Hypocrisy and a tame media: How Tony Abbott can steal our democracy

September 29, 2014

There is something deeply and disturbingly ironic about Tony Abbott meeting Egypt’s military dictator Abdel el-Sisi and asking the blood-soaked general to release journalist Peter Greste from his seven-year gaol sentence.

Greste was convicted of spreading “false” news that harmed Egypt’s national interest in a sham trial that resembled a Monty Python script rather than the heights of judicial intelligence.

Pick the thug in this photo. Hint: he’s wearing a blue tie and looks very grim.

The meeting between Abbott and el-Sisi took place at the United Nations general assembly in New York where both men gave impassioned, but totally wrong-headed, speeches about the threat of Islamic terrorism.

Leave out the grotesque parody of their meeting and what are we left with?

Two leaders who claim that it has become necessary to reduce freedoms in order to keep their citizens free.

In Egypt, el-Sisi is terrorizing the population with arbitrary detentions, the arrest of activists and death sentences handed out 600 at a time to alleged members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherood. Journalists and TV presenters are among those persecuted and gaoled for speaking out against el-Sisi’s coup and the farcical recent elections.

In Australia, Tony Abbott leads a government that is also slowly destroying our freedoms and political democracy so hard won over generations.

In a speech to Federal Parliament attempting to justify the anti-Muslim hysteria dog-whistled into being by a spurious “threat” of terrorism, Abbott laid out his anti-democratic agenda, couched in the faux-Churchillian tones of his political hero, John Howard:

“Regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift. There may be more restrictions on some so that there can be more protection for others.”

Who are the “some” and who are the “others” in this Orwellian doublespeak?

Well, that is becoming clearer as the days pass and Abbott’s anti-freedom agenda becomes clearer.

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Many places to hide information in the national security media

August 2, 2014

No place to hide: Snowden, Greenwald and Australia’s “national security media”

This piece was first published in New Matilda on 29 July 2014

Eyes On: The Five Eyes agreement means Australia is implicated in the global surveillance economy

Australia is about to get a new raft of national security legislation – the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill – that will radically increase the scope and powers of our spy agencies to snoop on private citizens. The justification for this ramping up of ASIO and ASIS espionage power is the supposed threat from Islamic radicals who, having fought overseas in Syria and Iraq, will be likely to import violent jihad back into Australia. It is a line run almost daily in the Australian news media over the past few weeks .

This is a tenuous justification at best. The historic evidence shows that the police – at both state and federal level – and the nation’s spooks already have ample power to deal with any real and present danger posed by jihadists. For example, Operation Pendennis, which led to the conviction of 13 alleged terrorists in 2007-2008, was conducted using existing phone-tap and other surveillance powers. Between July 2004 and November 2005, the Pendennis dragnet accumulated 16,400 hours of recordings from bugs and 98,000 telephone intercepts; but now ASIO, the Federal Police and state agencies want to sweep up even more calls and even more data.

Additional powers – to tap phones, infiltrate and hack computer networks, give spies the power to entrap suspects and to store electronic metadata for several years – are not necessary under current conditions. However, that has not stopped Attorney General George Brandis (aka “Raging Bedsore”) from touting the new laws as measures to save Australian lives and to keep safe the national interest.

Well, of course the Government – and her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – would say that wouldn’t they? It’s no surprise that the nation’s politicians, who govern through the promotion of irrational fears and promises of a quick fix, would jump on the “more powers to the spooks” bandwagon. After all, there are votes and endorsements in “security” issues; as well as happy feelings of safety and warmth induced by the vague and unfounded notion of keeping the country out of “harm’s way” and by appearing to be “tough” on terrorists. It is the tried and true method of invoking the sexy beast Laura Norder; and in a world of uncertainty, devastation and death (think Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan Gaza, MH17 and other global hotspots) her warm, comforting embrace seems like a haven from the horror and bloodshed.

But perhaps we might have expected a little more searching, or a little more critical and independent analysis from the nation’s leading media outlets. Maybe it would not have been too much to ask for at least one correspondent or pundit to write a “think piece” about how the call for more spying and less oversight could result in less freedom, not more. Surely there is one “national security” correspondent or “defence” editor out there in the media world who feels it necessary to add a note of caution about our unthinking stumble towards Nineteen Eighty-four?

If you’ve been looking for that op-ed or the news piece quoting critics of the Government’s new legislation, you’ve no doubt been thoroughly disappointed. It is missing in action; not there, invisible and unreported. Instead what we’ve seen in the last few weeks is article after op-ed after editorial praising and supporting the unseemly rush to becoming a nation of spies and spied upon.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of critical reporting; and, if you’ve seen Glenn Greenwald’s excellent recent book, No Place to Hide , you might be slightly and wryly amused at the lack of opposing views, but you won’t be surprised.

Greenwald has written his insider’s account of meeting Edward Snowden for the first time in a Hong Kong hotel room and coming to terms with the enormity of Snowden’s selfless action and the implications held in the treasure trove of National Security Administration data held in the cache of secrets he handed over for public scrutiny.

That story should be familiar to New Matilda readers. Unless you’ve been on Mars for the past year you will know about the NSA documents that revealed, inter alia, Australia’s spying on the Indonesians, the Americans spying on the Germans and pretty much any nation and anybody with a copper wire communication network, an Internet connection or mobile phone.

The sheer scale of snooping – billions of intercepted messages every day – is mind-boggling enough. Greenwald is convinced (and convincing) on the point that the NSA has a goal to collect every bit of electronic information that blips its way across the global communication network. He writes that the NSA mantra is “collect everything” and it is the logistics of doing this, then storing and sorting the results, that he forensically dissects in No Place to Hide.

One of the realisations that any intelligent reader of this book will come to is that the NSA and its “Five Eyes” partners (UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia) [https://www.privacyinternational.org/reports/eyes-wide-open/understanding-the-five-eyes] could not manage the collection and sifting of so much data without the explicit cooperation of the world’s major telecommunications companies. Yep, just about everyone you deal with for your electronic data life is implicated – Yahoo, Skype, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Verizon, Dell, Facebook and countless others – everyone is scooping and sharing your data with the NSA and God knows who else.

As Edward Snowden told Greenwald during one of their first Hong Kong interviews: “I saw firsthand that the State, especially the NSA, was working hand in hand with the private tech industry to get full access to people’s communications.”

A quick reminder that Snowden was employed by the private consulting firm Booz, Allen Hamilton while working at the NSA HQ is all you need to grasp the implications of this. The entire global economy is now systemically and irrevocably enmeshed in an alliance with Governments to suck, squeeze and pulp our data in order to make the juice of profits and to keep the world safe from people like us.

That’s why it is really good to have strong individuals like Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden in the world today. If we relied on the mainstream media to tell us this stuff, we would never know.

No Place to Hide also provides clues as to the “Why?” of the MSM’s silence on the downsides to the creeping, all-seeing surveillance state. There’s a fantastic chapter that details the media’s complicity in not reporting, or more often mis-reporting, the actions of the NSA. The details are different, of course, but the general outline is applicable in Australia. We are experiencing the world of the “national security news media”.

The roots of the media’s complicit silence in relation to surveillance go back to the immediate political reactions to the events of “9/11”. Since that time, Greenwald writes, “the US media in general has been jingoistic and intensely loyal to the government and this hostile, sometimes viciously so, to anyone who exposed its secrets.” The same thing applies here. Even today some columnists cling to the lie of Iraqi WMD, preferring to spout the line that they just “haven’t been found yet”; more than a decade on from the disaster of Iraq some commentators refuse to see that it was a terrible mistake, built on fabrication and probably a war crime. But, history is written by the victors and its first “rough draft” is compiled by the loyal stenographers in the political press corps.

