quote: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum…”
The Lowy poll adheres to this rule with mostly safe and predictable questions, and therefore receives expected answers. Elsewhere, the Lowy poll asks mundane questions about how Australians feel about world figures such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi and Angela Merkel. It stands to reason that since media coverage of western leaders is largely benign, showing the supposed good intent of their democratic credentials, Australians overwhelmingly like Obama and his ilk (though no questions about US drone strikes which kill many civilians). Equally, non-western leaders, such as Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Xi Jinping, are very unpopular.
This is another confected result. Since the Snowden leaks last year, Washington has ramped up the rhetoric blaming Beijing for its outrageous spying infrastructure against American businesses and government, even going so far in May of charging some in the Chinese military for hacking. Beijing is demonised as uniquely evil, unfairly gaining commercial advantage over its rivals. This is a classic smokescreen which attempts to change the conversation away from the Snowden documents, which detail extensive US spying on Chinese interests.
When the media gives Washington’s claims far more credence and coverage than Beijing’s, we shouldn’t be shocked that Australians tell the Lowy Institute that they don’t trust the Chinese leader.
Despite these deep hesitations, the Lowy results provide some instructive news about local attitudes. Asylum seekers have been so successfully demonised for so many years that sympathy for their claims and boat people in general is shamefully low. Pressure for serious action on climate change is rising at a time when president Obama is encouraging a reduction in carbon emissions while countries run by neo-conservatives, such as Canada and Australia, are moving even further towards embracing a coal future. Abbott is out of step with public opinion.
One sign of a healthy and mature nation is how it relates to the world and the most vulnerable people in it, and it’s encouraging that 70% of Lowy respondents see poverty reduction, rather than foreign policy objectives (a stated goal of the Abbott government), as central to our outward posture.
A think-tank that didn’t see its main purpose as supporting and strengthening the foreign policy status quo would have designed a far more imaginative and insightful annual poll. In the meantime, Lowy has given us an incomplete picture of Australian attitudes towards some of the most contentious issues of our time and shown the public to be conservative, caring and cautious – the inevitable result when our media is so selective in its coverage of crucial news.
The blandness of the mainstream media, including public broadcasters, is all about the narrow level of “debate” allowed on issues of the day.
Australian intellectual and academic Scott Burchill has written the following short essay on the problem and possible solutions:
In what is misleadingly called the ‘age of culture wars’ there are three aspects of media commentary and reporting that poison discussion about politics in Australia. None of them are new, and it is by no means a definitive list, but all of them are now more prominent than they were two decades ago. Each contaminates political discourse and significantly reduces the value of newspaper and online commentary. The first is the misunderstanding of bias, the second is a tendency to political apostasy and the third is the effect of close proximity to power.
Bias and corkscrew journalism
It is important to start by exposing some common misperceptions about the conceptualisation of media bias.
Information managers in modern societies accrue power by controlling and organising knowledge. They have the skills to process and direct information, and the influence to mobilise public support for decision-making by government. They are in the business of lobbying, cheerleading and opinion management, though they routinely masquerade as independent and objective commentators.
These managers – or perhaps more accurately “commissars” – are commonly classified in 200 year old ideological terms such as “left” and “right”, positions on a linear spectrum which are then paired with political parties which are said to approximate these approaches: in Australia – ALP = left, Coalition = right. Many commentators are in fact former party functionaries and apparatchiks who have seamlessly passed through a revolving door between politics and journalism.
The idea of political “balance” – usually only invoked as an attack on ideological adversaries who apparently lack it – assumes that both halves of the political spectrum (left and right) should be equally represented in the political process and that a optimal mid-point between the two exists. This centre or median, which is apparently free of political bias and often described as “moderate” or “mainstream”, is where taxpayer-funded media organisations such as the ABC are supposed to reside – in the interests of both fairness and their charters. No such discipline is expected of privately owned media outlets.
There are several problems with this schema.
