Eric Morse: ‘Who Watches the Watchdog?’ – Journalism and Foreign Policy
November 16, 2010
Eric Morse, Vice-Chair, Strategic Studies Committee, Royal Canadian Military Institute (RCMI) delivered the following speech to the Queen’s University Foreign Policy Conference, November 13, 2010.
‘Who Watches the Watchdog?’ – the Imperfect Symbiosis of Journalism and Foreign Policy
Address by Eric Morse, Vice-Chair, Strategic Studies Committee, RCMI, to the 2010 Queen’s University Foreign Policy Conference, November 13.
What impact does journalism have on foreign policy? It’s a trick question, because the answer depends a lot on how you see either of them. There is a symbiosis. But I it’s a very flawed symbiosis, so I guess I’ll begin by disillusioning you on foreign policy.
There is a huge foreign policy industry inside and outside of academe. There is a massive foreign relations bureaucracy inside government. One spends its entire energy trying to influence the other. Queen’s own Prof. Kim Nossal whom I have finally had the honour to meet has spent a quarter of a century defining the extent to which the Canadian foreign relations decision-making process is nearly impervious to outside inputs, which is going to come as one hell of a shock to Jim Balsillie when he realizes he’s bought Canada’s most expensive team – the Canadian International Council – and the league ownership won’t even let him in the rink. And the final player in this particular league is the media.
Foreign policy is not a strategy laid down by policy papers, nor, by and large, is it a direction determined in government through rational choice, though heaven knows we’d all like to think it is. At best, it is a set of perceptions of the world and Canada’s proper place in it which each successive Prime Minister and a very few advisors – many of whom don’t carry foreign affairs titles – bring into office with them. I;m going to suggest to you that Canadians’ view of what Canadian foreign policy is and should be has been heavily shaped for nearly ¾ of a century by the fact that from about 1950 through at least 1968, Canada was run by elected Governments who counted among their top men the best and brightest of the 1940 through 45 generation of Canadian diplomats and like-minded mandarins – Pearson, St Laurent, Louis Rasminsky, Mitchell Sharp, Norman Robertson, Gordon Robertson, C D Howe, several distinguished others. Saul Rae and George Ignatieff were more junior members of this c ircle If retired Ambassadors recall those as the Golden Years – at least for the diplomatic service of Canada – they have good reason for they come by it honestly. But that tight a policy monopoly by governing professionals is not the norm in political life in any country. It is epochal.
Some Canadian Prime Ministers have taken office with very little coherent awareness of Canada’s international interests, and very few ideas about what its place in the world might be or how to achieve it – and sometimes their perception never grows very much farther. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, US House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and I think probably Athenian demagogue Cleon the Tanner have all offered us variations on the theme of ‘all politics is local politics’, and there is still the story of a man who made it all the way into Cabinet in the early 90’s I believe, still thinking that Canada was a neutral country. Foreign policy now des not seem to be thought out – or coordinated.
We have seen a fine illustration of this high-level fog in recent weeks. While Canada was enthusiastically campaigning to lose its bid for a Security Council seat, Transport Canada was busily managing to get Canada thrown out by Dubai from a vital military logistics base over a commercial landing rights dispute. It’s apparently going to cost three hundred million dollars just to get out, never mind what we do next to
service the Afghanistan presence. In that case, not only did local politics trump foreign policy, foreign policy apparently wasn’t at the table, and poor old journalism didn’t even have a look-in. You can’t influence what you don’t know is going to happen, though you can sure have a field day with it afterward.
Frankly, all politics including foreign policy is a far sloppier and more ad hoc business than most of us like to think. Many decisions are triggered by a particularly ghastly scene on TV, or a really lurid headline in the paper. If anyone has seen Charlie Wilson’s War, the opening scene in the hot tub where Wilson sees Dan Rather standing among a cloud of Afghan refugees and straight-off gets another million for support to the mujahedeen is no worse a reflection of reality for being a movie. It’s untidy, but as Eddie Goldenberg would say, it’s the way it works – direct stimulus-response.
Now for journalism. The greatest advocates of unrestricted media freedom claim that not only does the Government need a watchdog that is not Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, but that a free press is an unimpeachable guarantor of political freedom, and can shape a nation’s policies for the better. It does have its moments but it has a few other and darker moments as well.