When it comes to “national security” and the surveillance state, loyal news editors and respected senior writers on policy and politics continue to toe the

When Greenwald appeared on the talk shows he was accused of helping a traitor [Snowden]

When Greenwald appeared on the talk shows he was accused of helping a traitor [Snowden]

line. When Greenwald was doing the rounds of American political talk shows, he was confronted with a wall of hostility from his journalistic colleagues: “Many US journalists resumed their accustomed role as servants to the government.” In June 2103 the story turned from the expose of “serious NSA abuses”, to one that Snowden had “betrayed” the US, “committed crimes and then ‘fled to China’”.

In Australia, the Snowden is a “traitor” line continues to be vehemently pursued in the Murdoch newspapers, which increasingly reflect a kind of Aussie-fied Tea Party ideological bent. And it is Murdoch’s The Australian that is leading the “national security”: cheer squad for Bedsore’s touted “improvements” to ASIO and ASIS spying powers. However, to be fair, the Fairfax outlets are well and truly in-line and waving the flag almost as vigorously as News Corps.

I call this proposition the “position of the complicit insider” and it’s not a new phenomenon. The political media – Press Gallery journalists in Australia – enjoy a privileged status alongside politicians, political advisors and senior bureaucrats. Reporters and commentators are often seduced by the close access they gain to the centres of power and political operators are therefore able to prevail upon them to non-disclosure of uncomfortable secrets. As well as this agreement not to rock the boat too hard in return for favours (in reality scraps of information that the insiders want revealed), political reporters feel a false sense of duty to act “responsibly” and not reveal information, or write stories that might damage some false notion of “national security”.

Anyone who regularly reads the “quality” press in Australia (including The Guardian), or who watches political chat shows on television will instantly recognize this problem.

In July 2014 we saw a good example of the supportive opinion piece genre in The Weekend Australian. Associate Editor Cameron Stewart wrote a lengthy commentary endorsing the Government’s proposed tougher surveillance powers and data retention laws . Stewart noted the “hand-wringing” of Left and liberal commentators when the then Howard Government updated and upgraded anti-terror and security laws in 2005 and added that in 2014 it was only “the Greens and a handful of human rights lawyers” who seemed to be complaining. Stewart repeats all the claims made by Bedsore and ASIO boss David Irvine that returning jihadists pose a significant danger and that the collection of electronic “metadata” is just a harmless means of identifying potential threats.

In Stewart’s worldview, any opposition to greater surveillance powers is dismissed as being an issue of concern only for “the Left” and its “prism of Cold War excesses”. Security officials are uncritically quoted about the effectiveness of metadata collection in previous terror-related prosecution. Stewart has only one area of concern: that journalists could be targeted by new provisions to prevent Snowden-style leaks. Stewart’s newspaper has never had much regard for Edward Snowden, whom it says – echoing the American view – is a traitor, not a whistleblower.

The Weekend Australian also carried an editorial supporting the boosting of security laws; ironically the paper seemed to blame communications technology for creating the need to change the law:

In the internet age, legislation governing Australia’s intelligence agencies must keep pace with terrorists’ capacity to use technology

When it comes to the Snowden materials, Greenwald makes the argument that the well-connected Washington media will never go all the way. He says it is an “unwritten rule” that only a few documents from such a vast treasure trove of secrets would be revealed, “so as to limit its impact…and then walk away, ensuring that nothing had really changed”.

This sensibility is evident in the recent Australian reporting of ASIO seeking more powers, or police breach of their own rules for eavesdropping.

A June 2014 story headlined ‘New surveillance powers aim to boost fight against terrorism’, by the Fairfax “National security correspondent” David Wroe, is framed in such a way that the move seems both natural and necessary. The lede clearly suggests that the move is necessary, “amid growing fears about the terrorism threat posed by Australians fighting in the Middle East.”

In the second par the clear distinction is made between “innocent third-party computers” and “a computer used by a suspect terrorist or criminal”, but already the scope of the powers is broadened from just a “suspect terrorist” to now include “criminal” behaviour.

The third par equates the reader’s interest with the point of view of the security services themselves by suggesting the new rules would benefit law enforcement “dramatically freeing up surveillance powers”. Of course, there’s really nothing to worry about because the new, expanded spying powers would only be used, reassuringly, “under ministerial authorisation”.

