The following conversation is published on US website Mondoweiss:
Antony Loewenstein came through New York recently to promote his new book Disaster Capitalism. He later related to me that at two NY events, he had gone off on journalists as a profession. I wanted to draw him out, and so we exchanged emails.
You said you’d developed real contempt for the profession of journalism. Why?
Loewenstein: Journalism has the potential to be transformative, to inform and provoke, or at the very least inform. Too often I see reporters desperate to be close to power, whether ministers, minders. Insiders. Being embedded, pre or post 9/11, isn’t just about partnering with US or Western troops in a war zone. Too often it’s a state of mind that requires journalists to not question an economic system (“capitalism is damaged but can be repaired”), or Israeli violence against Palestinians or the apparent necessity of “doing something” in the face of state collapse (as if Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya aren’t cautionary tales). Vast parts of the world are routinely ignored by the Western media because they aren’t seen as having value or important enough. This could be “unpeople” such as most of the Muslim world, people of colour or poor whites.
I’ve been living in South Sudan this year and seen some fine and brave journalists, locals and Westerners, covering an incredibly brutal war. What’s been revealing and depressing is some editors in comfortable Western capitals saying that they don’t want stories that are “too depressing”. As if a reporter can prettify an ethic conflict to make Western audiences less uncomfortable when reading during breakfast on their iPhones.
I regularly ask myself what journalism is achieving apart from awareness that often brings little or no changes on the ground. It’s important and necessary to bear witness, and I’ll continue to do so, including in my new book, but what if seeing and witnessing simply isn’t enough?
I got the sense that you went on a more visceral rant against the profession at your events. I’m not going to stand up for the profession, any more than I want to stand up for the human race, but: Are there other professions that you have more admiration for than those parasitic journos?
I don’t have contempt for journalism as a profession, far from it, I have major issues with the ways it’s often undertaken. Media complicity in state violence – from the US bombing of Iraq and Libya, Israeli crimes in Palestine and US involvement in the Indonesian genocide in the 1960s – is the issue here. Reporters often claim they have to play a delicate dance or game with sources, especially in officialdom, to get access. But that access often means sanctioned leaks to a favored journalist. That’s not journalism, it’s stenography. I understand it’s often important to quote off the record information, I do it myself though sparingly, in a sensitive story. But the mentality that many in the media have – don’t stand out, join the crowd, fit in, be liked – means that independent journalism has never been more important.
My professional journalistic career began just after 9/11 so I’m a product of the last decade plus years. There are simply too many stark examples of wilful journalistic dishonesty (and lack of acknowledging mistakes) to believe countless reporters from many major media outlets don’t prefer being wrong to challenging state spin. It’s largely cost-free, career wise. Standing up to a lying Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Dennis Ross or Barack Obama takes guts.
I admire many professions, from brain surgeons to environmental scientists.
As human beings, we are full of faults, contradictions and hypocrisy. Journalists are no exception. But I’ve long believed that reporters have an extra responsibility when covering matters of war, refugees, life and death. We are conveyors of information that can either inform a population, or lie to it. I wish more journalists left their offices and psychologically embedded positions and valued more pissing off those whose outcome (if not primary aim) is to harm civilians. Defending or justifying state violence is the most degrading of arts.
Your critique is a variation of Killing the messenger. The press has always and will always reflect the powers that be, by and large; because they are paid by those powers. It is the role of independent media to challenge the powers that be, but how do they achieve that independence? There are some true independent spirits, but the basis of independence is financial, too. And progressives are a distinct minority in this system; we represent dissent but we also require forms of social support. And we shouldn’t shut off communications with the MSM types. I realize I’m becoming a crabbed conservative in life, somewhat; but I do want a way forward, and for me that involves putting breadcrumbs on the trail for the mainstream journalists.
I’ve never argued that cutting all ties, irreconcilable differences with the MSM, is desirable. I regularly write for the MSM, and will continue doing so. Its audience remains strong and influential. Leading by example by the MSM is rare, very few mainstream reporters will take the way on important social issues. From the gay rights movement to Palestine, they’re often following years after activists have led a path and the general public is usually far savvier and smarter than the MSM (and many of us) presume. That’s fine and should continue. But you seem to be arguing that independent media is hard, and the path is tough and let’s not entirely shut out the possibility that the MSM may one day, say, support BDS because Israel is a pariah and will only change its behaviour though strong outside pressure. When ethics and business collide, the former rarely wins. If history is any guide, the MSM are unlikely to be leading on anything that will upset their power and advertising base.
