Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Oxfam’s silence on Johansson reveals all

The fallout from Scarlett Johansson’s recent decision to become “brand ambassador” for SodaStream, the drinks carbonation company with its factory in a settlement on occupied Palestinian territory, is no longer chiefly either about the immoral behaviour of a Hollywood actress or about the illegal activities of a major corporation. Both, unfortunately, are regular occurrences.

This is now about the outrageous silence of Oxfam, which features Johansson as one of its global goodwill ambassadors. Given that Oxfam is a charity that places ethical issues at the heart of its charter – in fact, ethical concern is the only reason it exists – it is right that we should judge harshly its failure to react swiftly to Johansson’s backing of SodaStream. It is clearly untenable for her to be associated with both organisations.

Ali Abunimah points to the fact that there is what he characterises as an “internal revolt” in Oxfam, especially between its UK and US operations. A tweet by Oxfam GB suggesting that Oxfam was considering taking action against Johansson was quickly deleted – a move apparently ordered by Oxfam America.

An Oxfam insider explained: “Oxfam America doesn’t invest one cent in the Palestinian territories, or even Israel. They don’t have any programs in the West Bank or Gaza. Yet they [Oxfam America] always claim that anything Oxfam says on Palestine or Israel affects their fundraising. They almost have veto power on what Oxfam does on Palestine.”

Johansson, it seems, is worth as much to Oxfam America in its fundraising efforts as she is to SodaStream in its profit-making efforts. Oxfam America doesn’t want to upset wealthy patrons in the US, including presumably the leaders of US Jewish organisations, who are notoriously hawkish on Israel, and thereby damage its fundraising prospects by provoking an organised backlash. Oxfam would hardly be the first supposedly ethical US organisation to cow before the Israel lobby. Human Rights Watch has done so in the past too, as I have noted in previous posts.

All this reveals something about the power of money that many of us are only too keen to avert our eyes from. I have lost count of the debates with friends who find my views about the western media dangerous or preposterous. I argue that the notion of a free, pluralistic press is an illusion, an obvious one when one considers that the mainstream media are corporations and profit is the only motive that tests their consciences. It is not just that most media cannot survive without corporate advertising; it is that they themselves are giant businesses, embedded in an economic system that views greed as good.

For those who think such ideas are grossly cynical consider Oxfam’s behaviour here. Oxfam isn’t a money-grubbing corporation, or at least not one like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. And yet it and SodaStream are not so different, it seems. The buck for both stops with making a quick buck.

If Oxfam cannot do the right thing, when that is the very reason it was established, why do we imagine that the New York Times, CNN, the Guardian or the BBC can do any better? In fact, given that they are either explicitly corporations themselves or, in the case of the BBC, run by senior staff and directors embedded in the corporate media system and answerable to the British government, we would be wiser to assume they will do far, far worse than Oxfam.

Sadly, there is only one way to make Oxfam remember its founding principles. That is by hitting it in the pocket. Now is the time to be writing to Oxfam telling it that your donations, second-hand clothes and purchases will go elsewhere unless it swiftly acts against Johansson.

What about the media? That will be a far harder struggle that involves not just finding new sources of information and rethinking the way we practise journalism but also challenging the very structures of our greed-driven societies. That is a tall order, I know. So let us at least begin by working hard to liberate our minds from the illusion that we have a free media. Until we do that, we will keep swallowing the same old lies, and keep making the same mistakes. More