The Russo-Georgian War…once more, with feeling

Here in Tbilisi, where I’ve come to attend a friend’s wedding, the city is filled with nervousness and excitement. A few days ago, the police sealed off Freedom Square and Rustavali Avenue, in the heart of the city, then an official government calvacade arrived, and president Saakashvili hurried to a podium and told the gathered crowds that the country was being occupied by enemy forces. “The forces of occupation are at our gates!” he cried.

Bemused tourists were sent scurrying back to their hotels to find out what the hell was going on, and if they should get the next plane out of there. Eventually, they discovered it wasn’t actually president Saakashvili, it was the Hollywood actor Andy Garcia, playing him in new film. And the cheering crowd at Liberty Square turned up, not to cheer Saakashvili, but simply to see a famous Hollywood actor.

Watch the scene here – I love the way the crowd cheer wildly when he says ‘the forces of occupation are at our gates’. Woo hoo! Andy Garcia!
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Yes, barely has the dust settled on the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, barely has the EU released its official report into the war (which said that Georgia started it), than Hollywood has seen fit to produce its own version of events. The director is Remmy Harlin, whose previous work includes Die Hard 2.

He says: “I’ve waited a long time to find something with substance and reality. Even if only a few people see this and feel its impact and its anti-war message, then I will have done something important be proud of it.”

The film has financing from the Georgian National Film Board, and has the solid support of real president Misha Saakashvili, who has lent the crew his presidential palace to shoot key scenes, as well as some Georgian military equipment. Alas, though, the crew has had to turn to outside help – Russians – for their expertise in pyrotechnics. “So here we go again”, as one crew member put it. “Just like during the real war, the Russians are again the ones who are doing the explosions part.”

The Georgians I’ve spoken to are fairly bemused by the situation – Saakashvili is very unpopular here, and most people think, quite rightly, that the war was a disaster for Georgia. The country is now smaller, poorer, less attractive for foreign investors and far less likely to join NATO or the EU. Misha took a gamble by invading South Ossetia, and lost badly.

And you might think, if ever there was a poor choice for an anti-war hero, it is Saakashvili, who according to the EU kicked the war off in the first place, only to retreat into a position of craven victimhood when his army showed itself incapable of resisting the Red Army for more than a day. He’s not anti-war, he’s just very bad at it.

But what’s that to Hollywood? Some Georgians suspect there is US government money behind the project (there is US government money behind everything in Georgia), but I can’t find proof of that. But it would be a delicious irony if so: when Saakashvili most needed help, the US failed to send troops. Now, a few months later, they send…Andy Garcia. In Hollywood, there is always a happy ending.

I should add, by the way, that the Russians are just as dumb in their cinematic propaganda. The state-owned Channel One produced its own TV film of the war last year, just a few weeks after the war, and the Kremlin has since tried to sign up Emir Kusturica, the Serbian film-maker, to make an international film of the war. He refused, sensible fellow.

Does HIV cause AIDS? How much more evidence do you need?

It beggars belief that a decade after Thabo Mbeki and other AIDS denialists were completely discredited by a mountain of evidence (see a good summary here if you must), respectable media outlets still question whether the virus is caused by HIV. The latest in this shameful line is The Spectator, which at least has the (probably false) humility to ask whether it should be questioning the link (the answer is no, because it puts people’s lives at risk if they believe this garbage).

According to the Spectator, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist has said that you can shrug off HIV infections if you have a healthy immune system. This is the argument put forward by South Africa’s disgraced former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (who reckoned eating raw garlic would sort you out if you got infected). In all my time working in the HIV/AIDS field in Africa and the West (intermittent but over quite a long period), I’ve met one person who contracted HIV but didn’t end up needing antiretroviral drugs.  The Spectator would have it that this person (a scientist himself, as it happens) is one of multitudes.  Surprising, then, that he describes himself as a “human pincushion,” as so many researchers have tested him to find out what stops HIV turning into AIDS. If people like him were so numerous, you’d think the scientists wouldn’t have to subject him to painful jabs so often.

The BBC’s BNP triumph

BBC Milks Question Time

Hats off to the BBC.

It could have announced that Nick Griffin was appearing on Question Time a couple of days ago, and then hoped the whole thing would pass off as quietly as possible.

But that would have been boring. Positively Reithian. How much better to turn the appearance of the BNP leader into… an event! Here’s how it was done:

Trail the decision to invite Britain’s favourite fascist onto Question Time at the end of the silly season, ensuring a six-week, slow burn for the story.

Begin to run cross-platform coverage under suitably-provocative banners like “Who’s Afraid of the BNP?”

Use party conference season to gin up interest in who else will be on the show, making sure the big announcements (a cabinet minister!) get plenty of coverage.

Wait eagerly for the inevitable attacks on your decision to give the BNP airtime.

Get your top brass to respond to them with much earnest head-shaking (“this is hurting us, more than it’s hurting you… but we’re doing it for the children democracy”).

As the big day approaches, up the pace of your coverage – a special on Newsnight (make that two!), prominent slots on all of your news and current affairs programmes, regular briefing for the print media.

Then the day of broadcast…

…rile up the demonstrators, leave the gates open long enough for them to invade your offices, then switch on the 24-hour rolling news coverage…

…fuel speculation over whether the guest-of-honour will make it through the crowds, then smuggle him in through a back entrance (having tipped off the paparazzi so they get good snaps)…

…make the whole thing interactive (Have Your Say! phone-ins, Twitter, etc) – a chance for everyone to be involved.

As soon as the programme is over, start milking it for all it’s worth. Get Richard Bacon to ask a BNP councillor how well he thinks his leader’s done. Tell Nicky Campbell to use his phone-in to ask “Was Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time a triumph for democracy?” And, of course, Join the Discussion on Our Blog! (how could you not?).

Now obviously, there were some missed opportunities (why no BNP theme for EastEnders? And surely Radio 3 should have had a Wagner special) – but all in all, a proud day for our public service broadcaster.

Hopefully, in its review of the affair, the BBC Trust (“getting the best out of the BBC for licence payers”) will not look simply at Question Time itself, but will explore the multi-media phenomenon in the round.

How many broadcast hours were dedicated to the event? Website inches? Weeks of work by the BBC’s queens and kings of media hype?

And how good were the results from making the news, rather than just reporting it? What were the ratings/hits/coverage like? How long has the BBC spent on the front pages? Are people talking about its ‘event’ at work?

Parliament: more global, less local (part 4)

In the first three parts of this series (1, 2, 3), I have suggested reforms to make the British parliamentary system better equipped for what could be an especially turbulent period in our history. I proposed: greater devolution; a slimmer, punchier House of Commons; and a House of Lords with a mix of elected, co-opted and politically-appointed members.

Now: some thoughts on elections, which are – as things stand – the epitome of everything people hate about the public sector (inconvenient, confusing, dingy, etc). With a little redesign, we could make them so much more entertaining, user friendly, and festive: fit for the modern media age.

Consider. We live in the age of live. The online revolution has destroyed many business models, but it is driving the value of one-off events through the roof. Rock stars release albums to promote their live shows (ten years ago, it was the other way round). Sky’s business model is based on the capture of live sport, especially football.

Master manipulator, Derren Brown, understands this better than anyone. His recent series was structured deliberately as a series of events – designed to provoke and gel together a stream of frenzied media and online coverage.

To be sure, a British general election is gripping, but almost inspite of itself. We’ll soon be having the first British general election of the Twitter era, but as always the results will dribble in the middle of the night (thus ‘were you still up for Portillo?’).

That didn’t matter a jot in the print era – and television has learned to make the most of the bad timing. But it’s surely wrong for the new media age. When we next go the polls, most of the British public will be asleep when we get to the climax.

So I suggest:

  • A Democracy Day every two and a half years – with a general election in June and a mid-term in November.
  • All elections – Westminster, devolved government, councils, European parliament, referenda, etc – will be held on one of these days (by-elections would be the only exception).
  • Voting would be as easy as possible, with polls open throughout the week before, and voting could be made compulsory (with a ‘none of the above’ option, of course).
  • Democracy Day would be a public holiday – with polls closing at 6 o’clock.
  • Sunderland would then do its usual party trick and gets its result out within the hour. The rest of the action would then unfold across prime time; even in the closest years, the result would be clear before the nation went to bed.
  • The TV audience would be huge; Twitter and its ilk would go berserk (think of all the local coverage from counts); while election parties and victory rallies could happen at a sensible time.

Continue reading

Fascism goes prime time

This evening, Nick Griffin, the leader of Britain’s neofascist British National Party, makes his debut on the BBC’s flagship panel discussion show, Question Time.  A former Cabinet Minister (and longtime anti-apartheid campaigner), Peter Hain, is leading the charge against providing Griffin with such a platform.  Others (including me) think that in a society based on free speech, the best approach to the BNP is to shine a bright light on it and expose its shameful policies for what they are – but worry that the format, presenter and panellists on tonight’s show will provide the party with a platform without managing to dissect and rebut its policies effectively.

Either way, the one must-read I’ve seen this week on emerging fascism comes from John Michael Greer on the other side of the Atlantic. Greer expresses fury at “the insistence, so often heard from radicals of the left and right alike, that America is a fascist state”.  None of the wingnuts who make these wild claims really need fear being dragged out of their beds at night to ‘disappear’ into a mass grave, he observes – “and for today’s smug and pampered American radicals to wrap themselves in the mantle of victims of fascism, while relying on civil rights no fascist system grants its citizens, displays a profound disrespect for those who have actually suffered under totalitarian regimes”.

Imagine, he suggests, what fascism might really look like in America.  Imagine:

that sometime in the next year or so you start hearing media reports about a rising new figure in American politics. He’s young and charismatic, a military veteran who won the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery under fire, and heads a vigorous new third party that looks as though it might just be able to break the stranglehold of the established parties on the political system. Some of his ideas come straight from the fringes, and he’s been reported to have said very negative things about Arabs and Islam, but he’s nearly the only person in American public life willing to talk frankly about the difficulties Americans are facing in an era of economic collapse, and his party platform embodies many of the most innovative ideas of the left and right. Like him or not, he offers the one convincing alternative to business as usual in an increasingly troubled and corrupt system.

Would you vote for him?

He continues,

One of the problems with the continual use of fascism as a bogeyman by political extremists is that it becomes far too easy to forget how promising fascism looked in the 1920s and 1930s to many good people disgusted with the failings of their democratic governments.

But what really stands out in his piece is the observation that “such a figure could as easily emerge from the left as from the right” – perhaps even, he suggests, from communities like the peak oil or anti-globalisation scenes, which are rapidly losing faith in the capacity of mainstream politics to achieve results. Continue reading

On the web: the EU’s global influence, Obama’s leadership, and inside the financial crisis…

– With Czech ratification of the Lisbon Treaty now looking increasingly likely, attention shifts to the implications for the EU’s global influence. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the current External Relations commissioner, offers some thoughts on the future EU foreign policy setup here. Hugo Brady, meanwhile, identifies some of the qualities needed in a new President of the European Council – “the job appears”, he suggests, “to require its holder to be a walking paradox: charismatic but modest, highly effective but non-intimidating, a consensus builder but also a decision-maker”. Pascal Lamy, he argues, might just fit the bill.

– In the London Review of Books, David Bromwich explores President Obama’s tendency toward the conciliatory gesture and major pronouncement, assessing the consequences for delivering meaningful outcomes. “[H]is pattern has been the grand exordium delivered at centre stage”, Bromwich argues, “followed by months of silence”.  Writing in the WSJ, meanwhile, Bret Stephens offers a critical perspective on the President’s commitment to human rights.

– Elsewhere, Dani Rodrik rails against those raising the spectre of protectionism, suggesting that “the world economy remains as open as it was before the crisis struck” and that the “international trade regime has passed its greatest test since the Great Depression with flying colours”. The Economist, meanwhile, provides an analysis of the falling dollar, while Jean Pisani-Ferry and Adam Posen assess the limitations of the Euro as an alternate global currency.

– Finally, behind the scenes of the financial crisis, and based on in-depth interviews throughout, Todd Purdum chronicles Hank Paulson’s time in office. Reuters has an extract from Andrew Ross Sorkin’s new book offering another take on the former US Treasury Secretary’s actions during the crisis. Daniel Yergin, meanwhile, examines the importance of finding a narrative for the crisis – crucial, he suggests, not only in understanding what happened but also offering a “framework for organising thinking for the future”.

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