In the fifth par we are lulled to sleep with the anodyne phrase the “intelligence community” and with the further assurance that what this benign community group has “long called for” is to remove “hurdles” in the way of legitimate “investigations” and to fix a “failure of the law to keep pace with technology”.

The report goes on to tell us that the changes are based on recommendations made by a “parliamentary inquiry, last year, supported by Labor” – the appearance of bi-partisan support is meant to be reassuring too. We are reminded that the report to parliament “stressed there needed to be strict safeguards, including guarantees that the intrusion on the third party’s privacy would be minimised”.

The security community worldwide is fond of the word “minimised”. “Minimisation” is supposed to occur in the US context too, where it means that all non-relevant information is stripped from surveilled communications before it is passed on for analysis. However, as the Snowden documents reveal, in the race to “collect everything”, non-relevant data is always collected and nearly always stored, analysed and archived for later retrieval.

In other words, we cannot trust our political masters; they are probably lying to us and they are most certainly pulling the wool over the eyes of gullible “National security reporters” like David Wroe. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh by suggesting Wroe is gullible and there is another explanation that stands up. If you are the “National security reporter” it really is not in your interests (or your employer’s) for you to run foul of the key sources who inhabit your beat. If you were to write critically about an official source, for example, the next time you call for a comment, s/he might hang up on you. More likely, their departmental boss will call your boss and you’ll be back on the shipping rounds.

Whatever the ultimate cause, the gulling of the public continues in Wroe’s June 2014 article when he pulls in a “third party” expert to assess the situation. In this case the expert is hardly an independent analyst:

Tobias Feakin, a cybersecurity expert at the Australian Strategic Police [sic] Institute, said the changes would update legislation that was ”well out of date”.

Oops, an interesting Freudian slip by David Wroe; Dr Feakin is actually attached to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and has solid ties into the defence and security establishment, including the Royal United Services Institute (a UK-based military think tank) where he was “Head of Homeland Security Capabilities” and “Director, National Security and Resilience Department” between 2006 and 2007.

Most of the time we don’t bother to check the CVs of these experts that are put in front of us, all too often without question. If “expert” and “official” sources say something then a journalist will usually just report it with stenographic accuracy and perhaps (if we’re lucky) offer up one or two tame questions to be kicked away by the expert.

Dr Feakin is particularly popular on ABC News24 where he pops up on an all too regular basis, confirming Greenwald’s central thesis about media complicity. In September 2013 Dr Feakin was used as a source in an Australian Financial Review story about the new and expensive ASIO headquarters building in Canberra. This story reveals that when ASIO and the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) occupy their new building, private companies in the security industry will be offered the opportunity to “collocate” some of their employees alongside the nation’s senior spooks.

It is expected the centre will allow executives and security staff from select industries to share knowledge and learn from government cyber specialists…in a bid to liaise more frequently with private industry, a task DSD cannot easily do as a Department of Defence entity.

This is another classic play from the American security state experience that highlights with some certainty that the Security State needs to be enmeshed with the security industry in order to function at a high level. If you ever thought the interests of the State and of Capital were not contiguous, let this dispel you of that myth right now. The AFR article confirms it with this simple statement:

Senior intelligence officials said they remain deeply concerned about the ­vulnerabilities that exist outside a few “islands of excellence”. They said ­relatively “hardened” areas include the major banks and Telstra, which last year hired a former DSD deputy director, Mike Burgess, as its chief security officer. (emphasis added)

Dr Feakin makes an appearance in the final two paragraphs of the story and it is abundantly clear which side of the security fence this “independent” analyst sits:

[Feakin] welcomed the move to integrate private firms into the new cyber operations centre, but said companies would have to be “willing to share data with government, otherwise momentum will be lost and they won’t keep their focus on such efforts”.

The story of Dr Feakin is also a salutary lesson that we should never take for granted the so-called independence and bona fides of the experts served up to us by a complicit and compliant media.

