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By Martin Scott, lecturer in the School of International Development. See Martin’s profile and publications here.
On Wednesday this week the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) launched a new short film about ‘how the British media portray Global South’. It comprised of contributions from journalists and filmmakers such as Jon Snow, Charlie Beckett and Richard Sambrook. According to the accompanying webpage, contributors discuss ‘how the media tend to focus on issues of war and disaster, rather than giving a true picture of life in developing countries’.
This is a welcome public contribution to an issue that is often relegated to the sidelines of debates about both media and development. Indeed, there are a number of insightful contributions about the importance of developing countries telling their own stories and about the significance of shared structural causes of poverty.
At the same time, however, I couldn’t help but feel that the focus of the film reinforces a particular assumption about the nature of media coverage of the Global South that needs to be questioned.
The film begins with the claim that, ‘usually issues about the Global South only come to the attention of the media when there is war, when there is famine, crisis, absolute mayhem, terrorism’. The assumption that developing countries only appear in the media in ‘peak moments’ of news coverage of suffering is a feature of the contributions to this video – and of public and academic debate about this issue in general.
Yet, in 2010 there were almost 300 programme hours of new non-news factual programming about developing countries on mainstream UK television channels. Furthermore, only 10% of such programming was about the topics of conflict or disaster. Other more common topics used to cover developing countries included light human interest (15%), history (17%) and religion, culture and arts (18%). Even within television news coverage, conflict and disaster reporting only constitutes around 30% of coverage of developing countries.
Developing countries also now often appear in more formatted television programmes – such as The World’s Strictest Parents – which offer audiences a very different way of understanding the lives of people in faraway places. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that such programmes are particularly successful at reaching younger audiences.
While developing countries very rarely appear in television dramas (only 23 programme hours in 2010), when they do, such coverage often achieves relatively large audiences and provokes significant responses from audiences. For example, the website of Channel 4’s drama about the Israel / Palestine conflict – The Promise – received 750,000 visits and almost 2 million page views in one month.
The extent to which the Global South appears, or should appear, in children’s programming is a subject that receives very little attention. Yet alarmingly, a study in 2007 showed that very few dedicated digital children’s channels feature programmes about developing countries.
Looking beyond television coverage, there is evidence to show that UK press coverage of Africa is not as marginalised, negative or trivial as it is often accused of being. Similarly, there are many recent, notable examples of literature and feature films which bring developing countries to the attention of UK audiences in very different ways to television news.
My point is that if we really want to understand how the media contributes to UK audiences’ understandings of developing countries we should challenge the assumption that news coverage of conflict and disasters is the only context in which they appear or which matters. Indeed, if debate about the appearance of developing countries in the media extends only to instances in which ‘they’ are suffering, we leave ourselves open to the very same criticisms of misrepresentation and distortion which are often levelled at media coverage.
By Dr. Helen Warner, lecturer in the School of Political, Social & International Studies. See Helen’s profile and publications here.
Seth Rogen, Ke$ha, Russell Brand, Ed Sheeran, Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, Pauly Shore, Lady Gaga and Sly Stallone, despite having achieved fame in varying, often multiple media platforms, recently occupied the same discursive space. That is, they were among a whole host of celebrities identified by twitter users as ‘celebs who look like they stink’.
While it would be easy to dismiss the trend as trivial and inconsequential, the discussion ultimately provided some revealing insights into celebrity culture in the 21st century; in particular, the way in which hierarchies of fame are supposedly being destabilized. Indeed, the subject became central to an exchange between X Factor finalist, Frankie Cocozza and England footballer, Wayne Rooney.
During his time on ITV’s reality talent show, Cocozza was criticized by judges (viewers and the press) for his limited vocal range (the boy couldn’t hold a tune if it was in a paper bag) and since his departure from X Factor, the press have regularly reported on his supposed womanizing, substance abuse and upcoming appearance on Celebrity Big Brother. Thus, criticisms of contemporary celebrity culture as vacuous and superficial, underpin much of the discursive activity surrounding Coccozza – whose fame is a cause for concern for mass culture critics.
In an intriguing moment of self-reflexivity (or possible irony), Cocozza questioned another individual’s right to fame; Wayne Rooney. In response to the ‘celebs who look like they stink’ trend Cocozza tweeted: ‘#CelebsThatLookLikeTheyStink not really a celeb but I bet his pits are stinking, along with his breath @waynerooney’. Within minutes Rooney replied: @frankiecocozza sorry who are you again. Oh yeah I remember your that kid on X Factor who couldnt sing. [sic]
The exchange is significant for several reasons. First, it points to the pervasiveness of these debates. Second, it suggests that Rooney’s celebrity status would not typically be in question. In contrast to the emphemeral nature of celebrity status which emerges from reality TV (occupying the lowest position within the hierarchy of celebrity), as a sport’s star, Rooney’s ‘natural talent’ is valued. Moreover, in opposition to Cocozza, it validates him as worthy of the trappings of fame (despite having a personal life which has been as colourful as Cocozza’s). What is more, when Cocozza attempted to disrupt these hierarchies he was met with resistance from twitter users causing him to respond ‘keep the hate coming please, not that I can see it going anywhere #thankyou’. Thus, despite continual claims that the categories of fame are becoming more fluid, the public outrage following Cocozza’s claims suggest that audiences are willing to enforce/ (re)construct boundaries.
