Conflicting Views by Paul O’ Connor,Undercurrents
Walking away from the devastation of the mature trees lying across the road, with the sound of angry chainsaw engines whining all around me, I turned and raised my video camera for one final shot before being bundled off to the far side of the highway by police officers. The five hour long direct action battle to save the last remaining mature trees lining the gateway to Oxford city was over. Campaigners had risked their lives by climbing the trees and putting their bodies directly in front of the chainsaws. Clinging to the very last twig of her mighty sycamore, a young woman let out a sorrowful howl as a once living and magnificent living tree came crashing to the ground.
How did the media report the struggle ? The radio news warned motorists of disruptions to traffic flow and Tv news gave the airtime to the chainsaw operators to gloat about how efficient they had done their job and the police chipped in to tell us how many arrests had occurred and to remind the viewers at home that the role of the police was not political or biased in any way and they were only here to prevent a breach of the peace from occurring. Newspapers the following day described campaigners in terms of “ego warriors” and “undemocratic” and “wasting the tax payers money”. Little mention was given to the fact that the air quality in Oxford is rapidly declining or that the high way widening scheme was dangerously outdated. This is an example of the sad decline not only of our air quality but also of our media reporting.
However not all is lost, a glimmer of hope was raised last weekend as I attended a Peace and conflict journalism course in Berkshire, England. Organised for the second year by journalists fed up with the trivialising and commercialisation of their profession, the course brought together reporters, students, academics, and media activists from around the globe. Conflict and war are pedalled in the worlds corporate owned media on a daily basis, but mention peace and love and it will be somewhere on page 14 ,in the last paragraph every second year or so. In the year I was born, anti war demonstrators in Chicago were filmed being brutally removed from the 1968 Democratic Party Conference chanting “the whole world’s watching”. Thirty years later and the world is still watching but how many people are becoming active due to the reporting of the worlds events ? I figured not enough people where getting the full picture so three companions and I set up an alternative news video called undercurrents a few years ago to distribute the news of environmental issues which you didn’t see on the news.
One of the people presenting a workshop at the conference was Danny Schetcher, an ex-producer with CNN, and author of the ‘More you watch, The less you know’. He stated that ‘Television is a weapon of mass distraction and people are just not getting the real news in America’. Recently the Tv has not just been distracting us but actually being the messenger of lies and deceit. In November 1997 one of Britain’s largest television stations, Channel 4, broadcast the first series about environmental issues in six years. ‘Against Nature’ was three hours of environmental activists being taken out of context, cunningly manipulated or edited to say one thing when they meant another. The makers of the programme even went as far as comparing activists to Nazis because Hitler planted trees and was a vegetarian. The programme and the Tv station was lambasted by the outraged public and even the Governments conservative television watchdog, the ITC, reprimanded the directors of the station. Their investigations led to the series being blasted as manipulative and untrustworthy. This did not stop the station from selling the programme for broadcast to an Australian Television Network.
So why did an experienced Tv editor commission such a series when he must of suspected that it was complete nonsense? For the past three years my production company had tried to get programmes on the same station that would explore and investigate environmental conflicts and offer solutions but we hardly got it in the front door of the studio with our proposals. Our media is being dominated and bought out by the men of the multinational corporations and we are being fed their visions of the world -war, destruction, profit, conflict, and environmental degradation. Luckily an increasing number of news definers within the establishment are rebelling and slowly changing their attitudes. Channel 5 news creator Tim Graham stated that the current television style of reporting had to change “It has to come from the public upwards, not from some artificial temple of authority. We want to look through the other end of the telescope” he said
“Giving a host of people the microphone from all the affected communities rather than polarising it into an us and them debate would produce a better informed society and thus be in a position of making better decisions” agreed Jake Lynch of Sky Tv. What ? A Rupert Murdoch employee on a Conflict and Peace course ? Jake has been working for the press baron’s satellite television for over 3 years and has covered many environmental issues and had noted the decline in quality reporting over the last decade. His voice joined a long list of critics who were declaring that reporting now tends to focus on the personalities involved in the conflict rather than highlight the real issues.
Reporting on an anti car protest in London one afternoon Jake changed his usual style and asked the questions to the protesters that would normally only be asked to politicians or so called experts. ‘What would you propose as a solution ?’ he asked the elderly man or the young woman holding her baby, or the passing cyclist. When his news feature was broadcast that night, many of his work colleagues congratulated him on a ‘great piece, somehow different but great’ they said. Jake told me no one could work out just what was different about his report that made it stand out from the other features. “By just changing the question directed at the general public to ‘What do you think ?’ rather than the normal ‘How do you feel ?’ places the power back in to the wider communities hands” he says.
Having reported or actively participated in protests to save our environment I noted that the first few days are the most important in guiding all the following news coverage. In many cases during the rise of the broadly supported antihighway protests across Britain, the news presenter would either take the time to get to know the campaigners and file informative and fairly balanced reports or they would ignore any view other than the establishments and issue a hostile and ill informed report giving the airtime to the perpetrators rather than the victims. Once the first report is broadcast, the station then feels that they have taken a particular stance on the subject and this is how future pesters will continue to base their reports upon. Thus campaigners are either classed for the public as Terrorists, brave heroes, lunatics, concerned citizens, or trouble makers depending on the mood or values of one presenter in the first days of a campaign.
Gender may have a large part to play in the style of the reporting as well, reasons Johan Galtung, professor of peace studies in America university. “Peace is more holistic than war and women may be more sensitive to a broader range of variables than men”. Philph Knightley a war correspondent added “Male reporters tend to get more interested in reporting on who was winning a conflict while female women journalists would tend to focus on the victims of all the affected sides of a conflict”.
Tamara Gordon, now an ex-BBC producer, recalled an experiment while working for the BBC when she handed video cameras to the leaders of communities in conflict in South Africa. Having the technology meant that they could report their own views without the bias of an outside reporter. ‘Most producers are so scared of losing control of their documentary and that giving cameras to the public felt that they were handing away the ownership of the work” she said .“ I realised that the process involved in making this documentary would have a more positive impact than transmitting any documentary about the problems”. The documentary went way over budget and finally ended up being self funded by Tamara and her crew just so that the communities could continue using their video cameras to communicate between eachother without killing eachother. Tamara explained that “The 90minute video produced for the people of the local African community and the 40minute programme finally broadcast by BBC were two very different pieces of work”. She felt that her work of media- ating between the two warring community leaders with video was vitally more important than showing an unknown audience back in Britain a conflict happening somewhere in Africa.
As the battle to save our environment is becoming more of a public relations war by large corporations, the battle ground is rapidly shifting to the worlds Tv sets and newspapers. It is therefore vital that we redefine our reporting and concentrate on solving rather than exacerbating the conflicts across the world. ‘Be part of the solution rather the problem’ as the huge banner declared as it once hung between the mighty trees of Oxford before the chainsaw operators had their day.
Paul O’ Connor is a producer of Undercurrents the alternative news video, a radical news video made by video activists on the frontlines of struggles to save our environment.
Undercurrents is an award winning alternative news service producing videos of people taking inspiring actions. http://www.undercurrents.org