(Being a very long and extremely tedious summary of the recent controversy over Amnesty International's suspension of one of its employees, and a half-arsed analysis of related media coverage. All articles and columns quoted are linked at the end of the article, as befits the laziness of the author. Those familiar with this situation can skip the first few paragraphs).
The Case Against Amnesty
So, a recap of the central issue - Amnesty International have been running a series of events to publicise both Guantanamo Bay and the wider American black prison network, which is a global system facilitating the extrajudicial detention of an unknown number of people both innocent and guilty, that boasts a proven track record of torture and murder. They're also touring to urge European governments to accept Gitmo detainees, so that at least one part of the network can be closed.
In doing so, Amnesty have chosen to invite former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg to speak at their events. Begg is well-placed to describe the black prison network, but is compromised by his unpleasant politics and is linked, directly or indirectly, to a large number of nasty Islamist headbangers.
Enter Amnesty employee Gita Sahgal who, having lost an internal debate in which she urged the organisation to stop inviting Begg to speak, then castigated the organisation in the pages of News International paper the Times, and was then suspended from her post.
How Bullshit Starts
The facts of the matter are pretty clear. The prison network does exist and is an abhorrent affront to all of the principles Amnesty holds dear; Moazzam Begg is clearly not the type of guy you'd want on the local PTA, far less a desirable candidate for the protection of human rights, and Gita Sahgal has been suspended for taking internal disagreements to the press.
Now, I think most reasonable people would agree that Amnesty does excellent and vital work, and has been on the right side of almost every human rights issue of the last few decades. It's thus imperative that media coverage of the issue focus like a laser on the issues at stake, and not descend into a frantic punishment beating aimed at damaging a valued human rights org. The papers, in short, have a responsibilty to treat this situation honestly and objectively.
So how did this work out? This is the first line of the Sunday Times article that kicked off the controversy...
"A senior official at Amnesty International has accused the charity of putting the human rights of Al Qaeda terror suspects above those of their victims..." (1)
Scan the article, and it's immediately clear that this isn't what Sahgal says. She states that using Begg "fundmentally damages" AI's reputation and is a "gross error of judgement", but the notion that Amnesty is "putting the human rights of Al Qaeda terror suspects above those of their victims" is unsupported. In fact, it bears a strong resemblence to the standard Murdoch press rattle that human rights themselves value criminals over victims.
Already, within twenty-five words of the issue being raised, the gig is fucked - Human rights = Terrorist's charter has been the reactionary right's propaganda line for decades. If our starting point is a deliberate misrepresentation, it bodes ill for the debate to come.
And how - a week later, the Sunday Times ran statements by AI Asia senior executive Sam Zafiri entitled "Second Amnesty Chief Attacks Islamist Links" (11). A day later, an obviously annoyed Zafiri wrote to the paper (12) to clarify his position, saying he supported Amnesty's policy and was merely wary of its presentation. We'll have to wait 'til tomorrow to see whether the paper retracts its misleading story.
If I tell you that a majority of subsequent coverage has been led from the websites and pages of the Times itself; of angry Tory boobyhatch The Spectator; wingnut-welfare organ Standpoint and the output of a blogger whose main claim to fame is feeding the Daily Mail terrifying stories about how the Muslims are taking over our swimming pools, you'd expect an ideologically driven hate campaign aimed at inflicting as much damage as possible on AI... And you'd be right.
How Bullshit Treats Torture
Let's start with the issue of the black prison network. In an argument over the morality of using suspect characters to raise awareness of serious human rights abuses, you'd imagine that the US extrajudicial detention scheme would be central... And you'd be wrong. Here's the breakdown of how the black prisons were portrayed in related opinion pieces...
Neutral/factual mentions of Guantanamo: 2. (Nick Cohen, Observer (2); Hitchens Senior, Slate (3))
Guantanamo not as bad as the Gulag: 1 (Nick Cohen, Standpoint - "At Guantanamo Bay, no one has died of starvation, disease or exhaustion and no prisoners have been executed. Not one"). (4)
Disapproving mention of Guantanamo, as prelude to the word "But...": 2. (Denis MacShane, Standpoint (5); David Aaronovitch, Times (6))
Mentions of the wider black prison network/ghost detainees/torture/murder: 0.
I've been arguing about this issue for two weeks with Amnesty's critics, and it's become clear that orangutans will whistle Iron Maiden songs on Mars before one of them will seriously consider what it is Amnesty are actually campaigning against.
By far the closest any of them have come to commenting on the black prisons is Harry's Place blogger and Daily Mail witness David T. who, when directly questioned, offered the following in-depth consideration...
