Doing it our way, Bill Southworth

Mass Media in the Pacific ‑ Nuis Bilong Pasifik
David Robie (ed)
University of Papua New Guinea Press, $29.95
ISBN 9980840528

Foreign Correspondents
Liam Jeory and Cameron Bennett
Hodder Moa Beckett, $39.95,
ISBN 1869582101

As the technological means for gathering and transmitting news has improved Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, “The medium is the message”, has taken on a deeper meaning. Thanks to television we now have instant news, instant analysis and many more voices, but, arguably, less context and less meaning.

Television New Zealand is to be congratulated for placing its own reporters in Europe and Australia but it seems to have been sucked into a system which requires it to “parachute” its slenderly‑briefed reporters into a bewildering variety of locations. What emerges from Liam Jeory’s and Cameron Bennett’s Foreign Correspondents is a pattern of reporting which may have TVNZ’s “brand name” on it (an essential ingredient in the television market) but which seems to generate little time for research, depth or meaningful analysis. This is not to denigrate these two hard‑working and resourceful reporters (they have to be) but rather the system which seems to place “being there” ahead of arriving with the right tools for constructive reportage ‑ local knowledge, appropriate resources and time.

Jeory and Bennett’s account is full of rushed assignments to places they may have had trouble finding on a map, never mind finding a context in which to place rapidly unfolding events. Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bosnia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Soweto, you name it and they were there. Huge amounts of time were spent negotiating flights, hotels, ground transport, passes and satellite links to beam their pictures back home and too little time reporting. Jeory was able to dance on the Berlin Wall, film propaganda‑stuffed miners beating up hapless citizens in Bucharest, but what did it all mean? For that, you will have to look elsewhere. Bennett was able to cover the horrors of a refugee camp on the Rwanda‑Zaire border, to film Russian troops bombarding their own Parliament but, once again, what did it all mean? “You never knew from one day to the next what you’d be covering,” Bennett writes.

For some reason it is deemed essential that we join the big media packs rushing to whatever has been placed on the news agenda by the exigencies of the American political system. In the United States issues can wax and wane according to what disturbing pictures voters have seen on television the night before. If the United States media have decided to focus on a famine in Somalia, possibly making it a political issue for a keen‑to‑be‑re‑elected George Bush, must we rush to Mogadishu with our cameras, too? Unhappy Africa has famines aplenty ‑ some were going on, largely ignored by the media, in countries right alongside Somalia.

Whether or not events get covered by us should not depend on what CBS, NBC, CNN and the rest think is “hot”. Such strait‑jacketing even led to TVNZ leading its news bulletin one night with a story about a few American soldiers being killed in Somalia. A tragedy for their loved ones certainly, but is that really the most important thing that happened on the globe that day? Did our sense of news priorities become badly distorted because we hitched ourselves to someone else’s news wagon? When Somalia went off the United States political agenda (lapsing into even worse chaos as a consequence) we even seemed to share that country’s television “news amnesia” about those events.

As if to underline that reporters report best on those things they know, Foreign Correspondents improves when Jeory and Bennett cover familiar ground. When Jeory writes of the seventy‑fifth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings he brings to the task some knowledge of the senseless slaughter which occurred there and of its importance to the national identity. He writes well and movingly because he feels it and he knows it. New Zealand cameras belong in places like Gallipoli, Bucharest is best left to those who are more knowledgeable. Bennett similarly comes alive when he writes about South Africa‑ his wife grew up in Cape Town so he had visited there and knew something of the country.

Much of Foreign Correspondents reads like a boy’s own adventure story. Bullets dodged and dangers faced remain firmly in the writers’ memories. They took substantial risks to get their brand of the news and should be commended for it. Once the Serbs started killing reporters the Los Angeles Times (a real media thoroughbred) started using local correspondents and wire services in Bosnia. It didn’t consider the whole of Bosnia worth one dead staffer. Bennett and his team went there knowing the dangers they would face and were even willing to go back after being under fire. It is a pity such devotion was not being used on more appropriate ground.

The truth is that larger networks with greater resources can afford to do the job properly. Many, like the BBC, have specialist reporters based in the countries they are covering. Why not use more of their reports? It is difficult to know why TVNZ uses its correspondents to cover such a wide range of locations ‑ apart from the need to have a brand identity in the sense of “look, our boy Liam is there too”. Jeory and Bennett are good reporters and would do even better if they stuck to what they knew. The principle was illustrated a long time ago during the Vietnam War. Here is the text of a military communiqué handed out there to a group of reporters:

ELEMENTS AMERICAL DIV. 11 LT INF BDE., MADE CONTACT WITH ENEMY FORCE UNKNOWN SIZE 9 KM NE QUANG NGAI. INF SUPPORTED BY USA HEL GUNSHIPS AND ARTY. SPORADIC CONTACT CONT UNTIL 1500H WHEN CONTACT LOST. 128 KIA / 2 US KIA.  4 WIA 9 (MEDEVACED) AND 6 WIA TREATED RETND TO DY.

What would a television correspondent passing through have made of it? It was years before it was deciphered properly; US troops had massacred several hundred men, women and children at a place called My Lai.

While Television New Zealand endeavours to cover the world with a familiar face reporting it, Pacific Island journalists are struggling to do something much more basic ‑ to report without unreasonable hindrance from their governments.

David Robie, a New Zealand journalist who has made the Pacific his speciality, has brought together a series of essays by writers who are troubled by the problems their emerging press is facing. Mass Media in the Pacific or Nius Bilong Pasifik in Papua New Guinea pidgin, catalogues a long and disturbing list of attempts to muzzle the press in developing countries in the Pacific.

It’s easy as a European reporter to blunder insensitively into little understood cultural situations in the belief that you can behave just as you would back home. However the voices in this book are largely those of Pacific people and they have found, just as we have, that politicians everywhere use high‑minded sounding reasons for trying to conceal unpleasant facts.

In the Pacific, the argument runs, things like chiefly status are so important that it gives cultural offence to question leaders too closely. What this means in practice is that you have a good chief who uses grant money for things like clinic and schools you are lucky ‑ if he uses it on drink and fast women then too bad, to report it would give cultural offence.

Grafting notions of press freedom into the constitutions of developing countries has often proved a difficult process. Such freedoms were painfully developed in a western cultural context and are peculiar to its history. It is sometimes said, for example, that the only reason they are so emphasised in the United States is because they made their way into the American Constitution because the revolutionary leaders had been badly browned‑off by the British suppressing their pamphlets and news sheets.

The Pacific may be going through a phase common to other areas of the third world. The opposition to a western-style free press has had earlier resonances. In 1978 when UNESCO was run by Director‑General Amadou Mahtar M’Bow (a gentleman now mainly remembered for his lavish lifestyle) it managed to unite the developing states, non‑aligned nations and the whole Soviet bloc against the practices of the western press. The New World information and Communications Order (NIWICO) emerged. Plans were developed for licensing journalists and placing controls on them, as well as for setting up government agencies to monopolise the flow of news wherever possible. The main reason given for all this was that the press could not be trusted to do the job properly in developing countries.

Fortunately by the early 1980s NIWICO imploded under the weight of its own inconsistencies, a bit like the Soviet Union. However, some of its arguments seem to have been revived in the Pacific. In April 1994 the government of Papua New Guinea instructed radio journalists not to report a conference of island leaders because it feared they might be discussing independence. Communications Minister Martin Thompson’s directive would have provoked sage nodding of the heads from NIWICO bureaucrats:

Pursuant to my powers under section 7:3a of the Broadcasting Commission Act Chapter 149 I am now directing you to refrain from broadcasting any matter arising out of, or in connection with, the New Guinea Islands leaders’ summit held in Kimbe.

Let me remind the commission that whilst it is our duty to provide a balanced, objective and impartial broadcasting service, it is paramount that such services should reflect our drive for national unity and that we should take extreme care in broadcasting material that could inflame racial or sectional feelings.

Pacific journalists see this sort of thing for the baloney it is. Providing a balanced, objective and impartial news service does not mean muzzling people the government doesn’t want you to listen to. The high‑minded appeal to not inflame racial situations is redolent of the sort of twaddle Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka said to Fiji’s press after the 1987 coup. He told newspapers there they could continue to publish so long as they operated self‑censorship and did nothing to inflame the race situation. How you could comment on the consequences of his racist coup and his racist constitution without mentioning race proved beyond the pale for at least one newspaper. The Fiji Sun closed down its operation rather than operate in such an environment.

The essays in Mass Media in the Pacific are dotted with examples of attempts to protect Pacific power elites from press scrutiny. The Tongan government has sought injunctions to prevent newspapers from publishing official documents which point to corruption at the highest levels. It has tried to force journalists to reveal sources for past articles. The Western Samoan government has passed a law under which journalists face three months’ imprisonment if they don’t reveal their sources.

In April 1993 the Solomons Prime Minister placed a ban on state radio journalists reporting on the border crisis with PNG. The head of radio current affairs was sacked for defying a ban on interviewing PNG Foreign Minister Michael Somare. Journalists from the Cook Islands News have been hauled before the parliamentary privileges committee ‑ for a cartoon, would you believe? The cartoon was about attempts to muzzle an opposition MP. The journalists were grilled for three days.

Whatever the respect due to rank, Pacific Island journalists figured out long ago that commoners in the Pacific are just as interested in finding out what governments and politicians are doing as anyone else in the world. They come through the pages of this book as a committed group who will resist unreasonable pressures to block the free flow of information. The book may be a little academically obscure and overly windy at times but its subject is an important one.

Bill Southworth is executive director of the New Zealand Journalists Training Organisation. He is a former editor of the Fiji Sun and has worked in New Zealand and Canada as a television current affairs producer.

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