Friday, 27 November 2009

UK apologetics and silence over Israel: more from Tom Harris and Ivan Lewis

A further exchange with my MP, Tom Harris, and a letter from Foreign Office Minister, Ivan Lewis.

House of Commons, London SW1A OAA

18 November 2009

Dear Mr Hilley

Following on from our previous correspondence, I have now received a further reply from Ivan Lewis MP regarding your concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Please find enclosed a copy of his reply for your records. I hope you find this information useful.

Best wishes

Tom Harris MP
Member of Parliament for Glasgow South


Foreign and Commonwealth Office

12 November 2009

Dear Tom

Thank you for your letter of 25 October 2009 on behalf of your constituent, Mr John Hilley of [address] about the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

I should like to assure Mr Hilley that the Government remains extremely concerned about the very grave situation in Gaza, particularly with the onset of the autumn rains and colder winter weather. It is simply unaccepatable that many people in Gaza have not been able to rebuild their homes since the conflict ended in January.

We continue to urge the Israeli government to open the crossings into Gaza not only for humanitarian purposes, but also for reconstruction materials, commercial trade and people. The Prime Minister made this clear to the Prime Minister of Israel on 14 October. The Secretary of State for International Development has also recently written to the Israeli government about this matter. Securing better access to Gaza will remain a high priority for the UK government.

The UK is doing what it can to alleviate humanitarian suffering in Gaza. Following the January conflict we pledged £48.8 million to the people of Gaza. We are using this money to fund the activities of charities and aid agencies in Gaza, including the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, the International Committe of the Red Cross (ICRC), the World Food Programme and Oxfam. They are helping to provide food, water, shelter and medical assistance to the people of Gaza, as well as emotional support for traumatised children. We have also funded the Mines Advisory Group to clear unexploded ordnance from Gaza, including from UN schools, which has enabled the children of Gaza to return to school.

Mr Hilley also raises the issue of Palestinian prisoners. We continue to monitor the situation with regard to all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Most Palestinian prisoners have been tried by Israeli courts and have the right of appeal. However, we have concerns about Palestinian prisoners who are being held without charge or trial, particularly minors. All Palestinian prisoners should have access to a fair trial and we have consistently called upon Israel to ensure that any actions are in accordance with international law. We will continue to raise our concerns with the Israeli authorities.

We are in close contact with the ICRC, which monitors conditions in Israeli prisons. Where appropriate we raise our concerns with the Israeli authorities. The Israeli Prison Service has stressed its commitment to honouring its international obligations with regard to the humane and dignified treatment of prisoners.

Mr Hilley might be interested in the following link to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's 2008 Human Rights Report, launched on 26 March, which includes a section on Israeli administrative detention and detainee abuse (see page 151): [amended link here]

I hope this addresses Mr Hilley's concerns. Facilitating peace in the Middle East remains a high priority for the UK . With the support of our international allies, we will continue to pursue vigorously a comprehensive peace based on a two-state solution, involving a viable Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace and security.

Ivan Lewis
Minister of State

26 November 2009

Dear Mr Harris,

Thanks for passing on the reply from Ivan Lewis. Consistent with my last response from him, I suspect this is also a template-type letter sent to others who have written to ask what the UK government is seriously doing to challenge Israel's siege and ongoing aggressions in Gaza - all violations of the Fourth Geneva Conventions. I can only assume that they, like me, remain wholly unconvinced by the Foreign Office's stated "concerns" regarding Israel's conduct in Gaza and the other Occupied Territories.

UK aid, of a token kind, may be getting to Gaza, but where is the political pressure needed to hold those responsible for Israel's murder and destruction to legal account? While the FCO's human rights report contends that the UK government is "particularly worried by the humanitarian situation in Gaza", it has offered no outright denunciation of Israel nor made any attempt to pursue such issues through the United Nations.

As the FCO report intimates, administrative detention is a violation of international law. Yet, again, Mr Lewis's "concerns"over illegal detention and other ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners contains no significant condemnation, preferring to take on trust the 'humanitarian pledges' of the Israeli authorities.

Since my last communication to you, the UN General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly to endorse Judge Richard Goldstone's report, the substantive part of which involved documenting Israeli aggressions against Gaza and recommending that Israel be indicted for war crimes. Among many further considerations of Israeli abuses across Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Goldstone also made significant criticisms of Israel's use of arbitrary arrest and unwarranted incarceration of Palestinians.

As my constituency MP, I'd like you to make a clear and unequivocal statement on whether or not you support the Goldstone report's findings and recommendations.

Also, please could you ask Mr Lewis to respond specifically to the following questions:

1. If the UK government is really concerned about the plight of the Palestinians and the upholding of international justice, why did it refuse to vote for the recent UN General Assembly motion to endorse the Goldstone report?

