Two Frontiers: wars of liberation and of determination

The chasm between knowledge and responsibilityNever has the chasm between the expectations and concerns of the rich and those of the poor been greater.

The youngsters lighting fires in Germany at the G8 Summit to protest about globalisation and capitalism have little in common with the striking protestors in South Africa this week although they express themselves as vitriolically and explosively. This correlation of outrage leads each to believe they have something in common. They don’t.

This past week saw the collection of 1 600 journalists, editors and newspaper owners at the 60th congress of the World Association of Newspapers held in Cape Town. While delegates from the developed world debated their response to the dramatic undermining of their industry wrought by blogging and social networking; those from the developing world expressed their despair at bannings, torture and exile.

The first frontier: liberation

One Guinean journalist, with his French translator, would join groups of people and make a brief statement, “I am a journalist from Guinea. I am in exile. My editor is in jail. My newspaper is shut down. I cannot go home. I am waiting for that dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, to die. Thank you.” He never asked for anything. He just told his story.

All across the congress, at any opportunity, the stories of journalists and editors, imprisoned, tortured or exiled, were told. Arab journalists interrupted Khalid Hamed Al Malik, editor of the Saudi Arabia-based Al Jazirah Newspaper (not to be confused with Al Jazeera, based in Doha) to demand to know why he supports the Saudi Royal Family and how come there are no opposition newspapers allowed in Saudi Arabia.

Geoffrey Nyarota, editor of the Zimbabwe Daily News whose printing presses were fire-bombed, his newspaper banned, and who is now in exile, demanded to know of Jacob Zuma – speaking at a congress lunch – “Why does South Africa fail to use its power and influence to check Zimbabwe?”

Rebel armies hacked off limbs, carving their initials into the victims’ flesh as a warning to others. Children, some as young as eight, were forced to batter their parents to death, then eat their brains before being sent to the front or used as sex slaves. Anything to terrorise the civilian population.
Women’s vaginas were sewn up with fishing lines, villagers’ mouths clamped shut with padlocks. Drug-crazed soldiers would rip open pregnant women’s stomachs after taking bets on the sex of the foetus, then parade the little heads on pikes. At least one man was skinned alive before his flesh was picked off and eaten. Thousands of young girls and women were repeatedly raped, thousands more people burned alive in their thatched-roofed homes.

The Economist

The US under George W Bush? No matter what those who loathe him say the US doesn’t come close. No, this is Liberia under Charles Taylor, about to stand trial for these crimes at The International Criminal Court in The Hague. The reason he’s going there at all is because of an Iraq-style regime-change effort by British and American forces. Sometimes it does work.

The rioting and mayhem that one sees in street protests in Europe and America may lead one to believe that these countries are in a state of crisis. The lack of such dissent in dictatorships from Zimbabwe to Burma to Laos to Guinea may lead one to believe that these countries are simply poor, not lacking in human rights. This is a delusion. The truth is that protest only happens in countries where there is a genuine belief that soldiers won’t simply massacre the participants. It was Mao who said, “Kill the one to scare the millions.” Every now and then a protest turns into a massacre and the dictatorship concerned continues on unperturbed.

The Declaration of Table Mountain, produced by the World Association of Newspapers demands that African nations abolish insult laws and set the rights to a free press high on their agendas. “Africa urgently needs a strong, free and independent press to act as a watchdog over public institutions.”

Multinational corporations and the bizarre concern of the dominance of wealthy business owners over the poor employed doesn’t even come into it in the developing world.

The second frontier: determination

The concerns in the developed world are not a surcease of information but rather an overwhelming surplus.

“It’s impossible for a printed newspaper to beat the Internet to a story. The Internet never sleeps,” says TÇ¿ger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a Danish newspaper. If newspapers can’t break news, what can they do?

“Online news may have started as a gimmick. It’s not a gimmick anymore. We must drive news through integration,” says Richard Sambrook, director of BBC Global News in London. He lists four points that govern their new approach, “We accept eye-witness contributions from citizen journalists. We integrate these with our own journalism. We will break stories on the web first. And we’re introducing networked journalism. It’s likely that, no matter how much we may know about a story, one of our readers may know more and we’d like them to form part of the analysis of the story.”

“I’m worried that the quality of journalism will suffer,” says Joyce Barnathan, president of the International Centre for Journalists in Washington. Without insight and analysis news risks becoming irrelevant.

“Reader’s can suffer from media indigestion,” says Denis Muzet, director of the Mediascopie Institute in France. “Their anxiety increases with the decreasing depth and lack of context of stories.”

We have moved from a world of studied, determined and controlled journalism to one of a maddening rush to report on events. Events without context, without meaning, just endless soundbites that reduce analysis to a meaningless slather of bombast and traumatic self-delusion. It is no wonder that riots are common-place at gatherings of leaders.

100 years ago there was a vast gulf between the average education levels of journalists and that of the general public. Since then that gulf has narrowed until now, poorly paid and hard-pressed, journalists know less than their public. The average person has as powerful desktop publishing tools as does their local newspaper. The only way that newspapers can now compete is to spend vast amounts on new technology and top analytical teams to ensure that they can, once again, recreate that gulf of ability and talent. It has not yet happened but the orgy of consolidation and layoffs and restructuring we see in the media is a chaotic attempt to regain that high ground.