Jean Chretien’s response to all this was ‘sure the government needs a watchdog but who’s going to watch the dog, eh?’ Having been bitten a few times he knew what he was talking about.
What Chretien always knew that many of us forget is that ‘the media’ is not monolithic in any sense of the world. It is not an elected Fourth Estate. It has no real governing body like a College of Physicians and Surgeons, it has nothing resembling a binding code of ethics no matter how much it pleads otherwise, and it is driven by the purely commercial need to sell its product – these days, 24/7. There MUST be something happening every hour of every day, or the industry is in trouble. That imperative leads to all the well-known elements of superficial, hot-button, sound-bite journalism. ANYTHING becomes news and perspective and sense of proportion tend to collapse – and again, with particular relevance to foreign policy here, Bernard Shaw once said that “Newspapers are unable to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.” If civilization ends on a Friday afternoon in some place that nobody in the West has a bureau, he’s bang on.
Further to the point, in terms of the media’s need for news, timing may be everything but spectacle is definitely key. In terms of news value, a really gaudy catastrophe like a tsunami or an earthquake has it all over a creeping disaster like a flood that wipes out half a nation over a period of weeks. That goes double, unfortunately, if the earthquake hits a country with a large number of voting relatives in Canada, while the flood hits a country whose role in a war we happen to be waging is ambivalent at best.
Media and government tend to feed off each other. The media need fast reactions and spectacular images. The politician needs the media. It becomes a self-sustaining cycle. And what gets responded to and how has a great deal more to do with what will play on The National than what makes rational sense as a policy response. That is why a long line of Canadian Chiefs of Defence Staff have cringed at the thought of the next UN peacekeeping mission to anywhere. They know it will be decided on the spur of the moment, it will be decided by a prime minister who is thinking of anything except how it will
reasonably get done; it will be grossly under-resourced and under-staffed and it will be saddled with insane rules of engagement.
Depending on relative profile and what else is happening in the world that demands resources like Grey Cup Weekend or an e-health scandal), it may be accompanied by a media squad whose published reports will then focus on (a) why are we taking so long to save these people from whatever we think they ought to be saved from? (b) why is that politician taking up vital supply space in the cargo hold and is that dark-eyed beauty beside him flying on the public ticket? (c) can the Brigadier comment on allegations of human rights abuse now being made by someone in Ottawa who is mining Internet rumour like there’s no tomorrow?, and (d) why ‘victory is hopeless’ even before the first casualties come in. (Incidentally pollster Mike Marzolini told Chretien in 2002 that Canada could sustain seven casualties maximum in Afghanistan before the public rebelled. We are now at 150 and anyone who thinks we will get through the training commitment – if there is one – without any more is dreaming in technicolour.)
To be fair, a lot of the journalists in the field try to write on far more substantive angles but it’s not what the publishers want to hear or sell. Almost any action abroad – military, peacekeeping (if there still is such a thing), humanitarian or economic – is viewed through the single focus of Ottawa partisan politics. And in fact, one of the dilemmas that is facing politicians, media and regular Canadians alike on the Afghanistan war is while that our left brain worries that we are invaders and cultural imperialists, our slightly-left-of-centre brain demands that we not abandon the people of the country to their probable fate, and our extreme right brain is telling us who cares about Taliban prisoners anyway?
The need to sell all the news all the time is compounded by another imperative that I find more and more troubling – the overwhelming need to expose wrongdoing – which too often turns into the operating assumption that there IS wrongdoing, we just have to dig it up. Nothing and nobody can be innocent in the day of ‘gotcha’ journalism and attack politics.
In essence, this is hardly new. In 60 BC Cicero was complaining that the Roman Republican government was a bunch of thugs, and he made good money off the litigation too. Muckraking was a popular journalistic sport in the 1890s, and it led to useful social reforms, but while the muckrakers were raking muck, William Randolph Hearst was single-handedly starting the Spanish American War. If you think the 9/11 conspiracy theories are something to behold, what went on over the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898 is beyond belief. They were still trying to assess the real cause of that one in 1974, and lots of people are still happy to blame Hearst for blowing up the ship.
