INEQUALITY: THE NEW (OLD) DYNAMIC OF CONFLICT
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 6 Dec 2008
I started teaching the first ever peace journalism university course in October 2000, just days after the outbreak of what became known as the ‘Al-Aqsa Intifada’. The blanket media coverage of ‘clashes’ between Israelis and Palestinians afforded a rich source of material for students to get their teeth into, with the characteristic patterns of omission and distortion introduced as ‘war journalism’, well in evidence.
In retrospect, it looks like the first in a series of eye-catching developments in the early years of the century, which taught us to look for manifestations of peacelessness chiefly in events of direct violence, taking place between nations and/or between states. A year or so in, many newsdesks were at (or past) the point of satiety with stories of suicide bombings and military incursions – to the extent that the familiar, grisly ‘casualty inflation’ game was underway, with ever bigger incidents required to attain the same news prominence – when attention switched abruptly to the other side of the Atlantic.
The ‘9/11’ attacks were straightaway translated, in most media coverage, into realist terms. Projected on to the studio backgrounds for the main US network and cable news shows were the words, ‘Attack on America’, which segued rapidly into ‘America strikes back’. Against which country? Even at this early stage, the instant reaction of the Bush Administration, to point the finger at Afghanistan, was questioned, including by two prominent journalists in US mainstream media, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times and Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker.
What about Saudi Arabia, they reasoned? After all, it quickly emerged that 15 of the 19 known hijackers were Saudi nationals. The rapid obliteration of this important question – even though there was not then, and never really has been, a satisfactory answer – was a case study in framing and agenda-setting. The media academic, Robert Entman, even coined a new term for it – “cascading activation”, allowing the White House line to prevail through a “network of non-administration elites” articulating with the structures and processes of newsmaking.
The invasions of Afghanistan and, later, Iraq, provided dramatic pictures and narratives to bring conflict into people’s living rooms. And yet, arguably the most arresting single image in international news of this period was not from a war at all but from the Asian tsunami, the wave coursing down the main street of Banda Aceh, literally carrying all before it. For the first few weeks of 2005, Australian newspapers, in particular, led their front pages every day with the latest tsunami news, often in the form of estimated casualty figures, which eventually blew out to 250,000 or more.
Prime Minister John Howard pledged a billion dollars in aid and loan guarantees to Indonesia, the country worst hit by the disaster, with the explicit rationale that his government wished to match the generosity of Australians making their own donations through charitable giving.
This coverage was still at full tilt when the United Nations published its latest estimate of the number of children in the world dying from a want of access to food, clean drinking water and basic medicine – some 11 million a year. That was on January 17, 2005, 22 days after the giant wave convulsed the littoral states of the Indian Ocean – a period in which, it could be deduced, the grim toll of deprivation would have grown by another 660,000, dwarfing even the most pessimistic prognostications of the tsunami dead. And remember that would be children alone.
And yet the main Australian newspapers took absolutely no notice – only the small-circulation Canberra Times, some two weeks afterwards, carried the story. Neither were the audiences of television and radio news shows any the wiser. The UN used the figures as a rallying cry to governments to redouble their pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals, aimed at alleviating extreme poverty. To this end, a campaign was by then underway to rally the G8 group of rich nations to write off large chunks of debt owed by poor countries – a campaign opposed, at that stage, by President George W Bush, with support from the same Mr Howard.
There is, in short, a profound media bias in favour of event over process, and, whether covering conflict or natural disaster, it unavoidably writes the first line of a drama of intervention. The event, the emergency, is a disturbance to normality, a system which must, up to now, have been running well, since we heard nothing to the contrary. What are we now going to do to restore normality?, it asks. It marginalises questions about the injustices produced by the system, which are part of the normality. Elites, who generally prevail as news sources – whether by cascading activation or not – are after all ‘at the controls’ of normality, so there cannot, so far as the news is concerned, be anything intrinsically ‘wrong’ with it.
It’s a staple of academic media analysis that ‘system critique’ only enters the news agenda when, and to the extent that, it becomes the subject of ‘elite discord’, the definitive case being the US war on Vietnam in the late 1960s. In recent times, the campaign by international aid organizations for debts to be forgiven, without conditions, in the developing world – in recognition of injustices both historical and ongoing – found a listening ear in the British government, leading up to the Gleneagles G8 summit, in 2005. It appeared unusual in pitting the UK against its traditional ally, the US – there’s your elite discord. The ‘Live8’ series of pop concerts, one held in each of the world’s leading industrialised countries, helped to bring a broader cross-section of the public into the argument.
