Monday, August 27, 2012

Salman Rushdie: From Bradford’s Fahrenheit 451 to the memoirs of Joseph Anton.

I haven’t yet laid my hands on a copy of Salman Rushdie’s new book, but it is an anticipated pleasure.  “Joseph Anton: A Memoir” tells his own story of being forced underground with armed surveillance after Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against him over The Satanic Verses. Acton was the name Rushdie used while incognito during the time when he was most in danger.  The fatwa remains current, as the only man who can lift it – Khomeini – inconveniently died a few months after the pronouncement. However Rushdie is beginning to rebuild his life in the open 24 years after the publication of that fateful book.

The best explanation for the fatwa and how it directly inspired the likes of London’s 7/7 are to be found in Kenan Malik’s “From Fatwa to Jihad”.  English writer Malik tells how in February 1989 he witnessed a profound event: the first burning of The Satanic Verses in public.  A thousand Muslims gathered in Bradford, Yorkshire with copies of Rushdie’s book and burned it in front of a police station.  It wasn’t quite Kristallnacht but it was calculated to shock and to offend.

Like Rushdie, Malik was born of an Indian Muslim family. He grew up in Britain in an Islamic culture which was deeply embedded but not “all consuming”.   He became a radical leftist in the 1980s, and did not think of himself as Muslim but black.  Malik quotes secular writer Fay Weldon who said the Qu’ran offered no food for thought. “It forbids change, interpretation, self-knowledge, even art for fear of treading on Allah’s creative toes,” Weldon said.

Malik didn’t mind treading on Allah’s toes. He was self-consciously secular and militant. Black for Malik was a political badge which stood for refusing to put up with the discrimination dished out to the previous generation.  The whites called them Asians but they were no more Asian than the Brits were Europeans.  Malik said it was much later they became “Muslims” and that for political reasons.  Rushdie came from a similar background to Malik and his early writings had done more than most to humanise the experience of immigrant Muslims. 

Rushdie was used to having his books banned if not burned. His first novel Midnight’s Children was banned in India and Indira Ghandi successfully sued for libel in a British court.  In the second novel Shame, Rushdie’s description of Benazir Bhutto as the Virgin Ironpants caused outrage in Pakistan and another ban.  Rushdie laughed it off as he won prize after prize for his great writing. The third book took his mockery to the next level. It would be no less than a fable about the origins of Islam. 

Written over 12 years before 9/11, The Satanic Verses opens with an exploding airline.  The magical events that happen to the two survivors of the explosion are used to discuss how God’s revelation to the prophet Mahound brings a new religion called Submission (the English translation of “Islam”) to a city in the sand called Jahilia (“Ignorance” – where Arabs lived prior to Islam).  A second tale in the book is a caricature of Ayatollah Khomeini and the third is based the true story of an Indian pied piper who leads all her Indian village on the Haj and then into the sea to drown.

In one book, Rushdie was attacking Islam’s history, one of its major political leader and one of its five pillars of behaviour. He might have expected some resistance, yet the immediate reaction wasn’t huge. Rushdie’s book was so obtuse and so difficult to follow in its non-narrative form it was almost impossible to understand in a single reading and almost threatened to go under the radar. 

Then Sher Azam stepped in. Azam was the president of Bradford’s Council of Mosques.  Azam wasn’t the first Muslim critic of the book.  That honour belongs to philosopher Shabbir Akhtar who called it an inferior piece of literature. But Azam was one of the earliest to realise how Rushdie could be a rallying cry for Muslim identity.  Azam had not read the book but read reviews of it.  He knew religious scholars had declared it blasphemous and he took on the task of writing to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Azam compared it to the Spycatcher affair and asked for it to be banned. He got no reply.  

Azam told Malik Christians don’t mind about what people say about their God because they no longer believe in “Him”.  But look what it means, he told Malik. “It means a country where the values have gone. People drink, take drugs, have sex like dogs.” Azam said those problems would disappear if people believed in God.  Azam tapped into a new consciousness among young radicals. These people were moving away from the radical secularism preferred by Malik to a radical religiosity that could be firmly rooted across the Muslim world.

The Muslims who burned the book in Bradford felt an immense power in their action. Applauded as it was across the umma, they felt tuned in to a philosophy much bigger than themselves. It gave them a giddy sense of power they had never had before in their lives. A few days later on February 13, Khomeini called on “all zealous Muslims” to execute anyone involved in the publication of the book, and Iran offered $3m for Rushdie’s death ( or a knock-down $1m if the assassin was non-Muslim). 

