At The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, The Political Media Circle-Jerk Proceeded Minus Donald Trump

White House Correspondents Dinner - First Amendment - Washington Political Media

At the annual Washington D.C. bash, the political media class were more concerned by the lack of Hollywood celebrities to ogle than the fact that half the country holds them in contempt, feels deliberately misunderstood and distrusts nearly everything that they have to say

The Washington Post reported today on the fact that brave members of the Washington D.C. political media class somehow managed to soldier on and enjoy themselves at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner and associated glitzy after-parties despite President Trump’s cruel boycott of the event (Trump decided to hold another one of his dubious rally-style events in Pennsylvania).

Without a single hint of self-awareness, the Post reports:

His voters sent him to Washington to break stuff, and this weekend Donald Trump tried to break the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association. As with some of his business ventures, he was not wholly successful.

“They’re trapped at the dinner,” the president boomed at a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., celebrating his first 100 days in office. “Which will be very, very boring.”

Instead, it was just fine. It happened. There’s an inertia to these Washington traditions, and a determination to soldier on in the face of — whatever it is we’re facing. Everyone survived this weekend without the president, or without the crush of Hollywood celebrities who for years had been decorating the dinner in ever-increasing density, until now.

It was a bit like an off-year high school reunion: diminished numbers and fewer crazy stories but still no shortage of hors d’oeuvres and dancing and gossip. Everyone settled for sightings of Michael Steele and Debbie Dingell instead of Jon Hamm or a Kardashian. In past years, virtually the entire cast of “Modern Family” would come to the dinner; this year, United Talent Agency only secured the kid who plays Luke.

Well, now we can all sleep easy in our beds. Despite the president of the United States refusing to perform the traditional routine of being self-deprecating and massaging the egos of the people supposed to hold him to account, the Washington press corps somehow managed to rescue the evening and enjoy themselves. Despite being deprived of the opportunity to rub shoulders with Hollywood royalty, the assembled journalists and media executives still managed to mingle, network and slap each other on the backs for a job well done serving the interests of American democracy.

Aren’t you relieved? I know that I am.

More:

Was it only a year ago that Barack Obama dropped the mic, literally, at his final correspondents’ dinner, as if to put an exclamation point on eight years of media savvy and pop-culture propaganda? He knew his role in this circus. It was Obama’s yearly chance to inspire a meme, rib a rival, come off as folksy royalty, remind the public that the media was not the enemy. His cool factor iced out the haters, smudged away red lines, papered over unkept promises. Afterward, the French ambassador’s mansion would swell with swells — both conservatives and liberals, all buddy-buddy in private, united by the daytime charade they pulled off together on TV.

As yes, good old Obama knew his place, knew his role in the “circus” – to dance like a performing seal in an attempt to make the self-satisfied hacks chuckle. Sure, Obama was more successful than most – thanks to a largely uninquisitive media he managed to maintain the “cool factor” right to the end of his presidency – but he stayed firmly within the tramlines of what was expected of him.

And what was that role? What has it traditionally been for administration after administration? Nothing more than making the media class look noble for one evening a year when they spend the other 364 making themselves look tawdry and partisan. Fudging important ideological questions and reducing them to laughing points. Papering over “unkept promises” as the trivialities that they are to the Washington political class – little frauds perpetrated on the American voters, some of whom are naive enough to expect political promises to be kept.

But the Washington Post is certainly in no mood to dwell on the accumulated failure of prestige American news outlets to hold leaders to account or properly represent the range of interests and opinion in the country. After all, the Post are enjoying a bumper season of increased subscriptions and web traffic thanks to the Trump presidency, drunk not on $25 cocktails but on their own sense of nobility (as evidenced by their hilariously overwrought “Democracy Dies In Darkness” motto).

Indeed, the Washington Post seems most anxious for us to know that this year’s event was a dud because Trump might have attended, not because he ultimately chose not to do so:

The guest list suffered not because Trump sent his regrets but, more likely, because of the chance he might attend; he remains dauntingly unpopular with the New York and Hollywood A-list that he had long aspired to join. The pre-dinner receptions, hosted by outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, were staid and perfunctory, absent the usual angling for a sighting of a “Game of Thrones” star.

Apparently at no point has it occurred to the Post or other such outlets whether the presence of Hollywood celebrities at a political media event might actually be a bad thing rather than something to be celebrated and missed in its absence. It is merely taken for granted that the presence of numerous multimillionaires from the entertainment industry is some kind of sign that the health of American political journalism and culture is in fine fettle.

