Archive for August, 2010

A recent edition of BBC Panorama, Death on the Med’ (16 August), set out to investigate Israel’s assault on the Turkish ‘Free Gaza’ flotilla last May, 31st,  particularly the lead vessel, the Mavi Marmara. However, certain features of this 30-minute film raise questions once again about the way in which western journalism deals with controversial issues concerning Israel and its conduct in the illegally Occupied Territories. While it claims to investigate the incident from “both sides” of the story to find out what “really” happened, it soon becomes clear from the way it is framed and sourced that the opposing accounts are not treated as equally valid.

Take, for example, the reporter Jane Corbin’s introduction to the film, delivered as she observes Israeli navy commandoes in training for boarding hostile or suspect vessels:

I’ve had unique access to this top-secret unit – Naval Commando 13 has never been filmed by the media in action before. Israel says these commandoes had to fight for their lives on the ship that night. Turkey accuses Israel of an act of piracy. They called it Operation Sea Breeze but what these Israeli naval commandoes encountered on the Mavi Marmara was anything but a breeze. It caused a storm of international condemnation. But did Israel fall into trap? And what was the real agenda of some of those people who call themselves “peace activists” on board the Free Gaza flotilla?

In tone, language and setting, therefore, the film privileges the Israeli account of the incident without nuance or questions such as ‘What was the real agenda of the Israeli operation?’ By contrast, it undermines the account of those on board the Mavi Marmara by drawing suspicion upon their credentials and motivations and by constantly emphasising the use of violence by some of the activists in trying to repel the Israeli assault. Much is made of the commandoes’ use of non-lethal force, including paintball guns. Yet the shooting dead of nine of the activists is merely mentioned, not investigated. The fact that each was found dead with a single bullet to the head is not even raised with the Israeli commandoes.

The programme goes on to consider both accounts in more detail using film taken by the Israeli commandoes during the incident and film shot on board the ship by the anti-war organisation, Cultures of Resistance.  It also interviews the chairman of the Israeli Defence Force’s inquiry into the incident, which has questioned some of the tactical decisions taken during the operation but not the strategic principles behind it. Here again, however, it’s clear that the film privileges the Israeli account, handling the oppositional version with much more scepticism. This deference to official and thus “authoritative” sources has long been standard practice in public service news and current affairs so it’s hardly a surprise any more. But that shouldn’t dull our critical faculties.  For me, the critical fault in the programme is its lack of context because it hinders our understanding of what this incident was really about and why it happened in the first place.

Explaining the context

Explaining the context of the blockade seems crucial to understanding both why the Free Gaza flotilla set out to break it and why the Israelis enforced it so strongly. However, “Death in the Med” affords very little time to that and omits some essential information. A critical moment comes early in the film when Corbin pays a brief visit to Gaza and tells us that:

Here in Gaza, the problem is not so much a lack of food or medicine. There’s no easy access in or out, no economic life because of the Israeli embargo. Hamas, which rules here, refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist. Militants have fired thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel in the past few years. People [in Gaza] are forced to recycle rubble to rebuild houses – Israel allows in hardly any cement or steel in case they’re used to make weapons and bunkers.

Do you see what she did there? First of all, she tells us the problem in Gaza is ‘not so much a lack of food or medicine’. In fact, it is a crucial effect of the Israeli embargo and one of the key impulses behind the efforts of various organisations to bring the people some relief. Then we have this strange and sudden leap, from telling us about militants firing rockets at Israel to pictures of civilians recycling rubble to rebuild their homes. What’s going on? Are these rockets falling short and hitting homes in Gaza? That’s what the edit implies. And why do the militants fire rockets over the border into Israel?  For the fun of it? Are they just testing them out? We are not told.

And why do the people have to rebuild their homes? What happened? Was there an earthquake? Did some Biblical tempest hit Gaza? We are simply left to guess or presume that perhaps the people lost their homes due to some unknown disaster and it just so happens that they can’t access materials to rebuild because of that pesky Israeli blockade. The reporter doesn’t refer even briefly to Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s devastating military assault on Gaza in December 2008, which laid waste to hundreds of such homes and took the lives not just of militants but hundreds of innocent civilians.

