Murdochisation of the media

Reams of commentary has been written about the scandal engulfing the world’s largest media mogul, Rupert Murdoch and his business empire. Everyday there are continuous updates about the latest revelations, twists and turns by his chief executives and lieutenants, and the ongoing questions about just how far this scandal reaches into the highest levels of political power.

The exposure of the constant phone-hacking by the News of the World media corporation has lifted the lid on the underlying criminality of the financial and political elites in Britain. Even the former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated that the Murdoch clan run a “criminal-media” nexus. He glaringly omitted to mention that the political highflyers and the top law enforcement officials are also implicated in this ever-growing scandal of corruption and nepotism. The Metropolitan police chief, Sir Paul Stephenson, had to resign because of the failure of the police to follow up investigations of misconduct by News of the World journalists and the bribery of police officials.

However, I think a number of points get lost in the maelstrom of media coverage about this issue. This scandal exposes the decay and rottenness of the British liberal democratic system, whereby a major media corporation has gotten away with criminal behaviour for years while the politicians embraced the Murdoch empire singing its praises, and the law enforcement officials were bribed to look the other way. Even current UK Prime Minister David Cameron had to acknowledge that a high degree of collusion between the political establishment and the media empire. The parasitic nature of the Murdoch empire is not in question, it has been exposed for all the world to see.

The larger point to make, I think, was made by the always perceptive and indefatigable John Pilger, who stated that the Murdoch effect has not only corrupted the political and legal systems, but has corrupted the journalistic process as well. Murdoch has presided over a steady poisoning of the journalistic system, “waging a war on journalism, truth and humanity and succeeded because he knew how to exploit a system that welcomed his rapacious devotion to the ‘free market’.” Murdoch was the most effective and public of the practitioners of waging a stealthy and sleazy war on journalism, and was able to get away with it because all of his colleagues and competitors in the media business were operating on the same principles, if only on a smaller scale.

Where were all the critics when Murdoch’s papers were hounding striking workers and their families, the unemployed, refugees, welfare recipients, and cheering US wars for imperial conquest? The British Labour Party, having feted Murdoch and his executives for decades, are now suddenly finding their teeth and biting chunks out of the Murdoch empire. While the Murdoch press loudly applauded the Tory party in Britain for their assault on the working conditions of ordinary people, and their privatisations of government assets, the Murdoch media juggernaut switched sides abruptly in the mid-1990s and backed Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ to the hilt. It was revealed that Murdoch even had a hotline to then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run-up to the March 2003 American invasion of Iraq. It is highly hypocritical of the British Labour Party to assume the mantle of principled opposition to the Murdoch empire when they have been carefully cultivating a close relationship for years.

Where are the changes to the laws that made such a massive media oligopoly possible? After all, Murdoch did not come from nowhere, but is a scion of the Australo-British elite and plotted his way to amassing a gigantic media empire. He pioneered the journalism of ‘infotainment’, packaging news into sound-bytes between commercials, and loudly cheering on the oligarchy whether it be attacks on workers, migrants, refugees or wars in search of commercial opportunities abroad. The Murdochisation of the media is to turn the media into a partisan cheerleader of the oligarchic power structures. The Murdoch tabloids are an appendage of the most jingoistic, racist, rabid sections of the US-British ruling class, contaminating the political debate of a country with appalling paeans to the ‘free market’, xenophobic commentary about immigrants and refugees, the sleazy celebration of US militarist adventures abroad, and the effusion of sex scandals and celebrity-worship, as if their shenanigans are newsworthy. The British Labour Party accommodated itself to the Murdoch effect, and changed its politics to follow the course of the ultra-conservative in domestic and foreign policies. Funny how the Murdoch tabloids vehemently denounce ‘big government’ yet owe their rise and success to cultivating cozy relations with big government politicians and were protected by law enforcement officials?