It didn’t matter that Khomeini issued the fatwa primarily as a marker in his battle with the Saudis for supremacy in the Muslim world. His intervention had made it an event of global consequence. That day Rushdie attended a memorial service for writer Bruce Chatwin who had just died. Paul Theroux came up to him and said “we’ll be back here next week for you.” Rushdie said it wasn’t the funniest joke he’d ever heard.  By the following morning, Scotland Yard had given him grade one protection and spirited him away to a safe house.  Joseph Acton was born.

But so was jihadism in Britain, according to Malik. He argues Britain and many other Governments formed pacts with religious movements because they thought they would be easier to control than the left. This was a miscalculation and it was made worse in the UK by Government policies that outsourced “Muslim issues” to Muslim organisations. In the wake of the London Bombings of 2005, Muslim leaders lashed Prime Minister Tony Blair for ignoring the warning signs that led to 7/7.  Blair hit back criticising moderate Muslims for not doing enough. “Governments cannot go and root out the extremism in these communities,” he said.  That was your job, it implied but no one asked Blair why he felt so helpless rooting them out. 

Under the guise of multiculturalism, Britain divested all its decisions on Muslim issues to the Muslim Council of Mosques. Radicalism fermented in these organisations. Six of the 7/7 plotters were trainee doctors.  The Satanic Verses furore was a catalyst for a more confident Islamic identity which educated young professionals could endorse. But it was not an identity recognised by most Muslims.  Islamism was not an expression of ancient faith but a modernist reaction against the loss of belonging in complex societies comforted by a literal belief in the Qu’ran. Rushdie, one of the most nuanced of Muslim culture writers, had no chance against the power of this certainty.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The beginning of the end for Tony Abbott

Opposition leader Tony Abbott is not interested in economics and doesn’t like reading press releases so he may not have seen the minutes of the last Reserve Bank meeting. What Abbott would remember from that August 7 meeting was the headline of interest rates kept on hold at 3.50 per cent. The Board said world conditions had declined since February, commodity prices were down and global growth was unspectacular. Australia's terms of trade (the relative prices of Australia’s exports and imports) peaked nearly a year ago, the Bank said, “though they remain historically high”.

The Board offered its judgement on the world and Australia's place in it. China was steady, US growth is modest, Asia was recovering from natural disasters. Europe remains the sick man of the world as policymakers juggle sovereign and bank debt with the need for future growth. The share market was volatile, risk aversion was high while interest rates were historically low. Yet the board noted Australian banks have had no difficulty accessing funding, even on an unsecured basis. This was because Australia was a “highly rated sovereign”. Inflation and unemployment are low and not even the carbon price will change it that much.
This is an extraordinary result given Board Governor Glenn Stevens’ statement to the politicians yesterday, we were “not in anything like normal times”. Stevens was speaking at the House of Representatives standing committee on economics and repeated the good news about the local economy. Resource investment might be declining but export shipments will pick up. The dampening effect of a high dollar was beginning to wane, so other sectors such as construction and tourism may also bounce back.

Liberal member of the committee Steve Ciobo asked if Australia was merely just lucky to near Asia’s boom and far from the toxicity of Europe. Stevens avoided the political connotations of the question but admitted Australia’s geography and resource-rich land was a “blessing”. However he noted there were cultural issues at play too. “We are in the real economy exposed to the strong bit, and our financial economy and our psychology is still quite connected as well to the pessimism from the North Atlantic,” Stevens said.

The Opposition has tapped into this pessimism with great effect since the last election and has taken every opportunity to link bad economic news to the minority government. After two years, Tony Abbott  is no longer pretending Australia is in dire straits but still marked Tuesday’s second anniversary of that election with a hopethe Australian people can vote for a better way.”  Abbott sought refuge in the past for his promise of renewed hope and a stronger economy.  “Sixteen members of my Shadow Cabinet were ministers in the Howard Government,” he said. “We delivered an era of reform and prosperity before, and we are determined to do it again.”

Abbott’s presser made no mention of the change in global conditions since Howard lost the November 2007 election. This week, he repeated claims the carbon and mining taxes were responsible for economic uncertainty in a shambolic performance on ABC’s 7.30. They were among many egregious errors, perhaps chief among them the suggestion Marius Kloppers may have misled investors if he failed to mention the carbon tax as a reason for BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam postponement. 

It wasn’t just Leigh Sales toughening up on Abbott this week. Many in the media have started to ramp up the scrutiny. Michelle Grattan said his credibility was as big a problem as Prime Minister Gillard’s trust. Grattan noted Abbott’s biggest strength, his absolutism, could become his biggest problem when the facts don’t fit his strategy. He is also in danger of losing the advantage over the Government as more people recognise his “one trick tony” behaviour. 

