More than 500 000 people in Bangladesh suffered from flooding, and the global media (BBC, CNN, Guardian, etc) hardly mentioned it. Now some 2000 people in Texas have been rescued from floods, and I’ve been hearing about it constantly from even before it happened. Something is wrong.
It’s never wise to blame the media. We get the media we deserve, mostly poor, reflecting our own biases, shallowness, obsessions, ignorance, and lack of foresight. But the media in Britain have just been through one of their perennial soul-searching sessions, so I’m tempted to enlarge on the theme.
Jon Snow, a news presenter with a taste for highly coloured ties, has given this year’s main lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, and accused the media of being out of touch and full of people like him–middle class, highly educated (preferably privately and then at Oxbridge), well-travelled, liberal-minded. He had an epiphany when covering the terrible fire in a high rise block in West London that killed–indeed, cremated–many. He realised he knew nothing about how these poor people lived and that his media chums didn’t include anybody like those poor people. His answer was more diversity, which we all favour anyway, making it easier for people from poor backgrounds to enter the media.
But, of course, it’s not just the media. The people who run the country–in government, the civil service, universities, and major corporations–are all like John Snow as well. They haven’t lived at the top of a tower block for poor people either (unless it was for a week as part of a reality television programme).
The same sort of bias leads to extensive coverage of floods in Texas and almost no coverage of much more serious floods in Bangladesh. Texas, although it has plenty of poor people, is rich and powerful, crawling with media. We’ve all heard of Texas, many times. In contrast, many people cannot place Bangladesh on a map. They don’t know that it was once East Pakistan. They’ve never heard of the War of Liberation, although some of the older ones remember George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, although they usually can’t remember the cause of the concert.
It’s always been thus. Michael Frayn in his novel about a machine for producing newspapers described how the machine put one British death on the front page but needed two American deaths, five French deaths, 50 Brazilian deaths, and 200 Nigerian deaths to make the front page. (This is not a quote but a memory of the message of the novel.) It will be so until Bangladesh is rich and Texas poor, a day that may not be so far away.