QUENTIN DEMPSTER. Wilful ignorance and the courage to explain

Mar 31, 2017

The role of committed journalists, whether in a functioning democracy like Australia, or a country under a kleptocracy, totalitarian or politburo governance, is to tell the public what is really going on. 

Address by Quentin Dempster to the International Medicine in Addiction conference on March 25, 2017. 

On June 5th 2013 the world’s civilian populations became aware of the US National Security Agency’s mass surveillance capability through telephony and internet service providers.

With a righteous imperative generated by 9/11 and an enveloping fear of random home grown acts of terror, security agencies had been insisting that they needed all available counter measures to keep us safe.

In breach of Congress’ Patriot Act constraints, and assuredly in breach of the United Nations’ convention of an individual’s inviolate right to privacy, the NSA, with its Five Eyes partners (Australia, UK, New Zealand and Canada) had been establishing real time access to the mobile phones and computers of everyone accessing digital networks.

Since the invention of the computer-to-computer linked world wide web by programmer Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, the internet has transformed communications and is now fundamental to commerce, trade, industry, defence, government, education, health, sport, entertainment, individual, family and social engagement.

From 1990 a CSIRO data transmission invention called WLAN – wireless local area network, now known as wi fi – liberated the internet from fixed lines making web access even easier in buildings and on the street.

The digital revolution and the limitless storage capacity of cyberspace has, since 1989, ushered in ‘the information age’.

It has many upsides in making vast knowledge instantaneously available to anyone. It has many downsides through criminality, scams, money laundering, commercial and inter-governmental espionage (hacking) and the exploitation or intimidation (trolling) of the vulnerable, gullible and unwary.

By 2010 68 percent of the world’s population was using digital mobile telephony with projections for almost universal coverage in the years to come including in the poorest of countries.

When NSA contractor Edward Joseph Snowden (b. 1983) went public in 2013 through the exposure facilitated by his selected journalists and supportive media outlets, he did us a great service.

He exposed NSA surveillance systems, in particular X-KEY-SCORE, where any analyst “could wire tap anyone, you, your accountant, a federal judge or even the president” if he or she had a personal email.

Accompanying Snowden’s revelations came oft-used George Orwell warnings about a population controlled through the prosecution of a perpetual war, in the contemporary context, our perpetual war on terror.

“The problem with mass surveillance is that when you collect everything, you understand nothing,” Snowden said. “Government spying on its citizens changes the balance of power between the citizen and the state.” Edward Snowden is still facing charges under the US Espionage Act and, if convicted, could be imprisoned indefinitely.

Congress has to some extent corrected Patriot Act loopholes and now requires the NSA to establish more specific, demonstrable grounds to warrant domestic surveillance requiring invasion of privacy.

Such was the nationwide trauma suffered by the American people after the September 11 2001 aeroplane suicide attacks on the Pentagon and the twin towers in New York that terrorism was used to justify the whatever-it-takes practices in national security. Meeting in secret a special court established through the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act pre-emptively warranted immediate access to meta data to help track persons of interest, leading, if suspicion warranted, to real time interception.   At around the same time ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were deemed legal as was the use of drone warfare to eliminate targets approved, through a legally devised check-list, ultimately by the commander-in-chief.

In his recent movie Snowden, film director Oliver Stone has Snowden’s national security mentor, a man the script writers called, Corbin O’Brian (actually a character from Orwell’s 1984) justify any illegal or unconstitutional conduct as the exceptional but excusable bastardry which must be applied by true patriots in warfare. But, the O’Brian character declared, terror was but a minor part, as was the “sand and oil” wars of Afghanistan and Iraq.   The real battle was for military capability in emerging cyber warfare where countries could be economically disabled and entire systems could be crippled unless superiority could be achieved. Hence the investment of billions of taxpayers’ dollars in cyber security and defensive encryption to protect the interests of the U.S. and its allies. Hence even greater investment in new offensive weapons systems for unmanned submarine, swarm drones, and robotic warfare to counter arms build-ups by China and Russia.

NSA contractor Edward Snowden courageously told the civilians of the world what was really happening.

Usually this sort of information is anonymously leaked to intelligence writers and journalists and can so easily be denied, put down as conspiracy theory, or simply ignored. Since 9/11 there has been a movement by legislators at the behest of security agencies to criminalise journalism.

But Snowden made the tactical decision to identify himself to the world through selected documentary and film makers, journalists and media outlets to establish the fact that he was acting alone and out of conscience.

