Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein trav­els across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Britain, Greece, and Australia to witness the reality of disaster capitalism. He discovers how companies such as G4S, Serco, and Halliburton cash in on or­ganized misery in a hidden world of privatized detention centers, militarized private security, aid profiteering, and destructive mining.

Disaster has become big business. Talking to immigrants stuck in limbo in Britain or visiting immigration centers in America, Loewenstein maps the secret networks formed to help cor­porations bleed what profits they can from economic crisis. He debates with Western contractors in Afghanistan, meets the locals in post-earthquake Haiti, and in Greece finds a country at the mercy of vulture profiteers. In Papua New Guinea, he sees a local commu­nity forced to rebel against predatory resource companies and NGOs.

What emerges through Loewenstein’s re­porting is a dark history of multinational corpo­rations that, with the aid of media and political elites, have grown more powerful than national governments. In the twenty-first century, the vulnerable have become the world’s most valu­able commodity. Disaster Capitalism is published by Verso in 2015 and in paperback in January 2017.

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.

How Washington created disaster in Honduras

My investigation in US magazine Truthout (and my photos from Honduras are here):

Members of indigenous group Copinh protesting in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

Members of Indigenous group COPINH protesting in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

Armed men wearing ski masks suddenly appeared in the distance. On a dirt road in northern Honduras, between the city of Tocoa and the small village of Punta de Piedra, a massive drug raid was underway. Dozens of men in bulletproof vests with high-calibre weapons swarmed the area: members of the Honduran military and police as well as US-trained Tigres and Cobra forces. They burst forcefully into this area where drug trafficking was rampant.

I was travelling toward the Atlantic coast when I was stopped at a roadblock and ordered out of the car. My translator, my driver, a local Indigenous leader and I were all questioned by the masked police officer about our destination, profession and intentions. What’s happening here, my translator asked? “Too many traffickers, even during the day,” the policeman replied. We discovered that the raid’s purpose was to find a local drug kingpin and anybody working for him.

However, the absurdity of the mission was soon apparent. After arriving at the peaceful town of Iriona Puerta, no more than 15 minutes away from the raid, I was shown the house of the chased drug trafficker. It was a large wooden structure overlooking a calm river, with apparently nobody home, adjacent to the government’s municipal building and across the road from the main police station. The drug boss had little to fear, I was told by locals, because officials in the district protected him.

The house of a drug dealer in the northern Honduran town of Iriona Puerta, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

The house of a drug dealer in the northern Honduran town of Iriona Puerta, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

It was one small insight into the futility of American and Honduran efforts to tackle drug smuggling in the small Central American state. Honduras has long been one of Washington’s most “captive nations” in Central America, never independent from US dominance. Bertha Oliva, head of the leading human rights NGO Cofadeh (the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras), confirmed this view. “We’re like the ass of the US,” she told me in the capital, Tegucigalpa, meaning that her nation is always beholden to Washington and treated badly because of it.

US military funding for Honduras during the Obama administration has caused unprecedented levels of violence against civilians and environmental activists, and has exacerbated gang activity and local government impunity. Donald Trump’s presidency will likely worsen these current trends. President-elect Trump’s appointment of Gen. John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security is a worrying sign. Kelly was head of the US Southern Command during the Obama years and oversaw violent, counter-narcotic efforts across Latin America. He’s a drug war zealot.

The Deadly History of US Involvement in Honduras

I recently travelled independently across Honduras and visited remote and vulnerable areas to witness the reality for impoverished communities struggling to survive amid drug traffickers, corrupt police and government officials, US military personnel and extreme poverty. Collusion between Honduran military forces, big business and US assets has led to Indigenous communities being kicked off their lands and critics of the Honduran state being murdered.

I spoke to human rights workers, Indigenous leaders and victims of state aggression along with officials at the US embassy in Tegucigalpa to understand how this state has become one of the most violent countries in the world since a 2009 coup backedby then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The human toll continues to be devastating, with a 2016 US State Department report acknowledging that the majority of illicit drugs entering the United States still arrive through Central America.

Many times throughout my visit I felt scared, afraid to walk the streets during the day or night due to risks from gangs, police or the military. It was a fear shared by many locals living in the big cities. After Afghanistan, it was the most challenging reporting trip of my life. During my time with a family in the Tegucigalpa suburb of Flor Del Campo, I was told that many people barely left their homes because of regular police and gang killings. Everybody running a business had to pay a “war tax” to at least one gang; if they didn’t, they would be murdered. One Honduran politician, Maria Luisa Borjas, told me that members of parliament were making money from extortion.

