7 Jan 2015

Today's media language a little
too much like 1984's Newspeak

Newspeak is the fictional language in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by George Orwell. It is a controlled language created by the totalitarian state as a tool to limit freedom of thought and concepts that pose a threat to the regime.

Canada is not Orwell’s imaginary society where peoples’ every thoughts and ideas are controlled by The Party, but our own powerful elite has pushed our media closer to censorship and a propaganda-feeding machine than I ever imagined possible.

Our elite include the wealthy, corporate executives, private media, and the Harper government. As Orwell wrote in his novel, the elite understand that if they have strong influence over media they can limit serious criticism of the tremendous changes they impose on ordinary people.

CBC's At Issue: Anderson, Hébert, Mansbridge, Coyne
All but one of Canada’s 118 daily newspapers and all four of its private television networks support the business-dominated ideology of the elite and the Harper government. The CBC has some excellent, independent minded programming, but CBC management is so terrified of Stephen Harper that it doesn’t allow the boat to be rocked.

Of course journalists are allowed to write stories that are politely critical of the Harper government, one of the links in the chain of power, but far too often stories focus on the government’s strategy to overcome an image problem.

For instance, consider The Globe and Mail’s front page treatment on Monday of the demotion of Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino. Instead of talking about how the change will allow the government to improve services for veterans, it dealt entirely with Stephen Harper trying to improve the image of the government going into an election.

Worse still, mainstream journalists are censored and not permitted to investigate the powers and activities of the elite, such as executives from energy corporations, banks or multi-national corporations. Even though the world economy is in tatters, mainstream journalists are not permitted to question the weaknesses of capitalism.

On the other hand, journalists don’t report favourably on “troublemakers” such as union leaders and environmentalists.

Interestingly, elites and the media establishment have such strong control over the language we use that mainstream journalists are prohibited from writing or uttering the phrase ‘neo-liberalism’, even though this is the name of the far right-wing ideological system the Harper government has used to change Canada. This is too similar to Orwell’s Newspeak, a language in which unacceptable political ideas have been removed.

Our North American elite and our subservient media long ago decided that positive references to socialism and communism – both forms of politics practiced across Europe – were unacceptable. In Orwell’s 1984, using words that had been officially removed from the dictionary because they were politically incorrect was called Oldspeak.

Our Canadian elite monitor mainstream news and complain to media executives when a story is too critical of one of its members or a favored institution. The servant-like media executive almost always apologizes, and may have a ‘conversation’ with the offending journalist. Not exactly the media environment described in 1984, but nevertheless such practices have a chilling effect on today’s journalism.

Canadian mainstream media wasn’t always like this. I remember 20 or 30 years ago when panelists expressed their true opinions, and often argued about whether government was doing a good job of serving the public. The wellbeing of ordinary people was paramount. The key points were often around whether government was ethical, honourable and serving society.

A highpoint were the discussions heard weekly on Peter Gzowski’s CBC Radio Morningside featuring the insightful and heartfelt views of Stephen Lewis (left), Eric Kierans (middle) and Dalton Camp (right). Hundreds-of-thousands of Canadians tuned in to hear these three intellectuals discuss and argue key issues in a way that engaged ordinary folk.

Today, the influence of the elite flows so strongly into the media world that practically all TV and radio panelists and newspaper columnists are censored or self-censored. Two progressive journalists who appear on different CBC panels confidently told me they are careful about what they say for fear of losing their spot on their programs.

Both CTV (Robert Fife’s Question Period) and Global (Tom Clark’s The West Block) make sure that their politics programs in no way challenge conventional thinking on the Hill or on Bay Street. Over at CBC’s News Network Power and Politics, Evan Solomon does the best job of pushing politicians for honest answers, but is careful to stay within the boundaries of what’s acceptable to discuss.

The politics program that comes closest to following a Newspeak-type language is CBC’s The National Thursday night media program, At Issue. Hosted by CBC Chief News Editor Peter Mansbridge, its’ usual panelists are Andrew Coyne of Postmedia/National Post, Toronto Star columnist Chantel Hébert, and the non-journalist member, consultant Bruce Anderson of Abacus Data.

At Issue discussions are very controlled. Panelists don’t say anything that will annoy the elite. Although Parliament is the place where tons of legislation is produced that affects the country, this four seldom, if ever, say whether a new program is, or is not, in the public interest.