2. As one of the senior UK government officials holding Labour Friends of Israel membership, please explain how the decision to oppose the Goldstone motion was not influenced by that particular affiliation?

I look forward to your considered replies.

Yours sincerely

John Hilley



In lieu of a formal reply from Ivan Lewis, here's a letter copied to me from Joe Sucksmith regarding the UK's 'reasoning' on the Goldstone report. The response from Ivan Lewis was made via Joe's MP, Martin Horwood.


16 September 2009

Dear Martin,

As I'm sure you're already aware, the UN report into the recent Gaza "conflict" has confirmed what humane and moral citizens the world over have been saying for months: that Israel was guilty of multiple violations of international humanitarian law, the Geneva conventions, and customary international law during its murderous assault on the civilians of Gaza; more specifically that the siege (which continues) constitutes "collective punishment", a war crime; and that Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is the fundamental factor underlying all the violations of international law documented in the report.

The Israelis have already said that they will mount a diplomatic offensive to ensure the report's findings are not referred to the ICC, and we can be reasonably sure that the Israeli "case" will receive a sympathetic ear in Washington... and that the US stance will, in turn, be slavishly replicated by the UK government.

I dearly hope, however, that the Lib Dems, will do all in their power in the weeks and months ahead to ensure that the UK government does not shirk its moral and legal responsibilities in the face of Israeli (and US) pressure, and that you, as my MP, will do your bit to ensure that the UN report's recommendations are followed to the letter.

Yours sincerely,

Joe Sucksmith


Foreign and Commonwealth Office

London SW1A 2AH

From the Minister of State

2 November 2009

Martin Horwood Esq MP

House of Commons



Dear Martin

Thank you for your letter of 23 September to the Foreign Secretary, on behalf of your constituent, Mr Joe Sucksmith, regarding the UN-mandated Fact Finding Mission headed by Justice Richard Goldstone. I am replying as Minister responsible for the Middle East.

We take the report of the UN Fact Finding Mission on Gaza very seriously. We have been clear from the beginning of the conflict that all allegations of abuse should be properly investigated.

We have some concerns about the final report. While we are pleased that Justice Goldstone made clear that he would investigate allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law by all sides in the conflict, the report did not adequately recognise Israel's right to protect its citizens and did not pay sufficient attention to Hamas' actions. The report also made some broad assertions concerning detailed interpretation of international law with which we differ. Israel's refusal to co-operate with Goldstone's team, which we regret, also had the effect of limiting Goldstone's access to crucial information, not least about decision-making at the time of an attack which is so crucial to assessment of legality. Given these issues, we cannot endorse all of Goldstone's recommendations.

However, we remain deeply concerned about the allegations of abuse committed by both sides during the Gaza conflict. Hamas rockets are a clear violation of international humanitarian law and the report raises serious questions about Israeli conduct. As Goldstone himself highlights, the way forward is for those against whom allegations are made to carry out full, credible and impartial investigations. Israel has undertaken a number of investigations, but we do not yet believe these have yet adequately addressed the concerns highlighted by Goldstone and elsewhere, including going beyond specific incidents to address the policy around use of weaponry and rules of engagement.

Without contact with Hamas, there is little we can do to press them to face up to their actions. We have, however, raised this at the highest levels with the Israeli authorities. The Prime Minister has spoken to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to Defence Minister Barak.

We did not vote on the recent Palestinian resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. As the Foreign Secretary explained to the House of Commons during Foreign Office questions on 20 October, this was because at the time that the vote was called, the Prime Minister was working closely with President Sarkozy of France to secure movement on three key issues: an independent enquiry into the allegations at the heart of the Goldstone report, greater access for humanitarian aid into Gaza, and restart the peace process. The vote was called in the middle of the discussions between the Prime Minister, President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is right that the UK government takes every opportunity to drive forward on those three key issues and we will continue to do so.

The current humanitarian situation in Gaza is a serious cause for concern that will only get worse with the onset of winter. Despite recent representations from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and indeed the whole international community, the Israeli government has not eased border restrictions sufficiently to allow the passage of all essential humanitarian aid or significant reconstruction material. Continuing rocket fire from Gaza and the detention of over three years by Hamas of Gilad Shalit, without Red Cross access, is also unacceptable. We welcome the videotape of him released by Hamas on 2 October as part of a prisoner swap deal, but call again on Hamas to release him without further delay or conditions.

We believe the best way to address the various issues in the region is for a comprehensive peace between the parties. Facilitating peace remains a high priority for me. With the support of our international allies, we will continue to pursue vigorously a comprehensive peace based on a two-state solution, involving a viable Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace ands security.

Ivan Lewis


My responses to the above.

Ivan Lewis states:

“While we are pleased that Justice Goldstone made clear that he would investigate allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law by all sides in the conflict, the report did not adequately recognise Israel's right to protect its citizens and did not pay sufficient attention to Hamas' actions.”

