Soundbites not specialists speak most loudly

August 14, 1998

Media coverage of events in countries with unsavoury political regimes obscures the whole truth, argues Bill Watson

Recent political events in Asia have been followed with keen attention by academic specialists who have spent the best part of their working lives engaged in understanding the cultures and politics of the region.

No two specialists will ever be in full agreement. However, one sentiment they have shared over the past weeks is an irritation at the way in which the media have represented what has been happening in countries such as India, Pakistan and Indonesia. The focus on sensational events, on the imminence of violent confrontation and on human-interest stories obscures understanding.

It is exasperating when correspondents and news analysts express opinions that are wide of the mark because they simply do not know enough of the underlying historical and social context. It is also greatly disturbing when the media aligns itself - without proper understanding of the situation - with one or other faction.

It would help if the media made more of an effort to seek out informed opinion, not just for 30-second soundbites in a radio or television interview, but to participate in proper discussions and write analytical and contextual pieces in newspapers. This is simply not happening in Britain. Insufficient use is made of the expertise and knowledge to be found in the universities.

The Higher Education Funding Council requires us to justify area studies provision by enumerating the times our services have been called upon by extramural organisations. When we reply that this seldom happens despite our willingness to contribute to public debate, the response is that this indicates there is little need for our services. If that is the case, runs the argument, there should be fewer of us. Funding for area studies will dry up, and in a few years there will be only a handful of area studies experts in the universities.

Area specialists should also be given greater scope for contributing to discussions and debates in business, international relations, education, and cultural exchange.

There is also a further role for academics in explaining and describing their own cultures and histories to representatives and students who come to our educational establishments.

For a long time the British Council has been encouraged to promote British education abroad, not only because of the additional income overseas students bring in but because the spin-offs, in terms of goodwill and long-term contacts, facilitate better relations and contribute to better mutual understanding between countries.

However, although there is general agreement on this broad principle, a difference of opinion can frequently arise in cases where we are asked to offer courses or training to representatives of regimes that we regard as abhorrent.

Exactly such a difference of views has emerged in relation to the provision of courses for Indonesian military officers in Hull. The knee-jerk reaction of those who condemn that initiative smacks of a certain kind of arrogance. The same applies to regimes in Cuba, Libya, Nigeria and North Korea. There may be good grounds for condemning these regimes, and it may be that in some cases the situation in some countries is so appalling that the only way to bring about change is to isolate the country internationally.

The point is, however, to avoid knee-jerk reactions and not fall into the habit of saying that all dictators are the same, all military juntas are evil and all theocratic rulers are insane.

Each country needs to be considered as the product of unique historical circumstances, and to group them all together is to be guilty of the arrogant superiority for which 19th-century imperialists who saw all natives as the same are criticised.

With respect to the Indonesian armed forces, the noted scholar of Indonesian history, Peter Carey of Trinity College, Oxford, argues that their record suggests that the only way to effect a change for the better is by refusing to have anything to do with them. My feeling, as someone with a different disciplinary background but with a personal knowledge of Indonesia that stretches as far back as Dr Carey's, is that the Indonesian armed forces have a strong sense of commitment to their nation and are amenable to discussion. Providing courses for them in British universities where they will be exposed to arguments about human rights offers an ideal opportunity.

If rational decisions are to be made then some opportunity for more extended discussion of the issues needs to be created. With respect not only to Indonesia but all other regimes against which we put question marks, it is important that the voices of those who can help us unravel the complexity of the situation be heard properly. If we rely simply on the instant imagery of the television camera and the persuasive tones of the journalist we are likely to be deceived.

Bill Watson is senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Kent.

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