December 11, 2013
Peace Nobel puts spotlight on polemics
Report from UK for the Herald
By Archie Whitworth
London — The Nobel Peace Prize has never shied away from controversy. According to the will of Alfred Nobel, the prize should be awarded “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
A noble approach, to be sure, and one that has arguably been undermined by the committee itself in recent years: US President Barack Obama in 2009 and the EU in 2012 are just two examples of questionable recipients based on the established criteria.
This attraction to polemic did not desert the awarding of the prize in 2013. The build-up to the announcement of its recipients saw much media focus on the nominees, which included convicted Wikileaker Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, former NSA analyst Edward Snowden and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, among others.
The prize eventually went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, most recently in the news for their work in Syria and an indication that the awards committee is nothing if not current. Comments made by Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad on October 14 suggesting that he should have been the recipient for letting the inspectors in did little to help suggestions that the prize committee was undermining itself.
The week preceding the announcement did throw into sharp contrast the coverage of two of the candidates: one received purely positive attention, while the other proved as divisive as ever.
The darling of the media last week, paraded across several channels to coincide with a book launch (as well as Nobel prize-winning anticipation) was Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old girl from Pakistan who was shot and left for dead by the Taliban when protesting in favour of education for women aged 14 in 2012, only to survive and be taken to the UK. Coverage of her story was radiant when compared with that of Edward Snowden.
It is hard to quantify exactly what impact Snowden’s revelations on NSA surveillance have had on the UK public. The allegations of GCHQ involvement were shocking, but also strangely accepted: in our Internet age, the idea that the government in the UK, which has a record number of CCTV cameras, could also be looking at our emails is not particularly surprising.
Meanwhile, Snowden, and his journalist contact Glenn Greenwald, have confused rather than clarified through their actions this summer. The fate of Manning, sentenced to 35 years in jail over his whistleblowing activities with Wikileaks, could not be more different to that of Snowden, under the wing of Putin in Russia.
The focus here in the UK has now shifted to the role of The Guardian in the Snowden case. Alan Rusbridger, the newspaper’s editor, has insisted that the revelations were published based on their importance to the public interest. Last week, however, it was clear that this is contested by members of the political establishment: Prime Minister David Cameron accused the paper of handling “stolen material,” while Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was at odds with his Liberal Democrat colleague Vince Cable over the latter’s claims that The Guardian had performed a “public service.”
Simultaneously, Jack Straw, foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s government in 2003, described The Guardian as demonstrating “adolescent excitement” and “extraordinary naivety and arrogance” in its publication of the leaks.
The most vehement attacks on The Guardian over the Snowden revelations came from a not entirely surprising source. The Daily Mail, fresh from a week of courting negative publicity through the Ralph Miliband attacks, was vociferous in its condemnation of The Guardian, with one headline on October 10 demonstrating its customary subtlety: “Why all this country’s enemies will be grateful for the schoolboy vanity of The Guardian.”
This followed an article on October 9 that extensively quoted MI5 head Andrew Parker, in which the spy chief said The Guardian had “handed a gift to terrorists.”
The fact that the Mail lost no opportunity in attacking The Guardian is unsurprising. The two papers occupy diametrically opposite positions on the political spectrum, and aggression between the two is par for the course.
What is more surprising, as the Observer pointed out in an editorial on October 13, is that the Mail in its accusations about Snowden seemed to be suggesting that the government was being undermined the same week that it had vocally opposed any government intervention in press regulation on the basis that this eroded press freedom.
The real tragedy, though, is that the wider discussion over national security, which is important and should be held, is being obscured by squabbling between newspapers under the aegis of talks over whether Snowden was in the right or not.
Clegg mentioned the same on October 11, stating the importance of ensuring that intelligence agencies can be held “properly to account” as part of an “ongoing debate.” This debate has yet to fully emerge.
Malala, on the other hand, is a figure that has received universal praise admiration. She is an impressive character; a young girl with confidence in her own beliefs, which are that education is a fundamental right and any efforts to restrict it should be fought, and an ability to speak clearly and concisely. Malala handles publicity and pressure extremely well.
In interviews she comes across as brave and strong. It is hard not to be moved by her, or by her story. Now safe in Birmingham, England, Malala continues to speak earnestly about the importance of education.
Her strength as a media personality and individual was underlined when, on July 12, 2013, Malala spoke to the UN about worldwide access to education, to which Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon responded to by describing her as “our hero.” Her life is a succession of impressive events, and reads like a Hollywood film in some aspects.
In fact, Malala’s story is so impressive that she was thought to be a shoe-in for the Nobel Peace Prize, at least in the UK. Her interview with Jon Stewart, broadcast last week to coincide with the publication of her book, was emotionally riveting.
The difficulty with Malala is that her story is so universally convincing that it avoids addressing the uncomfortable questions that it raises. The adoption by western media of the tale of the schoolgirl who just wanted to be taught and who almost died because of it neatly sidesteps the harder issues: what exactly is taking place in Pakistan, what was the education that she was fighting for and what can truly be done about this situation?
The suggestion that Malala’s story is actually that of exploitation, a conscience-driven cult of celebrity that fits neatly into western paradigms, has not really been touched on in the UK, but it will be interesting to see how the story develops for Malala after her 15 minutes.
The Nobel Peace Prize has therefore shone the spotlight on two figures of varying international importance. What is disappointing about the attention invested in both is the lack of intelligent discussion about either, or about how or why the public and the media so readily simplifies debate into easily manageable talking points.
Neither Malala nor Snowden has provided substantive work toward the abolition of armies, or the increase of fraternity between nations or the holding of peace congresses. They have, however, dominated airtime and been successfully sold to an eager public. It is perhaps a shame that a prestigious and well-meant award has had such an impact.