Thursday, July 7, 2011

The global village needs a town crier

In the era of globalization, the slow death of foreign correspondence is a paradox. As economies and cultures integrate and our world becomes one, we need more and more information on the world – not least because that process often throws up violent reaction. But that information is diminishing. At first glance, that appears illogical. You might think our knowledge would increase as the world becomes closer. For business in particular, you'd think it was paramount. And with cheap air travel exploding, you'd think hundreds of millions more overseas tourists every year would add to the world's knowledge of itself.

I've argued before that the reality of globalization is that it is a force for standardization, with a bias towards the more powerful. That tends to mean that Western systems of business and Western culture dominate, and alternatives, and the poor and powerless, are squashed and ignored. Now think of the generic five-star, four-restaurant, three-pool resort now found on the coast from Phuket to Namibia, or the all-but-identical shopping malls being erected from Cape Cod to Cape Town. Look at the effort that goes into insulating the tourist from the place he is visiting – from five-star hotels to the backpacker trail – to ensure that he has all the amenities of home. It's hard to argue that you're seeing the world if you're merely visiting the same place in different locations.

Journalism is going through the same process of standardization. After all, why bother to get to know other parts of the world when, to the international traveller zipping between glass and steel airports and multinational hotel chains, they increasingly look like your own?

This "flattening" process affects news too. You'd expect British newspapers to splash on train wrecks in London, or the US press to headline on fatal bridge collapses in America. But India's newspapers will also lead on the same stories, relegating twenty-word items about "fatal mishaps" involving overcrowded Indian buses and Himalayan gorges to the inside pages. In the Philippines in 2001, I was astonished to see one national paper lead on the story of a Manila ferry disaster in which hundreds died and a rival splash on the story of four students who had been shot at a high school in the US. Hurricane Katrina was a story around the world. The story of Bombay's floods, in which many more died a month earlier, barely reached Pakistan. Many big stories – a war here, a shining beacon of hope there – are missed altogether. Our pool of knowledge is shrinking. And this narrowing of the world has a self-reinforcing effect. As people become less familiar with the world, they become less interested in it. One of the great paradoxes of globalization is that as the world becomes smaller and smaller, it knows itself less and less well.

In other words: to get globalization, you've got to go. And that means real travel. Not to five-star hotels in Shanghai or business parks in Bangalore or the Africa debate at Davos. But to entirely new environments, places with relaxed attitudes to issues like plumbing and roofing.

Only a few do. The most celebrated commentators on world affairs, the pundits, never do their own reporting, but gather the facts second-hand from CNN and Google. The journalists, academics and politicians who venture a little further – to the Bangalores and Shanghais – confine themselves to brief trips to the inner cities and mistake a tour of an elite shopping mall for a tour of the nation. That's like exploring New Orleans by visiting New York. It's how a couple of kilometres of Edwardian riverfront in central Shanghai came to be taken as a whole city, which was duly dubbed "the Paris of the East". And it explains how, on a 2006 state visit, George W. Bush hailed the "new India" from a podium in central Delhi, apparently unaware that he was looking out over a city where 10 million people had no toilet.

It's about perspective. You need to get close to see the detail. And you need to pull back to see the big picture. Too much of the former and the entirety of the object you're examining becomes obscured. Too much of the latter and everything looks (that word again) flat. Which is why, next time you hear someone say Bombay is the new New York, you should ask them how New Yorkers cope with all the cows in the street.

[Selected extracts from "Falling Off the Edge" by TIME foreign correspondent Alex Perry, Macmillan, London, 2008 (ISBN 978-0-230-70689-7)]

Submitted by Frank. 

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