Rebel Wilson’s legal victory is great, but the Murdoch media poison continues to spread

While Wilson’s victory is a great step forward, the media machine that churns out poison for the public mind is still in operation.

In September this year, talented Australian actress Rebel Wilson won a defamation suit that she brought against two Australian women’s magazines – Woman’s Day and Australian Women’s Weekly. The magazines, both owned by Bauer Media, had defamed Wilson in their articles, and thus had cost the actress financially rewarding film roles and media appearances. Wilson was awarded $US3.6 million dollars ($4.6 million Australian). Her legal victory made media headlines around the world, including in the highly-esteemed New York Times.

You may read about her legal battle here, and you may listen to the reasoning adopted by the judge in her case here. Every person deserves their day in court, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Every person has a right to a free and fair trial. We are very glad that Wilson had the opportunity to exercise her legal rights, and has scored a commendable victory. That much is not in dispute.

What we need to focus on here is the kind of media organisations that regard the proclivities and eccentricities of celebrities to be worthy of the designation ‘news’. Why is it that the media corporations – because that is what they are – regard the promotion of celebrity culture appealing fodder for news items? Are they responding to the demands of the market? Partially. However, media corporations also create markets, and use their considerable resources to monopolise a previously public sphere to manufacture a privatised conglomerate.

We need to consider the ongoing Murdochisation of the media – Murdoch’s dominance is powerful, but not out of place in a media system dominated by the propaganda of big capital. What does that mean? Using the word propaganda to describe the conduct of the major media of capitalist countries sounds a little jarring or out of place. That word is normally associated with dictatorships, and has ugly connotations. Propaganda is something that happens exclusively in Communist countries, or in totalitarian dictatorships. Groaning under complete state control, the media are reduced to being  simple mouthpieces for the official doctrine of the day. This definition is too narrow in scope and simplistic.

Propaganda is deployed very effectively in capitalist societies – only it is not called by that name. Public relations, advertising and perception management are the tools of the corporate propagandist, the financial speculator and militarist war-maker. This propaganda is subsidised by the private sector, and engulfs public space with images and messages designed to disguise the financial motives of the sponsor. John Pilger has written that much of what masquerades as journalism today can be accurately described as propaganda; the so-called ‘information age’ has truly become warfare by media.

Murdoch is only one – albeit major – practitioner of corporate propaganda. His ascent to media power, amply documented by independent journalists and commentators such as John Pilger, demonstrates the impact of privatised propaganda on people’s lives. News has been replaced by ‘infotainment’; celebrity culture has replaced meaningful content; gossip and triviality is elevated to the level of what is considered ‘newsworthy’.

With wealth concentrated into fewer hands, the media oligopoly that is most typically exemplified by Murdoch will only continue, and produce material that is, among other things, damaging to the public. The defamation of Rebel Wilson was serious, but it was hardly unique. It occurred in the context of a media that produces poisonous discourse as part of its product.

The Hillsborough disaster occurred in April 1989 at a soccer match in Sheffield, England. It was a human crush at the Hillsborough football stadium, where there were 96 fatalities and 766 injuries in the stampede. You may read the full details of the disaster here. Why is this important?

The Murdoch-owned media demonstrated their capacity to create moral panic, surrounding this disaster, and fed into ‘hooligan hysteria’. The journalists of the Murdoch press wrote lurid – and entirely false accounts – of Liverpool fans looting dead bodies and urinating on them, of fans attacking the police and paramedic workers who were on the scene. The Murdoch media had an unadulterated field day, defaming the Hillsborough survivors, and added to their grief and trauma.

The Hillsborough survivors did not take this attack lying down – they sued Murdoch-owned papers for defamation – at least for what they described as reckless coverage. The first inquest into the disaster had ruled that the deaths were accidental – no-one in power was to be held accountable. The survivors launched their own bid to achieve justice, and hold the officials in charge accountable for their actions.