We can expect to see more of this type of “national security news” over the coming months as the new expanded spying power legislation is passed and bedded in. If you want to really know what’s going on, look beyond the mainstream media, which has decided to enjoy the comforts of the insider and to lull the rest of us into a false sense of security.

Remember, there really is no place to hide any longer.

 


The Daily Telegraph has no credibility on journalism standards

December 15, 2013

It is simultaneously amusing and sickening to see News Limited newspapers attempting to lecture the ABC on standards in journalism.

Coming from the organisation that brought you the Abbott government, whether you wanted it, or not, it is a bit rich to complain of un-Australian, left-wing bias at the national broadcaster.

The chief stenographer at the Daily Telegraph is gainfully employed re-writing press releases and disguising advertising as news and the columnists are at the bar dictating their arid thoughts to the keyboard chimps.

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The ABC is right to pursue the Snowden documents; The Australian is so predictable

November 24, 2013

Oh dear, the predictability and monotony of The Australian‘s whining about the ABC was taken to new heights this week on two fronts: firstly, the revelation that the national broadcaster has to pay market rates for its premier on-air talent and, secondly, feigned moral outrage that the ABC would cover the very newsworthy disclosure that the Defence Signals Directorate wanted to listen-in on the phone calls of the Indonesian President and his wife.

Any reasonably briefed chimpanzee would be able to write the coverage of these issues for the News Limited papers. There’s a template, a formula and a draw full of boilerplate copy that oozes vitriol, arsewipe and stinking double standards.

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Can cuddling up with the commercial media save the ABC from Abbott’s axe?

July 31, 2013

For fans of publicly funded broadcasting in Australia, Mark Scott’s speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia last week had some good news elements, but is it enough to save the ABC?

According to Scott, the ABC is the nation’s most trusted institution; most of us are consuming ABC products and we like it a lot, despite its critics and naysayers.

However, for Friends of the ABC (FABC), Scott’s speech sent mixed signals about the national broadcaster’s future.

The Victorian spokesperson for FABC, Glenys Stradijot is “disappointed” that Scott appears to make an argument for the ABC in “purely commercial terms”, rather than emphasising the benefits of having a “truly independent” public broadcaster. It seems to “erode the very reason that the ABC exists” she says.

FABC-Conv-centre-25May13

Friends of the ABC picket the Victorian Liberal Party convention in May 2013 where a motion to privatise the ABC was due to be debated. The motion was not voted on after intervention by Tony #Abbocolypse Abbott

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Is it the role of journalists to play kingmaker?

June 30, 2013

An unsurprising take on the Labor leadership brawl from a Canberra insider, has this to say about the Rudd camp’s cultivation of Press Gallery journalists:

Once deposed, Rudd’s toxic ambition appears to have been either to return to the leadership, or to destroy both the government that had dumped him and the woman who had replaced him. In this pursuit he was abetted by political journalists who became pawns in his comeback play, channelling the Chinese whispers of his spruikers and giving credibility and substance to exaggerated claims about the pretender’s level of support within the parliamentary party for a comeback

