Saturday, 15 February 2014

On Referenda: Switzerland and immigration, 2014

On Sunday 9th February, Switzerland held a referendum on imposing a quota on immigration and opposing the free movement of workers between the EU and Switzerland. The political party that sponsored the vote, the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), won by just 0.6% - 50.3% of participants supported the measure - meaning that in three years time the Swiss government must either renegotiate or revoke the agreement with the EU that allows the free movement of people, or revoke the agreement. In addition to setting quotas, it also means that the government will impose limits on the ability of immigrants to bring their families to live in Switzerland, to access social security benefits and to request asylum. It is the latest expression of worrying right-wing anti-immigration sentiment that has been growing across Europe.

Advocates of referenda believe that they offer a solution to the problems of modern representative democracy, enabling citizens to encounter the power and enlightenment associated the a more direct form of participation. Referenda are valued because they apparently fulfil the criteria of democratic politics and political communication: They are dialogical because they encourage participation between elections; and they are far more representative than opinion polls which rely on generalising from small samples of respondents. Elections are useful in deciding which political party should form a government, but are limited as a method of consulting public opinion, principally because voters do not enjoy an opportunity to register their views between elections, and because we are asked to vote for a complete party package, not decide our preferences on individual issues. Finally, many electoral systems allow governments to win by a minority of votes cast; can we therefore conclude that they are truly representative? 

In addition, referenda are thought to circumvent other potentially powerful institutions that are poised between citizens and their government, including parties, pressure groups and the media; and finally referenda are considered educative (á la John Stuart Mill) because they encourage governments and other groups supporting a referendum to provide as much information as possible about very specific issues. If the voters are expected to register their preference (there is usually only 'a' preference which requires the voter to answer 'yes' or 'no') on a complicated issue, then it is attendant upon the opposing sides to communicate their position fully and in an accessible way. If the technicalities are not communicated in such a way that electors will understand the issues, how can they be expected to be sufficiently interested to participate? In this view, referenda are anti-elitist and democratic, and therefore require simplification.

And this is the primary danger with referenda - that a campaign will OVER simplify an issue, thus persuading voters to respond according to their emotions rather than reason. This is a particularly serious possibility in the modern age of political advertising and the prevalence of the sound-bite culture. Moreover, a referendum campaign seeks to maximise voters; numbers are more important than arguments, and victory is measured by how many votes a campaign can marshal, not about its persuasiveness or ability to forge a consensus through reasoned argument. The educative and deliberative reason for holding them vanishes, and the referendum becomes a zero-sum game with winners and losers with hardened opinions, reinforced by a style of news coverage that mirrors the horse-race reporting of elections. In other words, referenda may actually devalue the very acts of political communication and participation they are though to encourage. They are merely another means of voting, and therefore do not facilitate the kind of participation so cherished by their advocates. In reporting the Swiss referendum on immigration, The Guardian (15 February 2014) noted:

Perhaps the most clever aspect of the SVP's strategy was that they rarely specified what kind of immigration they were talking about. "They won the vote when they were allowed to use the term 'mass immigration,' said George Sheldon ... "Who could possibly be for 'mass' anything"? (The Guardian)

The report describes the kind of emotional campaigning that induces fear and panic among voters: the SVP remained vague about the kind of 'mass immigration' they feared and from where these immigrants would flood into Switzerland. Most of the arguments 'employ the future tense: the referendum was above all ... about "people who could come to settle here"' (ibid.)

Even opposition politicians show some grudging respect for the SVP's campaign. "We underestimated them,' says ... Christoph Brutschin, a social democrat. "They ran a very polite campaign, so the opposition retaliated politely. Then, only a few days before the vote, out came the more populist posters with the women in veils" (ibid. Emphasis added). 

Referenda encourage populism and in this case, easy (lazy) stereotyping, and sometimes governments must defy public opinion in the long-term interests of the country. Effective political leadership leads, and though it should consult, it does not follow. Amendment 2 of Colorado's constitution, introduced by the initiative variety of referendum to curb the civil rights of homosexuals was subsequently overturned by the US Supreme Court, suggesting that 'elitism' may be a necessary safeguard against the dangers of populism. The complexity of arguments is reduced to easily communicated and registered images and labels that are familiar to students of propaganda.     
 