The result? Twenty six years of legal battles, official obstacles, police evasions of their culpability, with senior police officers deflecting their responsibility for contributing to the tragedy. The Murdoch media empire continued to grow in wealth and distribution, acquiring friends in high places. After twenty six years of evasion and obfuscation, the original verdict of accidental deaths was finally overturned and the Hillsborough soccer stadium deaths were ruled unlawful killings. A number of senior figures have finally been brought up on charges for their role in contributing to the killings.

What is noteworthy here is that the media, rather than asking the difficult questions and acting as a check on power, was actually serving as a mouthpiece for the rich and powerful. The Murdochcracy – to use Pilger’s description – as an adjunct and spokesperson for big capital and moneyed interests. Murdoch made no secret of the nexus his media empire established between media moguls, legislators and political heavyweights that enabled the rise of the media conglomerate News Corporation.

The Hillsborough families were not the only victims of the vast iceberg of inhumanity that is the Murdoch empire. Phone hacking scandals were only the latest in a long line of skulduggery employed by the ruthless mogul to ensure the expansion of his media organisation. The defamation of the powerless, and use of laws to prevent the marginalised to achieve some degree of recompense, is stock-in-trade for the Murdochcratic empire. If serious journalism is to have a future, it lies in promoting news and analysis that reflects the concerns, problems and interests of ordinary people. That is the conclusion of John Passant, writing in Independent Australia. Relying on ultra-wealthy sugar daddy alternatives to Murdoch is not the answer.

Let us take one simple example. We have daily reports on the stock market, analysing the daily fluctuations and gyrations of that institution. Viewers are invited to marvel at the vast sums of money being transferred from one stock market to another – changing locations from Sydney, to London, or Paris, or New York, or Tokyo – all in a seemingly instantaneous manner. This may convey the impression that the majority of Australians own stocks and shares. That may be true or not; but we must acknowledge that the media heavily influences our perceptions and concerns.

What if we reported on poverty and unemployment, in the same manner that we do on the stock market? Poverty and unemployment involve the lives of millions of Australians, and they have major impacts on working people across the nation. This suggestion is not originally mine, but comes from an article by Sean McElwee. His article, published in Talking Points Memo, makes the point that while stock markets can operate smoothly while poverty and unemployment take their toll on millions of people.

What if the media started reflecting the challenges, obstacles and difficulties of the millions in poverty, rather than acting as a loudspeaker broadcasting the lives and predilections of the rich and famous? That would result in a media responsive to the needs of the community. Let us imagine a world where it does not take twenty-six years for the Hillsborough families to achieve the justice and respect to which they were entitled all along.

Please stop using your black friends to claim anti-racist credentials

For the billionth time, having ethnic or black friends does not stop you from being a racist.

That sentence was lifted from an article in the Huffington Post by Zeba Bay, the senior culture writer for that magazine. In that article, she specifies that for the umpteenth time, please stop using the presence of black friends in your life to ‘prove’ your anti-racism. Bay was referring to the American context, and in particular to the conduct of Michael Cohen, a personal attorney of US President Trump.

Cohen posted pictures of himself alongside his African American friends to provide seeming evidence that he is a fair-minded, non-racist person. We will get back to this later in the article, but for now, let us focus on an issue of racism in Australia.

Citing your black friends as purported evidence of anti-racism is a technique that has a counterpart in Australia. We have witnessed this tactic yet again in the racism controversy surrounding the treatment of former Australian Football League (AFL) player Heritier Lumumba. Going by the anglicised name of Harry O’Brien, Lumumba has detailed how, in the course of his long-playing career, he was routinely racially abused by his teammates and coaching staff. Lumumba, of mixed Brazilian-Congolese heritage, has detailed how, for instance, he was derided as a “chimp” by his colleagues during training sessions.

This is not just an instance of some innocent joking around, of harmless name-calling or sledging as Australians like to say. He was constantly ridiculed because of his ethnic background.

