Flak Jackets and Cocktails

As it happens I was in Kathmandu during the revolution in 2006. (It was a bit of an accident on my part, you know how it is). Most of the coverage outside Nepal would have given you a very misleading impression of what was going on.

The uprising was mostly peaceful, and unanimous. The entire country wanted to get rid of King Gyanendra. Everyone from rickshaw drivers to lawyers were joining in the demonstrations. All Nepalese political parties had put aside their differences to protest together against the King’s dictatorship.

The only violence I was aware of was initiated by the security forces. Unless you were a protestor and the army decided to shoot at you, you were in no danger. The city was tense, but orderly. Outside of the frequent curfews, everything was open as normal.

And yet this wasn’t the impression you’d have got from watching the international news. CNN was easily the worst (repeatedly peddling the King’s line that Maoist ‘terrorists’ were to blame for ‘violent clashes’, etc). But even the BBC was showing us a Kathmandu I didn’t recognise from, you know, actually being there.

One particular news report sticks in my mind. The BBC correspondent was standing on the roof of a building, wearing a flak jacket, with burning rubble visible behind him. His stance, his delivery, the framing of the shot, all communicated the impression that he was practically in a war zone, risking life and limb. How brave! How manly!

Later that evening I saw the same BBC correspondent, in a bar I frequented, drinking cocktails. Sans flak jacket, funnily enough.

Now I’m sure there are many reasons for this kind of misrepresentation, which would be grist for another post or two. At it’s simplest, perhaps it’s just a bit of exaggeration, a desire to look cool. To have chicks think you’re brave. To get ‘good pictures’. Burning barricades make better TV than expats drinking in bars, after all.

But the problem is that the way you report things affects the future. It affects other people’s responses. What people THINK is happening usually matters much more than what is actually happening. It took a while, with Nepal, for the international response to catch up with the reality of an oppressive and tyrannical King and a desperate people doing their best to reclaim their country.

So I wish the journalists who unanimously went with ‘scary anarchist’ front pages would stop and think. Does that accurately reflect what happened at the student demos? Or are you being a bit of a prat and trying to make it all look a bit more exciting?

And if it doesn’t reflect what really happened, whose interests does it serve, and what are the likely effects of this misrepresentation?

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Comments

  • Siren of Brixton  On November 12, 2010 at 8:17 am

    The BBC’s Ben Wright was your flak jacketed reporter in the student protests. All afternoon the BBC were playing the same clip of him shouting into the camera – as though there was no escape from the rabble – that the atmosphere was very tense, which gave the impression it was a powderkeg.

    Actually, there was music playing and staff from the tower were wandering in and out of the protesters taking pictures and chatting with them. A tiny girl sat at the side of a staircase with a laptop blogging, calling out to the crowd for updates. We evacuated our offices when the protesters who stormed the buildings triggered the emergency alarms and we were prevented by building services from going back for about an hour and a half, so I had plenty of time to get a sense for what was happening.

    When I left the building there was a group of protesters sitting on sofas in the lobby watching the coverage on the TV and the police were making no attempt to move them because they weren’t causing trouble.

    Sure, there were spots of trouble and the fire-extinguisher incident was idiotic and dangerous but that’s not the whole – or even a fair – picture of the events as I saw them.

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