Saturday, 23 November 2013

BBC's selective use of Iraq war death figures - Trust's final ruling

The BBC's Editorial Standards Committee has issued a final ruling on my appeal regarding the BBC's selective use of Iraq Body Count figures.

Every stage of this complaint has seen tortured excuses deployed by the BBC. This is yet another classic piece of institutional evasion.

[22 November 2013]
Dear Mr Hilley
The Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) has considered your request for an appeal to the BBC Trust and I attach a copy of its decision taken from the ratified minutes of the ESC’s meeting on 3 October 2013.

The Committee’s decision is final and will be published in the next edition of the Editorial Standards Committee’s bulletin at on 3 December 2013.
[Further advisory information.]
Yours sincerely
Christina Roski
Complaints Adviser

“Iraq 10 years on: In numbers”, BBC News website, 20 March 2013

The complainant asked the Editorial Standards Committee to review the decision of the Trust Unit that the complainant’s appeal did not qualify to proceed for consideration by the Committee.

Appeal to the BBC Trust
The complainant wrote to the BBC Trust following the decision of the Head of Editorial Compliance and Accountability, BBC News, not to uphold his complaint regarding the use by the BBC of figures calculated by the Iraq Body Count (IBC) project when referring to the number of civilian deaths in Iraq. In his complaint to the BBC, the complainant had stated that he considered the figures provided by IBC were misleading and had been selected by the BBC because they reflected:
  “…UK/US war killing in its least damaging light” 
The complainant considered this was inaccurate and resulted in bias. He said that “no serious or satisfactory consideration” of his concerns had been offered at the previous stages of his complaint. His points and questions included the following:   
* The BBC was consistently inaccurate and biased in its coverage of civilian war deaths in Iraq because of its frequent reliance on IBC figures, which were “limited and misleading.”
* To improve balance, the BBC could cite other sources and their respective data (which suggested much greater numbers of deaths), in addition to the IBC figures. Why had the BBC not done this?
* Who at the BBC had made the editorial decision to adopt IBC as a principal source and how had that decision been arrived at?
* For the purposes of the complaint, he cited the online article “Iraq 10 years on: In numbers” as an example of the biased use of IBC figures, specifically the section headed “Violence” and its associated graphic.

* He also cited a recent survey by a market research company, in support of his appeal, which suggested “a shocking absence of … public awareness” in relation to the “true scale of war-related deaths” in Iraq. He reminded the Trust of the BBC’s public education role in this respect.
The Trust Unit’s decision

The Trust’s Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser (“the Adviser”) replied to the complainant
explaining that the relevant correspondence and the article in question had been reviewed by the Trust Unit and an independent editorial adviser, and she did not consider that the appeal had a reasonable prospect of success. She did not propose to proceed in putting the appeal to the Editorial Standards Committee of the Trust.

In reviewing the complaint, the Adviser took into account all the relevant Editorial Guidelines ( and, in particular, those concerning Accuracy and Impartiality.

The Adviser noted that the complainant’s appeal was principally couched in general terms relating to an alleged BBC practice of virtually exclusive reliance on Iraq Body Count figures in its overall reporting. However, she noted that, for the purposes of the complaint, the complainant wished to cite the online article, “Iraq 10 years on: In numbers”, published on the BBC News website on 20 March 2013, to illustrate his concerns. The Adviser, therefore, focused on this article in her review of the complaint.

The relevant section of the article in question included the following:

US and other coalition troops remained in Iraq in a combat role until 2010, as security operations were gradually handed over to Iraqis.

Deaths per week

Some 4,488 US service personnel died in Iraq since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom on 19 March 2003, according to the latest figures from the US Department of Defense. British forces lost 179 personnel. But tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have also died since 2003 as a result of sectarian killings and a violent insurgency.

The Iraq Body Count organisation, which cross references reported deaths with official figures, says 4,571 civilians were killed in 2012, bringing the number of civilian deaths since March 2003 to between 112,017 and 122,438. The spike in numbers for 31 August 2005 represents the deaths of about 1,000 people in a stampede of Shia pilgrims on a river bridge in Baghdad. Witnesses said panic spread over rumours of suicide bombers.

Iraq Body Count says the most sustained period for high-level violence was from March 2006 to March 2008, when sectarian killings peaked and some 52,000 died.