All three of the afternoon witnesses were there for the morning, so we had a good opportunity to see what our colleagues were saying – particularly the useful debate between Barnett and Brock on models of media regulation and the role of statute. It was interesting to watch the Inquiry go about its business – serious but not overly formal, and a technology-infused room (transcribed text appearing on screens, each lawyer with a computer in front of them, iPads and smartphones in circulation, and of course the fixed (and indeed unobtrusive) video cameras dotted around the room, linked to the live stream on the Inquiry’s website. On this occasion, it’s fair to say that neither Court 73 nor (I’m told) the overflow annex) were packed out – perhaps a day of academics does not have the appeal for others that is has for me! (Not even a Guardian live blog – which according to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror defines a serious event – but the Telegraph did have one (and a still of me in full hand-waving mode).
The full details of what we all said can be found in the transcripts: morning and afternoon. As a new lecturer I didn’t have a lead role in the discussion of education, although I was pleased to be able to talk about some of the things we are working on at UEA, particularly the interdisciplinary ‘Media & Society‘ module, and to comment (briefly) on the differences between media law for law students and media law for journalism students. (Lord Justice Leveson also appeared amused (or scared) at my observation that the inquiry itself is a useful part of this year’s media law syllabus). I enjoyed the discussion of the different careers of journalism graduates and the ups and downs of NCTJ recognition in the morning and afternoon sessions – a really useful exchange to review.
My next major intervention was regarding the Press Complaints Commission; this was the bit that made into the end of a Guardian report too. I suggested that some aspects of the Press Council of Ireland could form a part of UK reform – e.g. statutory recognition of an independently constituted Council, the involvement of journalists and not just proprietors, links between the responsible journalism defence to defamation law and Council membership. I also observed (and Twitter users took notice!) that UK publishers had joined the Irish council in respect of their Irish editions; others have made this point before but it does bear repeating. I added that investigative powers would only be appropriate if a press body was appropriately accountable for the exercise of those powers.
Of course, most of the questions directed to me were Internet-related, and it’s where I had the opportunity to put across quite a few points drawn from my research. While I wanted to emphasise that the idea of the lawless Internet is inaccurate (and has been for some time), I also discussed the importance of clear laws that individual bloggers etc could understand (and possibly be protected by akin to journalists if standards are met), the dangers of encouraging or requiring online intermediaries to be the key location of regulation (or treating them all, from telecoms providers to search engines, as the same), and also the strong points of some community-driven regulation. (Those who have read things I have written in law journals or even on this blog may recognise many of those points, and what I was trying to do was summarise them for the purposes of the Inquiry, which isn’t specifically about online media but will surely be dealing with it under various headings). I did coin an unintentional soundbyte, that hosts should not be the “new arbiter of what is right or wrong”. I also responded (not in much detail due to time) to Julian Petley’s comprehensive paper on freedom of the press vs freedom of expression, which I recommend as a very interesting reading on this topic. Oh, and I defended media studies as an important contribution made by the academic world, but that again won’t surprise readers. And then it was off to the cleverly squeezed in BBC remote studio for a chat with the fine Radio Norfolk : hear the results here (at 1h45m) and the following morning’s studio interview here (at 1h48m).
Yesterday, as most people interested in the subject know, Assange lost his appeal against extradition to Sweden to face accusations of sexual misconduct. He lost on all four counts of his appeal, and lost so convincingly that many commentators have suggested that his chances of success in one, final appeal to the Supreme Court are very slim indeed. He has not yet, at the time of writing, decided whether or not to make such an appeal.
It’s not the facts of what happened yesterday that matters to me, but the implications – and in particular, the reactions from so many people interested in Assange, in Wikileaks, in freedom of information, in combating secrecy, in the potential liberating power of the internet and so forth. For far too many of them, in my opinion, all these issues have been far to closely linked. We need to separate out the different issues. Julian Assange is not Wikileaks, and Wikileaks is not Julian Assange. Freedom of information and the fight against government and corporate secrecy and power is not dependent on Wikileaks, let alone on Julian Assange himself. We need to be able to separate the issues, and to think clearly about them. We need to be able to fight the right battles, not the wrong ones.