"Detention without trial is an important issue. But..." (7)
How Bullshit Treats Employment Disputes
If we can't acknowledge the reality of the prisons, at least we can read an honest account of the incident that brought this issue to international attention. Can't we?
Well, no. Gita Saghal's statements may be right or wrong, but it's an undeniable fact that she was suspended for taking an internal matter to a Murdoch paper. How does our press deal with indisputable facts?
Sahgal, as "whisleblower" on facts already publicly available: 3 (Nick Cohen, Standpoint (4); Martin Bright, The Spectator (8))
Sahgal, suspension of as "punishment": 2 (Both Nick Cohen, Standpoint (9))
Saghal, suspension of as "victimisation": 1 (Denis MacShane, Standpoint (5))
Sahgal, suspension of as "contemptuous treatment": 1 (Times leader, (10))
Sahgal, suspension of as "shooting the messenger": 1 (Times leader, (10))
Sahgal, suspension of for "making an uncontroversial statement": 1 (Hitchens Senior, Slate (3))
Sahgal, suspension of for "exercising her right to free speech": 1 (Nick Cohen, Standpoint (9))
Sahgal, suspension of by "evil corporation": 1 (Nick Cohen, Standpoint (9))
Sahgal, difficulties finding human rights lawyer to defend self: 2 (Nick Cohen, Standpoint (9); Hitchens Senior, Slate (3))
Sahgal, suspension of as reasonable/understandable response to deliberate denunciation of employers in Murdoch press: 0.
Sahgal's suspension for taking her complaints out of the organisation and to a company that has been an implacable foe of both AI, human rights legislation and HR orgs in general is a straightforward fact. The British public, however, have been repeatedly told that her suspension represented an epic affront to justice, free speech and even a "liberal betrayal" (Nick Cohen, Observer). The reader is entitled to ask how such a one-eyed narrative came to dominate coverage.
How Bullshit Expands To Fill The Space Provided
You don't have to hunt far and wide to find out why coverage of the Begg/Amnesty imbroglio has been so utterly dominated by bullshit.
Practically every one of the sources linked prefaces their outraged squeals with a long, glowing tribute in praise of Amnesty' s work and achievements, and a firm reaffirmation of their commitment to human rights in principle. Read deeper however, and it quickly becomes apparent that Amnesty as it exists right now is an object of suspicion and hostility.
Prime suspect Nick Cohen pulled no punches, accusing Amnesty of living in a "make-believe world" in which Islamic reactionaries are "nice metrosexuals" (like AI themselves, those fags! Ha ha!). Nick's suspicions about AI's "moral disintegration" (4) didn't end there...
"Assuming that the far left has not taken control of Amnesty - and that may be a generous assumption..." (2)
(Responding to question on why "the left" - and presumably Amnesty - are in love with extremists who throw acid into the eyes of schoolgirls...) "The new slogan is 'Any enemy of America is better than none'". (13)
A journalist might feel the need to present some kind of proof that Communist America-haters have taken control of the world's leading HR org, but then, this presumes that we're discussing journalism here. This is a species of unsupported, ludicrous assertion, which is the staple diet of the blogger.
The idea that the Commie US bashers have overrun Amnesty and planted the hammer and sickle in its heart is rather less credible than grafitti scrawled on the wall of a nightclub toilet. After all, we can reasonably presume that anyone who takes the time to write "I suck big cocks" on a cubicle wall is probably motivated by his penchant for large male members. Cohen, on the other hand, has a long history of denouncing Amnesty for being overly close to terrorists and extremists, based upon arguments pulled from his arse. He would've done as well to make this point on the back of a supermarket with a can of spray paint.
For former Islamist idiot turned anti-Islamist idiot Shiraz Maher, this was all "Further proof - as if it were needed - of Amnesty's decline into the abyss of relativism." (14). To David Aaronovitch, the decision to invite Begg to speak was not a pragmatic measure for opposing torture and extrajudicial detention, but was "collaboration" with Islamists (6). For Hitchens Senior, it was an affront of such magnitude that all Amnesty's supporters should instantly cut off their contributions (3), a call widely echoed elsewhere.
Headbanging wingnut Melanie Phillips - who is to the people pushing this "scandal" as anal is to dirty movie clips - issued blazing condemnations of the "human wrongs industry" (15). Amnesty is "intolerant, illiberal... totalitarian... (a) love-in for white liberals for theocratic totalitarianism... (wreaking) frightening harm and injustice... upon the western world".
And all this is before we get to the blogs - nominally left wing, human rights supporting entities that somehow attract an audience consisting of up to 70% furious, cackling right wing lunatics. For a feel of how all this one-sided coverage is being received by its target audience, click here and read the comments under a random article.
