MEDIA EMPATHY? WHAT MEDIA EMPATHY?
By CAMERON DUODU*
*Author of The Gab Boys (Andre Deutsch, London.)
The first international story that aroused empathy in me as a young Ghanaian journalist was the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956. I empathised with the weak Hungarians who were being battered by the strong “Russian bear”. However, the BBC’s condemnation of the Soviet Union did not wash with me, as Britain and France had also colluded, almost at the same time, with Israel to invade Suez – the territory of ”weak” Egypt.
It was the conjunction of these two events that opened my eyes to the hypocrisy inherent in Great Power politics. The Western Powers talked incessantly about ‘democracy’, and ‘international law’, yet they used military power to crush any show of political independence, if it threatened their economic interests. Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in Egypt had presented Britain and France with an economic challenge, and so they threw overboard, any concerns over international law they might have had, and conspired with Israel to try and take over the Suez Canal.
Their hope was that Col. Nasser’s regime would fall in the wake of their invasion. Unfortunately for them, the US, for once, refused to allow its Israeli tail to wag the dog. Neither did the US support the imperialist objectives of Britain and France. So Britain and France were forced to withdraw from Suez.
Meanwhile, their stupidity gave the Soviet Union the room it needed to occupy Hungary, without attracting as much odium to itself as it would otherwise have done, in the international arena.
Ever since, I have been careful not to swallow propaganda. Most pf what passes for objective comment in the Western media, I find, is constructed out of hypocrisy. During the Biafran civil war, for instance (1967-70) many Western newspapers gave a great deal of publicity to Biafran children who were starving as a result of the blockade of Biafra (formerly, Eastern Nigeria) by the Federal Nigerian forces.
But although the British government was supposed to be responsive to “public opinion” in the UK, it continued to supply arms to the Federal Government that was starving the people of Biafra.
I was myself writing at the time for one of the more “liberal” UK newspapers, The Observer, a paper I venerated because Amnesty International (an organisation devoted to the cause of political prisoners world-wide) had been born in its pages, and it supported the people of Nyasaland (Malawi) when the British Government and the government of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland conspired to smear the leaders of the Malawi Congress Party, by falsely accusing them of a plot to engage in the massacre of its political opponents.
Yet when it came to Biafra, The Observer towed the British Government’s line! I was so outraged by some of the things written about Biafra in the paper by its then African correspondent, Colin Legum, that I wrote to the editor, David Astor, strongly protesting against Legum’s line. I ended the letter with words which were often quoted with delight by colleagues on the paper who had appreciated my stance but had been too cautious to endorse it in public: “Fuck Colin Legum!”
In fact, I thought my days with The Observer had ended with that impolite letter, but they didn’t. It was hinted to me that David Astor had himself been impressed by it, although it didn’t stop the paper continuing to espouse the British Government’s line.
What I learnt from episodes like that was that no media practitioner’s principles should be taken for granted. To believe that papers like The Observer or the Guardian are as ‘liberal’ as they claim to be, and will therefore support humanitarian causes, if such causes are transparent enough, is to set oneself up for disappointment.
What is my evidence? This: throughout the end of February and the early part of Match 2014, Al-Jazeera TV showed footage , shot by its crew in the Central African Republic (CAR) that constantly brought tears to my eyes. In one instance, I saw a woman with a baby on her back, and holding another child by the hand, try to get
into an overloaded lorry that was taking refugees from the CAR to safety in a neighbouring country.
As the refugees were trying to board the truck, people on the ground, who were hostile to them on account of their alleged religious beliefs, were trying to pull them back so that they could beat them and possibly hack them to death. It was the most harrowing scene I had ever watched on TV.
The woman with the baby on her back managed to get on board the truck and stay on. But her other child, a boy of about four, was left on the ground. The truck took off with the woman wailing and flailing her arms about. What would happen to her little boy?
The boy was already emaciated, because of the difficulties the family had already been through before they managed to get to the truck. When the truck left without him, he began to wander about aimlessly, traumatised and crying. I knew instinctively that he might not survive.
Tears began to roll down my cheeks. I could see myself in that boy, when my mother had taken me, as a child, by train from Asiakwa, our town in Ghana, to a place called Nkawkaw forty miles away. I’d been frightened by the train, even with my mother constantly by my side. Suppose I had been separated from her?
My empathy with the little boy’s horrendous fate
made me put on my thinking cap. And a possible way of saving lives in the CAR came to me. This was a religious conflict, that was taking place there. Between just two religions – Catholics and Muslims. So it wasn’t as complex as some of the ethnic conflicts that cost so many lives elsewhere in Africa.
Now, suppose the Pope (held in awe by the Catholics of the CAR) and the King of Saudi Arabia (equally venerable to the Muslims of the country) were to embark on a joint-initiative to try and stop the internecine fighting and thereby save the lives of the people caught in the conflict?
The Pope could say that any Catholic who molested a Muslim would be excommunicated from the Catholic Church. If, after his appeal, the fighting still continued, the entire Catholic population of the CAR would be ex-communicated.
On his part, the King of Saudi Arabia would say that no person from the CAR would be allowed to perform the hajj (holy Islamic pilgrimage) ever again unless the fighting stopped immediately. The French, UN and AU troops in the CAR would then not be needed any longer.
I dispatched my idea to the Vatican. One week passed. Neither The Holy Father nor any of his officials acknowledged receipt of it.
I sent a copy to the King of Saudi Arabia, care of the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, through the Saudi Embassy in London. Again, no response.
I then sent the proposal to the editor of the Guardian, Mr Alan Rusbridger, whom I respect greatly, because of his fearless campaign against the wholesale eavesdropping being carried out by the US NSA and the GCHQ of Britain. I implored him to take up the idea in an editorial in the Guardian.
Meanwhile, I also sent the article to every member of the Guardian Comment team, whose name I could remember. So far, no response from anyone!
I am not easily discouraged, so I sent a copy of the proposal to every BBC News programme I know of, as well as to every BBC news-staffer whose name I could recollect. I made myself available to be interviewed to elucidate the idea. But although I am often called by them to comment on news they want me to comment on, I have not received a single response from any of them.
I then called Al-Jazeera English in Doha. They’ve often called me at odd hours to go to their studios in Knightsbridge, London, to comment on news. But when I called them, the woman who received the call said she was “too busy” to listen to what I had to say. I was so peeved that I put the receiver down. I then called the London office. They said they would call me back. They haven’t done so.
What I have concluded from all this is that most of the modern, so-called journalists employed by the powerful world media, have very little – if any – actual empathy for the world they report on. The world is just a commodity to be used by them to earn a comfortable living. And unless they decide that part of the commodity would be good for them to own, then they are not interested. A mere ”outsider” to try to arouse empathy in them? Forget it.
My attitude to the “inky fraternity” has thus changed radically. I am pursuing my objective of saving lives in CAR by other means. And I shall not rest until I have done everything possible. For I believe strongly that journalists should, when necessary, use their skills to serve humankind.