There are many people who, like me, are very much in support of the aims of Wikileaks, and who see the liberating potential of the internet as one of the most important things to emerge in recent times (without understating the reverse – the potential for the internet to be used for oppression and control, as so ably set out by Evgeny Morozov and others), but who, at the same time, support the concept of the rule of law, where that law is both appropriate and proportionate. I want open government, liberal government, accountable government – not no government at all. I don’t want personality cults, I don’t want anyone to be above the law, whether they are ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’. For me, that means I want Assange to face his accusers, and I want to be able to find out whether he is guilty or not.
Assange has already lost a lot of supporters in Sweden – as this Swedish commentator points out – by attacking both their legal system in relation to sexual offences and their apparent willingness to extradite easily to the US. For me, both of these accusations need to be looked at very carefully. Most people who have studied the way that sexual offences – and in particular accusations of rape – have been treated historically in the courts should recognise that women have generally got a very raw deal indeed. The way that the Swedish system has attempted to at least to start to rectify this balance is one that should be applauded and supported, not attacked or even vilified, in the way that some supporters of Assange seem to have done – ‘the Saudi Arabia of Feminism’ is one of the descriptions put forward. Such attacks are not justified or in any way appropriate – at least not to me.
And are Sweden really more likely to extradite Assange to the US than we are in the UK? It seems unlikely, as Andy Greenberg’s report in Forbes suggests. The UK doesn’t have a good record in resisting such requests – and given all the publicity it seems highly unlikely that the Swedish would let such a thing happen on their watch. Moreover, the Swedish system would require dual criminality for an extradition to occur – that is, the offence committed has to be a crime both in the country seeking extradition and in Sweden itself. Assange’s ‘offenses’ would not easily be shoehorned into that description. Either way, it’s hard to see an extradition occurring from Sweden – extradition from the UK seems far more likely.
There’s one further point about the Swedish system – one that seems to have been missed by many of his supporters. It’s not really true that ‘no charges’ have been brought. As the judge pointed out in yesterday’s ruling, the Swedish system is different to that in the UK, and ‘charges’ are only brought at a very late stage, with a trial to follow almost immediately. The Swedish investigation has gone past the point where, in the UK, US or Australian investigation, charges would have been brought. Implications that the opposite true are really not helpful.
When I’ve suggested either that Assange was likely to get a fair trial in Sweden or that extradition to the US was unlikely, many people have shot me down, suggesting that there would be a stitch up between the Swedish and US authorities, that the charges were trumped up to start with – ultimately that there is a great conspiracy to bring Assange down. I don’t find the latter that difficult to believe – there are certainly some very bad things happening in relation to Wikileaks, and the approach used to try to squeeze the life out of them through the financial blockade is one of the most reprehensible and dangerous developments of recent years. However, if that conspiracy extends to ‘trumped up’ charges of rape and sexual assault on Assange, then for me that actually provides an opportunity, not a threat.
That’s where the rub comes. If Assange is guilty, then he should face the charges and receive appropriate punishment. If he’s innocent – and in particular if he’s the victim of a conspiracy-based set-up – then by facing the charges, by going through a legal process, he can prove that, and even expose the conspiracy. I’m not saying that I believe either way – neither I, nor the vast majority of either his supporters or his enemies know enough to know that. If he’s guilty, he wouldn’t be the first man to have abused his position of celebrity and power to behave inappropriately. If he’s innocent, he wouldn’t be the first innocent man accused in this way – or the first set up by his enemies.
For me, though, if you support the kinds of things that Wikileaks supports – exposing the truth, holding the powerful to account, moving towards a better, more open, more liberal future – you should want all this to be out in the open too. That means letting Assange go to Sweden, and it means refraining from the very smear tactics that his opponents use in relation to the Swedish judicial system. There are many, many things to be concerned about in relation to the treatment of Wikileaks, and indeed of Assange – but yesterday’s ruling, almost certainly correct from a legal perspective as bloggers like the excellent Adam Wagner have made clear, is not one of them.
Whether Assange is guilty or not, and whether he’s found guilty or not, supporters of freedom of information – and supporters of Wikileaks – should try not to tie his personal issues with the broader, more important issues that Wikileaks has raised. They’re not intrinsically and inextricably linked – and if we let them be, we’re playing into the hands of the very groups that we should be opposing.
By David Mead, senior lecturer in the UEA Law School. See David’s profile and publications here.
Over the past few weeks, a viral protest has been doing the rounds. Not, as might be thought, some on-line campaign making its way over the ether but a real, physical, hard copy protest springing up in city and town around the world… not that many of us would have known too much about it. From its origins in Puerto del Sol in Madrid, with the 15-M indignados, to the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York, the 99% have been setting up protest camps across the globe in the Western Autumn.
