Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Journalistic Manipulation... since the Crimean War

I was listening to the person currently calling himself Prime Minister of Great Britain on the news a few days ago. In an attempt to distract the media and the public from his impressively demonstrated economic failures, he has taken that most traditional of routes - start a witch hunt.

I despise politicians who take such stances, and have ever since the time in my teens when the military junta in Argentina decided that the best way to distract their populace from their failures was a short victorious war... like invading the Falklands. The dislike only grew as I watched a series of Australian PM's distract a compliant media and cretinous public with such things as "no child shall live in poverty" during the last "recession we had to have"; followed by "great betrayals" and "republics" the next time the polls were bad, and "gun control" and "children overboard" the next time. A pox on all their houses.

It did make me reflect however, on the dangers of a media that can say "oh look, shiny things" whenever their political meal tickets start pulling irrelevant rabbits out of hats. The fact that the media can then whip up a frenzy amongst people who should know better is even more scary. (I still shudder to remember how the last time France exploded a test nuclear weapon at Muraroa Atoll, the Australian government led a chorus of media frenzy which had mindless mobs smashing the windows of French restaurants within weeks. A warning to any Nazi hater who thinks it could never happen here..)

It is not that newspapers themselves are evil ( despite the complaints of voter manipulation from many who do not understand basic concepts of supply and demand leading to a voice for any opinion big enough to pay). It is more a matter of modern journalists being so ignorant of the possible effects of playing with fire. Certainly those I have spoken to have been genuinely shocked to think that their fortnight long rants against someone who has not yet been proven guilty of anything, are leading to lynch mobs in the street. The 'ethics' components of any journalism courses I have looked at seem to have more to do with how not to be sued, than with handling media power judiciously. Don't they study their own history?

In the 1850's for instance, we get the first conflicts where modern telecommunications (meaning telegraph wires), allow journalists at the front to influence popular opinion at home to force politicians into things they are not very keen on doing.

The first 'modern' war correspondent were people like William Howard Russell, who now receives renown for revealing the truth about army conditions at the terrible Crimean Campaign, and for creating a cult of adulation for Florence Nightingale. (Actually the more interesting heroin of that campaign was Mary Seacole, who lacks the modern cred of Ms Nightingale, possibly because she was coloured.) Much is made of characters like Russell, but little is thought about their influence on the causes of wars.

The British government of the day was not remotely interested in being involved in a new European war against Russia. Unfortunately for them, unscrupulous journalists were ready to whip up public opinion to force them to it. What eventually happened was that the government was backed into a corner that required a guarantee of some sort to the Turks, who promptly sent their ragged fleet on a suicide run to be destroyed by the Russians. Result? The British Empire moves in to grant the 'decaying old man of Europe' another 6 decades of subsidised existence.

Oh there were other things going on as well. The most important of which was Napoleon III having a fit of grandious-ness: which meant that a bit of one-up-man-ship between France and Britain could also be played up in the press. Nonetheless the issue was one which should never have led to British involvement in a war. Certainly not a major international one, unless journalists were willing to drive a PR cart (or do I mean barrow?) through government policy.

Another great, if slightly later, example of journalistic integrity being the theory that the American William Randolph Hurst encouraged the Spanish-American War for the sole purpose of expanding newspaper sales.

It was bad enough when journalists were doing it on their own. It was appalling when newspaper magnates became convinced that they could influence their readerships, then national politics, and eventually international relations, by fiat. (See, for instance, Lord Beaverbrook in the lead up to World War Two.) But the nadir is reached when politicians realise that they can direct their fawning lackeys (many of whom are even more pathetic for their self deception that they are fearless investigators) down any blind alleys that suit them.

And so we get witch hunts. Enquiries into problems that everyone knows the answers to, but which are too politically sensitive to act on. (Like students learning to read, write, and behave like human beings). Committees to report on things beyond anyone's control. (Some of the more exotic fantasies of 'environmentalists' spring to mind.) Commissions into things that are the governments fault, but they think they can distract people into blaming someone else for. (Yes, I am thinking specifically of the Victorian Bushfire Commission, where they are not even looking at the state governments failure to follow through on what many previous commissions have told them needs to be done, while steering public attention towards convenient scapegoats who are also victims of the government's policies.) Or yet more reports on things that have had at least two or three reports already. (The PM fellow announced yet another inquiry into the Iraq war.)

