A discussion of contemporary issues in media ethics, with olives and a twist. Made with only the freshest ingredients, shaken, stirred and poured over ice. I should also mention that I do like the odd, occasional martini. Bombay Sapphire gin and Lillet, dry and plenty of salty olives. Welcome to this cocktail of journalism and alcohol. A fine combination!

Thursday, 28 February 2008

How to Stop the Fiji Regime in its Tracks when it comes for Journalists

How to Stop the Fiji Regime in its Tracks when it comes for Journalists
By Dr Mark Hayes, a Brisbane-based media and journalism educator who knows the media situation in Fiji very well indeed.
In Fijian, there’s a term used to describe ‘sweeping under the mat’, ‘or ‘secretive decisions’, a ‘deliberate denial of transparency and accountability’ – Vere Ubiubi (pron: Very Umbi Umbi). This is an example of how it works in practice.
The disgraceful, and quite possibly illegal and certainly in contempt of court, deportation of Fiji Sun editor Russell Hunter on Tuesday morning, February 26, 2008, is, among many other things a serious failure in crisis responding by the Fiji media.
A senior, and well known, media executive, and his family, are intimidated, and he’s kidnapped in the dead of night by a cowardly snatch squad sent by person or persons unknown. Meanwhile, a superior court issues a ‘stop order’ to prevent an apparent deportation attempt, and this is ignored by all relevant authorities and agencies. The executive is deprived of all communication, so he can’t even tell his family where he is, let alone contact his lawyer or staff, driven almost 200 kilometres at night (if you’ve driven from Suva to Nadi, even in daylight, you know that’s a very scary journey), humiliated as he’s hurried through Customs and Immigration, publically segregated from other passengers in the Departure Lounge, and bundled on to an Air Pacific jet.
The belated feeble excuses offered by senior authorities make no rational sense, and no even remotely convincing evidence to justify this action has been produced.
The Fiji media make all the expected, ritual, noises while Mr Hunter’s long gone from Nadi Airport.
At every step, we can see a cascading failure in crisis responding on the part of almost all with genuine interests in this outrage, especially in Fiji.
This is made even worse because, following on from the 2000 – 2001 crisis, and then the heroic stand some media took on the evening of the 2006 coup, the Fiji media should know how to very effectively respond to a grave governance crisis in general, such as a coup, and a specific incident such as Mr Hunter’s treatment (or other well documented harassment of several of their number over the last year or so).
On the night of the 2006 coup, the Fiji military, following the ‘book of coups’ (yes; there is one) tried to prevent the Fiji media from reporting statements from the ousted SDL government by deploying soldiers into several newsrooms. The Fiji Times and Fiji TV refused to publish looming bulletins and editions under military intimidation, and other media similarly resisted military pressure. The responses of the Fiji media that night, and into subsequent days were genuinely heroic, and amply demonstrated what principled solidarity can achieve. Over subsequent months, however, the Fiji media has revered to its usual acutely competitive habits, even when one of their own was summoned to the military camp in northern Suva and verbally threatened later in 2007. Around the same time, the leading US nonviolence think tank, the Albert Einstein Institution was seeding copies of its Anti-Coup Handbook very widely around Fiji-based NGOs.
Here’s not the place to go into a detailed exposition of nonviolent direct action, but what I am strongly arguing is that if the Fiji media consistently deployed principled, highly informed, and creative nonviolent resistance techniques and tactics, at the very least they could educate the Interim Government that it is really not a good idea to mess with them, and, when another incident of harassment occurs, deal with the ‘authorities’ like a swarm of wasps. These techniques are entirely congruent with the Fiji Media Council Code of Ethics.
Putting it another way – and Fiji must be one of the few places on the planet not to have had Star Trek on its television screens – the Fiji media needs to install individual, newsroom, and industry Corbomite Shields, so that any attempts at attack against any one of them rebounds against the attacker, with equal force. A related idea is backfire, which can be planned for, and engineered to occur when harassment occurs. Even obdurate slow learners, like the Fiji military appear to be, will sooner rather than later get the message.
Much nonviolence is informed by the proposition that dominators only wield power and thence obtain, if not eager obedience, then at least acquiescence, to the extent that their targets let them. In many important respects, the very wide array of nonviolent techniques available, even in far worse, even lethal, contexts than contemporary Fiji, are aimed at eroding and even removing a dominator’s power.
