Bringing Politics to the Dinner Table

This will not take long. A few days ago, my eye was drawn to a piece in New Internationalist by Chris Saltmarsh and Harpreet Kaur Paul called ‘If we all became vegan tomorrow.’ It’s their response to a widely-cited article from the Guardian, ‘Avoiding meat and dairy is “single biggest way” to reduce your impact on Earth.’ Saltmarsh and Kaur Paul contend that this statement is a ‘myth’. In fact, the precise statement the NI article takes issue with was made by the leader of the research project around which the Guardian article is built:

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.

How do Saltmarsh and Kaur Paul demonstrate this to be a myth? In short, they don’t. Instead, they rebut an argument that neither the Guardian piece nor Joseph Poore make. For instance, they write:

Climate change does not exist outside of our current social, economic, political and cultural systems. It magnifies existing patterns of inequity. Climate harms disproportionately affect groups and peoples already experiencing social, political and economic exclusion… Changing your shopping list – no matter how radically – will not solve these systemic problems. Thatcher said ‘there is no society’. Individualist ‘solutions’ to climate change – like prioritizing veganism – support this myth.

The points about the wider system are well-taken but neither the Guardian article nor the study it reports claim that individual veganism will ‘solve’ climate change. The claim is that a vegan diet is ‘the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.’ It’s a separate claim.

In fact, Saltmarsh and Kaur Paul’s article contains much of value and makes many very sound points; not least that the problem of climate change and general environmental degradation cannot be adequately addressed through individual action alone. Yet, intentionally not, they blur two separate arguments and write a rebuttal to a point that has not been made. They go on:

The Guardian’s headline reports on the Oxford study by stating that ‘Avoiding meat and dairy is “single biggest way” to reduce your impact on Earth.” But we disagree. Although cutting out meat and dairy from your personal diet would have an important impact on reducing greenhouse gases, the facts suggest that there are bigger and far more effective ways to make a difference.

You have my attention, chaps. What are these ways?

…starting fossil fuel divestment campaigns and getting your employer, local authority and university to invest responsibly is one way. Organizing in your community for a cooperatively owned and operated municipal energy company to embrace renewables and eliminate fuel poverty. Becoming active in your trade union and developing policy supporting a just transition toward renewables. Making links with fossil fuel workers and getting them on side. Campaigning for banks like Barclays to stop providing corporate and project finance that enables further fossil fuel extraction. Joining the many front line resistances blockading new infrastructure like anti-frackers and resisting gas fields. Starting litigation or supporting those that have already brought challenges against complicit governments or companies.

BadMiss

I don’t want to be too harsh. Those are all creditable activities and, if successful, any one of them would have more impact on climate change than altering the diet of one person. Of course, they would. But let’s go back to the Poore’s statement: ‘A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth…’ Your impact. Not your employer’s, not your community’s, not a bank’s.

Your.

Impact.

Saltmarsh and Kaur Paul have written a useful article, filled with sensible points on several matters but not once do they support their central contention. Nowhere do they give an example of anything that the individual person can do to reduce their individual impact on climate destruction more effective than going vegan. Of course, veganism is not enough, and vegans should never claim that it is. Limiting one’s political activity to consumption choices and ‘lifestyle politics’ will never fix a fundamentally broken system. Anyone promoting veganism as the ‘solution’ to the environmental catastrophe we face is misguided. But widespread veganism would have a very significant effect on the problem and individual veganism is the most effective single thing one can do to reduce one’s personal footprint on the world.

Instead of addressing Joseph Poore’s actual claim, Saltmarsh and Kaur Paul knock down strawmen. I only hope that their misconceived article hasn’t turned anyone away from bringing politics to the dinner table.

 

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Take the Money Out

In 2017, Theresa May’s Conservative Party spent eighteen and a half million pounds on its General Election campaign,[i] earning it the world record for the most expensive bullet ever retrieved from a woman’s foot. A few days later, Mrs May was forced to buy DUP support at a cost of £100m per MP, the most money spent trying to save a face since the preparations for Michael Jackson’s final tour. Political campaigns can be very expensive.

There are two widely acknowledged problems with political parties and money. The first is how they raise it and the second is how they spend it.

Raising it.

The first problem needs little elaboration. During the 2017 General Election, for instance, 83 people on the Times Rich List donated £12m to the big three parties, plus UKIP and the Greens. Unsurprisingly, £5.5m of the loot went to the Tories, with the LibDems taking £3.5m, and Labour £2.2m.[ii] Labour also raised money from affiliated trades unions, while all parties routinely collect smaller donations and membership fees. It’s donations that concerns us here.

metropolis

Election 2017: Theresa May shares a joke with her campaign managers.

The taint of corruption around party finances has lingered long; with legislative remedies beginning with the Corrupt and Illegal Practices (Prevention) Act of 1883. Somewhat more recently, the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act of 1925 addressed the specific problem of parties selling titles for cash, although with only limited success, as the ‘Cash for Honours’ scandal of 2006 fulsomely demonstrated. In 2000, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act created the Electoral Commission, which now regulates party finance and electoral probity.

That political donations should be kept free from graft and rascalism has few dissenters, but it is commonly accepted that parties should have to raise their own funds. Support for the alternative – full state funding – has long been poisoned by the personal avarice of discontinued MPs like Neil Hamilton, Stephen ‘Cab for Hire’ Byers, and Patrick Mercer whose greed seeps along the gutter of recent political history like saliva from an up-turned trough. There’s widespread cynicism about the democratic cost of such fundraising – what precisely it is that wealthy patrons are buying – but not yet enough to make improper spending of private largesse a greater popular evil than correct spending of the taxpayer’s hard-earned cash.[iii] More on state funding in a moment but it’s not happening any time soon.

Spending it.

Party_Spending_UKPGETo the second problem, then; what do parties spend all their treasure on? The Electoral Commission chart makes it clear. Of the nine categories included, only transport and administration aren’t some form of political communication or, to use the older word, propaganda (you can see all the categories by clicking here -ignore the split over s. 75 spending).

One account of the need for political communication, which lives on in the literature to this day, is the work of the celebrated American economist Anthony Downs. In the 1950s, he argued that parties need to build durable coalitions of support among voters who ‘invest’ in them with their votes. However, before buying stock in a party, one first needs to shop around by informing oneself of the competing parties’ positions on key issues. Inevitably, this self-education is time-consuming and, given that one’s own vote makes effectively zero difference to the result, is an ‘irrational’ expenditure of effort for no measurable gain. To counter this problem, political communication acts as a subsidy to the electorate: parties proactively advertise their wares; distilling policies into easily-understood offers that allow the punters to reduce the costs of ‘spending’ their vote on the best deal for them.  More on this in a moment.

Winners and losers.

That’s a formal answer to why parties need to raise so much money for communications but let’s ask another question.  Who, aside from advertising agencies, benefits from the parties’ need to spend so much money on campaigning? I see four consequences to arrangements as they are.

The first, obvious consequence is that smaller parties can only chirp while the Big Two screech.[iv] Parties spending heavily on their campaigns encourages the other parties to compete but if they can’t their presence in the campaign will likely be reduced. This leads to a diminished field of choice and the possibility of a cartel.[v] True, UKIP is a recent example of a small party that did project a  substantial national voice — including a coveted role for Nigel Farage as the Alan Davies of Question Time —  even despite the Party’s failure to trouble the House of Commons (other than by reanimating the political corpses of former Tory MPs).[vi] But its reach until the Brexit referendum was aided by a string of sugar daddies[vii] who allowed it to hate above its weight (and, I must concede, by a preternatural gift for melding decades of inchoate grievance into an unbending determination to vandalise the European flag with blood fresh from the nation’s wrists).[viii]

Secondly, the need to spend so much money on campaigning promotes centralised control within parties. To varying extents, local MPs are dependent on their party machine for access to its resources for canvassing, leafleting, local market research, and so on. In the 2015 General Election, the Tories conducted private polling of 80 target seats to provide local candidates with detailed information. Labour, borrowing from the Obama campaigns, constructed a new database and voter profiling system.[ix] Both parties maintained large teams of volunteers to deploy in key constituencies.[x] The threat of being robbed of all this muscle arguably serves as a strong informal way of disciplining MPs and candidates. In the 2017 General Election, so Alex Nunns suggests, the Labour bureaucracy may have in some cases allocated its social media, wide direct marketing, and targeted direct marketing spending at least partly with the intention of bolstering candidates with whom it had a ‘political affinity’ (i.e. being anti-Corbyn).[xi]

A third consequence of parties’ need for large amounts of money is that it allows capital, individual or corporate, leverage over politics. The investment theory of party competition formulated by the American academic Thomas Ferguson holds that parties can only adopt policies that enable them to attract the investment required to run successful campaigns.

“…it is a simple fact that virtually all the issues that both elites and ordinary Americans think about outside of or alongside campaigns – work and employment, free trade or protection, health care, the future of … production, the cities, taxes – are critically important not only to voters, but to well-organised investor blocs, businesses, and industries. And it is another simple fact that many such groups invest massively in candidates.”[xii]

Ferguson proposes an alternative to Downs’s model, arguing that, while voters cannot practicably invest the time required to properly acquaint themselves with all the issues that affect their interests, capital can. Much like business can give concerted attention to an issue in a way that community activists cannot (as I’ve discussed here, for instance), big business has the resources and focus to thoroughly evaluate candidates and parties to reward those who best serve their interests. This (along with slick lobbying operations and corporate PR generally) naturally influences the boundaries of political debate; promoting some issues and suppressing others.

Fourthly, I think Downs’s market analogy is naïve. It neglects in both cases, the true nature of the communication being deployed, which (to borrow from Jürgen Habermas) is not rational but strategic.[xiii] Strategic communication treats people not as ends but as means, either to shift product or to win office. In a word, it’s marketing. If you doubt this in either case, ask yourself how much of political or commercial communication is a simple attempt to explain the merits of a policy or product without recourse to evasion, emotional manipulation or plain deceit. As Aristotle would have noted, marketing runs long on ethos and pathos but very short on logos.[xiv] Negative campaigning, gimmicks, emotional manipulation, audience research, market segmentation, and targeted messaging impoverish genuine political debate and corrode collective critical faculties. We become a pack of dogs who salivate or snarl whenever the bell is rung (or a whistle blown).

There we have the problem as I see it. Parties prospering through donations is fundamentally undemocratic since, however stridently some protest to the contrary, voting is not the same as spending money. The vote is a token that levels the electorate because everyone gets just one. In the current system, wealth entrenches wealth as parties rent-seek from high-spending minorities while neglecting the stony majority.

You might argue that this doesn’t have too much effect since all parties are heard to some degree (especially under election broadcasting rules, which undoubtedly benefitted Jeremy Corbyn in 2017) and the diligent voter can discover whatever she needs to with a little research. But if the ability to deploy millions in advertising confers little advantage why bother? Some might also argue that individual donations reflect wider support in the country: the more support a party has the more donations they’ll receive and so the louder their voice becomes. But this is to put the electoral cart before the democratic horse. Democracy should not be about allowing popular messages to be heard more loudly but allowing all messages to be evaluated equally.

Keeping them honest.

The parties can be kept honest in two ways: by keeping an eye on how they raise money and a reign on how they spend it.

To take the first approach, the most widely-touted remedy is state funding. In fact, I used the phrase ‘full state funding’ earlier with good reason. Though not widely known, opposition parties in the Commons receive state funding for carrying out their parliamentary duties, research, formulating policy, travel expenses, and so forth. This ‘Short Money’ was introduced in 1975 and is paid to any opposition party with at least two MPs.[xv] There’s an involved formula for calculating payments but, in 2016-17, the Labour Party received just under £6.5m and the LibDems half a million. Somewhat farther from the buffet table, the Greens and UKIP received £216K a piece.[xvi] One might develop this into a formal system of state funding (encompassing the ruling party) and allocate funds for extra-Parliamentary activity. Naturally, as the current system rewards parliamentary incumbency, one would need to find an equitable way to extend it to parties without a seat.

There are several drawbacks to state funding. One is that a background level of mismanagement and expenses-rigging would occur but that is already the case. In fact, it might be preferable for the taxpayer simply to accept MPs’ more venal tastes but take advantage of state buying power. At least a heavily-discounted bulk purchase of Columbian cocaine would finally give Liam Fox a post-Brexit trade deal to crow about. And a similar Parliamentary five-year tender for prostitution services would surely be welcomed by upstanding members on both sides of the House.

Another drawback might be that, as in rentier states, state funding runs the risk of making the political class flabby and unresponsive. Relieved of the need to rattle a tin at donors big and small, parties will sit back and live on benefits. Worse, as the parties would be responsible for drawing-up the rules, this would only increase the tendency of the main parties to act as a cartel. I suspect, however, that both these objections would be firmly at the back of a public mind wholly dominated by one preeminent demurral: “Why should we give those fuckers a penny?”[xvii]

The other approach, spending controls, is also partly in use. Earlier this month, the Electoral Commission fined Leave.EU £70,000 and referred its CEO to the police for failing to report at least £77,000 of campaign spending.[xviii] In 2017, the Commission also fined the official Remain campaign and the LibDems for undeclared spending during the EU referendum campaign and the Conservatives £70,000 for breaches during the 2015 General Election and by-elections in 2016.

Nationally, registered parties may spend no more than £30,000 for each constituency they contest. This means parties fighting all 650 seats have their spending capped at £19.5m but that money doesn’t have to be spent equally on each constituency. Locally, individual candidates may spend an additional £10-16k in the 25 days before a General Election but, for a by-election, the limit is £100k.[xix] Fines are available for breaches of these laws and, if sufficiently grave, theoretically the local result can be voided and the election re-run. There is a defence, however, which applies if the election agent committed the offence without the ‘sanction or connivance’ of the candidate. Which, of course, will always be the case.

