Thursday, July 31, 2003

Divorce and Democracy

Socially integrated political structures appear to be important, following the course of history, particularly in recent times. In Islamic countries, the religion dominates at a personal, community and political level. In communist states, there remains a consistent effort to preserve what is perceived as the common good, a difficult perceptive calculation in any regime. And in our own comfortable Western Democracies, the alignment of politics with social standards is extremely important, and the politicians are directly punished for straying from the lines. That this had led to an absence of leadership in democratic nations is a separate matter to be discussed in another column; as Jim Hacker of 'Yes, Minister' once put it - 'They are my people, and I am their leader! I must follow them!'

When the social structures upon which the political system is based begin to crumble, and fade, does this have an effect on the political entity itself? If you take modern middle America, as the most advanced Democracy in the modern world, and examine its social structures, problems emerge with this proposition.

The family structure is being crippled by divorce. Family breakdown is an option, rather than a taboo. The family unit is somehow transient, and of depreciating value. Commercial success itself remains a measure of the man, and for those who fall short there is social ostracisation, consignment to an appropriate strata of 'those who had the same opportunities as I had, and look at them now' people. This is to completely ignore the plight of the immigrant poor, and those who are ignored and downtrodden despite the fact that just about every successful American had a grandfather or great grandfather that was part of the immigrant poor. How quickly people forget.

Yet what impact does this have? For one thing, the erosion of morality in favour of absolutes - the dollar, time, appreciating wealth - means that it becomes very difficult to distinguish one political tenet from the next. The politicians themselves are not sure what policies to enact, and need to be driven by interest groups and lobbyists, who themselves have vested interests. The powerful drive, the weak are taken along for the ride. Suddenly there emerges from the smoke and mirrors of capitol hill a realisation that the political system means nothing any more, it is merely a mechanism for the creation of wealth - which after all is the American Dream. And what does this mean for the immigrant poor? Well, I hear Mexico is nice this time of year.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Hugo Chavez Lives in Ireland!

The role of journalism in the modern democracy has come under the spotlight in recent months, particularly in the UK, with Tony Blair under pressure from the BBC and other sources, and being defended by the 'Murdoch press'. In the US, The New York Times, a bastion of propriety in the past, was recently hit by a series of devastating blows, peaking at the sacking of another Blair, Jayson. Their cough has been softened somewhat in the battle against the Bush agenda, a very difficult battle indeed. Maintaining the balance between patriotism (serving the country, and the people - the readers), on the one hand, and non-partisanship, on the other, is extremely difficult, and all the more so when the press is forced to rein in the government in the absence of coherent and powerful opposition. Oppositions seem to be the most telling factor in all of this.

In the UK, the Conservatives have lumbered from one landslide defeat in 1997 to another last year, changing leader three times in the process, and appearing bereft of coherent policies. They supported the war irrespective of the suggested or legal justification, but now attack the prime minister, sensing blood, for his 'misleading' build up to the war. That he misled is the problem. No problem with the war itself though. Put this together with the various in-fighting and backbiting that was aired three months ago, and you have an opposition that is imploding.

In the US, the democratic party is in turmoil. The bitterness following Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 election turned many grassroots Democrats off politics, and much of the spirit was lost. Clinton's ignominious exit didn't help, and the difficulty in locating a suitable candidate for the 2004 race was predictable. Winning will be difficult, against a reasonably popular incumbent at wartime. Coupled with that, Hilary Clinton's decision not to run significantly undermines any Democratic candidate. As arguably the most suitable candidate for the nomination, Hilary considered that the 2008 race would be a better bet. This has two significant implications - first, she is implicitly stating that she does not believe that the Democrat's best candidate (herself) has a good chance of winning; second, her waiting for 2008 means that she wants to see Bush win the 2004 election, giving her her best platform in the absence of an incumbent opponent. All of this means that the Democrats are not presenting the kind of coherent opposition that such a position demands, and, worse still, the two current frontrunners for the nomination are both pro and anti war. Arguing with themselves, apparently.

Ireland appears to be the world in microcosm. In 2002, it was the unanimous conclusion of the political media that the election was the first in history that the opposition had lost! Fine Gael, the main opposition party, dropped 35% of their vote, the Labour party, the second oppostion party, remained static, and the two government parties, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, increased their vote, albeit marginally. The big gainers were independents and fringe parties such as the Greens and Sinn Féin. Both major opposition parties promptly replaced their leaders, and while Fine Gael are searching for a raison d'étre, the Labour party appear to have discovered theirs as being the biggest party in opposition, rather than a viable government proposition. Significant inroads have been made, admittedly, in highlighting the government's shortcomings in a first year that has seen them break just about every manifesto pledge on the basis of a faltering economy. That they didn't know in advance of the election that the economy was in the shape that it was beggars belief - it is simply not true. But no one cared to ask. The media have taken up the task, deriding in particular the performance of the health minister, whose very public spat with the finance minister over funding of the health service twelve months ago has left neither looking very good. Cutbacks are inevitable; it is that they were not foreseen that is incredible, by either the media or the journalists.

