International news is in decline internationally. John Lloyd says that only business readers care about abroadby John Lloyd / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
We are withdrawing from the world, it seems. Our serious media no longer give it so much attention. Ten years ago, the three American news magazines-Time, Newsweek and US News and World Report -gave between 20 and 25 per cent of their space to foreign news. Last year, Time gave 14 per cent, Newsweek 12 per cent and US News and World Report 14 per cent also. It is a trend bemoaned by the high minded in the US, but not just there. The Independent’s tenth birthday celebrations remind us that the newspaper began in 1986 with a larger staff of foreign correspondents than any newspaper except the Financial Times and the New York Times. It fired most of them when the penny started pinching: foreign news is expensive to get, and not the first priority of most readers. Le Monde, whose name would seem to commit it to a global interest, has closed down its permanent bureau in South Africa. Its front page is less often given over to foreign stories. Jean Marie Colombani, the paper’s director, has presided over a change of style which makes it more attractive and accessible, but also a change of priorities, which puts the domestic first and gives more space to the “just fancy that!” stories it once disdained. The New York Times, whose editor is a distinguished (Pulitzer prize winning) former foreign correspondent called Joseph Lelyveld, has also come home a bit. It has not lost interest in foreign matters, but it wants them treated more as features, interpreted rather more heavily through American preconceptions than before. So lifestyle is up the agenda, analyses of political or economic issues down, except at times of crisis. Are we turning inwards? Yes, we are. Popular culture and media have for long granted little autonomy to foreign events: they interpret them exclusively through national eyes, giving them meaning in relation to our approval or disapproval, envy or contempt for them. Now the elite media is following. They are following because abroad is unpopular. News magazines’ sales sink when they run foreign covers. The world is also perceived as generally less interesting: “Week in, week out, foreign news has been a bit less urgent,” said Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time, in a recent interview. Further, the world is no longer experienced as a comprehensible system of stable hostility, with a Good and an Evil: it is a confusing chaos. What is the Taleban to us-or we to the Taleban? If-as James Hoge, the editor of the American journal Foreign Affairs, believes-there is a connection between national leaders’ interest in foreign affairs and their public’s interest, then the foreign pages in the UK will get thinner after a Labour victory. A Labour government will be as relentless about the domestic dimension as Clinton’s first administration was supposed to be; and since a British prime minister is no longer expected to show international leadership, it is more likely to stay so. But there is another, and contradictory, dimension. The newspapers which defy these trends are the business papers (the FT in Europe and the Wall Street Journal in the US) and the specialist journals. Both these newspapers’ circulations are increasing, as are those of the strongly foreign affairs oriented The Economist. The sale of specialist magazines and newsletters on particular aspects of foreign business or economies is increasing. If Le Monde cuts the proportion of foreign news it runs, Le Monde Diplomatique, now a separate publication from its parent, has increased sales from 100,000 to 160,000, and begun foreign language editions in German, Italian and Spanish. Hoge is probably right. There is a connection between the agenda set by politicians and the reading habits of the electorate. The less substance politicians’ speeches contain-the more endearingly personal, or vaguely apocalyptic they become- the less explicable foreign affairs are. Where politicians cannot or do not explain what the meaning of world movements is to them and their country, there is less demand for the rest of us to spend time understanding these issues. The paradox is that the most consuming issue for British politics today, Europe, is about “abroad.” To explain Europe in terms which are comprehensible is the challenge for both the political class and the media. The coverage now suffers from its overpoliticisation-the tendency to report it through the controversies it generates in British politics. Meanwhile, we will have to hunt about for the information which would tell us what the EU does, and especially what its 14 other members think of it. Why are their governments determined to join a system which our government (and perhaps our opposition) sees as so self-evidently damaging to our national interest? It is a mystery, largely unilluminated to a mass audience, yet on which forests of newsprint are consumed to let the business reader know the most arcane detail. We are seeing the media equivalent of the growing gulf in incomes-it is the growing gulf in information. For the technocracy, reams of expert information at the touch of a button or the turn of a page; for the mass, entertainment and personalities, sentiment and the representation of violence. Was it ever thus? Yes, but now more so.