Explain more, show less: Rifkind’s call to TV foreign correspondents

Former Conservative foreign minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind has accused television news of pandering to visual images at the expense of explaining the real issues behind foreign news stories.

His comments came during a public debate last week, attended by Sky News foreign editor Adrian Wells and BBC developing world correspondent David Loyn.

Rifkind said: “Because most of the public get their news not from the written word but from television, and television companies ultimately are in a battle of ratings, then they concentrate their reporting on that which is most visually effective.

“Some events are more visual than others… and that is what very often dominated the TV screens as we saw recently in Lebanon.

“It gives an emphasis to that aspect of conflict, whereas the underlying causes of a conflict may be much more difficult to report on the screen.”

The former minister argued that one of the impacts of television is that it distorts the debate from what may be the long-term and geopolitical implications of a conflict to what may be the short-term humanitarian issues.

However, Wells said that contrary to Rifkind’s belief that the media was drawn to exciting, pictorial events, there was concern that large swathes of the world were going unreported.

He said: “Iraq is a good example. The BBC is doing a fine job of reporting from there. They’ve maintained a Baghdad bureau there, which we [Sky News] haven’t been able to do.

But it costs them a lot of money and each time they send a journalist out there, there is risk as to whether they will make it back.

“There are large areas of Iraq that we are not getting much coverage from because it is too dangerous, and that is a problem for us.”

Wells said that Afghanistan could also be seen as an unreported story, because the dangers posed to journalists trying to cover the conflict created a reliance on the military to gain access.

He said: “That tap of hosting can be pretty effectively turned off when governments decide to.”

Loyn agreed that censorship was increasing and the BBC was also having difficulty in getting permission for its journalists to embed with troops in Afghanistan.

“There was a brief period after the Iraq war when embedding became possible with the Americans and the British, however it has become much harder in the last year.

“I think we’ll look back on 2003 and 2004 as halcyon days. We’ve now seen some quite strong attacks by the present British administration on journalists and the way that they are reporting.”

The debate was hosted by the London School of Economics new journalism initiative, Polis.

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