Friday, July 1, 2022

Dr David Lillis: Reflections on reading today's media


The Truth Hurts but Lies Hurt More

As we digest our daily online and televised news, we may conjecture whether humanity will in time become more humane and more tolerant. Is it too much to expect kinder, more-forbearing society in the future? Perhaps we will evolve to become more forgiving and inclusive but we have reason to fear that people will continue to fight each other and grandstand on behalf of their own groups – their own sports team, religion, country or their own skin color. 

Is it also naïve to hope for balanced media; one that provides critical detail without attempting to force particular perspectives or agendas on the public? Of course, it is very hard to gauge the extent to which the world’s media influences, either for good or for the worse. But, surely, more balanced, unbiased media would help to reduce distrust and contribute significantly to good will.

For most of us it is hard to accept the negative truths about ourselves and our own people. I was born a Protestant in the Republic of Ireland, though I have no religious conviction whatsoever, believing instead in a naturally-occurring physical universe and an evolutionary process that has given rise to all of life. As Protestants in the Republic, my family formed part of a four per cent minority, and we were treated well, for the most part. However, we were indeed made aware of antagonism on occasion; bad-will that almost turned to violence a few times in 1971 and 1972, when our home was stoned and sectarian slogans daubed on the footpath outside our front door. However, I do no-one a service if I choose to grandstand on behalf of my own lot and pretend that Northern Irish Protestants have comported themselves impeccably over time. They certainly have not. They treated Roman Catholics very poorly at times though, to be fair, nationalist Catholics have been vindictive too. For good reason, those years of Northern Irish history are known as The Troubles.

To put the scale of the problem into context - 3,568 people are reported to have died during the conflict in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2010. Of them, 1,879 were civilian and 1,117 were members of the British security forces. More than 300 were republican paramilitaries, 162 were loyalist paramilitaries and 11 were Irish security (McCarthy, 2019). This level of carnage is anything but trivial. Of course, various elements of the media took sides. The News Letter, one of Northern Ireland's main daily newspapers, usually presented a pro-Unionist (generally Protestant people who were loyal to the Crown and the Constitution of the United Kingdom) position during the years of The Troubles. One particular newspaper, An Phoblacht, supported the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and published a regular column, "War News", documenting IRA activities and its fight with the British Army. While this was essentially an IRA publication, other Irish newspapers were also supportive of the IRA position. One can only conjecture about the impact of the Northern Irish and Irish Republic media during those times in inflaming distrust and, directly or indirectly, to encouraging or even inciting violence directly.

Concerning the turbulent history of the country where I was born – the point for myself is that neither faction (Protestant Unionists and Roman Catholic Republicans) was either exclusively to blame or exclusively innocent. Possibly this point is true for many conflicts and environments where there is discord and bad feeling, but adopting a default position in support of your own group may be both unfair and ultimately unhelpful in bringing about justice or, at least, some resolution. Were I to support the Protestant ascendancy in the North of Ireland, simply because I was born a Protestant, then I would willfully ignore their oppression of the Roman Catholic minority over two centuries or more. Equally, I remember Irish Catholics applauding IRA murders of Protestant civilians, Unionists and British soldiers during the 1970s and 1980s. None of these attitudes is calculated to heal fractures or mend wounds. But here again we must question the role of the media in promoting the political agenda of one faction over others and possibly inflaming elements of the public and inciting hostility, as opposed to presenting the facts.

The Disingenuous Russian Media?

Today it appears that a significant number of the Russian people do not wish to accept that their country has behaved monstrously since the beginning of a ‘minor military operation’ in the Ukraine. Like most of us I can claim no particular authority on foreign affairs but, like any citizen, I am free to hold views on the history and politics of my country of origin and on what is going on in the wider world. I have friends of friends who have lost members of family in the Ukraine over the last few months, and Putin’s hands are indeed steeped in blood. Of course, there is also great concern about the murder of journalists who have dared to criticize him. More than twenty journalists who stood up to Putin have been murdered since he came to power in 2000. In most of these cases, there have been no convictions. My Russian friends are adamant that one particular individual is responsible - but who knows, what can be proved and, even if proved, what could be done about these murders?

I have several Russian contacts who inform me that many Muscovites support Putin simply because tight control of the media ensures that the people are not aware of the scale of the current atrocities and many have been led to believe that the military operation is justified. However, many others feel that they must support the Russian nation, regardless of right or wrong, simply because they themselves are Russian. But surely blind support of those who do wrong only exacerbates injustice. Is not the same also true for the North and South of Ireland, Russia and the Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, and many other regions of conflict?

