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Archive for January, 2009

Softly Does It

January 28, 2009 Leave a comment

‘Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.’ Obama Inauguration

President Obama’s not even a fortnight in the job but when it comes to foreign policy, there’s already clear-blue water between him and his predecessor. His overture to the Muslim world is intriguing; which country will he speak from (Indonesia, Egypt, Iraq?). One part of this offensive is to project a nebulous concept, soft power, and overturn the Bush inheritance.

The Iraq and Georgian wars demonstrated that when nuclear weapon states becomes violent, it is difficult to intervene without tripping a Samson Option. Where does the EU or NATO draw the line for the next Russian incursion? Could a neo-con administration be stopped from further military excesses? War has to be the last and not the first option and this is where soft power comes into play. Might is not always right.

We know Obama listens to good people; one of his foreign policy advisors, Sam Power, has stressed the primacy of human rights and humanitarian intervention where genocide has occurred. She wants the US to use its frightening military muscle for the benefit of the oppressed in Darfur. The EU has a firm commitment to human rights; new entrants must comply with a stringent check-list before entering the ‘club’. ‘Europe’ has many critics, but as Mark Leonard has observed, the projection of ‘soft power’ via progressive legislation and diplomacy is one of its most attractive qualities.

Obama knows the US can’t go on fighting a war in the Middle East every decade. He’s wants to steer the country towards energy independence. US Central Command was set up by President Carter to be ready to fight a military/economic threat to oil supply. Take way the reliance on foreign oil and you vastly reduce the requirement for spending on the American fleet; causes of future conflict are tackled at source. The emphasis on ‘soft power’ replaces that of brute force.

The economic recession/depression leaves little room for optimism. But there is at least one good thing that can come out of it; that’s the realisation that countries need to work together to tackle issues such as unemployment, international tax evasion and the ‘beggar my neighbour’ policy of driving down wages country by country. The US and EU can lead the way in enlightened co-operation if the intent is there.

Eisenhower famously warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex. We now live in an era where corporations have more power than individuals, more leagl status than human beings, and more wealth than a swathe of nations. It’s the ideal time for Obama and the EU to challenge and reform the grotesque excesses of the free-market economy. Regulation and co-operation need to become guiding principles in an interdependent world.

Culture and Diplomacy are morally preferable to waging war and much less costly. The test for the Obama administration and world governments will be in their actions not words; ‘soft power’ is not weakness, but strength. By practicing it we develop our sense of shared humanity; let’s look to our better selves.

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The End of News?

January 14, 2009 2 comments

Media in Crisis. Redundancies at ITN, the New Statesman, the Telegraph Group. The Chicago Tribune filing for bankruptcy. The New York Times in danger. Is there any end to the bad news about the news industry?

The Credit Crunch has played the leading role in these disasters. Debt has been called in, circulation has fallen (due to cancelled subscriptions, a fall in discretionary daily spending and, Terminator-style, The Rise of the On-Line Editions; of more later…), advertising revenue has fallen and Newspapers credit lines have collapsed. But it’s also been an opportunity for greedy media owners to partake in profit taking. The front-line has been cut, de-skilled and is being worked beyond its means.

Cutbacks have taken place globally in the news-biz. Trainees/Interns have replaced experienced staff, ranks of sub-editors have been fired leading to the rise of the reporter-sub with knock-on consequences for accuracy and free-lance commissioning has been slashed. As well as the trauma for the journalists concerned losing their jobs, there are serious implications for us: the viewer, the reader and society at large.

The problem for us all is the lack of diversity remaining in a decimated media. There are dangers for democracy in the concentration of ownership; it is not good that Rupert Murdoch may take over the New York Times (possible not probable). His interference in politics and the slavish behaviour of News International editors is alarming. Ownership, as well as opinion, must be diverse.

The result of editors becoming their masters’ voice is that we get a chilling effect; editors don’t censor, but they self-censor. Or they promote a right wing, Chicago School, pseudo-Darwinian economic world-view. Pick up any Murdoch publication and you’ll read about the desirability of cutting public expenditure, ‘modernising’ social democracy and the supremacy of tax cuts over investment. Now, imagine this in every newspaper, on television and on the web. News becomes not everything that’s fit to print but a commodity like all the other dodgy derivatives that got us up the creek in the first place.

Journalists aren’t perfect. But they are our gate-keepers for fact, knowledge, hearsay and spin and the less trust we have in their ability to do their job, the less we’ll believe what we read and see. Ireland and Britain are fortunate to still have a strong public service voice in the news but staff levels are being reduced here too. Viewers with camera phones can’t break stories or explanations of why the world is the way it is. That’s the job of the Press and their ability to do this has been massively curtailed in recently.

What of the Blogosphere? Opinion should clearly be seen as such and this blogger has never pretended otherwise. News is news; it needs to be verifiable, checked, accurate and unbiased. One-person blogs, for the most part, cannot do this. Some newspapers may be feeling the folly of putting their editions on-line for free; but at least that’s news. Blogging should be entertaining, opinionated, trenchant and vibrant but it is not an adequate replacement for a well-staffed, experienced and pluralist news machine.

What’s the answer? The short-term is grim but one solution is to go back to the future and have journalists run their own newspaper; an Independent Mark II. This may have to be post-credit crunch, but it would be an important voice in the media once there is financing available out there for such a venture.

The 2008 US Election showed that there is a huge appetite for information out there. Let’s stay informed. And for that we need to be vigilant for the news behind the news.

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