As the ‘Arab Spring’ moves through Midsummer’s day to what could prove to be a very cold winter,is it time to ask whether the British media are flogging an out of date narrative and should change tack? .This clearly came out in MIRAGE IN THE DESERT-the BBC College of Journalism/Coventry Conversations Conference on Wednesday 15thJune(reports on cutoday.net,podcasts at http://www.coventry.ac.uk, video on bbc.co.uk journalism YOU TUBE channel).Frontline hacks and ‘hackademics’ hotly debated this and the meaning of the Spring all afternoon.
Bliss it was to be alive in Tunisia in January and in Tahir square in Cairo in January and February of this year. What looked like genuine popular (and ‘surprising’ admitted BBC World Affairs Producer Nick Springate)uprisings toppled first President Ben Ali in Tunis and within three weeks President Mubarak in Egypt. Few shots were fired.There seemed no limits to people power-accelerated by Twitter and Facebook if the digital fanatics are to be believed. Digital Democracy was breaking out all over the Arab world-Bahrein,Yemen and Libya followed suit. It was breakneck.Poor Lindsey Hilsum of Channel four news seemed to be in a different country every night. It was hard then not to ‘frame’it(as the hackademics say)as an ‘Arab Spring.
Writes John Mair…
But the initially spontaneous revolt in Eastern Libya in February , centred around Benghazi., soon became a fight for survival as President Gaddafi (whom Alex Thomson of Channel 4 news correctly pointed out should not be referred to just by his surname to demonise him)and his army fought back. They were at the gates of Benghazi when in the words of Evening Standard war correspondent Oliver Poole the UN and Nato intervened and ‘stopped a massacre’ on March 18th.Since then it has been a tale of high and low level continuous bombing by NATO and a rag,tag and bobtail rebel army fighting Gaddafi’s troops on the ground.By any other name this is now a Civil War and no longer a popular revolt. But is that new narrative coming through in the British reporting? Is it atoll one sided-the rebel side- and should the western correspondents embedded with the regime in Tripoli preface their reports with a health warning because of their circumstances?
At least they can report.In Syria,patently another civil war in the making if not in actuality,no western journalists are allowed in. Many have tried .They and we are reduced to pictures of refugees in olive groves on the border and in refugee camps. If social media was the accelerant in the Arab Spring.it shows few signs of life in Syria. Twitter does not rule here.One interesting phenomena pointed out at the :LSE/Cojo conference on Friday 10th June was the authoritarian Arab regimes learning social media and setting up ’good news’ twitter accounts to spread their word.The liberator can become the enslaver.
So,the narrative of the liberation of the ‘Spring’(which very word implies a start afresh) maybe needs to be modified and turned around to something else recognising the reality of dirty civil arars..’Framing’ and being stuck in a wrong narrative is not exclusive to foreign stories. Look at the way the NHS reforms are presented-good,bad then good again.Frames provide convenient templates in which to report.
We are all story tellers in journalism but please can we get the story right and change it to face the facts?
John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University.He co-produced MIRAGE IN THE DESERT with David Hayward of the BBC College of Journalism on June 15th. With thanks to BBC College of Journalism.