Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Academic snippet of relevance

So instead of blogging about the role of British media abroad recently, I have been writing about it. On paper. I thought I would just share a bit of my research on here as it is quite relevant. This bit is about the role of the internet in breaking cultural imperialism patterns created by the diffusion of western media.


Cultural imperialism is often applied to audio-visual media because of the top-down structure of the communication vehicle. As Servaes (1999) argues, radio and television are predominantly one-way forms of communication. Furthermore, developing countries are dependent on imports from developed countries for the production on distribution of these technologies (p.36). The shape of the communication vehicle in this case therefore installs both economic and ideological reliance. However, new media - the internet in particular - is based on a different model of communication. As Hedley argues, the technology represents “a significant break with the previous one-way, top-down, mass communication media, and consequently the potential for mass indoctrination” (1997, p.82). According to some scholars, the information revolution has, or will transform global communication powers. Indeed, Melkote and Steeves note that “New information technologies have inspired new and more elaborate arguments about the power of these technologies to deliver information…” (p.31).

One such argument put forward by Brown and Brown (1994) is that this new technology “will provide a virtually seamless world communications network capable of reaching every inhabitant on earth” (Hedley, 1999, p.82). The romantic concept that the internet could break down cultural imperialism has transcended the academic sphere and reached the media production world itself. For instance, Bill Gates, Microsoft CEO said: “The information highway is going to break down barriers and may promote a world culture, or at least a sharing of cultural values.” This exchange would form multi-directional communication models opposed to the linear imperialism paradigm.

Similarly, the US media has in turn heralded the death of media imperialism. The New York Times quoted Geoge Yeo, Singapore’s Minister for Information and the Arts saying, “The widespread use of English will eventually be contested and the Internet itself will become multicultural,” in order to diffuse the ‘spectre’ of American cultural domination (Demont-Heinrich, 2008, p.381).

In reaction to this statement, let us look at the importance of language in the internet’s transmission of cultural imperialism. According to Albert Einstein (1954), “The mental development of the individual and his way of forming concepts depends to a high degree upon language”. Therefore, with regards to the internet, language determines both access and identity. Dermont-Heinrich found that many media producers believed that the internet’s ability to offer multiple languages simultaneously could limit ‘Americanization’. For instance, The International Herald Tribune printed in 2000: “The internet is more likely to widen choice than to narrow it. The Web site of CNN, a major purveyor of the new global culture, offers several languages, such as Japanese, Portuguese and Danish” (2008, p.384). Dermont-Heinrich attacks this assumption that individual choice automatically equals diversity. What he does not highlight in his study however, is the focus on languages originating in, if not purely Europe, developed countries. This imperialist bias will exclude rather than include new audiences in developing countries, where numerous different languages and dialects may be spoken within the same borders.

Furthermore, Hedley builds upon Dermont-Heinrich’s assertion that language on the internet upholds the relevance of the cultural imperialism paradigm, by arguing that the internet is inherently based on language and therefore cultural dominance. He points out that even though computer software commands computers in binary code, which could be seen as culturally neutral, the software originates in words, the effective currency of culture (1999, p.81). According to this argument therefore, as predominantly western, often English speaking nations design the bulk of software, new technology actually increases the role of cultural imperialism in media. This view is shared by Comor, who argues that “new information will widen the gap and in fact strengthen US imperialist influence” (1997, p.202).

Similarly, Castells believes that the information society will drive a deeper divide between the world’s “haves” and “have nots” (Melkote and Steeves, p.64,…) Hedley’s study supports the assertion that, despite offering multi-directional communication, it is mostly the “haves” who are able to use the internet. Hedley set up an online discussion about development issues over a month in 1997 and found that its participants constituted four major occupational groups: 30 percent were government affiliated professional development workers (half of whom worked for UN agencies), 22 percent were academics, 18 percent were NGO representatives and the remaining nine percent were graduate students (1997, p.83). This shows that the internet is predominantly used by the educated elite, and while the internet does permit individuals to communicate over huge distances at practically no cost, the people who could use media towards self-determination and improvement in their quality of life are dramatically under represented.