Referenda are themselves elitist: they are managed by governments, parties or political authorities that possess the power to decide which issues shall be put to a referendum, the form of the question asked, whether the vote will be decided by a simple majority or by a minimum turnout, and when the referendum shall take place. Perhaps referenda are merely used to achieve preferred outcomes or, more worryingly, to pass the responsibility for dangerous and irresponsible decision-making to voters.   


There is no empirical evidence to support the idea that citizens in democracies prefer to communicate their preferences through referenda than through other methods. In fact, it is possible to identify the influence of the Law of Diminishing Returns - the more of something one has, the less satisfaction it yields - because there appears to be a direct correlation between the frequency of referenda and falling turnout. Even in Switzerland, referenda capital of the world, turnout is hardly spectacular: In a national referendum in February 2003, 70.3% voted in favour of extending the range of issues on which the Swiss could have a say. However, that was 70.3% of a 28% turnout. Even in referenda on issues of national importance, such as the ending of Swiss neutrality and membership of the United Nations in March 2002, only 58% bothered to vote. In the February 2014 referenda on immigration, the turnout was only 55.8%. Just over half of those who had a right to vote did so, and half agreed with the proposition, meaning that a small number of Swiss have decided the future of immigrants, their families, and Switzerland's position in the EU.

To summarise, the appeal of referenda derives from their essence of democratic legitimacy; decisions are considered more legitimate if they have been arrived at by soliciting popular opinion. Hence, referendums are a device of political communication that are thought to encourage participation and facilitate open and transparent government. However, their success depends on voter interest and participation - why should we assume that voters will be any more inspired by referenda than they are by elections? - the quality of information that is provided by both sides in a campaign, and the news coverage of the referendum. In short, we cannot expect referenda to reproduce the conditions and effects of a direct form of democracy. At best, they are a useful but flawed device of political communication; at worst, they are an expression of ill-informed populism. 
 

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

All Fluff and No Substance: Monocle's Soft Power Survey 2013

Monocle magazine has just published its 2013 soft power survey, and having banged my head against a brick wall as I read it (far preferable to the alternative of sticking a fork in my eye), I have come to the conclusion that the term 'soft power' is today more misunderstood than at any time in the past. Perhaps we really do need to reconsider the concept's utility and find a better term to capture its original (political) meaning and consequences. For one thing, the 'power' in soft power has all but disappeared, and this is reflected in Monocle's commentary on its 2013 survey.

The article begins with this statement: 'Footballers playing abroad in the top leagues, major events screened around the globe, the competitors and teams that stand out from the crowd - all of these have an impact on how a country is viewed'. This may be true, but this is not 'power'; it is merely a reflection of what makes something attractive, and that 'something' is not necessarily a country. Chinese teenagers may be obsessed with Manchester United, but do not necessarily equate this football club with either the UK or with British power.

Things get more frustrating as the article moves to a horse-race evaluation of who's up and who's down in 2013. The article makes these observations about Sweden (#6):

It may not lead in the medal tables at the Olympics or make blockbuster films, but it scores highly on the boring stuff: good governance, education, gender equality (emphasis added).
Such assessments do nothing but devalue soft power. This 'boring stuff' is precisely what soft power is all about - national values, principles and the style/outcomes of governance. Everything else - from footballers to movies to pop groups - is the fluff, the superficial 'stuff' that has little political value. (I also find it a little strange that Monocle should ask of Sweden, 'Would it be too much trouble to open more than two Swedish Institutes', yet fails to ask any similar question of the United States (#3) which only has two cultural missions abroad.)

The fluff is also wheeled out to help Australia's position (#7). The assessment begins well:

Where Sweden excels, Australia is less impressive. An island nation where the vast majority of the inhabitants are descended from boat people appears to have a problem with anyone else following in their footsteps. The government has also proved conservative in denying the link between global warning and climate change and coming out against gay marriage.

So much for the 'boring stuff', and Monocle then suggests that Australia's soft power derives from its reputation for happiness, 'instantly recognisable symbols' like the Sydney Opera House,' and concludes that 'It wouldn't hurt to have another Kylie ...' Similarly on Denmark (#11): 'A separate category for sport has hurt Denmark', which only highlights the problems associated with the magazine's decision to tinker with the metrics 'a little'.

