Saturday 11 May 2024

Jürgen Klopp and the leading of Liverpool

 How did the German football manager cast such a spell over the city? There was much more to it than results, writes Lynsey Hanley

Lynsey Hanley is author of ‘Estates: An Intimate History’ and ‘Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide’  

The success of Jürgen Klopp’s nine years at Liverpool Football Club can be measured not in trophies, but in pies. Homebaked, a thriving community bakery opposite Anfield’s famous Kop stand, sells thousands of the ambrosial savouries each match day. Only two of its recipes are named after Liverpool managers. One — steak, bacon and mushroom — is The Shankly, in tribute to LFC’s legendary 1960s and 1970s coach Bill Shankly. The other — an umami-rich concoction of beef and German beer — is The Klopp.

To say that Klopp has a godlike status among many Scousers is almost to underestimate the German manager’s effect on their city. Since he arrived in 2015 he has shaped a team around values of unity, positivity and fist-pumping enjoyment, encouraging fans to believe in their power to change the course of matches through fierce support, loudly expressed.

How good were Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp? Simon Kuper and John Burn-Murdoch examine the data In January, his announcement that he would be leaving the club at the end of this season caused such misery that he was immediately obliged to explain himself in a 25-minute video interview. It was as if he’d had no right to go. His admirers seem caught between having the greatest respect for his decision and wondering whatever Liverpool will do without him.

I’ve been there, along with 750,000 others, when the team’s victory parades through the city have passed the bottom of my road in suburban south Liverpool. On these occasions, held to celebrate winning the Champions League in 2019 and the FA Cup in 2022 (Liverpool won the 2020 Premier League season by a mile, but the Covid-19 lockdown prevented a parade), he’s given Liverpudlians the feeling of being at once on top of the world and at the centre of the universe.

Klopp is everywhere here, in the form of giant murals; in cardboard cutouts in students’ windows; in Jürgen’s Bierhaus, a sports bar in the city centre; flashing his floodlit smile in ads on the sides of buses; and, more generally, in what can only really be described as a vibe. It can be felt as a sense that Liverpool itself has finally, and comprehensively, come back from the cliff edge of inexorable decline, just as football clubs can slog their way from the lower leagues back to the top flight.

I’ll try to pinpoint that description, in an attempt to explain how Liverpool feels about itself, and why the city so captures the hearts of those who, like me, have moved here from elsewhere. I arrived with my young family in 2012, just a few years before Klopp, and immediately felt more at home than anywhere I’d lived previously.

It wasn’t just that the city centre was buzzing with life when I’d remembered, from my first visit in the 1980s, threadbare and windswept precincts. Strangers treated me like they would a close relative. Sturdy nans outside Iceland pressed £2 coins and Mars bars into my children’s hands, passed me tissues when they saw me having a bad day, gave me the thumbs up as I crossed the road. I quickly learnt that it is a place of fundamental generosity, where hardship is taken as a fact of life and, as a result, the burden is to be shared.

Liverpool is about people: more specifically, about liking other people and finding them not threatening but inherently interesting and worthy of attention. Everyone who lives in the city is a potential contributor to the project of making it a better place to live.

From the outset, Klopp seemed to understand this, describing himself in his first press conference as “a normal guy . . . the normal one”, setting out his stall in apparent opposition to the then Chelsea manager José Mourinho’s self-description as the “special one”. Klopp also saw himself as “a romantic” about what football can do — and what he could do for football — pledging to bag Liverpool the Premier League title within four years (he did it in five). LFC fans quickly threw their weight behind him, which, in turn, seemed to lead the city into a new phase of confidence.

Joe Moran, a writer and professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, agrees. “Sport is about stories and characters,” he tells me. “Humans are meaning-making animals and fasten on meanings rather than just rational calculations of profit and loss. Klopp has given Liverpool fans a story that they can believe in, and what he says fits in with their values.”

Liverpool was already on the up when Klopp arrived: its population was growing after decades of decline, and since being anointed the European Capital of Culture in 2008 it has become one of the most visited cities in the UK. For locals, Klopp’s move to the city cemented, rather than created, that sense of a rebirth.

That’s not to soft-soap an often hard-bitten place. Liverpool is still the third most economically deprived local authority in the UK — out of 317. Some 20 per cent of its under-16s live in absolute poverty. The new wealth being created by Liverpool’s tourist, retail and culture economy isn’t being spread because people don’t earn enough money from the jobs available in those sectors. Premier League footballers and their managers can only buy so many designer T-shirts from Flannels, the flagship fashion store in town and, in any case, tend to live, like Klopp, in lush areas beyond the city boundary.

In this context, football, like music, truly matters in a city that has suffered economically for almost a century. Liverpool reached its commercial and demographic peak in the 1930s — at 486,000 residents, it now has one 18th the population of London — and yet in LFC and The Beatles it has conquered the world twice over.

It can be hard to square the fact that the city is recognised around the world on the back of these names with the knowledge that, elsewhere in England, Liverpool has for 40 years been the butt of jokes about poverty, crime and victimhood, not least from the mouths of senior politicians.

Without question, these tropes are out of date, recalling the time in the early 1980s when the city was in a desperate state following the automation of its shipping industry and multiple factory closures, and ministers in Margaret Thatcher’s government urged a policy of “managed decline”.

It endured the shame of LFC supporters’ involvement in the tragedy of the 1985 European Cup final, when 39 people died after a fight between Liverpool and Juventus fans at the crumbling Heysel stadium in Brussels led to the collapse of a wall on a section of terracing. Four years later, a crush at Hillsborough in Sheffield caused by police funnelling a crowd into an inadequate stand led to the deaths of 97 Liverpool fans.

“I really admire him as a person and he’s been the best Liverpool manager of my lifetime,” says Andrew Beattie, chair of Homebaked Community Land Trust, which is working to bring back into use the formerly derelict homes adjacent to the bakery, for affordable housing and local businesses. “In the past few years, I’ve noticed much more of a community spirit around the football club,” he says. “[It] lost that for a while, I think, before Klopp joined. I think the club is making more of an effort to connect with the community about being a better neighbour.”

This is a marked change from the mid-1990s, when the club began purchasing terraced houses around the stadium in order to expand its Main Stand, a project that left dozens of homes empty and boarded, or “tinned” up, for two decades, causing untold distress and decline in the neighbourhood. The long struggle to reverse that decline embodies the “other side” of Anfield — the everyday reality for most in this part of north Liverpool, rather than the fortnightly match-day high.

 Abi O’Connor is a longtime LFC fan whose work as an urban sociologist casts an unforgiving light on Liverpool’s harsh inequalities. She believes that, although “‘Klopp made us fall in love with supporting Liverpool FC all over again”, the club “have a lot to answer for with regards to the treatment of the community they’re situated in. Match-day chaos, traffic, queues and litter is normal here, so you may ask why one of the richest clubs in the country doesn’t place some of their profit aside to genuinely invest money to support these communities. I’ve lived here for over a decade and I’m yet to find a real answer to that.” 

While she doesn’t expect Klopp to have that answer, O’Connor is concerned that “saying he has changed the city for the better is to ignore these material realities” for many of the people who support his team — although, “considering his politics, I would be surprised if he didn’t agree”.

By contrast, football writer Dan Morgan credits Klopp not only with helping him to view his home city in a new, less jaded light, but with directly changing the course of his life, inspiring him to leave his job in the legal sector to become a contributor to publications including The Anfield Wrap, a website and podcast dedicated to LFC and its supporters.

“The memory he leaves will be ultimately a sense of effervescence and life, and the sense of a place being really alive,” Morgan tells me. “I think that marries really well with the complexities of Liverpool as a place. At the beginning it was like he said ‘you need me to help you so we can achieve this together, we can climb this hill our way.’ What I’ll always take from him is his ability to delegate and to insist that the responsibility is shared. That, to me, is the true essence of community.”

It is, but at the same time Klopp isn’t alone in his understanding that modern-day management is more about communicating well — and being seen to communicate well — than merely giving out orders. Gareth Southgate, while lacking Klopp’s high-wattage charisma, has refreshed the England football squad’s image in a similar way. Both have made an impression on people who aren’t necessarily big fans of the sport, through their articulacy, emotional intelligence and their ability to transmit authority without being authoritarians.

Klopp’s confidence in his own values, consistently expressed, has meant that he’s been able to reveal where he stands on certain issues without risking mockery from those who believe football managers should stick to football. Two years after Britain voted to leave the EU, he commented: “History has always shown that when we stay together, we can sort out problems. When we split, then we start fighting.”

Equally, when awarded the freedom of the city of Liverpool in 2022, Klopp noted that he and Scousers “care about similar things, have similar political views and we like to be very open, that’s how it is . . . people are really open, nice, kind and friendly. That’s what I want to be as well.”

Note that he said he aspired to be more like Scousers, rather than suggesting that they should be more like him. The magic inherent in Klopp’s leadership, then, has come not from concentrating his power, but by sharing it with people he assumes to have the same interests at heart, rather than simply winning every title going.

Shortly before Liverpool’s disastrous April derby, in which his team lost 2-0 away to its city rivals Everton and, in so doing, saw their chances of winning this year’s Premier League title wither away, he spoke plainly about the exhaustion that led to his upcoming departure: “I work all the time while you just watch the games. I’m constantly in it. Even when the game is over I can’t switch off. It’s not great to be in this situation all the time. Maybe other people enjoy that more than me. But that’s something I definitely will not miss.”

Good luck to him. He will go, but the Klopp pie, the Jürgen murals — though perhaps not Jürgen’s Bierhaus — will remain, as will that intangible yet energising feeling that when we work together, anything feels possible. For that, Klopp in Liverpool has meant more, so much more, than winning.

Monday 18 March 2024

Frantz Fanon, iconic freedom fighter: “What we want is to move forward all the time, night and day, in the company of man, all men”

Mr. Shatz is the U.S. editor of The London Review of Books and the author of “The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon.”

The shock of the new, in political life, often sends us back to the past in search of an intellectual compass. Amid the rise of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsanaro and other authoritarian leaders, Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” published in 1951, enjoyed a surge of attention, and Arendt herself acquired a prophet-like status among liberals seeking to understand how their world had gone so wrong. The threat of illiberal nationalism hasn’t faded — on the contrary — but in an age consumed with racism, police violence and the legacy of European colonialism in the Middle East and Africa, Arendt’s popularity is increasingly rivaled by that of a man she both sharply criticized and grudgingly admired: Frantz Fanon.

Fanon, a psychiatrist, writer, and anticolonial militant, who grew up in a middle-class Black family in French colonial Martinique, was not merely a thinker; he was a political theoretician, a fiery spokesman for Algeria’s independence movement, the National Liberation Front (F.L.N.), which he joined while working as a psychiatrist in Blida, on the outskirts of Algiers. He captured, as no other writer of his time did, the fury engendered by colonial humiliation in the hearts of the colonized. He was also a startlingly prescient analyst of contemporary ills — the enduring psychological injuries of racism and oppression, the persistent force of white nationalism and the scourge of autocratic, predatory postcolonial regimes.

Fanon wrote at the height of the Cold War, but, with no less prescience, he regarded the East-West struggle as a passing sideshow, of far less consequence than the divisions between North and South, of the rich world and the poor world. If the colonial world was, in his words, “a world cut in two,” our postcolonial world seems scarcely less so. Just consider the starkly different responses to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza — or South Africa’s case against Israel, on the charge of genocide — in the global north and the global south.

Much of the writing Fanon produced in his short lifetime — he died at 36, of leukemia — was in the form either of psychiatric studies or propaganda dashed off for the purpose of revolutionary instruction. It gives off the heat of battles that haven’t ended, battles over colonialism and racial injustice. Not surprisingly, Fanon’s name has been invoked in discussions of everything from the precariousness of Black lives to the campaign to repatriate African art objects, from the refugee crisis to Hamas’s murderous attack on Oct. 7. It’s not as if his work ever vanished. But it hasn’t been cited with such frequency or urgency since the late 1960s, when the Black Panthers, Palestinian guerrillas and Latin American revolutionaries pored over copies of “The Wretched of the Earth,” Fanon’s 1961 anticolonial manifesto.

Back then, Fanon was a minor celebrity on the radical left. Today he is an icon, enlisted on behalf of a range of often wildly contradictory agendas: Black nationalist and cosmopolitan, secular and Islamist, identitarian and anti-identitarian. He’s the subject of two forthcoming biopics, and “The Wretched of the Earth” even shows up as a prop in an episode of “The White Lotus.” Left-wing artists, academics, activists and therapists hungrily rummage through his writings for catchphrases (and there are many) about the psychological effects of white domination, racist misrepresentations of the Black body, the meaning of the Muslim head scarf, the anger of the colonized and the exhibitionist violence of imperial powers. But the far right has also had a longstanding fascination with his work: both the writer Renaud Camus and the French politician Éric Zemmour, proponents of the racist Great Replacement theory, are readers of Fanon.

After the murder of George Floyd, protesters held up banners quoting Fanon’s observation in “Black Skin, White Masks,” a study of racism published in 1952 when he was 27 years old, that the oppressed revolt when they can no longer breathe. Since Oct. 7, he has been celebrated by pro-Palestinian students — and denounced by their critics — for his defense of violence by the colonized in the first chapter of “The Wretched of the Earth.” What Fanon’s contemporary admirers and detractors have in common is that many, if not most, of them appear not to have read past the first chapter, portraying this complex and challenging thinker as little more than a supporter of revolutionary violence by any means necessary — a Malcolm X for the French-speaking world. Or, more precisely, the caricature to which Malcolm X, like so many Black revolutionaries, has been reduced.

Fanon was born in 1925, a product of the colonial system. The first three words he learned to write were “I am French,” and when Martinique fell under Vichy tyranny, he escaped the island to serve in the Free French Forces; he was wounded in battle in France and won a Croix de Guerre medal.

But Fanon’s wartime experience stripped him of any illusions about the colonial motherland. Although he was considered an honorary European, like other West Indians in the resistance army, Africans and Arabs were treated as inferiors. Fanon responded to these early, harrowing experiences of racism by exalting his Black identity, before rejecting racial ideology in favor of a radical anti-imperialism.

