Friday, 25 July 2008

Transparency denied

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and opposition leader George Papandreou clashed on the niceties of whether to convene a cross-party committee to examine the results of a judicial inquiry into political transparency and party funding, or a full-blown parliamentary committee of inquiry. Papandreou wants the latter.

Karamanlis wrote to Papandreou on July 17, "Past experience, particularly the recent committee of inquiry on defence procurements, contradicts your claim that this is the most effective path. As you very well know, that committee was unable to reach the truth, whereas the justice system is now well on the heels of the culprits." The culprits in this case are assumed recipients of bribes from German electronics giant Siemens.

The discussion must have given George Zorbas, the departed head of the government's independent authority against money laundering, a chuckle. Twice, now, Karamanlis has appointed him to extraordinary investigative posts; and twice Karamanlis has been so dismayed at how good the results were that he has removed him.

As general secretary at the defence ministry in 2004, Zorbas was empowered to form case files out of dodgy arms procurements by Pasok governments. New Democracy allowed the resulting committee of inquiry to fall apart along party lines, with each party submitting its own report.

More recently, as head of a new authority to combat the laundering of money from criminal activities, Zorbas says he was actively impeded by his party when he investigated the sale of government bonds to pension funds at inflated prices.
Among other things, Zorbas says, the justice ministry didn't help him obtain judicial requests for information that was forthcoming from overseas investigators (see article on page 5). Nor did an Athens prosecutor volunteer one.

When Zorbas presented the prosecutor with a report that could produce indictments, he met with the response that the report was illegal because it wasn't signed by other members of the authority. When he attempted to present the report in parliament, an early declaration of elections last August dissolved it. Now it is Zorbas' authority itself that is being dissolved in favour of a committee beholden to the finance minister.

Zorbas' career is a case study in what happens to a politically-backed investigator who rises to high office and does his job well. In Greece he is bound to displease his backers.

In the brief history of independent authorities in Greece, some have proven successful; the ombudsman's office has documented hundreds of thousands of complaints against public authorities since it was created in 1997. The following year, after persistent abuse by government contractors, stricter controls were adopted to assure quality of work.

Other institutions have not been as successful. ASEP has not brought about a meritocratic revolution in public sector hirings; the radio and television council has been as toothless in checking the editorial and financial ethics of broadcast reporters as ESIEA has been in the press.

Laws and constitutional amendments have also stiffened party funding rules and the burden of financial reporting on parties and MPs since 2001. Yet neither MPs nor parties are subject to judicial investigation and prosecution; nor are ministers accountable for past misdeeds after a five year statute of limitations.

Clearly the rules and institutions are not designed for full disclosure, and need to be amended. But neither will their amendment entirely solve the problem of corruption in Greece if investigators are punished for doing their job. Nor is displeasure at the polls enough to keep elected officials honest. What is needed in addition is daily popular pressure to implement the law. That is what Transparency International hopes to pursue in a new grassroots campaign this autumn, revealed today in the Athens News (see interview on page 6). If the initiative works, it can help fuel the popular sense of empowerment Greeks so badly lack.

New Democracy came, in 2004, into a state already corrupted beyond recognition by Pasok. It has made attempts to clean it up, but it has also demonstrated that it hasn't the political guts and skill to come through on that promise. It compromised on its first major inquiry into arms procurements; it coopted the judiciary in fudging the bond scandal and the Zahopoulos scandal; its competitiveness committee has failed to break a single cartel; it has now distinguished itself with a massive step backwards in the abolition of an independent authority.

As New Democracy's political capital plummets and Pasok's fails to rise from the ashes, we might gain some satisfaction from the fact that Greeks are uncompromising enough to hold both to account.

The less comforting thought is that this country now has no electable party or self-declared prime minister in waiting. If the two power parties were to cooperate in a government of national unity, it would be for the sole purpose of keeping leftist Syriza, set to be the third force in parliament, from entering a coalition. Would such an alliance conduce to greater honesty in public affairs? And how long could it stave off the need for a powerful new political force?

Friday, 18 July 2008

America’s moral reconstruction

It is difficult to remember a US presidential election more important for America and the world than that taking place in November.

America is stuck in a nightmare of its own making. It is mired in a Middle Eastern war that is bringing it no strategic benefit; it is alienated from its closest and oldest allies; its economy is feeling the combined pains of a loss of manufacturing industries, plummeting confidence in the dollar and debt spending by households and the government that the financial system cannot support; it is blamed for failing to lead in climate change, which is by far the more pressing concern of the age when stood up next to security; its loss of moral prestige through unwillingness to broker a Middle Eastern peace and instead pitchforking its allies into an unnecessary war is inestimable; its armed forces are undermanned and worn out, emboldening its enemies (even defeated Russia is resurgent) and causing historians to ask whether America's moment is forever gone.

The loss of material and moral capital could hardly be more precipitous. Should the United States continue in the policies of George W Bush for another eight years, there is little doubt that the prophecies of doom would come true. American strength would be spent, its moment would indeed be over, and so might any chance of moral leadership in the world. For who can imagine that there is among the emerging strengths of the planet a country with the character of the United States?

Barack Obama has so far emerged as the only candidate who really perceives how pivotal Iraq has been to his country's demise. "To renew American leadership in the world, we must first bring the Iraq war to a responsible end and refocus our attention on the broader Middle East," he wrote in Foreign Affairs last summer, and has stuck to that position. He advocated then a precipitate withdrawal of US troops by March this year, which he has now moderated to a 16-month period. His reasoning is simple. The war in Iraq is a drain on the good fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan; it is a drain on US treasure and moral standing; and it is enabling the Iraqi government to fail rather than succeed.

The moral argument is the most potent, however. The Iraq war undermines America's standing because it was entered upon under false pretences. Not only was the case for weapons of mass destruction a misinterpretation of scanty intelligence; the Bush White House rode roughshod over the United Nations and over its own diplomats and spies, in order to preserve the fiction that its case to the Security Council in January 2003 was based on uncontested facts.

Hillary Clinton, too, has advocated a withdrawal, but she was compromised by her original vote in favour of war. So is John McCain, who went the extra mile of trying to justify the war in September 2002. He is on the record as having told CNN's Larry King that victory would be "fairly easy", and Wolf Blitzer that "we can win an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time." No doubt he meant the toppling of Saddam's forces rather than the occupation, but that is the same oversight the Bush White House made. McCain may have been taken into the confidence of the administration enough to allow him to believe what the administration believed.

Barack Obama was the only of the three candidates to have said then what he says now. It is worth quoting in full: "I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbours, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

"I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars." (Remarks made on 2 October 2002).

Those words proved prophetic, but even without the benefit of hindsight they were bold. Obama has not lost that courage since. In what has been perhaps the most impressive speech of his campaign so far, he stood by his spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even while denouncing Wright's racist remarks, in a speech in Philadelphia last March.

What makes that stand impressive is that in an incorrigible culture of political correctness, it would have been the more conventional choice for Obama to have distanced himself outright. In the event he was forced to do so when Wright persisted in his racist remarks, but the Philadelphia speech showed an aspect of Obama no other candidate seems to have: the willingness to admit an attachment to someone who is embarrassing without that being a signature under that person's views.

It is a message America sorely needs. The nation is deeply divided between those who opposed the Iraq war from the start, and those who couldn't think clearly enough in 2002 to see that there was no apparent connection between Al Qa'ida and Iraq. Neither could the Economist or the New York Times. The latter has since admitted its mistake, but perhaps many Americans feel their personal investment in the current disaster is now too deep to be entirely renounced. Obama is essentially saying that the nation is a family to which everyone belongs irrespective of past or present views.

Greece could only dream of being lucky enough to field three highly competent and relatively honest prime ministerial candidates ready to depart radically from a disastrous incumbent. John McCain and Hillary Clinton surely have the brains and guts to gradually rebuild America economically and politically; but Barack Obama seems to be the only candidate who can encourage Americans to forgive themselves for past mistakes, rectify them rather than wallow in them, restore the country's confidence and rebuild America morally.

