The press and the Arab spring: Six reasons for failure
Chris Doyle, Caabu's Director, analyses coverage of uprisings across the Arab world in the past three months.
(Article published in the Next Century Foundations Media Credibility Index)
Most people in the West, analysts and experts included, were stunned and amazed at the revolts which spread across the Arab World that started in Tunisia in January. At least, they were surprised at the speed, the scale and the breadth of the popular movements and that they were largely non‐violent and non‐sectarian. Few were surprised that they were met with violence. This sadly seems to have been the default setting of too many of the region’s regimes.
It has been an extraordinary media event as well, with 24‐hour news stations devoting huge resources to covering the Arab Spring, creating mesmerising images, especially during the 18 days that shook Egypt.
Yet the reality was all the ingredients for such uprisings were present and well known. Events in Tunisia had been bubbling for some time, with Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid at the centre of socioeconomic discontent. Egypt too had been in turmoil with increased workers’ strikes and opposition action. In most Arab states, there is a dangerous combination of high unemployment, high food prices and corruption together with a lack of political freedom and abuse of human rights. Perhaps the more pertinent question is why such uprisings had not happened before?
It begs the question as to why the media were part of a collective failure: how come there was no sense in the press of this impending tempest that has swept away two Presidents, four Prime Ministers, and has shaken every regime from Morocco to Iran?
There are several key reasons.
A pack mentality
First, the media hunt in packs with international correspondents centred on a few selected global hubs. For the Middle East this has been Jerusalem. The city provides a comfortable centre for journalists, where they can live in comfort with first world luxuries but just a few kilometers from a war zone and occupied territory. There has been a huge focus on Israel‐Palestine which, whilst a major issue, is far from the only one (and even then the coverage quality is poor). However, it is not the most logical place to cover the rest of the Arab World. From Jerusalem it would be difficult to sense the changing currents and trends across the Arab world, and there is the danger of seeing the region solely through an Israeli lens.
Journalists have admitted to me that they had missed all the tensions in Lebanon prior to the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005. More recently there has been a noticeable lack of coverage by media outlets of the food riots that have been taking place in various Arab states over the last few years, even though, in some ways, this is one of the most major stories in terms of affecting the greatest number of people. In short, for most of the last decade there have been three key media stories: Israel‐Palestine, Iraq and Al Qa’ida. In most other cases, journalists have had no choice but to play catch up with unfolding disasters. How many of the phalanx of reporters who covered the last hours of Ben Ali had ever filed a report from Tunis? I have repeatedly advised BBC editors for ten years to broaden their coverage. Now they know why.
Lack of funding
Second, the lack of funding in media has constrained coverage. The current wave of simultaneous, dramatic and historic uprisings have presented one of the greatest challenges to international news gathering. But financial issues also restrict innovative, independent and investigative approaches to coverage. There are so few decent, in depth documentaries being made. As yet I am still waiting to see just one documentary in the British media on these events of any quality.
Investigative journalism is costly. Look at how many stories of massive corruption have been unearthed during these Arab uprisings. However, I can hardly remember one mention of the Trabelsi family prior to Wikileaks in any western media outlet. The family of the former First Lady of Tunisia was notorious amongst Tunisians who did not need to be told by Julian Assange just how corrupt she and her relatives were.
Third, the media can only cover one major international story at a time. During the Libya crisis, Gaddafi got some breathing space because of the earthquake in Japan. How many more journalists might have been in Bahrain and Yemen if it were not for Libya? The Bahraini forces demolished the Pearl Roundabout in Manama just after the United Nations Security Council voted through Resolution 1973 authorising the No Fly Zones over Libya, an event only partially covered in the media.
Absence of Arab voices
Fourth, there has been an historic absence of Arab voices in the western media. It is almost a shock to find one. So often on BBC Newsnight we have grandees of UK foreign policy, and the US think tank circus. Yet the sheer scale and breadth of the Arab Spring has forced news outlets to unearth other voices, not least young Arab spokespeople who had been invisible on our screens before. Similarly opponents to regimes had rarely been given a chance. Few non‐Arab journalists speak Arabic, a vital tool to understand these fast evolving events. Watching al Jazeera English and the better Arabic news channels is far more informative than most of our domestic British output. Indeed Al Jazeera has been hugely significant in inspiring these uprisings and reinstilling a sense of Arabness once again, as North Africa has been brought to the sitting rooms of the Levant and the Gulf. Here a news station has not just covered events but shaped them.
Love of sensationalism
Fifth, much of our media still loves to sensationalise. The best way to do this is through rampant scare mongering. Commentators raise the threat of al Qaida or the Muslim Brotherhood regardless of their involvement. Ironically, Qaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali also played this tune. If the current Libyan regime goes, there will be many editors who will mourn his departure. As one veteran hack told me Gaddafi stories are always known to sell papers. The Daily Star could not resist a pointless crass front page story of Gaddafi taking refuge with his bodyguard of 40 female virgins on a day when the Tripoli tyrant was pummelling three of his cities. And here again, as in every conflict, there is excessive focus on the tools of war, with endless shots of opposition fighters firing guns into the sky.
Too much haste
Sixth, much media coverage is either lazy or rushed. The most high profile case was CNN and Reuters being accused by Fox News of acting as human shields for Gaddafi in Tripoli. Nic Robertson of CNN accused Fox reporters of not even bothering to try to get out of the hotel to find out what was going on. But the worst case of this is by columnists sitting in London, writing about countries they have never visited, and people they barely know. Michael Gove, our present Secretary of State for Education, when he was a columnist at the Times, regularly wrote articles supporting Israel but had to admit recently he had never even visited the country.
So many commentators were quick to praise the impact of Facebook or Twitter as the driving forces behind many of these uprisings, even when a proper analysis of the situation showed that demonstrations were taking place in places where Internet access was minimal or nonexistent. One witness told me that many of those in Tahrir square in Cairo did not have mobile phones or Internet access. Yemeni protests took place even though it has the lowest Internet penetration in the entire region.
This is symptomatic of a widespread failure to give real meaningful context to unfolding events. For example, when discussing the lack of Arab support for intervention in Libya, beyond the recent disaster of Iraq, there is precious little reference to all the other myriad of British and American actions and inactions that have shaped the region.
There are many commendable reporters who have illuminated our understanding. Those reporting on the ground have typically shown remarkable courage and bravery to feed our 24/7 hunger for constant updates. They have risked life and limb, with many being arrested in Libya, and some have even been sexually assaulted. Yet as one looks back over the last three incredible months, one cannot help feeling that the extraordinary images have yet to be matched by extraordinary analysis.