Monday, August 14, 2006
Milk & Chocolate
Yesterday's Observer had an article about BBC correspondents abroad being too milky white (like Fergal Keane, pictured above left), not having enough chocolatey brown (like Rageh Omaar, pictured above right). As according to the former BBC director general, Greg Dyke, the BBC is still hideously white. Mary Fitzpatrick is the newly crowned queen of diversity, whose job it is to make black people swap sides at the check out tills in BBC canteens. Being served rather than serving. At "Auntie", the South Americans do the cleaning, and for some strange reason, Ghanaians do the canteens.
I see what Mary Fitzpatrick is saying, but I disagree with her. The dynamics of foreign reporting are too arbitary and nebulous to think that someone who "understands the culture" is necessarily a better deal than someone who is simply a good reporter. Where foreign correspondents are concerned, news organisations try to keep the perspective as fresh as possible.
War reporters tend not to stay in their bombed out locations for too long for several reasons. They need to go away and be energised, in order to return. But more importantly, the longer you stay in a certain kind of scenario, the quicker odd things begin to seem normal. A striking example would be if a reporter was embedded with an infantry unit in a battlezone. After a month of seeing members of that infantry unit maimed and killed, the next injury on day 32 will hardly matter. After all, the reporter has seen so many soldiers' deaths before, so it's hardly newsworthy. To the people watching the news, and to the editors waiting for correspondents to file reports, the fallen soldier on day 32 is newsworthy. But routine can dull the senses of even the most experienced reporters.
Consider undercover policemen who have spent long periods of time living among criminals so as to catch out some drug baron. It is only a matter of time, before the policeman becomes compromised when he commits what he barely deems a crime, because of the length of time he's keeping with certain company. The lines get blurred, and as a policeman, you can't cross that line between legal and illegal. (If you haven't seen the film Donnie Brasco, see it.)
I use the policeman analogy to illustrate what happens when a reporter is "familiar with the culture". A Nigerian journalist going to the passport office will see nothing wrong with offering a "bribe" to get his passport renewed. For him, it's par for the coure. A British journalist would see that as tantamount to selling his soul the devil. The experience is the same, but their cultural backgrounds elicit differing responses.
Bribery is a stark example to use, as it is illegal everywhere in the world. But imagine more nuanced topics like corporal punishment or polygamy. If a reporter is working for a British news organisation, he must make the viewer feel that they would react the same way if they were in his shoes. The reporter is the eyes and the ears of the viewer, explaining this strange land to them. I have no doubt that there would be local reporters capable of bringing fresh perspective to a foreign audience, but as I've said, it isn't as straighforward as replacing white faces with brown.
On to the next potential pitfall for having colour coordinated foreign correspondents. The issue of race. Martin Jacques wrote an in-depth and disturbing analysis of the global hierarchy of race. And many African countries subscribe wholeheartedly to some of these unwritten rules. Many people in government in Africa would sooner talk to a white BBC reporter than a black one. The spirit of colonial subservience still ives in the minds of many. And instead of treating a white expatriate as an equal, they quite often want to suck their toes, lick their knees, looking up at them as they wait for crumbs of glory to fall upon them. A black journalist is unlikely to be given such red carpet treatment. These issues become important when matters of access arise. You want your reporter to talk to the ordinary man on the street, but also to have access to those that make the decisions.
However, where race causes a white journalist to be treated well, it could also prove to be the factor that becomes his undoing. Some people will not talk to a white "neo-colonialist" journalist, but would happily talk to "one of our own". It depends on which country a reporter is in. In Zimbabwe, the BBC is banned, and any reporter, green or pink, would be pummelled by the security services. In an area where kidnapping occurs, a white journalist investigating or reporting a story might seem like an early Christmas present as they bundle him and his camera into the back of a pick-up truck. The black reporter blends in. In a war zone, the warring factions are more likely to execute one of their own, than they are to kill a foreign journalist. The last thing they want is the SAS knocking on the door to their hideout.
Finally, there's the issue of the "sonofabitch". Basically, he might be a sonofabitch, but he's our sonofabitch. This relates to the sensitivity of a story, and who's telling the story. Nigerians sometimes seem prepared to listen to a Nigerian telling them that their government is full of dirty rotten scoundrels. If a white man tells them the very same thing, he is said to be regressing to the days when Lugard lorded it over the British Protectorate of Nigeria. Cheeky colonialists coming back for a second try. But the story is no less true whoever says it.
I once went to a screening of Sorious Samura's harrowing documentary, Living with Aids. After the screening, he expressed sadness that if a white person had made the film, they might have been seen as condescending. He doesn't care who tells the stories, so long as they get told, and told with sensitivity. The series Unreported World has said that it hopes to be able to send reporters of whatever colour to any part of the world to cover a story. The only thing that should count is that the stories get told. I agree.
It is understandable that Mary Fitzpatrick wants a Richard Of York Goes Battling In Vain range of correspondents, but I'm not so sure that ghettoising them in stories that only fit their colour is such a good idea. A good reporter tells a good story, be they brown, yellow, Puerto Rican, Or Haitian. Period.