Still 'Our Man in Havana': foreign policy reporting's elitism problem

Foreign policy reporting in the British media is dominated by an elite and a false neutrality presenting a particular ideology simply as authoritative. The question of who is positioned as the voice of reason must be examined. 

Heather McRobie
20 March 2014

Sarah Kendzior, a researcher specialising in Central Asia, wrote a column for Al Jazeera yesterday on the way in which foreign policy (in the broad sense of politics, think tanks, and research on foreign policy in America) is dominated by the structurally privileged, with white men of the global elite taking up most of the platforms which keep us informed about, and which analyse, urgent global events, from Ukraine to China to climate change.  Kendzior accompanied her article with a word of thanks to ‘men and women’ who have helped her (noting that the problem is not men but misogyny) and with a hint at the dilemma that the first-person voice is a double-edge sword, which might allow you to articulate the reality of your often-silenced experience but can easily be turned to undermine your credibility.  

The same day, Slate published an article by writer Jesse Grosse, who used data from The Op-Ed Project to reflect on the ‘pink ghetto’ for women in journalism, who find themselves predominantly writing on ‘women’s issues’ – and therefore not taken seriously – while men continue to dominate foreign policy and national security.

As Kendzior notes in her article, to initiate such a conversation is, in a sense, a failure itself, or at least a kind of breaking of the fourth wall, just as women providing personal anecdotes of being patronised or ignored when speaking on foreign policy areas in which they have expertise requires – in the telling of the anecdote – that they step out of the crafted position of neutral, authoritative ‘expert’.  Who’ll take you seriously after you’ve talked about how frustrating it is to not be taken seriously – and when you could have been talking instead about foreign policy, like those serious professional men?

Yet this is precisely the problem, more so than this simply being ‘another’ critique of entrenched privilege and structural inequality that we could perform on many public bodies: it is a question of who we defer to for the authoritative voice of expertise that is specific to ‘foreign policy’, with its central importance to our lives and its particular heritage as an intellectual activity.

And, in the context of British journalism, the entrenched privileges of who is given a prominent platform on foreign policy issues is laced with the British colonial heritage, potent and live in its twenty-first century incarnations of elite – often white and male – journalists with little prior knowledge or expertise being the writers we ‘naturally’ defer to on issues of global crises and international relations -- the generalists of journalism who are allowed to assume expertise on any subject at short notice. 

This is less an issue of foreign correspondence – although in the British media, the false-neutrality of passive-voiced news reporting and the sense of missives sent from what is positioned as the (colonial) periphery to the ‘world’s centre’ of London still echoes tones of journalism as a Graham Greene-ish imperial profession – than it is of who is given a platform for ‘analysis’, held up to tell the rest of us what to think.         

Women on the ground – or in the lifestyle section – men in the foreign policy Op-Eds

Last year journalist Dawn Foster provided a comprehensive critique of the gender imbalance in British journalism that intersects with class privilege, structural racism and other modalities of discrimination in what she outlines as an increasingly ‘gentrified’ media landscape.  Although the figures Foster cites for the imbalances on national newspapers are striking – for instance, demonstrating how women’s writing is often confined to ‘soft’ issues of ‘lifestyle’ and the subject of gender itself – the more compelling argument made by Foster is not quantitative but qualitative – that it is the structurally privileged journalists who are deferred to for ‘serious’ analysis and comment. 

After Jill Filipovic’s argument in The Guardian’s Comment Is Free last year that female journalists were not being heard on the subject of Syria, BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel responded with a list of female journalists reporting from Syria to argue, conversely, that female journalists were some of the most important and prolific reporters.  Yet as Foster points out in her overview of privilege in journalism, the seeming disagreement between Filipovic and Frenkel perhaps indicated a dynamic playing out in the 2013 media between (less well paid, among other things) female reporters on the ground in Syria and male writers given the luxurious stretch of Analysis or Op-Ed column inches to capably ‘guide’ the rest of us in what to conceptually make of the war’s horrific events. 

In terms of the British media’s analysis of the issue of Ukraine and Russia in 2014, this intersects with frustration at the lack of expertise as a whole in prominent comment pieces and analysis.  Perhaps the source of the irritation here is that we should be hearing primarily from post-Soviet experts – on this score, it wouldn’t particularly help to keep readers informed (although it would be no worse, and at least make a change) if the current high-profile non-experts of broadsheet commenters were replaced by non-expert, structurally disadvantaged voices. 

The insidious nature of the problem, however, is that this is an issue at the meeting point of ‘politics of representation’ – the issue of the lack of diversity in the media – and of the authoritative voice within journalism and within foreign policy analysis, of who is considered an ‘expert’ and why this matters.

