First a quick note to apologise for lack of content the last couple of days. I’ve been struck by a bad case of sinusitis (but not the dreaded C disease).
I’ve not really been following the news too closely the last 24 hours as a result, but I did want to share a few observations about how the truckers’ “freedom convoy” is being reported on by the mainstream media. I also wanted to reference the coverage of the death of Luc Montagnier, the Nobel winner. Consider this the start of an occasional column on media matters, which I’m going to call “Samizdata”.
Now, it may just be that it’s Canada and nothing interesting is ever perceived to happen there. It may also be that I’m wrong or in a bubble of my own (in which case please burst me out of it by commenting below). But in general I find it utterly fascinating how little resonance the truckers convoy is getting in the mainstream press. An informal survey of friends and contacts earlier this week (even those in the media itself) suggests nobody in the normie spectrum is really aware of the scale of the story, let alone the copycat protests now kicking off across Europe.
I don’t want to comment on whether the truckers are right or wrong. Whether they are fascist insurgents or freedom fighters. Whether their cause is justified or evil. I want to comment about how it is the media has decided to overlook one of the most disruptive things to have happened in “nice and polite” Canada in possibly decades. (That said, I’m not super familiar with Canadian history, so maybe I’m wrong about that too. In which case hit the comments below.)
A similarly strange thing happened recently with the death of Luc Montagnier, the Nobel winner who first isolated the HIV virus, which I reported on at 10.10 am in Thursday’s aggregation post. For reasons unknown it took until about 5pm GMT Thursday for the main english-language wire agencies to report on the story. Montagnier had in fact died on Tuesday. The story had been circulating in the French press all of Wednesday. But since I wasn’t super familiar with the sourcing, and since I was unable to confirm it directly, I erred on the side of caution and caveated my language. (Twitter has been wrong about deaths before after all.)
But I’m a one-woman operation without a beat. If I’d been the French correspondent of a major newspaper or wire agency I’m sure I would have been able to confirm it quicker. Hence, it seems incredibly strange to me that it should take over a day and a half for the story to be reported properly.
So what’s happening here?
It’s tempting to say Montagnier wasn’t a top priority. And I’m sure that might be the case to a degree. But, unless you are a weekly publication that carries obits on a delayed basis, online publications and wires aren’t supposed to work that way. Better to not report the story at all than carry it so ridiculously late.
More likely, it’s all to do with stigmas. The truckers are being popularly linked with “far right” groups and Qanon types, while Luc Montagnier, despite all his great achievements, had more recently been disparaged by the press as an antivaxxer.
That means both topics are now so tainted with “conspiracy theory” stigma in polite society that even referencing them in a purely objective sense is considered potentially career compromising in reporter circles.
Now, I don’t think this stigma is necessarily something a reporter would openly or consciously admit to. It’s more a feeling of “well, I’d rather not be the first one to flag this or I might be confused as someone who endorses the message.” So it all becomes a bit like being afraid to say Voldemort.
But it is a phenomenon. And it is inflicting a strange sort of paralysis upon the media.
I know this feeling, because it’s the feeling I had when I was trying to lobby editors to investigate the lab leak theory back in February 2021.
What I also find interesting, is that when the seal finally breaks and these taboo topics finally do end up being referenced it’s almost always in an excessively partisan “with them or against them” way. Finding actually neutral coverage is nearly impossible. There seems to be an expectation from the outset that the media must be either entirely disapproving or entirely supportive.
But this, I’d argue, is a failing of journalism. It should not be taboo to report on these incidents neutrally especially given that some of them carry important precedent-setting implications for our civil liberties.
As a payments geek, one of the factors I find most troubling about the Canadian trucker story is the effective confiscation of donated funds via GoFundMe. Had this happened to any other non-violent protest group I think there would have been much more critique of such actions. I find it weird that there is such a broad notion that this seizure is fine and should not be questioned. (FYI – here’s me and Rohan Grey, a finance/economics academic, discussing the issue on Twitter a year ago).
The pink’un finally reported on the GoFundMe matter yesterday (February 11) in a Big Read feature. Here’s how they described the affair (my emphasis):
The crisis is also fuelling concerns about foreign financing of domestic radicalism. Marco Mendicino, the public safety minister, said Canada would be “very vigilant about external forces, about foreign interference”. GoFundMe took down a donation page for the “Freedom Convoy 2022” which had raised C$10mn — some of which is believed to have come from US sympathisers, after it said the protest had become an illegal “occupation”. Even with the prospect of the protest entering a third week and the state of emergency, there are few signs that the truckers are backing out. “I want to go home,” Tom Marazzo, one of the organisers, said this week. “But I am not going until I am no longer needed here . . . until the job is done.”
But, apart from a couple of references in the live news blog, this was the first substantial reference to the trucker affair in the FT at all.
The story skews quite heavily towards following the mainstream line that the convoys are the brainchild of a relatively fringe group of rabid antivaxxer “far right” wingnuts.
