A campaign that isn’t working

On 21 October the Age newspaper gave up its front page (see above). Like its Sydney-based stablemate the Sydney Morning Herald, and rival News Corp dailies the Herald Sun (Melbourne) and the Daily Telegraph (Sydney), it instead published a censored-looking front page. The newspapers were all protesting against government censorship laws.

The Australian did the same thing and the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) likewise supported the protest. It was a rare, unified campaign by some of Australia’s most powerful media organisations, against the government. It is very unusual for any media campaign to unite both the public and private sectors, and publishers from the political left and right.

It was reminiscent, in its way, of the campaign earlier this year by the three Russian newspapers RBK, Kommersant and Vedomosti, which published identical front pages to protest against the obvious framing on drugs charges of Ivan Golunov, a Russian journalist.

As it happens, the Russian campaign met with some success. Golunov was released soon afterwards.

In Australia the results of the media campaign have so far been muted. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, seems to have remained unmoved. He and other politicians have emphasised that whether they like it or not, the press is bound by the law.

Not for Australia a decision like the US Supreme Court’s ruling on the Pentagon Papers. That was a sensational case in 1971 when highly classified documents had been leaked to the press. The Supreme Court ruled that the press was not bound by laws not to publish. The freedom of the press is written into America’s constitution. Alas, the same cannot be said of Australia.

It’s possible that if Malcolm Turnbull were still prime minister he might have taken a different view of things. It was Turnbull, after all, who successfully opposed the British government’s attempt to stop publication of the book Spycatcher in 1987. However Turnbull was succeeded by Scott Morrison and if Morrison is a far more astute politician than Turnbull was, there is no evidence that he really cares about a free press.

Having said all the above, I’m not convinced that this campaign for press freedom will come to anything. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the press simply doesn’t have as much power as it used to. It’s no secret that Google and Facebook now take a lot of the advertising dollars that used to sustain the mainstream media. Newspaper circulations are declining as fewer and fewer people read them. Before I was 30 I was the youngest person I knew who bought a newspaper. I’m now 40 and I still am.

But there’s another reason, which is the fact that the campaign itself is nearly invisible.

The image above is of the front page of the Age from 21 June. It’s actually from a screenshot from my iPad. I have a subscription to the Age and it’s true that the newspaper gave up its front page for the campaign on that date.

But the fact is that I didn’t notice. I assumed it was an advertisement, and skipped it.

That wasn’t unreasonable. Here is the front page of the Age from 24 June:

And here is the front page from 14 June:

Notice a pattern? The Age often gives up its front page. I assume the same is true of the other newspapers and there must have been many other people who also skipped straight past it.

It’s going to take a better campaign than that to defend press freedom.

The Melancholy Roman

Brexit doesn’t matter

Image taken from news.sky.com

Whisper it, but Brexit doesn’t matter.

I know it seems like it does. For a lot of people it’s a critical political issue and perhaps the defining one of the age. Indeed, at one level the importance can’t be overstated. If a referendum result is not honoured when the result is not the desired one, what about elections themselves? Democracy itself is at stake.

For the record, I was living in the UK at the time and I voted Remain. I should add that a lot of people I know voted Leave. They didn’t do it because they were stupid, bigoted or ignorant. No, they did exactly what I did, voting according to their conscience and what they thought would be the best for the UK. They simply came to a different conclusion.

But like I said, it probably doesn’t matter.

I’ve come to this conclusion based on my reading of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In his account of the conflict, Thucydides covers the Mytilenian Debate, presents the Melian Dialogue and details dozens more actions and events that are mostly forgotten. Because of his geopolitical commentary in his description of the conflict his work is recognised as a classic and is still being read 2500 years later. The parallels between the Athens-Sparta rivalry and modern tensions are evident and indeed, his most famous quote seems apt for any era:

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

It’s in line with the work’s applicability to modern times that I conclude that Brexit doesn’t matter.

The Mytilenian Debate was about the democratic decision of the people of Athens to send a military force to Mytilene. The city had rebelled against the Athenian empire and Athens decided to kill its men and enslave its women and children. However Athenian moderates objected to the decision and after a lengthy debate the Athenians voted again. They decided to rescind the earlier decision and a second boat was dispatched to Mytilene to try to prevent the first one initiating the massacre. The second boat arrived just in time and the city was spared.

The parallels with the Brexit decision have not escaped observers and indeed, cannot have escaped the classically educated Boris Johnson.

But it’s interesting to note just how important the Mytilenian revolt and the subsequent debate were, in determining the outcome of the Peloponnesian War. And an honest conclusion has to be that they weren’t, really.

Later activities such as the Sicilian Expedition were far more important to the outcome. More to the point, the Peloponnesian War was soon followed by the Corinthian War, which was in turn followed by the Theban-Spartan War. The most important collective result of these three consecutive conflicts wasn’t any individual act, but that they weakened the Greek city-states. Fifty years after the last of the wars Alexander the Great was able to rise to power and prominence. As a historical event his rise was far more important, as would be the eventual rise of Rome. And yes, I’ve swept a lot of history into a few short statements.

Think now of the Suez Crisis of 1956, widely seen as a moment of national humiliation for Britain. The British, French and Israeli governments tried to seize control of the Suez canal from Egypt. Washington refused to support the attempt and the British in particular were forced to retreat. It was widely seen as the moment that Britain lost her power.

But now? Suez is still seen as a foreign policy blunder but not as a turning point, because it’s now clear that Britain was already in decline. It’s simply the moment when the decline became visible. In other words, it didn’t matter as much as everyone thought at the time.

I think Brexit will be the same. Much heat and light remains to be generated but I don’t think it will ultimately turn out to matter much at all.

The Melancholy Roman