On Switzerland, the magazine notes that 'Diplomacy (well, hosting it) is still something the Swiss excel at. In recent months it has been hard to move in Geneva without bumping in to a delegation attending peace talks on Syria or nuclear talks with Iran'. But surely Swiss soft power would be more attractive and recognisable if it actually participated in the talks; if Switzerland was more involved in the diplomacy instead of just hosting it. Again, where's the power? Monocle falls back on stereotypes by mentioning the allure of Swiss chocolate, and resists going for the full version of Harry Lime's famous Third Man monologue by failing to remind us of cuckoo clocks.

And on it goes. Some startling inclusions (Russia on the way up at #27) and some important omissions (again, no country in the Middle East makes it to the top 30; while Ethiopia, Africa's only representative, is presented as a possible 'soft power superstar,' but cautiously advises that 'it has some work to do first'. The same might be said of Russia).

I suppose we are not meant to take this survey too seriously, but instead to consider it merely end-of-year entertainment that provides a different take on the endless 'lists' that are ubiquitous as we head towards Hogmanay.  However, there are three issues that do make its conclusions important: (i) The involvement of the London-based think tank the Institute of Government (this is not 'just' a magazine article); (ii) The fact that reading the survey is like holding up a mirror and letting countries see in its reflection what they want to see - a positive or less than positive assessment of one's own image. Finally (iii) the survey confuses soft power with nation branding, tourism and the export of cultural products. We need to recover the 'power' in soft power, and that may mean a return to its original political roots. We need to banish the 'fluff' and rediscover the 'boring stuff' that is the very essence of soft power.

In short, soft power is now a catch-all label that has lost much of its meaning and relevance.  Monocle may actually be the cause of death for the very concept it surveys and sells to us at the end of each year.
  

   

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Soft power and social entrepreneurship

Today I was introduced to a whole new literature that will provide an interesting framework for my future understanding of soft power and public diplomacy. Dr Albert Chu-Ying Teo of the National University of Singapore Business School delivered a fascinating presentation at Chengchi University, Taipei, on social entrepreneurship and Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), and the value of this approach to soft power is quite striking. I still have to attack the literature to fully appreciate the concept, its nuances and implications, but Albert's synopsis is a useful start. He identified 6 Principles of social entrepreneurship as a tool to aid development:

#1: Understand the aspirations, dreams and motivations of the the community. In communications terms, know your audience and align one's intervention with their aspirations.

#2:  Understand that priorities are not the same as needs. A community may have many needs, but only one priority. The fulfilment of short-term needs may not have lasting impact. Again, understanding the context in which one is operating provides the conditions that may facilitate development.      

#3:  Move beyond a needs-based approach to development which, by channelling external resources to meet the needs of the community, can reinforce identity and self-identity of communities as deficient in knowledge and resources, and incapable of addressing their own problems. In short, the needs-based approach does not encourage self-reliance or empowerment, but rather frames interventions from external sources as the actions of saviours which in turn can lead to a cycle of dependency. Of course addressing needs provides short-term soft power capital; interventions can be framed as helpful and highlight the humanitarian capacity of the state, organisation or individual. However, this is designed for the short-term interests of the source, not the recipient who may have different needs and priorities (recall the arguments against the kind of assistance offered to the victims of the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s). Helping long-term interests can have long-term and more meaningful soft power benefits

In contrast, Asset-Based Community Development identifies, maps and mobilises the assets and strengths of communities and recognises them as opportunities. Assets can be tangible (schools, market places, religious organisations, natural resources) and intangible (family and kinship networks, experience, memory, etc.). For public diplomacy, targeting your message and using the resources that are already available inside the community will help the success of the message. Both tangible and intangible resources can be mobilised for policy promotion.

#4:  Obtain buy-in from the community which in turn encourages local participation. Do not try to impose change and development from above. The two essential components of any public diplomacy activity are listening and discussion, and doing so in way that avoids creating a vertical flow of communication and action.  

#5:  Likewise buy-in from relevant stakeholders can provide a stream for the acquisition of resources.

