Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Crosbie Walsh problem

Comment is free, as legendary Guardian editor C.P. Scott once famously quipped, but facts are sacred. The problem begins when a commenter cannot get his facts straight. How much stock should we then put in his comments? He gets his wires crossed, doesn’t double check, or relies on secondary sources. (Perhaps, like Grubby Davis, he even relies on hearsay and gossip in making ad hominem attacks on a certain messenger.) He may be guilty of all of the above. But that doesn’t stop him from viciously attacking someone who does get his facts straight and actually does his job very well. Perhaps, because the commenter is in his “golden years,” he thinks he is above criticism and knows better than everybody else. I suspect that “all of the above” may apply to Crosbie Walsh.

The retired political science professor, who lives in New Zealand, has become increasingly acquiescent in his support of Fiji’s interim government since admitting last month to taking a free trip to Suva at their expense. While once his blog offerings at Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be were somewhat even-handed and occasionally even questioned the interim government’s actions, they have become increasingly one-sided. Now they are almost an extension of MINFO, even laughably running weather bulletins during the recent visit of Cyclone Evan, perhaps with the expectation that worried Fijians would go there first for information. As if to weakly fill some quota, Old Croz has taken to running speeches from the recent Attorney-General’s conference, publishing government press releases, and even reprinting Xmas messages from first the President and then the Prime Minister.


My favorite was the double offering earlier this month from someone named G. Larson (although one was first credited to a G Lawson). “How Laws are Made in Bainimarama's Fiji,” cited the Media Decree as an example of wide government consultations.What the Judiciary Can and Cannot Do,” claimed that the courts cannot strike down laws. As I was then having to be careful about blogging or commenting on blogs under my own name, I was moved to post comments on these entries anonymously, which I am normally loath to do. I asked about G. Larson/Lawson’s legal credentials and never did get an answer from Croz, who instead questioned mine. (I was a legal affairs journalist for 10 years.) I pointed out that the draft Media Decree was delivered with only two hours notice before responses were due. Judicial review, I noted, is a legal process that allows judges around the world to overturn laws that are arbitrary, capricious, vague, or inconsistent with higher laws, such as a country’s constitution. Now that I am safely out of Fiji, just a step or two ahead of Yash Ghai, I can blog again and comment under my own name. I will be doing so with increased frequency.


Walsh’s blog has come in for considerable criticism from those who long for democracy to return to Fiji. He has actually done some scholarly research on the blog phenomenon, however, so he should know what he's doing. In 2010, Walsh published a journal article comparing his blog and the anti-government Coup 4.5 (no conflict there) and providing a comprehensive listing of Fiji's 72 then-known political blogs. He disputed the contention by some that Fiji’s freedom blogs are “expressions of democracy in the face of censorship and repression by Fiji’s military-led government.”
The anti-government blogs, hailed by coup opponents as advocates of democracy, are little more than agents of uncritical dissent that at this point in time looks to be leading neither to the imperfect democracy of yesterday nor the promised democracy of tomorrow.
As Croz noted, whether Fiji’s freedom blogs are an expression of democracy “depends, of course, on how one defines democracy in Fiji.” Some, of course, believe that true democracy is neither extant nor even possible, instead coming at best in the guise of technocracy, in which the propaganda machine “manufactures” consent for government policies, or mediaocracy, in which the populace is both controlled and distracted by a compliant media, including blogs. Propaganda, of course, is practiced largely through disinformation, as Croz himself has pointed out. Spreading false and distorted information is widely used as a technique to discredit regime critics in Fiji, as I know from personal experience, but to be effective it must be artfully done and not easily refuted, or the public will see through it. Counterpropaganda, such as I have been engaged in recently, is aimed at exposing disinformation.

Which brings me to Professor Walsh’s blog entry of yesterday. In it, he attacked Radio Australia journalist Bruce Hill, who is one of the few reporters who covers the Pacific critically, for his interview with outgoing constitution commission chair Yash Ghai. In it, Hill managed to get Ghai to confirm rumours rampant on the blogs that printed copies of the draft constitution had been seized by the government and burned. It turns out, as usual, that there was some truth and some exaggeration to the rumours. Yes, the press run of 600 copies had been seized by police, but only a few “proof” copies used for making corrections were actually burned. Yet the account provided in the telephone interview with Ghai was extremely vivid and a scoop of major proportions for Hill. As Ghai recalled: “I was saying ‘Why are you setting it on fire?’”
They brought a tin of kerosene and spread all the papers, brought some stick with a flame at the end and started the burning of it, and every few minutes or seconds they would come and put another dose of kerosene, so the flames would rise up again until everything was reduced to ashes.
Walsh, in his capacity as Chief Apologist for the regime, found the interview “inflammatory” (pun intended). He published a transcript on his blog, which was annoted with his comments. He highlighted in bold, italics, and underlining where he thought the interview was inflammatory (no pun intended), questionable, or mistaken. He quibbled with Ghai’s legal status, now that his commission has run its course, and he objected to the interview’s focus on the imagery of incineration. But most of all he objected to Hill’s choice of questions in drawing the story out of Ghai. “It shows how a supposedly neutral interviewer reveals his true colours,” complained Croz.
No one could possibly be in doubt about his feelings during the Yash Ghai interview. There was no attempt at neutrality. He provided a grossly inadequate background, did not challenge Prof Ghai on some matters that should have been questioned, and towards the end of the interview when talking about the "burning" incident he asked a string of heavy loaded leading questions.
As evidence of bias, he pointed to a comment Hill purportedly made in introducing his recorded interview with Ghai. “Predictably the regime has not responded to the allegations.” There is only one small problem with that quote. Hill never said it. Walsh was obviously working off the version published by Coup 4.5. Here’s what Hill said:
“The Fiji interim government has so far not responded to the allegations.”
That was obviously a bit too bland for the mad bombers at C4.5, who perhaps thought it was OK to spice up the copypasta by adding “predictably” and changing the regime’s preferred “interim government” to . . . well, “regime.” I pointed out to Croz in a comment posted on his blog before I discovered the above discrepancy that from visiting with Bruce and his producers in their Melbourne studios recently I found they bend over backwards to be fair to Fiji. No doubt this is as a result of numerous complaints which have issued from the regime and its apologists. What Croz seems to object to most is the imagery Hill evoked with the burning of the proofs of the draft constitution. Believe me, any world-class journalist would have done the same. That Walsh would argue he should not have played up that aspect of the story, which was big enough to make the ABC television news, only betrays his own bias. Judging by the other comments on Walsh's blog entry, he may have lost any credibility he once enjoyed. My advice to Croz: “I suggest you quit before you become even more of a laughing stock.” Obviously as thin-skinned as the regime he relentlessly defends and perhaps as understanding of the essential role censorship plays in propaganda, Walsh deleted by comment as "offensive," while he left up one that referred to his wife as a "slut." To my mind, that makes him a shameless censor in addition to a puppet propagandist.

Now I have some more advice for you, Croz. You owe Bruce Hill an apology. Brutally frank, perhaps, but someone had to say it.

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