In free speech jurisdictions social media is now playing an increasingly influential role in diversifying the way people are finding out what is going on.   The so called ‘corporate media’ and military strategists hate it because, I suppose, it empowers every user with a substantive story to tell. Corporate media and government with tendencies to information control can be got around, in an instant. But how long will this freedom last?

On September 29th 2015 Edward Snowden joined the social media platform Twitter and tweeted: “Can you hear me now?” Within 24 hours he had two million followers and from his flat in Moscow can reach the free speech world with 140 characters of pertinent facts, links and observations. Just how long the Snowden voice can be heard remains to be seen. He can be switched off at a moment’s notice, particularly if Vladimir Putin takes offence at anything he posts.

In Australia the Snowden files contained embarrassing details of our Australian Signals Directorate tapping the mobile telephones of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and senior Indonesian government officials.

The publication of this material by the ABC and Guardian Australia was used by incoming Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, in part, to justify her 2014 decision to terminate the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Australia Network contract which resulted in the vandalising of Radio Australia and the withdrawal of in situ correspondents helping to engage Australia with the Asia Pacific region.

The Minister was supported in her decision through a campaign of vilification of the ABC by News Corporation, otherwise known as the Murdoch Press.

For me it made public support for public broadcasting, with all its admitted faults, all the more important for the civilians of Australia.

It made me reflect on the distorting influence of the Murdoch Press on political discourse in our country.

Rupert Murdoch backed Donald Trump in the November US presidential election.   Good luck to him. It’s a free country with, through the first amendment, a constitutional guarantee of a free press.

But it was distressing to observe Trump declare in his TV debates with Hillary Clinton that he, Trump, had always opposed the coalition of the willing’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. “It was a disaster, “ Trump asserted.

He did not lament the incalculable loss of life for civilians and military personnel and the still resonating lethal consequences of such a strategic error. The disaster was in US embarrassment. It was exacerbated, Trump said, by the 2013 “untimely” US withdrawal which created the power vacuum which led to the creation of Islamic State or ISIS.

Rupert Murdoch supported the Iraq invasion.   He takes no responsibility for its consequences. There is, of course, no intellectual honesty displayed in his own twitter feed or the inflammatory ignorance in Islamophobic pronouncements by his mouthpieces on Fox News or in any other outlet.

Counter terrorism analysts say it is foolish in the extreme for constituent politicians and shock jock media to demonise Muslims within communities as it isolates them, producing psychological stressors among young men in particular which can be exploited by jihadi recruiters.

To Murdoch it is all about what he calls American “exceptionalism”.

And there on page 26 of his revealing memoir Making Headlines, Chris Mitchell, former editor-in-chief of Murdoch’s The Australian, makes an unwitting acknowledgement of Murdoch’s own exceptionalism and its unethical distortions.

“As has been widely acknowledged all major News Corporation titles around the world supported the (invasion of Iraq) …… Personally, I opposed the neo-conservative view of the war … I believed the invasion was a mistake…”

Now Chris Mitchell tells us.

But The Australian, the so called ‘heart of the nation’ did not have the courage of this editor-in-chief’s editorial judgement. It confirms my worst fears about Murdoch’s distorting influence.   Mitchell will say the editorial is the proprietor’s prerogative. Mitchell seems to seek forgiveness by writing that he published opinion pieces in The Australian from analysts questioning the invasion of Iraq.

While he was happy to breach confidences he shared with the hapless Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard to draw voyeuristic attention to his book, he gave his readers no insight into Murdoch’s telepathic control of his editors or any efforts he as an editor-in-chief might have made at editorial and internal strategy conferences about America’s misjudgement.   Did he ever say: “Rupert, this Iraq thing is a big mistake for the US .. and Australia?”

Robert McNamara (1916 – 2009) US secretary of defence in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations at least, before his death, had the intellectual honesty to acknowledge the Vietnam war was a lethal folly, unjustified, a misreading of the post-colonial motivations of the Vietnamese people.   In Time magazine’s 10 greatest recorded apologies McNamara was quoted as saying: “We were wrong, terribly wrong (on Vietnam). We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

On August 16th 2016 David Ignatius, acclaimed foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post told a Lowy Institute forum in Sydney that both the Vietnam and Iraq wars were mistakes, the latter destabilising American power at a time of the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia.

