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HEALTH [image, unknown] Reviews

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This month we review an analysis of how the media misreports the problems of the Third World, and two studies exploring the fragile hopes for a better future for Namibia.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

How to be a
bias detective

Between the Lines: How to detect bias and
propaganda in the news and everyday life
by Eleanor Maclean
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Can: Black Rose Books (pbk) $12.95
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UK: Housman’s Distribution Service (pbk) £6.95/by post £7.50
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"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, who is to be master. That is all."

From 'Through the looking glass' by Lewis Carroll.

This Canadian text is intended as a resource to allow people to challenge ‘in a systematic and formal way the pictures, sounds and objects that surround them in everyday life’. Its focus is the mass media, and its main concerns are the misreporting of the problems of the Third World of a kind only too familiar to readers of New Internationalist.

The book is lavishly illustrated with pertinent cartoons and includes a large number of reprints, either of examples of media mischief or of exemplary alternatives from more reliable sources. Most chapters are appended with suggestions for discussion on research, though these range from useful classroom exercises in media debunking to some awesomely global requests to assess ‘what are some of the main problems in the world today’.

Chapter Two. ‘Getting the Message’, contains some shrewd suggestions about the stylistic conventions that underpin ‘bias and propaganda’, forcefully illustrated by the Nestlé’s baby food story. The following chapter turns to the ownership and control of the media, particularly in Canada. A chapter on propaganda, bias and point of view’ is largely illustrated by alternative reporting of Zimbabwe. while a final chapter examines pictures of the Third World. Brazil in particular This is not a subtle book. While the argument is never made explicit, the implicit theme is that the media are owned and controlled by the manipulative executives of multi national corporations, whose organs maliciously orchestrate a campaign of misinformation about the problems of the world to preserve their privileged supremacy. It is indicative that, although we are told much about bias and propaganda, the author is little interested in ideology. Journalists, in this account, would seem to be helpless conduits or willing dupes, the newsroom or studio an unthinking workshop of distortion. This may be a useful corrective both to platitudes about the ‘free press’, and to unduly academic analyses of mass communication. But it is far from the whole story.

Nevertheless this is an attractive and often stimulating book which, despite the occasionally patronising tone of evening class didacticism, contains a good deal of use to people willing to think or teach about the imagery around us. The author’s claim that ‘if you examine the messages of the mass media carefully, you can see how easily the media can misrepresent the lives, struggles, aspirations, and hopes of peoples throughout the world’, is no bad starting point. New Internationalist readers may find this book as good an entry to an important debate as any other.

Peter Golding

Peter Golding is a research associate at the Leicester Centre for Moss Communications.

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Namibia’s future

Transforming a Wasted Land
by Richard Moorsom
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UK: Catholic Institute for International Relations (pbk) £2.95
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Namibia: The Ravages of War
by Barbara Konig
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UK: International Defence and Aid Fund (pbk) £1.50
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Transforming a Wasted Land, the second publication of CIIR’s A Future for Namibia series, looks at Namibia’s agricultural sector, examining how present agricultural patterns have been determined by the interests of successive colonial rulers. The initial genocide of local people. seizure of land and property by European settlers and the creation of impoverished labour reserves for the black population were central to the process. Today, colonial control is maintained by a powerful South African military force in the country.

Namibia’s ranching land was used by South Africa to settle landless rural Afrikaaners displaced by the ‘rapid commercialisation of South African agriculture’, pushing the Namibian peasants to marginal land. At the same time, over the last 60 years, Namibia’s agricultural production has been regulated to support South Africa’s own agricultural sector. The result has been the destruction of traditional forms of peasant production and the development of heavily subsidised settler production.

This forms the basis on which Richard Moorsom builds some options for the future. The main question focuses on how to transform the present inefficient agricultural system to forms of production related to the needs of Namibia’s majority.

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At independence it is possible that a major proportion of the settler farmers could leave, taking their capital with them. A rapid disintegration of settler agriculture could have a serious effect on Namibia’s economy, because settler agriculture contributes substantially to economic production. On the other hand, subsidies to maintain the settler sector would pose considerable constraints on the country’s economic development.

The development of the peasant sector will be crucial. Evidence suggests that a form of production derived from traditional methods may be most appropriate. What-ever options are adopted there will be considerable need for experienced and appropriately trained people to implement the policies adopted. SWAPO (South West African People’s Organisation). the political party widely recognised as having support from Namibia’s majority population, is considering the options for future policy and training people in exile.

The determination of South Africa to defend its interest in Namibia against SWAPO’s stated socialist policies is shown by its military presence in the territory. In Namibia: the Ravages of War by Barbara König, the extent of South Africa’s military occupation is documented. ‘An estimated 100,000 troops . . . supported by approximately 10,000 police, are stationed in a country whose population is officially given as 1,009,000.’

