Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Why literary festivals matter

My weekly Guardian column:

The Byron Bay writers’ festival, one of Australia’s largest literary events, has just finished after three days of discussion and debate under sunshine and rain. With record-breaking crowds listening to writers and rappers in large outdoor tents, it was impossible not to be seduced by the diverse participants, including British authors Jeanette Winterson and Geoff Dyer. I spoke about vulture capitalism, Gaza, Palestine and adversarial journalism.

The growth of literary festivals in Australia and globally is a cultural phenomenon that deserves more discussion. India’s annual Jaipur literary event attracts over 100,000 people in a frenzy of debate, colour and energy. When I spoke in Jaipur in 2011, there were “only” around 50,000 visitors. The event’s reputation and stature has grown exponentially since then.

Martin Puchner, the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English at Harvard University, writes:

“It is difficult to imagine something like the Jaipur Literary Festival in China, and not just because of state censorship there. Jaipur is made possible by the democratic diversity of India … but also by the deep roots that tie India to the Anglophone world.”

In fact, Chinese literary festivals are growing in size and reach, as are similar events in Indonesia and South Africa, as are literary festivals in Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin, Perth and Brisbane, which challenge the notion that the book is dying due to the rise of digital publishing.

Around 80,000 people attended at least one Sydney writers’ festival event this year. San Francisco’s Litquake festival encourages writers to read their fiction from tablets, laptops or mobile phones. Self-published authors are thriving, making money (some, anyway) and demanding to be included at the establishment table.

The snobbery around these writers should disappear because finding a respected publisher may not always be the ideal option. Britain’s Polari first book prize, for writers exploring the LGBT experience, has this year shortlisted two self-published authors on its longlist.

This global literary movement is frequently backed by corporate dollars and state funding, surely the sign of a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, necessary questions over sponsors using their dollars to whitewash bad behaviour or greenwash polluting or destructive policies are too often ignored in the rush to accept the money.

That’s why this year’s controversy over Australian company Transfield, who turn a profit from managing asylum seekers in mandatory detention while backing the Sydney Biennale, was a unique opportunity to link the arts to business practices. Literary festivals would be wise to take note, lest they be accused of turning a blind eye to dirty dollars being spent on worthwhile pursuits.

Why do we love these annual institutions? Founder of The Hoopla, Wendy Harmer, launching the Newcastle writers’ festival in April characteristic style, argued that a communal need for spiritual and intellectual nourishment, along with disillusionment with the political process and its media followers, draws populations to discover new places to share ideas.

With regional towns getting in on the act, Harmer said, “the hunger for communion with like-minded souls is growing. Especially among women, who are not content to sing along to the same old hymn book or obey party rules set by institutions run by men”.

The strength of any cultural institution is its willingness to build an audience, make them feel at home, provoke them, and bring them enjoyment. Reflecting on the politics of the time is surely a pre-requisite for remaining relevant and topical, and yet there often remains a curious lack of diverse voices arguing over the issues of the day.

One of the most persistent critics of literary festivals in Australia is the Sydney Institute’s Gerard Henderson. He often writes that the partly “taxpayer subsidised” writers’ events are heavily skewed against rightwingers. In 2013 he wanted to know why there were largely “leftist, left-of-centre or social democratic participants” in Sydney.

“And what about right-of-centre types and social conservatives?” he asked. “Well, it seems that fewer than a dozen fit this category. That’s a balance of six to one. That’s your typical Sydney Writers’ Festival. That’s your taxpayer dollar working for – well, you be the judge.”

Henderson is, in part, correct. It’s rare to find political panels with writers who vehemently oppose each other’s point of view and argue for, say, the strengths in Tony Abbott’s government, tough asylum seekers policies or the war in Iraq. I think this matters and it’s surely important to provide a platform for articulate advocates of these positions. This is not about spurious balance – literary festivals aren’t designed to have two self-described leftwingers and two conservatives on every panel – but robust disagreement is healthier than constant, furious agreement.

