In August 2020, Sky and the BBC were accused of Voyeurism, creditable to the objectionable live news coverage of refugees making the treacherous journey across the English Channel as they fled the destruction caused by the Civil War in Syria.
You indeed read that correctly, live news coverage.
‘You can see why it’s dangerous today because the sea is pretty choppy. We came across this boat around half an hour ago, just spotted it on the horizon, and we have seen them actually trying to get water out of the boat. They’re doing that at the moment, they’re using a plastic container just to try and bail out the boat, so obviously it’s pretty overloaded there.’
For the purpose of this post, it’ll be substantial to focus on the BBC coverage as it is interesting to consider their primary focus: to serve the public and their audiences. For further context, you can access the Sky News coverage here.
There are many reasons why this journalism is unsatisfactory, particularly after reviewing the BBC’s code of conduct guidelines, where an initial priority is to ‘act in a way that’s safe and ethical’.
The decision to engage in live footage was unethical and is a breach of their guidelines. These people were in a vulnerable state and had no ability to give consent to filming or challenge it. While the BBC’s mission statement is to ‘inform, educate and entertain’, it worries me to consider that this coverage may have materialized on the grounds of entertainment value.
To me, ethical journalism should be consensual. Simon Jones’s approach however, at first felt as though I was watching an off the mark satire, attempting to mirror portions of the UK media’s dispassionate attitude towards migration. Or an awkward sports commentary. Or anything as equally distasteful. How very wrong I was.
What’s deeply unsettling for me, is that after hinting at the prospect of catastrophe, the reporter says they’ll ‘shadow’ the boat to see how the situation may develop. Based on Seth M. Blazer’s definition of voyeurism as ‘one who seeks stimulation by visual means’; what immediately springs to mind is that the objectification of human beings has occurred in the name of ‘newsworthy’ drama.
I am aware that the weight of responsibility to protect these people does not fall on journalists’ shoulders. However, there is great insensitivity that comes with embarking on what is essentially a ‘hunt’ for voyeuristic footage.
The result? An interaction severely lacking substance. The audience is no clearer on who these people are, why they might be committing to such an unsafe expedition or what will happen when they reach the border. Watching the clip felt like an outright dismissal of their code of conduct.
Public awareness of pressing issues, especially when human life is at risk, is of utmost importance. After all, the BBC’s mission is ‘to inform’. Yet the ambiguity around their strategy to inform in this way leaves me questioning their integrity.
Compassion in Context
‘Journalism that cares as well as knows; that is aware of its responsibilities; and will not stand neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong, the victim and the oppressor. This is not to back one side or faction or people against another; it is its most powerful division, do not stand apart from the world. We are part of it. We exercise a certain influence, and we have to know that.’- Martin Bell (1995).
The lack of curiosity shown by these journalists is truly concerning, namely the absence of wider context needed for viewers to understand the gravity of these events. Birjitta Hoijer‘s insight into audience compassion provides a useful parallel of how news outlets, since the beginning of the Civil War in Syria and the displacement of civilians began, have utilized their power to prime audiences towards feelings of numbness and disillusionment towards refugees.
Her discussion of how the media may evoke audience compassion leads me to propose that another key issue to tackle here is: the misleading representation of identities, which has the power to influence a narrative capable of disadvantaging refugees.
Representation and Deception
In Thomson and Greenwood‘s recent discussion about the framing of migration, they suggest that the representation of displaced people in the news lies within either the ‘victim’ or ‘threat’ frame. In the BBC clip, Simon Jones mentions the ratio of people on the dinghy: ‘some women on board, majority men, majority men’. I take the view of humanitarian organizations: to be a victim should hold no social boundaries. But the ethos in international politics and media, means men do not necessarily qualify.
In my view, the indication towards the domination of men in this scenario has the ability to exert a compassionless influence through the reinforcement of pre-existing attitudes held by UK viewers. For example, within portions of the UK media, there is evidence that shows these journeys are discredited on the basis that these individuals are criminals- a threat to national security thus justifying the tough immigration policies which have ‘become increasingly restrictive and the proportion of applicants obtaining a refugee status has declined.’ Without the attempt to challenge this discourse, ideally through the suggestion of a wider context, this kind of journalism is subtly complicit in reinforcing these dominant ideologies. It is interesting the reporter pointed out this ratio, as women and children are usually seen as powerless, deserving of empathy and protection. It is probable that the inclusion of gender positions asylum seekers on ‘an axis of power’, in other words, an insinuated ranking of importance to be judged by viewers.
Consequently, the repeated nature of these representations in the UK media has the capacity to desensitise audiences from the suffering of distant others, reduce the perceived scale of harm caused by war and potentially increase feelings of apathy, which are all extremely counterproductive notions when human life is at stake.
The ideas taken from Edward Said ‘s ‘Orientalism’, published in 1978 can also be applied to the BBC news clip. Said labels Western countries ‘The Occident’, who dominate Eastern countries- ‘The Orient’, through socially constructed cultural representations for the empowerment of socio-economic and political institutions in the west.
‘The Orient was created as a binary opposition to the Occident by decoding the structures of power and knowledge hidden in texts and discourse, which were historically employed by colonialism and Empire for conquest and domination of the other’… ‘Colonialism and imperialism not only ‘conquered’ the Orient and its territory, but also its identity, (hi)story, culture, landscape and voice’
Said also references Antonio Gramsci, a man who coined the term ‘Hegemony’, a word which explains how social institutions like television can dominate public perception through constructed ideologies. This power concept aids our understanding of how European countries (particularly the UK and France) have the capacity to construct representations of refugees in a manner that is beneficial to the status quo.