The focus of the stripped-down event was on defending free speech and celebrating the importance of a free press guaranteed under the First Amendment, something which we can certainly all applaud but which rarely merited such prime-time coverage when the Obama industry was, say, prosecuting whistleblowers with uncommon zeal. Has Trump made numerous troubling statements with regard to freedom of the press, libel laws and freedom of speech and association in general? Absolutely.  But it is telling that much of the media is happy to trumpet the issue now, when it costs them little reputationally or financially, but maintained a pained silence under a more popular “liberal” president.

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The dinner itself featured a dutiful pep talk by Watergate legends Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

“Mr. President, the media is not fake news,” Woodward said from the dais, and the media elite applauded.

“CNN and MSNBC are fake news,” Trump said in Pennsylvania, and some of the 97 percent who say they’d still vote for him applauded.

Two worlds, talking past each other, from 100 miles apart. The latest prime-time iteration of POTUS vs. Beltway.

Only it isn’t just POTUS vs Beltway. It is half of America versus the Beltway news outlets and punditocracy. The cosseted Washington media class is so busy being angry at Donald Trump for his bombastic insults and threats that they remain largely unable to look beyond the president to see the many Americans who may not agree with Trump but who share his hatred of the people who filter and report the news.

As this blog has previously discussed, the mainstream American news media is indeed not “fake news” inasmuch as the likes of CNN or the New York Times do not routinely print sensationalist and patently false accounts of fabricated events designed to excite partisan zealots. But they have other far more insidious and effective methods of shaping the narrative through their editorial stances and very deliberate use of language.

As I wrote last year:

Fake news can incorporate false facts, but also correct facts which have been deliberately misinterpreted or spun. And far more insidious than any one fake news story, no matter how egregious, is the way in which language is often used to subtly change public perceptions over time – note how we now speak about “undocumented” rather than “illegal ” immigrants, a change adopted by nearly all of the mainstream media in America, and now in Britain too.

When the media is secretly complicit in ideologically-driven agendas, trust in the more reputable media is rightly weakened. But this leaves people more vulnerable to peddlers of deliberately fake news, as they search for alternatives. The obvious answer is for mainstream prestige outlets to rediscover their integrity and stop forcing readers away with ideologically skewed coverage, but they will not desist, and so they fuel the exodus of readers away to the fringes of the internet, a place where the more outrageous a story sounds, the more people will read it.

But there they all sat, facing a stage emblazoned with the words “Celebrating the First Amendment” and no doubt feeling inordinately pleased with themselves for the stellar work they believe they are doing in standing up to the Trumpian dystopia, unaware or more likely just unconcerned by just how hated and distrusted they are throughout vast swathes of their own country.

The New York Times had an interesting feature article today looking at the upcoming final round of the French presidential election between centrist empty-suit Emmanuel “status quo” Macron and depressing protectionism advocate Marine Le Pen. The piece focuses on the struggling northern town of Calais, a place I know quite well through many visits during my adolescence, and is actually quite fair in its examination of the erosion of the town’s biggest industry in the face of global competition and the lack of political answers

For a piece of New York Times journalism, it is pretty good – especially compared to their godawful “Will London Fall?” hitpiece on Britain and their generally hysterical and uncomprehending coverage of Brexit.

The only problem? The New York Times has to send reporters on expeditions into towns like Calais in order to talk to the locals and get to know their concerns, just as American reporters descended with newfound intensity on Trumpland after the US presidential election trying to figure out what went wrong, and just as shellshocked London political journalists stumbled shellshocked beyond the great metropolis in a bid to understand what Middle England was thinking.

The New York Times article’s author, Liz Alderman, is naturally based at the newspaper’s Paris bureau. Unless she makes a conscious effort, nearly every human interaction she makes will be likely with somebody who intends to vote for Macron in the second round. This is not to impugn Alderman’s work or journalistic ethics – the Calais piece proves that she does seek out contrary opinions in the unloved regions of France when required. But when the majority of your professional and social life is spent among people who hold one set of values, the occasional field trip to the other side of the tracks cannot make up for deep-rooted understanding of – and empathy with – the more pro-globalism, pro-EU, pro-market side.

