issue 256 - June 1994
Why do so many news stories never make the news?
Vanessa Baird examines some of the obstacles in their way.
‘Is he a local man?’ I can hear his voice now. George, the affable, chain-smoking, cricket-loving news editor on the local paper where I cut my journalistic teeth.
Always the same first question, with the odd variation including words like ‘woman’, ‘girl’ or ‘boy’. An able gatekeeper, foil to eager cub-reporters trying to push through stories just outside the region. Really good stories. Sometimes even ‘important’ stories. But not ‘our patch’.
Sometimes there were ways around George. Like: ‘I think his/her mother lives around here’. ‘Check it out!’ would come the reply, phone in each hand as he checked out the cricket score.
Sometimes you would do the story anyway, in your spare time. But if it strayed off the patch of what was deemed suitable for a middle-of-the-road family newspaper it would find its way onto the fearsome spike that graced George’s desk.
Years later, when working as a journalist in Peru, I realized that George’s solidly parochial attitude to journalism was not restricted to the news desks of the UK provincial media.
It affected all the media, including the foreign desks of the quality press and broadcasting networks. And it cropped up in many different forms.
Although events in Peru had first-rate news value on the ground, getting the rich world’s newspapers interested was almost impossible. A Maoist insurgency that was pushing the country to the brink of civil war was not of interest – an interview with a British drug smuggler in a Lima jail was.
There are many places in the world that fail to make the news because they do not connect with rich-world interests. It takes something massively appalling, like the recent massacres in Rwanda, for them to make their transient mark upon the Western consciousness.
But sometimes stories don’t get told simply because those in power make damned sure they don’t and the media gatherers lack the clout, resources or inclination to investigate further. Nagaland is one such case, and the authority concerned is the Government of India.
Out of sight
On a high plateau against a brilliant blue sky, villagers are gathering. Behind them rolling green hills that stretch over the border and into Burma. The area is prime National Geographic Magazine territory to look at – the sort of place that might unwittingly be described as ‘unspoilt’.
The film quality on this smuggled videotape – there are around 60 hours of it – is poor. But it’s the closest a journalist is likely to get to what is going on. The area has – with a few exceptions – been closed to foreigners since it was annexed by India in 1954.
By my side is Yongkong, a Naga who has been in exile in London since the 1960s.
He watches the film quietly; the villagers gathering to give their testimonies, one by one. A woman in white describes what the soldiers did to her children. A man, a rice grower, twists and turns as he re-enacts the various forms his own torture took – finally opening his mouth to the camera and showing the place where his teeth were before the Indian soldiers plucked them out with pliers.
Testimony after testimony, the horrors unfold.
A teenage girl weeps by the grave of her executed brother. She has had to replace the tombstone several times – each time to be vandalized again by Indian army forces. A man describes how nails were driven into his eyes. There is plenty that people do not talk about in front of the camera. That comes out in written testimonies. Mass rape is used as a systematic weapon of abuse. People of both sexes are subjected to a humiliating public torture involving hanging upside down with chilli peppers inserted into their orifices.
Why is the Indian Government doing this? The reason is simple. The majority of the Naga people do not want to be part of India and that is perceived as a major threat to the fragile union of states that forms the modern nation. If some states are allowed independence others may want to follow suit and India will disintegrate, it is feared. Parallels with Kashmir have been drawn.
‘It’s not the same,’ says Yongkong. ‘Kashmir agreed to be part of India and recognized the Constitution. We never have.’ Nagaland was simply handed over – or betrayed – by the departing British in 1947.
‘Do we look like Indians?’ another Naga exile, Khodao Yanthan, rhetorically asks me.
The three million Nagas who inhabit the region are of Sino-Mongolian origin. Culturally, linguistically and physically they have more in common with the Karen people in Burma or even the Chinese than with the Indians. Indian troops – many from the notoriously undisciplined Assam Rifles – are taught that the Nagas are cannibals and head-hunters who must be dealt with accordingly. The result is pitiful.
In the words of one elderly Naga: ‘They have destroyed everything that it is possible to destroy. How can we ever rebuild our lives?’
India’s censorship of its war in Nagaland has been largely successful. Helped by geography, the Indian authorities have succeeded by making it a no-go zone. They have also saturated it militarily: there are 150,000 Indian troops stationed in Nagaland to fight a Naga resistance army of 3,000. As a result facts and figures to substantiate claims of human-rights abuses – the stuff journalists normally need in order to run a story – are patchy and hard to come by.
But in 1991 two human-rights activists smuggled their way into Nagaland and spent three months moving around the country collecting evidence.
