Sunday, 27 February 2011

I read the news today, oh boy.

If, as is often said, no news is good news, then it would logically seem to follow that most news is invariably bad. This depressingly bleak assessment certainly seems to be ringing truer and louder than ever at the moment. 

The death tolls caused by natural disasters Down Under and popular uprisings in the Middle East jostle for the attention of a fickle media and quite rightly so. Events such as these, far away though they may be, are of real international concern and significance and people in this country are genuinely interested in them. But whilst sad news is never something to be greeted lightly, there is something slightly inappropriate in the way the media have reported on these events.

On Wednesday, following news overnight of the earthquake in Christchurch, New ZealandThe Sun newspaper, ran with the headline: "10 Brits Dead in Kiwi Quake". Then, the following day, with the focus of the press having switched 10,000 miles back to Libya, The Daily Mail's front page declared: "British rescue turns to farce: Hundreds of terrified Britons trapped in Libya". Although somewhat unusually, The Mail decided to shun the colon in the headline, opting instead to punctuate with the slightly less conventional, but in no way grammatically inferior, St George's Cross. Presumably in case we mistook them for some of those no good Johnny foreigners.

Though both articles are broadly concerned with the major issues of the day, their overemphasis on the plight of British people in these situations is in danger of detracting from the real story. That British people are trapped in Libya is news, but it is surely news of secondary importance when compared with the sea change currently underway in that country. Likewise, and this is obviously a more sensitive subject, reporting how many British people are estimated to have died in the Christchurch earthquake is absolutely crucial, but it does seem in bad taste to do so without making reference to the total loss of life.  

Clearly there are issues of representation at play here, with the British media needing to appeal to the expectations of British people, who are after all are their primary audience. Cultural proximity also plays a role, that is to say that we are most interested in events affecting people that we can most identify with, in this case people of the same nationality. A clear example of this latter point can be seen in the reporting of last month’s devastating floods in Queensland, Australia, which happened to coincide with similar events in Sri Lanka, Brazil and Malaysia. Despite the fact that the number of casualties was actually greater in the South East Asian and South American disasters; the coverage of the flooding in Australia was unquestionably given greater press prominence in this country. The common language, colonial history, sporting rivalry and First World economy shared between Britain and Australia, not to mention the considerable numbers of British expats living Down Under, makes Australian affairs automatically more newsworthy than those in less familiar countries.  

Such press bias however reached ridiculous proportions on Thursday evening, when the BBC News at Ten led with the story of the difficulties incurred at Tripoli airport as British nationals sought to flee the increasingly volatile situation in Libya. The BBC showed footage of David Cameron apologising for the airport’s poor conditions as trapped British Citizens testified to a lack of organization, big queues and long waits. Without wanting to make light of the trials and tribulations of people trying to flee a country in the grips of what could well turn into a civil war, the inconvenienced travel arrangements of British citizens should not take precedence over events of greater importance in the news of this, or indeed any other, country. 

News is a subjective construct: decisions made by editors and producers determine what tomorrow’s big stories will be and when these decisions are made it is only right that those elements which are most likely to appeal to a British audience are pulled out. But this process, if not handled sensitively, can lead to a distortion of the facts, in which a marginal national involvement becomes the central focus of coverage, as in the evacuation of British citizens from Libya. Ultimately there isn’t going to be a newsworthy “British” angle to every international news story and if journalists seek to artificially insert one, they risk reporting on events which are, when compared to momentous changes in history, inconsequential.  

1 comment:

  1. I love your blogs. Intelligent but a far measure of sharp humour. Keep up the good work. I'll be using your posts for inspiration. Yours Howard Bigot-Johnson