Greg Palast: eye-poppingly good journalism

Issue 

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: An Investigative Reporter Exposes the Truth about Globalisation, Corporate Cons and High Finance Fraudsters
By Greg Palast
Pluto Press, 2002
211 pages, $59.95 (hb)

Ultra-right millionaire and US tele-evangelist Pat Robertson called Greg Palast the "spirit of the anti-Christ"; Rupert Murdoch's British Mirror called him "The Liar" (in 10-centimetre type); and "A Real American" called him, in an email, a "punk ass loser" for his articles about President George W Bush. For unearthing greed and crooked practices in high places, Palast is detested by all who swear by greed and crooked practices.

Palast is a hard-boiled Michael Moore, a wickedly satirical human excavator who digs up trailer-loads of dirt to dump on the glossy reputations of the personalities and institutions of free-market capitalism. The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, a collection of Palast's stories, sets new benchmarks for eye-poppingly good investigative journalism.

Remember the heist of the 2000 US presidential election by the Republican Party? Well, the real story is not about the ballot papers wrongly excluded (though this would have put the Democrats' Al Gore over the line by 537 Florida votes) but the 100,000 people wrongfully erased from the voter rolls by Florida's Republican administration, most of them African-American voters.

Palast reveals that the office of Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida and George's brother, ordered the removal from the electoral rolls of 40,000 out-of-state ex-criminals now resident in Florida and legally entitled to vote. Add 57,700 people purged from the rolls as purported Florida felons (from a dodgy list provided by a private database company with strong Republican ties) and you have the formula for stealing an election — African Americans are 46% of convicted felons, African Americans were a large majority of purged voters, and nearly all African Americans vote Democrat (90% of African Americans who made it to the election booths voted Democrat in Florida).

The electoral purge used race as a data matching criteria to deliberately eliminate blacks. When Palast, with BBC TV crew in tow, produced the "smoking gun" (a confidential document proving Florida's Republican officials had ordered the removal of tens of thousands of innocent Black voters from the rolls) and confronted Florida's Director of Elections with it, the result was a 50-metre dash for the safety of his office. Like Michael Moore, Palast can bring out the athlete in the state official.

None of this went to air or was reported in the US until months after the election. Why? Because the US corporate media were content with "munching on, digesting, then reprinting a diet of press releases and canned stories provided by officials and corporation public relations hypsters".

This is how the corporate media also operate on the global stage. As the media apostles describe it, globalisation is the highly desirable future of the "communications revolution and cell phones that will call your broker and do your laundry at the same time". However, anyone who suspects that globalisation is just "a new brand name for very old forms of international exploitation" will find confirmation in the confidential documents from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organisation that keep on materialising on Palast's desk or his fax machine ("I guess I'm a lucky guy", he explains).

In these documents, there is very little about "mobile phones for Eskimos" but "an awful lot about cutting Argentine pensions by 13%, breaking up unions in Brazil, raising water prices in Bolivia and gas fuel prices in Ecuador", as well as how to face down the inevitable "social unrest" these will cause through the application of "political resolve" — a green light to the use of bullets and tear gas against peaceful demonstrators.

The "dirty little facts of globalisation as it is actually practised" are laid out in "chilling techno-speak and stamped 'for official use only'" — courtesy of Palast's good friend, "unnamable source". These are the IMF "conditionalities" required of poor countries for their World Bank loans, and the trade and intellectual property rules written by the rich countries in favour of their multinationals and banks. The "neo-liberal" medicine — fire-sale privatisations of state assets to foreign multinationals, cheaper and more "flexible" labour markets and deficit reduction through savage cuts in government services and social security — enriches the doctor but kills the patient.

A feature of globalisation IMF-style is electricity deregulation, a requirement of every "structural adjustment plan" (now fancily rebadged as "poverty reduction strategies"). The result of imposing a free market in electricity is not the miracle of competitive price cuts but price hikes, price-gouging and all sorts of sophisticated ways of "expertly vacuuming the pockets of captive electricity consumers".

The global electricity order is now dominated by six big power companies raking in the profits from asset sales and price-fixes from Brazil to Pakistan to California (which does not have a structural adjustment plan but does have "a state legislature, inebriated by long draughts of utility political donations" and which deregulated resulting in massive cost rises and blackouts).

Big league pollution is another target on Palast's radar screen, unlike the reef which didn't show up on the radar of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in 1989 which dumped toxic, oily sludge along 1900 kilometres of Alaska's shoreline. The official story that a drunken skipper hit the reef. However, Palast discovered that the "accident" was a corporate crime by BP and Exxon — the radar which would have warned of the reef had been turned off to save money.

Other crimes included the failure to purchase legally required spill-containment equipment and having the single-hulled Exxon Valdez still in the oceans after Big Oil had sued the Alaskan government in the 1970s for demanding safer, but more expensive, double-hulled oil tankers.

Your favourite corporate villain is certain to receive the Palast treatment, including the Wackenhut Corporation of Florida, with its cut-rate "Jails 'R' Us" private prisons and riots and deaths of dehumanised inmates and exploited prison guards.

Exploitation does not even begin to describe the intensely patriotic US retail giant, Wal-Mart, which exploits Chinese prisoners, Bangladeshi children and Guatemalan seamstresses in sweatshops making Wal-Mart label clothes at 30 US cents an hour, while Wal-Mart's 780,000 workers are paid so poorly they qualify for government welfare.

The new global order rests on unfettered market hegemony — "governments should not hinder the logic of the market", says British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, the hot-gospeller of globalisation. Corporations' influence over government takes many forms. They can lobby (about as challenging as kicking in an open door) or they can buy. Whichever capitalist party takes over the government shop, they hang out their "open for business" shingle.

The price of a politician is more expensive in the US (corporate investment in the 2000 presidential election campaign was US$3 billion in "donations") but the cheaper British political merchandise is far from inferior.

Palast, re-inventing himself as an American "scuzz-ball, sleaze-o-consultant on the take" and keen to put some of his phantom US clients' business in the way of British lobbyists, pumps them for information on how they got Blair's cabinet to barter policies for payola.

Tesco's supermarkets had a supermarket car park tax proposal squashed in return for a donation to New Labour's Millennium Dome project, Rupert Murdoch got changes to competition and union-recognition bills in return for pro-Blair press coverage, developers got to build on green-belt areas, whilst the late US power company, Enron, had the way cleared to building gas-fired power stations in Britain.

Whether it's the ethnic cleansing of US voter rolls, or corporate lobbyists buying political favours, or the suit and tie dictators of the World Bank/IMF, Palast investigates in depth and, above all, is prepared to stand up and say that the big name politicians and corporate icons are "freaking liars". He is freaking brilliant at it.

From Green Left Weekly, July 17, 2002.
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