‘The country remains in a state of low-level war, little changed since early 2009,’ says the organisation, ‘with a “background” level of everyday armed violence punctuated by occasional larger-scale attacks designed to kill many people at once.’”
The Adviser noted that the context of the article was set out in the introductory sentence of the piece as follows:
“Ten years after the US-led invasion of Iraq – how much has changed? We look at the numbers behind the country that is still emerging from conflict.”
The article, she noted, then went on to look at figures relating to Iraq’s economy, technology, refugees and displaced persons, food, human development, and, as set out above, violence. The text under all these headings, she further noted, sought to compare Iraq’s position in 2003, at the point of the invasion, with the country’s situation 10 years later. The Adviser noted that, in accordance with the Editorial Guidelines on Accuracy, the sources for all the information collated in the article were given.
In the case of the section on violence, the Adviser noted that a consistent run of figures for those years was clearly required to assemble a graphic to illustrate civilian deaths. She noted that it had been explained by the BBC at previous stages of the complaint that the IBC figures, which have been produced on an ongoing basis over the years, were considered by the BBC’s Middle East Editor to be appropriate in this case.
The figures were clearly sourced to IBC in the article, she noted, and a brief summary of the methodology for collecting the figures was given:
“The Iraq Body Count organisation, which cross references reported deaths with official figures…”
The Adviser noted that the complainant suggested that using two other sets of data, in addition to the IBC figures, would have resulted in a “fairer and more viewer-serving graphic”. She noted that the complainant said these figures were from a Lancet/Johns Hopkins survey covering the period March 2003 to the end of June 2006 and from an Opinion Research Business (ORB) survey in August 2007.

She further noted that the following had been explained by the BBC at Stage 1:
“The Iraq Body Count is the only organisation to offer an actual count covering the period since the US-led invasion. Other organisations seek to estimate the death toll at particular points in time, using statistical and sampling techniques.”
The Adviser also noted the response from the Head of Editorial Compliance and Accountability, BBC News, at Stage 2, which expanded on this point:
“As previously explained, what matters here is the pattern over a number of years. Other agencies cannot provide this information so the Middle East editor felt that IBC was the right source in this instance. Using other studies as well – based on different methodologies – would have been pointless and confusing for readers.”
The Adviser agreed with that view and considered that in practical terms it would have been very difficult for the graphic to have incorporated three sets of data, all for different periods and collected in different ways, in a way that was meaningful for the audience.

The Adviser appreciated that the complainant felt strongly that IBC figures vastly understated the numbers of civilian casualties, compared with the other surveys he had cited, and she noted that the complainant had made the following allegation at Stage 1:
“It’s clearly evident that the BBC has selected IBC’s data because it reflects UK/US war killing in its least damaging light. Your every excusing word makes the BBC complicit in disguising that crime.”
She considered it unlikely that the Trustees would agree with the complainant that this motivation was “clearly evident” from the selection of data for the article in question, and she noted that the complainant had not provided evidence to support this allegation at any stage of the complaint.

The Adviser also thought it likely that the Trustees would wish to take into account that the BBC was not isolated in its citing of IBC data, and that many other reputable organisations also cited IBC where appropriate. She noted that the complainant had acknowledged this in his blog which stated that the Channel 4 News’s “10 years after” report on Iraq had used a similar graphic, with figures sourced to IBC, and that it was “standard” for “almost every other ‘authoritative’ news outlet” to use IBC figures.

The Adviser fully appreciated that reporting on civilian casualties in any conflict situation was fraught with difficulties. She noted that the BBC had explored these issues in various articles over the years, and these articles had been cited at earlier stages of the complaint.

She considered Trustees would be likely to conclude that it was for the BBC to make an editorial judgement about the use of data in this particular article and there was no evidence this had not been done within the Editorial Guidelines.

The Adviser noted that the complainant had repeated his request to be informed about who at the BBC had made the decision to use IBC as a source. Her view was that the Trustees would consider this had been answered at Stage 2 by the Head of Editorial Compliance and Accountability, and that, in this particular case, it was the Middle East Editor who had considered IBC was the most appropriate source.

The Adviser thanked the complainant for forwarding the weblink to the ComRes survey on public perceptions of the Iraqi death toll.

The poll appeared to suggest that 66 per cent of those questioned in May 2013 thought there had been fewer than 20,000 deaths (of both combatants and civilians) as a result of the 2003 invasion. She noted that this figure was hugely at variance with even the IBC figures quoted in the website article in question (112,017-122,438 civilians), which the complainant had said were themselves vastly understated.

For the reasons set out above, the Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser considered there was no reasonable prospect of the Trustees finding the article had been in breach of the Accuracy and/or Impartiality Guidelines, and the appeal would not, therefore, be put before the Trustees.

Request for review by Trustees

The complainant requested that the Trustees review the decision not to proceed with his appeal. He said that the reply had circumvented a central issue, which was:
“how can the BBC justify the selective and continuous use of data which vastly understates the death figures in Iraq…?”
He said that the BBC’s particular focus on the “10 years after” piece was diverting discussion from the particular issue of why the BBC had selected IBC as a main source across all its output.

The complainant also argued that the wider usage of IBC across other major media did not absolve the BBC from its own particular responsibility to offer a varied and impartial range of information and opinion.

With regard to the Adviser’s response that the Middle East Editor made the decision to adopt IBC, the complainant asked where the editorial-making evidence was for this. The complainant thought the question would be likely to “invoke the likely ‘safe editorial hands’ process”.

