Tony and Rebekah, Sitting In A Tree

 

Democracy cannot survive without a free press willing and able to act as a check on government power and behaviour.

The relationship between the government and the media should therefore be adversarial – although it was thuggish of David Cameron’s government to dispatch the Cabinet Secretary to the Guardian’s offices to bully them into destroying their computers in the wake of the Edward Snowden scandal, rather this terrible, flagrant abuse of power than the chilling alternative of Sir Jeremy Heywood popping by every single afternoon for tea, chitchat and a list of government-sanctioned news stories for publication.

But it is this latter, far more insidious type of close, symbiotic relationship that has been prevalent between parts of the British media and the politicians on whom they report and are supposed to keep in check.

Former prime minister Tony Blair may no longer occupy Number 10 Downing Street, but the self-evident warmth of his newly revealed correspondence with Rebekah Brooks – former chief executive of News International, now on trial for her alleged role in the phone hacking scandal – shows just how overfamiliar those in power can get to those who lead the publications who supposedly scrutinise them.

The following exchange of text messages between Tony Blair and Brooks on the day after her resignation, reported by The Guardian, really says it all:

Tony Blair: If you’re still going to parliament you should call me. I have experience of these things! Tx

Rebekah Brooks: Definitely depends on the police interview first. I have Stephen Parkinson [a lawyer] here today. I have never met him but people say he is good.

Tony Blair: He’s excellent.

Rebekah Brooks: Great news. Feeling properly terrified. Police are behaving so badly.

Tony Blair: Everyone panics in these situations and they will feel they have their reputation to recover. Assume you have quality QC advice? When’s the interview?

Rebekah Brooks: Sunday probably or Monday. Cms committee. Tuesday. Stephen bringing someone called Emma Hodges and we have QC.

Tony Blair: That’s good. I’m no use on police stuff but call me after that because I may be some help on Commons.

Rebekah Brooks: Great. Will do. X

There are two issues here. The first is the impropriety of a former UK prime minister essentially offering coaching to someone involved in a very current public scandal before they are due to give evidence at a parliamentary committee hearing. While there may be no legal prohibition on this type of interaction, it seems very morally dubious. Were the subject of the hearing about anything else it could perhaps be overlooked, but since it was a hearing of the Culture Select Committee specifically on the allegations of phone hacking and the issues raised about the behaviour of the press, Blair’s offer of counsel and friendly support seems to put him squarely on the side of the alleged perpetrators rather than the victims.

The second issue is the self-evident friendship between the former news executive and the former politician. Friendships such as these are forged over time, some of which was doubtless while Tony Blair was still  prime minister. If Tony Blair’s regard for Rebekah Brooks is such that he was offering her emotional support via text message at the height of the phone hacking scandal, what other acts of friendship was he bestowing upon her while he still occupied Number 10 Downing Street? And how might the publications that Brooks ran have reflected this friendship?

Some might argue that it is unfair to question the nature of this friendship. They are wrong – it is entirely appropriate. Serving as prime minister comes with certain responsibilities and standards of behaviour. It may not be part of the oath of office, but one of those responsibilities is surely to maintain professional relationships with business and the media. If both Tony Blair and Rebekah Brooks were doing their jobs properly during the period of his premiership, this would almost certainly have precluded any meaningful friendship from forming. If, however, they were behaving toward each other then as they apparently do so now, everything suddenly makes a lot more sense.

While the release of Tony Blair and Rebekah Brooks’ text message correspondence doesn’t really tell us anything that we didn’t already know – that our elected leaders are sometimes far too close to the press barons who help to control the news agenda – seeing the evidence in black and white is still unsettling.

Recalling Tony Blair as prime minister and then juxtaposing this new image of “T” sending kiss-laden text messages to the woman who then edited Britain’s most-read newspaper casts that era in a whole new, sordid light. The dirty, illicit feeling that reading these messages evokes would be more at home in the television series “House of Cards” than real-world Britain.

We deserve better from our politicians, and from the news media.

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On Dissent In The Mainstream Media

Not in Abby Martin's name
Not in Abby Martin’s name

 

Glenn Greenwald, now writing for The Intercept, makes a very good point about journalistic integrity in the context of the ongoing Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea.

In the midst of this developing story, one of the anchors at Russia Today, the Kremlin-funded English-language news channel presenting a Russian perspective on the world, made news of her own by denouncing Russia’s actions at the end of her segment. The clip is available to view here:

 

The money quote is this:

I can’t stress enough how strongly I am against any state intervention in a sovereign nation’s affairs. What Russia did is wrong. I admittedly don’t know as much as I should about Ukraine’s history or the cultural dynamics of the region, but what I do know is that military intervention is never the answer. And I will not sit here and apologise or defend military aggression.

Greenwald wonders aloud how so many of those voices condemning Russia for invading a sovereign country can do so with a straight face when they themselves agitated for, or were apologists for the US-led war in Iraq:

Enthusiastic supporters of a wide range of other U.S. interventions in sovereign states, both past and present and in and out of government, are equally righteous in their newfound contempt for invasions – when done by Russia. Secretary of State John Kerry – who stood on the Senate floor in 2002 and voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq because “Saddam Hussein [is] sitting in Baghdad with an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction” and there is “little doubt that Saddam Hussein wants to retain his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction” – told Face the Nation on Sunday: “You just don’t in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext.” The supremely sycophantic Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer – as he demanded to know how Russia would be punished – never once bothered Kerry (or his other Iraq-war-advocating guests, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) by asking about any of that unpleasantness (is it hard at all for you to sermonize against invasions of sovereign countries given, you know, how often you yourself support them?)

This is just as true for the press as it is for television talking heads or armchair generals. As Greenwald shows by quoting the example of CBS’s Bob Schieffer, the implicit assumption in many questions asked by television news hosts in America (and indeed in Britain) is that the invasion is unprecedented, wrong and contrary to international law. And while the invasion is indeed all of these things, this same level of proper journalistic scepticism was mysteriously missing when we were the aggressor.

Indeed, those few brave American media personalities who did speak out against the impending invasion of Iraq, and who dared to question the legitimacy of the Bush Administration’s every unconstitutional action, soon found themselves banished to the western journalistic equivalent of Siberia. Well known journalists or personalities such as MSNBC’s Phil Donohue and Ashleigh Banfield certainly felt the consequences, as Greenwald points out in an addendum to his piece:

Both Donahue and Arnett were fired because of their opposition to the U.S. war. Arnett was fired instantly by NBC after he made critical comments about the war effort on Iraqi television, while a memo from MSNBC executives made clear they were firing Donahue despite his show being the network’s highest-rated program because he would be “a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war”.

During that same time, MSNBC’s rising star Ashleigh Banfield was demoted and then fired after she delivered a stinging rebuke of misleading pro-war TV coverage by U.S. outlets, while Jessica Yellin, at MSNBC during the time of the war, admitted in 2008 that “the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president’s high approval ratings” and that executives would change stories to make them more pro-war.

While it is too soon to determine the medium-longer term impact of Abby Martin’s words on her career at RT, the contrast between this act of journalistic independence on a news channel so close to the Kremlin and the recent history of the American (and British) news media is sobering and discomforting. Though the post-PATRIOT Act consensus is finally starting to fray given the recent NSA scandals and revelations, at a crucial period in American history significant dissent or journalistic scepticism was almost entirely absent from the domestic press.

That is not to say that press freedom in America/Britain and Russia are in any way comparable – despite a worrying background noise of increasing official encroachments, regulation and intimidation, the press is far more free in America than in Russia, and any sane journalist would wish to operate in the former climate rather than the latter.

But while infinitely preferable to homogenised Russian state propaganda, western media has shown itself capable of being bullied into self-censorship on occasions, be it the panicked urge to appear ‘acceptably’ pro-war and support the policies of George W. Bush in 2003 or the far more recent insidious suggestion by David Gregory in 2013 that journalists who report on leaked classified information should consider themselves co-conspirators.