However, I believe – and it’s definitely an opinion – that this tendency took a distinctly darker turn in North America in the early 1970s after Vietnam and Watergate. I think it was during that generation that the mythos took hold in large swathes of academe and the media that not only are the politicians crooks by definition, but the government is an active force for evil in terms of Marxist sociological dialectic, to be waged generational war against by the enlightened leadership of the populace. Admittedly, the images of four dead kids at Kent State University gave a lot of reinforcement to that point of view. Again, that particular sentiment had been around both the American extreme Right and Left for
generations, but in the past 30 years it seems to have taken a firm hold in mainstream opinion in both countries.
I don’t suppose there’s anyone in the room who can’t name an example of government wrongdoing or at least bungling that didn’t need exposure. But I think the mistrust has gotten endemic and ideological, and it has a lot more to do with ingrained assumptions and rather less to do with what particular party holds power or who is abusing it and how. I suggest that politicians and media are in a parasitic relationship in which there is no trust remaining whatever, and I suggest that that way lies a ruined polity, in the conduct of foreign affairs or anywhere else. How can a political system based on mutually assured destruction all the time, live on all media, be expected to survive let alone prosper?
I’ll tell you a story from an earlier time and an older morality. In 1973 it was still the Cold War, Vietnam and Watergate were climaxing, and my first boss in the Department of External Affairs was the head of Mitchell Sharp’s Press Office, Dick Gorham. He gave an interview to a Press Gallery heavy hitter named Jack Campbell, who was known as an excellent foreign affairs commentator, on the subject of Soviet press coverage of Canada, which was frankly grotesque and always had been. Gorham blithely described it as ‘crap’, and then took off for holidays in New Brunswick.
The interview was on the record, Campbell sat down at his typewriter and banged off his story – and ‘CRAP!!!’ the headlines screamed (journalists didn’t write the headlines back then either). It took about three days before word got through to Gorham’s Bluff NB that the Soviet Ambassador was dancing a gopak on the Deputy Minister’s head and the chief of the East European Relations Bureau was out after Gorham’s with a meat cleaver. Gorham eventually got back from vacation, called together a small bunch of the Press Gallery guys including Campbell, and said: ‘Gentlemen, you have all read that Jack here quoted me as having said that Soviet coverage of Canada is crap. It was an accurate quote and he had every right to print it. But it has been brought to my attention that it may not have been in the best interest of bilateral relations, and I therefore wish to offer a correction. Gentlemen, what I meant to say is that in my view, Soviet press coverage of Canada is crummy journalism.’
The story died in guffaws. I leave you to imagine what would have happened with it today.
In 1973, it was understood that certain things were taboo. Families of politicians were sacrosanct, for instance. That changed. The difference in ethics and approach between then and now is probably well accented by the evolution of one Canadian paper – the Toronto Globe and Mail – in the past few years. The previous editor held the philosophy that it was a journalist’s sacred duty to hold nothing back, no matter who got hurt. At one point he wrote a column in his own paper bragging about how he had torpedoed Mitchell Sharp’s appointment to something or other after a chance remark on an Ottawa street, perhaps after one glass of wine too many. He seemed to believe that this was virtuous, in fact he said so. At any rate, during that regime, it was not untypical to find in the same issue an editorial strongly supporting the war in Afghanistan, an allegedly straight-news article declaring that the war was hopeless, the Cabinet complicit in war crimes, and no Government would ever wage war again without public scrutiny by the media…and a series of first-person interviews with Taliban fighters.
They were actually good interviews, and it was an interesting story, but that’s not the point. Cast your mind back and try to imagine the Globe in 1944 running a series of interviews with some randomly chosen typical Waffen SS boys. Or quoting ‘a spokesman for the Werewolf Resistance Movement’ in a front page story. Or avoiding getting lynched afterwards. Come to think, sometime in late ‘44 Charlie Lynch and Matthew Halton and maybe a couple of other correspondents in Paris found an open phone line to the other side and called up Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt very late at night, but I don’t think the interview was printable and they certainly didn’t print it. They may not have remembered what any of them said.
My point is that earlier this decade the Globe seemed to be having considerable problems distinguishing between an editorial position, straight news, crusading op-ed, and imputation disguised as reportage. My other point is that it is probably worth recalling – for whatever conclusion you care to draw from it – that no democracy with a completely unrestrained press has ever won a war. Historian Dominic Lieven goes even farther and suggests that a ‘pragmatic’ interests-based foreign policy in war or peace may not be possible in a democratic state – which if true would cast the 1930’s ‘appeasement’ of Hitler by West European governments in a somewhat different light than usual.
