Here is another example of something I frequently find myself cautioning against; the relationship between fact and fantasy in the media. This example is from the BBC.

So, now that the North West Passage has had a few clear weeks, and many people seem content to assume that this will be the case for many years to come (isn’t it a bit soon to make this assumption?), David Shukman reports that Canada is ‘asserting its control’ over this part of their territorial waters:

In another sign of potential friction in the warming Arctic, Canada has warned that it will step up patrols of the North West Passage. Record summer melting of sea-ice has cleared the passage for the first time; and immediately escalated a dispute over who controls the route.

Canada maintains the waterway that connects the Atlantic with the Pacific lies within its territorial waters.

It has backed that up with plans for a new military base in the Arctic.

However, the United States, and other countries claim international rights to use the route for shipping.

note the language use to emphasise the message that this represents a ‘threat’: ‘friction’, ‘warned’, ‘step up’, ‘patrols’, ‘escalated’, ‘dispute’, and the classic ‘plans for a new military base’.

But the lack of details in certain key areas makes me suspect there is perhaps less to this story than Mr. Shukman is making out. I’m not saying he’s lying about this, not at all; it may well all be both true and accurate. It’s important to recognise that part of the job of experienced journalists is to recognise the underlying reality, when on the surface, not much is stirring. But the question of how the North West Passage is to be used, and who is responsible (and who is to profit from it, we imagine) for this new shipping route, is here being specifically ‘framed’ in terms of a potential international ‘conflict’. What evidence is there that there is going to be anything more dramatic than diplomatic discussions, at worst a political dispute over the use of the NWP? Apart from the statement that ‘the USA and Europe’ are promoting the status of the passage as an ‘International Water’, not a lot. The impression from the article is that this is a military conflict-in-waiting, which is hardly credible.

As for the details that Mr. Shukman does provide: What sort of ‘military base’ is Canada planning, exactly? Where? And what is it’s intended purpose? Are they planning a large Naval installation, or a twenty-man research base? Details, please…

It is also hard to understand under what circumstances any other nation might claim that the NWP represents ‘International Waters’; it is surrounded by the Canadian Archipelago (is there some dispute about which country Ellesmere Island, or Banks Island belongs to?) , and as such, exists entirely within Canadian territory, as much as the Panama Canal is within Panama, or the Suez within Egypt. (Don’t even go there…); how this could then be ‘disputed’ water is at least a matter of curiosity to me.

I don’t doubt that there will be some interesting manoeuvring going on in the Arctic Ocean, should the climate change for long enough to allow detailed research and exploration of potential resources, but the idea that Canada is ‘flexing its military muscles’ seems faintly incredulous. Id’ be happy to be proven wrong.

Thanks to the inimitable resource that is Wikipedia, I learn:

Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage routes

Northwest Passage routes

Main articles: Northwest Passage and Canadian Internal Waters

The legal status of a section of the Northwest Passage is disputed: Canada considers it to be part of its internal waters, fully under Canadian jurisdiction, arguing that they are archipelagic waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.[24] The United States and most maritime nations,[25] consider them to be an international strait,[26] which means that foreign vessels have right of “transit passage”.[27] In such a regime, Canada would have the right to enact fishing and environmental regulation, and fiscal and smuggling laws, as well as laws intended for the safety of shipping, but not the right to close the passage.[28][29]

So maybe there is an argument going on, but really; will it ever be more than posturing?