When journalism is powerless

Despite years of fine reporting and many furious editorials, the bloodshed continues in Darfur and M

Sixth-formers who apply to study journalism at university often explain their interest by referring to the power of the news media, saying something like: "Journalism shapes the world in which we live." It is a sort of commonplace in an age when ministers live and die by headlines, and no doubt there is truth in it, in the philosophical sense that journalists have a role in defining perceptions of the world, but it always jars with me. That is just not my experience.

In day-to-day terms, much of the job is a desperate struggle to interest the readers and give them what they want for their money - not an endeavour that leaves you with an overwhelming feeling of power. And when it comes to the things that really matter, I suspect that most journalists are conscious of how little difference they make, rather than how much.

Darfur is a case in point. How many times have you read that 200,000 people have been killed and two million more displaced in a vicious campaign, backed by the Khartoum government, against the people of western Sudan? Every time you have read it, some journalist has had to write it, struggling to find a new way to communicate the horror behind a message growing staler by the month. And whether those journalists were reporting from the field or sitting at desks in London, they were probably hoping, however faintly, that this time something would change.

No paper has tried harder than the Independent, which carries about twice as many articles about Darfur as any of its rivals, and publishes an editorial on the subject roughly once a month. Last weekend, it even had an exclusive in an open letter from leading European writers (Stoppard, Grass, Heaney, Fo . . .) to EU leaders, reproaching them for celebrating 50 years of the European idea while massacres continued in Sudan. "The Europe which allowed Auschwitz and failed in Bosnia must not tolerate the murder in Darfur," they wrote.

The Independent's next edition was able to report that the letter had forced the matter on to the EU summit agenda and that, as demanded by the writers, stronger sanctions against the Sudanese government were on the table.

It was a stunt - a classy one, but a stunt all the same. NGOs and campaigners are always trying to dream up new ways of getting the press to take up Darfur again, and you will have noticed some of them. Yet, in nearly four years, nothing, not the stunts, not the editorials, not the eyewitness reports, has stopped the killing.

Would it make a difference if it was the mighty Daily Mail and not the Independent that was leading the way? The Mail, as it happens, pays little attention to Darfur, but it has not been ignoring another African horror story: Zimbabwe. Indeed, for years it has been most energetic in covering the outrages of the Mugabe regime.

Why the paper should be more concerned about Zimbabwe than Darfur is interesting, but a matter for another day; my point here is that it has made no difference. And if the Daily Mail's best efforts have not troubled Mugabe, or even obliged the Foreign Office to take a harder line, then I would say there is no reason to believe that any British journalist can make a real difference to Darfur.

Perhaps you are now reflecting that changing things isn't the job of journalists anyway: it is the business of voters and politicians. And this, of course, is true. What journalists are supposed to do is deliver the news, with some interpretation or commentary where appropriate. However, when the news you bring is 200,000 dead and two million homeless, and when after you have reported it the killing just goes on, it becomes even harder to swallow the idea that journalism shapes our world.

Horrible, but not atrocious

Half a century ago, an American cartoon about press values showed a newsroom full of people in a state of joyous excitement, and at its centre a figure in an eye-shade holding a telephone to his ear as he performed a gleeful jig. The caption beneath read: "The editor of a yellow-press newspaper receives news of a horrible murder committed in the most atrocious of circumstances."

I'm sure no one cheered when word came that Bob Woolmer had been strangled, but there was no mistaking the surge of energy it sent through a bunch of papers that had been sagging under the weight of their dreary Budget coverage.

As the Sunday Times pointed out, though, most of what we read in the first frenzy of reporting seems not to have been correct: police said there was no sign Woolmer was about to expose a match-fixing ring and there had been no row with players, nor was there evidence of a wild struggle, or of poison, and nor were the walls of Woolmer's room spattered with blood, vomit and faeces (though "traces" were found). The murder was horrible all right, but it appears the circumstances were not that atrocious.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom