Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Need for journalists to question official truths

There is no need of of direct censorship in Britain, mainstream journalists have become so self censoring that they reproduce the official truth as a matter of course.
The best example of this phenonoma at work is what have become known as the dominant narratives of the moment. Over recent times, the first of these was the war on terror. This followed the attacks on America of 11 September 2001. There was an unprecedented reaction from the American administration, strongly supported by Britain.
The rhetoric of war was quickly deployed as the terrorist threat was hyped up. A “war” followed against Afghanistan, later to be followed by another on Iraq. Both assaults were justified by the need to defeat this evil known as terrorism but nicely coinciding with US and British strategic economic interests in the regions concerned.
The hyping of this unprecedented threat led at home and abroad to the shredding of human rights. Detention without trial, whether by the US military in Guantanamo Bay or British police and intelligence services in Belmarsh Prison, became commonplace. The practice of extraordinary rendition was deployed – effectively kidknapping people and taking them to countries where torture could be used to get the information required.
There was the routine abuse of prisoners in holding centres like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
Other liberties like the right to protest were also curtailed. A variety of authoritarian paraphanalia was developed, from control orders to ID cards, all legitimised on the back of the need to defeat terrorism.
During all of these post 9/11 developments, most in the media simply accepted the official version of events. The consensus that the threat posed by a group known as Al Qaeda – little of which was known prior to 9/11 – was as great as that of Nazi Germany under Hitler was taken without question.
The whole war on terror narrative was so easily sold. There should have been more questions about Al Qaeda, the 9/11 attacks and the destruction of human rights. The only winners have been the arms and oil companies.
The war on terror had a long duration as the dominant narrative, that only came to an end with the banking crisis. This crisis rocked the world and became the new narrative. This time there were references to the 1930s and the worst crisis ever. Again few questions that needed to be were asked. The media world accepted the disaster narrative and it fanned out. All economic news was bad news. It became an easy story to take some negative statistics, stand in front of a few shops that had closed down and predict gloom and doom. When there was good news, like more jobs being created by a supermarket chain, this became an add on to the main bad news story.
The narrative on this occasion was tinged by a need on the part of those who largely own and control the media for a change of government. The continually preached armageddon scenario was bad news for the Labour government which had adopted a Keynsian approach, pumping money in to stimulate demand and trying to get people spending again. Yet the news was all bad, suggesting things would get worse.
The economic crisis has now morphed into the present narrative which concerns the need for cuts in order to reduce the national debt, incurred mainly by the banking bail out. This has been sold again in apocalyptic terms. The war images have been run out yet again. The Dunkirk spirit called upon, as everyone must tighten their belts. The caveat here ofcourse is that some like the pensioners and public sector are being asked to tighten their belts that bit tighter that the bankers who created the crisis in the first place.
The media has been operating as an echo chamber for the narrative of national austerity. Few are again questioning the line. The present debt is nothing like that incurred during the post World War II period when the country was literally bankrupt. Yet at that time the NHS and the welfare state were created. Few ask why the very same institutions in the City of London who created the crisis in the first place are now effectively setting the terms as to who should be picking up the bill.
As can be seen from these examples there is no one cause that can be singled out for the basis of a narrative. It is a combination of factors including governments, business interests - particularly arms, oil and banking - and concentration of media into fewer and fewer hands. All of these factors contribute to creating narratives that are favourably generally to a rich elite and against the interests of the mass of people. The development is bad for democracy.