As always, before climbing atop the highest parapet and waving the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack, we would do well to re-examine our own recent, tarnished history – be it our history of military intervention abroad or journalistic coverage of those adventures.

Doing so will not make Russia’s egregious actions in Crimea any more palatable or legitimate, but it will at least allow us to look Russia in the eye as we denounce them.

Who Really Wants A Free Press?

MapRSF

 

The United Kingdom has fallen from 29th to 33rd in the world in the World Press Freedoms Index 2014.

The report, compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is scrupulous in methodology and incorporates both qualitative and quantitative data. And for a country like Britain, which likes nothing more than to strut around the world proclaiming its comparative virtues, it makes for some dismal reading.

RSF’s summary of Britain is dominated by the British government’s chilling and bullying treatment of the Guardian newspaper as it sought to suppress the publication of information based on the NSA leaks by Edward Snowden, as well as the fallout from the Leveson Enquiry into the press behaviour and the prospect for further stultifying regulation of the industry:

In the United Kingdom, the government sent officials to The Guardian’s basement to supervise destruction of the newspaper’s computer hard disks containing information from whistleblower Edward Snowden about the practices of GCHQ, Britain’s signals intelligence agency. Shortly thereafter, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian star reporter who had worked closely with Snowden, was held at Heathrow Airport for nine hours under the Terrorism Act. By identifying journalism with terrorism with such disturbing ease, the UK authorities are following one of the most widespread practices of authoritarian regimes. Against this backdrop, civil society could only be alarmed by a Royal Charter for regulating the press. Adopted in response to the outcry about the News of the World tabloid’s scandalous phone hacking, its impact on freedom of information in the UK will be assessed in the next index.

Britain isn’t always called out by name, but there can be little doubt which European country was the intended target of this particularly barbed comment:

These developments showed that, while freedom of information has an excellent legal framework and is exercised in a relatively satisfactory manner overall in the European Union, it is put to a severe test in some member countries including those that most pride themselves on respecting civil liberties.

How true this is. Britain has long been (and has long considered itself) a stalwart defender of free speech, but the recent thuggish attempt to use anti-terrorism laws to detain a relative of a journalist and to threaten a national newspaper with closure unless it destroyed information which had the potential to embarrass the government are more worthy of Vladimir Putin’s Russia than the land of Magna Carta.

The New York Times, on the other hand, looks at the same report and seems to take succour from it, which is very surprising given the fact that their journalists have worked so closely with their beleaguered colleagues at The Guardian.

Their editorial board is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the landmark New York Times vs. Sullivan case, which set the bar for winning libel or defamation claims much higher than in Europe and thus created a bulwark protecting press freedom in the United States. This excerpt from the majority opinion in that case should be mandatory reading for all British politicians and those involved in public life, who are often all too keen to clamp down on free speech at the first sign of discord:

The Supreme Court voted unanimously to overturn that verdict. The country’s founders believed, Justice William Brennan Jr. wrote, quoting an earlier decision, “that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.” Such discussion, he added, must be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” and “may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

While the New York Times is absolutely right to recall and celebrate this landmark victory – libel laws in many other countries, especially Britain, are far too plaintiff-friendly – they seem all too willing to ignore the negative actions that have chipped away at this victory in the intervening half century, the various acts of craven self-censorship or collusion with imperial government overreach or the undermining of factfinding by the ongoing war on whistleblowers.

This selective amnesia leads to the following self-congratulatory pronouncement by the Times editorial board:

Still, American press freedoms rank among the broadest in the world. Citizens and media organizations in countries from China to India to Britain do not enjoy the same protections. In many parts of the world, journalists are censored, harassed, imprisoned and worse, simply for doing their jobs and challenging or criticizing government officials. In this area of the law, at least, the United States remains a laudable example.