#6:  Strive to create the conditions for members of a community to empower themselves and to live and work with dignity. Do not try to 'save' a community, but instead understand that ABCD is a facilitator and a catalyst. The belief that a social entrepreneur can empower a community can be regarded as arrogance. As Albert noted in his presentation, 'True empowerment occurs when the social entrepreneur creates the appropriate conditions for the community members to empower themselves.' How much of the literature on soft power and international communications (especially touching upon the the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) addresses the issue of arrogance and how the belief in salvation, liberation and democratisation - and of course regime change - is resented by the very communities affected by such interventions and who otherwise should be considered stakeholders? The paternal attitudes and misplaced "good intentions" of much public diplomacy/humanitarian activity can have long term negative consequences      

Above all, ABCD provides the foundations for community engagement. Albert emphasised that social entrepreneurs tend to be innovative thinkers, while governments and NGOs can be stuck in particular mind-sets and routines that prevent their success. Again, this is applicable to our understanding of communicative engagement which likewise requires innovation, but too often faces bureaucratic inertia.

I look forward to delving deeper into these ideas and the associated literature, and I would like to thank Dr Albert Teo for introducing the concept of social entrepreneurship to me. This is a perfect example of how interdisciplinarity can lead to new and exciting approaches in the way we tackle our own research areas.

          

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Westgate attack, the media and terrorism

The brutal attacks by Al-Shabab on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya (21 September 2013) confirmed the media sophistication of terrorist networks.

It is no coincidence that the attacks happened in Nairobi, the media capital of East Africa. Nairobi is an important hub for journalists and broadcasters reporting the region, and most international press and news channels have staff located there. The journalists did not have to hunt down this story; the story came to them. Echoing the way the the 9/11 hijackers delayed their attack on the second tower of the World Trade Centre until they could be sure of maximum live news coverage, Al-Shabab knew that a large scale event in Nairobi would attract immediate attention from the global media (simultaneous bombings in Mogadishu, Somalia, received no coverage due to the absence of reporters).

Moreover, the siege of Westgate lasted for four days which, in an era of 24/7 rolling news assured the terrorists of continuous coverage and therefore publicity. In fact we may argue that by controlling the pace of events and continuously releasing information from inside the mall, Al-Shabab commanded the news agenda. This was facilitated by the terrorist network's appreciation of how the social media work. Al-Shabab's organisation of Twitter accounts and its almost uninterrupted flow of news and information, inevitably picked up and used in the coverage by major international news networks, guaranteed that the terrorists' justification, beliefs and demands were disseminated to global audiences. This has provoked considerable self-reflection among journalists: in the new media environment, have they become the mouthpiece for terrorists? After Westgate, journalists and news organisations have started to think more critically about their work and how they use social media communications in their coverage of terrorist activities.

Terrorists have long understood the importance of information, as they require what British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once called 'the oxygen of publicity'. Media coverage of their activities, and especially the consequences of their actions, is perhaps their greatest weapon, particularly if such coverage succeeds in generating fear and paranoia and results in state-imposed counter-measures which restrict civil liberties. However, the days of 'minimum casualties, maximum publicity' were swept away on 9/11 when terrorists sought maximum casualties for maximum media coverage. And in creating fear, paranoia and the severe curtailment of civil liberties by states across the democratic world, Al-Qaeda's attacks on 9/11 and Al-Shabab's seizure of the Westgate sopping mall were both doubly successful.