Like many of us in our online habits, we spend too much time listening and reading to those who we like and respect rather than find uncomfortable or offensive. This circular behaviour is like comfort food; tasty but ultimately unintellectual.

Last weekend in Byron I was on a panel with writer Abbas El-Zein, and Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post journalist David Finkel, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finkel and I clashed over the benefits of embedding in a war zone versus independent reporting, and whether we should have more sympathy for occupation forces or civilians under their rule. It was heated but respectful and reflected a different worldview towards reporting in a time of conflict. The audience responded positively to the spirited discussion.

Literary festivals have the opportunity to challenge authoritarianism and intolerance. Events don’t operate in a vacuum – witness the 2011 campaign, of which I was a part, alongside Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky, against a cosy Galle writers’ festival in the heart of a repressive Sri Lankan state. Writers and audiences have a responsibility to remember to both enjoy themselves and the many artists imprisoned and killed for simply expressing a critical, public opinion.

We Australians feel connected to the wider world but are also insulated from its more brutal waves. Writers’ festivals are a unique way for us to briefly connect with each other during a time of global unease and insecurity.

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Edward Snowden warning to us all

A detailed interview with NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden recorded by The Guardian in Moscow. He remains articulate, passionate, insightful and the best argument against the mass surveillance state:




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That rare US media report that humanises Gaza and Palestinians

Moving report, on NBC News, by Ayman Mohyeldin that details the current Israeli violence in Gaza. Slowly but surely Americans are being exposed to the reality of Israel’s crimes in Palestine:

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How the NSA wants total population control

My weekly Guardian column:

William Binney is one of the highest-level whistleblowers to ever emerge from the NSA. He was a leading code-breaker against the Soviet Union during the Cold War but resigned soon after September 11, disgusted by Washington’s move towards mass surveillance.

On 5 July he spoke at a conference in London organised by the Centre for Investigative Journalism and revealed the extent of the surveillance programs unleashed by the Bush and Obama administrations.

“At least 80% of fibre-optic cables globally go via the US”, Binney said. “This is no accident and allows the US to view all communication coming in. At least 80% of all audio calls, not just metadata, are recorded and stored in the US. The NSA lies about what it stores.”

The NSA will soon be able to collect 966 exabytes a year, the total of internet traffic annually. Former Google head Eric Schmidt once arguedthat the entire amount of knowledge from the beginning of humankind until 2003 amount to only five exabytes.

Binney, who featured in a 2012 short film by Oscar-nominated US film-maker Laura Poitras, described a future where surveillance is ubiquitous and government intrusion unlimited.

“The ultimate goal of the NSA is total population control”, Binney said, “but I’m a little optimistic with some recent Supreme Court decisions, such as law enforcement mostly now needing a warrant before searching a smartphone.”

He praised the revelations and bravery of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and told me that he had indirect contact with a number of other NSA employees who felt disgusted with the agency’s work. They’re keen to speak out but fear retribution and exile, not unlike Snowden himself, who is likely to remain there for some time.

Unlike Snowden, Binney didn’t take any documents with him when he left the NSA. He now says that hard evidence of illegal spying would have been invaluable. The latest Snowden leaks, featured in the Washington Post, detail private conversations of average Americans with no connection to extremism.

It shows that the NSA is not just pursuing terrorism, as it claims, but ordinary citizens going about their daily communications. “The NSA is mass-collecting on everyone”, Binney said, “and it’s said to be about terrorism but inside the US it has stopped zero attacks.”

The lack of official oversight is one of Binney’s key concerns, particularly of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa), which is held out by NSA defenders as a sign of the surveillance scheme’s constitutionality.

“The Fisa court has only the government’s point of view”, he argued. “There are no other views for the judges to consider. There have been at least 15-20 trillion constitutional violations for US domestic audiences and you can double that globally.”

A Fisa court in 2010 allowed the NSA to spy on 193 countries around the world, plus the World Bank, though there’s evidence that even the nations the US isn’t supposed to monitor – Five Eyes allies Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – aren’t immune from being spied on. It’s why encryption is today so essential to transmit information safely.