And so it is in Washington D.C. The people who gather each year for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (and then grumble about how they no longer get to rub shoulders with Hollywood stars thanks to the big bully in the White House) may make the occasional foray into Trumpland if the needs of a story require it. But the vast, vast majority do not live the lives of Trump supporters, nor live among them, nor count such people among their friends or family. And you simply cannot report fairly, accurately or honestly about people whom you have to interview to get any kind of sense of who they are or what their hopes, dreams and fears may be.

The White House Correspondents’ Association clearly does not care. They have calculated that they can prosper just fine by continuing to swagger around like noble seekers of truth, bellowing about free speech and holding President Trump to “account” (while furiously ignoring just how much their lust for TV ratings and pageviews fuelled his rise in the first place). But should one of the tuxedoed dinner attendees ever stop to wonder how Donald Trump is able to effortlessly turn a crowd of people against the media at a campaign rally, this is the reason.

Trump’s non-attendance was the perfect excuse to cancel a sleazy and tawdry annual event which should have been axed many years ago, if only the bipartisan ruling class had any self-awareness or a care for how they appeared to the rest of the country.

But even now they party on, while America burns.

 

Chris Matthews - Al Sharpton - MSNBC

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Spot The Bully – Journalism or Government?

SPS Polis 2014 journalism conference

The POLIS 2014 Journalism Conference, held on the campus of the London School of Economics, played host to a number of luminaries from the British media establishment and debated some important issues. But among the various items on the agenda – including riveting discussions on the methods and ethics of investigative journalism, an interview with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and a forum on the use of social media in the newsroom – was a slightly incongruous, strangely titled session.

In the second session of the day, the panel – comprised of chair Anne McElvoy (BBC and The Economist), Annette Dittert (German broadcaster ARD), Michael Crick (Channel 4 News) and Ed Lucas (The Economist) debated the following topic:

Journalism after Snowden: Watchdog or thug?

In the wake of the Snowden story and the Leveson Inquiry into the press, we ask whether British journalism is to supine or too aggressive? Was the publication of state secrets justified?

SPS_Polis2014_01

Semi-Partisan Sam, attending the POLIS Journalism Conference for the first time, took the opportunity to ask the following question of the panel:

QUESTION – Given the facts: that Reporters Without Borders downgraded the UK from 29th to 33rd in the World Press Freedoms rankings for 2014;  that the British government now assumes the right to stop and detain partners and relatives of journalists at Heathrow airport under grossly misapplied anti-terror laws; that the Prime Minister last year saw fit to dispatch his Cabinet Secretary to the offices of a major national newspaper in order to threaten it with closure unless they desisted with the publication of materials embarrassing to the government; and that the government forced that same newspaper to destroy their privately owned computers and hard drives under the watchful presence of intelligence and GCHQ officers – why are we sitting here having an introspective debate about whether or not journalists are behaving like thugs when the real thug is clearly the bullying, heavy-handed British government?

The question was extremely well received among the attendees in the hall, prompting a significant round of applause from delegates. Sadly, this did not translate into a a full or robust answer from the panel, who at times had been happier to wander off-topic and waste time debating side issues such as America’s merits as a country and the proper role of the intelligence services.

The panel’s complete answer – such as it was – to the question can be seen in the video below (Semi-Partisan Sam is “the gentleman” referred to by Anne McElvoy):

The Economist’s Ed Lucas, an enthusiastic apologist for anything and everything that the government decides to do in the name of ‘security’, was obviously unsympathetic to the idea that the British government has displayed thuggish behaviour. But since even Lucas was unable to justify what the government has been caught doing without public knowledge or consent, he instead diverted attention by building up and then destroying a straw-man argument of his own creation – namely that those who speak out against government persecution of journalists who expose overreach by the security services are somehow naive pacifists who want to abolish the military and the intelligence services entirely.

Lucas said: “If you want to have a country which has no intelligence and security services, where there are no state secrets or no penalty for stealing state secrets, then fine – I guess that may be the world that the Green Party would like. I suspect it’s a minority point of view.”

This is a patently false and absurd proposition. No serious critic of the British or American governments as pertaining to their secretly allowing their security services to infringe on citizen privacy is suggestion that GCHQ, MI6, the CIA or NSA be disbanded, and Lucas insults our intelligence to cast this aspersion. The issue is not whether we have security and intelligence services, but the lengths to which we as a society are prepared to let them act in our interest.