But, in the interests of transparency, he asked whether the BBC audience should be “entitled to a closer and more detailed account of who was involved in that decision and how it was determined”.

He noted that the Adviser acknowledged the ComRes poll, but did not say how the BBC's selective use of IBC had contributed to the massive lack of public awareness noted in that poll.

The complainant considered that on every aspect of his complaint, the BBC had failed to justify its principal use of IBC or explain its own part in keeping people so uninformed about the Iraq death toll.

The Committee’s decision

The Committee was provided with the complainant’s appeal to the Trust, the response from the Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser and the complainant’s letter asking the Committee to review her decision. The Committee was also provided with the article in question.

The Committee noted the complainant’s concern about the BBC’s use of IBC statistics when reporting on civilian war deaths, which he believed understated the death figures in Iraq.

The Committee noted that although the complainant was concerned about the use of IBC figures in BBC reporting generally, he cited the “Iraq 10 years on” article as an example of his concerns.

However, the Committee also acknowledged the complainant’s response that “the BBC’s particular focus on the ‘10 years after’ piece was, in itself, a standard deceit, diverting discussion from the particular issue of why the BBC had selected IBC as a main source across all its output”.

The Committee was of the view that the Trust Unit’s response to the complaint, as well as previous responses from the BBC Executive, had included clear and detailed reasons for the use of IBC figures more generally as well as in relation to the specific article cited by the complainant. The Committee noted in particular the reasons put forward at Stage 1 of the complaints process:
“The Iraq Body Count is the only organisation to offer an actual count covering the period since the US-led invasion. Other organisations seek to estimate the death toll at particular points in time, using statistical and sampling techniques.”
And at Stage 2:
“As previously explained, what matters here is the pattern over a number of years. Other agencies cannot provide this information so the Middle East editor felt that IBC was the right source in this instance. Using other studies as well – based on different methodologies – would have been pointless and confusing for readers.”
The Committee noted the Adviser’s statement that the BBC was not isolated in its citing of IBC data, and that many other reputable organisations also cited IBC where appropriate.

The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that this was an underestimate and that he felt this point had not been addressed by the Adviser. However, the Committee felt it had been explained to him that the BBC had addressed the difficulty in reliably assessing numbers of deaths in other articles and in this article had both sourced the data and explained the methodology.

The Committee also noted his concern that the public’s knowledge of the level of deaths was poor.

The Committee also noted that in the ComRes poll cited by the complainant 66% thought that fewer than 20,000 had died. Trustees noted this was significantly lower than the IBC figure. The Trustees did not accept that the use by the BBC of figures from the IBC could be responsible for the low figure for deaths in the ComRes poll given the figures were different and given the many other factors that would affect the public’s understanding.

The Committee agreed it would be likely to conclude that there was no reasonable prospect of success for the appeal on the grounds of a lack of accuracy or impartiality in relation to the BBC’s use of IBC data, either generally or in the specific article cited by the complainant.

The Committee acknowledged that the complainant would have liked to know more about the editorial process which led to the BBC Middle East Editor’s decision to use IBC data, but the BBC was under no obligation to provide this. The Committee did not believe any evidence had been presented which would lead it to conclude that editorial decisions had not been made in accordance with the Editorial Guidelines.

The Committee therefore decided that this appeal did not qualify to proceed for consideration.

As repeated throughout these postings, it was never expected that this complaint/appeal would be upheld. The point of raising such questions and publishing the BBC's responses has been to illustrate the process of establishment bias and Kafkaesque obfuscation. 

While the BBC Trust, Committee and other dutiful apologists twist and evade the issue, their vital gatekeeping has helped hide and 'erase', at least, many hundreds of thousands of deaths from public consciousness, as so damningly indicated by the ComRes poll.

The apparent reason for ignoring other key studies is that they "would have been pointless and confusing for readers." We can but acknowledge our lowly intellect and deep gratitude for such  direction and concern.

Despite multiple requests for specific information on how and why IBC was selected as a main source, the BBC has refused to answer. As the ruling dismissively states: "the BBC was under no obligation to provide this."

A last appeal to any journalists, editors or media 'insiders' possibly disturbed by such pontifications or simply exercised by conscience. At some point, a decision was taken within the BBC's editorial hierarchy to adopt Iraq Body Count, effectively excluding much more damning evidence of war fatalities. What useful light might you, or knowing others, shed on that determination and how it has helped maintain this gross distortion?

Monday, 18 November 2013

Nun-speak, none-speak - Jones, Scahill and Stop the War

There's been significant fallout over a forthcoming Stop the War conference, after Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones threatened to withdraw unless Syrian-based nun Mother Agnes was removed from the invited list of speakers.

As noted in a brief announcement from StW, she has now stood down, registering her disappointment and hope of future engagement.

