Saturday, 19 March 2011

Panic stations

In 1981 I was in Brixton as the riots hitting London at that time were happening. I was a young man interested in such politics and understanding ways that black people were being treated differently in my country. I stood across the road and watched as looters broke into a jewellery store, stepped into a doorway as a line of (black) people ran past and stayed there as a line of riot police chased them, watched as a car was turned over by angry youth. The next day I thought I'd check and see what the press had to say. The tabloid Daily Express' headline was full page and bold; "It was black against white". It was my first introduction to tabloid lies. I was there, I am white, the majority of rioters were black. (I sat with a black colleague on a wall as the sun set and he commented: see how the white rioters will disappear, and they did.) But it was not black against white: I was not approached let alone threatened. It was black against the police. The headline was an out-and-out lie by someone who presumably wasn't there.

I was reminded of that this week in Tokyo. Back in the UK one headline from the tabloid The Sun was "Exodus from Tokyo", another was " … warning to Brits … Get out of Tokyo Now" They were lies. I was here – I am here. Sure, some people – Japanese and foreign – were leaving, but there was no "exodus" and, in fact, no real warning to get out. (The British Embassy initially essentially said "stay, it's fine", and later – after such headlines – changed it to "consider leaving" followed by contradictory scientific advice supporting their earlier advice and stating there was no threat from nuclear fallout.)

In a disaster (which was directly, horrifically affecting other other parts of Japan) such reporting is inconsiderate, unhelpful, even dangerous – apart from being an out and out lie. All in Tokyo were concerned because accurate information was difficult to immediately assess. All friends in the UK were further worried for me because of such reporting. Although my background is in (non-tabloid) newspapers and magazines, and I have defended print journalism on this blog, this aspect, this type and this field of journalism is indefensible. When the cliche "don't believe everything you read in the papers" is spoken, it's as well to remember that there can be a truth in it. Sometimes what you read is a direct lie made up by someone who isn't there.

As a counter point see former Tokyo inhabitant and again on-the-ground reporter Jonathan Watt's excellent coverage of a decision on whether to leave Fukushima (not Tokyo) in The Guardian here, and David McNeill's Irish Times piece on such journalism here.

Update, 20 March: Since I wrote the sentence about contradictory advice from the British government, its scientific adviser has clarified the phrasing. The advice to "consider leaving" was a reaction to the general situation (distribution problems, power cuts etc) and NOT to any radiation threat. He found it hard to imagine a realistic situation where radiation from Fukushima could threaten Tokyo. The French government's advice to French citizens to leave because of the radiation threat, he added, "was not based on science".

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