I knew of the occupation outside St Paul’s – and the coverage since the middle of the month, first of the decision to ask the police to move on and then to close the cathedral and then to seek an injunction to close the camp – but I knew nothing of Occupy Norwich, taking place in my own home city until I popped into Marks and Spencer at the weekend. There has been, it is true, local coverage: on one day, one of the two local papers, The Evening News, dedicated a column – there has been nothing so far as I can see in The Eastern Daily Press – and Radio Norfolk spent an hour one morning in the first week with interviews and phone-in. Not exactly widespread and very localised: what of protests in Andover, Bolton and Crewe? Are there any? What form are they taking? The national media has been silent – capitals and big cities across Europe and the developed world have been their focus or where there has been trouble. Thinking of the column inches and exposure time dedicated to what was short-lived but fairly serious violence at Dale Farm, round about the same time is instructive. I was phoned by two different BBC radio producers for a comment and interview – when we might query whether that was a protest at all (like the summer riots, it had far more the feel of wanton disorder) – but no one has approached me to talk about what is happening only a mile from my own university or further afield at St Pauls.
The point is a well-worn one but no less valuable an insight for that. The unhealthy obsession with conflict and tension – did Zuccotti Park make any news until there was a chance they might be moved on so the area could be cleaned? – means that what we see of protest is mediated by different imperatives: private and consumerist not public and democratic. We get a very skewed picture of the reality of protest from reading or watching the mainstream news. My colleague, Kirsten Forkert, has already posted about the hidden legitimation agenda of much of the right-wing media to which we can add the Daily Mail’s regular reverse concern: you can’t protest about poverty and exclusion if you’re wealthy. More important here though is this. First, protests that pass off without incident tend to be relegated – march through town no one hurt everyone happy tend not to be in a sub-editor’s top ten headlines list – and secondly, we see only the large scale: people marching, thousands at a rally, placards a-plenty and songs a-chanting are what we think of. We marginalise at our peril the mundane, the small-scale, the individual and the repetitive. It is not only the Million Man March that can make a difference – it’s just we’d never know.
By Kirsten Forkert, postdoctoral fellow in the School of Political, Social & International Studies. See Kirsten’s profile and publications here
Until recently, the occupation of Wall Street has been largely ignored by the mainstream media, although widely circulated on social media (#occupywallstreet), blogs and some smaller, progressive news websites. Now that the occupation has entered its third week and has gained the support of major unions, and certain politicians and Hollywood celebrities, it can no longer be ignored.
As a sign of the movement’s growing size and visibility, I received an email a few days ago from Avaaz, the online campaigning organisation. I was asked to sign a petition in support of the Wall Street occupation. I was also asked to state whether or not I paid tax, or was a parent or a grandparent. The fact that Avaaz asked for this information reflects just how relentless the media stereotyping and dismissal of the occupation has been. In the words of NYC councillor Dan Halloran,“From what I saw on TV I would have thought that everyone here would be a communist, under 30, [and] never held a job”.
This is all very predictable; as Naomi Klein put it on Democracy Now, “every time there is a new generation of politicised engaged young people who come forward, there is this ritual mocking of them”.
According to the rules of this ritual, unless you are married and have children (heterosexuality is assumed, although being a single mum is suspect), have a job, or even better, have spent time doing military service, you have no right to speak. Being able to speak without being mocked is difficult if not impossible. If you don’t fit narrowly defined categories, then you must be one of those ‘activists’; if you are articulate then you must have a ‘political agenda’ and everything you have to say is therefore inauthentic. However, if you don’t have some polished, pre-rehearsed and quotable sound-bite ready, you are incoherent and confused.
Hallorann’s description brings to mind the backlash against the 1960s counterculture, such as the perception of protesters as mindless hippie layabouts (although, evoking McCarthyism, they are also ‘communists’). In her 1985 book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class , Barbara Ehrenreich described a confrontation between which took place between a group of builders and student protesters against the Vietnam War (ironically also on Wall Street) on 8 May, 1970. Although most US unions officially opposed the war at the time, the incident was taken as representative of the frustrations of ordinary people, seen to be a reactionary ‘silent majority’ (Ehrenreich, 1985, 106-107), a term popularised by Nixon in 1969. This sort of imagery has been with us a long time, and it is ritualistically evoked again and again to silence and dismiss.
Of course, the idea that one could be both a protester AND an ordinary person is inconceivable—or maybe it’s actually threatening, which is why there is so much at stake in ritual mocking. It challenges the prevailing belief that politics should be left to the upper echelons of the White House, lobby groups and think tanks, and that the rest of us should not worry our pretty little heads, and laugh at the foolishness of those who actually think they can change anything.