Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: New York Times

Journalistic Heroines

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday 24 October 2010

There was an article titled “Mumbo Jumbo” in the Sunday Leader dated 17 October, 2010,by one Sumaya Samarasinghe. The main purpose of the article was to defend Frederica Jansz against the lies told about her by other Sri Lankan newspapers.

Ms Samarasinghe seemed to be saying that readers were too stupid to know about Judith Miller. I know enough about Miller to question the statement: “She is an ex- New York Times journalist who refused to reveal her source and ended up spending three months in jail. She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer many years later. This had a huge impact amongst journalists and questioned if the state could force journalists to reveal their sources… Does anyone remember this talented and honest reporter?”

Miller did not win the Pulitzer “many years after” spending three months in jail. She was jailed for 85 days in 2005. Miller won the Pulitzer in 2002 as part of a New York Times team covering 9/11. There was a campaign to get Miller’s award revoked.

Miller is an “ex- New York Times journalist” because she ruined the paper’s reputation for probity and honest, accurate reporting. The New York Times’s own ombudsman issued a scathing critique of Judith Miller’s lies and recommended that the paper not allow her back in its newsroom.

The “source” she went to jail to protect was Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Dick Cheney, who was convicted for obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements.

What noble journalistic cause did Miller go to jail for? Columnist Margaret Kimberly wrote that Miller “isn’t protecting a whistle blower. She is protecting someone who retaliated against a whistle blower”.

Part of the Bush case against Saddam was that he was importing yellow-cake uranium from Niger as part of his WMD project. Former US ambassador to Niger, Joseph Wilson, cast doubt upon this in the Times and criticised the Bush administration for “twisting” intelligence to justify war in Iraq. Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. This fact was spitefully divulged publicly by the Vice President’s office thus endangering her life. For her second grand jury appearance, Miller produced a notebook from a previously-undisclosed meeting with Libby on June 23, 2003, several weeks before Wilson’s New York Times article was published. According to Miller’s notes from that earlier meeting, Libby disclosed that Joseph Wilson’s wife was a CIA employee involved in her husband’s trip to Niger. Six days after another meeting with Libby Miller recorded in her notebook, Plame was outed as a CIA agent.

Miller’s main claim to fame has nothing to do with being honest or talented; it is to do with being a conduit of misinformation for the Bush government. The USA used Miller’s reporting, based on the lies they had fed her, as a contributory motive for going to war. The NYT later apologised for its behaviour but rejected “blame on individual reporters”. A Times editorial acknowledged that some of that newspaper’s coverage in the run-up to the war had relied too heavily on Ahmed Chalabi (con-man and convicted embezzler) and other Iraqi exiles bent on regime change. It also regretted that “information that was controversial [was] allowed to stand unchallenged”. Others noted that ten of the twelve flawed stories discussed had been written or co-written by Miller. It was alleged later in Editor and Publisher that, while Miller’s reporting “frequently does not meet Times standards”, she was given a freer rein than other reporters because she consistently delivered frequent front page scoops for the paper by cultivating top-ranking sources.

The civilian death toll following the Iraq invasion of 2003 today stands at, according to the Body Count website, which is more conservative in its estimates than the Lancet, 107,349. The US military death toll is 2,000 and taxpayer money wasted is in excess of $300 billion. As Russell Baker put it in The Nation (not the Sri Lankan one), “I am convinced there would not have been a war (against Iraq) without Judy Miller.”

In 2007, Miller went to work for a right-wing think tank. In 2008, she was hired by that bastion of ethical journalism, Fox News.

On Tuesday, January 30, 2007, Miller took the stand as a witness for the prosecution against Libby. There was general mirth when Miller said she could not remember conversations she had had with Libby. James Carville speculated that it was “going to be very interesting to see whether [Miller’s] problem is a first amendment [one] — i.e., “I want to protect a source”, or a fifth amendment [one] — “I was out spreading this stuff, too””.

Now let us move to another courtroom drama.

In the article she posted on 13 October, 2010, Frederica Jansz highlights errors made by other papers and promised a fuller response on 17 October. The 17th October ‘editorial’ is little more than a tirade at the stupidity of newspaper readers and an assertion that all newspapers except the Leader are only fit for wrapping fish. She ignores the huge elephant in the room.

Some time ago, Ms Jansz wrote that she had asked Sarath Fonseka three times about Lasantha’s death but he had refused to give a direct answer. Her answers in her testimony to the High Court in the “White Flag” case were somewhat different.

According to the Sunday Times of  10 October, Ms Jansz testified in the High Court that at one point during the interview with Fonseka, Lal Wickrematunge had asked the note-taker and the photographer to leave the room as he wanted to raise a personal issue with Fonseka. Lal asked Fonseka who was responsible for killing Lasantha.

