SOMEWHERE near a town called Getty, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a woman emerges from the forest; she is far from home in a state of paralysing fear and she has watched her children shrink with malnutrition while those around her perish of malaria, meningitis and measles. She is one of tens of thousands fleeing the vicious conflict between the Congolese army and the Mai Mai rebel forces. She is not, however, “news.”
Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) have published their annual list of the ten most under-reported humanitarian stories of 2006 – those stories (like the conflict in the DRC) that apparently ring with such tedium they are lucky to make page 28 of a national newspaper.
To test their point, I flick to the news on the internet. Jade Goody is not a racist, it appears – she is protesting this on Celebrity Big Brother. She is, however, the “most read” and “most emailed” story of the day.
Back to MSF. The crisis they are reporting in central India is – believe it or not – not over Jade Goody. In the state of Chhatisgarh, the Indian security forces, Maoist rebel groups and right wing militias have battled one another for over a quarter of a century, catching civilians in the cross-fire and churning refugees in their wake. Over 50,000 people have been forced to leave their homes and their livelihoods for a future in which food, money and healthcare become uncertain luxuries.
I turn to the internet site of the Sun newspaper. One of its headlines reads “Pete Doherty Injects Cocaine.” How very cool and newsworthy he is. Meanwhile in Colombia – at the other end of the drugs chain – armed factions battle for the “narco-dollars” traceable to Pete et al and create terror in the process. Colombia has the second largest internally displaced population in the world and many of its citizens live in a state of fear, as massacres and political killings continue with frequency. In rural areas, armed factions assume the duties of the absent state and rule by coercion; in the cities, street children as young as six get high on drugs to escape their plight.
Back to the UK “qualities,” Prince William and his girlfriend have a night out – hold the front page. Dressed-up royalty must seem highly abstract to those embroiled in Haiti’s persistent conflict. MSF reports that of the 3,000 gunshot victims they have treated in recent years, almost 1,000 were women and children. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas and the ongoing conflict only exacerbates the dismal or absent healthcare services and MSF struggles with around a thousand emergency maternity cases every month. Most of us know little or nothing of the Haitians’ plight.
We do however, know all the details of the Beckhams’ relocation to the US, but are we aware that one in every four Somali children die before they reach the age of five? The vicious and widespread violence in Somalia, combined with floods and drought exacerbate the poverty, famine and medical emergencies in the country. Political violence is continuing and rape is a calculated and widespread weapon of war.
MSF go on to summarise the conflicts in Chechnya, the Central African Republic and Sri Lanka as well as the global suffering and deaths caused by tuberculosis and malnutrition. That is not to say that all press coverage is as inane and vacuous as the Goody/Doherty/Beckham examples. Yards of column inches are printed daily on imperative global issues but the truth is that far-flung conflicts and infant mortality rarely challenge Goody to the “most read” list. The media is largely subject to our demands and somehow the glamour of tacky, self-centred celebs sells more papers than the real issues in the world.
The United Nations present a global picture: 29,000 children die everyday from preventable diseases and malnutrition. The magnitude of this daily tragedy is clear, but it is easy to imagine how repetitive the headlines could become: “And tonight’s top story – another 29,000 children die from preventable diseases.” If the news had any real global perspective, would we exchange our commercial excesses for altruistic indulgence and siphon off any accumulated capital to help those who suffer daily? Would stock markets collapse and businesses fold as the rush to redistribute wealth took hold? Possibly not, but of course the other driving force behind the headlines is capitalism, and an unhealthy chunk of our news stories are concocted and generated by the PR driven by commercial interests. The bigger the interests, the bigger the story.
So the press is imbalanced, short-sighted and overly influenced by commercial interests just like Doherty et al themselves. With such empathic affinity between the news and vacant celebs, it is no surprise we have no idea what is going on in the world.
For the real stories try www.msf.org or www.amnesty.org.