In his recent book Blood Year, the Australian David Kilcullen, former senior advisor to General David Petraeus (2007- 2008) writes: “The answer, like many things in war, is hard but simple: it begins with the recognition that the West’s strategy after 9/11 – derailed by the invasion of Iraq, exacerbated by our addiction to killing terrorist leaders, hastened by precipitate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, opportunism in Libya, and passivity in the face of catastrophe in Syria – carried the seeds of disaster within it. And until that strategy changes, those disasters will continue.”

Yes.   When you acknowledge your mistakes it helps you to build better worlds.

But we are still waiting for former Australian Prime Minister John Howard to acknowledge his own gross error of judgement. But no. All he will say is that he thought invading Iraq was the right thing to do given the available evidence at the time.

The Australian Parliament has not followed the lead of the British Parliament which established the Chilcot inquiry into intelligence failures in the lead up to the Iraq war. There has been no effort by our parliament to learn from this monumental folly.

One of Chris Mitchell’s favourite journalists, the foreign correspondent Michael Ware, did have the courage of his journalism. In his world-released documentary Only The Dead in 2015 Ware exposed the genesis of IS within Iraq itself in the years after the invasion from about 2004. He showed exactly how IS evolved from Bathist elements of Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army but now escalating its methods by using videoed suicide bombings, initially as part of the Iraqi insurgency and later through videoed beheadings posted online to terrorise people worldwide from 2012, bringing with it the current phenomenon of jihadi recruitment, lone wolf and copycat terror.

The documentary shows that through the folly of the Iraq invasion the coalition of the wilful – George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard – created the psychopathy which has led to random but IS-branded acts of terror in so many countries.

Herewith: Our perpetual war.

Now no government or security apparatus can ‘keep us safe’.

At least Chris Mitchell, promoting himself as one of this country’s greatest newspaper editors, now says the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. We must be grateful for this.

In his compendious book Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment Australian author Rodney Tiffen, Emeritus Professor in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, looked at a Murdoch culture of criminality, phone hacking, unethical conduct, intimidation or duchessing of politicians, double crossing or undermining of business partners and rivals. The book, fully indexed and with all authorities and references, amounts to an excoriation.

Murdoch, who dominates Australian media through capital city tabloids, regional and cable TV outlets and through The Australian newspaper has played intimidatory, stand-over games with our domestic politicians.   Just ask Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott.

Professor Tiffen writes:

“It is an ingrained habit of mind for us to think of the press as a protector of democracy rather than a threat to it. It is just as much a part of making democracy work better to make media power accountable as it is to make government power accountable. For American journalist Carl Bernstein, ‘no other story eluded the American press as much as that of Murdoch’s destructive march across our democratic landscape’.”

Professor Tiffen concludes: “Murdoch is the largest employer of journalists in the English-speaking democracies but in many ways lacks sympathy for their professional ideals or impartiality and independent disclosure. He has been more intent on being a political player, and has often wielded power impressively to help his favoured politicians and his own commercial interests. His power, though, has more often diminished rather than benefited the quality of our democratic life.”

The distorting influence of Rupert Murdoch in our country has infected the public broadcaster itself through the practice of party political stacking of the ABC Board.

One Howard-government appointed chairman, Maurice Newman, invited Rupert Murdoch to present the prestigious Boyer lectures on both ABC television and radio.

This was akin to the Senate of the University of Queensland awarding the hillbilly dictator Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen an honorary doctorate of laws and Her Majesty the Queen knighting Bjelke-Petersen for his services to the Westminster system.

More disturbingly Newman, a known climate change denier, speaking in his official capacity as chairman of the ABC, tried to redefine journalism itself by insisting that ABC journalists had to be what he called “agnostic” on the issue.

The journalists’ code of ethics and ABC editorial policies require practitioners to “report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts.” “Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.”

Yet here we had a partisan political player advising journalists to be agnostic in their reporting.

Agnosticism defeats journalism.

It can only produce what is called ‘false balance’ or ‘he said/she said’ reporting. Committed journalists are required to interpret, analyse and report news which orders and weighs the material through the application of editorial judgement.

What is the lead? Why is the information we are about to publish so important? What’s the story here?

That is why it was so reassuring to see so courageous an informant as Edward Snowden, who was putting his life and liberty on the line to warn the world about mass surveillance and its potential for the abuse of power, place his trust in journalist Glenn Greenwald.