So, revisiting the Hunter deportation, at many stages, nonviolence could have been deployed to monkey wrench the intended activities of his cowardly snatch squad, and, more importantly, their even more craven and cowardly masters. Some of these techniques need to be deployed and rehearsed well in advance of possible intimidation, and some can be deployed as needed. Nonviolent resistance should by no means be a spontaneous response to pressing intimidation, as is connoted by the obsolete term ‘passive resistance’, but requires planning, preparation, and creative, principled, and courageous deployment. Finally, though, there are no guarantees of success (just as there are no certainties in warfare either).
With Mr Hunter in Sydney, the Fiji Media Council could show it remembers what a spine is for by coordinating a joint industry operation to get him back, as well as seriously investigating the whole foul and disgraceful exercise. It may be they have an ally in this exercise in the person of the Interim Attorney General.
The Council’s President, Mr Daryl Tarte, with a suitably equipped Fiji TV crew using small digital video cameras, could go to Sydney, and return with Mr Hunter, and record the whole process from the inside.
There’s another good story to report if Air Pacific declines to carry Mr Hunter because, they may well claim, he’s been declared an illegal. By whom? Under what powers or legislation, and using what evidence? Qantas, which code shares with Air Pacific, might need interrogation too if Mr Hunter seeks to travel on a Qantas ticket rather than an Air Pacific ticket, and is similarly declined passage.
A radio journalist or two, with digital audio recorders, could also be dispatched on this part of the operation. Mobile phones can be used to broadcast and photograph, even video, proceedings live as they occur.
At Nadi Airport, the plane can be met by a group of reporters equipped to report the story from the outside, including interrogating officials in the terminal, as they have choices to obey or not.
As it appears to be the case that there was a court order out preventing Mr Hunter’s deportation, some media need to track down and explain why that order was ignored, by whom, and why Air Pacific, as the carrier, also ignored the court order. Other media need to seriously interrogate the real reasons why Mr Hunter was deported, and why it was absolutely necessary to send a cowardly snatch squad to his home at night, rather than visit him at work, by appointment, as civilised authorities usually do to serve, for example, legal documents or even press releases. Are all legal documents served on all media in Fiji by similar means, and if so, why, and if not, why not, and by whom? Perhaps all Fiji media should refuse to accept all legal documents unless they are delivered to appropriate executive’s homes late at night by a cowardly, secretive, anonymous snatch squad. After all, there is now a clear and very high level precedent for this kind of activity, so what’s the problem?
Indeed, the media should seek to identify the members of Mr Hunter’s snatch squad, and expose them, because they had a choice in the matter. International law, and military regulations, fully allow for the principled disobedience of an illegal order by individual soldiers. Even military genocides occur because soldiers actually doing the killing, and civilian officials often assisting, particularly these days, ignore their consciences, and even basic training in the laws of war, and obey their illegal orders. And similarly up the snatch squad’s chain of military and civilian command, outing each and every person responsible. That’s called accountability.
A fairly well known trick to pull when one fears physical intimidation, in a bar for example, and rapid withdrawal seems difficult, is to hit the floor writhing and screaming as if one had actually been assaulted. Mr Hunter could have executed this kind of tactic in the Departure Lounge of Nadi Airport (which I know well) to draw significant public attention to his situation. It appears that another passenger on his flight was a senior US consular official who kindly lent him extra cash prior to arriving in Sydney. Excellent witnesses such as this official can be later called on in court, as well as quoted in subsequent stories.
The pressure the combined Fiji media should put on the Interim Government should be incessant, unremitting, and indefatigable, like wasps, coming at them from many simultaneous directions, seeking answers to entirely legitimate questions, chasing down angles and leads, and drawing the public into the continuing story, by engaging them actively in the restoration of democracy, monitoring power, and exposing abuses of power. That’s what the media does.
The foregoing is, by the way, entirely congruent with the principles of good governance, and media freedom, which, so the Interim Prime Minister recently declared, was ‘secure and guaranteed in Fiji’. By reference to generally accepted and internationally supported standards and principles, we assume.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Media hypocrisy over TV3 interview with crook