Again, what role has the media played over the last decades (or, at least, since 2014) in sponsoring hatred and bloodshed in the Ukraine? It seems that the Russian media has been busy obscuring the truth to its citizens and created an environment in which many Russians believe that their country’s intrusion into the Ukraine is completely justified. However, should we believe absolutely everything that we are told by our Western media about killings in the Ukraine and who is responsible for them? Several Russian friends assure me that not everything that we hear in our media is fair. Possibly, this assertion is true, but just how are we to know?

Regarding the fate of tyrants and evildoers - in the end, many themselves pay the ultimate price, so that superintending brutality, as several of the prominent tyrants of history have done, brings great risk to oneself. The last century has demonstrated that many tyrants end-up badly. Stalin may have been poisoned. Lavrentiy Beria, Benito Mussolini, Saddam Hussein and both Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were executed. Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated. Other assorted members of the Nazi party were executed at Nuremburg, their hangings most probably botched intentionally. Pol Pot took his own life and Hitler also decided to do it himself before the Red Army got to him. Much further back in time, in January of the year 41 AD, following his journey back from Gaul to Rome, the tyrant, Caligula, was knifed to death at the Palatine Games.

Perhaps, most people are pacifists who, on balance, are not in favor of the death penalty, even for the worst of humanity. But for many it is hard to feel much sympathy for tyrants who meet an untimely end. History will not be kind to Putin either, not in the sense of physical punishment, but in its evaluation of his humanity. But history will yield many others who, at the end, may regret not having more friends, hurting too many people and making too many enemies.

Israel, Palestine and the Media of the Left

The negative issues surrounding Israel and Palestine have been ongoing for several decades and one suspects that it is nearly impossible to form any balanced view of the situation there. As in every such dispute, those of us attempting to understand must do so in an environment of highly incomplete and very partial information. The media makes it difficult to know exactly what goes on in the world and journalists know it. The admissions of The Guardian reporter, Nathan Robinson, are worth reading. He says that the major British newspapers are open about their political leanings and that The Guardian, for example, is an explicitly left-leaning paper. By contrast, the New York Times is clearly inclined toward Democratic centrism (Robinson, 2019). In my own country, Ireland, the Irish Times is considered to be Left-Center biased, on the basis of social democratic editorial positions. However, it is rated High for factual reporting because of proper sourcing of information and a clean fact check record (Mediabiasfactcheck, 2022).

The US Left, especially the so-called Squad (progressive Democrats who include Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), is vociferous in calling out the behavior of the Israeli army toward Palestinians. It also lobbies very strongly for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel, ostensibly to curtail oppression of Palestinians. Indeed, to a casual reader of the New Zealand media and much international media, it seems that Israel bears considerable responsibility. In general I am a supporter of Israel and the Jewish people but, if I read the media correctly, I must concede that Israel has itself done wrong. For example, the new settlements in the West Bank appear to be very questionable and it does appear that Israel is responsible for the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian journalist. I have Jewish friends and associates, several of them living in Israel, who seem to be unable or unwilling to conceive of the possibility that Israel has ever behaved negatively towards others. However, exactly what are we to believe about the Israel/Palestine question and whose media can we trust?

The commonly-accepted truth of the Israel/Palestine question, as articulated in much Left-oriented media (such as CNN and, of course, Al Jazeera, a news organization that is funded partly by the government of Qatar) is that Israel bears the bulk of responsibility for the carnage in that region of the world. Perusal of many BBC editorials suggests a reasonable level of impartiality on its part; for example, BBC (2021) and others. A review of many CBS News editorials suggests that CBS News is also relatively impartial in its reporting of the conflict.

One Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, is quite unusual in its willingness to expose what it considers to be Israeli misbehavior. However, the other side of the narrative, articulated much less cogently in the world’s media, concerns Palestinian violence and ongoing threats against the safety of the Jewish people from surrounding nations since the inception of the nation-state of Israel in 1947/48, as well as possible misrepresentations in the media about events such as evictions of Palestinian families from their homes. Certainly, Al Jazeera presents its coverage of the new settlements as illegal and immoral. It describes the Israeli settlements as fortified, Jewish-only housing complexes built on Palestinian land in violation of international law, and describes East Jerusalem as occupied (Al Jazeera, 2022). Indeed, the 2012 United Nations General Assembly resolution 67/19 states that East Jerusalem is part of occupied Palestine territory. However, Israeli domestic law considers East Jerusalem part of Israeli territory. What conclusions are we to draw from these diametrically-opposing perspectives? For that matter, what can we make of such opposing media, how has leftist media influenced world opinion negatively on the nation of Israel and how much has right-wing media influenced opinion on the people of Palestine?