Jansz said in response to questioning in the High Court that “she did not pay attention to what was said by Fonseka in response to that question”.

Ms Jansz is an experienced and fearless investigative journalist who over the years has been the scourge of many a corrupt businessman and many criminals. Her paper has been running a long campaign to bring to justice the killers of Lasantha. Lasantha’s brother directly asked a man likely to be in the know who killed his brother and Frederica drifts off like a dopey teenager!

She said that she normally did tape recordings of interviews but the paper’s recorder had been given to someone going to interview the Western Provincial Council minister. Does the paper’s budget not run to buying a second recorder? Could the UNP not have a whip-round to buy another recorder for her? Was the interview with the provincial minister considered more important than an interview with a presidential candidate who is accusing his own soldiers and government of a war crime?

Ms Samarasinghe exempts the Sunday Times from her accusations about papers telling lies about Ms Jansz. Is the Sunday Times accurately reporting her testimony or not? Why does Ms Jansz not address the issue?

The elephant in the room is beginning to smell worse than those old fishy newspapers

Philanthropy – the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 8 2014.

I am not sure who originally came up with the phrase “Philanthropy – the last refuge of the scoundrel”. I first encountered it in an article published in October 2012 by the novelist Howard Jacobson on the subject of Jimmy Savile. Savile used his reputation as a philanthropist to sexually abuse children. I recently encountered a use of the phrase in a book by James O’Toole: Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness, published in 2005. James O’Toole is the Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver. O’Toole shows how a range of people embarked on quests that led them closer to achieving a good life based on awareness and values rather than riches and fame.

Aristotle: “To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”

 

I recently became embroiled in an argument on Facebook about Otara and Odels. Someone who thought he was supporting my point of view wrote that Otara should be spending her philanthropic funds on people rather than dogs. Compassion is not a zero-sum commodity. Anyone who loves animals is likely to have empathy for people. People who are cruel to animals – GW Bush, Jeffrey Dahmer, Fred West, Prabhakaran- are likely to be cruel to people. A friend of mine who is engaged in practical hands-on animal welfare was sceptical when Otara embarked upon Embark, predicting that it was a publicity stunt. I chided her for her cynicism but there has been criticism of how Embark operated. We will see how it goes now that Otara has more time to personally supervise it.

 

Noisy Philanthropy

 

I do have issues with celebrity philanthropy. The late Paul Newman raised $150m for various good causes. He explained a dilemma: “One thing that bothers me is what I call ‘noisy philanthropy’. Philanthropy ought to be anonymous but in order for it to be effective, you have to be noisy. Because when a shopper walks up to the shelf and says, ‘shall I take this one or that one?’ you’ve got to let her know that the money goes to a good purpose. So there goes all your anonymity and the whole thing you really cherish”.

 

Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics

When I was working with my cynical friend on an animal welfare campaign, her daughter had the brilliant idea of approaching ethical philosopher Peter Singer for support. Peter Singer has a motto: “make a difference”. He certainly made a difference to the way I live my life. Way back in the 1970s, I read articles by Singer in the New York Review of Books that made me see things in a radical new light. His subsequent books Practical Ethics and Animal Liberation reinforced the message of the articles. Singer argued that the boundary between human and “animal” is arbitrary. He popularized the term “speciesism”, to describe the practice of privileging humans over other animals. I was rather disappointed when Singer asked me to remove his name from my mailing list. He was not interested in giving painless direct help for the welfare of animals by simply lending his name.

Outsourcing Compassion

In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, Singer argued that it is morally indefensible that some people enjoy surplus abundance while others starve. When one is already living comfortably, a further purchase to increase comfort will not have the same moral weight as saving another person’s life. Singer claims to donate 25% of his salary to Oxfam and UNICEF. He acknowledges that there are problems with ensuring that charitable donations are effectively spent.

In Joseph O’Neill’s latest novel, The Dog, the main character, X, is concerned about the working conditions of construction workers in Dubai. He deals with his concern by paying 37% of his gross salary to Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch. This sounds like a big sacrifice but it is a comfortable way for X to delegate his conscience. O’Neill makes blatant the bad faith of Singer’s thinking. Singer’s method of giving means that it does not matter whether the money does anything to relieve suffering or poverty but it certainly boosts the giver.

 

Bono – Mrs. Jellyby in a Ten-Gallon hat

Novelist Paul Theroux has noted the similarity between the secular saint known as Bono and the philanthropic Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House. Mrs. Jellyby tries to save starving Africans by financing coffee growing, making pianoforte legs for export and bullying people to give her money for those purposes. Theroux wrote in the New York Times on December 15 2005: “There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment.”