Fanon was a child of the empire, who fought for France in World War II and then turned against it in Algeria, a secular West Indian in a Muslim-led liberation movement, a dashing and sophisticated intellectual who earned the admiration of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir — he had a life story as cinematic as Malcolm X’s. He also had a flair for provocative rhetoric, enriched by the cadences of the West Indian poetry he’d read as a young man. Fanon wrote some of the most memorable slogans of the national liberation struggles of the 1960s: “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World”; “the colonized liberates himself in and through violence”; “Come, comrades, the European game is finally over, we must look for something else.” But if these slogans have burnished his contemporary aura (and made him a favorite of French rappers), they have also lent themselves — like “the ballot or the bullet” in Malcolm X’s case — to an oversimplified understanding of his life and legacy.

Fanon, not merely a gifted propagandist, was both a champion of decolonization and one of its most incisive analysts. He was, to be sure, a proponent of armed struggle by the colonized. But the colonial system, he emphasized, was itself founded on violent and sometimes genocidal acts of dispossession and repression. The violence of the colonized was a counter-violence; it did not grow out of a void. As a psychiatrist, Fanon believed that armed struggle had therapeutic benefits, allowing the colonized to overcome the stupor, the paralyzing sense of hopelessness, induced by colonial subjugation, and to become masters of their own fate.

Yet Fanon did not regard all forms of anticolonial violence as equally legitimate: He criticized Algerian rebels who had committed atrocities with “the almost physiological brutality that centuries of oppression nourish and give rise to.” And in the last chapter of “The Wretched of the Earth,” titled “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” a series of haunting case studies about what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, Fanon predicted that the “psycho-affective” effects of both colonial and anticolonial violence would weigh heavily on Algeria’s future. The soldier saw the gun as a necessary midwife of anticolonial history; the healer dreaded inner wars to come.

His views about Algeria’s European settler community were more textured than his admirers and detractors would have us believe — or than those expressed by Sartre in his incendiary preface to “The Wretched of the Earth,” which celebrated the murder of European civilians as anticolonial justice. As a psychiatrist, Fanon had no trouble grasping the desire for revenge among victims of colonial oppression. The colonized, he wrote, was a “persecuted man who constantly dreams of becoming the persecutor.” Nonetheless, he insisted that the anticolonial movement would have to reject the “primitive Manichaeism of the colonizer — Black versus White, Arab versus Infidel.” Some members of the colonized community, he noted, “can be whiter than the whites,” while some whites could “prove to be closer, infinitely closer, to the nationalist struggle than certain native sons.”

While the principal aim of Algeria’s struggle was to free the country from French domination, he argued that the F.L.N. should open its arms to anyone who embraced it, including Europeans of conscience. The identities of “settler” and “native” were not fixed, essential identities; they were identities created by colonialism itself and would disappear with colonialism. After independence, the colonized would discover “the man behind the colonizer” — and vice versa. “Hatred,” he wrote, “cannot constitute a program.”

The reality was less attractive. Only a tiny number of Europeans joined the independence struggle; most supported France’s continued rule, and considered the French Army’s brutal repression — including the forced relocation of two million Algerian villagers, widespread torture, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians — to be a necessary war against “terrorism.” This greatly diminished the prospects for Muslim-European coexistence in an independent Algeria. And, as Fanon discovered while serving as an F.L.N. spokesman in Tunisia, his progressive allies in the movement were a minority, outnumbered and outgunned by Arab nationalists and Islamic populists of a more authoritarian streak.

Even as he witnessed intolerance and violent score settling in the F.L.N., he remained a good soldier, echoing the official line. But in “The Wretched of the Earth,” he expressed his concerns that the impending liberation of Algeria and the African continent would not lead to true freedom for the oppressed, since an avaricious and corrupt “national bourgeoisie” stood in the way of a more sweeping social revolution. In his writing and in his work as a psychiatrist, Fanon advanced a rebellious vision of what he called “disalienation” — a commitment to collective and individual freedom that was in some ways a challenge to his own adopted cause. It is no wonder that he has found an admiring audience among young intellectuals in contemporary Algeria, who find themselves suffocated by their authoritarian regime, the “pouvoir,” the opaque power that still controls the country.

Although a revolutionary and a radical, Fanon was averse to the kind of identity-based politics for which he is often enlisted today. For all that he anatomized the destructive effects of racism on the psyches of the colonized, he considered projects of cultural reclamation to be inherently conservative and dismissed the idea of race itself. “The Negro is not,” he wrote. “No more than the White man.” While he acknowledged the role that Islam had played in mobilizing Algerian Muslims against French rule, he warned that it threatened to “reanimate the sectarian and religious spirit,” separating the anticolonial struggle from “its ideal future, in order to reconnect it with its past.” For Fanon, what ultimately counted was the “leap of invention,” which, for him, was inextricably linked with the leap into freedom.

Today, the idea of leaping beyond race, ethnicity or religion seems fantastical, and for some not even desirable. But Fanon believed that the prison houses of race and colonialism, in which millions of men and women had been confined, were made by human beings, and could therefore be unmade by them. No one evoked the dream world of race and colonialism — the ways in which oppression burrowed its way into people’s psyches — with such bleak force as Fanon. It’s an important reason he’s so popular today. But Fanon was also, paradoxically, and in decided contrast to many of today’s radical thinkers and activists, an optimist.

For the victims of slavery and colonialism, history had been cruel, but it was not, in his view, an inescapable destiny: “I am not a slave to the slavery that dehumanized my ancestors,” he declared in “Black Skin, White Masks,” adding for good measure that the “density of history determines none of my acts.” He placed his faith in humanity’s capacity for rebirth and innovation and in the possibility of new departures in history: what Arendt called “natality.”

As he bade farewell to Europe in the closing pages of “The Wretched of the Earth,” he dreamed of a new humanity, emancipated from colonialism and empire: “No, we do not want to catch up with anyone. What we want is to move forward all the time, night and day, in the company of man, all men.” It is Fanon’s insistence on the struggle for freedom and dignity in the face of oppression, his belief that one day “the last shall be first,” that imbues his writing with its stirring force.

Saturday 3 February 2024

What the world gets wrong about ‘civilisation’

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Josephine Quinn is a professor of ancient history at the University of Oxford. Her book ‘How the World Made the West: A 4,000-Year History’


 Statues of, from left, the sixth-century Indian astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata; Greek goddess Athena; al-Biruni, an 11th-century Persian polymath; the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius

Everyone is worried about the west. For some it is under attack, from refugees, terrorists or wokery. For others the west is itself the problem, forever imposing its own values as a universal good. But no one is sure what it actually is — or rather, where it stops.

It was easier when there was an Iron Curtain, neatly dividing the communist and capitalist spheres. Then came 9/11, and a new rupture between the liberal democratic west and the Islamic world. Now the ground is shifting again, as “modern Arab countries” are invited to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s battle for “western civilisation” against Hamas.

It’s more common these days to hear politicians talking about civilisations in the plural, and in superficially pluralistic ways. In a speech last October to the Valdai Discussion Club, a Kremlin-associated Moscow think-tank, Vladimir Putin explained that “there are many civilisations, and none is superior or inferior to another. They are equal since each represents a unique expression of its own culture, traditions and the aspirations of its people.”

The most important one to him of course is Russia, an “original civilisation-state” that “cannot be divided”, and certainly not by what he presents in the same speech as an illegal coup in Ukraine in 2014. This “Foreign Policy Concept” is the historical counterpart to the “multipolar” modern world Putin advocates as an alternative to the western “rules-based order”.

