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Gordon Campbell on bribing the Saudis and Oscar racism

Gordon Campbell on bribing the Saudis and Oscar racism

Does this sound familiar? In the mid 2000s, New Zealand wanted to pursue a humanitarian policy, on live sheep exports. This happened to offend a Saudi foreign investor, who eventually threatened legal action against it. The Key government chose to buy him off with (a) millions in cash (b) a sheep farm in the desert that resulted in the death of all the pregnant sheep that we donated to him and now (c) a free multimillion dollar abattoir that we are in the process of gifting to Saudi Arabia on the understanding that it will be “leased” back to the miffed investor.

In sum, we have here a perfect example of how the actions of a supposedly sovereign New Zealand government can expose us to extortionate demands by foreign investors. Did the Key government defy the threats of legal action? No, it caved in and used taxpayer money to pay a massive multi-million ransom. After all this… how on earth can the government claim that the investor-state dispute mechanisms contained in the Trans Pacific Partnership – which ramp up the ability of foreign investors to sue us – pose no significant threat to this country? The TPP blatantly exposes us to similar legal actions that this government has already proven it has no stomach for fighting.

Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the world. It is also a rogue state with a track record of being hostile to democracy. The Saudi rulers have just been exposed for paying a $US681 million bribe to Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak to enable him to buy the 2013 elections in that country. The Saudis are notoriously intolerant of dissent and have just executed 47 prisoners, including prominent political opponents. The Saudis have crushed the democracy movement in Bahrain, and their sustained bombing of civilian populations in Yemen constitutes an international war crime. The Saudi regime funded the rise of ISIS, and continues to fund fundamentalist militia in the Syrian civil war. It also funded the rise of al Qaeda, and Saudi nationals comprised the vast bulk of the 9/11 terrorists. The House of Saud strongly supports Egypt’s violent, repressive military tyranny. Saudi Arabia is, in effect, the Frankenstein monster that the West has created in the Middle East, and the regime is now beyond any external influence or control.

Our own actions have consequences. In the same week that the Key government saw fit to shower a fresh round of bribes – in the shape of that free abattoir - on the Saudis, the anti-corruption organization Transparency International released its annual Corruption Perceptions Index, showing that New Zealand has slipped from second to fourth in the global anti-corruption rankings, which is our lowest position since 1998.

Talk about history repeating itself. In 1998, a third term National government was one year away from being turfed out of office, and Murray McCully – the prime architect of the Saudi deal – was at the centre of a scandal involving ‘hush money’ payouts to Tourism Board members. These payouts were later deemed “unlawful” by the Auditor General. McCully resigned as Tourism Minister in April 1999 in the wake of that finding. No similar response from him so far on the Saudi payoffs – although as in 1998, McCully may be waiting to see what the Auditor-General has to say in an upcoming report on the Saudi deal, due any now.

Oscars and race

One of the valuable things about the recent “whites only” controversy about the Oscars, is the way that so many prominent people have come out of the woodwork – Charlotte Rampling, Michael Caine – to make clueless contributions to the debate. Rampling’s moronic comments – which could hardly have been more clear, but which she has since claimed were ‘misinterpreted’ - have been patiently taken apart here.

The Caine/Rampling comments have also been seen as indicative of the lack of opportunity for minorities within the British film industry.

As this column said the other day, most of the affirmative action solutions suggested so far – eg a few extra Oscar nomination slots reserved for non-white actors and technicians – smack of tokenism. The pressure on the Academy’s ‘business as usual’ needs to be sustained. Who knows, it might even culminate in Academy voters opening their eyes to a prejudice that exists at every stage of the film process, from casting to marketing – well before the Academy draws up its nominations list of the people that Rampling thinks to be ‘deserving.’

During the same week the ‘white Oscars’ controversy has been unfolding, the next element in the debate appeared on the horizon. The Sundance festival has just showered awards and attracted record amounts of distribution money to a film called Birth of A Nation, which is about the violent Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831.

The title has been deliberately chosen as a mocking contrast to the 1915 racist classic of the same name by D.W. Griffith. In its subject matter, this new film also seems to be a revolutionary antidote to 12 Years A Slave – which was a film about blacks suffering and enduring under the yoke of slavery, a stance that the Academy deemed to be Oscar worthy. Will it do the same for a film celebrating a violent, controversial figure such as Nat Turner, who took up arms against the slave-owners and butchered them, their wives and their children?

Nearly 200 years since his bloody rebellion and execution, Turner continues to haunt the pages of American history. A few years ago, the great black film director Charles Burnett (who made Killer of Sheep) made an interesting hour long documentary about the various polemical uses to which Nat Turner has been put down the years. Burnett’s dramatized documentary has recently become available on Youtube – and is useful homework for what seems destined to be the next battleground over the institutionalised nature of Oscar racism.

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