This is a bald assertion based on zero evidence. Lewis provides no illustration of Goldstone's apparently failed recognition in the report of Israel's right to protect its citizens. Regarding “pay[ing] sufficient attention to Hamas' actions”, Goldstone has called for Hamas to be referred to the UN and International Criminal Court for investigation, alongside Israel. So, there is simply no excuse for rejecting the report on these two issues.

He also conveniently declines to say which aspects of international law he's referring to here:

“The report also made some broad assertions concerning detailed interpretation of international law with which we differ.”

Lewis further asserts:

“Israel's refusal to co-operate with Goldstone's team, which we regret, also had the effect of limiting Goldstone's access to crucial information, not least about decision-making at the time of an attack which is so crucial to assessment of legality.”

And then goes on to say:

“Israel has undertaken a number of investigations, but we do not yet believe these have yet adequately addressed the concerns highlighted by Goldstone and elsewhere, including going beyond specific incidents to address the policy around use of weaponry and rules of engagement.”

The contradiction in these two statements should be self-evident. By his own admission, Lewis concedes that all previous “investigations” by Israel into such matters have produced no credible outcome. Thus, surely, the FCO's “regret” over such access should be coupled with a stated concern over the rather obvious reason for such evasion. The Minister is basically saying that when an accused party refuses to answer allegations of war crimes and pre-planned conspiracy to murder civilians, their silence and evasion on the matter should be used to excuse them from any action. Imagine that kind of argument being seriously presented in a court of law.

He further claims:

“Without contact with Hamas, there is little we can do to press them to face up to their actions.”

This is a false and darkly ironic statement, given that it was the UK and its Western allies who decided to cut off contact with Hamas after it was fairly elected as the legitimate government of the Palestinian people.

Lewis also insists:

“We did not vote on the recent Palestinian resolution at the UN Human Rights Council.. because at the time that the vote was called, the Prime Minister was working closely with President Sarkozy of France to secure movement on three key issues...”

The duplicity behind this statement should be obvious to any rational observer. As all the evidence suggests, the UK had no intention of supporting the motion, and its claims of being detained in 'helpful behind-the-scenes negotiations' only confirms the evasion.

Lewis concludes with a series of concerns about Gilad Shalit and rocket fire from Gaza, failing to provide any context on the situation, including the illegal imprisonment of over 11,000 Palestinians, the continuous efforts by Hamas to initiate and maintain ceasefires and the consistent violation of them by Israel.

In sum, this is a statement purporting to care about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the need for a just resolution, yet refusing to address the key issues of Israel's criminality and its consistent negation of any peace process.


Saturday, 21 November 2009

Cook: media review, the Guardian and covering the Israeli lobby

Due credit to Peter Oborne's Dispatches film this week for offering a rare mainstream glimpse into the power and influence of the pro-Israeli lobby in Britain. The collective parliamentary Friends of Israel were duly named, a selection of the wealthy Zionist network got listed and a fairly damning stab was made at the BBC hierarchy for running scared of the all-pervasive lobby. Beyond the usual misrepresentation of Israel's attacks on Lebanon and Gaza as 'responsive' actions, Oborne shone a surprisingly bold light on the collective operation, providing a reasonable basis for further, fuller media investigation.

The standard backlash has, of course, begun, with warning claims that the programme will fuel anti-Semitic feeling. Uncomfortably for the Zionist scaremongers and the wider
hasbara network, such critics will also have to handle the awkward sentiments of those Jews interviewed in the film who completely reject Israel's oppressive behaviour. One noted rabbi was unequivocal in condemning Israel as "an apartheid state." He, of course, brave man, awaits the "self-hating Jew" denunciation to come.

But why did it take a softish Tory-type like Oborne to make this programme? Why not a 'crusading' liberal type, someone like the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland? The answer lies somewhere in the 'don't-delve-too-deeply' reticence of the liberal media itself.

Sure, we had Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger recalling in Oborne's film how he had been 'visited' and leaned upon by lobby elites to spike stories critical of Israel - with Rusbridger coyly assuming the mantle of champion editor in his defence of a two-page Guardian feature on the 'separation wall'.

But, beyond doing what the Guardian and others should be doing as standard - reporting the occupation, the wall, the siege of Gaza and so on - where is the wider and more sustained exposure of this most powerful lobby by our 'vanguard' media?

Which lack of editorial and journalistic attention returns us to the legitimising function of Guardian-liberalism.

Freelance-independent journalist Jonathan Cook has just produced a fine comparative review of
Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies, and Newspeak from the Media Lens editors David Edwards and David Cromwell. I cannot recommend Cook's article strongly enough, taking apart Davies's ten point thesis on why daily reportage has been reduced to "churnalism", while strongly commending Newspeak with its more searching study of the media's systematic service to corporate power.