It’s why so many Hondurans are fleeing toward the US (though receiving minimal support from the Obama administration and his immigration bureaucracy, which have deported more immigrants than any other period in history). Trump has pledged to militarize US borders even more and Hondurans, Guatemalans and El Salvadorians are rushing to the US border before he takes office.

José Asunción Martínez, 37, a leader with the Indigenous group COPINH and colleague of Berta Carceres, the Indigenous Lenca activist murdered last year, told me at the organization’s base in the city of La Esperanza that, “our country is a narco-state with narco-mayors and narco-MPs. They get funded by drug traffickers and when they get into power they have to pay traffickers back.” Martinez feared for his life after surviving multiple attempts to kill him.

The house of murdered Honduran activist, Berta Caceres, in the town of La Esperanza, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

The house of murdered Honduran activist, Berta Caceres, in the town of La Esperanza, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

“President [Juan Orlando] Hernandez wants more US money to fight a war on drugs, but we all know the funds will be used to suppress Indigenous people,” he said. “COPINH says that we don’t need the [Honduran] army in our communities. We want to cleanse our community of drug traffickers.”

An increasing number of voices in both the US and Honduras are calling for the severance of all US military aid to Honduras after the killing of Carceres in March 2016. Forces aligned with the Honduran army were responsible, according to a deserter from the Honduran military who spoke to the Guardian in June. The assassination resulted in a group of US Democratic Congress members pushing for the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act in July. They stated in an opinion piece that, “as long as the United States funds Honduran security forces without demanding justice for those threatened, tortured and killed, we have blood on our hands. It’s time to suspend all police and military aid to Honduras.” WikiLeaks documents and other information prove US and World Bank complicity in Honduran corruption.

This growing pressure is why the Honduran regime hired leading Washington PR firms, Ketchum and Curley Company, for more than US $500,000 combined, in 2015 and 2016.

Although there is vast evidence that Honduran police routinely collude with drug traffickers to kill people perceived as threats, the Obama administration has poured tens of millions of dollars into the Honduran military and police, with at least US $18 million in 2016 alone. The exact amount of US backing for Honduran military forces is unclear. The Washington Office on Latin America has submitted many FOIA requests over the last years and concluded that US money is likely contributing to the counter-narcotics and anti-gang known as the Xatruch task force and the National Inter-Institutional Security Force, or FUSINA, accused of killing human rights activists including Caceres. The US embassy in Honduras denied any responsibility for the violence and — during a rare, two-day tour in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula — Ambassador James D. Nealon told me that Washington was having a positive influence on the country.

The US Congress designated US $750 million in aid for Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in December 2016 to reduce violence, poverty and the flow of migrants surging toward the US border. However, there’s currently little indication how that money will be actually spent. Honduras is also building a growing military alliance with Israel.

The US model for Honduras is clear. In 2012, the New York Times reported that the US was aiming to transplant the violent counter-insurgency tactics it used in Iraq and Afghanistan to Honduras to “confront emerging threats,” including drug smuggling.

Washington’s relationship with Honduras has a deadly past. From 1981 until 1985, under President Ronald Reagan, the US appointed John Negroponte as its Ambassador. Honduras became a vital staging post for US-backed death squadsoperating in Guatemala and El Salvador. The Nicaraguan Contras — right wing, brutal and funded by the US from the illegal sale of weapons to Iran — established a strong presence in Honduras.

Negroponte was a high-profile official in George W. Bush’s administration, serving as ambassador to Iraq from 2004-2005 and director of national intelligence from 2005-2007. He endorsed Hillary Clinton for president last August.

US-Caused Civilian Deaths in Honduras

One of the more recent notorious examples of US involvement in Honduras occurred on May 11, 2012, when a botched Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) mission in the remote La Moskitia area caused the death of four Honduran civilians, including one pregnant woman, and countless injuries. A passenger boat was fired upon in the middle of the night; DEA and Honduran forces alleged they were shot at first and responded to defend themselves from armed drug traffickers.

I spoke to two surviving witnesses of the incident in Honduras, Clara Wood and Adan Nelson Queen, and both strongly denied these allegations. They said that the boat and its crew were working legitimately and they never saw any drugs on the vessel. They have never received any financial or psychological support from either the US or Honduras. They live with trauma every day. “They want to wash their hands of all this,” Wood told me on the northern, Caribbean island of Roatan. Wood claimed that US officials pressured her to change her testimony about what happened on that fateful night in 2012. They falsely insisted that men on the boat had fired on the DEA agents first, she said. Wood refused to comply despite being offered US $5,000.