It is not our purpose to go into the entire controversy in this article. You may read about Lumumba’s viewpoint and subsequent criticism of the AFL management here. Other AFL players have come to Lumumba’s support, and this issue of racism in sport is gaining long-overdue attention. You may also read a summary of the racism row here, in New Matilda magazine.

What is noteworthy about this controversy is not the dispute about racism in the AFL. What is interesting is the criticism that Lumumba has faced since he raised his voice against what he viewed as racism in the league. Numerous commentators, with access to computers and social media, have unleashed a torrent of abuse and vitriol against Lumumba.

The main defence is that Lumumba is just an idiot or crybaby, and that there is no racism in the AFL sport. For instance, one commentator remarked that the club for which Lumumba played for the majority of his career is Collingwood. The latter club cannot possibly be racist. Why? Because the colours of the club jersey are black and white.

This is an Australian variation on the tired and preposterous theme of ‘I’m not racist because my friends are Black/ Indigenous/ Chinese/ Muslim/ Jewish.’  We have heard various permutations of this assertion over the decades – I can’t be racist because I have Indigenous friends; I can’t be racist because I like Chinese food; I can’t be racist because I do karate on weekends.

It is commendable to have connections and friendships with people from all different ethnic backgrounds. The lines of communication between different racial and ethnic groups should always be open and honest. Having a relationship with a person from another ethnic background may be one factor in reducing prejudicial beliefs. However, let us be clear – having friendships with people from ethnic backgrounds, or from the first nations of Australians, is irrelevant to the issue of racism and white supremacy. To illustrate using a parallel example –  a straight misogynist man can still have relationships and marriages with women, and still sustain his prejudicial attitudes.

Let us make no mistake – a person with prejudicial attitudes can have a relationship with a person of another racial or ethnic background, and still maintain those destructive prejudicial beliefs. Let us take the most obvious example at present – US President Donald Trump has multiple African American friends and business partners, and his numerous wives (past and present) are immigrants.

That has not stopped his administration from enacting racist legislation, or expressing racist beliefs about migrant communities. Throughout his election campaign, he and his Republican rivals, launched vicious attacks against the Latino, African American and Islamic communities.

The deliberate portrayal of immigrant communities, and in particular Latin American and Muslim immigrants and refugees, as an existential threat to the ‘American way of life’ is solidly based in the outlook and institutions of white supremacy. Such a campaign found a receptive audience in the more openly fascistic strands in American society. The Trump presidency has been a lightning rod, attracting various ultra-rightist, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups and providing their agenda with respectability. But do not worry, Trump has many black and Jewish friends.

The Trump presidency, while being avowedly pro-Zionist and pro-Israel, has encouraged the most viciously anti-semitic and racist forces in American society. Since Trump’s ascendancy, there has been a steep increase in anti-semitic attacks and vandalism across the country. In fact, it is not unusual for anti-semitic groups and persons to be vociferously pro-Israel. Trump’s election victory in 2016 was greeted with anguish and disgust across the world, but in one country, his victory was warmly welcomed – in Israel. The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ecstatically happy that he had gained a new friend in the White House. The anti-semitism of the newly resurgent ultra-right, and the outburst of anti-Jewish hatred at Charlottesville, was of no consequence to Netanyahu and his political allies.

The ugly events at Charlottesville have brought the issue of white supremacy back into the spotlight. It is not our intention to go into great details about the racially-motivated protest and killings at that event here. That subject is for a future article. Suffice it to say that Charlottesville was not a peaceful expression of lawful dissent. It was an organised race riot by white supremacist and neo-Confederate groups, emboldened by an American administration that provides wide latitude for their actions and philosophy.

