That battered old courtesan of a press

Tim Robbins asks why the modern media serve no better function than shameless courtesans to the powe

Full disclosure: I am an actor and I have no right to express my opinion in any forum other than a make-up chair. I have in the past, it is true, foolishly raised questions about my country's rush to war and I have since been humbled by the wisdom and vision of the neoconservatives who have realised such vibrant democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But still, because I am famous, and because it has been some time since I have embraced the adrenalin rush of self-importance, I have taken the invitation of another self-promoting dilettante to spew my observations at the reluctant and powerless reader. Here's the thing: I love journalism. It is in my opinion the most noble profession, other than being a firefighter or police officer or soldier or schoolteacher. Oh, or a doctor. Or a nurse. Or a paramedic. Oh, or a pilot who can land a plane in the Hudson River.

But while these professions save lives on a daily basis, the journalist is entrusted with an obligation just as essential: the responsibility of keeping a free society alive. By challenging authority, by demanding truth from those that would obfuscate, by exposing corruption in the halls of power, journalists act as the protectors of liberty, the guardians against autocracy. Some even take their responsibility to heroic levels by risking their life and livelihood in pursuit of truth and in defence of liberty.

We have seen recently how journalists' commitment to their profession can make the difference in a society that teeters between dictatorship and democracy. Telling the truth in a volatile time can empower the powerless and facilitate a fundamental shift in consciousness.

I want to believe that every journalist working these days holds these truths to be self-evident, but I'm not sure. Rare was the brave descendant of Woodward and Bernstein who challenged the pro-war narrative spun by the powerful after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Instead, electronic media spokesmodels led the way. They didn't aspire to the investigative scoops of I F Stone or George Seldes, or the brave integrity of Edward R Murrow, or any of the other 20th-century journalists who viewed their job as a vital component of the democratic process. They simply had to apply make-up and read their lines. Those in print journalism who wouldn't reprint Pentagon press releases as front-page news were labelled unpatriotic, agenda-laden radicals and summarily intimidated into submission - if not expunged from the system. Those still left with a job got the message: if you want to think for yourself, don't expect to be paid for it. Good luck with the mortgage payments, Mr or Ms Truth-Teller.

(An email to my son's generation: the free press is an essential check to the abuse of the power of the government. Or in a tweet: when the assholes lie, the press has to call their shit.)

At this point, I must remind you once again that I am only an actor, and my opinion could very well be unreasonably idealistic. I don't live in the real world - I live in a celebrity bubble - so in practical matters I defer to better minds that understand how the world works and what the true purpose of journalism is.

As I said, I love journalists. Oh, for that All the President's Men (in Black) II script to arrive on my desk! A great blockbuster that upholds the freedom of the press - with action sequences!

But alas, the 1970s are dead in Hollywood and these are not good times for those who labour with their fingers at keyboards. Journalists with jobs these days are a dwindling number, and it must be with some embarrassment and fear that these workers arrive at the office these days. I want to believe that the fire still burns inside them, that they possess an undaunted and irreversible power. But can they get their story through?
Considering that no one in the upper echelons of the press lost their job for getting the facts so monumentally wrong in the lead-up to wars that resulted in such a cost in lives and a depletion of the American treasury, we shouldn't be surprised at the poor quality of reporting on the rise of the "Tea Party", or the outbreak of revolutions in the Middle East, or the Julian Assange affair. (Here is where the actor gets unfortunately belligerent in remembrance of the 18th-century saloons that forged our democracy.)

Like an old battered courtesan with a romantic memory of her virtue, those left within the media elite with a shred of dignity must have had a moment of relief when Barack Obama was elected. Change was the order of the day. Gone were the days of embarrassing complicity with the government, of sitting on your conscience and looking the other way while your pimp lied to you and looted your treasure. Here was a moment to reclaim yourself, your virtue.

Rock star in the spotlight

But in the compromised trollop, craven nature triumphed over her illusory heart of gold. It has been pretty obvious for the past two years to anyone not in a coma that the Tea Party movement was a well-funded, right-wing political insurgency. Yet the mistress reported her pimp's story of a legitimate "grass-roots movement". The spokesmodels and print journalist neocons repeated the legitimacy of this movement ad nauseam for two years until the anaesthetised American public once again bought the product being sold them. They voted against their best interests - believing they were embracing Tom Paine whilst being raped by King George.

It's no wonder that these severely compromised gossips/publicists reacted so vehemently to WikiLeaks's Assange. Here was someone outside the cathouse with a rock star's spotlight on him, scooping them all, reminding them of what a journalist should be doing for a living, and in doing so shining a light on their subser­vience to their corporate paymasters.

