I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
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?