The Silliness of Simon Heffer

What a strange creature the Daily Telegraph has become. Some of its economics and business coverage is truly excellent – nuanced, intelligent and knowledgeable. Jeremy Warner, Edmund Conway and Roger Bootle are must-reads.

Obviously, I am not including Ambrose Evans Pritchard in that line-up: his presentation of himself as some kind of media Cassandra becomes increasingly a bore. Nuanced is not a word that could be applied to Ambrose’s journalism — and that goes way back before his surprising re-incarnation as an international business writer after his far right coverage of the Clinton administrations. Why surprising? His Clinton coverage did the reputation of the Telegraph much harm in the States, although not with the “black helicopter” right-wing talk radio crowd.

There are only three things that Ambrose is wedded to: a pre-Bretton Woods belief in the gold standard, an insistence that Vince Foster was murdered and a conviction that Bill Clinton was recruited by the KGB while a Rhodes Scholar. If Ambrose were back in Washington DC, he would be filing copy no doubt “proving” that Barack Obama is a secret adherent to Islam and was never born in the States.

On the plus side, the Telegraph exclusives about the expenses abuses were brilliant and an example of fine investigative journalism – the kind that is alas becoming all too rare in the UK these days among the national daily newspapers.

But the political commentary coming from the paper is devaluing the exclusives the political reporters are securing. Much of that devaluing commentary comes from Simon Heffer.

I ought to introduce a personal note here. I know Simon: we were contemporaries at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and we overlapped at the Telegraph, where I had two stints at the Sunday Telegraph as a political correspondent and as an investigative writer. I have always liked Simon – although I don’t share his passion for Trollope but I do share his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and T.E. Utley.

Despite all of that, I can muster no enthusiasm or respect for his commentary, which is jejune, immature, pompous, backward-looking, and often ill-informed when it comes to the facts and about the World beyond London Clubland. The Young Fogey has become an Old Bore. What was endearing back in the 1980s has become tiresome in this century.

Take three of his most recent columns – on President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and on the importance of updating Trident. The first has all the nuance of a sledge-hammer – it is all noise. Actually, that could be said for all three, come to think of it.

With Obama, Simon begins by registering his shock at how President Obama has become even more unpopular since his last visit to the States four months previously. He then goes on to suggest there is good reason for the falling esteem. Obama has done nothing recently apparently. “It is not clear what Mr. Obama actually does. He isn’t engaged with the economy; he certainly isn’t engaged with foreign policy; he has abandoned hope of a climate change bill this year (and probably for ever); he has seen his health care bill into law, but America awaits news of how it will be implemented; he is under attack for a casual approach to illegal immigration…”

And now, according to Simon, he just “appears to be reading the newspapers and the blogs and watching television.” Is that last point meant to be a serious comment from a supposedly serious commentator writing for a daily paper that believes it should be taken seriously?

Let’s look at the meat of the claim – at what Obama did or omitted to do before he became a shadow of his former self and resorted to just reading newspapers, etc.

  1. “He isn’t engaged with foreign policy”. Well, Simon, he seems pretty engaged with Afghanistan by shifting US policy from a counter-terrorist strategy to a counter-insurgency one, it strikes me, and his administration is trying out a bit of a détente with Moscow. Now, granted, I don’t believe the COIN approach to Afghanistan will work – neither will the CT strategy for that matter – and the détente with Moscow will fail, but he is engaged and a better and more mature column would have been to analyze Obama foreign policy, its strengths and weaknesses, the chances for success, the internal and external challenges the administration faces in forming and executing policy and whether the policy is right rather than claiming that the President is “not engaged with foreign policy.”
  2. “He isn’t engaged with the economy”. Simon undermines this claim himself by noting the massive stimulus package the President forced through in his first year in office, his push for an extension on unemployment benefits and his wanting to raise taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year. Again, I don’t agree with raising taxes. What is even more shocking, though, is Simon’s complete ignoring of the truly radical financial reform legislation that has been passed. Wasn’t that worth a mention? Or was our commentator unaware it had been passed or how significant it is?
  3. “He has seen his health care bill into law, but America awaits news of how it will be implemented.” Well, Simon, old boy, it was a huge accomplishment, whether you like it or not, to get major reform through on health care – it was something other Presidents would have liked to do, notably the last Democratic White House incumbent, but failed to do. And one of the reasons Americans are waiting news about implementation is that many of its major provisions don’t start immediately and come into effect over time. By the way, the delay in implementation has much to do with the lobbying by the insurance companies and brinkmanship by the Republicans.
  4. “He is under attack for a casual approach to illegal immigration.” There is nothing casual about the Obama Justice Department’s challenge to the new Arizona anti-immigrant law. And, overall, “casual” isn’t the word best applied to what Obama is not doing on the immigration front. He is not fighting for reform – the same reform that his GOP predecessor in the White House wanted to introduce but also decided that cowardice was better part of valour. Although that might be more preferable than Senator John McCain’s betrayal of immigration reform.

