Friday, March 25, 2011

Proper political analysis of Libyan conflict is needed

I do not wish to come across as stupid, but I have no idea what is going on in Libya. Granted, my historical knowledge about the country is patchy, but I have been making an effort to follow the recent political uprisings in the media. Unfortunately, however, my labours have left me none the wiser.

I guess it goes without saying that Libya is democratically deficient in the extreme, and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is an old-school dictator who has lost touch with swathes of his people. However, I am also befuddled as to who constitute the so-called opposition, their ideological positions and who is fighting who.

Obviously, given the media restrictions in Libya, it is difficult to get sound information, but I also think understanding the Libyan situation is being hampered by the instant-media revolution.

The Internet is currently flooded with video clips about the Libyan conflict filmed by ordinary citizens. Many of these clips are revealing and, at times, harrowing. Conflict is shown in a raw, unedited form, and the brutality is indisputably visible. Renowned broadcasters like the BBC are also increasingly relying on such clips to disseminate information.

But, generally, these clips lack analysis. It is easy to be drawn in by the violence they display and the human stories behind them. However, most of the videos do not explain the complexities of the current Libyan conflict. It is also difficult to get a sense of the persons behind the camera, their motivations and the veracity of their claims.

On the odd occasion when an analytical report is aired, these too are peppered by an avalanche of comments and views. This is typified by a scrolling text bar at the bottom of TV news reports generally made up of SMS comments or tweets. I remain to be convinced that it matters that John from Essex thinks “Gaddafi is a crackpot that dresses funny”.

That said, I am not a media purest. I do not think that professionally trained journalists should hog the airwaves, the Internet or newspapers. Intuitively, concepts such as ‘citizen journalism’ appeal to me. The idea that ordinary citizens can report on events that affect their lives and get their stories out into the world is important. This is inherently democratic, especially in a world where big media companies often control the media and what we hear.

But is publishing SMS comments really giving people a genuine voice? Are YouTube clips newsworthy and genuinely informative or just making the mainstream media lazy? Why spend your time as a journalist trying to write a complex article about a conflict situation when you can get a bigger audience by showing a dra- matic YouTube clip and then commenting briefly on it?

In addition, are the consumers of news being taught that news is no longer about analysis but rather drama, visual sensation and sound bites, measured by the number of hits on YouTube?

It is fantastic to live in an age where a video can find its way across the world in minutes. And I want to live in a world where ‘citizen journalists’ can give voice to the voiceless and shape history. But are we really using new media tools to their best potential? Are we not confusing the speed at which a quantity of digital media can be collected and the rapid ease of dissemination of material with quality? Surely, we can all do better than this.

So, please, can someone out there do a proper political analysis of what is happening in Libya? I do not even mind if you throw in an odd video or an SMS from some bloke living in the Karoo – just tell me what is going on in an informed, well-researched and learned way. I will be eternally grateful and will post a ‘thank you’ on my blog, which, of course, you are free to comment on.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 25 March 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.