A more minor but still irritating media habit when faced with a story it doesn’t have a good handle on is an addiction to quoting ‘expert sources’ without actually explaining why they are expert or what axe they are grinding. That’s not exclusive to foreign relations stories but it does tend to be more pronounced I think. There’s no time for research, just go to the guy we went to last time, or else quote the guy who’s making all the noise, he must be expert or he wouldn’t be making it would he? Months afterward I am still shaking my head over a straight-faced quote in a certain paper from a certain person, often referred to in the media as a ‘human-rights expert’ – that ‘I would have no compunction charging Canadian officials with war crimes before the International Criminal Court’ or something very much to that effect. I can’t help wondering, he may have no compunction, but has anybody thought to ask (a) has he a case, and (b) has he actually got the ability to do that? And if not, what’s any of it worth?
Getting back to the Globe, I think some interesting things are going on now under editor John Stackhouse, and one of them is a more clearly cut separation of editorial, opinion and reportage. They also seem to be evolving a deeper and more essayist style of news coverage and I think that if this is an attempt to distinguish themselves from the welter of bloggery on-line, then it’s a welcome one and I hope it works for them and for the industry. It’s hard to sustain without massive resources.
A couple of other cases in point should remind us that if the media has an impact on foreign affairs, it is a very inconstant one. When the earthquake struck Haiti in January, a well-known medical NGO wasted no time getting its surgery teams into the field. It also sent along three communications specialists – I mean by that media relations people, because the term is confusing – and shortly after, their Canadian director of communications went down to help them out. I mean no criticism at all of the NGO, but I ask you to reflect on the kind of media culture that forces a very responsible and dedicated organization to throw that kind of non-front-line resource into a crisis zone.
The worst thing is, they needed it. A Canadian doctor turns up in the first days, shows his credentials as an orthopaedic surgeon, is given an official t-shirt and put to work helping the wounded. A few days later, somebody recognizes the guy and blows the whistle that he had been fined and suspended in 2008 for prescribing banned substances to a member of the Canadian cycling team. There is an instant media hue and cry about employing – basically a tainted individual I guess – despite the fact that he was perfectly qualified to do what he was doing, had never done anything wrong in orthopaedic practice, his licence was perfectly valid, and he was badly needed where he was. So the NGO has to take away the guy’s t-shirt and send him home at his own expense. And when he gets home, there is ANOTHER uproar accusing the NGO of over-reacting and wasting medical talent in a desperate situation. Did I mention that one of the hallmarks of the media is neither consistency nor memory?
The evident pack mentality is also very troubling. Not only do you HAVE to find scandal in anything, but at the first whiff of a story, all of you then pile on and pursue it to the bitter end without any second thoughts. In August, Wikileaks dumped the first of their caches of alleged American secrets all over the virtual floor. It wasn’t the Pentagon Papers by a long shot, it was the sort of stuff that Roman-period archaeologists are excited to find in a dump because it proves that soldiers can read and write, but it had every media outlet in Canada scrambling to find a Canadian angle. They duly found one: an after-action report by a US aviator that seemed to claim that four Canadian soldiers had been killed by friendly fire in 2006 that the Government had said died by enemy action. INSTANT SCANDAL – the government has lied to us again! For twenty-four hours the media were all over it, harassing the Minister, harassing the Forces, harassing the families of those four guys.
The pack had a bone and they were not going to let go. There was no apparent attempt to question the reliability of the report. After-action reports from all times and places are notoriously inaccurate, even more so given the speed and confusion of battle today. But no, it was a US document, not only that, it was a LEAKED US document so it must be true, and therefore an obvious indictment of the Canadian Government, who some in the blogosphere even alleged had forced the families to go along with a lie.
I will take some personal credit – along with Christie Blatchford of the Globe – for blowing that one up. Christie pointed out the obvious inaccuracies in her morning column, but didn’t seem to find much traction; she is a polarizing media figure and is often accused of a ‘my country right or wrong’ stance. I finally phoned a contact at the Ottawa Citizen and suggested they get hold of the rest of the guys in the unit who were witnesses – there were plenty, and it’s not that big an Army, they’re not hard to find. The Citizen put one of their best people on it – Juliet O’Neill – and she stomped the whole thing flat. But for a full day and more it was a circus – and the first stories after O’Neill blew the whistle would only concede that the leaked paper might not have been quite as accurate as they’d all assumed, and – I have to believe – they’d hoped.