The official response to this incident was obfuscation. The Honduran Security Minister General Julian Pacheco Tinoco told me that it was a “very regrettable incident.” The US Ambassador to Honduras, James D. Nealon, declined to comment when I asked him about the raid.

The former DEA chief in Honduras, Jim Kenney, based in the country from 2009 until 2012, was more forthcoming. Over multiple phone interviews from his home in Florida, Kenney explained the DEA’s point of view about the 2012 incident and why he believed it was justified. He expressed no sympathy for the victims of the 2012 incident and said they didn’t deserve any compensation.

“Bottom line, we were there to stop an interdiction of a major load of cocaine coming into the country,” he said. “We were doing our job.” He told me that, “If the [surviving] citizens there have an issue, they should be going after the Honduran government. It shouldn’t be a US response to pay for any of the, if you want to call it, ‘damages.'”

The Murder of Berta Caceres

La Esperanza, Berta Caceres’ hometown, was pretty, four hours by car from the capital, with far less violence than the major cities and bustling fruit and vegetable markets. The name “Berta” was spray-painted everywhere, commemorating the murdered environmental activist. Two massive, color murals of Berta were painted on the outside walls of the prison. Next to one, messages against police death squads were written in Spanish. Their English translations are “Police dickface” and “Police hit man.”

The mother of Berta Caceres, Austraberta Flores, at her home in the Honduran town of La Esperanza, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

The mother of Berta Caceres, Austraberta Flores, at her home in the Honduran town of La Esperanza, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

Caceres was killed on the outskirts of town in a house that stands empty today. It was an active crime scene with police tape around its entire perimeter. A solitary police car sat outside the house, and one policeman and soldier walked up to me as I approached the property, which is situated in a beautiful valley of trees, few houses and low hills. It was eerily quiet and still difficult to imagine the murder on a quiet night last March. The grass was overgrown around the green house, and all of Caceres’s possessions from inside had been removed. Her simple grave sat in a nearby graveyard, barely noticeable amongst the hundreds of other simple memorials.

At the sprawling Caceres family home in the heart of La Esperanza lives her mother, Austraberta Flores, and some of her children. Her mother showed me a memorial for Berta in one of the rooms with her daughter’s many global and local awards. Berta’s 24-year-old daughter Laura,who is usually in Buenos Aires studying obstetrics, told me that in the months before her mother’s death, “there were more threats against her. I used to stay in the house where she lived and was killed, and she wouldn’t let me stay there overnight,” Laura said. “She told me about the threatening text messages she was getting from the Desa company. There were 33 threats recorded since 2013.”

Caceres was the highest-profile opponent of Desa’s proposed Agua Zarca, a hydro-electric project in the western La Paz department. Originally backed by the World Bank, the hydro-electric facility was intended to be built on Indigenous land. The company had signed a deal with a USAID partner in December 2015. Both the World Bank and the engineering company hired to build the damn, Sinohydro Group, eventually withdrew from the project.

Under President Trump, Honduras is set to continue its position as a key transit point for cocaine into the US, because demand remains high and Washington values a reliable autocracy in Central America. High levels of violence will likely continue, forcing locals to flee. The result may well be even deeper US involvement across the region, including new military bases and further training of Honduran forces and police complicit in drug running and murder.

Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based, independent journalist who has written for the GuardianThe New York Times and many others. He is the author of many books including his most recent, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.

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How little we know about the Western war against ISIS

My story in the Guardian:

We don’t know whether the Australian military has killed or injured civilians in Iraq, and if so, how many. Since Canberra joined the US-led mission against the Islamic State (Isis) on 8 October 2014, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has provided barely any information about its operations.

So the new report by Airwars, a British organisation comprised of journalists and researchers, is welcome. It aims to demystify the war against Isis and document how many civilians are dying in Iraq and Syria.

Airwars has found at least 459 non-combatant deaths, including 100 children, from 52 airstrikes. Over 5,700 airstrikes have been launched since 2014.

Yet the US military central command cites the deaths of only two civilians. The discrepancy between these figures – two deaths, or 459 – should be startling. The US State Department pledged to “review its findings” after Airwars issued its report, with a spokesman saying “That’s why we’re looking into them and trying to see where the – what the right number is, to be frank.”

Recall how it wasn’t until Wikileaks released the Afghan War Logs and Iraq War Logs in 2010 that the world discovered the extent of death, abuse and cover-up caused by the US in both states.

Australia’s role in the anti-Isis coalition is shrouded in secrecy. Operation Okra is described as “conducting air combat and support operations in Iraq and is operating within a US-led international coalition assembled to disrupt and degrade ISIL.”

The ADF issues very sparse monthly reports on how it is going about this mission. Australian jets are spending thousands of hours in the air, and have completed over 100 airstrikes, dropping more than 400 bombs and missiles, yet we are told only about the jets’ capabilities, and given pretty pictures of them in action.

I asked the ADF a number of questions, including why the public wasn’t being told more, whether Australia was aware of its actions causing harm or death to civilians, and whether its “rules of engagement” aimed to minimise civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure. My questions were largely ignored. I was told:

For operational security reasons, the ADF will not provide mission-specific details on individual engagements against Daesh. The ADF will not release information that could be distorted and used against Australia in Daesh propaganda. Australia’s Rules of Engagement are designed to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.

A spokesperson for the Minister for Defence, Kevin Andrews, added that, “the Abbott government has every confidence in the professionalism of the Australian Defence Force to act in accordance with Australia’s Rules of Engagement, which are designed to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure”.

When Airwars questioned Australia’s lack of information sharing – unlike, say, Canada, which releases information on a timely basis – it received the same, pro-forma response from the ADF.

Airwars project leader Chris Woods, a British journalist and author of “Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars”, told me that Australia’s lack of transparency was worrying.

“Of the 12 nations in the Coalition which have bombed Daesh in Iraq and Syria over the past year, Australia is pretty much near the bottom in terms of transparency and accountability”, he said.

“The Saudis and the Belgians are worse, though not by much. Once a month we get a chart saying how many bombs have been dropped – and that’s it. No details of locations struck. No word of the dates on which strikes occurred.”

Woods condemns Canberra’s reason for secrecy as inappropriate for a democracy.

“The excuse for this paucity of information is that Daesh might use any improved reporting ‘for propaganda purposes’. That’s absurd, of course. Canada, the UK, France and others all report happily on where and when they strike,” he says.

“And transparency really does matter. The Coalition tells us that each member nation is individually liable for the civilians it kills. If Australia refuses to say anything about its strikes, how can there be any justice for those affected on the ground if something goes wrong?”

This ADF obsession with secrecy and obsessively trying to control the message is nothing new. Remember that in 2013, the ADF tried and failed to isolate Fairfax reporters Paul McGeough and Kate Geraghty during their time in Afghanistan. As McGeough put it, they were “effectively denying our right as journalists to cover any of the story”.

Successive Australian governments have long demanded secrecy in matters of war, immigration and trade. It’s an attitude that presumes the public either doesn’t really care about what governments do; or that enough journalists are willing to swallow spin in exchange for access, embeds with Australian troops or spurious “exclusives” with the military and strategists.

Australia’s current war against Isis has continued this tradition of secrecy. As former army intelligence officer James Brown wrote recently in The Saturday Paper, “how much progress is Australia making against Daesh? It’s painfully hard to tell.” Yet there is no demand for the ADF to open up.

Paul Barratt, former secretary of the Department of Defence and president of the campaign for an Iraq War inquiry, says that the Abbott government’s attitude “reflects both its habits of secretiveness and the lack of a coherent strategy – more policy on the run.

“What started out as humanitarian relief using existing assets in the Middle East was rapidly transformed into boots on the ground in a training role, and aircraft both flying combat missions and refuelling other coalition aircraft for combat missions in Syria. There is little sign that this has been thought through or that it is heading in the direction of an achievable goal.”

I’ve long argued that reporters and media organisations should collectively push back against restrictive ADF methods by refusing to be embedded without greater freedom in the field. Apart from visiting the troops for state-managed photo ops, independent reporting of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is preferable because it’s civilians who bear the brunt of the conflict.

Journalists should also ignore “exclusives” from the ADF until it recognises it’s creating an unacceptable mystery around actions undertaken with taxpayer dollars. Would the ADF loosen its rules? I’m confident it would, not least of all because it craves publicity.

If it doesn’t, we would at least have the spectacle of the ADF defending its tenuous position on disclosure.

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Opposing Washington’s violence against Venezuela

I’m happy to have recently signed this statement on Washington’s unprovoked aggression against Venezuela (via Telesur):

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has added his name to a growing list of Australian journalists, academics, politicians, trade unionists and solidarity activists calling on U.S. president Barack Obama to revoke his executive order against Venezuelan .

On March 9, Obama issued the order which imposed sanctions on a number of Venezuelan state officials and deemed Venezuela to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

In response, the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (Melbourne), with the support of the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network, initiated an open letter to Obama.

