Watching brief - Peter Wilby narrows our horizons
G8 - I have advanced the theory that the British, bored with celebrities and domestic politics, once
Does the heavy coverage of the G8 summit, and particularly of what it can do for Africa, herald a newly outward-looking news agenda in the media? Or is this a once-in-20-years event, which takes place only when Bob Geldof can terrorise pop stars into joining a special concert?
The Independent in particular now goes hard on foreign issues, splashing them across its increasingly confident poster-style front pages. "The Africa issue", it proclaimed on 1 June, with a drawing by Ralph Steadman. "How the US is stitching up Africa" followed on 4 June; on 9 June, it did a brilliant visual comparison between world spending on arms and on aid; on 22 June, we had "Bitter harvest: how EU sugar subsidies devastate Africa". Other recent front pages have featured "The pipeline that will change the world" (the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan project); "The rape of the rainforest"; Aung San Suu Kyi's 60th birthday; and how African children lose out because Britain poaches the continent's doctors.
Meanwhile, the Guardian sent reporters to ten African countries to find ten babies whose progress it will follow over the coming decade. The BBC and Richard Curtis combined to put a drama about Africa and the G8 summit on Saturday-night TV. (The level of political sophistication would have disgraced a gnat, but never mind.) This magazine's special issues on Africa and Iran were among its top sellers of the year.
From all this, it is possible to construct a theory. During the cold war, the British were interested in foreign news because a clash between east and west over any country might trigger a nuclear war. After the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign news was, well, merely about foreigners, and therefore boring. Then came 9/11.
The west woke up to how events in countries people couldn't find on a map - Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan - might trigger terrorist attacks on New York or London. Moreover, a generation has grown up that goes to Africa, Asia or Latin America as routinely as its grandparents went to Torquay, or its parents to Corfu. Bored by celebrity tittle-tattle, and by the sterilities of domestic politics, the British once more want news of the outside world.
I have advanced this theory for a year or two. Alas, now I have more time to think, I have decided it is probably wrong. The Times has done its bit on Africa, but its front-page leads follow a domestic agenda:
more legal rights for unmarried couples who live together; changes in sentences for murder; hospital superbugs; rail fares; city academies; Church of England cash crisis. Even its front-page summary of the stories inside scarcely acknowledges the existence of a world beyond the Mediterranean. Yet it is the Times that currently enjoys rising circulation, not the Guardian or the Independent.
For the red tops, foreign coverage begins and ends with the journeys of Live 8 stars. On 27 June, for example, a Sun writer reported from Arroyo, southern Sudan, a "mud hut settlement" where the Travis star Fran Healy was "greeted as the first white visitor for 87 YEARS". This being Africa, "excited women . . . made piercing, high-pitched screams and banged drums". And, being a white man, Healy was in the foreground of all the pictures. This made a telling symbol of the British press coverage, which is essentially about us, what we should do for Africa, and whether Africans - who are horribly prone to "bad governance" - deserve our help.
But the most important foreign stories at present are not in Africa or even the Middle East. They are in Latin America, where the masses, and increasingly the politicians, are rejecting the Washington model of how these countries should run their economies and their societies. As Isabel Hilton reported in a New Statesman cover story last month, they are building political movements that aim to prise control of natural resources such as oil and gas from the multinationals and use the proceeds to relieve poverty and build public services. Latin America, in fact, has already tried the road to prosperity that the G8 envisages for Africa and decided that it doesn't work. This is not solely of interest to lefty idealists. China has noted Latin America's rejection of US leadership and is trying to extend its economic and political influence there.
Of this, you will find little in the British press, apart from a few lines in the posh papers about the bloodier riots in Bolivia or Venezuela. How is Lula doing in Brazil? What happened to Argentina after its IMF-induced economic collapse? What news of the Zapatista rebels in Mexico? I suspect that, in the answers to these questions, you will find the beginnings of the next big geopolitical story and that the British media are keeping you scandalously ill-informed about it. Just as they kept you ill-informed, pre-1989, about the impending collapse of the Soviet empire and, pre-9/11, about the growth of Islam as a political force.