What is necessary now is not just a full public enquiry into the media, though that would be a positive first step. From this putrid morass, there should be a full overhaul of the political-legal-media nexus; breaking the bonds of this incestuous relationship, breaking the media monopolies that have dominated public discourse for so long. While it is great to see heads rolling, with the sackings (excuse me, resignations) of Coulson and Brooks, there needs to be a public campaign pressuring the politicians for complete media reform. Let’s maintain the rage, and not simply acquiesce at the first sign of some half-hearted moves and fake apologies by the Murdoch clan and its minions. Clean up this decayed cesspit, implement laws to stop one person or corporation from owning so much media, break apart the monopolies to ensure diversity of opinion. We are one world, but we have many voices.

As Nicole Colson points out in her article, “the Murdoch press stands apart as morally bankrupt”. The British ruling class intends to contain the crisis, so that it does not develop into a generalised crisis of capitalist authority. Years ago, during the late 1980s, one of the alleged failings of the socialist system in the Soviet Union was the close relationship between the highest levels of political authority and the organs of the mass press. Journalism was viewed as just a mouthpiece for the political authorities, and this was presented as evidence of the weakness of the Soviet socialist system. Well, now I am going to ask, does not this scandal expose the predatory criminality of the capitalist elite, and its utter inability to govern for the people? Does not this scandal, revealing the corporate media to be a direct mouthpiece of the financial oligarchy, indict the capitalist system as a systemically failed entity? We should look beyond the personalities and trivial distractions of this scandal and ask serious questions about how to limit the destructive capacity of the media monopolies. The media moguls like Murdoch will only be halted when the mass of people (and the main victims of this phone-hacking) rise up and force those in power to listen.

The Quiet Achievers – the Yemeni Uprising

The always informative Ramzy Baroud, editor of the Palestine Chronicle, has written an inspiring article in Counterpunch about the Yemeni uprising. The Yemeni revolt has not gotten much press here in Australia, so any information about it is always welcome. While most of the mainstream media’s attention is focused on Libya, the implications of a victory for the Yemeni people would be significant for the Arab world, as well as directly impacting the position of Saudi Arabia on the Arabian peninsula.

Yemen is a strategically important country for the US military, as Baroud observes. Located at the southern portion of the Arabian plateau, it has a coastline on the Red Sea, a major waterway, and is close to Somalia, another flashpoint. There is an ongoing civil war in the country, and the demonstrators have proven resilient in the face of violent repression by the Yemeni military forces. While the long-term president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, remains in power for now, his grip is tenuous, with army units defecting from the government side.

Interestingly, Baroud documents that in terms of all the current US wars around the globe, Yemen is the fourth-most costly in terms of finance and human life, behind Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are no calls by the major capitalist powers for a no-fly zone over Yemen in support of the rebels, as far as I am aware. The Obama administration has been quietly bombing Yemen for the past several years, with repeated unmanned drone strikes against alleged al-Qaeda hideouts. These drone strikes have killed scores of civilians and further radicalised the Yemeni people against US imperialist power.

The least that the Obama administration can do is stop supporting the brutal dictatorship of Saleh by stopping the sale of arms to that regime. After all, the Yemeni military is using military hardware sold to it by the United States to prop up its power. But the United States is still talking about maintaining military-to-military relations, according to Baroud.

Yet the Yemeni people fight on, with such unparalleled courage and determination. Mass anti-regime demonstrations occur with regularity in this impoverished country. They more than deserve our support.

From Fatwa to Jihad – The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy

In the lead-up to the March 2003 American invasion of Iraq, the pop-group the Dixie Chicks played a concert at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre in London. One of the group’s members, Natalie Maines, a native of Texas, made a critical comment about a fellow Texan, George W Bush who was then president of the United States. She said that “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” A seemingly innocuous comment, you would think?

The comment was picked up by American media outlets. After that, the Dixie Chicks faced death threats, hate messages, their music was dropped from commercial country/western music radio stations, their CDs were publicly crushed by bulldozers in anti-Dixie Chicks protests, they faced accusations of being traitors, “Saddam’s Angels”, “Dixie Sluts”, and so forth. A Colorado radio station suspended two disc jockeys for playing Dixie Chicks songs. The group was not officially censored, but the full weight of commercial pressures was brought to bear on a group of artists for making a statement that was politically offensive to some people. If a musician, novelist, or artist produces a work that is offensive to some people, should their work be censored and its broadcast or publication stopped?