Long before the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, we were aware that terrorist networks and insurgents have adapted to this new information environment, and they have often acclimatised to it much quicker than their adversaries. Early in its life, Al-Qaeda embraced information as an asymmetric weapon against powerful nation-states, especially the US, and identified its potential for disseminating propaganda and recruiting new members. In fact, since 9/11 Al-Qaeda has become a formidable, sophisticated and prolific multi-media communications machine, with ready access to the As-Sahab (‘The Cloud’) Institute for Media Productions and its huge media library allowing the creation and dissemination of information and propaganda to a global audience. As-Sahab continues to produce high quality news releases, documentary films and now even iPod files and videos available on mobile telephones. As-Sahab’s production expertise combined with Al-Qaeda’s enthusiastic use of the internet means the terrorists are able to converse persistently, securely and in multiple audiences with members, sympathisers and potential recruits across the world, especially among younger generations who may be most attracted and therefore susceptible to the message. This ability to communicate is essential for Al-Qaeda which is not really a formal organisation, but exists as a loose international network of cells and affiliate groups who can remain in contact with each other via the internet. This is demonstrated most clearly in the creation of the al-Fajr (‘Dawn’) Media Centre, an elaborate network of local terrorist units and dozens of anonymous webmasters around the world (each webmaster is unaware of the others’ true identities), with Al-Qaeda functioning as a an umbrella propaganda organisation that gives guidance to local movements. Computer-literate sympathisers using internet cafes, codes and special software to circumvent detection, help maintain the flow of information through the network. Gone are the days when Al-Qaeda had to depend on dead-letter drops of propaganda video tapes to Al-Jazeera and hope that the station would broadcast them; now the films are uploaded and distributed around the world on the internet, often with subtitles in English, German, Italian, Pashto, French and Turkish. This not only gains them a wider audience and bypasses the media, but should television stations so wish, they can download the films as ready-packaged products, thus enhancing their appeal. The events in Nairobi suggest that terrorist organisations are now capable of using social media networks like Twitter in the knowledge that media organisations will depend on their feeds for a unique perspective on events.

The power of information in this asymmetrical war has not been overlooked by political elites at the highest levels in Washington: In 2007 US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, noted ‘It is just plain embarrassing that Al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America. Speed, agility, and cultural relevance are not terms that come readily to mind when discussing US strategic communications’. Gates recalled how one US diplomat had asked him, ‘How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society?’ Four years later, Washington’s political elite were still pondering the US’s incapacity to compete in the communications landscape: In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in testimony to the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee that ‘We are in an information war and we are losing that war.’  It seems that governments are still playing catch-up in an information war the terrorists are winning, sometimes with the unwitting help of journalists and news media organisations.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Taiwan Studies Workshop in Brno, 2013

I spent a week in Brno in the Czech Republic, attending a week-long workshop on Taiwan for students across Europe. The students were brilliant - enthusiastic, engaged, curious, insightful and delightful - and the level of discussion was admirable. They were all ready and eager to start at 9am on Monday morning and they were still there at 5pm on Friday. Such commitment!

I taught two sessions, one on Taiwan's democratic transition and one on Taiwan's soft power. The students delivered very thoughtful presentations on these topics and they had obviously worked very hard. While Ewa Aniskiewicz and Jacek Baniak from Krakow discussed what we might call the outputs-based approach - focusing on the methods Taiwan uses to exercise soft power in the international domain - Amina Abievai located soft power within a broader discussion of international relations theory, including a discussion of Niccolo Machiavelli and his commitment to hard power. While Amina also concentrated on Taiwan's outputs, including the famous Bubble Tea, HTC and the success of film director Ang Lee, her presentation ended on an interesting note: how might Taiwan counter the PRC's soft power? she asked. Her answer threw me: 'Make Taiwan the Hawaii of the Far East.' This is an unusual proposition and it took me some time to analyse and understand what Amina meant; but she makes a very perceptive point, and it is one I would like to consider further in my research.

Ewa Aniskiewicz & Jacek Baniek talking about Taiwan's soft power

Amina Abievai: Taiwan as "The Hawaii of the East"




Amina agreed that democracy is Taiwan's most valuable theme of public diplomacy and represents soft power in practice - as regular readers of this blog know only too well, this is one of my favourite subjects. Amina pushed me to think this through a little more. Making Taiwan the Hawaii of the Far East, although a rather simplistic approach (and I really do not know enough about Hawaii to conclude whether it is a good model or not, though Steve McGarrett and Magnum PI will have their own opinions), in essence means making Taiwan a desirable place to live. I had just finished suggesting to the students that governments should not really be involved in the soft power process; they certainly should not try to strategise its exercise, but rather soft power is a natural by-product of what a government does and how it behaves at home and abroad. In short, I said, the job of governments is to govern, and to do so in an ethical, transparent and accountable way. Governments should let others tell the 'soft power' story if there is one and allow audiences the space to reach their own judgements based on what they see governments actually doing.

As Amina suggested, this means that the government of Taiwan should not try too hard to exercise its soft power. In addition to being a democratic power, the government can govern in such a way that the island continues to develop its potential - in education, healthcare, the environment, housing, the infrastructure and other policy areas - and this effort expended in actually governing Taiwan will reap soft power benefits.

