Red Line: News of the World, famine in Africa, Jiang Zemin

Jiang Zemin.   Source: Reuters

Jiang Zemin. Source: Reuters

Each week, Voice of Russia hosts Red Line, a discussion about the events of the week, as seen from Moscow. This week, the News of the World scandal, famine in Africa, and Jiang Zemin.

Participants: Ekaterina Kudashkina, Sergei Strokan, Mira Salganik, Christine Patterson, Giulietto Chiesa, Ian Bray, Gabriel Negatu

Ekaterina Kudashkina: This time our program focuses on issues somehow or another related to the media, its role, and its influence on the small world we’re all living in.

We start with the loudest scandal of the week, the case of Rupert Murdoch, or the “News of the World” Scandal, if you prefer. We will then move on to a role the world media has not played – the role of whistleblower in the face of the biggest humanitarian disaster in recent decades, famine in the Horn of Africa. And finally we’ll look at the tricks media can play. Last week the world media was appalled at the absence of Jiang Zemin at an important party celebration in China and made lots of speculations, which turned out to be wrong.

To our first section – Beyond the Headlines – and the “News of the World” scandal has really been soaring way beyond the headlines. Although this story has been unraveling for a number of years, I am sure no one expected it to evolve into a huge explosion like this.

Sergei Strokan: That’s true. It was rather difficult to imagine that the story would result in British Prime Minister David Cameron winding up his African tour to be questioned by the British Parliament.

Mira Salganik: And it was even more difficult to imagine Rupert Murdoch issuing his apologies to British MPs.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: I am pretty sure that there are numerous aspects for the scandal. I am not sure the future of Murdoch’s business empire comes first on the agenda right now. I get the impression that even in a story like this, politicians are trying to capitalize on dramatic developments, but they don’t seem to move to address the ultimate cause of it.

Let me explain what I mean. Everyone seems to be coming down on David Cameron, for example. At the recent hearings in the UK Parliament this Wednesday, opposition leader Ed Miliband said that Cameron had to make a full apology for hiring Andy Coulson as his Director of Communications. And now politicians in Great Britain are discussing whether the government should introduce more stringent rules regulating the media. And that, to me, is a double-edged sword. 

Mira Salganik: That would be foolish! After all, it was the press who uncovered the scandal in the first place. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: We are now joined by Christine Patterson , a long-time columnist for the UK newspaper “The Independent.” 

Christine Patterson: I think it is a fantastically complex issue, and I think that in one sense what it comes down to is the decline of journalism and ownership of the media. Very, very rich people are not always particularly nice, but the newspapers won’t survive without very, very rich people unless somebody comes up with an alternative funding model. I think clearly there have been very big and specific problems associated with the Murdoch empire, but to be honest, I think it is extremely unlikely that phone hacking was limited to the “News of the World.”

The tabloid culture in this country has relied on that kind of intrusive investigation into people’s lives, which certainly is unpleasant, but you could argue it is the price you pay; I am not saying the illegal stuff, but the intrusion. You could say that it is the price you pay for a free media, which has resulted in the British press being, I think, one of the very best in the world.

It is investigative journalism that uncovered this story, and the police failed to, and the politicians were too frightened to, so absolutely it is the free press that has enabled this to happen. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Do you think that this scandal might perhaps change the situation or everything will just remain as it is? 

Christine Patterson: I would say that it is very unlikely that News Internationaljournalists are going to be involved in phone hacking in the immediate future. I think that probably everyone will be going on about ethics. Maybe, there will be some noticeable results in newspapers, but I think there might well be bigger results that won’t be nearly as desirable. The much bigger issue is who is going to pay for journalism, because people don’t want to pay for it anymore, they want to do it online. I have to say again that Rupert Murdoch, to his credit, at least tried to tackle that issue, with the pay walls for the Times, and he is one of the people who has made some kind of success of that. Everyone else expected to get this stuff for free, and of course, when you get stuff for free you don’t buy the paper, so essentially all these newspapers are in major decline, and if nobody is going to pay for any of it, then there is not going to be any professional journalists, and there are not going to be any undercover operations like this. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: On the other hand, it is perhaps the money that has been driving those people from the News of the World to seek information at any cost. 

