NEWZAK (2004)

July 2004

You’re in the gym running on a treadmill, in the changing room, shopping in a supermarket, back in the changing room, in a waiting zone and…HERE IT COMES…the talking head; the piece of action; the talking head on the scene; back to the studio, nodding seriously; then the key question. It’s Newzak. In the car, in traffic, more of it from the radio. Media space filled up with the detail that does not tell the story,  streamed accounts from the official world. Elsewhere a person is faced with unctuous voices from screens directed at the Post Office queue, or attacked by voices as you fill the car at a petrol station, commercial propaganda, but it is newzak that is the most persistent.

Living in a permanent present, newzak suits the power elites of the world. Why things happen is swallowed up by how they are happening minute by minute, while in patrician tones they complain of the short attention span of the populace at large. And if that’s not enough it will be left to the speculation of ‘experts’, ‘well informed sources’, or ‘someone close to’ on a daily basis, as to what they mean, the things that are happening.  The endless detail, second-hand the most of it, has a tendency to prevent serious judgement being made and offers no help in determining the consequences of the processes it describes with such seriousness. All this has been all too clear in the US-UK build-up to the invasion of Iraq. The irony of the situation is made all the clearer by Jose Saramago’s light-hearted view of earlier forms of newzak in his novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis when the technology was not capable of such immediacy:

“”How typical of the newspapers, all they can talk about is what has already happened, and nearly always when it is too late to rectify mistakes, prevent shortgages or avert disasters. A worthwhile paper would tell you on the 1st January, that war will break out on the 24th July, then we would have almost 7 months at our disposal to ward off the threats.” There were seven months in which to ward off an invasion of Iraq made on spurious grounds and modern-day newzak was part of a process whereby this did not happen, and we were faced with yet one more fait accompli. Or as George Bush put it, mimicking the Israelis themselves, and thus adding insult to injury in  his acceptance of the recent Sharon plan, ‘new realities on the ground’.

Newzak has developed with satellite and cable technology and the rapid increase in privately owned broadcasting outlets, themselves increasingly part of a global oligopoly in which the gap between formal plurality and diversity is glaring. It took some of its tricks from an earlier newspaper genre where the reader was flattered by being made to feel an insider with diagram sequences showing how it really happened. In television it was CNN who set the pace. Public broadcasters like the BBC followed suit, but mostly it has been the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s News International umbrella. Looked at in retrospect, its biggest fillip came ironically from the brave reporting of Peter Arnett for CNN from Baghdad during the Gulf War of 1991. Irony lurking everywhere, to trip us up and give a slap in the face. His reporting of the American bomb which killed hundreds of middle class Iraqis in a bomb shelter at al-Amirah was immediately denied by the Pentagon and the truth only grudgingly accepted (We’re sorry but…and then plenty of but). In the meanwhile they busily smeared Peter Arnett himself. He was called a traitor and it was trumpeted that his ex-brother-in-law had stayed in Hanoi throughout the Vietnam War. It was however the making of the channel and newzak by establishing its credibility as if for all time, since it has done little since by way of contradicting official news since, as Ted Turner its founder said, “Official news is news”. At the same time it is an ideal outlet for leaks and ‘spin’, the everyday drama of self-important people.

Its promise of the real, of one unfolding drama or another, is dulled by pointless repetition. Pornographic even, as has been said of the repeated image of the collapsing twin towers of the World Trade Centre, the most prominent and long-running of newzak events. The process is the same with all kinds of disaster. In recent years there has been a series of nasty train crashes in England in which people have been killed or maimed. One took place when two trains collided coming into Paddington station. Coverage as they say in broadcasting, was blanket, back and forth from studio to the scene of the event. “What’s the latest?” the question. Naturally enough there was in the future to be an inquiry into what had happened but this didn’t stop the standard second-guessing that is a speciality of newzak in this situation. Meanwhile there were mid-shots of broken trains and cranes moving towards them; up-and-down casualty  figures; and the regular harassing of emergency workers by guys with microphones in their hands. All of it completely useless unless to cultural studies historians as a precursor of ‘reality TV’ schedules. Useless because there was nothing any viewer could do to improve things, it was not a situation where a community of people could come in and pull at rocks with bare hands as we have seen in faraway earthquakes where our viewing would be equally useless. No, it was a situation for professionals with complex mechanical equipment.