The false neutrality of ‘expert’ voices

In the British context, the narrow range of those who are positioned as entitled to loudly weigh in on the issue of Ukraine is a fraught issue because foreign policy journalism is the meeting point of two spheres in which entrenched privilege manifests – politics and writing on politics, bound up with elitist institutions and with its class-loaded signs and signifiers which are heavily traded on to confer ‘authority’ to a voice, and ‘foreign policy’ as a subject, within the old colonial centre, which has historically been a topic dominated by the viewpoints of the imperial-centre’s elite.  

Today if you are interested, as a reader, in both social justice and international relations, it feels as though you participate in two conversations with little overlap of language or value – the concerns of progressive writers who show their political cards in their writing, sifting the world through lenses of intersectionality, subjectivity, narrative and speaking back, and the ‘policy wonk’ language of Washington-Consensus-tinged experts who unselfconsciously broad-brushstroke in self-confident tones about ‘Russia, Ukraine and China’ like they’re drawing lines on maps. 

This in turn presents a problem for the authorial voice in writing that tries to meaningfully and humanly engage with the complexity of the world on an international level.  For the ‘serious’ voice of international relations journalism takes as standard the false-neutrality of a very particular ideological worldview reflected by, for instance, The Economist, while the voice of social justice concerns is dismissed in that world as polemic, biased, embarrassing.  This causes problems for how international relations in journalism is placed alongside diversity initiatives which seek to unpick historically entrenched privileges. 

Take it as a given that British journalism still has an endemic and multifaceted elitism problem – but within this, small spaces have been carved out for non-privileged viewpoints to begin to be expressed.  However, the non-privileged are given Comment space largely to articulate and comment on their own realities – women writing on the issue of gender inequalities, migrants on the injustice of the treatment of immigrants.  When we get to what are seen as the most ‘serious’ subjects – war; G8 meetings – we go back to elite voices and elite perspectives presented as neutral expertise.

Whilst it makes sense from a social justice perspective that non-privileged voices are best placed to articulate the reality of their often silenced or sidelined situation, and the lived reality of positions of marginalisation mean it is natural that these may well be the subject-matter that appeals to a writer from a non-privileged background, this leaves the position of ‘neutral’ – with all the seriousness and trust this bestows – as a mantle of the privileged. This plays out in broadsheet newspaper comment as leaving ‘everything else’ to the voices of the structurally privileged, who – occupying the role of ‘universal’, neutral, and expert – can take anything as their subject-matter to lecture the rest of us, while the non-elite can only ‘anecdotally’ articulate their own experience or take a small terrain for their field of interest.    

The gendered dimensions of both ‘foreign correspondence’ and ‘international relations’ analysis play out in a complex, refracted manner that touches on the gendered nature of both war and international relations themselves.  Much has been written elsewhere of the unique and tightrope-walking role of female writers reporting on war in the twentieth century, many of whom were resistant to pressure placed on them to write ‘as women’ – but important as this piece of the puzzle is in our understanding of wars and what is written on them, the greatest concern, and chasm, is between those who are experiencing war and those who are telling the overview story. 

When writing about the impact of war in people’s lives – necessarily gendered, because our lives are gendered – is denigrated in comparison to the ‘serious’ analysis of (male-dominated) international relations, it not only pushes female writers to have to prove themselves as experts by avoiding this kind of subject matter, but also elevates ‘-isms’ and the sweeping self-importance of colonial-style map-colouring over a meaningful and engaged understanding of how we are all humanly and tangibly affected by global events, how the terrain taken by self-proclaimed ‘foreign policy experts’ is not a parlour game of the elite but intimately stitched into all of our lives.   

Just the ‘usual’ diversity problems?

There are ways in which British foreign policy reporting and journalistic analysis of international relations has a ‘diversity’ problem just as any British practice or institution from law to journalism to politics has a ‘diversity’ problem, meaning a problem of entrenched inequalities and discrimination with a dubiously insincere veneer of meritocracy thinly glossed onto its surface.  And so the usual conversations apply to foreign policy analysis, as they can be applied to any profession, and should be addressed.  For instance, yes – as with other professions, perhaps this is in part a question of non-privileged (non-elite, non-white, non-male) not ‘putting themselves forward’ because they have not been socialised to consider themselves entitled to weigh in on 'the Crimean crisis' or 'China’s economic policy', or raised to think people would naturally want to hear what they have to say.

