|Webdiary - Independent, Ethical, Accountable and Transparent|
The Daily Briefing 24/10/05
1 You want sedition? I'll give you sedition
In the great tradition of "J'Accuse" and the activist writers down through the centuries who have advanced personal liberty, freelance writer Chas Savage rebels against the section on sedition in the proposed anti-terrorism laws. "I openly urge disaffection with the Government of the Commonwealth. Its leaders behave with the morality of the gangster. They are shameless in their pursuit of their own self-interest and in the efforts they make to maintain their control on power. They plunder the public purse to benefit their own careers and to maintain their own grip on power. They reward incompetence and cruelty; they themselves behave incompetently and cruelly."
CHAS SAVAGE/THE AGE
2 Religion, humanism and the law
There is a lot of rebellion and sedition in the popular press this morning. In the UK, the contentious Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which threatens a seven year jail sentence for anyone found guilty of being "insulting or abusive" toward any religion, is before the Lords this week. The Sunday Times interviews Rowan Atkinson, an outspoken opponent of the law, who is considering defying it. "Atkinson says that unlike "root and branch" opponents he would settle for an amendment on Tuesday: this would still allow one to "abuse" and "insult" religions as long as one wasn't "threatening" the faithful. It seems a sensible compromise. For otherwise, as Atkinson says, pretty well anything in danger of being thought funny or rude could be deemed illegal, such as the old Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch that showed a mosque of praying Muslims as a newscaster intoned: "The hunt continues for the ayatollah's contact lenses.""
In the same paper, Christopher Hart is also deliberately disrespectful of the proposed laws. "Judaism tells us in its most sacred text, the Torah, that a donkey once turned round and started an argument with its master (Numbers, chapter 22); and that the supreme creator took time out to instruct his chosen people not to carry dead badgers, pelicans, hoopoes or bats (Leviticus, chapter 11). Christianity, while accepting these texts as sacred, further believes that God manifested himself on earth in the form of an excitable and frequently ill-tempered 1st-century Jewish rabbi called Joshua ("Jesus" in Greek) who disowned his family and believed that the world was soon going to end."
And in The Guardian, Bernard Crick says that in an age of fundamentalism, humanists and relgious moderates should be friends. "We humanists do not need to mute our intellectual criticism of religion, but for social and political purposes we should work with those who can be the most effective combatants against fanaticism. To work with those of other beliefs implies, of course, tact and courtesy to mute immediate criticism of what for the time and purpose at hand are irrelevancies. It is historically and psychologically foolish for secularists to believe that criticism of all religious belief is an effective way of combating violent fanaticism. We too can spend too much time preaching to the converted. And we do, up to a point, have a lot in common with most believers."
BERNARD CRICK/THE GUARDIAN
3 A tale of two newspapers, take one
Having spent a lot of time last week buried deep in US politics, the Australian's editorial on Saturday (link below), was a startling read. One obvious question is to wonder why any Australian newspaper might see the need to make George Bush the subject of its lead editorial, especially when it has not followed unfolding events, or the debate surrounding them, in any great depth. But then, The Australian has long championed the Bush cause (as it has every right to do) with a fervour rarely found outside the most faithful of conservative US journals, so perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that it should try to put the best spin on the situation the POTUS finds himself in. But the real shock was in the blatantly misleading version of events the paper gave.
Some examples: Bush was not "scapegoat-in-chief" following Hurricane Katrina - the buck, after all, stops with the president. And Bush appointed "you're doing a heck of a job Brownie" Michael Brown to head FEMA, who failed (and was removed); Bush oversaw the creation of the Homeland Security Department, which failed; Bush personally failed to respond early enough by cutting short his holidays. "Mr Bush is suffering by association as some of his most senior allies" the paper says, as if he did not appoint them, champion them and/or work closely with them. The Australian gives a weight to petrol prices as a cause for Bush's unpopularity even though they have barely registered on the US media radar as an issue for weeks; and even though Bush has for years ignored calls from across the political spectrum to cut energy consumption and to diversify into other energy sources.
And then, as the paper says, "there is Iraq" - which Bush pushed over the objections of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, attempted to do on the cheap with too few troops and without adequate post-invasion plan, and allowed the use of "harsher than usual treatment" that has created the torture and abuse scandals feeding resentment of the occupation, and for the US more generally. To suggest that opposition to the invasion came only from "people who would have preferred to leave the dictator in power" is nonsense on stilts - it was opposed by a long list of foreign policy "realists" (Owen Harries to name but one) in the US and elsewhere. Some of the most strident critics of Bush over Iraq in recent times have come from neo-conservatives and othes conservatives (for example, TDB recently linked to a critique by Danielle Pletka from neo-con central, the American Enterprise Institute).
There is more, much more nonsense, in this short editorial. And none of this is a partisan interpretation - these are the facts of the matter, all but universally accepted as such in the US. Perhaps the paper genuinely does not understand what is happening, in which case it is incompetent. Perhaps it is deliberately dishonest about events because it no longer wishes to be a newspaper, but has become a neo-con propaganda pamphlet or Bush fan-zine. It which case, it should have the courage to say so to its readers. Either way, on the evidence of this editorial, readers should approach everything written in The Australian with more than the usual caution. (A good sample of TDB's coverage of Bush and US politics last week can be found here.)
And then there is Kevin Donnelly, conservative education activist. Just what is Donnelly's position with the paper - is he now on its payroll? Each Saturday for the past two weeks, Donnelly has been given space in Inquirer to push his right-wing agenda in pieces that were listed under "Features" on the paper's website. Features, as in normally written by journalists, honestly attempting to give a full explanation of a particular situation. As well, Donnelly is almost part of the opinion page furniture and was recently quoted (lovingly) in a news story leak of an education report which Donnelly wrote for Brendan Nelson.
So, does Donnelly get paid for all of these features and/or columns he writes, as a freelancer, or does he do it for the love of pushing his (and The Australian's) barrow. Here's a test you can try at home. Pick a favourite hobby-horse, contact The Australian, announce that you'll write a report about it (which you leak to them) and that you would then like to write three or four opinion pieces and a couple of features about it. At going freelance rates, of course. And just see how far you get.
This is corrupt journalism, pure, simple and unadulterated. This is social engineering dressed up as journalism. But do not hold your breath waiting for journalists to protest the damage that is being done to their profession.
4 A tale of two newspapers, take two
No Australian newspaper has a public editor, more is the pity. Byron Calame holds that position for the NYTimes and like Daniel Okrent before him, takes his role as a readers' representative, or ombudsman, seriously. On Friday, TDB linked to the Public Editor's Web Journal, which Calame has used to give a running account of the Judith Miller-Plamegate affair. (For those who have not been following it, there was a full account in Friday's first edition, which is available here. Alternatively, Andrew Sullivan's column gives a good summary of events as it points to the dire possibilities the affair holds for the Bush administration.)
In the short-term, Calame's column for yesterday's NYTimes (link below) will cause the paper some discomfort, but hopefully, in the longer term, it will help build and/or restore (depending on your point of view) its credibility. As a journalist and regular Times' reader it is a journey into genuine newsroom transparency. "But the article and Ms. Miller's account also uncovered new information that suggested the journalistic practices of Ms. Miller and Times editors were more flawed than I had feared. The Times must now face up to three major concerns raised by the leak investigation: First, the tendency by top editors to move cautiously to correct problems about prewar coverage. Second, the journalistic shortcuts taken by Ms. Miller. And third, the deferential treatment of Ms. Miller by editors who failed to dig into problems before they became a mess."
One line from Calame's column below that particularly stood out given The Australian's conduct outlined above, was this one: "It is the duty of the paper to be straight with its readers, and whatever the management reason was for not doing so, the readers didn't get a fair shake."
5 The trouble with Judy
It is difficult to see how Judith Miller can hold her job with the NYTimes, given what Brian Calame has had to say, above. But even before the Public Editor got to Miller, her colleague Maureen Dowd had let rip in a column that begins, "I have always liked Judy Miller" and leaves you wondering what she may have written if she had disliked her. "Judy told The Times that she plans to write a book and intends to return to the newsroom, hoping to cover "the same thing I've always covered - threats to our country." If that were to happen, the institution most in danger would be the newspaper in your hands." (And again, can you imagine a column like this appearing in any Australian newspaper - they are all too inclined to protect reporters, even if that is to the detriment of readers and, at times, the paper's credibility.)
6 Arab governments and the Hariri report
The UN (which is undoubtedly in need of some reform) takes a dreadful beating from conservatives - notably in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. Yet, TDB has yet to notice one of those critics conceding that UN weapons inspectors under Hans Blix got it absolutely right on weapons of mass destruction. It will be interesting to see their response to Detlev Mehlis's investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri now that George Bush has embraced the report and used it to call for Security Council action against Syria. (Or is the UN only useless and moribund when it won't do what the US wants it to do?) The NYTimes carries a summary of the report, with a link to the complete document (pdf file).
In his take on the report, respected Middle East analyst Rami Khouri (link below), perhaps pointedly, makes no reference to the US. Instead he argues that it poses a challenge to Syria to respond "rationally", and that it provides an opportunity for local activists, with support from the international community, to end the "debilitating tradition of security-run Arab regimes". "More significant in the long run is the example for the rest of the Arab world of bringing under control the Syrian-Lebanese security services. The most important question to be answered in this respect is whether indigenous Arab political and legal forces will be able to harness the credibility, power and courage to continue challenging and taming the modern Arab security state, now that the combination of mass Lebanese citizen activism and legitimate international intervention have paved the way for this historic possibility."
RAMI KHOURI/THE DAILY STAR
7 The face of democracy in Iraq
Rory Stewart was the coalition deputy governor of Maysan and Dhi Qar, two provinces in the Marsh Arab region of southern Iraq, from August 2003 until June 2004. He recently returned and gives a detailed description of the society that is emerging under the watch of the Coalition of the Willing. "This is not the kind of state the coalition had hoped to create. During 14 months of direct rule, until the middle of last year, we tried to prevent it from emerging. We refused to allow Shari'a law to be "the source of legislation" in the constitution. We invested in religious minorities and women's centres; supported rural areas and tribal groups; funded NGOs and created "representative bodies" that were intended to reflect a vision of Iraq as a tolerant, modern society. We hoped that we had created the opportunity for civil society to flourish. This was a dream we shared with many Iraqis. We refused to deal with the Sadr militia and fought a long counter- insurgency campaign against them. Then we left, an election was held and the dream collapsed-the Islamist parties took almost all the seats provincially and nationally. The rural sheikhs, the "liberal" middle classes and the religious minorities mostly vanished from the government."
8 Chomsky, for and against
As noted the other day, Noam Chomsky has been voted the world's most important intellectual by readers of Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines. In the latest edition of Prospect (link below), it calls on Robin Blackburn (for) and Oliver Kamm (against) to argue the merits of Chomsky and his work.
And if you want to watch the man himself deliver the last in the Gifford Lecture series at Edinburgh University's McEwan Hall, "Illegal but Legitimate: a dubious doctrine for the times", you'll find it here.
9 Whither the humans
Futurist Ray Kurzweil believes "we are approaching the age of "full-immersion virtual-reality", (in which), thanks to innovations in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics, you'll be able to design your own mental habitat". Christopher Caldwell looks around and sees the ordinary signs of it ("those weekend bicyclists in their expensive pretend-racer costumes") and draws on French novelist Michel Houellebecq to wonder what it all means for the experience of being human. "Human interactions of all kinds, especially those that involve caring for others, appear less and less worth the trouble. Houellebecq is fascinated by young couples who have pets instead of children, and by the French heat wave of 2003, which killed thousands of senior citizens who were forgotten by their vacationing children and abandoned by their vacationing doctors. Daniel1 mocks the newspaper headline "Scenes Unworthy of a Modern Country." In his view, those scenes were proof that France was a modern country. "Only an authentically modern country," he insists, "was capable of treating old people like outright garbage.""
10 The rise of the new Puritans
A while back, the SMH ran a story about an emerging group in society it called the "minimalists" - people who, by and large, could afford the trappings of modern life, but for a variety of ethical reasons chose not to enter into consumerism. The Herald may have been on to something, quite ahead of its time, with The Observer reporting that a group dubbed the "New Puritans" may be the beginning of a new social trend. "According to the Future Foundation, we are increasingly curbing our enthusiasm for profligate consumption, and health and environment-threatening behaviours. Gone is the guilt-free pleasure-seeker, to be replaced by the model well-meaning citizen, the New Puritan - a tag interchangeable with neo-Cromwellian, if you really want to seal its 17th century origins - who thinks through the consequences of activities previously thought of as pleasurable and invariably elects to live without them.
11 For pedants, only
TDB does have a proof reader (who is also a busy mother with a full life) and English is the first language of its editor. But then there is the desire to pack as much punch as possible into each edition and scramble it out at a useful hour each day. On occasions, reading it must be hell on screen for pedants. An effort is made to keep things as tidy as possible, however, the thought that the position of the word "only" in a sentence might be adding to the distress of language purists had not even been considered before reading this article. "For nearly 250 years, usage authorities and citizen soldiers have been trading shots over the proper placement of only in written English. There's no problem with the spoken language, all agree. Say it or sing it, ''I only have eyes for you" means just one thing. But write it down, and you risk ambiguity, according to the fussy faction: It might mean ''I alone have eyes for you" or ''I have eyes for you, but no time for you.""
THE BOSTON GLOBE