Foreign news and the distance it affords us

This is one in a series of posts this week accompanying our report, Shrinking World.

International news, in case you hadn’t realised, is disappearing across the UK media.

The statistics make frightening reading, according to Shrinking World – the exceptionally clear new pamphlet published by the Media Standards Trust. They compared foreign news coverage in a selection of the UK print media (Guardian, Telegraph, Mail and Mirror) between 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009 and found the following:

  • 40% drop in foreign news coverage in absolute terms
  • Today, international news only makes up 11% of news coverage (compared to 20% in 1979)
  • 80% drop in foreign news stories within the first 10 pages…

And it’s not just about print. More chilling still, Shrinking World looked at how India had been covered across the UK press online for the first 3 months of 2009, and found that a full three-quarters of all stories were FT and BBC Online.

For the report’s author, Martin Moore, there are two blame-takers. The first is interest on the part of the paper-buying audience (though Shrinking World would counter by pointing to the growing readership of the global-facing FT and Economist). And the second, of course, is the cost and the appalling return-on-investment of shipping foreign correspondents around the globe (it cost the New York Times c. $1m/year/correspondent in the first years of the Iraq war, and roughly $250,000 for a foreign correspondent in the no-danger zones of the world).

But Shrinking World does a very good job of not throwing all the blame at the new economics of news. Of course, the financial constraints under which news editors labour have had an impact – gone are the days in which foreign correspondents travelled first class (as they did in the 1960s, according to the report). But there are many new ways of gathering news – the AP, Reuters and AFP still function; the web and new streaming/satellite technology has made content-sharing between newspapers and broadcasters around the world considerably easier and quicker (The Independent, for example, has sharing deals with Al Jazeera English and France24); and a raft of new tech and new media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Demotix, etc…) has made access to global news – for those who care for it – easier.

Moore asks a far more interesting question around our appetite for foreign news, and why that is shrinking. His answers speak both to the shape of today’s world, and Britain’s place within it. He writes: ‘The Cold War had provided a clear framework and rationale for covering international affairs. A war in Angola, for example, could immediately be placed in a bipolar Cold War context.’ Without that framework, so the argument goes, and lumbered with the patently meaningless framework offered to us by ‘Global Terrorism’ narratives, we are at a loss to understand the world around us. Perhaps true, but the line could also be taken further: our diminishing interest in foreign affairs clearly mirrors our diminishing role in them. The 5 million-odd Britons living around the globe are no longer the players and decision-makers, they are economic or lifestyle migrants. We care for what we can affect – true altruistic curiosity is a rarity (echoed by the minuscule numbers of Brits who read international news sources online – the WSJ and Washington Post have a monthly reach of only 0.3% in the UK).

What we lose, of course, with this inexorable curiosity-shrink is not just our ability to interpret the world, and negotiate our futures within it at a time when – ever increasingly – the lodestones of global politics and economics shift further and further from our centre. We lose something far harder to define and far more important. When the Daily Mirror splashed John Pilger’s ‘Death of a Nation’ report on Cambodia’s killing fields across the front page (and 8 other pages) on 12th September 1979, it told more than a story about the Khmer Rouge of course. It talked to an understanding of humanity, of ethics, of broader politics and its uses. Without foreign news, and the distance it affords us on ourselves, we are condemned to talk to each other about ourselves within a closed circle. The highly articulate Moore and his perfectly pitched report reminds us just how much.

Turi Munthe is the founder and CEO of Demotix.