Friday, 11 July 2008

The age of the news monoculture

Terrorism without 24-hour television is unthinkable in our time - in fact, almost pointless. As little as fifteen years ago, news of the bombing of London public transport in 2005 would have been confined to evening news broadcasts and the following day's newspapers. On July 7 of that year, though, it was the only item on US and British satellite and cable news networks throughout the day - understandably, perhaps, but to the profit of terrorists nonetheless.

The relatively new 24-hour news industry, invented by Ted Turner in 1980, came of age when it showed that it could monopolise a war with the first Gulf War of 1991. Rupert Murdoch's Fox network decided to own the second gulf war in 2003, and brought it to US audiences with a vengeance.

This breed of exclusively news-filled networks does not fare well in languid times, but their genius lies in the illusion that they are faster to gather the news because they are faster in showing it. Their viewership accordingly shoots up the moment there is a crisis.

This forms an unfortunate alliance between terrorists and the most effective news delivery systems yet invented. And the 24 hour news coverage syndrome is now affecting the mainstream. Non-24 hour news networks have learned to cut into their regular programming with breaking news as a point of style, and the internet has emerged as a kind of live, 24 hour newspaper. Search engines are partly judged on their ability to dredge the most important news stories from the world wide web.
In his first comments after the 2005 bomb blasts, British Prime Minister Tony Blair lamented the fact that the coordnated attack seemed "designed and aimed to coincide with the opening of the G-8."

He said, "It's particularly barbaric that this has happened on a day when people are meeting to try to help the problems of poverty in Africa and the long-term problems of climate change in the environment."

Blair was quite right. The G8 were meeting at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland, and the terrorists were pointedly stealing his media spotlight on his home turf as he tried to even the inequalities between the rich and poor hemispheres, and to reverse global warming - admittedly, perhaps the two greatest threats to global stability. Yet in this massive distraction from humanity's true challenges, the terrorists' greatest allies were the Western broadcast media, and by wiping all else from the minds of viewers they demonstrated a power over elected governments to set their electorate's agenda.

The monoculture of a particular news story at times when it is breaking is, for most of us, not strictly necessary. Focusing on a single story does not increase the speed with which the story unfolds, but it does reassure viewers just tuning in that whatever news may transpire - such as a press conference or an eye-witness report - will be dealt with in 'real time'.

At times of the greatest urgency, therefore, broadcasters spend most of their time regurgitating the scraps of information they have and discussing what they don't know as news. Networks get away with this because they treat audiences to the thrill of blowing open the newsgathering process by eliminating the production process. There is no vetting of sources or careful script editing; there is just the throwing onto air whatever can be found to beat the opposition.

Although few of us would admit it, the only real reason for eliminating all other news is one of entertainment - giving people the mesmerising news item all of the time. Voyeuristically replaying the video of aeroplanes crashing into New York's Twin Towers, showing again and again the moment of death for hundreds of firefighters as the towers collapsed, was, to the incredulous viewing public of September 11, 2001, somehow acceptable. It was momentarily unnecessary to ration some of the most traumatising footage the world had seen since 1945 for when networks had something to say over it.

That, after all, is the point of terrorism - to strike fear into the hearts of many by magnifying a limited capability. Being a live medium, 24-hour television contains the dramatic element and, unlike the internet, which is an essentially individual tool, it broadcasts to an audience aware of the simultaneity of the experience, which enhances it.

We cannot now turn back the clock. We live, irrevocably, in our own global, 24-hour live drama series. But we can, at least, be aware of the virtues and dangers of our situation.

Our media environment has the power to keep us abreast of more information than any previous generation had at its fingertips. Rapid transmission of images and sounds can allow viewers to judge for themselves aspects of a news story. But it can also more easily expose us to spurious sources and condition us to anger and fear. It can inure us to the coverage that counts, and by its sheer size, the news industry as a whole can be an effective tool for mass manipulation. Merely to be aware of this is to begin to build a new immunity for a new age.