A witty and moving look at the privatised US prison system:
My weekly Guardian column:
The Sri Lankan Navy band was busy last week, learning the tune to Waltzing Matilda. They played it to welcome Scott Morrison, the Australian immigration minister, who was visiting to launch two patrol boats donated by the Australian government. A photo of the moment,tweeted by journalist Jason Koutsoukis, showed Morrison sitting alongside president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Perhaps it didn’t worry Morrison that there are growing calls to prosecute Gotabaya Rajapaksa for war crimes, because of his actions in 2009 during the Sri Lankan civil war. Australia has been aware of Sri Lanka’s breaches of human rights for some time.
Australia is now closer to the regime than ever, because of their assistance in implementing Morrison’s tough border protection strategy. As Emily Howie, the director of advocacy and research at the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre, reported in 2013, “the Australian government is actively funding and supporting Sri Lanka to undertake these interceptions [of asylum seekers].”
Her report was based on interviews she gathered in Sri Lanka with people who wanted to leave and were stopped, interrogated and often tortured. Howie wrote in The Conversation that arbitrary detention, beatings and torture are routinely meted out to those in custody, Tamil and Sinhalese, with Canberra’s knowledge.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) works closely with its Sri Lankan counterparts, providing training, intelligence, vehicles and surveillance equipment. This has been happening for years. From time to time, stories surface alleging that AFP offers have been present during Sri Lankan police beatings and interrogations of returned asylum seekers. If true, this fits into a wider pattern of Western officials colluding with thuggish militias and authorities over the last few decades, including in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Britain has had its own peculiar involvement in the darkness of Sri Lanka’s recent past. A groundbreaking new report by British researcher and journalist Phil Miller, a researcher at London-based Corporate Watch and regular contributor to Open Democracy on detention issues, outlines how brutal British tactics utilised in Northern Ireland were brought to Sri Lanka in its war against dissidents and Tamils.
The report uncovers new evidence of government and mercenary elements colluding to put down Tamil independence and calls for equal rights. From the early 1980s, London denied any official involvement in training Sri Lankan “para-military [forces] for counter-insurgency operations” but documents show how the British were working closely with Colombo to stamp out the Tamil Tiger insurgency.
Britain saw a unique opportunity to maintain influence with Colombo by training a generation of Sri Lankan officers. London set up a military academy there in 1997, supplied a range of weapons to the army, assisted Sri Lankan intelligence agencies, protected Sri Lanka in international forums against abuse allegations and pressured various governments to ban the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
One month after the end of the civil war in 2009, Britain was working to assist the growth of Sri Lanka’s police department. There was no concern over the serious allegations of massive human rights abuses of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan military. The agenda was economic and political, with Liam Fox, the British defence minister, explaining in June 2011 that Sri Lanka played a vital role in combating international piracy.
“Sri Lanka is located in a pivotal position in the Indian Ocean with major international shipping routes between the Far East and the Gulf within 25 miles of your coast”, he said.
Russia, China, Israel and America have sold military hardware to Colombo both before and after 2009. Wikileaks cables show the US government recognised the Sri Lankan military’s role in atrocities during the civil war. Although the Tamil Tigers undeniably committed terrorist acts, state terrorism by the Sri Lankan establishment was far worse. Australia’s view has been consistent for decades: Canberra rarely recognises state terrorism if committed by an ally.
Australia’s former high commissioner to Sri Lanka, Bruce Haigh, stationed in the country from 1994, recalls how the high commission in Colombo would regularly liaise with its Sri Lankan counterparts, run training programs and accept Colombo’s line that any and all Tamils associated with the liberation struggle were terrorists.
This mindset existed long before September 11. Little has changed, though. Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, has gone even further than his mentor, John Howard, by expressing sympathy for a Sri Lankan regime that tortures its opponents and refuses to endorse an independent investigation into the end of the civil war.
How nations like Australia should relate to Sri Lanka and other human rights abusing countries is a tough question, when Canberra itself routinely breaches its international obligations. At the very least, we should call for rights to be recognised and improved in foreign lands and at home.
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:
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.
My weekly Guardian column:
Since last week’s victories by the militant group Isis against a weak, US-backed, Iraqi government, the same, failed protagonists from the 2003 invasion have come out of the woodwork to advocate another military intervention.
