Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Rant warning: on capitalism, the Western media and different types of explosions

It is a commonplace which has, in a few days, spread from the leftist Twittersphere to the liberal media (hell, even Owen Jones is doing articles on it now) to point out the hypocrisy of reporting which so blatantly values white/American lives over those of – well, pretty much anyone else, really. It was unremittingly repulsive to hear even the supposed sobriety of BBC Radio 4 news devoting vast swathes of its coverage to emotional but ultimately un-illuminating interviews with pretty much anyone who happened to be able to claim they were in Boston on the day of the marathon bombings.

It’s not just, of course, the sheer amount of airtime given to one set of deaths over another. It’s the way in which the events are presented, and particularly the personalisation which one set of killings receives in contrast to another. So in Boston, we had interview after interview with witnesses, survivors, relatives, paramedics and local politicians. It’s basic media studies stuff to say that this creates a sense of identification in the listener with those caught up in the event. It becomes emotionally involving and ‘real’ and we start to feel connected to the event and those suffering in it. By contrast, how often do we ever hear the same for Syrian or Iraqi or Congolese or Rohingya or – basically any non-white, non-English-speaking set of victims/survivors? It’s not just that they are politically sidelined in terms of minutes devoted to the issue, it’s that they are never allowed to become ‘human’ to the everyday, uninvolved listener.

This, however, is not the actual subject I want to rant about at this point. My specific bugbear is with the way that different types of American death got reported last week. Because with a drama, a chase, a crime, the catchword ‘terrorism’ attached to it, the Boston marathon also got far more airplay than, ultimately, the West fertiliser factory explosion. Granted, that got heavy coverage to start with, because it was another explosion in America just after Boston so the press was salivating at the idea that it might be part of a string of terror attacks across the USA. But no, it was ‘just’ a factory explosion, an industrial ‘accident’.

(As an aside, in terms of the trends mentioned above, it’s also worth pointing out that factory explosions, fires and other kinds of mass killings are not unusual in, say, Bangladesh or China. But outside of the reports of labour rights NGOs and the occasional hand-wringing about the fact that the clothes on our high streets are made in factories where workers can be burned alive with impunity, again, these are largely ignored. The dead are poor, non-white and usually predominantly women, so we are really not that interested. Whereas in West they were American – and therefore even in Britain that equates to ‘us’, in the eyes of the mainstream media – and largely if not exclusively male, and heroic.)

What I principally object to in all this coverage, though, is the idea that factory and other workplace deaths are somehow by definition ‘accidental’, and therefore quasi-OK, a ‘tragedy’ rather than a ‘crime’. Something that just ‘happens’, rather than is ‘done’, or perpetrated, by a specific actor with specific aims. Even though the West plant appears to have been housing huge quantities of explosive materials in an unauthorised way, once it was clear that the explosion wasn’t part of a USA-wide al-Qaeda wave of attacks, coverage fell away rapidly. Because, it seems, people – even heroic males – killed in factory explosions are just collateral damage to ‘free enterprise’. Stopping people being killed by bombs blowing up is ‘a fight against terrorism which threatens our way of life’. Stopping people being killed by illegally stockpiled chemicals blowing up is ‘unnecessary red tape which inhibits economic growth’. And the company directors and owners who make the decisions to cut corners on safety in the interests of profit aren’t hunted down and jailed as murderers. They might, if they’re unlucky, get a fine which, if they’re very unlucky, might be big enough to impinge on their bottom line for a year or two (if you want to see a company owner/director go down, they have to do something that’s damaging to capitalism, like massive fraud. Killing people just doesn’t cut it). And the organisations which are supposed to stop terrorists bombing people are fed billions of pounds/dollars to repress and infiltrate non-violent activists, whilst the organisations which are supposed to ensure that people are able to work in safe conditions are drastically under-funded and under-resourced, because to allow them to work properly would be ‘state interference in free enterprise’.

Think I’m overstating the case? Just look at the work that campaigns for the dead – like Simon Jones – have had to do over the years to try and hold companies to account, and to get corporate manslaughter firstly accepted as a crime (which it is now, in the UK), and then to have the law actually used to pursue killer companies. If you’re BP or the West Fertiliser Company you can get away with pretty much anything, it seems. Maybe the world’s bombers just need better lobbyists?