But the individualistic suggestions in response to this observation about who has been socialised to speak out on, and write about, foreign policy – the suggestions that the non-privileged merely ‘Lean In’, Sandberg-style, and put themselves forward to solve the problem of the lack of diverse voices on foreign policy – refuses to engage with the entrenched and structural nature of the problem, and covertly blames those who do not benefit from the current set-up, American-Dream-style, for just not working hard enough.  Or not ‘Leaning In’ enough, whatever that means. 

The debate about 'writing for free' and how insidiously sealed-up and based on contacts working in the media is brushes past this conversation; more closely related to it is the issue that those who commission in the media may see certain people as not fitting ‘the expert type’, or make assumptions about readers’ and viewers’ expectations of who is an expert which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What is required instead of an individualistic ‘Leaning In’ by non-privileged voices on foreign policy is – alongside the ‘usual’, and very necessary, diversity initiatives to mitigate against structural biases –  a more complete dismantling of who we imagine as the voice of expertise to which the rest of us defer to on foreign policy issues.  On the Comment pages and Op-Eds of broadsheets and magazines it is rarely region-focused experts – those who have spent their professional career studying Russia and Ukraine, for instance – who are loudly ‘weighing in’ at the moment anyway, but rather generalists with a privileged flavour, those who can – and are comfortable with – taking on the mantle of authority at short notice. 

In anything to do with who has power in Britain – and ‘who gets to speak, when’ is obviously a fundamental issue of power – the diseases of class and the unexamined colonial legacy worm through the core of the issue.  But the current problematic make-up of ‘foreign policy journalism’ likely comes more specifically from the co-existence of important and very unfinished work of some efforts to make the media less elitist, both in its make-up and in its worldview, and the unreconstructed and unexamined elements of privilege sitting side by side with these new voices.

Mary Beard’s recent essay in the London Review of Books addressed the idea of the female voice in public, and how it is policed, hemmed in and infantilised by institutional set-ups, customs and our traditions of writing itself.  (She acknowledges at the start – as we should all have the self-awareness to – the irony of being given a platform to speak about ‘silencing’).  It is in the idea of ‘voice’ that the two largely separate debates about politics of representation and diversity on the one hand and the problematics of the cloak of ‘foreign policy expertise’ on the other meet. 

When a writer from a non-dominant group or identity takes their own world as subject-matter – the reality of life as an immigrant, the reality of being persistently sexually harassed – it is often considered anecdotal, yet if those from non-dominant groups write outside of the terrain of what is considered their own ‘identity’ they are unlikely to be taken as seriously as the privileged self-appointed ‘experts’ who are cloaked in neutrality, rationality and authority. 

It should go without saying that because a female writer writes about rape as a weapon of war (or another typically ‘female’ subject seen as less rigorous than straight international relations analysis) does not mean she does not also understand, say, the minutiae of sanctions in international law; a BME journalist in Britain is perhaps best placed to articulate and analyse the reality of structural racism and xenophobia of British society and institutions – and is also no less capable of writing analysis of, say, the Hungarian economy, than a white, British public-school boy who ‘does international relations’ and thus breezily takes the whole world for his sweeping potential subject-matter.  But the very unfinished work of dismantling elitism in the media (alongside the partial success of social media in breaking down barriers of who reports and who analyses), and the loud, unselfconscious voices of privileged ‘neutral’ experts side-by-side create a clanking dissonance in tones, and perhaps a nervous uncertainty of who is lecturing who, before any of us can begin listening.    

Some of the most engaging voices on international relations at the moment come from outside the elitist (boy’s?) club of ‘foreign policy journalism’, not only for unfiltered ‘on the ground’ citizen journalism and first-person perspectives but for thorough analysis and investigative journalism, such as the recent work of Lily Lynch at The Balkanist.  Are these voices not gaining as much attention in publications that focus on foreign policy because they cannot be easily pushed into one of the two little corners that the continued dominance of privileged, generalist foreign policy writers confine everyone else to – social justice 'campaigning journalism’ (which loses points for not being quote-unquote ‘neutral’) or the anecdotal story and ‘eye witness account’ that the structurally non-dominant have been historically confined to providing, to pepper and supplement the overarching analysis of the privileged authoritative voice?

British foreign policy reporting, 'international' reporting by foreign correspondents, and the analysis of international relations in British journalism, are all bound up with the loaded history of who is allowed to write about someone else – who is silent subject-matter and who is writer-creator – from a time when the authoritative voice was expressed in missives sent from colonial outpost to colonial centre, telling those who ‘matter’ in the eyes of the imperial lens about what ‘the others’ were up to.  Are we still conducting conversations about issues that affect all of us in ways that exclude most of humanity?

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