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Archive for August 2008

What’s the harm in HIV/AIDS denial?

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www.whatstheharm.net is a website devoted to highlighting the damage that can be done by bogus ideas.

“Not all information is created equal”, say the site’s creators. “Some of it is correct. Some of it is incorrect. Some of it is carefully balanced. Some of it is heavily biased. Some of it is just plain crazy. It is vital in the midst of this deluge that each of us be able to sort through all of this, keeping the useful information and discarding the rest.”

The website focuses on cases where a lack of critical thinking has had deadly results. One of the key case studies is a grim roll-call of HIV-positive AIDS denialists who have died after deciding to stop taking the anti-retroviral drugs that could have saved their lives.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look in detail at the roots of AIDS denialism, and the impact that it has had – not only on its adherents, but on the thousands who have been affected by the stranglehold that this bogus theory gained over AIDS policy in South Africa.

Power House PR

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One of the great things about the net is being able to track down classic books that have long gone out of print – if they ever were available in the UK in the first place. I came across Susan B Trenton’s “The Power House” whilst following the trail of the infamous “Nurse Nayirah” – whose (now) widely-discredited testimony before the US Congress played a crucial role in swinging world opinion in favour of military action in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War. Published the following year, in 1992, Trenton’s book follows the intriguing career of Robert Keith Gray, who headed up the global PR phenomenon Hill and Knowlton during the 1980s.

“The Power House” is these days quite hard to track down, but a flavour of it can be found in this article, which originally appeared in Washington Monthly. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I take a look at the PR firm’s Hill and Knowlton’s extraordinary track record, both before and after Gray, from the manufactured ‘controversy’ over scientific evidence linking smoking and cancer to its more recent activities representing a dizzying range of dictatorial governments from around the world.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 8, 2008 at 8:10 am

Astro-turfing in Acholi-land – the role of the Catholic Church in Northern Uganda

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There must be potential for a good few PhD theses in examining the role played by the Catholic Church in recent efforts to shield Uganda’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” rebels from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. When arrest warrants were first issued in 2005, the move was immediately condemned as a threat to peace by senior Catholic clergy in Uganda, and the church has been active in opposing it ever since. 

“The entire Acholi population has said, ‘Let us forgive for the sake of peace,’“, announced Father Matthew Ojara earlier this year. “We do not believe in punishment in the sense of imprisoning someone. Once reconciliation is done, you have to walk free and live with your brothers and sisters. There are no prison cells or house arrest. That’s a Western practice.”

But this view contrasts sharply with that we hear from other sources. In August last year the International Center for Transitional Justice released the results of a survey of 2,875 adults from the regions most affected by LRA violence. 

According to allafrica.com: “Most respondents wanted those responsible for war crimes and violations of human rights to be held accountable. They distinguished between LRA leaders and lower-ranking LRA members, who, in many cases, had themselves been abducted as civilians. Only a minority (17%) said that the rank-and-file should face trial and/or punishment. Many wanted to see LRA leaders face trials and/or punishment such as imprisonment or death (41%), although many others (52%) also indicated that they favored options including forgiveness, reconciliation, and reintegration into communities.”

One particularly salient issue, it seems to me, is the extent to which religious leaders have sought to speak on behalf of “The entire Acholi population”.

International media coverage on this issue often seems to take at face value claims made by the likes of Ojara about the views of victims, and the inherently forgiving nature of ‘Acholi culture’.

Neither has there been much comment on the irony that many of those most vehemently rejecting the ICC as a ‘western’ imposition – and urging adherence to what they say traditional Acholic culture demands – are fully signed-up members of the single largest ‘western’ religion, Roman Catholicism. 

Internationally, one of the organisations most active in lobbying for the ICC warrants to be suspended – and calling, in more or less euphemistic terms, for the LRA to be offered financial payoffs – has been the US-based “Uganda Conflict Action Network”.

Since Uganda-CAN was established in mid-2005, the organisation’s founders, Peter Quaranto and Michael Poffenberger, have made dozens of media interventions portraying the ICC indictments as an obstacle to peace, urging that the US, as a non-signatory, intervenes to “impact the talks in ways that European countries cannot“, highlighting LRA demands for guarantees of their “physical and financial security”, and suggesting that “creative inducements” could persuade the LRA leader to sign a peace deal.

Uganda-CAN – which was launched just months before the ICC issued its arrest warrants for the LRA leaders (and was relaunched recently under the name “Resolve Uganda”) – is itself an initiative of the Washington-based “African Faith and Justice Network“, which – according to its website – was founded by three Catholic missionary congregations in 1983, and whose “support base is primarily built on the Catholic missionary community”.

But the Resolve Uganda website now makes very little of its religious affiliations, listing AFJN as only one among a number of ‘partners’, and presenting itself as a ‘grassroots’ organisation founded and run by students. It’s only when we dig a bit deeper that we learn that one of those “students”, Resolve Uganda’s head honcho Michael Poffenberger, was formerly “Associate Director of the Africa Faith and Justice Network”.

Wikipedia has a little more on the Uganda-CAN phenomenon – along with a handy definition of the PR tactic commonly known as “astroturfing”.

ABC News and the bogus ‘Iraqi-anthrax’ claims

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Writing in today’s Comment is Free, Dan Gillmore details how, in the early stages of the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, the TV channel ABC News ran a series of sensational stories claiming to have compelling evidence linking the Iraqi regime to the ‘anthrax attacks’ of September and October 2001.

