Biased view of Africa

2011-07-16 09:28

Britain’s biggest-selling weekend newspaper, the News of the World, produced its final edition last Sunday after its owner, Australian ­media magnate Rupert Murdoch, announced its closure.

This followed a phone-tapping scandal, which prompted many formerly loyal readers to abandon the title.

The tabloid, which holds the record for the most copies ever sold by an English-language paper (it sold 4.5 million copies of its ­final edition), was brought down by revelations that it had ordered the hacking of voicemail messages left on a cellphone belonging to a murdered British teenager, Milly Dowler, in 2002; and had also targeted the relatives of British servicemen killed in Afghanistan and Iraq; as well as the survivors of the terrorist attacks on London in July 2005.

The publication’s downfall marks the culmination of a campaign led by members of the British parliament, calling it to account for trampling on the rights of those members of the public whom it decided to turn into ­“stories”.

The concerns raised have mirrored the objections recently voiced in South Africa about the British tabloids’ reporting of the “honeymoon murder” in Gugulethu last November of 28-year-old Anni Dewani.

It was widely felt at the time that some of the key newspapers covering the case displayed prejudicial attitudes. Their outlook was shaped by English media-relations guru Max Clifford on behalf of ­30-year-old British businessman ­Shrien Dewani, who has been ­accused of orchestrating his bride’s murder.

The British press adopted a viewpoint that harked back to the outlook of racist 19th-century ­colonialists.

South Africa was portrayed as a strange land that, by turns, seduced with its wildlife attractions and horrified through the brutality of its inhabitants.

It was claimed that the state was conspiring to frame Dewani for the murder. The soon-to-be defunct News of the World was a leader in the press assault on South Africa, and its constitutional and judicial integrity.

In February this year, it carried a story which accused the National Prosecuting Authority’s head, Menzi Simelane, of prejudicing the Dewani investigation by claiming Dewani had “committed a very ­heinous crime”.

An important point that has been raised by the coverage has been how Western media manipulation – controlled by largely unaccountable editors and executives – can shape readers’ world views and, in this case, international reactions to an African country.

The issue was recently raised at a public dialogue entitled Afro-pessimism or Afro-realism? Western Reporting of Africa, which was hosted in Cape Town by the Centre for Conflict Resolution.

Alex Duval Smith, a veteran ­Africa correspondent for The Observer, a British Sunday broadsheet, outlined the sensationalist news values of much of the foreign press.

Citing “the laziness of the Western mind” in its approach to Africa, she nevertheless defended the strong commitment and healthy scepticism brought to their jobs by many of the international press corps.

“When things are bad, you should say so,” she said, but also acknowledged that propaganda can shape the news at such times.

Swedish photo-journalist Toby Selander, who currently reports on Africa for leading German news weekly Der Spiegel, also took a critical approach to Western news values. He cited the changing political landscape in his native country, and how Swedish foreign policy and editorial coverage had shifted since the days of its historical and honourable opposition to apartheid.

Selander especially criticised the news values of Western picture editors and their stereotypical search for images of Africa that showed what they considered to be the right mix of horror and beauty.

He recounted how, on one occasion, photographs of everyday life in Soweto that he had submitted which showed people shopping rather than demonstrating had been described as “too nice”; and how, on another occasion, pictures of Cape Town’s beaches had been criticised for the opposite reason. “It just doesn’t look like Bali,” he was told.

A key problem with all this is that, meanwhile, everyday reality as experienced by most Africans often goes unremarked on.

In Britain, the popular press’s failure to respect the lives and views of many of the subjects of its enquiry has brought down the News of the World, a 168-year-old media institution.

It may be that comparable flaws in relation to the international ­reporting of Africa are also now ­attracting more attention.

Ferial Haffajee, the editor-in-chief of City Press, noted at the recent Cape Town meeting that leading editors in the West – including at the Wall Street Journal, the ­Financial Times, The Observer, and The Economist – had all ­recently launched special Africa Rising series. However, despite such moves, the continent remains prey to some profoundly pessimistic points of view.

At the dialogue, Selander described visiting the Mozambican capital of Maputo and interviewing bestselling Swedish crime novelist Henning Mankell, who stays there regularly.

During the course of their conversation, Selander asked him about how he saw the impact of the West’s approach to Africa.

To which Mankell replied: “All people know how Africans die, but no one knows how they live.”

» Paterson is a communications consultant at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town

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