A different way?

The shared premise of controls on both how parties raise and spend campaign funds is that it is necessary and proper that parties spend money on campaigning. But what if one were to take a different view and argue that political campaigning — or, more precisely, the promotion of genuine, democratic debate — is too important to allow it to be contaminated with money? Formally at least, elections are supposed to be competitions between competing sets of policies, even visions for the way life should be. Money distorts this competition for three reasons. Firstly, if money confers advantage and is for any reason unevenly distributed then advantage will be unevenly distributed. Secondly, if the flow of money going into the parties reflects the existing distribution of power within society, then those with power will be privileged. Thirdly, and most fundamentally, using money to make one policy more prominent or appealing at the expense of another runs the risk of that other idea not being given its proper consideration. This is labouring an obvious point, I know, and also assumes that the campaign is about actual policy at all and not merely personality or ‘values’.

I’m not arguing that parties should be barred from issuing political communications. But would it not be better if a party’s voice, certainly at election times, had nothing to do with how much moolah it could muster? Instead, imagine if each party meeting certain eligibility criteria (fielding a minimum of candidates for instance) received an allocation of free communications but was barred from purchasing more. This allocation would include the printing and delivery to all homes of its manifesto, a certain number of party political broadcasts, access to hustings, money for events, and social and old media advertising. Locally, each candidate mustering over a certain threshold of signatures would get an equal allocation of materials and promotion. Personally, I would ban local and national polling in the month before a general election so that, rather than fine-tuning a message to get elected, parties would instead have to stake out a position and campaign for it.

Importantly, there would be no state interference with the content of the message, only parity of prevalence. Parliament would inevitably have to set the broad outline and intent of the policy, but the practical details and enforcement could be left to the Electoral Commission. The number of news media appearances — and hence the power of the corporate press to pick winners — would be harder to regulate but democratising the media is a separate issue.

This is a sketch rather than a solid, worked-out policy proposal but I think the idea would address some of the problems of the current system. Shorn of the need for campaign donations, parties would be far less in-hock to business, especially if capped state-funding for administrative costs were standardised. The debate between the larger and smaller parties would also be evened-up: a good thing, as how large a party is has no necessary connection with the merit of its position. If the means of campaigning were roughly the same, then the focus would have to be on the content of what each party was saying. It wouldn’t stop parties trying to bribe and mislead the electorate, but a campaign stripped of a lot of the flimflam might help the substantive issues come to the fore, leading to a more informed and responsible public.

Which is why it’ll never happen, of course.

Notes.

___________

[i] Labour spent £11m and the LibDems £6.8m. Peter Walker, “Tories spent £18.5m on election that cost them majority,” The Guardian 19th March 2018, available at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/mar/19/electoral-commission-conservatives-spent-lost-majority-2017-election

[ii] Alastair McCall , “Britain’s richest give £12m to parties fighting election,” The Times, 21st May 2017, available at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/rich-list-2017-britains-richest-give-12m-to-parties-fighting-election-jn0dzpvms

[iii] Author unknown, “Britain’s parties should be funded by the state,” Financial Times, 19th February 2015, available at https://www.ft.com/content/6e3c067e-b837-11e4-b6a5-00144feab7de

[iv] And the incumbent party will receive more coverage as both a party and as the Government.

[v] See for example, Katz, R.S., Mair, P., (1995), ‘Changing Models of Party Organisation and Party Democracy The Emergence of the Cartel Party’, Party Politics, Volume 1, pp. 5-28.

[vi] Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless.

[vii] Anna Leach, “Meet UKIP’s 5 biggest donors”, The Mirror, 2nd January 2015, https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/ampp3d/meet-ukips-5-biggest-donors-4909075

[viii] And we may yet see a new small party punch above its parliamentary party if a new ‘centrist’ party, apparently equipped with £50m to ‘break the mould” of UK politics by giving a much-needed voice to marginalised and powerless multimillionaires like Simon Franks, ever emerges into the light (Michael Savage, “New centrist party gets £50m backing to ‘break mould’ of UK politics,” Guardian 8th April 2018, available at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/apr/07/new-political-party-break-mould-westminster-uk-brexit

[ix] Andrew Mullen (2015) “Political consultants, their strategies and the importation of new political communications techniques during the 2015 General Election,” in Daniel Jackson and Einar Thorsen (eds) “UK Election Analysis 2015: Media, Voters and the Campaign” The Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community, p. 42.

[x] Tim Ross (2015) “Why the Tories Won: The Inside Story of the 2015 Election,” Chapter Three. The Tories, for instance, spent hundreds of thousands on “Team 2015,” which borrowed psychological motivation techniques (including ‘chivvying teams’ of volunteers supplied by accountancy behemoth PriceWaterhouseCoopers) from the team behind London 2012. The team was 100,000 strong, with groups bused around the country to campaign in target constituencies in what its organiser, Grant Shapps, called a ‘ground war’.

[xi] Alex Nunns (2018) “The Candidate” (2nd ed.), OR Books (London), pp. 335-38.

[xii] Thomas Ferguson (1995) “Golden Rule. The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems,” University of Chicago Press, p. 8.

[xiii] See Habermas’s “Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society: Reason and the Rationalization of Society” and especially “The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 2: A Critique of Functionalist Reason”. His “Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” is also interesting.

[xiv] See Aristotle’s “Art of Rhetoric”.

[xv] Or if they have one MP but received more than 150,000 votes in the previous General Election.

[xvi] House of Commons Research Briefing, “Short Money” 19th December 2016 available at http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN01663 There’s a related allocation in the Lords, known as the Cranborne Money.

[xvii] There have probably been a few third ways proposed. In the US, for example, various experts have suggested systems in which each voter is given a voucher, which they can donate to the party of their choice. The voucher is then redeemable for cash but with enhanced safeguards attached. Seattle have been trying a variant of this for several years, which was touted to get ‘big money’ out of politics. I shan’t dwell on it here but as corporations are still able to make cash donations, the ‘big money’ isn’t getting any smaller.

[xviii] Electoral Commission, “Leave.EU fined for multiple breaches of electoral law following investigation” 11th May 2018, available at https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/i-am-a/journalist/electoral-commission-media-centre/news-releases-donations/leave.eu-fined-for-multiple-breaches-of-electoral-law-following-investigation

[xix] FullFact, “Democratic deficit? The rules on election spending,” 10th May 2017, available at https://fullfact.org/law/election-spending-rules-conservatives-electoral-commission/

No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper

The Guardian ran an opinion column last week by its foreign correspondent, Peter Beaumont, about chemical weapons.[i] He opened by evoking the blood and misery of World War One before coming to his central question: ‘why is it that we regard the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime (which has claimed relatively few lives overall) as more terrible than the crude pummelling by conventional arms which have [sic] resulted in hundreds of thousands of Syrian deaths?’

It’s a worthwhile question but I was sincerely taken aback by the emaciated reasoning that followed. Before I come to that, first the disclaimer required for those of bad faith or worse intelligence. I do not approve of chemical weapons, I don’t support Bashar al Assad, and I offer no view on whether his forces were responsible for the Douma chemical attack or, indeed, whether it was a chemical attack at all.[ii]

It seems to me that Beaumont attempts to answer his chosen question at two points in his article. His first attempt is partly historical. The Hague convention of 1899 set out the humanitarian principles that would ‘later form the basis of the modern law of conflict.’ Among these was the section that limited the ‘right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy’. The first instance of this was the ban on poisoned weapons, itself building on a 1675 agreement between France and Germany that banned poisoned bullets.

But what of poisoned gas? This was singled-out because it ‘inspired a particular horror, in large part psychological.’ That it ‘has remained a special case is because of the way its prohibition has become emblematic of restrictions on warfare. We decided gas must not be used because of our horror of being gassed ourselves.’

Is this why we regard gas as more terrible than bullets, because we were its victims? When we become the victims of nuclear weapons will their possession also move beyond the pale? Were the thousands of Japanese adults and children incinerated in our twin fireballs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki not enough for us to forever renounce these most indiscriminate of means? Evidently not. They’ve not even been enough for states like the US and UK to take seriously their obligations, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to make good faith efforts to eliminate them (and certainly not to develop more ‘useable’ nuclear weapons.[iii]). Indeed, the atom bombs are still defended as having helped ‘shorten the war’ – a defence Beaumont seems reluctant to allow Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons. The salient different, of course, is that Assad is on the ‘other’ side. Being on the ‘other’ side forbids our enemies the right to make such decisions, to wage ‘just’ war or to self-defence at all.[iv]

In the Great War, we were supposedly horrified by chemical weapons but, as Beaumont mentions, not enough to forswear them ourselves. In 1919, Porton Down boffins in Wiltshire developed the ‘M Device’, an exploding shell containing diphenylaminechloroarsine. 50,000 ‘M Devices’ were shipped to Russia to be used in British bombing of Bolshevik soldiers. Though few were ever used, those caught in their green cloud reportedly vomited blood and then collapsed unconscious.[v]

Winston Churchill infamously did not understand the ‘squeamishness about the use of gas’ against ‘uncivilised tribes’ (he was speaking of India), noting that it was not ‘necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.’[vi] Churchill’s defenders often assert that he was talking only of tear gas and not poison gas per se. Yet, this  distinction might seem a little academic when, as the War Office noted of one then common variant of tear gas in 1921, while it was ‘classified as non-lethal’ and was ‘far less noxious than even mustard gas,’ at the same time it might have ‘serious and permanent effects on the eyes, and even, under certain circumstances, cause death.’[vii] I’ll also note that, while the historian Ray Douglas has pored over the evidence for Britain actually using CW in Iraq and found it wanting, he most certainly acknowledges that our lack of use arose from ‘practical difficulties rather than moral qualms’. Even in the oft-cited passage above, Churchill did not appear to think it wrong to use the ‘most deadly gasses,’ merely that it was not ‘necessary’. There’s no ‘horror’ there, simply a candid acceptance of chemical weapons as another tool in the white supremacist’s armoury. For some, in fact, chemicals were perhaps even a better weapon since their effects were ‘less terrifying’ than artillery shells or flamethrowers. Indeed, Douglas quotes a General Staff memorandum from 1919, which mused: ‘if it is advisable and possible to abolish gas on purely humanitarian grounds, the abolition of High Explosive, a far more terrible weapon which removes limbs, shatters bones, produces ‘nerves,’ and generates madness, is equally advisable.’[viii]

There may well be a public revulsion to chemical weapons but evidence of the same within elites seems thin. It certainly wasn’t suggested by British and American support for Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Iranians – for which the US provided logistical support[ix] – or of Halabja, for which the US provided diplomatic cover[x] and the UK rewarded with £340m of additional economic support.[xi] To take just one more example, in 2006, a Ministry of Defence Inquiry reported that scientists at Porton Down had exposed 11,000 people to mustard and nerve gas in experiments carried out between 1939 and 1989; experiments which claimed the life of one serviceman and inflicted lasting damage on many more.[xii]

Beaumont then deploys his perfunctory second argument:

‘The argument that relies on the idea that other weapons are equally deadly misses the point, which is that we have decided that this class of killing – like the wanton murder of civilians and shooting prisoners – is beyond the pale.’

Is this really the point? That chemical weapons are uniquely horrific because ‘we’ have decided that they are? This is to invoke that old parental standby, ‘because I said so’. The argument betrays a certain western bias and the usual reek of hypocrisy. I can well imagine that other parts of the world might think we ‘miss the point’ that much of our arsenal is equally, if not more, reprehensible. We clutch our scented handkerchief to our nose at the whiff of chemical weapons while our depleted uranium leaves ‘babies with two heads. Or missing eyes, hands and legs. Or stomachs and brains inside out.’[xiii] Our white phosphorous burns people to their bones,[xiv] we perforate limbs to unstitchable mush with Dense Inert Metal Explosives,[xv] and rupture people’s internal organs or burn them to death while showing off the Mother of All Bombs, which might also be said to inspire a ‘particular horror, in large part psychological.’[xvi] Beaumont’s ‘fitful advances in the laws of war – contradictory and permissive as they remain’ seem all too ‘optional and reversible’.

So why do we pillory chemical weapons, which are revolting but not uniquely so? Perhaps it is because they, unlike our latest glittering engines of fully-automated luxury death, are not beyond the pocket of the Lesser Nations. To quote the Iranian politician Hashemi Rafsanjani, they’re ‘the poor man’s atomic bomb’.[xvii]As such, the taboo on their use is not only prophylactic but also a useful moral lever to justify our enlightened intervention.

[i] Peter Beaumont, “The taboo on chemical weapons has lasted a century – it must be preserved,” The Guardian, 18th April 2018, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/18/chemical-weapons-taboo-syria

[ii] Robert Fisk, “The search for truth in the rubble of Douma – and one doctor’s doubts over the chemical attack,” The Independent, 17th April 2018, available at  https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/syria-chemical-attack-gas-douma-robert-fisk-ghouta-damascus-a8307726.html

[iii] Most recently, see Clark Mindock “Trump administration considering developing two more ‘usable’ nuclear weapons,” The Independent, 16th January 2018, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-nuclear-weapons-new-latest-more-usable-a8162351.html Note that such intentions are portrayed as a response to Russian behaviour but as Charles Ferguson of the Centre for Non-Proliferation notes, the US has been ‘downplaying and, in key instances, repudiating arms control agreements’ since at least 2002 (see Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Nuclear Posture Review” 1st August 2002, available at http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/nuclear-posture-review/ )

[iv][iv] According to one BBC Radio Four new report I heard, Trump ‘warned’ of his recent attack on Syria while Russia ‘threatened’ to respond.

