Tuesday, 17 August 2021, 1:54 pmArticle: Gordon Campbell
Reportedly,there has been chaos in downtown Kabul and chaosout at the Kabul airport. Chaos has become one of thego-to terms of modern journalism. By definition, chaosremoves the need to, or even the/possibility of, rationalexplanation for what is happening right in front of us. Aslong as chaos is happening in someone elses backyard while were safe and snug around the TV camp-fire at home the word chaos conveys a vivid sense of conflict,emotional extremes, the breaking down of the social order,and with the prospect of some pretty exciting visuals toboot. Chaos in one form or other is part of what wedemand from the 24/7 news cycle, now that the stately oldtop-down control of information flows (and the consensus onfactual reality) has been eroded.
What journalismshares in common with its current audience is a pervasivesense of nihilism, and the belief that the whole system isrigged. On those occasions when that becomes evident theaudience is assumed to be more likely to tune in. Nihilismis the new objectivity. By and large, you could say that TheJoker is now in charge of the newsroom. As Alfred the butlersaid in the Dark Knight, Some men arent lookingfor anything logicalThey cant be bought, bullied,reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch theworld burn.
Afghanistan is burning right now. Yetwhile what were seeing at Kabul airport is a breakdown oforder, chaos doesnt seem the right word to describeit, or explain it. After all, the Afghans trying to fleehave a clear goal in mind. So do the US soldiers putting uprazor wire to try and stop them getting in the way ofdeparting aircraft. Calling this chaos implies thereis no rational explanation for this behaviour at the verytime when the media is supposed to be keeping its head andtrying to convey the context and the culpability - forthe scenes happening right in front of their cameras andmicrophones.
To use the jargon of the neuroscientists,what were seeing in Kabul looks more likemulti-stabilities, and not deterministic chaos. So farthough, as the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) haspointed out, the media appears content to keep running theimages of chaos while playing gotcha with the Bidenadministration on an issue Afghanistan that themedia itself chose to put on the media backburner afterGeorge W. Bush invaded Iraq 18 years ago. As the CJR notedyesterday, the US coverage of the fall of Afghanistan hasdemonstrated the medias penchant foroperating in an a-historicalvacuum.
Remarkably, the word Bush was notmentioned once on anyoftheSundayshowsyesterdayan omission that was perhaps most glaring onABCs This Week, where Jonathan Karlinterviewed Liz Cheney almost as a pundit, and not as thescion of Bushs vice president who herself took a topState Department post in the early part of the war. Obamawas scarcely mentioned either; there was some discussion asto whether Trump should own some of the blame for thepull-out strategy, but that was often as far back as thingswent.
Earlier this week, Werewolf outlineda history of the US/NATO involvement, including apassage on Joe Bidens lone opposition within theObama inner circle to the surge in US troop numbers thatObama authorised. Back at that time in mid-2009, Bidensalso wrote a paper ( called Counter-terrorism Plus)urging an immediate US military downsizing and withdrawal.In his view, American counter-terrorism actions inAfghanistan should be conducted from bases offshore, much asthe US does with terrorist threats in other global conflictzones.
Biden made those same points again in hisspeech earlier today. Given the incompetence bothpolitically and military of the Afghan government,Bident reasoned that a continued US military presence on theground would have merely postponed the inevitable, and atthe further cost of American lives. Biden had inherited (a)Trumps reduction of US troops from over 15,000 to under3,000 and also (b) Trumps negotiation with the Taliban ofa May 1st deadline for departure, in return for a reducedlevel of Taliban aggression against US troops. As Werewolfmentioned on Monday, if Biden had extended that departuredeadline significantly, this would have left a vastlyreduced number of American troops fighting the Springfighting season alone ( without NATO allies) on behalf ofthe Afghan government. It would have required yet anothersurge of US troop numbers and equipment, including thereturn of the thousands of private foreign contractors thatwere crucial to keeping the Afghan Armed Forces able tooperate on the ground, and in the air.
The despairingscenes at Kabul airport and on the streets of the capitalare heart-rending. But as a Biden also said, an earlierairlift of vulnerable Afghans has been opposed by formerAfghan president Ashraf Ghani, on the grounds that thiswould only trigger a collapse in confidence. As mentioned inthis column on Monday, the Afghan resistance to the Talibanwas always been a Ponzi scheme. In the end, it didnt takemuch - the final extraction phase of what had already been asignificant US troop withdrawal- to make the resistancecollapse entirely.
Footnote One: Forwhat my five cents is worth, most of theblame for todays grim scenes across Afghanistan lies withGeorge W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Bush and Cohad extended a limited punitive expedition into an attemptto build a modern, pluralistic democracy across the entirecountry. The slim chance of making that ambitious missionsucceed was blown away when Bush chose to suddenly divert USresources into the Iraq invasion. The Taliban used thebreathing space that Bush provided, and re-grouped. BarackObama merely perpetuated the hopeless attempt at nationbuilding, and Donald Trump began the process of leaving theAfghans who had taken seriously the US/NATO/NGOcommitment to a new Afghan social order- to the mercies ofthe Taliban.