It comes across this way because it is littered with emotive and judgmental phrasing that draws heavily on the language of war. But not, I should stress, on what I would call the conventional language of correspondent war/destabilised state reporting — which tends to be far more neutral.
IMHO this is hardly objective reporting. This is not without favour. It is a heavily editorialised account.
Now, I should point out I’m not against editorialised reporting in general. I’ve been guilty of it myself many a time. All stories need angles. And engineering a good one often means centering a story on one perspective more than others, adding colour that supports the narrative and omitting that which doesn’t.
But readers have to become more cognisant of what is going on. This is especially important if the framing is trying to sell itself as responsible or neutral, while simultaneously othering a large section of the domestic citizenry, which is thus far engaging in its peaceful (albeit purposefully disruptive) right to protest.
A worthy comparison is with the Extinction Rebellion protests that frequently paralyse London. They too deploy similar strategies centred on peaceful but highly disruptive tactics that are unpopular with regular citizens. But Extinction Rebellion have rarely been portrayed as some sort of insurrection or sedition force. Yes they’ve been called extremists and criminals, but I’ve not seen them popularly described as terrorists. This is despite one of XR’s clear objectives being to temporarily suspend democratic protocols to better achieve their goals.
A quantitative analysis
I’ve always found the media’s approach to reporting on protests fascinating. So much so, in fact, that my thesis for my 2001 MA masters in Journalism at the London College of Printing focused on an analysis of whether the reporting of the May Day anti globalisation “riots/protests” of the year had been objective.
Sadly I don’t have a copy of my original manuscript. I heard the old LCP library (where it might still have been housed) burned down many years ago too. The only witness I have to me writing it is a former FT colleague who was on the same course. But I do have this snap shot of my CV from the old days:
The reason I’m giving this background is to demonstrate that my analysis isn’t some kneejerk reactionary impulse. I’ve been thinking about how the media covers protests for longer than most commentators who call themselves disinformation experts have operated professionally.
But I do remember the quantitative techniques I used, and I thought it might be fun to apply them to the FT story referenced above.
So let us balance the direct sourcing.
In favour or representing the truckers:
- 25-year-old anonymous trucker – who vows to stay “as long as it takes”. “This is the moment,” he says, to fight against “oppression”.
- Cathryn Carruthers, co-founder of Families for Choice – “Seeing truckers take direct action gave Canadians who were feeling fed up and powerless a sense of hope that something might actually change, and permission to stand together and say enough is enough.”
- Joël Lightbound, a member of Trudeau’s Liberal party – accused the prime minister of trying “to divide and to stigmatise” the unvaccinated and lockdown-sceptics.
- Tom Marazzo, one of the organiser “I want to go home,” – “But I am not going until I am no longer needed here . . . until the job is done.”
In favour of the establishment/against the truckers:
- Justin Trudeau – “Individuals are trying to blockade our economy, our democracy, and our fellow citizens’ daily lives,” Trudeau said this week. “It has to stop.”
- Omar Alghabra, Canada’s transport minister – “Occupiers disrupting our supply chain are creating major consequences for Canadians and Canadian workers,”
- Unnamed anonymous: “Many residents felt abandoned in the face of what they considered harassment.”
- François Laporte, president of Teamsters Canada, which represents 15,000 lorry drivers – “The so-called ‘freedom convoy’ and the despicable display of hate led by the political right and shamefully encouraged by elected Conservative politicians does not reflect the values of Teamsters Canada, nor the vast majority of our members.”
- Candice Bergen, the interim leader of the opposition – no direct quote.
- Stéphanie Chouinard, a politics professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario — says organisers “latched on to a feeling that is very real, of anger and resentment and exasperation from a part of the Canadian electorate who has perhaps had a higher price to pay” — “The far right has used this resentment and this anger as a pretence for organising and disturbing.” ““If what crystallises in Canadians’ minds out of these events is that the Conservative party of Canada decided to side with rightwing nutters, then [they] have lost the game,”
- Mysterious anonymous analysts and officials who monitor rightwing online groups —
say in a non direct quote that “those involved with the QAnon conspiracy theory movement and supporters of former president Donald Trump have been mulling the possibility of holding a similar protest in the US.”
- Brian Murphy, vice-president of strategic operations at Logically, a group formed to fight online disinformation – “It is definitely true that US and Canadian conspiracy theorist groups have been sharing information back and forth for the last few weeks,” “But in the US the truckers are a much looser group, who do not have the history of political engagement which the Canadians do. A US movement would also need a set of leaders to organise and galvanise it, which it lacks right now.”
- Mike Rains, the host of the podcast Adventures in HellwQrld, which tracks the QAnon conspiracy: “Many of the US conspiracy theorists and rightwing grifters are talking vaguely about the possibility of a US convoy, but everyone is waiting for someone else to start it.” “The problem for them is that the authorities will be very aware of this possibility and so are far more likely to stop it before it gets anywhere. The chances of something getting within 100 miles of Washington, DC are very slim.”
