Crusaders in search of a crusade

From Burma to China to Austria, why do Western observers always seek signs of human depravity? PLUS: Brendan O’Neill on ‘news as porn’.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

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Frank Furedi argues that the Burmese and other Eastern governments have been found guilty of a new crime: refusing to allow in Western experts. Further below, Brendan O’Neill says the media coverage of Burma and Austria is more like moral pornography than serious analysis.

Recently, I have found it difficult to take seriously Western media coverage of events overseas. Often, the coverage is driven by a mean-spirited desire to discover that ‘they’, too, have problems – and that many of them are far worse than ours. There seems to be an urge to deliver shallow sermons about the failures of morally inferior communities, and an impulse to gloat over their troubles. Within minutes of receiving news about the terrible earthquake in China this week, we were told about the shoddy structures built by corrupt contractors, who were so concerned with taking advantage of the country’s economic miracle that they didn’t bother to make anything earthquake-proof.

Events that occur far away give the media a licence to live out its fantasies, and allow it to tell cautionary tales about dark places over there. Until recently, the media obsession with the pornography of suffering was confined to Africa, and to a handful of ‘failed’ societies. In the US, Darfur has become the cause célèbre of an entertainment industry in search of a crusade. Across the Atlantic, here in Britain, Zimbabwe has emerged as the ideal place for a twenty-first century replay of the Heart of Darkness. Only this time Kurtz – the white ivory trader-cum-demigod in Conrad’s novel – has a microphone in his hand as he tells TV viewers that ‘something must be done’.

Today, however, you don’t the need to be a octagenarian dictator running a broken country in Africa to get a starring role in the new morality plays about the workings of evil. More recently, even countries that are culturally very close to home have become objects of moral condemnation. The reports and commentaries on the unusual and sordid crime committed by Josef Fritzl swiftly turned into a tale about the defects of the Austrian psyche. Instead of treating his terrible deeds as just that – an appalling crime – commentators took it upon themselves to dig into Austria’s past and discover its national flaws. Before long, ominous hints about Austria’s Nazi past began to surface. Some treated this individual act of depravity as evidence that evil sporting a brown shirt lives in the genteel suburbs of the Austrian nation (see Is there a Josef Fritzl on your street?, by Brendan O’Neill).

Brown shirts? Anyone who has spent time in Austria in recent years must seriously be calling into question their ability to make sense of the world. After all, outwardly Austria is an unusually decent and civilised place. By all appearances it has a low crime rate, visitors feel very safe, and the locals are friendly and helpful. People are well educated and young people are well behaved. This reality appears to be very different from the one promoted by moral entrepreneurs who constantly seek out human corruption and degradation in the most unlikely of places.

If even Austria can be transformed into a symbol of moral disorientation, what hope can there be for a place like China, or worse, Burma? The response of the civilised world to the humanitarian crisis that has struck Burma has been anything but humanitarian. Western governments and the media have devoted most of their energies towards depicting Burma as their moral opposite. The Burmese government is portrayed as a monstrous regime indifferent to the terrible consequences of Cyclone Nargis for Burmese society.

Almost imperceptibly, the misdeeds and incompetence of the Burmese government have been described by some as the moral equivalent of committing a genocide. Time magazine’s world editor, Romesh Ratnesar, points out that the death toll in Burma is likely to approach ‘the entire number of civilians killed in the genocide in Darfur’. This casual conceptual leap from the catastrophe wrought by Cyclone Nargis on the people of Burma to genocide in Africa is symptomatic of the profound moral illiteracy that haunts sections of the Western media. The media seems like a crusader desperately in search of a crusade. Indeed, the very mention of that terrible word, ‘genocide’, serves as an incitement for a crusade. On Burma, Ratnesar is concerned that the ‘world has yet to reach a consensus about when, and under what circumstances, coercive interventions in the name of averting humanitarian disasters are permissible’, and on a note of impatience he concludes that ‘we still haven’t figured out when to give war a chance’ (1). In this theatre of the unreal, giving war a chance is transformed into an act of cosmopolitan virtue.

The fantasy of ‘giving war a chance’ has stirred the imagination of crusading moral entrepreneurs across the West. Numerous commentators huff and puff and demand to know why the West is reluctant to use coercion and force to save Burma from its government. What has happened to the ‘coalition of the willing’, asked one American commentator? If regime change was good enough for Iraq, why not Burma?

The crime of not letting in the experts

As everyone knows, the Burmese government does not have a monopoly on practising coercive and authoritarian rule. Nor is it unique in pursuing a policy that puts its own narrow self-interest before the interests of its people. It may well be indifferent to the plight afflicting parts of the country, but then again so are many other regimes during times of crisis or war. Indeed, in its staggering ineptitude in responding to the disaster, the Burmese government resembles other governments. As some critics have pointed out, after the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina the US government has little authority to lecture others about disaster management.

What appears to be the principal crime of the Burmese government is its refusal to let in the experts. It seems it is simply not acceptable for a country like Burma to attempt to take charge of rescue and relief efforts. Television footage showing Burmese rescue workers shifting aid packages by hand is used to underline the point that these people cannot handle the emergency. They don’t have trucks or helicopters, and above all they don’t have Western humanitarian aid workers! The news voiceover expresses outrage at the refusal of a helpless government to embrace the outside expert.