For me, the constant failings of the MSM are that they don’t reflect the will of the people, views and ideas that are shared by many in the population. War isn’t popular, neither is privatization of public services. Full healthcare is backed by many Americans and yet it’s framed in the MSM as a bitter partisan ‘debate’. It is in Washington but many outside America laugh and cringe at the inability and unwillingness of the DC elite to provide publicly provided medical care for all. I want the MSM to be honest about its agenda and biases. We all have them and yet too often the myth of ‘objectivity’ is wheeled out as a weapon against indy media, as though the MSM is balanced and straight and indy reporters are inherently biased (check out the wonderful UK website Medialens and its recent analysis of the BBC and Afghanistan).
My investigation in the Guardian:
Australian miners are making a killing overseas. With little regulation or oversight, billions of dollars are being made in some of the most remote places on Earth.
The necessity of partnering with autocratic regimes has proved no impediment to investment. Human rights have been breached. Victims are largely invisible.
None of this should be surprising. If Australian companies operating internationally are mentioned in the media, it appears in the business pages and discusses the strengths of a CEO or share price. Rio Tinto, for example, receives largely uncritical coverage despite in the 1980s the corporation facing serious allegations of human rights abuses around the world, including in Papua New Guinea.
Two American non-profit media organisations, the Centre for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, recently bucked the trend and released a stunning report, Fatal Extraction, on Australian mining companies working in Africa (in which no allegations were made against Rio Tinto). How revealing that this research was led from America and not Australia itself.
The findings of the report, produced in collaboration with African journalists on the ground, were shocking.
From the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Malawi, grim details of death, maiming and police and army brutality were revealed.
A lead investigator on the report, Will Fitzgibbon, told the Guardian that while the response to the report was “positive”, there was also a sense that “Australia’s debate on corporate impacts and alleged violations overseas is much more limited than elsewhere. In Canada, for example, there have been lengthy parliamentary debates and deep media analyses of comparable allegations in a way that is yet to happen in Australia.”
I asked Fitzgibbon how these violations should be addressed in Australia. He said:
“The jury is still out on whether new laws are the most pressing response to this problem. Many argue that there’s a lot that can also be done in terms of company reporting to investors and of promoting voluntary and transparent application of international principles of business and human rights.”
Australia’s lack of interest in alleged corporate crimes in far-away places is related to a worrying incuriousness among reporters and politicians (the Greens are a key exception).
“There is a huge imbalance between Australia’s diplomatic and business interests in Africa. We still have one of the lowest numbers of embassies and high commissions in Africa among our peers yet we have mining companies, sometimes literally flying the Australian flag, in places like Burkina Faso, Niger, Madagascar and Zambia,” Fitzgibbon said.
Eritrea is one country that should be under the spotlight.
“The economy of Eritrea has experienced considerable growth in recent years,” explains the website for Australian mining company Danakali. The Perth-based firm, which until recently was known as South Boulder Mines, has partnered with the Eritrean National Mining Company to develop a massive potassium-bearing salts deposit around 350km from the country’s capital, Asmara.
Danakali’s managing director Paul Donaldson said, “The Danakil region of East Africa is recognised as an emerging potash [potassium salts] province, and to date over 10bn tonnes of potassium bearing salts have been identified.”
Online intelligence magazine Geeska Afrika explained: “Eritrea has many benefits it can offer potential investors. It has a safe and stable government with an educated and disciplined work force.”
Absent from all the propaganda was any mention of Eritrea as one of the most repressive nations in the world. A UN report in June detailed horrific allegations of abuse committed by the regime. Human Rights Watch argued that “this authoritative report rightly condemns the horrific patterns of torture, arbitrary detention, and indefinite conscription that are prompting so many Eritreans to flee their country”. A sizeable majority of refugees leaving Eritrea and attempting to reach Europe are fleeing from this regime. I’ve met many Eritreans in South Sudan who prefer to live in a war zone than under the Eritrean dictatorship.
Danakali has been engaged in Eritrea since at least 2013. An independent Eritrean media outlet had accused the company of benefitting from forced labour. I can find no public response from the company about the country’s human rights record and the unavoidable ethical issues that arise from partnering with an autocracy. They have not responded to requests for comment.
Apart from a major Eritrean rebel group this year warning the firm to stay away due to environmental concerns and allegations that the indigenous Afar community was being pushed off its lands to make way for the development, the Australian company has not faced any serious questions over its work in Eritrea.