Although some journalists, like The Independent’s prescient Patrick Cockburn, have been warning about the growing power of Isis, voices on the ground are few and far between in western media. Mostly we get the same old neo-cons who took us to Iraq in the first place.
That’s a shame, because local reporters and bloggers have a unique perspective. Instead of listening to think-tanks pushing to bomb, a tour through the internet turns up plenty of thoughts from those suffering the direct consequences of the carnage in Iraq.
Niqash is a website that features Iraqi journalists from across the nation and publishes in Arabic, Kurdish and English. Reporter Abdul-Khaleq Dosky this week interviewed Bashar al-Kiki, the Kurdish head of the provincial council in Ninawa, and asked him about life inside Mosul since it fell to Isis.
“The whole of Mosul is under Isis’ control,” al-Kiki explained. “Isis has also allocated one mosque in the city for tawba [repentance or confession]. People are expected to go this mosque to repent past acts and to show their loyalty to Isis.”
Mustafa Habib‘s analysis of the retreat from Mosul is fascinating: he argues that the Iraqi army didn’t desert, but was ordered to leave. It remains unclear by whom but he quotes Hakim al-Zamily, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defence committee, who says:
“There can only be a handful of people who know who actually gave those orders for the army to withdraw. One of them must be al-Maliki [the Iraqi prime minister.] But up until now he’s said nothing about this.”
Users of social media in Iraq have been perennially blocked by the government. Many Iraqis outside the country have been tweeting about their families trapped in Mosul. Iraqi blogger Maryam Al Dabbagh, now in the UAE, has an essential Twitter feed with moving details about life under Isis control.
The absence of Iraqi voices on the plight of their own country isn’t a new phenomenon. One of the most articulate Iraqi bloggers, Baghdad Burning, moved from Iraq to Syria after 2003 and is now in another Arab city. Her last post, in April 2013, was full of anger about the fate of her homeland:
“We learned that you can be floating on a sea of oil, but your people can be destitute. Your city can be an open sewer; your women and children can be eating out of trash dumps and begging for money in foreign lands.”
Kurdish journalist Fazel Hawramy runs a good Twitter account on Iraq, and has been reporting for The Guardian. Then there’s Isis, which is mounting its own social media campaign. Ironically, there is also an apparent Isis critic tweeting from within the group.
Of course, many Iraqis don’t use social networks at all. In any modern war it’s dangerous to take Facebook posts and Tweets as representing anything more than the views of a select few. Journalism from the streets still remains vitally important.
We should also ask why western reporters are taken to be the most trusted authorities wherever they are reporting. An anonymous journalist, writing from Mosul last week, explained in Niqash that the Baath Party may be making an effort to restore its power in Iraq. However, the author wrote:
“It was still clear who was really in charge: Isis. The same source in Mosul said that after gaining control of the whole province of Ninawa, ISIS then gave the Naqshbandi Army [militias linked to the Baathists] 24 hours to remove their pictures of Saddam Hussein.”
The Iraqi people face years more hardship and uncertainty. What the country doesn’t need is more blowhards looking to preserve American prestige. That was lost the day Iraq was invaded in 2003. Listening and engaging local voices has never been more important, if for no other reason to prove that Baghdad’s problems won’t be fully solved in London, Tehran, Washington or Canberra.
My weekly Guardian column:
Australians feel very comfortable with spying on our friends and enemies. During his visit to Canada this week, Tony Abbott, the prime minister, backed the Five Eyes intelligence sharing structure between America, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and Australia, saying “our intelligence gathering has got to be done in a way that is decent and fair and which doesn’t betray the fundamental values that we are doing our best to uphold”.
According to the recently released Lowy Institute 2014 poll, the majority of Australians agree: 70% of us feel it’s appropriate to monitor the activities of nations with which Canberra has poor relations. Half argue it’s acceptable even against friendly states. Australians have no issue with Indonesia, East Timor, France, Japan, America and New Zealand being spied on by their own government.
Despite there being vast evidence that Australia is arguably essentially spying for commercial purposes against a poor neighbour such as East Timor over its valuable oil and gas reserves, these facts don’t appear to concern Australians.
What the Lowy poll doesn’t ask is how Australians feel about Canberra and its US allies spying on them. One of the invaluable revelations of former NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was confirming the US government’s mass surveillance of its own citizens. Would Australians feel happy knowing faceless spy agencies are recording, collating, monitoring and storing private details about their lives? I hope not.
