Where no news is good news

The following article appeared in The Guardiann newspaper's web site, on the December 5 2001 and has been reposted here. It looks at the issue of declining world news coverage. You can see the original article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/elsewhere/journalist/story/0,7792,612403,00.html

Where no news is good news
Duncan Campbell
Wednesday December 5, 2001

Censorship and partisan coverage of events in Afghanistan are not causing concern to a US public unused to complicated stories about the world beyond America's shores, writes Duncan Campbell

A poll conducted last week in the United States by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press found that 80% of people felt that censorship of the news from Afghanistan was a "good idea".

The unanimously supportive coverage given to the war by all the main news media in the US has also won approval, with 69% saying that the news media "stand up for America", compared with 43% who thought that they did so before the attacks.

But does the supportive coverage come with drawbacks?

"Ask anybody who only watches CNN and network news how many civilians have been killed and I don't think anyone knows that," said Stephen Rohde, the president of the California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union at a debate on private rights versus public security last week.

He said that he felt that the media was now an area of American life that has been affected on the civil liberty front by the war.

Every country in times of crisis or war can generally rely on a supportive media - as happened in the United Kingdom during the "Gotcha!" phase of the Falklands War - but a growing number of American commentators are expressing disquiet at what they feel is a lack of information which the media may deem in some way harmful or unpatriotic.

After the Bush administration requested that interviews of Osama bin Laden not be shown in full, all of the mainstream media abided by the request. Some news services go further.

Fox News Channel, the conservative channel owned by Rupert Murdoch, makes no pretence at objectivity in its coverage.

One of its news anchors, Brit Hume, told the New York Times that the network did not give too much weight to reports about civilian casualties in Afghanistan and said to NYT reporter Jim Rutenberg: "War is hell, people die. We know we're at war. The fact that some people are dying, is that really news? And is it news to be treated in a semi-straight-faced way? I think not."

Leslie Bennetts, writing in the current edition of Vanity Fair, says that "Americans like a simple storyline that makes it easy to decide who the good guys are and who the bad guys are and the byzantine tangle of international politics, Islamic fundamentalism and American foreign policy is making many citizens unused to grappling with such headache-inducing complexities want to throw up their hands."

Bennetts suggests that "American newspapers and television companies have reduced their foreign coverage by 70 to 80% during the last 15 to 20 years in response to corporate demands for profits."

Consequently, the public is unaware of much of what is happening elsewhere in the world.

My local radio "news" station promises that if "you give us 22 minutes ...we'll give you the world" yet I have often listened for the 22 minutes planning to count the number of countries outside the US deemed worthy of a mention and found none.

Just after reading Bennetts' article, I happened to be at the screening at the University of Southern California in LA of a documentary, War and Peace, made by the prize-winning Indian film-maker, Anand Patwardhan, whose work I have known for nearly 20 years.

The film was about nuclear weapons, focusing on the race between India and Pakistan to enter the field.

The film itself is a tour de force, beautifully shot and often darkly funny and much more riveting than the dry subject matter might suggest.

It went down very well with the audience of mainly young South Asian Americans, as people of Indian origin are called in the US.

Patwardhan's work used to appear regularly on Channel 4 in the UK back in the 1980s and since this is his best to date one might imagine that either Channel 4 or the BBC would snap it up.

Not so. Both have turned him down. Like many other documentary-makers on both sides of the Atlantic, he is discovering that there is little interest in screening films about complex subjects in foreign countries.

Which is a pity because it seems as though complex subjects in foreign countries are what we are all going to have to learn about for a long time to come.

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