Australia has an inglorious history of turning a blind eye to profitable bad behaviour. Although the Australian Wheat Board paid kickbacks to the Saddam Hussein regime in the 1990s and early 2000s for favourable contracts, lengthy legal wrangling resulted in few significant scalps.
With only one journalist working for an Australian media organisation permanently based in Africa, ABC’s Martin Cuddihy in Kenya, the continent is easily ignored or dismissed. South America is even more woefully unrepresented. Finding stories of Australian corporate malfeasance on either continent requires expensive and time-consuming work.
Of course this is not just a problem facing Australia. The Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York has been pushing the United Nations for years to end the impunity enjoyed by American and European firms operating in developing states. The US Supreme Court has increasingly accepted arguments from multinationals that they have no responsibility for human rights abuses in the countries in which they operate.
I’ve spoken to senior human rights lawyers in Australia who say it’s also incredibly tough to pursue a successful case against a mining giant through the Australian courts. The people of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea have been waiting for decades for any compensation from the Rio Tinto-owned mine that caused a brutal, decades-long civil war.
Australia sells itself as a nation that can teach the world about responsible mining – Afghanistan is one willing student – but the record suggests our corporations have a callous disregard for the rights of civilians.
Yesterday’s massacre in Paris at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is shocking and unforgettable. The publication may have been frequently racist against Muslims and a whole host of “enemies” but the right to offend is a key attribute in a democracy. This doesn’t mean we have to applaud editors and writers who trade in racial stereotyping.
As a journalist, such an attack affects me deeply. The only response is standing up for what we believe and stating it strongly and frequently. We will not be silenced. We will write. We will speak out. We will continue to tell the truth. We will reject the onslaught and say that talking honestly about Islam, Palestine, Israel, terrorism and the “war on terror” is vital.
Charlie was a good friend from my high school years in Paris, in the early 1970s.
Charlie Hebdo was a child of May 68, France’s youthful rebellion.
It was a good time to be in Paris.
You could see the latest Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Visconti, Tarkovsky, Godard etc.
Sartre was still around.
You could attend public Foucault lectures at the College de France, watch the inscrutable Lacan or the great mythomane André Malraux hold forth on TV.
Where are they all now?
The gunmen who spread Charlie Hebdo with bullets and assassinated four of France’s best and wittiest cartoonists among others have also fired bullets in our collective psyche.
Nothing is fun any more.
This is real.
A binary hyperreality as defined by G W Bush & Co: with us or against us.
What happened yesterday morning in Paris was unthinkable some 40 odd years ago.
Yes, there were Red Brigades, Baader Meinhof, the PLO, the War in Vietnam, the coup in Chile and so on, but there was also hope, solidarity, love, tenderness, humour, poetry.
Going to the Quartier Latin to see Felini’s Satyricon or Easy Rider, one passed the black vans of the CRS, the riot police, parked on the Boulevard Saint Michel and Saint Germain.
You’d spot them inside, playing cards, ready for action at any hint of “trouble”.
The same game of youth versus authority was played in the very same places in medieval Paris, between the king’s constabulary and mischievous students.
It was all part of the great French tradition of youthful rebellion against authority, King & Church or, after the Revolution, the much despised bourgeoisie.
It inspired a rich poetic tradition: Villon, Ronsard, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Appolinaire, Prévert, to name but a few from a very long and bright list.
Charlie Hebdo was part of that wonderful centuries-old tradition of biting satire and irreverence.
Nothing was sacred.
Every now and then Charlie was banned for a particularly outrageous issue.
It used to run a serial called Les Aventures de Mme Pompidou (The Adventures of Madame Pompidou).
Occasionally Mme Pompidou and her husband, Monsieur le Président Georges Pompidou were not amused and all copies of Charlie Hebdo were seized.
But that was an innocent game compared to yesterday’s massacre.
Something has changed in the world.
Too much blood has been spilled since 9/11 and now the entire planet is soaked in it.
The age of Enlightenment and rational thought is making way to medieval faith-based intolerance.
G W Bush declared a Crusade, and enough lunatics have answered his challenge.
We must answer them by saying: JE SUIS CHARLIE.
Charlie lives as long as there is humour, laughter, tenderness, satire, love, poetry, art.
If we give up on that, the forces of darkness win.
And the light goes off.
We can’t let this happen.
WE ARE CHARLIE.
