Ben Affleck in "Argo".
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The new propaganda is liberal. The new slavery is digital

As Leni Riefenstahl said: "Propaganda always wins if you allow it".

What is modern propaganda? For many, it is the lies of a totalitarian state. In the 1970s, I met Leni Riefenstahl and asked her about her epic films that glorified the Nazis. Using revolutionary camera and lighting techniques, she produced a documentary form that mesmerised Germans; her Triumph of the Will cast Hitler’s spell.

She told me that the “messages” of her films were dependent not on “orders from above”, but on the “submissive void” of the German public. Did that include the liberal, educated bourgeoisie? “Everyone,” she said.

Today, we prefer to believe that there is no submissive void. “Choice” is ubiquitous. Phones are “platforms” that launch every half-thought. There is Google from outer space if you need it. Caressed like rosary beads, the precious devices are borne headsdown, relentlessly monitored and prioritised. Their dominant theme is the self. Me. My needs. Riefenstahl’s submissive void is today’s digital slavery.

Edward Said described this wired state in Culture and Imperialism as taking imperialism where navies could never reach. It is the ultimate means of social control because it is voluntary, addictive and shrouded in illusions of personal freedom.

Today’s “message” of grotesque inequality, social injustice and war is the propaganda of liberal democracies. By any measure of human behaviour, this is extremism. When Hugo Chávez challenged it, he was abused in bad faith; and his successor will be subverted by the same zealots of the American Enterprise Institute, Harvard’s Kennedy School and the “human rights” organisations that have appropriated American liberalism and underpin its propaganda. The historian Norman Pollack calls this “liberal fascism”. “All is normality on display,” he wrote. “For [Nazi] goose-steppers, substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarisation of the total culture. And for the bombastic leader, we have the reformer manqué, blithely at work [in the White House], planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while.”

Whereas a generation ago, dissent and biting satire were allowed in the “mainstream”, today their counterfeits are acceptable and a fake moral zeitgeist rules. “Identity” is all, mutating feminism and declaring class obsolete. Just as collateral damage covers for mass murder, “austerity” has become an acceptable lie. Beneath the veneer of consumerism, a quarter of Greater Manchester is reported to be living in “extreme poverty”.

The militarist violence perpetrated against hundreds of thousands of nameless men, women and children by “our” governments is never a crime against humanity. Interviewing Tony Blair ten years on from his criminal invasion of Iraq, the BBC’s Kirsty Wark gifted him a moment he could only dream of. She allowed Blair to agonise over his “difficult decision rather than call him to account for the monumental lies and bloodbath he launched. One is reminded of Albert Speer.

Hollywood has returned to its cold war role, led by liberals. Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo is the first feature film so integrated into the propaganda system that its subliminal warning of Iran’s “threat” is offered as Obama is preparing, yet again, to attack Iran. That Affleck’s “true story” of good-guys-vbad- Muslims is as much a fabrication as Obama’s justification for his war plans is lost in PR-managed plaudits. As the independent critic Andrew O’Hehir points out, Argo is “a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology”. That is, it debases the art of film-making to reflect an image of the power it serves.

The true story is that, for 34 years, the US foreign policy elite have seethed with revenge for the loss of the shah of Iran, their beloved tyrant, and his CIA-designed state of torture. When Iranian students occupied the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, they found a trove of incriminating documents, which revealed that an Israeli spy network was operating inside the US, stealing top scientific and military secrets. Today, the duplicitous Zionist ally – not Iran – is the one and only nuclear threat in the Middle East.

In 1977, Carl Bernstein, famed for his Watergate reporting, disclosed that more than 400 journalists and executives of mostly liberal US media organisations had worked for the CIA in the past 25 years. They included journalists from the New York Times, Time and the big TV broadcasters. These days, such a formal nefarious workforce is quite unnecessary. In 2010, the New York Times made no secret of its collusion with the White House in censoring the WikiLeaks war logs. The CIA has an “entertainment industry liaison office” that helps producers and directors remake its image from that of a lawless gang that assassinates, overthrows governments and runs drugs. As Obama’s CIA commits multiple murder by drone, Affleck lauds the “clandestine service . . . that is making sacrifices on behalf of Americans every day . . . I want to thank them very much.” The 2010 Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a torture-apology, was all but licensed by the Pentagon.

The US market share of cinema box-office takings in Britain often reaches 80 per cent, and the small UK share is mainly for US coproductions. Films from Europe and the rest of the world account for a tiny fraction of those we are allowed to see. In my own filmmaking career, I have never known a time when dissenting voices in the visual arts are so few and silent.

For all the hand-wringing induced by the Leveson inquiry, the “Murdoch mould” remains intact. Phone-hacking was always a distraction, a misdemeanour compared to the media-wide drumbeat for criminal wars. According to Gallup, 99 per cent of Americans believe Iran is a threat to them, just as the majority believed Iraq was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. “Propaganda always wins,” said Leni Riefenstahl, “if you allow it.”

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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The war on poaching

More than 1,100 rhinos were killed for their horns in Africa in 2016. Quasi-military conservation units are trying to stop the slaughter.

The Savé Valley Conservancy, 900 square miles of pristine wilderness in the Lowveld of south-eastern Zimbabwe, seems like a paradise.

Drive along its dirt tracks, past flat-topped acacias and vast-trunked baobab trees, and you scatter zebras and warthogs, impalas and wildebeest, kudus and waterbuck. Elephants lumber through the bush, leaving destruction in their wake. Giraffes placidly return your stares. Baboons cavort in the trees. A crowned eagle flies overhead with a rock rabbit in its talons. A pack of exquisitely patterned wild dogs lie on the warm red earth. There are lions and leopards, too, but out of sight.

My guide and I meet Bryce Clemence, the stocky, bearded outdoorsman who heads the conservancy’s Special Species Protection Unit (SSPU), by a muddy waterhole so that he can show us the most special of those species. He and a couple of his armed men lead us a few hundred yards into the bush before silently motioning us to stop. We wait, move on, stop again. Clemence points. Thirty yards away stands a two-tonne rhinoceros, a 15-year-old bull. It cannot see us, for rhinos have poor eyesight. It cannot smell us because we are downwind. But it senses our presence. Its ears revolve like miniature satellite dishes.

As we study this magnificent, primeval beast through our binoculars, one thing quickly becomes apparent. It has no horns. Normally it would have two, weighing seven kilos or more, but they have been removed in an effort to protect it. Rhino horn fetches around $60,000 a kilo in China and other east Asian countries, where it is considered an aphrodisiac and a cure for diverse ailments. This animal’s horns would have been worth more than $400,000 – a fortune in Zimbabwe, where the average household income is $62 a month and unemployment exceeds 90 per cent.

Sadly, not even de-horning works. Poachers will kill de-horned rhinos for any residual horn. In February 2015 they shot a six-month-old calf for just 30 grams of horn, Clemence tells me.

Savé Valley may look idyllic, but it is a front line in a war against rhino-poaching. More than 1,100 of the animals were killed across Africa in 2016, leaving barely 20,000 white rhinos, classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and 5,000 “critically endangered” black rhinos. What distinguishes Savé Valley is that it has begun to turn the tide, but only because it has access to the sort of funding that most African national parks can only dream of.

Clemence’s quasi-military operation consists of 35 highly trained men, all expert trackers, supremely fit and equipped with semi-automatic rifles and radios. Working in pairs, they do ten-day stints in the bush, monitoring the conservancy’s 168 rhinos from dawn to dark and endlessly searching for human tracks – or “spoor”.

They are supported by a canine unit whose two Belgian Malinois dogs can track at night and over rocks; a substantial network of paid informants in the surrounding communities and beyond; four 4x4 vehicles and 12 motorbikes; and nearly 100 armed scouts employed by the two-dozen private ranches that make up the conservancy.

Even that force is insufficient, Clemence says. The poaching gangs are growing more sophisticated. They now use high-powered hunting rifles with silencers to shoot the rhinos, and AK-47s to ward off the rangers. Sometimes the poachers use AK-47s against rhinos too: in 2014 one was hit 23 times.

They have begun using poison. One poacher was caught after laying oranges and cabbages laced with the pesticide Temik in the path of a rhino – Temik is nicknamed “Two-step” because that is how many steps an animal takes before dying. Another poacher planned to poison a waterhole, but was thwarted by an informer. “Poisoning is disgusting because it’s totally indiscriminate and has the potential to do massive harm,” Clemence says.

He has also caught poachers preparing to use the sedatives ketamine and xylazine. Having darted a rhino, they would then hack off its horns before it woke. They once hacked off the horns of a rhino that had been knocked out by a bullet and it woke with half its head missing. The creature survived for a week before Clemence’s unit found it. Vets had to put it down. “When you catch a poacher you want to beat him to death with a pick handle and very slowly break his bones, but you have to be professional,” says David Goosen, manager of the 230-square-mile Sango ranch, which forms part of the conservancy.

The odds are stacked against the SSPU in other ways, too. The poachers are paid well by the syndicates that run them – perhaps $5,000 each for a kilo of rhino horn. And even if caught, their chances of escaping punishment are high. Thanks to bribery or incompetence, just 3 per cent of prosecutions for rhino poaching in Zimbabwe end in convictions.

“You have to virtually catch them in the field red-handed, and even then they often get away with it,” Goosen says. “As soon as they get to the police station, a well-connected lawyer turns up, which means someone higher up is looking after their interests.” The maximum sentence for intent to kill a rhino is nine years for a first offence – less than for stealing cattle.

The SSPU is prevailing nonetheless. In the first three months of 2012, when Clemence arrived, the conservancy lost 14 rhinos. In 2015 it lost 12, last year three. It has also defeated Zimbabwe’s most notorious rhino-poaching gang.

Tavengwa Mazhongwe learned his craft from his older brother, “Big Sam”, who was killed poaching in 2009. Mazhongwe was responsible for at least 150 rhino killings, including many in Savé Valley. In December 2015 Clemence learned he was planning another attack and put his rangers on alert.

They found the gang’s spoor at 6.30 one morning, and tracked the four armed men in intense heat for nine hours. The gang took great care to cover their tracks, but late in the afternoon the rangers found them resting in a river bed. The rangers opened fire, killing one and seriously wounding a second. Mazhongwe and one other man escaped, but he was arrested near Harare two weeks later and given a record 35-year sentence for multiple offences. A judge had to acquit an officer in Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation who drove the gang to the conservancy in a government vehicle because, he complained, the police did not dare investigate govenment officials. The rangers recovered an AK-47, a Mauser rifle with silencer, an axe, rubber gloves, a medical kit, tinned food and a phone-charger pack.

“You’ll never get to where you say ‘we’ve won’, but we have won in the sense that we’ve brought poaching down to a manageable level,” Clemence says. “We’ve taken out some of the most notorious syndicates. Victory will simply be breeding more than we’re losing and having sustainable numbers to pass to the next generation.” He hopes that the conservancy’s rhino population will reach 200 within two years, enabling it to relocate some animals to other parts of Zimbabwe where the battle is going less well.

The SSPU’s success comes down to skill, motivation, organisation and – above all – resources. The unit costs $400,000 a year, and is funded mainly by foreign NGOs such as Britain’s Tusk Trust. It receives practical support from the conservancy’s private ranches, some of whom – given the dearth of tourism – have to generate the necessary funds by permitting limited elephant and lion hunting for $20,000 an animal.

Zimbabwe’s national parks have no such resources. That is why private conservancies have 80 per cent of the country’s rhinos but 1.5 per cent of its land, while the parks have 15 per cent of the land but 20 per cent of the rhinos. Within a few years most of those parks will have no rhinos at all.

Martin Fletcher’s assignment in Zimbabwe was financed by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem