The Strange Case Of The Guardian & Brasil

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Above Photo: From Brasilwire.com

“If The Guardian was what it purports to be, Brasil Wire wouldn’t need to exist”. The British Newspaper’s coverage serves as a case study of how perception of what happened in Brasil became so distorted internationally. 

The Guardian is of course the closest thing that the UK has to a mainstream progressive newspaper, and it had, until relatively recently, a rich history of quality investigative reporting. In the 1970s its coverage of Latin America, with writers the calibre of Richard Gott, was responsible for fixing stories like that of Chile’s in the public consciousness, and with that fuelling solidarity movements for the region’s oppressed peoples, suffering under sub-fascist imperial rule. It continues to host important and talented writers, and publish valuable material, particularly in its comment is free section.

But in 2018 The Guardian is in trouble, financially and editorially. A far cry from the 1970s, it just published a sycophantic eulogy to former US President George HW Bush, whose own CIA oversaw the horrors of Operation Condor.

To get a sense of the mindset now running the Guardian, contrast that of Bush Senior with its sour, dismissive obituary of lifetime champion of human rights, long serving Cabinet Minister and Labour MP Tony Benn, who wrote of the newspaper in 2008: “The Guardian represents a whole batch of journalists, from moderate right to moderate left – i.e. centre journalists – who, broadly speaking, like the status quo. They like the two-party system, with no real change. They’re quite happy to live under the aegis of the Americans and NATO. They are just the Establishment. It is a society that suits them well.”

Earlier in 2018 The Guardian faced criticism for running propagandist advertisements for the Saudi Arabian regime, and is now facing intense scrutiny over an apparently false article claiming that Trump ally Paul Manafort had visited Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy. The story was quickly debunked, and the paper is now refusing to answer questions as to how they came to publish such claims without evidence. No other media outlet corroborated the report.

Ex-Guardian writer Jonathan Cook remarked “The Guardian’s coverage of Latin America, especially of populist leftwing governments that have rebelled against traditional and oppressive US hegemony in the region, has long grated with analysts and experts. Its especial venom has been reserved for leftwing figures like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, democratically elected but official enemies of the US, rather than the region’s rightwing authoritarians beloved of Washington.”

It appears that the Guardian operates under editorial influences that go beyond assumed norms; from meetings with HSBC lawyers to decide what information can and can not be published, so as to protect its advertising revenue, to the raid on its premises which resulted in destruction of GCHQ/NSA surveillance documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013. In light of this, how much of what the Guardian reports, especially internationally, can we be confident is being published in good faith?

The newspaper’s historical reputation means it is trusted amongst progressives in Latin America, but nuance is very often lost in translation. Few Anti-Imperialist Brazilians will realise, for example, that the Guardian has supported practically all western military interventions for 3 decades, and based on that, almost certainly would again, should the situation worsen with Venezuela. With an already undistinguished record in the country, the Guardian was caught in 2017 publishing regime-change propaganda on Brazil’s northern neighbour, with some of their Brasil-based writers defending it on social media. Double standards on Venezuela, Honduras, and Brasil are some of the most obvious telltale signs.

Why then, should anyone assume that an exception to their usual blanket support of US/UK foreign policy would be in Brazil? It is uncontroversial that the North Atlantic allies preferred that the Workers Party (PT) were removed from power, for a range of highly obvious strategic and economic reasons, and when viewed as a whole, the Guardian’s coverage of Latin America is in line with foreign policy, even if often discreetly so. NATO have now accepted Colombia as an associate member and are poised to do the same with Brazil. This is not coincidence.

The Guardian and the Coup

As movement towards the 2016 coup progressed, disturbing patterns and anomalies in the Guardian’s reporting emerged. Concerns about repeated and misleading “just the facts” reporting of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and Lula da Silva’s conviction were amplified by the emergence of serious and damning firsthand accounts of their censoring of key information, and chillingly, material published in the newspaper from unknown persons or entities.

Our own account  dates  to March 2015, the week of the first organised mass protest calling for the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, following her re-election five months prior. We received an email from a Guardian reporter to complain about this critique of international media coverage during the 2014 election. He encouraged us to instead focus on cultural stories, effectively to leave politics to the professionals. This was clearly not a possibility given what was already afoot in the country, and the Guardian’s failure to report it.

With Rousseff facing impeachment, the Guardian then ran a succession of articles over the subsequent year which helped reinforce perception that the Kafkaesque process to remove her was fair and just. “Millions of Brazilians protest ‘horror’ government” the newspaper proclaimed. A profile of Koch-funded far-right Libertarian group MBL -one of the organisers of those protests – allowed its members to claim, unchallenged, that their organisation was sustained financially by the sale of T-Shirts and stickers. MBL’s funding and the Atlas Network to which it belongs, was exposed thanks to this June 2015 investigative report by Agencia Publica, yet Brazil’s Guardian writers were not interested. George Monbiot’s exposure of dark money from the Koch brothers funding Far-Right/”Libertarian” groups in the UK is the kind of journalism the world needs. Yet in 2015 Guardian writers in Brazil knew full well that the same thing was happening here, and they didn’t say a word.

This 2015 profile of Rousseff condescendingly related her personal history of resistance and torture to a political “stubbonness” which was being blamed for Brazil’s situation: “In the 1970s, Rousseff was imprisoned and tortured during the military dictatorship without giving up the names of her comrades in the Marxist underground. Today, however, her unwillingness to engage in debate and build alliances is widely seen as a key factor in a political crisis that has seen her become the most unpopular president since the return of democracy in 1985.”. 

This was at best window dressing of the pro-coup narrative in Brazil for a sympathetic foreign audience, and of course there was no suggestion whatsoever of ulterior motive, vested economic interests, lawfare or outside influence; the impression was that impeachment was deserved, and inevitable.

In March 2016, with the first congressional vote on her fate imminent, Guardian’s sister paper The Observer published an editorial which insisted that “Rousseff’s duty is plain: if she cannot restore calm, she must call new elections – or step aside”, and alluded to the threat of military intervention. At this key moment, with international alarm growing at her farcical impeachment, the Guardian/Observer effectively called for Dilma to resign, and endorsed the putschists effort to decapitate the Workers Party leadership. They have never atoned for this historic error, if indeed that’s what it was.

This editorial was followed shortly thereafter by the now infamous headline “The Man Who Could Fix Brazil: country see hope for salvation in Vice President” lauding Rousseff’s usurper, Michel Temer. This piece, written by Latin America editor Jonathan Watts, caused an immediate storm. Even the fiercest critics of Rousseff rarely had any actual faith in her conservative VP as anything more than a means to an end. Hours later the headline was gone, with Watts claiming to have been unaware of it, and to be fair to him, the text was radically different to what the headline and standfirst suggested.

At this point a Brazil-based writer for the paper made contact privately and explained that neither he, nor Jonathan Watts knew who was writing these anti-Rousseff articles and headlines. If those responsible for coverage of Brazil didn’t know, then we must ask who was behind them. This question has never been answered, or even acknowledged.

Coverage of every Anti-Dilma protest contrasted with the Guardian’s rare mention of regular demonstrations and resistance against the coup, a pattern of censorship by omission which continued after Temer took power. This reflected a long term failure, not just on the Guardian’s part, to represent, consult or give regular voice to Brazil’s progressives, unions and social movements, without exoticisation and depoliticisation. In a rare instance when it did acknowledge the resistance movement against the Coup, during the impeachment itself, it did so with a caveat that “many of those protesting didn’t support Dilma or her party”. Even the word Coup, when it appeared at all, was used in scare quotes.

Only once Rousseff was as good as gone did the tone toward her change.

Documented US Department of Justice involvement in the Lava Jato (Carwash) anti-corruption probe is a media taboo, and so effective is self-censorship of it that even the public admission by US Attorney General Kenneth Blanco in 2017, boasting of its collaboration on the operation, and lauding the prosecution of former President Lula, is absent from any coverage of his case in the Guardian. When challenged in a personal conversation on why the US DOJ’s role in the case had not been reported, one of its writers claimed that “the public wouldn’t be interested in that information”.

Throughout Lula’s prosecution, his defence team repeatedly held press conferences in which they explained the case itself, for example, how the original Petrobras graft charges had been removed from it. The Guardian did not seem interested, and rarely if ever attended these events, erroneously including the Petrobras scheme in it’s description of Lula’s imprisonment when the actual charge was “undetermined acts”, related to “corruption” via reforms which never took place, on a beachfront apartment that there was no evidence he ever owned. For this he was jailed for 9 years, vindictively increased to 12 after appeal, and denied habeas corpus only after intervention by a top military general.

How odd, even in terms of basic journalistic curiosity, to be so stubbornly uninterested in new information, not least facts that completely alter perception of the country’s biggest political rupture for decades.

In June 2018, Dilma Rousseff visited the UK, on a tour of universities, trade unions and media outlets. The ousted President gave a two hour interview to the Guardian’s Jonathan Watts, with an editor and others present, in which she described how Lula’s prosecution was “phase two” of the Coup d’etat which removed her, and that it would open the door for the ascension of Neofascist Jair Bolsonaro. For some reason The Guardian did not publish the exclusive interview with the first female leader of Latin America’s largest nation, nor quote Rousseff’s prescient warning.

In contrast, during 2016/17, the Guardian published not one but three letters from the Brazilian Ambassador to the UK, on an international PR drive launched by Temer’s Post-Coup Government, insisting that all was well with democracy in his country.

Background noise

The Guardian and its writers were amongst the first to infer that the protests which swept Brazil in 2013 were in any way “Anti-Dilma”, before they had actually shifted rightward in their character. By failing to properly explain, it also gave the impression that Rousseff herself was culpable for the Military Police violence meted out against the demonstrations. In reality her then likely future adversary, PSDB Governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, controlled the Policia Militar. Then Mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad said earlier this year that “we will never know if Alckmin gave the order” for an attack on protesters and journalists, outrage at which turned tens to hundreds of thousands on the streets over the subsequent days.

In 2014 it was the era of ubiquitous “doubts upon the preparedness of Brazil to host the World Cup”, with gruesome tales of violence and anticipated mass protests like those that had happened a year prior. Such predictions of societal collapse during the election year World Cup proved to be an embarrassing failure of foreign media in the country.

In the election that followed, the Guardian threw their weight behind Marina Silvadepicted as the genuinely progressive candidate to beat Workers Party’s incumbent Dilma Rousseff. This was a fairytale version of the evangelical christian and former environmental campaigner, who was bringing with her a similar Neoliberal platform to that of the candidate she went on to endorse, the “Pro Business” Aécio Neves. Neves would refuse to concede defeat, call his supporters to the streets, and vow to make Rousseff’s second mandate ungovernable, with his PSDB party launching the petition for her impeachment, which Marina Silva would support, having lost to her at two successive elections.

Carnaval always provides a picturesque backdrop for any Brazil story. Following Rousseff’s re-election, in 2015 The Guardian had “Brazil scales back Carnival festivities as drought and weak economy persist” Again, feeding the failed state narrative, the paper was doubling down on coverage of the São Paulo water crisis, despite the previous three months having record-breaking rainfall in the affected region. In reality, the 2015 São Paulo Carnaval was the then biggest yet. In pre-coup 2016, feeding the pro-impeachment narrative, the Guardian went with “Brazil’s Carnival lovers face sobering moment as country braces for recession”. In 2017 the Guardian headline on the politicisation of Carnaval suggested that it contained messages of protest towards Dilma Rousseff despite her having been removed from office the previous year.

In 2018, in its sentence-long summary on the zeitgeist-grabbing Tuiuti, the Guardian removed the word Neoliberal from the Samba School’s Vampiric depiction of President Michel Temer – something even Globo didn’t censor. Whilst paying lip-service to the struggle against neoliberal orthodoxy in the North, this is not so in Latin America, and the failed state-friendly “Brazil as monster” was a better fit. A photo of the enormous Bloco Maluco Beleza was used to illustrate a story about a tiny and unrelated extreme-right event celebrating dictatorship-era torturers, and in an earlier Carnaval preview focussed on crime and corruption, they stated simply that “President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 for breaking budget rules in a corruption scandal”. Just the facts. Repeated emphasis of the “legality & constitutionality” of Rousseff’s removal was the Coup’s very own alibi.

Latin America editor Jonathan Watts was replaced in 2017 by his predecessor Tom Phillips, the two having traded BRICS partners China for Brazil and vice versa. Phillips covered Brazil from 2009-2013, including the first election of Dilma Rousseff.

In 2011, with Rousseff now in office, Phillips published this article on a supposed wave of “anti-establishment”  comedians, featuring notorious far-right comic Danilo Gentili. ”Vote for Dilma because she was tortured?” he quipped. “Fuck that. Did I ask her to be?”, “Seriously,” he went on, drawing nervous giggles from the packed audience. “A president has to be smart. If she was caught and tortured, it’s because she was an idiot.” “It was the edgiest moment in an 80-minute monologue – attempting to poke fun at a woman who had been brutally tortured by the dictatorship. But Gentili, 32, a highly controversial but also wildly popular comedian who is blazing a trail for stand-up comedy in South America’s largest nation, is a man who enjoys living on the edge.” gushed Phillips. Accused of misogyny, homophobia, and investigated for racism, Gentili went on to be a vocal advocate of Dilma’s ouster, and one of Neofascist Jair Bolsonaro’s most high profile supporters. In the years prior to his election, Gentili invited him regularly onto his TV chat show “The Night”, whose other guests included a serving UK Ambassador. Ustra, the secret police chief responsible for Rousseff’s two year long torture which included electric shocks to her vagina, was later eulogised by Jair Bolsonaro during his vote for her impeachment. Living on the edge, indeed.

2018 Election

The Guardian’s election coverage began badly, with the headline “Trump of the Tropics“, an inadequate and misleading US-centric comparison, which did more to endorse and popularise Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil than it did discourage potential voters.

There are of course far worse places to read about Bolsonaro. On the pages of the Guardian, there’s no doubt what he is, and it isn’t trying, at least not yet, to make him sound rational, reasonable or competent, such as the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have attempted; the promise of extreme neoliberalism at the point of a gun in the most resource rich nation on earth is too valuable for them to waste worrying about human rights.

