Published on Pambazuka News, by Lara Pawson, October 20, 2011.
As a British journalist based in London, Lara Pawson says she feels increasingly uneasy about media representations of the politics and people of southern Africa. She even wonders whether international journalism serves any purpose any more … //
… An investigation exploring why the mass media picks some countries to focus on and not others would be a valuable piece of work, but I do not have the space for that here. I want to move on to the second troubling set of ideas that are implicit in the questions posed by the Angolan activist. His desire for news coverage from major media corporations conjures the notion that the courageous efforts of a minority of young Angolans this year are of little importance if they are not documented by the international media. This is not a new idea. The US author and critic, Susan Sontag, famously wrote, in On Photography (1977), ‘Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it . . . A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened.’ More apposite to this discussion are the observations of British cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, who said, in a lecture about the mass media, that ‘an event has no real meaning in the obvious sense until it has been represented… in a way, it doesn’t exist meaningfully until it has been represented’.
The very complex matter of representing Angola with integrity has troubled me ever since I first went to work there as a BBC correspondent in 1998. Within days of my arrival the war between UNITA and the MPLA erupted once again. Quickly I began to feel like a conveyer of statistics – of the dead and the starving, of tonnages of aid supplies and military hardware, of ambushes and anti-tank mine explosions, diplomatic visits, UN speeches and the occasional Miss Angola event to lighten things up. Although I tried hard to produce more optimistic, complex and varied news, I came to believe that no matter what I reported, none of it, to borrow from the Palestinian literary theorist, Edward Said, was ‘free’. My reports could never gain autonomy from all the other images and accounts of events and people in Africa that had also been seen and read by BBC audiences across the world. The meaning of my work was always set in a broader, biased history of the representation of an entire continent.
When the Angolan war finally ended in 2002, aside from the initial international media frenzy around Jonas Savimbi’s death and the subsequent peace deal, foreign media interest in the country quickly waned. Once labelled by many foreign journalists as the country with ‘the forgotten war’, Angola became the country with a forgotten peace. In 2007, when I was briefly back reporting in Luanda, one BBC producer advised me that unless the situation became considerably worse, the corporation would not be wasting its precious budget covering matters Angolan. It was at around this time that an assassination attempt was made on the UNITA leader, Isaías Samakuva. While the BBC spewed out endless reports on an appalling assault on Zimbabwe’s Morgan Tsvangirai, they almost completely ignored the parallel attack on Samakuva. I was infuriated by what I felt were hypocritical news values.
Over time however, I have begun to wonder about the value of intense media interest in a place, event or person. In the case of Zimbabwe, the British media obsession has, at times, been bulimic. In the mid-noughties, partisan reports pitched precariously on the triumvirate of President Robert Mugabe, the war veterans and the white farmers, dominated our screens, airwaves and papers for months on end. Subsequently, devoted long-term research into the complexity and even success of the land reform policy – for example, ‘Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities’ written by a group of respected academics from Zimbabwe and Britain – has barely been noted … //
… To challenge the stereotype requires much more space and time than any mainstream British media outlet seems prepared to give, and certainly to pay for. An audience might only begin to understand a country more fully if they are provided with complex and subtle reporting by well-informed journalists over many months and years – not to mention the broader political, intellectual and artistic culture available too. If, as is usually the case today, one is given 800 words or less to explain a complex news event, it becomes very hard to do much more than peddle a few facts placed within a broader historical framework.
So what to do? Write nothing and avoid provoking banal even racist responses to the African continent, or write something – however short, however infrequent – to try and maintain some sort of public awareness of a particular place or group of people? Some might argue that the best thing to do is to write positive stereotypes in a bid to somehow erase or neutralise the negative ones. But this strikes me as equally unsatisfactory. Not only do positive stereotypes carry their own risky relationship to truth, they are also prone to misunderstanding. There is, in other words, no guarantee that it will work.
This leaves me wondering – as I have elsewhere in the past – whether foreign journalism has any value at all. In desperation, I find myself looking to academia as a better alternative for pursuing knowledge and, dare I say it, truth. There again, however, I am confronted by the problematic Said posited in 1981 in his brilliant book ‘Covering Islam: how the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world’. At the very beginning of Chapter Three, on knowledge and power, he admits ‘it may seem exceptionally futile to ask whether, for members of one culture, knowledge of other cultures is really possible.’ Of course, Said was writing about the relationship between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’, but 30 years on, I believe this conundrum is as relevant today as it was then. Certainly, it is as relevant to the relationship between ‘the West’ and ‘Africa’ as it was and still is to ‘Islam’. (full text and Notes).