Never 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 â€“ speaking at a congress lunch â€“ “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 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.