At Issue never deals with lofty topics. Instead, almost all episodes discuss what strategy XX party will adopt in response to whatever move YY party has made.  Strategy and positioning of politicians are the big topics. An entire segment can be eaten up with pompous answers to questions that have very little significance 1,000 yards from Parliament Hill.

During their year-end program, the four discussed Mansbridge’s earlier wimpish interview with Harper.   Harper adopted a smiling, nice-guy persona for the Mansbridge interview. Harper’s polite tone and demeanor – obviously a PR strategy – was at odds with the way he has bullied the country for nine years.

Mansbridge’s first question to his panel was a perfect example of what’s wrong with the program. He asked: “Was there anything new about Stephen Harper or the way he’s positioning himself (my emphasis) going into an election year?”

This gave panelists an excellent opportunity to speculate about whether Harper’s smiling presence in the Mansbridge interview was for real, or an attempt to control the nature of the interview. But, as though guided by the laws of Newspeak, the three lapped up everything Harper had to say. They were like naïve j-school graduates who had forgotten one of journalism’s key laws: Pay attention to what politicians do, not to what they say they will do.

Coyne thought he heard a hint that Harper might do a flip-flop on climate change. [Had he been there, Harper might have said to Coyne: Gee thanks for putting that out there. That should help confuse people].

Hébert, said Harper needed the next few months to re-introduce himself to people who voted for him in 2011. [Harper to Hébert: Thanks for the advice. Just what I was thinking.]

Anderson said he thought that Harper’s approach of painstakingly explaining his electoral positioning “will work better with most voters who are at least open to the idea of voting Conservative.”[Harper to Anderson: Glad you liked my performance].

Toward the end of the program, Mansbridge asked a very important question: He wanted to know whether his panel members thought Harper had accomplished what he said he would do in 2006: Change Canada so much by the time he was through that we wouldn’t recognize the country?

There it was: THE question on the minds of millions of Canadians. Four of the country’s so-called media celebrities had a chance to say how much damage they felt Harper had done.

Speaking in turn, Coyne, Hébert and Anderson did a little tap dance, and then stated that Harper had not changed Canada in any meaningful way.

Hello! Has Harper not altered our tax system to make the rich and corporations even more wealthy, while allowing the middle class to slide into greater debt? Has he not put our national health care system on a path to be financially unstainable?  Are there not 1,000 more ways he has tried to destroy the Canada we have known?

This is where mainstream journalism finds itself in 2015.  And just like the citizens of Orwell’s Oceania were subjected to massive control and censorship, our society is subjective to much less information control, but nevertheless control that prevents us from having access to vital information and that undermines our basic democracy.

Our right-wing corporate mainstream media may never provide fair and balanced journalism. Except for the CBC – and no one knows what will happen there – all of our big media is owned by corporations that are part of the capitalist world. The country cries out for independent news sites to either expand or join with other groups to establish a supersite that could begin to compete with their Newspeak rivals.

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17 Dec 2014

Climate talks suffer a setback, chances of strong deal in Paris a longshot

With yet another United Nations high level conference making very little, if any, real progress on slowing climate change, a near miracle will be required if countries are to reach a meaningful and binding global agreement on carbon emissions in Paris next December.

10,000 march in Lima in support of a strong agreement they never got.

The "Lima Call for Climate Action" document, agreed to on Sunday by 194 countries, is not a new “deal” for the climate, as conference observer Green Party Leader Elizabeth May pointed out. It is a 12-month work plan leading to the final meeting in Paris.

One major change – a setback for some developing countries – expects nations with ‘riding economies’, such as China, Brazil and India, to begin taking action on climate change in much the same way rich countries are expected to contribute.

In what appears to be another setback for the South, the North started to squirm and wriggle its way out of a 20-year hotly disputed demand by Southern countries that northern nations must bear the cost of cleaning up the environment in Southern regions damaged by Northern industrial development.

One of the few positive advances was a promise that countries already seriously threatened by exceptional climate change, such as small islands being swallowed up by rising seas, will receive special compensation for their losses.

Deadlocked and unable to agree on details, negotiators pushed decisions on many crucial issues forward into 2015.

Even so, following the meetings, which were extended by two days in an effort to reach any kind of an agreement, a spokesman for the European Union said “we are on track to agree to a global deal” at the Paris summit.

Nearly every NGO disagreed. A frustrated Sam Smith of the World Wildlife Fund said “the text went from weak to weaker to weakest, and it’s very weak indeed.”

2C in danger under this plan

Non-governmental organizations warned the plan was not nearly strong enough to limit climate warming to the internationally agreed limit of two degrees Celsius. Even at current levels, more than seven million people, mostly in developing countries, are already dying  yearly from air pollution.

Canada, represented by a delegation that included Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, once again failed to speak out in favour of steps that would reduce carbon emissions. Because it plans to make use of its huge coal reserves, Australia was the other outcast at the conference.

Meanwhile, an Environics survey of 2,020 Canadians last week revealed that the public is concerned about climate change, apparently more than the federal government. Fifty per cent of respondents were "extremely" or "definitely" concerned about a changing climate, and 78 per cent of those fear the kind of legacy it will leave for future generations.

It is clear that if the world is to have a meaningful climate change agreement 12 months from now, countries need to overcome enormous challenges.

To begin with, whether the UN-led process itself will produce a meaningful agreement is in great doubt. The UN has been hosting these meetings for 20 years, and the results have been dismal. The UN is only a facilitator in the process and has absolutely no power – other than persuasion – to force an agreement.

In the North, governments protect their economies and their relationship with wealthy donors before they consider the dangers of climate change. And developing countries relying on dirty energy such as coal need to generate energy to help their huge populations survive.

The new Peru document is extremely vague in that says wealthy nations will help developing countries fight climate change by investing in energy technology or offering climate aid. It’s impossible to see how southern countries can deal with their massive environmental issues.  Earlier, the North was expected to provide $10 billion a year.

In addition, northern countries reiterated they expect the more industrialized developing countries to cut back on carbon emissions. But this is unlikely to happen any time soon. China and India, the two biggest developing country polluters, say they need to burn millions of tonnes of coal so they can develop their economies.

Corporate lobby dictating to North

The public interest group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) says that lobbying  by powerful multinational corporations is preventing developed countries from making a stronger commitment to the climate change fight. They say that companies and their lobbying organizations claim that stronger emission controls would result in the loss of many thousands of jobs.

The corporate sector was out in full force in Lima. Shell Oil was permitted to speak at the main session about its preferred way of fighting carbon emissions -- carbon capture and storage (CCS), a still unproven technology. Another oil giant, Chevron, was permitted to sponsor side events inside the negotiations.

Meanwhile, 82 NGOs and one international NGO were unable to participate in any meaningful way because they had only observer status. The various drafts of the agreement were negotiated in secret, and anyone making a statement was kept to three minutes. No Canadian NGO participated at the conference.

NGOs had so little status in Lima that they needed approval from the UN concerning what slogans could be placed on their protest banners. Neither countries nor corporations were allowed to be named on the banners. A march by 10,000 protesters had no impact on the proceedings.

NGOs plan to be more powerful

NGOs are upset over the limited role they are permitted to play in UN climate talks, as well as the lack of impact they are having around the globe. As a result, the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory released a 118-page document  outlining plans to strengthen and radicalize the movement leading up to and during the Paris conference.

Looking ahead to next year, the Peru agreement calls on countries to show by March how they will cut carbon emissions, but there’s no penalty if they fail to do so. The UN will then see if the pledges will be enough to limit climate warming to two degrees Celsius.

Given the track record of most countries of holding back on climate change commitments, it’s likely the UN and all 194 countries will be operating in crisis mode again next year.

For now, delegates are returning home to get some well-deserved rest. But they can be expected to be back working hard right after the New Year, working toward pulling off a miracle in Paris.

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2 Dec 2014

What needs to happen to
save and rebuild the CBC

The CBC, and particularly CBC Radio, is easily Canada’s most important cultural and public interest institution.

I say this not so much as someone who worked at the Corporation during the glory days of the 1970s and '80s but, like so many other people, a kid who was brought up in a home that was always watching and listening to the CBC.

Residing in a small village in Nova Scotia, we greatly appreciated the voices and images, ranging from Clyde Gilmour’s 40-year run of Gilmour’s Albums  on radio to the hard-nosed journalism of Norman DePoe on TV.

But after decades of serving and educating Canadians, Stephen Harper’s vicious cuts have brought the organization to its knees.

Can the CBC be saved and restored? Probably. But it will take some time and some good luck, as well as some heavy duty political lobbying.