So is this just a matter of lazy journalism? I think there’s more to it than that. For  Corbin to answer any of these questions would undermine the working assumption of her story: that the Gaza aid flotilla was little more than a propaganda exercise and that the Israelis’ only mistake was to overreact and fall into a trap. In effect, it is the Israeli version of the incident as it has evolved to date. Seen through an Israeli propaganda filter, it is impossible to tell it any other way, like this for example:

Here in Gaza, the problem is Israel’s total control over the densely packed population of 1.5 million people, which Amnesty International says amounts to collective punishment in contravention of the Geneva Conventions – in other words, a war crime. There is a shortage of basic essentials like food and medicine and malnutrition is on the rise. There’s no easy access in or out, no economic life because of the Israeli embargo. Israel refuses to recognise the democratically elected government of Gaza because they say the leading party, Hamas, is a terrorist organisation that denies Israel’s right to exist. Militants have fired thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel in the past few years in retaliation against Israel’s punitive security policies. And each time this happens, Israel retaliates with maximum, overwhelming force. Last December, it launched Operation Cast Lead, which devastated Gaza’s infrastructure and took a terrible toll in civilian as well as military casualties. People’s homes were targeted and destroyed and now they are forced to recycle rubble to rebuild them – Israel allows in hardly any cement or steel in case they’re used to make weapons and bunkers.

A propaganda triumph

In the end, ‘Death in the Med’ vindicates the Israeli line and fails to reveal much more about what happened than what most of us already know. It stands as a good result for the Israelis. Of course, it’s not just about a single BBC programme. Much of the information we received about the incident came through the mainstream media, the privileged source of which was, of course, the Israeli authorities. They have been much more successful than their enemies in shaping and dominating the news agenda with their account of this and many previous incidents. In the days after the story broke, the very effective Israeli spokesman, Mark Regev, appeared in almost every major news bulletin on British and Irish television to ram home the Israeli line. Here he is interviewed by Jon Snow on Channel Four News on the day of the incident: 

Panorama’s “investigation”, don’t forget, starts off by stating the Israeli case and watching navy commandoes in training. That frames the entire programme: it determines the validity of the Israeli case and questions the motives of the Free Gaza flotilla. It was a stroke of Israeli propaganda genius, part of a clearly discernible and well established PR pattern. Islamic Jihad in Gaza or Hezbollah in the Lebanon launch a small-scale attack on the IDF or on Israeli civilians. Israel responds with overwhelming force, taking a large toll in civilian casualties. The operation attracts widespread, international condemnation – criticism even – from decent journalists like Jon Snow. But it doesn’t matter if the Israelis get a hard time from the media, as Regev got in that interview, because for them the key strategy is to dominate the news coverage with a single, repeated line of defence, which is rarely retracted or modified. In a matter of days, the controversy subsides, the media lose interest and that is that.

By the way, I’m not the only one that’s vexed about this poor excuse for journalism – there’s been quite a lot of complaints about the programme. Google ‘Death on the Med’ and  have a look at this post from Harpy Marx.  

See also this article in the Guardian by Greg Philo (2004), which examines patterns of news reporting on the Israeli-Palestine conflict  that are still applicable today. If you’re up for a more detailed read, then I recommend Philo and Berry’s book, Bad News from Israel, published by Pluto Press.  For some historical background and context, see David Hirst’s The Gun and the Olive Branch: The roots of violence in the Middle East, Faber and Faber, 2003; and Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians, Pluto Press, 1999 They’re both still in print and available through Amazon. 

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Help Us Stop £15bn Tax Evaders!!

Posted: August 16, 2010 in Satire

The Middle England Bleeder (“We lead when you bleed!”) launched a new campaign last week against the tax cheats who are draining our great country of essential resources! 

And already, our hotline is on the verge of meltdown!! Indeed, we’ve never had so many calls and emails on any issue or story since our Shop a Banker Campaign in 2008!!!!

The Campaign will run for another two weeks so plenty of time for you take part and do your country a service by banging these cheats to rights!  Cheats like Margot and Jerry from Surrey, photographed below, whose veneer of middle class respectability didn’t fool you! We received an astonishing 300 calls shopping these two crooks for an array of offences.

Margot and Jerry relax after posting another false tax return

Thanks to the Bleeder’s readers and our own award-winning investigative journalism (The Nuts Prize for Fearless Journalism 2009), we can tell you today that Margot and Jerry have:

  • cheated the tax-payer out of £3m in false returns, bogus rebates and off-shore accounts;
  • sold off the assets of their own parents – who are now homeless – and avoided capital gains tax and stamp duties;
  • took their friends for cruises on their luxury yacht in Monaco and then claimed their expenses back as corporate entertainment;
  • used the services of a crooked, one-armed accountant and claimed money back for employing a disabled person!

But thanks also to some nifty anti-terrorist legislation, the Crown Prosecution Service has been able to convict these crooks. Margot and Jerry won’t be cheating England for a very long time to come!!!


