The Tyranny of Global Commentary

Michael Vatikiotis
Dec 16th, 2013

When mobs take to the streets and violence looms, the world pays attention. No matter how closely these events are covered, our perceptions of them are coloured by distance, geopolitics and cultural stereotyping.  Thus a mob seeking to bring down a government in one part of the world threatens democracy, while a similar action by a mob in another part of the world is seeking to protect democracy.  It’s the same thing with terrorism: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In this profoundly connected world of ours, where the wonder of social media turns distant events into real time phenomena, we remain prisoners of perception and prejudice.

Liberal, western conceptions of the rule of law tend to predominate in the mainstream media, and so efforts by the Bangkok elite to overthrow an elected government with a healthy majority are regarded as illegitimate. But when tens of thousands of Ukrainians battled sub-zero temperatures in Kiev to bring down their elected government in the name of closer association with the European Union, this was regarded as legitimate. There is no escape from the tyranny of global commentary.

Global opinion is fickle and hostage to narrow interests in part because no one can any longer afford the illuminating exceptions and originality that comes with reporting a story from the ground.  Instead, the news is filtered and aggregated by personalities we come to trust, who in turn purvey assumptions and conclusions derived from the corridors of western power.

It took months for the popular view of the civil war in Syria as a broadly backed insurrection against a tyrannical ruler to adjust to the reality on the ground that the Syrian opposition was in the hands of Islamic extremists. Suddenly, the global consensus that the Assad regime must go was shaken and became congruent with the cruel reality on the ground.

To correct the misleading divergence of opinion, the world needs to pay more attention to local voices. The technology to amplify these voices exists; a tweet or blog post from Kiev or Bangkok is accessible instantly from anywhere.  But where is the global trust in what people on the ground really think?  Instead, we put faith in familiar aggregators.  Recently in the Philippines, the government worried that its approval ratings would suffer after a CNN anchor criticized the relief effort in the wake of super typhoon Haiyan that resulted in the loss of close to 6,000 lives. 

There are two essential ingredients to forging a better understanding of the complex expression of popular will in a world where news is instantly available.  The first is context – ensuring that we better know the specific conditions out of which a given struggle has emerged.  The second is empathy – suppressing our own assumptions to understand what really moves people in a given context. 

Journalists used to do a better job at making sure we had a better idea of context and motivation in the days when there was the money to deploy correspondents with the skills, the knowledge and the experience to report a story from the ground up.  With those days gone, we are forced either to accept what the aggregators say, or to sift unguided through gigabytes of social media for the elusive truth.

 

As the late, great American broadcaster Edward R Murrow used to say: ‘Good night and good luck!’ 

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Michael Vatikiotis
Singapore
Last blog date: Oct 18th, 2016

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