Various media and particular observers have held Israel responsible for the six-day war in 1967, when the Israeli air force destroyed much of the Egyptian air force in a pre-emptive strike. For example, the well-known British Muslim journalist, Mehdi Hasan, describes the war as initiated by Israel because Israel wished to annex new territory, rather than because of any threat from Arab forces (Hasan, 2017). But it is also true that recent Egyptian and Jordanian radio and television rhetoric had pointed to the onset of hostilities in which the intention was to damage Israel severely and ‘drive the Jewish people into the sea’. The leader of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had stated that Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan, would soon obliterate Israel. Indeed, during the weeks before the war, the Egyptian army massed on the border, United Nations personnel were ordered out of the region and Egypt closed off the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping – surely a signal that hostilities were about to commence. Hasan presents a point of view. Perhaps what he claims is in fact the truth; or is he simply defending his own community? We cannot know, but if he is engaging in the latter action, then he is guilty of no more than what so many others do, including right-wing observers.

It seems that much of the Left-oriented media presents Zionism as the exclusive cause of the present division in Israel and Palestine. Possible anti-Semitism on the part of certain observers will not help matters, even accepting that Israel may not always have acted honorably in recent decades - when neither have Arab nations acted kindly towards Israel. My own view is that both the West and Zionism bear some responsibility for perpetuating discord in the Middle East, but that belligerence from surrounding Islamic nations has contributed substantially to the problem. In any case, we appear to have a long-standing fracture between certain Islamic cultures and the West that goes far back in time, prior to the creation of Israel as a nation state. However, it seems self-evident that a solution will not emerge if the world’s media continues to promulgate partisan commentary on this highly-complex issue.

The US Progressive Left and the US Media

In the world’s media we see much vilification of Donald Trump and, clearly, there is much of concern here. In addition, unpleasant, bigoted and xenophobic elements exist within his support-base. However, several Americans who now live in New Zealand tell me that Trump has done good, too, but that his achievements garner no media coverage. When I first encountered the Squad I felt that they provided a refreshing variation from the recent decades of white, male-dominated politics of the Trump, Bush and Clinton administrations and even the Obama administration. However, following careful scrutiny of television interviews with members of the Squad and their political speeches and writings, I continue to see good in them but my response to them and the Democratic party has cooled somewhat.

In the US, Progressive Democrats lobby for healthcare reform as a critical political issue, given that medical debt causes serious financial problems for many people. Thus, Democrats argue for affordable healthcare, but it is not so clear how the costs of this more affordable healthcare are to be met. My own take on the Green New Deal (a congressional resolution that outlines the Democratic party’s plan for addressing climate change) is that it is well-intentioned and aims for a better world. But how fast can the world progress towards fossil-free energy? For that matter, who pays for cancelled student debt – another Democratic Party campaigning issue?

Professor Jeremy Coyne argues that the fundamental problem with the left agenda, centered today on identity-based social justice and economic redistribution, is that it misapprehends the causes of populist frustration (Coyne, 2022). He believes that the left should reorient and center itself on the true factor that drives populist anger - economic unfairness - as distinct from economic inequality. Economic unfairness embodies low social mobility rather than inequalities of income or wealth. Coyne suggests that it is not that the rich enjoy too much wealth, but rather that success depends too much on family wealth and status, when ideally it should arise from good ideas, effort and merit. He suggests that it is anger at a ‘rigged system’, rather than anger at inequality, that underpins populist movements within the West.

Coyne suggests that public discourse on equity engenders a sense of unfairness among voters. As a US example, he cites Asian students who believe that they have been discriminated against in college admissions, and such disillusioned voters may vote Republican. Coyne’s proposed solution is not to eliminate affirmative action, but to raise the bar to achievement, so that the public feels that the bar is high enough to be fair (i.e. those who achieve are qualified), but nevertheless allows greater equity than at present. He states that such measures should be coupled with de-racialized rhetoric because it is not only race that holds people back, and that society must tackle issues such as poverty and class. He sees the desire for equity as associated with the dissolution of meritocracy, as represented in getting rid of standardized tests and grades (see Strauss, 2020).

Though not a US citizen and, admittedly, no expert on US politics, my reading of the political situation in the US leads me to agree with Coyne. While idealistic and progressive in exposing injustice, advocating for minorities, tackling money-hungry corporates and addressing climate change, the US Progressive Left does seem very anti-Israel and one can sense a degree of anti-US and anti-West sentiment among members of the Squad, in addition to their desire (truly genuine, in my view) to address social inequality and call out racism. Whether intentional or not, at times they appear to come dangerously close to articulating support for terrorist elements that originate from within the Middle East. Most of all, it seems to me that assuring people of their victimhood has the potential to get them moving in negative, counterproductive ways and stands to undo the great progress towards equality of opportunity that the West has made since the 1960s. In this regard, it seems possible that the platform given by media such as CNN and Al Jazeera to the progressive Left aggravates existing political, religious and social rifts, just as right-wing extremism creates other problems.