Christine Patterson: I don’t think it is the money, I think it is their job. A newspaper is quite a scary place to work. An editor can be a bit like an emperor. If the editor is telling you that you have to fill your pages, and they want just a kind of story that nobody else has unearthed, I can absolutely see why people would be driven to use methods most people wouldn’t consider to be hugely acceptable. The editors don’t want to know what methods are being used, all they want to know is the result. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: The ripples from the scandal have already reached Mr. Murdoch’s own country – Australia. The government said it is looking at strengthening privacy laws because of public concern over media intrusion in the wake of the “News of the World” scandal.  Australian Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor wrote a piece for The Australian newspaper saying – let me quote: "The News of the World phone hacking drama is making people across the world sit up and think about their own media landscape: what's acceptable and what's not." And I think this is one of the key issues of the whole scandal. 

Sergei Strokan:  I can understand his concern. The Australian division of News Corp. controls 70 percent of Australia's newspaper readership market. The Murdoch case is really a unique one. He’s extremely tough, he’s a fighter. When they asked him if he was going to resign over the scandal, he said “No! I feel that people I trusted have let me down and I think they behaved disgracefully, betrayed the company and me, and it's for them to pay. I'm the best person to clean this up." 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: He’s tough. But to me he is also a symbol of a very specific culture, of a specific approach that focuses on selling information like any other kind of merchandise. His principle is “Let the market make its choice.” Anything could be published if demand is there. 

Mira Salganik: You can produce any kind of sausage if the demand is there. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Yes,but if we talk of sausages, it is one thing. But to me if we talk about information, it is entirely different. Just imagine those tabloids, they are playing on people’s not-so-noble desire to peep into the lives of others. To me it is immoral. 

Mira Salganik: I think that the trouble with the media and with Rupert Murdoch’s empire is that they are selling, imposing on many millions of minds philosophy of consumption. 

Sergei Strokan: But let me also just put a word. You said that information is a commodity, I think both yes and no. I am 30 years in the profession, and I think definitely that information is more than a commodity, it is not just a car or a house, or real estate, so this is a powerful instrument, and this whole story reveals that information is not just a commodity only, you may change governments, you may influence public opinion. 

Mira Salganik: I don’t agree with you, it is not an instrument, it is a weapon, and a very strong weapon. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: But Sergei, have you noticed the recent trend that information now is being treated more like merchandise? 

Sergei Strokan: This is very personal, and I was looking at this scandal in a different way. For a large part of the world the British media served as an icon. I remember how in 1993 I was undergoing some lectures in the British School of Practical Journalism in Cardiff, in the UK, and I remember my lecturer who was telling that it is an extremely sensitive way how to handle the information, and what to do if the journalist, for example, is getting information which he has to reveal due to his professional ethics, on the one hand, on the other hand, he should be aware that this information can seriously jeopardize political interest. And look – 15 years after still there is no answer to this question. I think that what this scandal revealed is that we should not just say that the British media is an icon, and, say, the Russian media is bad, so everywhere there is good media and bad media, there are good journalists and bad journalists. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: I want to stand up for the British media, because to me the British media was the media that unveiled the scandal.

But getting back to our story. I have another question. There is demand that comes from the readership, from the public, but there can also be different demand from political elite. Doesn’t it contradict the principles of the freedom of the press? We discussed these issues with our next guest speaker, Giulietto Chiesa, Italian journalist and politician. 

Giulietto Chiesa: This crisis is not a Murdoch crisis, this is a manifestation of a general crisis. From the economic point of view, the information became merchandized, and if the information is merchandized, you will produce for millions of people very bad, false, manipulating information. The tabloid is the worst example, but it even the most significant newspapers have created the same situation. Look at the New York Times. Last year we knew that many journalists of the New York Times were paid to write things very useful for the Pentagon, we knew that the Pentagon has a program to produce false information, and this information has gone everywhere in the world.

In this situation, the independence of information from the market of goods and from the other side, the independence of information from the political leadership of every country is reducing itself almost daily. There is a very straight connection between the power and the mainstream media, the two are serving each other, they are working to hide the most important information and to create false information to make the public discuss stupid things. They are telling the story of the power and not the story of the people. It means very simply the end of democracy, because the single man in the street, - in Italy, in Germany, in England, in the United States, etc, - has no instrument to verify what they are telling. Ok, somebody says the alternative is the Internet, but it is also an illusion to a big extent, because the Internet has been occupied by this so-called social network, and the social network also is already been used for that reason.

