‘the West continues to narrate us to death’

I’ve stolen from modal minority, and wish I had written such an elegant phrase to describe what is ultimately very ugly. I am very unsure about this very vexing question, a question which asks how the world is presented by the media. There is no doubt that the television piece modal minority saw on the BBC was bad. Not to have a single Ghanaian speaking is simply stupid (and very lazy) journalism. The least we can do is give a voice to all parties. Television is perhaps the worst of mediums within the media, and where the worst journalism is often – but not always – found. I wonder who it was who did the report? I don’t know many TV journalists because I only work in radio and print.

Questions have been raised about who should (be allowed to) report on whom. This debate has been big in the BBC, but elsewhere too. It’s a question close to my heart, as a (white) female European who has only ever reported on the African continent. Do I have a right to do this work? Should only Africans be reporting on Africa? There are many who say ‘yes’, and at the BBC it is often the senior (and very white middle class) managers who promote this idea more than anyone else. But they are not alone. And of course, it is easy to suggest that it is inevitable that I have argued against this given who (what?) I am.

My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that if one argues that only Africans can report on Africa then equally this means that only Europeans can report on Europe, and so on. As I have argued elsewhere, I strongly and firmly believe that true equality within – in this case – the BBC will be when a Nigerian for example is a senior political reporter within domestic news, not when the Africa service is only African. Creating ghettos gets none of us anywhere.

That said, in truth, the BBC is a very conservative organisation. I am beginning to see that to some extent it doesn’t really matter where you come from, as long as you do as the corporation wants. Anyone who is too outspoken (who, me?) or too critical will never fly there. You could be the whitest European male and you wouldn’t last. Unfortunately, therefore, what tends to happen is that those who are in for the long haul sacrifice their independent minds in order to climb the hill. So what is left at the top might appear – visually – to be a mix of people… but in fact most of them share similar ideas and values, regardless of their origins. To some extent the debate about who (or what) you are has become irrelevant at the BBC, because politics (and fear) has interfered to neutralise debate to one of colour and nationality as opposed to thought. Both the BBC and CNN have non-Western reporters (in television) who have been so successfully institutionalised that they report more or less exactly what their public school or ivy league colleague would also report. This is a triumph for Western media outlets which can claim to be ‘globally’ democratic, despite the fact that the democracy extends only (albeit only just) to colour – not to ideas.

I realise this is a highly sensitive topic. I hope I won’t regret putting this out as a blog. But I am a firm believer in airing what most fear to discuss publicly. And I am also a firm believer in the view that true equality will only come when colour is no longer elevated to the point of relevance, and we all start to exchange our views as equals. Don’t get me wrong. I know the world is not equal. I know racism still exists. Oh yes, for sure. But we have to fight this with free minds and mutual respect. I know that Paul Gilroy wrote very elegantly about this in one of his books, I think it was Between Camps (published as Against Race in the States), and I wish I had that book with me now.

To come back to where I started, can I add a caveat? Or perhaps it’s not a caveat, but an acknowledgement. I realise that I have taken this debate away from where modal minority began. MM critiqued the West which ‘continues to narrate us to death’. I then took this and also began to discuss the question of race and colour. Of course West does not equal white – but it is often the subtext. Finally, a plea. This is me thinking out loud. It is not the final word on my thoughts. I would welcome a discussion on any – or all – of this but beg those who are interested to remember that it is a moving and fluid debate.

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2 thoughts on “‘the West continues to narrate us to death’

  1. Part of the problem is that many western writers and journalists simply fail to take note of the whiteness of their power and the extent to which their writing has been shaped and formed by the prism of their formation and location. They look at Africa and its diaspora from that vantage point, They have no memory. They think our culture is only our buildings and monuments and that we have no ontological histories. They fail to grasp how they are implicated in the production of the tradition of bigotry as institutional power. So while it would be desirable to have a more diverse mix of practitioners at all levels of media institutions – the real challenge would be to decolonise the whole field.

  2. anonymous, could you explain what you mean by “decolonised” here? I’m not being critical, I would just like some more detail about what’s in your mind.

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