In China, meanwhile, Xi Jinping has launched a new Global Civilisation Initiative, to celebrate the world’s “unique and long civilisations . . . transcending time and space”. As in Russia, the idea of a strong and unified national culture rooted in ancient history bolsters a political and moral claim: for Xi, the consistency of Chinese civilisation “determines on a fundamental level that the Chinese must follow their own path”. And this way of thinking about civilisations as equal but distinct has reached the moral heart of the west: four Greek and four Chinese universities partnered to launch a Centre of Ancient Chinese and Greek civilisations last year in Athens, whose ancient port of Piraeus is now owned by the Chinese state shipping line. 

The idea of a world of civilisations emerged in something like its modern form at the end of the cold war. In 1996 the Harvard political scientist Samuel P Huntington made a prescient case for conflict between civilisations as the defining feature of a new era, arguing that the most important distinctions between people were now cultural and religious rather than political and economic. 

He identified nine contemporary civilisations, including “Western”, “Orthodox” and “Islamic”, but he also projected civilisations themselves deep back into time: “Human history is the history of civilisations. It is impossible to think of the development of humanity in any other terms.” And no wonder, if you also believe, as Huntington did, that “during most of human existence, contacts between civilisations were intermittent or nonexistent”. 

Civilisational thinking of this kind depends on an idea of separate cultures growing like individual trees in a forest, with their own roots and branches distinct from those of their neighbours. They emerge, flourish and decline, and they do so largely alone. Growth and change are the result of internal development, not external connections. Civilisations might change their names on this model, but they don’t change their nature. 

However you explain them, civilisations may seem like natural facts about the world, so that the only interesting questions appear to be how some do better than others or why they clash. But they are a modern confection, invented by 19th-century scholars to emphasise the superiority of their own nations and the justice of their empires.

The word “civilisation” appears for the first time in France in the 1750s, introduced by the Marquis de Mirabeau. Contemporaries spoke of polite society, or civility, distinguishing modern Europe from its feudal past and accompanying the rise of commerce. But politeness was so often the face of superficiality, hypocrisy and corruption, and for Mirabeau, as Cambridge historian Michael Sonenscher has explained, true “civilisation” had a moral dimension that mere civility lacked. 

Wider adoption of the word over the following decades, then, was a product of Enlightenment ideals of universalism and historical human progress — from hunters to shepherds to farmers to merchants, for instance, as Scottish philosophers argued, or, according to the German philosopher Hegel, from fetishists to polytheists to Protestants. 

Civilisation in this sense was the ultimate goal of human flourishing, and in theory in reach of the whole population of the world — even if Europeans considered themselves best suited to achieve it. The idea helped to justify European imperial ventures in India and east Asia as a cultural mission to improve the lives and minds of the colonised. As the Scottish historian James Mill put it in 1810, “this English government in India, with all its vices, is a blessing of unspeakable magnitude to the population of Hindostan.” 

In the 19th century this singular concept disintegrated as scholars identified multiple civilisations tied to specific regions, separate and rarely equal. This “civilisational thinking” in the plural added a reassuring new element to notions of European cultural superiority: the idea of distinct cultures that were not only different but always had been — and always would be. Many had natural limits to their progress, it now seemed, just like the human “races” coming into scientific focus around the same time. Meanwhile, national imperial strategies entered a more straightforwardly exploitative and violent phase, culminating in the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo.  

The intellectual historian Georgios Varouxakis has traced the phrase “western civilisation” back to the 1840s, and even then it was a slippery concept. In the middle of the 19th century, the “west” already marked a boundary with Russian interests for commentators on both sides of that border; by the end the focus from the western side extended to Islam. In 1891, Edward Freeman, regius professor at the University of Oxford, published a History of Sicily from the Earliest Times that invoked the same fundamental opposition between the island’s ancient Greek and Phoenician inhabitants as between its later Christian and Muslim ones: the central question, he said, that had to be fought out was “whether the central island of the central sea should belong to the West or to the East, to the men of Aryan or Semitic stock”. 

The roots of the west were murky too, but scholars came to agree that they were local, reaching back to the coasts of the classical Mediterranean, the German forests or the beleaguered European redoubt of medieval Christendom. 

As a classicist I’m conflicted. The place of Greece and Rome at the core of western civilisation has traditionally been central to the appeal of my field, and this isn’t going away: every year, applicants to Oxford still tell me that this is what has brought them to my course. They’re not misguided either. It is true that ancient Athenians were enthusiastic slavers and male supremacists. But the classical world can also provide inspiration for the modern west, with models for radical democracy or powerful dramas of refugee trauma and the horrors of war. 

As a historian, I know that civilisational thinking is simply wrong. Local and regional cultures come and go, but they are created and sustained by interaction. The encounters involved don’t have to be friendly. But it is those connections that drive historical change, from the boats that brought the African donkey and the Eurasian wheel to the Aegean in the third millennium BCE to the ships equipped with the Chinese compass that brought Europeans to the Americas 4,000 years later, to conquer them with Chinese gunpowder. 

My Greeks and Romans knew this too. They divided the world not by race, culture or creed but by climate and ecology. A Greek medical text written around 400BCE called “Airs, Waters, Places” explains that because in Asia the temperature is relatively stable and the climate mild, things grow well and everything is both beautiful and large, including the people. They are also gentle and affectionate, but they lack courage and endurance, enterprise and high spirits. Europeans, by contrast, are tougher, more courageous and more warlike — as well as wild, unsociable and passionate. 

 The claim is not that Asians or Europeans naturally behave in any particular way: it is that the environment encourages particular behaviours, both among those born in these lands and in visitors. Aristotle meanwhile located Greece itself between Asia and Europe, in the best of both worlds.  

Classical authors focused more in any case on connectivity. Romans emphasised the importance of encounters and exchange in a world in constant motion: the poet Catullus could imagine journeying with friends to India, Arabia, Parthia, Egypt and even “the Britons at the edge of the world”, while the elder Pliny, a polymathic scholar most famous for his death investigating the eruption of Vesuvius in 79CE, claimed that only the Indians never migrated. 

Greek legends, meanwhile, linked their own heroes by blood and travel to the queens, kings and gods of foreign lands: Phoenicians, Phrygians and Amazons. And Greek scholars acknowledged their debts: Plato has Egyptians invent mathematics, geometry and astronomy, while Herodotus explains that the Greek alphabet came from Phoenicia, and was known in Greece as Phoenician letters. 

 He was right on both counts, and the arrival of the alphabet was more revolutionary than it may sound. It is apparently more natural for humans to record syllables than individual sounds: there are many examples around the world of independently developed syllabaries, but all modern alphabets bar one go back to a single writing system developed by speakers of a Levantine language — a predecessor of Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic — almost 4,000 years ago. Via Phoenicia and Greece it reached Rome, and the modern west. Arabic took it from Aramaic. The only exception is Korean Hangul, the personal creation of Sejong the Great in the 15th century CE to improve literacy levels in his kingdom.

