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Big media, small world

Ehsan Masood
21 August 2006

For all the tensions between Arabs, Jews, Christians, neo-conservatives and Muslims in recent weeks, many are united on one thing: increasing, and increasingly visceral distaste for the output from large English-language broadcast media organisations such as BBC television and radio (though not its World Service radio network) and CNN.

There are many reasons for this, but three stand out very clearly:

  • the question as to why so many of those who broadcast for large media organisations find it difficult to portray neutrally the lives of those who live in poverty and for whom faith is integral to life – whether in the west or in the east
  • the tendency (in the media worldwide) to reduce events that are achingly complex into simplistic debates, and ones that are mostly devoid of history, context, or insight
  • the entirely justified belief that, all too often, large media organisations lead their news bulletins with stories whose origins lie in a press release, press conference, or unattributable briefing by the government – even if this is not always acknowledged in news reports

Executives in media organisations are doing much to redress these and other concerns. They work hard to resist political pressures – even if they don't always succeed in this. They employ many more (and more multinational) specialist staff to provide background and context to the events they cover, a trend whose pioneers include CNN International. There are also many more ways for viewers and listeners to make their voices heard, and for mistakes to be corrected – especially on the web. But how much long-term impact these measures will have is open to question, when, every time a big story breaks, journalists revert to what they have been trained in - and are practised at. This is to avoid complexity, and to write and broadcast about people outside of the west as if they were somehow alien.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network


Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief"
(November 2005)

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO"
(December 2005)

"Bush’s 'war on science' through the microscope"
(January 2006)

"Alexandria’s bridge" (February 2006)

"Language: a toolkit for life on earth"
(March 2006)

"The rocky road to citizen rule"
(April 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The light of education: blind children's best buys'" (May 2006)

"Ziauddin Sardar: paradise lost, a future found" (May 2006)

"A post-imperial diplomat" (May 2006)

"Israel and the bomb: don't ask, don't tell" (June 2006)

"Muslim Britain: the end of identity politics?" (July 2006)

"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (July 2006)

"Millennium Development Goals: back to school"
(August 2006)

Noise without judgment

Take the following example: days after Britain's police busted an alleged plot to blow up aircraft over London, I answered a phone call from a journalist from Today, a daily three-hour current affairs programme on BBC Radio Four. Today is informative, entertaining, and compulsive listening for any news or politics addict. The programme is famous for its interviews with senior ministers – which often set the UK news agenda for the rest of the day.

Occasionally, the programme makes international news too, such as in May 2003 when a controversial Today report on a UK government dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction led to the sacking of the BBC's top two executives and the departure of Tony Blair's director of communications. But Today also has a tendency to inflate disagreements between people, or between groups in society who, ordinarily may not be as hostile to each other if they weren't sitting across the desk of its studio.

Earlier this month, Today was planning a discussion on whether alternative media are contributing to the radicalisation of young Muslim men. The journalist asked me if I agreed that the drop in audiences for established media channels such as the BBC is contributing to a possible increase in belief in conspiracy theories. Flaky ideas, so my interlocutor suggested, will take hold as more people switch to non-establishment media. And then came the killer blow: isn't it the case that such media may contribute to a viewer or a listener committing acts of violence?

I took a silent intake of breath before asking whether the BBC actually believed that truth was exclusive to the corporation's transmitters; while all other media were putting out conspiracy theories; and whether he really was suggesting to me that the act of watching Arabic or Urdu news channels and websites, for example, is likely to contribute to an otherwise innocent person becoming a suicide-terrorist.

His reply was interesting, to say the least. This more or less summed up the views, not of the BBC, but of UK defence secretary Des Browne. Browne would be coming onto the programme later in the week to outline his arguments and the producers were looking for someone to oppose them. The Today programme is usually good at sniffing out political spin. But on this occasion its editors let Des Browne put forward a theory that would better fit the pages of the journal of "strange phenomena", the Fortean Times.

This is not the only example of poor editorial judgment. Shortly after the outbreak of controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in February 2006, a BBC current affairs show called Newsnight, the TV equivalent of Today, staged a studio debate on the topic of Muslims and terrorism. The panel, I was told, would also include Anjem Choudary, the leader of the now-banned extremist group, al-Muhajiroun, as well as Nick Griffin of the equally disagreeable British National Party. In conversations with the programme's staff, I asked what possible public interest would Newsnight's editors be serving by giving both Griffin and Choudary a national audience only days after one of the country's most serious terrorist incidents. Jeremy Paxman, the show's presenter, had more sense and threatened to walk off if Griffin was invited into the studio – he wasn't in the end. But Choudary was allowed to take part, leaving the dangerous impression among viewers that al-Muhajiroun is an acceptable voice on a par with mainstream Muslims.

The missing piece

The establishment English-language broadcasters are rightly concerned about falling audiences, as more viewers turn to media they feel they can trust to tell a more accurate story. But this issue is not just one of numbers. Media executives need to understand that if they continue to exhibit poor or weak editorial judgement, this will result in worsening standards in their own journalism.

If, as some evidence suggests, more people from Jewish and Muslim communities are refusing to watch or interact with journalists from the establishment media, "big media" groups are slowly being starved of essential sources of knowledge, information, and commentary on current events. They will instead have to increasingly rely on speculation from reporters, on hidden cameras and microphones, and on briefings from government departments or intelligence agencies in western countries. There will, as a consequence, be very little scope to confirm or to check the accuracy of the information they are being provided. News will increasingly be news when a government minister says it is and we will all be the poorer for it.

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