David Ward and Steve Hillman visited 30 villages and recorded the testimonies I am now watching. It is probably the most thorough account available, and it communicates the warmth of these people as well as their plight.
The first targets for torture and execution are teachers, pastors – most Nagas are Baptist Christians – and women, according to David Ward. ‘They go for people with influence in the community – and women are highly regarded,’ he explains.
Before he and Steve could begin to record experiences they had to gain the confidence of people who had no reason to trust foreigners.
‘I started by telling them that as a British man I knew I was part of their problem and I was ashamed of this. It was my country that betrayed them in 1947 and was carrying on betraying them by failing to say anything about what was happening now.
‘I listened to hundreds of testimonies. You could actually see the survivors unburdening themselves and transcending the ingrained barrier of fear-psychosis that has set in over many years.’
Finally, after months of successfully dodging Indian troops, their party was ambushed. One of their group – Neipielie Chucha – was killed by Indian soldiers. David and Steve were captured, imprisoned without trial in an Indian jail and were themselves tortured. Then, and only then, was the Naga Vigil human-rights group David had set up while still in Britain able to get Western media attention.
Miranda Watson, who led the campaign in Britain, recalls: ‘It was very frustrating. It was David that most of the papers wanted to know about. Son of an Assam tea-planter, who set up Naga Vigil while in Gartree prison for robbery – they found his story irresistible. It was really ironic. All David had wanted to do was get the world to focus on the Nagas, not on himself .’
David and Steve were released from the Indian jail a year later, in March 1993 – after the intervention of British Prime Minister John Major.
But that was as far as the British Government wanted to go. Since 1993 the situation in Nagaland has steadily deteriorated, according to Naga Vigil who keep up regular correspondence with scores of local people. There are an estimated 1,000-1,200 people being detained without charge. Entire villages may at times become prison camps, cordoned off and denied water. But the people are resisting. A video film, taken by Nagas on a camera left behind by David and Steve, shows a demonstration of 30,000 outside a courthouse in the town of Phek, taking their lives in their hands as they chant ‘We are Nagas, not Indians’ and demanding the release of detainees.
In April of this year the British Legion managed to arrange with the Indian Government for a small group of relatives of British servicemen lost in the 1944 Battle of Kohima to visit the area. While there, British visitors were approached by local people telling them of their plight and begging for help. But the British and Indian organizers of the trip have since warned the visitors not to speak to the press about their experiences as this could harm Anglo-Indian relations. Meanwhile the official Nagaland Journal newspaper carries an interview with a British legionnaire who says how impressed he is that there is ‘not a beggar in sight’.
‘Strange,’ comments David Ward sardonically, ‘when the people are begging for their lives’.
Them and us
Even with easy access the story of the Nagas would not make an ideal news story. It’s not ‘new’, for start. Good hard news combines novelty and drama, within a limited timescale. Ideal events are natural or political catastrophes such as aircrashes, earthquakes, cyclones, famines and coups.
When the Third World does break into the rich world’s consciousness it is usually with one of these events. As a result Western perceptions of Africa, Asia and Latin America as zones of chaos and misery are often exaggerated. Peter Adamson, co-founder of NI, regularly gives 16- and 17-year-olds and their teachers a questionnaire asking them what percentage of the world’s children are ‘visibly malnourished’. The usual answer is 50-70 per cent. The true answer is one to two per cent.
One reason positive stories don’t get told is because they tend to unfold slowly, undramatically. Increasing female literacy in a state in Bangladesh can’t compete with a flood, although the links between a mother’s education and her children’s chances of survival are direct and proven and the number of lives saved by educating women is likely to far exceed lives lost in a flood.
Positive stories also tend to show people quietly getting on with development. But the mainstream Western media is hooked on narratives about its own people going out and saving the world. It’s a form of collective narcissism that actually obstructs vision: you cannot see through mirrors. It’s also inherently racist.
Nowhere has this been more clearly shown in recent times than in Somalia during the inappropriately-named Operation Restore Hope. A disaster that had been ignored by the West for the best part of a year suddenly made its way onto the agenda of the US Government. Starving Africans had to be helped – and, as guardians of the New World Order, the US and its marines leapt into action and took sides, with precious little knowledge of what they were going into.