(Conspiracy alert: It is ridiculous to assert that there is "control" over information in a "free" society. Those multinationals that have news divisions maintain them as a service to the democracy. They are "free" to report anything they like. Also, full disclosure II: anything positive I say about Assange has nothing to do with the truth and everything to do with my own craven, whorish nature. I've been told I look like him and as an actor I will do anything and say anything to star in that movie.)

That said: a man that presents truth among liars does not seem to fare well. Any admission by "journalists" that Assange might have relevant information necessary to a democracy's survival might suggest that they have been sleeping on the job, and that they serve no function other than courtesan to the powerful.

To add embarrassment to humiliation, those same courtesans had to watch while Assange's exercise in press freedom, which they had attempted to discredit, helped to lead to an explosion of protests in the Middle East calling for democratic reform. The embarrassed courtesans duly hemmed and hawed, spewing disinformation about Muslim Brotherhoods and terrorist connections to the voices calling out to the world from Cairo in Tahrir Square.

But as these kept ladies tried to misinform the world, the will of the Egyptian people won the day. Suddenly the Egyptian voice spoke more truth through Twitter than through our cathouses of information - and a paradigm shifted. While a fever of democracy spread, they stumbled over themselves trying to catch up, like an embarrassed and shamed collaborator trying to explain that it was his complicity to dictatorship which led to democracy.

Meanwhile, the US attorney general, Eric Holder, doing his best impression of his Bush-era predecessor John Ashcroft, spoke of the terrorist crimes of Assange. In an irony that could only be truly appreciated by the ghosts of the original National Lampoon editor Doug Kenney and writer Michael O'Donoghue, the courtesan reporters and spokesmodels delighted in portraying Assange as an erratic and unhinged individual.

(And here is where the actor goes too far and remembers his love of Bertolt Brecht and his punk-rock roots . . .) And so the wanton wench who has been sharing her bed with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney et al, who got knocked up with and gave birth to their bastard war, now stands in judgement of legitimate democratic movements and demonises one of the last truth-tellers as a rapist, without waiting for the due process of a trial.

Then, as is wont to happen in a society that worships distraction when thoughts of revolution abroad and press freedom at home start to disturb our sense of equilibrium, along comes an actor in meltdown and we are blissfully brought into the pornography again.

Our airwaves have been liberated by Charlie Sheen - say hallelujah! We blissfully stare at the car wreck of the unstable celebrity and are absolved of our responsibility to think about the world, or our involvement with it.

Here's an interesting angle: compare the hours of press coverage of Sheen ranting about his situation with the reportage of any of his father Martin's principled protests in the past 30 years. It's not even close, folks.

A reasoned, intelligent, religious activist and actor is virtually ignored, while his unhinged and chemically imbalanced son is given endless hours of press coverage and the rope with which to hang himself. We want our actors to be innocuous representations of our foolish, self-destructive inclinations, not our moral centres or reminders of our own humanity. For that, we look to our politicians and our pundits.

Doomsday ignoramus

And now, today, we are faced with a world crisis. As a nuclear power plant threatens to melt down in Japan and the world worries about radiation spreading through the atmosphere, we have not a thought for the words of the father Sheen or Bruce Springsteen, or Sting, or Jackson Browne, and all those "self-important celebrities" who called for attention to the dangers of nuclear power in the 1980s.

Oh yes, they were naive dupes of left-wing doomsday ignoramuses. They did not understand the complex science that guaranteed the safety of nuclear power plants; they were alarmists, extremists, fools. The public listened instead to the kings, the reasoning individuals and well-paid scientists who assured us that there was absolute safety and security in the man-made systems that protected us. These pragmatists understood the benefits of the nuclear industry and belittled the misinformed and ignorant musicians and artists of the world.

And as the crisis unfolded in Japan, these promoters and advertisers of the guilt-free nuclear dream sat in their studies in Georgetown undisturbed by the media. No one asked them to express any defence of their previous beliefs of safe nuclear energy, which they have spread like a virus since the 1960s.

As a moronic, narcissistic actor, I am reluctant to call on my knowledge of Shakespeare to blame the responsible king and spare the truth-telling fool. I realise that my opinions are seriously misguided, and anyway, isn't it the artists that have created the problem? Their free-natured approach to expressing the human condition has led to the destruction of our moral and economic stability, if not the tsunami itself. Artists who embrace activism serve a function in society that is just as embarrassing as those intrepid journalists who seek to illuminate the truth in these volatile times.

As long as we limit the voice and influence of these fools, our kings can rant naked in the storm and be considered reasoned, articulate leaders. And that's a rewrite that will please. It may not be a good play - but business can proceed as usual. Spare us the words of those who will not profit from ignorance or complicity. Give us Lear without guilt. Give us our uncomplicated drama, for the good of all of those who seek a simplified view of the world.

And for God's sake, let's keep our actors embarrassed and humiliated.

Tim Robbins is an Oscar-winning actor, a musician and artistic director of the Actors' Gang, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

***

West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

***

West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

***

Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit