Less ‘journalism’ please!

As long as ratings dominate everything, like in entertainment, the making of a subprime crisis will always be overshadowed by the death of Lady Di

“What audiences find interesting is not something that comes naturally. The media can awake interest in something if they work on it,” says Serge Halimi.  In this age of internet, he thinks, we are ‘processing more news, more news, and more’ but ‘we are not thinking’.

Director of Le Monde Diplomatique, Sege Halimi has written several books, including one  on the French press, Les nouveaux chiens de garde and another on the French left in the 20th century – Quand la gauche essayait. On March 2, he gave a lecture at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. A day after, he was interviewed by the Viewpoint in London. Excerpts:

Certain media academics claim that the rise of Southern actors like Al Jazeera, Globo, Zee TV, or Bollywood has delivered the end of media imperialism. How do you assess this claim?

To some extent I would agree with the analysis. The global media used to be dominated by the United States and western vision, in particular, when, for instance, conflict in the Middle East was involved. It is true that media outlets from South offer a different view, a different perspective. At the same time, they may package the news in the same fashion. They show an exactly same interest in what is sensational and are equally keen about good ratings. In a sense, same commercial rules apply to the Southern actors as they apply in case of CNN etc. In depth analysis is often missing.

In your lecture at SOAS, you cited an example from France where leading dailies like Le Monde, Liberacion, and Li Figaro were asking their readers to vote ‘Yes’ in 2005 Referendum. But 55% voted No. Your conclusion is that mainstream press does not reflect public opinion. However, mainstream media claim that they sell what audiences demand. The global success of Big Brother or Idol etc is cited as a proof. What do you say about these contradictory positions?

In case of French Referendum, what big media sold was not popular. It was proved by the vote. These three newspapers campaigned for weeks, advocating a certain viewpoint and asking their readers to vote ‘Yes’. But a majority voted No. Hence, it is not a hypothesis but a fact.

When it comes to shows like Big Brother or Idol, may be people like them. I am, however, not as interested in this side of the television. I am speaking of news. What may apply to television entertainment, should not apply when it comes to news. In that case, one has to draw a sharp distinction between what may appear “interesting” yet be shallow or meaningless (like royal family news) and what is important but may demand more of the viewer (who is also a citizen). As long as ratings dominate everything, like in entertainment, the making of a subprime crisis will always be overshadowed by the death of Lady Di.

But “interesting” is not a natural thing. It can be a creation. People like to be able to read; they make not like the learning process. Likewise, the media can awake interest in something if they work on it. If you tell me that people do not find news about Sri Lanka interesting, my reply would be: Why should people find news about Sri Lanka interesting when they are never told about Sri Lanka, if they don’t even know where the country is and when there is no bond between them and Sri Lanka. Media’s job is to create these connections. Unless we have created such connections and explained why events in a certain country matter even for an audience in a distant country, we will keep saying that people are not interested in the world. They will be less and less interested in the world if we go on feeding them local “news you can use” and crime stories.

Let us turn around the previous question. If readers do not vote Yes in French Referendum despite a campaign by mainstream press; or in Britain, a majority of Sun readers vote Labour, despite Sun’s ownership by Rupert Murdoch, why then worry about the corporate media and the hegemony of mainstream press. Why build alternative outlets like Le Monde Diplomatique?

Because in one specific instance as for instance French Referendum or a particular presidential election, people may not buy the ideas sold by mainstream press but in many other issues —that may not appear very important— they buy a sort of vision of the world, they [internalize] the priorities of mainstream media.

There is a general outlook that has an effect on population. However, when an issue becomes extremely important for people, they do not care what media tell them. This often visibly happens in case of social conflicts about wages or working conditions for instance. This happens because people have a clear idea what a cut in wages would entail for them. Therefore, media campaigns do not make them bulge very much.  But there are lots of topics people do not adequately know about. Here media can play a role. The notion, for instance, there is nothing we can do about economy owing to globalization, is a widespread notion. It prevails because economic and financial issues are difficult to understand. And it leads to a sense of defeatism, which helps the neoliberal left (“we can’t do better than help the rich”), the right (“we are justified in helping the rich”), and the extreme right, which will misdirect a desperate economic anger in a xenophobic direction.

Media’s impact is also vital when they do not inform people about something that matters to people and that they should know about. We should not expect people spending all their lives on internet finding out about the world. Hence, there is a middle ground between saying that media do not matter at all and that media decide all the time.

What explains Le Monde Diplomatique’s success? Also, how would you comment on the notion that alternative outlets become mainstream, employing hierarchies and practicing gate keeping, once they are successful?

The hierarchy and structure at the Le Monde Diplomatique has not changed. The structure remained the same when we were not popular and even when we are known.

About the first point, I would say success is relative. We sell 160,000 copies of the French edition of Le Monde Diplomatique (the one that covers 90 percent of our costs)  and over two million across the world (with our foreign editions, including one in English). That still leaves out a few billion people…

Our success probably owes to two factors. First, we cover international news at a time when mainstream media stopped covering countries that ‘do not matter’ insofar as they will not tip the strategic balance, have no nuclear weapon, do not produce oil, etc.  We cover these countries because they matter to us.

Second dimension: as mainstream media cover less and less international news, articles are getting shorter and shorter. This is their marketing device. They think attention span is little, hence audience gets a two minute story on TV and a 300- or 600-word story in newspapers. We don’t do this. We run detailed stories though our stories have also shrunk compared to 25 years ago. This gives us the chance to go back to country’s history, address its culture, discuss its international relations. Most of the newspapers do not have the space to do that.

There is a third element. The mainstream media are converging around same kind of ideology, basically all are pro-globalization. The difference between leftwing and rightwing is not huge. We on the contrary offer a critical view of the neo-liberal model. Readers interested in an alternative and comprehensive coverage turn to the Le Monde Diplomatique.

The Arab revolutions are being attributed to Facebook and Tweeter. Your comments.

I wonder if it is not a bias of the people working in the media. There is, however, always a tendency to explain revolution by its communication system; it is also a job you can perform from your armchair, with your laptop, without going anywhere, interviewing anyone…. Reformation is explained by printing press, Iranian revolution had audio tapes while Kennedy’s victory over Nixon is attributed to former’s better TV appearance. Journalists love this because it puts them at the centre of the stage. One cannot say that means of communication do not play a role. But I am always reluctant to assign communication a central role. The danger is that we may forget important factors, the structural factors, for instance, such as income distribution, union power, demographics, trade, financial flows, etc. These factors play a major role. When there was a potential for revolt in Arab world as a result of structural factors, the Facebook and Tweeter gave this potential an outlet.

What about the role of WikiLeaks in stimulating Arab revolutions?

In case of Tunisia, I wonder if it had been any different if a major newspaper had published a cable from US embassy on Ben Ali’s and his family’s corruption. It might have the same effect. People would have written leaflets out of these reports and distributed them. Now a days, we set a meeting by email. Earlier, we might have met by an appointment on telephone. But still we have met in the same conditions.

How do you see the future of journalism in this age of internet?

We are too much hooked to computer. We are processing more news, more news and more news. We are spending more time in front of screens and reading latest wire dispatch. It seems convenient to have so many news from so many outlets. This convenience, however, has become a problem. We are not thinking enough. At sometime we have to play down this sort of journalism and go back to reporting … and books.

(From Viewpoint Online)