As a postscript I would like to add that last week I read a chapter by a colleague who suggested that the exercise of soft power is all about talking up the good points about one's own country. I disagree and explained to the students that honesty is far more effective. A government accumulates far more credibility if it is open and honest about its mistakes and enters into discussion and dialogue about the less attractive characteristics of the country it represents. Audiences appreciate candour, self-reflection and self-criticism and the capacity to accept criticism from others. This may not lead to trust, but will not doubt contribute to a sense of self-integrity which, in soft power terms, is a good starting point.  

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Taiwan's legislatures need to remember Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Taiwan is in the international news, and again it is for the wrong reasons. Members of Taiwan's Parliament, the Legislative Yuan, have once more been filmed fighting among themselves ahead of an important vote on the future of the island's nuclear industry. Footage from the Washington Post, available at Taiwan's parliament dukes it out, is making the rounds on the social media, much to the amusement of both journalists and audiences. While we are encouraged to laugh at this latest example of literal political combat, there are very clear soft power consequences associated with the actions by Taiwan's Parliamentarians.

Laughing at Taiwan does not encourage a serious discussion about the island's place in the international community, and its democratic system is ridiculed rather than applauded. At a time when Taiwan remains the first Chinese democracy, such behaviour reinforces the unreasonable idea that perhaps the Asian Values thesis is right after all. More importantly for Taiwan, fighting in the Legislative Yuan sends a very clear signal to the People's Republic of China and strengthens its propaganda: This is what happens in a so-called multi-party democratic political system; this is what we are protecting you from.

Taiwan's legislators need to understand that how they behave is a reflection of how Taiwan's political system is perceived. At a time when Taiwan is struggling to exercise soft power - to project its democratic virtues and ideals, and build upon one of its principal advantages, namely that Taiwan is not the PRC - such ridicule comes at a high price; and it is possibly too high a price for a state with few formal diplomatic relations and no voice in the international media. Taiwan's foremost resource is its credibility as a democracy, but this is a resource quickly squandered by the irresponsible conduct of its politicians. They should do all they can to make sure the world is talking about Taiwan, not laughing at it.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

King Canute versus the tide

Twenty years ago, when I was a naïve but ambitious 23 year old second-year student in the final stages of my PhD, I embarked on the hunt for my first academic position. Since being a teenager besotted by the world of shortwave radio international broadcasting my work has always been located at the intersection of international politics and communications. I was convinced then, and remain so today that it is impossible to discuss politics and international politics in any meaningful way without also understanding the role of communications, information and the media. Despite the war against Iraq in 1991 (Gulf War I or II? Surely the Iran-Iraq conflict was the first Gulf War?) and the advent of 24/7 live broadcasting from the front which had a profound impact on how the war played out - and introduced the CNN Effect which suggests foreign policy can be driven by media coverage and popular opinion - I still met a shocking amount of resistance in reputable politics departments where earnest academics dismissed such work as Mickey Mouse studies. Such ignorance.
            Fast forward twenty years and, despite the Internet and social media having transformed political processes and empowered millions of people across the world; despite the acceptance by all governments that public diplomacy and the exercise of soft power are essential tools of statecraft; despite militaries begging us to teach them how to adapt to, and survive in the information age; despite governments trying to find innovative ways to manage the public and private conversations their people are having, while some are resorting to good-old fashioned techniques of censorship to control access to information; and despite communications panels almost taking over the major academic conferences in politics and international relations, we are still facing denigration by academics who refuse to see the essential and fundamental impact that communications have upon political events, institutions, agents and processes. Satellite broadcasting, the rise of pan-regional media organisations like Al-Jazeera, citizen journalism, tweets, blogs, Facebook and social networking have all transformed the way governments and militaries speak to journalists and audiences, and how publics speak to each other.

It is sad that the ignorance I encountered twenty years ago persists. As recently as last year I was again told that my work is not considered 'mainstream', whatever that means anymore. I also remember my intervention at a conference last year when I realised how my work on communication can undermine the more militaristic approach to international relations that prefers to kill and maim human beings rather than persuade them that there might be alternatives to hard power (A note so subtle reminder ...). As Joseph Nye wrote, militaries (and too many academics working in IR and security studies) prefer 'something that could be dropped on your foot or on your cities, rather than something that might change your mind about wanting to drop anything in the first place' (Nye, 2011: 82).