The assumption that a moderate, responsible and “natural” balance can be found on each and every political issue is self-evidently untrue. Are there two sides to the Holocaust or indiscriminate terrorism where a balanced view in the middle can be found? Obviously not. There are not always two legitimate sides to every story.
The persistent use of terms such as “left” and “right” to characterise media opinion in Australia grossly exaggerates the diversity of views that are actually presented. It is still widely assumed that the two party system (Labor–Coalition) encompasses the full spectrum of legitimate political thought in Australia. Ideas or arguments which do not fall neatly within the policy parameters of the major parties (eg the Greens) are said to be “extreme” and beyond the bounds of respectable opinion. Debate, discussion and choice is effectively circumscribed by defining the intellectual boundaries within which legitimate political expression is possible. There is no need for formal censorship, which is usually clumsy and ineffective.
When the range of “legitimate” political ideas moves as a bloc to the right while simultaneously converging, the terms used to describe these ideologies becomes misleading. Instead, voters looking for meaningful differences within the two party system are presented with an illusion of choice. All but the narrowest of proposals is dismissed as “radical” or “extreme”. The “free market” of political ideas narrows and discourse becomes stale and repetitive.
This is the primary drawback of bipartisanship, a view of politics which avoids robust debate and disagreement believing a consensus should be achieved on most issues. It also explains the revolving ideological door used by newspaper columnists such as Gerard Henderson and the late Paddy McGuinness, opinionistas equally comfortable at houses of Fairfax and Murdoch.
Of the reasons to feel depressed about the state of the Australian media, it is this tendency towards repetition, recycling and set–piece ideological battles – sometimes described as “corkscrew journalism” – which is most deflating.
According to the late Fred Halliday, the term “corkscrew journalism” originated in the film The Philadelphia Story directed by George Cukor in 1940. Halliday defines it as “instant comment, bereft of research or originality, leading to a cycle of equally vacuous, staged, polemics between columnists who have been saying the same thing for the past decade, or more.”
This is an accurate description of much media commentary in Australia, illustrated recently by the interminable sniping between the ABC and the Murdoch press. Predictability and a lack of originality are rife, and media consumers are no longer buying it – literally.
Readers, viewers and listeners are often surprised to find commentators placing themselves at the centre of these ideological battles, frequently defending either their (often undisclosed) party affiliations or the commercial prerogatives of their employer, against other columnists and their backers. It’s a dialogue between insiders who share a grossly inflated sense of their own importance. The current ABC v Murdoch scrap is little more than competition for market share in the commodity known as news and current affairs, via direct attacks on rival management and journalists.
There is little that is thoughtful and much that is repetitive, but everything seems designed to provoke – usually other columnists. The tyranny of concision ensures that complex and detailed ideas cannot be properly explained, so much commentary is little more than the personal vendettas of ideological vigilantes, the airing of petty grievances and the venting of long-standing obsessions.
There is one golden rule in political commentary, especially for in-house regulars, which is unfortunately honoured more in the breech than the observance. If you have nothing interesting or original to say, say nothing.
A new tendency: political apostasy
If there is an increasing tendency amongst Australia’s media commentariat it is not a shared ideological conviction – although the spectrum of opinion has sharply narrowed to the right in recent years – but a trend towards political apostasy. Reflecting a pattern set in the United States and the United Kingdom by David Horowitz, Paul Johnson, Christopher Hitchens and others, Australia’s political apostates such as Keith Windschuttle, Brendan O’Neill, Piers Akerman and Imre Salusinszky, appear motivated by a desperate need to cleanse themselves of the ideological sins of their youth by suddenly adopting diametrically opposite views. In the case of Robert Manne and Malcolm Fraser, the transition from liberal to conservative has been reversed.
Political apostates have the same limited credibility as reformed smokers who lecture others about the risks of lung cancer, and are equally insufferable. By renouncing their earlier faith and converting to its polar opposite they display a psychological need for devotion to some cause or belief system. This enables them to courageously challenge the orthodoxies of the “elites,” “the left” or “chattering classes” that they were once a member of, without explaining their own immunity from such a contagion.
