Watching Brief: I Have Advanced the Theory That the British, Bored with Celebrities and Domestic Politics, Once More Want News of the outside World. Alas, I've Now Decided It Is Probably Wrong
Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)
Does the heavy coverage of the G8 summit, and particularly of what it can do for Africa, herald a newly outward-looking news agenda in the media? Or is this a once-in-20-years event, which takes place only when Bob Geldof can terrorise pop stars into joining a special concert?
The Independent in particular now goes hard on foreign issues, splashing them across its increasingly confident poster-style front pages. "The Africa issue", it proclaimed on 1 June, with a drawing by Ralph Steadman. "How the US is stitching up Africa" followed on 4 June; on 9 June, it did a brilliant visual comparison between world spending on arms and on aid; on 22 June, we had "Bitter harvest: how EU sugar subsidies devastate Africa". Other recent front pages have featured "The pipeline that will change the world" (the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan project); "The rape of the rainforest"; Aung San Suu Kyi's 60th birthday; and how African children lose out because Britain poaches the continent's doctors.
Meanwhile, the Guardian sent reporters to ten African countries to find ten babies whose progress it will follow over the coming decade. The BBC and Richard Curtis combined to put a drama about Africa and the G8 summit on Saturday-night TV. (The level of political sophistication would have disgraced a gnat, but never mind.) This magazine's special issues on Africa and Iran were among its top sellers of the year.
From all this, it is possible to construct a theory. During the cold war, the British were interested in foreign news because a clash between east and west over any country might trigger a nuclear war. After the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign news was, well, merely about foreigners, and therefore boring. Then came 9/11.
The west woke up to how events in countries people couldn't find on a map--Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan--might trigger terrorist attacks on New York or London. Moreover, a generation has grown up that goes to Africa, Asia or Latin America as routinely as its grandparents went to Torquay, or its parents to Corfu. Bored by celebrity tittle-tattle, and by the sterilities of domestic politics, the British once more want news of the outside world.
I have advanced this theory for a year or two. Alas, now I have more time to think, I have decided it is probably wrong. The Times has done its bit on Africa, but its front-page leads follow a domestic agenda: more legal rights for unmarried couples who live together; changes in sentences for murder; hospital superbugs; rail fares; city academies; Church of England cash crisis. …