Of course, we recognize that racism was horrific in the US and elsewhere, and mistreatment of African Americans, including lynchings, were a very shameful reality of US history. An enlightening account of racism and possible injustices to this day in the US judicial system is provided by Loic Waquant (Waquant, 2022). Here, he discusses the three ‘peculiar institutions’- slavery, Jim Crow and the ghetto which, he says, have in common that they were all instruments for the conjoint extraction of labor and social ostracization of an outcast group.

However, let us consider the ban on travel to the US following Islamist atrocities - legislation drafted in 2015 and 2016. At the time I was not entirely in favor of the Ban but believed that I saw some positive intent in it. The so-called Muslim Ban has been held up in US and international media as an example of overt racism or bigotry within the US Republican Administration. We may suspect that bigotry did indeed play a part, but surely one partial explanation for the ban was the desire to protect US citizens. It was supposed to be a temporary ban on travel from certain countries until such time as the US established procedures for identifying those who wish to be admitted into the country. Rarely was that particular intent discussed in the Left-oriented media, including CNN.

My assessment is that, in supporting such political stances, the US media, especially CNN, which rightly attempts to call out inequity and racism, might in fact enlarge racial and social division. Possibly, on balance the media plays a negative role in the US and the same could be true of other countries.

Intersectionality and the US Media

Many agree that Trump’s departure as US President was timely. If I were a US citizen, I too may have voted Democrat in order to effect change, but only after careful consideration of the potential disharmony delivered by the progressive Democrats. In addition to certain glaring faults, was there not a media-sponsored cottage industry that configured itself to make Trump look worse than he really was?

Trump presented an obvious problem, but it is not clear that some of his main ideological opponents (e.g. Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American political activist, and Ilhan Omar) are any more effective at bringing factions together. Listening to them carefully, we perceive that their manifesto indeed generates support from minorities, especially from those who experience genuine social and economic disadvantage. CNN appears to promote the Squad and provide a platform for the Left. But are the things they say really so helpful when the world must strive towards greater understanding?

These days ‘intersectionality’ is a much-used word that can be defined as the acknowledgement that everyone has his or her own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression and we must consider everything that can marginalize people – gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability etc. (Taylor, 2019). We know that White males have held political and economic power for centuries, that not all of them were or are competent or honest, and that the time had already arrived several decades ago for inclusion of women and minorities in positions of authority and influence. However, simply being female, a person of color or deriving from a minority religion (or all three), does not bring greater integrity automatically; nor does it make a person’s judgements or political leadership especially trustworthy. Surely, we ought to question whether anyone should have a free pass from the media to escalate, rather than repair, division? Quite rightly, White supremacy is called out in the world’s media nearly every day but is it really helpful to label social inequality in the present as exclusively, or even mostly, the direct consequence of colonialism and racism when the causes mostly lie elsewhere? Is it truly productive to call for boycotting the nation of Israel and the erasure of Israel from the global atlas? Does the approach adopted by the Squad and others create unity or does it exacerbate existing fractures and broken relationships?

Fox News is clearly Republican in orientation, widely viewed as un-objective, and many agree with CNN’s and BBC’s anti-Trump and anti-Republican stance. Nevertheless, CNN’s insistence on stamping a particular Left-oriented political perspective on its domestic and geopolitical reporting means that it, too, emerges as a sometimes unreliable source of political information.

US Media Bias on Racism and Minorities?

In the western media we read almost daily of oppression and killings of African Americans by police officers. Indeed, any form of brutality or injustice against African Americans and other minorities, or any human beings, must be called out and, indeed, the police do seem to take the lives of far too many people over there. However, we must bear in mind that the US is a country of more than 332 million people and that the number of interactions between police officers and offenders reaches into the tens of millions every year. In addition, the proliferation of handguns and other lethal weapons renders the environment significantly more dangerous for police officers than in New Zealand. As a trained statistician, I have worked directly with raw data on crime and offending in the US and I can confirm that African Americans do account for several times the offending and crime of other demographics, including huge over-representation in homicides. They are even more likely to be convicted of hate crimes than others. However, the reasons for their high engagement in crime and offending are many and complex. Possibly, their greater involvement in crime than other demographics is to some extent a result of certain residual inequities that exist because of persistent lack of opportunity. For example, historic racism could partly explain why African-Americans remain under-represented across a range of indices of economic, social and educational performance.

It is evident that in the US there is a very dangerous gun culture that gave rise to about 21,570 murders in 2020 (FBI, 2021). In particular, the events that lead to fatal shootings of citizens by police officers are unpredictable but, curiously, US police shoot and kill approximately the same number of people each year – usually a little less than 1,000. Roughly half of the people shot and killed by police are White, but African Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans per head of population (Washington Post, 2022). Hispanic Americans are also killed by police at a higher rate than Whites. We recognize the more dangerous environment of the US, but it does seem that that, nevertheless, the US police are excessively prone to using handguns and much has yet to be done to curb their violence.