The agenda of most news crews was even less inspiring. It was, in ‘newsman’s’ parlance, a ‘jug fuck’, a ‘kind of gang bang, but less orderly with too many reporters on one story’.1
In the competitive scramble for ‘stick action’ – images of undernourished children – the feelings and the interests of the Somali people faded into insignificance. With all their expensive media technology news crews crammed into desperately under-equipped clinics, filmed starving children, interviewed recently-arrived Western aid workers and then left, ignoring the Somali doctors and nurses who had been there all along, working around the clock without pay.
Why is this happening? In the past foreign events were filtered through the old-fashioned newspaper correspondent. Now communications technology can give us the story straight from the horse’s mouth. International journalism should be more authentic and representative than ever.
Some of it does excel. The BBC’s George Alagiah, for example, used television to do some memorably sensitive reporting from Somalia before the media circus got there. But even the best journalists today face a new set of awesome obstacles, and technology may not necessarily be on their side. The round-the-clock coverage of Desert Storm took media technology to new heights – and journalism to new depths. Rarely have reporters covering a major world event been so deftly manipulated by political forces thousands of miles away – and become so detached from the people at the centre of the story.
Ed Cody of the Washington Post identifies the root cause: ‘An avalanche of information comes out of the US Government. They do it with such intensity and such volume that almost automatically it becomes the definition of what is happening. Anyone in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, in Baghdad who has the temerity to approach the problem from a different angle, to say wait a minute, this is the situation, I am here, I’m talking to this person Mohammed and he tells me that it’s this way – is simply ignored. That voice cannot compete with the volume of information coming out of what is essentially the US Government and its agenda.’1
This might not be so bad if governments and politicians could be relied upon to tell the truth – but they can’t. It’s the job of journalists to spot when they are lying. But if the press is neither sounding the alarm nor keeping record of the lies, then you end up with what Noam Chomsky identifies as a ‘manufacture of consent’ which enables millions of people to be duped by powerful governments.
North Americans were not the only ones taken for a ride by Desert Storm. According to Jonathan Benthall: ‘Most British journalists involved in covering the Gulf War have since sworn they will never allow themselves to be manipulated as they were.’2
The question is: how much choice in the matter do they have?
A handful of huge media empires, such as Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, is rapidly gaining control of every conceivable communications means and outlet – from old-established independent newspapers to Hollywood studios to cable, satellite and telephone companies.
Journalist and academic Ben Bagdikian has vividly outlined the ideal scenario for today’s media mogul, whereby a magazine article generates a TV series, a movie screenplay, a soundtrack, a hit single, cable re-runs and worldwide distribution of videocassettes. All the companies and players involved are, of course, owned by the mogul.
At a time when some developing countries, like Brazil, India, Korea and Uruguay are becoming prolific media and news producers there might be a real chance of realizing the 1970s dream of reversing the North-South flow of information. But, in the wake of the recent GATT free-trade agreements, the technology-rich Western media empires have carte blanche to flood and dominate world markets as never before.
Windows not mirrors
The media is too important for us to permit this concentration of power. A practical step would be to extend and apply anti-monopoly legislation or trust laws to restrict ownership. One news medium per owner would free up the market and the media to be more imaginative and more receptive to news from different perspectives – from the South, from women, from indigenous groups.
It may also allow more diverse forms of journalism to flourish. When you come down to it, any communicator worth their salt should be able to make us feel for another person’s situation, whoever and wherever they are. The best medium of communication remains, not the fibre- optic cable, but the common thread of humanity. The moving, insightful and at times subjective work of some women war correspondents – such as Maggie O’Kane’s eyewitness accounts from Bosnia for The Guardian – demonstrates the positive value of human-response journalism and of a fresh approach.
If, however, the media moguls have their way we are likely to end up with news from distant places and about other peoples only as an offshoot of commercial advertising.
It already happens. For the past 20 years the gradual genocide of the Buddhist Jumma people by Muslim Bangladeshi Government forces had been ignored in the mainstream media. Then, suddenly, in January 1994, the plight of the Jummas hit the news. Why? Hollywood star Richard Gere, himself a Buddhist, made a special plea for them while opening the winter sales at Harrods, London’s most prestigious store.
It’s good that he cares. But are we only going to hear such stories as part of another story about a famous shop and a Western celebrity who is, broadly speaking, ‘a local man’?
Perhaps it’s time for the dominant countries of the world and their media to junk the need to have reflections of themselves, their prowess and their pre-occupations in all they see. That way we might end up with a media that is closer to what it has often grandly claimed to be – a window on the world.
1 Mort Rosenblum, Who stole the news?, John Wiley (New York, Chichester, Brisbane, Toronto, 1993).
2 Jonathan Benthall, Disasters, relief and the media, IB Tauris (London, New York 1993).