Laurie Oakes openly called out Abbott as a liar in his weekly article for News Ltd today. While most people would not find it surprising a politician is less than scrupulously honest, it is a problem for Abbott because, says Oakes, “the central message from Abbott supporters is that the Prime Minister is the liar - Ju-liar.” 

With still a year to go before the next election, the advantage remains with the Opposition. But recent polling has seen a narrowing and even in Queensland where Labor has been battered at the last Federal and State election there is improvement. On figures released this week, Poll Bludger reckons only the marginal seat of Moreton might fall and there is still another year of Campbell Newman government cutbacks to factor in.  

While leadership tensions in Labor are still not totally behind them (and won’t while Kevin Rudd remains in parliament), Gillard seems almost certain now to last until the next election. But there is no guarantee she will face Tony Abbott. Opposition members not rusted on to Abbott’s take-no-prisoners style (and there are many in the party, as the leadership ballot in 2009 showed), may get increasingly nervous if Labor continues to chip away at their lead, while their own leader goes missing in action.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Saving the Sufi Saints of Timbuktu

The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu (UNESCO/WHC)
Tucked away at the bottom end of the Sahara, Timbuktu has long been the perfect metaphor for a mythological exotic other.  In 1510 Moorish author Leo Africanus saw Timbuktu’s fabulous wealth at the height of the Songhai Empire – one of the largest Islamic kingdoms in history. In The History and Description of Africa, Africanus said the ritual in the court in Timbuktu was “exact and magnificent”.  The city's wealth and power came from its position as the southern terminus of a key trans-Saharan trade route. Merchants sold slaves and bought gold and the city was far enough away from everywhere to maintain autonomy. Some 333 Sufi saints are said to be buried in tombs and mausoleums across the city.

If ancient Timbuktu was a fabled place, the reality of modern Timbuktu is more prosaic. Over the centuries, its trade diminished as Atlantic vessels replaced the ships of the desert.  It became more isolated due to local squabbles and changed hands many times. In 1884 a decision in faraway Berlin brought Timbuktu under colonial ownership.  Sited north of a line between Say in Niger to Barou on Lake Chad, European bureaucrats deemed Timbuktu French territory not British. Locals were oblivious to the line on the map until nine years later when a small group of French soldiers annexed the city to the new French Sudan.

Timbuktu was bequeathed to the newly independent state of Mali in 1968. The corruption of Mali’s one party state coincided with the desertification and drought of Timbuktu.  Northern Mali was dying while government in far-away capital Bamako did nothing to avert the crisis. Tuareg independence fighters from the north had long been active in the region and many returned to Mali this year battle-hardened after the Libyan civil war to depose Gadafi.   

They were behind the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad to liberate northern Mali. Helped by a coup d’etat in Bamako in March , the NMLA combined with an Islamist group called Ansar Dine to quickly took over the three biggest cities in the region – including Timbuktu. Ideological differences quickly spread between the two factions. While NMLA was Tuareg nationalist, Ansar Dine was Islamist with links to Mauretanian-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

It was Ansar Dine who wanted to impose Sharia Law on Timbuktu. The former allies clashed at the battle of Gao  in June. The Islamist faction won a decisive victory and took revenge on recalcitrant locals by destroying Timbuktu’s World Heritage listed old city. On June 30, the BBC reported Islamist fighters damaged the shrines in the city including the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud, one of the revered 333 Sufi saints. While UNESCO hissed over the destruction of one its treasures, an Ansar Dine spokesman unapologetically said all the shrines would be destroyed. "God is unique,” he said. “All of this is haram (forbidden in Islam). We are all Muslims. Unesco is what?"

This sweeping certainty of the Islamists is in stark contrast to the views of most Muslims. Ansar Dine enjoys little support among locals and rules by fear. Mali is 97 percent Islamic but the vast majority want nothing to do with the cult of Islamism. Ansar Dine follows not in the path of Mohammed but invented traditions of the twentieth century drawing on fundamentalist icon Sayyid Qutb. Their spokesman was wrong: nothing in the magnificent mausoleums of Timbuktu are haram. 

Where this leaves the city and the rest of Northern Mali, depends on the strength of the new unity government in Bamako, announced overnight.  Imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) it relies on army and civilian leaders to overcome their suspicion of each other and work together.  Next door Niger is alarmed about the dangers of Islamic radicalism in northern Mali. Ansar Dine’s links to AQIM will ensure Western support for the new government.  Financial support for a desperately poor city is imperative. But the fate of Timbuktu and its 333 Sufi saints will ultimately rely on the solidarity of its people to resist the medieval modernist barbarism of the Islamists.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dear Minister (Redacted): Assange and FOI

On Thursday, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade published their answer to a Fairfax Freedom of Information two-fold request on Julian Assange. The first part was for briefings to Foreign Minister Bob Carr about Wikileaks, Assange and Bradley Manning. The second was cable traffic (the kind made freely available by Wikileaks) between the embassy in Washington and the department on Wikileaks, Assange and Manning in the months February to April this year. The aim of the FOI was not to release Assange but to embarrass the government by proving Bob Carr a liar. Fairfax's gotcha today was DFAT’s long-held concern Assange would be extradited to the US was “at odds with Carr's repeated dismissal of such a prospect.” More importanly however, DFAT's heavily redacted response gives much insight into Australian concerns about Assange

The response started with a letter addressed to Carr on March 2. The letter was written by the department’s secretary Dennis Richardson who was also ambassador to the US for four years to 2009.  While this was before the period of Assange’s international infamy, Richardson presumably had some sage advice on how to deal with the Assange dilemma. “Dear Minister” it began followed by five pages all marked “redacted”.  Some tantalising notes were left on the last page. Consider, Stephenson wrote to Carr in note s22.1(a)(ii), on any given day, the department is dealing with around 1500 consular cases. The appendix s22.1(a)(ii) also deals with workload and said consular work was increasingly complex due to the travel behaviour of Australians and the number of cases raised to the media which require ministerial involvement. We don’t know where this was leading as the next page was redacted.

There followed a suggested response to possible questions on Assange lawyer Jennifer Robinson whose name was included on a Heathrow “inhibited travel” list.  This was to confirm events but to deny any Australian involvement or British restrictions on her travel. The problem was caused by “management of Ms Robinson’s check-in” and “inadvertent comments by airport security and other staff”. They said check-in staff eventually cleared Robinson to travel and she boarded the flight as planned. The talking point ended “I hope this will put all the conspiracy theories to rest.”

Those conspiracy theories had to wait for the next page which was redacted. The next point was a problem of Carr's own making. A month prior to becoming Foreign Minister, Carr used his own blog to decry the role of judges as prosecutors in the Swedish legal system as “an outrage by Australian standards”. The possible question was shouldn’t the Government do more to stop him from being extradited there. The answer was whatever his opinions as a blogger, as a representative of the Australian Government, he had to express “confidence in the integrity of judicial processes of Sweden”. 

The matter of a US indictment should only be discussed “if raised”. The response should be that while the US is investigating Wikileaks there was no announcement of any action against Assange and the US has not advised Australia of any such action though “the details of our conversations are confidential”.  Australia refuses to comment on the leaked emails from Stratfor which spoke of the sealed indictment.  Two other issues to discuss only "if raised" were the “temporary surrender” extradition mechanism and the likelihood of Australia extraditing him to the US if he returned here.

The briefing said Assange was welcome home “once international orders preventing his travel have been lifted”. Any extradition from here was a matter for the Attorney-General though Assange could fight such an order in Australian courts. There was also an ambiguous answer to avoid confirming Assange’s eligibility to run as an Australian Senator as “suggested on Twitter”. It was Wikileaks’ own suggestion and while the response was to be handballed to the A-G, Senator Carr’s own opinion was that “Assange has not been charged with an offence in Sweden or elsewhere”.

There follows background on the legal proceedings. British police issued Assange with a European Arrest Warrant in December 2010 which a court found valid two months later. Assange appealed to the High Court which upheld the decision in November 2011. However they allowed an appeal to the Supreme Court on the legal matter of whether a prosecutor was a “judicial authority” who could issue an EAW under UK law. After hearings in February, the Supreme Court has reserved its opinion. If the appeal is successful, Assange is free to walk. If it is unsuccessful, Assange still has one last legal avenue open, the European Court of Human Rights.

The Department said they had spoken to Assange twice by phone, twice in person, facilitated a visit by his mother and had attended all legal proceedings. If he ends up in Sweden, he would probably be kept in detention while any trial was pending. As for the US, there a Grand Jury was deliberating the Wikileaks cablegate affair in secret. Wikileaks was accused of providing a rainbow table to crack passwords in Manning’s pre-trial. After Wikileaks released the Stratfor email, Australia sought clarification on whether there was a sealed indictment for Assange. The request was denied due to the secrecy arrangements of the Grand Jury. 