Background note: For anyone not familiar with this story, the history can be found here. Briefly around 96 important military medals were stolen from the Waiouru army museum, including a Victoria Cross won by a New Zealand war hero, Charlie Upham. The theft was described as an "insult to the nation". After some weeks they were returned and it seems the thieves may have pocketed most of the reward money.

If you live north of the Bombay Hills take a deep whiff, if the wind's in the right direction the unmistakable stench of media hypocrisy will burn your nasal membranes.

Late last week the TV3 programme Campbell Live scored a pretty good scoop: an exclusive interview with one of the alleged suspects in the theft of some pretty important pakeha taonga.

Almost immediately the rest of the media went into a shitty tailspin, ostensibly because of TV3's unethical behaviour, but IMHO more motivated by the fact that they had not got the story.

Indeed the competition between media outlets over this story has been fierce. The NZ Herald had a couple of front page hits of its own, including the story of how a known associate of an alleged criminal gang had been bailed on serious charges for helping with the "investigation" that led to the return of the Victoria Cross and other medals.

The Herald was no doubt pissed when its previously exclusive ownership of the story was trumped by Campbell Live's interview with "Robert", one of the theives -- at least by his own account.
Until this point the Herald had pretty much had the story to itself and obviously had some good sources close to the investigation and to the alleged crims involved.

"Robert" did not appear live in the TV3 programme, an actor was used instead. According to TV3's account the interview was done on a dictaphone and transcribed. "Robert" was never on camera.

Spurred on by moralistic outrage from some media commentators, the police dutifully raided TV3 HQ in Great North Road and took statements and documents away. They had no choice really, but given their "Look the other way" attitude to other aspects of this rapidly degenerating criminal farce, we can expect nothing to come of the raid.

To his credit TV3 news chief Mark Jennings has stuck to his guns and not backed down from the interview with "Robert".

Today (Saturday) the Herald weighed in again with the ridiculous headline "TV3 attacked for re-enactment of medal theft interview". My pal Jim Tully from the journalism programme at Canterbury University told the Herald that the use of the actor had "tarnished a good news scoop". Hardly a swingeing attack. And of course the cops supplied the obligatory "tut tut" statement to go with their half-hearted "raid" on TV3 yesterday.

The real deal
Let's go back and review the media coverage of this story from day one. From the start no one was particularly concerned to catch the crooks; the real concern was with getting back the "national treasure", a bunch of rusty medals celebrating the glory of war and the myth of the ANZAC. The Herald and all the NZ media agreed it was in the national interest that the medals be returned and that the theft was a terrible blot on national pride and glory.

Bollocks. I'm not going to go into a long diatribe about the glorification of capitalist war and why nationalism is crap. You can go away and read up on that in other places. The simple point is that the media went weak at the knees and talked up the national patriotic bullshit.

What seemed to get lost in all this rhetoric is the fact that a crime was committed and no one seemed to know who the thieves were. More importantly no one seemed to care.

Then Chris Comesky, a former cop who is now a tasty criminal lawyer with form, got involved and was able to broker a deal that saw $300,000 (roughly) put into his trust account with the strong suggestion that some of it, at least, would go to the crooks for the return of the medals.

This story is a lot wierder and has a lot more dubious ethical twists than John Campbell's interview with "Robert".

A few questions that the media might like to ask:

Why have the crooks effectively been given immunity?
How did lawyer Chris Comeskey get involved and why did the police let him do the immunity deal?
What were the Herald's sources for its stories about the gang member who was released on bail and the thieves, one of whom might have been banged up Mt Eden gaol with the gang member/deal broker?
Why have the cops been so relaxed about a shady deal to protect the alleged crims in return for the medals being given back?