The question for journalists is why do we accept these narratives so easily without asking even the most basic of questions. The ease with which each of these narratives has been sold to journalists amounts to a type of self-censorship. The faculties of a questioning mind, inquisitiveness and a desire for truth seem to have been suspended indefinitely. It is not all bad news ofcourse, there are honourable exceptions to these dominant narratives. Brave work such as that conducted by journalists Stephen Grey to expose extraordinary rendition and the advocacy and writing of lawyer Clive Stafford Smith on Guantanamo Bay. But these are few and far between. The majority have gone along with the official truths, put out to keep the people down by engendering fear and to the benefit of vested interests. It is sad day for journalism and democracy when so many media operations have become not much more than covert wings of the propaganda world of public relations. Somehow journalists need to win back their independence and inquisitiveness. A healthy democracy demands more than the parroting of official truths

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Long journey for Bloody Sunday relatives

The final judgement of the Saville inquiry into the deaths of 14 people on Bloody Sunday took me back to a day in the summer of 1994.
I was sitting in the front room of John Kelly, the brother of Michael, 17 when gunned down by the paratroopers on 30 January 1972.
John and the whole Kelly family wanted justice for Michael. It was 22 years since that horrific day but the family remained almost in a time warp unable to grieve or move on because justice had been denied them. Michael’s picture hung on the wall, a memory of a life destroyed.
Later I met with other relatives of the Bloody Sunday victims at the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry. They all had similar stories to tell of loved ones lost and the need to attain truth and justice before they could move on.
The declared aims of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign at the time were that the British government admit that all those killed were innocent, that the Widgery Inquiry report be repudiated and that those responsible for the murders be brought to justice.
The relatives though were a long way from attaining those aims. Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, the officers commanding 1 Para on Bloody Sunday, had recently bragged that “quite honestly I owned the Bogside in military terms. I occupied it.” The one admission that the campaign had attained came in a letter from then Prime Minister John Major to SDLP leader John Hume that the victims “should be regarded as innocent of allegations that they were shot whilst handling firearms or explosives.”
The marches continued through the London streets every January to mark the atrocity of Bloody Sunday with similar events taking place in Derry every year. The relatives continued to represent their case to ministers in the North and London. Media interest ebbed and flowed. Channel 4 News did some good revelatory investigations. Derry based journalist Eamonn McCann produced his excellent book Bloody Sunday in Derry. Then came Don Mullan’s Eyewitness Bloody Sunday and the films followed. The pressure was building at the same time as the peace process was gaining momentum. It was made clear to Tony Blair by the Irish government that Bloody Sunday remained a road block on the path to peace process.
For many in the North, Bloody Sunday had become symbolic of the whole Troubles period. The protest had been organised by the civil rights movement against internment. It drew on the peaceful protest of other similar movements in America and beyond. The brutal actions of the army on that day in murdering 14 civilians effectively marked the end of peaceful protest. As has been well documented, in the days that followed Bloody Sunday young men were queuing up to join the IRA. The conflict was to last another 25 years, claiming 3,500 lives.
The big breakthrough for the relatives came when in 1998 as part of the choreography for the Good Friday Agreement, Prime Minister Tony Blair set up the Bloody Sunday inquiry to be led by Lord Mark Saville.
The inquiry initially took evidence in Derry, then moved to London because the soldiers were concerned for their safety in the North. John Kelly and the other relatives attended Westminster Central Hall over the period of a year, when the inquiry took the soldier’s evidence and that of a number of politicians, including Edward Heath, the Prime Minister at the time of Bloody Sunday.
The relatives at this time struggled, juggling jobs and home life as they shuttled between London and Belfast to hear the testimonies of those who killed their loved ones. The Irish community in London did much to support the relatives at this time.
I met John Kelly again at Westminster Central Hall when he heard testimony from Solider F who shot dead Michael. It was a difficult day but John felt better for at last having heard and seen the man who killed his brother.
That was all some years ago. The relatives have been kept waiting a long time to learn the findings of Lord Saville and his fellow judges. At last on 15 June the report was published. The blame was laid fully at the door of the British army. Soldiers were judged to have shot down innocent civilians. Some were said to have lied to the inquiry. The Widgery Inquiry, set up after Bloody Sunday, and widely regarded as a whitewash was totally repudiated. The British government accepted responsibility for the killing of its own citizens by its employees. Prime Minister David Cameron apologised, expressing his deep sorrow and declaring the killings to be “unjustified and unjustifiable.” Effectively, the demands of the Bloody Sunday Justice campaign had been achieved. The one question remaining was whether those responsible for the killings had been brought to justice. Some relatives want to see the soldiers concerned in the dock, prosecuted for the crime of murder. For others the findings of Lord Saville have so comprehensively put the blame on the army and repudiated the victims that they feel enough is enough.It has been a long hard struggle for the relatives of those who died on Bloody Sunday but at last they have achieved justice and truth. The question is where next? It has been suggested that some sort of truth and reconciliation process maybe needed on a wider scale. This no doubt would help the healing process but needs to be handled very carefully, with different groups all too willing to adopt their own hierarchies of suffering. Only time will tell, but for the meantime all credit has to go to the relatives who campaigned so long for justice – their success is something that people in struggle everywhere should share.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Football shows what worker power can achieve

The world of professional football should represent a beacon of light for those in struggle against oppressive employers everywhere.
The workers have managed to wrestle away a large junk of the value emanating from the owners of the means of production. This success was reflected in the recent report on the Annual Review of Football Finance from Deloitte which found that wages were taking up 67 per cent of revenue.
The power of the workers has translated into huge salaries of up to £150,000 a week in the case of some Premier League footballers. These levels of pay do not ofcourse translate right down the leagues but even a full time professional in the Blue Square Bet Premier League (the league below the Football League) could expect to be earning more than most of the population.
The workers in the football industry are represented by the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) which must be the most successful trade union in the land. What other organisation is doing so well for its members?
It was not always thus ofcourse, when there was the maximum wage in place back in the 1950s. In those days the players were paid an average of £15 a week , not much more than those who came to watch. Many top players would travel in the bus alongside those coming to watch the game. This all changed with the successful campaign led by the PFA and its then chairman Jimmy Hill. The campaign culminated in a 100 per cent strike ballot that threatened to bring the game to a total halt in 1961. The Football League capitulated and the maximum wage was gone. Within months, England captain Johnny Haynes was the first £100 a week footballer.
Once that sealing was removed players wages began to rise. It was though when England won the World Cup in 1966 that the power of the players really began to increase as players like Bobby Moore took on celebrity status. Though even in those days the players still had their feet on the ground, as was evidenced by the story of Jack Charlton spending the night of the famous day asleep on the sofa of a complete stranger after being stranded at Leytonstone Underground station in east London.
Footballers were well paid from the late 1960s onward, but it was not until the advent of the Premier League in the early 1990s that wages took off to reach the astronomic levels that they now hold. Television brought millions of pounds into the game and the player’s labour took on far more value.
The combination of Sky buying the rights and the Murdoch empire using its other media like the Sun and News of the World it to promote the game helped it to dominate the media. The competition of other media outlets also contributed to the success of the whole football brand.
The way in which the present World Cup has come to dominate the news agenda is testimony to how the appeal of football has grown. Going back to England winning the World Cup in 1966, even then football did not take over the news agenda to the extent that it does now over say an injured player's foot or what might happen in the next match.
Player power clearly came to assert itself, particularly in the 1990s, due to a combination of the work of the PFA but also the growing role of the player’s agent. These individuals recognised the value of the player as a commodity to the clubs and used it to their own and the player’s advantage. Many players ofcourse, such as the highly sort after Aston Villa and England star James Milner, have the PFA to represent them in an agent capacity.
The players were hyped up and the fans came to see the players. Competition between clubs and players meant that it became a sellers market. As a result, ticket prices rose and so did players wages. The irony of this situation was that the working class supporter, who loyally supported his club, was having to pay out, in part, so that the player, who he used to travel on the bus with, could earn the astronomic wage that his skills warranted. Though, the role of TV fees in players wages cannot be underplayed either.
The plus was that the club owner was not receiving as much of the value emanating from the means of production as had previously been the case.
