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Latin America and the British Media: An Unnecessary Disaster

RISJ Admin

Contributing Author

Joyce Hor-Chung Lau writes:One might have guessed from the rather pessimistic title of Malcolm Deas's talk 'Latin America and the British Media: An Unnecessary Disaster' (Wednesday Seminar, November 21st)  that it would begin with an airing of grievances.
According to the director of graduate studies at Oxford's Latin American Centre, one could only speak to UK news editors about the region so much, before their 'eyes glazed over'. Coverage of that part of the world was considered uninteresting to the average viewer, as it had few historic links to Britain and was of little global strategic importance. Mainstream media, therefore, had little incentive to cover it properly.
Deas warned foreign-desk editors against falling back on stereotypes of Latin America as a sort of  'failed West' populated only by drug cartels, dictators and old left-wingers. He argued that broad- brush images would only be reinforced by correspondents, and then passed onto the public, resulting  in an understanding of the region that was sometimes 'remarkably poor'.
Deas criticized everything from The Financial Times's failure to follow up on certain stories ('no coherent line of coverage') to general Cuba reportage ('pretty dim') to a recent analysis in The London Review of Books that compared President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to Pericles, the Ancient Greek statesman ('pushing it'). Coming from an academic background, Deas said he found most journalistic work lacking in historic background and context, and pointed to a 'vice' among journalists 'not to read'.
Not surprisingly - given that were at least three journalists present who either originated from, or had done significant reporting and writing from Latin America - there was dissension during the Q&A. Did Deas think there was hope at all?
Thankfully, Deas saw this journalistic disaster as being 'unnecessary', meaning it was fixable.
He pointed to significantly better coverage of Latin America in American - and specifically Miami - media. He pointed to a few UK outlets that usually got it right, like The Guardian.
Deas also recommended stories that were relevant to Britain, and could be better followed up: For example, why was London, one of the world's most developed cities, offered an oil subsidy from much-poorer Venezuela, and what was the benefit to London Mayor Ken Livingstone? Why was coverage of Latin America's drug trade focused on local production, while the Western press largely neglected the fact that Britain was among Europe's major cocaine consumers? (NB: New York had accepted a similar offer from Chavez for heating oil for its poor; the US city also tops charts for cocaine consumption).
As for the view that Britons simply did not care much about Brazil, Colombia, Argentina or Mexico, Deas reminded us of the power of the media, and that intelligent interest could be sparked by the  correct type of exposure.