Friday, 23 November 2007

MacDonalds and Democracy

Things came to a head this week when Pakistan was kicked out of the Commonwealth for failing to call off an emergency rule. I found it amusing listening to BBC’s radio Four early Friday morning. The presenter, speaking with Pakistan’s ambassador to the States, asked: ‘Does he [Pervez Musharraf] want to convince the world he wants to move to a democratic path as soon as possible?’
Convince the world? What a sweeping statement I thought. That’s assuming every State and individual in the world has bought into democracy hook line and sinker.

Thinking about it, there are striking similarities between the ideology of democracy and McDonalds as a fast-food chain. Right from my high school days democracy was extolled as the ideal path every government should take.
An elected government by the people for the people – I heard it too many times from too many teachers. Likewise McDonalds fast-food conjured delectable images in my mind. Long before I tasted a big mac I was already ‘Loving it’.

In my opinion democracy and Macdonaldization could easily pass for siblings. Macdonalization was a term coined by George Ritzer, a Professor of Sociology. He used it to refer to the process by which the principles behind fast-food came to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world.
Mcdonald’s success in the States was so phenomenal that it quickly became the American way of eating. And everyone wanted a share of the cake. Soon countries were replicating the fast-food chain. Countries like China and Japan have reproduced their own version of American fast-food. The recipe for success is simply adopting the principles underpinning macdonaldization. Ritz identified them as efficiency, Calculability, Predictability and Control.

The same can be said of democracy. It is a model that has proved successful. It has worked in the West and is being adopted worldwide. And similar principles underpin democracy – it has to be predictable, calculable, efficient and controllable. Common principles such as Freedom of speech and equality before the law ensure predictability and control.

However Ritzer also believed so many countries imitating the American way of eating leads to standardization of cultural products. Which means the market standard is set by the most popular cultural products which reflect public taste. He links it to cultural imperialism, where a handful of countries influence and undermine the culture of the others.

And that’s probably the downside of democracy. Democracy is an exclusive club. It’s either you’re for ‘us’ or against ‘us’. Democracy assumes no other system of government is legitimate. Any government that is not a democratic is branded (even if not directly) a deviant.
Democracy has been macdonaldized. That’s why the Commonwealth booted out Pakistan. After all it states in its ethos it is ‘committed to a set of fundamental values…at the core of which is belief in and adherence to democratic principles.’ Therefore member States that do not conform face the boot.

Like Ritzer mentioned, mcdonaldization is two-sided. It has its merits, but also has its downsides. On the one hand it enhances efficiency, on other it leads to homogenization of cultures.
But is homogenization necessarily a bad thing? If the world is increasingly becoming similar and our ways of life converging it may not be such a bad idea. Maybe it simply means there will always be tension between the global homogenized culture and local heterogeneous cultures as countries struggle to figure out which way is best for them.

Who calls the shots - the Courts or the Media?

It has been sad reading about Meredith Kercher’s death. She was a British exchange student in Italy who was killed in her bedroom after (it is suspected) being sexually assaulted. As with most murder cases, the police are still trying to piece together the jigsaw. Who killed Meredith Kercher? What actually happened the night she died?

The story of Meredith Kercher is one that draws pathos. Anyone with a heart will be moved by the tragedy that befell a bright, pretty 21-year-old who had her life ahead of her. And I guess that’s why the British media has snapped it up and run the story for weeks. We’ve heard/read statements from her family in which they described Meredith as a person who touched the lives of everyone she met with her infectious, upbeat personality, smile and sense of humour.
Eulogies also poured in from Leeds University, where Meredith was studying. In the following weeks we saw/watched a smiling, bubbly Meredith on the pages of our newspapers/TV screens.

At the heart of it all a young student has been killed and her killer(s) might still be walking free. It is upsetting. Therefore the police are working hard to unearth events and perpetrator(s) that led to her death. The media too, through active coverage, nurture public awareness. This in turn makes it hard for the police to relent in their efforts. Active coverage keeps them on their toes.

But the media also helps fill in the gaps for their audience. Nibbling questions like what happened? Who did it? How did it happen? Will be tackled by the media.
A bare story without accompanying details is like an incomplete painting. No one would want to buy a painting half completed. That’s why journalists need to paint a vivid picture which will tempt the reader to buy the paper/watch the news etc. For a story to be newsworthy it has to be out-of-the-ordinary. And it is the media’s job to show the story has a striking edge, or in more colloquial terms, the X-factor. And if audiences are to patronise a certain medium, the medium must bring the story to life. It must go beyond the ordinary. But do the media overstep the boundary in trying to create a palatial story? Does coverage sometimes border on the fictitious?

The coverage of Meredith Kercher’s death started off on a very skeletal, rudimentary basis. We were told a British student was murdered in Italy. We knew suspects were being questioned. But gradually the stark picture was filled out with tints of colour. Headlines mutated from: Did two men kill Meredith? to Meredith ‘killed by two men’ after sex, and then Meredith killed after refusing orgy. The Daily Telegraph even recreated Meredith’s bedroom by copying a police crime photograph.

And details kept dribbling. A 20 year-old American, her 24-year-old boyfriend and a 37-year-old Congolese ‘legal immigrant’ were being held as key suspects. It emerges Meredith refused to participate in a sex game so one of the men raped her and the other slit her throat. The American confesses to having a hand in her death. A gruesome portrayal . However it is worth pointing out, there are reporting restrictions the media ought to follow.

Under the law if an organisation publishes material which creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice to active proceedings it holds the court in contempt and this is punishable (Contempt of Court Act, 1981). Put differently suspects must not be exposed to the glare of publicity. Once an arrest warrant has been issued; an arrest made; a suspect is summoned or charged verbally, organisations must not publish anything that will prejudice their case in court. The suspect should not be linked to the alleged crime. Suggestions should not be made he/she is guilty. Neither should any background information be given, descriptions or photographs published. Regardless of their crimes suspects are entitled to a fair trial.

Sometimes, as in this case, the media sidestep the law. On occasion people refer to it as trial by media. Before standing being tried by the courts, the suspect is tried by the media. Details of his/her private life are excavated. Prejudicial reporting becomes inevitable. That seems to be the case with Peter Tobin, who is accused of murdering two school girls. Under the law his previous convictions are not supposed to be reported because they will create a substantial risk of prejudice. But this doesn’t seem to matter to the papers. Reading the papers you get the feeling it has to be him.

But recently we’ve seen cases where previous evidence in a trial is quashed and retrial ordered. For instance, Barry George who is to be tried a second time for the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando after the Court of Appeal ruled key evidence was doubtful.

On the whole I believe the media are indispensable to every society. They inform us, educate us, entertain us and are a window to the world we cannot see. But I guess it boils down to ethical decisions made by individual media organisations. If ethical considerations play strongly in their coverage, the story will be more balanced. The BBC for instance, has a reputation for being impartial. The Guardian too tries to avoid bias.

The audience have a right to know, but the media need to be careful they are not giving the dog a bad name so they can hang it.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Tale of Two Countries

Thursday 5th July 2007

The three-year-old daughter of a British expatriate worker is kidnapped by gunmen in the Niger Delta. The UK's Foreign Office call for her "immediate safe release". British newspapers rally around, flash the torchlight on the region. Nigeria’s president, Umar Yar'Adua, throws in his weight. He appeals for her immediate release, involves security forces. He says he wants to ensure that Margaret Hill is returned unharmed to her family.

Monday 9th July 2007

The three-year-old British girl is reunited with her family after being freed by her kidnappers. UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband says he is "delighted" at the release.

Saturday 10th November 2007

The Nigerian Tribune reports thirteen Nigerians face execution in Saudi Arabia after completing seven years in jail. The men said they were arrested because of a fight which broke out on their street but which they knew nothing about.
Without proper representation in court, the verdict goes against them.
Ten months after completing a seven year jail term, their files are yet to be released from the court.
So far the Saudi authorities have ignored efforts by the Nigerian Embassy in Jedda to secure their release.

Sunday 11th November 2007

I search the Nigerian news wires for a government response, there’s none.

12th, 13th, 14th November 2007

No response

I get a clearer picture when I visit Amnesty International’s web page. The Nigerians were among hundreds detained in Jeddah on 29th September 2002, after a policeman was killed following an alleged dispute between local men and African nationals who were working as car cleaners.

The 13 Nigerians were brought before three judges in a closed court session on 22nd November. They could not fully understand the proceedings, which were conducted in Arabic with no translation. They had no lawyers or consular representation, and that is still the case.

Earlier in January a twenty-one-year-old Nigerian was hung in Singapore. Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi was condemned to death for smuggling drugs into Singapore at the age of eighteen.

After Amnesty International publicized the case our then President, Olusegun Obasanjo, took notice and pleaded for clemency. His plea fell on deaf ears. The Singaporean authorities executed Tochi anyway.

The Nigerian Federal Government responded five days later. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prof. Joy Ogwu, speaking to The Guardian (Nigeria) said: "It's unfortunate that we lost a citizen this way. But a nation's law protects its territory, [Nigerians ought to] respect the law of the land whenever they find themselves outside our shores."

Defending the Government's meagre efforts, she said:"It's not often that a president of a nation writes a letter on behalf of a citizen. But the President wrote a letter to the Singaporean government appealing for clemency."

The Nigerian government refused to condemn Singapore’s act. Instead Prof Ogwu said Tochi’s execution would not threaten the diplomatic relations between the two countries. After all the issue was at an individual level so the bilateral relations of the two countries was not at stake.
In fact, she went on to say:"We had written a letter of clemency, which was signed by the President. But the Singaporean government said they would not bend the law. The reaction is not a row, it is not a contention between the two countries. What we sent was a plea.

It says a lot about the attitude of the Nigerian government. The message implicit in its attitude is: you can treat our citizens as badly as you want and get away with it. If the Government simply waves off the ill treatment of its citizens, why wouldn't so many Nigerians be languishing in foreign jails/fall to the hangman's noose?

The British government, on the other hand, proactively supports its citizens living outside Britain. Referring back to the story of three-year-old Margaret, it didn't count Mr Hills had been living in Nigeria for ten years. Neither did it count Margaret Hills was half Nigerian. What mattered to the Government was the life of its citizen was at stake. It was their duty to protect her.

Granted, in Tochi's case he had broken the law. And the Singaporean government is renown for its ruthlessness in convicting criminals regardless of the persons nationality. Neither am I trying to imply the British Government is faultless and none of its citizens are suffering in foreign countries. My point is the Nigerian Government needs to be more proactive in supporting its citizens abroad. The Government should stand up for its citizens when needed. Adopting a blase attitude will only encourage other countries to treat Nigerians with less respect and dignity. Such level of negligence on the part of the Government is atrocious to say the least.

I also believe Nigerians abroad need to think of other ways to help those in distress. Since the Nigerian Government is hard of hearing, and persistently ignores pleas from helpless Nigerians, lateral thinking is needed. Maybe more pressure groups, forums, community networks could help reduce the suffering of neglected citizens. I believe Nigerians abroad can make giant strides if they rely less on the Government and see what they can do for themselves.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Media Excesses

This week the media had a field day when Heather Mills openly criticised it on GMTV’s breakfast show. Paul McCartney’s estranged wife complained about abusive press coverage. She compared her treatment at the hands of the media to that of Kate McCann, the mother of missing Madeleine, and Diana, Princess of Wales.

Unfortunately the media responded with further criticism and derision. If Heather Mills was expecting sympathy she’ll be largely disappointed at their response. There were a few considerate responses, but most hit back with scathing comments.

But Ms Mills doesn’t seem to be beaten back by the antagonism. The anti-fur campaigner said she had launched a petition at the European Parliament to strengthen the law against "a specific portion of the media" which pursued her relentlessly. She even returned to GMTV’s sofa to say how cathartic her outburst proved.

Till I began studying print journalism, I tried to avoid the red tops. And that’s because their level of intrusion into the lives of public figures is deeply worrying. I can’t understand the fervid interest in the trivial details of a celebrity’s life. Why must we get a minute by minute update of Britney Spear’s breakdown? Why must we follow the McCann’s voyeuristically?

Princess Diana is another salient example. It’s been over ten years since she died yet the media will not relinquish their salacious coverage of the night she died. Now it’s not only about who killed her, the interest seems to have shifted to how she died. Details about what happened moments before her death, how she locked fingers with Mohammed Al Fayed and so on keep surfacing.

What’s worse, people are no longer encouraged to be sympathetic or considerate. Rather we should poke fun at helpless individuals because they are celebrities. What type of morals are we trying to promote in our society?
I fully support Heather Mills when she said: "What are we doing as a nation buying these newspapers? We need to force a change as a responsible nation.''
What exactly has happened to the media in Britain? What is the purpose of the media?

Judith Lichtenberg, co-author of ‘Democracy and the Mass Media’ regards objectivity as the cornerstone of the professional ideology of journalists in liberal democracies. She says, “As a journalistic virtue, objectivity requires that reporters do not let their preconceptions cloud their vision,” (Lichtenberg in Curran and Gurevitch, 2000, p.252). This does not mean that they have no pre-assumptions but it is important that they do not draw upon this within their writing, but base their articles upon facts.

Lichtenberg suggests Journalists strive to present all sides of a debate with equal credibility.
And that’s what the Press Complaints Commission strives to do through its regulation of the Press. But it is only voluntary. If Papers break its code it has no power to punish them.

Under its privacy code:
Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications. Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent

Exceptions to this code are on grounds of ‘public interest’. The PCC states:
There may be exceptions to the clauses where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.
1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to: i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety. ii) Protecting public health and safety. iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

But I’d like to know how telling us, for instance, Diana’s dying words works in the public interest. Personally, I would like to see the media’s excesses curbed. The PCC should be given more powers to prosecute offending papers. If this doesn’t happen I fear what will become of the media in this country. Someone has to draw the line.