Among other silly points Simon makes in this column is the author’s belief that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the “serious Republican” who could beat Obama. “He is the sort of opponent Mr. Obama should fear, because he is experienced, an intellectual, and has widespread name recognition,” says Simon, who scolds silly “Democrats (including Howard Dean, the party chairman),” who are urging Gingrich to stand in 2012. According to Simon, they are only doing so “to ensure that the Republicans make some policies that the Democrats can attack.”

In fact, Dean and other Democrats are doing so because if Gingrich were the GOP candidate they could rest easy in their beds – oh, yes, the Tea Party members would turn out in droves to back the hero of the “Contract with America” – but the Democrats would not only see their own base energised by the presence of Gingrich on the ticket but they would see independents and the centre swing back to them, too.

What would have been a far more interesting column to write on a trip to America would be something along these lines: Obama has, in fact, achieved much – health care reform, financial services overhaul, a stimulus package that may have prevented the US recession becoming a Depression; in fact, his legislative record is more impressive than either Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s at equivalent stages in their first terms. Even so, Obama has failed to gain real credit from Americans for the legislative accomplishments and this raises the big question of why. Is it because American economic pain and uneasiness has clouded appreciation that may be forthcoming once the property market improves and unemployment decreases? Or were expectations too high for Obama? Were Americans voting for different kinds of change when they backed him? And will the Republican tactic pay off of offering nothing in the way of policy? That article is, of course, beyond Simon because he can only engage in polemical support of political allies or polemical damnation of opponents.

In Part Two I’ll look at Simon’s articles on Prime Minister Cameron and Trident.

What Does Israel Want?

Gideon Levy has a telling commentary in today’s Haaretz.

He argues: “While the Arabs have always declared their aspirations – and did so with clarity, precision, sharpness and at times extremism, the Israelis have donned masks. While the goals of warring parties in international conflicts are known to all, and while everyone knows what the Palestinians are after in the Middle East – the ’67 lines, a state, a solution to the refugee problem, the right of return – nobody knows what the Israelis want. Do they wish to annex the territories? Come on. Do they want to evacuate them? Not now. If not now, when? It remains unclear. How much of the territories? Nobody knows.”

It Was Ever Thus

Steve Clemons in his Washington Note blog slams “Communication Corrpution at the White House.” According to Clemons, access is being granted to members of the White House press corps on the understanding of favourable coverage. Clemons notes also that “many White House correspondents and other top tier journalists want to write Obama books” and that such books need “inside access” and journalists are only getting it “when favors are part of the arrangement.”

Clemons says: “What I have learned after discussions over the last several days with several journalists who either have regular access to the White House or are part of the White House press corps is that there is a growing sense that access is traded for positive stories — or perhaps worse, an agreement that things learned will not be reported in the near term.”

In his post, Clemons acknowledges in a parenthesis that this might have happened during previous presidencies. From my personal experience, it was hard to secure access from either the White Houses of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when you were writing critically of them.

When I was a “Whitewater” journalist investigating various allegations being levelled against President Clinton, it was impossible to get phone calls returned let alone any other kind of access. Likewise, journalists who were supportive of the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq intervention got plenty of one-on-one briefings and those of us who were sceptical found doors firmly shut at both the White House and the Pentagon.

Rumours abounded during the last Presidential election campaign that several of the journalists travelling with Obama were pulling their punches because they were planning books. It would be interesting to hear from a journalist who covered previous Presidencies and is covering also this one whether the problem is worse or the same.

Killing The Goose

The Times has a photograph above its story on President Obama’s populist lunge at the banks with a protester holding up a placard reading: “Greed Kills.” Stupidity does, too. The real facts are that the tremendous economic growth and globalization unleashed in the 1990s did more to reduce poverty in the World and open up opportunities for the young than all the talking shops in Washington DC, New York, Brussels and Geneva achieved in the previous three decades.

Of course, there needs to be more regulation of the banks but “animal spirit” is what drives capitalism and for all its many faults capitalism has the potential to do more good for mankind that the Luddite and statist systems can ever accomplish. Obama’s proposals to limit the size of banks and return the clock back to Glass-Steagall — supported apparently by John McCain and applauded by the Conservative leadership in the UK — will, if put into effect, result in the following consequences:

Banking profits will be reduced, resulting in individual customers having to pay more for personal banking and small business will find it harder to secure loans at favourable rates.

New York and London (if the Conservatives or Labour follow suit in the UK) will see more banks, hedge funds and finance houses relocating outside their jurisdiction and benefiting Gulf and Asian countries (and Switzerland) – they will be happy to welcome them. The move in short will encourage a quicker shift in the balance of economic power away from the West.

