Culture clash in Colombia: journoworld and the real world

This part of the history of land ownership in the town of Tamesis didn't make it into an article

Being a journalist in Colombia has exposed an interesting culture clash that I didn’t expect. It is a clash between journalism and the rest of the world, but it becomes more obvious in a country like Colombia.

Doing journalism rarely means that you can do in-depth research into a subject and write a long and well-informed piece describing every detail of a situation. Instead it usually involves writing snippets of stories a few paragraphs long. To this the professional journalist adds quotes of no more than a couple of lines from key players in the story.

The aim is to have a simple linear narrative in your article, given a personal edge by some quotes that illustrate that narrative. So your story might be that indigenous people are protesting against a mine. You try to get a quote from a protester saying “The mining company is here to steal our land and we demand that they leave or we will block every road in the state.” Sometimes you might need a background quote saying something like “This is the third multinational that has arrived in our territory and we get nothing from them but environmental damage.”

The difference between doing this in the UK and Colombia is that every organisation in the UK has someone trained for media work who knows exactly what you want – the punchy one-line quote – and will give it to you. They’ll even put out a press release with three or four quotable lines so you can take your pick.

Here in Colombia many organisations – probably most – have not had that kind of media training. You go to interview them, needing to get perhaps three quotable lines to ‘illustrate’ your story, and find that they want to talk to you for an hour and a half, in a long and rambling way, about the history of the conflict, the history of the area, the history of the organisation, the nature of their struggle, and so on.

Or you get sent press releases, as I did yesterday, beginning: “The people of East Central Colombia have historically waged a struggle for the defense of life, land, the environment and human rights in general, in which we develop demonstrations, councils, strikes, civil, complaints, peaceful takeovers, among other accomplishments. We have opposed the looting and pillaging of our natural resources by multinationals and the state, and the social, humanitarian and environmental damage they cause.”

And you can’t use it. It’s not news. It’s not a one-line description of what is happening. It doesn’t encapsulate the snippet of the story you are trying to present. It wants to tell you the whole history of the people in that area in order to explain to you why they are so pissed off right now.

The thing is, I firmly believe that it is journalism that is wrong. The organizer of a coffee growers’ strike who tried to explain to me the historical role of coffee production in Colombia was right. I couldn’t put it in the article because barring the odd long-form piece (more common in the US than the UK), journalism isn’t interested in that. But he was right – to understand the story you should know the history.

No story can really be told in a few paragraphs, and certainly not in a one-line or two-line quote. That is simply the fragment of a story. If people are protesting there is usually a long history to their anger, and a brief explanation sometimes only leaves people baffled. I’ve experienced this myself. After demonstrations in the UK that were reported in the media friends have said to me “But I don’t understand what they want.” Since I was on that demonstration I was able to explain. But it takes 15 minutes, half an hour. The ‘explanation’  on the news took 30 seconds.

Doing journalism myself I try as hard as I can to put background into articles but in the end you only have a few paragraphs to work with. The form of news reporting often prevents you from explaining what is really happening – I imagine the reporting of Mali in the UK at the moment is suffering from this badly.

The Colombian campaigners are right to insist that the broader history matters to a story. Campaigners in the UK would be right to insist on it too, but they have felt the need to bow to the demands of journalism and present the instantly quotable quote. Really they have had little choice – if you don’t offer the soundbite you don’t get quoted at all.

But there is a big price to be paid for this: it so simplifies the terms of public debate that it becomes very hard to discuss anything in depth at all. For instance I suspect many (most?) people in the UK could not give an explanation of the term ‘neoliberalism’ even though it has been common currency in political circles for a couple of decades. So how do we have a public discussion about what is happening to the UK and the world when quite basic ideas, history and terminology are not available to people?

Many journalists and editors would presumably claim that people want their news in bitesize chunks: instant, brief, fleeting. But that is what they are habituated to, and rolling news channels rarely even try to offer more depth. They just offer more of the same, repeated over and over. Who knows what people might like if they were offered news that actually explained what was going on in the world?

The clash I have been observing while working here is not between journalism and Colombian campaigners. It is between journalism and the real world. Unfortunately the real world is losing.

The UK from Colombia: FARCing the left



Colombia noticeably lacks a left wing in parliament and barely has a left wing presence in the public sphere at all. Since I’ve already done one blog post about the similarities between the UK and Colombia I thought I’d do a second. The UK noticeably lacks a left wing in parliament and barely has a left wing presence in the public sphere at all.

If you ask a leftist in either country why this is the case many would launch into a long history of political repression of the left.  Clearly the left were repressed in Colombia, and the FARC guerrilla movement grew during a period – the National Front years, when the two major parties shared power as a way of ending the violence between them – when the country was only notionally democratic and new political parties were forbidden. The National Front era culminated in a fairly moderate leftist candidate being defrauded of the presidency, igniting even more guerrilla activity.

