Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away): concluding episode delving into outright fantasy and falsehood

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away)” (2020)

If the first three episodes of this series on Hillary Rodham Clinton are essentially worshipful hagiography, the fourth and concluding episode descends into outright fantasy. Viewers learn very little new about HRC and especially about her years as Senator for New York and then as Secretary of State during Barack Obama’s first term as US President (2009 – 2013). The episode brushes aside HRC’s voting record as Senator on the wars initiated by President George W Bush (2001 – 2009) in Afghanistan in late 2001, soon after the World Trade Center attacks, and then in Iraq in 2003. The not so little incident of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens being ambushed and killed along with three other Americans in the consulate in Benghazi, eastern Libya, by terrorists is also treated quite cavalierly. Nothing is said about HRC’s role in allowing a context to exist in which four American citizens end up being killed in a small building in a city where one of them, a US Ambassador, is not expected to be. What was Stevens doing in Benghazi anyway – surely not running guns and jihadi fighters to Syria? Similarly nothing is made of the overthrow of a legitimately elected government in Honduras in 2010 or in Libya in 2011, the latter to which HRC, while being interviewed, cackled and said, “We came, we saw, he [Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi] died!” On top of this inattention to the issues that Americans are most concerned about – issues about public servants being accountable for their decisions and behaviours, and upholding the law – is the breezy dismissal of HRC’s use of a private email server with poor cyber-security to transact government business, of which much was in the public interest.

The episode brings viewers up to date with HRC’s decision to campaign for the US Presidency in 2016 and her campaign’s emphasis on gender politics, portraying HRC as a champion for feminism and a victim of institutional misogyny, and especially of her Republican rival Donald Trump (with whom the Clintons had previously been friendly), while saying nothing about what her campaign actually stood for in the eyes of the voting public. This narrative is pounded again and again in each of the episodes in this series. As might be expected, nothing is said about the women harmed by Bill Clinton while he was Governor of Arkansas and then US President by his actions toward them, or about his frequent trips to notorious financier Jeffrey Epstein’s private island for trysts with underage teenage women.

The breathless format of the series, in which viewers are forced to sit through constant swinging from HRC’s 2016 Presidential campaign to particular episodes of her earlier life and back again, might be designed deliberately to sweep viewers off their feet into a rollercoaster ride through HRC’s life, not allowing them to step back and have the distance to view HRC’s life, decisions and actions more dispassionately and critically. HRC is constantly portrayed as a fighter and battler to get where she is when in fact it would seem much has actually been handed to her through her husband’s associations and past career. Significantly the series ignores much of her career as New York state senator or US Secretary of State – because the truth is, she achieved nothing worth celebrating that fits in with a paradigm that sees her as a feminist champion and achiever. Her major achievements have actually brought ruin, chaos, violence and death to many millions of people around the world.

The attempts to smear Donald Trump with accusations of Russian collusion to gain the US Presidency and Russian President Vladimir Putin as a soulless character who will always be nothing more than a KGB man, with no evidence to back up such insults, demonstrate the shallowness of Burstein’s subject. That Burstein simply agrees with HRC and follows along, instead of probing these issues and challenging HRC, reveals the series as essentially propaganda of a very mediocre standard. HRC herself is an uninteresting subject for a documentary: smug, self-serving and expecting the world to revolve around her.

Hillary (Episode 3: The Hardest Decision): more fawning over a despicable subject

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 3: The Hardest Decision)” (2020)

Purporting to show how Hillary Rodham Clinton became a feminist icon to millions of women (and quite a few men) around the world, this episode in the four-part hagiography by Nanette Burstein does little more than portray its uninteresting subject as a victim of reactionary politics and malign forces in US politics. The hardest decision of the episode’s title that HRC makes turns out to one facing most women at some point in their marriages or equivalent unions: when a partner has been unfaithful, and moreover dallied with a number of women over the years of married life, should the cuckolded partner forgive the errant one, and stay together, or should the cuckold leave the one who did wrong? Even when HRC does make that decision, seeing how it benefits both HRC and Bubba is hard: neither HRC nor any of her 2016 Presidential campaign staff is asked any hard questions as to whether HRC’s forgiveness of her husband was a good idea to have undertaken in the past 20 or so years.

The episode sketchily yet smoothly covers the period of Bubba’s involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in its coverage of the political events, bombshells and scandals that pushed HRC out in front before blinking audiences. Nothing is said about how sex scandals and other related activities might have affected HRC’s rise to a position and influence during the mid to late 1990s. In-between significant events and trends during her husband’s years in the US Presidency, one might have expected to see how HRC learned to stand on her own feet away from the shadow of Bubba’s Presidency and the scandals associated with it. What happens here instead is that HRC exploits gender-based identity politics to elevate her own position and launch her campaign for the US Presidency in 2016 with the help of starry-eyed acolytes and advisors whose interviews here are little more than gushing praise for the woman.

A more sober, objective and energetic documentary portraying HRC and her influence on US politics and foreign policy will have to wait many more years. How she manipulated and exploited identity politics for her benefit, the role that mainstream news media in the US and elsewhere played in colluding with her in that manipulation, allowing her to escape prosecution for various crimes, and the malign effect such manipulation had on the American electorate and the feminist movement in the US, to the extent that huge numbers of people were prepared to vote for her simply because she was a woman, ignoring her lack of policies that would actually help the poor and disadvantaged sections of the US population, is an issue Burstein is blind to. Above all, in spite of her attempts to sanctify HRC by denigrating her campaign opponent Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign debates, odious as he was then (and still is), Burstein still is unable to show how and why HRC lost what should have been a winnable election against a politically inexperienced outsider.

Hillary (Episode 2: Becoming a Lady): on the road to smug notoriety

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 2: Becoming a Lady)” (2020)

This episode continues to cover Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life from the time hubby Bubba Bill decides to campaign for the US Presidency in 1992 after serving five terms as Governor of Arkansas to the Whitewater real estate investment controversy that dogged the couple during Bubba’s first term as President. As in the first episode, the events of the early to mid-1990s are interspersed with the events of HRC’s 2016 Presidential campaign during its early run from when HRC bad-mouths Democrat rival Bernie Sanders to Super Tuesday in early March and a bit beyond that. These events are recounted by HRC herself and her campaign aides in a narrative that flatters the woman and paints her as a victim of bullying by the Republican Party and forces in US society antagonistic to the idea of a First Lady who is anything but submissive and content to stay at home in the White House supervising interior decorations and the garden design. Director Burstein rarely if ever challenges her subject on any aspect of what they discuss that does not only conform to a pre-arranged script of HRC as a righteous saintly type badly treated by reactionary forces in US society but is significant in its own right because of the light it casts on HRC’s behaviour then when the issue was current and on her behaviour since that time.

By presenting herself as a victim of malign misogynistic individuals and groups, and portraying herself as a feminist champion and pioneer, HRC comes off as self-absorbed and smug. Her aides are worshipful and adoring. Few of director Burstein’s interviewees ever stop to wonder whether HRC’s own personality and behaviour might be factors contributing to her unpopularity, the constant put-downs and smears against her reputation. As a result, Burstein’s film is less documentary, and more fawning hagiography. I hazard that many years, perhaps even decades, will have to pass before a more balanced and sober account of HRC’s life and the damage she has inflicted on US politics and society since she became a Senator for New York state in 2001 can be done.

Hillary (Episode 1: The Golden Girl): early years of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life receive glowing treatment

Nannette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 1: The Golden Girl)” (2020)

Ostensibly a four-part series on the life and career of Hillary Rodham Clinton, this work is never more than a worshipful hagiography of the woman who, after nearly a complete Presidential four-year cycle, has still never accepted that she was and will always be the least favoured of two unlikeable candidates for the US Presidency in late 2016. The series takes the form of interviews conducted by Burstein (never seen, though her voice can be heard) of HRC and various aides who have worked for her over the decades, including those aides who worked for her 2016 Presidential campaign.

Episode 1 “The Golden Girl” follows HRC’s life from her childhood growing up in a staunch Republican family in a comfortable middle class neighbourhood through her college years in the 1960s, during which she worked as a volunteer for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, to postgraduate studies at Yale University Law School where she met Bill Clinton, whom she married and followed to Arkansas where she taught in the law faculty at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. The episode then runs through Bill Clinton’s early political career, starting with his tenure as Attorney General for Arkansas and then his time as Governor of Arkansa, the latter during which HRC not only continued as a partner in Rose Law Firm (which she joined in the late 1970s) but also tackled education reform and was successful in establishing teacher testing and state standards for curricula and classroom sizes.