The other fatuous argument sometimes made by apologists – and indeed by Ed Lucas himself during this same session – goes along the lines of: “Why are people so surprised that we have spies, and that they are involved in acts of spying?” Again, this is a deliberate and misleading attempt to change the terms of the debate. Citizens fully understand the need for foreign and domestic intelligence, but they also have the right to expect that the technology and bureaucracy of surveillance will not be turned inwards upon themselves. While no one expects (or demands) a list of current surveillance targets to be posted and regularly updated on the  internet, the public should have input as to the criteria for targeting through the democratic process.

It is a rather sad statement on the current status of British journalism that the only panellist to seriously engage with the question and agree that it is government – not the press – who have been acting the bully, was Annette Dittert from German broadcaster ARD.

Even the panel chair, Anne McElvoy, felt the need to reframe the question and make the unsubstantiated claim that Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, had been carrying “shedloads of secrets with him” when he was detained at Heathrow airport, and that rather than being an outrage, this was just one of the “more difficult areas” where the public “might begin to have some doubts” and feel that the government has a case to answer.

In her response, Dittert correctly identified the apathy of the British people as being partly responsible for the lack of public outcry at the Edward Snowden revelations, saying that Britain has an “almost romantic relationship with the security services” – our experiences of the fictional James Bond being somewhat different to the German experience of the Stasi.

Responding to the question, Dittert said: “I thought it was really concerning – the Prime Minister threatening in the House of Commons a newspaper and journalists … in case they go on publishing is something that shouldn’t happen in a democracy.”

Dittert then went on to describe the way that The Guardian newspaper was treated as being “entirely wrong”.

It is profoundly worrying that even at a prestigious journalism conference such as POLIS 2014, so few of the attendees (and only one of the panellists – a German television correspondent) felt able to push back against the notion that it is the journalistic profession that has become the bully and the thug rather than the British government, whose track record on secrecy, paranoia and intimidation speaks for itself.

And while the POLIS 2014 conference was excellent, the fact that the whole day passed with virtually no observance or mention of the harrassment and intimidation of the British press by the goverment will only reinforce the belief that the establishment media with their well-connected sources and comfortable positions within the Westminster bubble are, at times, quite incapable of holding to account the government that they simultaneously both depend on and fear.

Polis Annual Journalism Conference 2014

LSE_Polis_Journalism

 

Semi-Partisan Sam will be attending the annual Polis Journalism Conference later today at the London School of Economics for what promises to be a very stimulating day of discussion and debate, featuring – for good or for ill – a Who’s Who of the British media establishment.

Several sessions in particular are especially relevant to the aims and objectives of this blog:

Journalism after Snowden: Watchdog or thug? In the wake of the Snowden story and the Leveson Inquiry into the press, we ask whether British journalism is too supine or too aggressive? Was the publication of state secrets justified?

Taking on the world: The Guardian In the last 12 months The Guardian has published one the biggest scoops in its history. The Snowden revelations brought intelligence officials into its offices to smash up hard-drives. At the same time it is re-inventing itself as the radical liberal journalism platform for the world. Steve Hewlett puts its editor under the spotlight.

The future of transparency journalism A new generation of journalists is emerging, finding fresh ways to hold power to account. What skills do they need? How will their work change? We bring together former top news professionals and journalism educators to debate the way forward.

Holding Europe to account As Europe prepares to go to the polls in a month’s time it is facing a political crisis. How can journalists get citizens to engage with European issues and how should they report on the growth of scepticism?

 

Stay tuned to @SamHooper on Twitter for live-tweets from the event, and to this blog for discussion and analysis of the conference after the fact.

 

Britain’s Future In Europe – Reviewing the LBC Debate

Image from BBC
The LBC debate on Europe – Image from BBC

 

Finally, the British voters got what they had always wanted – a real debate between politicians on the merits and disadvantages of Britain’s continued EU membership. The political elite and main party leaders may have snubbed the debate and thumbed their noses at the concerns and sentiments of the people, but the discussion went ahead nonetheless, thus proving that important and thorny issues will be debated and tackled in Britain, even when it does not dovetail conveniently with the news strategies of the main political parties.

This blog offered a running, real-time commentary on the debate as it took place, on Twitter.