Furthermore, analysis of the internet shows that it is overwhelmingly American based, English speaking and Western focused. Hedley claims that 63 percent of the 16.15 million users connected to the internet in 1997 were in the United States, 74 percent in English-speaking nations and 90 percent of users were in Western countries (p. 80, 1997). It is necessary to recognise that these figures date back to a decade ago now and technology is developing at a rapid rate. Nevertheless, Hedley’s findings remain significant as the bias towards western domination is so heavy. Factors such as economic and cultural - namely linguistic - dominance are leading to the creation of a “Fourth World”. Therefore, the internet does not seem to be closing the gap between developed and developing countries but rather increasing cultural imperialism. Consequently, the cultural imperialism paradigm is more relevant than ever with regards to global media flows.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Madonna's plea for mercy (sorry to all at The Sun, it was just too good)

I never thought Madonna would kick me out of apathy. I dislike her voice. Her music is dull. I really don't care about her ridicule-ridden love life. But her recent antics in Malawi make me really, really mad.

A couple of years ago I thought up a stupid and mildly offensive business plan. I realised how much better Christmas is with children around- Santa is suddenly real again, each present is an explosion of excitement. I thought I could solve this and world poverty in one, by starting up a Rent a Child scheme. Take a child from a war-torn, poverty stricken African country and loan it to a nice childless family for Christmas. These children didn't know it was Christmas time at all- until now. Bono would be so pleased. Problem solved.

Little did I know that Madonna had a similar idea. Sweep in to one of Africa's poorest countries, Malawi, pick the prettiest baby, wave some money and a peculiar religious cult around and poof, you have saved the children. Now we all know that black babies are cuter. It is a well-known truth. But I can't quite see how taking a child from its culture amindst protests from its family and world-wide condemnation could be anything but selfish, imperialist arrogance.

And such arrogance. Over 50 human rights organisations have opposed Madonna's adoption of four-year-old Mercy James. Save the Children, one of the loudest and most respected voices on child welfare have lead the criticism. Charity spokesman Dominic Nutt reportedly said: “What Madonna is doing verges on a puppy parade. People like her are looking for the most beautiful child. They wouldn’t choose a child with a disability or special needs." Ouch. When Save the Children are saying things like that surely it's time for a rethink?

Now I'm not in a position to say who should or should not be able to adopt. So she's fifty. So she's a single mum. So she recently broke up with her boyfriend because he spent too much time on the phone to his family. But Mercy already has a family even if her parents aren't around. The Sun reported that the child's grandmother is devastated and has said she is being "stolen". This is bad enough. Madonna's previous Malawian adopted child David still has a father in the country. Granted he is a peasant farmer. But despite the father's pleas to see his son, this is the first time Madonna has taken David back to Malawi for two years. That, in my opinion, does not consitute the compassion and consideration required of a loving parent. But it's ok because Madonna's nannies will be looking after him anyway. It's horrible.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Snow in Kenya

My Mum has an old friend called Louis who lives in Kenya. He is a priest and is now quite elderly and almost completely blind. He is fiercely loyal and has rung my Mum, my sister and me on our birthdays for as long as I can remember. Every year we get the mysterious, long distance call from someone we know very little about but who wants to know everything, everything about us. When he called for my Mum's birthday in February, I was in bed. But he called back later in the afternoon especially to speak to me, his friend's daughter who he hasn't seen since she was about 6 months old. He knows I study journalism and he is aware of my travels and language studies. When he asked me what was going on in my life, I told him about the snow. The snow had dominated our existence for at least a week by then and it was the first thing that came to my mind as I frantically searched for interesting tit bits of information to satisfy his curiousity and compassion.

"Oh I know all about that," he said. "That has been all over the news over here in Kenya. We, on the other hand, have to kill each other to make the news."

This made me sad. But he was't trying to make me feel bad. It's a good thing of course that beautiful snowy images were ambassadors for Britain all over the world. But it does make you question the concept of news value.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

You are what you read

I am ashamed that it has again taken me a whole week to write my next post. Tuesdays just seem to be blog day. I will try harder next time.