There will be tax losses to the US and the UK, putting even more pressure on ordinary taxpayers to pay down the national debts.

Economic growth will be slower and it will take longer to recover from the recession.

The housing market will remain anaemic.

A better way to reduce risk without bringing about the consequences above would be to increase the capital reserves the banks have to hold. But that sounds less purposeful than denouncing “fat cats.”

The Banks and Massachusetts

Today’s earnings reports from US banks point to a recovery when it comes to the investment side of the business but their retail operations are showing only slight improvement. This would suggest that the economic recovery in the US is not as vigorous as the administration has been suggesting. The Massachusetts Senate setback for the Democrats surely can be linked to the sluggish pace of recovery: voters appeared to be saying that Obama and the congressional Democrats in Washington are not getting the job done — or not as quickly as they would like.

RIP Washington Times

The plot thickens. Or maybe it doesn’t. What is happening at the Washington Times seems a larger repeat of the demise a few years ago of the paper’s sister weekly publication, Insight magazine. With the latter, and without any outside industry advice or research, the management abruptly reduced publication frequency from weekly to fortnightly. There was no lead up to this switch, nor any marketing to accompany the change and to promote the new product. It was done in a rush and without planning.

There were two attempts by outside groups to buy the magazine but both sets of prospective buyers (one group wanted to purchase the paper also) found it impossible to kick start negotiations: they could find no one in authority to negotiate with. At the time one of the would-be negotiators told me that it was like “entering the twilight zone”. The biggest obstacle was to navigate through the old guard management Moonies (see previous post).

Even with the departure of that old guard, something similar would be seem to be happening again. Panic and family feuding has gripped the organization and no one seems ultimately in charge. The good news from the perspective of best practices is that an outside management group has been called in to assess the newspaper’s future.

The bad news is that at least one prospective buyer, I am told, can’t get into a position to have an actual conversation about buying the paper. Deja vu.

Should anyone think it worthwhile to buy it? The newspaper has a terrifyingly low daily circulation — under 70,000, and that includes some bulk sales. The web site is not doing badly under the editorship of Jeffrey Birnbaum and has a monthly audience of two million. The paper’s local sports coverage is good and DC local political coverage can sometimes see the Times pull out exclusives from right out under the noses of the rivals the Washington Post and Washington Examiner.

But any prospective buyer would have to take into account the following:

a) the paper’s advertising base has been hopeless from the start and has no serious classified section to fall back on at a time big advertisers are just not interested in buying ads in city newspapers;

b) the circulation base has now been virtually destroyed;

c) the primarily online Politico has moved into local DC city hall coverage and is doing well and securing a following, and, if smart (which the management there show all the signs of being), could now recruit almost an entire local sports team from the Times;

d) the paper has always been ill-positioned in a commercial sense — namely, being a conservative newspaper based in a heavily liberal city. It would have been better for the newspaper to focus on potential readers outside DC in Virginia and Maryland and to offer fully separate editions for both of those states. But it should have done that back in the 1990s and it is doubtful whether it would be worth doing now?

Again, from a commercial sense, there would be an opportunity for a Washington DC-based conservative publication to make a name for itself critiquing the Obama administration but the maths don’t seem to add up for a daily newspaper. And there is already a conservative opinion magazine based in DC. The only move that seems to make sense is to be exclusively online. But then who needs to buy the paper for that and to have to take on all the historical baggage of the name– it would be cheaper (and fresher) just to invent something new.

Missing The Point

Simon Heffer allows his ideological perspective to get the better of him in the Daily Telegraph today. He pinpoints the withdrawal of a moderate, pro-abortion GOP candidate in a New York state election as an indication that moderate Republicanism is a vote-loser and that the future direction of the GOP has to be a hard-right one — only when the Republicans understand that will they have a chance of beating Obama.

But in the same column Heffer notes that New York mayor Bloomberg got back into city hall because he has made New York a more livable and efficient place. Heffer fails to note that Mayor Bloomberg is firmly, of course, a moderate Republican.

Backfiring Predator

It apparently took 16 drone-missile attempts by the CIA before they got Pakistani insurgent leader Baitullah Meshud. His death on August 27 – he died along with his second wife in the attack in South Waziristan near the insurgent chief’s home village of Narkosa – was greeted with jubilation by U.S. and Pakistani officials. Although none of them detailed the earlier failed assassination efforts that killed hundreds of civilians, they were keen to point to Baitullah Mehsud’s death as a turning point in the war on terror in Pakistan.

The insurgency was now a snake without a head, or so the claim went. The CIA drone attack had left the Islamic militants in disarray, the officials maintained.

Events in Pakistan since late August have shown what a hollow accomplishment it was in taking out Baitullah Mehsud. The terror response from his Tehrik I Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies, including Al Qaeda, illustrates clearly what the limits are in policy results in killing top terror leaders.