In Britain this week, actor Stephen Fry slammed the British government for its “squalid and rancid” response to the Snowden revelations. Yet in Australia, there has been very little dissent over them at all. With bipartisan, political backing for American influence on the Australian homeland, it’s revealing how few public condemnations have been heard (with some notable exceptions). For this reason alone, intelligence agencies, the federal government and media backers feel little pressure to be answerable for their secret business.
The Lowy Institute should have probed these issues far more, instead of rehashing tired questions about Australians’ love of the US alliance. The poll report muses on the “continuing relevance and durability of the US alliance for our nation’s security” while never allowing any questions that may challenge this notion. Does the US alliance make Australia a client state of Washington (as former prime minister Malcolm Fraser states in his new book)? Should Australia continue to buy overpriced weapons and planes from multinational US arms manufacturers?
I’m reminded of the classic Noam Chomsky quote: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum…”
The Lowy poll adheres to this rule with mostly safe and predictable questions, and therefore receives expected answers. Elsewhere, the Lowy poll asks mundane questions about how Australians feel about world figures such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi and Angela Merkel. It stands to reason that since media coverage of western leaders is largely benign, showing the supposed good intent of their democratic credentials, Australians overwhelmingly like Obama and his ilk (though no questions about US drone strikes which kill many civilians). Equally, non-western leaders, such as Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Xi Jinping, are very unpopular.
This is another confected result. Since the Snowden leaks last year, Washington has ramped up the rhetoric blaming Beijing for its outrageous spying infrastructure against American businesses and government, even going so far in May of charging some in the Chinese military for hacking. Beijing is demonised as uniquely evil, unfairly gaining commercial advantage over its rivals. This is a classic smokescreen which attempts to change the conversation away from the Snowden documents, which detail extensive US spying on Chinese interests.
When the media gives Washington’s claims far more credence and coverage than Beijing’s, we shouldn’t be shocked that Australians tell the Lowy Institute that they don’t trust the Chinese leader.
Despite these deep hesitations, the Lowy results provide some instructive news about local attitudes. Asylum seekers have been so successfully demonised for so many years that sympathy for their claims and boat people in general is shamefully low. Pressure for serious action on climate change is rising at a time when president Obama is encouraging a reduction in carbon emissions while countries run by neo-conservatives, such as Canada and Australia, are moving even further towards embracing a coal future. Abbott is out of step with public opinion.
One sign of a healthy and mature nation is how it relates to the world and the most vulnerable people in it, and it’s encouraging that 70% of Lowy respondents see poverty reduction, rather than foreign policy objectives (a stated goal of the Abbott government), as central to our outward posture.
A think-tank that didn’t see its main purpose as supporting and strengthening the foreign policy status quo would have designed a far more imaginative and insightful annual poll. In the meantime, Lowy has given us an incomplete picture of Australian attitudes towards some of the most contentious issues of our time and shown the public to be conservative, caring and cautious – the inevitable result when our media is so selective in its coverage of crucial news.
I was interviewed this week on Triple R’s Spoke show about US drone strikes in Yemen, killing Australians and the law:
My following interview appears in the Guardian:
During an event at the Sydney writer’s festival last month, Israeli writer and author Ari Shavit told a packed auditorium that his country was “an oasis in the Middle East”. He explained to the audience, who largely appreciated his words despite some grumblings when he condemned the occupation of the Palestinian territories, that “the Zionist revolution is a phenomenal success”.
Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, has received plaudits from the cream of the liberal, American, political elite. Even former Israeli prime minister and defence minister Ehud Barak writes on the back cover that Shavit “is being brutally honest regarding the Zionist enterprise”.
The book attempts to challenge Zionist myths. One of the more celebrated chapters revolves around Shavit’s recounting of Israeli forces driving the Arab residents from the Palestinian town of Lydda in 1948. He doesn’t shy away from explaining the violence inflicted but then writes that, “I know that if it wasn’t for them [the militias], the State of Israel would not have been born … They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.”
During an exclusive and extensive conversation with Shavit, he tells me that despite decades of conflict and negotiation the “only solution is the two-state solution”.
He continues: “It is the moral and political duty of every Israeli prime minister to try to achieve the two-state solution. Because I have some doubts if this final status peace agreement can be signed today, the next step should be trying to create two-state dynamics that will lead to a two-state solution. We must end the occupation for sure, which if it can’t be done in these circumstances immediately must be done gradually by a settlement freeze and then a withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.”
Shavit also believes that the Palestinians have a responsibility to build a viable state of their own. They “should use whatever land liberated for them in order to have development projects and rebuild a new kind of Palestinian reality,” he says. “You then have Israel moving forward, what I call a nation saving project that ends the occupation, while Palestinians are going into a nation building process to hopefully build a democratic, life-loving Palestine.”
On the first page of My Promised Land, Shavit writes that, “as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear.” I ask him if he still feels that way in the 21st century, as a man in his late 50s. He does. “Although Israel seems to be strong, politically, economically and militarily, at the same time we are intimidated. The two pillars of Israel’s existence are occupation and intimidation and there is a tendency on the Left to see occupation and overlook intimidation and on the Right to focus on intimidation and overlook occupation. Both are there and both are unacceptable.
“Peace-loving people around the world should also address that Israel’s security concerns are not just an issue for generals and strategic experts, or because of Jewish neurosis and our history, but we’re intimidated because of Iran and brutal, violent forces in the region such as Hamas, Hizbollah and Islamist forces in Syria.”
My Promised Land hasn’t received universal praise. American historian Norman Finkelstein just released an entire book, Old Wine, Broken Bottle, debunking the book. Others condemn Shavit’s many writings advocating violence against Israel’s enemies in the Middle East.
Independent Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf, writing in +972 Magazine, sees the work as the “Zionist story, retold by the elite, for the elite”. Sheizaf attacks “the intellectualisation of violence – and ultimately, murder – [as] a central theme with elites in the US and Israel, due to the inherent contradiction between their values and the massive implementation of military force they often pursue.”
Sheizaf condemns Shavit for obsessively focusing on powerful Ashkenazi, Jewish men with the almost complete exclusion of Mizrahi Jews, another large and influential section of Israeli society. “Every social or political group remains the object of the same view”, the reviewer concludes, “deprived of an existence that stretches beyond the role it plays in the Ashkenazi elite’s drama.” Furthermore, Sheizaf wonders about the lack of women in Shavit’s narrative.
Shavit counters these critics not by responding directly to them but by telling me that he refuses to accept that Israel, of all nations “with a past” such as Australia, should not be welcomed. He argues that it can’t be that “liberal Americans, liberal Canadians, liberal Australians and liberal New Zealanders will say that of all the peoples in the world, Israel is the only one that is sinful and morally wrong. Most nations, if not all nations, have skeletons in their past and I thought it was my moral duty to address the side that many Zionists and Israelis do not address. But to take that out of context and not see the larger tragedy of Jewish history and the larger impressive and sometimes even heroic parts of Israeli and Zionist history, that’s wrong.”
What does the success of Shavit’s book in the US reflect about the current climate towards the Jewish state? The author tells me that, “I think there are many people who have an issue with Israel’s present policy, mainly occupation and settlements, and yet they have a sense that there is a need to have Israel, that Israel is legitimate, just and a necessary entity.”
I ask Shavit about the growing global movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, which the author strongly rejects. “The only way to win the battle within Israel [against Jewish extremism] is to have a strong sense that the international community will stand by Israel,” Shavit says to me, “totally accepts Israel’s legitimacy, and will stand by it post occupation.
“If people are not Israel haters and are into really ending the occupation in a reasonable way, the policy should be the exact opposite of BDS. Go to Israelis, hug them, promise them love and support once they do the right thing and demand of them to do the right thing. Right now so many Israelis have deep suspicions whether this kind of [BDS] pressure will end the moment they end the occupation.”
During Shavit’s Sydney writers’ festival event, he continually claimed that, “Israel is not settlers or soldiers” and yet the occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank has been a fact for nearly 50 years. Although he wants to “avoid the blame game” – he praises pro-settlement, Zionist lobbyists around the world because “I’m not ashamed that we have some organisations speaking up for the Jewish minority” – he’s aware that there is growing global impatience with maintaining the status quo.
Ultimately, Shavit fears the “cancer eating Israel from within” and tells me that, “we cannot survive another decade with the suicidal ways in which Israel is building more settlements”. But he has some hope that “a realistic peace concept, rather than a utopian one” can appear to convince the majority of Israelis that “they must act to save Israel from occupation”.
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.