It was notable that both Scahill and Jones announced their objections to her inclusion following tweets from Muhammad Idrees Ahmad and his Pulse media site urging them not to participate.

Ahmad and Pulse have denounced Mother Agnes as an Assad collaborator and propagandist, charges she and varied supporters have strongly rejected.

Beyond obvious war crimes on all sides, doubts and questions over responsibility for many atrocities in Syria remain, as detailed even in major Western intel. So, it's not unreasonable that Mother Agnes's claims should be subject to the same caution and scrutiny.

Yet, who, we may ask, are the more wilful propagandists here for war and increased suffering in Syria?

Ahmad/Pulse have been strident critics of the "anti-imperialist left's" 'dogmatic' opposition to Western intervention and 'disregard' for suffering Syrians.

In a piece for Al Jazeera US outlining the political and humanitarian ramifications of non-intervention, Ahmad concluded that an:
"externally imposed solution is less egregious than dooming Syria to prolonged war."
Ahmad has also used the self-proclaimed 'take-down' of David Bromwich to amplify his wider charge of left 'Monsterphilia'. Bromwich's response includes a measured dismissal of Ahmad's distorted language, while repeating his warning against any more disastrous US/Nato interventions like Libya.

A similar call for an "externally-imposed solution" is evident in this piece from Nott George Sabra [sic], a figure endorsed by Ahmad:
The anti-war movement in the West got what it wanted: the war in Syria grinds on without the involvement of the only force capable of ending the bloody stalemate, the U.S. military [my emphasis].
Should we accept such invocations of US military force? Is this the only way of ending the bloodshed? Are we to believe these 'humanitarian' voices for Syria? And, if not, what does it say about their denunciation of figures like Mother Agnes as 'propagandists' and 'regime apologists'?

StW are mistaken in succumbing to apparent pressure from Jones and Scahill over this issue. Mother Agnes may, indeed, be a defender of Assad. But she shares that view with a decisive section of Syrian society who either support his government in this civil war or, despite his oppressions and crimes, fear and reject the greater threat of Western-supported/jihadist forces fighting to replace him. Whatever the authenticity or otherwise of her claims, is there not a reasonable case for hearing such voices?

StW speaker Tariq Ali articulates a more nuanced view of the Syrian conflict - clearly rejecting Assad, but also seeing the vital political complexities and external forces driving imperialist and sectarian interests - and is still routinely castigated by Pulse et al for doing so. Is he also to be dropped from the panel as an 'Assad apologist'?

More particularly for an anti-war body, whatever questions may hang over Mother Agnes's position, involvement and accounts, there's little to indicate her actual promotion of war, something that distinguishes her from those like Ahmad with their encouragement of an "externally-imposed solution" and urgings of US 'capability'.

Despite the withdrawal of Mother Agnes, Ahmad and Pulse still have Stop the War in their sights, insisting that she would have remained as a speaker if not for Scahill and Jones:
@STWuk Had it not been for @jeremyscahill & @OwenJones84's principled stance, you won't have considered disinviting her. Kudos to them.
— PULSE (@im_PULSE) November 17, 2013
This may, indeed, have been the case, with StW feeling more worried about 'losing' Jones and Scahill than Mother Agnes - though, even with Mother Agnes relinquishing her invite, StW could have stated unequivocally that she still had a right to speak.

But the Pulse charge against StW and its presentation of the issue is motivated by much darker intent, as indicated in this further tweet:
@alexhiniker It matters how they are presenting it. Since @STWuk shares much of Mother Agnes's politics. Both have repeatedly blamed victims
— PULSE (@im_PULSE) November 16, 2013 [My emphasis.]
This is the repeated mischief from Ahmad/Pulse that StW not only support/excuse Assad but, more perniciously, that such left opponents of Western intervention have "repeatedly blamed [the] victims".

The intellectual dishonesty, indeed mendacity, of this line should need little elaboration. Yet, its crassness is equalled only by the vitriol behind its relentless delivery.

Did it ever occur to Ahmad and Pulse that the very act of opposing yet another aggressive Western intervention is a humanitarian act in itself, serving to prevent more victims - even if it cannot halt the existing suffering or resolve the civil war?

That should be reasonably obvious. But it gets in the way of Ahmad's cynical contrivance that the 'Monsterphile left' is not only blind to civilian suffering in their 'obsessive hatred' of Western imperialism, but that they are also guilty of blaming the Syrian people for their enduring misery.

Thus, Ahmad's strident denunciation of StW (at Facebook):
If you want to find the armpit of humanity, visit London on November 30 and attend this International "antiwar" Conference. [My emphasis.]
It's notable here that while Ahmad/Pulse have been resounding in their praise for Jones's and Scahill's actions, they have been contrastingly silent over their continued participation, minus Mother Agnes, in this "armpit" assembly.

In pursuit of serious explanations, Joe Emersberger has asked Scahill to defend his position on Mother Agnes. Beyond lame replies, no reasoned account has, as yet, appeared.

Interventions Watch also ask why Owen Jones would take moral umbrage over the presence of Mother Agnes while sharing panels and platforms with Labour elites who took primary roles in the mass crime against Iraq and the vital propaganda that accompanied it.

These are questions that Jones regularly evades and dismisses, ones that have been wilfully unaddressed by an entire liberal-left media, of which he's now a prominent, prestigious part.

Thus, for example, can Alastair Campbell appear on Question Time, write like a feted guest at the Guardian, host Have I Got News For You and give Humanitas lectures at Oxford.

How can someone so directly involved in spinning the lies for the slaughter of so many people be accorded that kind of indulgent protection? Precisely because, while ever-ready to denounce foreign despots and their apologists, so many left-liberals see no equivalence, or worse, with 'our' criminal leaders and propagandists.

Beyond the controversy of 'nun-speak', might that StW gathering find serious time and able guests to press people like Jones and Scahill on this much more vital issue of liberal-left 'none-speak', with its calamitous licence for mass Western warmongering?


Great comment piece here from Jonathan Cook:

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Corporate power and demand culture - rushing us towards oblivion

Following Russell Brand's eloquent call to exit corporate-ordered politics, George Monbiot has delivered a further impressive essay on political subservience and public alienation, arriving at a largely similar conclusion:
 It's the reason for the collapse of democratic choice. It's the source of our growing disillusionment with politics. It's the great unmentionable. Corporate power. The media will scarcely whisper its name. It is howlingly absent from parliamentary debates. Until we name it and confront it, politics is a waste of time.
Like Brand's intervention, it's a rare treatise at the Guardian on corporate hegemony and the very task of exposing corporate power as the problem.   

Yet, in that open, challenging vein, is it churlish or pedantic to ask why Monbiot doesn't question the Guardian's own editors on why the words"corporate power" are seemingly "unmentionable", and why there's no apparent prospect of the Guardian itself ever rejecting the corporate-driven model?

As Jonathan Cook asks, what of the Guardian's own corporate-rooted background?  

A more elementary part of the problem, I suspect, is that the Guardian is not only locked-in, quite 'logically', to the same corporate rules, but that, like most other workers and consumers, its employees are deeply conditioned to believe that things could never be seriously otherwise.   

Sometimes it's sobering just to stop and think how capitalism manipulates our everyday comprehension, language, habits, expectations and movements; not only in controlling political life but by inuring us to a vocabulary of rushed consumption and corporate surveillance.

As Raymond Williams noted, long even before the rise of me-centred neoliberalism, capitalism has been re-shaping the common language for years towards more "particularly acquisitive words: "get", "unique", "individual", "self", "choose"; while over the same period "give" and "obliged" decreased."

Yet, as corporate sovereignty has intensified, so has the terminology of market life.

There's the mass branding of rush consumption, from Wash and Go shampoo to 'Grab and Go' products - others abbreviated to 'Grab 'n Go', saving even more time.

Joining 'fast food', there's every variation now on the word 'express', from 'express lunch' to 'express pizza' and, on every other street, the ever-encroaching 'Tesco Express'.  

Likewise in the rush to production. In taking up increasingly stressful jobs, we're told we need to 'hit the ground running', the process of learning a task or skill now all about 'getting up to speed'.

Even the art of calmness is now pitched as a 'coping exercise' by that Orwellian entity 'Human Resources', where, over the now standard 'working lunch' or quick break, you might just seize a moment to unwind, all helping towards greater productivity.

From the pretentiousness and pressure of the middle-class career ladder to 'fast-tracking' people back into work, everyone's expected to be part of the flexible corporate workplace, all in the great push for profit and growth. 

David Cameron even wants capitalism and the corporate ethic taught in schools. Maybe they could contract-out the lessons, express-style, to McDonalds.    

Mobile phones, laptops and a galaxy of apps are also now the expected accoutrements to our working and 'leisure' lives, requiring us to be online, available, locatable, accountable, observable, persuadable. The technology may be wonderful, even radicalising, but what's the effect of such corporate dominance on the flow and serenity of our lives?  

Back home, even the idea of relaxation has been greedily individualised: rather than easy, sharing perusal of programmes, there's the grasping notion of 'TV on demand'.

And you will probably search in vain now for a TV drama, radio channel or even weather report that isn't sponsored by some notable corporate icon.

Corporate culture hasn't so much permeated the world of sport as colonised it, from shirt sponsorship to the sensurround of rapid-blinking pitch adverts.

The decision by Newcastle United to accept a sponsorship deal with payday loansharks Wonga illustrates just how craven directors and other corporate-fervent executives can be in taking money from the most ruthlessly exploitative outfits.