Violence in the service of censorship is nothing new, sadly. The Dixie Chicks controversy, and the reaction to it, contains the faint echoes of an older episode, the 1989 Rushdie affair and the censorious violence directed against the author for the novel The Satanic Verses. Kenan Malik, an Indian-British journalist and researcher, attempts to answer disturbing questions about freedom of speech, the ability of authors to express political and religious viewpoints through their works, and how in Britain, a society with a long history of anti-racist struggles, a minority group came to be so alienated and despised that it ended up burning books. The book is titled From Fatwa to Jihad: the Rushdie Affair and its legacy.

The book is engagingly written, and should be read by every person wanting a deeper understanding of the cultural and political issues that affect our societies. The book covers diverse topics such as immigration in Britain from the 1950s, especially Muslim migrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Migrants had been settling in Britain, working, raising families, and while they were Muslim, it was never a central part of their identity as Malik explains. Malik was one of many Asian migrants (Asian in Britain meant from the subcontinent) who participated in anti-racist struggles, from street-fighting against the white supremacist thugs attacking Asian families, speaking out against police brutality and the inaction of the police to protect newly-arrived migrants from racist gangs; Malik was a member of the East London Workers Against Racism (ELWAR), a group established by the socialist Revolutionary Communist Party to take direct action against the racist gangs where the police and politicians had remained indifferent to the suffering of migrants. Official police attitudes blamed the victims for racist violence; they ‘had it coming’ because they moved into a white neighbourhood. So socialist and anti-racist groups took the lead in protecting migrant workers as part of their campaign of solidarity against a racist capitalist system.

Political struggles such as these helped to unite disparate ethnic minorities for a common platform of economic justice, political equality and human rights. Malik documents the fascinating example of the Asian Youth Movement (AYM). This group brought together two distinct and mutually supportive political models – traditional working-class politics, with ‘bread-and-butter’ demands for better conditions, and also the black power movements, the anti-racist demands for a just, egalitarian society that recognised ethnic minorities as equals. Trade unions took up the struggles of many of these migrant workers, and while the AYM was never necessarily an atheist or secular organisation, religion was never an important or significant marker of identity according to Malik. Race and class issues seemed to march in tandem. Then in 1989 came the Rushdie affair.

In February 1989, Malik was in Bradford, England, to witness about 1000 Muslim demonstrators set alight a copy of  Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, for its allegedly blasphemous depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and its purported attack on Islam. For Malik, the book-burning was more than just a odd demonstration, it was a symbol of Islamic defiance and rage. How had British Muslims, who had lived and worked in that country for years, whose Islamic identity had been merely a background, suddenly explode into anger like that? How had Muslim youths – born and bred in Britain, who had participated in anti-racist struggles, just like Malik – end up joining a book-burning for its alleged offence against Islam? Malik provides some insightful answers to these difficult questions. If I may use an analogy with sport – while Malik lands some strong punches and body-blows, in other places he swings wildly and misses.

In September 1988, Salman Rushdie, an Indian-born British author and ex-Muslim, published The Satanic Verses. There were protests in some Muslim countries, and Pakistan and Bangladesh banned the sale of the book, but the controversy was largely simmering beneath the surface. Malik says that the book was freely available in the vast majority of Muslim countries, even after the Organisation of the Islamic Conference demanded a ban. In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, issued a fatwa (a religious ruling or decree) that not only banned the Satanic Verses, but pronounced a death sentence on its author, and decreed that anyone who published or distributed the book should be killed. As Malik explains in his book, this was a cultural controversy that was quite different from anything else Britain had experienced. But rather than being a product of religion or Islamic theology, the fatwa was more so a product of Iranian and Middle Eastern politics.