However, what stands out to me about media coverage of this issue is the almost exclusive focus on the shootings of people of color, particularly by CNN and Al Jazeera. Media coverage of the killing of George Floyd rightly called attention to a great injustice for which the perpetrators have been held accountable. However, interrogating the available raw data on crime and offending in the US, we see that it really is true that minorities offend at a much higher rate than the total population and that there is little or no statistical evidence that the US police take the lives of minorities at a greater rate than other demographics when levels of crime and offending are taken into account. Probably, specific cases arise in which racist police officers harm and even kill people of color without necessity, but in fact the US police kill fewer colored people on the basis of engagement in offending.

When I first calculated statistics on hate crimes in the US from the raw numbers, I was surprised to find that African Americans were considerably more likely to be convicted than others – quite a different finding from what I had expected from US and other media which seem to present a picture in which hate crimes are almost exclusively a White phenomenon. Only a small minority of the US media that I have read in recent times mentions these details, nor the reality of some dozens of killings of US police officers every year. Indeed, the US media correctly calls out racism and injustice but if the US is to make progress towards equitable and harmonious society, then its media must deliver more balanced journalism and political leadership in which its Government, its police force, its White population but also its minority communities, all take their share of responsibility for the constructive work that lies ahead.

In a recent blog communication, the US environmental activist, Lorna Saltzman, says the following:
It is now 50 years since the first Earth Day, most of which time has been wasted because the left preferred to promote socialism and Marx. Even today, when the issue of race has become the measure of progress, and when the class issue is finally relevant with regard to economic inequality as opposed to imaginary demons occupying the brains of all whites, the left remains marginal . . . when it comes to legislation or electoral politics.
In the same communication, Saltzman says that all American liberals are complicit, but especially those who vigorously deflect our attention from the planet’s collapse onto truly picayune and trivial issues, such as suspected disrespect and racism. She regards this deflection as self-obsession, ego and a huge blame game that contributes nothing but conflict and resentment, rather than penance and reform. Many feel that the racism question is over-stated in the US and elsewhere, when other causes of distrust and inequity (socioeconomic deprivation, for example) are even more fundamental and in greater need of debate.

A Change in the Treatment of Minorities in the Media

Definitely racism and prejudice still exist within a fraction of people in western countries and, over the last twenty years, in particular, Islam was vilified in the West. It seems to me that, until recently, much media coverage of the Muslim community was unfair, painting a picture of people who unhesitatingly support violence. Knowing some of them (recent immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East to New Zealand) as I do, I confirm that those known to me are perfectly decent people, just like most others. However, in today’s politically-correct environment minorities are seen as victims of racism, colonialism and hatred. Through observation of the media and through discussion with members of minority groups when I have been overseas, is that some of them experience a degree of racism and prejudice in the West and, perhaps, to a much lesser extent, in New Zealand. However, elements within the Middle-Eastern immigrant population that arrived in Europe over the last decade appear to have brought with them some negative attitudes and behaviors too. Not only the media, but also German friends and friends from The Netherlands, inform me that petty crime has increased in the major cities there as a result of immigration.

After the Christchurch massacre we rightly call out racism, xenophobia and negative attitudes relating to Islam and other minorities. The focus of the international political media and domestic journalism since then appears to have centered on White supremacy, colonialism and the challenge of realizing the aspirations of minorities, especially those of indigenous minorities. We must confront White supremacist thinking and work toward empowering minorities who experience social or economic disadvantage. However, we must defy all oppression, including the anti-Semitism characteristic of certain neo-Nazi, nationalist and Muslim groups, and misogynist attitudes of various nations of the Middle East where, for example, the vast majority of all honor violence takes place. This is not to blame Islam itself. In fact, my reading on the available literature on honor violence, and my reading of much of the Koran, convinces me that Islam does not support such cruelty. Instead, the political and religious leadership of those nations most probably are at fault.

The United Nations believes that the number of women whose lives are taken as a result of honor violence could approximate 5,000 per year, while independent women’s advocacy groups estimate that the true figure could be up to 20,000 women killed every year (World Economic Forum, 2022; DeLima et al., 2020); in other words, the death toll of the Christchurch massacre every day of the year and roughly matching the number of homicides across the US. Further, according to the World Health Organization, the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation affects more than 200 million women across many countries (World Health Organization, 2022). Here, again, we may view such practices as having developed within particular communities, rather than from within a particular religion. But – one way or other – we must not be afraid to open such practices to the sort of public discussion that aims at creating a better world, just as we should expose the failures of Western society – historic racism and the gun culture of the US being primary examples.