Never so asymmetric again

The developing world, filled with coups and violence and chaos, offers a glimpse into the heroic past of newspapers. Where journalists knew more than their public. Where poverty and fear and malnutrition left the downtrodden masses incapable of self-reflection. Where only brave journalists, the most educated in their communities, had the ability to put that suffering into context and voice the desires of the people for liberation and freedom.

The developed world has no need for this anymore. The people have the tools for this expression in their own hands. That world, of an asymmetric concentration of knowledge and the tools to express that knowledge, will not come again.

The cries of agony, of an end to globalisation or of innovation, are the cries of a child discovering that his parents don’t know all the answers, that adulthood beckons and responsibility is all-consuming.

You can be ignorant or you can be involved. Attempting to be both results in chaos and anxiety. Knowledge is a forbidden fruit and, once tasted, can never be returned.

9 replies »

  1. I agree that sometimes it works. And I wrestle endlessly with this ethical implications of being the world’s policeman. But I think there are two major underlying issue that must be addressed when we engage in regime change.

    First, we have to be honest about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I have known since well before we invaded Iraq that it was by god going to happen and I have known WHY, beyond any shadow of a doubt. The popular battle cry of “it’s about oil” is partially correct, but the real reason is the neocons’ belief that we need a new pax Americana.

    Now, I said some years back that this was a debate I was willing to engage in. I made no promises that I could be won over, but I saw the rationale at a philosophical level, at least, and while it struck me as insanely dangerous and complex, I was also open to hearing the counter-argument – that NOT doing it was also pretty damned dangerous and complex.

    The problem is that Bush’s people never made this argument. They lied about their motivations, and in doing so eternally hutzed any possibility of success. If a nation’s people line up behind the flag in pursuit of Goal A, and they’re led to Goal B, there are going to be dislocations there that are going to make management of the outcome nearly impossible.

    What’s odd is that something like the rationale exists in certain code that weaves in and out of the “debate.” Americans are scared stiff of “those people,” which makes me wonder what would happen if you actually made an intelligent pax Americana case for them.

    The second is competence. As I said in the months before the war, even if I buy the rationale for invading Iraq 100% – which I didn’t, but if I had – I’d never support THIS invasion because it’s being managed by idiots. These days the truth of that assertion is unchallenged by pretty much anybody.

    No matter how great an idea is, it can be fucked up by bad execution, and stupid, arrogant leaders – whether of a nation, a corporation, a small-town school board or a little league team – can be relied on to botch even the best of ideas.

    Competence matters. A lot. And in an oddly tangible way, honesty matters. These are our problems when talk turns to regime change.

  2. “The developing world, filled with coups and violence and chaos, offers a glimpse into the heroic past of newspapers. Where journalists knew more than their public. Where poverty and fear and malnutrition left the downtrodden masses incapable of self-reflection. Where only brave journalists, the most educated in their communities, had the ability to put that suffering into context and voice the desires of the people for liberation and freedom.”

    Beautifully stated, Gavin…

    Let’s hope that the developed world can offer the developing world a glimpse into the future of news reporting – a future where the masses have sustained levels of affluence and are literate and can serve serve as “citizen journalists,” and bear witness en masse – and have their voices heard.

  3. “It is said that by removing Saddam or the Taliban – regimes that were authoritarian but also kept a form of order – the plight of Iraqis and Afghans has worsened and terrorism has been allowed to grow. This is a seductive but dangerous argument. Work out what it really means. It means that because these reactionary and evil forces will fight hard, through terrorism, to prevent those countries and their people getting on their feet after the dictatorships are removed, we should leave the people under the dictatorship. It means our will to fight for what we believe in is measured by our enemy’s will to fight us, but in inverse proportions. That is not a basis on which you ever win anything. … There is no alternative to fighting this menace wherever it rears its head. There are no demands that are remotely negotiable. It has to be beaten. Period.” Tony Blair, writing in The Economist.

    Jim, I chatted with Gavin O’Reilly about an idea I’ve got for citizen journalism in the informal sector. I’m going to see about investigating the potential for it this week. It works a bit like ‘blackboard journalism’ where a chalk-board at a taxi-rank conveys news “by the people, for the people, and of the people”.

  4. A terrific piece, Gavin. *applause*

    A quibble:

    “The developed world has no need for this anymore. The people have the tools for this expression in their own hands. That world, of an asymmetric concentration of knowledge and the tools to express that knowledge, will not come again.”

    You give “the people” too much credit, methinks. They may have the tools, but I’d argue most don’t use them as critically as well-trained journalists do.

  5. With Tony Blair…it is not necessarily the message that is disbelieved but the messenger himself. He blew his credibility out of the water by lying, lying, lying…

    …he can pummel as hard as he likes but he is yesterday’s man already here. Soon, however, he will be doing the lecture circuit rounds and the coffers will be fully stocked. Where would Blair be without the USA to fall back on?

  6. Denny thanks 😉 I counter your quibble in the piece, though. Media indigestion is a result of entirely too much uncritical information being dumped on the web and then regurgitated through the popular press.

    News agencies, slow to realise what improving education and communication were doing, haven’t reinvested in their own core talent and so, unfortunately, most modern journalists are not “well-trained”.

    This is the area that media companies need to concentrate on in the developed world: redeveloping they way they present information, as well as focusing on the analysis of news being tsunamied into the world through citizen journalists.

    The Europeans are good at this. Take a look at El Economista from Spain.