Footnote One Lookingahead though, there is a distinct possibility of a newTaliban media narrative taking hold. The judgment aboutwhether the Taliban have changed or simply got better attheir public relations - will hinge on (a) the extent ofsummary executions and the oppression of women (b) howinclusive the next government of Afghanistan will be. Willthe Taliban include former president Hamid Karzai, who couldbecome a useful figleaf of international credibility in thenext government line-up? And also it will depend on (c) theextent to which overseas humanitarian aid agencies areallowed to continue their efforts inside the country. Therewill be sharp differences of opinion within theTaliban on those three issues.
But if the West andChina and Russia - can deal with the murderous, oppressiveregimes in Myanmar, Egypt etc, a Taliban-led Afghanistan maynot necessarily be treated as a pariah state. Among otherthings, the West will not be wanting its own disdain for theTaliban to give China a foothold in the country. Indeed,given Chinas harsh treatment of the Muslim Uighurs, theWest could even have a head start diplomatically with themen in the black turbans. Now that the Taliban doesntneed the drug trade to fund an insurgency, will the Talibanstill operate the heroin/opium/crystal meth drug trade atquite the same level as it did before or will it nowsuppress it somewhat, in return for UN humanitarianaid?
Footnote Two: Back to thatchaos point. Last year, ina CJR article about what the cultural appetite for chaosmeans for journalism, Amanda Darrach quoted a passage fromthe infamous End of History speech that the neo-NaziRichard Spencer, delivered at a white supremacist rally in2017. According to Spencer:
As the Cold Warended, liberalism and Americanism lost its enemy. It lostits boogeyman. And it began to feel that history wasover. You have no future. Youre an individual,bouncing around on the internet between various consumerchoices, social lifestyles, and sexual orientations. Wearent fighting for freedom. We arent fighting for theConstitution. We are fundamentally fighting for meaningin our lives. We are fighting to be powerful again in asea of weakness and hopelessness. That is ourbattle.
Obviously, the medias battle shouldbe to resist chaos, not to promote it. But it also has tooperate in the world that Spencer was taking about, in whichmedia facts are widely seen as being defined by class, bygender and by race.
RNZs problems with its handling of theWaikato DHB hack, happen to hinge on the age old balancethat has to be struck between private information, and thealleged public interest. RNZ feels there was a pressingpublic interest in disclosing the information it found whenit trawled through the DHB info it had been sent by the DHBhackers, as part of their ransom efforts.
Last Sunday,RNZ presenter Colin Peacock dida terrific job on Mediawatch in explaining the context.By giving Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, and RNZ CEOPaul Thompson every chance to put their case, Peacock alsotook the story onwards. Apparently, Edwards intends to lay aformal complaint with the media industry watch-dogs.Heres the nub of the issue :
In June RNZrevealed a child - who was not unwell - spentmore than nine weeks in a Waikato hospital because OrangaTamariki failed to find a suitable placement. DHB staff weredistressed by the apparent abandonment of the child. But RNZhad discovered the story in the data posted online by thecyberattackers - and aired it in spite of the earlierpromise not to publish the stoleninformation.
RNZs defence, vias Thompson isthat this material was in the public interest, and that athorough internal consideration of the issues by seniorstaff had preceded the decision to publish, with theprotection of the child being of paramount concern. Butjudging by the Mediawatch report , this is a problematicdefence given that (a) RNZ has issued a blanket promise fourweeks beforehand that it would not publish any of the hackedDHB material sent to it. Moreover, (b) it could only havediscovered what it published by trawling through the privatematerial, and had then constructed a public interestrationale for doing what it had publicly promised it wouldnot do. As the Privacy Commissioner pointed out, RNZ hadbuilt an end justifies the means argument to justifyits behaviour.
In the light of RNZs actions, theWaikato DHB belatedly went to court:
One week laterWaikato DHB went to the High Court to prevent RNZ and othermedia using their stolen information for news.
TheCourt decided (PDF)the privacy rights of thepatients whose information was stolen significantlyoutweighed any public interest in publication.But thejudgment did not require RNZ to remove its Oranga Tamarikiscoop online.
On Mediawatch, Thompson defendedRNZs actions and internal procedures. The court rulingnot-withstanding, RNZ would proceed in the same way on acase by case basis in future, he indicated.
"It isgood that the Privacy Commissioner is advocating hisposition but media companies have to weigh both the publicinterest and privacy. Many aspects of journalism do causeprivacy concerns. That is an essential and unavoidable partof journalism, he said.We sought other opinions andchallenged ourselves but in the end I was confident - as wasRichard (Sutherland, head of RNZ news) - that we had takenwhat steps we needed to take to ensure we protected theprivacy of the individual - and that public interestjustified the publication and broadcast, hesaid.