This power imbalance is deeply problematic. My analysis of the BBC’s voyeuristic coverage is an example of how eastern bodies have little leverage over their own representations and are not often given the opportunity or platform to represent themselves. I believe this kind of domination plays a pivotal part in the way viewers perceptions materialize.
In TV and Film, the issue of Middle Eastern representation has long been discussed. Western media has a well established history of stereotyping Arab and Muslim identities as a threat, a burden or an outsider of Europe. Ever since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the ‘terrorist’ identity frame has often been interlaced with the discussion of Islam, a religious faith widely followed in the Middle East. With this in mind, one can consider how the representations presented through mainstream media have the capacity to resurrect, through the generalizations audiences make about an entire group of people in a given society.
Cultivation Theory helps to further assess the impacts representation may have on the receiver of televised news over a period of time.
‘Cultivation asserts that the media continually present a world to us that has unrealistic elements, and that over time we come to believe that the real world is like the world presented to us through the media, particularly television.’
This means, people who watch television news media excessively are more exposed to manifesting beliefs that may well have had endured a manipulated process by the media institution. Journalists or public figures are not only capable of reinforcing the dominant ideologies our institutions represent but also the dominant ideologies of the public. Audiences become conditioned to these representations from frequent exposure throughout their lives and without the inclusion of context or challenged narrative, there is great risk of these stereotypes becoming accepted or at worse, normalised.
It is also unsettling that we, the audience, rely on the news and journalists for information, but are simply not receiving a rounded or fair picture of the causes that bring people to risk crossing the English Channel, in a rubber dinghy.
Therefore documentaries like ‘Exodus: Our Journey to Europe’ are so crucial when it comes to prioritizing an authentic portrayal of events over the stir of moral panics.
The documentary series aired on BBC 2 in 2016 and is not only a harrowing portrayal of the journey displaced people have had little option but to make, but offers a solution for the issues covered thus far.
Exodus ‘considers the representational strategies, such as multiple, transnational authorship and the use of camera-phones, by which the series attempts to avoid the ‘othering’ gaze of ethnographic cinema or sensational news coverage and humanize the figure of the refugee seeking safe passage to Europe’ (Bennett, 2018).
Bennett’s article is centred on the political communication of the refugee crisis, touching upon how the avoidance of ‘othering’ is crucial for communicating their authentic identities. One of the ways ‘Exodus’ does this is by the use of camera phone filming carried out by the refugees themselves. This brings the viewer closer to them and is a complete juxtaposition to what we see in newspapers or on television. ‘While such sequences might appear to be exploitative, offering up ‘the money shot’ of emotional exposure, they have a contrary function’: It challenges stereotypical framing and draws us closer to fear and raw emotions, ‘whereas, the conventions of composition and staging in film and TV tend to hold the viewer at a voyeuristic distance from the narrative space’.
The dehumanising voyeurism of mainstream news is in stark contrast to the studio interview element in Exodus which enables protagonists like Hassan Akkad to communicate to us directly.
It is more than likely that having watched this documentary, viewers would be less inclined to make the same stereotypical assumptions which transpire through fragmented news coverage. Not only does the narrative centre around the journey and the trials and tribulations they face along the way, but it also exemplifies how their identities are not all encompassed by their tragic circumstances.
Granted this footage would be impossible for a professional British film crew to capture, but that’s exactly why documentaries like these are so essential for informing the British public. What’s interesting is, as Bennett mentions, the way the documentary production team discards any usual concern for aesthetics and high-quality equipment. Instead, they place a focus on bringing the viewer closer in proximity to the exposed migrant camps, vast ocean and lifeless country side; a highly effective way of evoking compassion.
I spoke previously about the victim frame. I feel it’s important to note that to be acknowledged as a ‘victim’ of war in the BBC news clip is the bare minimum of what one would hope UK audiences would see. Here, we are sorely reminded by Hassan, a Filmmaker and English teacher from Damascus in Syria, that these are real people who have had their entire world flipped upside down. A world they didn’t want to have to leave. However, amidst the trauma, Hassan still manages to show sheer determination, refusing to let his circumstances define his future. Instead, he chooses to advocate a better one for others.
‘The ‘refugee crisis’ is a representational crisis’
The quote above perfectly summarizes the angle I’ve taken when approaching and analyzing this case study. From documentaries to personal accounts, it is clear for me to see how far from the real picture UK audiences might be, and how much depth the mainstream news sometimes lacks.
Journalists must start taking some responsibility for that. There is far more to be done to ensure people seeking asylum are represented fairly and treated with compassion.
Under the UN’s declaration of Human Rights, Article 11, those of criminal suspicion are innocent until proven guilty. I think this legal entitlement is something both portions of the UK media and general public could use a gentle reminder of. It feels inhumane to be ill suspecting of people embarking on this journey, when there is overwhelming evidence Syria and its surrounding countries are not at present safe or habitable.
To conclude, it is fair to say that due to the BBC and Sky coverage on this issue, these institutions have suffered a great loss of journalistic integrity. The ideal journalism I presented on behalf of Martin Bell, in recent months, has felt few and far between.
In 2021 let us humble ourselves. Remember, the difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’, is luck.
In August 2020, Hassan was approached by Sky News to partake in an interview. This was his response.