On the face of it, this campaign succeeded. The Bush Administration was apparently ‘brought round’, and declarations from Gleneagles were encouraging. However, the G8 is not a constitutionally bound, transparent, accountable organization. It poses as a bona fide component of global governance, but it is not. And in reality, Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs) quickly found that debts would still only be written off if stringent conditions were met – conditions that would not be accepted, at least to the extent to which they are imposed, by the G8 countries themselves.
The approved medicine doled out by the International Financial Institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund) is for everything to be monetised, liberalised and deregulated, so as to unleash the supposed healing powers of markets on the incomes of the poor. Markets inevitably create winners and losers – goods and services are set at prices that some can afford, while others cannot.
There is supposed to be a ‘trickle-down effect’, or a ‘rising tide that lifts all boats’. Even if the plan works, however, it means some are set up in luxury yachts, while others might get a bigger patch for the hole in their canoe. It is, in short, a prescription for widening inequality. Is this a problem? Equality of outcome is less important than equality of opportunity, the argument goes: if that is to mean anything, Margaret Thatcher once said, it must mean the opportunity to be unequal. Such are the nostrums of neo-liberalism, the dominant economic and political creed of the last few decades.
In fact, there is growing evidence that inequality is something we ignore at our peril, a symptom of a normality going seriously off track. I once interviewed Richard Wilkinson, a Professor of Public Health at Nottingham University, in the UK, about the winners and losers being created by the privatisation of the British system of occupational pensions. In his book, The Impact of Inequality, he shows how unequal societies are more conflictual and more violent. The anxiety of inhabiting a low social status, in an increasingly status-conscious milieu, is killing people. The poor die younger, not because they have less healthy lifestyles but because they spend decades carrying around increased levels of stress-related hormones.
Wilkinson focuses on a category known as “the psycho-social… people’s psychological states are highly situational and therefore socially structured”. More unequal societies have higher murder rates, unsurprising when you consider something called the ‘Cook-Medley Hostility Scale in Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory’. Phew! It may sound unwieldy but such research tools enable us to gauge the psycho-social causes of violent attitudes – racism and sexism also rise with inequality – and behaviours.
Wilkinson also presents evidence that voting in elections dips as inequality widens. In Britain, one of the leading figures in the New Labour government, Peter Mandelson, once said the party was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. Support for low incomes has prevented the poorest from an absolute drop in living standards, but they have been falling further behind. Is it coincidence that voter turn-out at the last election, in 2005, dropped to an historic low of 59%?
These are not new conflict dynamics, but they may be newly salient. India’s Naxalite rebellion, mentioned in last week’s column, is just one conflict where the pattern of rewarding the rich, while the poor, at best, edge forward, is directly addressed, in that case by a campaign of violent resistance. Paul Rogers, the Bradford peace professor who contributes a regular column to the Open Democracy website, mentions several others where economic targets bring inequality issues into focus – the Communist New People’s Army in the Philippines; the Taliban, whose prime target is now the main economic supply route into Kabul, known locally as Highway One, and rebel groups in Mexico and Nigeria attacking oil installations and pipelines. These are signs, Rogers says, of a ‘global economic war’.
In spite of the headline-grabbing confrontations in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq, the early years of this century have been a period of decline in the number and intensity of ‘conventional’ wars. The Human Security Brief, published in 2006 by the Liu Institute in Canada, found that the number of wars between nations or states had dropped by 40% in the period between 1992 and 2005. It’s welcome, and a useful corrective to misleading claims by political leaders, seeking to justify increases in arms spending, that we inhabit a more ‘dangerous’ world, full of ‘threats’.
Today, though, the threats are coming from within. The word, ‘neo-liberal’, seldom crops up in the news. Reporters may tell us about globalisation or privatisation, profits and losses, and – more these days – economic crises. It should appear more often, if only to enable more ‘system critique’. Normality is going wrong, and needs to be re-thought, re-designed and reconstructed. We need to intensify our discussion about that, and journalism can help – but only if it gets a bit more practice using the conceptual tools necessary to delineate the conflict issues of our time.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 6 Dec 2008.
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