When Brazilian Women brought to the streets one of the biggest anti-fascist mobilisations in history against Bolsonaro, with the so called Ele Não (Not him) protest, despite the candidate’s racism, misogyny, rape apologism, homopobia and calls for genocide, the Guardian’s Tom Phillips felt the need to “both sides” the story. The paper then followed with a focus on the “legitimate concerns” of his female supporters and opponents of feminism.

Election coverage in the Guardian hammered the grim inevitability of a Bolsonaro victory, at one point Phillips claiming on Twitter that he “could not find a single Haddad voter”, despite being on a tour of North and North Eastern regions where Haddad won convincingly. The paper also drew complaints for a dismissive portrayal of Bolsonaro’s progressive adversary. The ostensibly “left liberal” Guardian’s lack of intellectual curiosity or enthusiasm for Brazil’s actual left is strange, and the dismissal of Haddad reinforced the notion that failure and inviability of the left’s choice was the issue – not that the leading candidate had been removed from the race via politically motivated abuse of the law.

As Lula was forced out of the race, Guardian writers were criticised for their attitude towards his replacement Fernando Haddad.

During the election, The Guardian repeatedly used Brian Winter, of Wall Street think tank and lobby, Council of the Americas (AS/COA), as an election pundit. A ghostwriter of autobiographies for Conservative leaders across Latin America, until mid 2015 Winter was head of Reuters Brasil, leaving after a scandal (podemos tirar se achar melhor or “we can remove if you think it best”) where he was accused of censoring an admission that the Petrobras corruption scandal’s roots pre-dated the Workers Party Governments being blamed for it (a narrative used at that time as a justification for Rousseff’s removal). Winter has since acted as an international cheerleader for Operation Lava Jato, and its superstar inquisitor-judge Sérgio Moro, who after jailing Lula and thus preventing him from running in an election he was near guaranteed to win, accepted the position of Justice minister in extreme-right Jair Bolsonaro’s Government. Since its inception in 2014, The Guardian published several lengthy pieces such as this one on Sérgio Moro, Operation Lava Jatoand his task force in right wing stronghold of Curitiba, articles which were of very little interest to anyone outside Brazil.

Winter and Phillips echoed each other’s insistence that Bolsonaro’s election was inevitable, with neither adequately describing how that position came to be (such as is explained hereherehere and here) for example the simplification that the key to his popularity was driven by fear of crime, which ignored statistics that showed he was most popular in the safest areas and least popular in the most dangerous.

The Guardian also called on ex-IMF economist Monica De Bolle, who repeatedly drew false equivalence between Neofascist Bolsonaro and Centre-Left Fernando Haddad during the first round of the election. One of the crowning, yet unheralded achievements of the Workers Party’s time in office was that they repaid the IMF in full, against the lending body’s own wishes, and became a creditor, having accumulated enormous foreign reserves – that were conspicuously never mentioned in any media discussion related to the country’s economic health, at least while Rousseff was in office.

By inviting institutional Neoliberals as if impartial pundits, one of whom’s organisation is bankrolled by Chevron, ExxonMobil and a who’s who of Wall Streethad held closed door meetings with Bolsonaro, is linked to his Finance and Justice ministersand was actually involved in the 1973 coup in Chile, what are we to conclude about the Guardian?

Pierre Omidyar-financed media platform The Intercept was created as the Guardian refused to publish leaked Snowden documents in a manner that was to founding editor Glenn Greenwald’s satisfaction. Many of the first batch released concerned Brazil, his country of residence, and showed how deeply surveilled Dilma Rousseff’s Government was. How many of those documents remain unpublished that are relevant to Brazil’s current situation, and the US/UK role in it, is anyone’s guess, but The Intercept’s recruitment of Guardian writers during the 2018 election was a disappointing backwards step by a platform which was set up to provide the kind of investigation and analysis that they do not.

Coverage of Brazil in continental Europe did not seem to suffer the same issues as the Guardian and Anglophone media, and Guardian reporters have urged against critique of the media. This, right when it is needed the most. Media criticism provides a membrane through which the public can observe workings of power they may otherwise not perceive. By requesting freedom from scrutiny, they’re asking for the paper trail to be ignored. Progressive media critics are harder on the Guardian because they’re one of the few platforms from which anyone has any expectation at all.

There are clearly questions for the Guardian on Brazil and Latin America as a whole that they ought to answer if they are to preserve any of the dwindling trust shown by a readership which has historically counted on them to inform their view of world affairs. A platform with enormous reach, we hope for the sake of social progress, and the need to confront fascism, that is it is not too late for The Guardian to put its house in order, rebuild its reputation, and give itself honourable purpose. If not, independent progressive media will continue to replace it.