The letter has over 70 signatories, including Assange, renowned journalists John Pilger and Antony Loewenstein, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, two socialist local councillors, officials from four different trade unions, academics from ten universities, and representatives from a range of political parties and solidarity organisations.

The letter urges the U.S. president to revoke the executive order and “stop interfering in Venezuela’s domestic affairs and cease making reckless public statements regarding Venezuela’s democratic processes.”

It also encourages Obama to “demonstrate to Latin America that the U.S. is capable of establishing relations based on the principles of peace and with respect for their sovereignty.”

Obama’s recent actions have seen relations continue to sour between the U.S. and the rest of the Americas. At the recent Summit of the Americas, held in Panama April 10-11, numerous regional heads of states expressed their support for Venezuela and called on Obama to revoke the executive order.

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The ongoing importance of Wikileaks

My weekly Guardian column:

The secret CIA files appeared just before Christmas. One detailed how CIA operatives could maintain cover, using fake IDs, when travelling through foreign airports. Israel’s Ben Gurion airport was said to be one of the hardest to trick.

The other document, from 2009, was an assessment of the CIA’s assassination program. It raised doubts about the effectiveness of the program in reducing terrorism. Likewise with Israel’s killing of Palestinians.

In Afghanistan, the CIA discovered that murdering Taliban leaders could radicalise the militants, allowing even more extreme actors to enter the battlefield. The Obama administration ignored this advice and unleashed “targeted killings” in the country. Unsurprisingly, the insurgency is thriving.

These vital insights into the “war on terror” were released by WikiLeaks and received extensive global coverage.

Since 2010, when WikiLeaks released Collateral Murder, showing American forces killing Iraqi civilians, there have been multiple covert – and public – attempts to silence the organisation. Julian Assange has now been stuck in London’s Ecuadorian embassy for two and a half years fighting an extradition order from Sweden over allegations of sexual misconduct. There is an ongoing US grand jury examining the organisation’s role in publishing war and State Department cables. On Christmas Eve, WikiLeaks revealed that Google had turned over the Gmail account and metadata of a WikiLeaks employee in response to a US federal warrant.

The organisation’s ability to stay afloat – and continue to source and release insightful documents – among all this is remarkable.

There is some good news: Visa and MasterCard are being sued for refusing to allow funds to flow to WikiLeaks, and Assange’s lawyers are confident that the current impasse with Sweden will be resolved (although the irregularities over the case are deeply disturbing).

But the reality remains that the public image of Assange has taken a beating after years of legal fights, the botchedAustralian WikiLeaks political party and constant smears by journalists and politicians. We apparently want our heroes to be mild mannered and non-combative. We supposedly need them to be polite and not uncover countless, dirty abuses by western forces. We clearly don’t forgive them for not being perfect. Or perhaps we have a limit to how many war crimes we want to hear about with nobody facing justice? That’s hardly WikiLeaks’ fault. The group has made mistakes, and will make many more, but as a supporter since its 2006 inception, I’m struck by its resilience.

WikiLeaks has been warning against the dangers of mass surveillance for years. The 2014 Assange book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, features an insightful essayon the dangers of Google’s desire to lead American interventionist foreign policy. The book gained headlines across the world. In the month of its release, the organisation offered new documents on German company FinFisher selling its spying equipment to repressive regimes.

The emergence of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and his ability to live a relatively free life in Russia is partly thanks to WikiLeaks, which helped him escape Hong Kong and claim asylum in Moscow. Snowden remains free tocontinue campaigning against the dangers of global surveillance, unlike Chelsea Manning who is now suffering in an American prison for bravely leaking American cables. WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison, a British citizen, lives in exile in Germany due to fears of returning home after working to protect Snowden. This is the definition of heroism.

Just because WikiLeaks’ Assange and Harrison no longer appear in the media daily doesn’t mean their contribution isn’t significant. Take the recent report published by Der Spiegel that showed western policy in Afghanistan aimed to kill as many Taliban leaders as possible, regardless of the number of civilians caught in the crossfire. The thinking was summarised by the head of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) intelligence in Afghanistan, who once said during a briefing: “The only good Talib is a dead Talib.”

This story built on the 2010 WikiLeaks release of Afghan war logs and uncovered yet another level of the “kill everything that moves” mentality that’s been unofficial US military policy since at least Vietnam.

The danger of discounting or ignoring WikiLeaks, at a time when much larger news organisations still can’t compete with the group’s record of releasing classified material, is that we shun a rebellious and adversarial group when it’s needed most. The value of WikiLeaks isn’t just in uncovering new material, though that’s important, it’s that the group’s published material is one of the most important archives of our time. I’ve lost count of the number of journalists and writers who tell me their work wouldn’t have the same insights without the State Department cables. My recent books have been similarly enriched.

States across the world talk of democracy and free speech but increasingly restrict information and its messengers.

“This war on whistleblowers is not ancillary to journalism, but actually it directly affects it,” says Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “It’s making it much more difficult for the public to get the information they need.”

WikiLeaks remains at the forefront of this struggle.

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Defending the rights of whistle-blowers in our age

My weekly Guardian column:

Freedom is difficult to resuscitate once extinguished. Australian attorney-general George Brandis recently chastised journalists for criticising his government’s new laws aimed at preventing reporting about “special intelligence operations”. Because he’s a culture warrior brawler, Brandis damned the “usual suspects of the paranoid, fantasist left” but also “reputable conservative commentators” for questioning his judgment over what citizens should and should not learn through the media.

It’s a tragic irony that the loudest voices backing the current war on whistle-blowers are the very politicians who are theoretically elected to protect and enhance free speech and disclosure.

“Never believe anything until it’s officially denied” was a favourite expression of the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, father of the British reporter Patrick Cockburn. It’s a motto worth remembering as we’re faced with a barrage of state-led and private interest attacks on leaks and leakers.

The examples are many, but what occurred on Thursday raises grave concerns for whistleblowers in Australia. Take the case of Freya Newman, a young and part-time librarian at Whitehouse School of Design in Sydney. She accessed information on the institute’s computer system that showed prime minister Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, received a “chairman’s scholarship” worth $60,000.

Newman has pleaded guilty to the offence of unauthorised access to a computer system, and on Thursday appeared in court. The prosecution appeared not to be pushing for a jail sentence but a record of the crime. The fact remains that Newman has been aggressively pursued for a noble example of exposing a matter of public interest.

Newman’s whistleblowing was defended by lawyer Julian Burnside as vital insights into secret access and clearly should be designated as in the public interest. Crucially, he notes that she would have been likely protected by whistleblower protection if working for a government organisation but she was exposed to legal censure because she was employed by a private organisation.

Independent news website New Matilda has released a slew of leaks this year and faced heavy, but predictable criticism. New Matilda operates differently, aiming to piss off the pompously positioned. The current controversy over Sydney University’s Barry Spurr, a consultant to the Abbott government’s review of the national curriculum, is yet another case of smearing a whistle-blower who released a slew of racist and sexist emails to New Matilda.

In an outrageous attack on press freedom, Spurr has tried to legally force New Matilda to reveal its sources and prevent them publishing anything else related to the story. It’s a case of attempted intimidation that New Matilda has happily challenged, and later on Thursday Spurr dropped his bid to expose the source, although the case is still continuing. I’m yet to read other media outlets offering support for the small publisher.

Rather than address the issues raised by Spurr’s compromised position as a man who longs for colonial times, The Australian’s Sharri Markson reported that the emails may have been obtained by hacking, allegations slammed by editor Chris Graham.

The source of the leak is again questioned in an Australian editorial: “the [New Matilda] website maintains [the story] is based on leaks from a source, rather than hacking, as Professor Spurr alleges”. Even entertainer Barry Humphries has damned the release of the emails, wilfully ignoring the political significance of such a man with vile views to perpetuate white Australia in the education system of the 21st century.

There are many other examples of this war on whistleblowers in Australia. Immigration minister Scott Morrison has maintained a medieval seal on details over his border security policy and yet has been happy to find friendly, News Corp Australia reporters to smear critics of his policy. The government has now referred Save the Children workers to be investigated by the Australian Federal Police over “unauthorised” disclosures of information. It was clear intimidation, designed to make employees shut up.

In a haze of claims and counter-claims, with Operation Sovereign Borders celebrated as saving taxpayer dollars, the detail of a breach of security within the department is ignored or dismissed as insignificant. The source of these allegations against Save the Children was first reported in a Daily Telegraph story as being from an intelligence report that they also appear to have been leaked, and which was published on the day of Morrison’s announcement about the investigation. Leaking to obedient journalists doesn’t indicate a healthy whistle-blower culture but rather a docile political environment that rewards favouritism. It reduces democracy to sanctioned drops into reporter’s in-boxes.

Amidst all the fury over angry ideologues concerned that their bigoted conservative values are under attack lie the importance of whistle-blowing without fear or favour. It’s a global problem that’s being led by Nobel Peace Prize winner himself, US president Barack Obama. His administration is publicly supportive of disclosure while prosecuting countless people including the New York Times’ James Risen and perfecting the selective leak to cosy reporters. It’s a particular problem with national security journalism, where the vast bulk of writing is left to stenographers of the bloated intelligence and military apparatus.

