Meanwhile in Bangladesh...
Despite its devastating impact, Hurricane Irma passed with only a handful of deaths yet received wall-to-wall media coverage. On the other side of the world, floods have left a far higher death toll, yet reporting has been sparse. LIZ GERARD asks what is behind this apparent hypocrisy and what it says about us
Eleven dead in the Caribbean and Florida, 47 in Texas, a thousand in Sierra Leone, twelve hundred in the Himalayas. Nature has been cruel over the past month. But which of these killer storms has attracted the most attention?
Irma, of course. She's still wreaking havoc and there will doubtless be more victims. We can be confident that when she's gone we'll have an accurate death toll, right down to the last body.
Not so, the huge numbers who have fallen victim to the monsoon and mudslides in south Asia. From reports, we started with a vague 300 or 400 and moved on to 'more than a thousand', but it's unlikely anyone will bother to count or report the exact number.
These things happen 'over there'. The TV news footage from Sierra Leone was breathtakingly awful. But did you even know that the Mumbai financial district had been under water? Newspaper coverage of both was scant – even among the broadsheets – with neither disaster making a single front page. Hurricane Harvey hitting Houston fared better, making page one of the Guardian and Telegraph three times, the Times once. Irma, with its dramatic satellite weather maps, has so far managed nine front-page appearances in the heavyweights and a fair number of tabloids.
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Should we be surprised or shocked by this imbalance? We tend to look west rather than east and have more journalists in America than in Asia or Africa. Surely it's just the latest example of the cynical old hack's pyramid of death that has a blonde English princess at the top and a million starving Africans at the bottom?
News is a slippery, magical, indefinable combination of the familiar and the unusual. Proximity counts, too, both in terms of physical and emotional distance. And it's not just Fleet Street that makes judgments outsiders might see as morally questionable. We all do it. If a neighbour cuts her finger off with her secateurs we're interested, we care. If a distant aunt with whom we exchange Christmas cards needs bypass surgery, we offer lip-service sympathy.
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When you're producing a newspaper, you seek to make a story relevant to your reader and sometimes in the process you make it crass. Look at the Mail's coverage of the monsoon in Nepal: 'Oxford medical student dies after being hit by boulders during landslide in Himalayas'. She's a pretty young woman, warranting a page lead with two photographs, one of her with a tiger. The penultimate paragraph says that the heavy rainfall has left 500 dead.
Students die in England every week – car crashes, anorexia, natural causes, drug overdoses, suicide – but, unless they attend an 'elite' university, they tend not to make national newspaper headlines. Take someone attractive from Oxbridge and send them somewhere exotic and their fate becomes of abiding interest, the local victims a mere footnote.
Callous, uncaring, racist? Maybe. 'Twas was ever thus.
The Mirror is a caring paper. Its Irish edition ran a page lead about people in Sierra Leone digging with their hands to rescue people buried in the mud. The English edition had a story about a dolphin dying of a surfeit of selfies. Its headline when Irma hit the Caribbean: 'Flooded care homes, the Cajun Navy…and The Mirror's mission to save stranded dog.'
If, as in 2015, the London papers take three days to cotton on to the fact that half of northern England is under water (the Mail, which cares about flooding, was an honourable exception) or that most of Wales is without power, what hope is there that they'll notice people in Bangladesh?
But there's something more troubling about the coverage of this recent spate of disasters – even in the 'serious' papers. We're supposed to have a special relationship with America; some of the Caribbean islands hit by Irma are still British. Everyone's heard of 'we have a problem' Houston, millions of us have been to Florida. Surely with Harvey and Irma we might show more compassion for those losing their lives, their livelihoods, their homes?
It seems not. 'Brits & celebs trapped in hell storm' shouted the Daily Star front page on Thursday. It jarred. Then came the flurry of 'get Brits out' headings, followed by questions about the amount or lack of aid being sent. Coldplay had to cancel a gig. Our petrol prices might go up. There are jokes about television reporters getting wet and idiots gathering to shoot at the storm. The Sun – which thinks the way to report a killer hurricane is to write a punning headline in 'Harvey wallbanger' – announces on its website that British families are 'devastated' because Disney World has been closed until Irma passes.
It's too easy to attack the small-minded mainstream media. It is we who have become small-minded, insular and selfish. The papers are feeding the public the diet it wants: celebrity and Me, Me, Me. We're interested only in what affects us directly or in 'famous' people.
As typified by the leader of the Western world, who turned his presidential visit to the Texas disaster zone into a marketing opportunity for his baseball cap collection.
Incidentally, there has been flooding in Tuscany, too. Seven people died. It was reported at the foot of the Irma spread in the Telegraph on Monday, occupying a four-column slot. The double-column story alongside was about 90 people dying in an earthquake in Mexico.
Liz Gerard worked on national newspapers for 40 years. She now writes about the output from Fleet Street at her blog www.sub-scribe.co.uk
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