Consider the events of 11th September 2001 when audiences were led to believe they watched the horror of 9/11 unfold live on their television screens. However, it is only by sheer luck that we have any footage of the first hijacked plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Centre WTC) at 8:46 am local time. In the neighbourhood were filmmakers James Hanlon and the Naudet brothers making a documentary about a probationary New York fireman. When American Airlines Flight 11 flew by, Jules Naudet turned his camera to follow the plan and taped only one of three know recordings of the first plane hitting the WTC (the others being a video postcard by Pavel Hlava filming a visit to New York to send home to family in the Czech Republic, and a sequence of still frame CCTV photographs by artist Wolfgang Staehle). In this way, the biggest and most momentous news event of recent decades was captured and recorded by 'accidental journalists' who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
          Seventeen minutes later at 9:03 am, a second plane hit the WTC's South Tower. This time the collision was broadcast live on television, captured by professional camera crews circulating the burning North Tower in helicopters. The level of media literacy within Al-Qaeda had been demonstrated very clearly: the organisers of the hijacking knew that the first collision would not be reported live, do delayed the second attack to generate media interest and coverage. In this way, the events of 9/11 confirmed that the media, communications and information landscapes had changed beyond recognition, and they continue to change.

The power of information since 9/11 and during the inappropriately named War on Terror has not been overlooked. In 2007, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, 'It is just plain embarrassing that Al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America. Speed, agility, and cultural relevance are not terms that come readily to mind when discussing US strategic communications.' Gates recalled how one US diplomat had asked him, 'How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world's greatest communication society?' Four years later, Washington's political elite were still pondering the US's incapacity to compete in the communication landscape: In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in testimony to the Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee that 'We are in an information war and we are losing that war.' It seems that policy-makers, unlike many academics, recognise the urgent need to understand how communications, the media, politics and strategy are now permanently entwined.
       
I was reminded of these issues last night when I watched at the local cinema a wonderful documentary called We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013, dir. Alex Gibney).  Anyone who is still blinkered to the effect of communications on political processes and institutions should see this film. At its core is the belief that information is power, and that withholding the publication of information is a political act designed to serve a specific political agenda. Anyone with any understanding of basic politics will uncover in this film issues about authority, transparency, legitimacy, accountability, political ethics, the appropriate level of force in war, national security and fundamental questions about democracy; and all these issues are framed against the transformation of private and public space by the media and new communications technologies. The film, and the whole Wikileaks saga in general - just like the recent revelations about GCHQ's use of the PRISM surveillance data - provides a valuable case-study for students trying to unravel the theoretical and empirical complexity of modern politics. It compels us to confront difficult philosophical questions, and come to terms with the somewhat uncomfortable realisation that there is no right or wrong; no black and white, just gradations of murky grey. Adrian Lamo, the hacker who turned-in Bradley Manning to the authorities at the height of the Wikileaks story, even justified his actions in classic utilitarian terms: the good of the many outweighed the good of the few, or in this case, the one. (Discuss.). What an exciting way to stimulate students' interest in normative ethics. Moreover, we are compelled to think about and test the boundaries of what is and is not permissible in the new communications ecology: What do we mean by freedom of speech? Who has responsibility for what is posted on the internet and the consequences for doing so? Who decides what is and is not acceptable, why and by what criteria? I short, the modern communications landscape calls for a (re)consideration of the most basic of political questions: What is power, and how is power distributed and exercised? 

Academics who continue to deny that communications and the media are at the heart of modern 'mainstream' debates about politics are like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. Real-world politics have moved on; it is a shame that there are still academics who refuse to accept it.


[Mr Justice Openshaw, a Crown Court judge in Woolwich, UK, presiding over the trial in May 2007 of three young Muslims accused of distributing propaganda over the internet in support of Al-Qaeda, confessed during the proceedings: 'The trouble is I don't understand the language. I don't really understand what a website is.' The judge then 'paid close attention as Professor Tony Sams, a computer expert, explained in detail how the internet works'.
         'What's a website, asks judge at internet trial,' The Telegraph, 18 May 2007]



References
 
Joseph Nye (2011), The Future of Power (New York: PublicAffairs).