That is why is was so reassuring to see Andrew Wilkie, now the independent MP for Denison in Tasmania, place his trust in Canberra journalist Laurie Oakes when Wilkie became the only intelligence officer in the Five Eyes to resign in protest at the humanitarian consequences of the then proposed invasion of Iraq. He said invasion could not be justified through any professional risk assessment of Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction.

That is why it was so reassuring to see the Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy, herself a Catholic, build trust over 15 years of talking to the now adult victims of child sexual abuse within the Maitland-Newcastle diocese of her church.   When then Prime Minister Julia Gillard saw the extent of the church and police cover-up she persuaded all the states to join the Commonwealth in a Royal Commission into all institutional responses to child sexual abuse – work which has taken years and which is bringing attitudinal, law enforcement and cultural change.

That is why it was so reassuring to see Australian journalist Gerard Ryle and his International Consortium of Investigative Journalists publish the Panama Papers downloaded from a still anonymous source from the holdings of Mossack Fonseca, the law firm and corporate service provider which set up tax avoidance or tax haven structures for corporations and individuals world wide. The ICIJ assembled journalists from 107 media organisations in 80 countries to analyse a vast amount of data and began from April 3rd 2016 to publish its findings and 150 documents.   Prosecutions are pending.

In the era of Brexit and the US culture of Trump, this exposure has given momentum to international tax reform at the G20 conference of nations so that, hopefully in future, multi-national companies and global corporations and individuals will pay fair tax directly in those countries where revenues are derived from its consumers.

That is why is was so reassuring to see journalist Seymour Hersh’s publication with CBS News America and its world affiliates of the torture photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad in April 2004. The moral righteousness post 9/11 was shattered. Subsequent inquiries showed that brutalising mistreatment of prisoners was not isolated but infected detention centres in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.        Investigative journalists later established that the US Department of Justice had authorised what were defined as “enhanced interrogation techniques” or torture of foreign detainees.   The exposure and a number of court cases has resulted in the re-application of the Geneva conventions in the humane treatment of prisoners of our war on terror.

That is why it was so reassuring to see investigative journalist Kate McClymont be vindicated by the conviction in the so called ‘real courts’ – the jurisdiction of New South Wales – of Edward Moses Obeid, a once feared power broker within the Australian Labor Party’s Sussex Street machine, on a charge of misconduct in public office.

That is why is was so reassuring to see a judicial inquiry be established so quickly after journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna exposed youth detention practices including full-face spit masks and strap restraints. It is expected that this royal commission will recommend that new diversion strategies be adopted Australia-wide for so called juvenile delinquents.

That is why it was so reassuring to see the work of education writers and investigative journalists (News Corp. included) expose the conflagration of taxpayers money in the bipartisan haemorrhage known as VET FEE-HELP, the student loan scheme (blowout to 2015 calculated at $3billion) introduced with the contestable vocational education model which has undermined the state-based TAFE systems. It seems this is another Commonwealth government implementation failure which industry leaders say has actually deskilled Australia.

That is why it was so reassuring to see those Australian psychiatrists, doctors, nurses and teachers courageously risk prosecution and the loss of their livelihoods to tell trusted journalists that Nauru and Manus were psychological torture chambers for inmates, leading in some cases to suicide and self-harm. The now consistent exposure of the unintended human consequences of Australia’s stop-the-people-smuggler-boats strategy may yet lead to a pathway for resettlement elsewhere for these victims of our officially unacknowledged cruelty.

The role of committed journalists, whether in a functioning democracy like Australia, or a country under a kleptocracy, totalitarian or politburo governance, is to tell the public what is really going on.

Journalists can be jailed. In Russia or the Philippines and other countries observed on the International Federation of Journalists’ website, they can be murdered.

In Malaysia, according to a recent expose of corruption at the highest levels of government there, they can be silenced by intimidation and run out of the country.

In Communist Party-controlled China, unapproved journalism will simply not be published on any state-regulated radio, television or online outlet. Social media in China is monitored by authorities with dissenters identified, censored or punished.

As Edward Snowden contemplates his uncertain future on a three year asylum seeker’s visa in Russia, we have a moment to contemplate exactly what freedom means.

It means intellectual honesty in the face of commercially and politically exploitable wilful ignorance.

It requires trusting informants, conscience, courage and editorial judgement to apply that freedom.

Quentin Dempster, a former ABC presenter, is contributing editor of The New Daily.  This essay was posted at www.facebook.com/quentindempster

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