Journalism the world over labours under the curse of celebrity. There is no doubt that the reading, surfing, watching and listening public are fascinated by it. But are they fascinated to the exclusion of all else?As a journalist with more serious things on my mind I like to think not. But too many media proprietors and editors think the fastest way to increase their circulation or make a fast buck is to plaster their pages with celebrities.
In his tour de force on the Charles Taylor war crimes trial in the last edition (New Africa Analysis, 17th-31st August), Peter Penfold provided the clearest explanation I’ve read so far of the genesis of the trial and why Taylor is in the dock. He reported the media frenzy caused by the appearance in The Hague of supermodel Naomi Campbell and film star Mia Farrow.Well, that media frenzy meant that the trial was a lead story across the world and in Britain for days. Did she receive the stones? Did she know they were blood diamonds? Did she know who they were from? Did she lie at the trial? [protected]
The focus in the British media was on the ’did she’ aspect throughout – Campbell’s vacuous testimony and the conflicting accounts by her former aide and by Ms Farrow. Some of the more serious media did follow up or, on the web, provide links to backgrounders about the trial and the war. But the spotlight was on the celebrities and their roles. As soon as they disappeared from the court most of the coverage disappeared too.
This is a sad reflection on the values of editors and, perhaps, on the mores of modern society. Celebrity is more important than the serious investigation and explanation of a brutal war and of the ambitions of greedy and selfish politicians.
There has been precious little coverage of Charles Taylor’s trial in the mainstream British media before or since the Campbell sideshow. As Peter Penfold pointed out, Taylor is not the only guilty party in the war that devastated Sierra Leone and damaged a generation. But this is rarely discussed in the press. If the focus shifted a fraction from Campbell or Farrow and onto Taylor as supporting actor in the drama, it was to portray him as the sole villain in Bond Movie fashion. There was no wider context.
To me, this is the danger of the superficial culture that is gaining hold in the ever more competitive and cash-strapped world of journalism. Impact, sensation and sales are everything – context, explication and explanation are expensive luxuries. Stereotypes – the bloody tribal war, the African as perpetual victim, the ‘big man’ – are the convenient and misleading shorthand for much journalism.
Celebrities have their periods of fame, but celebrity itself has limitless appeal it would seem. So Naomi Campbell will crop up again and again on the front pages of papers, the lead pages of websites and in the broadcast headlines. But I fear that Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Taylor trial have, to coin Andy Warhol’s phrase, had their 15 minutes of fame. If editors go back to the trial when it ends, it will be ‘Taylor found guilty/acquitted (delete as applicable) in Naomi Campbell Diamonds trial’
I wonder how many people in Europe and the United States know what little they do about Malawi because of the Madonna adoption saga, rather than because Malawi is in itself a fascinating country with people worthy of respect in their own right rather than as extensions of Madonna’s ego?
Since the adoption saga has gone off the boil, how often has Malawi been in the news? Will it only come into the news again when Madonna flies out to open the Madonna girls’ school being built outside Lilongwe? Africa, of course, is not alone in being pushed aside by celebrities when it comes to news coverage. But my fear is that Africa is already marginalised, as is Latin America (the US influenced drug wars in northern Mexico aside), in the world’s media. Journalists, as I know from three decades at the BBC, fight to get African stories into bulletins or programme running orders, but it is often a losing battle. To get it up there, you have to have massive mayhem, huge violence, terrible tragedy or, and this is much easier, cuddly or cruel creatures.
Africa is reduced to a series of keywords or images – tribal bloodshed, famine, Nelson Mandela, animals. There is little explanation, little understanding or context. Most people in Britain know little about Africa and what they do is from headlines, sensationalist reporting and post-colonial prejudice. So Naomi Campbell admitted she’d never even heard of Liberia, despite having met its president. Worse, a journalist I once worked with at the BBC thought Dar es Salaam was a person and expressed surprise, in reading a Tanzanian newspaper, that so many men were called ‘Ndugu’!
But there is a very serious aspect. Politicians the world over are influenced by the media and how they think their constituents will react to media stories. So when you get reporting of violence in Africa, that blames all on some sort of atavistic tribal hatred – much British press reporting of the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya was in this vein with heavy emphasis on themes like ‘safari paradise wrecked by tribal bloodshed’, or ‘tribal war in Happy Valley’ – then this has influence.
If you are thinking about cutting aid or perhaps pulling out of backing investment programmes in Africa, then superficial, uninformed reporting packed with sensation will have an effect and not a positive one for Africa. After all, why help people who are dominated by primitive hatred?