Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The revolution has not been televised.

I don't know about you, but I've been following the so-called Turkish Spring with some interest. I have friends in Istanbul, and Turkish politics are really interesting. I'm a bit torn, too: my political instincts are with the protestors on the streets, and Erdogan's dictatorial style and conservative politics are pretty repulsive. However: he's a democratically elected prime minister with a lot more support than Western media reflect: Turkey is a huge country with a very, very conservative 'silent majority'. I also think that it's important to see democratically elected Islamist governments survive. Turkey's army sees itself as defenders of secularism, rather than democracy, and it's intervened to overthrow governments before. If religiously-inclined voters are refused a legitimate route to democratic power, with whatever checks and balances remain, they'll turn away from democracy entirely. Look at Iran and Algeria.

Democracy isn't served either by Erdogan cracking down according to his whims and prejudices, nor is it served by protestors claiming a mandate they clearly don't have. This is not a revolutionary situation: a majority is not being oppressed by a minority. A minority is being punished for highlighting the abuse of power by an authoritarian regime and their resistance is heroic, but this isn't a Turkish Spring. It's a call for democratic renewal.

Does that sound mimsy, liberal and confused? Well, I am all those things so I don't mind so much.

It's also a useful case study in the entwinement of power and the media. Look at this photo I culled from the web.

On the left is CNN's Turkish feed. On the right is CNN's international output, both at 1.06 a.m. on June 2nd. It's a beautiful example of the global news' corporations complicity with authority, and of their hypocrisy. More concerned with shareholder value and access to lucrative markets, CNN has chosen to selectively repress the major story of the moment, hoping that we won't notice. The Turkish government's happy, and those of outside the country assume that the news is the news everywhere.

It's not just CNN of course: I'm sure most other global news outlets censor their output for commercial and political reasons. The most famous example was Murdoch's decision to drop BBC from his Star satellite in the 1990s to ensure continued access to China, but I have no doubt the BBC does the same. And of course all our web sources behave even worse: tailored Google searches in China and the like. Even Plashing Vole is affected: my address suddenly acquired a '.co.uk' terminal rather than '.com', solely so that 'contentious' content can be blocked on a country-by-country basis. Just in case I mention that I think our arms-buying customers in Saudi Arabia run the most repressive regime on the planet. Oops! Bye, Riyadh! I still love you! 

So anyway, be very wary when corporate information dealers tell that they oppose 'doing evil', or that (in James Murdoch's phrase), 'profit is the only guarantor of free speech'. They're the ultimate in cultural relativists. CNN no doubt will defend itself by saying it is reporting on Turkey and has done its job to the best of its abilities. It has a fairly comprehensive website on the situation (I have no idea whether Turks can view it) which even – and this amuses me hugely – a section headed Do Turks Have Freedom Of Speech?
Last month, Emma Sinclair-Webb, from Human Rights Watch, said that one of Turkey's "most fundamental human rights problems is in fact intolerance of free speech."
"Politicians regularly sue journalists for defamation. Editors and publishers are mostly unwilling to permit much criticism of the government for fear of harming their bosses' other business interests," Sinclair-Webb said.
"The European Court of Human Rights has found over and over that Turkey has violated free speech. But prosecutors, courts, and government figures are still applying different standards to Turkey, muzzling views they don't want to hear," she said.
What a shame that CNN didn't see fit to mention its own role in voluntarily censoring its own work. I notice too that the author of the report carefully didn't answer the question, preferring to cite other people's opinions. CNN isn't some cyclostyled rag which can be shut down by cracking a few heads: CNN is a big bad corporation which would cause a global outcry should Erdogan interfere with its coverage. But this is never going to happen because 'news values' don't drive its agenda: business interests do. The Turkish government doesn't need to censor CNN, because CNN is perfectly happy to censor itself rather than annoy the powers that be.

Lord Northcliffe once said this:
News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising. 
CNN, its competitors and its search equivalents aren't news. They're just advertising. Or as Fred Friendly once said:
Television makes so much [money] at its worst that it can't afford to do its best.
And while I'm at it with the quotes, two more which are relevant to the situation:
The bigger the information media, the less courage and freedom they follow. Bigness means weakness.
Eric SevareidIf the newspapers of a country are filled with good news, the jails of that country will be filled with good people.
Daniel Moynihan 
Keep them in mind even when you can't see the evidence.

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