The secrecy of DFAT files on Assange continued with 10 more redacted pages. There followed a cable from Washington marked “routine, information only”. The cable provided a summary of the Manning case which described in great detail the links to Assange and Wikileaks. These included file-sharing, contact details and on-line chat. Implicit in the cable was that prosecutors were building a case against Assange. 

This possibility was made explicit in another similarly undated “routine” cable which said the US has been investigating Assange for more than 12 months. An unconfirmed grand jury was empanelled in Virginia in 2010 but this has been a Kafkaesque black hole for information with no one involved allowed to talk about it and the US refusing to even confirm its existence. The cable also quotes commentary which suggests a successful US prosecution of Assange would be “challenging and complicated”. Possible charges could include accessing computers without authorisation, theft of US property, disclosing prohibited material or criminal conspiracy to “defraud the US”. Any prosecution would not tackle First Amendment rights even though as a non-American he may not be covered. 

A few more redacted pages occurred before more routine cables.They quoted a Wikileaks press release denouncing UNESCO for banning Wikileaks personnel from a conference about Wikileaks. They pointed out the conference was organised by “Washington insiders, cold war ideological allies (such as Freedom House and the disgraced IAPA) and U.S. mainstream media groups.” When media asked the US State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said given US’s state of “suspended animation” in UNESCO, she was “not sure we’re going to have much to say about it."

Another cable gave an update on the Manning arraignment. With the complexity of the case of 40,000 documents containing 400,000 pages, it would mean an August start date. Manning would be detained for 800 days by the time it starts. It reported a voice from the gallery shouting “Judge, isn’t a soldier required to report a war crime?” It also reported the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights Michael Ratner’s comment that prosecutors were “bludgeoning Manning to accept a plea where he would then implicate Assange”. 

Then it was back to the leaked Stratfor emails. On 27 February Wikileaks began publishing the Global Intelligence Files based on five million emails from a company called Stratfor which provides subscription-based analysis of geo-political issues. It was a private sector Cablegate which Wikileaks publicised with newspaper partners. The cable did not mention the “sealed indictment” but did say Australia was mentioned twice. The first, an East Asia Monitor Guidance, talked about Australia’s submarine crisis and the second from a “well connected former Senator” discussed Chinese mining interests. 

A cable followed that explicitly mentioned the Stratfor “sealed indictment” email. The email’s author Fred Burton was an ex-deputy chief of US counter-terrorism with “close ties” to the intelligence and government network. The email was not official confirmation and the cable author said Burton might be mistaken due to a draft indictment “commonly used by prosecutors to ‘game out’ possible charges.” Either way the silence of the Grand Jury made everything just speculation.

There was a long explanation why Grand Juries operate in secrecy. It was imported from English law, it protected witnesses, it would lessen the risk someone indicted would flee, and lastly it would prevent someone tried but exonerated from “being held up to public ridicule”. While Assange might have coped with the indignity, it is also designed to prevent “satellite litigation in advance of judgement”. 

More cables discussed new allegations in the Manning case. Firstly, that he provided material assistance to the enemy, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It discussed in detail the legal arguments and the media commentary with many saying the case was weak and questioned the benefits to AQAP.  Another cable followed that talked about the “rainbow table” allegation. 

Another one discussed the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture’s report to the UN on Manning (Manning data starts page 74). Juan Mendez said Manning’s detention was punitive but he did not accept monitored access to the prisoner. It had a letter from the Department of Defense to Mendez saying they were satisfied with the detention and had placed him on death watch. 

The last significant cable was about Wikileaks’ request for the US to publicise details of Manning’s court martial. The Center for Constitutional Rights' Michael Ratner said the public had First Amendment and common law rights to access to criminal trials. Ratner quoted Circuit Judge Damon Keith’s dictum “democracies die behind closed doors”. He noted Mendez’s objections and said the public had a “compelling interest” in the Manning case. Particularly Assange had a “unique and obvious interest” and “it appears” federal prosecutors had a sealed indictment against him. 

The last cable in the document about Jennifer Robinson’s flight difficulty was completely redacted. By my counting 39 pages out of 125 were redacted showing Assange has been a major topic of discussion and concern for DFAT. Yet there is much revealing about what is left in. Australia almost certainly knows about the sealed indictment but is content to hide behind legal niceties from confirming it.  This was certainly the take of today’s Fairfax report on the material. The Department as ever played a straight bat. Fairfax concluded with DFAT’s non-response. “A spokesperson for Senator Carr said yesterday Assange's circumstances remained a matter for the UK, Ecuador and Sweden, with Australia's role limited to that of a consular observer.” Carr hopes the convenience of consular observation will keep Australia off the hook as this high-stakes game heads towards a spectacular climax.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Murdoch's adventures in China

When Rupert Murdoch took control of The Wall Street Journal in 2008, he collected another less prestigious Dow Jones monthly publication called The Far Eastern Economic Review. It was as the New York Times called it an incidental addition to the vast global stable of Murdoch's News Corp. Murdoch promised editorial independence to all of the Dow Jones stable as part of the price he had to pay for the Journal. But given his reputation, it was no surprise to find there would be a chilling effect whenever a story appeared that affected Murdoch.

The Review’s editor Hugo Restall had hired Australian writer Eric Ellis to write a review of Bruce Dover’s book “Rupert's Adventures in China: How Murdoch Lost a Fortune and Found a Wife." The book is a privileged insider’s account of Murdoch’s attempts to woo the Chinese Government in the 19990s and his relationship with third wife Wendi Deng.  The book got a big reception in Asia in 2007 and Restall hired Ellis to review the book in January 2008. But by February, Restall had got cold feet and told Ellis the book “looks more like the work of a disgruntled ex-employee rather than an analysis of the business."

The book was nothing of the sort, as Ellis realised. In his spiked review, Ellis said for a businessman who has left such a mark on the world’s media, Murdoch himself was under-analysed and his personal life off-limits.  It was this reason why the book is of great service: because Dover (now the chief executive of ABC’s Australia Network charged with beaming content into Asia) was the Sun King’s chief courtier in the Forbidden City in a time when China meant everything to the boss. 

Dover tells the story from the time Murdoch bought STAR TV in 1993 for $1 billion to the time 10 years later when Dover has been sacked and Murdoch realised he could not replicate the success in China he had elsewhere. By 1993, Murdoch had defeated the British print unions in Wapping, was starting to make big money with BSkyB and the Premier League and expanding his footprint in America. The 23-year-old Richard Li’s STAR TV was a satellite operation that beamed programming to an area that stretched from the Philippines to the Middle East with the potential to reach two-thirds of the world’s population. 

But Li could never make money from STAR TV subscriptions as most of its users pirated the unencrypted service. He changed the model to advertising and charged big rates though no one could be exactly sure how much of an audience he was aggregating.  Li’s father Li Ka-shung was Hong Kong’s wealthiest businessman and a friend of Deng Xiaoping and he quietened ruffled feathers in Beijing over the fact the uncensored service was available at all in mainland China.  But Xiaoping told Ka-shung the business had to go and Li reluctantly sold to the highest bidder in 1993. Pearson PLC (owner of the Financial Times and Penguin Books) offered the same money as News Corp but wanted Ka-shung to stay on in some capacity. Murdoch had no such qualms.  

The problem was Li never sought approval from Beijing on the sale. When the Chinese politburo found out who STAR TV’s new owner was, there was deep concern. The Chinese saw only too well how Murdoch intervened in the politics of every other country he had interests in and feared the same would happen to them.  These fears intensified after a major speech Murdoch made in London’s Whitehall Palace. Murdoch was the main speaker in a night celebrating BSkyB’s new multi-channel offering. With the Internet still in its infancy, Murdoch used the speech to laud the new forms of communications which he said were a threat to “totalitarian regimes everywhere”. Orwell had got it wrong, Murdoch said, mass communication technologies did not subordinate individuals but liberate them. Telephony and satellite broadcasting, he enthused, made it possible to by-pass state control of information.

Murdoch would later claim he was talking about the recent collapse Communism in Eastern Europe. But the politicians in Beijing had no doubt he was talking about them. Premier Li Peng was incandescent with rage.  The Butcher of Beijing at Tiananmen was at the height of his powers four years later and he saw Murdoch’s speech as a threat to Chinese sovereignty. Within a month he banned the distribution, installation and use of satellite dishes in China, dashing STAR TV’s expansion plans from the word go.

Murdoch is nothing if not determined and quickly realised the extent of his blunder. He moved to Hong Kong with then wife Anna and started a long and assiduous campaign of wooing the Chinese leadership to see his position. The problem was that all contact with Zhongnanhai was funnelled through the State Council Information Office and Murdoch was allowed to meet no-one above the rank of vice minister.  In 1994 he used the excuse of limited transponder space on the satellite to drop the BBC from STAR TV but he later admitted to biographer William Shawcross it was because the Chinese leaders hated the BBC. Nevertheless it changed nothing and Murdoch remained persona non grata. 

The new play was for Murdoch to befriend family members of Deng Xiaoping.  He got Harper Collins to publish Deng’s daughter Deng Rong’s hagiography of her father.  He also feted his disabled eldest son Deng Pufang in an artists’ tour of Australia. The problem was Deng slipped from power in 1994 and new leader Jiang Zemin was not like the emperors of old. Deng’s children were out of favour and with them any chance of Murdoch patronage. Zemin enforced the crackdown on China’s half a million satellite dishes.

Dover himself was in China by this time trying to negotiate a joint venture with the People’s Daily. This strange alliance with the conservative communist organ was another peace plan and one tacitly approved by the politburo. The paper was under pressure to reduce its reliance on state handouts and proposed a business news magazine with News Corp. However, once again SCIO were not across the deal and did their utmost to ensure the new joint venture would never get off the ground. It was not the thaw in relations Murdoch needed.

Murdoch next’s ploy was to get into bed with businessman Liu Changle. Changle took half share in the Phoenix TV joint venture with STAR TV. Liu had cultivated several key Beijing decision makers and Murdoch was told by senior leaders this was his only way into China. Phoenix proved popular and shook up the tawdry domestic TV market. But Murdoch hated Phoenix because Changle retained day-to-day control.

Murdoch looked to the new information superhighway for a solution. As Beijing wrestled with control of the internet, Murdoch started a new joint venture with People’s Daily called PDN Xinren. The first product ChinaByte was launched to fanfare in January 1997 and soon became the most popular site in China. But after the tech bubble burst Murdoch lost faith in the product and by April 2001 has sold his foothold in the fastest growing internet market in the world.

Dover documents other manoeuvres such as getting rid of anti-Chinese China correspondent Jonathan Mirsky from the Times Hong Kong bureau. Murdoch had promised The Times editorial independence but he invited the Times editor Peter Stothard on a charm offensive of China. Southard would later spike so many stories from Hong Kong and Mirsky resigned citing Murdoch’s heavy hand. Murdoch also spiked the HarperCollins autobiography of former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten on Chinese instructions. Murdoch competed with great rival Time boss Jerry Levin to fawn over Chinese leaders and promise anything for a toehold in the country. Finally Murdoch made a speech which was a mea culpa for Whitehall where he conceded cultural and social values of a country trumped open communications. 

With relations warming slightly, Dover tells the amusing story of when Murdoch met Vice Premier Zhu Rongii in Australia in 1997. Zhu asked Murdoch to tell him the story of his rise to power and the pair had an animated conversation. At one point Zhu put his hands on Murdoch’s wrists, looked him in the eye and spoke in Mandarin.”I see when you needed to expand your business interests in the US you became a US citizen,” he said. “Maybe you should think of applying for Chinese citizenship to further your business interests in China”. Murdoch blinked when he heard the translation and spluttered a reply. Zhu burst into laughter and said he was joking.  

Murdoch did in the end apply for Chinese citizenship – by marrying his young Yale-educated interpreter Wendi Deng. Deng had the language skills but not the contacts in the politburo and the Chinese kept one step ahead of the Murdochs. Just as they successfully cultivated Zemin’s Shanghai clique, the leader was replaced by Hu Jintao. Dover was on the outer too, his boss frustrated by his inability to penetrate the Great Wall.  Hu closed down STAR TV’s intrusion into the Chinese “grey sector” and insisted China retain control of Chinese television, banning cooperation between local stationsand foreign companies
After 12 years of trying, Murdoch finally admitted he had hit a brick wall in China. In 2006 he sold his remaining interest in Phoenix and reposition STAR TV towards the Indian market. But it was not a total failure. Bruce Dover said Murdoch was a major catalyst of change in China both of its media and its attitude to the Internet (which the party wanted to ban entirely).  Phoenix transformed Chinese television with its brash, downmarket programming but control remained in Chinese hands. Dover said in seeking to woo China’s leaders, Murdoch overstepped the mark. “He became too impetuous, too imprudent,” he concluded.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Olympics 2.012: NBCfail and the future

Photo via Nick Trask
LONDON is currently hosting the last Olympics of the twentieth century as well as the first of the 21st.  It is the last of the 20th century because it is the last to be dominated by the century’s most important technology: Television.  London is also the first 21st century Olympics as it is the first one where the audience has talked back to the organisers and their broadcaster partner proxies. Come Rio in 2016, the Olympics is likely be a very different spectator sport thanks to social media, the power of the Internet and a global movement for more audience power. 