We have to change the rules of the information, we have to eliminate from the information system all the advertising. The only way to reproduce a more or less normal situation is to avoid publicity and advertising from all the television channels. We need some kind of public investment in this direction. Information is a common good, it is an essential instrument of democracy, for that reason states are obliged to give to the people the possibility to accede to good information.  

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Ekaterina Kudashkina: The scandal has made it rather difficult for David Cameron to defend his case for an increase in development aid for troubled countries. During his visit to South Africa and Nigeria he discussed the issue, as well as the aid to the suffering countries in the Horn of Africa, and that brings us to the next section of our program – Between the Lines – in which we usually talk about a most notable – and provocative – publication of the week. This time it’s an opinion from Paddy Ashdown, president of UNICEF UK, published by The Guardian under the title “Somalia's 'children's famine' has been ignored.” This famine has been reduced to a footnote in the media's eyes by more sensational events.

Let me quote from the piece: “In today's newspapers – from front to back – I was hoping to see the media use their power and influence to tell this story. I hoped to see headlines shouting that millions of women and children in Somalia, and across the entire Horn of Africa, are struggling for survival and need the British public to help. But I didn't.”

He concludes the piece with another quote: “The media also have a major role in the response to disasters. As former BBC producer Suzanne Franks pointedly wrote in the British Journalism Review: "Disasters – natural or man-made – exist only when they are covered by the media” 

Sergei Strokan: Yes, Mira. Children are the first ones to suffer in famine. They are less protected than the adults. And it’s true that the media was not focusing on it for quite a while. But now there are lots of headlines accusing the world community of moving too slowly to counter the crisis. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: I’ve been speaking to experts, both in Africa and in Europe, and they were all telling me that the degree of awareness is extremely low, and besides, there’s what they are calling donor fatigue. With budget spending cuts, and a prospect of new bailouts and new defaults looming – national governments are reluctant to offer help. 

Mira Salganik: Which doesn’t make sense. Even from a totally pragmatic perspective. No one is going to gain from a worsening situation there. 

Sergei Strokan: You know, Mira, people are reluctant to give money because they are not sure that the money would go to help the hungry. And there’s also the al-Shabaab extremists, operating mainly in the south of the country, worst hit by the drought. Just who do you think would venture to go to a country that for the last two decades has been torn apart by a full-scale civil war? 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Now we are joined by our expert, Mr. Ian Bray of Oxfam. Mr. Bray, please, tell me how does your organization see the way the international community is reacting to the humanitarian crisis in Somalia? 

Ian Bray: Well, it is reacting very slowly and not very generously, with the exception of the UK government which has been leading the charge as far as responding financially to this; many of the other governments are not responding as generously as they should do. There is now $800 million black hole in the aid response. The other governments in Europe, in the United States, in Canada need to step up to the plate; they really do have to fund these huge aid efforts that require to save lives, ten million people’s lives, more than ten million people’s lives are at risk here. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Mr. Bray, I also know that Oxfam says that perhaps the international aid system might benefit from some sort of a shake-up? 

Ian Bray: Yes, they do need a radical shake-up, so that we pop first and foremost the needs of people who are at risk – that is so important, that is the reasons why aid is given and it should be on need and need alone. What we do not want to see is aid being driven by particular foreign policies or by security concerns, we should be responding to people’s needs. 

Mira Salganik: This is a horrible example of a combination of a natural disaster and a man-made one. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: That is also a point made by Gabriel Negatu, regional director for East Africa at the African Development Bank. 

Gabriel Negatu: The scope is still unfolding. I think from January early this year it was estimated that food insecure population was estimated to be around 2 million, and it is now much more than that, and cost of food has risen by an average of 270 percent over the past year, and the commodity prices have gone up. The lack of available food and the inability of people, the lack of purchasing power to buy food has aggravated, and, I suspect when all is said and done a much bigger number, I hate to even project what the number could be, but it ranges from 5 million to 10 million people, who could be affected. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: So the present crisis actually is not constricted to Somalia alone, but it is rather a regional crisis, it is going to have regional implications if not treated? 

Gabriel Negatu: The epicenter of the crisis is Somalia; then you have people migrating to neighboring countries, so a large population is crossing the border into Ethiopia, into refugee camps, and even a larger population is crossing over into Kenya. The drought itself has affected countries from Uganda to Kenya, to Somalia, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, but if you have to differentiate between the drought and the famine, the famine is in Somalia proper.