 What even Herodotus didn’t know is that Phoenician letters weren’t invented in the Levant itself. Instead, the first signs securely identified as alphabetic letters were found in the Egyptian royal turquoise mines in the mountains of Sinai, scrawled there around 1800BCE by Levantine guest-workers, adapting hieroglyphs they couldn’t read to record a language they hadn’t previously felt the need to write. Reading and writing in one’s own spoken tongue may seem natural today, especially to English speakers. But for many it is a relatively recent choice, and in antiquity it was unusual. Formal communication in the Levant happened in the languages of larger empires, above all Babylonian Akkadian, which was written down in a cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script with hundreds of signs for different words and syllables. 

Literacy was a niche skill, learnt with great labour and only by scribes, until the inventors of the alphabet devised a neat trick. Each of their “letters” was originally a little picture, signalling for them the first sound of the word for the item depicted. So the sign for “a” was the head of a bull, “alef” in the Levantine language, “b” was a schematic house or “bet”, and so on. Because the signs represented sounds, not syllables, there were far fewer of them. And you didn’t actually have to learn them anyway: you just needed to know the language, and the trick. 

It was living abroad that gave these Levantine migrants reasons to write things down for the first time, to communicate to each other and their gods, and it gave them new tools to do so: they borrowed their alphabetic pictograms themselves from the Egyptian signs they saw around them — if often written back to front or upside down.  

The alphabet wasn’t the only west Asian innovation to reach the classical Mediterranean in its formative phase: the Levant has always been a crossroads of cultural interchange. Semitic loanwords into Greek often concern business and trade, and Levantine entrepreneurs must have introduced Greek-speakers to west Asian financial technologies such as deposit banking, marine insurance and bottomry loans. 

 By contrast, the numbers used in the modern west bypassed Greece and Rome completely. Greeks counted with their new alphabetic letters, while Romans borrowed a basic tally system from their Etruscan-speaking neighbours. Our standalone numerals were invented in India around 250BCE, building on a much older Mesopotamian counting system that used different columns for numbers of different powers. Indian scholars kept this positional notation, which is why 11 now means eleven and not two, but they replaced the cuneiform wedges that Babylonians tallied in groups of 60 with individual numerals from 1-10, and then perfected the system with the invention of zero.  

These Indian numerals had reached Arabic scholars in Baghdad by the ninth century CE, replacing the use there too of alphabetic letters: as a result, numbers in Arabic are still written not from right to left, like the rest of the language, but as in India from left to right. By the 12th century, adventurous Christian travellers like Adelard of Bath were encountering these “Indo-Arabic” numbers in the Islamic kingdoms of southern Europe, but they took a long time to catch on: even in 1500 most Europeans were still using Roman numerals. 

Such histories may seem to have little to do with the rise of populist isolationism in the US and Europe over the past decade. But although that is often couched in nationalist terms, it is based in a larger concern about a unique western heritage, where ancient Greece and Rome are easily hijacked as a sign of European cultural or simply racial superiority which Greeks and Romans themselves would have found absurd. American white nationalists from the Texas Revolution in the 1830s to the Capitol in 2021 wave flags with the apocryphal words molon labe — “come and take it” — supposedly addressed by a Spartan king to Persian invaders (they did).  

First promoted by the French activist Renaud Camus in his 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement, the theory that the white or indigenous European population is being replaced by immigrants in a form of reverse-colonisation is now a staple of rightwing conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and mass shooters around the world. This poisonous rhetoric depends heavily on the idea of a distinct civilisation — French, British, western or white — that is under threat from different and alien cultures and especially from their children.  

But it’s the idea of civilisation itself that is the real problem, and in particular the notion that it is a zero-sum game, with higher cultures under threat from migrant, fecund foreign values. There has never been a pure western culture that is now under threat of pollution. No single people is an island, unless they’ve been there for a very long time and haven’t invented boats. And that’s a good thing: without new relationships between different people exchanging unfamiliar ideas, nothing much would ever happen at all.

Monday 8 January 2024

Is Youtube the last bastion of sound journalism?

 Rest of World 

Sonia Faleiro

On November 30, 2022, Ravish Kumar, one of India’s best-known journalists, picked out a navy-blue suit to wear on the defining broadcast of his career. Based in Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, Kumar had worked for cable news channel NDTV for 27 years, becoming a senior executive editor and anchoring some of its flagship shows. He was a household name. And he was about to publicly announce his resignation.

It had been a difficult year for Kumar. His elderly mother was unwell, thousands of kilometers away in the state of Bihar. Death threats had been pouring in on his personal phone from supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took issue with his political coverage. And now, NDTV was facing a hostile takeover by the family of an oligarch known for his decades-long friendship with the prime minister.

Kumar felt he had no choice but to leave before that happened. For years, NDTV had reported critically on the Modi administration, even as the government clamped down on the press. The government boycotted the network and made accusations of money laundering that cost the company lucrative sponsorships and forced it to lay off a significant proportion of its staff. Yet NDTV held strong. It would not become part of the “Godi media,” a term Kumar had coined to describe pliable journalists — a play on “Modi” and the Hindi word for “lap,” as in “lapdog.” Now, the takeover threatened the company’s independence.

“It was going to become just another media band singing Modi’s praises,” Kumar told Rest of World on a visit to his office one evening this August. “The new management would create a newsroom that would be hostile to the kind of work I did. I didn’t want to give them the opportunity to insult me, not even for one day.”

Kumar took to his YouTube channel to announce his decision. Standing tall with his silvery hair swept back, he kept a smile on his face. No one would guess that he had been close to tears while writing this resignation speech. He thanked his viewers for their decades of support. “I feel like the bird that has lost its nest because someone else snatched it away,” he said. He warned his fans to be wary of the authoritarian forces dividing the country. “What we have [in India] today is truly the dark age of journalism,” he said. “Our media ecosystem has been gutted and destroyed.”

After recording his final take, Kumar felt his eyes welling up. Over the next few days, the video went viral. It now has 9.6 million views.

Kumar is one of several high-profile Indian journalists who have left mainstream media organizations over the past few years and turned to YouTube and other social media platforms instead. These journalists see their own channels as the only way to continue their work in a country where the government is hounding noncompliant media out of their jobs. Ahead of the general election expected to take place in April or May 2024, in which Modi is standing for a third term, social media may be the last space to share unbiased news. “The idea is to report the news the old-school way,” Faye D’Souza, a former executive editor at the media company Times Network, told Rest of World. “To calmly tell people what is going on.”

But going solo is punishing work in a country that the World Press Freedom Index now ranks 161st out of 180. A YouTube channel or Instagram account does not offer the same protections as working for a mainstream media company: There is little financial security, legal support, or physical protection. Alone in their own homes, several of India’s best-known journalists told Rest of World they are fearful for their future. They spoke of online threats and warnings over the phone, of being frozen out by friends and family; of fears their equipment could be seized, their homes raided, or they could be thrown into jail.

For many, the NDTV takeover that inspired Kumar’s resignation was a nail in the coffin for journalism in India. Akash Banerjee, who hosts the political satire channel The DeshBhakt (The Patriot) on YouTube, said he had lawyers in place. “Because I know the knock on my door is inevitable. The government has a way of getting to you.”

Modi’s attitude towards the media was shaped by one of the most infamous episodes of violence in India’s history. In 2002, when he was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, Hindu mobs went on a deadly rampage against Muslims. According to unofficial estimates, nearly 2,000 people were killed. Modi accused the media of exaggerating the extent of the violence. Speaking to The New York Times five months after the riots, he said his only regret around the deadly attacks was that he did not “handle the news media better.” 