Incredibly, the club's financial director John Irving rationalised the deal by citing Wonga's proclaimed 'concern' to help underprivileged families in the North East. Alongside its recent PR film, the company has also extended its influence over the local Evening Chronicle in a calculated effort to sanitise its notorious reputation.

All of this corporate takeover of life, from the local to the global, has been accompanied by a massive expansion of market surveillance, observing how we act and consume.

For example, Tesco has just anounced plans to install OptimEye technology cameras at their petrol forecourts for the purposes of face-scan marketing:
Peter Cattell, category director for Tesco petrol stations, said the technology would "enhance" the customer shopping experience. He said: "The ability to tailor content based on time and location means this can be extremely useful and timely for interacting with our customers."
In other words, useful and timely for tracking people as consumers and boosting potential profits.
Corporations also, most menacingly, have the planet. What standard journalist or politician would likely mention the words 'corporate power' when reporting or lamenting the dreadful Typhoon Haiyan disaster in the Philippines?

Nor will the corporate-driven, fossil advertising Guardian, dutifully citing man-made climate change as the cause of intensified catastrophic weather, declare or act against the very force driving all that calamity

For Naomi Klein, there's no such equivication: climate change is a corporate-culpable emergency, requiring nothing short of revolutionary civil engagement.

Corporations now call all the key shots, with the political class acting as gun-toting bodyguards. Despite the fig-leaf of parliamentary appearances, corporations have a malleable political elite in their boardroom-suited pockets. Political 'participation' is a wholesale pretence, the cartel of political parties just more corporate-type brands. And, while a corporate media helps keep the whole charade ideologically intact, corporate surveillance maintains a beady panoptic over the entire social and cultural landscape.

Beyond what we're told is the principal mode of opposition, 'democratic politics', there can be no meaningful, radical change - political, economic or environmental - without primary resistance to the great corporate monster in all its manifestations - including the corporate-driven Guardian.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Corporate militarism: the gravest threat to human security

This week has seen prominent media coverage of two major 'fear and insecurity' stories: the 'questioning' of senior intelligence chiefs by a parliamentary committee; and the employee-dreaded announcement of shipyard job losses, after Portsmouth was closed and Govan in Glasgow 'spared'.

The first had MI5, MI6 and GCHQ heads warning of the perennial 'terrorist threat', within and without, all now intensified by the 'reckless' disclosures of Edward Snowden and his 'irresponsible' journalist filters. Predictably, the BBC headlined and repeated all these claims as if they were obvious, standard facts.

The second story had reports on doleful workers, competing shipyard claims, reflections on the end of Portsmouth's military economy and assessments on whether 'favouring' warship work on the Clyde was a political ploy in the approach to Scotland's independence vote.

A common aspect of both stories was the suspicion of fearmongering: the spooks using their parliamentary outing (weren't we, like the BBC, just fascinated to see them for 'real'?) to whitewash their dark practices and deepen public insecurity; and the funereal-sounding Philip Hammond and his Unionist government intimating to workers, in and beyond the shipyards, that livelihoods can just as easily be withdrawn 'should political circumstances change'.

In each case, the 'politics of fear' got nominal media treatment: the BBC and others pitching on how parliament is 'forcing' much-maligned spy agencies to 'explain' themselves; and the 'probing' of government ministers on their cynical political manoeuvrings over jobs and independence.

Yet, amid all the 'watchful enquiry' of our security guardians and political leaders, where was the slightest mention of what's most deeply responsible for all this fear and insecurity: neoliberal economics and political militarism.

For, contrary to the BBC's 'impartial' analysis, that's the key context behind both these issues.

Amongst all the reports on 'keeping us safe from terrorism', there's nothing to be said, apparently, about the economy of war and corporate militarism driving all that surveillance, spying and other spurious intelligence. 

Amongst all the pieces on job losses, decimated communities and independence politics, there's nothing to say, it seems, on the immoral war economy, workers' dependency on building murderous hardware or the corporate, political and military/intelligence network that help maintain all that through the promotion of public anxiety. 

Where are these core issues being raised and probed by our 'watchful' parliament and media?

While anxious, insecure workers, some now on the scrapheap, vie for jobs, there's no attempt to question either the actual power of arms corporations like BAE Systems or the political, military and intelligence nexus serving it.      

Media comment on the doubling cost of two new aircraft carriers is, likewise, narrowly framed as a 'value-for-money issue' rather than an even more obscene promotion of warmongering.    

It's a double-ended weapon. Massive resources are being expended on warships, nuclear bombs and other wicked procurement. And while all that production is being used to kill, occupy and immiserate others in far-off places, an economic gun is being held to workers' heads.

The misery of people losing their jobs cannot be understated. But where is the more critical debate about rampant military expenditure and workers' very engagement in war-destructive industries rather than constructive and peace-promoting ones? Where is the slightest scrutiny here of promiscuous arms corporations and neoliberal determinations on who should be targeted, either by weapons or redundancy?        