A key illustrative part of Cook's essay examines the Guardian's war positioning, showing that the issue is not just about the extent of critical output over Iraq and Afghanistan, but the ways in which that comment forms part of a safe set of assumptions about 'our' leaders' base 'moral' intentions. It's an assumed consensus, notes Cook, shared across the media 'spectrum':

"One of the problems for dissident journalists that very effectively excludes them from expressing an opinion of this sort in the corporate media is what might be termed a manufactured “climate of assumptions”. This climate of assumptions is shared by all western media whatever their ostensible political orientations. Thus, the Guardian, like the rightwing Telegraph or Mail, holds that western governments are led by those who have the best interests at heart not only of their own people, but of other peoples around the globe and even of the planet itself. In Iraq, Tony Blair and George Bush made mistakes – they thought there were WMD when there were not; they misread the intelligence; they misunderstood international law – but they did not act in bad faith or actively pursue goals that they knew to be illegal, immoral or damaging to the delicate fabric of global relations. They are not war criminals, even when all the evidence shows that this is precisely what they are.

Edwards and Cromwell make a useful point about the media’s vital role in reinforcing a set of assumptions that “our” leaders are morally superior to “their” leaders. “Controlling what we think is not solely a matter of controlling what we know – it is also about influencing who we respect and who we find ridiculous. Western leaders are typically reported without adjectives preceding their names... The leader of Venezuela, by contrast, is ‘controversial left-wing president Hugo Chavez’.”

In practice, this means that, although the British liberal media have run commentary hugely critical of the Iraq war and of Blair, the criticism is almost entirely restricted to the government’s handling of the details of the war rather than questioning the war’s goals or the motives of those who led it. Jonathan Steele has been one of the war’s harshest opponents in the Guardian but has always maintained that Blair and Bush, and their neocon advisers, wanted to bring democracy to the Middle East. They were badly advised and unrealistic in adopting that position, says Steele, but they were never less than idealistic. They may have used immoral means (doctored intelligence and so on) but they never pursued immoral ends. Or as Edwards and Cromwell argue, “balance” in the commentary pages “tends to involve presenting a ‘spectrum’ of views ranging from those heavily supportive of state policy to those mildly critical”."

Continuing his critique of Flat Earth News, Cook also specifies the purpose and appeal of maintaining the contracts of selective dissident writers:

"If Davies ignores the fact that there are many critical thinkers excluded from our media, he still has one trump card up his sleeve. How do those who support the propaganda model explain the existence of dissident writers in the British liberal media? If Chomsky’s theory is right, how is it that Seumas Milne and George Monbiot write for the Guardian, Robert Fisk does so in the Independent, and John Pilger has a platform in the small magazine the New Statesman?

It should be noted that this list is almost exhaustive. Genuine progressive writers are extremely thin on the ground, even in the liberal media. (Rightly, I suspect, Fisk would not want to be included alongside these other progressives. His key concern, justice for the peoples of the Middle East, is not unrelated to fairly traditional liberal Arabist positions long adopted by officials in the Foreign Office, though ignored by other branches of the British establishment. He is certainly on the extreme margins of this group, but closer to them than he is to Pilger or Milne.) In fact, the inclusion of a few progressive thinkers in the liberal media, it can be argued, actually serves its corporate interests. Using the propaganda model, it is possible, I would suggest, to identify several goals newspapers like the Guardian and Independent achieve by including occasional dissident voices.

First, they gain extra circulation by attracting a small but still significant readership of progressives. In doing so, they also diminish the danger that these readers might search elsewhere for more consistently progressive news and commentary. A trend that, if realised, might eventually lead to the emergence of more prestigious radical internet publications, or to the development of different kinds of new media that could challenge the power of the corporate media. A fringe benefit, at least for the corporate interests behind our media, is that progressive readers who are persuaded to buy liberal newspapers because they include a Monbiot or a Milne are likely over time to have their views tempered simply from being constantly bombarded with the non-progressive news and views contained in the rest of the paper.

Second, the existence of dissident writers in the liberal media usefully persuades its core readership that their newspaper of choice is genuinely liberal and tolerant, and that it offers a platform even to those who subscribe to heterodox opinions. It reassures the bulk of readers that the newspaper is upholding the values it espouses. Importantly for the liberal readership it offers what might be termed the “smugness factor”: I do not agree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to be wrong.

And third, the inclusion of a few progressive voices – and the extra readers they [sic] buy the paper – actually comes at very little cost to the corporate interests the media represent. The arguments adopted by dissident writers challenging the goals of western power sound so alien to readers daily tutored in the manufactured climate of assumptions that they are hard to stomach for most readers. The very “strangeness” of such views simply highlights the extent to which they have been excluded in the first place. Because Monbiot or Milne’s columns appear in an ideological vacuum, because they remain isolated dissidents surrounded by more conventional opinions, their arguments appear to most readers as extremist, driven by conspiracy theories, or crackpot, and are therefore easily dismissed."

