Message to Mitt: Let Hollywood run foreign policy

editor's insight

Nevil Gibson

Every now then, Hollywood comes up with something that does more for American foreign policy, and its international standing, than anything done in the White House.

This week’s presidential debate, which was supposed to focus on foreign issues, displayed this to a fault, just as it is difficult to persuade the US Federal Reserve it is mucking up the global economy.

Anyhow, the new film Argo is the best since Charlie Wilson’s War at showing American superiority over its foreign enemies. War propaganda has a valuable role in building public support, as everyone from Lenin and Goebbels up understood.

But when it’s combined with a big budget, plenty of dry humour and suspense, it can be an unbeatable combination. Argo also reminds us the world was in a more parlous state in January 1980 than it is now – and the enemy hasn’t changed.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are depicted as trigger-happy thugs who are as easily excited as they are fooled. To see them outwitted by an unlikely cover story about a film crew checking out locations in Tehran is, well, more like the movies than reality.

In fact, the ruse was based on setting up a legitimate film company in Hollywood (which is where most of the humour occurs) to make a science fiction production.

The operation proved successful in rescuing six American diplomats, who has fled the embassy when it was stormed by the Guards. So successful, apparently, that it was kept classified for 17 years until 1997, when the operation mastermind, Tony Mendez, was finally revealed and went on to write his memoirs. (He is played by Ben Affleck, who also directed.)

The Islamic world’s ability to ridicule itself by staging violent demonstrations of outrage against homemade movies that ridicule Mohammmad is bad enough. But the ayotollahs in Iran, faced with the mounting intensity of Western sanctions on their economy, will lose much more face from Argo bringing back memories of the 444-day hostage ordeal to potentially millions of moviegoers.

That’s not to mention the sabre-rattling from Israel, which this week displayed more Western superiority with a 1600km bombing raid on a Revolutionary Guards weapons factory in Sudan.

News in the beholder’s eyes and ears
The BBC is getting it in the neck over the Jimmy Savile sex abuse cover up affairs. In many ways, it is much worse than the phone-tapping scandal that had the media agog over Rupert Murdoch’s “empire of evil.”

BBC chairman Lord Patten, of Hong Kong fame, has described the latest developments as a “tsunami of filth” that is “the worst crisis the BBC has ever known.”

Less publicised has been Lord Patten’s decision, a few weeks back, to launch a review of the BBC’s news coverage of religion, immigration and the Europe Union.

Anyone familiar with the BBC, through its local rebroadcasts, will know its coverage of Christianity (but not Islam) and Israel, in particular, are heavily one-sided, as many critics attest.

On most social and political issues, where opinion is divided, you will seldom hear from reasoned opponents to abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, global warming or other fashionable causes.

The inquiry will be led by Stuart Prebble, a former chief executive of the BBC’s privately owned competitor, ITV, who will examine whether the BBC “gives due weight to a range of opinions on sensitive topics and whether editorial decisions to omit certain perspectives have been carefully reached,” to quote the Guardian.

Listeners to the local radio news networks, Radio New Zealand, Radio Live and Newstalk ZB, might welcome such an inquiry, given the volume of “news” that resembles the BBC, or is even sourced from it.

The predominance of coverage comes from groups seeking more public funds, have a complaint about the government and feature familiar “go to” voices on just about any left-of-centre cause you can name (though ZB’s programme presenters are largely honourable exceptions).

The Economist recently noted CNN is suffering in the ratings because of its adherence to unbiased and non-partisan news coverage, compared with Fox News, which is by far the most popular in the US, and its left-wing competitor CNBC.

According to the article, CNN only comes into its own is “whenever there is a terrorist attack, flood or war.” As The Economist says, the challenge for any news organisation, including those in New Zealand, is to attract readers, listeners and viewers “when no one is shooting anyone or blowing anything up.”

The digital test
I have long been a fan (and subscriber) of Newsweek, due to its eclectic mix of international stories and columns, mainly written journalists who have lived in the troubled countries that provide most of the world’s news.

Unlike others (and there are plenty of them), who have said Newsweek’s demise as a print publication is its own fault, I find its appeal is mainly because it is not like The Economist, Time or even the New Yorker.

Columnist Thomas Plate was typical in comparing it unfavourably with The Economist, [whose]

know-it-all attitude is in some measure comforting, and is the journal’s value-added. Even if they get it wrong – which is often enough – the editors get credit for trying. Hey folks, these issues of the global economy and monetarism and Euro erosion and …. etc etc etc … are very tough (just ask President Obama’s team…or Germany’s Angela Merkel). Even when it falls on its face trying to come up with fast answers, The Economist loses little face.

But unlike Plate, I am more persuaded that the business case for internationally circulated print publications is declining faster than the journalism that will attract enough subscribers. Besides, I now read The Economist in its tablet version.

Publisher Tina Brown is naturally positive about Newsweek being at the forefront of the switch from print to digital:

In the 20 months since Newsweek joined forces with the Beast, a moribund magazine got its mojo back. The staff and writers, led by executive editor Justine -Rosenthal, restored Newsweek’s journalistic heft and its readers’ engagement. Subscription renewals in print increased for the first time after a five-year decline.

The covers of Newsweek again are a weekly media event, the source of discussion and, yes, controversy. Our covers are shared avidly on Facebook, and among a 1.8 million Twitter following. The Daily Beast and Newsweek have demonstrated eye-catching growth online, attracting more than 15 million unique visitors each month, a 70% increase in the past year alone, a healthy portion of it generated each week by Newsweek’s very strong, very stylish journalism.

One can only hope her ambitions are realised.

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