After much reading of various media, I have formed the view that discord between existing majorities and recent Middle-Eastern immigrants, evident in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, appears to result, both from a degree of xenophobia within a small fraction of existing White communities, and cultural practices that sit within a small fraction of immigrant communities. Our media should be unafraid to expose negative behaviors on all sides.

The sectarian Christchurch massacre of innocent people, going about their daily religious practices and hurting no one, was truly dreadful and, in some ways, may have changed the psyche of New Zealand and also the world’s perception of New Zealand forever. Possibly, as a result of the Christchurch massacre, New Zealanders and people of other Western nations have become more acutely aware of the vulnerability of minorities, especially immigrant minorities who speak English as a second language and who look different and hold different cultural and religious beliefs from the majority. New Zealand is also more aware than before of the dangers of extremism that can arise with any community, including New Zealand Europeans, as well as within religious or other communities.

Unfortunately, the Christchurch massacre was only one of many massacres world-wide since the 9/11 event – all of them horrific. From a global perspective Christchurch can be seen in context with other events, such as the 2016 attack in the French city of Nice, in which 86 people were killed and nearly 500 others injured. The Manchester bombings of 2017 resulted in the deaths of 22 people and injured dozens more. Those were only two of many atrocities over the last twenty years but in New Zealand we rightly focus on Christchurch because it happened here and because we can influence legislation and public attitudes here but not so much elsewhere. It is my personal view that our Government and our media handled the Christchurch massacre with credit, demonstrating solidarity with New Zealand’s Islamic community and the bereaved families, and correctly exposing all forms of extremism as a threat to the wellbeing of our society.

New Zealand Media on the Middle East

The New Zealand online newspaper, Stuff, has presented both sides of the Israel/Palestine question. Juliet Moses, a representative of the Jewish Council here in New Zealand, says that the Israel she sees portrayed in the media, by politicians and by others, is not the Israel she knows and loves. She tells us that the media portrayal has become detached from reality and context, an abstraction, caricatured, villianised, and a symbol of what’s wrong in the world (Moses, 2022). After many discussions with Israeli and Jewish friends, I feel a degree of sympathy for her perspective and I think that it is a perspective that receives far too little coverage in the international media. Juliet has reminded us that it is not only Muslims who experience prejudice, but also Jewish people and others, and surely this is a view that must be expressed in the open.

Donna Miles is a journalist who contributes articles to Stuff regularly. To me Donna writes interesting and thought-provoking material. In general I like what she has to say and I find that her background as a Muslim woman from the Middle East (Iran, in her case) provides refreshing perspectives on political and social matters. However, just as some observers present an Israeli perspective, I do feel that Donna presents a decidedly Palestinian-centric view on the Israel/Palestine question. In a recent Stuff article (Miles, 2022), Donna says that people who come from the Middle East know only too well that much of their history, and the everyday violence that happens there, are shaped by imperial interests. We can agree with this opinion to some extent, so long as we remember that corruption, disunity and the incompetence of their own leaders play a big part too (Donna’s words), and that certain nations in that region have a demonstrated history of belligerence.

Donna reminds us that there is nothing new about the settler colonial occupation of other people’s lands. She tells us that our own country, and countries like Canada, Australia and the United States, were all formed by the forcible confiscation of land and suppression of indigenous people. We may agree with Donna’s assessment of history and it does seem strange that the Balfour Declaration of 1917, announcing support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, was issued by the British Government rather than Governments deriving from within the region. However, colonialism, expansion and warmongering did not begin with the arrival of Europeans. Islamic nations also engaged in conquest, as did African and other tribes and, indeed, indigenous Irish people, indigenous British people, indigenous Europeans and Māori. Perhaps the difference lies in the scale of colonialism and plunder of the resources of other peoples, made possible only because of the much greater level of military capability attained by Great Britain and other European nations.

Donna asserts that the difficulty that Israel faces is that it is trying to carry out, in the 21st 
century, a 19th century-style colonial project of superseding an existing indigenous people, without any regard to their desire for self-determination. This is a very commonly-held view that is promulgated extensively in various media but the truth could be much more complicated. For example, who exactly are the indigenous people of that geographic region? And just one other side to this discussion is the forced departure of more than 850,000 Jews from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Morocco and other Arab nations in the twenty years after 1948, and further enforced migrations, such as that from Iran in 1979 and 1980. A casual examination of the map of the Middle East reveals just how small Israel really is, surrounded as it is by seventeen other countries, a number of them in the recent past openly hostile to it.