The professional Olympics are huge money and have become partly slave to its sponsors who take ridiculous steps to ward off ambush marketing.  However in London as in previous Olympics, most of the shots are called by the television companies who broadcast the games. They pay an extraordinary amount of money to the International Olympics Committee and local Olympic Committees for the rights.  In America, the largest of the old-style TV hegemonies NBC has had the rights to the summer and winter Olympics since 1988. Four years ago they paid the AOC and IOC $2.2 billion for the Vancouver 2010 and London 2012. NBC made the London Games the most-watched Olympics ever by tape-delaying marquee events to air in US prime time, maximising viewers and advertising dollars. 

Yet they are likely to lose money despite the large audience they have congregated for advertisers.  NBC lost $223 million on Vancouver. It was on tape delay despite being in the same timezone as LA. This allowed NBC to maximise ads but it frustrated audiences who for the first time were seeing results in real time through the Internet and social media. For the TV companies who had the content but who could no longer control the message, these external forces had become,as Jeff Jarvis called them, a "gigantic spoiler machine".

The spoiler machine has been on overdrive in the 2012 Olympics. London is four hours east of the US east coast and also on tape delay and the response has been overwhelmingly negative. NBC refused to show the opening ceremony in real time because it was “too complicated to watch”. An NBC statement defended the indefensible thus: “They are complex entertainment spectacles that do not translate well online because they require context, which our award-winning production team will provide for the large prime-time audiences that gather together to watch them. We will be providing clips and highlights of each ceremony online so viewers know what to look forward to in primetime on NBC.”

But when it got to actual competition, the “award-winning production team” stuffed up again. They advertised an interview with swimming champion Missy Franklin before showing her gold medal-winning race. These abject failures and others led to Steven Marx creating the “nbcfail” hashtag which went berserk.  But it was UK Independent LA-based journalist Guy Adams who led the most high profile attack with a series of criticisms online which eventually saw NBC call in favours at Twitter to suspend his account. 

Adams had tweeted the email address of an NBC executive in charge of Olympics coverage, when he was upset over the quality of that coverage, encouraging others upset to contact the executive.  “The man responsible for NBC pretending the Olympics haven't started yet is Gary Zenkel. Tell him what u think! Email:
Twitter claimed this breached their guidelines as it contained Zenkel’s email. Adams retorted Zenkel’s corporate email address was widely available.  The response to the ban was scathing. Novelist Irvine Welsh said the ban illustrated three tendencies of hegemonic power “1) hates criticism, 2) takes itself seriously 3) no sense of fun.”

NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus claimed they understood the problem but his words betrayed they hadn’t. “We listen. We read. We understand there are people that don't like what we are doing, but we think that is a very loud minority and the silent majority has been with us for the first six days," Lazarus said.  Well of course the “silent majority” have been with NBC for a week because they have no choice if they want to watch the Olympics. Silence is not assent. Not everyone took to Twitter or Facebook to complain but as they realise they can, more will.

As in drugs, the technology to beat the TV companies is changing quickly. The BBC offers a comprehensive ad-free service of the Games courtesy of British TV licence holders and the British taxpayer.  On the Internet they use “geoblocking” based on IP address to ensure only British audiences can view the content.  But just as the Chinese get around geo-blocking to access banned political sites, anyone across the world can view the BBC content by masking their IP address using a virtual private network.  As Melbourne's Monash University copyright law teacher Rebecca Giblin said broadcast television is a dying industry. As growing number of people are no longer willing to watch TV on someone else's schedule," Giblin said. "They want to watch it on their own terms when and where it's convenient for them."

With the US delaying the opening ceremony, dodgy sites like VIPBox.TV sprung up to fill the void.  It provides high quality live content at a price. As Mashable noted,  VIPBox.TV wanted to install a proprietary MPlayer on your computer “which comes with a bunch of crapware that you will want to decline, and it is one of those sites that can turn into a bit of a pop-up monster.” VIPBox.TV are the bootleggers of the 21st century. They flourish only because of prohibition.
Author, editor and futurist Jeff Jarvis said NBCFail showed how the people formerly known as the audience have found a voice to complain about the time-shifting “We in the U.S. are being robbed of the opportunity to share a common experience with the world in a way that was never before possible,” Jarvis said.  He said the argument that the time-shifting was done to make more money does not stand up. Instead it should have super-served its audience by giving them what they want rather than what Mark Lazarus and Gary Zenkel thought they wanted. “I ask you to imagine what Olympics coverage would look like if Google had acquired the rights,” Jarvis said “It would give us what we want and make billions, I’ll bet."