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]

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

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