And yet of all the online commentators attacking Amnesty, only one was prepared to state outright what was to be done. Step forward academic pinhead Tom Gallacher, who was at least honest enough to lay it on the line...
"...lets hope that the initiative for setting up a successor to Amnesty might emanate from worldly and progressive Iranians who are clearly committed to defending a universal set of civil , legal and political principles which Amnesty has so obviously lost sight of. If that happens, then I don’t think they will be extending the red carpet to Noam Chomsky". (16)
This excerpt represents the clearest statement of what I believe has motivated this whole sorry affair - a small group of like-minded journalists and bloggers determined to crush Amnesty, in the insane belief that a spontaneous uprising of somebody else will magic a deus ex machina human rights organisation into existence... that will say nasty things about Noam Chomsky.
The Triumph of Bullshit, and Decent Zombies
Regular readers will know that we're not dealing with a disinterested and disparate group of apolitical campaigners here. Coverage of the Sahgal case has been driven from the word Go by a tiny clique of political operatives commonly derided as the Decent Left.
The Decents' have spent the last decade agitating for insane and counterproductive military action throughout the middle east, and were among the most vocal cheerleaders for the Iraq war. Back then, their modus operandi was to declare a small number of anti-war protestors beyond the pale, and then furiously denounce everybody else who opposed the war as collaborators with fascism, while blithely ignoring the actually-happening disastrous war and the bullshit case made for it.
That's been the thread that's run through this whole affair - "Detention without trial is an important issue, but fascists! Muslim fundamentalist Jihadoterrorist bastards!". From the start, Amnesty has been under assault not from a broad-based, grassroots campaign of human rights activists, but from a small and easily-identifiable gang of politically-motivated twats with a long and unedifying history of attacking human rights organisations.
That's why Amnesty are worth defending; it's why the ridiculously one-sided treatment the press have given this affair is a disgrace and a travesty. We expect the press to push their employers' agendas. We expect them to have undeclared political hobby horses and to fluff their politicians of choice.
What we don't expect is that a tiny hardcore of bugfuck-nuts political jerks with a constituency smaller than the population of Auchtermuchty be allowed to dominate public debate on a matter of this gravity.
A few months ago, I foolishly declared the Decent Left's political project dead. I thought that the catastrophic bloodbath that the Iraq campaign became had chopped their legs off; that with the collapse of the neoconservative initiative in the Bush administration, the pro-war left had taken a bullet through the brain and been buried six feet under.
Well, I underestimated. Just when human rights organisations felt safe to protest torture and disappearances again, the hand of Zombie Decency claws its way through the earth and grabs the debate by the throat. Suddenly, those who would defend HR orgs find they have to shout to be heard over the gravelly moans of Brains... Brains... Brains... as the undead pro-warriors lurch around the papers and the internet, biting out throats in their maniacal hunger for Amnesty's entrails.
The Decents may have shot off their own feet with their nasty politics; they may have buried their movement under the weight of their own wrongheaded pronouncements. Unfortunately for us all, they still have the strength in their rotting limbs to reach out from beyond the grave and try to drag wide-eyed groups like Amnesty screaming into the bowels of the earth.
Links - excerpts available on request
1. The Sunday Times, 7/02/2010: "Amnesty International is 'damaged' by Taliban link"
2. Nick Cohen, 14/02/2010: "We abhor torture - but that requires paying a price"
3. Christopher Hitchens, 15/02/2010: "Suspension of conscience"
4. Nick Cohen, 7/02/2010: "Tyranny's friends at Amnesty"
5. Denis MacShane, 10/02/2010: "A letter to Amnesty"
6. David Aaronovitch, 9/02/2010: "How Amnesty chose the wrong poster boy"
7. Pickled Politics, 17/02/2010
8. Martin Bright, 7/02/2010: " Amnesty International, Moazzam Begg, and the bravery of Gita Sahgal"
9. Nick Cohen, 14/02/2010: "Amnesty Int. & Megagreed Plc"
10. Times, 12/02/2010: "Misalliance"
11. Sunday Times, 14/02/2010: "Second Amnesty chief attacks Islamist links"
12. Sam Zafiri, 15/02/2010: "Letter to the Sunday Times"
13. Nickcohen.net, 10/02/2010
14. Shiraz Maher, 7/02/2010: "Gita Sahgal suspended"
15. Melanie Phillips, 14/02/2010: "The Human Wrongs industry spits out one of its own"
16. Tom Gallacher, 13/02/2010: "Amnesty's flight from universalism"