“A substantially false story that helps make the case for war by raising fears about enemies abroad attacking the US is released into public debate because of faulty reporting done by ABC News”, Gillmore writes. “How that happened and who was responsible is itself a major story of public interest”.

Gillmore argues that anonymous sources who lie and mislead journalists have lost their right to have their anonymity respected. He challenges ABC news to ‘out’ the “four well-placed and separate sources” who fed them bogus claims about the source of the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks.

“It allows the Government to have more air time and get its message across to people” – Telegraph exposes covert UK government funding of TV documentaries on controversial political issues

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the case of Armstrong Williams, the US columnist, who was reportedly paid $240,000 by the Bush administration to promote its education policies, with thousands also being channeled to journalists Michael Macmanus and Maggie Gallaher.  

Now the Telegraph has revealed that the UK government has so far paid nearly £2 million for a series of TV documentaries – at least eight in the last five years, several covering controversial government policies – without viewers being made aware that the government itself had paid for the coverage.

The Telegraph reports that:

Beat: Life on the Street, which was supported with £800,000 of funding by the Home Office for its first two series, portrayed PCSOs as dedicated, helpful and an effective adjunct to the police — despite the controversy about their role.

One Whitehall source admitted of the documentary: “It allows the Government to have more air time and get its message across to people.”

Ministers are so pleased with the way the series, which drew in audiences of three million people on ITV and changed the public’s perception of the officers, that they commissioned a third series, to be broadcast next year.

*UPDATE – Interestingly, today’s revelation by the Telegraph isn’t entirely new – back in 2006, the Times ran a story about “Beat”, reporting that the show was being funded through the Home Office’s only-slightly-chillingly-named ‘Central Office for Information’… According to the COI’s website, it is actually responsible for the whole government, and is managed not through the Home Office but through the ministerial Cabinet Office. More on the COI shortly…*

The judgement that brought down David Irving

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Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, David Irving enjoyed a kind of rogueish mainstream appeal as a “controversial historian”, whose iconoclastic views on Nazi Germany were ruffling feathers in academic circles. Irving had, on the basis of his claimed expertise, dismissed historical accounts about Auschwitz as “baloney”, claimed that the gas chambers never existed, and ridiculed the testimony of holocaust survivors. Many respectable historians who rejected Irving’s political views praised him nonetheless as a good “historian of fascism”, whose historical work deserved to be taken seriously. But all of this changed in 2000, with the conclusion of a libel trial, triggered by Irving’s decision to sue the writer Deborah Lipstadt for describing him as a “holocaust denier”.

It was a decision that backfired, catastrophically. In a damning judgement, Lord Justice Gray rejected Irving’s complaint, concluding that: “He is an active Holocaust denier, anti-Semitic, racist and associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism”. Gray found that “Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence… For the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews.”

During the trial, a team led by the eminent historian Richard Evans had painstakingly gone through four decades-worth of Irving’s work. Evans had, he said been shocked at the “sheer depth of duplicity” he found. Irving had, he concluded, “fallen so far short of the standards of scholarship customary among historians that he doesn’t deserve to be called a historian at all”. Evans was able to show how Irving had, right from the earliest stages of his career in the 1960s, systematically misrepresented the historical sources that he cited in support of his arguments, even as praise was being heaped on him for the quality of his work.

The David Irving is both a prime example of “pseudo-history”, but also as an illustration of how easy it can be for bogus experts to gain uncritical acceptance in the mainstream. In Don’t Get Fooled Again I look at the similarity between Irving’s bogus work and other forms of “denialism” – from the insidious cult of “AIDS denial” to the smoke and mirrors put out by the cigarette industry during the 1960s and 1970s in an attempt to misrepresent the risks from tobacco.

The full ruling from Lord Justice Gray in the Irving vs Lipstadt libel case can be read here.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 3, 2008 at 9:37 am

MacArthur’s classic PR industry exposé – and a little bit of history repeating itself

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Ben H Bagdikian’s 1993 foreword to John R MacArthur’s classic PR industry exposé, “Second Front”, nowadays reads somewhat poignantly.

“A lesson we should have learned in the 1960s and 1970s is that when governments… become desperate over a failing policy, they are tempted into that historic folly of nations, self-delusion… Bad news is filtered out before it reaches the top. In the end, as always, the propagandistic government becomes the victim of its own propaganda… In democracies, the self-destructive process of governmental delusion and deception is supposed to have a remedy in independent news… The basic premise is that democracy succeeds to the degree that government has an outside source of information about its own weaknesses and the public has sufficient valid information to judge government performance and reports…

For years the main body of our democratic balancing forces in Vietnam failed… The price of that national tragedy has been painfully high. For the news media, it was supposed to be The Great Lesson. Never again would journalists look the other way or accept at face value official civil and military claims without careful examination.

But the lesson failed. Something went terribly wrong. The military learned its own lesson from Vietnam: keep wars short and keep the news media completely controlled in the opening days of the engagement… By severely limiting reporting by journalists, the government can prolong that controlled public image of a military action until the media move to something else and lose interest in the event…

John MacArthur in this book has laid out in enormous detail how all this happened in the Gulf War… One hopes that, as a result, our major media, four times burned, will be four times shy in accepting future official releases and briefings at face value…”

Written by Richard Wilson

August 2, 2008 at 9:04 am