Nick Clegg, having been nominated to begin the debate, started with the risible and misleading suggestion so beloved of Europhiles that Britain’s trade with Europe and membership of the European Union are essentially one and the same thing – that to leave the political organisation that is the EU would be to build a wall and sever all trade ties with our continental European trading partners. Of course, in reality this is simply not the case, and Nigel Farage took the earliest opportunity to swat down this false argument.

Farage continued his strong start by cunningly reversing the question and asking if Britain were currently outside the EU, and given what we all now know about the costs and flaws and drawbacks of EU membership, whether the British electorate would likely vote to join. This simple shifting of the lens on the debate is clever, and moves focus away from distracting side-issues about the mechanics of secession, looking instead specifically at the merits.

The debate then moved on to whether a referendum on British membership of the EU is desirable at all. Here, Farage did a superb job of calling out the main political party leaders for repeatedly promising referenda in the run-up to elections and then back-peddling or stalling when the time came to deliver on the promises.

Here, Nick Clegg was firmly on the defensive, continually resorting to the official line that he might deign to grant the British people a say on future EU membership, but only in the event of some future treaty change. The justification for this particular stance, at one time used by all of the major political party leaders, has never been convincingly made. People in Britain are unhappy with the EU as it is now, not with how it might be after some as-yet unknown treaty modification. So why can the debate and the referendum not take place on Britain’s current status quo relationship with the EU? As this blog observed at the time, if you catch someone stealing from you, you don’t wait until the next theft before alerting the police, you would do so immediately. And so if Britain’s EU membership has been acting against our national interests, why should the British people have to wait until the next harm is caused to the country before seeking redress?

Of course, the topic of immigration was raised, thus exposing the major chink in UKIP’s armour – the perception that the party and its supporters are hostile to immigrants per se. The fact that the question was asked by an audience member of the ‘swivel-eyed lunatic’ type appearance and then heartily embraced by Farage did not help matters. A party that aims to abhor regulation and restrictions on business and the market really needs to ask itself if continued opposition to immigration is a sound policy in 21st century Britain.

Aside from this inevitable rocky point, Farage remained combative and humorous throughout, while Clegg – despite deploying his usual tricks of staring into the camera and repeating the names of audience members as many times as possible – seemed defensive and on the back foot. There was even time for an awkward Marco Rubio-style on-camera gulp of water from the Deputy Prime Minister.

Farage landed yet another blow on Clegg when he reminded viewers of the apocalyptic doomsday scenarios laid out by pro-Europeans in the 1990s, claiming that Britain’s economy would be dealt a mortal blow if we failed to sign up for the single European currency. “Thank God we didn’t listen,” thundered Farage, to loud applause.

This left Nick Clegg scrabbling around for any remaining mud to sling at Nigel Farage and the Eurosceptic movement. In the end, he resorted to a beloved bogeyman of British social discourse, paedophilia. Nick Clegg, in his desperation to score a final point against Nigel Farage, actually appeared to suggest that British secession from the EU would eradicate Britain’s ability to extradite and prosecute paedophiles – a ludicrous argument, and basically a reassertion of the false argument that Britain would leave the EU without drawing up replacement political, trading and justice treaties with the remaining member states.

And on that damp squib of a counter-argument, save only the closing statements, the debate was over. A solid victory for Nigel Farage, one might have thought, until one witnessed the commentary on television and the internet.

Several commentators rightly pointed out that the media showed several worrying signs of institutional bias. In the buildup to the televised debate, ably anchored by Kay Burley on Sky News, at one point a panel member – a visiting university student from America – was asked if she was ‘worried’ or ‘alarmed’ by the fact that Britain was debating the topic as she landed in the country. Never mind the fact that the poor girl clearly knew next to nothing about what the EU is or how it works, the question was so leading as to be risible. Rather than painting the in/out decision in more clinical terms and asking for a comment, it was suggested to the American student that the very idea of Britain leaving the European Union is alarming and scary. Naturally, the student – on live television – agreed with the questioner that it was indeed a scary prospect. So much for objective coverage.

Peter Oborne, writing in The Telegraph, also found significant institutional fault in the way that the mainstream media handled the coverage and the issue of Britain’s EU membership in general. Oborne saw a deliberate attempt to spin the results of the debate as a victory for Nick Clegg and the pro-European side, until the overwhelming results of the post-debate poll forced them to amend their stories:

Last night’s debate between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg was a very good example of this phenomenon. The lobby wanted a Clegg win and … collectively called victory for Clegg the moment that the debate was over.