Inserted into the narrative of HRC’s early years are snapshots of her Presidential campaign in 2016 and the various controversies relating to her time as Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s first term (2009 – 2012) that resurfaced during her campaign, in particular her role in the infamous 2012 incident in which US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed during a terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi; and her use of a private server over which she conducted government business in violation of Federal laws forbidding the use of privately owned and run digital technologies to receive, send, work on and store emails containing government information. Disturbingly HRC and another interviewee breezily wave away the private server issue by saying that a previous Secretary of State, Colin Powell, also had a private server while holding the position. (Did he ever use this server to transact government business in the way HRC did?)

The constant theme throughout this episode, which HRC and other interviewees consistently bash into the TV audience’s ears and faces, is that HRC’s story parallels the rise of second-wave feminism and the fight for women’s rights from the 1960s onwards. In very many occasions HRC claims she was battling misogynistic prejudice against her for her education and achievements, and for wanting to retain her maiden name after marrying Bill. Viewers are misled into thinking HRC a significant leader in the fight for women’s rights and equality with men before the law. At the same time though, very little attention is given by Burstein or her interviewees on what the ordinary John and Jane Doe know of the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1960s / 70s and what HRC’s role might have been in that movement, if she had ever participated in it at all.

Despite covering the life of the woman who would become a significant figure in US politics and culture in her own right, for better and for worse, the program makes its subject an uninteresting and dull figure. One would have thought that Burstein, an experienced film director, would try to encourage HRC to relax and try to project a warm personality. Instead HRC comes across as a self-absorbed woman, around whom the world supposedly rotates and does obeisance. Everything dragged into the film, whether it be the history of civil rights and rights for women, ends up revolving around HRC.

Of course, nowhere in this episode will we see much about the scandals that were to follow the Clintons like a bad smell: scandals like the Whitewater real estate investment controversy or HRC’s dabbling in the trading of cattle futures contracts while serving as First Lady of Arkansas. As a result, viewers will only get a slanted view of HRC as a dedicated feminist and a tough political fighter. The real HRC, with all her sociopathic qualities, is carefully polished to Teflon-like sheen.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 4): manipulative propaganda posing as maudlin soap opera

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 4)” (2020)

The tedium finally comes to an end in this fictional account of what the British government and news media claimed occurred in Salisbury over several months in 2018, starting with the collapse of Sergei and Julia Skripal in a shopping mall in early March 2018 and ending with the death of Dawn Sturgess, supposedly from spraying herself with a deadly nerve agent she mistook for perfume which her boyfriend found in a charity bin in June 2018. The sub-plots are so threadbare in plotting, dialogue and character portrayal that the entire series resembles a strange tour of a zoo in which bored animals pace in circles in their cages or engage in repetitive behaviours. As we have now come to expect, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) is still trying to come to terms with his near-poisoning death from Novichok and the dramatic effects it has had on his family and their circumstances. Bailey seems unable to continue with his life on leave from the police force. His long-suffering wife and daughters continue … to be long-suffering. Salisbury public health department head Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) continues juggling the demands of her work with those of her partner and teenage son, and having doubts about her ability to do her job well. Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) dies, leaving her family grieving and flummoxed about the nature of the “perfume” that killed her.

The episode lays on the anti-Russia propaganda more thickly by having mention of real-life Russian tourists Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov (who visited Salisbury on the same day that the Skripals fell ill) on television. The episode strongly insinuates that these men’s actions make them responsible for the death of Sturgess, even though to date no direct or indirect evidence has surfaced that would point to the men’s culpability. By doing this in the context of a maudlin, melodramatic soap opera, “The Salisbury Poisonings” becomes dangerous propaganda, cynically targeting and manipulating people’s emotions by devoting so much attention to Sturgess’s death and funeral and focusing on her grieving family, especially her mother and young daughter.

By the end of the mini-series, the characters of Bailey, Daszkiewicz, Sturgess and the people around them are no better drawn than they were at the beginning of the show and they remain stereotypes: the brave, stoic police officer and his devoted family, caught up in events by accident which change their lives and which they cannot control; the career woman trying to prove to herself that she can be a successful leader and home-maker; the fallen woman who wants to remake her life and start afresh. These stereotypes are intended to represent British people as stoic, determined and resilient in the face of an extraordinary crisis and emergency – even though in the mini-series, no-one actually seems to do anything useful to end that emergency.