Effective whistleblower legislation in democracies isn’t enough because governments have proven their willingness to protect anything that embarrasses or shames them. The persecution of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Thomas Drake, amongst others, is about saving face and not lives. Journalists, aggressive media companies and citizens must revolt and challenge the very fundamentals of our secretive age. This means publishing state and business secrets and widening the overly narrow definition of what constitutes being in the public interest.

Rejecting the criminalising of journalism should be in every reporter’s DNA. The Snowden releases have fundamentally altered the ways in which we understand digital journalism and how we must protect sources away from prying private and government eyes.

Over a year ago I wrote an article outlining the range of documents and stories that need to be told by the invaluable work of whistle-blowers. Today I’m calling for all documents that reveal the operational details of Operation Sovereign Borders, the legal justification for providing Iraqi immunity for Australian special forces in Iraq and the evidence of Australian acquiescence in abandoning citizen Julian Assange at London’s Ecuadorian embassy.

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Australia’s role as dutiful US client state

My weekly Guardian column:

Back in July, Australian Opposition Leader Bill Shorten delivered a speech at the Australian American Leadership Dialogue at the New York academy of sciences. It was full of motherhood statements – “We are bonded, we are blood cousins” – praise for Israel’s “innovation” (no mention of the Palestinians) and clichéd rhetoric about a pioneering American “legacy” that inspires Australians.

The assembled journalists would have clapped with appreciation, though the vast bulk of the event went unreported. It’s extremely rare for any journalist to criticise the meeting. If they do, their invitations from the US lobby tend to get lost in the mail.

Shorten’s kowtowing to Washington made it unsurprising that he offered his support for Tony Abbott involvement in Obama’s new Middle East conflict, but then again, this is how we’re expected to behave in a US client state.

Our politicians and journalists are duchessed with countless conferences and overseas trips. They’re the willing subjects of endless lobbying, “insider access” and so on. Then there’s the dinners, lunches, breakfasts and off-the-record chats with the cream of the US establishment.

The drip-feed is addictive and consequently the public often receives little more than press releases dressed up with a byline. Even questioning last week’s Australian anti-terror raids brings condemnation. Get with the program, repeat the word “terror”, ask questions never.

So many editors, journalists, politicians and advisors have attended the conferences and forums at the heart of the US-Australia relationship that it’s almost better to ask who hasn’t been, and to thank them. The Australia-Israel Leadership Forum, modelled on the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, has attracted huge numbers of politicians in recent years.

The same month that Shorten was extolling the virtues of the US in New York, Christopher Pyne, the education minister, visited Jerusalem for another leadership forum, which also included the UK. He praised Israel like an excited school-boy and used the word “freedom” 20 times in a very short speech.

Australian politicians and media courtiers constantly praise the “shared values” between Australia and Israel (though it’s clear what values a brutal military occupation of Palestine represents). A rare exception was the former foreign minister Bob Carr, who caused a storm earlier this year when he condemned the extremism of the Zionist lobby, saying that it was damaging Israel’s future. Less was said about Palestinian viability.

Carr was immediately pounced on by both his political enemies and allies – standard practice for critics of Australia’s closeness to the US or Israel. Former Labor leader Mark Latham was similarly condemned after he apparently risked the US alliance by correctly, in my opinion, stating in 2005 that our incestuousness with Washington made us more of a terrorist target. Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser is another of the few high-profile political figures who write honestly about the true nature of the alliance, and he’s in his 80s.

Just how deep does the connection go? Wikileaks cables released in 2010 revealed the long list of Liberal and Labor politicians lining up to praise the US alliance. Many of them were upset that their overly close ties with Washington were exposed in the public domain.

After the cables were released, the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove argued that the cables showed a benign US and resented diplomatic embarrassments being made public. Former Labor politician Stephen Loosley, who writes glowingly about the US, claimed the cables would have a “chilling impact in terms of people speaking very frankly.” Former foreign minister Alexander Downer also talked about “embarrassing” revelations.

A rare voice of establishment dissent came from Paul Barratt, a former intelligence analyst and former secretary of the Department of Defence. He worried that public trust was breached by Australian politicians so uncritically accepting the goals of two foreign powers, Israel and America.

