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How the British media covers Latin America

Gerard Coffey reviews British media coverage of Latin America and finds it lacking.

December 1, 2004
6 min read

Heard about the man who was the only candidate for municipal council and still couldn’t get elected? No? Well, perhaps that’s not so surprising. It happened in Bolivia , and news from that country, whether humorous anecdotes or more serious events, does not rate a mention in most of Britain ‘s media. Beyond Bolivia, Latin America as a whole seems to have fallen into an information black hole that keeps Britons singularly uninformed about events in the part of the American continent that isn’t the United States.

There is no argument about the importance of the USA. Both ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europeans ignore developments there at their own risk, a fact reflected by the amount of media space and correspondent time devoted to the coverage of the United States and its internal and external policies. The real problem is that the rest of the continent, the bits that stretch from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego (not to mention Canada ), appears to have slipped back into the fog from which they emerged, and entered European consciousness, on the day Columbus blundered into the Caribbean.

There has always been some interest in events in Latin America and the Caribbean. The sugar, coffee, and cocoa trade meant that colonial administrators and those with ‘interests’ in the region paid attention to what went on there. That continues. The fullest sources of information in Britain about countries such as Brazil, Argentina or Mexico are publications such as the Financial Times and the Economist, whose readers are more likely to have economic interests in the region.

For readers of the non-financial press, the assumed irrelevance amounts to a news black-out. The Middle East is news, because apart from the humanitarian and social justice concerns, we must perhaps bear some of the historical blame for the carnage and oppression that takes place there. Asia is acknowledged: China and its impact on the global economy can no longer be ignored. But now at least, the press assures us, if the ‘yellow peril’ does materialize, it will be of an acceptable capitalist persuasion. Africa also occupies our attention, again for humanitarian reasons, but also, perhaps, because we and other European powers suffer from a form of post-colonial hangover.

Latin America may feature in the news agendas of the USA, and perhaps Spain and Portugal . But in Britain , and the Andean or Central American countries could easily form a chapter of the Channel 4 series ‘What We Still Don’t Know’. When Latin American issues are covered, reports often bear the mark of fillers and the intellectual level of some pieces is poor. And, of course, there is the issue of political bias. The market coloured glasses of the Economist and Financial Times are obvious.

What is perhaps not so clear, and therefore more problematic, is the perspective of two more ‘progressive’ dailies, the Guardian and the Independent . The papers have no regional staff correspondents. They rely on stringers and agencies such as Reuters and Associated Press (the more progressive Inter Press Service, IPS, isn’t on their list) and copy could be described, generously, as middle of the road: a recent article in the Guardian concerning the de-commissioning of paramilitary fighters in Colombia failed to mention that the ‘Paras’ have been accused of links with the army and the President. The headline of another piece in the same paper in May could even be considered sickly humorous. It read, ‘Chavéz: left-wing dictator or saviour of the poor?’ We can only wonder if this gem would have been published if the subject had been, George W.Bush: right wing dictator or saviour of the rich?

On a more positive note, the BBC, to its credit, does make news available on its web site that in many cases does not appear in the dailies. For instance, there was coverage of the attempted re-trial of Abimael Guzmán, leader of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas in Lima , Peru . But the coverage is still mainstream and First-Worldist. In one report on the Guzmán trial, the BBC writer described some Peruvian journalists as being “as respectful as a bunch of hungry hyenas who have just stumbled on a dead zebra”. While the mainly tabloid Lima press is rightly famous for its blood and sex journalism (deftly portrayed in the Film ‘Tinta Roja’), it is hard to understand the incredulity of a reporter surely not unaware of the table manners of some of the British tabloid press.

The other problem with the BBC web page is that, in terms of reaching a new public, the Internet is used mainly by those already interested in a particular topic. And while the coverage is better, it is still not brilliant. A search of its Americas news site reveals that in the last six months Luiz ‘Lula’ da Silva, President of Brazil, was mentioned only ten times, about the same number as his Peruvian counterpart, Alejandro Toledo. They both fared better than the President of Mexico, Vicente Fox, with seven mentions, or Lucio Guttierrez of Ecuador , with only two. For non-official political figures such as the Bolivian indigenous leader Evo Morales, or Subcomandante Marcos of Chiapas , Mexico , the situation is much worse: they didn’t manage a single mention between them.

The most likely explanation for this silence is the acceptance of an informational Monroe Doctrine, a doctrine drafted by John Quincy Adams and put forward by US President Monroe (1817-1825) declaring the American continent to be off-limits to European interests (leaving Africa to Europe). But in an interconnected age in which financial upheavals can cause major impacts on the other side of the globe, where global warming and the social consequences of global ‘free trade’ are major inter-related problems, and poverty is not confined to Asia and Africa, the failure to provide in-depth coverage of Latin America and its over 500 million inhabitants is a disservice to everyone.

In Britain we need to understand more of the civil war in Colombia, the Bush-Chavez battle over Venezuela, the Argentinean battle with the International Monetary Fund, the struggle for a separate indigenous state in Bolivia, and the economic and political contradictions of a Brazil governed by a man whose presidential juggling act reminds one of Tony Blair, despite his solid labour background. Brazil , Venezuela and Bolivia may be half a world away, just like the United States , but that’s no reason to ignore them. Their issues are also ours.

Gerard Coffey, Director of the Ecuadorian bi-monthly, Tintají

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