Personally, I preferred it in the days when journalists tried to steer people themselves. There is enough variety in newspapers that most journalists are steering the self selecting group who read their particular rag exactly where their preconceptions want them to go... no real issue there. What I can't stand is that journalistic standards have gone so far down this path that they do not even seem aware, let alone interested, that they are putty in the hands of politicians. Do they not know? Do they not care? Is it policy? Is it 'keeping up with the net'? (Or is it an acknowledgement that they can't keep up with the net on news, so they will play shock-jock instead?)

The interesting thing is that the tactics of modern journalists are self defeating. Already there are debates on the collapse of 'quality journalism', simply because there is not the advertising revenue to support it. What the debaters are missing is that the modern media is not about quality journalism. If people want investigation, they go on line and do it. (Or try the new method of contracting online an investigator to look at it... enough people interested can buy a tailored investigation.) The rest of the consumer base only tunes in to have their opinions validated. (When organisations like the BBC, with it's massive resources, rarely bothers to run anything but party politicals on pre-determined lines - see anything on Israel for instance - then quality mass journalism is pretty well finished.) Falling revenues and falling standards become a fairly 'chicken or egg' argument.

What started as manipulating the news for the journalists own beliefs, became tailoring the news you report for your readership; which then becomes limiting what you report to what the readers want to hear about; which then becomes being manipulated into 'newsworthy' items by smart politicians (and others). In practical terms, this progression of 'journalism' seems a quite logical flow from the Crimea to Celebrity Big Brother.

It will be interesting to see whether the net does manage to come up with something well enough done to replace investigative journalism. Something has to.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Unrealistic Heroes 2 - John Curtin


Australia's Prime Minister Curtin is another man who is treated as some sort of national hero by those who seem never to have considered the alternatives. Curtin led Australia through the dark days of the threat of Japanese invasion in teh second half of world war tow, and is often rapturously referred to as the man who saved Australia. Why? How?

It is hard to see how Curtins 'achievements' in world war two were superior to those of his contemporaries, or forebears, or followers. Indeed it would be fair to suggest that Australia has never had such bad prime ministers that any one of them could not have done at least as well in the same circumstances. And by 'at least' as well, I literally mean that the vast majority of Australia's PM's would probably have done considerably better.

Curtin was an amateur at government, with no real experience of running anything of significance, and it showed. (The most telling comment about his control during the crisis, was the oft repeated concept from political and military figures that "Canberra has lost it".)

Curtin was ignorant of international relations, with no real idea how to play the game as his predecessor Mezies had, and it showed. (Menzies had been a welcome visitor to the London war cabinet; and arranged for his army expedition chief to be second in command of the main Imperial theatre in the Meditteranean; and had his opinion sought - if not always valued. Curtin was generally ignored by his allies, to the point that when Churchill asked the Australian civil servant Richard Casey to become the British cabinet minister resident in the middle east, Curtin was reportedly peeved.) Once MacArthur arrived to handle Curtin for the Allies, Roosevelt and Churchill could safely ignore him.

Curtin was completely ignorant of military affairs, and it showed. He cheerfully handed the entire organistaion of Australian defences over to the pompous and vainglorious MacArthur, failing to recognise that Roosevelt had happily pulled the man out of the Phillipines for domestic political reasons, and was now determined to see him kept in exile in Australia for those same domestic political reasons. (MacArthur notoriously ran the newsmen in his area of command. If he said 'American troops under the command of General douglas MacArthur have....' he meant Americans; if he said 'Allied troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur have...' he meant Australians. So paranoid and controlling of media relations was he, that once when he wanted one of his American...


army leaders to advance faster, that he promised that if the poor man achieved X results, he would actually reveal his name to the newsmen!)

Indeed McArthur was so good at manipulating Curtin, that the real head of the Australian military - General Thomas Blamey - found himself exiled to New Guinea to try and save his own job. The man was supposed to be supervising the two armies, and other corps and divisions, responsible for the defence of the entire continent. Instead he was forced to spend several vital months twiddling his thumbs, and supervising a few brigades in an isolated location. Curtin later admitted that "in his ignorance of military affairs" he genuinely believed that the head of the Australian Army should be at the front. A more damning self indictment by somebody who considered themselves theoretically suitable to run a government in wartime, would be hard to find.

When, later in the war, Curtin finally became aware that McArthur was no longer paying even token attention to Australia or its concerns, he belatedly searched for alternatives. In 1944-5 there was a brief attempt to discuss with the British Chiefs of Staff the concept of a renewed British Commonwealth offensive using Australian, Indian, and British troops, to reconquer the Netherlands East Indies. Unfortunately by this stage, nobody on the international level was taking much notice of the Curtin government. Blamey tried to prevent wasting Australian lives in what he considered to be the useless attack on Balikpapan late in the war, but Curtin gave MacArthur his way... as usual. (As a side issue, it amuses me that the trendy historians who adore Curtin for his 'sticking' the British by 'turning to America', are the ones who now bemoan Australia's lap dog approach to... the United States. But somehow they don't see that as anything to do with Curtin?)

Indeed, by the later stages the war, the only notice that was being paid to Australia internationally, was American and British disgust at the Australian trade union strikes that were undermining the Pacific war effort. Considering that these purely domestic concerns were the only thing that the Curtin government had really attempted to retain control of, this is a sad indictment of their effectiveness in any area.

So it is hard to understand why some people rant about John Curtin's brilliant role in Australian history. He was not respected internationally, or listened to by his own trade unionists. He was militarily incompetent, and ignorant. He pretty much abandoned a position of respect in the British Commonwealth, for a position of ignominy is an American lackey. He did nothing to save Australia could not have been done better by virtually any other politician in our history.

This is not to say that I despise Curtin, frankly he is not significant enough in international history to warrant it. In fact I merely consider him another mediocre Australian politician.

Curtin appears to be another example of how we confuse the reality of high profile with the concept of high-performance.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Unrealistic Heroes 1 - Roosevelt

There have been a number of quite annoying articles on radio recently, mostly focused on making negative comments about the place of President Bush in US history.

Don't get me wrong, I think President Bush was a buffoon: at best, a well-meaning, good old boy, with some rather strange ideological preconceptions. However it is a bit rich to paint him as an Anti-Christ, when he genuinely did prevent any further attacks on US soil; genuinely did have an excellent foreign relations program through most of Asia; genuinely did make significant efforts to promote free trade, particularly with countries like Australia; and genuinely did try to rein back the Democrat inspired excesses of Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae which led to a significant component of the current economic crisis.

Given his basic personality weaknesses, it would be fair to say that I'm quite surprised at how well President Bush did. Speaking as an Australian, with our own embarrassing stock of political leaders, I find it of little hard to waive the examples of Malcolm Fraser (one of Frasers greatest legacies in international affairs was being pivotal in installing Robert Mugabe as President/Dictator of Zimbabwe - nice one), or Paul Keating (a relative non-entity internationally, except for his abuse of European and Asian political leaders - usually when he needed to distract the Australian media and voters from something), as somehow significantly better political leaders. In fact the closest Australian comparison, is our own well-meaning, good old boy, with some rather strange ideological preconceptions: Bob Hawke. (Personally, although not very impressed by his beer guzzling populist swagger, I still consider Bob Hawke to be one of the better Prime Minister's the last half century... Damning with faint praise perhaps?)

Yet for me, the annoying thing has not been the discussion of President Bush's personal failings. Rather, it has been the comparison is made with his predecessors. In particular, several presenters have listed at top 10 US President, and the names they have listed have been somewhat worrying.

Teddy Roosevelt was a well-meaning, good old boy, with some very very strange ideological preconceptions. (Let's face it, he was an aggressive, obnoxious,militaristic, fruitcake.) Putting him firmly in the top 10 US presidents is probably correct, but that says a lot about the average quality of US presidents. (It also makes you wonder whether the long-term historical view of President Bush will be nearly as negative as many people currently believe.)

