Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Protests over coming months will test democracy

The coming year seems likely to be one where there will be protest on the streets, much of it emanating from the implementation of the Coalition Government's cuts agenda.Recent weeks have seen the students out protesting about the increase in tuition fees, up to as much as £9,000 a year in some cases from 2012. The public sector unions will soon be joining them on the streets as they face pay freezes, pension reductions and in many cases job losses. Other vulnerable groups such as the disabled and elderly will also have reason to protest as again the cuts hit them hard. The response from government to these actions will be interesting to gage. Over recent times government has increasingly seemed to ignore the demands of people protesting on the streets. The clearest example of this response came with the February 2003 march against the pending Iraq war. Around 2 million people swarmed onto the streets of London representing a massive level of opposition to the war. Yet the government carried on regardless, a real slap in the face for democracy.The impotence of the march as a way to get change has led to other means of protest being developed, like the Plane Stupid group's actions on the roof of the House of Commons. This draws media attention and public interest.Unless a march is of the magnitude of the 2003 Iraq protest, the media tend to ignore it, that is unless there is violence. There can be little doubt that but for the violence that occurred around the student protests, they would not have received anything like as much coverage in the media. The overall tactics of the police in the student protests seem almost guaranteed to inflame the situation. The line of communication between police and student organisers was clearly not effective. The students don't trust the police and there is a growing belief that tactics like kettling - keeping people confined in a small area unable to get out for a number of hours - are being used as punishment to put people off coming out to protest again in the future. There can be no place for such an approach in a democracy and it is surprising that the tactic has not been challenged in the courts under the Human Rights Act. What ofcourse the police's short sighted tactics will do is cause a hardening of attitudes on the side of the protesters. It will push even the most placid onto a new level of defiance. If people have a genuine grievance, it will not just go away because the police decide they will try to wipe out the possibility of legitmate protest. The protest will simply assume another form, which could be more violent.Unfortunately over recent years the response to protest on the streets has largely been a public order one. The police have been allowed to encroach further and further on the right to legitimately protest, to the point now where via tactics, like kettling, they are trying to remove that right altogether. Over recent years, those in government have chosen to largely ignore street protest, preferring instead to listen to the often paid lobbyists of vested interests who make their livings in and around the Palace of Westminster. Access to ministers and politicians has become an important currency in this world. This access and power to influence is sadly becoming as easily bought and restricted now in the UK as it has been in the US for many years. This approach is undemocratic, as it increasingly shuts out the legitimate concerns of the mass of the electorate. If a proper functioning democracy is to be restored in the UK then this power to buy influence needs to be ended and polticians need to wake up to the perfectly legitmate demands of the mass of people being expressed on the streets and in other perfectly legtimtate ways of protest.So over the coming months we are likely to not only see a battle as to who pays the price for the cuts but also what sort of democracy we have in the UK. The success of the protest against cuts is likely to depend on how effectively the different interests can coalesce together to form a mass protest movement, the health of democracy will depend on how the government reacts to those demands, in whatever form they materialise.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Pilger film shows need of Wikileaks

A new film from investigative journalist John Pilger underlines why the work of the internet whistleblower Wikileaks is so important.

In the film, the War You Don’t see, Pilger looks at the public relations exercises undertaken to make sure that the public never get to know what really goes on in war. Journalists have unfortunately become complicit in this process.

The film opens with footage of an appalling slaughter by US forces in Iraq, where people were gunned down, but this then switches to World War I with sights of some of the grisly sights from that conflict. Pilger recalls the conversation between the editor of the Manchester Guardian of the time CP Scott and Prime Minister Lloyd George, who declared that “if the people really knew the truth about the war it would be stopped tomorrow but they don’t know and can’t know.”

This mantra has pretty much guided every conflict involving the British Government in the intervening years since 1918. The subtlety of the process required to make the unacceptable acceptable to the public has grown over the years with the increasing power of the public relations industry over that of independent journalism. Too many have all too easily traded the role of inquisitor for that of sipher of official truths.

One of the best examples of how the media has sold its independence short is the practice known as embedding. Some 700 reporters were embedded with American and British forces when they attacked Iraq. This results in, as the former BBC correspondent Rageh Omaar admits, the type of collusion that saw the fall of Basra reported 17 times before it actually happened. This approach, as lawyer Phil Shiner points out, also made the reporting of human rights abuses committed by US and British forces unlikely in the mainstream media.

The contrast comes with the few independent journalists who went into Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing out appalling stories of brutality and murder. The mainstream networks were not interested, not even by way of balance to the one sided nature of their own coverage.

Pilger pushes the question of balance, why are the accounts so one sided in favour of the war making establishment? Where are the dissident voices?

Perhaps the time that the whole balance issue is most clearly exposed comes with the coverage of Israel. Pilger grills the BBC particularly as to why Israel’s “chief propagandist” Mark Ragev got a free run at the top of a news with no countervailing balancing viewpoints. This meant that stories like the shooting of those on the aid convoy into Gaza earlier this year by Israeli soldiers is told almost entirely from the Israeli perspective.

The Israeli approach to public relations is aggressive and blunt. They make life so difficult for any journalist trying in whatever way to show the other side that they either end up towing the official (Israeli) line or steering clear of the subject altogether. The Glasgow Media Group’s Greg Philo tells how a senior producer told how they “wait in fear for the phone call from the Israelis” after doing a piece on that country.

The work of Wikileaks and the independent journalists becomes all the more important in this context. The unpalatable truth that emerges from the film is that the public have been led into disasterous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without ever being given the truth of the situations concerned. Truths like the growing number of civilian casualties. So while 10 per cent of victims in the First World War were civilians, this figure had risen to 90 per cent by the Iraqi conflict.

The unanimity of the mainstream media in shutting out almost everything except the official version of events is truly frightening. It can only be hoped that the revelations of Wikileaks and this film help spark a process that leads to more of the truth getting out there as to what really is going on and in whose vested interests the various wars are being pursued.

There is a wider point for journalists on the need to question official truths. Too many journalists are all too willing to follow officially set guidelines on whatever the leading crisis of the day is set to be, whether it be war, financial crisis or climate change. It is vital for journalism and democracy that independent voices can be heard and that those that govern us are made accountable for what they do.

*The War You Don’t See is on ITV at 10.35pm on 14th December