Saturday, November 20, 2004

Constructive journalism - an introduction

This was published in The Friend a long time ago now, but I did promise to post up some reflections on 'peace' journalism here and this is what I came up with. I'm still very excited by the idea

What do you expect from the news? Everything that's happened in the last day, hour or minute in a particular region or across the road? Some hope. The news we see appears through a prism, whether for reasons of time, commercial interest or because that's how news has always been done.

Journalists, peace workers and academics are working together to identify problems in conventional journalism, in particular war journalism. Using ideas from the sphere of conflict resolution, they aim to acknowledge journalism's place as a player rather than just an observer.

In the book Transcend and transform: an introduction to conflict work (Pluto Press), peace professor Johan Galtung outlines the theory that has been used by Transcend's conflict workshops all over the world. The accepted idea that conflicts can only end in stalemate, compromise or victory is challenged: he shows that creative solutions are possible if dialogue can be maintained and the other side's position valued. He sees a central role for the media in supporting dialogue and peace. Journalists Annabel McGoldrick and Jake Lynch have led the field in developing Galtung's ideas of 'peace journalism' as an antidote to war reporting.

The war in Iraq provides just one illustration of the scale of media manipulation by all sides in war, from the events leading to the Hutton inquiry to the televised ordeal of Kenneth Bigley. It is being left to political bodies, NGOs and even amateur writers on the internet to expose the truth hidden behind a wall of meaningless quotes put out by sophisticated governments. But as the mainstream media fail to truly reflect the complexities of the world, these exposures are lost in an increasingly polarised public domain.

While peace journalism gives no easy answers, it offers reporters alternative tools to cover conflict. One of the central messages from the sphere of conflict work is that the causes of violence are rarely simple. The standard 'cause and effect' narrative which often relies on authority figures implies short term causes for violence with the other side to blame. This can mislead the public:there is evidence it has in the case of Israel/Palestine.

Another lesson is that news should not just reflect two extremes in a conflict. There are always organisations, community leaders and ordinary people from the two sides working for peace whose voices, if heard, could suggest solutions. Giving voices to ordinary people also limits demonisation of 'the other side'. A nation seen from afar can look simple but we know that all Britons do not agree with Blair's war policy, so why should we assume all Israelis agree with Sharon? Portraying extremes in conflicts may give drama, but can have terrible consequences when each side forgets that the other is human.

McGoldrick and Lynch call for journalists to 'give name to all evil-doers', whether or not they are on 'your' side. They warn journalists not to rush into reporting horror stories without investigation, recognising that in the modern world the powerless, too, have learnt to manipulate the media:reports of massacres often turn out to be fabrications. Balance won't just come from saying that your side is as bad as their side, it comes from fairly presenting many truths and adding your picture to a spectrum of other pictures that show the world in its true complex state.

Peace journalism relies just as much on news selection as better reporting. McGoldrick and Lynch hope people can gain a 'literacy of peace' if conflict transformation ideas can be given space in the media. Peace does not come from treaties but from the willingness of ordinary people to engage in long processes and our media can help with that process if, in the words of Johan Galtung, they 'let a thousand dialogues blossom'.

More information at Reporting the world by Annabel McGoldrick and Jake Lynch is available from Pluto Press.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The final word on the US elections

... at least from this errant blogger

Gloom, depression and a flurry of e-mails hit Britain on the day that Bush won. We took it very personally indeed. But if the irritable response to The Guardian's Operation Clark County tells us anything, it is that the time has come, with a dignified smile, to disengage. Britain is not the 51st state and America would rather we didn't act like we were. Their eagerness to make this point borders on the insensitive: from tipping our tea into the sea to building the replacement twin towers at 1776 feet. There is a more important point. In becoming obsessed with a show that has nothing to do with us, we have become hopelessly distracted from our own democratic power.

We can't blame George Bush for taking us into war against Iraq. Our government did that. We paid for the warplanes and bombs. We committed violence and economic torture on Iraq for years before we actually invaded it on a case that most of us knew was false all along. It wasn't as if no-one noticed, but the protests came to nothing. How have we got to the state where military action that is, to this day, causing death and mayhem cannot be stopped by the democratic will of the people?

There is a near-superpower capable of tempering Bush's right wing agenda and it is one we are supposed to be at the heart of. Europe has economic power and a good moral reputation based on a track record of challenging human rights abuse and promoting solidarity and justice. We have two sets of democratic representatives at the EU – parliament and the council of ministers, but when does our media ever tell us what they are up to?

We have our own elections in a few months, making this the best time to get whatever causes you believe in on the agenda in parliament.You may not like the people who lead us and you may not like the alternatives much (I certainly don't)– but now is the time to put the spangly stars and stripes to the back of our minds and start engaging in our own institutions, however grey and depressing they might seem.

(this article appears this week in The Friend)

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Back! By popular demand...

Solutions for ageing - the youngster's view

A recent study by Young People Now has found that 70 per cent of media reports about Britain's youth are negative. You're more likely to get a friendly handshake in the offices of the Daily Express if you're an asylum seeker than a 15-year-old, it seems. It won't make me popular round here to suggest it, but it is the young, not the old, who are becoming the poverty-stricken victims of British society.

The older generation have been systematically pulling the soft woolly carpet along with them, leaving only bare naily wood beneath. Firstly, the young are forced to go to university now as part of the government's educational production line. Once there, they borrow far less than they would be given on the dole for the chance to become a tax-paying member of society able to keep our ever-growing pensioner population in tea and biscuits. When processed into graduates, we find that it is not even that easy to do our bit: a degree now being as common as a penn'orth of sweets were in t'old days, we count ourselves lucky to get a job answering phones if it keeps the debt collectors from the door.

And what exactly do we earn money for? To pay vast amounts of money to buy-to-let baby boomers who have, with the enormous fantasy proceeds from their homes, decided to go into the business of fleecing youngsters. The average house price is now so far above the average income that it is cheaper to move to Bulgaria and commute by plane than to own a one bedroom hovel in London.

There is a solution. Old people: you've got all the houses. Why not share them with the young? They could pay you a fair amount of money and they could help with the things that young people do best, like weeding and rescuing cats from gutters. Your pension crisis would be alleviated, our housing crisis would be solved. Then house prices would crash and everybody would be happy.

Originally published in The Friend