At Charlottesville there was, among others, a typical example of the problem we are attempting to identify here – a Puerto Rican white supremacist. That may seem rather jarring at first – how can a Latin American, after hearing the vitriolic denunciations of Mexicans and Latin American nationalities by the Trump campaign, end up supporting white supremacy? The example above, regarding Puerto Rican white supremacist Alex Ramos, typifies what the late revolutionary writer and activist Franz Fanon called the colonised mind.

Listen to the words of Rosa Clemente, the author of the above article on Puerto Rican white supremacy:

Fanon was a Martinique-born psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary. In his seminal work Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon psychoanalyzes what he calls “the oppressed Black person who perceives themselves to have to be a lesser creature in the white world that they live in and navigate the world through a performance of whiteness.”

When Michael Cohen, about whom we spoke at the beginning of this article, shares pictures of himself with his black friends on Twitter or Facebook, he may be proving that he has excellent social skills. He may be proving that he is a nice guy. But he is not providing any evidence of anti-racism.

When confronted by the malaise of racism, whether in sport or politics, do not circulate stories about how your multiple friendships with persons of different ethnic backgrounds makes you a good person. It is more constructive to ask how we can work together to confront the scourge of racism. Charlottesville is glaring evidence that the cancer of white supremacy, built into the very structures of American (and Australian) capitalism, requires clear-thinking and multi-ethnic cooperation to be defeated.

Qatar and the Saudi embargo

Since early June this year, Saudi Arabia has implemented a total land, air and sea blockade of the small oil-rich emirate of Qatar.

This embargo has been joined by the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as allies of Saudi Arabia. Egypt, Senegal, the Maldives, the Saudi-supported Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Mauritania and others have joined this blockade. The intention of the embargo is to force the Qatari emirate to fully comply with Saudi demands in joining an Arab anti-Iran alliance. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had diplomatic squabbles and problems in the past, the current imbroglio is of a greater and more severe magnitude.

The economic and political effects of the Saudi-imposed blockade were immediate, and are ongoing. Food supplies from Saudi Arabia, on which Qatar is heavily reliant, have been cut off. Qatar Airways can no longer use Saudi airspace, or the airspace of the neighbouring United Arab Emirates (UAE). Economic sanctions on the country have led to a collapse in Qatari stocks, and investment projects inside Qatar – bankrolled by GCC nations – have been suspended. Thousands of migrant workers in Qatar, already suffering under horrendous working conditions, have been left stranded.

Why this terrible rift between the two apparently similar allies? One of the positive effects of this situation – if we can find anything remotely welcoming in this crisis – is the renewed interest in the Gulf countries outside of a narrow field of academic specialists. Rather than dismiss the Gulf states with simplistic stereotypes about ‘’Arab sheikhs with money”, this Saudi-Qatari dispute compels us to examine the capitalist economies driven by petrodollars. The Gulf states, while acquiring huge sums of oil money and united in the GCC, have expanded their investments across the Arab and North African regions.

The Saudi regime accuses Qatar of sponsoring terrorism in the region. By this allegation, they mean that Qatar has provided support to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian Hamas movement, and backing the anti-Saudi Houthi militia group in Yemen. The Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has denied these claims. The Saudi monarchy is rankled by the fact that Qatar has maintained excellent diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, the latter regarded as the arch-enemy by the Saudi-led GCC.

Qatar and Iran have cultivated extensive economic and diplomatic connections, including joint projects to exploit the vast oil and natural gas fields in the Persian Gulf. While ties were briefly cut in the immediate aftermath of the Saudi-imposed blockade, Qatar has quickly moved to restore full diplomatic ties with their Iranian neighbour. These connections undermine the Saudi regime’s ability to form a solid Sunni Arab coalition – with a strong pro-Western orientation – against the Iranian government. No doubt, Qatar’s continued friendship with Iran will only deepen the Saudi-Qatari feud.