- Marco Mendicino, the public safety minister, said Canada would be “very vigilant about external forces, about foreign interference”. GoFundMe took down a donation page for the “Freedom Convoy 2022” which had raised C$10mn — some of which is believed to have come from US sympathisers, after it said the protest had become an illegal “occupation”.
The story does mention Republican politicians such as Trump, senator Ted Cruz and Florida governor Ron DeSantis, as well as Tesla boss Elon Musk, as supporting the movement too. But they are not quoted directly or even paraphrased, let alone given an opportunity to explain their rationale.
The balance of the quote and word count I would argue speaks for itself.*
So what’s my point?
Well, as a Pole I am always mindful of how the domestic state-controlled media reported on the Solidarity protest and strike movement. Solidarność, which eventually helped to topple communism, was initiated by workers in the shipyards of Gdansk. With hindsight it’s tempting to think it was easy to know whose side was the just and whose was not. But I can guarantee you this was not the case at the time. The shipyard workers were also framed as dangerous extremists by establishment intelligentsia. Regular poles had to depend on underground press channels to access any counter narrative, and these channels were naturally dismissed as dangerous disinfo by establishment authorities too.
As a result, signalling you were secretly supportive of the movement became an Aesopian art form. At one point poles took to wearing electrical resistors on their lapels (the laser eyes of their day) just to signal to each other that they were among sympathisers.
How the movement was reported on domestically also differed hugely to how it was reported on by the “freedom supporting” foreign press. Here’s some worthwhile context from History.com :
Despite governmental censorship and attempts to keep news of the strike from getting out, similar protests broke out in industrial cities throughout Poland. On August 17, an Interfactory Strike Committee presented the Polish government with 21 ambitious demands, including the right to organize independent trade unions, the right to strike, the release of political prisoners and increased freedom of expression. Fearing the general strike would lead to a national revolt, the government sent a commission to Gdansk to negotiate with the rebellious workers. On August 31, Walesa and Deputy Premier Mieczyslaw Jagielski signed an agreement giving in to many of the workers’ demands. Walesa signed the document with a giant ballpoint pen decorated with a picture of the newly elected Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla, the former archbishop of Krakow).
The point I’m trying to discreetly make is that if you are on the side of liberalism you don’t really want to evoke the idea you’re shutting down discussion, shutting down peaceful (albeit disruptive protest) or blacking out inconvenient criticism. We are supposed to be operating in a system in which arguments can compete against each other. And where we all have a right to express ourselves freely.
Naturally, it’s absolutely fair to critique the objectives of the protest movements, disagree with them or condemn them. But a serious and liberal media would not stigmatise reporters for merely giving the other side a platform in a neutral way. Nor would they stigmatise them for merely trying to hear the other side out or asking questions. A serious and liberal media would not ignore or black out the movement either. Or inadvertently give the impression they can’t write about the situation until the party line has been properly considered and approved.
Like I said, I don’t want to talk too much about the merits or vices of the cause being protested. In a democracy we are supposed to tolerate criticism and peaceful opposition. We are supposed to tolerate all sorts of religious and non-logical beliefs too. It gets more complicated with non-violent but strategically disruptive protests that impact others, I agree. But we enter a dangerous world of whataboutism if we start cherry picking the causes that justify disruptive action and those that do not. Causes are always subjective. One man’s freedom fighter will always be another man’s terrorist.
I personally believe the wider issues associated with the imposition of vaccine mandates, from health passes to digital tracking systems, do warrant organised opposition and protest. This is especially the case in an environment where the broader media won’t fairly air the case against them. I certainly don’t think it’s mad or “far right” to be worried about how such draconian control mechanisms might be normalised in society beyond the end of the pandemic. In a democracy, you’re supposed to be able to criticise these sorts of things. And the tendency to dismiss any criticism as a far right thing seems absolutely ridiculous to me. How can it be “far right” to oppose a surveillance state?
I suspect a key factor that is influencing who is seen as a villain (and who is not) is the degree to which someone is collectivist or individualist minded. “My cause is better than yours” because “my cause cares about the community at large not just selfish individualism”, seems to be the official respectable line. And perhaps it is fair to see it as a greater good issue focused on curbing negative externalities from overly individually-oriented life (which incidentally also apply to climate change. Lockdown. Covid and even communism.)
But it’s not the only way to look at it. The other way to look at it is that when the ends justify the means, we humans sometimes lose sight of our inhumanity towards the specific needs, concerns and fears of the individual or a minority group. Our pack mind goes into overdrive.
At such times, I’d argue, saying “my cause cares about the right of the individual to defend their authentic self from being subsumed by the will of the masses” isn’t that outrageous at all. It’s certainly not far right, which in the strictist sense puts the collective’s needs over those of the individual, not the other way.
The healthiest perspective is probably to balance one’s position somewhere between the needs of the individual and the collective. Somewhere between group-wide mandates and recognising that vaccines based on new technologies can be more risky for some than others.
But that’s what I find so disturbing about the current environment. Simply being middle ground seems to be the most outrageous position of all.