And so it comes full circle, in an endless economy of militarism and surveillance, as all that occupation and aggression prompts more conflict and backlash, helping to maintain the needed 'war on terror', the vast corporate interests behind it and the 'necessary intelligence' to monitor it.  

All told, from the offices of spymasters to the shipyards of war, it's a system of profit and control that thrives on fear and insecurity.     

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Russell Brand saying it for real

There's been growing media and public interest in Russell Brand's call for a radical new politics following his bravura performance on Newsnight, giving Jeremy Paxman a memorable lesson on true democracy and compassionate politics.

Rejecting the discredited world of party-machine politics, Brand declared his refusal to participate, calling on others not to vote, much to the seeming incredulity of Paxman.

Paxman's indignation and lofty-sounding dismissal of Brand as "trivial" was somewhat mitigated by later admissions that, indeed, "people are sick of the tawdry pretences" of politics, and that he himself had, once, elected not to vote. But these were token concessions to Brand's more profound indictment. 

Like most media outlets pitching for 'cool attention' in a crowded field, the 'flagship' Newsnight editors were likely on a ratings hunt, coupled with Paxman's own probable fascination with Brand.

It's also notable that the BBC previewed the Newsnight piece at their 'Arts and Entertainment' section, presumably not considering it 'seriously political'.

While Paxman seemed stimulated, if uncomfortably challenged, by the exchange, Newsnight may have calculated that by leaving Brand to 'rant', in some 'entertaining' way, he might just expose his own 'naivety', while helping to cast Paxman, and the system he upholds, as reasonable and rational.

Yet, it seems that Brand's own alienation towards a bankrupt system, and his eloquent searing of it, has registered much more closely with many more than Paxman, the BBC and other service media think.

Cue damning reaction from a senior journalist circle who dismiss Brand as an ill-informed circus politico pronouncing fanciful rhetoric and irresponsible calls to join him as an electoral refusenik.

Their 'mission', we're assured, is to keep faith with the hard-won franchise and 'realistically-deliverable' system of party democracy.

Thus was fellow comedian Robert Webb given dutiful media applause for his denunciation of Brand's 'outpourings'.

Webb's main argument, like theirs, is about 'protecting what we have', the safeguarding of a system that, for all its faults and token policies, can still realise useful reform and welfare. In openly endorsing Labour as the ready 'corrective' to those 'democratic deficits', Webb urges Russell to consider his relatively privileged position in our 'advanced liberal democracy': 
And again when I read an intelligent fellow citizen ready to toss away the hard-won liberties of his brothers and sisters because he’s bored.
Yet, of increasing concern to an elite and the spooks who monitor the political-cultural zeitgeist, Brand's point here is far from frivolous or nihilistic. It's dangerously subversive.

Brand's response to Webb includes a reminder of the latter's own privileged place in the class system:
If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids. They're not coming for you if you're from Oxbridge.
The case for non-voting may not seem immediately class-based, but it encompasses the truth of both political and economic alienation, as Brand intimates in his New Statesman piece:
"There’s little point bemoaning this apathy. Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people."
And when that realisation reaches a tipping-point, might the decisively political act of no longer validating a grossly-fixed system serve a more potent political purpose?

As Jonathan Cook notes in some highly-appreciative blogs on Brand:
One only needs to do a small thought experiment to answer the Webbs. What is the worst that would happen if 80% of us decided to withdraw our vote at election time? The Conservatives would get in with 10-15% of the popular vote. In other words, we’d have the same corrupt politicians ruling over us as now but – unlike now – they would have not even the pretence of a democratic mandate to legitimise their actions. It would be clear they were simply in power to promote the naked self-interest of their class.
That alone would be a dramatic improvement on the current situation. It would also set up a dynamic of confrontation between the disenfranchised majority and the minority ruling over us. That would provoke new kinds of popular political organisation and engagement, threatening the current power structures and possibly impelling us towards real change.
With over 7 million Twitter followers - not necessarily, of course, all adherents of a 'political messiah' - Brand's kind of populist discourse doesn't go unnoticed by the establishment.

Again, such deepening elite concern over political 'disengagement' is compounded by Brand's savaging of the associated economic system:
"Profit is the most profane word we have. In its pursuit we have forgotten that while individual interests are being met, we as a whole are being annihilated."
Predictably, the cry goes up: who are you, with your lavish wealth and Hollywood home, to lecture us on political and economic liberation? The irony of a comfortable liberal media class speaking as 'us' shouldn't be lost here.

