”One European is worth 28 Chinese, or perhaps 2 Welsh miners worth 1000 Pakistanis.” That was the unwritten rule used by BBC news in the 1970s to rate a story’s importance, according to the inside account by Philip Schlesinger in his book Putting ‘Reality’ Together .
In the intervening years we may have seen some guidelines brought in to ensure fairer reporting of certain racial issues at home, but the basic process of selecting what news from around the world is important, and deciding how it is portrayed, remains riddled with racism. When Malaysians were rioting in Kuala Lumpur we heard more on the TV news about how the Queen might be distressed rather than what might be motivating the riots. Even when British citizens are involved in foreign stories, the story might be ignored if those citizens are not white. One example is the case of Noel Martin, a black British construction worker who was racially attacked while working in Germany in 1996 and left paralysed from the neck down. And earlier this year the popular tabloids and television news showed little interest in the story of Edgar Fernandes, an Asian man who was murdered for his British passport while on holiday in Turkey.
In recent years many people have been looking to the internet to provide an alternative news agenda perhaps one that could shatter the racist bias of the mainstream. Where television and print news are produced with centralised editorial control for large mass audiences, the internet allows for infinite differentiation with specialised services catering for every ‘interest group’. Each of the millions of websites out there can have its own news values, so there can be one to suit everyone. That, at least, is the theory. The reality is, at present, a little different.
Rather than compete directly with television as a popular mainstream medium, the internet is finding a niche for itself as a place where news, which would otherwise not make it onto the mainstream, can reach an initial audience and be tried out, with the hope of becoming a mainstream story at a later date. The biggest mainstream news story of the year – Clinton and Lewinsky – first appeared on a website called the ‘Drudge Report’. The internet gave the story its initial momentum and the story was later picked up on television and in the press.
A campaigning tool?
Political groups have found that they can sometimes use the same method to plug their own stories. When activists in the US began campaigning against Nike’s exploitation of Third World labour they were ignored and Nike’s PR message went unchallenged. But having built up their story through reports published on the internet, the mainstream media began to take notice and include them in their own pieces (see CorpWatch). Similar techniques are being used by groups in countries whose own media are subject to direct state control. For them, the internet becomes a way of promoting their own struggles in the hope of gaining coverage on mainstream media in Europe or the US. Often it is refugees who are best placed to set up internet coverage of struggles back home. Nigerian activists resident in the US use the internet to highlight the political struggle in Nigeria (for example FreeNigeria). Casa Alianza, a group fighting police violence against street children in Latin America, run a website from New York to publicise their campaign. Likewise, in 1996 the Zapatista movement in Mexico was able to supply its own account of its struggle to the US media via websites. Dissidents in China and Serbia have followed a similar strategy.
Rather than ushering in a new era of news reporting, this approach of using the internet as a stepping stone onto mainstream television or press coverage reflects the power of the traditional mass media, which continues to be the definer of what is front page news and what is only worth a few lines on page seven. In trying to make the leap onto a mainstream television news programme, the same biased agenda comes into play. Foreign stories will be treated with distrust unless there are charismatic dissidents speaking of ‘human rights abuses’. But this way of presenting the story often takes away from the fact that entire communities are being systematically ravaged, not just by governments but by multinational corporations.
Bypassing the mainstream
A potentially more radical approach is to use the internet as an alternative to the mainstream media. Even in the US, the internet is still in its infancy as a popular medium in its own right. But the internet is still useful for campaign groups to co-ordinate with other campaigners around the world, many of whom now have access. With the growing need to internationalise political activism, a campaigning website is the best way of letting other campaign groups around the world have access to your press releases, photographs and political agenda. Often this material can then be republished in the local alternative press to reach an audience beyond the internet. Through organisations like One World, political movements in the Third World can increasingly publish their own material onto the internet rather than having to rely on sympathetic activists in the West. Activists like Vandana Shiva, who campaigns against biopiracy in India, have managed to generate global followings for global issues in this way.