But most of us are left wondering, is that the role of political journalists? Should they either
a) allow themselves to be seduced, or
b) encourage political players to court them, or
c) follow the dictats of politically-motivated senior editors
and fall in to what Kerry-Anne Walsh appropriately calls “lock-step” with the ambitions of one or more political players?
Anyone who has paid even passing attention to Australian politics over the past three years would be familiar with the deep and personal divisions within the Labor Party; but maybe they have not been so familiar with the similar divisions inside the Canberra Press Gallery.
There can be no doubt that the Gillard-Rudd blood feud created the conditions under which Gallery journalists chose sides, or were forced to take sides.
No doubt Rudd and his co-conspirators had their Gallery favourites–those who would be called with the latest news, or who could be loved-up with an inside story.
And no doubt too, there were those who were frozen out of Rudd’s plans and were therefore more likely to seek comment or be groomed by Gillard and her backers.
This seems to be to be the perfect conditions for a toxic environment to develop and for grudges to be formed. But it is not an appropriate climate for sensible editorial decision-making.
Almost every day, and certainly at least once a week, since March 2010, there has been at least one senior Press Gallery journalist willing to put the Rudd lines into play. This of course creates a knock-on effect. The Gallery operates as a pack and it works on the basis of groupthink (not just the News Limited drones either).
If one news organisation has a ‘story’ — no matter that it could be unfounded speculation, or worse, a yarn planted for dubious factional purposes — then everyone has to chase it. This is stenographic journalism at its worst.
Rudd, or one of his lieutenants, says something, the reporter(s) write it down and it becomes a ‘fact’ very quickly. That’s how his destabilisation campaign was able to maintain momentum for three years.
It was a great tactic. Gillard was unable to get ‘clean air’ to talk about the significant achievements of her government. The story was Rudd’s continuing fight because he and the stenographer pack said it was the story.
As Kerry-Anne Walsh sums it up, the inability of the Gallery to go beyond the blood and guts is a major failure of political reporting.

in the political shorthand of media reporting, the extraordinary circumstances that forced such an outcome were boiled down to winner and loser, victor and vanquished. The deeper reasons became too hard for many journalists to explore.

Political journalism is about winners and losers, policy debate takes second place.
Even then policy is poorly reported and only ever within a very narrow band of acceptable terminology and limited alternatives.
It is good that Walsh is prepared to at least name some names in her piece.
Of course, no one should be surprised that Rudd was talking to senior people at News Limited. The relentless and poisonously personal campaign that The Australian and other Murdoch papers have waged against Julia Gillard for the past three years is well documented. No one at News Limited has a nice word for Julia Gillard or the government she led and Rudd was a very useful idiot for Chris Mitchell and others.
However, it is unlikely that the favours will be returned now that Rudd is back in charge. Murdoch’s ambition is to elect an Abbott government, it best suits his arch-conservative neo-liberal agenda. Even this weekend The Australian has been bagging out Rudd and no doubt this will continue till election day (whenver that is).
Walsh also names veteran Gallery journalist Laurie Oakes as a Rudd stooge. She cites his now legendary Press Club question to Gillard during the 2011 election campaign, which seems to indicate that he had been very well briefed; perhaps by Rudd himself.

Channelling Rudd, Oakes asked whether, in a private meeting with Rudd that fateful night, Gillard had agreed to Rudd’s plea to be given until October to improve the government’s standing, and if he couldn’t he would stand aside voluntarily. Furthermore, he asked if Gillard then left the room, consulted colleagues, returned and told Rudd he didn’t have the numbers so she was backtracking on the deal, and would challenge anyway.

No one is covered in glory in the wash-up of this tale of palace intrigue, courtiers playing favourites with Gallery journos and messengers who were willing to take the pieces of silver on offer.
Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap?
Yep, just ask anyone in the Press Gallery who’s got ambitions to make a name for him or herself.

In the Shadow of Phone Hacking: Media Accountability Inquiries in Australia

June 25, 2013
 Johan Lidberg, Monash University and Martin Hirst, Deakin University

Reproduced from the first edition of Political Economy of Communication, a new peer-reviewed journal from the Political Economy section of the International Association for Mass Communication Research (IAMCR)

Figure 1. Stalin, Mao, Castro, Conroy—media dictators Murdoch style

Introduction

On July 10, 2011, Rupert Murdoch closed the News of the World, one of the biggest selling tabloids on the globe, once the newspaper had used up its store of public trust. The paper was accused of, and later admitted that a culture of illegality had engulfed its newsroom. Phones were routinely hacked and journalists paid public officials for information on celebrities and other citizens. The News of the World scandal triggered over 100 arrests of journalists, police officers, private investigators, and public officials. It also initiated a wave of inquiries into journalistic practices and standards in several countries.

This article will summarize the two inquiries into media practice and standards in Australia, and consider the impact on democratic discourse when ownership concentration of media companies reaches high levels.

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