The only problem with this statement? The United States ranks thirteen places behind the United Kingdom, at 46th in the world.

Fortunately for the New York Times and the reputation of the American press, the RSF world press freedom index does not take quality of journalism into account, only the ability of the journalist to practice their trade freely – otherwise they could have found themselves docked another few positions for that howler of an America-must-be-best presumption.

The truth is that neither Britain or America have anything to be proud of faced with this latest report. In an ideal world, David Cameron and Barack Obama would be held to account and hauled over the coals for presiding over such a poor performance. A backbench MP looking to bolster his or her civil liberties credentials could do worse than to ask the prime minister to defend or account for his government’s performance on press freedom at Prime Minister’s Questions this coming Wednesday.

But regrettably, a place in the mid-low 30s ranking is exactly where David Cameron, Barack Obama and many of those in power in Britain and America want their respective countries to sit. It allows for a press that is boisterous and noisy in all of the areas that don’t really matter (and so showing every outward appearance of being free), but that meekly tows the line when it comes to critical issues such as national security, civil liberties and holding those in power to account for their actions.

We in Britain or America may not think of countries such as Finland, Norway, Luxembourg or Liechtenstein as shining role models to emulate, if indeed we ever think about them at all. But in some key aspects, it is they who now carry the torch for freedom of speech and the free press, not the traditional Anglo-American partnership who held it aloft so dutifully for so long.

The Fox-ification of MSNBC

billmaher

US comedian Bill Maher is publicly ending his romance with the MSNBC news network.

The liberal entertainer and commentator, an unapologetic supporter of President Obama and donator to his Super-PAC, has finally been persuaded to look for love elsewhere because even though they share a similar core ideology, MSNBC has become too strident and partisan in its approach to delivering the news. In short, he claims, MSNBC is becoming Fox News:

Whatever we had is not working any more. You’re obviously interested in another man: Chris Christie. You’re obsessed with him. So I wanted you to hear it from me first. I’m going to start seeing other news organizations. I’ll miss what we had. It was a rocket ship ride. We were both passionate flaming liberals and we didn’t care what the world thought of us. It was a glorious time. We finished each other’s Sarah Palin jokes. But now we never talk about any of the things we used to talk about: global warming, gun control, poverty… All because Chris Christie came along and put you under his spell. 

Look at yourself. You’re turning into Fox News. Bridgegate has become your Benghazi, and this isn’t easy to say, but you and I are no longer on the same news cycle. Sure, you read me the results of a recent Gallup poll, but you never really ask me how I’m feeling. It’s not you, it’s… Chris Christie.

While the reality is not quite so black-and-white, it is certainly true that MSNBC’s programming has suffered lately as editorial focus (particularly in January) seized on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s political travails at the expense of almost everything else, abandoning any significant discussion of public policy in favour of personality-based and partisan attacks.

Sure, Chris Christie may yet be proven to be at fault in the Bridgegate scandal, and the network’s intrepid main anchor and personality, Rachel Maddow, was covering the story long before it exploded into the national consciousness. But the degree to which the network then seized on the issue, to a far greater extent than other news networks, shows the Fox mentality starting to manifest itself in a very real way at MSNBC.

Bill Maher has long been able to draw laughs from his audience by pointing out the formulaic approach to journalism that lies behind the success of Fox News, as shown in this typical excerpt:

 

Here is the key quote:

They [Fox News and other populist right wing media outlets] have discovered that there is a fortune to be made keeping a small portion of America under the illusion that they are always under attack, from Mexicans or ACORN or Planned Parenthood or gays or takers or global warming hoaxers…it doesn’t matter. They don’t want a majority, they want a mailing list. A list of the kind of gullible Honey Boo-Boos out there who think that there’s a war on Christmas, and that the socialist policies of our Kenyan president have been so disastrous that the end of the world is coming.

The fact that Maher now sees parallels in MSNBC’s programming should concern anyone who has an interest in promoting a free and principled media providing a service essential to democracy over an array of narrowly-targeted niche outlets, each making their money by reinforcing the existing fears and prejudices of their respective audiences.