Donna goes on to assert that it is blatant inequality, persistent dismissal of the Palestinian desire for statehood and self-determination that makes it impossible to achieve peace there. Donna makes her point very forcibly here but, again, the picture is complex and there is fault on both sides. We have to remember that opinion pieces promulgated within the media present one person’s or one group’s perspectives, but one person’s perspectives can shape public opinion markedly when they have the force of dissemination within widely-accessed media. Thus, it is crucial that we hear the views of diverse people such as Juliet Moses and Donna Miles. It is also vital to bear in mind that the views of individuals may or may not reflect the whole truth, just as perspectives promulgated within given media may not either.

Donna asks a rhetorical question as to who pays for the cost of US interests in the Middle East, saying that she thinks that her readers know the answer. Well – after several years of study of the conflict, I cannot claim to know the answer or even that there is one single true answer. Finally, Donna concludes her article with the wish that Shireen Abu Akleh and all the other innocent victims of imperial wars rest in peace. We can agree and further agree that those responsible for her murder should be brought to justice. If Israel is demonstrated to be responsible, then it should be held accountable in the eyes of the world. But let us remember all victims of war, irrespective of which powers initiated them. Let us also remember those hurt by terrorism, irrespective of the authors of that terrorism. At all times we should bear in mind the power of journalism to influence public opinion, that most often there are different perspectives to a given issue, and finally that it is possible, very easy in fact, to vilify a person or group or nation through the power of the written word.

The Media and New Zealand

A significant political issue in New Zealand today concerns the proposed Three Waters reforms but, though I admit to not understanding in full the political ramifications of the enhanced involvement of Iwi in governance of water supply and regulation, I have fears that putting any one demographic constituency in a position of greater political and economic power than others (even if only in a single domain - water supply and quality, in this instance) is fundamentally anti-democratic and potentially dangerous.

Certain critics have pitched Three Waters as a power-grab and an opportunity to access public money but, while we can never see into the minds of others, I tend to doubt the notion of a power grab. Instead, Three Waters strikes me as a well-intended move to redress past wrongs and give expression to the Treaty of Waitangi. My reaction to Three Waters is that it is misdirected and may not in fact reflect the Treaty. Instead we should persist with proportioning resources into programmes that assist Māori and all disadvantaged groups, especially in relation to education and health and wellbeing.

It seems to me that Stuff has maintained a reasonable degree of balance on the debate around Three Waters, presenting some editorials for and some against, the proposed reforms. Craig Little makes a reasoned case against the proposals (Little, 2022). I have respect for Mr. Meng Foon, our Race Relations Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission. Mr. Foon sees co-governance as a mechanism for uplifting Māori and, in effect, empowering them at the decision-making table (Foon, 2022). He sees co-governance as beneficial for everyone in Aotearoa, and not only Māori. It may not have been Mr. Foon’s intention but it seems to me that the title of his Stuff article - “Co-governance: give nothing to racism and give it a go”- hints at the possibility that disagreeing with Three Waters almost amounts to racism.

Perhaps one day I will change my stance on the question of Three Waters and co-governance but, as indicated above, for the present and, as a citizen of New Zealand, I see any initiative that threatens democracy here as potentially divisive. As such I do not accept any notion that disagreement with Three Waters connotes racism. One problem here is that there are differing opinions on what is to be considered anti-Maori, depending on world view. I do agree with Mr. Foon, however, that any genuinely anti-Māori rhetoric arising from the Three Waters debate or, indeed, from discussion of He Puapua or other initiatives, is not to be tolerated, just as all race-based or identity-based prejudice should not be excused.

Like many others I have a fear that right now in New Zealand we are treading on thin ice. For example, I have concerns about the He Puapua report, which recommends that mātauranga Māori (Māori traditional knowledge) be valued equally and resourced equally to “western science” (Charters et al, 2019, p. 74). Surely, all traditional knowledge ought to be valued and preserved but no traditional knowledge of any cultural group, anywhere in the world, should be taught as science, until tested through the methods of science, or resourced equally to science.

Attempts to empower Māori through mechanisms such as Three Waters and realization of the goals of He Puapua, may be well-intended and grounded in recognition that colonialism brought negatives for Māori and other indigenous people but run, in my view, counter to the fundamental principles of democracy and likely to cause division. Further, in several recent articles in our online media, increasingly we see the name 
Aotearoa” substituting for “New Zealand”, as the name of our country. Why does our media use this name, unless it is an attempt to coerce the New Zealand public into accepting a new order? If one day a referendum were to result in the New Zealand public voting for the proposed renaming of our country, then even dissenters would have to accept it eventually. But many are perfectly content with “New Zealand”. As a teenager who lived overseas, but born of a New Zealand mother, I emigrated to a country called “New Zealand”, and I remain happy with its present name.

In the Far-off Future?

