Many decades ago, I had lunch with the news editor of a prominent right-wing British newspaper with a view to being appointed one of the paper’s Middle East stringers. He confirmed what I already suspected. My reports must be supportive of Israel as opposed to the Arab world, he said in all seriousness. He later joked about headlines on disaster reports focusing on the plight of a single white person rather than tens of thousands of non-Caucasians. I did not accept the job.
His joke was no laughing matter because it reflects an uncomfortable reality that has endured until today. When you turn on your TV, there is a good chance you will catch rolling coverage of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey on parts of Texas and Louisiana, which is dominating English-language broadcasts. The same reports are aired 24/7, whereas the terrible plight of people living in Southeast Asia, following a catastrophic monsoon is dealt with very differently.
My heart goes out to stricken Texans who, in many cases, have lost family members, homes, pets and all their possessions. I cannot even imagine walking in their shoes, both literally through chest-deep infested waters and figuratively. All must surely be consumed with worry about the future, especially families without flood insurance and savings. I am in awe of their positivity in the face of adversity and the way Texans of all races and religions are coming together in the spirit of community, opening their hearts and their wallets. Yet, those without a home will be cared for by state and federal authorities until they are able to resume their lives. Thankfully, due to an organised disaster response, there have been comparatively few fatalities.
Conversely, most of the 45 million human beings in Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, whose lives have been impacted by catastrophic floods will be left to their own devices. More than 1,400 people have already been lost to incessant Monsoon rains.
Millions of homes and 18,000 schools have been destroyed or damaged. One third of Bangladesh is under water. Like Houston, Mumbai’s streets were turned into rivers last week. Many village residents are isolated without clean water, food or medical supplies. Electricity pylons are down. Farmland has been turned into mud.
Texas is a rich state forming part of the planet’s wealthiest country. It is well-placed to cope once the floods have receded, but the same cannot be said of developing nations with resource constraints. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as well as other aid agencies, are appealing for donations. However, while TV channels are calling upon viewers to donate to Texas, which is a worthy gesture, I personally have not seen any Western network urging assistance for Asians whose very survival is at stake.
The fact that the media is neglecting South and Southeast Asia to focus on Harvey’s terrible legacy is not escaping Guardian readers. Susan Howe expresses her sympathy for the people of Texas before registering her disgust that the coverage of Bangladesh, Nepal and India “suffering an even greater catastrophe” is unbalanced by comparison. “Are we saying that American lives are worth more,” she asks? Other readers convey similar sentiments.
Through the eyes of Western news editors the answer to Howe’s question has to be in the affirmative. American, European and Jewish fatalities are given prominence. For instance, when Paris was reeling from a terrorist attack in November 2015, two suicide attacks killed dozens in Lebanon. The latter barely found a mention. “When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colours of their flag. When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning,” wrote Dr Elie Fares on his blog.
It is partly the media’s fault that many around the world are not even aware that far more Muslims have been targeted by terrorists than non-Muslims. No matter how many Afghans, Iraqis or Syrians are slaughtered, their deaths merit only limited coverage. Their personal stories remain as unknown as their names.
On the other hand, the kidnapping of journalist Daniel Perle, an American/Israeli dual national killed in Pakistan during 2002, was headlining for weeks and eventually became a script for a Hollywood movie. Likewise, few know the name of any child in an Israeli prison or those of young men shot for throwing stones at Israeli tanks, but the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Gaza militants was a cause celebre. The media made sure that his name, Gilad Shalit, was widely known.
There is an argument regularly expounded that Western audiences/readers have a natural affinity for other Westerners. But does that hold water when the United States and the United Kingdom are kaleidoscopes of multiculturalism? People’s hearts and minds are broad enough to empathise with suffering wherever it may be. The media should stop its discriminatory reporting and be responsible enough to set an example.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.