By using the structure of a melodramatic soap opera, in which characters are more important than the narrative they supposedly follow, the BBC escapes with a crappy script, sketchy character types, the most atrocious dialogue, lack of accurate information and the dumping of vile propaganda onto the viewing public. Anyone who thinks s/he might actually learn something about the Skripal poisonings from this drama will quickly be disabused of such a quaint notion. The issue should have been dealt with in the form of a documentary with some live-action drama restaging the most significant events with an emphasis on facts and logic, not on manipulative pulling of the heart strings.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 3): more overwrought schlock drama

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 3)” (2020)

In this episode, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) recovers from his poisoning attack in hospital, only to discover later together with wife Sarah (Annabel Scholey) that their house and all its furniture and their family’s other belongings have been destroyed by the British government. Moreover the Baileys cannot make an insurance claim and are advised by their solicitor to … sue the Russian government for damages, since it is supposedly responsible (in the absence of any proof) for the poison that nearly killed Bailey. Dazed and confused by the advice, the couple stumble out into the streets of Salisbury city. Elsewhere, Tracey Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) is busy making a hash out of protecting Salisbury residents from the mysterious Novichok poison: at one point in the film she considers dredging the entire pond system in the city and almost decides to kill all the ducks and swans when police learn that before their collapse the Skripals had been feeding bread to the birds. Somehow over the months following March 2018, Salisbury endures and survives an extended state of emergency, though how this is done is not made clear in the film because it takes enormous leaps in time without making this clear to viewers. Daszkiewicz’s work takes her away from her partner and son, and her relationship with both suffers.

Nine miles away in Amesbury, drug dealer Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris) and girlfriend Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) are chowing their way through charity bins; Rowley finds a perfume bottle in one of the bins. He later gives it to Dawn who sprays perfume from it onto her wrists. Some hours later she collapses, gasping for breath, and Charlie rushes her to Salisbury General Hospital. He also needs to be admitted as a patient. Much later in the film the Rowley and Sturgess families gather in the hospital where they are stunned by news that Charlie and Dawn have been contaminated by Novichok.

The film is extremely vague and sketchy on the timeline of the events that make Salisbury the cynosure of all eyes and ears around the world in early 2018. One gets the impression that the sub-plots are happening all at once when in fact the sub-plot that involves Sturgess took place some time in June after everything seemed to be going back to its usual placid normality and the story of the Baileys had long disappeared from the media. Daszkiewicz appears not to do anything decisive and important yet somehow she does her job and manages to keep her partner and son from running away. The Nick Bailey sub-plot is remarkable mainly for not really saying or doing much that would gain viewer sympathy for two cardboard cut-out characters in Nick and Sarah Bailey.

A hilarious moment comes when the Porton Down chemicals expert exclaims that Novichok was found everywhere in the Bailey house and family car, yet Sarah Bailey and her daughters escape unscathed, which the expert can only call a miracle. (The truth surely is that the whole official account about the Baileys was made up to scare the Salisbury public into accepting whatever lock-down restrictions London imposed.) Apart from this, the episode is basically overwrought soap opera schlock. I can forgive actors for appearing in this mini-series because they need money and there may be few acting jobs in Britain but everyone associated with the script should be hanging his/her head in shame.

The agenda behind the mini-series is to reinforce British government propaganda of Russia as a sinister menace and a threat to British national security. This explains why this television show has had to be done as a fictional drama series: a proper documentary about the Skripal poisoning incident and its aftermath simply can’t be made because it would expose British political elites and British news media, including the BBC, as unprincipled liars.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 2): cheap TV drama populated by cast of cardboard stereotypes

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 2)” (2020)

Part 2 of this dreary mini-series purporting to show the effect of the Skripal poisoning incident on the people of Salisbury focuses on the sub-plots surrounding two characters, Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff), the public health department head of Wiltshire Council, tasked with safeguarding the entire city population from the mysterious menace called Novichok, and Sarah Bailey (Annabel Scholey), the wife of the stricken police detective Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall). Daszkiewicz spends her time running between her office and various locations around Salisbury where Sergei and Julia Skripal travelled on the day they fell ill; to her horror, these places include Miller’s Pub and Zizzi’s Restaurant where the couple lunched on seafood risotto: itself a possible source of poison which Daszkiewicz never considers despite her position and the knowledge she should have. All these locations and the police station where Detective Sergeant Bailey reported are found to be swathed in Novichok. Trying to shut down these businesses, which would cost Salisbury millions in lost rent and jobs, while keeping the public reassured that everything is being done to keep people safe, would be a difficult job for anyone, let alone someone who talks herself into doubting that she can handle the job; yet according to this woeful episode, Daszkiewicz’s biggest problem is keeping a balance between the demands of her work and the demands of her partner and son for her attention. It obviously does not occur to the partner and the son that maybe for just half a year or so they could see a bit less of her while she lives at the office 24/7 until the emergency is over. Meanwhile Sarah Bailey visits her husband every day at the hospital, hugging and kissing him despite his perspiration being possibly full of nerve agent that should have killed him (and maybe his entire family) 36 hours ago. Their daughters endure teasing at school when his name is publicised in the news media. In another part of Salisbury, Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) is troubled by the news of the Skripal poisoning and boyfriend Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris) comforts her and tells her he’ll take her back to his place in Amesbury.

With the plot jumping all over Salisbury, viewers will feel nothing significant happens that advances their understanding of what is going on in this melodrama, apart from people having conniption fits or being close to bawling their eyes out in frustration over the dire script. The dialogue is atrocious. Nowhere in Salisbury General Hospital is there any indication that the Skripals are being held. The police and emergency services zero in on the front door of the Skripal home: it seems that the door knob is smeared in Novichok. (No-one explains though how it can be that both Sergei and Julia Skripal are contaminated with Novichok, unless every time they enter and leave the house, they both have to hold the door knob together. The other possibility that the door knob is not the primary source of Novichok tainting never arises.) While police remove the door and other investigators in hazmat suits remove people’s vehicles from the streets and take them to Porton Down, viewers are left scratching their heads at all this activity which is never explained adequately and which is cut off by over-eager editors wanting to get the next scene on the screen.

The episode panders to all the worst stereotypes about women, be they full-time homemakers or working women torn between the pressures of their jobs and the needs of their families. Sarah Bailey is portrayed as a saintly Madonna figure and Tracy Daszkiewicz epitomises the harassed working woman trying to do the best she can and just managing to hold everything and everyone together. Male characters in the episode tend to be helpless or vacillating, and end up deferring to Daszkiewicz. Dawn Sturgess runs into the arms of her lover. Everything these characters do is so generic that they are more colourless and shallow than water, and viewers are not likely to feel much sympathy for them.

We are no closer to knowing what is happening to the Skripals or where they even are in Salisbury during the episode. Viewers expecting some facts or reference to facts will be dismayed. This mini-series is little more than a cheap soap opera.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 1): British propaganda at its most excruciatingly atrocious

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 1)” (2020)

As an example of British propaganda targeting Russia and perceived Russian militarism, this BBC miniseries is remarkably fourth-rate. With a script boasting two Guardian journalists as script consultants, the first episode is a dreary affair: the patchy plot zips all over the joint, unable to settle on a definite strand within the drama; characters are so sketchy they cannot even be considered one-dimensional, because they struggle to exist on any dimension; and as a drama based on real events, it fails to get any facts right if indeed it stumbles across any facts accidentally. The mini-series is based on the official account (itself dubious) of what occurred in March 2018 and afterwards when former KGB agent turned double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia were found in an extreme state of distress on a bench in The Maltings shopping mall in Salisbury, southern England. After receiving first aid from a nurse who happened to be walking by when her daughter found the pair – and the nurse herself happened to be the Chief Nurse of the British Army who had recently completed a simulated military exercise in which chemical weapons were featured (go figure, as Americans would say) – the Skripals were airlifted to Salisbury General Hospital where they were determined to have been poisoned by Novichok which the British government later claimed could only have been made in Russia and then smuggled in to Salisbury by a dastardly agent or agents in an assassination plot. (Never mind that the recipe for Novichok is actually available online and that researchers in a number of countries including Czechia and Iran have been able to make the stuff.)