Barbara König recounts numerous instances of repression by South Africa’s forces against a population which clearly supports SWAPO and its struggle to drive South Africa from Namibia.

The destruction of Namibia’s resources by inefficient settler agriculture and South Africa’s occupation have major implications for Namibia’s future. Independence will certainly come, but the cost of 100 years of colonialism has yet to be counted.

Simon Stocker


The Grass is Singing
...being the book that exposed the poverty of white rule in Africa

THOU SHALT NOT let your fellow whites sink lower than a certain point: because if you do, the nigger will see he is as good as you are.

This, ‘the first law of white South Africa’, is Doris Lessing’s political benchmark in her agonising story of a poor white farming couple. At its simplest The Grass is Singing is the story of Dick Turner, a hapless white farmer, and Mary, his pathetic wife, who fail in their struggle to make a life and a living from the merciless land of black Africa. Beaten by the unforgiving soil, sullen native labourers, the fellow whites who despise them and finally by their own desperate incompetence, they are each driven slowly mad.

The Grass is Singing, like all Ms. Lessing’s early novels, is deeply evocative of life among southern Africa’s white settlers. Her own childhood was spent in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She left school at 14 and by the age of 31, when she moved to London, had been twice married and divorced, borne three children and written and destroyed six novels. Her own politics were acutely shaped during World War II by the communist group formed in Rhodesia amongst British servicemen and other exiles:’

The political force of Ms. Lessing’s novel lies in its uncliched exploration of the ideology of white supremacy, whose chief principle is that whites must always close ranks when threatened.

But the novel’s drama explodes from the smouldering confusion of Mary’s repressed emotions. Her mother was wretched, her father drunken, brutal, lecherous. Their deaths free her for the empty gaiety of life in town: a secretary in the day, the sanctuary of a girls’ hostel at night, with endless parties, tennis matches and dances filling her free time. Only when she overhears ‘friends’ ridiculing her ageing girlishness does she decide to find a husband. She meets Dick, the struggling, clumsy, lonely farmer on one of his rare trips into town, and is secretly glad that they cannot afford a honeymoon. She wants only to escape.

In the stifling heat of their tiny brick and tin house, hemmed in by the endlessly encroaching vegetation and remorselessly crushed by their inescapable poverty, Mary goes slowly mad. And here we discover the subtley of the threat to white supremacy. For her terror, and her desire, are focused obsessively on Moses, the last of her ‘houseboys’. Moses is big, powerful and intelligent. But, above all, he is black.

Mary loathes the blacks — hating their insolence, their quiet resentment, their broad muscular bodies, she loses her temper and uses her whip on one of them, ‘magnificently built, with nothing but an old sack tied around his waist’.

This is Moses, as Mary discovers when he is chosen as the new houseboy. By this time Mary’s spirit is already broken. Bitter, lingering pride makes her reject all offers of help, until she sleeps all day, never venturing from the dust-fringed house. She cannot break free of her terror and because of this she is forced, for the first time, into a human relationship with a black. Moses cares for her: his first touch on her shoulder filling her with nausea, but leaving her unable to resist. Ms. Lessing does not explore this passionate black force and all we glimpse of their growing relationship is Moses dressing Mary and brushing her hair. It remains Mary’s secret; part real, part fantasy.

But Mary has looked straight into the eyes of a black and seen a human being.

The Grass is Singing, published very soon after Ms. Lessing’s arrival in London in 1950, attracted immediate literary acclaim — being reprinted seven times within the first five months. But it also offered timely insight into the ‘colour problem’, as black nationalist movements gathered strength across the continent.

Some see this book as a parable of this irresistible black force and the coming overthrow of white oppression. But that is asking too much of it and ignores the taut thread of sexual repression that weaves through the story of racial oppression. It also makes little sense of the ending.

A young farm-manager, brought in temporarily so that Mary and Dick can take a holiday, sees the mind-numbing obsession in which Mary is trapped, however willingly, and dismisses Moses.

In the middle of the night before the couple must leave, with the tin roof cracking as it cools over their head (‘it seemed that a vast black body, like a human spider, was crawling over the roof, trying to get inside’), Mary rises and waits outside on the verandah. She is waiting to die. And Moses comes out of the darkness, a long curving knife lifted above his head, and murders her.

Chris Sheppard

The Grass is Singing
by Doris Lessing (1950)
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Granada (pbk) UK: £1.95
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Aus: $7.50 / NZ: $7.95
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New Internationalist issue 127 magazine cover This article is from the September 1983 issue of New Internationalist.
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