Back in 2002 then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz praised the tactic of using drone-missile attacks to vaporize the enemy leadership. Speaking on CNN after a CIA Reaper firing a Hellfire missile killed Al-Qaeda operative Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, Wolfowitz claimed such attacks not only got rid of dangerous people but disrupted the terror organizations, forcing them to change tactics and operations, making them less effective.

The same kind of talk was heard in August from Obama officials But since the assassination of Baitullah Mehsud, TTP and its allies have hardly drawn breath. Take October. One week saw three spectacular attacks – one on the World Food Programme office’s in Islamabad, another on a crowded market in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar that killed more than 50, and then a stunning finale with an assault on the headquarters of the Pakistani army in Rawalpindi leaving 20 dead.

Another October week and more blood-letting. Islamic militants attacked key police facilities in two Pakistani cities, killing at least 28 people as insurgents firing automatic rifles and carrying grenades stormed the headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency and two police training centers in Lahore.

And on and on, Pakistan’s Islamic militants have shown that they can assault an array of different targets. In the wake of the August 27 drone attack, the TTP promoted senior lieutenant Hakeemullah Mehsud to take on its leadership and he has been successful in encouraging the various Islamic militant groups in Pakistan to coalesce more and to coordinate.

In short, the Hellfire missile that killed Baitullah Mehsud backfired.

Moral and legal disputes aside about the use of the drones and the targeted assassinations – and there are plenty of compelling arguments against this tactic none more convincing than that hundreds of innocent civilians are being killed in the process – the tactic is simply not working.

President Obama has come in for a lot of criticism for undertaking yet another review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan – his second review this year. Critics have been up in arms about his resistance to sending more troops to Afghanistan. But if the review involves identifying a political strategy and subduing the military approach to the conflict, then the time will have been well-spent.

Dollar Alarmism

The Economist has a highly intelligent leader on why the the recent slide in the value of the dollar is unlikely to lead to a short-term collapse. The article is a welcome corrective for the dollar alarmism of Fox News and the London Independent — the former has used the dollar’s decline as a stick to beat up on President Obama and the London paper ran a recent article that was clearly relishing the image of the U.S. being on the ropes. Of course I am pointing to it because it supports my earlier blog postings scorning the alarmism of the Independent.

Dealing with the facts, the Economist quite rightly points out: “Yields on Treasuries have not risen and spreads on riskier dollar assets continue to shrink. If investors were growing leerier of dollars, the opposite should have occurred.” The editorialist notes that a weaker dollar is what you would expect “given the relative cyclical weakness of America’s economy.” Much of the recent slide reflects a growing optimism about recovery in other economies and reverses the rush to dollars in the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse in the autumn of 2008.

“The dollar will not quickly lose its reserve-currency status. The lesson of the past year is that it is still a currency to flee to, not from,” concludes the leader. Certainly there will be a long-term erosion of the value of the dollar because of the increasing economic strength of top developing nations. But a sudden collapse of the greenback’s status and its replacement as the reserve currency of choice as envisaged by the Independent is far-fetched.

Obama Aides Have No Option But To Hammer Fox

I disagree with my friend David Corn that Fox is just a “distraction, an irritant” from the point of the Obama administration. Writing in Politics Daily, David urges the White House, which has launched a series of ferocious attacks on Fox, to cool it. As a media counsel, I would argue that the White House is right to go for Fox. To all intents and purposes, Fox along with Rush Limbaugh and some other talk radio conservatives constitute the Opposition and whatever the GOP leadership may say they represent the leadership of the GOP and as such they have to be confronted  forcefully.

It isn’t that the White House has to do this because there is a chance they might be able to convert the three million-strong diehard audience of Glen Beck, for instance. I think it highly unlikely that they would be successful in that endeavor. What is more important is that other cable news outlets tend to follow the Fox agenda, if only indirectly and Fox can generate tremendous amounts of misinformation and disinformation to skew the trajectory of coverage and debate on other channels and in the press and online. I think this was what Rahm Emanuel had in mind when he urged other outlets to stop “following Fox.”

The unfortunate reality is that because of staff cuts, a decline in media standards and the pressure of 24/7 news, too few media outlets bother to check facts and information — even when coming from Fox – and just go ahead and report even to the extent of reporting opinion as fact.

David is surely right, though, when he castigates the White House for trying to isolate Fox by, for example, deciding to withhold administration guests from Fox News Sunday. And the administration should not ignore David when he urges the White House to opt for “strategic derision”, which he describes as “good-natured belittling”. “Don’t demolish Fox, demean it.,” says David.

Ridicule is a great weapon but I am not too sure it should be that good-natured to be effective in the current political arena. Too foppish, too weak and it looks like it is just a game — as serious as Jon Stewart, say. Jonathan Swift’s ridicule or Samuel Johnson’s – two ancient masters of the craft — contained a lot of indignation