4 comments on “Rant warning: on capitalism, the Western media and different types of explosions

  1. iain morrison
    April 22, 2013

    From someone, Sarah, with the privilege of an Oxford education we’d expect your passion not to blinker you so.
    Firstly – the ‘all white’ of 3 deaths whose publicity you protest included a Chinese student whose family have requested no more publicity
    There was volition included and apparently witnessed on camera. Someone didn’t just leave a pressure cooker on the gas. Volition is perceived as more threatening than ‘accidents’ as in Texas or the forces of nature as in China. The pathology of threat is hard wiired which is why this feeble species survived and the media feed on that.
    Unlike Texas where it seems at worst negligence is at fault which being the USA will be pursued on behalf those whose lives lost, homes destroyed
    Both events took place in a country saturated with media, its trucks and its satellites faciitating the coverage apparently you resent.
    The chinese tragedy of the deaths to earthquake has been extensively covered given the difficulty of access to a totalitarian regime that typically would prefer domestic misfortune not to be broadcast.
    Equally access to the tragic crisis in Syria affects its coverage but Al jazeera is broadcast here and naturally their access is often easier in the region.
    Given your understandablel passion for the Palestinian cause I hope your viscera does not similarly blinker you because only cool heads will broker a two state solution there in the context of a wide understaning that regretfully politics including geopolitics, is the art of the possible not the desirable. As Churchill said, with regret, its the best there is.
    For the record I’m a psychoanalyst with as it happens current clients in Jerusalem, Saudi, kuwait, Egypt Aleppo, Beirut and Boston (a doctoe that didn’t get to his own bed for 4 nights)

    • Sarah Irving
      April 23, 2013

      Ummm… this comment ended up in my spam box, so it’s lucky I spotted it and I’m not sure (given the link) whether it’s meant to be or not. Anyway, to respond:

      1) I didn’t go to Oxford. Thank heavens. Don’t know where you got that from.
      2) I know the 3 deaths in Boston included a Chinese student; I wrongly assumed that she was Chinese-American. The principle remains that the press in the UK still devote enormous amounts of time to this small – if tragic – group, over and above people in countries where their audience is not expected to empathise so much;
      3) I don’t deny that there was volition involved in the Boston bombings. I think the perpetrators were vile. But I also believe there is volition involved when a factory owner chooses to flout safety rules and endangers his (yes, usually his) workforce and other people in the process. It’s not ‘negligence’, as you put it, it’s rich people choosing to ignore the fact that they’re putting poor people in danger;
      4) the record of the US authorities ‘pursuing’ people who make workplaces dangerous suggests, Iain, that your assumption here is over-optimistic;
      5) I didn’t say anything about earthquakes. I wasn’t drawing a comparison with the Chinese earthquake (or indeed the Iranian one). That’s a different issue – it’s a natural disaster, not the result of human actions. I was drawing a comparison with factory explosions and other dangerous or fatal incidents in Chinese factories and Western factories. And if NGOs and marginal magazines can report Chinese examples of this, why can’t the Western media, with vastly more resources than those NGOs (etc);
      6) if we’re talking about Palestine and ‘the art of the possible’, please could I refer you to any current map of the West Bank settlements to point out why a two-state solution isn’t even remotely possible;
      7) I’m sure your professional record is fascinating but I’m unsure of its relevance to this discussion.

      April 27, 2013



    • Jeff Nguyen
      May 4, 2013

      Just wanted to chime in on your comment “there was volition included and apparently witnessed on camera.” To date, what little information we have on the events in Boston is based largely on the uncorroborated word of the media which was fed its information from law enforcement and, more likely, the intelligence agencies. My understanding of what was witnessed on camera was pictures of backpacks on the ground near the detonation and men walking in Boston with backpacks. Correlation does not equal causation. My point is that the brothers are alleged to be the perpetrators at this point and, therefore, at this point volition cannot be established. Which is why the media’s role is so important in disseminating accurate information to the public that isn’t scripted by their corporate masters or the State Department.

      I do agree that the explosion in West Texas and building fire in Bangladesh are certifiable acts of volition as they are a linear effect of the blatant disregard for workplace safety and sweatshop conditions that are joined at the hip with the practices of the global capitalists.

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