‘Goodbye Foreigners’ – or how this year’s Orwell Prize longlist brings home the importance of foreign reporting

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At a time when foreign bureaux are a luxury few news organizations can afford, when foreign staff correspondents are being let go, and when our perspective of foreigners is too often shaped by headlines scapegoating migrants for all our social ills, it’s good to be reminded of the eloquence and importance of good foreign reporting.

Good foreign reporting not only gives us an insight into another country, it enables us to reflect better on our own. Good foreign reporting can also be a tonic, helping one realize that it is really not so bad here after all. And, good foreign reporting can provide empathy, something sorely needed in our digitized, globalized world.

This year’s Orwell Prize Longlist pulls us out of our domesticity into the politics of compromise in South Africa, the plight of immigrants and the homeless in Japan, the rehabilitation of child soldiers in the Congo, Tamil civilians killed by shelling by the Sri Lankan government, Mumbaikars reaction to the terrorist attacks of November 2008, and Russians coming to terms – or not – with recession.

In one of a number of beautifully observed pieces, John Arlidge of the Sunday Times illustrates the continuing compromises of South African politics through the friendship of Nelson Mandela and Sol Kerzner. Kerzner was ‘one of the richest and most despised South Africans’ of the apartheid era yet now stands arm in arm with Mandela, discussing how to revive the country’s economy.

‘“You never really leave Africa, not in your heart,” says Kerzner, as he steps onto African soil. It’s a few days before Mandela is due to check in to the One&Only, and Kerzner has just landed in his £25m Bombardier Challenger 604 jet at the city’s private airport. But he’s not stopping long. Captain Jeremy Westoby soon fires up the jet, call sign MSKZL, and races back along the runway. Kerzner is heading east, bumping through the late-morning thermals that rise from the Karoo like giant dust devils, to the place where it all began’ (‘Africa’s heart and Sol‘).

Peter Hitchens, another longlisted journalist, reports for the Mail on Sunday from the Czech Republic, Canada, and China, amongst others. From Japan – a country grossly under-reported in the UK – he describes what happens when people fall off the edge of ‘this perfect seeming planet’. ‘In Japan,’ Hitchens writes, ‘if you slip or miss your chance, you might tumble all the way to the bottom – and here it is’.

‘The Hamamatsu labour exchange, like all such offices in Japan, bears the jaunty name of Hello Work. But it might equally well be called Goodbye Foreigners. It has two separate queues where the jobless can sign on: one for Japanese citizens and one for the rest’ (‘Welcome to rock bottom, Hitchens-san‘).

Mary Riddell went to the Congo, the dark heart of Africa, for the Telegraph, where she interviewed its president Joseph Kabila as well as child soldiers and mothers stranded by war:

‘Niclette cannot go home to her parents in Masisi, 30 miles away, because she is now the property of her husband. ‘He gave my father and mother three goats as a dowry when we married, which means they cannot take me back.’ So she waits here, unsure what will happen to her or her child. ‘I hope my baby will have the life of my parents, who grow beans and manioc,’ she says’ (‘Rebuilding the lives of Congo’s child soldiers‘).

Catherine Philp, reporting for The Times from Sri Lanka, was unwilling to accept the government’s claims that it did not harm any civilians in its siege of the Tamil Tigers. So, despite its efforts to exclude the media – Philps uncovered evidence of that thousands of civilians were killed by the shelling:

‘The Sri Lankan authorities have insisted that their forces stopped using heavy weapons on April 27 and observed the no-fire zone where 100,000 Tamil men, women and children were sheltering. They have blamed all civilian casualties on Tamil Tiger rebels concealed among the civilians Aerial photographs, official documents, witness accounts and expert testimony tell a different story’ (‘The hidden massacre: Sri Lanka’s final offensive against Tamil Tigers‘).

Jonathan Foreman (Standpoint) was in Mumbai during the terrorist attacks and captures the eerie quiet of the city for much the stand-off:

‘I cross to the other side of the peninsula to the Oberoi-Trident complex, a hotel that spreads across several buildings. Here there are cameras set up and a bigger crowd on the sea wall. The hotel is lit up but there are no fires blazing and no troops standing guard with the handful of police who shout if you go too far past the line of fire trucks. There is no rope keeping everyone back, no bank of fierce paramilitary or military men of the kind you would find at such a scene in Britain or America. Young female Indian newsreaders look bored between takes – it’s the women who get the nightshift. It’s as if everyone’s taking a break from the crisis until morning’ (‘Four days of terror in Mumbai‘).

Arkady Ostrovsky (The Economist, Foreign Policy) charts Russians’ response to the recession, and how it is starting to break the ‘social contract… premised on an authoritarian state delivering rising incomes and resurgent power’:

‘…as financial resources become scarcer, it is likely that an increasingly desperate Kremlin will resort to greater violence and repression to maintain its splintering social contract. This was vividly demonstrated in December during riots in Vladivostok, in Russia’s Pacific Far East… The brutality with which these units dispersed the demonstrators shocked even the local police’ (‘Reversal of fortune‘).

‘State TV in the USSR did not report the clashes’ Ostrovsky writes, and neither did much Western media. Not because they were not important but because there was no-one there. Even those that did report from Russia (such as Isabel Gorst for the Financial Times and Tom Parfitt for the Guardian) could only report second hand since they were reporting from Moscow – 10 time zones west of Vladivostok.

And therein lies the problem, who will bear witness on the ground in the future? If it is ‘citizen journalists’, will they feel the same obligation to verify sources, to dig around official accounts, and to put themselves in physical danger as these journalists have? Perhaps.

And what happens if these things do not get reported at all? Well, the response to the lack of coverage of riots in Vladivostok might give us a clue:

‘When protesters realized that state television failed to report the clashes, their rage, initially aimed against a particular economic measure, turned against the entire political system’.

Long may good reporting – ‘from the ground up’ in Martha Gellhorn’s evocative phrase
– continue.

Other longlisted journalists include: Ian Cobain (The Guardian), Amelia Gentleman (The Guardian), Paul Lewis (The Guardian), Anthony Loyd (The Times), Hamish McRae (The Independent), Cathy Newman (Channel 4 News), David Reynolds (BBC), Robert Verkaik (The Independent, The Independent on Sunday)

For a complete list of the Orwell Prize longlists – journalism, books, and blogs – go to http://www.theorwellprize.co.uk/the-award/long-books.aspx?year=1736.

The Media Standards Trust runs the Orwell Prize with the Director, Professor Jean Seaton, and with the support of the Media Standards Trust, Political Quarterly and the Orwell Trust.

Written by Martin Moore

March 25th, 2010 at 12:23 pm

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