At the African Development Bank, we have just approved an emergency assistance program for Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti – four countries; we are providing emergency assistance fund through the WFP (World Food Program) for the purchase and distribution of food, but the crisis, if it is not contained, could very easily spread into the Southern Sudan, further to Uganda, because people are migrating, people are moving out in search of food and water. So addressing it, containing it within the immediate regional Somalia is important, if not this it could spread very easily to the entire region with great consequences. 

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Ekaterina Kudashkina: And now we are moving on to Red Line’s concluding heading, Face in the News. This week it is the face of Mr. Jiang Zemin, former President of China and General Secretary of China’s Communist Party. Jiang Zemin’s name hit the world headlines as he was conspicuously absent at celebrations marking the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China on July 1. 

Sergei Strokan: Mr. Jiang Zemin, who is now 84, President of China from 1989 to 2003, took the helm of the world's largest economy, yet by the time he had handed the presidency over to Hu Jintao, China had become one of the world's most powerful economies. 

Mira Salganik: Jiang Zemin’s absence has prompted tea-leaf reading political analysts and the Beijing gossip mill to speculate that he was too sick to appear in public.

Sergei Strokan: However, a week later Hong Kong's Asia Television interrupted its main evening newscast to announce that Jiang had died! The announcement virtually exploded world media.  ATV kept up the news for several hours on a ticker promising to air a special report on Jiang's life late in the evening. 

Mira Salganik: In the meantime, the Shandong News website in northeast China posted a black banner with white characters, saying "Our Respectable Comrade Jiang Zemin Is Immortal." The next morning it was no longer accessible. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: As a matter of fact, it was the fault of the Chinese web censors, who lent a lot of credence to the rumors by trying to scotch them. There is no doubt that were a dignitary of Mr. Jiang’s stature dead, the government of China could not  but announce his demise  and give an appropriate  state send-off to the former head of state and Communist party. 

Mira Salganik:  A more plausible version has recently appeared in the Japanese paper Asahi Shimbun, which reported that Jiang Zemin’s brain is dead but his body is being kept alive through an artificial respirator. This report is echoing what has been passed around among insiders and China watchers. Moreover, it is rumored that Jiang’s family has given approval to pull the plug, but it needs the final approval of the “inner echelon” of the Chinese Communist Party. 

Sergei Strokan: I think that China’s secretiveness is notorious, but the Chinese authorities are particularly sensitive in matters of Chinese leaders’ private life, especially their health problems. These are guarded like state secrets, no less. 

Mira Salganik: Why, Sergei, don’t you remember that the Soviet leaders seemingly had no private lives at all? And no health problems either! They inhabited an opaque world of their own, people knew just their names, their faces and speeches at formal occasions - nothing beyond it! 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: That is another side of the coin that is called privacy. 

Sergei Strokan: I believe that private life is private life, but in a democratic society, people have a legitimate right to know what is going on with their leaders, and I think that it is an abnormal situation when just for weeks people have to trade rumors. 

One should never forget that in China many things are done in a traditional manner that is seldom understood by observers outside China. So let us try to look at the political situation in China as it is today. Jiang Zemin more than a decade after he stepped down in favor of Hu, still retained enormous power within the Party, government and military and was still consulted on many issues. He was like a shadow leader - at least, until recent weeks. 

Mira Salganik: There are speculations in the western media that Jiang Zemin could even have a word in choosing President Hu’s successor – you remember that Hu is to step down in 2012. 

Sergei Strokan: “Selectorate” is an apt term!  Retired leaders are also thought to have a say in the selection of the next Politburo Standing Committee – the top decision-making body – which is due to see seven of its nine members retire next year. And for all that we know Mr. Jiang might have a say in shaping the new power balance – he might be too weak to appear in public yet strong enough to exert his influence in state and party affairs! 

Mira Salganik:  Getting access to any information is no problem in the Internet age, yet establishing the accuracy of it is at a premium – because it is more and more difficult to verify it, to be sure of it. Now we are getting back to what we have been talking about all the time along. The point is that the Chinese government could have stopped the whole scandal by issuing a simple statement that we are very sorry for the rumors, but our dear Jiang Zemin is alive. That is all! Instead they tried to scorch the rumors spread by the bloggers. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: But it is also the indiscriminate handling of information or – how shall I put it – the downright manipulation of it that sets you thinking.

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