Perhaps over the next decades or, more probably, centuries, we will learn to share this planet with others who differ from ourselves, though if we are truly capable of sharing this planet peacefully, surely we would already have done so. Maybe World leaders of the future will continue to do what most of them have always done – and that is to act in their own best interests first and in the interests of their people second. Despite much progress on equality of opportunity over the last fifty or sixty years, we have every right to be disappointed at how humans treat each other in the twenty-first century, even after the lessons of two world wars, famines, pandemics and various natural disasters. Why have we not learned the value of kindness? For that matter, why has the international media not learned that it has the power to influence people for the greater good - but also in negative ways - and that innocent people often pay the price?

The trend of today is to blame colonialism for much of the world's ills and for certain of New Zealand’s inequities and, indeed, colonialism has most probably left a residue of inequity and cultural damage. However, colonialism brought benefits too. The world is now different from the world of the nineteen-hundreds and attitudes have reoriented towards greater tolerance and inclusion. In addition, if we adopt the same duty of care in examining the cultures of non-Western societies, we may see factions within many of them that share similar levels of narrow-mindedness as we see in certain communities within the West. Perhaps, in-group/out-group behaviors and other negative attitudes towards others who are different from ourselves is a feature of the evolutionary biology of our species and maybe some of us retain vestiges of primal thinking. Surely we must eventually conclude that the best way forward is through impartiality and calling out injustice wherever it occurs and regardless of who dispenses the injustice. There is no such thing as an exclusively guilty or exclusively innocent community or group, and possibly there is no such thing as an exclusively evil or exclusively honorable leader. Perhaps the world’s media will recognize that most often there is more than one side to a political or social issue and that it has the power to influence public thinking for good, but also for ill.

The world needs leaders who put aside the past and offer the hand of conciliation in a genuine manner. We do not have enough of these people in the present and we can only hope that more of them emerge in the future. Let us also hope for balanced journalism that does not seek to sway opinion in ways that amplify mistrust and division. In the end, genuine conciliation, supported by objective media, could lead to greater chances of diverse people putting aside their differences and moving forward with greater goodwill and understanding than we have witnessed during the first quarter of the twenty-first century.


Al Jazeera (2022). Israel set to approve 4,000 settler units in occupied West Bank.

BBC (2021). Israel-Gaza violence: The conflict explained.

Charters, C. et al. (2019). He Puapua: Report of the working group on a plan to realise the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Coyne, Jeremy (2022). Fairness as justice: income inequality versus income unfairness, and what Democrats need to do about the distinction.

D’Lima, T, Solotaroff, J. L., and Pande, R. P. (2020). For the Sake of Family and Tradition: Honour Killings in India and Pakistan. Sage Journals.

FBI (2021). FBI Data Shows An Unprecedented Spike in Murders Nationwide in 2020.

Foon, Meng (2022). Co-governance: give nothing to racism and give it a go.

Hasan, Mehdi (2017). A 50-Year Occupation: Israel’s Six-Day War Started with a Lie

Little, Craig (2022). There's a better way forward than Three Waters

McCarthy, Niall (2019). Northern Ireland's Violent History.

Mediabiasfactcheck (2022). The Irish Times

Miles, Donna (2022). The imperial curse that continues to haunt the Middle East.

Moses, Juliet (2022). Israel-Palestine Conflict: The media is 'dehumanising' the nation of Israel

Robinson, Nathan (2019). Media bias is OK – if it's honest.

Strauss, Valerie (2020). It looks like the beginning of the end of America’s obsession with student standardized tests.

Taylor, Bridie (2019). Intersectionality 101: what is it and why is it important?,orientation%2C%20physical%20ability%2C%20etc

Waquant, Loic (2022). From Slavery to Mass Incarceration.

Washington Post (2022). 1,056 people have been shot and killed by police in the past year

World Economic Forum (2022). 5,000 women a year are still being killed in the name of ‘honour’.

World Health Organization (2022). Female Genital Mutilation.

Dr David Lillis trained in physics and mathematics at Victoria University and Curtin University in Perth, working as a teacher, researcher, statistician and lecturer for most of his career. He has published many articles and scientific papers, as well as a book on graphing and statistics.


Allan said...

With Willie "motormouth"Jackson as Minister for Broadcasting we can only expect the MSM to become even more like Izvestia. It sends a chill up my back whenever a newscaster says "and here's what you need to know". Really, how do you or your editors know what I need to know? Surely this is just code for "This is what we want you to know"

terry handcock said...

i am on a water bore and in the 3waters legislasion my costs are likely to quadruple and that is without paying for the extra 4 layers of bureacracy. at present we have people living in cold damp housing because they can't afford to turn the heaters on because of the high cost of electricity. with the 3waters plan they won't be able to afford to take a bath either.