It's a smear-laden distraction serving to deflect minds not only from the core issues Brand is raising, but the instinctive threat liberal politicians and journalists feel and lash out against when their own inadequacies as challenging vanguards and reforming radicals are so glaringly exposed. 
In contrast, there's a good deal of honest self-reflection in Brand's own 'hypocrisy':
"The hypocrisy – me, working for MTV with my fancy shoes – is a problem that can be taken care of incrementally. I don’t mind giving up some of my baubles and balderdash for a genuinely fair system, so can we create one? We have to be inclusive of everyone, to recognise our similarities are more important than our differences and that we have an immediate ecological imperative."
In a further intoxicating interview, hosted by Mehdi Hasan, Brand expounds more fully, and with trademark vim, on his humanitarian political thoughts, indictment of corporate-ordered life and the emergency of planetary disaster.

In a subsequent Guardian essay, Brand also reiterates the possible positive fallout of not voting, again getting to the core point of the prevailing political system and what it serves:
The reason not voting could be effective is that if we starve them of our consent we could force them to acknowledge that they operate on behalf of The City and Wall Street; that the financing of political parties and lobbying is where the true influence lies; not in the ballot box.
It's a view this writer has also come to endorse with regard to the whole Westminster facade.

The key qualifier, and one Brand might likely uphold, would be to vote only where there seems a strategic and positive purpose. Thus, for example, I'd urge people to vote Yes in the upcoming Scottish Independence referendum - a non-party issue - specifically because it does present some strategic opportunity for advancing a viable, if still to be fought for, alternative to the very Westminster cartel Brand rejects.

Otherwise, not voting on the grounds expounded by Brand is a distinct act of political consciousness, the very antithesis of political apathy.

There is no credible choice or meaningful alternative under this sovereign political-corporate order. It's not just Hobbes's political Leviathan. It's Hobson's political choice: ConDem neoliberalism and austerity or New Improved Labour (NIL) neoliberalism and austerity.

Again, to those who snipe that he is protected whatever the political-economic arrangement, Brand meets the charge of 'affluent hypocrite' full-on:
Some people say I'm a hypocrite because I've got money now. When I was poor and I complained about inequality people said I was bitter, now I'm rich and I complain about inequality they say I'm a hypocrite. I'm beginning to think they just don't want inequality on the agenda because it is a real problem that needs to be addressed.

It's easy to attack me, I'm a right twerp, I'm a junkie and a cheeky monkey, I accept it, but that doesn't detract from the incontrovertible fact that we are living in a time of huge economic disparity and confronting ecological disaster.
And he also alludes neatly here to the psychology of incorporation, with this exquisite nugget on understanding people like Paxman, the amiable, institutionalised person:
I like Jeremy Paxman, incidentally. I think he's a decent bloke but like a lot of people who work deep within the system it's hard for him to countenance ideas from outside the narrowly prescribed trench of contemporary democracy. Most of the people who criticized me have a vested interest in the maintenance of the system. They say the system works. What they mean is "the system works for me".
A perfect summation of the self-sustaining and institutional-preserving system.

Throughout these inspiring appeals for a Brand New Politics, I've hoped that Brand would say something more specific about the power of the corporate media as a propaganda agent and key impediment to radical change.  This, quite vitally, includes the corporate-minded Guardian, BBC and other liberal media that, while hosting Brand and other 'controversial' figures, serve to hide, rationalise and mitigate capitalist greed, warmongering and planetary destruction.
Alas, Mehdi Hasan didn't think fit to specify this core media issue among his thirty questions to Brand. Media Lens, also highly approving of Brand's inspiring words and motivations, have made just such an encouraging appeal.

Perhaps Brand still sees the media factor through the lens of his own personal experience and exposure as celebrity rather than, as yet, with more focus on its system-sustaining role, and the need for a genuine alternative media.   

Still, in seeming evolving awareness, here's Brand concluding his Guardian piece with a call for real options and this wary eye on his host:
If we all collude and collaborate together we can design a new system that makes the current one obsolete. The reality is there are alternatives. That is the terrifying truth that the media, government and big business work so hard to conceal. Even the outlet that printed this will tomorrow print a couple of columns saying what a naïve wanker I am, or try to find ways that I've fucked up.
The language might seem coarse, but it's of the street, and a lot more genuine, instructive and, yes, political, than the dressed-up speech that passes for faux democratic politics and parliamentary representation.
I like the open mood of Brand's political energies, their raw motivation, the self-questioning, the admission of ego, indeed all the real 'character defects' a uniform commentariat deride as untenable and 'contradictory' to 'measured' political development.
So, what if all that conviction turns out to be a transitory urge or indulgent moment. What matters most is the message being imparted, something that remains irrespective of Brand's involvement.  
The political and media custodians who attack Brand, all those with a protected part in the pretend democratic order, claim that he and other 'infantile radicals' are seducing the public, pulling the rug of 'proven', if problematic, democratic engagement from those who most need it.
On the contrary, Brand is merely articulating what a gathering, marginalised and alienated populace now deeply feel about the charade of party politics and accountable governance.