CANBERRA – The world has not been short of really big, consequential stories the past few weeks, from the volatility of China’s markets to the drama of Greece in the eurozone and the endgame of negotiations to ring-fence Iran’s nuclear program from weapons. Meanwhile in Australia, a royal commission into union shenanigans has come close to ensnaring Bill Shorten, leader of the opposition Labor Party. With impeccable timing and questionable judgment, Prime Minister Tony Abbott distracts attention from these stories and keeps alive the controversy over government meddling in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
On Friday Abbott indicated willingness to lift his unilaterally imposed boycott on his frontbenchers appearing on ABC’s popular Q&A program if the program was moved to the ABC’s news and current affairs division. Abbott’s demand amounts to an ultimatum that the ABC cannot accept without totally destroying its credibility. Oversight of the ABC is properly left to its board, whose members are after all appointed by the government. On Sunday, Labor attacked this as “the greatest attack on the independence of the public broadcaster in its history.”
There are two big issues entangled in the ongoing controversy: editorial independence of the public broadcaster in a democracy, and censorship of unpalatable perspectives on important public policy.
The free flow of information is the vital lifeblood of the democratic contestation of ideas and the role of a free media is indispensable for keeping channels of communication open between political parties, on and opposite the treasury benches, and citizens. Media reports and analyses are suspect if the private sector is prevented from entering the media market. Political systems in which the state has a monopoly on news are undemocratic and their media enjoys little credibility with their own people or foreigners.
Without a public broadcasting service, conversely, the media can be captured by market interests and degenerate into mouthpieces for big business or be reduced to entertainment in search of profit maximization. Some of the most trusted global media brands are public broadcasters: BBC (United Kingdom), CBC (Canada), Deutsche Welle (Germany), NHK (Japan), ABC (Australia) and even the PBS (United States).
By contrast public radio and TV services in India have been so thoroughly politicized by governing parties that the quality of Indian democracy is badly compromised.
Media and governments can have a corrupting influence on each other. Commercial media companies can benefit financially from favorable government decisions regarding their non-media assets; these considerations can color their reporting and analyses of government policies.
Conversely, politicians seeking a good press can skew government decisions in ways that distort markets and undermine democracy. The loss of faith in the media’s independence, objectivity and impartiality contributes to the corrosive crisis of legitimacy afflicting several democracies around the world. Too many people have become disillusioned and cynical about the integrity of the core institutions that sustain democratic good governance.
Abbott’s ban on ministers appearing on the Q&A program has been widely criticized, to use a colloquialism, as a hissy fit. In The Australian, among the most government-friendly papers, various writers have described it as a “childish” “tantrum,” “arrogant,” “ideological and unilateral,” that also “treats his ministers as children.” Many ministers are reportedly puzzled at this self-destructive call.
As discussed in a previous article (July 9), Abbott’s ire stems from a minister being subjected to questions from a convicted criminal in a live audience format. He is right to be concerned about the vetting process that allowed this to happen. Yet the question that Zaky Mallah posed is valid.
Western governments seem reluctant to listen to “the enemy” as to why they hate the West. Most point to the humiliation and disempowerment of Muslims by Western and Israeli usurpers and exploiters. Osama bin Laden was violently opposed to the presence of U.S. troops in his home country Saudi Arabia. Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American convicted of the attempted terrorist attack in Times Square in New York on May 1, 2010, pointed to the oppression, humiliation and bombing of Muslims as the reason for his anger. Asked by his trial judge how he could justify trying to bomb innocent women and children, Shahzad responded: U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan “kill women, children, they kill everybody”.
Echoing that concern, Jo Becker and Scott Shane argued in the New York Times ( May 29, 2012) that drone strikes are “the recruiting tool of choice for militants”. Most of those killed by U.S. drone strikes had no connection to 9/11.
America’s Muslim enemies are fighting it because U.S. soldiers are in their lands, not the other way round, argued William Pfaff in The Japan Times (April 17, 2013), with “drones executing mass destruction on the family and tribal scale”. U.S. joint facilities based in Australia may well be involved in the intelligence information for the strikes.
The West cannot defeat Islamist killers if it fails to understand what motivates them; and it cannot hope to understand what drives them if it closes its ears to what they are saying. Mallah was trying to point out that subjecting all Muslims living in Australia to deep suspicion risks a self-fulfilling analysis. If Muslims feel rejected because of their religion, they will be vulnerable to recruitment by the jihadists. With 160 million Muslims, India has hardly had any go to join the jihadists in the Middle East. An important explanation is they believe they have a stake in India.
Muslims would be foolish to try to replicate in Australia values of the very social order from which they have fled. But if Muslims living in Australia fear their citizenship can be stripped on ministerial whim, they can never feel Australia is home. They will not be stakeholders and thus be vulnerable to recruitment: that was Mallah’s point. If the government is pursuing the policy of citizenship stripping for domestic partisan advantage, that would be particularly despicable.
The history of serial Western attacks, invasions, regime changes and interference in Middle Eastern affairs has exacerbated the region’s instability. Perhaps the secular dictators were the most effective bulwarks against violent jihadists. No Western country seems prepared to acknowledge, let alone accept, responsibility for the large scale deaths and destruction wreaked by constant external interference. As Frank Ledwidge argued in The Independent (July 2), “Bomb Syria, and recruits will be rolling up to join ISIS.”
In a prescient memo on the war on terror on Oct. 16, 2003, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld posed a prophetic and critical question: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” Every Western leader should have a plaque made of Rumsfeld’s question and demand answers to it before deciding on any anti-terrorism policy and counter-terrorism action.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
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