Jerry begins a long stretch in Guantanamo

A spokesman for the Inland Revenue told us: “We’ve been investigating Margot and Jerry for the last three years yet we’ve been unable to collect the evidence the Bleeder has handed to us today! Thank you!”

You’re very welcome, Mr Tax Man!

And well done, readers!! You make England proud!!!

I see that the Sun newspaper has launched a new campaign: “Help Us Stop £1.5bn benefits scroungers”.  It is appealing to readers to call its special hotline about those awful people next door who are earning “hundreds of thousands of pounds a week” on falsely claimed benefits at the expense of decent-hardworking-taxpayers. The paper promises to name and shame them with photos and details of how much they’re cheating the system. And it says it will pass the information on to the Dept of Work and Pensions.  Looking at the coverage so far, though, it seems odd, that these “benefit scroungers” are so happy to help the paper name and shame them, which makes one wonder what they’re being told when the Sun comes calling for their details and photos.

Anyway, the paper wheeled out its managing editor, Graham Dudman, to explain its campaign on BBC Newsnight (12 August), along with Anne McElvoy of the London Standard for critical balance no doubt. Dudman claimed to speak for the “silent majority” among its readers who are outraged that, in the middle of difficult economic times, there are people claiming benefits to have widescreen TVs, computer games and nice clothes! “That’s not what the benefits system is about”, he says, implying two things here. First, that perhaps benefit claimants should have the decency to look a lot worse off, live in a hostel or out of plastic bags; or maybe walk the streets in rags and without a shower for days; second, and more importantly I suspect,  that the system should be so draconian and miserly that it forces people to go looking for work. But as McElvoy points out, the system actually disadvantages claimants who do want to work, leaving them to make a very rational, understandable choice between being better off on benefits than dirt poor in a job. Would the Sun maybe start a campaign to change things for the better? Of course not!  For as Dudman quite happily admits, the campaign makes for “great stories and people are outraged by them. […] We like to get people angry and shock and amaze on every page!”  Indeed.

But the thing about these populist campaigns is that they appeal to the mob mentality, to the petty and the vindictive who seethe and fester as they see their neighbours do better than they and have more stuff. It is likely that most will have no hard evidence to shop their neighbour for cheating, that it’s prejudice or venegeance that really drives them. And precedent should tell us that it is very likely they will inform on perfectly innocent people. In the past ten years, there’s been a series of newspaper campaigns to name and shame your local paedophile, some of which led to libellous mistakes and even mob law on the streets. In 2003, the Sun named and shamed a convicted paedophile only to identify him with the photo of a totally innocent man. In an incident in Wales,  in 2007, a crowd sprayed graffiti on the house of a woman they “knew” to be a paedophile; she was actually a paediatrician. But, like all rabble rousers, papers like the Sun will deny responsibility for the consequences of their incitement. 

Now it’s true that there are people who cheat the benefits system and the Sun’s estimate of the total bill to the state – £1.5bn – is correct. However, it doesn’t tell us that another £3.1bn is lost through administrative error, where claimants are paid too much; nor does it set that against the millions that go unclaimed by people who don’t realise they’re entitled to it. The paper could also have put the problem into perspective by pointing out that the exchequer loses £15bn every year through tax evasion. Yes, it’s shocking! There are decent-hardworking-taxpayers out there who are not paying their taxes, though I somehow doubt the Sun will be launching a campaign against them anytime soon.  Watch this space, though. The hour of judgment is nigh.

BBC Newsnight last night (9 August) ended with a fascinating, albeit depressing insight into what the Daily Mail reading lower middle classes in Britain are thinking about the impending cuts to welfare and the public sector.  Recently, the consultancy wing of Price Waterhouse Coopers carried out  what the reporter called “an act of corporate citizenship” to find out just how far people think proposed cuts should go. So off they went to Coventry and put together a small focus group – what they labelled a “citizens’ jury” – for a four-day gruel fest of briefings, discussion, feedback sessions and hotel coffee. PWC has done a lot of this kind of stuff for Labour and the Tories in recent years, all closely followed and taken seriously by BBC Newsnight. I’ll comment on the methodology later but first the results.

The focus group  first concluded that unemployment and housing benefits should be slashed to such an extent that recipients would have no choice but to get out of the house and get a job. Why, asked one young woman, should “decent hard-working tax-payers” subsidise these people? (Google this phrase for a tickle and get stuff like this). 

Child benefits should also be cut. People shouldn’t be paid to raise a family – and if they can’t afford it, they shouldn’t have children! Indeed, said the reporter, the group dared to “think the unthinkable” and suggest that child benefit should no longer be universal but means tested. Why should wealthy families be given child benefits as an automatic right? It’s just pocket money to most of them. And as for international development aid!! The “citizens jury” agreed that CamClegg Inc is wrong to protect aid from cuts. In these tough times for decent hard-working taxpayers, the poor of the world will just have to do without and maybe look after themselves for a change.

Now, if you have a left wing neuron in your brain at all, you’ll see what’s going on here. This little focus group was typical of the demographic that political parties have been tapping into for years now. It’s the conservative, working class and lower middle classes whose consent is crucial to the implementation of the neo-liberal project to downsize the state in the interests of the market; people who simmer with sullen resentment that they are being unfairly squeezed by the filthy rich from above and the lumpen proletariat from below. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t suggest cuts they thought might directly affect them. They were keen to insist that the government should ring fence spending on their education and their NHS.

We can’t of course take the results of this experiment in “corporate citizenship” as a snap shot of wider public opinion: it was neither scientific nor representative in its methodology and probably wasn’t intended to be. The focus group was selected from this narrow demographic and subjected to a series of presentations setting out the parameters of government thinking before convening to discuss them and respond.  It was hardly a surprise, then, that they all responded in one mind. In that light, I suspect it was a kite-flying exercise on behalf of CamClegg Inc – designed to test how their typical target voters might react to the impending cuts. Indeed, who should turn up for a summary feedback session at the end but Lib Dem, Danny Alexander, Treasury Chief Secretary and hatchet man.

So while we can’t draw any conclusions from the exercise about what the wider population is thinking and how they will respond, what strikes you about its results (and what the reporter seemed to miss) is the vision of Britain that it projects. Ultimately it’s a selfish society stripped of the welfare state, dominated by corporate interests and the free market, and dependent upon voluntarism and altruism from individuals tutored in selfishness by neo-liberal propaganda. Of course, it’s also an exclusive society. No worries about the very wealthy – they’ve always looked after themselves anyway. As for the poor on social welfare, they’ve been mollycoddled enough at the expense of the decent-hardworking- taxpayers of Britain. In short, then, it’s the Big Selfish Society for the lower middle class, Daily Mail reading, Tory/Lib Dem/New Labour voter. It’s Middle Britain by another name.

In The War on Jobs 2 (20 July), I wondered about how we should respond to the current economic crisis and if there are lessons we can learn from what happened in Argentina in 2002. But why Argentina eight long years ago? Why not an example nearer to home and more recently, such as Greece last May? After all, the Greeks protested in their hundreds of thousands against the savage cuts their government proposed to make under severe pressure from the IMF and those cuddly market speculators we all love. Well, there’s an important difference.

Greece says “Ochi!”

For all its troubles and its scandalous treatment at the hands of the international “community”, Greece still stands. Argentina in 2002 was on its knees. The circumstances that led to its collapse are eerily familiar when we look at what’s happening to Greece Portugal, Ireland and Spain – what the markets so charmingly call the “PIGS”.

But the response of the Argentinian people in 2002 was of a different order to the kind of brief explosions of anger we’ve seen in Europe these past few months. It was a mass popular uprising that crossed class lines and that was symptomatic of the shift in politics that was happening right across the continent – in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile to name just a few countries – where people decided to fight back against the global capitalist order that was robbing them of their livelihoods and their dignity.

The IMF in Argentina: The Biggest Bank Robbery in History

The collapse of Argentina’s economy in 2002 was a long time coming but not inevitable. It came about after twenty years of IMF-imposed stringency measures aimed at repaying the country’s external debt. For a more detailed account of these measures, see this article by Joesph Halevi in the Nation magazine online, but essentially they amounted over time to a wholesale raid on the public purse that ravaged social services and put up to 18% of the population on the dole and another 18% into underemployment – that’s 14 million people in total and the equivalent of 22 million people in the UK. It also involved a partial freeze on the bank accounts of ordinary citizens (with a limit to withdrawals of US$250 per week), leaving them in financial hardship almost overnight. It was the culmination of a concerted heist that Halevi describes as follows:

In essence, during the last twenty years [up to 2002], the Argentine population has been subjected, in sequence, to the following mechanism. The state takes upon itself the burden of the private external debt. The private sector keeps running up additional debt, while the state sells out its public activities through privatization policies, thereby generating financial profits (rents) for the private corporations whether national or international. The state then unloads the burden of debt onto the whole economy, especially the working population, by compelling the population to deliver a financial surplus at the expense of wages, social services, and public investment”.