Where then lies the media? In an interview with the Taoiseach (prime minister) today on RTE Television, he claimed that Ireland's debt was the lowest in Europe. This is not true. He claimed that Ireland's economy was the best performing in Europe. This is not true. Yet he got away with it. This was the soundbyte he wanted, this is the soundbyte he got. Party political broadcasts should be labelled in that way so that people can make their own minds up. When presented as serious journalism it delivers for the speaker a third-party trusted endorsement, compromising the journalist and the medium. Media becomes an arm of government. Commentary in this context is absolutely necessary - to merely report that the Taoiseach said this or the Taoiseach said that is wholly improper, and lazy journalism. Worse still, it fundamentally compromises the state and its various institutions, most notably the constitution itself. Journalism and the media have a duty to debunk misconceptions, to protect against the propagation of falsehoods, and to expose lies and deceipt for what they are. To not do this, and to repeat such misconceptions, falsehoods, lies and deceipt compound the problem by endorsing it. The end result is that the medium is itself compromised in the long run, neutered. The last defensive line of democracy is gone. Chavez Venezuela? Berlusconi's Italy? It's closer to home than you think.

Friday, July 25, 2003

Silly Notions in the Silly Season

Alistair Campbell is leaving, but not yet, according to the Beeb. That's just gossip, according to Number 10. Well they would say that... Still, his demeanour on TV has not exactly been ebullient. Johnathan Powell has been hawking his CV. Tony Blair has been defending himself, and no one else. Geoff Hoon has been defending himself, and no one else. Gordon Brown has, well, been conspicuous by his silence. Quietly tapping the ends of fis fingers on each hand together, Money Burns - esque - 'patience, Gordon, climb the ladder'. The old seaman's adage - one hand for the ship, and one hand for yourself - seems alltogether apt. It appears that the first exit wave of the New Labout project is about to begin.

The article in the Guardian on Thursday on 'President Blair' (a tired title, but, I guess, appropriate) was intriguing in that it pointed somewhat tongue in cheek to the presidency of the European Union envisaged by the new constitution. Projected back onto Blair's reticence to go to the people on the EU constitution, the more conspiratorially minded would smile. His insistence ona doffed cap to Europe through his address to the joint houses in Washington kept one foot in Brussels, though perhaps not firmly. It appears that he is a generation too late for the proposed legislation in the US that permits citizens of twenty years or more to stand for the real presidency. Arnie's taking notes.

Blair's positioning seems perfect to marry Old and New Europe, as described in the Powell (Colin, not Johnathan) lexicon. Pro US, which is essential, but maintaining a cultural identity that is important. Pro economy, and in favour of the free market in a socialist kind of way. A fluent French speaker, but English is the native tongue. Even if he still uses the phrase 'kind of' too often when it should be replaced with the American 'like'.

But the real question is where does this exit take New Labour, and indeed Old Europe? With New Labour, the Clintonite economic focus was always driven by Brown, and, assuming that he takes over the reins, that will stay. The unions have never been more distant from their political pater, and while threats to re-align (with whom, I ask?) may vex the party administrators, cringing at falling membership numbers, the truth of the matter is that in a media dominated world, more discreet messaging is imparted through the TV than in the local community center. New labour's image will most probably not change, but the brand is undergoing a fundamental shift, becoming a vehicle for the trans-national corporate driven ideologs rather than a family, as Neil Kinnock once described it. It becomes, in essence, the power machine, reacting to voter unease and concern rather than leading, as politicians should. It would be unfair to say that Blair has not led - he has - but it is leading politics rather than the people into a different climate, a different place.

Old Europe will see, and is seeing, that it needs to be there too, or risk being sidelined. The bitterness that is associated with cowing to the might of the US will be hard to get over on a personal basis for many of Europe's older politicians, but should be seen as pragmatism, as Blair does. The US rules the world, and societiey that toe the line (as with the Sunni Moslems in Iraq) will be the chosen ones. All hail Bush.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Blood On The Grass, Blood On The Sand

The Dr. Kelly tragedy and the case against the BBC represents a serious escalation in what has been a long running battle between Blair's government and the grand old lady of journalism. From a peak of 'objective reporting' during the war, where the BBC openly congratulated itself for the penetration it had made particularly in the US market, it has fallen far. During that peak, the BBC was under sustained pressure from Downing Street to stay on message, to report 'appropriately', although that word was never, to my knowledge, used. Alistair Campbell repeatedly, insistently communicated his distaste at the off-message reporting, particularly from the flagship Newsnight and Today programmes. He even went so far as to suggest that the BBC was anti-war.

That the government and the BBC have been at loggerheads over the latter's support (or otherwise) for the government is nothing new - all media bodies will editorialise, and some will praise the government (Berlusconi's Italy) and others will condemn it (Chavez' Venezuela). Different political forces invariably have a degree of control over media, and will direct it as they see fit. However, what is unique about the BBC is that there is no apparent political direction. They have positioned themselves firmly on the fulcrum. It is truly ironic that it appears that Blair would politicise the BBC (and polarise Britain) by accusing it of anti-government editorialising. Campbell is, as ever, the hatchet man.

The tragedy of Dr. Kelly's death has proved a focal point. Blair's government has reacted coldly and true to form - roll out a new face (in this case Peter Mandelsson in Sunday's Observer, and later on Channel 4 news) and keep on message. Keep on attacking. Force the surrender. Pretend that you didn't know he was speaking. The perceptive foil on the Channel 4 news programme asked Mr. Campbell whether or not he was speaking on behalf of the governement - he was never quite sure these days. Mandelsson dodged that bullet by ignoring it.

The BBC have of course lost this battle. They have relented in naming Kelly as the primary source, so they believe stemming the flow of blood from a gaping wound. But more could follow.

The real blood of course has been lost many hundreds of miles away in what has become a desolate warzone. A once prosperous people - with compromised liberty, admittedly - torn apart by external forces hell bent on destruction for destruction's sake - it's good for the economy, apparently. It looks really presidential, George. Real statesmanlike, Tony. But hey, it's miles away, it's off the news screens, and this inoffensive looking professor from middle England is taking up all the headlines. Tony and Alistair are home free.