New Internationalist

From The Horse’s Mouth

Issue 100

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THE NEW INFORMATION ORDER [image, unknown] How Third World news is packaged

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FROM THE HORSE'S MOUTH
How Third World news is packaged.

John Pilger

Journalist with Daily Mirror. He is renowned for anti-establishment reporting and commitment to oppressed. The Mirror is the second largest of Britain's dailies with a circulation of 3.5 million.

I joined the Mirror when it was trying to become a serious tabloid. I tried to change the style from that of an ex-servicemen oriented paper - the pretty girls, animal stories - to a different one, to develop a new readership. I have always been committed to tabloid journalism and to a wider audience. I am cranky about elitism, and hate it.

I tried to explain to readers here about countries which they did not hear about... to explain subjectively... I think the whole idea of objectivity is something bogus. . . What is needed from Western journalists is a basic sympathy for the people of the Third World, understanding of their problems. But there is the danger of being over sympathetic, of looking at the Third World in Western terms of charity - a quick injection of goodwill. Charity breeds dependence and dependence is a disease. At one time I felt that it was the way Western readers could respond to disasters. But I no longer do it. Readers are interested in news from the developing countries. But there are problems. At a time when two million are unemployed here - when racism is encouraged in this country - it is a lot to ask people to take interest in Third World issues.

Cameron Forbes

Foreign Editor of Melbourne daily newspaper; The Age, circulation 250,000, founded by the family business of David Syme and Co. now co-owned by John Fairfax, proprietor of the Sydney Morning Herald. Has offices in London, Washington, Amman, Kuala Lumpur and Peking. Forbes is the 'aboriginal lobby' on The Age which has also given editorial support to the Brandt proposals.

I am aware of the incongruity of a newspaper which can carry graphic stories on starving Somalian refugees as well as a 'harrowing' account of a food writer battling with a poor roquefort sauce. But a newspaper such as The Age is necessarily a complex package and it would be fatuous to pretendthat Third World development news - either 'good' or 'bad' - is adequately covered. What is 'good' news, anyway? And where does the Third World start? The philosophy behind our foreign pages is that there has to be more analysis and more setting of the news - good or bad - in the sociocultural context of the respective countries. But as the squeeze grows towards deadline it is inevitable that the 'bad' news will survive.

If there is much good development news about, very little comes across my desk Isn't it a matter of fact that 'bad' news - the grave dimensions of problems on an individual and national level - far outweighs the 'good' news? And should not priority be given to such news?

John Swayne

Covered Vietnam and Kampuchea for the Sunday Times, one of Fleet Street's oldest and most respected newspapers (circulation 1.5 million) which has note joined the News of the World in Rupert Murdoch's New International group.

The foreign correspondent has to bring alive a place thousands of miles away and make it interesting to readers... I try to write in human terms, to go and have a look at what's happening, at how an Ethiopian peasant lives. But it's easy to turn people off. Stories with harrowing descriptions of grinding poverty in Calcutta or Bangladesh will not take most readers beyond the first paragraph.

With Vietnam most people thought the war ended when the US troops pulled out. I found it difficult to convince newspapers back home that it still deserved a story.

Third World governments are making it more difficult for Western journalists to gain access. Visa regulations are strict and you may get arrested or deported. Take for instance Zaire. It is under-reported in the Western press because it is impossible for a journalist to get into the place. But we Western journalists are privileged. It is the local journalist who faces the worst type of repression. The days of the old type of foreign correspondents are over, because of the sheer expense of keeping them abroad. Now the trend is towards a package tour of four or five weeks over several countries. But unless you are terribly good and have a strong news story, it is difficult to do a proper job.

Stan Swinton

Vice President of Associated Press, the world's biggest news agency sending out 17 million words every day.

It simply isn't true that all we cover is the earthquakes. According to a study I made of Associated Press, economic news was 22.8 per cent, as against 5.6 for violence, revolutions and coups d'etat.

We have 1,200-word-a-minute wires and they carry hundreds of stories from Africa that perhaps no paper in the United States uses. England is a monoethnic country, so are Norway and Japan; so foreign news that makes the headlines makes the headlines all over that country. The United States is a multi ethnic country... a story from Mexico will get used through the Southwest. A story from Poland will get used in Akron and Detroit and Chicago and that's because the readers of those papers want it and the circulations in those papers go down if they don't print it.

As the cost of newsprint goes up, many papers have cut their news hole. Alright, you've got 153 countries, you've got maybe a column and a half or two columns to cover all of them, you've got an ethnic interest in your immediate area, these are major stories to be covered and almost inevitably the meaningful cultural story that gives a better understanding of what it's like to live in the Third World without electricity, that stuff gets short shrift.

The Minister of Information in most Third World countries is very low in the cabinet hierarchy, so they give it to some rinky-dink politician who's somebody's brother-in-law, they make him Minister of Information. Instead of getting someone who knows communications, you get somebody who sends presents to the correspondents, tries to co-opt them, and if they can't be co-opted they are expelled.

Greg Chamberlain

Works as a sub-editor for AFP in Paris which sends out over three million words per day Chamberlain has travelled extensively in the Caribbean and for ten years been a correspondent for London's The Guardian.

AFP provides a round-the-clock teletype service processing one - two million words of 'raw copy' sent in daily to the Agency's headquarters by correspondents in every country in the world.

I work in one of these 'boiler room' processing centres along with nearly 200 other sub-editors, turning out stories in French, English, Spanish, German and Portuguese. It can be one of the most unglamorous and frustrating jobs in journalism. Although writing stories now on a television screen plugged into a computer makes life far easier than the old typewriter.

With so many different clients to serve, the premium is on speed and volume. Quality often goes by the board. Agencies are strong on bald facts and official statements, without much explanation or analysis.

Mediocrity is also favoured by the factory-like exhaustion and lack of originality which creeps into the management of any 24-hour operation where the lights never go off. Yet agency editors have immense power with so many people hanging on their every word. The possibility of distortion by omission or misjudgement under frequent technical pressures, such as short staffing or heavy copy flows, is frightening.

Virtually all my colleagues are Europeans or Americans. All of them white, mostly men. Few have any real experience of the Third World countries which comprise most of the Agency's clients.

Don Manley

Foreign Editor of the Toronto Globe and Mail, circulation 360,000, which sees itself as Canada's 'newspaper of record'. Owned by the Thompson chain, which controls a total of 37 Canadian dailies - 26 per cent of all the English-language newspapers - and has a string of newspapers and other interests around the world. Currently facing charges for conspiracy, to reduce competition between newspapers in Canada. The Globe was among thefirst newspapers with a computerised newsroom and has bureaux in Peking, London, Washington and Mexico City.

I've got a job to do to present the world in a page-and-a-half. There are things going on out there and we want to know why they are occurring, but the Third World is a hell of a big place to cover and let's face it, in journalistic terms it's not sexy.

The news editor divides up the space between the National desk, the City desk and the Foreign desk. How much we end up with depends on how well we sell our stories in the news conference. If I have a heavy day, then I make a pitch for more space, as all the other guys do. If they have the opening of Parliament then I'm going to get squeezed out.

I wouldn't touch a Third World news agency with a barge pole. It's a vested interest. Something that's run by and for the Third World to get their message across doesn't interest me. In the same way I wouldn't go to a press office for information or reproduce a handout. I prefer to do my own digging.

Source: Multinational Monitor; 1980


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