In the current world of instant news, cable television and internet memes, maintaining good PR is an increasingly hazardous affair. Ryan Giggs provides a recent example of a spectacular failure to contain or salvage an embarrassing situation. My favourite example however is still the late Michael Jackson. In an attempt to prove to the world that he was a normal well balanced individual he laid himself bare to the cameras and Martin Bashir. The result? Confirmation that Jackson was decidedly unbalanced and a new round of charges of child molestation. Jackson is far from the only one to have put himself in this situation (a kind of inversion of the ‘Streisand Effect’); celebrities quite often inflict what we could call the ‘Jackson effect’ on themselves. It is less associated with media organisations. Recently however the Guardian has found itself in precisely this situation.
The Guardian’s shame arguably begins when they decided to hire its South American correspondent. Rory Carroll’s spectacularly inane and trivial journalism has attracted widespread criticism for its selectivity and double standards, brazen anti-left bias, and above all slavish loyalty to Western interests. Quite why the Guardian has decided to persist with Carroll for so long is more baffling than his recruitment (although they made a half-hearted attempt to justify it here). If it’s any consolation to the Guardian, Carroll’s relationship with his readers has evolved from genuine source of animus and indignation to pantomime villain. Carroll reminds one of Jeffrey Archer. On their own, unremittingly crap writing and relentless dishonesty are loathsome. There is something more disarming about the combination of both however. Maybe one becomes accustomed to the predictability, perhaps they are just too oblivious to hate, or maybe they wind up becoming such preposterous self parodies it becomes virtually impossible to criticise them beyond simply reporting what they have written and done. At any rate this author is willing to give Carroll the benefit of the doubt. Raving capitalist ideologue or CIA plant he is not. On close inspection the overriding factor in Carroll’s writing is sheer laziness. Remarkably Carroll agrees with me. Reflecting upon his time as a correspondent in South Africa Carroll admitted that he got ‘by perfectly fine speaking only English and that [he found it] natural to socialise mainly with people of a similar income and education level.’ In Venezuela Carroll has gone one step further. He has found a formula for writing articles that means he doesn’t even have to leave his house. He reports upon a crime committed by Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez alleged by the opposition. He then gives the official government response to the allegation. He then resolves the tension between the two sides by getting a quote from an outside and independent “democracy expert” or ‘political analyst’ (almost always a business consultant, more often than not from a well known Wall St consultancy firm).
If Carroll was to take the trouble to step outside the wealthy district of Caracas where I imagine he lives, he might discover why people on the left are so keen to find out more about what is happening in Venezuela and Latin America generally. One person who has taken a keen interest in the region is the leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky. In his recent book, Hopes and Prospects, Chomsky surveys the ‘hopes’ and ‘prospects’ for democracy around the world in the 21st Century. In general the prospects part was understandably bleak (Chomsky was writing before the ‘Arab Spring’). However Chomsky finds an exception in Latin America where there “really have been significant, dramatic changes in the past decade”. There are two dimensions to these changes. Firstly many countries in Latin America are at last addressing the problems of poverty and inequality which have long afflicted them. Secondly the continent as a whole is moving towards integration–a “prerequisite for independence” from imperial meddling by the United States which itself carries a fair amount of historic responsibility for the ‘rentier’ character of Latin America’s economy. Among those countries leading the march on both fronts is Venezuela. In 1998 Hugo Chavez was elected on a wave of popular support. Once in power he initiated radical constitutional reform which among other things gave the population an institutional foothold in the governing process. Economically Venezuela can boast some significant successes. Since 1998 poverty has been reduced by half and Venezula now has the lowest inequality in the region aside from Cuba. Internationally Venezuela has been at the forefront of the establishment of organisations like UNASUR, ALBA and the Bank of the South. Chavez has also become famous for his outspoken denunciations of Western aggression and in 2006, in speech at the UN, reserved special praise for Chomsky’s book Hegemony and Survival for drawing attention to “the hegemonic pretensions of the American empire”. The feelings of respect, it appeared, were mutual. Chomsky has regularly expressed his support for the democratic developments taking place in Venezuela as well as the broader developments in Latin America which Venezuela has spearheaded.
Carroll and Chomsky then appear to live in different worlds. On Sunday however their worlds collided as Carroll took a break from interviewing business consultants and called Chomsky at his home. Finally the moment the British left had been waiting for. An opportunity to get some much needed balance. Not quite. Supporters of the Bolivarian process and fans of Chomsky were in for a shock. Chomsky had apparently ‘turned his guns’ on Chavez, accusing him of ‘amassing too much power’ and making an ‘assault on democracy’. Many were incredulous. Either Chomsky was being misquoted in some way or else he had transmogrified into a clone of Carroll himself–capable only of delivering vacuous soundbites divorced of any context. For anyone well acquainted with Chomsky it was clear he had been the victim of sting journalism. Carroll, however he had done it, had managed to get a quote, or a series of quotes from the famous US dissident that could be added to the chorus of jeers emanating from the bowels of US imperialism. Uproar understandably ensued: the media lens board bombarded, Joe Emsberger quickly contacted Chomsky for confirmation and clarification on the issues raised. Later in the day Chomsky responded specifically to the Guardian article:
“Let’s begin with the headline: complete deception. That continues throughout. You can tell by simply comparing the actual quotes with their comments. As I mentioned, and expected, the NY Times report of a similar interview is much more honest, again revealing the extreme dishonesty of the Guardian.”
It was at this point that Carroll, or the Guardian, or both had their ‘Michael Jackson moment’. What they should have done was withdraw declaring either a score draw or a marginal victory. This was more or less what they did the last time they set Chomsky up in an interview. Having attributed to him certain remarks that were decidedly unrepresentative of his opinion they claimed that the tape containing the interview had unfortunately been partially recorded over. However in their rush to prove that Chomsky this time had indeed said the words that had been attributed to him they published the transcript of the interview online. What have we learned? That Chomsky is concerned about the case of a judge awaiting trial on charges of corruption, that he is generally suspicious of concentrated power, and that Rory Carroll is indeed a hack journalist.
Surely, for the sake of the Guardian’s credibility, now is the time to relieve Carroll of his duties and let him do what he does best; composing ‘advertisement features’ for the tourist board of the country with the worst human rights record in the hemisphere.
Samuel Grove is an editor of www.alborada.net and an associate producer of ‘Inside the Revolution: A Journey Into the Heart of Venezuela’ (Alborada Films, 2009). http://www.alborada.net/samuelgrove