Keeping the Rabble in Line

Banging on about representation: The would be media lens

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

"Hey, why is the news always bad?"

Stewart Lee, on his live DVD....details Here discusses in the most concise fashion, the discourse of news values [not only is he concise and erudite, he is funnier than I am] *

"On September the 11th 2001 I was actually on holiday, right. That seems distasteful now, but I wasn't to know at the time. You know, I didn't plan it. The attacks I mean, not the holiday. And I was actually in the city of Grenada in Southern Spain. It's an interesting place. Grenada was the last point of Muslim occupation of medieval Europe, it's still a very mixed city. Lots of mosques, lots of churches, lots of Arab Spaniards and white European Spaniards all getting on fine. I was walking around on there on nine one one - the NINTH of November. Reclaim the calendar. I was walking around there on the 9th of November 9 - 1- 1 and...I went into a little Spanish bar. On television there was all this film of buildings on fire and buildings falling down and people running around screaming. And I said to the barman, "where's that?" In Spanish "Donde esta?" And he said "Nueva York"....and I thought, "Oh it's in Colombia or somewhere, it doesn't matter" then I watched for a bit longer Glasgow and I realised that it was in New York, where English speaking people live...and therefore a terrible newsworthy tragedy was occurring."

I used this example principally because I find it funny, and I like to share the work of the marvellous Mr Lee with anyone that happens to read this blog...or anyone that listens to me. "...and therefore a newsworthy tragedy" is of course the key phrase. To constitute news, the event must disrupt the norm[al]:

"What is absent from the text of the news, but present as a powerful force in its reading, are the unspoken assumptions that life is ordinarily smooth running and harmonious. These norms are of course prescriptive rather than descriptive, that is, they embody the sense of what our social life ought to be rather than what it is, and in doing this they embody the ideology of the dominant classes." **

The "news is always bad" complaint overlooks the very obvious point that the "bad" is read as a deviation from the norm -- the norm therefore constructed as "good". This normative assumption is all the more robust for being unspoken, silent and un-named.

So, as discussed in the post above, news discursively sustains norms, and that these norms are not innate but, partly at least, constituted by representational apparatus, and as such, ideoloically loaded. However, these norms are also cuturally and socially prescribed. What is considered a major disruptive event by "our" news in, for instance, London/New York/Madrid, would barely -- if at all -- make the radar [or be included in the bulletin/discourse] had the event happened in Colombia/Uzbekistan. As far as the events of September 11th 2001 go, of course, hijacked planes being deliberately, suicidally and murderously flown into buildings in any country, would "make the news". What is less certain, is whether that date would for ever more become that date, forever transformed into and recognisable as the catchy media sobriquet: "Nine eleven". Had the terrible tragedy [and let us be certain, New York, Madrid and London are tragedies, as are the un-named, unspoken of tragedies "elsewhere] happened "elsewhere" in some "Other[ed]" country, the foundations of history would not have been so seismically shifted.

This has major import for the ways in which the world is understood and read. For instance, disaster, political, institutional corruption, famine, violence et al are not necessarily encoded as disruptive of the "norms" of othered societies -- large swathes of Africa, India, Pakistan -- rather, this is the[ir] norm. It is certainly how the the viewer is encouraged to view those "other" places. These lands are places of disruption anyway.

As a postscript, this reminds me of an interview I once saw on Channel Four television. The last time the India cricket team came to play in England, Mark Nicholas [James Bond wannabe presenter of the coverage] was interviewing Bishan Bedi, the former Indian spin bolwer. A film of India was shown, with the requisite images of overcrowded streets, children begging for money in squalor and filth. A mawkish voice over impored the viewer to help the poor of India by donating money via some cricketing charity. It was classic stuff, imperialism imagining itself as charitable, kind and helpful.. True to form, Nicholas, furrowed of brow and earnest of tone, turned to Bishan for comment. Marvellous television then followed where Bedi launched into a fabulous critique. The representation was incredibly partial. "Why do you only show Indians as poor savages, begging for money from the kind white man, I've walked around London many times and seen hundreds of poor and homeless people begging for money! These people are not represented as the image of British identity. Why do you insist on perpetuating this rubbish?"...or words to that effect.

For clarity, I suppose I should have just opened with the Stewart Lee quote, then ended with a telling of the channel Four story, but the writing is an important exercise.


* Stewart Lee -- Stand Up Comedian DVD
** Fiske, J -- Television Culture


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