Ha Noi, 8.1.15
After last week’s siege in central Sydney, Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post analysed the media coverage and found it severely lacking. I was asked to add a comment (starting at 9:25):
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 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 weekly Guardian column:
The horror of ebola in West Africa has taken thousands of lives and spread fear around the world. This fact, coupled with ignorance and misinformation, has created the perfect storm. The risk is real, but you wouldn’t know the full picture from watching last weekend’s American 60 Minutes. Lara Logan’s report took her to Liberia, but it did not include any black African voices. It was as if colonialism never died, and the life-saving Americans were the only barrier between calm and chaos.
Meanwhile in Australia, last week’s news that private company Aspen Medical was awarded a $20m contract to run an ebola response in Sierra Leone was given surprisingly little scrutiny. Federal health minister Peter Dutton praised the company’s record and claimed that the firm was chosen because “they’ve got the capacity and the logistical capacity to deliver very quickly what governments want on the ground.” He played the patriotism card –“Aspen is an Australian company” – and said that Aspen “will have this up and running efficiently, effectively, saving lives.”
Non-government organisations with months of front line exposure in battling ebola were shunned for a corporation that won’t face any freedom of information requests because it’s a private entity. We have to take it on trust that taxpayer dollars will be spent appropriately. With former senior politicians and civil servants on Aspen’s board (a typical feature of companies that succeed in winning government contracts globally) financial benefits and political knowledge for the company are assured.
The company, established in 2003, has a history assisting Australian defence in the Solomon Islands, policing in East Timor and a range of other activities in the customs, health and fossil fuel arenas. Since 2007, the department of defence has awarded Aspen contracts worth more than $200m.
But deeper questions are being ignored in the rush to do something – anything – about Ebola. While it’s incredibly brave and noble for Australian nurses and doctors to volunteer with Aspen to establish a 100-bed treatment unit, most media coverage framed the discussion over awarding Aspen the contract as a partisan battle between the Abbott government and Labor opposition.
Victorian Greens senator and public health expert Richard Di Natale has been one of the sole voices questioning Aspen’s qualifications. He tells me that the contract “has a real stink about it. I’m at a loss. The only plausible explanation is that a government is so ideologically committed to advancing private interests, even when it’s counter-productive. ”
Di Natale says that Aspen’s win without a tender process bastardises democracy. “If it went to tender, a range of NGOs would have been able to get personnel in the field much more cheaply”, he argues. He worries that “mission creep” could happen, and that Aspen will require more funds to complete further work. The Greens MP is planning a trip to West Africa to examine the reality on the ground and hopes to receive help from Canberra in facilitating his visit.
He’s blunt on the reasons the Abbott government took so long to respond: “There aren’t any votes in black Africans dying. We’ve led the world in developing a vaccine for the Hendra virus which affects race horses, and yet when it comes to something like Ebola both in Australia and in the US we haven’t given it appropriate concern.”
One of the leaders in fighting Ebola remains Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Its Geneva headquarters tells me that they have concerns with the for-profit model that’s creeping into disaster relief. “Our concern is an uncoordinated approach overall that is inflexible and aid-money rather need-driven. It should not be about what governments want but what is needed to respond effectively to the needs on the ground.”
The scale of MSF’s commitments and the money it is spending places Aspen’s meager program in perspective. This year, the NGO has sent more than 700 international staff to the region, and admitted more than 5,600 patients in four West African states while providing roughly 600 isolation beds and two transit centres. This year, this has cost around $74m. As a rich Western nation, Australia’s contribution is stingy.
This era of unaccountable neo-liberalism has brought moves to privatise disaster management across the world. Recall former US Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggesting in 2012 that federal emergency assistance should be outsourced? Hurricane Sandy brought out the usual suspects of rent-seekers and disaster capitalists looking to make money from misery.
This ideology must be fought when fighting wars, disease or natural catastrophes at home or abroad.
My weekly Guardian column:
Freedom is difficult to resuscitate once extinguished. Australian attorney-general George Brandis recently chastised journalists for criticising his government’s new laws aimed at preventing reporting about “special intelligence operations”. Because he’s a culture warrior brawler, Brandis damned the “usual suspects of the paranoid, fantasist left” but also “reputable conservative commentators” for questioning his judgment over what citizens should and should not learn through the media.
It’s a tragic irony that the loudest voices backing the current war on whistle-blowers are the very politicians who are theoretically elected to protect and enhance free speech and disclosure.
“Never believe anything until it’s officially denied” was a favourite expression of the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, father of the British reporter Patrick Cockburn. It’s a motto worth remembering as we’re faced with a barrage of state-led and private interest attacks on leaks and leakers.
The examples are many, but what occurred on Thursday raises grave concerns for whistleblowers in Australia. Take the case of Freya Newman, a young and part-time librarian at Whitehouse School of Design in Sydney. She accessed information on the institute’s computer system that showed prime minister Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, received a “chairman’s scholarship” worth $60,000.
Newman has pleaded guilty to the offence of unauthorised access to a computer system, and on Thursday appeared in court. The prosecution appeared not to be pushing for a jail sentence but a record of the crime. The fact remains that Newman has been aggressively pursued for a noble example of exposing a matter of public interest.
Newman’s whistleblowing was defended by lawyer Julian Burnside as vital insights into secret access and clearly should be designated as in the public interest. Crucially, he notes that she would have been likely protected by whistleblower protection if working for a government organisation but she was exposed to legal censure because she was employed by a private organisation.
Independent news website New Matilda has released a slew of leaks this year and faced heavy, but predictable criticism. New Matilda operates differently, aiming to piss off the pompously positioned. The current controversy over Sydney University’s Barry Spurr, a consultant to the Abbott government’s review of the national curriculum, is yet another case of smearing a whistle-blower who released a slew of racist and sexist emails to New Matilda.
In an outrageous attack on press freedom, Spurr has tried to legally force New Matilda to reveal its sources and prevent them publishing anything else related to the story. It’s a case of attempted intimidation that New Matilda has happily challenged, and later on Thursday Spurr dropped his bid to expose the source, although the case is still continuing. I’m yet to read other media outlets offering support for the small publisher.
Rather than address the issues raised by Spurr’s compromised position as a man who longs for colonial times, The Australian’s Sharri Markson reported that the emails may have been obtained by hacking, allegations slammed by editor Chris Graham.
The source of the leak is again questioned in an Australian editorial: “the [New Matilda] website maintains [the story] is based on leaks from a source, rather than hacking, as Professor Spurr alleges”. Even entertainer Barry Humphries has damned the release of the emails, wilfully ignoring the political significance of such a man with vile views to perpetuate white Australia in the education system of the 21st century.
There are many other examples of this war on whistleblowers in Australia. Immigration minister Scott Morrison has maintained a medieval seal on details over his border security policy and yet has been happy to find friendly, News Corp Australia reporters to smear critics of his policy. The government has now referred Save the Children workers to be investigated by the Australian Federal Police over “unauthorised” disclosures of information. It was clear intimidation, designed to make employees shut up.
In a haze of claims and counter-claims, with Operation Sovereign Borders celebrated as saving taxpayer dollars, the detail of a breach of security within the department is ignored or dismissed as insignificant. The source of these allegations against Save the Children was first reported in a Daily Telegraph story as being from an intelligence report that they also appear to have been leaked, and which was published on the day of Morrison’s announcement about the investigation. Leaking to obedient journalists doesn’t indicate a healthy whistle-blower culture but rather a docile political environment that rewards favouritism. It reduces democracy to sanctioned drops into reporter’s in-boxes.
Amidst all the fury over angry ideologues concerned that their bigoted conservative values are under attack lie the importance of whistle-blowing without fear or favour. It’s a global problem that’s being led by Nobel Peace Prize winner himself, US president Barack Obama. His administration is publicly supportive of disclosure while prosecuting countless people including the New York Times’ James Risen and perfecting the selective leak to cosy reporters. It’s a particular problem with national security journalism, where the vast bulk of writing is left to stenographers of the bloated intelligence and military apparatus.
Effective whistleblower legislation in democracies isn’t enough because governments have proven their willingness to protect anything that embarrasses or shames them. The persecution of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Thomas Drake, amongst others, is about saving face and not lives. Journalists, aggressive media companies and citizens must revolt and challenge the very fundamentals of our secretive age. This means publishing state and business secrets and widening the overly narrow definition of what constitutes being in the public interest.
Rejecting the criminalising of journalism should be in every reporter’s DNA. The Snowden releases have fundamentally altered the ways in which we understand digital journalism and how we must protect sources away from prying private and government eyes.
Over a year ago I wrote an article outlining the range of documents and stories that need to be told by the invaluable work of whistle-blowers. Today I’m calling for all documents that reveal the operational details of Operation Sovereign Borders, the legal justification for providing Iraqi immunity for Australian special forces in Iraq and the evidence of Australian acquiescence in abandoning citizen Julian Assange at London’s Ecuadorian embassy.
