In this article, the author explores the role of the media in reporting the protests seen around the world in the past few months.
By Mikael Santelli-Bensouda, 31 Oct, 2011
We live in exceptional times. The seemingly endless reach of the media brings popular movements and struggles of all persuasions into the public domain. From protests against educations cuts and austerity measures to pro-democracy revolutions, in one way or another, they are all accessible. But in what capacity are they being presented to us? There are huge inconsistencies in the manner in which societies’ information distribution mechanisms reflect upon the mobilisation of the masses.
As Derrida sensibly wrote, “nothing exits outside a context”. As such, any specific event is ascribed meaning through its contextualisation. Much like blinkers, context frames a given reality within a discourse that permits understanding. These blinkers are (consciously or not) constructed through an amalgamation of cultural norms and values, national history and worldviews. It is thus pertinent to understand that, from sender to receiver, information will have been contextualised in accordance to the sender’s worldview that is formulated by the media. In essence, the exchange of information between official outlets – whether the media, police or politicians – and the general public is pre-framed to influence the receiver.
The Fires of London
The disturbances that took place in August in London seemed to appear out of nowhere and spiraled out of control to a level on par with the social unrest in the 1980’s. Those events were widely condemned by the national media, political leadership and the majority of the British public alike. Whilst not wishing to dispute the validity of specific incidents, the virtually unanimous description of the incidents as riots and looting established a deep seeded negative connotation. In fact, the lexicon used to report the events seemed to oscillate around terms including thugs, opportunism and youth culture. The consequence of this is the establishment of a generalised and disconnected group, in this instance young people of a certain political class and ethnicity, and their separation from the main public body. By doing so, there emerges the establishment of a them, the maladapted and disruptive elements of the society, which, by extension reinforces an us. It is through this process that we can explain why blame derived from almost every angle (unruly attitudes, the decadence of education, computer games, rap music and even according to one (un)credible commentator, Patois) except the very societal factors that may have contributed to such disconnectedness.
The overwhelming drive to establish this group as a deviant societal sub-category suffocates deeper analysis especially one that attempts to understand their rationale, even if it is found that, by and large, there was none. Such condemnation transcended all levels of society, from the Prime Minister to the local cabby, and was especially prevalent within the media. The latter subtly reinforced the dividing lines between the deviant hooligans and the bastions of authority the police, who were interestingly described as the force in a bid to restore their legitimacy in the epically over-hyped battle to reclaim the streets. So, we ignored what may have been a nation-wide cry of dissatisfaction with society, swept it under the rug, and occupied our time by demanding a return to social order and punishment for troublemakers. Perhaps most worryingly is the unintended consequence of this affair. Whilst creating an other may foster a sense of unity amongst us, it risks sewing the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein this disconnected group begins to believe what society thinks of them by accepting its deviant status and even embraces it.
Qualms with Capitalism
The recent protests aimed at the corrupt and immoral financial system that has severely affected virtually ninety nine per cent of us. It is epitomised by the ‘Occupy campaigns’ that have sprouted across the west from its original formation in New York to sympathetic permutations in London, the Republic of Korea and Jamaica to name but a few. These parallel movements showcase their frustration against the corrupt and unjust banking and financial systems that have been able to get away with the biggest economic injustice since colonialism. It is not a sentiment that is held by a mere minority. Anger and disbelief are global phenomena.
Intriguingly, a substantial amount of the reporting on these protests empathise little with the causes. There is little or no media support for the protests whatsoever; little or no glorification, no accounts of brave people who dare to speak on behalf of a disgruntled society. Instead, they are confronted with headlines like The Siege of St Paul’s, and their cause is belittled by generalization and the callous infusion of negatively connoted terminology including: anarchists, anti-capitalism, communism, disgruntled students and even Marxist revolutionaries.
The information that is espoused intends to devalue the efforts that are being showcased as they are portrayed as disturbing the order. By doing so, there emerges the establishment of a socially constructed and generalised group that is detached from society through a process of association and differentiation. Once a group has been identified as deviant it generally perturbs the general public and deters affiliation. Much like the consequences of the London riots, rather than engaging in debate about the true nature of discontentedness; which in this instance is the demand for greater accountability, transparency and judicial equality (after all these ideals are the foundation of our society), there is a manipulation of the movement to reduce its impact. Its very essence is intentionally distorted to evoke a separation between those who want to overthrow the capitalist system and every one else; who will remain pacified.
Another Day, Another Struggle
Moving beyond manipulation of social unrest within the west, we are confronted with seemingly endless stories of struggles in distant lands. It seems that there is an increasing sense of inevitability of events that originate in the global south and its redistribution. Education protests in Chile, religious solidarity in Nepal and democratic revolutions in Syria are, more often than one would like to think, contextualised through a veil of western superiority. As those people strive to attain a societal standard on par with what we have in the west, we hold the power to confer legitimacy upon such incidents (or not). Yet, needless to say, unless action in a foreign place threatens our interests, it remains out of our sphere of interest.
It is interesting to note that different geographical examples of social mobilisation, despite similar intentional goals, often receive a distinctly varied reception dependent on its location and its relation to the reporting press. For example; education protests in the UK were troublesome but in Chile they are conceived as a sign of progress in society. Similarly, protests against oppressive rule in Palestine are constructed within a negative frame and often ignored while those occurring in Iran are encouraged. Although it may be unfashionable to refer to orientalism in this day and age, it is hard to overlook the fact that the western media conveys a post-colonial hierarchy among states by granting selective support to its government’s clients.
The Arab Spring exemplified a media and political phenomenon across the world. Looking back to the initial outbreak of mass popular protest across North Africa it is interesting to notice that the media and politicians seemed to adopt no real stance. Perhaps for the first time in modern Arab history (excluding events in Palestine) the west abstained from publicly passing judgment, if only temporarily. A waiting game ensued.
In fact, a delicate balancing of interests was underway. Whilst initially not wishing to alienate authoritarian allies, whom for so long they had propped up and abused as geopolitical tools, the West could not jump on its archetypal bandwagon of backing democratic demands. However, it could not condemn such popular power in the event that the movement was successful. It is for that reason that, only once the dice of history had been firmly cast on the side of the people, did the west find its position. The discourse machine then went into overdrive; pro-democracy revolutionaries, heroes of the Arab world and lovers of freedom invaded the headlines and framed perceptions.
What was occurring was an attempt to overcome distance and difference by removing the sense of otherness by creating unity; people who share the values of democracy. So, unlike the discourse constructed on protests within the West, the context of the Arab Spring was intended to unify groups and extend legitimacy upon the events. Surely then it is no surprise to see how the events unfolded in Libya. Images of distress and asymmetric warfare resonated deep across peoples, as we had grown attached to these like-minded freedom lovers and, consequently, military intervention to assist the march of democracy against tyranny received widespread and unquestioning acceptance.
As history has proven, the West only conducts military operations when there is just cause, usually established through the construction of a narrative and on the odd occasion has been a matter of ‘self-interest’. The narrative constructed prior to the Libyan intervention emphasised shared values. It surely had nothing to do with oil, not this time. The connection of values/interests established through cross-societal bonding via image bombardment and discourse assimilation ultimately produced general acceptance for the ‘need to act’. Yet what about the uprisings in Syria? A similar process to create empathy occurred but commitments were only made to economic sanctions. Perhaps, it was assumed that they are capable of fighting for themselves against a regime far more oppressive and evidently trigger happy than Ghaddafi’s. What about the protests in Bahrain? That is a story that should only be whispered. Limited reporting on attempts to overturn the constitutional monarchy stems directly from the fact that it threatens the Saudi Royal Family’s monopoly on authority and has taken painful steps to crush what is framed as a Shia rebellion. Due to the world’s insatiable appetite for oil, the Saudi’s prerogative ensures that the events either follow their own narrative construction or are lost in an informational void. Blinding self-interest is the driving force behind the way the West has viewed, acted upon and has constructed the narrative for the Arab Spring.
These differing examples highlight how discourses surrounding certain events emerge from its initial contextualisation prior to dissemination. It helps to explain why certain acts are perceived in differing ways, even if they share the same principles. Such contextualisation derives from the desire to understand the reason for certain events by viewing it through a familiar lens (i.e., a British worldview). Through this process it reinforces cultural norms by creating dividing lines between what is acceptable in society and what is perceived as deviant even if there remains huge inconsistencies in its implementation. Essentially, if a certain movement challenges or questions the societal structure, and the position of a privileged elite, they are likely to be perceived negatively regardless of whether the country observes the universal values of democracy.
Revolutions all over the world are being televised. Over the past few months there have been constant updates on the progress being made by NATO and the NTC in Libya, how Basher Al-Asad continues to brutalise the people of Syria and the spread of the Occupy campaigns throughout the world like wildfire. However, their intended messages are often distorted or manipulated to serve a greater purpose, one that continues to sustain the hierarchical cross-societal structure that has dominated the world for centuries. The revolution is being televised with the intention of preserving the class structure within the UK, the West or the world.