Bono says at U2 concerts, “We don’t want your money, just your voice.” Bono wants you to give the government your money in taxes and spend it for him. Bono’s ONE organisation wants Western governments to spend tax dollars on development and aid programmes. Many voices, those of William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo the most eloquent among them, have argued that aid does more harm than good to the countries receiving it.

Theroux taught in Malawi as a volunteer Peace Corps teacher 45 years ago and knows the country well. Despite large amounts of financial aid, Malawi “has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.” “I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for – and this never happens.”

In 2008, Bono’s ONE Campaign raised $14,993,873 in public donations — of which only $184,732 (or just over one percent) was distributed to charities. More than $8 million went to salaries for executives and employees at ONE.

In 2008, New Internationalist readers chose Bono as their Artful Dodger of the year. For many years, Bono’s home country of Ireland had not taxed the income of “artists”. Then the Government decided to set a cap of $200,000 a year – a fortune for most artists, but not for U2. Ireland is still a corporate tax haven and Bono would have done well enough had he decided to stay home. The Netherlands offered a more attractive deal, because of its link with offshore tax-havens in the Antilles. It seems that Bono wants ordinary people to pay through their taxes for his causes but does not want to pay tax himself.

Geldof

 

I was one of those caught up in the mass hysteria generated by Live Aid in 1985. I responded to Bob Geldof’s exhortations to pay up to save the starving Ethiopians. Live Aid turned Geldof from a has-been pop performer into a global charity superstar. Not everybody was impressed. World Music champion Andy Kershaw wrote of the Wembley concert: “It became clear that this was another parade of the same old rock aristocracy in a concert for Africa, organised by someone who, while advertising his concern for, and sympathy with, the continent didn’t see fit to celebrate or dignify the place by including on the Live Aid bill a single African performer.”

Alex de Waal estimates that the relief effort may have cut the death toll by between a quarter and a half. However, critics say that NGOs were complicit in the Ethiopian government’s “resettlement” of 600,000 people from the north while enforcing the “villagisation” of three million others. Donor governments and mainstream relief NGOs turned a blind eye while government officials raided refugee camps. This was a totalitarian scheme masquerading as a humanitarian effort. The conservative estimate of those dying en route is 50,000. MSF’s (Médecins Sans Frontières) estimate is double that. Asked about allegations that 100,000 had died in the transfers, Geldof said, “in the context [of such a famine], these numbers don’t shock me.”

Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s poorest countries. Whilst making a fortune for charity Geldof has also shown an aptitude for making himself rich. One of his companies, Ten Alps Communications is Britain’s fastest growing media, entertainment and marketing company. The company deals with some unsavoury allies, creating “branded environments” for BP, Glaxo Smithkline and Microsoft, and even the British Foreign Office. When Geldof tried to relive Live Aid with Live8, Nestlé, BAE Systems and Rio Tinto sponsored some of the concerts. Nestlé has been accused of benefiting from the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa by selling more milk substitute products; Rio Tinto, the world’s largest mining corporation, has been condemned for human rights and environmental abuses; BAE Systems, according to Mike Lewis of the UK’s Campaign against Arms Trade, is “fuelling conflicts across Africa”.

Many people involved in the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign were not happy with Geldof. He chose to hold Live 8, without consulting the MPH organisers, on the same day in 2005 as the main MPH demonstration in Edinburgh, stealing most of the media coverage. Geldof praised Tony Blair and GW Bush for saving millions of African lives and promoted the Washington Consensus of free trade, foreign direct investment and privatisation.

 

 As with Live Aid in 1985, Geldof was criticised for not including any African musicians. At the final press conference that concluded the G8 summit in Gleneagles, the South African activist Kumi Naidoo acted as spokesperson for Make Poverty History gave the coalition’s verdict that: “The world has roared, but the G8 has responded with a whisper.” Geldof turned on Naidoo in front of the assembled media, attacking his statement as “a disgrace”. African civil society representatives went on television afterwards to make public statements dissociating themselves from Geldof’s remarks.
Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was a practical philanthropist. He knew how to make money and he knew how to use it effectively. Carnegie established charitable organisations that are still active nearly a century after his death and he set the template for other philanthropists through his well-written thoughts on the theory and practice of charity. Carnegie urged the wealthy to provide for themselves and their dependents and then make it their “duty” to use the rest of their funds for their communities. He warned successful men who failed to help others that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Modern day rich givers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have expressed a Carnegie-like wish to divest themselves of their wealth.

 

This echoes The Buddha’s aphorism about the wealthy man who enjoys his riches without sharing, digging his own grave. Those of us who are not wealthy would be advised to give directly to those in need rather than outsourcing to huge corporations or overweening rock stars. Make a difference to the poor not to the rich.

 

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