On the subject of ethics, I don’t think we get a much better picture of them than in the way that the media responds to an international kidnapping. In late 2008 CBC journalist Melissa Fung was kidnapped by persons unknown in Afghanistan. She was released four weeks later, having been treated very badly. All news of her abduction was suppressed until after her release by common consent of the international media, with heavy involvement from the Canadian Embassy in Kabul. At the time, a friend
in an NGO with serious media experience herself wondered out loud to me how they could get the same kind of cooperation when their own people got kidnapped (in fact she did get it when they had two people snatched in Haiti sometime later, but it’s not a constant by any means).
As it happened, Ms. Fung appeared at a Canadian Journalism Federation roundtable on the same evening that Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were released by Al Qaeda in Mahgreb, having been kidnapped in Niger and held for about four months. You’ll recall that Fowler was a personal representative of the UN Secretary General in Africa at the time.
Earlier this year, Fowler in turn appeared at a CJF roundtable. His captivity had not been embargoed. On the contrary, the news was full of every development in the case. According to him, his family had been harassed at home at least intermittently. Somewhat reasonably given the way Melissa Fung’s case had been handled, he felt aggrieved, and he said so in no uncertain terms.
The reaction from the room was enlightening. It ran the gamut from, ‘well, the news was already out there in your case’ to ‘you are a senior international public servant, your abduction is a news event by definition’, but what it all really ended up as – and they got damn close to saying it in so many words – was: ‘SHE is one of US; YOU are lunch meat.’ I have known Bob Fowler for many years, he is professionally ironclad and not especially media-sympathetic, but I have to say I never saw him look so roughly handled as after that session. The question remains in my mind – what is the substantive difference between her kidnapping and his that dictated such massively different treatment? At the end of the day, it’s a human life at stake and I find the relative ethics highly questionable – and cause for sober reflection on the malleability of journalistic ethics in general.
But we are talking about the impact of journalism on foreign policy. I have suggested that it is variable, sporadic and most concentrated, when it’s felt at all, on high-visibility events. I mentioned the Haitian earthquake and the instant response from media and government. But in late February there was nearly as calamitous an earthquake in Chile and the Canadian response was minimal, despite comprehensive media coverage. I have heard that the Canadian Forces were ready to go, and were shut down hard in a top-level meeting at Foreign Affairs. But that would not have happened if there had been the type of response from the political top that there was with Haiti. The possible reasons for the difference I will leave to your reflection.
So far I’ve talked about the high-profile, instant-reaction side of journalism. Canada has always had a few tremendously good long-haul deep-digging foreign correspondents and commentators. Doug Saunders of the Globe stands out at the moment, there are others, sadly far fewer than there used to be. What’s their impact?
I have to say I think not as much as you’d hope. Canadians are a highly literate public and no doubt these correspondents contribute to our understanding of the world from a Canadian perspective. But in terms of direct impact – unless one or two of your core decision makers happen to be the rare type of political people who really read into their subject and don’t just skim memoranda and clippings, I don’t think they have a very big direct impact. If nothing else, the decision-makers just don’t have the time for that kind of reading and reflection.
I’ll finish with a quick point about the New Media – the social media. It is interesting. It is certainly fast. It is definitely participatory. But looking over the puddle of tweets remaining a few days after a significant event, I wonder just how significant it all is? It can’t make a revolution, Tehran has shown us that if nothing else has. It can sort of report one in odd circumstantial ways, but the collected reportage seems very insubstantial when it’s all boiled down afterward. Now, if you happened to be tweeting from the office of the chief of secret police as he was giving the ‘shoot-to-kill’ order that would be something else again…wouldn’t it? Or if the chief himself were the one who was tweeting shoot-to-kill orders…and they got re-tweeted? Otherwise you really might as well be in Timbuktu as three blocks over from the main event for all you know of significance.
But on that point I’d like to leave you now with a question. I’d like to know – and please don’t call out the answer if you do know, just put your hand up – I’d like to know how many people here can remember the name of the young woman whom we all saw shot to death by a sniper on a street in Tehran practically live on YouTube?
You see, ladies and gentlemen, the image will stay with me forever, but I can’t remember either. And that tells us something about media I think, and about ourselves.
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