Woodrow Wilson is a stranger choice. I am not particularly familiar with his domestic policies, except for his ridiculous "too proud to fight" statement during his Great War election campaign, and his racist clean-outs of blacks from government posts. But I am very familiar with his effect on the world as a whole. Wilson's irrational and unrealistic worldview torpedoed the Versailles peace conference, and made a just peace completely impossible (particularly as Clemenceau took advantage of his gullibility to feed in quite a bit of French vengeance). His idealistic 14 points, and the incompetence with which they were pursued, made sure that the defeated powers would be out for revenge as soon as possible. His impractical League of Nations seemed designed to destabilise any attempt at Balance of Power politics in the future. His failure to get his own Congress to ratify any of his promises, undercut any chance of international cooperation to prevent future conflict. Woodrow Wilson's total impact on world history could be summarised as World War II. If that is what makes a great president, I would hate to think what makes a poor one.

Perhaps the problem is that too many people confuse a high profile with some sort of effectiveness. Wilson and the two Roosevelt's were undoubtedly high profile, but were they anything to be proud of?

Which brings us to the greatest fantasy of all, Franklin Delanore Roosevelt.

Biographers of FDR make great claims about his place as one of the greatest American presidents. In particular they comment on his initiatives during the Great Depression, particularly his New Deal; and on his role in getting the United States involved in the Second World War, and leaving it successfully through it.

Unfortunately, all of these claims of success are bollocks.

The first claim, that Roosevelt had a great effect on the depression, is essentially true, but not for the reasons that his supporters might hope. In fact it was his interaction with the international community, particularly his response to the international economic conference - and the way that he reneged on his promises to that group of world leaders - which converted what could have been a small depression, into a much more significant global crisis. Roosevelt did have a significant effect, he helped cause and expand the Great Depression worldwide.

His New Deal, also had a great effect, but again, not the one that his supporters would like to think. Any good statistical analysis of the long-term effects of his Keynsian economics, and protectionist reactions, clearly demonstrates how far behind most of the rest of the developed world United States fell when it came to recovery. Indeed, unlike most of the rest of the world, the the United States still had significant unemployment until the Second World War solved that problem for them.

Then comes the fantasy that Roosevelt successfully steered the United States into the war. It is true that he'd made significant attempts to assist the allies, because he genuinely believed in their cause. However it would be unrealistic to claim that he actually steered the United States into the conflict. He may have involved a few destroyers in some shooting matches with U-boats in the North Atlantic, but that was far as his efforts ever went. The United States joined the war when the Japanese kicked their teeth down their throat at Pearl Harbor. Even then President Roosevelt did not actually manage to declare war on Germany, he waited until Hitler decided to declare war on the United States.

His statesmanship in leading the United States through the war, is also highly suspect. Possibly the worst thing he did, was to announce "unconditional surrender" without consulting his allies or considering the implications. Many Germans in the post-war period made it clear that they had been willing to fight longer and harder to avoid unconditional surrender ("I may as well die fighting as spend the rest of my life chopping wood in Canada"), and many thousands of Americans and other allies paid with their lives for another well intentioned but naive and foolish statement by an American president.

His relations with the French, particularly the Free French, were not good, with significant effects post-war. His attitude to many other free governments, particularly the Poles, Greeks, and later on the Italians, were also unimpressive. In fact his betrayal of the Polish nation, while confessing to Stalin that he needed to keep it quiet until after getting the Polish-American vote in his next domestic election, is unforgivable.

Which brings us to Stalin. President Roosevelt's innocence and ignorance, led him to believe that he could deal with Stalin. In reality, Stalin played President Roosevelt like a cheap instrument. He did not even have to be careful. In fact it could be claimed that President Franklin Delanore Roosevelt's biggest foreign policy achievement is called the Cold War.

Finally we should comment on the private life of a man who pretended to be moral. Or perhaps not. (Yuck.)

Yes, President Roosevelt was a well-meaning, energetic and enthusiastic president. He made significant efforts to improve the lives of his own people, and the world. But he failed. He made it the world wide depression worse; he kept his own country in depression longer than most other countries; he failed to enter the Second World War on his own terms; and he failed to achieve almost any of his long term objectives from the war. In fact the closest thing to a success in these four cases, would be the achievement of provoking the Japanese to sink his fleet, and Hitler to disdainfully declare war. He then abandoned significant portions of the world to communist dictatorship.

In summary he lied, he cheated, he undermined, he betrayed. I know much the same could be said of many politicians, but great ones? If this is the measure of a great president, let's hope for more non-entities.

Why, oh why, do democracies constantly mistake loud and flashy for competent and impressive?

Why do we believe that a high profile equals greatness?