Since being elected prime minister in 2014, Modi has used every tactic in the authoritarian playbook to bend the media to his will. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has frozen advertising (government advertising is a major source of revenue for many Indian publications), raided offices, threatened journalists, shut off the internet, conducted digital surveillance on critics, prevented journalists from traveling abroad, and arrested and detained scores of media personnel under false pretexts including charges of terrorism. Modi is disdainful of journalists, calling them bazaru, meaning “for sale.” His supporters use the term “presstitutes” and “anti-national” to hound journalists on social media.

The threat of harassment and financial ruin has worked: Many of the country’s major newspapers and cable networks are effectively propaganda megaphones for Modi. Pro-Modi oligarchs and other individuals with political links to the BJP now own virtually all of India’s leading media, according to Reporters Without Borders, which noted “a significant trend towards concentration and ultimately control of content and public opinion.”

The journalist Manisha Pande recalled her days as a principal correspondent at national newspaper DNA, where she worked from 2013–2014. Pande told Rest of World about a story she had pitched about Modi’s broadening appeal. “I got a call [from the editor-in-chief] saying, ‘Make sure it makes him look good. Do a cover story on how sexy Modi is to the Indian housewife.’” Pande wrote the story, but she wasn’t happy about it. “I had wanted to write about why Modi’s popularity went beyond Hindu populists,” she said. “Not some piece about his sex appeal.”

Pande resigned from DNA that May. The following month, she joined Newslaundry, a media monitoring site, where she is now the managing editor and also hosts the organization’s YouTube show, TV Newsance.

In Mumbai, D’Souza, who worked at the Times Network from 2008 to 2019, at times felt similar pressure to present the government in the best possible light. “I was focusing a lot on things that really mattered to me,” she told Rest of World. “Crime against women, child rights, taxation, inflation. These things also resonated with the audience. But towards the end of 2019, the questions started like, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ ‘We’re getting calls about this story.’ ‘We would prefer it if you asked us beforehand.’ I got the sense that they were uncomfortable with the work that I was doing.”

Traditional media networks also found themselves increasingly competing with digital formats. In 2016, telecom company Jio brought millions of Indians online with its offer of superfast internet at cut-rate tariffs. As public attention shifted to online platforms, cable news companies tried to keep up. Investment in investigative reporting plummeted. Debates became a prominent feature because they required less time and money to produce. 

“I call them kutta-billi debates — cat-and-dog fights,” said Banerjee, who was a broadcast journalist with the English-language channel India Today before starting The DeshBhakt in 2018.

News channels, observed Pande of Newslaundry, were now missing a crucial element: trustworthy news. “When the West talks about the decline in Indian democracy, our response is that we have free and fair elections,” she said. “And yes, we do. But democracy is also about institutions and the media is a huge part of those institutions that make a democracy. If we don’t have a news media that’s giving you credible information, how are you going to go and make that voting choice?” 

The pressure on Indian media made journalists even more susceptible to manipulation. Neutrality became a relic of the past as anchors engaged in name-calling, religious bigotry, and xenophobia in service of the government’s majoritarian agenda.

When Kumar filmed his resignation video, he hadn’t planned to make YouTube his career. Although he’d opened an account on the platform in mid-2022, it was largely to prevent others from impersonating him. His most popular video before his resignation was of him riding shotgun in a Tesla in New York City. 

But following Kumar’s departure from NDTV, fellow journalist Ajit Anjum suggested a pragmatic lifeline: monetize his channel. Like Kumar, Anjum had enjoyed a long career in broadcast TV before he resigned in 2019, following a confrontational interview with a Modi cabinet minister. Anjum joined YouTube and swiftly amassed more than 4.5 million subscribers. “People will forget you,” Anjum warned, urging Kumar to act swiftly.

TV had made Kumar famous. He had started his NDTV career in 1996, as a mailroom clerk. Newly arrived from a village, the Hindi-speaking Kumar cut an incongruous figure in the urbane environment of the English-speaking newsroom. A colleague compared him to a mouse. “No one thought I had a place there,” he told Rest of World. “But I knew.”

When the network launched Hindi-language channels like NDTV India, Kumar’s performance and felicity with the language won him a promotion to the role of translator and editor before he made a name for himself as a reporter in the late 1990s. He was famous for his on-the-ground reporting where he walked around the city in shirts with rolled-up sleeves, bulky microphone in hand, talking to people about the cost of onions or lack of jobs. “English journalists have traditionally been close to power,” he said. “But Hindi-speaking journalists have always been close to the public.”

When he became an anchor, his signature opening line, “Namaskar, main Ravish Kumar,” signaled to viewers the beginning of a conversation that directly affected them. Millions of Indians came to trust the tall, straight-talking figure with the now-distinctive flick of silvery hair. 

Kumar was hesitant to leave all that for YouTube. “I’d always thought, ‘What are YouTube views next to TV?’” he told Rest of World, hunched forward on a sofa in his home in western Uttar Pradesh, scrolling intently on his rose-gold laptop. A glass of syrupy Rooh Afza, a cup of tea, and a samosa sat untouched. “It wasn’t worth talking about.”

Kumar had known that no TV network would risk hiring him. Even so, the industry’s silence hit hard. He realized he had no choice but to give YouTube a try. “Everything was dependent on me,” he said, ticking off a list of accumulating debts — support for his family, his mother’s medical bills, relatives’ school fees.

Well-wishers came forward to help him set up his new business. Strangers reached out over social media to present him with his first Rode microphone — a YouTuber’s holy grail — and camera lights. Stand-up comic Kunal Kamra, who had himself faced harassment for his critical commentary of the government, sent over a technician to help Kumar navigate his new teleprompter. Others assisted with graphics and a background score. 

Kumar created an improvised studio in a small apartment he had used as a guesthouse for his in-laws. He rearranged the dining table to accommodate studio lights and set up a green screen against one of the walls. His videos often follow a similar format. After his signature introduction, he poses a question related to the news of the day, usually focusing on abuses of political power, which he then spends the next 20 minutes answering.

Kumar publishes at least five videos weekly. He writes his own scripts, which can run up to 6,000 words — about 30,000 words a week. The pace is relentless. And sometimes it isn’t enough. His videos need to get upwards of at least 2 million views, he said, in order to be sustainable. But it’s hard to predict what will be a hit. One of his most popular videos, published in April, delves into the murder of a mobster politician and his brother, who were shot dead as the police took them to a hospital in Uttar Pradesh. It has more than 8 million views. A more recent video on a matter that has similarly consumed the news cycle — of 41 construction workers trapped in a collapsed tunnel in northern India — has only 592,000 views so far.

As we talked in his living room that evening in August, Kumar scrolled through his YouTube page, pointing out videos of which he was particularly proud. “I made this in a hotel room in New York,” he said, clicking on a video about Manipur, the northeastern Indian state embroiled in a civil war. He remembered that he started recording the video at 4 a.m. A hotel worker, alarmed by Kumar’s voice, knocked on the door to make sure he was alright. “How do I explain that I’m a journalist?” Kumar said. “That I have to record this video or it won’t be edited in time? That I can’t afford to sleep? But the interruption inspired me to change the script. I wrote, ‘I feel like screaming, but who do I scream at and where do I scream? It’s better that I stifle the scream within.” That video now has 6.1 million views.