[v] Giles Milton, “Winston Churchill’s shocking use of chemical weapons,” Guardian, 1st September 2013, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/sep/01/winston-churchill-shocking-use-chemical-weapons

[vi] J. A. Webster, Air Ministry, to J. E. Shuckburgh, Colonial Office, September 15th, 1921, PRO, CO 537/825, quoted in R. M. Douglas, “Did Britain Use Chemical Weapons in Mandatory Iraq?” The Journal of Modern History, Vol 81, No. 4 (December 2009), pp. 859-887. Italics mine.

[vii] Webster, op. cit. Note that the effects of exposure to mustard gas include blistering, blindness of up to ten days or in some cases for good, severe abdominal pain, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, and death. https://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/sulfurmustard/basics/facts.asp

[viii] Webster, op. cit.

[ix] Patrick E. Tyler, “Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use Of Gas, New York Times, 18th August, 2002, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/18/world/officers-say-us-aided-iraq-in-war-despite-use-of-gas.html  Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid,  “Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,” Foreign Policy 26th August 2016, available at http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/08/26/exclusive-cia-files-prove-america-helped-saddam-as-he-gassed-iran/

[x] Prof. Juan Cole, “US Protected Iraq at UN from Iranian Charges of Chemical Weapons Use,” Informed Comment, 28th August, 2013, available at https://www.juancole.com/2013/08/protected-charges-chemical.html Robert Fisk reported that ‘the CIA – in the immediate aftermath of the Iraqi war crimes against Halabja – told US diplomats in the Middle East to claim that the gas used on the Kurds was dropped by the Iranians rather than the Iraqis (Saddam still being at the time our favourite ally rather than our favourite war criminal).’ (Robert Fisk,  “This was a guilty verdict on America as well,” The Independent, 6th November 2006, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-this-was-a-guilty-verdict-on-america-as-well-423147.html)

[xi] A month after Halabja, the UK Government extended a further £340m in export credit guarantees to Saddam Hussein (John Kampfner (2003) “Blair’s Wars” Free Press, London, p. 7. See also Alex Danchev, Dan Keohane (eds.) (1994) “International Perspectives on the Gulf Conflict, 1990-91,” Palgrave Macmillan, London p. 148.

[xii] Rob Evans, “Porton Down chemical weapons tests unethical, says report,” Guardian, 15th July 2006, available at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2006/jul/15/uk.greenpolitics

[xiii] As Barbara Koppel wrote in 2016, “what is little known is that for the past 25 years the United States and its allies have routinely used radioactive weapons in battle, in the form of warheads and explosives made with depleted, undepleted or slightly enriched uranium. While the Department of Defense (DOD) calls these weapons “conventional” (non-nuclear), they are radioactive and chemically toxic. In Iraq, where the United States and its partners waged two wars, toxic waste covers the country and poisons the people.” Barbara Koppel, “How the U.S. Made Dropping Radioactive Bombs Routine,” Newsweek, 4th April 2016, available at http://www.newsweek.com/how-us-made-use-radioactive-bombs-routine-443732 For detail on the US use of DU in Syria, see Samuel Oakford “The United States Used Depleted Uranium in Syria,” Foreign Policy 14th February 2017, available http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/14/the-united-states-used-depleted-uranium-in-syria/

[xiv] See George Monbiot, “Behind the phosphorus clouds are war crimes within war crimes,” Guardian 22nd November, 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/nov/22/usa.iraq1

[xv] DIME weapons were developed by the US and use a fine powder of tungsten or carbon fibre to confine the blast to a small area, perforating flesh and bone. Allegedly have also been used by Israel in its colonisation of Palestine. See Raymond Whittaker, “’Tungsten bombs’ leave Israel’s victims with mystery wounds,” The Independent 18th January 2009, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/tungsten-bombs-leave-israels-victims-with-mystery-wounds-1418910.html  According to a report commissioned for the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2016, there are ‘concerns that wounds from DIME weapons are particularly difficult to treat surgically, and may have ongoing health impacts’ (Cross, Kenneth, Ove Dullum, Marc Garlasco & N.R. Jenzen-Jones. 2015. Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas: technical considerations relevant to their use and effects. Special Report. Perth: Armament Research Services (ARES), available at https://www.icrc.org/en/download/file/23603/aresweb-generic.pdf )

[xvi] Thermobaric weapons like the MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) were developed by the US Government and used in Vietnam as well as being used by the Russians in Chechnya. Human Rights Watch quote a 1993 Defence Intelligence Agency Report on the Russian bombs (although the effects don’t differ with whichever flag is painted on the casing): ‘The [blast] kill mechanism against living targets is unique–and unpleasant…. What kills is the pressure wave, and more importantly, the subsequent rarefaction [vacuum], which ruptures the lungs…. If the fuel deflagrates but does not detonate, victims will be severely burned and will probably also inhale the burning fuel. Since the most common FAE fuels, ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, are highly toxic, undetonated FAE should prove as lethal to personnel caught within the cloud as most chemical agents.’ Human Rights Watch (2000) “Backgrounder on Russian Fuel Air Explosives (“Vacuum Bombs”),” available at https://www.hrw.org/report/2000/02/01/backgrounder-russian-fuel-air-explosives-vacuum-bombs One Pentagon report into the MOAB used typically anodyne language: ‘It is expected that the weapon will have a substantial psychological effect on those who witness its use.’ Robin Wright, ‘Trump Drops the Mother of All Bombs on Afghanistan,’ The New Yorker, 14th April, 2017, available at https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trump-drops-the-mother-of-all-bombs-on-afghanistan

[xvii] ‘While nuclear weapons represent the zenith of mass destruction, their fabrication requires advanced industrial capabilities as well as access to rare, tightly controlled materials. Chemical and biological weapons, on the other hand, are cheap and easy to build using equipment and materials that are used extensively for a host of civilian purposes.’  Lord Lyell “Chemical and Biological Weapons: The Poor Man’s Bomb Draft General Report,” North Atlantic Assembly International Secretariat 4 October 1996 Draft, available at https://fas.org/irp/threat/an253stc.htm

 

Life Versus Liberty

There’s been another mass shooting in an American school. Well, I’ve not checked Twitter for ten minutes but I’ll assume there has been.

The massacre in Parkland Florida last Wednesday may have killed 17 and injured 15 but we should stay upbeat: the five mass shootings since then[1] killed only six and injured 19 between them. No wonder Al Qaeda had to fly planes into skyscrapers in 2001; in the US atrocity is a crowded market.

In the face of this, Congress is paralysed by a deep sense of frustration. There is no obvious tax cut for corporations that will address the problem, bombing would be too costly, and victimising Muslims – while satisfying – is only indirectly effective. In the absence of a workable programme of appearing to do something, the only options left are too effective to contemplate.

The public have of course been praying; expressing their faith that, in a country where the weekly school shooting is timetabled in with the grim inevitability of double games on a Friday morning, some god or other will finally notice the hashtag and decide that enough is enough. One can only hope that it’s not Jesus, who previously tried to drown humanity in a fit of rage and rejection lacking only a trench coat and his Father’s AR-15.

JesusGunFor the gun-owning minority, the principal answer to the problem of mass shooting is not fewer but more guns. The problem, they say, is not children with guns but children without them. Were the US to properly support a policy of No Child Left Unarmed, then we could trust to the inherent wisdom, judgement, and restraint of teenagers. Indeed, the problem could become self-regulating with little need to for authorities to intervene.  If teachers and students all carried guns and there were more metal detectors, armed security patrols, and bullet-proof screens then schools would not only become safer but, almost indistinguishable from adult prisons, would provide useful orientation to those black kids who went on to reach adulthood.

I guess this reasoning proves the old adage that, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like the bullet-peppered corpse of a child. For those softer-hearted folk who don’t want to see schools turned into fortresses, it’s hard to think of a way of protecting children that might find favour with the American right: compulsory home-schooling perhaps, or a change in zoning laws to move schools from ‘Residential’ to ‘Womb.’

Naturally, the NRA, which is funded by the gun industry, wants to see more people carrying guns, just as tobacco companies want to see more people smoking. But the NRA also serves to draw much of the wider public’s rage on to it and away from gun manufacturers. I imagine that America’s target shooters, survivalists, recreational sadists, and Birthers are delighted to be the industry’s flak jacket when one of their number flicks off his safety for the final time.

The obvious solution to gun violence is to restrict or eliminate private ownership of guns but this runs into the customary objections. The US Constitution is a sacred, inviolable, and immutable document handed down by God to the Founding Fathers and the right to bear arms is one the most cherished amendments to this sacred, inviolable, and immutable document handed down by God. Gun owners will also accurately point out that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ and that these vital tools of self-defence confer no real advantage. Without them, perpetrators would only use knives, cars, or perhaps their teeth. We should be thankful that guns have so far saved us from an epidemic of mass bitings or the black farce of an angry young man trying to negotiate his parents’ SUV down narrow school corridors in search of the girls who laughed at his penis.

Guns, so the reasoning goes, are just a tool like any other. Yes, they can be used to kill people but they are also used every day for a range of purposes such as injuring people, damaging property, protecting people from deer and rabbits, and facilitating unorthodox banking and retail transactions. That they might confer some marginal tactical advantage over unsuspecting children sitting in classrooms is strictly true but then so would any weapon. One wonders, really, why humans bothered to invent such a patently inconsequential toy as the handgun in the first place. Also, gun advocates claim, banning guns won’t stop professional criminals from obtaining them. This is true but one wonders how many  professional criminals would shoot you because you didn’t like their poem.

It is also true that there is higher gun ownership in some other countries where mass shootings are far, far lower. So, the presence of guns alone isn’t the whole of the problem. Maybe there is some issue with the American psyche that needs to be addressed, something that would explain their tendency to shoot not only each other but the rest of us as well. What does lead otherwise sane members of the public to shoot up their classmates or kill in petty disputes over parking places, romantic rejection or crude oil deposits?

Here, then, the American reputation for practicality over ideology should come into play. They need to decide which is the quicker fix: a centuries-long thoroughgoing and fundamental realignment of American cultural, spiritual, and economic values to remove major sources of anger and alienation, recast the conduct of interpersonal relationships, neutralise toxic masculinity, and thereby engineer an epochal remodelling of human nature OR ban guns, which might take years. There are no easy answers.

Still, I should try to end with something positive. Statistically speaking, kids are still more likely to die from obesity than from being shot and fat kids, while slower at fleeing down corridors, are also less adept at climbing on rooftops with heavy ammunition. And widespread gun ownership means more US medallists on the podium for Olympic shooting events – even if they do look surprised to see an American flag flying at full mast.

Sleep tight, little ones.

___________

Note

[1] Oklahoma City (16/2), Keego Harbour (16/2), Memphis (17/2), Kansas City (17/2), San Antonio (18/2); data courtesy of Mass Shooting Tracker https://www.massshootingtracker.org/data (accessed 19/02/2018).

Blighted are the Shelf-Makers

I’m old enough to remember video tape with affection. My family acquired its first video cassette recorder around 1982 when the novelty was still vivid. It was VHS, front-loading, the size of a small family hatchback and by modern standards almost Heath-Robinson in it brute mechanical beauty.

It’s hard to explain why I feel such nostalgia for what objectively was a clumsy cacophony of rubber, metal, and plastic but I do. For the six year old me, it was irresistibly encrusted with buttons, knobs, sliders, and dials. The customary shopfront of its principal controls – play, rewind, and pause – were pleasure enough but other treasures were hidden beneath a hinged flap on the lower front and a detachable panel inset in the top. Beneath these glittered the more exotic controls like ‘tracking’ and ‘input,’ eight mechanical  tuning dials and the ‘AFT’ button.[i] When Channel Four was born in November 1982, my dad had to get on his hands and knees, pop the top panel and seek out primordial Countdown through the crashing surf of static.

I can remember pressing the Standby button, opening the door and seeing tantalising glimpses of the illuminated heads, capstans, and spindles within. I can hear in my head, as clearly as you can remember your favourite song, the refrain of its mechanism as I pressed a tape into the front door and watched as it was drawn inside the beast. Sometimes it was a video mechanism, other times its was the landing bay door of a secret base.

It even had a ‘remote’ control: play, pause, fwd, rew, and rec attached via a 3ft cable that plugged in at the back and, once passed over the machine, afforded one the luxury of operating the machine from about 18 inches away. I’m even fond of the problems that afflicted its dotage (and my teenage years when it became mine alone) – the way it would sometimes crimp the edge of the tape, irreparably knackering the sound on some of my favourite tapes.

These were the days when I had a library of blank cassettes, some labelled (most not) and packed with recordings of Doctor Who and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The E120, the workhorse E180, the mighty E240s. The Scotch ‘lifetime guarantee’ fronted by an amiable skeleton. The etheric and unrepeatable[ii] magic of TV, captured and tamed in a shiny box like a ghost trapped by Venkman, Stantz, Spengler, and Zeddemore.

I remember, into the 90s, the archaeological pleasure of watching old tapes, especially those borrowed from friends, through to the end. The first recording would finish, there’d be a wash of static, and then the fag end of the recording beneath would slide into view. Then another and another. I’d often watch tapes through right to the point when they’d click off and rewind. One minute, you’re watching ITV’s bowdlerised 90s cut of Heartbreak Ridge (complete with the minced oath, ‘maggot farmer’), then you’re transported into the technicolour fantasy of an 80s ad for Kellogg’s Fruit n Fibre (with one with Ross Kemp) or those weird 80s Weetabix commercials in which booted and braced skinhead biscuits of wheat would intimidate other cereals (and we accepted this as normal).

