HOW do you write about poverty in an indifferent world? The week
of the Leveson report is not a bad time to step off the treadmill
of the news agenda to ask a few questions about the values that
underlie the way we look at the world. The stimulus for me was a
request to take part in a seminar at the Frontline Club on news
values and the developing world. The lessons it offers have a wider
The shock of encountering the reality
of poverty in famine-struck Ethiopia in 1985 changed my perspective
on life. As I moved from one African country to another, the common
factors quickly made me realise that the problem was not just the
weather and bad government, but the relationship between the rich
and poor worlds, which was systemically structured to keep us rich,
or make us even richer, and keep them poor. Naïvely, I thought that
if only the iniquity of that system was exposed and explained, then
public indignation would compel change.
Nearly three decades on, I understand
that the politics of poverty is different, and that the media is in
many ways part of the problem. News values focus on events rather
than situations, symptoms rather than causes. The insatiable thirst
for novelty gives journalists a short attention-span. "We did
starving people last week; what's new? Let's do how the aid goes
astray, corrupt governments, nasty dictators, and all the rest."
But there is more to this than an institutional attention-deficit
Bob Geldof has talked about "the
pornography of poverty". It's an apt phrase because so much
coverage of disasters focuses on sensation rather than
relationships. It requires ever more novel or extreme examples to
be deemed worthy of space or airtime. And it portrays those who
suffer as victims, over whom we stand in a relationship of power,
often disguised as pity.
Aid agencies try to guard against this
by insisting on positive images in the photos used to publicise
their work. But news editors - and indeed agencies' own fundraisers
- have little truck with that. An additional problem is that
news-editing is such a high-pressure job that it has a fast
turn-over, which means that the gatekeepers to what gets in our
newspapers constantly need re-educating out of the ignorant
understanding of aid that they share with most of the
"Ignorant" is not a kind word. It
implies not just lack of knowledge, but a lack of care. Yet that is
what subconsciously underlies the chic cynicism of the constant
stream of snide sniping about corruption and failed aid projects.
Of course, there are failures, but the substantial majority of aid
succeeds in alleviating poverty or promoting economic development.
This knocking copy shows more than indifference; it reveals a
resistance, or even hostility, rooted in a subliminal urge to
maintain and justify the status quo financially, psychologically,
Insightful journalism can challenge
that. But it is no easy task getting space to write it. This is
why, in the end, journalism alone cannot deliver. It is why I
embraced more direct activism, working with aid agencies such as
Christian Aid, CAFOD, and Traidcraft, and becoming involved with
Bob Geldof and Bono in the Commission for Africa, Live 8, and Make
Poverty History, lobbying G8 governments on debt-relief at
Gleneagles in 2005.
Not all the promises that were made
there were delivered, and world leaders have failed utterly on
trade reform. But, as a result of what was done at Gleneagles, 40
million more children are in school, six million people with HIV or
AIDS are on life-saving drugs, malaria has been halved in eight
countries, and 1700 fewer children die every day from preventable
diseases. Journalism alone could not have delivered that.
Paul Vallely is associate editor
of The Independent.