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Apr 26 2012

People Like Us

Today I interviewed Sunday Telegraph foreign correspondent Nick Meo as part of our GRNLive Interviews series. Nick has reported for GRNLive from Egypt, Libya, Norway and anywhere else his work sent him over the last few years. It was a very interesting and enjoyable conversation for me and hopefully for those of you who watch it.

GRNLive’s Matt Cooksey and myself also got ourselves a bonus tour of the Telegraph’s swanky offices in Victoria. Newspapers headquarters, was my conclusion, remembering the Guardian’s state-of-the-art Kings Place offices too – are looking more and more like swish shopping malls.

One of the subjects we touched on was something that has been on my mind for a long time. To what extent are we, as journalists, influenced in our coverage by our ability to identify with the people we cover. Identify not merely in feeling their pain, but mainly in seeing them as similar to us, in being able to imagine ourselves in their shoes. And to what extent does this ability to identify influence our readers and viewers?

I was drawn back to those questions when Nick mentioned covering the shootings and bombings carried out by Anders Breivik in Norway last July and the experience of covering it. Nick mentioned his admiration of the “calm” and “cool” way in which the Norwegians dealt with the horror of the tragedy that had hit them. He mentioned, by way of contrast, the “emotional” response of people in the Middle East to tragedy. There was nothing remotely dismissive in his attitude to either people, but, being English, it was clear who were easier for him to identify with.

I had similar, yet opposite, conversations in the past with Middle Eastern journalists, who were surprised, almost dismayed, by the ‘chin up and stiff upper lip’ British response to calamity of any magnitude (except, naturally, to the death of a princess). “What is the matter with those people”, said an Egyptian journalist in July 2005, shortly after the 7/7 bombings in London, “Why is being calm and orderly more important to them than expressing their feelings?”

I had a different question. Why is it that after a few days of silence, the masses were not out protesting over the fact that the lists of the dead and missing had not yet been made public. I knew very well that in Israel, where I come from, this would not have been tolerated.

Watching the footage from the 9/11 bombings streaming from New York in my office in Jerusalem in September 2001, I remember beginning to wonder, after a few hours, where were the cameras in the hospitals, greeting the injured as they come in and chasing family members around as they come to enquire after the fate of missing loved ones.

That was how suicide bombings were covered in Israel, a society with a very flimsy sense for boundaries and personal space, and I assumed the US media was similar. It made me conclude that it was all down to difficulties of moving around New York City on the day. Later, I realised that legal, as well as cultural, reasons prohibited this particular type of journo-voyeurism.

In our conversation, Nick Meo described two interviews he conducted with bereaved families; one in Libya, the other in Norway. While completely different in their culture of mourning, in the circumstances of their loss and in their way of life, he felt that this was the essence of the work of a journalist – getting people, fellow human beings, to take you in and share an intolerable experience they went through. He felt both families shared a difficulty, not only in coming to terms with the loss of a son, but also in talking about their pain, sharing it with a stranger.

“When you are a parent – a child is a child is a child”, an English colleague once echoed to me the words of my own mother. But I remained dubious; not about the equality of all children, but about the treatment they get in the Western media when they die in violent circumstances.

Does the Harry Potter-reading Nintendo-playing iPhone-owning child really not hit a stronger cord in the heart of the journalist covering his loss than the child shepherding the goats in a far and dusty land? And if so, what could bridge the gap?

In 2003 I put that question to Ian Katz, the then editor of the Guardian’s daily magazine, G2. He said something that stayed in my mind for a long time. Ian explained that in an effort to help readers identify with foreign news protagonists in different cultures, his paper endeavours to find local middle class writers and interviewees. In this context he mentioned the Iraqi blogger Salam Pax, whose blog was carried by the Guardian during the war. A few years later, GRNLive correspondent and Guardian regular Saeed Kamali Deghgan, played, and still plays, a similar role covering Iran’s post-elections protests; first from Iran, and later from London. Saeed is middle class, openly gay, hip and savvy in Western popular culture; he quickly became a household name for news consumers.

Another important, possibly crucial, contribution is made by the fact that nowadays the camera’s lens, and the reporting eye, is not directed only one way. More and more international broadcasters are non-European, and so are their reporters.

At the same time many non-European and non-American journalists are joining the ranks of Western media (though in a surprisingly, and in my opinion disappointingly, long and slow process). It is no longer “us” watching “them”; “they” are watching “us” too, and offering alternative outlooks and narratives and creating a richer and more challenging news environment.

Click to see the whole Nick Meo Interview

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