And the extent of MSNBC’s decline does not stop there. Any reader of MSNBC’s facebook account would struggle sometimes to distinguish it from President Obama’s. They trumpet the same initiatives, promote the same causes, celebrate (or invite their readers to celebrate) the same successes.

And, increasingly, they are starting to get touchy when called out on it:

msnbc_christie

Ultimately, the problem extends far beyond Fox News and MSNBC who are only the latest media organisation trying to emulate Fox’s success. The real problem occurs when any news outlet decides that its primary purpose for being is to help “balance the debate” in response to perceived slanting or bias from elsewhere.

The Fox News Channel proclaims itself to be “Fair and Balanced”. But when probed further about specific instances of right-wing bias on-air, Fox’s journalists, editorial staff and managers do not rush to draw public attention to the Fox News editorial guidelines or their policy on political impartiality. Instead, they draw attention to what they see as the liberal bias of the “mainstream media” and describe their role as being to correct the bias by offering an alternative point of view.

But as soon as you start seeing yourself as a counterweight to something else, you can no longer plausibly claim to inhabit the centre. This is what has now happened to MSNBC. That network watched for a long time as Fox News grew, prospered and humiliated them in the ratings by offering their viewers a diet of politically conservative-skewed infotainment, and now appears to have decided to copy and emulate large sections of their business plan, likely out of a twin desire to reap the same success and to give liberal voices an equally brash, punchy voice. Thus, their motto “Lean Forward”, is becoming increasingly descriptive of what they do, and not for the better.

Progressive opinions and ideas can expect to be given more airtime and favourable editorial consideration on MSNBC, while dissenting conservative voices will be fewer and further between. It is true that many of the new generation of Republicans, hailing from conservative gerrymandered districts and used to sympathetic media, are virtually incapable of taking part in real fact and reason-based debate, and shy away from MSNBC anyway. But even more so than has already been the case, when conservatives do feature on MSNBC it will more likely be as the targets of scandal-related investigative journalism along the lines of Bridgegate.

This is not a positive trend. Were it to continue, the only feature of MSNBC preferable to Fox News will be the honesty of their motto. “Lean Forward” at least strongly hints at the network’s political leanings, whereas “Fair and Balanced” is a running joke in the media world, so clearly does it contradict Fox News’ real motives.

There is probably an initial rush of euphoria to be had, discovering and catering to a new, thus far neglected market of strident and angry liberals who are happy to be fed the Obama administration line. And it may be some time until the network misses the favour of Bill Maher and others who are happy to wear their liberalism on their sleeve, but do not wish to be condescended to by being fed a heavily curated and redacted leftward spin on the news.

But, if they do not change course, the time will come when MSNBC regrets taking the low road. Bill Maher was not the first to compare MSNBC to Fox, and he won’t be the last. Perhaps when the two brands become equally synonymous with partisan propaganda, the executives in charge will realise what they have done.

Edward Snowden speaks: US blackout of interview

Highly worth reading and watching, reporting about Edward Snowden’s recent interview for German television, courtesy of Jonathan Turley’s blog. This interview has received little coverage in the UK or US media.

JONATHAN TURLEY

By Charlton Stanley, Weekend Contributor

NSA logo smallLast Sunday, former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden was interviewed for the German television network ARD.  The interview was big news in Germany and much of the world in both print and broadcast media. However, the interview appears to have been blocked intentionally by US government authorities. In fact, the media in the US appears to have gone to ‘radio silence’ about it. It has been posted on YouTube several times, but is taken down almost immediately.  The video site Vimeo has it embedded, but as I write this, Vimeo is under a DDoS attack.  LiveLeak also has it, and that video is embedded in this report by Jay Syrmopoulos for  Ben Swann’s news page.

Mr. Snowden spoke candidly in a thirty-minute English language interview with the reporter from ARD.

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