Khomeini’s regime in Iran was on the defensive in 1989. Having failed to export their particular brand of Islamic revolution to Iraq, and having lost all the ground they had gained by the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Iran’s Islamic revolution was losing legitimacy in the eyes of Muslims around the world. Iran’s main nemesis in the region, Saudi Arabia, appeared on the ascendant. Its brand of extreme Wahhabist fundamentalism was being exported to other countries, mainly thanks to the petro-dollars of the oil industry. Saudi-supported Muslim institutions were gaining ground not only in the Middle East, but among the unemployed, disenfranchised Muslim youth of Europe. It is in this political context that the issuance of the fatwa must be understood, Malik explains. Iran seized upon the Rushdie book as a way of regaining its influence with Muslims around the world, portraying itself as a defender of Islamic values and integrity against attacks by secular governments and writers. The controversy over the novel seemed to divide Muslim ethnic minorities from the ‘white’ westerners, and this ‘clash of civilisations’ was reinforced by the weakening of the traditional socialist, anti-racist ideals of secular humanism, workers rights and group solidarity.

Tariq Ali, writing in The Clash of Fundamentalisms, says that most of the Muslim community in Britain did not react violently against the publication of The Satanic Verses. They wanted their scholars and activists to write a withering critique of the novel. Other British Muslims, like the scholar Anwar Shaikh, have written stridently critical evaluations of the Quran and Islamic philosophy, and have also faced intimidation and threats. It was the community leaders, the mullahs, who agitated for a violent response to Rushdie’s novel. But Malik examines the issue more deeply, and finds that the real blame for this tribal response resides with the policies of multiculturalism.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as Malik explains, Britain was gripped by race riots, and an ever-growing proportion of migrants and their children found political expression with socialist, anti-racist and militant groups. They were winning the battle of the streets and ideas. The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher launched a new policy of state multiculturalism, which was intended to divide the ethnic minorities on the basis of race. While couched in terms of respecting ethnic diversity, and multiculturalism was a vast improvement on the previous ‘white Australia’ policy in Australia, official state multiculturalism, according to Malik, segmented the black, Asian and Muslim communities into hierarchical structures. Creating a black middle class was the intent of state multiculturalism. The British government elevated an identity-politics policy, emphasizing a single component of identity, into the main mechanism for handing out funding and official recognition. Self-appointed community leaders and official bodies arose which corralled the myriad ethnic groups into rigid tribal identities. Where once there was a unified response to economic inequalities and racial discrimination, there is now a segmented, arbitrarily-grouped set of communities that challenged the very notion of a common human identity.

Malik scores some direct hits with his criticism of multiculturalism. While in Australia, multiculturalism has been an enormous step over the racist ‘white Australia’ policy, it has made society less openly racist, but only in the cultural arena. There are now multilingual radio and television stations, ethnic-based sports clubs, restaurants and literature. All these gains of multiculturalism should be defended against the attacks by racist politicians and media commentators. But to stop at the cultural sphere, without extending anti-racism into the political and economic arenas, is a major failing. In the 1980s, the Australian Labour Party became the main repository of migrant political expression – ethnic minorities voted en masse for the ALP, and in return, monies and funding is handed out to migrant bodies that are the official representatives of ethnic communities. Multiculturalism has scored gains against overt racism, I think it has had a consequence of encouraging ethnic minorities to view one another as the enemy, rather than the common enemy of a corporate-industrial elite.

Here I think Malik misses the mark, downplaying the extent of tribalism and racism prevalent even before the advent of multiculturalism. Australia was already a tribal society prior to the introduction of multiculturalism. The various ethnic groups that had come here to work and study, retreated into their own cultural areas. This is understandable on the one hand, because migrating to a completely new country is a cultural shock, so people congregate around their own language group and culture. In the 1970s and 1980s, trade unions had taken up the struggle of migrant workers, not just as migrants, but also as working class people, advocating equal treatment in the context of workers rights. As Malik points out, political and economic struggle unites people of different cultures. Malik also correctly mentions that in 1989, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the political Left was weakened around the world. The vision of a common, united struggle of workers achieving their political and economic emancipation had taken a battering. The one area that a migrant could rely on for support was their tribe, their ethnic grouping. Here, state multiculturalism encouraged the co-opting of migrants into the official, government-approved ethnic channels rather than into militant, anti-capitalist alternatives. The Australian Labour Party, particularly since the 1980s, has retreated from a traditional, labour-union class struggle approach, to a conciliatory, business-accommodation approach. As the labour organisations retreat, and with them their vision of a multiracial, egalitarian society, the vacuum created is taken up by religion.

The trade unions, which had been the one organisation that had raised migrant’s issues, were also co-opted, retreating from a class-struggle based politics, into a class-conciliation political stand. The labour unions gradually abandoned the traditional demands of anti-racist social justice for which they had long stood. The remaining avenue for a migrant worker is to compromise their political demands and devote themselves to the cultural arena. While Malik does correctly identify the tendency of state multiculturalism to fragment ethnic groups along cultural lines, I think Malik has retreated from a socialist perspective into a left-liberal critique of multiculturalism. While he would not agree with today’s rightwing critics of multiculturalism, Malik has given some ground to those critics, like the current British Prime Minister David Cameron, who blames immigrants for not doing enough to integrate into the wider society. While state multiculturalism is conducive to a sense of tribalism, to single it out as the original cause of a tribal politics is to widely miss the mark. The broader social and economic inequalities, and the retreat of the labour unions and their accommodation with big-business policies, is the wider context in which the growth of tribalism must be understood.

With the retreat of a labour union, political struggle alternative, many migrants and their children face the prospect of either devoting themselves to their own ethnic tribe – the Armenians go to Armenian clubs and events, the Greeks, Croats, Serbs and so on retreat into their bastions – or devote their energies to religion. In the case of the Christian communities, this was never a problem for the Australian ruling class. The Armenians have their church, the Greeks have the Orthodox denomination and so on. While attendance at the traditional churches has declined, the 1980s witnessed the growth of the rightwing evangelical fundamentalist Christian churches. Their agenda, to turn Australia (and Britain and the other countries in which they reside) into a basic theocracy. They are opposed to, among other things, secular education, homosexuality and contraception. They have gained ground, especially among the youth, with a clever tactic of social inclusion. The kind of society they advocate contains many similarities to the kind of society proposed by advocates of sharia law, but of course with different religious underpinnings. As fundamentalist Christianity advanced among the mainstream Anglo-Australian society, fundamentalist Islamism gained ground among the disaffected Muslim youth of Britain and Europe, especially when the society in which they live does not provide an adequate, anti-racist political alternative.

Malik explains that in November 1997, the Muslim Council of Britain was born, and its Secretary General was Iqbal Sacranie. In 2006 he gave an interview to the BBC Radio where he stated, among other things, that homosexuality was immoral, spreads disease, and that same-sex couples do not make a solid foundation for the raising of children or stable families. These type of sentiments have been promoted by religious, faith-based groups for many years. Sacranie was investigated by Scotland Yard’s community safety unit to determine whether he had breached the 1986 Public Order Act which prohibits threatening, insulting or abusive words or behaviour. In response, Muslim leaders in Britain, and twenty-two imams, demanded that freedom of speech be observed, and thay anyone, no matter how repugnant their views, should be allowed to express them free of intimidation and harassment. Here, Malik does raise an interesting point – those who wanted to ban The Satanic Verses because of its alleged blasphemy were now calling for freedom of speech in defence of one of their colleagues. Malik explains the change of heart by Inayat Bunglawala, the media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain. When you ban one book, where does it end? After supporting the fatwa on Rushdie, Bunglawala changed his mind when he saw that the rightwing neo-fascist Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has incited hatred against Muslims, calling for a ban on the Quran. Bunglawala, chariperson of Muslims4UK, has not only courageously changed his mind about the book-banning fatwa, but also called upon his fellow Muslims to seriously engage with science, especially the theory of evolution and cease denying its veracity.