It was only when the YouGov poll came through showing that Farage had won the debate hands-down with the public that lobby journalists were forced into an abrupt U-turn.

I am not going to embarrass reporters by naming names. However, it is fair to hold both Sky and the BBC to account.

Oborne concludes that the UKIP and Eurosceptic-leaning side not only have to win their argument in the court of public opinion, but also overcome a second opponent in the British press:

Farage is leading a political insurgency. Last night was a reminder that Ukip’s opponents are not just the other political parties, but also the mainstream British media.

The Spectator also picked up on the media’s U-turn upon realising that their preferred narrative was falling apart in the face of the YouGov poll:

Nick Clegg had been given the night off babysitting; but, after the poll verdict on tonight’s EU debate with Nigel Farage, he may wish he’d stayed at home with the kids. As the dust settled, the Deputy Prime Minister was bundled into a car and fled the field of battle. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage headed for a victory lap at the Reform Club, where his party donors had been watching.

Backstage, Westminster’s hack-pack was necking cheap vino and Pret sandwiches after carrying out a spectacular volte face. Initially ‘the spin room’ had called the duel for Clegg, on both style and substance. But, as news of the Sun/YouGov poll filtered through to the scribblers, headlines were rewritten and awkward tweets deleted. Soon, only the BBC was left flying the Clegg flag, with the help of Danny Alexander and Tim Farron.

And even now, in the cold light of a new day, the general consensus from the headlines appears to be that that it was an honours-even draw, and that there were ‘no knock-out blows’:

The question of the hour, should Britain stay in the European Union? But the question now being asked? Who won, Nick or Nigel?

Well, it might be disappointing but both men certainly remain standing after tonight’s event. Neither was knocked to the ground and both sides will be pleased with how their leaders performed.

Given the testy nature of the debate and the fact that Nick Clegg was on the back foot for nearly the entire duration, one wonders what would have had to happen – short of either man accidentally lighting his podium on fire – for the news media to declare an actual victory for either side.

And this typifies a problem that is becoming endemic in the news media, not only in Britain but also in the United States. All too often, there is such a tremendous pressure to appear nonbiased and objective that news organisations are terrified to report on anything of a partisan nature without giving equal balance to both arguments. The compulsion to treat both sides of an argument as equally valid and legitimate – even when one is clearly correct and the other one wrong – is paralysing the ability of many news outlets to correctly report the news, even when there is no deliberate attempt to give favourable editorial treatment to a particular side.

The only news outlet with a convincing explanation (i.e. one not based on bipartisan spinelessness) for why both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats seem happy with last night’s debate is The Spectator:

Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage may have looks straight into the same camera and appeared to be addressing the same audience, but they were aiming for different listeners. That’s why the Lib Dems were happy with the 36 per cent that they polled last night. It demonstrates to them that there is some kind of constituency that likes to hear a politician being honest that he likes Europe and that he is pessimistic about Britain’s chances outside the EU.

Last night’s result also demonstrates that even if you appear a bit ratty and sweaty at times, as Nigel Farage did to those who are not instinctively his supporters, you can still win the debate, because there is a bigger constituency of voters who do agree with what you are saying, even if you’re not as polished as Nick Clegg. Thus the first of the two debates went very well for both parties: both were shoring up their own bases and motivating them to vote in elections with typically very low turnout. The real mission for these party leaders is to get their voters to go to the polling booths, not bother about people who haven’t made up their minds.

This ‘one debate, two audiences’ explanation makes a good deal of sense.

Of course, there is one further debate to take place, this one hosted by the BBC on Wednesday 2 April. Again, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have declined to participate. And once again, despite their resistance and the timidity of much of the British press, the public will continue to debate the issues in their absence.

The death throes of free speech in Russia

 

As the world’s attention remains fixed on Ukraine, less attention is paid to the final nails being hammered into the coffin containing the corpse of Russia’s free and independent press. And while the annexation of Crimea and the west’s shamefully half-hearted response (slapping sanctions on a mere handful of Russian officials and exempting Vladimir Putin and his closest confidantes) certainly deserve their column inches, journalistic independence and free speech finally died in Russia, without a shot being fired. It is only right that we acknowledge this backward step, too.

A couple of excellent columns published over the past weekend aimed to do exactly that – Julia Ioffe writing at the New Republic and David Remick at The New Yorker. Both articles come highly recommended and paint a compelling, sad story.

