The news from the South

Despite all the hype about 'globalisation' the Western news media has continued to cut down on news coverage of the South. Although the ostensible reason for this is the declining interest of viewers and readers, the truth is that this 'information gap' is structurally engineered by those who control the information.

by Jeremy Seabrook

IT is an extraordinary paradox, that at the very moment when the word 'globalisation' is on everybody's lips, the Western news media should have decided to cut dramatically the amount of news coverage coming from the South.

In May 1997, the Chief Executive of BBC News told a conference in London that American networks have cut international news reporting by two-thirds in 20 years. He said that this was a result of declining interest by viewers and readers in foreign news. He said that information without understanding is worthless, and that an 'understanding gap' is likely to grow unless journalists address the absence of adequate coverage.

In other words, what we are seeing, is a move towards 'market-driven news'. That is, the clear development that people must be given what they want in the sphere of news and information, as in every other area of their lives. Thus, the drastic reduction of news from the South must mean that the right of the people of the North not to know now takes precedence over the need to report what is actually happening in the world. In this sense, the news media are responding to 'demand': it is already a commonplace to hear people in the West say 'I never watch/listen to the news.' 'I can't understand politics.' 'It depresses me.' 'I can't get my head round all that.' A deepening indifference to the wider world, a growing parochialism, a greater preoccupation with personal lives - all this has contributed to a mass turning off; and it coincides with the deeper (unchosen) involvement of the peoples of North and South in a common destiny.

Thus, the 'understanding gap' has not occurred by chance. It has grown precisely in proportion to the growing interdependence of the people of North and South. That gap is not created by journalists, whose powers the Chief Executive of BBC News clearly overestimates; it is structurally engineered by those who control the information of the information society. But then, whoever expected the landlords of information to be any more generous with what they possess than the owners of land, food or any other historical controllers of indispensable resources? The information society is clearly as partial, unjust and selective as the industrial order of which it is an emanation; and will follow the direction constructed by the rich and powerful in the protection of their own interests.

A predetermined pattern

Of course, plenty of news still reaches us from the South. But this follows a predetermined pattern, which only confirms our (racist) view of the world. Most of it pathologises the South, perpetuates stereotypes of impotence, corruption and disaster; and promotes the role of the West as the rescuers, humanitarian saviours and dispensers of aid to incompetent and ruinous regimes all over the world.

The treatment of Sierra Leone as British returnees flew into the United Kingdom after the coup of May 1997 is characteristic: they were fleeing 'anarchy' as 'yet another African country descends into chaos'. The coup had 'overthrown this infant democracy' which had been established for the benefit of 'the long-suffering people of this former British colony, one of the poorest countries on earth.' (BBC TV NEWS). The message is plain: it has all been downhill since we left, they are incapable of governing themselves, in spite of the help we have given them, even down to the model of the murdered infant democracy.

Similarly, the reviling of Mobutu in the former Zaire, the sometime great friend of the West in its earlier crusades against Communism, takes place in a vacuum. It is as though the events were without antecedents; there is no sense that the West has supported the most vile regimes in pursuit of its strategic interests. The refusal of Laurent Kabile to promise 'democratic reforms' is denounced, as if Westminster-style elections were the only thing that mattered in that ravaged, impoverished country. This shows the efforts of the West to remake the whole world in its own image. It is the same with all the other abandoned battle sites of a Cold War deserted by the participants, who are now busy in Europe making great show of their common fate and mutual affection.

Not all the images of the South are negative, the more so since it has become a playground, a resort, a place for escape for the oppressed people of the North, a destination of sunshine and exotic culture; an item of consumption, not merely in the choice produce which Northern markets can command for out-of-season vegetables and tropical fruits to the detriment of the basic food necessities of the people, but also its golden beaches, swaying palms, its obliging occupants with their coconut-white smiles by the poolside, their sexual complaisance under the strobe lights of the bars, or the unfathomable mystery of their ancient cultures and the taste of banquets which graced the table of the Emperor Jehangir. Whole countries, cultures and civilisations have become objects of entertainment to people seeking relief from the arid monocul-tures of the North.

There is a third way in which the South appears in the crude and ritualised iconography of the global media. And that is, as obedient and faithful recipient of our prescriptions for 'governance' and wealth-creation, as the passive executors of structural adjustment programmes and economic reforms, inspired, even dictated by the Western financial institutions. This is the necessary preamble to the process of 'integration' into the global economy, by means of which THEY will all become like US. This creates a trouble- free model of developmental determinism from which no countries in the world demur; or rather, from which the leader of no country now publicly dissents.

And to support this, we see congratulatory accounts in the Western press celebrating the new middle class, the beneficiaries of development who, surprise, surprise, are avid for Western goods and luxuries. These people with their addiction to disco music, whisky, high fashion, drugs, travel, sex and high levels of consumption, are evidence that the desire for Western goods is inscribed within a universalist human nature, a genetic predisposition of humanity towards that sublimest form of civilisation. These social groups police the poor, and make them invisible with their showy comings and goings at the shopping malls, luxury hotels and VIP airport lounges of the world.

This imagery of PEOPLE LIKE US helps to distract from the monstrous untenability of the global project of which they are such conspicuous pioneers, and the social injustice which they embody.

And this is the heart of the waning interest of the global media in the South. There is no market for the pain or suffering of the poor, the losers, the excluded, the no-hopers of development, those whose experience offers daily witness and tangible denial of the sunny reports and bland forecasts of economic growth in perpetuity from the Northern financial institutions ((The IMF 'warns' India not to slow the pace of 'reforms', and says that it will take 70 years for India to close half its per capita income gap with developed nations. It also laments the fact that 'a large part of the developing world has not yet reaped the benefits of globalisation.' At the same time (April 1997), a UN South Asia report estimates that 134 million children are working in the region, many over 15 hours a day, and that primary schooling, health care, safe water and nutrition programmes would cost $129 billion over 15 years.)

No wonder the reality of the lives of the majority of people is spirited away by the media makers, the creators of reality, the owners and shapers of an increasingly eccentric and incongruous real world; a kind of genocide by omission of the majority of the world's people.

This is why the people of the North must be preserved from any understanding (the understanding gap) of the way in which their insecure well-being is inextricably linked, through globalisation, to the impoverishment of the South; and they have no wish to be disturbed by the necessary rigours which the poor will inevitably suffer if their fragile privilege is to be perpetuated.

TV and newspaper executives should not shed too many tears over the veil which the media obligingly draw over the South. They serve us well in a work of concealment, in which only the doings of the privileged (the surrogates and imitators of the West) and of rulers, politicians and elites exist. The poor have been swallowed up in the bottomless abyss of the information gap. (TWR No. 83, July 1997)

Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in London.