“Coffee and Papers with The Sydney Morning Herald, Jeremy Scahill and Antony Loewenstein,” Sydney Writers Festival (The Bar at the End of the Wharf, Sydney Theatre Company, The Rocks, 23 May 2014)
A lovely way to enjoy the extended Indian summer Sydney has been having in May 2014 was to turn up to this morning 1-hour panel session featuring Helen Pitt, the Opinion Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, one of her colleagues whose name I unfortunately didn’t quite catch, and guest journalists Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept and Antony Loewenstein at the 2014 Sydney Writers Festival. The panel session facilitator was Sherrill Nixon, also of The Sydney Morning Herald.
Wending my way to the session through The Rocks area and Walsh Bay, I nearly got run over by a car because my head was buried in a Google Maps print-out and I lost my way a bit around the various Sydney Writers Festival venues. I managed to reach the venue in time to buy cappuccino and chocolate brownie and settle down in the lounge area. I even managed to snatch a quick look at the Friday issue of SMH and check out my fellow audience members: a mixture of people of about mature or retirement age and some young journalism students. Everyone was in a good mood, expecting a stimulating hour of talk on current politics and issues.
Well the panel didn’t disappoint. After introductions, Scahill plunged into talking about the United States government’s use of military drones to prosecute global wars and eliminate people it considers to be major threats whether they actually are or aren’t. This topic is in connection with a recently published book of his, “Dirty Wars: the World is a Battlefield”, and a film “Dirty Wars” in which he features (and which I have reviewed elsewhere on Under Southern Eyes). Scahill in particular talked about Christopher Harvard, an Australian citizen, and Muslim bin John, a dual Australian-New Zealand citizen, who were both killed by a drone strike in Yemen in April 2014, and the reaction of both the Australian and New Zealand governments to their deaths: Australia’s reaction was silence and New Zealand’s response was to accept bin John’s death as “legitimate”.
Scahill also mentioned Anwar al Awlaki, the American Muslim cleric who was killed by a US drone strike in Yemen, in violation of his rights as an American citizen under the US Constitution to hearing and knowing the charges against him and being tried in a court of law by his peers. The journalist also referred to an Afghani family who features in “Dirty Wars”: Scahill spoke of the midnight raid on their house by US soldiers in which family members including two pregnant women were killed and a couple of men were arrested. The men were later returned to the family with no explanation of why they had been arrested other than that the whole raid had been a mistake, no apology and little in the way of compensation.
Loewenstein referred to his experiences of interviewing asylum seekers detained on Manus Island after risking their lives on the high seas to come to Australia, and the difficulties he and other journalists experienced in trying to gain access to their interviewees from prison guards and security personnel.
The panel wove these seemingly disparate topics into a whole by discussing the current news media landscape and how it hinders the public’s right to know what governments are doing or not doing in their name. Few news reporters these days question their governments or government agencies and representatives and instead parrot the press releases given them by governments and pass them off as news. Scahill and Loewenstein spoke at some length on the nature of US President Barack Obama’s administration, how it has been instrumental in sinking the US’s reputation throughout the world and the news media’s role in shaping and disseminating misinformation and propaganda. Scahill referred briefly to the hold that corporations have upon the US government.
The panel guests were forthright and articulate in their views and opinions, and demonstrated journalism-as-advocacy in its best light. In the brief Q & A session that followed the panel discussion, Scahill and Loewenstein patiently dealt with questions on conspiracy theories: it was obvious that the two have been quizzed in the past about whether they thought the US government had played some role in the World Trade Center attacks in September, 2001. The panel seemed to perk up at a question from Yours Truly on journalism education in universities and colleges and whether it was too narrowly focused on media technologies and not enough on critical analysis of the news. (The thought had occurred to me during the panel discussions that one reason that journalists these days seem so compliant and do not challenge power is that their education may be essentially vocational with an emphasis on knowing current technologies and how to use them but not on developing critical and analytical skills that a generalist, humanities-based education would give them.) The SMH representatives admitted that in recent years, new recruits often did not have knowledge or experience in sifting through and judging the worth of information. Scahill and Loewenstein both stated that their education and training as journalists occurred on the job, apprentice-style, and that they had very good mentors (Amy Johnson and Margo Kingston respectively) to guide them.
While there wasn’t a lot in the session that was new to me or other audience members – apart from Scahill exclaiming that Australian journalism was old-school muckraking journalism – I did come away with a better appreciation of what he, Loewenstein and other investigative journalists are trying to do and what they are up against in a news media world that acts on the whole as a public relations front and cheerleader for governments and large private corporations. I may not always agree with the likes of Scahill on issues like the civil wars in Syria and Ukraine and Russia’s role in these but I respect that he and others are chipping away in their own way against the arrogance and indifference of powerful forces destroying freedom and democracy, and the despair and anger of people at their governments around the world.