Binney recently told the German NSA inquiry committee that his former employer had a “totalitarian mentality” that was the “greatest threat” to US society since that country’s US Civil War in the 19th century. Despite this remarkable power, Binney still mocked the NSA’s failures, including missing this year’s Russian intervention in Ukraine and the Islamic State’s take-over of Iraq.

The era of mass surveillance has gone from the fringes of public debate to the mainstream, where it belongs. The Pew Research Centre released a report this month, Digital Life in 2025, that predicted worsening state control and censorship, reduced public trust, and increased commercialisation of every aspect of web culture.

It’s not just internet experts warning about the internet’s colonisation by state and corporate power. One of Europe’s leading web creators, Lena Thiele, presented her stunning series Netwars in London on the threat of cyber warfare. She showed how easy it is for governments and corporations to capture our personal information without us even realising.

Thiele said that the US budget for cyber security was US$67 billion in 2013 and will double by 2016. Much of this money is wasted and doesn’t protect online infrastructure. This fact doesn’t worry the multinationals making a killing from the gross exaggeration of fear that permeates the public domain.

Wikileaks understands this reality better than most. Founder Julian Assange and investigative editor Sarah Harrison both remain in legal limbo. I spent time with Assange in his current home at the Ecuadorian embassy in London last week, where he continues to work, release leaks, and fight various legal battles. He hopes to resolve his predicament soon.

At the Centre for Investigative Journalism conference, Harrison stressed the importance of journalists who work with technologists to best report the NSA stories. “It’s no accident”, she said, “that some of the best stories on the NSA are in Germany, where there’s technical assistance from people like Jacob Appelbaum.”

A core Wikileaks belief, she stressed, is releasing all documents in their entirety, something the group criticised the news site The Intercept for not doing on a recent story. “The full archive should always be published”, Harrison said.

With 8m documents on its website after years of leaking, the importance of publishing and maintaining source documents for the media, general public and court cases can’t be under-estimated. “I see Wikileaks as a library”, Assange said. “We’re the librarians who can’t say no.”

With evidence that there could be a second NSA leaker, the time for more aggressive reporting is now. As Binney said: “I call people who are covering up NSA crimes traitors”.

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ABCTV Big Ideas on freedom of the press

The following was broadcast last week by ABC TV’s Big Ideas:

Big Ideas went to the deep north for the Wordstorm festival in Darwin. This is a festival that covers local and national politics and culture with a hefty dose of late night rapping. Some of the rap probably needs a late night time slot; but we can bring you this uncensored session on freedom of the press that pulls together some local journalists and some from the bigger smoke.

The panellists are Kerrie Anne Walsh, formerly of the Canberra Press Gallery & author of The Stalking of Julia Gillard; Glen Morrison, a journalist from Alice Springs, John Van Tiggelan; formerly with The Good Weekend & currently a journalist with The Monthly, writer Claire Scobie & the ubiquitous Antony Loewenstein – blogger, doco maker and journalist. His last book you might recall was Profits of Doom.

Kerrie Anne Walsh is particularly good on the big changes in the reportage and alignments within the Canberra press gallery.

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WikiLeaks Editor Sarah Harrison on Ed Snowden and indy journalism

Fascinating interview in Germany on Democracy Now! with one of the key figures in the still living and breathing Wikileaks and newly formed The Courage Foundation to support whistle-blowers:

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The toxic Greek brew of racism, fascism and hatred of refugees

My weekly Guardian column:

On a searing hot day last weekend I took the train an hour out of Athens to the Greek city of Corinth. There, one of the country’s largest detention centres sits behind high walls. It was the recent site of a mass hunger strike by asylum seekers, whose protest has now gone nation-wide.

I gained rare access to the Corinth centre with a former refugee as my guide. I spoke to Hazara men who had been imprisoned for as long as two years. We stood behind a fence topped with barbed wire while the detainees gathered on the other side, longing for discussion and human contact.

One man had been shot in the foot by a guard and the bullet remained inside his body. They all claimed to be the victims of physical and psychological abuse by the police. None of them wanted to remain in Greece because of the harsh conditions of their incarceration, and hoped to get to Germany or Sweden in the near future. After 15 minutes of hurried conversation, and despite our protests, we were eventually moved on by police.

Greece is on the frontline of European nations receiving desperate refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The poor conditions inside state-run facilities are well-documented. Many of the men who we spoke with in the Corinth centre had been swept up in Greece’s inhumane Operation Xenios Zeus, launched in 2012, to rid the streets of asylum seekers.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of those picked up were found to be in the country legally, the plan was an effective political fix to show the government was tough on “illegal” immigration. Detainees can now be held indefinitely. Detention centres are set to be privatised.

None of this could happen were it not for Greece’s fractious political climate. The recent European elections saw support surge for the far-right Golden Dawn, backing grow for the leftwing party Syriza and the deep denial (or is it shamefaced acceptance?) by the political class of bigotry among their Greek constituents.

It’s no accident that fascist organs are gaining strength in Greece, across Europe and the rest of the world. Even Indonesia is seeing Nazi chic. Many admire the positions of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, because they’re skilfully exploiting economic unease, unemployment and fear of immigrants and Islam. Greece has also seen the return of anti-Roma and anti-Jewish sentiment.

I met one of Golden Dawn’s leading MPs, Ilias Panagiotaros, outside Athens’ high court. He was accompanied by the party leader’s wife, Golden Dawn MP Eleni Zaroulia. Panagiotaros spoke with determined calm, saying that his party is surging in support in spite of it being investigated by the government as a possible criminal organisation. A few hours after we spoke, Zaroulia was placed under house arrest.

“The cases against GD leadership are 100% political persecution”, Panagiotaros explained. “Every GD MP believes in country and nation, heritage, pride and dignity.” A whistle-blower from inside the party recently revealed that the ultimate goal of the group was to create a “one-party state” and attacking immigrants was viewed as a “badge of honour”.

He praised Putin, said Russia would soon be the world’s leading super-power, liked Moscow’s monitoring of all NGOs (“99% of NGOs should face justice here and be in jail because they’re agents of globalisation”), accused all Muslim immigrants in Europe of being “jihadists” who “plan to take over Europe” and condemned the privatisation of public services (despite Golden Dawn MPs routinely backing the government in outsourcing policy).

He praised Israel and said he would like to copy its laws against “illegal immigration” and was equally effusive towards Australian prime minister Tony Abbott. He “has been tough on illegal immigration and I support his position”.

He claimed that all Muslim immigrants coming to Europe should go elsewhere. “If Syrians, Libyans or Iraqis need to go somewhere they should go to the US, the country that caused the wars in their countries. Let the US take these people in.”

I asked Panagiotaros about photos which emerged this week in a leading Greek paper of the currently imprisoned Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos saluting in front of the Nazi Swastika, and other party members’ nostalgia for Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess. He dismissed my concerns.

“So what if our leader was photographed next to a Nazi swastika 40 years ago?” he said. “If you ask every leader in Europe what they were doing decades ago you may find some interesting stories, too.”

I visited another leading Golden Dawn supporter, Dr Epaminondas Stathis, a retired orthopaedic surgeon and losing 2014 European election candidate. His home, an hour from Athens, is a mansion replete with large statues, candelabras, paintings on every wall in every room and many images of Jesus. He said that as he’s “been fighting for patriotic, nationalist ideas all my life”.

He explained that successive governments have for 40 years “destroyed the economy, closed farms and shops; we’ve had a humanitarian crisis for at least 10 years”. What Greece needs, he explained, was a party that respected Greek heritage.

The whiff of conspiracy against the group was never far from the surface, a view that is shared by many Greek citizens who have little faith in the government, media or legal system.

One of the great unreported reasons for the Greek crisis, and barely investigated by the local press except for independent journalist Apostolis Fotiadis, is the European Union’s imposition of disaster-capitalism policies. The aim is to weaken the sovereignty of member states, while allowing corporate interests to buy and exploit assets at low prices. Privatising so much of Greece has been a colossal failure and yet rightwing Greek politicians talk of continuing it. The country has become a giant fire sale, despite massive popular opposition.

These are the political conditions that almost guarantee disruption and unease. While corruption remains rampant and wages low – I’ve spoken to countless young Greeks who tell me that a reasonable wage here is around US$10,000 a year – the appeal of simple fixes, such as offered by Golden Dawn, will thrive. Whether alternative parties of the Left, in Greece and beyond in Europe, will capitalise on these tensions and resist Brussels-directed privatisation is the great challenge of the modern European project.

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Three problems with the Fourth Estate

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.

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Jeremy Scahill in Australia

Last week I had the honour to meet and spend time with US investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. He was here for the Sydney Writer’s Festival (photos from the event here) – our panel together discussed the importance of indy journalism in the face of corporate reporting – and it was unique hearing somebody speak clearly about the human cost of the “war on terror”. Take this ABC interview:

Spending time together reinforced my belief that Scahill, and other humane journalists, aren’t obsessed with “objective” work but reporting on the cost of violent policies across the world in places away from prying eyes. We are all human beings and yet so many journalists prefer being close to power.

Scahill does not.

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Why there are growing corporate attacks on public broadcasting

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.

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Why journalism is broken part 432554

Fascinating and disturbing results (via The Wire) that reveals how so few US reporters want to seriously challenge the power, reach and illegality of the state:

Compared to ten years ago, today’s journalists believe exposing government hypocrisy is more important than ever. Yet, they are less approving of the use confidential documents to expose that hypocrisy, according to a study from Indiana University School of Journalism [PDF]. 

That aversion to revealing unauthorized secrets is just one of the many intriguing conclusions from the online survey of more than 1,000 journalists who work across print, digital news, TV, and radio. The survey dates back more than 40 years, asking journalists a series of questions in 1971, 1982, 1992, 2002, and 2013, giving a good overview of the trends in the journalism culture and business.

One of the most surprising developments over that period over the past ten years, is the steep decline in the percentage of journalists who say that using confidential documents without permission “may be justified.” That number has plummeted from about 78 percent in 2002 to just 58 percent in 2013. In 1992, it was over 80 percent.

That’s even more notable given that the survey took place from August to December of last year, not long after Edward Snowden became a household name for stealing classified documents that revealed the extent of NSA surveillance. The journalists who worked with him to share that information with the public won the Pulitzer Prize last month.

Plenty of changes in the world in the past ten years might explain this sweeping change in opinion, including the post-9/11 surveillance state and the rise of WikiLeaks, which is often credited (or accused?) of taking the responsibility for those documents out of the hands of journalists. The Obama Administration’s unprecedented targeting of whistleblowers, too, likely has played a role in turning opinions against the use of secret documents. That lack of approval may have played a role in the many media hit pieces on Glenn Greenwald, for one. 

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We know too little about US drone attacks

My weekly Guardian column:

The news that the US had killed two Australian “militants” in a drone strike was announced in mid-April. Christopher Havard and “Muslim bin John”, who also held New Zealand citizenship, were allegedly killed by a CIA-led airstrike in eastern Yemen in November last year.

Readers were given little concrete information, apart from a “counter-terrorism source” who claimed that both men were foot soldiers for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, though they may also have been collateral damage (the real target being other terror heads).

The Australian government claimed ignorance of the entire operation. “There was no Australian involvement in, or prior awareness of, the operation”, a spokesman said. New Zealand prime minister John Key released some more details, saying that the country’s GCSB spies had been authorised to spy on him. “I knew that he had gone there [to Yemen] and gone to a terrorist training camp”, he stated.