At the weekends, I was allowed to accompany my dad to the Six Hills Video Shop and choose a title from the seemingly enormous array of display cases that bejewelled its walls. Only from the Us and PGs, of course, although I was obviously far more enticed by the 15s and 18s, which all had far more exciting and stimulating covers (especially some on the top shelf in one corner) and were alluring because they were forbidden.

It’s all gone now. Funai Electric manufactured the last video recorder in July, 2016. While there is a small but enthusiastic market for old video tapes, particularly the more obscure horror movies, I doubt there’ll ever be a ferrous oxide resurgence to mimic that of vinyl. Yet, our language is an analogue recording of history. I still hear people talk about ‘taping’ and ‘rewinding’ and we’ll still be discussing the medium of film long after celluloid takes its place next to wax cylinders and daguerreotypes. One day film will exist only in films.

The big selling point of video recorders was convenience and, notably, control. Watch what you want to watch, when you want to watch it. Don’t be a slave to those damned TV channels but the master of your own viewing pleasures. As Troy McClure said to Delores Montenegro (in ‘Calling All Quakers’) ‘have it your way, baby.’

Fast forward thirty years and we’re now in another revolution of convenience and ‘control.’ The age of the DVD and the brief blu dawn are coming to an end and now we are dipping our toes in the Great Stream. We now watch even more of what we want to watch, when we want to watch, and without a chilly walk to the video shop or the need to endure the crunching, chattering rabble at the local flicks. We watch, listen, chat, and shop online. But how much of the new control is real?

It’s easy to focus on the petty irritations of the digital world. Netflix’s co-founder recently

adric 4

Silent credits attend the death of Adric in the 1982 Doctor Who story, Earthshock

declared their aspiration that one day it would ‘get so good at suggestions that we’re able to show you exactly the right film or TV show for your mood when you turn on Netflix.’[iii] But what if I aspire to read the credits uninterrupted? What if I think that the programme makers might sometimes use the credits for dramatic effect? Instead Netflix, like an overeager waiter, whips away the programme and algorithmically catapults me toward the next course. It’s not wholly new, of course; even on terrestrial TV credits have been squeezed for years by the cajolery of continuity chatterers. But it’s still annoying.

Trailers have always been part of home media. They were there in the VHS days but at least fast forwardable. Nevertheless, imagine visiting a Blockbuster and having a doorman compel you to watch one before you even reached the shelves. This is now what the Android Amazon Video app does at least once per day. Yes, one can stop it once it has started but one cannot stop it from starting. At least at the cinema people can use the adverts and even the trailers to have a conversation, check their phone, or return to the foyer to secure yet more food. Much as they do with the eventual film.

We tolerate behaviour online that we would likely never put up with in person and here I’m not discussing the hourly scorching belligerence of ‘social’ media so well summed up in this video. I mean the behaviour of companies online. Imagine for instance that, near the end of your weekly shop, a store assistant blocked your path and wouldn’t let you get to the checkout until you’d accepted or rejected a list of items in which she thought you might be interested. I think most people would find that hectoring and coercive yet it’s precisely what one has to accept in order to shop online with Sainsbury.

Worse still, imagine the indignity, the sense of violation you would feel if someone broke into your house and stole your CDs. Imagine then instead how much worse you’d feel, how much more soiled, degraded and sullied, if instead of perpetrating such a theft – or merely having a shit on your couch – they left you an album by U2.

Speaking of music, some of you who’ve used the Amazon Music Player might have noticed that it has a subsidiary function, carefully hidden, of allowing you to actually play the music you’ve purchased. Its core function, of course,  is to pelt you with inducements to buy more music, preferably via a subscription. This is quite reasonable since, putting chummy marketing aside, Amazon’s sole objective is to persuade you to take money out of your account and put it in theirs. The product itself  is a mechanism for selling you more products (again, not new but accelerated online). Helping you to actually listen to your music is very much a secondary concern in what should really be called the Amazon Music Seller. Apps are less like faithful servants and more like pestering children.

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1) Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2) Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3) Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Douglas Adams –The Salmon of Doubt.

 

Lest I simply sound like a grumpy old man adumbrating a litany of my peeves, let me make clear that there’s a political edge to my grousing; namely increased control masquerading as choice. The range of baubles for us to play with has increased but the price is that our leisure time – socialisation, entertainment, education and consumption – occurs conveniently on something else’s property. We’re shopping, playing, watching, chatting and searching by their rules. We’re steered where they allow us to go, finding what they want us to find, knowing what they want us to know. Our physical space has already been colonised – what isn’t owned by government is owned by private capital, public town squares have already become private malls. Now cyberspace is heading the same way (and with a massive in-built head start). Sound overblown and conspiratorial? Perhaps today -but tomorrow?

One of the great sleights of hand in recent years, for instance, has been the promotion of ‘the cloud’ – with all the connotations of ownerless neutrality this inspired piece of thought-steering conjures. After all, nobody owns a cloud; it must just float above us like some beneficent 21st century commons. In fact, the cloud is a network of servers belonging to commercial companies ranging from relatively modest independents to the GAFA behemoths of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. Of course, invitations to store one’s data in ‘the cloud’ sound much more  benign that ‘on our servers.’

Well, OK, storing one’s property on someone else’s turf isn’t necessarily a one way ticket to Oceania, is it? After all, people dump their shit in Big Yellow Storage all the time without having to affirm that they love Big Brother. Except that it’s no longer your property. No, that film you bought last night from Amazon isn’t yours. In fact, you’ve merely leased it for an indefinite period. Now, you might argue that it was never really yours before. The contents of DVDs, books, CDs, and VHS were all copyrighted – yours to own but subject to strict conditions – so what’s really changed? Well, check Amazon’s T&Cs – they can remove your purchase at any time. Unless you download it to your own storage, you don’t have the unconditional possession that you had over an Amaray-enclosed disc. You’re not purchasing anymore. You’re renting -on a very long term, granted – but you’re renting. Soon, there’ll be no more borrowing a DVD or a book from a friend and you won’t be taking yours  down your favourite charity shop when you’re done, either. Like the message, the medium is now theirs. Your shelves of DVDs, CDs, and books  will evaporate into a cloud library hosted (held) within someone else’s property. One day, all visitors will have to judge you by will be some misguided ornaments and your personality.

And the capacity to monitor our viewing habits has also increased. The obvious concomitant of Netflix being able to suggest what we might want to watch is that it knows what we have watched. For most people this is no real practical concern but it’s another piece of infrastructure for a surveillance state, another category of data to add to all the others potentially allowing for a detailed picture of us to be constructed and – ask any lecturer wanting to talk about Brexit – some people are just itching to know as much about us as possible. The next time you binge-watch The Handmaid’s Tale remember that you might be munching Doritos in the prologue.

And what happens when Amazon goes bust? Where will your prized collection go when the company no longer exists? True, other companies might buy out the rights and the infrastructure but they don’t have to and won’t if they don’t think there’s money in it for them. Amazon use a proprietary format for Kindle, for example, so there’s no guarantee you’d be left with anything other than what’s stored on your hardware. And when that dies?

Video tapes, CDs, and even books are standards based. So long as your equipment complies with those standards you can read the content. A CD manufactured to the Red Book standard should play on any CD player. Region codes aside, a DVD of The Force Awakens will play on any machine. The latest Dan Brown novel is accessible to anyone who can read, although obviously appreciated to its fullest extent by those who cannot. Streaming and download services rely heavily on proprietary file formats to ensure that material isn’t shareable. There are presently exceptions but how long will they last? Look at the stranglehold (now slipping) that Microsoft has had on word-processing by making sure its file .doc and .docx formats are as opaque as possible.

Digital content such as films, audio files and eBooks are effectively software with all the (potential for) control and restriction that implies. The apps on a smart TV can be withdrawn during forced ‘upgrades’ when licensing deals expire. So, that £700 set you bought with iPlayer and YouTube built in could be without both one day and there won’t be anything you can do except buy a new TV. And this isn’t a hypothetical -it already happens. Let’s not be in any doubt what this is – the company from whom you think you’ve bought something has taken it back from you. Of course, this may be because of genuinely unavoidable incompatibility but it’s hard to believe that this isn’t also another mechanism for enforced functional obsolescence.

Holodeck-800x420There’s no easy answer to this. The technology isn’t inherently wrong but it is massively corruptible. Nor is it going to go away: people will always be lulled by convenience. Alternatives to digital online consumption as part of our increasingly shut-in economy will wither unless we take positive action to keep them alive. They’ll be seen as troublesome, archaic eccentricities, like wanting to travel around New York without a car or live near an A&E.  Being offline and off social media will never be forbidden, merely absurdly inconvenient. You’ll always be allowed to walk off the holodeck but why would you want to when beyond lies only isolation, and dark, dark silence?

 

Notes

__________

[i] ‘Automatic Fine Tuning.’

[ii] Well, repeated a lot less in those days.

[iii] Unknown author, Streaming on screens near you. Can Netflix stay atop the new, broadband-based television ecosystem it helped create?’ The Economist https://www.economist.com/news/business/21705353-can-netflix-stay-atop-new-broadband-based-television-ecosystem-it-helped-create-streaming

Costly Delusions

Last Friday’s failed ‘bucket bomb’ has produced yet more one-eyed coverage of Islamic terrorism and roiled the cauldron of social media. Islam, the crazed 7th Century death cult bent on universal domination,™ has struck again. Now, I carry no more brief for the fairy tales of Mohammed than I do for those of the followers of the Carpenter of Nazareth. Nevertheless, I don’t accept the general charge that Islam is a religion evil above all others. Nor, despite my own atheism, can I join wholeheartedly in the savaging of Islam by ministers of the ‘new atheism’ – such as Sam Harris – who appear to have given up worshipping every god save the Holy American Empire. I also reject the widespread charge, expressed by David Cameron a few years ago, that ‘Isis is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before.’[1] Certainly, I repudiate the accusation that Islam by itself is a sufficient condition to give rise to terrorism.

Simple arithmetic ought to be enough to illustrate the point. The Global Terrorism Database compiled by the  National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) offers itself as the most comprehensive non-classified database of terrorist attacks in the world. It holds details of approximately 170,000 terrorist attacks carried out globally between 1970 and 2016 by all affiliations and creeds (excluding states but that’s a different discussion). During the same period the global Muslim population increased from approximately 700 million to 1.8 billion.[2] I don’t have the demographic skills or inclination to estimate how many unique Muslims have been alive for each year of that period but to round to 1bn seems a reasonable approximation. Let’s assume – wrongly – that each one of those 170,000 terrorist attacks was carried out by a different Muslim, so there have been at 170,000 Muslim terrorists. Dividing those fictional 170,000 Muslim terrorists into our one billion Muslims would mean they comprised just 0.00017% of all Muslims. Put another way, about one in every 5883 Muslims would have committed a terrorist attack. Of course, this calculation wildly exaggerates the number of Islamic terrorists in the world but, even after so doing, the idea that Islam itself causes terrorism is revealed as absurd. If Islam causes terrorism why hasn’t  it turned the other 999,830,000 Muslims into terrorists as well?

Deaths by terrorism in Europe

According to Europol, there were 142 failed, foiled, or completed terror attacks reported in the EU 2016 (in six states). This was down from 211 in 2015 and 226 in 2014. Of those 142 attacks in 2016 99 were carried out by ethno-nationalist and separatist groups. Left-wing extremists carried out 27 attacks, there was one right-wing attack, and two could not be attributed. This means that just 13 were carried out by jihadists (six of which were attributed to Islamic State).[3] These 13 attacks were also the only attacks with a religious motive -90% were secular. It is true that Islamist attacks caused most of the casualties that year but it is still the case that less than 10% of terrorist attacks in the EU in 2016 were carried out by Islamists. This assessment also generalises for previous years – the majority of terrorist attacks have been carried out by ethno-nationalist groups and not by adherents of any religion.[4] On these figures, Islam – and religion generally – are a very poor predictor of terrorism. Perhaps a better predictor of Islamic terrorist attacks in Europe can be deduced from the graph above.

Deaths from terrorism in the US

The most recent whole year figure for terrorist attacks in the US is for 2015 and is calculated by START.[5] There were 61 attacks in the US during that year of which nine (or just under 15%) were committed by Islamic extremists. Another study in 2016 looked at 201 terrorist incidents recorded since 2008, finding that while 63 incidents involved perpetrators ‘espousing a theocratic ideology’ 115 incidents were down to right-wing extremists. In other words, right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many terrorist incidents as were associated with Islamists. The Islamists caused 90 deaths while the right-wing extremists killed 79.[6]

To put these deaths in perspective, in 2015 91 Americans died in accidents involving lawnmowers.[7]  In the same year 44,193 killed themselves.[8] Between 2005 and 2015 the number of Americans killed by gun violence was 301,797.[9] Excluding disease, it is Americans who constitute by far the greatest threat to Americans.

There are, of course, hotspots elsewhere in the globe where nearly every terrorist attack is carried out by a Muslim. Perhaps not coincidentally, these often are places like Afghanistan and Iraq – made warzones by the US and UK – where they are fighting occupation.

Well, all suicide bombers are Muslims, aren’t they?