While Malik is correct to criticise the conservatism of fundamentalist Islamist groups in the UK, he downplays and dismisses the Islamophobia of the mainstream British society, especially when he makes statements like this, “If Muslims are singled out in Britain, it is often for privileged treatment.” Well that would be news to the victims of the December 2005 Cronulla beach race riots, where anyone of ‘Middle Eastern apperance’ was assaulted by riotous Anglo-Australian mobs, instigated by racist radio shock jocks like Alan Jones, who encouraged ‘Aussies’ to go and bash ‘Middle Eastern grubs’. A strong element of the ideological encouragement given to the people who rioted was anti-Arab and anti-Islamic prejudice. Racism against Arabic-speaking people, and by extension Muslims, has long been part of the Australian political landscape. If the Islamic communities have developed a ‘culture of grievance’, as Malik asserts, they do have legitimate grounds for strong complaint. While official multiculturalism may have to shoulder some of the blame, to single out that policy while ignoring the widening economic gap is short-sighted. I would have to agree with Priyamvada Gopal, who states that targeting multiculturalism on its own ignores the deflects attention from the increasing economic inequalities. Poor white Britons do suffer discrimination she states; not racial, but economic.

In 2005, while the Cronulla race riots occurred in Australia, seemingly highlighted a cultural fault-line between ‘us’ in the west and ‘them’ in the Islamic East, another equally shocking event occurred in Britain. In July 2005, terrorist bombings rocked London, killing 56 people (including the bombers) and wounding seven hundred. Malik makes the chilling observation that “more people died on 7/7 than in any single IRA attack in Britain or Ireland.” Even more disturbing, as Malik recounts, is that this bombing was perpetrated by British citizens. Three out of the four were born and bred in England; the fourth was Jamaican-born but had lived in Britain since the age of five. What drove these apparently well-established, educated, middle-class youths – the products of the English education system – to turn so violently against the country that nurtured them?

Malik tries to steer a middle course – he states that neither ‘blame it all on Islam’ is satisfactory, and neither is the ‘blame it all on the West’ explanation. As Malik rightly observes, Muslims have been living in Britain for half a century, the jihadist mindset is only a recent phenomenon. Blaming passages in the Quran flies in the face of recent history. Islam comprises not just a text, but a body of clerics, a history and culture, with many different interpretations. Malik also observes that Western governments have been attacking Muslim countries long before the anti-American jihad of Osama Bin Laden and the 2003 American attack on Iraq and Afghanistan. As one example, Churchill ordered the use of mustard gas, a chemical weapon, to suppress a 1920 nationalist uprising by Iraqi insurgents in their struggle for independence. What is the explanation? Malik does not make any explicit statements, but he does allude to a possible accounting.

Prior to the 1990s, the political Left was quite strong in many western countries. Many young Muslims were members of, or sympathetic to, leftwing and socialist groups. With the weakening of the Left in the early 1990s, many such Muslims were left adrift, looking for a new political home. Fundamentalist political Islam, which seemed to be on the rise at that time, provided an alternative ideological umbrella. Islamist parties made sweeping electoral gains in Turkey; in Algeria an openly Islamist party won democratic elections, only to be subverted by the Algerian military and its members put down in a vicious civil war. Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon – the star of political Islam appeared to be rising. Couple this with the outrageously hypocritical US and British foreign policies in the Middle East – the unstinting support for Israel against the Palestinians, the 1991 US attack on Iraq and subsequent continuation of that war through sanctions for much of the 1990s – and one can get a sense of the alienation from the wider Western society that a Muslim must feel.

Terrorism is the response of the weak. Individual acts of savagery are never acceptable, and are a dead-end ethically and politically. The Blair government’s foreign policy was singled out for criticism by Home Office advisers seeking an explanation for the terrible July 7 atrocity. They warned that Blair’s close alignment with the United States objectives in the Middle East, fueled the extremism that resulted in the terrorist bombings in London. Long-time war correspondent Robert Fisk wrote a perceptive column in 2005 stating that Britain was unfortunately a target since the Tony Blair government lined up with the ‘war on terror’ and George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Notwithstanding the criticisms, I think that From Fatwa to Jihad is a riveting, outstanding book and should be indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand the origins of the cultural fault-lines that confront us today. Malik forces us to ask serious questions about ourselves, our attitudes to freedom of speech, our policies towards the Islamic communities, and the successes and shortcomings of multiculturalism. If we are to move forward in constructing a more humane, equitable, socialist society, we need to understand the grievances and resentments that fuel so many of today’s conflicts.