There is something fundamentalist about their behaviour. They inhabit the extremes of both the ideological position they originally held and the one they have more recently converted to. The move from Stalinist to free market zealot, for example, is remarkably seamless. The neocons around George W. Bush were perfect illustrations of this ideological transition, and they have a mirror image amongst the oligarchs of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Most political apostates in the West are victims of the ‘God That Failed’ syndrome. They began their political lives as commissars on the left but soon changed tack when they realised that real power, wealth and influence lay on the opposite side of the ideological fence. Once established as servants of state capitalism – and frequently defenders of state violence – these rugged individualists devote their time to exposing the sins of former comrades who haven’t yet seen the light and shifted like magnets to the true centres of political power.
Reconstructing themselves as faux dissenters who would prefer their earlier liberal incarnation to be forgotten, political apostates adopt reflexively contrarian positions of the risk-free kind, often portraying themselves as persecuted dissidents in a liberal dominated industry. They accomplish this without noticing that they are surrounded by a stable of like-minded conservatives, statists and reactionaries. Ensconced in the heartland of corporate media, ideas such “risk”, “opposition to power” and “dissent” are rendered meaningless. Conformity, obedience and group-think rule the day. This is why on the Op Ed pages of the Murdoch press, a “range of voices” translates to a “range of conservative voices” all saying pretty much the same thing.
Media proprietors don’t need to issue ideological edicts, although Mr Murdoch apparently instructed his editors around the world to support the war in Iraq in 2003. They select editors who have already internalised the right views and values. Self-censorship is always more effective than orders from above.
On Op Ed pages it is now common to read strident posturing and contrived provocation disguised as thoughtful opinion. Aping the modus operandi of commercial talkback radio, in-house commentators make deliberate and often unsubstantiated criticisms of their counterparts in rival papers, hoping to trigger outrage, controversy, and an equally malicious response which can then be presented as a “public debate”.
Much of what passes for “debate”, however, is remarkably shallow and ill-informed, seemingly motivated by personal animus and utterly boring to most media consumers who remain indifferent to insider breast beating. It’s largely a closed discussion between people who share an exaggerated sense of both their importance and influence. Civility and serious debate have been replaced by infantile point-scoring and a quest for 60 Minutes-style celebrity, where the presenter/commentator is more important than the story.
Intoxicated by power: a supine media class
Writing at the birth of industrial society, Adam Smith identified a major weakness in the moral condition of the species:
“The disposition to admire, and to almost worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
The 19th-century Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin concurred with Smith’s observations and understood how easily this moral corruption led to a love affair between the intellectual class and the state:
“…whatever conduces to the preservation, the grandeur and the power of the state, no matter how sacrilegious or morally revolting it may seem, that is the good. And conversely, whatever opposes the state’s interests, no matter how holy or just otherwise, that is evil. … [Machiavelli was right when he concluded that for this class] that the state was the supreme goal of all human existence, that it must be served at any cost and that, since the interest of the state prevailed over everything else, a good patriot should not recoil from any crime in order to serve it.”
Little, if anything in this regard has changed in 250 years. Proximity to power remains intoxicating for impressionable journalists and commentators, especially the ambitious and instinctively obedient. A depraved submission to authority and an ever-ready desire to please those in power may be the very antithesis of an adversarial media, but it is strikingly commonplace in the “mainstream”. Conformity and compliance are too often regarded as normal and natural, whereas dissent is evidence of anti-social tendencies and a severe personality disorder: it’s Stalinism redux, this time in the West.
An inner circle, where journalists are privy to confidences and trusted with sensitive information, is a very seductive locale to inhabit. Flattery yields to feelings of being special and exclusive – becoming a player, even a decision-maker. Loyalty and discretion are rewarded with privileges and access. There might be networking and photo opportunities, a book endorsement or launch, even the receipt of an authorised leak: later perhaps, a well-paid, high-status government job.
