Brave liberal journalists and their blind-spots

I’ve just read an article in the Guardian about a documentary film by Oliver Stone. The film is about the former President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The piece, (by the Guardian’s Andrew Roth who usually writes fakes news on Russia – the land in which vast numbers of supporters of the popular ‘opposition politician’ and democrat Navalny are being suppressed by a brutal police and media crackdown), is a hatchet job on Stone’s film. The problem for the Guardian is that Stone doesn’t criticize Nursultan Nazarbayev. The interview subject is treated sympathetically. We are supposed, I assume, to believe that the kind of journalism which Roth himself exemplifies is brave and daring, always ready to ask challenging questions of dictators. He proves the point by giving the final word to an opposition blogger (who he probably found on the Internet) – about how Nazarbayev controls media access to himself and how the film does not report on the negative aspects of his rule.

Roth does quote Stone explaining that maybe democracy is not the right system now for Kazakhstan. It seems to me that Stone has grasped something which Roth has not. I don’t know much specifically about Kazakhstan – but as far as Russia goes the fact is that the majority don’t want ‘democracy’ – in the sense that the UK has ‘democracy’. This remains a challenge for progressive-liberals. Or, at least, it should be a challenge for them. In practice, like Roth, it just turns out that they are imperialists all along, quite happy to impose their ‘democracy’ on people whether they want it or not, blithely unaware that this negates the actual idea of ‘democracy’ which they are promoting.

Meanwhile, the US and UK have just finally pulled out of Afghanistan. Hundreds of UK and US servicemen died there – the majority not fighting Al Qaeda terrorists but trying to take over the country for our installed client. The US has spent more than 2 trillion dollars on its failed nation-building project. Biden was recently asked by a journalist about the US pull-out. He refused to answer and replied “I want to talk about happy things man”. A few days later he did talk about the pull-out. He told the enormously huge whopper that the US had succeeded in its mission – which was to “root out Al Qaeda and prevent attacks on the US”. Everyone in the media and politics knows this is a whopper. The US hasn’t been building roads and schools and other infrastructure in Afghanistan and organising elections for 20 years, to “root out Al Qaeda”. Rooting out Al Qaeda happened within a few weeks of the invasion in the mountains of Tora Bora. Everyone knows that the US/UK have failed in their goal to build a ‘democratic’ Afghanistan. Why? Because, just like Kazakhstan perhaps, Afghanistan is not yet ready for democracy. “Democracy” is not a product you can just copy and paste onto any country in the world you feel like. It doesn’t work like that.

But what interests me is the more or less total media silence on this disastrous pull-out and ignominious failure. 450 (or so) UK soldiers and MOD personnel died in Afghanistan. The equivalent US figure is over 2000. And the mission has failed. The Taleban already control half (or more) of the country. The central government has already lost control and allowed militias to form. The country is already in a civil war. The media should be leading on this. Surely an ignominious defeat and the waste of 450 lives matters to these democrats at the Guardian? I’ve barely seen anything in the Guardian and Independent. The BBC manages a very terse and short piece which acknowledges that “US officials concede [Afghanistan] may be heading for civil war.” [1] But nothing there about the failed mission and huge waste of life (and money).

This is the point which Noam Chomsky made about the media in our ‘democracy’ in his book Manufacturing Consent. They control the narrative by selective focus. Andrew Roth can complain about how someone has made a film about a non democratic politician in Kazakhstan without asking him difficult questions. But his newspaper is turning a complete blind eye to what should be the story of the day – the waste of over 400 young British lives in a foolish and doomed project to impose “democracy” on a tribal and ethnically riven country in the Middle East. (And of course the way that the exit is being carried out under cover of the pandemic).

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Concerning Kazakhstan; what the Guardian journalist is doing here is applying a well-worn template. He criticizes Stone for his sympathetic treatment of the former Kazak President – Nursultan Nazarbayev. The journalist doesn’t actually say what precisely offends him about this but we get a clue when he talks about “autocracy”. Then the journalist finds one or two voices who are ‘against the regime’. In this case he refers to the author of a book Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan (we can guess from the title that this is not a sympathetic treatment of Nursultan Nazarbayev) and a dissident blogger who is clearly strongly opposed to Nursultan Nazarbayev. This is what they do with Russia when they represent Navalny as “the opposition” in Russia and quote the press releases from his office verbatim as news. They accuse the “autocrat” of all sorts of things (the journalist mentions a  97.5% win in the 2015 election; the implication is that it was fixed) and rely on one or two relatively marginal figures to represent a supposedly “democratic” opposition. A very simplistic template which distorts reality; in place of an analysis a caricature is born.

Out of interest I asked the one Kazak I know what he thought about Nursultan Nazarbayev. Did he have a good opinion of him I wondered? Yes. (As an example my collocutor mentioned policies which dealt with unemployment by extending small loans at low interest rates to help people start businesses). I asked if Nursultan Nazarbayev had won elections during his 30 years in power. Certainly. Were those elections fair? That isn’t the point, he explained. The point is that Nursultan Nazarbayev won. I mentioned that to the Western ear this sounds a bit strange. But he explained; Kazakhstan is a country facing risks. The important thing is that there were no risks. (By which he meant any of the other candidates). This is a strong point (and applies to Russia equally); for a country going through cataclysmic changes there may well be an argument that the best thing for the country is to find one strong leader (or leadership) who has a clear vision of the path to development and who is allowed to implement it over a course of many years. (Churchill is often represented in this way as Britain’s wartime leader; flawed but the country needed strong and stable leadership). Chopping and changing leaders every 5 years may work in a country which is “settled” and politically and economically robust. Perhaps the same does not apply for a country undergoing a rapid path to development and which has very recently suffered huge instability? Western journalists and critics of “autocracy” never seem to think that what works in one country at one point in its development might not work in another country at a different point in its development.

My single collocutor does not of course represent a full sample of Kazak opinion. On the other hand I chose him at “random” – not because I knew in advance that these would be his political views. And this random Kazak had nothing but good to say about Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Guardian journalists go hunting for the opposition figures, the dissidents, the writers of salacious books. They find that Putin, Nursultan Nazarbayev and others are dodgy characters and that people in their country oppose them. Students of media studies call this “confirmation bias”. Looking for ‘facts’ to support what you want to believe. The ‘truth’ is at the very least much more complicated. Nursultan Nazarbayev may well be very popular in Kazakhstan. “Autocrat” or not.



Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer