Monday, 23 March 2009

Why do Western Journalists Continually Fall Into This Trap?

Mary Riddell is one of Britain's better columnists. She generally manages to produce original material, rather than resorting to the lazy rehashing of tired arguments and opinions that make up a lot of comment pieces. However, her article today reads like a checklist of what not to do when writing about Africa, ruining a potentially interesting analysis of the thawing in relations between Presidents Kabila and Kagame. Instead the piece is relegated to the overflowing dustbin of nauseating Western writing about the continent. An attempted fisking follows:

"A glimmer of hope in the dark heart of Africa?"
Phew! Don't keep your readers in suspense that you might be one of the first Western writers not to make reference to Conrad's racist book when writing about Congo, get it straight in the headline instead.

Photo (see above) of mother and scared looking baby.

"Mr Kabila had not been eager for this meeting. "Maybe I will see you," he had told me earlier. "I underline the maybe." "
Is that the same President Kabila who we learn later is in charge of a country the size of Western Europe with one million Internally Displaced Persons? How dare he have the temerity to keep a columnist from The Daily Telegraph waiting in suspense.

"This is the heart of darkness and the ultimate failed state"
It's been at least 200 words since the last Conrad reference after all.

"The latest handbrake turn in Congo's history began late last year when an internal insurgency threatened not only Mr Kabila but also his neighbour, Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda"
An interesting way to describe Kagame's arming and support for Laurent Nkunda, only to succumb to international pressure to reign him in. Perhaps placed by the President's press office?

"Such pragmatism [working with Bosco Ntaganda] will cause shivers in an outside world alarmed by Congo's long implosion"
Because the 'outside world's' distaste for pragmatism has worked so well in Darfur, where a complex relief operation has been torn apart by idealistic, but probably unenforceable, ICC warrants.

"If Congo, with every natural blessing, cannot survive, then the future of all Africa hangs in doubt"
Eh? I don't remember the future of all of Europe being in doubt when Yugoslavia broke up. Does Riddell really believe that continued unrest in DRC will mean that Botswana, South Africa or Egypt will collapse?

"Now the UK's closeness to Rwanda and France's ties with Congo at last give the West some diplomatic leverage in a crisis whose ripples spread across the planet."
And we finally get to the heart of the problem - not enough Western leverage.

"For decades, the world has averted its gaze from a country drowning in blood and debt. This time it cannot afford to look away."
Is this the same world that happily lent Mobutu huge sums during the height of the Cold War? The same world that is addicted to mobile phones stuffed full of Congolese coltan? The same world that voted in the largest ever (albeit highly ineffective) UN peacekeeping force to the East of the country? And of course by 'the world' sub-Saharan Africa is implicitly excluded given that at one point six national armies were present in the country. I would surmise that the world has often had its gaze on Congo, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

Am I being too harsh?


RebĂȘlo said...

Hi, Joe. I've just read this post (thanks to Google Alerts) since I'm trying to read a lot about Africa lately. You have a very good point here. And I was wondering if you could write more about it. I mean, what Mary Riddel (or someone else) could have written for a better understanding of the difficult relation between Presidents Kabila and Kagame? Sorry if it's a silly question, I'm not a specialist on Africa. Thanks!

Thomas Eli Stratton said...

Do you think you might be at least slightly influenced by Riddel's employer? I think you are quite right that she is lazy with the frequent allusions to Conrad and could perhaps have engaged with the pressing nature of the problem Kabila faces in explaining the inclusion of rebel elements in his army. However, to point out Kagame's direct hand in the conflict on the one hand and then to ridicule the very Western influece that you point out has seen Nkunda put under house arrest is perhaps taking the point too far. It is also true that for the scale of the suffering experienced in the DRC there has been relatively little coverage in the wider world. If one looks at the coverage the Zimbabwe or Gaza crises received you must admit there has been a relative glossing over of horrific events and conditions in the country. Also, I don't know if I would agree that having a significant proportion of sub-saharan Africa plundering minerals is quite the gaze the author was alluding to.

What do you think?

King said...

Hi Joe,

I'm not into politics in any way, but as an African, I get incensed when the western media potrays us in a perpetually negative light.

And it doesn't help that some Africans themselves, mostly politicians [ and unscrupulous ] NGOs looking for a quick buck from donor aid exploit this for their own gain.

Thanks for this. Let me go read the original article.

petesmama said...

No, you are not being too harsh. Excellent journalism and responsibility are required - especially when dealing with a situation like Congo's.

Not to mention that crap stereotypical reporting on Africa pisses the hell out of the natives and makes the writer look like an idiot to right-thinking members of society.

Isaac Holeman said...

I think it's fine to be this harsh - this is a common problem and this article took a particularly horrid tone.

I agree with RobĂȘlo, it would be great to hear a bit about what you think they might do differently. Personally I think any one journalist will always have misconceptions about something, so it's important to have a diverse set of journalists (or scientists or doctors or whatever field). So for example, The Daily Telegraph might have avoided this mess of an article if they had hired a writer who actually lives in and identifies with the people of this region... I mean they could have tried to get a post from you...

Ben said...

There's even more rubbish like DRC could "feed Africa" (without any backup at all). A well-deserved fisking.


Katrin Verclas said...

Great post, and not too harsh at all. Thanks to a friend, TMS Runge, I was pointed to the oldie-but-goodie Granta piece on how NOT to write about Africa: Maybe Mary Riddel needs a re-read of that. Thanks for calling her out.

Leila Chirayath Janah said...

Nicely put, Joe. Titles like that make our clients reluctant to do business in Kenya and Uganda because they make it sound like the entire continent is up in flames.

Joe Powell said...

Apologies for the delay in replying, just back in Internet range.

Rebelo - have a look at the link Katrin posted for more of the cliches that she should have avoided. I think the basic point is she would have never written in the way she did about, say, two rival European politicians.

Tom - I'm really not bothered about which paper she writes for. I guess you're correct that the Western media was shamefully absent for much of the Congo civil war but I don't think that is the case anymore, partly due to the strange celebrity warlord status that Nkunda built up (and Riddell rightly points out) and also because of the move by the LRA into Garamba which gave the press a new angle to write about.

Katrin - that article is a classic and should be on the compulsory reading list at every journalism school.