Since publication of these bare facts, little new information has emerged from the government or other sources – except for some reporting in The Australian about Havard’s apparent transformation after he converted to Islam in his early 20s and went to Yemen to teach English. The paper editorialised in support of the strike: “to be killed in this way is regrettable”, it wrote, but obliterating civilians without a trial was acceptable because “such attacks have done much to stop the terrorists committing even more atrocities.” There was no condemnation of the scores of civilians killed by drones since 9/11.

It’s of course morally convenient to believe that the death of these men will make the world a safer place by removing “threats” without the need to place western soldiers in harm’s way – this is, after all, the apparently compelling logic of drone warfare. But it’s a myth challenged by the former drone pilots featured in the recently released documentary Drone, in which ex-Air Force pilot Michael Haas explains that:

‘You never know who you’re killing, because you never actually see a face. You just have a silhouette. They don’t have to take a shot. They don’t have to bear that burden. I’m the one that has to bear that burden.”

Yet, uncertainty be damned, the Australian government seems to keep on supporting the CIA killings with most of the media following without question.

Fairfax Media headlined one story “Abbott government defends drone strike that killed two Australian Al-Qaeda militants” without challenging that the two men were, indeed, militants or affiliated with Al-Qaida – they may or may not have been, but innocent civilians have been killed by drones before. The sentence “alleged militants, according to the government” never appeared in the article (this is a relatively common habit in journalism – see for example this essential take-down of a New York Times report on drone killings in Yemen).

I’ve reported independently from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and accurate journalism requires finding reliable sources on the ground (or corresponding with individuals through email, phone, encryption or Twitter) who can confirm or challenge the official version. It’s not rocket science, though definitive information can be scarce in a war zone.

In the last days I’ve reached out to various sources in Yemen (some of the best are herehere and here) and asked Sanaa-based Baraa Shiban to comment. His answer is revealing. “The lack of transparency has became a fixed strategy for the US in its drone war. The US announced recently the death of almost 30 militants in a training camp in Abyan, south of Yemen, but can’t release a single name; this tells it all.”

Taking the word of security sources and the state, when this information is so often wrong or deliberately skewed by anonymous officials who strategically leak to justify their counter-terrorism policies, is sadly all too common. “We don’t know the facts” is not a shameful statement. To be skeptical shouldn’t be a flaw, but an asset.

The desultory lack of debate over this latest drone attack is a sadly familiar tale (former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser lent a rare voice of criticism, saying Australians assisting the US drone program could face crimes against humanity charges). The Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan, former army officer and Australian diplomat, offered a commonly-held view of the deaths: “If it is confirmed that these Australian citizens were members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and were not deliberately targeted”, he wrote, “then I don’t think either the Australian government or public will lose much sleep over their passing.”

This misses the point entirely. The two men are dead, so arguments about the legality of their assassination should surely have happened before the US fired its missiles. Shanahan expressed confidence without evidence that Australia “would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power.” This is a familiar refrain echoed by governments, too: that if you’re standing, sitting or socialising with militants, with or without your knowledge, your life could be in jeopardy.

The effect of this random violence, along with the devastating signature strike policy – drone attacks based on “suspicious” behaviour without knowing names or identities of people – is well documented. In Yemen, hatred of the US, along with major social and political tensions, is growing amongst a poor and scared population.

Although the Yemeni regime works openly alongside Washington in its war against perceived enemies (unlike Pakistan, which many say behaves in a similar way but feigns opposition to appease the angry masses) the death of dozens of alleged Al-Qaida militants and civilians at a major base in the remote southern mountains last week will only inflame tensions in the nation.

Let us not forget that the US drone program, massively accelerated under the Obama administration, is mired in secrecy. Earlier this month, a US federal appeals court ordered the government to release legal advice relating to the killings of three US citizens in Yemen in 2011. The American Civil Liberties Union correctly argued that it was unacceptable for the US to both claim the program was classified and yet leak selective information to favoured journalists to “paint the program in the most favourable light.”

The latest killing of two Australian citizens is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning. If these men were threats to national security, then the public deserves to know why and the legal backing behind it. The countless lies during the “war on terror” warrants skepticism of official claims.

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