Having identified the expedience of such dissident inclusions, Cook goes on to consider our liberal-investigative media's failure to address and expose the Israeli lobby. Again, he concludes that, while Flat Earth News has singled-out the lobby as a particular "electric fence" issue, Davies's theory is not up to the job of explaining why this is so. Endorsing Newspeak, Cook places the reasons within a more structural context than simply one of editorial fear and journalistic compliance. It's not just the avoidance of the Israeli lobby, argues Cook, but the deeper set of assumptions held by the liberal media about corporate life and, ipso facto, all big powerful lobbies that deters or precludes serious media challenge and exposure:

"What is it, does he [Davies] think, that makes the Israel lobby so powerful and able to exert such absolute control over its favoured cause? How is this lobby capable of exercising so much influence when the size of Britain’s Jewish population is so small and Israel’s significance to the UK relatively marginal? And if the pro-Israel lobby can shape British (and western) media coverage so decisively, why does Davies not presume that other more obviously important lobbies – particularly the banking and finance lobby, and the military industries lobby – are able to exert at least as much, if not more, influence?"

"And here lies the crux of the problem with Davies’ theory. In promoting a view of journalistic failure that can be explained only by laziness, cost-cutting and public relations pressures he grapples with the visible but marginal problems of our media. The much larger structural issues – the media’s selection processes, its ideological strait-jacket, its profound connectedness to the interests of a corporate capitalist society – are invisible to him. Our media cannot engage in a debate about the merits of the current orthodoxy – that corporate capitalism represents the summit of human material and moral achievement – precisely because its very rationale depends on the maintenance of that orthodoxy."

The value of Cook's article for media students and interested others lies not just in his sharp comparative review of these two books, but in his impressive abilty to match the theoretical critique with first-hand experience and understanding of what's actually going on inside top media offices. This ranges from a very cold-comfort message about Davies's and the Guardian-liberal media's inability to even see the corporate imperatives shaping media output to a final alert on just how wedded the Israeli media is to the core aims of Zionism.

All of which requires not just more searching exposés of the pro-Israel lobby, but of the liberal media's own inhibitions in asking itself why this and other powerful lobbies get to exert the power they do.


Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Guardian's fig-leaf function

A question.

The capitalist system we live under is sustained by the vital propaganda function of the mainstream media. The media is the message. The liberal component of that media, so we're told, is free and open to debate/self-criticism on these matters. Yet, if critical journalists able to see through this fiction are conducting such discussions, we should be seeing significant exposure of them in the 'most open' of that liberal media, the Guardian and Independent. It's not there. Why not?

A series of (rather intense) exchanges appeared recently at the Media Lens message board regarding the value and effect of dissident writers appearing in the Guardian and other liberal media.

In one such thread, I was asked to consider the 'regular' appearance of anti-war and other 'critical' material found in the Guardian's pages and to recognise the 'usefulness' of such content.

My principal response was that, yes, indeed, there is evidence of much instructive writing in these organs, but that:

a) the appearance of such is always token and well policed; and
b) we have to recognise the legitimising function of such 'critical' inclusions - the 'fig-leaf factor'.

In short, the Guardian, Independent and their peer media are a key part of the propagandist myth that we have an 'open media' to complement our 'open democracy'. In truth, we have neither.

The Guardian's principal writers are all there precisely because they subscribe to, and believe in, those falsehoods. The inclusion of George Monbiot - as with Robert Fisk at the Independent - offers a more 'radical' veneer, feeding the convenience for much of the left that these are primary and indispensable spaces for dissenting views, when, in fact, the space is token, managed and non-threatening to the bigger corporate order of which these organs are a part.

Such writers do often hit home with excellent articles. But, the crucial question persists: where's the critical analysis of the media industry and their own appointed roles within it?

As illustrated multiple times in Media Lens Alerts, the ML books Newspeak and Guardians of Power and contributions to the ML board, such writers have a blind spot when it comes to seriously dissecting this 'awkward' issue.

Against this view, some advise a balance sheet analysis of 'good' and 'bad' Guardian content to help illustrate the Guardian's utility as a conduit of useful information. Perhaps. But, what would that, still subjective, exercise really prove, other than to show that the Guardian is carrying a range of views, some of which are instructive, but most of which are within the Guardian's comfortable boundaries?

What we can safely say from years of reading the 'good' content is that most of it is 'safely good', and rarely good enough to alarm those in power. The occasional serious leftist pieces that do appear are largely overshadowed by the Guardian's 'star' writers, such as Jonathan Freedland, Simon Tisdall and Polly Toynbee, all safely good, safely reliable, particularly over the war in Iraq and the current scaremongering on Iran.

Contrary and more critical anti-war voices do get their say. Yet, how radical is the Guardian in permitting anti-war expression over Iraq when most people were, from the outset, against the US/UK-led aggression?

In truth, much of the Guardian's anti-war 'dissent' has been of the soft-liberal variety, accompanied or smothered by editorial and main in-house journalist claims that the war was an 'error of judgement'. Laced with expressions of support for Blair/Blairism, countless leader comments (see below) rationalised the case for war without having to come out and openly endorse it. That's the kind of invaluable service to power the Guardian performs.

The fig-leaf function

Thus, the associated question: does leftist participation in that power-serving media serve to legitimise it, thereby neutralising dissidents' ability or willingness to challenge the massive corporate worldview such media supports?

That, in essence, is what's being asked of regular left-leaning Guardian columnists like George Monbiot.

Monbiot's green-related articles, in particular, provide a sharp reminder of the unfolding environmental calamity and the need for 'now' action. He also gets to the uncomfortable truth about comfortable green human behaviour, as in this illuminating comment from a recent article, We cannot change the world by changing our buying habits:

"So I wasn't surprised to see a report in Nature this week suggesting that buying green products can make you behave more selfishly than you would otherwise have done. Psychologists at the University of Toronto subjected students to a series of cunning experiments (pdf). First they were asked to buy a basket of products; selecting either green or conventional ones. Then they played a game in which they were asked to allocate money between themselves and someone else. The students who had bought green products shared less money than those who had bought only conventional goods.
The researchers call this the "licensing effect". Buying green can establish the moral credentials that license subsequent bad behaviour: the rosier your view of yourself, the more likely you are to hoard your money and do down other people.
Then they took another bunch of students, gave them the same purchasing choices, then introduced them to a game in which they made money by describing a pattern of dots on a computer screen. If there were more dots on the right than the left they made more money. Afterwards they were asked to count the money they had earned out of an envelope.
The researchers found that buying green had such a strong licensing effect that people were likely to lie, cheat and steal: they had established such strong moral credentials in their own minds that these appeared to exonerate them from what they did next. Nature uses the term "moral offset", which I think is a useful one.
So perhaps guilt is good after all. Campaigners are constantly told that guilt-tripping people is counterproductive: we have to make people feel better about themselves instead. These results suggest that this isn't very likely to be true. They also offer some fascinating insights into the human condition. Maybe the cruel old Christian notion of original sin wasn't such a bad idea after all."

It's a fine insight from the researchers and a timely reminder from Monbiot, published in a paper read by a supposedly discerning green public. The utility of the piece seems obvious. And it is. But it also suggested to me this extended thought (as noted at ML):

"The researchers decided to extend the test to the Guardian's editors.

They calculated how much fossil fuel advertising space they felt good about allowing in their paper, given their inclusions of George Monbiot's climate articles and other environmental coverage. Consistent with the inclinations of ethical consumers to purchase more carbon goods and services, the Guardian also displayed a marked feelgood tendency to permit extensive ad room for gas-guzzling cars, cheap flights and other consumer encouragements to destructive climate change.

Monbiot was reported to be thinking about discussing these fascinating insights into the Guardian's editorial condition in his next article."

Some still insist that Monbiot is doing an essential job in conveying the basic message of climate destruction and the need for urgent action. I agree. Indeed, the need for emergency measures are so critical that all such appeals to action should be welcomed. Yet, this makes it all the more vital to expose and challenge the Guardian's own facile claims to being a green vanguard.

Asking, likewise, whether Monbiot should quit the Guardian and devote his time to alternative media is not the issue. The question, rather, concerns his and others' readiness to include in that emergency discussion the big elephant in the room: the media and its legitimising function.

Inhabiting the mainstream

Yet, some still object. If the media is, indeed, the message, at least the message is getting through to those in most need of hearing it: the viewing public. This, they argue, includes the need to get the left's main figures, like Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky, into mainstream consciousness.

One such example cited in the Media Lens discussion was approval of Chomsky's appearance in a recent BBC Hardtalk interview. Yet, consider that Chomsky, one of the world's most prestigious and widely-followed intellectuals, was barely recognised or reported by that mainstream while visiting the UK recently. His appearance on Hardtalk - rather than Newsnight or an invite on to Question Time - allows the BBC to say it has 'covered Chomsky'. Leaving aside interviewer Stephen Sackur's thinly-veiled hostility on Hardtalk, the fig-leaf purpose of this inclusion should be obvious to anyone conversant with Chomsky's own work.

Note also that Chomsky generally doesn't do much open challenging from within the US mainstream, because, as he's often said, he's virtually ignored there, for obvious reasons.

However, there's a more fundamental point to Chomsky's 'participation' in the mainstream. When nominally permitted, he does direct his considerable intellectual thoughts via more popular outlets, which, as with other serious left writers, is commendable. But he also makes it his dedicated business to criticise and expose the mainstream and liberal media in the process.

Thus, there's no essential argument against any left voice having their say in the pages of the Guardian or the BBC. The issue concerns the cognitive understandings of those appearing there and the extent to which they are able to highlight and criticise that process.

It's also useful to remind ourselves just what often passes in the liberal media for 'regular' 'radical' content. Here's a little sample of that content (offered in a spirit of constructive criticism, rather than the heated discussion at Media Lens which followed its publication).

The article, Demanding a new British foreign policy, was posted at the Guardian's Comment is Free section by ML contributor David Wearing.

An apparently sincere and well-written statement, it sets out the case for, in essence, a more enlightened British foreign policy, accompanied by a call to activist engagement, yet speaks in a register of soft-liberal correctionism, safely palatable to other soft-left Guardian readers.

The suggestion of such lies in much of the key words and phrases used: “fresh start in foreign policy”; “our international relations”; “change foreign policy for the better”; “failure of the democratic system”. Not invalid as literal terms. But signifiers of a need to protect and correct 'our' 'lost', but otherwise legitimate, system of 'democracy'.

The intonation and essence: Britain's foreign policy is in need of urgent 'reform' and 'overhauling' in order to 'improve/restore' the “democratic deficit”.

Again, seemingly obvious. Yet, this is standard liberal-speak for avoiding real radical discussion of the true issue:
corporate-determined 'democracy' and, by crucial extension, the liberal media's key part in maintaining that dominant order. Thus, any inclusion of the media's and, by significant example, the Guardian's own vital part in serving that political/foreign policy “deficit” is either unconsciously missing or intentionally avoided.

Wearing should be fairly commended for itemising nuclear disarmament, the arms trade, climate change, the greedy financial sector, Britain's aggressions in Iraq/Afghanistan and support for Israel (a note advocating Britain's support for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) might also have been appropriate here.)

The article's appeal, in this sense, for a more “enlightened" foreign policy seems beyond reproach, either from those who wish to see such 'improvements' or/and those who believe that such pieces, at least, help raise 'serious' debate on the matter. Thus, the article speaks as a set of 'noble concerns' felt across a range of 'decent opinion'. Again, all 'reasonable' liberal argument welcomed by the Guardian – indeed, sought out by it in this case, so we're told by the author.

Yet, content-wise, there's nothing particularly risqué in the suggestion points noted. They are all up for regular discussion in the Guardian. Though well-motivated, it's the classic liberal-left 'polemic' the Guardian delights in publishing, the definitive fig-leaf 'assault' on politicians or a 'deficient' policy, all helping to 'prove' the paper's 'left-on' credentials.

Seriously risqué dissection, on the other hand, would show how the Guardian itself has specifically contributed to Britain's foreign policy “deficit” through its war-rationalising editorials. The point was duly highlighted by the Media Lens Editors at the board discussion:

"A Guardian leader commented in 2004 that Iraq was “a country invaded in order to depose a cruel dictator and give its people a better life". (‘Harvest of death,’ Leader, The Guardian, December 6, 2004)

We're not sure that any of us should be supporting, in any shape or form, a newspaper that can write that. We could provide any number of similar examples. In 2005, a Guardian leader commented:

“While 2005 will be remembered as Tony Blair's Iraq election, May 5 is not a referendum on that one decision, however fateful, or on the person who led it, however controversial.” (Leader, ‘Once more with feeling,’ The Guardian, May 3, 2005)

The public’s “wounded anger” has “haunted this campaign”, they continued: “But does this mean that we recommend a vote against Labour? No."

Their conclusion:

“We believe that Mr Blair should be re-elected to lead Labour into a third term this week."

How bad does it have to get before we refuse the crumbs of access offered by these toxic media?


Even more risqué would be Editor Alan Rusbridger permitting any such criticism within the paper's own pages. That's the true content measure of dissent.

The net effect of this and other such output? The political class have been duly 'rebuked', the Guardian has reaffirmed its 'radical mantle' and 'comment remains free'.

In truth, comment is not so free for those who might more usefully try, in such pieces, to address the 'let's-not-go-there' link between Guardian output – editorials, articles, selective comment page writers – and the perpetuation of 'our' foreign policy aggressions.

Still, the objection persists that, at least, such 'useful' comment is being allowed a certain access via the Guardian and other liberal outlets. As another contributor insisted at ML: "I think the point is that “advocating a truly free and untainted journalism” is advocating an ideal."

It's a fair point. Yet, its' not so much about desiring the "ideal" as encouraging understanding that, with the whole corporate-fixed media calling the shots on what's permissible, reportable and viewable, any advance towards a media built on non-corporate principles will be a difficult and incremental process.