Kumar is almost entirely reliant on the Google-owned site’s AdSense program for his income. The revenue he gets from the ads that run before and during his videos is enough for now, he said, to support his family and employ six full-time members of staff, who serve as camera person, researchers, editor, and thumbnail designer.

“It was because of YouTube that I could finally pay my mother’s medical bills,” he said. “Otherwise I would have been humiliated.”

On a rainy morning this past August, D’Souza, the former Times Network journalist, was taking a work call from her apartment in Mumbai while sipping on her first cup of coffee. While her 1-year-old-son and fluffy white dog played at her feet, D’Souza and her executive editor thrashed out the best way to break the day’s big news to her followers. 

The headline story concerned a deadly crime that had taken place the previous day on a Mumbai-bound train. A police officer with the Indian Railways had shot dead a colleague and three passengers. The media had largely focused on a mental health angle, but a video making the rounds on Twitter told another story: It showed the guard telling one of his victims, who lay dying at his feet, that if he wanted to live in India he had better vote for Modi. “He went looking for Muslims,” D’Souza told Rest of World. “He shot people he could visibly identify as Muslims.”

D’Souza didn’t know whether she could run this story angle on her channels. Several news sites had already done so, but as a small, independent media house, she was in a more precarious position. “We’re being very careful about how we deal with what’s happening in this country right now,” she said.

Since quitting her job in TV, D’Souza has emerged as a juggernaut among India’s YouTube journalists. From her family home, she runs a media company with a news app, Beatroot News, and her own Instagram feed, which has 1.6 million followers. She has had sponsorship deals with Bumble and Glenlivet whisky, and is in demand as an event speaker. She is also a favorite of the Bollywood set, and her content is often reposted by accounts with tens of millions of followers.

But being a successful journalist in India puts a target on your back. To avoid accusations of bias from the government, in 2019, D’Souza stopped sharing her opinions online. “I don’t put out how I feel about something,” she said. “So you can’t hold that against us.” She calls her decision to self-censor “a conscious security net.”

Posting videos that offend the government and its followers risks jeopardizing YouTubers’ livelihoods. In some cases, the backlash can spill over into physical violence. In August, the sister and brother journalist team behind the YouTube channel Pal Pal News woke up to find that their house in northwest Delhi, where they weren’t living at the time, had gone up in flames. YouTuber Khushboo Akhtar told the Committee to Protect Journalists that she believed the attack was retaliation for the channel’s “critical coverage of the challenges faced by Indian Muslims and other underrepresented groups.”

D’Souza decided not to mention the Islamophobic angle on her Instagram feed, although she doesn’t shy away from talking about anti-Muslim violence in India more generally. Like many of her colleagues on YouTube, she treads gently, but firmly. “My ambition is to lead more and more news providers to change their tune because I think that the audience can’t take the hate anymore,” she said. “We can create a pocket of resistance.”

Anubha Bhonsle has also had to change her approach to journalism. She was previously executive editor of the English-language cable channel CNN-News18, formerly known as CNN-IBN. In her role there, she traveled the world covering major events, from elections to earthquakes. She was drawn to deep dives on tough topics — the upcoming elections, the latest Supreme Court ruling. She resigned in 2017 and now runs her own YouTube channel and Instagram page, also using the name Newsworthy.

One evening in August, Bhonsle welcomed Rest of World into her house in the southwestern part of New Delhi. At the top of the stairs, in a light-flooded space, was the office she had designed for herself with custom bookshelves and white walls. Every weekday at around 8 a.m., Bhonsle makes the short walk from her bedroom and talks to her team of four over Signal. Her more than a decade in broadcasting has prepared her to run her newsroom methodically. By 4 p.m., like clockwork, the Newsworthy Instagram feed spits out the stories of the day.

Bhonsle said India’s mainstream media was now so ill-equipped to report the news that she and her team spent most of their time sifting through propaganda. “The bulk of the work is bloody understanding what’s going on,” she said, with a rueful smile. 

The day of our visit, her team had settled on a roster of 12 to 15 stories. After that, it was time to assemble them by gathering information from still-trusted sources such as the wire services and a handful of independent websites. Bhonsle also works with other journalists, but is limited by budget. This also affects her ability to pay for photos and videos, and she relies on a bank of icons and images to build her stories. 

Bhonsle, like Kumar and D’Souza, is self-sufficient, but her journalism is subsidized by her day job — a social impact communications firm that she created, which allows her to run her online news platforms. “It’s a challenge,” she said. 

For journalists with a smaller audience, the struggle to make a living is even more daunting. The platform’s algorithms make it impossible for all but the leading YouTubers to profit from their work. YouTube uses various metrics for payouts, with one of the most significant being cost per thousand ad impressions, or CPM, which is set by the advertiser. But the CPM can differ by country, with advertisers in India paying much less than those in the U.S., for example.  

Earlier this year, Bhonsle produced a YouTube content package addressing the violence in Manipur, including an explainer video, an accountability-focused piece, and a third video spotlighting the stories of students forced to flee the turmoil. Her feed represented the news she felt people needed to have. But there was one thing she couldn’t do: report the news from the ground. “To be honest, I shouldn’t be here in Delhi,” she told Rest of World. “I should be in Manipur. It’s a state I worked in, it’s a place I know. But I’m now responsible for four other people. I can’t just pack my bags. I don’t have that money.”

In October, Kumar received a copyright notice for one of his videos. He felt sure he hadn’t done anything wrong, but since YouTube prohibits creators from earning income on videos while they are under dispute, he was forced to contact a lawyer to intervene, and couldn’t earn any money on the video until the matter was resolved.

Copyright claims are increasingly emerging as a way to censor critical content. One prominent Indian YouTube journalist has spoken out about receiving copyright claims from the public service broadcaster, Prasar Bharati, which has exclusive rights to film parliamentary proceedings. Prasar Bharati has previously denied the allegations, saying it did not make copyright complaints on public service content, but Meghnad S, a journalist who posts Youtube videos on his channel Meghnerd, confirmed he had also received a complaint from the broadcaster. Prasar Bharati did not respond to questions from Rest of World.

In response to a question from Rest of World, YouTube said it was not up to the platform to decide who “owns the rights” to content. It said it offers ways for rights holders to request removal of content they believe infringes their copyright, as well as tools for uploaders to dispute incorrect claims. 

Meanwhile, the government has been more direct in its efforts to control journalists by blocking access to content under the Information Technology Act, which governs online exchanges, e-commerce, and cybercrime. From 2021 to October 2022,  it used this law to block 104 channels from YouTube. In one high-profile case in January, it directed social media platforms to block a BBC documentary that implicated Modi in the 2002 Gujarat riots. At the same time, the BBC issued copyright claims to YouTube against the documentary being circulated without permission.

According to Apar Gupta, a lawyer who co-founded the New Delhi-based advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, India’s IT laws have traditionally offered safe harbor protection to online platforms. This means tech companies are shielded from liability for the content posted on their platforms, provided they act “expeditiously” in response to government takedown requests. “YouTube is negotiating a very difficult climate in India,” Gupta said. “If they want to maintain service availability, they have to negotiate an environment in which rule of law often follows political interests.”