This week I'm going to look at the content of websites to see if I can find any trace of their large overseas audiences. I have picked three of the most popular online news providers, the BBC, the Guardian and the Telegraph. They all have different aims, viewpoints and politics but each one carries a "Most popular" function. I do not believe news organisations should be directed purely by what people read during a 5 minute tea break in the office as I think the role and responsibility of journalism stretches much further. But I want to find out who is reading these websites and looking at what these people are reading may give me an insight. It may also show the effect of free, one-click media on the journalism published.

The leading stories on the BBC website today include the rows over plans to sell of 30% of the Royal Mail, Jack Straw's veto of the publication on Cabinet minutes leading up to the Iraq war, and the report of the police investigation into the death of Stuart Lubbock in Michael Barrymore's swimming pool. These are the stories which the BBC deem most important and therefore make most obvious. They are the stories which, you'd think at least, most readers would be inclined to click on, especially if they are just checking the day's news updates. These stories are also UK-based.

But none of these stories appear in the top three of the BBC's "Most read" list. Instead it lists the titles, "Does University Challenge really test intelligence?", "Skating pensioner fined by court" and "How do you explain a missing hand to a child?". The "Most watched/listened to" shows even further bias to the University challenge final and the 71-year-old skater fined £300 for rollerblading through Southport. The BBC's reader's seem to prize a different agenda from the editors.

A similar discrepancy is clear on the Guardian website where the headlines include Straw's veto, Polish immigrant workers leaving due to the recession, and NASA's failed satellite. Their most popular stories include the University Challenge final but also Gmail grinding to a halt, and in first place, fears of middle-class riots over the recession. It is interesting that even though at least 60% of the audiences of both of these sights are apparently outside the UK, there is still little focus on international news.

The Telegraph carries the same headlines again and the most popular stories include a 10-year-old girl who has been dubbed the next Banksy, Gmail failing and the Oscars.

Now I think it is quite surprising how similar the leading stories are in each of the publications despite their claims to different audiences and different aims. It is also interesting that the readers of all three are most interested in similar stories which are not those in the headlines. It is particularly entertaining to see that one of the most popular stories on the Telegraph website is Jade Goody. How things change. You wouldn't normally expect celebrity dramas in this high brow publication.

The websites's international readers however remain quite invisible. The most popular stories are perhaps less focused on the UK than the headlines but there is still no real diversity. This could maybe be because most of the overseas readers are British based or British born. I'm not sure.

But the one thing which is clear from this overview is the popularity of quirky, bizarre stories. The skating pensioner is a great example of this, as is the 10-year-old Bansky. The strangest and most enticing I think, is "Woman fell to her death while chasing a feather" (Telegraph). How tragic and how ridiculous. It seems that, no matter where the audience is in the world, they still prize the principle of "man bites dog". A universal sense of news value is highlighted in the "Most popular" lists. We should take note.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Here's a little picture to make my blog a little prettier

Monday, 16 February 2009

Supply and demand

Ok so this blog is definitely a learning process. I think maybe chosing a subject which is more an essay title than really-fun-I-want-to-write-every-day-even-after-hours-of-lectures may threaten to stunt its progress. So I'm going to relax a little and just see where it takes me.

The next step in my investigation into the consumption and production of English langauge media abroad is, well, me. I reckon the best way to start to look at this issue is to think when and where and why I have used the British media.

More and more Britons have been travelling if not moving abroad in recent years. That is of course until the pound started to feel an awful lot heavier, and generally onerous, in our wallets. According to the BBC, one in ten British citizens lived abroad in 2006. Although the figures surrounding this question seem a bit hazy, the BBC reported that around 6 million British-born people lived overseas or split their time between the two. I would suggest that many of these people contribute to the high overseas consumption of online British media .

When I lived in Egypt, a visit to the internet cafe was a long-awaited high point in my week. This wasn't purely due to the joy of receiving presents from Ahmad the lovely but slightly wonky-eyed attendant (although the presents would've been a lot better if they weren't website addresses), nor was it just the chance to savour a burst of air conditioning in the swelting Egyptian summer. Using the web when I lived abroad was a chance to 'touch base' and British media played a big part in that. It was a chance to hide away from the dust, the baksheesh and the Cairo taxis (all of which I loved of course but were tiring at times) and indulge in the clean, well-ordered BBC website. There I could keep in touch with everything going on at home. There I didn't feel so far away.

I think lots of other people must feel the same, whether they are enjoying retirement on a Spanish Costa, working in the sky-scrapers of Dubai or wandering across Mongolia with a backpack. And since other forms of media, newspapers for instance, are generally hard to get, it is online media which provides the information and the escapism. This point is well-illustrated I think by another example from Egypt. Whilst baking myself on the beach in Dahab on the Red Sea (pretending to study at the same time of course) a vendor walked past offering me a newspaper, The Times I think. How much? Nine pounds he said, that means 90p in Sterling I thought. But no, how wrong I was. He wanted nine British pounds for a copy of a newpaper I would normally buy for one. Just to put that into context, a taxi driver once told me he earnt 50 Egyptian pounds a day which equates to about 5 British pounds. That taxi driver would have to work for two days and let his family go hungry in order to buy a copy of that newspaper.

But people on the beach must've bought it or the vendor wouldn't have been selling it at that price. And good for him. People want the media and they are obviously willing to pay for it. But on the net its free and easy. That's good for them but not so good for people like myself who would like to make a living by providing the information. I think the British media can take hope from this example. There is definitely still demand, and increasingly so from abroad but we need to figure out a happy medium between the clumsy and expensive hard publications (although £9 is unusual for a newspaper I admit) and the free for all which is the internet at the moment.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Clearing my throat

Hello, bienvenue, ahlan, gutentag,

I have been meaning to start a blog for months now but have been mulling over ideas, themes and subjects for far too long. I am quite unfamiliar with blogs at the moment but think they are a fascinating and exciting element of the new media development, something which I definitely want to be part of. I have considered writing about what I am up to, my opinions and my life in general but I think blogs offer the potential for a lot more. So I am using this blog as a research project which will help me understand, and hopefully in the future be part of the rapidly changing media environment in Britain.

I have been studying Arabic and French as an undergraduate and am now working towards my NCTJ-accredited MA in Print Journalism. This blog will draw on both my passion for languages, culture and travel along with my ambitions and belief in journalism. The theme of the blog came to me just today after a lecture at my university by Ed Roussel, Digital Media Editor of the Telegraph Media Group. I have discovered over the past few days whilst studying convergence how huge the consumption of British media abroad is. According to Roussel, websites run by the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Times and the Mail have between them 100 million unique users. Peter Cole, former Deputy Editor of the Guardian and course guru, similarly told me and my fellow students of the importance of global audiences. He showed us on Monday that around 60% of online audiences of every major UK newspaper are outside Britain.

Now, with the media and especially the printed press in this country in a state of flux at best and catastrophe at worst, the rise of internet publication seems to be vital. Roussel told us for example that just yesterday, the Telegraph had an 850k circulation and 750k online users. And the numbers of internet readers is growing rapidly. So the role of overseas audiences must be very weighty indeed. I want to find out how this affects the content of the newspapers and how they are changing to meet the shifts in demand. More generally, I want to know who is reading them, where they are and why they are doing so.

From another angle, I am Content Manager on the Art Review which bills itself as the ‘first English language arts magazine in Egypt’. As a strong advocate of language learning – it is not true that you can go anywhere in the world and need no other language but English, the fact that the magazine is published in English at first troubled my conscience. Shouldn’t Egyptians and artists from all over the Middle East be able to express themselves and sell their creativity in their own language? Does this show an idea of cultural hegemony of the English language, and the West? I hope not and do not think so. The founders of the Art Review are both Egyptian and international. They told me that English was the best way to reach a global audience and maximise exposure for its featured artists, musicians and cultural figures. This can’t all be bad. Anyway, I’m going to speak to the contributors and readers of the magazine, probably through its Facebook group, to find out why they read the magazine and what they think of its publication in English.

So the scope of this blog will be quite wide and I’m sure it will get wider as I go on. A lot will of course be influenced by my own views and experiences but I hope to sit down and have a cup with tea with the rest of the world and join the chatter of many voices creating, debating and publishing.