This sounds rather familiar when we think of what’s happening right across the world today. Compare it, too, with Henry Liu’s diagnoses as cited in my post, And Now the Markets 2 (12 July).

So how did the people of Buenos Aires and beyond respond to this raid on their livelihoods and financial security? Did they form orderly queues outside their banks and shout a bit or murmur mild irritation, as did the customers of the British bank, Northern Rock, when it collapsed in July 2008?  Did they write to their MP or take part in TV programmes like Question Time or the Jeremy Kyle Show? No. This is what they did…

Taking back control

Popular resistance to the economic destruction wrought by government policies had already taken root in the country before 2002.  The mid-1990s saw the emergence of roaming picketers or piqueteros, so-called for their practice of barricading streets, roads and highways in their locale and bringing transport to a halt. Most piqueteros were unemployed so this was their only avenue of protest against the economic policies that had impoverished them. As John Jordan and Jennifer Whitney point out in their excellent eyewitness account, Qe Se Vayan Todos: Argentina’s popular uprising, the remarkable thing about the piqueteroes was the extent of popular support for their seemingly destructive tactics. Essentially, they presaged the uprising to come.

Argentina says “Qe se vyan todos!”

By 2002, the increasingly savage cuts to the public sector had pushed thousands of people onto the streets to join the piqueteroes in saying no to the government, their economic advisers, the established political parties and the IMF. “Qe se vyan todos! “ became the rallying cry. “All of them must go!” And it was this widespread feeling that the political classes had failed them that led to the creation of autonomous local assemblies, leading the Pope to voice the alarm of the established order by declaring Argentina to be in a “pre-anarchic” situation. Anarchy for the Pope, the Argentinian government and the IMF was the collapse of social order, chaos and violence in which it is difficult to do business. Anarchy for the people, though they did not all label it as such, was about taking back control of their lives, establishing cooperative structures, bartering their skills and services, occupying and running their factories, and rediscovering the meaning of community and neighbourhood.  An elderly shopkeeper told Jordan and Whitney:

Never in my whole life did I give a shit for anyone else in my neighbourhood. I was not interested in politics. But this time I realized that I had enough and I needed to do something about it.”

Forget about mainstream media accounts of the uprising in Argentina which operate within the confines of the conventional wisdom that says people power of this kind is only legitimate when it challenges the evil regime on the other side of the world. Think, for example, of the difference between media coverage of people power in Eastern Europe in 1989 and people power the very next year in Britain against the poll tax. No. If you want to really understand what happened in Argentina, then Jordan and Whitney’s inspirational article is an essential primer for further reading.

Britain says “No thank you very much!”

 

So what shall we do?

What shall I do with this new and coming hour, so unfamiliar to me?”

Federico García Lorca (1898-1936)

Of course, the uprising has had its critics within the fractious theoretical left, some of which are as afraid of this kind of people power as the established capitalist order. But the essential point they miss is this. What happened in Argentina in 2002 gave a lie to the fundamental principle of neo-liberalism: that there is no alternative. What the piqueteroes, the mass protests and the local assemblies showed was that there was an alternative; that, as Jordan and Whitney argue: 

A  choice does exist, despite the government’s blind adherence to the demands of the IMF…between sovereignty and occupation, between the local desire of people and the global demands of capital, between democracy and empire, between life and money, between hope and despair.”

Obviously, we can’t lift the specifics of the uprising and apply them wholesale to our present circumstances and possible fate in time to come but when the global financial capitalists broke down the door in Argentina and said to the people, “We are your masters now!”, the people said, “You think?”

And while we sit around thinking and debating about the destruction of democracy in our countries by the IMF and the market speculators they serve, the people of Argentina at least did something to try and take their country back. As Jordan and Whitney conclude, the lessons for us all are clear:

Perhaps the most realistic thing to imagine at the beginning of this already war-torn century, is a system free of capitalism, one without banks, without poverty, without despair, a system whose currency is creativity and hope, a system that rewards cooperation rather than competition, a system that values the will of the people over the rule of the market. One day we may look back at the absurdity of the present and remember how the people of Argentina inspired us to demand the impossible, and invited us to build new worlds which spread outwards from our own neighborhoods.”

So when we, like Frederico Lorca, ask what shall we do in this unfamiliar hour, as these cuts begin to bite and as we pay the price for the neo-liberal pillage of our public welfare, what will our answer be? Let’s hope our intellectual pessimism hasn’t quashed our optimism of will.