Why Africa's Editors Should Get Their Houses in Order
By Michael Holman
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
That's it! I've had enough.
The next time I'm at a conference where the coverage of Africa by the Western media is ritually condemned, I will wrestle the microphone from the speaker and declare:
"There is no conspiracy to undermine the continent, no plot to perpetuate its poverty, no plan to ruin its reputation. There is no need ... Africa 's own editors are doing a pretty good job themselves, aided and abetted by lickspittle European lobbyists."
The straw that broke this camel's back came in the form of a typically priggish press release issued last week by one of those proliferating public relations outfits (or "consultancies", as they prefer to be known). The ones that boast offices in Johannesburg , Nairobi and Lagos - but with heart and headquarters in London.
You know the sort: their "mission statements" are dotted with words like "ethics" and "good governance"; they insist there is an African "recovery" under way, and rebuke anyone for suggesting otherwise.
They tout the merits of NEPAD, and sing the praises of the African Union, but above all they tap the rich opportunities that come with the huge increase in aid to the continent. There is a "new story to be told", according to the release, about "the battle to improve Africa's image". There was "a growing recognition in media circles in the past two or three years that Africa does not get a fair deal".
It was precisely this line that went down so well in Nairobi a few weeks ago at a United Nations Peace University conference on Africa 's media that I helped to organise. A speaker from Nigeria duly delivered a tirade about the Western press. But in the hubbub of enthusiastic approval, no delegate stopped to ask whether Africa's newspapers were doing a decent job for their readers.
No one pointed out that when the world is seen through the prism of Africa 's editors, the picture received is seldom enlightening. And if their news agenda is accepted, the outcome can be bizarre.
A newspaper vendor in Nairobi, Kenya: Africa's editors often devote a lot of space to events in Europe and America rather than news around Africa and the emerging economies of the world.
There was an example at hand. The three-day conference coincided with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Yet not once did the editors of Kenya 's leading papers - one of which happened to be a sponsor of the conference - judge that the tragedy in the Middle East warranted front-page treatment. Instead, each day they portrayed a world where important events took place only within Kenya 's boundaries - a blinkered view characteristic of most papers across Africa.
Of course there are exceptions, including The Mail & Guardian. But in most African papers on most days, I suspect more space is devoted to the achievements of Manchester United than to the killings in Darfur.
It is not for want of information, which can be found on Reuters, et cetera. What is lacking is not computers, though goodness knows they are badly needed. It is not more training, though our trade would benefit. Nor is it talent -- Africa can boast some of the best and the bravest journalists, and most readable and trenchant columnists in the business.
What is missing is perspective - a worldview on the part of Africa 's editors that looks beyond an obsessive preoccupation with old colonial powers, and that breaks with a parochial outlook.
Of course it is true that some, or even most, of the Western reporting on Africa is arrogant and ignorant in equal measure. But why let this determine Africa 's media agenda, consume its scarce resources and sap its intellectual energy?
The reality is that the battle to overcome the Western media's ingrained faults cannot be won. And it is not worth fighting. The importance of Europe and the United States to Africa 's future is dwindling. Taking their place are Brazil, and India, and above all China, whose expanding economic interest in Africa is one of the most important developments for the continent since the end of colonial rule.
Yet in most African media, the coverage of these countries is woeful.
Part of the explanation for the void is the fact that - to the best of my knowledge - not a single African media organisation has a staff correspondent based in any of the three. Even South Africa, the continent's media heavyweight, is lagging behind, failing to tackle the tectonic shift this represents in world politics and trade.
Why else did the country's quasi-governmental lobby, the International Marketing Council, deem it more important to have an office in London, surely the most Africa-savvy city in the world, than a representative in Beijing?
At least the Nairobi conference may have redeemed itself. It ended with a call to Africa's editors to pool their resources, and share the reports from a full-time correspondent based in China.
This needs the continent's editors to take a fresh look at the world; to stop blaming "Western media" for Africa's poor image; and to ignore the siren voices of self-serving public relations agencies. I'm not holding my breath.
Michael Holman was Africa editor of the Financial Times from 1984 to 2002.
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Has Mr Holman read New African or African Business magazines? Perhaps he should start looking at a broader perspective in African journalism.