Unreality TV

Television coverage of the poor world has all but disappeared, with disastrous consequences for everyone.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 22nd October 2002

For the past nine months, priests and tribal leaders in West Papua, the easternmost province of Indonesia, have been trying to warn the world that an Islamic fundamentalist movement is using their land as a training ground. Laskar Jihad is commanded by a man trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Some of its members have already been involved in terrorism in the islands of Ambon and Sulawesi. Since January they have established seven bases in West Papua. With the help of the Indonesian police and army, they have been stockpiling arms, recruiting Javanese immigrants and training them for combat.

Since the jihadis arrived, Neles Tebay, a Papuan journalist, has been sending urgent messages to newspapers and broadcasters around the world, desperate to attract attention to this protected terrorist network. But even when eight Pakistani mujahedin arrived, his warnings failed to generate any response in the newsrooms of either Europe or North America. The Papuans, ignored and abandoned by the rest of the world, have been reduced to begging the Indonesian authorities to uphold the law and disarm the jihadis before they attack.

The victims of the Bali bombing could be said to have legitimate grounds for complaint not only against the intelligence services (whose efforts have been diverted from unpicking the terrorist networks into supporting two futile wars) but also against the media. Both of them could and should have warned westerners that Indonesia has become a dangerous place for them to visit.

Scarcely a month goes by without a travel feature on the country. One recent programme, about the nightlife in Bali, even featured the Sari Club. But, before the bombing, there had been no recent documentary which could have given viewers any understanding of what was happening in the country. On Sunday night, the BBC broadcast a fine Panorama programme, seeking to discover who might have planted the bomb, and why the ample warnings the intelligence services received did not prevent the attack. But one of the features of investigative journalism is surely that it seeks to be wise before the event. There was, as Neles Tebay pointed out, plenty of opportunity for prior wisdom.

One of the great ironies of globalisation is that the closer we are brought together, the less we come to know about each other. As our lives become entwined with those of people living in the most distant places on earth, our broadcast media — through which most people in rich countries receive most of their information — are treating the rest of the world as if it is no more than a playground for people like ourselves. Our understanding diminishes correspondingly, until all we know of foreigners is that, for no reason that we can discern, they suddenly attack us. This is a tragedy not only for the people killed and injured in the Sari Club; but also for the increasingly misunderstood — and therefore increasingly feared and hated — people of the poor world.

Last year, according to the media pressure group 3WE, the coverage of “hard” issues in the poor world on British television fell to the lowest level it had recorded in 12 years of monitoring. While the broadcast hours of international factual programmes rose slightly, nearly all of them were devoted to travel, “reality” shows, docu-soaps, sex, clubbing, surfing and similar mind-numbing cack about Britons making idiots of themselves in exotic places. In the entire year, only four programmes about the politics of the poor world were broadcast on the five main channels, three of them on BBC2. “The international documentary”, the report concludes, “is virtually dead”. Even after September 11th 2001 there was no discernable improvement.

Much of what we do see of the rest of the world on television could fairly be described as counter-informative. Such local people as the travel programmes permit us to watch appear to have been put upon the earth only to entertain us. Many wildlife documentaries treat the regions they cover as if they are uninhabited. At the beginning of last year, BBC2 broadcast a three-part series on the Congo, which won the Royal Television Society’s science and natural history prize. The existence of human beings was, briefly, acknowledged, but the series informed us that while the Congo was “once the heart of darkness,”, it is now a place of “light”: an odd description of a region devastated by a civil war in which some three million people have died. The war and its associated atrocities were not mentioned.

Television executives claim that programmes about the politics of distant parts of the world attract small audiences. This is true, if one compares them to such indispensable insights into the human condition as “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here”. But while several million viewers might sit uncomplainingly in front of this pap, or at least leave the television on while they do something more interesting, the smaller numbers who watch serious foreign documentaries will engage with them passionately. John Pilger’s film about East Timor attracted 3 million viewers, of whom an extraordinary half a million called the switchboard afterwards, to register their shock and anger at what they had seen. It would be fair to say that the programme helped to change the course of history.

But films like this are relatively expensive, and unpopular with the advertisers. They can also cause trouble for the people who run the networks. When Pilger’s latest documentary for Carlton TV, about the injustices suffered by the Palestinians, was (predictably enough) attacked by an organised lobby called HonestReporting, the channel’s proprietor, Michael Green, panicked and denounced it as “a tragedy for Israel so far as accuracy is concerned.” Encouragingly, he was publicly contradicted by Carlton’s director of factual programmes. But such bravery is rare among television executives. The physical courage of the freelance camerapeople and journalists, who risk their lives to film the world’s forgotten atrocities, is matched only by the moral cowardice of the managers who then refuse even to talk to them, let alone to run their footage. Not long ago, the investigative film-makers’ principal constraints were technical: the camera equipment was cumbersome, the filmstock was fragile, transporting it was hazardous. Those constraints have now been overcome, just as the market for their footage has disappeared.

Next month the government will publish its new communications bill. 3WE has been lobbying for a legal requirement that broadcasters make factual programmes about international issues: a proposal which was included in the white paper but dropped from the draft bill after the broadcasters complained. There’s a good chance that the pressure group will win, but the rules will be meaningless unless they are applied enthusiastically by the regulator. The regulator, in turn, will act only if the public kicks up a fuss. So perhaps it is time we became more interactive viewers, and began demanding less “reality TV” and more plain reality. Otherwise we can expect the world to continue to deliver unpleasant surprises, as the needs and the responses of its people become ever more opaque to us.