Whether it’s being duchessed around Israel with an all expenses paid guided tour organised by the local Israel lobby or an invitation to attend the Australia America Leadership Dialogue where Chatham House rules apply, scepticism and independence are replaced by a socialisation to power. In this atmosphere a journalist may come to believe that she, and the subjects of her reporting, are not adversaries at all but colleagues in a common enterprise. They effectively become courtiers, working to “understand” current problems while preserving the status quo: a patriotic agenda.
The personal hostility of many journalists and think tankers to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden stems from both professional jealousy that they were out-scooped by unorthodox competitors, and an instinctive fear of upsetting established power. Instead of investigating the behavior of governments and welcoming greater transparency about decisions being taken in the peoples’ name, many in the media became complicit in defending state power from public exposure. Along the way the ‘right to know’ about government malfeasance was abandoned and replaced with personal smears, innuendo and outright lies about those were actually informing the public.
Framing ideas and debates, telling people what they should think about public issues and defending doctrinal orthodoxies is what lobbying on behalf of power is all about. The role of journalists and commentators is to challenge and expose these processes, not to endorse or amplify them.
The history of Western governments talking about democracy and freedom while backing the most thuggish groups in the world is long and sordid.
The UK-based Corporate Watch does a wonderful job of uncovering the many links between business and government.
Here is its Phil Miller on a story that shows why we always need to separate rhetoric from reality:
Margaret Thatcher gave her approval to British mercenaries working with a Ugandan paramilitary unit during the bloodiest human rights abuses in the East African country’s civil war, newly-released documents reveal.
Falconstar Limited, run by ex-SAS officers Jeremy Trevaskis and Peter Le Marchand, trained the Ugandan Police Special Force, a notorious group implicated in mass killings, beatings and rape during President Milton Obote’s crackdown after the fall of Idi Amin.
Trevaskis wrote to Prime Minister Thatcher in September 1983 to inform her that Falconstar was “in the process now of completing a major contract with the Government of Uganda, where we have trained over 1,500 Special Force constables in two years”, adding that this had “made a large contribution to internal security and to foreign investors’ confidence in Uganda”.
Thatcher’s private secretary, David Barclay, wrote in reply: “Mrs Thatcher was most interested to read about Falconstar’s services, and sends her best wishes for continued success.”
Just months before in July 1983, Malcolm Rifkind, then Foreign Office Minister for African Affairs, had warned Obote about human rights abuses when he visited Uganda.
Human Rights Watch has said the civil war from 1981-1986 was characterized by “military excesses against civilians which are believed to have exceeded the brutality of the Amin era”. An estimated 300,000 Ugandans died and 500,000 were displaced.
Corporate Watch found the papers among Downing Street files released under the 30-year-rule at the UK National Archives. This latest revelation comes from the same batch of Thatcher’s correspondence which showed the Prime Minister secretly dispatched an SAS officer to advise the Indian government on storming the Golden Temple in Amritsar and gave tacit approval to SAS veterans training Sri Lankan commandos to suppress Tamil rebels in 1984. The respective situations in Uganda, Sri Lanka and India’s Punjab region ranked among the world’s worst conflicts in the mid-1980s.
My weekly Guardian column:
The war on public broadcasters by corporate media is currently enjoying a resurgence.
Britain’s Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has long loathed the BBC, accusing it of supporting “cultural marxism”. In a 2007 lecture, he said the organisation attempted to undermine “the values of conservatism, with a small ‘c’, which, I would argue, just happen to be the values held by millions of Britons.” To Dacre, the BBC is a “closed thought system operating a kind of Orwellian Newspeak … perverting political discourse and disenfranchising countless millions”.
In reality, it would be hard to find any media group in Britain more polarising than the Daily Mail, constantly railing against refugees, Muslims, single women and anybody who threatens its view of the world. We can look forward to the same outlook when it formally launches in Australia this year.
Dacre’s comments on the BBC were little different to Rupert Murdoch’s Australian editorial last weekend on the ABC, that alleged managing director Mark Scott had “failed to address bias issues at the national broadcaster, lift standards or impose accountability.”
Furthermore (and Dacre would have been proud of this line), “the ABC has an endless list of progressive journalists and hosts sharing their perspectives and an absence of hosts or programmers who are mainstream or, heaven forbid, conservative”.
Corporate media’s solution isn’t to totally dismantle public broadcasters – there’s no public appetite for that – but to neuter, privatise, weaken, dismiss and delegitimise them. Despite the rhetoric suggesting otherwise, they aren’t really complaining of a lack of standards or diversity. Rather, they are conducting an ideological war against media outlets whose agendas aren’t set by corporate interests.
It’s a campaign that’s fundamentally failing. The ABC and BBC are still remarkably popular with the public. None of this means that there aren’t serious issues with both broadcasters. The BBC too often airs views expressed by the conservative British establishment over war and peace while, as George Monbiot recently investigated, rarely revealing the background and funding of think-tankers and other guests. The same goes for Australian think-tank guests, whose backers are not declared on air.
Last week’s Australian federal budget took an axe to the ABC-run Australia network and its ability to properly cover the Asia-Pacific. Managing director Mark Scott came out swinging (as much as a man in his position can do) and slammed the decision, thankfully defending the ABC’s independence and partnership with the Guardian over the stories related to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
Opposition to the ABC from the Abbott government and Murdoch press will likely result in more cuts in the coming years. It’s heartening to see Scott resist pressure to transform the public broadcaster into a cheerleader for the home team.
Australia’s wannabe culture warriors are copying a playbook that’s been honed for decades in Britain and the US. Public broadcasting in America, such as NPR and PBS, is theoretically paid for by the tax payer but in reality is now funded by both public and private monies. NPR has been accused of unimaginative thinking over the most contentious issues such as Israel/Palestine, and is prone to massive pressure from lobby groups.
One of the richest men in the country, David Koch, has heavily invested in these organisations. In 2013, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer investigated the extent of Koch’s influence of WNET, a New York channel he sponsors (WNET is part of the PBS network). After the station decided to air a documentary on inequality by Oscar-winning film-maker Alex Gibney, that included a profile of the Koch family, Mayer found the station’s channel managers and producers were scared for their jobs. The documentary went to air but with craven caveats and post-screening rebuttals by critics.
The fact that Koch could even have influence over the screening schedule at WNET reveals the massive financial short-fall from public funds and perceived need for corporate donors. This isn’t a future Australia should ever want.
PBS has often been a target for conservatives who believe it has “left-wing bias”. American journalist David Sirota, writing in Pando Daily, exposed the funding arrangements behind a two-year WNET series called The Pension Peril. The series was to be financed by billionaire former Enron trader John Arnold, a man committed to reducing pension options for millions of Americans. PBS initially denied any impropriety by taking Arnold’s money, but soon returned the funds after public outrage.
I asked Sirota what this scandal said about American public broadcasting. “PBS faces a crisis”, he told me:
“It’s billed and branded as a public-minded and publicly funded entity but it doesn’t receive an adequate amount of public funding to do purely public minded journalism and content. Instead, it has to rely on private funders who can try to attach ideological strings to their money. The end result is that content branded as public under the PBS banner is potentially being shaped by private special interests.”
It’s not an accident, he argues, that the US receives a tiny amount of public funding per capita compared to most other industrialised nations, because “well-resourced public media would be a threat to the corporate and political establishment.”
“It would have the ability to do independent journalism. Because that’s a threat to the corporate and political establishment, that establishment has drained public media of resources,” Sirota said.
Public broadcasting in Europe remains far healthier than in America (though France and Greece have seen far better days) and the BBC is currently undergoing one of its perennial discussions about who should pay for its services. Some BBC luminaries argue that the institution is too big and unfairly restricts private business. Such an argument seems absurd at a time when publicly funded media remains the most trusted in Britain and Australia.
The ABC is full of inadequacies, insider journalism and parochialism but the sheer range of its content across multiple platforms, reaching millions of Australians every day, is a key reason it must be defended against its opponents.