My weekly Guardian column:
It’s the swaggering and unthinking bravado that hits you. Australian prime minister Tony Abbott threatens to “shirtfront” Russian leader Vladimir Putin when he arrives in Australia for the G20. Moscow responds via Pravda by comparing Abbott to Pol Pot and Hitler. Australian senator Jacqui Lambie then praises Putin as a “strong leader” with “great values”.
This is what passes for mainstream political dialogue in 2014. It’s unsurprising that a recent Griffith University study found Australians are deeply disenchanted with the political process.
“We are no longer citizens, we no longer have leaders”, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden told The New Yorker last week: “We’re subjects, and we have rulers.”
He articulates a feeling many of us have about the modern world, of the political and media elites merely shifting deck chairs on the Titanic while powerful interests consolidate power and reduce our privacy. It’s inconceivable today that a leading Australian politician would publicly condemn ubiquitous, global spying undertaken by the US through the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance. Apart from showing the effectiveness of the US lobby, it’s a sad reflection on our unquestioning subservience to US military and commercial interests.
Daily politics is often little more than theatre designed to distract us from the real issues of the day. Because parochial politicians have little power or willingness to challenge the fundamentals of our world – mass surveillance, vulture capitalism and endless war against ever-changing enemies – they prefer playing verbal games in futile attempts to protect us from the vagaries and unpredictability of the outside world. They fail because they benefit too much by maintaining the existing, unequal economic order.
Too many reporters are happy to play along, endlessly debating whether “shirtfronting” is appropriate language for a prime minister to articulate. It’s not, but what matters is how Australia celebrates ignorance on issues of truly great importance.
Take the recent discussion around the Abbott government’s changes to terrorism and surveillance laws. Apart from being supported by the Labor opposition – frontbencher Anthony Albanese’s belated and pointless disquiet over the laws was political posturing of the most transparent kind since his party had already acquiesced with them – it appeared that most politicians who heard the words terrorism and ISIS just waved the legislation through.
This week’s ABC Q&A featured Labor MP Kate Ellis and Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer and neither woman could adequately explain it. Co-panellist Julian Burnside tweeted: “Tonight’s #Qanda showed that at least two MPs had not actually read or understood the national security legislation they supported.”
In a healthy political culture, unlike ours, O’Dwyer and Ellis would be slammed for giving away our freedoms so casually. But this won’t happen because shows like Q&A elevate the art of banal conversations to an artform by expecting all guests to have opinions on issues over which they have no clue. That’s “democracy in action”.
This is not an argument for only “experts” to be heard in our media, far too often these are the same people who advocate war against any Muslim entity, but a call for public accountability of elected officials and journalists. Instead, we’re expected to believe that News Corporation’s Daily Telegraph tabloid, in a new TV ad featuring Liberal premier Mike Baird, isn’t a shameless attempt to proudly claim that Murdoch’s journalists aren’t insiders.
After all, Rupert’s great vision, expressed again recently to G20 finance ministers, is damning socialism, praising deregulation, small government and unfettered capitalism. Such thinking has helped him and his mates handsomely.
Australia is undergoing a Tea party revolution without the colourful Confederate flags. Apparently a t-shirt that reads, “if you don’t love it, leave” is a stirring paean to patriotism. Thanks, Miranda Devine. Liberal backbencher Cory Bernardi, here seen suspiciously smiling while sitting alongside real-life Muslims, is one of the most effective spear-carriers for the local movement. Like its American cousins, supporters talk of small government (except when it comes to finding money for defence and bombing Islamic nations), endorse hyper partisanship, oppose action on climate change, distrust non-Christians and non-Zionists and embrace insularity.
The past is celebrated, the future is feared and the present is up for grabs. Bernardi’s recent statements about his fear of Muslims and the supposed security threats of the niqab or burqa were a perfect Tea party tactic, allowing xenophobia out of the bottle with its message spread by reliable media courtiers. Abbott then rushed in to restore order and condemn the move while still expressing unease with the head-wear.
While some dissenters vehemently oppose Abbott’s worldview and his willingness to utilise stereotypical macho imagery, in reality this problem is bipartisan. Getting past the inconsequential rhetoric flourishes, Labor and its journalistic supporters offer a remarkably similar vision of fealty to Washington’s dictates. One of the central ways to break this predictable cycle is resisting the dishonest and incendiary Murdoch agenda that rewards mates and celebrates a blokey, Anglosphere myopia. It’s no wonder his publications are so keen to dutifully join any conflict with a new Muslim foe.