The Burmese government may well be unusually secretive, and even paranoid, but it is hardly unique in its refusal to allow foreign experts to take over the management of its catastrophe. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, the Sri Lankan and Indonesian regimes were very reluctant to allow Western aid organisations into their disaster zones. The Indian government was also suspicious about the role of aid organisations in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. And, of course, China has just indicated that, while it is happy to receive foreign aid, it does not want international rescue experts on its soil. Such a response may seem irrational to some, but it is not at all unusual. Many countries still take the idea of sovereignty quite seriously and regard foreign experts as a potential threat to the integrity of their society. Rightly or wrongly, the Burmese government has calculated that the demand to let in Western experts represents the first step towards implementing an externally-led form of regime change.

One point that has been overlooked is that for all of its ‘irrational’ and ‘paranoid’ behaviour, the Burmese government has been happy, from the outset, to accept assistance from China, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Laos and Bangladesh. It is also worth remembering that when it comes to disasters, experts are overrated. In many disaster zones, people are rescued by members of their own community. By the time first responders and experts arrive, most of the people who are likely to survive will have been rescued through the often chaotic efforts of local people. In Burma, too, local communities did their best to assist those who needed help. What they now need in order to alleviate the suffering is material assistance rather than an army of humanitarian experts. They certainly don’t need to contend with a primitive moral crusade which can only distract them from the job of survival and recovery.

The one question that is rarely posed in an explicit form is this: ‘Give war a chance to do what?’ For the only answer that suggests itself is: ‘Something.’ Although China is frequently the target of the liberal elites’ invective – after all, the Chinese are active in Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan, and who knows, probably in Austria too – there is little in the way of geo-political interest driving the crusade. This is not so much a bona fide crusade as a hesitant attempt to assert moral authority through a tawdry sacralisation of our expertise.

Frank Furedi is author of many books, including most recently Invitation to Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

by Brendan O’Neill

Is anyone else finding the BBC coverage of the Burma cyclone deeply distasteful? Virtually every night since Cyclone Nargis whacked the Irrawaddy Delta, Fiona Bruce has breathlessly announced on The 10 O’Clock News that tonight’s show will contain ‘graphic’, ‘disturbing’, ‘shocking’ or ‘upsetting’ images, and anyone with a sensitive disposition or who is eating their dinner ‘should look away now’. Cue images of dead Burmese families, their bodies bloated and distended from the impact of the floodwaters, or an extreme close-up of a barely surviving old woman, the camera focusing feverishly on her wrinkled mouth as a fly crawls into it. What is this – news, or infotainment for necrophiliacs?

The British press coverage of Josef Fritzl’s crimes in Austria has been similarly morbid. The Sun has spared its readers no detail about how he raped his daughter in front of their cellar-bound children and incestuously lusted after his own mum. Both the Sun and BBC websites have produced interactive maps of Fritzl’s dungeon. It’s only a matter of time before someone rebuilds the thing and invites us to ‘roll up, roll up – relive the smells and horrors of the Fritzl Experience!’

This isn’t journalism – it’s moral pornography. As Mark Lawson argues, ‘The point of journalism is not just to show, but to tell: to explain what is going on.’ He describes the coverage of the Fritzl horror in particular as ‘gruesome prurience’, part of the new ‘lethal peepshow’ provided by the media when disaster strikes and people suffer.

Journalists’ hunger for the images, sounds and smells of horror shows the extent to which they’ve abandoned their responsibility to analyse and make sense of events. News bulletins and newspaper frontpages splattered with images of the dead, dying or desolate stand as a testimony to a media that has stopped trying to report things objectively. In place of a cool, stand-back analysis, we get visceral, violent coverage designed to jolt viewers and readers into paying attention. Desperate to make a connection with their audience, journalists and editors increasingly employ the lowest common denominator of disgust and outrage – ‘Look at that dead baby’s bloated head!’ – to give their coverage urgency.

And there’s an extraordinary double standard here: the BBC would never show dead British people in the aftermath of a train crash or a terrorist attack, yet in the past few weeks it has given us Burmese corpses (drowned), Tibetan corpses (shot and beaten up), and footage of Orla Guerin pointing at a dead man (shot in the head) in Kenya. A respectable British news magazine recently published a very disturbing photo of the aftermath of the suicide bombing that killed Benazir Bhutto, which showed a dead man with his leg blown off, his stomach entrails pouring on to the pavement, and his penis in view. Well, they’re only foreigners. Roll up, roll up…

Some will argue that this new willingness to show disturbing stuff is preferable to the days when media outlets hid horrible things form public view. In the past, the British media in particular balked at showing anything too bloody from Britain’s own military ventures – and very often radical journalists responded by bravely trying to uncover the true story, which frequently included publishing shocking images of war’s impact on people. Yet the new, respectable shock’n’gore journalism does not show that the mainstream media has grown up or finally developed some cojones, but rather that it has lost faith in its old mission to explain, and in the ability of the audience to understand. One journalist has bemoaned ‘the outrageous lack of graphic violence on our screens today’, arguing that we need to see more ‘blood and guts’ from Iraq and other disaster areas because viewers are ‘literal-minded creatures: to believe something, we need to see it; dry statistics will not do’.

In short, let’s stop having serious analyses and debates about world events, and instead give people horrid, squalid footage that they can gawp at in a combination of horror and titillation. The aspiration to objectivity has been replaced by a new journalism designed to make us feel something, anything: fear, shock, anger, sickness. The dead Burmese baby on your nightly news is not evidence that the BBC is more courageous and adventurous than in the past – rather she is a stand-in for proper objective reportage, her bloated body intended to cover up the hole left by the demise of grown-up analysis. That really is gross.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

(1) Romesh Ratnesar, Is It Time to Invade Burma?, Time, 10 May 2008

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