From January to June 2023, YouTube received the third-highest number of government takedown requests from India, following Russia and Taiwan, according to the latest Google Transparency Report. The most commonly cited reason was “defamation,” with other categories including “hate speech”, “national security”, and “government criticism.” Responding to a question about these figures, a YouTube spokesperson told Rest of World, “All our policies are applied consistently across the platform, regardless of the creator, their background, political viewpoint, position or affiliation.” 

Critics of the platform dispute this position, however, pointing to the now-infamous case of the Hindu extremist Monu Manesar, who used his YouTube channel to spread anti-Muslim hate. Manesar, who belonged to a militant group affiliated with the prime minister’s party, received a YouTube “Silver Creator” plaque for reaching 100,000 followers before he went on the run for allegedly kidnapping and killing two Muslim men (he has since been arrested). By the time YouTube terminated his channel for violating their harassment policies, Manesar had more than 200,000 subscribers. “YouTube seems to be blind,” said Gupta, the lawyer. “It is permitting blatant forms of Islamophobia that leads to violence.”

As the 2024 elections near, the government is cracking down further on platforms like YouTube. An amendment to the IT law gives the government the power to demand that platforms remove anything it considers to be “fake, false or misleading” information about its work. The amendment is currently on pause as it is being challenged in the High Court of Bombay, but should it be approved, internet freedom advocates say, it would give the government absolute power over its own narrative. The Editors Guild of India said the move goes against “principles of natural justice.”

In November, the government also proposed a broadcasting bill to regulate online content. The bill leans heavily on the country’s decades-old program code, which was introduced in 1994, when India experienced its first content flood with the cable TV boom. Among other things, the code prohibits cable TV programs that “criticise, malign or slander any individual in person or certain groups.”

Meghnad, who is a public policy analyst as well as a YouTuber, told Rest of World the language of the bill has been kept deliberately vague to allow the government to target critics irrespective of platform. “Anyone talking about current affairs will be counted as a broadcaster,” he said — even if they are only making an Instagram reel or running a WhatsApp group. 

But, as the Monu Manesar episode demonstrated, the government is selective about who it targets. “If you are pro-government, they’ll let you have free rein,” Meghnad said. Over the summer, several prominent members of the cabinet, who only rarely engage with the media, made themselves available to a handful of popular YouTube personalities. One, Ranveer Allahbadia, has 6.6 million followers on his channel BeerBiceps, where he usually posts fitness videos and discusses far-out theories (in one video, he spends about an hour and a half talking to a man who claimed to have seen a yeti in the Himalayas).  

Among the high-profile names that sat across from Allahbadia was Modi’s minister for external affairs, S Jaishankar, who in May had dismissed India’s declining position in the World Press Freedom Index as “a mind game.” The pair had a friendly chat for about 40 minutes, covering Jaishankar’s thoughts on a variety of issues — from quantum computers to geopolitics. “I’m 100% sure that your sixth sense plays a role in the geopolitical sense,” Allahbadia said at one point, to an approving nod from Jaishankar. “Is there a spiritual aspect?” The video currently has 8.2 million views.

 Back in Kumar’s home office, the reluctant YouTuber pondered the fragility of his position. “The government has already come for YouTube,” he said. “What if YouTube gets shut down?”

The idea seemed too gut-wrenching to engage with, certainly in the middle of his day with a video yet to be recorded. “If it shuts down my channel, I’ll start another,” he declared.

He got up to walk the few steps to his former dining room, where his cameraperson was waiting for him. He straightened his shoulders and rearranged his face to match the tone of his script. “Rolling,” he said, wearily. 

Later, when Kumar walked me to my car, I realized the heavy curtains in his apartment all but blocked out the view; only now did I see the sun was descending. Once known for his on-the-ground reporting, Kumar had been forced to cloister himself away inside.

Kumar said he still receives death threats as a result of his work. When he was at NDTV, the Delhi police had assigned him with personal security. Now, he was alone. When he steps out, he told me, people often greet him, but his eyes tend to turn towards those who hang back, just watching. “The news gets around so quickly on WhatsApp,” he said. “Any minute a mob can gather.”

He shook his head with disbelief. “Elections are approaching,” he said, “and I can’t go out.”

Thursday 30 November 2023

John Cowperthwaite: the thinking civil servant behind Hong Kong's success

 The Guardian Newspaper Reveals New Logo Design -

Alex Singleton

When Sir John Cowperthwaite, who has died aged 90, became financial secretary of Hong Kong in 1961, the average resident earned about a quarter of someone living in Britain. By the early 1990s, average incomes in the colony were higher.

Cowperthwaite made Hong Kong the most economically free economy in the world and pursued free trade, refusing to make its citizens buy expensive locally-produced goods if they could import cheaper products. Income tax was never more than a flat rate of 15%. The colony's lack of natural resources, apart from a harbour - and the fact that it was a food importer - made its success all the more interesting. Cowperthwaite's policies attracted the attention of economists like Milton Friedman, whose 1980 television series Free to Choose featured Hong Kong's economic progress in some detail.

Asked what the key thing poor countries should do, Cowperthwaite once remarked, "They should abolish the office of national statistics." He refused to collect all but the most superficial statistics, believing they led the state to fiddle about remedying perceived ills, thus hindering the working of the market. This caused consternation: a Whitehall delegation was sent to find out why employment statistics were not being collected, but the financial secretary literally sent them back on the next plane.

Cowperthwaite's frugality with taxpayers' money extended to himself. He was offered funds by the Hong Kong executive to do a much-needed upgrade on his official residence, but refused, pointing out that since others did not get a housing benefit, he did not see why he should.

His hands-off approach meant an almost daily battle with Whitehall. The British government insisted on higher income tax in Singapore; when they told Hong Kong to do the same, Cowperthwaite refused. He opposed giving special benefits to business; when a group of businessmen asked him to fund a tunnel across Hong Kong harbour, he argued that if it made economic sense, the private sector would pay for it (as indeed it did). His instincts were revealed in his first speech as financial secretary: "In the long run, the aggregate of decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is less likely to do harm than the centralised decisions of a government, and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster."

He was helped by having two supportive Hong Kong governors, Sir Robert Black and Sir David Trench, both men with free market sympathies. He was also formidable at arguing his case: as Denis Healey recalled, "I always retired hurt from my encounters with the redoubtable financial secretary."

Cowperthwaite was educated at Merchiston Castle school, Edinburgh, and read classics at St Andrews University and Christ's College, Cambridge. While waiting to be called up by the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), he went back to St Andrews to study economics. This Scottish education imbibed him with the ideas of the enlightenment, especially those of Adam Smith, who had been born in nearby Kirkcaldy. He was a liberal in the 19th-century sense, believing that countries should open up to trade unilaterally.

He joined the colonial administrative service in Hong Kong in 1941. When the colony fell to the Japanese, he was seconded to Sierra Leone as a district officer, before returning in 1946 to work his way up the ranks. He became financial secretary in 1961, holding the post until 1971. His example inspired the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and was a key influence in China's economic liberalisation after the demise of Mao Zedong.

From 1972 to 1981, he was an adviser to Jardine Fleming & Co in Hong Kong. He retired to St Andrews with his wife Sheila, and was an active member of the Royal & Ancient. For many years he and Sheila spent six months of the year travelling the world visiting friends and relatives. He was an old-school civil servant and always resisted requests to write an autobiography, believing that his duty was to serve, not to reveal the minutiae of government business.