Wednesday, July 26, 2006

BBC Editors: The statistics of war

I found this a bit shocking, so take this as a warning that this post might give your heartburn ... Craig Oliver on the BBC's The Editors blog points out some disturbing statistics:
“• Around 30 to 40 people are killed every day in the current Israel/Lebanon conflict.

• About 100 people are killed every day in the violence in Iraq.

• And 1,200 people are killed every day in the war in the Congo.

All three of these stories are due to appear on tonight's Ten O'Clock News. They will probably run in that order - with the Middle East getting by far the most attention.

Does this say something about how we value human life? It's a fair question and one I worry about.”
Wow. That really makes you stop and think, doesn't it. After all, we worry about World War III breaking out because of the crisis in Lebanon, and look with horror on the images coming out of there and Iraq, but what the hell is happening in the Congo?! Where is our humanity?

I guess some of the problem comes down to the old Kirk/Spock dilemna ... in the original series of Star Trek, Captain Kirk would always conflict with his Science Officer, Spock, because he would invariably put the good of many people at risk in order to save the life of the few - based usually on the strength of the relationship he had with the few (usually Spock).

Spock would always lament such “illogical” behaviour, yet you always felt like you wanted to cheer Kirk on, and his choices seemed eminently reasonable. I think it is our tribal nature, our preference to favour the known over the unknown, that leads us this way. In that light, the conflict in Lebanon seems much more real because we are more familiar with its history (often from a biblical sense) than we are with the Congo. The media's bias in reporting is based on this, but it also serves to continue to feed this preference as it focuses on the conflict there to the preference of others.

Here is Craig Oliver's reasoning behind the order of stories:
“The Middle East needs more time and space for a variety of reasons:

• The sheer complexity of the situation requires space to help provide context and analysis.

• The current conflict plugs into so many other stories around the world, from what Tony Blair and George W. Bush call the "War on Terror", through to the price of oil, even the situation in Afghanistan.

• Many people fear the consequences of conflict in the Middle East more than anywhere else, and it is our job to help people understand a "scary world".

In short, our judgement is that Middle East is currently the biggest story in the world - by a wide margin - and it has the greatest implications for us all.”
Certainly the conflict in Lebanon repeats themes that are central to the War on Terror coverage - with terrorist attacks by Muslim militia, excessive retaliatory attacks by conventional military forces, the use of civilians as 'cover' and accusations of interference by foreign states by both sides. Yet the ongoing conflicts in Congo should not be ignored or put aside for that reason. Wikipedia has this to say about the conflict:
“For the next several years, even as the Second Congo War wound to an official end, a low level conflict continued in Ituri, with tens of thousands more killed. Half of the milita members are under the age of 18 and some are as young as eight. The continued conflict has been blamed both on the lack of any real authority in the region, which has become a patchwork of areas claimed by armed militias, and the competition among the various armed groups for control of natural resources in the area. In response, the United Nations directed its MONUC peacekeepers to carry out aggressive disarmament exercises against local milities.”
In some ways that is an even easier situation to resolve, yet we don't see Condoleeza Rice flying into the Democratic Republic of Congo for peace talks. There aren't regular newscasts from embedded reporters showing us what is going on, or how the global prices of gold will be affected by further conflict, or a sudden outbreak of peace ...

If conventional media want to find any unique role to play in this new wired world, then this is it - they can highlight conflicts and issues that may have little 'pull' on our tribal nature, but that are important and vital items to address and think about. Bloggers may (like I have) spend some small time talking about these issues, but unless someone goes there and helps make it real for the average punter by putting it front and center in the daily news, we won't get the sort of public awareness that moves governments to act resolutely to affect change*.

Without such action we lose our souls to self-absorbed, reality TV drivel, that plays screeching chords upon our most intense tribal reflexes, yet leaves critical issues in the real world untouched, unloved and ignored. I can imagine such a situation all too easily; as Agent K in Men in Black says:
“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.”
Conventional media is still one of the few ways you can really reach out to individual persons en masse (just ask advertisers), we must therefore ask that news editors take these things (i.e. like those statistics) that they may well know, and introduce them to us in our daily news, current affairs or even (gasp!) newspapers. They may not help us relax, or escape the daily grind, but they will help us appreciate what is really happening out there in the world beyond ourselves.

* Some people might point out that we have issues closer to home to worry about, and it is true we do have issues like youth suicide, indigenous health and water use - but they pale in comparison to 1,200 people dying per day.

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