In his piece, Remnick mourns the backwards steps under Putin which have now erased each and every gain made for freedom of expression under the Gorbachev glasnost era, with particular reference to the Russian government’s recent interference with popular news site Lenta.ru:

In recent years, when Russian liberals have tried to sound optimistic, they have invariably said, Well, at least they haven’t cracked down on the Internet the way the Chinese have. Lenta.ru is one Web site, not the entire Russian-language Web, to be sure, but today’s firing is still an important and ominous step. Lenta.ru was getting more than thirteen million unique visitors a month, and was far more direct and critically minded than anything on state television or in most print publications. Some staff writers and editors have said that they will leave rather than work with [new editor] Goreslavsky. They have no doubt that responsibility for today’s firing lay with Putin and his circle.

Seventy-nine staffers at Lenta.ru issued a statement of angry protest, reading, “Over the past couple of years, the space of free journalism in Russia has dramatically decreased. Some publications are directly controlled by the Kremlin, others through curators, and others by editors who fear losing their jobs. Some media outlets have been closed and others will be closed in the coming months. The problem is not that we have nowhere to run. The problem is that you have nothing more to read.”

Remnick notes that in today’s world and with modern technology, the domestic Russian media can be bought, manipulated and coerced very easily by Putin, with no need for recourse to any of the Soviet-era’s more heavy-handed techniques:

In each individual case, the degree of censorship and pressure is hardly Stalinist in degree. Putin’s media strategy is more sophisticated than that. (The book-publishing industry has remained quite free and unchanged in recent years.) The sophistication of it is that Putin exerts just enough control (blacklisting certain known dissident voices from state television, for example), and punishes just enough of his opponents, to set markers—boundaries of the permissible. Sometimes those boundaries are crossed, but a general tone has been set.

This is precisely the problem, and perhaps the reason why the assault on the Russian free press is getting much less attention than it deserves. In the modern age, the sheer number of cable television channels, newspapers and online news sites can easily give the impression of a vibrant, raucous and effective media, easily reflecting the views of the entire population and holding the leadership to account. However, because of concentration of ownership and endemic corruption, the appearance diversity or independence is merely an illusion – everyone toes the party line.

Julia Ioffe’s New Republic piece sees even more danger, with Russia’s authoritarian attempts to control speech and thought now reaching the internet:

Yesterday, the Kremlin went full-China on the Internet, the holy of holies of the Russian opposition. Using some flimsy legal pretexts, it banned access to various oppositional news sites, to the website of Moscow’s biggest radio station, and to the blog of Alexey Navalny, who is currently under house arrest. Last week, the owner of Dozhd announced that, due to the clampdown, the channel is going to close in a couple months.

Within the span of a couple months, the Kremlin, by hook and by crook, has cleared all the media underbrush. There’s suddenly not much left of the independent media, even of what little of it there was left after Putin’s first two terms at the wheel.

Some of the personal anecdotes recounted by Julia Ioffe are even more disturbing:

Then came the day a Moscow acquaintance announced on Facebook that her daughter, a first-grader, came home from school in a panic because the teacher had told the class that America was about to invade Russia. But then television host and attack dog Dmitry Kiselev went after the “radicals” in Kiev in a special broadcast dedicated to Ukraine, saying that the transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954 was “a historical crime” and blaming the dissolution of Yugoslavia on the West. “What is Yugoslavia now? A pimple on the body of Europe.”

The Russian Writer’s Union then felt the need to write an open letter to the Kremlin throwing their wholehearted support behind Russia’s annexation of Crimea:

… the Russian Writers’ Union, which is as Soviet as it sounds, declared that, “in these worrying times, when the fate not only of Russia and Ukraine, but of all European civilization, is being decided, we want to express our support of your firm and responsible position.” They also blamed “the destructive forces of the West.”

Whatever one might think of the press in the United Kingdom or United States, one cannot imagine them banding together like this to explicitly praise the leader. It is certainly true that President George W. Bush received ridiculous levels of hagiography and unquestioningly supportive coverage from the western press in the run-up to the second Iraq war, the profession as a whole did not feel the need to pledge their fealty with one voice. And though they were largely banished from the main networks, there was strong and vocal opposition. Not so in Russia today.