Was newzak then trying to create a sense of community, one which would by means of ‘being there’ make the pain and suffering of those who died and were maimed, them their family and friends real to us? The ‘unfolding of the event’ was in fact nothing more than repitition of the same which can only blunt ones feelings. And the effect, cumulatively-since newzak specializes in such narrative and footage- can only make us feel more generally helpless in a tough old world since there is nothing we can usefull do.

Over time the tempo of visits to the site slowed down. Residual interest took the form of analysis and speculation, in which experts flattered viewer and listener into feeling they had the real low-down. Many of the people presented as experts or neutral observers have their own undeclared axe to grind. The BBC are especially adept in this to such a degree that a conspiracy theorist might well have grounds for arguing that the notorious Hutton report had as its aim not a Blairite diversion but to give the Beeb back some credibility after its failure to ask any serious questions during the build-up to the war. Instead it gives respectful interviews with the war criminal Oliver North on BBC radio after the September 11th attacks. He promptly apportioned a fair share of blame to ex-President Clinton. Or Paul Bew, Ulster Unionist Party advisor introduced as an academic, above the fray. And even then, even if all cards are on the table, their speculations, whoever they are, usually no more than most other peoples’ unless they are scientists or scholars.

Even though it’s official news that’s news, speculation also allows unconfirmed news into the world of newzak along with a host of nudges and winks. Besides, answers to ‘what do you think will happen next?’ questions are not just time-wasting, given that they are highly unlikely to have any consequences, they also dull the significance of what happens when it finally does happen. The murderous folly of a power elite decision for example, is dulled in advance by it having been ‘one option’ chewed over in advance and made not-shocking by having been discussed at all. Most of all such speculation flatters us at he receiving end by inviting you to choose which professional opinionist you care to believe.

The newzak of celebrity is of course real enough, but for a clear idea of its full scope it’s as well to be wary of the smugness of some parts of the media. The easy sneer at football players, their wives and the coverage they get is itself part of the coverage; likewise the analysis of reality TV as a socio cultural phenomenon. Despite all their pious declarations to the contrary, the ‘serious’ media needs unfolding events with personalities, however much this in itself distorts reality.

This was clear in the aftermath of the British General Election of 2001. There had been a second massive victory for the Labour Party on a low turn-out . Within days of the election a contest for leadership of the Tory Party began, a party that had been revealed to be irrelevant in the immediate future. Newzak fell on it gratefully, for the next two months it was rarely absent from broadcasts and newspapers. Discredited politicians and pompous analysts got two months worth of punditry out of it and gave it an importance it simply did not have. There were personalities, of a sort. There was the tedious drama of plots and manouvres which enabled the MPs of the irrelevant party to feel important again. And then there were votes, how would they go, had so and so swung so-and-so. The significance of the low-electoral turn-out and what New Labour’s election promises really meant, barely got a look in. In fact much of what it meant and means has been subsumed in the long-running Blair-Brown theatre. The two of them lecturing the rest of Europe on the merits of their version of US neoliberalism, is what they actually do. All that talk of policies not personalities, bunkum! Newzak would have it no other way

It has played other roles too. In the USA especially the stock market speculation of the 90s and its crescendo in the dotcom bubble was fed not just by investment banks and entrepeneurs with an interest in feeding it but by a broadcast media for whom it was a wonderful event-dominated narrative, but one which played within the rules of that narrative. It is well described by Robert J. Shiller in his book Irrational Exuberance (that bogusly gnomic phrase of the fetishized Alan Greenspan):

“The interviewers and investment professionals sometimes seem to play a sort of rhetorical game on television that plays out pretty predictably to be supportive of the market. The interviewer asks dark questions about whether the market might conceivably do badly, blunt questions posed as if to get an answer with plain, unvarnished truth. The interviewee answers in an assuring, confident profession al manner about the greater longer-run outlook for the market…The interviewer establishes his or her news-media credibility as pressing for the truth, but given the typical choice of interviewee, the interview closes on a suitably upbeat note.”

Not a bad description of almost all newzak interviews, the routine grilling of  those of the power-elite and its courtiers. Now the dotcom bubble has been and gone, and Frank Quattrone picked out to take the rap, newzak goes on filling so much media time and space with business news. It’s not just that it takes the neoliberal version of globalization as a natural given, it’s the time it takes up. The anthropomorphized stock market up and down here and there, the pseudo drama of whether the Hang Seng will follow the Dow, stuff that is gibberish to the vast majority of people all over the globe. Significances are drawn or not drawn on a daily basis and the same class of person given all the airspace devoted to the global economy, such and such from Premium Securities, or another from Midland Asset Mangement, interviewed with all due respect by sycophants eager to prove they are adults in the real adult world.

A rather different style of interviewing was perfected during the war against Bosnia one which pitted the anchor-person in  the studio against anyone reporting honestly from that country. These anchor people are the real stars of newzak as we know from their salaries, transfer value and so on. They are almost invariably former head boy or girl of their schools and if not, the schools in question had made a mistake. In the case of Bosnia an honest reporter would be gloomy most of the time, describing more atrocities and perhaps hinting at the Pontius Pilate approach of the UN and other members of the great and good in Sarajevo and elsewhere. But it could not be left at that, the anchor person would be pushing at the hopes raised by yet another unreal plan emanating from the vanity of Lord Owen or some other great and good person, and would go on pushing until the reporter had no choice but to say that something, he/she supposed, might just conceivably come of it.

In this instance, as in many others, peace plans and peace processes are especially good material for newzak to work with. In most cases one side, the most powerful, are seen to be the good guys in that it is they who are ‘giving something away’, even when that something is the most unjust kind of supremacism. It is this side which has the most to gain by peace processes like that of Oslo dragging on while facts on the ground are created. The shuttle diplomacy involving envoys flying round and round a circle of the capitals of the region to change nothing, were reported seriously day by day, sometimes hour by hour, even when it was clear that nothing serious was going to happen. How else to explain the untouched career of Denis Ross, the shuttle diplomat of our time, the US’s man  in the Middle East who finally came out with a wholly pro-Israeli position. Newzak will also dwell on the minutae of differences between political parties or personalities which (until the most recent Israeli elections) have more or less identical policies as with the Labour and Likud Parties both bastions of what Ilan Pappe has called ‘traditional Zionism’ which has accommodated the ‘neo-Zionism’ of the settlers. It does something similar with what is in effect realpolitik theatre as was the case with threats from Israel to attack Iraq in 1990-1. It was a theatre which had real consequences in that Israel gained in a variety of ways from doing nothing when the attack on its own territory did come and Saddam’s gestural Scud missiles were dealt with by US Patriot missiles. The situation was reported on a daily basis for weeks. In this case it was not so much making sure we did not see the wood for the trees as providing realism to a wood which did not exist. In reality, Israel, which has done nothing against the wishes of the USA since 1956, perfomed the part of the guy in the non-brawl shouting, Hold me back or I’ll kill him.

So it is that the ‘phoney war’ period  of September 2002 to March 2003,  was perfect material for  for newzak. In many respects more suited than the war itself, despite the embedded reporters. The minutae of deals, intrigue, last minute agreements is event full, with a narrative that has plenty of twists and turns even as the anchor people of newzak followed Tony Blair’s particular brand of smug flirtation with his constant refrain of ‘no decision has not been made’, modulating into ‘no final decision has yet been made.’

Operating in and as a permanent present, newzak made little reference to the past war against Iraq in 1991. That it was more or less the same US administration personnel who ran a war in which it was nearly all Iraqi conscripts who died; who encouraged an Iraqi uprising against Saddam, then smeared it as fundamentalist or seperatist, and betrayed it; who allowed the runaway absolute Kuwaiti rulers to return to wreak vengeance on those who had not escaped, the migrant workers who had kept the place going, were obviously not welcome facts. Certainly no one mentioned that neo-con Paul Wolfowitz had said in 1991 *******Instead in real-time apart from the diplomacy dramas there are interviews with serious young white soldiers in the desert all saying in sober tones that ‘they have a job to do’. Meanwhile defence experts chip in with how-the-war-will-be speculation ready for the time there will be diagrams and counters to be shifted around on a televisual board and then, cool as you like, telling us about the waning and waxing of the moon. As viewers we are expected to be flattered by being so much in the know, while it also clear that the forces at work are just way beyond us. What has been so heart-warming of late is how so many people are tired of feeling powerless in the face of all this.

So it is, that in recent days newzak has had to intersperse the war narrative with more light-hearted dramas, or rather, more narrative driven light hearted stories, like Snowy-the name bestowed by newzak itself-a dog stuck on a breakaway ice-flow and rescued after long televisual sequences with helicopters, zoom shots and the rest, until it was rescued.