In the first episode – I must say that in Australia the mini-series is being shown in four parts, whereas in other countries including the UK it was shown in three parts – the plot focuses most on the hapless Detective Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) who goes into the Skripals’ house and contaminates himself with Novichok early on. Amazingly, in spite of the fact that Novichok kills a person within half an hour of contact, the detective soldiers on for a whole day, presumably passing poison to his wife and children by kissing and hugging them, and spreading Novichok all over the furniture in his house, even as he suffers from faltering eyesight and other poisoning symptoms. By the end of the first episode, Bailey is in hospital being intubated while his faithful spouse sits at his bedside. Meanwhile, Wiltshire public health department head Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) runs hither and thither trying to make sense of the events in the city. Farther afield in Amesbury, Dawn Sturgess (Myanna Buring), a mother struggling to get her life together after years of alcoholism and addiction to hard drugs, is introduced in a brief scene talking to a social worker and then later attending a party during which she sprays her wrists with perfume that in later episodes will turn out to be … Novichok!

By portraying the events in Salisbury in early 2018 as a drama, the mini-series sidesteps having to say anything about the Skripals themselves that might contradict the official British government account, while at the same time claiming to focus on how these events affected the people of Salisbury and brought out their heroism in a context of extreme emergency. Here is where this BBC production becomes propaganda of an insidious kind: it equates the events in Salisbury in 2018 to an invasion by secret intelligence elements in the Russian government for no reason other than to satisfy Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supposed desire for revenge against Skripal. (Of course if the Russians had been really mad at Skripal for turning traitor, they’d have thrown him into jail for life and he would never have been included in a spy swap with the British.)

I was prepared to watch this episode as comedy, and indeed the funniest part of the film comes at the climax when a scientist from the Porton Down military laboratory complex explains what Novichok is to a bewildered audience. He claims that the Skripals survived because not only were they treated fortuitously with Naloxone (a drug given to people presumed to be suffering from fentanyl overdoses) but because – at this point the dialogue is vague, and probably deliberately so – either the Naloxone was given cold or the weather was cold. Ha! It seems the evil Russians overlooked the fact that Novichok only works in warm to hot weather. How the heck did they ever manage to make Novichok work during the cold Russian winters? When such a detail is treated cavalierly by the journalists who assisted in writing the script, I wonder that they managed to get jobs at The Guardian at all, as the work clearly shows contempt for viewers’ intelligence.

The actors do what they can with the script but overall their performances are wooden and some characters are little more than gender stereotypes. Dialogue is bad to the point where it becomes funny at the expense of the characters made to mouth rubbish. Done in the style of a crime procedure television show, this episode is dull and lacking in the energy and urgency its subject demands.

The Power of Falun Gong: a timid presentation of a dangerous and deranged fascist cult

“The Power of Falun Gong” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 21 July 2020)

Purporting to be an expose of Falun Gong’s activities as a secretive religious organisation with very disturbing cult-like tendencies, and its promotion of current US President Donald Trump during the 2020 US Presidential election year, this episode of Foreign Correspondent ends up flogging the organisation with a light feather. A very brief sketchy survey of how the cult arose in China in the early 1990s starts the program, with very little information about how the cult’s founder Li Hongzhi began the organisation or about his background prior to becoming a government clerk. The program claims that Li’s ability to rally thousands of Chinese to his cult, using a mix of Buddhist and Daoist ideas that include taijiquan exercises and meditation practice along with Scientology-style beliefs about aliens coming to Earth and conservative politics, was what led the Chinese government to outlaw Falun Gong and persuade Li Hongzhi to flee to the United States. (Another source I read says the Chinese government shut down Falun Gong for persuading its followers to abstain from medical therapies and rely entirely on meditation and conforming to Li’s teachings to recover from illness. This is backed up at this blog here.)

Skipping from interviewing a young defector from the Falun Gong cult, whose mother raised her in its beliefs, to a family who lost their grandmother to the cult whose teachings on shunning medicine led to the grandmother’s death, the program presents some very heart-rending stories in a superficial way. We do not learn how the defector managed to make her own way in the world after leaving the cult and her mother. Reporter Eric Campbell meets two activists living in upstate New York, where the cult has built a huge compound that continues to grow and devour local properties, who are campaigning against Falun Gong’s greed to acquire more land and build more structures that violate local environmental laws and building safety codes; but even the activists’ story is dealt with in a vague way. We never learn if they and their followers have ever won a lawsuit against Falun Gong or managed to have much influence on their own communities and others beyond their area.

The last and most interesting part of the documentary concerns Falun Gong’s media empire, known as The Epoch Media Group, centred around flagship newspaper The Epoch Times and its increasing forays into social media platforms and advertising on Facebook. The report looks at how Falun Gong companies and websites create false social media identities and accounts on Facebook, often for the purpose of astroturfing (running fake grassroots campaigns with support from fake accounts). Unfortunately the program fails to ask where the money comes from to finance The Epoch Media Group and other media and entertainment-related groups such as the Shen Yun Dance Company, and other activities. At least the source I referred to earlier comes to my rescue with the revelation that Falun Gong’s media empire and other operations, including its compound in New York state, are funded by the US government and its agencies (possibly including the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy) which use the cult as a de facto attack-dog propaganda outlet.

Foreign Correspondent significantly fails to connect Falun Gong’s support for Donald Trump with its worldview which believes the End Times are close by and that Trump is a divinely inspired warrior committed to ending Communism in China. How the program could have missed this damning aspect of a cult says much about its mealy-mouthed and timid approach in covering the organisation, such that Falun Gong comes over as an eccentric cult with a reclusive leader, instead of the dangerous and deranged fascist front for the US government it actually is. At the end of the day, the producers of Foreign Correspondent and the reporters who work for the program must ask whether flaying a dangerous cult like Falun Gong, which happens to be anti-Communist, lightly with a feather is more moral than lambasting China for having a style of government and a particular political ideology that its people want but which the West fears and resents.

The Secret Armada: North Korean ghost ship phenomenon covered in a superficial way

“The Secret Armada” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 14 July 2020)

Despite the spine-tingling thrill of the episode title, this piece on apparent North Korean fishing vessels washing up on Russian or Japanese shores in derelict condition and with dead crews was hardly informative. It came across very much as an excuse for its reporter to travel to Vladivostok and Dandong (China), presumably with most expenses paid, to sneak a peek at North Koreans across the Russian or Chinese border. The correspondent talks to local people about what they know of these North Korean fishing boats; they don’t appear to know a great deal apart from what they observe of the degraded condition of the vessels and the fact that the crews tend to be very dead. The odd thing about what the Russian interviewees say is that neither the Russian nor the North Korean government seems very interested in repatriating these degraded ships and the corpses they contain back to the DPRK. One would think Pyongyang would be very keen to get these ships and bodies back, at least to save face internationally and to make sure the vessels were not carrying information of a classified nature. Come to think of it, no government officials, whether in Russia, Japan, South Korea or (even) North Korea, feature in the program at all to deliver even just a PR statement on the North Korean ghost ship phenomenon.

There seems to have been no attempt on the Australian reporter’s part to find out just how old the ships are, how long they might have been floating in the Sea of Japan, or even whether they actually are North Korean ships and not South Korean ships. The program doesn’t seem to rely on any mainstream news media sources, let alone alternative news media, for information as to what these ghost ships are or might be. A Russian man tells the reporter he has buried two North Korean bodies found on one stranded ship; tellingly, the report admits no DNA tests had been done on the bodies so the viewer is expected to assume that these bodies are those of North Korean people.

No context is offered as to why North Koreans should be so desperate as to launch rickety fishing boats and sail to other nations’ maritime territories to fish illegally for seafood, some of which is sold to Chinese seafood sellers in Dandong. There is little mention of the crippling sanctions imposed by the US on North Korea since the 1950s, which have had the effect among others of denying North Korea agricultural technology and tools that would be effective in helping the country raise better and bigger crops of rice and other plant foods, and forcing the country to retain a large agricultural workforce that also doubles as a national army reserve. The constant references in the program to the North Korean army claiming first dibs on food produce ignore the fact that the army of the DPRK is a people’s army and that most people who serve in the army are conscripts from the agricultural sector.

At least the scenes of derelict ships rotting on remote beaches, surrounded by green countryside, clear blue waters and distant mountains rising from over the horizon are visually very moving and unforgettable. Apart from these lovely scenes, there really is very little useful information about what the ghost ship phenomenon actually is and what it might say about the state of the North Korean economy and society.