Brussels, 03/05/2018. I went to a press conference yesterday. In the Brussels Press Club, it promised to be interesting. Apparently the nuclear-limitation agreement between Iran and the rest of the world is due to expire in nine days time.
Tick-Tock, the conference was called. Should the agreement be extended? ‘Salvaged’ was the term preferred by the organisers, a PR outfit called Red Flag retained by UANI, a lobby group that I’d not heard of before, and funded by a wealthy American entrepreneur.
But still, precious nuggets of information can be gleaned whatever the editorial slant. Even if, increasingly, discovering gold is becoming more of a challenge in the Brussels press environment. In a discourse dominated by opinion and hysteria once you leave the narrow channels of official EU communications, arriving at a reasoned conclusion is in effect determined by how successful you are at negotiating the obstacles placed in your path.
There was a time when a press conference on serious geopolitics (and it’s hard to find a more serious geopolitical subject than the Middle East) would focus on facts. But yesterday we had a focus on partisan opinion. For example one speaker, when questioned about Israel’s nuclear capabilities, referred to them as ‘alleged’ nuclear weapons. Considered that they have been ‘alleged’ for at least 20 years, and by a past Israeli leader to boot, that is pretty concrete for a mere allegation.
It’s as if these organisations expect their audiences to be ignorant and have no knowledge of history. Since many in the audience were significantly older than this particular speaker, I’d say that was a pretty incoherent expectation. But well, he was one speaker, and a secondary one at that.
The joys of fact distortion
Another obstacle to sensible discussion of serious issues in Brussels is the sheer puerility of the antics that some so-called lobby groups employ, in the attempt to block serious questioning. This conference was well attended, yet I could count the number of Brussels journalists I recognised on the fingers of one hand. The audience was liberally seeded with the organisers’ pr people, its hired video crew, photographers and, it seemed, just about anyone who cared to walk in off the street. Name badges? I had one. Most people didn’t.
Did I want to speak to one of the key speakers afterwards? Yes I did. Could I get to him? No, person or persons unknown were always there just at the right time to intercept, or distract me with something else Fortunately, he was as aware of the number of pr gooks present as I was, and we did manage to meet and talk. I made a throwaway comment afterwards to another journalist that the place seemed to be full of spies. ‘Yes’, he replied seriously, ‘about half the audience’.
Still, there’s Brussels for you. And euro-politicians are surprised at the level of rejection of the EU shown by people in Britain (and possibly other European countries should they also be democratically minded enough to ask their citizens). Outside of official EU channels, discussion is swamped by the incessant yammering from special-interest groups.
The Middle East should be nuclear-free?
Apart from the entertainment value of hearing people say that black is white and vice versa, did I actually learn anything from the conference? Was the day useful at all?
Well yes. We had the predictable view from the American speaker, that a nuclear Iran is a danger to the stability of the Middle East, and so to the entire world. As an ex-employee of the CIA, he presumably knew what he was talking about. The EU, he believed, needed to get its act together and put more pressure on Iran over its nuclear development activities. Otherwise Mr Trump would be fully justified in abandoning the agreement in nine days time.
The EU view, as presented by a senior MEP, was rather different. The existing agreement, though imperfect, had allowed external nuclear inspectors into the country, and also had shown Iran the economic benefit of reaching agreement with the West. It had also taken 12 years of effort to develop and so should not be thrown away lightly. On balance, any agreement with Iran was better than no agreement at all.
I wanted to know about the potential for total denuclearisation of the Middle East, reasoning (aloud) that the Iranians’ nuclear ambitions were driven by the threat they perceived from an ‘allegedly’ nuclear-armed Israel, and that if both countries could be persuaded to abandon the nuclear arms race, then the Middle East, and the world, might be a safer place.
In response, the ex-CIA man said that Israel had for years specialised in attacking its enemies using unorthodox and unconventional means, and he didn’t think that this would change even if Iran abandoned its nuclear ambitions.
The Euro Parliamentarian pointed out an additional complication. Should Iran actually gain nuclear weapons, then very likely a third key actor in the region, Saudi Arabia, would want them also. And that Kingdom has both the resources and the capability to equip itself accordingly.
We would then be faced with the very real possibility of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, and a three-way split in nuclear powers to further escalate tensions in the region.
So I did come away from the meeting learning something. That the Middle East, already one of the most unstable regions in the world, could if the worst came to pass, soon have to deal with the possibility of a three-way standoff between nuclear-armed powers!
I left hoping that, in nine days time, wise heads would prevail over the hard-liners on both sides. And that politicians both East and West understood that, these days, only lunatics believe that nuclear weapons add to a nation’s safety.
In Brussels, reasoned argument the casualty
But I also learnt something else. About another kind of proliferation, ‘fake news’. That concerns about the sheer level of distortion put out by certain groups are fully justified. Thanks to the rising number of single-issue political groups in Brussels, some of them with very shadowy funding, and the number of those employed to muddy the waters around contentious issues.
If there was any doubt that honest, straightforward journalism is under threat, there couldn’t be a better illustration of why than yesterday’s conference, and the amount of noise generated around a single issue. Never was there more clearly demonstrated the need for the traditional role of the quality press, as ‘gatekeeper’ to the truth.
But try and maintain that role, past the swirling jostle of evangelists, lobbyists, would-be opinion shapers and just plain hangers-on who seem to emerge from the woodwork at such events. It demands the kind of personal sacrifice and commitment to a straight story that few people are prepared to make these days.
After all, why should anyone have to endure physical and chemical harassment, attempts to undermine their credibility and subtle personal abuse, simply in order to try and gain a reasoned answer to a reasonable question.
I fully understand why some people turn around and reject the whole process. ‘A plague on all your houses’ is a sentiment heard all too frequently about Brussels today. Find out the truth? Easier is it to weed the garden. At least there, the poisonous growths are in plain sight.
Note 1. The organiser did inform us that the European External Action Service (EEAS) had been invited to participate, but declined.
Note 2. Today is World Press Freedom day. An excellent idea, when it arrives ….
© Philip Hunt, 2018.