Campbell: Managing the press gallery, Afghanistan

Published: Tue 20 Oct 2009 10:14 AM
Gordon Campbell on managing the press gallery, and Afghanistan

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As a free fire exercise in which anything at all can be raised, the Prime Minister’s post Cabinet press conference should be a rewarding experience – and it commonly does set the political agenda for the next 48 hours. Yesterday though was a prime example of the lean pickings in actual content. For the first half hour, the gallery discussed with the Prime Minister and with Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples, the funding of the Rugby World Cup bid. At best, it ended up with only hints, feints and oblique messages on how much taxpayers will be putting up to underwrite the bid.
We did learn that the bid would entail new government money, and not money taken from existing agency budgets. Initially, Key indicated the bid might be deduced by adding up the existing bids – which led TVNZ’s Guyon Esipner to reasonably hazard a guess that this might be of the order of $5 million. ( Eventually the guessing, winks and nods arrived at a more likely figure of around $3 million.) Because of the alleged commercial sensitivities, Key would not be drawn on an actual figure. All other details – including whether, on principle, the bid partners should expect to share equally in any downstream profits from DVD sales – were stonewalled. Taxpayers will be told how much they are contributing after the deal has been signed, and the money committed.
As usual when commercial sensitivities are invoked by government, one has to wonder just whose sensitivities are being protected. Would the integrity of the bid really be scuppered with the IRB if the size of the government stake in that bid was publicly known ? Hardly. More likely, the public dissemination of the detail of how much the various bid partners – the government, Maori Television, TVNZ and TV3 – were putting in might be politically inconvenient at this stage, in that it would prolong the political embarrassment for both the government and the Maori Party, over how this episode has been managed.
Management. There was a lot of talk about it at this particular press conference. Denied detail, the gallery fell back on veiled critiques of how Key and his Ministers have been managing the business of government. The Rugby World Cup, the ACC changes – couldn’t they, shouldn’t they, have been managed better? Shouldn’t the government be managing its coalition partners better? Maybe they should, but the virtual reduction of the press gallery to the status of management advisers was a telling indication of the dream run that the Key government is having.
When the media – and the critiques issuing from Phil Goff and the Labour Party – are focused almost exclusively on the mere management style of your agenda, the content is already half way home. As indeed, the opening up of ACC to partial privatization appears to be – in accordance with the ACT Party’s demands. That an organization that won barely 3% support at the last election should have such lasting impact on one of the state’s most important safety nets might seem incredible – until Key reminded the press conference that National had no problem in principle with such an idea, and had promised it would be ‘ looking at’ the proposal in its first term. ACT has once again been merely the ball carrier, for a common purpose.
The Maori Party will, in all likelihood, remain in its tent during the ACC changes and disclaim responsibility. Yet this sort of thing is what its support for the government helps to make possible – and fellow travellers really do have to front up, and accept their share of responsibility for the doings of their partners in power. There is an obvious hollowness and rank opportunism to the Maori Party these days that will be harder and harder to sustain as the term progresses. Certainly, proximity to Sharples will have done Maori Television no favours in any of its future dealings with government. Fairly or not, disgruntled Cabinet Ministers have sheeted home much of the blame for the RWC fiasco to Maori Television.
Superficially, Maori Television still gets to ‘lead’ the consortium bid. In practice, that amounts to them winning the right to screen live a lot of games that the other broadcasters don’t want. Not surprisingly, Maori Television loses the exclusivity which was the El Dorado promised by their sole bid, No-one now is going to have to switch to Maori Television to watch the main games. That prospect though, was always unlikely.
One telling detail is that Rick Friesen of TV3 will be the lead manager of the consortium project. True, as Key said in defence when I raised this point at the press conference, Wayne Walden of Maori Television will be chairing the small management group that will be supervising the overall process. However, Friesen will manage the real nuts and bolts of the work.
Put it all together. Over the next two years, TVNZ and TV3 will do the bulk of the promotion buildup for the RWC. TV3 will provide the lead management on how the coverage is organized, and unfolds. In the major games, TVNZ and TV3 will be offering almost exactly the same coverage. More and more, the emptiness of the claim to a “Maori Television led” process becomes apparent. No surprise in that either, really. All year, the Maori Party has engaged in the politics of symbolism over content.
So Afghan leader Hamid Karzai looks like being forced into a run-off election with his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. If nothing else, this vindicates Peter Galbraith, the UN envoy fired from his post in September for continuing to query the legality of Karzai’s election victory, at a time when both the White House and Galbraith’s UN bosses seemed wearily willing to accept that they were lumbered with Karzai. After all…given the clear evidence the Obama administration has about the rampant corruption and drug trade involvement of the Karzai regime, what’s a little bit of election fraud between friends?
Not any longer. To justify the further commitment and inevitable deaths among US and NATO troops, it has been decided some further attempt has to be made to validate the Karzai regime. However, there is no reason to believe the run-off will be spared the pattern of patronage and ballot stuffing that marked the August election. Running an election circus like this though, is the easy part.
Much harder to devise an Afghan strategy that will “work’ - or even to imagine what “working” would actually entail. Crushing Al Qaeda ? Neutralising Bin Laden ? That’s largely been done. If mission creep pushes the goal up to defeating the Taliban militarily and politically – and installing a viable, democratic regime in Afghanistan - then foreigners can glumly look forward to being in Afghanistan for most of this century.
Mission creep is what Barack Obama has inherited. In reality, the call mid year by General Stanley McChrystal, his military chief in Afghanistan, for 40,000 more US troops would be merely this year’s down payment, if one truly believes in the extremely ambitious mission description that McChrystal outlined in the same speech. By some estimates, it would take 300,000 troops to achieve the pacification and stabilisation of Afghanistan along the lines envisaged by McChrystal.
Vice –President Joe Biden, and others in Obama’s inner circle are advocating for a ‘garrison’ solution, instead – whereby the US withdraws to defend and stabilize certain key cities, in order to give the Karzai regime the time and opportunity to develop its own armed forces, and thus enable the US to ultimately withdraw altogether.
Unfortunately history tells us that this garrison strategy has been tried before in Afghanistan, by the Soviets during the 1980s. It didn’t turn out so well for them - or for their protégé Najibullah, who ended up hanging from a lamp-post in Kabul. You can bet that out on the election trail, Hamid Karzai will be arguing quite strenuously against that approach.

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