Again, no. In fact, between 1980 and 2004, the world leader in suicide attacks was the Tamil Tigers, a secular Hindu group. Moreover, at least a third of the suicide attacks in predominantly Muslim countries were carried out by secular groups, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey.[10] The leading authorities in this field, Robert Pape and James K Feldman, studied every one of the 2178 reported suicide attack between 1980 and 2009. They find that,

“Islamic fundamentalism cannot account for the steep upward trajectory of the annual rates of suicide terrorism— from an average of three attacks per year in the 1980s to over 500 in 2007—since it is implausible… that the number of Islamic fundamentalists around the globe rose by a similar astronomical rate (over 16,000%). Further, the geographic concentration also casts doubt on the causal force of Islamic fundamentalism. If religious fanaticism or any ideology was driving the threat, we would expect a spread of more or less proportionately scattered attacks around the globe or, in the case of Islamic fundamentalism, at least spread randomly across the 1.4 billion Muslims who live in nearly every country in the world. However, we are observing nearly the opposite of random, scattered attacks that would fit the pattern of a “global jihad,” but instead tightly focused campaigns of suicide terrorism that are limited in space and time and so would appear related to specific circumstances.”[11]

Pape and Feldman also note that Islam cannot explain why important suicide terrorist campaigns in recent years have ended. For example, since Israeli combat forces left Lebanon in 2000 there had not been a single Lebanese suicide terrorist attack by the time Pape and Feldman published in 2010; not evening during Hezbollah’s war with Israel in 2006. Yet Hezbollah remained an Islamic fundamentalist group throughout that decade.[12] The bottom line, as they put it, is that it is military occupation, not Islam, that drives suicide bombing.

Well, even if Muslims aren’t all terrorists, they certainly all support terrorists, don’t they?

No.

Some of the most detailed and reliable work on opinion polling is done by the US-based Pew Research Centre. They found in 2013 that ‘Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam.’ Roughly 75% of Muslims reject suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians. And in most countries the prevailing view is that such acts are never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies.[13]

In the US, a 2011 survey found that 86% of Muslims say such tactics are rarely or never justified. An additional 7% say suicide bombings are sometimes justified and just 1% say they are often justified.[14] A 2009 study by the WorldPublicOpinion.org Network of public opinion in predominantly Muslim countries reported that ‘very large majorities continue to renounce the use of attacks on civilians as a means of pursuing political goals’. This was despite respondents supporting the goal of groups like al Qaeda to expel US forces from all Muslim countries and approving of attacks on US troops in Muslim countries.[15] Of course, there are Muslims with reprehensible views and there is stronger support in some countries for terrorism including against civilians (40% in Palestine and 39% in Afghanistan according to the Pew study) but several Muslim nations have been under western attack for decades. A hardening of attitudes should be expected. What matters is that being of the Islamic faith is not, by itself, a reliable predictor of attitudes to – or participation in – terrorist acts. So long as we continue to delude ourselves as to the complexity of the reasons behind terrorism, we are throwing more bodies on the pyre.

Notes.

_________

 

[1] David Cameron  “Threat level from international terrorism raised: PM press statement,” 29th August 2014, available at https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/threat-level-from-international-terrorism-raised-pm-press-conference

[2] To derive this figure, I have taken two estimates from H. Kettani, “World Muslim Population: 1950 – 2020,” International Journal of Environmental Science and Development (IJESD), Vol. 1, No. 2, June 2010 ( http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download;jsessionid=300C9E31537245BA23E3D381C6B7C642?doi=10.1.1.180.3753&rep=rep1&type=pdf )and http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/

[3] Europol “EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2017”, pp. 11 & 49. The report notes that completely accurate figures are difficult to establish as the UK does not provide disaggregated data.

[4] Europol “TE-SAT 2014: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report,” available at https://www.europol.europa.eu/sites/default/files/documents/europol_te_sat_2014_reflowable_v150%20%281%29.epub

[5] American Deaths in Terrorist Attacks, 2016 http://www.start.umd.edu/pubs/START_AmericanTerrorismDeaths_FactSheet_Sept2016.pdf

[6] Mythili Sampathkumar “Majority of terrorists who have attacked America are not Muslim, new study finds,” Independent 23rd June 2017, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/terrorism-right-wing-america-muslims-islam-white-supremacists-study-a7805831.html

[7]  Deaths in 2015 with ICD10 code W28 (Contact with powered lawnmower). Data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2015 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released December, 2016. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 1999-2015, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at http://wonder.cdc.gov/ucd-icd10.html

[8] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm

[9] Linda Qiu “Fact-checking a comparison of gun deaths and terrorism deaths,” 5th October 2015, available at   http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/oct/05/viral-image/fact-checking-comparison-gun-deaths-and-terrorism-/

[10] Robert A. Pape, James K. Feldman (2010) “Cutting the Fuse, The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It,” p. 20. See also Pape’s 2004 study, “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”

[11] Ibid. pp. 38-39.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Pew Research Centre “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society,” 30th April 2013, available at  http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-overview/#extremism-widely-rejected

[14] Ibid. “Appendix A: U.S. Muslims — Views on Religion and Society in a Global Context,” available at  http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-app-a/

[15] WorldPublicOpinion.org “Muslim Publics Oppose Al Qaeda’s Terrorism, But Agree With Its Goal of Driving US Forces Out,” 24th February 2009, available from http://worldpublicopinion.net/muslim-publics-oppose-al-qaedas-terrorism-but-agree-with-its-goal-of-driving-us-forces-out/  Two polls conducted in 2006 by Pew and Terror Free Tomorrow reported that ‘Strong opposition to terrorism was found among Muslims in seven out of ten countries polled by Pew. This is especially true in the Muslim populations of Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey, where six in ten or more say that “suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets” are “never justified.” The TFT poll of Indonesia and Pakistan found even bigger numbers rejecting all attacks on civilians. Pew also found complete rejection of terrorism among very large majorities of Muslims living in Germany, Britain, Spain and France. Trend line data available for some countries also show a significant increase in those taking this position in Indonesia and a remarkable 23 point increase in Pakistan. Only Turkey showed a slight downward movement.’ (WorldPublicOpinion.org “Large and Growing Numbers of Muslims Reject Terrorism, Bin Laden,” 30th June 2006, available at http://worldpublicopinion.net/large-and-growing-numbers-of-muslims-reject-terrorism-bin-laden/ )

Let Truth and Falsehood Grapple

In my previous article on Public Relations, I mentioned the social justification often touted as the rationale for the trade; namely to ‘ethically and effectively plead the cause of a client or organization in the freewheeling forum of public debate.’[1] As one former head of the Institute of Public Relations argued, PR professionals see themselves as paid advocates, representing the interests of their principal.[2] Indeed, Edward Bernays spoke of the PR counsellor pleading his client’s case before the ‘court of public opinion’ and, with characteristic outrecuidance, coined the term ‘Public Relations Counsellor.’[3] Such legalistic allusions pepper his writings and the PR literature generally.

A second purported purpose for PR, which Bernays and others have claimed, is that it lubricates the cogs of democracy. Lesly’s Handbook argues that PR is an ‘essential element in the communications system that informs individuals on many aspects of subjects that affect their lives’ and a ‘safety valve for freedom.’[4] Not only that but it ‘provides a means by which the public communicates its desires and interests to the institutions in our society. It interprets and speaks for the public to otherwise unresponsive organizations, while also speaking for those organizations to the public.’[5] I shan’t belabour the question of what happens when the public tries to communicate desires and interests that don’t involve purchasing decisions.

The problem with democracy, as Robert Dahl argued, is complexity. Simply put, the general public cannot have a competent grasp of the intricacies of every issue of concern. All that is practicable is a passing acquaintance with the majority of policy issues and a somewhat deeper understanding of perhaps a handful. The formal remedy to this problem is for the electorate to set broad parameters of both ends and means, which are gradually refined, at each stage, by legislatures, policy committees, and administrative bodies.[6] This democratic gearing mechanism is embraced and developed in some of the PR literature. Bernays, for instance, believed that society needed people like him to sort through ideas and reduce the otherwise baffling plethora of options to a manageable choice.[7] Therefore, we consent to let an ‘invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions.’[8]

Society, then, is a courtroom in which competing ideas, programmes, and interests are debated in the cause of The Greater Good with PR practitioners on every side looking to persuade we, the jury, to find in their favour. As John Milton said of ‘Truth’, ‘let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?’[9] There are of course many instances when PR is in Truth’s corner, for instance last year when Pepsi and New Balance found themselves sparring with both pro- and anti-Trump news sites.[10] Unfortunately, when the encounters are so often neither free nor open, Truth takes a beating.

I’m going to discuss two sides to this problem. Firstly, the disparity between corporate PR and its opponents; secondly, the disadvantage the public finds itself at when trying to decide between competing ideas.

smoke-screen-camelsTo anyone who’s read my previous posts on the great US campaigns of the 20th century, the power and technique of corporate PR will be no surprise. Recall the Committee on Public Information’s 75,000,000 publications and more than $30m of advertising in service of selling the Great War or, later, the National Association of Manufacturing’s ‘almost overwhelming propaganda of doctrine’ to sell the American Dream. Nor is mere marketing communication the only tool in the PR locker. Take for example Edelman’s advice to TransCanada in 2014 that they launch a ‘perpetual campaign to protect and enhance the value of the Energy East Pipeline and to help inoculate TransCanada from potential attacks in any arena’. This plan, in service of the then stalled[11] Keystone XL pipeline, was to be an ‘aggressive’ campaign to ‘add layers of difficulty for our opponents, distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources.’ The targets of this ‘pressure’ campaign, which would include detailed investigation and background research, would be opposition groups, such as the Council of Canadians and the David Suzuki Foundation, as well as a ‘small community group in Ottawa that usually fights for more bike lanes and park enhancements.’[12] This case is quite typical of the mobilisation of resources involved in large scale corporate PR when public opposition is anticipated.[13]

Big business has more money, more time, more persistence, more connections, more experience and more resources that private citizens. The residents opposed to a local fracking application or an incinerator or a new road will have limited funds, either their own or donated. They will have their own lives, families, and jobs. Where big business can lobby government, individuals can only petition. Over time, a war of attrition can erode their finances, their commitment, their relationships, and their health. Not always. But often.[14] Legal remedies often provide at best pyrrhic victories with fines that aren’t large enough to effectively constrain behaviour making prosecutions merely an annoyance. Note the remarkable elision here, for instance, in a discussion of PR best practice in Managing Activism:

‘Through its experiences, this company has learnt that openness is a must. Because it operates in a ‘heavy industry’, it is occasionally prosecuted.’[15]

The other key way in which PR nobbles the jury is through its liberal use of what is known as the Third Party Technique, which has been described as ‘the heart of public relations’ and was pioneered during the promotion of tobacco.[16] Edelman, for instance,  told TransCanada that it would ‘work with third parties and arm them with the information they need to pressure opponents and distract them from their mission . . . . Third-party voices must be identified, recruited and heard to build an echo chamber of aligned voices.’[17] The Third Party Technique can involve suborning individuals thought to have authority or credibility with an audience or manufacturing ‘front groups’ or fake grassroots groups (a practice known as ‘astroturfing’),

Thus, if Burger King were to report that a Whopper is nutritious, informed consumers would probably shrug in disbelief…. And if the NutraSweet Company were to insist that the artificial sweetener aspartame has no side effects, consumers might not be inclined to believe them, either…. But if the ‘American Council on Science and Health’ and its panel of 200 ‘expert’ scientists reported that Whoppers were not so bad, consumers might actually listen…. And if the ‘Calorie Control Council’ reported that aspartame is not really dangerous, weight-conscious consumers might continue dumping the artificial sweetener in their coffee every morning without concerns.[18]

As a Communications Services manager for Burson-Marsteller told an advertising conference in 1995, third party support is essential for the ‘basic risk messages of the corporation’ and this support should ‘ideally come from medical authorities, political leaders, union officials, relevant academics, fire and police officials, environmentalists, regulators.’[19]

In 1993, for instance, Mothers Opposing Pollution (MOP), launched a highly publicised campaign in Australia against plastic milk bottles; alleging their carcinogenic properties, difficulty of disposal, and the deleterious effects of sunlight upon milk.  Their lead spokeswoman, ‘Alana Maloney’ was later revealed to be Janet Rundle, head of PR company J. R. and Associates and business partner of Trevor Munnery. Munnery owned Unlimited Public Relations, which just happened to hold the account of the Association of Liquidpaperboard Carton Manufacturers (ALC). MOP was later exposed as a front group created to disparage plastic milk bottles in order to boost ALC sales.[20]

In 2016, the Canadian comedian Cathy Jones and Dr. Vivien Brown (assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Toronto) fronted a campaign to get women to start talking about post-menopause female sexual health and vaginal atrophy. What people would not have known, were it not for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) investigation, was that the project was initiated and funded by Novo Nordisk Canada Inc., which makes a vaginal hormone pill.

No parties including GCI want any mention of the drug or drug company,” CBC was told. “It’s an unbranded campaign.[21]

Pharmaceutical companies employ a similar strategy, known as ‘selling in’. PR firms pay medical journalists to write articles favourable to a product in return for conferences junkets, a fee, or other incentives. Crucially, the articles are most effective when the remuneration given to the writer remains undisclosed. A similar practice occurs in the travel section of newspapers, however, in this instance it is generally made clear if a journalist has received free flights or accommodation.[22]

A further example of the believability of ‘independent experts’ can be seen in the proliferation of ‘independent’ think-tanks whose spokespeople appear in the media. Generally speaking, the political allegiance and commercial backing of these organisations is not revealed. For example, in 2001 a fellow of the right wing Institute for Economic Affairs, the philosopher Roger Scruton, wrote a pamphlet attacking the World Health Organisation − without revealing that, at the time, he was in the pay of Japan Tobacco.[23] In 2006, it was revealed that the world-renowned epidemiologist, Sir Richard Doll, had spent 20 years in the pay of Monsanto. During that time, he had written to a royal Australian commission investigating the potential cancer-causing properties of Agent Orange, made by Monsanto, averring that there was no evidence it was carcinogenic.[24]

The problem here is honesty. MOP might have been right about plastic bottles, Roger Scruton and Sir Richard Doll might have been sincere in everything they said, and Cathy Jones might be struggling every day against vaginal atrophy. The ethical problem, in each case, lay in the failure to disclose that they were representing an interest. Without this honesty, to return to the legal metaphor, the jury cannot know how much credibility to give the witness on the stand.