At this point, Thompson did not concedeany ground in his interview withPeacock:
Journalistic practice does evolve overtime and this is one example we do need to think about andsee what the BSA and the Media Council think about thismatter, Thompson said. But I think it would be a verysad day if anyone started to develop proscriptive rules thatconstrained journalism and journalistic freedom, headded.
Hmm. It will be fascinating to see how theBSA and the Media Council handle these arguments. Apart fromthe privacy vs public interest core issue, surely there issome collateral damage to the publics trust in the mediawhen a respected media organisation like RNZ promises oneform of behaviour and then does the exact opposite only fourweeks later? A politician who did the same thing would beroasted alive by the media, and justifiably so. Especiallyif they used this track record as a reason why they shouldbe trusted with the key decisions about such stuff infuture.
Secondly, if decisions about the publicationof hacked material are to be left solely to the discretionof the media bosses trust us, well be sure to actresponsibly then this situation will almost certainlyboost the hackers ability to extract a ransom from theirtargets. Every individual, every state agency and everyprivate firm has confidential information, or has done somethings less than perfectly in life. Not criminal behaviournecessarily, but stuff that would be embarrassing to try andexplain publicly. Now if Thompson is to be taken at facevalue, such stolen info would become public knowledgewhenever RNZ, in its wisdom, sees fit. Put yourself then inthe shoes of a hacker target/ Wouldnt the knowledge thateven RNZ is willing to trawl through and selectively publishyour stuff, make you rather more likely to cave in to ransomdemands in future? Why, the RNZ precedent could even raisethe price tag on any future ransom note.
Edwards isalso right when he says that RNZ could only have found theOranga Tamariki example by going in search of it. Itwasnt as if RNZ opened the files to verify that they weretruly the Waikato DHB hacked material and lo, the OrangaTamariki case was the very first thing it saw. Soby thetime we get to the BSA/Media Council, presumably RNZ willreveal who on its staff and at what level of seniority found the story, before it got kicked upstairs forconsideration regarding publication?
And if the RNZdeliberations were weighty and extensive and did include theseeking of opinion beyond RNZ, then presumably there will bea written record of this process that the BSA and MediaCouncil will be able to access? Arguably, there is a strongpublic interest in making those processes and proceduresopen to the public. Thompson has claimed that RNZsinternal processes are so robust as to obviate the need forprescriptive rules on how hacked material should be handled.Wouldnt it help to engender public trust in RNZ being aresponsible guardian, if the editorial processes it followedon this story were laid open to public scrutiny? After all,taxpayers fund RNZ.
Such transparency might also helpdispel the sense that it seems hardly co-incidental thatOranga Tamariki should be at the centre of the story thatRNZ did choose to publish. The controversial actions ofOranga Tamariki have recently and regularly been in themedia spotlight. It would be interesting to see from thewritten record of the editorial deliberations whether thiswas felt to not only heighten the public interest in thestory, but might usefully bolster RNZs defence for itsdecision to publish. (Hey, theyve got a track record ofscrewing up. Its not as if wed be breaking entirely newground, right?)
Footnote One:Clearly, the courts decision on the Waikato DHB materialwill serve as something of a precedent, and will probablyraise the barrier against publication of similarly derivedmaterial in future. To Mediawatch, Edwards also suggestedthat one way of proceeding further should involve taking thedecision to publish stories derived from hacked material outof the hands of the media organisationsthemselves.
One can see the point of the suggestion.But in practice, what sort of independent panel wouldsuffice ? After all, the membership of the existing mediawatchdogs such as the Media Council already includesa sizeable number of current and former journalists and newseditors. In any oversight body, prior experience isvaluable, but theres a related risk that this will alsocreate an echo chamber sympathetic to the current industrypractices. In the end, prescriptive rules may inspire morepublic confidence than a panel that will (inevitably) besuspected of industry capture.
Footnote Two:The media has always been reliant on leaks, andwilling to use the public interest defence as a shield -more credibly so in some cases than in others. The whistleblower legislation offers some limited protections to thoseproviding the media with confidential information wheneverstate agencies and private firms engage in dodgy behaviours.When material is hacked and when it comes with a ransomnote attached there is, or should be, a distinctdifference in how the media proceeds, or is allowed toproceed. Maybe as we review the effectiveness of thewhistle-blower laws, we can consider this hacked/ransomissue at the same time. Bring in the Law Commission?
Because we can be sure this issue will surfaceagain. For example : is there a genuine public interestdefence for publication if say a celebrity politiciancampaigning on a strong family values platform is revealed(via hacked material that came with a blackmail ransom note)to have a highly salacious private life? Thompson sayingthat RNZ will decide such matters itself, on a case by casebasis doesnt help to clarify the principles that need tobe in play, and what weight they should be given Nor alas,does Edwards saying we should leave it to an independentpanel to make suchcalls.
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