A Bad Press

With kind permission from UK-based VSO1 (Voluntary Service Overseas), an artilce, titled, A Bad Press from their Orbit magazine2, Summer 1996, has been reposted here.

Palestine: resistance, not 'fundamentalist terrorism'
With the media providing less and less coverage of the developing world, it is small wonder that people in Britain have less and less understanding of the issues involved. Daya Kishan Thussu examines the growing trend towards excluding news from the South.
Image: Palestine: resistance, not 'fundamentalist terrorism' © Copyright: Panos/JC Tordai

The South—or the 'Majority World', as it is now being called—has long been badly treated by the British press. It continues to suffer from what a senior American journalist once labelled the 'coups and earthquakes syndrome', meaning that the only news fit to print or broadcast from the developing world has to do with death, disease or disaster.

In the British popular press the developing world hardly figures. Foreign news itself is very scarce in the tabloids, and whatever is written about Africa or Asia tends to focus on disasters, natural and man-made, or stories about exotic people and cultures. To the millions of readers of The Sun—Britain’s largest selling daily, with a circulation exceeding four million—Africa, Asia or Latin America are non-entities. The same is true to a large extent of popular television news, the main source of current affairs information for the vast majority of British people.

In the quality press, too, coverage is limited and for historical reasons restricted to certain parts of the developing world: the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, southern Africa, Hong Kong. Of the five national daily broadsheets the Financial Times has the best coverage of the developing world, albeit always from a business perspective. With a long tradition of liberal attitudes The Guardian used to be well known for its coverage of development issues. However, its regular Third World page has now been replaced by 'Inside America', a selection of articles from US newspapers.

Broadcasters and newspapers are closing down foreign bureaus, especially in Africa. Given that the British media have now to cover the hitherto closed areas of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the coverage of the developing world has been shrinking alarmingly. Most of the news from the South is now confined to the 'News in brief' section of foreign pages.

On this page:

  1. Falling quality
  2. Media stereotypes
  3. Third World monsters

Falling quality

As well as the reduced quantity, the quality of coverage has also suffered. Channel 4 News, which has the best record on coverage of foreign news among British broadcasters, has just one correspondent to cover all of Asia, the cradle of at least three major civilisations: Chinese, Indian and Islamic. And it shows.

The coverage of the recent Indian election, the world’s biggest exercise in democracy, is a case in point. Channel 4 News' Asia correspondent, normally based in Hong Kong, was dispatched to the Indian landmass to cover the story. How could the Indian elections be contextualised in a five-minute TV report? Inevitably he focused on the election campaign of Phoolan Devi, the 'Bandit Queen' now contesting election. Reports in the quality press, often by writers unfamiliar with the situation, were similarly lacking in context and analytical insight.

If journalists cannot adequately report on India, with which Britain has strong historical links, where English is widely spoken, a lively press thrives and people talk openly and critically, how can they understand such closed countries as Iran or China? That showed in the coverage of the stand-off between China and the United States over Beijing’s military exercises during Taiwan’s presidential election in March. Despite exaggerated reports in the Western press, the imminent invasion of Taiwan did not materialise. What was not reported in any detail was how the rest of Asia viewed this war of words. In fact most Asian countries were not alarmed by China’s military exercises taking place within its own territorial waters, unlike the regular US exercises staged in all corners of the globe.

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Media stereotypes

Ignorance about the developing world remains high in Britain, despite the over two million immigrants who have cultural links with the South. Media images of the South continue to promote the stereotype of hapless, diseased black/brown people living off charitable aid from the benevolent West. The reality is in fact quite the opposite, with the net flow of resources being from South to North.

Geopolitical and economic interests affect the news in Britain as elsewhere. This is reflected in the way certain parts of the South are regularly covered and others are ignored. There is also a clear distinction in the presentation of friends and foes—eg Israeli state terrorism is characterised as 'self-defence' while Palestinian resistance to occupation is labelled 'fundamentalist terrorism'.

Examples abound. Iraq has ceased to interest British journalists. Most reports about that country continue to focus on alleged non-compliance with UN resolutions so that the US-dominated UN Security Council can renew sanctions which have claimed thousands of innocent lives. Ever since US forces left Somalia, too, it has ceased to be in the news. What happened to all the 'warlords', the imminent famine? Ditto with Haiti. Liberia was in the news briefly when the US was evacuating foreigners. Now with the US army the journalists have also left.

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Third World monsters

The media also helps fuel the political need to create Third World monsters—leaders who rule countries which are routinely and uncritically called 'rogue' or 'terrorist' states, such as Iran, Libya and North Korea, where the recent drought—the country’s worst—has been virtually ignored by the British press.

One result of this selective and scarce coverage is that people in Britain are unable to develop a clear view of the issues confronting the world’s poor. Ask an average newspaper reader whether they have heard of something called a 'structural adjustment programme' and it is more likely than not that they will express ignorance.

These programmes, now being followed by some 70 countries in the South, are imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as a condition for loans, with the ostensible reason of 'reforming' the economies of some of the world’s poorest countries. The reality, as shown by various non-governmental organisations involved in poverty reduction, is that in the name of efficiency millions have been made jobless and health and education budgets drastically cut—last year the World Bank forced Mozambique, one of the world’s very poorest countries, to cut its education budget by a half.

But these stories are not given prominence even in the supposedly liberal papers. In essence, whole areas of life of the people in Asia, Africa and Latin America—who constitute 80 per cent of the planet’s population and some of the world’s oldest cultures—are totally blanked out. And as the competition between media outlets increases, what with ratings wars and shrinking circulation figures, the already limited coverage is likely to become even scarcer and more superficial.

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Dr Daya Kishan Thussu teaches journalism and international communications at Coventry University in Britain. A former associate editor of Gemini News Service, he is co-author of Contra-Flow in Global News published by John Libbey & Co, price £20.

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