Add to this the problems of an enfeebled press watchdog that I discussed here and one can see how unconstrained by countervailing power corporate PR frequently is. PR professionals fancy that they contribute to the marketplace of ideas but too often they belong to its dark corners with the hustlers and the card sharps. Persuasion becomes propaganda when motives are disguised and words are put in other people’s mouths. Of course, it’s impracticable for the individual to investigate every story they hear but one should always treat purportedly ‘neutral’ expertise with scepticism and ask the basic questions: Who does this ‘expert’ work for? Who commissioned this research or survey? And, most importantly, who benefits from me believing this claim?

__________

Notes

[1] Scott M. Cutlip (1994) “The Unseen Power: Public Relations. A History,” p. xii.

[2] Simon Lewis, quoted in Carol Midgley, “All that spin makes many feel queasy” in The Times, 14th November 1997.

[3] Edward Bernays (1928) “Propaganda” p. 45.

[4] Philip Lesly (1998) “Lesly’s Handbook of Public Relations And Communications,” p. 7.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Robert Dahl (1989) “Democracy and its Critics,” It is this arrangement that Dahl calls ‘a process of successive approximation’ (pp. 336-338).

[7] Larry Tye (1998) “The Father of Spin. Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations,” p. 92

[8] Edward Bernays (1928) “Propaganda” pp. 10-11.

[9] John Milton (1644) “Aeropagitica”.

[10] Pro-Trump websites misquoted Indra Nooyi (Pepsi’s CEO) suggesting Trump supporters ‘take their business elsewhere.’ The sports shoe manufacturer, New Balance was forced to respond when its vice president of public affairs was misquoted by an anti-Trump website as saying that New Balance was the ‘official brand of the Trump revolution.’ (Ilyse Liffreing “So your brand is the victim of fake news. Now what?” PR Week 21st November 2016 available at http://www.prweek.com/article/1416264/so-brand-victim-fake-news-what )

[11] The proposed pipeline, no longer quite so stalled thanks to the intercession of President Trump, would span the 1,179 miles between the oil sands of Alberta, Canada and Steele City in Nebraska.

[12] Ian Austin “P.R. Firm Urges TransCanada to Target Opponents of Its Energy East Pipeline,” New York Times 17th November 2014, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/18/business/pr-firm-urges-transcanada-to-target-opponents-of-its-energy-east-pipeline.html See also Lisa Graves “Edelman TransCanada Leak: Aggressive PR for Keystone Alt,” PR Watch 18th November 2014.

[13] For more detailed discussions of specific cases, see John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (1995) “Toxic Sludge is Good for You”; Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (2001) “Trust Us, We’re Experts!”; Nicky Hager and Bob Burton (2000) “Secrets and Lies: The Anatomy of an Anti-Environmental PR Campaign”; Robert Jackall and Janice Hirota (2000) “Image Makers, Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy”; Sharon Beder (1990) “Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism”; or Sharon Beder (2006) “Free Market Missionaries: The Corporate Manipulation of Community Values”.

[14] As Stauber and Rampton (1995, p. 14) put it twenty years ago, ‘[r]aw money enables the PR industry to mobilize private detectives, attorneys, broadcast faxes, satellite feeds, sophisticated information systems and other expensive, high tech resources to out manoeuvre, overpower and outlast true citizen reformers.’

[15] Denise Deegan (2001) “Managing Activism: A Practical Guide for Dealing with Activists and Pressure Groups,” p. 102.

[16] The [a]rt of public relations is to have the appearance of disinterestedness. It stands to reason that the facts regarding the merits of any company or product are more readily believed if they are put forward with apparent spontaneity by a person or body not directly concerned with increasing its sales ( Jim Dunn (1999) “Public Relations Techniques that Work”, p. 7.) One leading PR firm employed by Monsanto, the Bivings Group, used to have an article on its website, entitled which warned that, ‘…there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved … it simply is not an intelligent PR move. In cases such as this, it is important to first “listen” to what is being said online … Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party. … Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously’ (George Monbiot “The Fake Persuaders,” Guardian 14th May 2002 available at http://www.monbiot.com/2002/05/14/the-fake-persuaders/  )

[17] Austin, op. cit.; Graves op. cit.

[18] M. Megali and A Friedman (1991) “Masks of Deception: Corporate Front Group in America,” p. 3.

[19] No author “Third Party Techniques,” available at http://www.tobaccotactics.org/index.php?title=Third_Party_Techniques

[20] Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (2001) “Trust Us, We’re Experts!” p. 16.

[21]  My emphasis added. Kelly Crowe “Ads disguised as news: A drug company’s stealth marketing campaign exposed,” 5th October 2016 available at http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/vaginal-atrophy-analysis-1.3786547

[22] Nic Paton “When is a story not a story?” Guardian 22nd October 2001 available at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2001/oct/22/mondaymediasection5

[23] Helena Paul, Richarda Steinbrecher, Devlin Kuyek, Lucy Michaels (2003) “Hungry Corporations,” p. 66.

[24] Sarah Boseley “Renowned cancer scientist was paid by chemical firm for 20 years,” Guardian 8th December 2006 available at https://www.theguardian.com/science/2006/dec/08/smoking.frontpagenews

In Flight from Peace

It’s an unspoken assumption of mainstream political commentary in the US and UK that ‘we’ mean well. We might be naïve, idealistic, bungling, or occasionally foolish but, a few rotten apples aside, the ‘we’ nations are fundamentally benign. Official enemies, on the other hand, are always up to something, have selfish, ulterior motives and are generally bad eggs.

These two assumptions frame intellectual and media debate. When ‘enemy’ states act, such as Russia in Syria, their public statements are evaluated according to their actions and their blandishments about freedom, democracy, self-defence, and bringing stability are not taken at face value. Strategic interests are evaluated and motives deduced. This is as it should be. When the US and UK ‘intervene’ the blandishments are taken at face value, strategic interests are absent (or couched in simple terms of defence) and our actions are interpreted and, if necessary, sifted to fit with the blandishments. Words are the sole prerequisite for demonstrating intent. Imagine for a moment a BBC journalist reporting that the British or American government’s real motive in a given conflict was to exacerbate it for selfish reasons. It’s almost inconceivable. We are assumed always to desire peace and stability and toseek strenuously to avoid conflict.

I’d like to illustrate the falsity of this assumption with a handful of examples of Anglo-American interventions in the past thirty years: Iraq in 1990, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq (again) in 2002, and North Korea today. I hope these examples will demonstrate that the US and its lackey, far from being in pursuit of peace, often make strenuous attempts to avoid it.

On 2nd August 1990, long-standing US and UK ally, Saddam Hussein, ordered Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Within two days Iraq had fully annexed the small country and the world was in uproar. When Saddam realised his miscalculation, that the US would not permit the annexation, he made several attempts at a negotiated withdrawal. Ten days after the invasion, he proposed a settlement linking Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to withdrawals from other illegally occupied Arab lands: Syria from Lebanon and Israel from the territories it conquered in 1967.[1] As the New York Times reported,

President Saddam Hussein of Iraq suggested that he might withdraw his forces from Kuwait if Israel first withdrew from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and if Syria pulled its soldiers out of Lebanon. Washington and Israel dismissed such a deal.[2]

A few days later Iraq made another offer, described by one official who specialised in Middle East affairs as ‘serious’ and ‘negotiable’, to withdraw from Kuwait and allow foreigners to return in exchange for sanctions being lifted, guaranteed access to the Persian Gulf, and sole control of the Rumailah oil field, which extends two miles under Kuwait. Significantly, it made no mention of the previous precondition that the US pull its troops out of Saudi Arabia.[3] The proposal again received little response.

In December that year, Iraq made another proposal to exit Kuwait in exchange for a US commitment not to attack its soldiers as they withdrew. They also asked for foreign troops to leave the region, for an agreement on the Palestinian issue, and a ban on all WMD in the region (a goal formally adopted a year later in Security Council Resolution 687). US officials described the offer as ‘interesting’ and signalling ‘Iraqi interest in a negotiated settlement.’ A State Department Mideast expert described the proposal as a ‘serious prenegotiation position.’ The demand for an Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories was dropped and it was made clear that a deal over Palestine was not a precondition for Iraq’s withdrawal. The White House, as Newsday reported, ‘immediately dismissed the proposal’.[4]

Were the offers genuine? Was it justifiable to give Iraq any sort of concession for withdrawing? We’ll never have an answer to the first question but, for the second, it seems clear that while Saddam was looking for a way to withdraw while saving face, the US appeared bent on backing him into a corner. One might argue that invaders should not be negotiated with, that they should never gain one iota from their criminality but that was not the US (or Israeli) position, then or now.

Iraq’s peaceful withdrawal might well have happened without a further shot being fired. It seems, however, that the US Government was intent on making war happen, presumably seeing the crisis as an opportunity to consolidate its hold on the region. Why else did Pentagon officials claim, in an allegation later disproved but never retracted, that satellite images (which were never provided) showed Iraq had massed 250,000 troops and 1,500 tanks on the Saudi border?[5] A diplomatic solution, particularly with UN involvement, would have undercut US prestige and delegitimised future US military interventionism. Instead rejectionism and falsification to fight peace.

In 1999, at the Rambouillet Conference, the US again acted to forestall the possibility of a peaceful resolution; this time to the Kosovo War. It did so by adding conditions to the text of the  proposed Rambouillet Agreement that were calculated to be unacceptable to the Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Annex B of the proposed ‘peace treaty’ included a Status of Forces Agreement, which required that NATO forces ‘under all circumstances and at all times, shall be immune from the Parties’ [i.e. FRY], jurisdiction in respect of any civil, administrative, criminal, or disciplinary offenses which may be committed by them in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’ and would ‘enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY including associated airspace and territorial waters.’[6] Note that this applied not merely to Kosovo but that NATO was demanding absolute, unfettered reign in the entirety of the FRY.[7]

In other extraordinary provisions, NATO insisted that ‘the economy of Kosovo shall function on free market principles’ and that state assets be privatised. No less extraordinary, when this was reported by the Australian journalist, John Pilger, the Guardian’s diplomatic Editor, Ian Black, went so far as to flatly deny that this first passage existed at all.[8] The reader may verify this for themselves.[9] As Michael Parenti put it, the ‘agreement’ was not an agreement at all but an ‘ultimatum for unconditional surrender’.[10] This was conceded later by the second most senior British defence minister during the conflict, Lord Gilbert, in testimony to Parliament:

I think certain people were spoiling for a fight in NATO at that time. I think the terms put to Milosevic at Rambouillet were absolutely intolerable: how could he possibly accept them? It was quite deliberate.[11]

Henry Kissinger – never one to let a war go unmongered – judged that the Rambouillet text was ‘a provocation, an excuse to start bombing,’ while James Rubin (then Assistant US Secretary of State for Public Affairs) conceded in 2000 that the US’s ‘internal goal was not to get a peace agreement at Rambouillet.’[12]  The combination of the unacceptable demands of access and immunity coupled with the remarkable inclusion, in a supposed peace treaty, of US demands about how the Kosovan economy was to operate, is perhaps best explained by John Norris, former communications director for the then US deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott:

It was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform – not the plight of the Kosovar Albanians – that best explains NATO’s war.[13]

The US justified their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 on the grounds that the Taliban had refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, whom they suspected of involvement in the September 11th atrocity.  Yet in fact the Taliban made several offers to extradite bin Laden; their mistake was to ask the US to provide evidence. The Independent reported at the time,

[Afghanistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Haji Abdul Kabir] said: “If America were to step back from the current policy, then we could negotiate.” Mr bin Laden could be handed over to a third country for trial, he said. “We could discuss which third country.”

But… Washington rejected the Taliban offer out of hand. “When I said no negotiations I meant no negotiations,” Mr Bush said. “We know he’s guilty. Turn him over. There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt.”[14]

In fact, the US had demanded bin Laden’s extradition for several years but had always refused to provide evidence -generally held to be a normal component of an extradition request. The offers culminated in a proposal in October 2001, reported by the Daily Telegraph, when a delegation from Pakistan, led by Qazi Hussain Ahmadn (leader of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami party) went to Afghanistan to negotiate with the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar:

Omar agreed that bin Laden should be taken to Pakistan, where he would be held under house arrest in Peshawar. The proposal, which had bin Laden’s approval, was that within the framework of Islamic shar’ia law evidence of his alleged involvement in the American attacks would be placed before an international tribunal.

The court would decide whether to try him on the spot or hand him over to America.[15]

This deal was reportedly blocked by the then dictator of Pakistan (and off-and-on US client) General Pervez Musharraf. One doesn’t need to read between the lines much:

Gen Musharraf and Wendy Chamberlain, America’s ambassador to Pakistan, were told of the mission in advance and yesterday Qazi met the Pakistani president to relay the proposal.

“He was told that, while he backed the idea, the stumbling block was that he could not guarantee bin Laden’s safety”…’.[16]

Could the Taliban have been trusted? Would they have handed bin Laden over? We can’t know for certain because the avenue was closed off. Even if one does accept (and I do not) the proposition that it is acceptable to bomb a country when its government refuses to hand over a suspect, it is even more outlandish to suggest that no evidence need be laid as part of a strenuous effort to avoid violence. The US made no such effort.  As with Iraq in 2003, war was not ‘the last resort’.[17]

I won’t unearth the complex tale of US and UK machinations that led in 2003 to our second major attack on Iraq. The inspections were a failed attempt to give the imprimatur of due process to a calculated act of aggression, betrayed by the obvious frustration shown by US and UK officials every time inspectors failed to find any proscribed weapons. Nor is there space to discuss in detail Iraq’s last minute, desperate offers to avert an invasion, which included allowing in thousands of US troops to look for weapons and an offer to hold internationally-monitored elections.[18] It’s enough to draw attention to three matters to further illustrate my argument.

Firstly, during 2002 – before the invasion-proper – the US and UK intensified their decade-long bombing of Iraq, in order to ‘put pressure on the regime’ and provoke the Iraqi government into action that would justify war. Regime change being a crime in international law it was necessary to do something that would ‘create the conditions in which [Britain] could legally support military action.’ [19]

Secondly, in March 2003, as a supposed compromise, the British attack dog proposed six requirements that Iraq would have to satisfy in order to avert war.  One was to commit to ‘surrender all mobile bio-production laboratories for destruction’ – a demand with which Iraq could never have complied because it never had any. Another demand, which was either inexcusably inept or monstrously cynical was,

A public statement by Saddam Hussein, broadcast in Iraq, admitting possession of weapons of mass destruction, stating his regime has decided to give them up and pledging to cooperate with UN weapon inspectors.[20]

Of course, there are some who say that the invasion was never about WMD (they are correct) but instead was about removing Saddam Hussein (they are wrong). On the eve of the invasion the BBC reported,

President George W Bush’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said allied troops were going to enter Iraq “no matter what”.

“If Saddam were to leave, American forces, coalition forces, would still enter Iraq – hopefully they would then be able to enter peacefully because the Iraqi army would not have been given orders to fire on them, and then they could carry out the disarmament of Iraq,”[21]

Iraq was to be invaded one way or another. If a direct casus belli could not be manufactured through bombing then one of several pretexts would do. And obviously cynical attempts at ‘compromise’ -with demands so unreasonable only trained journalists could take them seriously – would be used to provide a veneer of reasonability.

Fast forward to today and the US is threatening North Korea and demanding an end to its nuclear programme but refusing to explore what might be the most straightforward route to achieving this: to accept North Korea’s offer to freeze its nuclear programme. As the New York Times reported only in June,

The Trump administration has come under growing pressure to open negotiations on a temporary freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in return for reducing the American military footprint in the Korean Peninsula, according to American officials and foreign diplomats.

Versions of the proposal, floated by Beijing for several months… But White House officials say they are not interested in any proposal that would require the United States to lift military or economic pressure on the North, even in return for a moratorium on tests.[22]

A similar offer, made to the Obama Administration in 2016, was rebuffed on the grounds that it was insincere; the North Koreans would ‘have to do better than that.’[23]

The relationship between the US and N. Korea has always been riddled with mistrust and the latter’s record of compliance has been far from spotless. As Robert Carlin and John W Lewis noted in 2007, the underlying perception in the US has long been, ‘you can’t deal with them’. Yet, as they observed, this neglects a long history of cooperation. ‘Forgotten in the reality that from 1993 to 2000, the U. S. Government had twenty or more issues under discussion with the DPRK in a wide variety of settings. A large percentage of those talks ended in agreements or made substantial progress.’[24]

Yet, on occasions when an agreement has been reached, the US has done something to blow it and the media has compliantly blamed DPRK.  Significant progress in denuclearizing N. Korea had been made by 2005 when the incoming Bush Administration wrecked the deal. As Bruce Cumings recorded in Le Monde Diplomatique,

On September 19, 2005, the United States and the DPRK agreed on certain principles leading to denuclearization, including the US commitment not to attack North Korea. Three days later, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the DPRK, which it accused of engaging in illegal activities with Banco Delta Asia in Macau, China, Cutting the country from the international financial system. It is now known that very few incriminating evidence was included in the US Treasury file, which was intended to torpedo the September negotiations.[25]

There’s a recurring patter to the US and UK’s ‘search for peace’ in the world. Arrogant ultimatums, a refusal to compromise, unreasonable demands calculated to be rejected, and attempts to manufacture justifications. All the while, instead of benevolence, a cynical opportunism that sees every crisis as an opportunity to extend and entrench power. In each case, the only peace sought is that found while strolling through a graveyard of one’s enemies.

________________

Notes.

[1] Editorial, “The issue is still Kuwait,” Financial Times (London), August 13, 1990, p. 12

[2] Michael R. Gordon “Confrontation in the Gulf; Bush orders navy to halt all shipments of Iraq’s oil and almost all its imports,” New York Times 13th August 1990 available at http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/13/world/confrontation-gulf-bush-orders-navy-halt-all-shipments-iraq-s-oil-almost-all-its.html?pagewanted=all

[3] Knut Royce “Middle East Crisis Secret Offer Iraq Sent Pullout Deal to U.S.; [ALL EDITIONS]” Newsday 29th August 1990, archived copy available at https://www.scribd.com/document/38969813/MIDDLE-EAST-CRISIS-Secret-Offer-Iraq-Sent-Pullout-Deal-to-U-S-ALL-EDITIONS

[4] Knut Royce “Iraq Offers Deal to Quit Kuwait U.S. rejects it, but stays `interested’” 3rd January 1991, archived copy available at https://www.scribd.com/document/38969954/Iraq-Offers-Deal-to-Quit-Kuwait-U-S-rejects-it-but-stays-interested-NASSAU-AND-SUFFOLK-Edition See also PATRICK E. TYLER “Confrontation in the Gulf; Arafat Eases Stand on Kuwait-Palestine Link,” New York Times 3rd January 1991, available at http://www.nytimes.com/1991/01/03/world/confrontation-in-the-gulf-arafat-eases-stand-on-kuwait-palestine-link.html

[5] Scott Peterson “In war, some facts less factual,” Christian Science Monitor 6th September 2002. See also John MacArthur (1992) “Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War,” pp. 173.

[6] See “Text of Military Annex to Draft Rambouillet Accords” paras. 6a,b,c, 8 and 9 available at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmselect/cmdfence/347/34726.htm

[7] In fact, the text does contain a qualified promise to abide by FRY law in para. 2, which states that ‘…all NATO personnel shall respect the laws applicable in the FRY, whether Federal, Republic, Kosovo, or other, insofar as compliance with those laws is compatible with the entrusted tasks/mandate and shall refrain from activities not compatible with the nature of the Operation.’ However, since the clause begins by stating that this is  ‘without prejudice to their privileges and immunities under this Appendix,’ the promise is almost meaningless.

[8] Ian Black rubbished Pilger’s claims, stating: “In an earlier version of his thesis, billed without irony as ‘amazing’ in last week’s New Statesman, Pilger provided more detail. He quoted (correctly) from section 11 of appendix B, about NATO’s use of airports, roads, rails and ports. Inexplicably, he then added the sentence: ‘The economy shall function in accordance with free market principles.’

“Damning stuff that. Proof that Nato really is the military arm of unreconstructed international vampire capitalism. But that sentence does not exist.” (Ian Black “Bad News” Guardian 19th May 1999, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/may/19/balkans9 emphasis mine)

[9] http://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/990123_RambouilletAccord.pdf The relevant passage is Chapter 4, paragraph 1 on page 46.

[10] Michael Parenti (2002) “To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia” p. 112.

[11] Gilbert quoted in Patrick Wintour “War Strategy Ridiculed” Guardian, 21st July 2000 available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/jul/21/balkans1

[12] Henry Kissinger quoted in Ian Bancroft “Serbia’s anniversary is a timely reminder” Guardian 24th March 2009, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/mar/24/serbia-kosovo ; James Rubin on the Charlie Rose Show 18th April 2000, transcript and video available at https://charlierose.com/videos/28943

[13] John Norris ( 2005) “Collision Course: NATO, Russia, and Kosovo” p. xxiii. As this is a central contention of the book for which Talbot himself wrote the foreward, I think it’s reasonable to assume it has Talbot’s support.

[14] Andrew Buncombe “Bush rejects Taliban offer to surrender bin Laden,” Independent 14th October 2001 available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/bush-rejects-taliban-offer-to-surrender-bin-laden-9143208.html

[15] Patrick Bishop “Pakistan blocks bin Laden trial,” Daily Telegraph 4th October 2001 available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/1358464/Pakistan-blocks-bin-Laden-trial.html

[16] Ibid.

[17] Sir John Chilcot’s damning conclusion at the end of his inquiry was that ‘the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.’ http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/the-inquiry/sir-john-chilcots-public-statement/

[18] Julian Borger, Brian Whitaker and Vikram Dodd “Saddam’s desperate offers to stave off war” Guardian 7th November 2003, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/nov/07/iraq.brianwhitaker

[19] Michael Smith “The War Before the War” New Statesman 30th May 2005 available at http://www.newstatesman.com/node/195307 Smith article quotes the infamous ‘Downing Street Memo,’ written by civil servant Matthew Rycroft in July 2002, which was minutes of a meeting of  senior British government, defence and intelligence personnel including the head of MI6. The full text can be read here: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB328/II-Doc14.pdf

[20] Staff and Agencies “Straw spells out key tests for Saddam,” Guardian 12th March 2003 available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/mar/12/iraq.uk1 1

[21] BBC News “Saddam rejects Bush ultimatum” 18th March 2003, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/2861029.stm

[22] David E. Sanger and  Gardiner Harris  “U.S. Pressed to Pursue Deal to Freeze North Korea Missile Tests,” New York Times 21st June 2017 available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/21/world/asia/north-korea-missle-tests.html

[23] Associated Press “Obama rejects North Korea’s nuclear offer: ‘You’ll have to do better than that’” Guardian 24th April 2016 available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/24/obama-response-north-korea-nuclear-tests-deal

[24] Robert Carlin and John W Lewis (2008) “Negotiating with North Korea 1992-2007” available at http://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Negotiating_with_North_Korea_1992-2007.pdf

[25] Bruce Cumings “Et la Corée du Nord redevint fréquentable” Le Monde Diplomate October 2007, available at https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2007/10/CUMINGS/15210 I have relied on Google Translate for the English version.

The Timorous Watchdog

The history of Public Relations did not end in the 1950s although, for the time being, my history of it does. It suffices to say that, while the past 70 years have seen its fortunes rise and fall, the trend has always been upward.

In 2015, the top five largest PR firms globally (Edelman, Weber Shandwick, Fleischman Hillard, Ketcham, Burson Marstelller, and MSL Group) had combined revenues of $3.7bn. All but MSL are American. The largest British firm was Brunswick (twelfth on the list), with revenues in 2015 of $220m.[1] It’s perhaps a portent that ninth on the list, BlueFocus, is Chinese.

The industry today has resources, reach, and techniques that would doubtless dazzle pioneers like Ivy Lee, George Creel, and Edward Bernays but, beneath the 21st Century lustre, they’d recognise the same driving purpose. While still deployed to sugar the pill of bigotry, mendacity, and atrocity we call ‘war,’ PR has long been used mainly to further private interests: businesses, charities, public institutions, and so forth. In short, to sell.

The social justification for public relations in a free society, Scott Cutlip argues, is to ‘ethically and effectively plead the cause of a client or organization in the freewheeling forum of public debate. It is a basic democratic right that every idea, individual, and institution shall have a full and fair hearing in the public forum  that their merit ultimately must be determined by their ability to be accepted in the marketplace.’[2] I’ll examine the practice of this theory next week. Right now, however, I’ll concern myself with what should be a bulwark against the hucksters, the flimflam, and the snake oil: the free press.

In terms of boots on the ground, journalists in the US have long been outnumbered by PR battalions. According to US Bureau of Labor statistics, as of May 2016 there were 40,090 reporters and correspondents compared with 226,940 PR specialists; a ratio of 5.6 to 1 in PR’s favour.[3] In the UK, matters are rather different. The most recent Labour Force Survey estimates that, in 2016, there were 84,000 journalists and 49,000 PR professionals but this does encompass an unexplained single year increase of 20,000. Most of that increase is accounted for by those describing themselves as self-employed or freelance. With those excluded entirely, the overall number of journalists drops to 47,000.[4]

The relationship between journalism and PR has traditionally been held to be uneasy at best.  In 2011, for instance, a YouGov survey of journalists found that just one percent of respondents trusted PR agencies ‘a great deal’ and sixty-one percent did not trust them ‘very much’ or ‘at all’.[5] The Senior Principal at Flatiron Communications, Peter Himler, writes of the ‘historical love-hate relationship between journalists and PR professionals,’ which results not merely from mistrust but also competing priorities and pressure of work (for instance, PR professionals using electronic systems to deluge journalists’ inboxes with ‘greater volumes of misguided or inane story pitches’).[6] The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade describes journalists as the people with the  ‘requisite scepticism about PR blurbs and supposed knowledge of the topic to provide readers/consumers with an analysis that will allow them to make an informed decision/choice.’[7]

The conflict model, however, has recently been recast as a “trading” relationship in which journalists, working in under-resourced and under-staffed newsrooms, increasingly rely on PR sources for editorial copy in return for access to editorial columns for PR stories. In Flat Earth News, Nick Davies paints a fascinating picture of an emaciated and timorous watchdog: starved of time and money, in thrall to the powerful, and forced to run cheap, safe stories to attract new readers and affirm the prejudices of those they already have,

The overt links to the media and the whole well-worn idea of ‘spin’ scarcely begin to capture the breadth and ingenuity of the tactics which are now used by the global industry of public relations. And it is this huge industry of manipulation – targeted at a structurally vulnerable media –  which feeds falsehood and distortion directly into our news channels , without the old-fashioned need to use proprietors or advertisers as levers.[8]

The advent of audience analytics means that for many major news retailers content is no longer driven by journalists’ intuition but a data-driven assessment of consumer preferences.[9] A recent survey of British journalists argues that it ‘remains unclear to what extent they feel bullied by this into the clickbait game, rather than feeling that they can use the data to make better, independent decisions about how to provide a service the audience values.’[10] Journalists at the large UK regional news publisher Trinity Mirror, for instance, have reportedly been told to ‘focus relentlessly on the content that we know gives us the most return for our effort… and [be] ruthless about content that doesn’t,’ with regular performance assessments ‘taking into account audience traffic’ to their content.[11]

In fact, this is merely the latest development in a much longer trend. As far back as 1955, the then Daily Herald (now The S*n) used market research to review its content before deciding to ‘devote less space to political and industrial coverage and more to human interest stories, photos, and strip cartoons.’[12] This was identified as the best way to rebuild circulation and attract women who were ‘vital to the advertising department.’[13] Newspapers have also long been divided into sections to facilitate advertisers targeting of specific audiences.