Web Capitalism 2.0

I came across this at Andrew Keen's The Great Seduction. I sometimes disagree with Andrew but I think his analysis of web-capitalism (summed up here) is pretty accurate:

For all the glib pieties about the "democratization" of media, the truth about the Web 2.0 economy is that it's anything but democratic. That vast sucking sound you can hear is Google, YouTube et al gobbling up obscene amounts of wealth from the rest of the media business.

New claims about cancer scare at ABC Brisbane studios

The Brisbane Courier-Mail is reporting that the ABC site at Toowong, which has been abandoned for the past year or more, might be contaminated with the pesticide Dieldrin.

A number of female staff have been diagnosed with breast cancer linked to their employment.

So far the ABC has spent millions on rehousing staff and has not revealed what it plans to do with the riverside site.

McCain, elections, ethics and smears

I'm watching with interest the American presidential primaries. I can't make up my mind about Obama and/or Clinton. I'm inclined to argue that a vote for Barak Obama is more of a threat to the US political status quo than a vote for Hilary Clinton. It's a judgment about whether race or gender is the more volatile fault line in the American psyche.
I tend to lean towards Obama and a vote for a black man over a white woman; mainly because white women were never tortured and murdered like African Americans, or suffered under the racist and segregationist Jim Crow laws. Though of course, if you go back far enough into American history it's clear that witches were hated, feared and hunted down too during colonial times.

But today, I'm interested in coverage of the recent New York Times piece outlining some historical allegations that Republican candidate John McCain has a shaky record on conflicts of interest.

The Times has come under fire from other media, particularly the Fox network and the paper's also had over 3000 email and blog questions posted by readers. I've read the Times piece and it seems reasonably balanced to me. It's quite long and detailed, but critics say it relies too heavily on anonymous sources.

The paper justifies using anonymous sources on the grounds that the story was of great public interest and needed to be told. I have no issue with this; what I find more interesting is the question posed by a reader about the NYT's endorsement of McCain. Here's the exchange:

Why Did The Times Endorse McCain?

Q. Why did The New York Times strongly endorse Senator McCain to be the Republican Party nominee in January, if at the same time the paper was well aware of and continuing to investigate what it considered to be front-page, damaging, “un-presidential” charges?

— Debbie Collazo, Tucson, Ariz.

A. The short answer is that the news department of The Times and the editorial page are totally separate operations that do not consult or coordinate when it comes to news coverage and endorsements or other expressions of editorial opinion. We in the newsroom did not speak to anyone at the editorial page about the story we were working on about Senator McCain. They did not consult us about their deliberations over endorsements of the presidential candidates. I’m the political editor, and the first I knew of the McCain endorsement (and of the endorsement of Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side) was when I read them in the newspaper. In all of our internal discussions about the news story subsequent to the endorsement, I do not recall anyone bringing it up.

(As an aside, I think it’s fair to say that most of our political reporters would prefer that the paper not endorse candidates. Endorsements inevitably create the perception among some voters that The Times is backing a candidate on an institutional level, leaving those of us on the news side to explain over and over that our coverage is not influenced by what our colleagues on the editorial page write.)

As your question suggests, this particular situation was especially odd because most everyone in politics and journalism — including, I assume, our colleagues on the editorial page — knew we were working on a story about Senator McCain, courtesy of an item on Drudge in December. Whether that influenced the editorial page’s deliberations, I have no idea.

But it meant that there were a lot of people speculating for months about what kind of story we were pursuing and whether and when we were going to publish it. This didn’t influence the timing or the substance of the story at all, but I do think it created a situation in which opinions and battle lines about the story began to develop long before the actual story was published.

— Richard W. Stevenson, political editor

Sure, Richard, you can maintain the fiction that the newsroom and the editorial decision-making are at arms-length.
It's the dialectic of the front page. The story is too big to ignore and you've got it as an exclusive, so go for it, but don't pretend that Mahogany Row doesn't know exactly what's going on newswise and can intervene at any time.