Meanwhile in the UK we have the bogeywoman Thatcher who deliberately set out to destroy the union movement and largely succeeded, leaving it a shadow of its former self. The working class were either beaten down or bought off with houses that left them in debt that changed their political interests, says this narrative.

Both these accounts have some truth and yet it seems to me that a movement opposed to those in power shouldn’t act surprised when those in power campaign against them. It seems almost silly to moan about it. It definitely looks weak to me as the main reason for failure: surely your strategy should have taken account of the fact those in power would fight back?

So while admitting that human rights defenders and leftist campaigners still get killed in Colombia, let’s look at two other reasons Colombia might have such a weak left. The first is the FARC: their tactics, often bloody, frequently far from communism, have delegitimised leftist discourse in the country. Every time the FARC come out and say something reasonable, such as pointing out that the rich have stolen land from the poor in Colombia and they should give it back, it makes it harder for the point to be made in public discourse. However committed to peaceful methods you may be, if you appear to repeat something the FARC have said, you appear to align yourself with a group that uses kidnappings, cocaine revenues and child soldiers.

That is reason number one. Reason number two I stumbled across the other day. I was talking to a man who runs a youth centre in the poor parts of Cartagena and he said two things a couple of minutes apart. The first was that all the kids get into drugs and drug dealing really easily because it is around them all the time. The second was in response to a question about what the poor think about the very rich in the city.

Cartagena slums

“Of course they want to have that life too, not to be rich, but to have enough to be comfortable,” came the answer, adding later on that there is never any political protest in the slums. It struck me that reacting to the rich with desire rather than anger may well be linked to the drug dealing. Because the latter offers a path out of poverty. A very, very tenuous and dangerous path, but a visible path nonetheless. Perhaps it acts as a safety valve then: it allows those in the slums to believe, in a society that presents them few opportunities, that they too can live in a shiny white tower block by the sea.

Cartagena, elsewhere

So do these two reasons for a weak left, one to do with public discourse and legitimacy, the other to do with the environment undermining grassroots activity, also hold true in the UK? I think the former does but I’m not sure about the second. It is true that the UK has a certain number of careers where a lot of money can be made fast if you have luck and the right contacts – banking springs immediately to mind. I’m told there is even a certain degree of meritocracy in the city, or at least it is not entirely dominated by the publicly educated. So those who are dissatisfied with their lot in life can take another path. But much as I like the idea of comparing drug-dealing with banking, I’m not sure the latter provides a safety valve. It’s more that we don’t need a safety valve yet because too many people are still too comfortable to want to risk trying anything new.

The question of legitimacy is more interesting. We don’t quite have an equivalent of the FARC. Well, we don’t have any armed leftist groups, yet somehow the left have managed to delegitimise themselves anyway. In the past many groups aligned themselves with authoritarian states, and even those who didn’t continued to talk about “revolution” in a form many people saw as discredited by the real world.

They also adopted tactics not acceptable to the general population. Many people see strikes as holding people to ransom for selfish reasons. There are often good reasons to go on strikes and there is certainly a role for them but the way strikes have often been used does make them appear to benefit only a few. The truth is, strikes often don’t evoke solidarity from other workers, they evoke a feeling that someone is trying to get a benefit others are unable to access.

Then there are protests. The radical left in particular loves a rowdy protest, but they look threatening to other people. They scare people off from joining a cause they may well believe in. I was amazed how few radical campaigners in the UK understood the decision of the Spanish indignados to sign up to non-violence. It was not a belief in complete non-violence that drove them to do it. They did so as a tactical decision, so that more people would want to join them.

Strikes and street protests are held sacred by many but that seems to me to be missing the point. If what you want to do is alter social relations then the point is to alter social relations, not use the same tactics over and over again that have so far not altered social relations as you might like. It’s like the FARC thinking that armed struggle will turn Colombia into a socialist paradise. The evidence is against it and their tactics mean most people are against them even trying.

You might argue that the government or those with power decide what is legitimate, and so any discussion of what is legimitate is sullied by the discourse of the powerful. That is partially true and we should bear it in mind. But it is not completely true. No matter how much people are influenced by those in power, we have to believe they have their own take on the world too.

And on that note, a final point: a lot of the working class in the UK don’t recognise themselves as the working class, and many of those who are would rather not be. Attempting to build up working class identity as the vehicle for a movement failed because that identity – and leftists really should have understood this – was something that people wanted to leave behind. Trying to force your view of the world on people is bad enough, trying to force your view of people on the people themselves is unforgivable.

The left is weak not just because they get attacked, but because they constantly screw themselves over by believing so strongly in what they do that the issue of legitimacy in the eyes of others seems irrelevant to them. We may not have the FARC in the UK but most of the UK left have the same intellectual ancestors as the FARC. I think that shows in their self-righteous insistence on forms of struggle that I suspect actually undermine any chance of changing how people relate to each other. Which should, after all, be the point.