The recent developments that have seen billionaires buying clubs, in some cases to satisfy egos and others to simply park their debts, underline the need for some realignment of football finances very soon. And indications are that it will be the players wages that they come looking for. “The record wages to revenue ratio of 67 per cent in the Premier League in 2008/09 is a concern, and we expect wages growth to outstrip revenue increases again in 2009/10. This will further reduce operating profitability, a decline that cannot continue indefinitely. However, clubs have the opportunity, via the revenue uplift from the new broadcast deals from 2010/11, to get wage levels down to a more sustainable share of revenue. It’s not the first such opportunity. It remains to be seen whether they grasp it,.” said Alan Switzer, the director of the Sports Business Group at Deloitte.So there will be a further challenge for the PFA to confront. While footballers wages are obscenely high compared to many other trades and professions, in terms of a live example of what can be achieved when workers come together collectively in a strong trade union there is probably no better. When government comes calling to cut wages and jobs in the public sector, the unions there should turn to their members - and those who have not joined - and say look at what the footballers have achieved by using their collective power as providers of the means of production? Then maybe another onslaught can be resisted

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Perverse media take on killings

The recent tragic shooting dead of 12 people by Derrick Bird at Whitehaven in Cumbria dominated the news headlines.
A major tragedy of this type comes up roughly every decade. So prior to Bird, there was the shooting dead of 17 children by Thomas Hamilton at a school in Dunblane in 1996 and nine years before that 16 people were killed by Michael Ryan at Hungerford.
The media approach though does not seem to change, camping out in the area, determined to drag the story out, regardless of the impact on a stunned local community.
The story itself was simple enough. Cab driver Derrick Bird for whatever reason lost control and shot 12 people dead before turning the gun on himself. The story at best had two days plus life, even allowing for basic reporting followed by the list of experts giving analysis as to why he took this action. But this was not to be, media organisations had moved substantial resources to the area concerned and they were going to get value for money or put another way at least four days news coverage regardless of the feelings of the town.
The story was simple enough but new leads had to be found to stretch it out. This resulted in speculation over motive and then the inevitable blame game. The police were the first culprits, although there is nothing more they could have done. Then there was a clamour for legislation, the sure fire knee jerk reaction to any tragedy in this country. The fact that making more laws rarely improves the situation - and invariably makes it worse - never seemed to register.
An interesting point concerned the other stories of the week where deaths were preventable but there was no focus on providing solutions because they would be unpalatable for the ruling class.
The first of these was the attack by Israeli forces on an humanitarian vessel taking supplies into Gaza. Israel has been treating the people of Gaza abominably for years but little ever happens. Shamefully, the United States remains silent whatever atrocity the Israelis commit.
The killing of the nine people on the humanitarian vessel was wholly avoidable if pressure had been brought to bear on Israel whereby it knew there would be very real sanction if it took such lawless action. No such action was or will be taken. The ongoing appeasement of Israel it seems continues. This will ensure another future tragic loss of life, given that violence begets violence.
There was further loss of life in the same week as the dead bodies of more British soldiers returned from Afghanistan. The British army should not be in Afghanistan and the blood of every individual killed in that conflict is on the hands of those in government who continue to pursue this futile war. Further death is preventable in Afghanistan if the troops are brought home immediately. At a time of fiscal austerity it is an ongoing anomally that spending on conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq appear to be outside of any budgetary cutbacks.
Little media space was given to the life saving strategies that could prevent further loss of life in the Middle East and Afghanistan compared to the amount of navel gazing that went on surrounding the one lone gunman in Cumbria.
The situations all involve killing but the polticial contexts are all different. The killings in Cumbria were emotive and probably impossible to prevent. On the other hand, the situations in Gaza and Afghanistan could be resolved and lives saved given the political will. Action by governments in pulling people back from these theatres of war and pursuing peace making policies would prevent death and eventually lead to justice and peace - why does it not happen?