Significantly, we are seeing that shift just now with the decline in newspaper readership, in inverse relationship to people obtaining their information and influenced views from more independent online sources. Thus, the task of encouraging an alternative media lies not just in the optional sourcing of information, but in moving away from the left's comfortable dependency on nominal liberal-Guardian space.

This is not a case of wanting the Guardian and Independent to simply disappear. Rather, it's about how we might build towards something which transcends that corporate-determined media. The argument is not that dissenting voices shouldn't have their pieces published in the Guardian. Rather, it's a question of whether they have the willingness and/or freedom to openly criticise their host media - the hand that feeds - in the process.

The Guardian remains a vital arm of the propaganda system, serving to rationalise state aggression – which means supporting big power – and helping to police the parameters of safe comment/debate. The exposure of its crucial system-preserving function is, arguably, much more pressing than having that 'all-important' access for token and diluted comment.

Consider a scenario where people like Monbiot, Fisk and others did, individually and collectively, start to take on the issue in a serious and challenging way. Wouldn't that, and the potential reaction of the Guardian, be a significant contribution in itself to radical instruction?

Compassionate conduct

A last thought. Some of the discussion which took place at the Media Lens board regarding the above issues was conducted in a rather combative and, in places, openly hostile spirit. It's understandable. But not, on reflection, very satisfying. Positions are taken and defended with sincere conviction and the desire to make one's point. But that can often result in over-defensiveness and the feeling of personal attack. While endeavouring to restrict one's comments to the realm of constructive criticism, a certain hubris, real or perceived, often permeates such exchanges, serving to foster and entrench little animosities. Again, it's one of the by-products of cut-and-thrust debate. Yet, it makes this writer aware of the need to keep a vigilant check on how one engages in such criticism.

On which timely, and I suppose ironic, note, comes this little piece of compassionate wisdom on Socratic dialogue from Karen Armstrong, published at, yes, of course, the Guardian:

"Furthermore, a truly Socratic dialogue must be conducted with gentleness and without malice. It was a joint effort to obtain new understanding: you expressed yourself clearly as a gift to your debating partners, whose beautifully expressed arguments would, in turn, touch you at a profound level. Socrates once described himself as a midwife whose task was to help his conversation partner engender a new self. By learning to inhabit each other's point of view with honesty and generosity, participants were taken beyond themselves, realised that they lacked wisdom and longed for it, but knew that they were not what they ought to be."


*Much of the above was adapted from my comments and exchanges at Media Lens.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Palestinian firefighters in Scotland

Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign were delighted by the visit last Saturday of eight firefighters from Nablus, accompanied by Scottish Fire Brigades Union organiser Ken Ross. The group are here on a month-long training exercise initiated by Ken and the FBU.

Ken was part of the STUC delegation which visited Nablus and other West Bank locations recently to document (view youtube film) the plight of Palestinians and compile a report on the case for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The subsequent motion to the STUC conference arising from the report was carried overwhelmingly.

It was particularly uplifting to have the Palestinian firefighters -none of whom have ever been out of their occupied land before - stand with us for pictures and exchanges on life in Nablus. GPHRC retain a special fondness for the city, particularly Balata refugee camp.

The assistance and hospitality of the FBU and other organising bodies helps illustrate the growing solidarity felt for the Palestinian people across Scottish civil society.

Likewise, visits by trade unions and other civil groups to the West Bank and Gaza are helping to illuminate the brutal and humiliating conditions of Palestinian life.

As one FBU member recalled following another recent visit:
"Israeli settlements, checkpoints, road closures, land seizures, military exclusion zones and unequal access to water. I instantly understood that the rest of the world is not being told about what is happening in Palestine.

"The wall and checkpoints impact on every aspect of daily life, turning the West Bank into one huge prison with people penned in like cattle, having to form queues in order to do routine chores such as shopping, working or even going for medical treatment.
"We saw the refugee camps in Bethlehem and Nablus, where thousands of families are packed together in conditions totally unsuited for human occupation. As a firefighter I could only imagine the horror of a property fire in these conditions. As a firefighter I also watched aghast as a fire engine, responding to an emergency call, was stopped and delayed at one of the checkpoints. Firefighters we met in Nablus told me this is not uncommon, nor is it uncommon for one of these vehicles to be detained for up to an hour. Pumps – and firefighters – also received bullet holes when providing emergency deliveries of water to hospitals.

"I carry these images with me, and everyone I meet will be told about them otherwise the Palestinians’ story and struggle for everyday existence and dignity will remain hidden and forgotten.

Kevin Brown, Regional Secretary"
The FBU's excellent film of this visit offers more graphic testimony of the occupation and pressing need for training and support for Palestinian firefighters.