The international media has had an appalling record of balanced reporting on Zimbabwe over the last 12 years. A single narrative, repeating the myths we attempted to demolish in our book is endlessly repeated. All is disaster, the land reform was a catastrophe and punitive sanctions are the only route to punishing Mugabe’s rogue regime. Even the move to a coalition government and the stabilisation of the economy gets barely a mention.
Journalists complain that getting stories accepted on Zimbabwe is really difficult, especially if they run against this storyline. One well-known reporter commented that the British newspapers they send articles to will only accept ‘white farmer’ stories, ones which take an explicitly racial angle on the land issue. Another observed that editors get worried when a deluge of negative comments get attached to articles which even hint at a different story. When our book came out journalists were astonished that there was another perspective. They had no hint of an alternative from their local contacts, and our findings were genuinely news to them.
We can see quite easily how distorted media coverage emerges. Local contacts are not hooked into research networks and repeat what their paymasters expect to hear. Journalists are always up against copy deadlines and most international news outlets do not have the resources for special field investigations. Editors avoid contentious issues if this has the potential to bring trouble. And repeating the standard line brings in the money for the stringers and freelancers. Of course in Zimbabwe, strict government control of international media reporting, at least until recently, didn’t help, and added to the problem, fuelling misperceptions.
This international media coverage, especially in the UK, has created a particular view of Zimbabwe, often way out of kilter with ground realities. But is this now changing? Is there a new media glasnost emerging around reporting on Zimbabwe? In the last week two major articles by two very different but well respected journalists have appeared: one in the UK Daily Telegraph and one in the New York Times.
The first by Peter Oborne argues that it’s time Zimbabwe needs to reassess the UK position on sanctions. He argues that the UK Foreign Office under William Hague is developing a pragmatic approach to Zimbabwe, and showing a clear shift from the shrill diplomacy of earlier periods under the Labour regimes. Echoes of that were evident in the House of Parliament in an intervention by Peter Hain, arguing for yet more sanctions. By contrast the Foreign Office is beginning to realise (belatedly) that the sanctions serve no diplomatic purpose, and even have the opposite effect. Zimbabwe, Oborne argues, needs to be ‘brought in from the cold’. Even the language used is from the Cold War era. Glasnost indeed.
The second piece appeared on the front page of the New York Times (remarkable enough for any African story), and was penned by the NYT Johannesburg bureau chief, Lydia Polgreen. It is based on some field visits to tobacco farms and auction floors in Zimbabwe and suggests, following the argument of our work, that there is a ‘golden lining’ to the land reforms, as many thousands of small farmers are benefiting, even if there have been some important downsides. The case of the booming tobacco sector is used, but the wider argument is made forcefully that a rethink is required.
These two articles have attracted plenty of commentary, much of it negative, but they show a brave approach to critical journalism often shied away from by others. To their credit the BBC have engaged with our work, both through interviews and articles, and most recently with a field visit, resulting in a Crossing Continents programme. But as I have commented before, the BBC ‘balance’ is sometimes inappropriate; for example counterposing an unsubstantiated commentary from the Commercial Farmers’ Union with mountains of research evidence as if they were equivalent. What makes these two recent contributions stand out is their timing (around renewed debates about ‘sanctions’), their location (the NYT and the Daily Telegraph) and their positioning (an unequivocal stance which challenges the status quo view).
The media glasnost is to be welcomed. Let’s hope the old Soviet-style era of controlled storylines on Zimbabwe is over and a proper debate can begin.