If there is any glimmer of hope to be had in this sorry situation, it is the fact that a sizeable number of Russians – despite their almost total erasing from the domestic news – have grown heartily sick of their country’s backward slide, and are making their views known as best they can.

The BBC reports that up to 50,000 people attended a pro-Democracy “Hands Off Ukraine” rally in central Moscow. And apparently caught off guard, Putin’s regime did not thwart the march, and mustered only 15,000 of their own supporters in a counter-demonstration:

Earlier in Moscow, tens of thousands rallied against Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the biggest such protest in two years. As many as 50,000 attended the rally, with protesters shouting: “Hands off Ukraine.”

One man told the BBC he felt Russia was turning back to the days of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Nearby, some 15,000 supporters of President Vladimir Putin came out to support the Crimean referendum. Many of them wore identical red outfits and carried Russian and Soviet flags.

But displays such as this are likely to become far fewer as the number of truly – or even partially – independent news outlets willing to provide a non-Kremlin perspective on the world dwindles to nothing.

Regrettably, the paranoid propagandists at the Kremlin are now also being encouraged to a degree by some in the west. The usually-admirable Ron Paul, for example, clearly shows the limitations of applying libertarian philosophy to its ultimate limits, and of citing moral equivalency between Russian meddling in Ukraine and unauthorised Western invasions to argue that the West has no legitimate basis to condemn Russia’s actions. Because the United States and Britain did wrong in the past, goes this argument, Russia must be allowed to do wrong now:

Paul said Crimeans should be allowed to break away from Kiev.

“I think everyone should have right to express themselves,” he said. “It is messy, that is for sure, because two big governments are very much involved in trying to tell the Ukranians what to do.”

However he said Russia had a more justifiable basis for being involved in Crimea than the US, and no government should prevent locals on the peninsula from determining their future.

This deference toward Russia maintaining a geopolitical sphere of influence whereby it is allowed to meddle and assert special interests in the politics of its neighbours would be slightly more defensible coming from Ron Paul if he did not castigate the United States for doing the same thing when it comes to influencing America’s Latin American neighbours:

PAUL: Well, I think free trade is the answer. Free trade is an answer to a lot of conflicts around the world, so I’m always promoting free trade. And you might add Cuba, too. I think we would be a lot better off trading with Cuba.

But as far as us having an obligation, a military or a financial obligation to go down and dictate to them what government they should have, I don’t like that idea. I would try to set a standard here where countries would want to emulate us. Unfortunately, sometimes we slip up on our standards and we go around the world and we try to force ourselves on others.

If free trade and an absence of foreign meddling is truly the stance favoured by Ron Paul he should be vigorously denouncing the aggressive actions taken by Russia, not seeking to justify them by finding tenuous comparisons in recent US and western foreign policy. Ukraine had a clear choice – closer engagement with the European Union or re-embracing Russia. Until Vladimir Putin began interfering in Ukraine’s internal politics and encouraging President Yanukovych to abandon the EU deal in exchange for sweeteners from Russia, Ukraine leant towards Europe. The EU may have its imperfections, but it represents a much more liberal option than anything Putin’s Russia represents, and if anyone has subverted the will of the Ukrainian people and deserves Ron Paul’s disapproval today it is Vladimir Putin.

And while Ron Paul has led from the front in the important public debate about the nature and extent of the US surveillance state, and any curtailments on free speech in America, there is no acknowledgement from him of the grave and far more routine impositions on free speech that take place in Russia. That’s not to say that every criticism of America needs to be counterbalanced with a corresponding flaw in the rest of the world, but it is certainly the case that jumping into the debate on Ukraine without acknowledging this elephant in the room significantly detracts from his argument.

When it comes to counterarguments and balance in media coverage, Russia makes America and Britain’s own tribulations look like nothing by comparison. And while it is unfortunate that some people – particular those from the left/libertarian part of the spectrum – have felt the need to use the Ukrainian crisis as an “I told you so” moment or to burnish their own non-interventionist credentials, this is nothing more than posturing for a domestic audience. It does nothing to help the people of Ukraine or Russia.

While it is Ukraine that is currently being deprived of its territory in Crimea, the usurping Russians are also being robbed. Their loss, taking place with far less comment, is that of their independent press and free speech. And without a free domestic press to even go through the motions of scrutinising Vladimir Putin’s leadership, today’s Russia – in full paranoid, expansionist, Soviet-nostalgic mode – is not going to stop at Ukraine.