Back in May this year, US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia – his first foreign visit as president. After he finished his Saudi tour, he flew directly to Israel, which indicates the priorities of the Trump administration in foreign policy. Trump was warmly welcomed in Saudi Arabia, and he managed to sign off on a huge armaments deal worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Emboldened by his visit, the Saudi regime implemented the blockade of Qatar soon after the conclusion of Trump’s visit.

Did the “Trump effect” encourage the Saudi monarchy to carry out this embargo of Qatar? Trump himself thought so, and said as much when he returned to the United States. He was taking credit for an escalation of tensions in the region, and the beginning of a conflict that was qualitatively different to previous disputes between the two GCC members. It is difficult to state whether he fully grasped the harmful consequences of this Saudi escalation – the Al Udeid US air force base, the largest American military base in the Middle East, is hosted by Qatar.

Qatar has always been a crucial lynchpin for American wars in the Middle East. The tiny emirate provides a staging post for US air attacks into Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson was left scrambling to minimise the damage caused by Trump’s inflammatory remarks, even though he, like Trump is committed to the goal of an Arab front lined up against Iran. For all the talk of an Arab NATO, the latter remains a mirage. As Antony Blinken explained in his article, an anti-Shia coalition of Arab partners is not only untenable, it will only serve to inflame sectarian tensions and produce more terrorism, not less.

The Israeli government welcomed the imposition of sanctions on Qatar, and has rationalised its support as a step in the ‘war on terror’. Israel has long viewed Iran as a regional competitor. Israel’s longstanding and secretive connections with a number of Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have come under scrutiny as a result of the Saudi-imposed embargo. The quiet and growing Saudi-Israel alliance is based on a convergence of interests, namely, to fight what they perceive as Iranian influence in the Arab countries. It is not altogether surprising that the two fortress-states in the Middle East have found increasing reasons for practical cooperation.

The Qatari emirate has thus far been able to circumvent the Saudi blockade – having powerful friends and neighbours certainly helps. Turkey has stepped in with food aid, and has sent troops to the beleaguered nation. Russia, while maintaining a neutral stance in this dispute, has refused to join the embargo. The Russians have also sent food supplies, and have offered to mediate in this conflict. Interestingly, Oman, sultanate and member state of the GCC, has also refused to impose sanctions on Qatar.

The GCC, while it has technically maintained a united front, cannot resolve the deep economic and political divisions between its constituent members. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while being individual members of the six-nation GCC, have formed the main pivotal axis of economic and political power. These two nations have provided the bulk of capital accumulation inside the Gulf monarchies, and have dominated all areas of business, such as real estate, finance and telecommunications. The Qatari emirate has never reconciled itself to remaining in ‘second-class status’ within the GCC. The junior partner has always coveted a senior role within the GCC hierarchy.

Qatar has increased its foreign direct investments in other Arab nations. It has financed projects in those countries, and has attempted to play a greater political role. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have cooperated closely in the past, their rivalries have never been fully resolved. The Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain, to crush the pro-democracy uprising in the latter nation back in 2011, was supported by Qatar. The Saudi war on Yemen obtained the practical backing of the Qatari emirate.

However, Qatar has played a mediating role in bringing political conflicts in the Lebanon, the Sudan and other countries to a resolution. Qatar has refused to join the Saudi-led anti-Iran alliance. Qatar hopes to maintain its regional influence by hosting the Al Jazeera media outlet, as a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. While common interests have been the glue that held the petro-monarchies together, internal rivalries sometimes break out into the open.

Let us be clear that there are no ‘good guys’ to support in this conflict. It is possible to recognise the injustice of the blockade without endorsing the Qatari regime. We would do well to remember that it is the migrant workers in Qatar who have been hardest hit by the Saudi embargo. Lowly paid and facing difficult conditions, it is the legion of migrant workers who face increasing difficulties in the wake of food and medical shortages. While Qatar is on track to host the 2022 World Cup Soccer games, it is the migrant workers that have taken on the bulk of the heavy and dangerous construction work. It is these people that we must never forget and continually support.