Without time to check details, to go out into the world and make contacts, reporters are reduced to ‘churnalism,’ to the ‘passive processing of material which overwhelmingly tends to be supplied for them by outsiders, particularly wire agencies and PR.’[14] One source reported this month in the Press Gazette ‘painted a picture of a working life where journalists do little other than rejig the work of others, adding pictures, headlines and adjusting the copy to avoid falling foul of copyright laws.’[15] A survey in 2015 found a large majority believe time for researching stories has decreased and the influence of profit-making pressures, PR activity, and advertising considerations has strengthened.[16] An ironic consequence of this is that at least one national newspaper website is haemorrhaging its graduate trainees – to PR and marketing roles. 

Writers such as John Stauber & Sheldon Rampton and Jeff & Marie Blyskal have attested over the past thirty years to a similar picture in the US with genuinely independent journalism gutted as a handful a mega corporations have swallowed thousands of titles. Today, ninety percent of US media companies are owned by six corporations.[17] Thousands of local  newspapers have been asset-stripped until only small, demoralised workforces remain; incapable of investigative journalism. Instead, ‘news’papers become merely avenues for marketing material, celebrity gossip, and anything else thought to increase circulation and, therefore, the available acreage of  ‘brain space.’[18] As PR Week recently said of the US scene, hacks ‘cover larger beats, produce more stories, and generate more page views than ever before.’[19]

The increase in the media’s reliance of PR material is deeply concerning given that it began from an already high base. One British study in 2006 found that almost twenty percent of newspaper stories and seventeen percent of broadcast stories in their sample were ‘verifiably derived mainly or wholly from PR material or activity.’[20] In a further eleven percent of press, and fourteen percent of broadcast stories, PR had an ‘agenda setting role’. Interestingly, for broadcast media, stories presented by news anchors alone tended to be sourced ‘mainly or wholly’ from PR material. Making journalists reliant on PR material means that PR sets the agenda. Financial Times journalist and Director of Journalism at Reuters Oxford International Institute for Journalism John Lloyd concurs,

The normal journalistic approach to PRs i.e. dogs and lampposts is grossly self-serving from the point of view of journalists. It glosses over, ignores or even denies the fact that much of current journalism both broadcast and press is public relations in the sense that stories, ideas, features and interviews are either suggested, or in the extreme actually written by public relations people. Until that becomes open and debated between PR people and journalists, we will continue to have this artificially wide gulf where journalists pose as fearless seekers of truth and PRs are slimy creatures trying to put one over on us. It is not remotely like that.[21]

And PR isn’t just about promoting stories, it’s also about suppressing them. PR agencies can threaten to cut off the drip feed of stories on which harried journalists are dependent or they can offer ‘better’ stories in exchange for silence. Or they use stronger measures, as when Ketchum put pressure on US TV stations not to promote David Steinman’s Diet for a Poisoned Planet.

Ketchum obtained details of the book tour and TV and radio appearances that Steinman had planned. They called each media outlet and hassled them to drop the interview or to allow an industry spokesman on the show to present a balanced case. Through the American Council on Science and Health, an industry front group and client of Ketchum, they lobbied the US government to work against the book. Dr William Marcus, a senior science advisor for the Environmental Protection Agency, who had written the book’s foreword was pressured to withdraw it. He refused and was later fired from the EPA.[22]

It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect the corporate press to hold PR to account. They are, after all, merely subdivisions of the same business architecture, both intended to make a profit and dependent on the corporate capitalist structure to exist. PR is concerned with selling a product, the corporate media is concerned with selling an audience to advertisers. But there are still decent journalists trying to work within the corporate structure whose ability to do what should be their job is undercut by every new round of ‘rationalisation.’

The more the press is denuded of its muscle the more ‘source-based’ journalism -printing what people want you to know – will consume investigative journalism -printing what people don’t want you to know. And news, as Randolph Hearst said, ‘is what someone does not want you to print – the rest is advertising.’

_______________

Notes

[1] Figures sourced from The Holmes Report “Global Top 250 PR Agency Ranking 2016,” available at https://www.holmesreport.com/ranking-and-data/global-communications-report/2016-pr-agency-rankings/top-250 Note that six firms are listed as Burson Marsteller and MSL Group were joint fifth.

[2] Scott M. Cutlip (1994) “The Unseen Power: Public Relations. A History,” p. xii.

[3] US Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics   https://www.bls.gov/oes/#data

[4] Office for National Statistics (August 2016) “EMP04: Employment by occupation,” available at https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/datasets/employmentbyoccupationemp04

[5] Unknown Author (2011) “Over 60 per cent of journalists think PR agencies cannot be trusted,” in PR Moment, available at

http://www.prmoment.com/category/pr-research/over-60-per-cent-of-journalists-think-pr-agencies-cannot-be-trusted

[6] Peter Himler “The Journalist And The PR Pro: A Broken Marriage?” Forbes 14th March 2014, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/peterhimler/2013/03/14/the-journalist-the-pr-pro-a-broken-marriage/#51da87a33a41

[7] Roy Greenslade “More PRs and fewer journalists threatens democracy,” The Guardian Online Thursday 4 October 2012 available at https://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2012/oct/04/marketingandpr-pressandpublishing

[8] Nick Davies (2008) “Flat Earth News,” p. 167.

[9] The shift from print to online readers, along with software such as  Chartbeat, NewsWhip, and Parse.ly, generates huge amounts of data on what is read and shared and by whom. This information is increasingly being used to prioritise stories (Neil Thurman, Alessio Cornia, and Jessica Kunert (2016) “Journalists in the UK” Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, p. 36 available at https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Journalists%20in%20the%20UK.pdf )

[10] Thurman et. al. (2016) p. 4.

[11] Dominic Ponsford “Journalists to be given personal online audience growth targets after job cuts at Trinity Mirror Midlands” Press Gazette 9th June 2015, available at http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/journalists-be-given-personal-online-audience-growth-targets-after-job-cuts-trinity-mirror-midlands/

[12] James Curran and June Seaton (2010) “Power Without Responsibility. Press, Broadcasting and the Internet in Britain,” p. 85.

[13] ‘Daily Herald reader interest surveys recommendations,’ p. 8 quoted in Curran and Seaton (2010), p. 85.

[14] Davies (2008) p.73.

[15] Dominic Ponsford “Source: ‘Ripping culture’ at national newspaper website prompts most graduate trainees to leave journalism for PR,” Press Gazette, 3rd August 2017, available at http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/source-ripping-culture-at-national-newspaper-website-prompts-most-graduate-trainees-to-leave-journalism-for-pr/

[16] Thurman et. al. (2016) p. 7.

[17] See John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (1995) “Toxic Sludge is Good for You!” or Jeff and Marie Blyskal (1987) “PR: How the Public Relations Industry Writes the News”. See also Michael Corcoran “Democracy in Peril: Twenty Years of Media Consolidation Under the Telecommunications Act,” Truthout 11th February 2016 available at http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/34789-democracy-in-peril-twenty-years-of-media-consolidation-under-the-telecommunications-act

[18] Patrick LeLay, the head of the French media giant, TF1, described the purpose of his company thus ‘There are many ways of talking about television. But from a business perspective, let’s be realistic: fundamentally speaking, the job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product … If an advertising message is to register, the viewer’s brain needs to be made available.’ The same reasoning applies to print media.

[19] Dylan Tweney (2017) “What Responsibility Does PR Have to the Dying Media?” PR Week, 28th February 2017, available at http://www.prweek.com/article/1425774/responsibility-does-pr-dying-media

[20] Justin Lewis, Andrew Williams Bob Franklin (2008): A Compromised Fourth Estate?, Journalism Studies, 9:1, 1-20.

[21] Quoted in Lewis et al. (2008).

[22] Corporate Watch “Public relations and lobbying industry an overview,” April 2003, available at https://corporatewatch.org/content/corporate-watch-pr-industry-pr-and-media

 

 

I Will Not ‘Move On.’

Tony Blair almost makes this atheist wish for a hell. Today’s ruling by the High Court is reasonable in its own terms. There is no crime of aggression in British law and, even were we to enact one tomorrow, it would be questionable to apply it retroactively. With the International Criminal Court unable to act on the events of 2003, it seems all legal routes are closed. There is no justice. Just us.

This is our shame as a nation. Britain, which postures and swaggers at summits and conferences and brandishes its ‘democracy’ and its ‘rule of law’ literally has no mechanism for laying a million skulls at Blair’s feet and demanding a reckoning.

I’m not going to rehearse the arguments of 2003 here. I’m done with that. As the invasion loomed, I spent months in fruitless debate with journalists and message board posters arguing the toss over every issue, supplying reams of citations and hoping to hammer home to each interlocutor the savage injustice of the attack. On some level, I was doubtless assuaging my own guilt, hoping that one more pointless victory online would somehow be the toothpick that stopped the monster’s jaws from snapping shut. I literally pleaded with some journalists to expose the lies, which were so easily refuted if one had the will to do so, to stop the tanks in their tracks. I hoped to the last that by forcing Britain from the train the whole murderous campaign could be derailed. Even afterward, I continued the arguments; as if any of them would restore a son to his mother or arms to a body.

The lies and hypocrisy still burn today. No, there were no weapons of mass destruction, save for the decayed remnants we already knew to be there. No, Saddam was not working with terrorists. No, he didn’t hate America. The WMD pretext in ashes, Blair now argues that it was ‘still right to remove Saddam’ -eliding the truth that the US announced it would invade even if Saddam and his family went into exile. Now it’s portrayed as a great humanitarian enterprise gone awry -our noble vision to bring democracy brought low by our own naivete and Arab scheming. We didn’t wage a war – we didn’t go out of our way to provoke a war – no, we were ‘sucked into’ the war. We were the victims. Iraq was wearing a short skirt, your honour.

No, I will not forget. We weren’t asked to help the Iraqis. We weren’t asked what could be done to free them from their dictator. That would have delivered the wrong answer. That would have led us to first stop doing what were doing to keep him in power. We’d been keeping him in power since the 1970s, even after the first Gulf War when the US had actively stopped Iraqis overthrowing Saddam in order to maintain the ‘regional balance’ (in US favour).

We were told that they were a threat; a danger so great that we had no choice to begin killing them. Imagine the media coverage if we had journalists who had the guts to say that. We’re not ‘commencing operations,’ we beginning to kill. “We started killing at 1am and my sources tell me they will go on killing Iraqis until they stop fighting back.”

The invasion was not a British decision but enabling it was. The attack was inevitable and the inspections just adding to the torture. Every time Blair went through the motions of responding to Hans Blix he knew that it was a charade, that it was a side show while troops were massed and armour transported. Did he give ordinary Iraqis hope? Did any of them genuinely pray for inspections for be a success, hoping that the nice Mr Blair, who looked so honest, so trustworthy, so reasonable, was telling the truth? Iraq in 2003 was a nation of 26 million people, half of whom were under 15. In the final weeks, the price of Valium skyrocketed because Iraqi parents were trying desperately to get their kids to sleep. Blair knowingly have them false hope: that maybe, just maybe, the bombs wouldn’t fall.

And how I loathe the journalists who affect world-weary cynicism but trot after ‘statesmen’ like puppies, tails all waggy. How I loathe their plastic compassion and the pompous declamations that ‘something must be done,’ that they ‘can’t stand idly by’. Their tears fall and dry to order, always on tap to grease the wheels of the war machine. Iraq, Libya, Syria, soon Iran or N. Korea or Venezuela; they care as long as it’s convenient to their masters. Vapid hacks who were musing on their favourite Starbucks last week are pontificating on international politics the next. Simpering New Labour apparatchiks tutting at me for not considering Tony Blair’s ‘legacy’ in the round – as if Sure Start and the Minimum fucking Wage can be put on a set of scales drenched in blood.

NSAnd how I resent being told to ‘get over it’; as if rage over Iraq were some hang-up, some teenage obsession and that caring about all those poor little brown people is just so passé. We live in a country that can’t stop commemorating World War One and Two. We’re constantly being told how grateful we should be to The Fallen, how we owe them our freedom. Even today, on the state-sanctioned commemoration of Passchendaele, the New Statesman retweeted their article telling us to ‘move on’. Yet our press pilloried Jeremy Corbyn for not bowing deeply enough at the Cenotaph -when it’s our dead ‘moving on’ is forbidden. We know the names of our dead. I’ve lost count of the number of articles about the ‘costs’ of Iraq that number our dead but can’t even be bothered to give the weight in tons of the Iraqis we’ve murdered.

If we had justice, Tony Blair would be sent to Iraq. He’d be locked in one of Saddam’s old palaces with a hammer and a chisel. And every day he’d be visited by Iraqis who’d hand him small slips of paper, each one bearing the name of one of the dead. And he’d have to carve every one of those names into the walls until nobody was left uncommemorated. Only then, would be allowed to ‘move on’.

I will not get over it. I will not forgive. I will not forget. And until there is justice I will not move on.