Friday, February 11, 2011

Observing the observers

The local New Zealand media doesn't even pretend to care what's going on in Egypt, not when there are truly important stories such as Lindsey Lohan's alleged kleptomania to talk about. So I've been watching a lot of Al Jazeera lately.

AJ, for those not blessed with its coverage, does care about Egypt. It cares a lot. It seems to have covered absolutely nothing else for the past two weeks. And apart from the obvious partiality of its coverage (it makes no attempt to hide its contempt for Mubarak and his regime), there's one other thing that bothers me about it...

Western media has tended to portray the protests as "pro-democracy". Yet that word is significantly missing from most of AJ's coverage. Rather than aspiring to future democracy, they are passionate about purging current corruption.

Just to prove I'm not imagining this slant, I compared Al Jazeera's coverage with that of several major Western news outlets (by searching their websites for current news stories featuring "Egypt" plus either "democracy" or "corruption" or both). What I found:

Dear Mr Mubarak,

First, congratulations on being Egypt's longest-serving ruler since Muhammed Ali Pasha. Egypt is an ancient and widely respected country, unlike some in your neighbourhood, and having earned a place in that history should stand as an achievement in itself.

And congratulations also on remaining in residence long after many lesser dictators would have given up. You are clearly a man of principle and tenacity. We must stress, however, that at this difficult time it is more important than ever to avoid seriously blotting your record with the Americans. Keep this up, and you can look forward to a retirement peppered with prestigious speaking engagements, talk-show appearances and memoir-serialisation rights that will keep you in both hookahs and hookers for life.

We understand that you're not a democrat. We understand why you're not a democrat. That's fine with us. Our media may quack up a storm about "democracy", but as William Hague made clear on Al Jazeera last week - we're perfectly happy for you to govern Egypt however you like, just so long as you do it quietly. And if you can end your present domestic crisis - or even just ride it out until October - without spawning an international one, then good for you.

And we understand that people in your position should be appropriately rewarded for your efforts. It's a stressful job. Nobody begrudges you a few millions in your Swiss retirement fund. You absolutely should give plum jobs to your unqualified cronies, treat yourself to the occasional duck island or private business trip or bunga-bunga party at your taxpayers' expense. That's expected.

But there is such a thing as moderation. When you've amassed a family fortune that's one-seventh of your country's total GDP, you have run your course and then some. The time to retire was probably about $60 billion ago. You're not Rupert Murdoch.

On your way out, if you could forward this note to every other Arab leader in your address book, it would save us the trouble of researching them.


The People of Europe


Anonymous said...

Would it be over-pedantic to wonder what happened to stories mentioning both "corruption" and "democracy" in your visual aid? Or indeed, neither.

It's also mildly unsettling being shown percentages with every bar of equal height and no indication of the numbers.

vet said...

I didn't want to go into great methodological detail, because it would have broken the stride of my rant. But since you ask...

Stories mentioning both "corruption" and "democracy" would be counted in both totals. So if all stories mentioned both words, the bar would be precisely at the 50% mark.

The raw numbers varied enormously between outlets. FOX News, for instance, returned something over 15,000 results to each search, whereas the BBC's numbers were 69 for "democracy", vs. 25 for "corruption". (For Al Jazeera, the number of hits with "democracy" was 2.)

I don't know why this was, although my guess is that it was caused by the default settings on their respective search engines. I reckoned it would take me quite a while to figure it out. If you think it's worthwhile to spend that time, go for it.

Anonymous said...

One might also pause to wonder how much might slip through your net. Alternative forms ("democrati[sz]ation" vs "democracy"), synonyms, etc. Journalistic style might materially affect your results.

vet said...

Oh yes, absolutely, if I wanted to do a thorough comparison I'd have to work through all of that. Also I'd have to figure out how each individual site's search function works. (I suspect the FOX site was returning page after page of blog comments. Or possibly - like Google - just stating a ridiculously high number that, when you try to look at the results, turns out to only represent a few hundred real pages.)

But that would be beyond the scope of my present experiment. All I was aiming to show was that, in the context of Egypt, Al Jazeera talks considerably less about "democracy" than western news agencies.

For reasons - well, AJ is funded by the government of Qatar. And for similar reasons, I can imagine the westerners wanting to downplay "corruption" and strike the gong of "democracy" (the firm implication being: if you've got democracy you don't have to worry about corruption. Yeah, right.)