Canberra is described in the Wikileaks documents as “rock solid”, but uninfluential on American thinking. Obsequiousness is Canberra’s permanent stance. Australian academic Hugh White offered a pithy comment on the depth of the unequal relationship:

“I guess what’s striking about it though is how hard people in the Labor Party, people in Australian politics in general, work at being liked by the Americans, and there’s nothing wrong with being liked by the Americans, but what strikes me about what we’ve seen in the WikiLeaks saga so far is so little evidence of us asking for something back.”

Even David Kilcullen, the Australian counter-terror expert, said this week that an open-ended conflict was a “concern” and Australia “should be pushing for a ­pretty definite end [date]” to any new Iraq conflict, though he’s been an active supporter and advisor of failed, US-led policies in Iraq and Afghanistan for years.

In the parallel universe of Washington talking points created by the US-Australia alliance, Obama’s war is about the “battle for hearts and minds” in the Islamic world, not the brutal reality of US policy on the ground in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia. Alternatives to bombing yet more Arab nations are plentiful if we care to look – but we don’t.

An independent foreign policy requires Australia recognising it has never really become a sovereign nation. The bravado over Isis shows the political elite prefers to live in Obama’s shadow.

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How the West has always backed brutal Sri Lanka

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 IrelandIraq 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.

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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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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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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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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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US and UK mission to destroy Wikileaks (the documents prove it)

A stunning work from the new investigative site The Intercept – founded by Jeremy Scahill, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the articles already speak for themselves; critical, punchy and unafraid to take on power – reveals the British and American attempts to destroy Wikileaks and attack its supporters. As a backer of Wikileaks since the beginning, in 2006, I continue to believe its documents are some of the most important this century:

Top-secret documents from the National Security Agency and its British counterpart reveal for the first time how the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom targeted WikiLeaks and other activist groups with tactics ranging from covert surveillance to prosecution.

The efforts – detailed in documents provided previously by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – included a broad campaign of international pressure aimed not only at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but at what the U.S. government calls “the human network that supports WikiLeaks.” The documents also contain internal discussions about targeting the file-sharing site Pirate Bay and hacktivist collectives such as Anonymous.

One classified document from Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s top spy agency, shows that GCHQ used its surveillance system to secretly monitor visitors to a WikiLeaks site. By exploiting its ability to tap into the fiber-optic cables that make up the backbone of the Internet, the agency confided to allies in 2012, it was able to collect the IP addresses of visitors in real time, as well as the search terms that visitors used to reach the site from search engines like Google.

Another classified document from the U.S. intelligence community, dated August 2010, recounts how the Obama administration urged foreign allies to file criminal charges against Assange over the group’s publication of the Afghanistan war logs.

A third document, from July 2011, contains a summary of an internal discussion in which officials from two NSA offices – including the agency’s general counsel and an arm of its Threat Operations Center – considered designating WikiLeaks as “a ‘malicious foreign actor’ for the purpose of targeting.” Such a designation would have allowed the group to be targeted with extensive electronic surveillance – without the need to exclude U.S. persons from the surveillance searches.

In 2008, not long after WikiLeaks was formed, the U.S. Army prepared a report that identified the organization as an enemy, and plotted how it could be destroyed. The new documents provide a window into how the U.S. and British governments appear to have shared the view that WikiLeaks represented a serious threat, and reveal the controversial measures they were willing to take to combat it.

In a statement to The Intercept, Assange condemned what he called “the reckless and unlawful behavior of the National Security Agency” and GCHQ’s “extensive hostile monitoring of a popular publisher’s website and its readers.”

“News that the NSA planned these operations at the level of its Office of the General Counsel is especially troubling,” Assange said. “Today, we call on the White House to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the extent of the NSA’s criminal activity against the media, including WikiLeaks, its staff, its associates and its supporters.”

Illustrating how far afield the NSA deviates from its self-proclaimed focus on terrorism and national security, the documents reveal that the agency considered using its sweeping surveillance system against Pirate Bay, which has been accused of facilitating copyright violations. The agency also approved surveillance of the foreign “branches” of hacktivist groups, mentioning Anonymous by name.

The documents call into question the Obama administration’s repeated insistence that U.S. citizens are not being caught up in the sweeping surveillance dragnet being cast by the NSA. Under the broad rationale considered by the agency, for example, any communication with a group designated as a “malicious foreign actor,” such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, would be considered fair game for surveillance.

Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in surveillance issues, says the revelations shed a disturbing light on the NSA’s willingness to sweep up American citizens in its surveillance net.

“All the reassurances Americans heard that the broad authorities of the FISA Amendments Act could only be used to ‘target’ foreigners seem a bit more hollow,” Sanchez says, “when you realize that the ‘foreign target’ can be an entire Web site or online forum used by thousands if not millions of Americans.”

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