How – through the news – we see our planet

Published by UnHerd (24th July, 2017)

Over the past three weeks, my work has taken me to three countries on three different continents. First a short hop over to France to cover the issue of migrants and refugees that fills so much of Europe with fear. Then to Iraq reporting on the final days of Islamic State in Mosul. Now I am just back from a trip to Tanzania observing Everton’s laudable push of the Premier League into new African frontiers.

It is a privilege to be a foreign reporter. The work can be difficult and dangerous but it is never dull. One minute standing in a flak jacket on a devastated frontline with bodies on the street and bullets fizzing around; the next turning up on the touchline of a thunderous east African stadium to talk with sporting idols.

These assignments were varied, covering migration, jihadism and football. Yet all three highlight the impact of globalisation and naivety of those who think we can pull up drawbridges and build walls. They show the vital need to understand events abroad, if only to understand ourselves better. So here are 11 reflections on foreign reporting, the prism through which we see our planet…

What happens ‘over there’ doesn’t stay ‘over there’.

Foreign news matters more than ever and we ignore it at our peril. It dominates headlines as events in distant parts are entwined with domestic concerns. Take that fight to drive Daesh from Mosul. Western powers demolished much of the old city in support of Iraqi forces because they fear terror attacks at home and want to stabilise the Middle East. Yet IS emerged from the ashes of Saddam Hussein’s regime after the disastrous Iraq War, led by some of his henchmen and fuelled by a sectarian Shia government backed by the west. Its claim to statehood is dissolving but its threat will not disappear in the foreseeable future.

Trump’s tweets get more coverage than some wars

Foreign news is highly selective. This is inevitable, yet it leads to a partial view of the world. There is ceaseless coverage of IS, for instance, fanned by the terror group’s thirst for publicity and inflamed by attacks in Western nations. Yet it is hard to gain attention for the havoc wreaked by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, although it is even more murderous at times – let alone for similar devastating eruptions along the faultline between African and Arab worlds. Think also of the intense coverage of Washington compared with the paucity of proper reporting on Beijing, Berlin or Brussels despite their immense influence on British lives. A typical Trump tweet generates more reporting than significant moves by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Coverage revolves around the English-speaking world

Our tendency to cover some corners of the world more than others is intensified by bias towards English-speaking parts of the world. Again this is inevitable, given cultural and historic links as well as shared language. But it is not healthy and harms informed debate. There is still more coverage of Nigeria than, say, the rolling conflicts in Mali or Central African Republic. On the same continent Kenya and Zimbabwe get routine interest but not influential nations such as oil-rich Angola or aid darling Ethiopia. Meanwhile South America largely slips off the map, although home to two G20 nations. So for all Jeremy Corbyn’s adoration of the appalling regime in Venezuela, there is only sporadic coverage of its highly-significant meltdown.

Foreign reporting is expensive for media groups that are losing money 

First-hand coverage has declined since reporting abroad is costly, whether sending journalists to war zones or running foreign bureaus. The business model for many traditional media is in crisis and clickbait stories about celebrities tend to pull in bigger audiences than pieces on far-off places. One US study found evening newscasts spent less than half the time on overseas reporting in 2013 than in the late 1980s. The number of foreign staff reporters has fallen sharply and executives under pressure can make bad calls. When I was The Independent’s deputy editor interest in Russia seemed on the wane so we agreed to scale down commitment in Moscow – and almost instantly, Vladimir Putin began to flex his muscles.

Technology is adding to our global understanding (most of the time)

But if much of traditional media struggles to cover the whole world, technology is transforming coverage – and largely for the better. Yes, there are downsides since social media distorts demand towards popular or sensational subjects. But the digital revolution has led to new outlets such as Buzzfeed and Vice, which have done some impressive work. It has sparked influential crowd-sourced investigations while giving rise to new voices, fact-checking websites and multinational collaborations. And it reduces the cost of coverage, makes it easier to transmit reports, boosts audience reach, allows conversations to cut across borders and can counter flawed reporting.

Increasingly global media organisations offer new hope

Britain has the BBC, which should be a prized soft power asset given its much-deserved respect around the world. Now we are also seeing national brands going global such as Mail Online and The Guardian, although they are struggling to find viable business models. Others such as The Economist and Financial Times have made the leap, along with American publications such as the New York Times and New Yorker plus Qatar’s al-Jazeera. The digital revolution remains in its infancy but if we are lucky this globalisation of media may end up boosting desire for foreign stories to satisfy diverse audiences.

NGOs subsidise foreign reporting – and can distort coverage

New players include campaigning NGOs, which are exploiting market gaps and falling newspaper budgets to promote their own agendas. This can be positive: groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Environmental Investigation Agency operate like journalists in the field and expose outrages. But it can be negative: aid groups fund trips for patsy journalists to push their own interests and view of the world. Christian Aid once told me spending £16,722 taking journalists abroad gave them coverage worth almost ten times that figure in advertising. These charities manipulate the media – yet journalists fail to inform readers who funded trips and rarely challenge their strong and sometimes pernicious influence in the developing world. The legacy is a corrosive image of Africa as a continent of conflict, disease and hunger desperate for Western salvation.

Good news about our world tends to get buried

Like most journalists, I tend to cover bad news and traumatic events around the world. If it bleeds, it leads. We rush to cover the latest coup, the bloody conflict, the horrific atrocity exploding on global consciousness. Tales of tragedy, disaster and human depravity grab attention: more interesting than good news, more immediate than slow-burn stories of progress. Yet the net effect is to reinforce a pessimistic picture of our world – although from health to wealth it is improving at a remarkable rate thanks to capitalism, consumerism and technology. Historians may look back at these times as a remarkable era that saw suffering drastically reduced. Perhaps we need to look more at how people live rather than how they die.

Foreign reporters must learn when they get things wrong

Journalists are getting lots of flak. Yet we should take pride in foreign reporting; certainly I am a huge admirer of most of my peers. Given the speed with which they write the first draft of history in often tough conditions, they deserve credit for how much they get right. Yet we need to be honest when wrong. Few anticipated Brexit or Trump, reflecting bias and too much trust of official source. Covering the Arab Spring we were seduced by sympathy for middle-class idealists seeking democracy that reduced recognition of more disturbing undercurrents. Human beings make mistakes, especially in heat of battle; the big issue is whether we learn from them.

Journalists must work harder to counter malign propagandists

This age of scepticism is being exploited by autocratic states to sow confusion. Perhaps we can blame the way people were misled over the Iraq War or the 2008 fiscal meltdown for rupturing trust in democratic values. Regardless, fake news is a huge problem. Three years ago I stood on a hill looking at hundreds of corpses in eastern Ukraine, passengers on a civilian flight killed by a Russian-backed militia using a missile supplied by Moscow. The Kremlin instantly spread misinformation – just as with its annexation of Crimea. In both cases, I was staggered to see how many people fell for Putin’s lies. Such incidents make good journalism even more important than ever to counter malign propaganda.

When journalists see evil, they must call it out

Finally, there is a duty to distinguish between good and bad. I was one of the first to report from Iraq on how IS was kidnapping Yazidi women as sex slaves. We can analyse such an insurgency, better to learn how to counter such medieval fanaticism and get beyond crude stereotypes. And yes, journalists should be wary of bias. Yet sometimes as foreign reporters we see horrors that must be called out as pure evil and, I believe, always stand firm on the side of democratic values.

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