Evil media? It’s not a conspiracy. It’s our own short-sightedness

How and why has the international media ignored protests in Bulgaria, Brazil and, even EgyptJem Collins sheds light on the reason so many journalists leave important stories on the shelf.

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Bulgarian protests have mainly been ignored by the international press

Being a well-informed world citizen is simple. Newspapers, radio, rolling 24-hour news channels, live twitter feeds and websites are all just a tiny part of the sprawling international offering that makes news consumption effortless.

It is also extremely important. Without a good grounding in news and current affairs we become isolated, whether on a local, national or international scale. And if we isolate ourselves from other cultures we lose the ability to empathise with their problems, resolve conflicts or even simply understand the world around us.

Keeping ourselves informed of new developments is also empowering; it gives us the tools and knowledge to help us change things that we believe are fundamentally wrong. After all, how can you successfully oppose something if you do not know that it is happening or the context surrounding it?

So, we ask ourselves, how is it, that in this massive global network of information it can feel like we know less than ever before? Just this week reports came in of mass protests in Bulgaria, with thousands of people on the streets in the cities of Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas in anger at an allegedly undemocratic government.

But it is a story that has largely been ignored by the mainstream media – you will not find this news on your Sky TV sets or BBC twitter feed.  It is also a story that is just one of countless others, not worth even a passing mention on the inside page of your quality broadsheet. How many people have heard of the Icelandic protests of the early 2000s that led to country’s financial reform for example? Or what of the horrific rape of countless young men and women in the US army?

From a few scattered examples alone it is clear that there is an inherent bias in the way we report the world, but why? Is it, as some suggest, a conspiracy perpetuated by our governments to keep us from rioting against the traditional power norms? Perhaps we should be looking a little closer to home.

In 1965 two media researchers, Johan Galtung and Marie Ruge, attempted to discover exactly what makes ‘news’. After detailed analysis of scores of international news stories they came up with a list of things all the stories had in common; what they called news values. Ranging from continuity to meaningfulness, their final list of 12 ingredients to a “good news story” still says a lot about our society’s effect on the media.

While many other researchers have suggested additions or modifications to Galtung and Ruge’s initial points over the past five decades, they still all broadly fit within three categories; audience identification, pragmatics of media coverage and impact. Note the first grouping in particular. Put simply, if a story does not conform to what an audience relates to, media organisations will not cover it.

In the society of today we are only really interested in ourselves; stories from far-flung destinations do not sell and neither do those from countries with vast cultural differences. If the audience does not see how the story is relevant to them, it just will not work. Whatever our high minded expectations of the press to hold power to account, media organisations still need to pay the bills and ultimately exist to make money. Papers, broadcasters and online organisations alike select the stories their audiences are interested in reading – which is not necessarily the same as the ones they should be reading.

And what of the internet, heralded as the arrival of infinite knowledge for all? Surely we now know more than we ever did before? Not so, argues Professor James Curran of Goldsmiths. The internet may well be filled with limitless ideas and information, but that does not mean the traditional giants do not hold the most sway.  In the UK, for example, the top ten list of most visited news websites does not contain any surprises with the BBC, MailOnline and the Guardian heading up the top.

Perhaps most poignantly, however, the internet gives us an opportunity to ignore what we do not want to see. Don’t want to read about the protests in Bulgaria? No worries, there are thousands of cat videos waiting for you instead.

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How to avoid the demons of the book industry

A new report by Ethical Consumer has outlined the good, bad, and ugly of the British book industry. We dish the dirt on the best and worst book sellers in Kent and beyond

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In 2012, an article outlining the biggest tax avoiders in UK business led to a huge backlash against multinationals, with Starbucks reporting its first British loss since opening stores in the country. Yet Amazon, one of the most unethical of the lot, has managed to sustain little impact. With so many high street book stores closing, and the lack of clarity plaguing tax avoidance figures, it is harder to change book shop than coffeehouse.

We should therefore be grateful for a new report, released by Ethical Consumer, outing the angels and demons of the book industry. Some of the results are to be expected, but many more will surprise you. Please forgive the paragraph headers below, which have been ordered in reverse for suspense.

The ugly

Tesco’s book provider, ‘Uncuva’, uses the highest number of offshore tax havens, including the Cayman Islands, Guernsey, Hong Kong, Jersey, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. Other book franchises in the “red band” of tax avoidance are Kobo, Kindle, Google, Waterstones, and The Book Depository.

Google has dealt with public criticism in high places for refusing to pay more than 1.5% tax on its £359 million UK profit, so the ranking is understandable. More shocking is the fact that Google shares this mantle with the beloved British bookshop Waterstones. The franchise arose suspicion after it was reported that the company’s parent organisation is based in Bermuda, a well-known tax haven. Waterstones responded through a statement on its website which reads: “As a UK registered and domiciled business, Waterstones fulfils all its tax obligations. This will include both the payment and reporting of all necessary UK taxes, as set out under UK tax legislation.” However, this explanation does little more than assure customers that they act within the law, a useless assurance given that tax avoidance is completely legal.

The bad

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Nook, Sony, WH Smiths, and Apple have all used some kind of offshore haven, scoring them a seat in the “amber band” of tax avoidance. Most companies in this band utilised tax laws in Hong Kong to pay less money to HM Revenue and customs.
Apple, at least, pays 12.5% tax through the Republic of Ireland, but scored amber, as its overall tax payments outside of the United States come to a measly 2%.

WH Smiths, Nook, and Sony scored amber due to their offshore sister companies and refusal to publish their tax dealings. The report explains: “Multinational companies often shift profits between subsidiaries [sister companies run by the same owners] in different jurisdictions, allowing them to dump their costs into high-tax jurisdictions which can be deducted against tax, and shift their profits to tax havens, where they pay little or no tax.”

The good

The above is disheartening, but bibliophiles should not lose hope. A surprising amount of large organisations have scored a green rating, including sellers of ebooks as well as physical editions.

On the high street, Blackwells is the most ethical, paying its fair share of the UK’s 24% corporation tax. Blackwells, one of the highest ranking ethical retailers, is popular book seller across the UK and Canterbury offers its own mini store on the University of Kent’s main campus.

Those living in Kent should also take advantage of what charity stores have to offer, with the Oxfam bookstores in Rochester and Canterbury offering a lovely atmosphere and a mind-boggling array of books at heavily discounted prices.

The best news, however, is the range of online booksellers offering digital and physical editions of popular and specialist books.

The most transparent and ethical book company, the report claims, is Bertram’s. The store, which started in a chicken shed and grew to become Britain’s most successful wholesale book supplier, offers shipping around the country via its website. Proceeds from the Guardian Bookshop are also handled ethically, the report said.

Meanwhile, the following ebook/e-reader stores also ranked highly in terms of ethics:
 Archos, Bebook, Bookeen, Boox, Elonex, Gobook, Iriver, Libre, Pixelar and Pocketbook

For more information on the companies which do or don’t pay their fair share, check out Ethical Consumer’s Tax Justice Campaign.

Obama can’t shut Guantanomo, even if he wants to

As the Guantanamo Bay hunger strikes continue, Chris Walker wonders what Obama’s options really are.

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“Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe, it is expensive, it is inefficient… It is a recruitment tool for extremists; it needs to be closed.”
President Obama’s view has not changed since 2008. He wanted to close Guantanamo then and he wants to close it now. The only question is whether he can.
Tuesday marked the end of a presidential silence on the subject of Gitmo. The 100-strong prisoner hunger strike, the most drawn-out strike the controversial detention centre has seen, currently has the eyes of the world back on the southeastern coast of Cuba.
Some of those on strike are being force fed via a tube through the nose to keep them alive, and extra medical staff have been flown in to cope with the numbers.

Obama was quick to remind reporters on Tuesday that, in large part, the blame for inaction should lie with Congress.
In truth, Washington doesn’t seem to know what it would do with the detainees even if it were able, and that’s not to say that there isn’t anything that could be done.

Congress blocked the White House when it tried to put detainees up for trial in the U.S and did so again when the government planned to appropriate a facility in Illinois and move prisoners there.
Sending prisoners abroad would only be an option if it was satisfied that safeguards would exist to protect the them and, in turn, the U.S. This has not been easy to ensure given some of the countries from which the detainees originate.

£7m rehabilitation facility reportedly in development in Yemen could be a possibility in future, but in recent times the risks of transferring to Yemen have been too great in the eyes of the U.S. The White House announced on Wednesday that this policy has not changed.

Setting them free isn’t much of an option either, despite 86 of the imprisoned being clear for transfer or release. It is unlikely that many other countries are rushing to offer themselves as host.

Certain prohibitions on deporting prisoners can be waived in the name of national security. This would take place under the assurance that the prisoner would not take up, or in some cases return to, extremism. It is not hard to imagine why Obama has not been prepared to stick his neck out into such a politically risky territory.

Options remain, though. In January the envoy who had been assigned to oversee the closure of Guantanamo was reassigned and his position was not replaced. This was, in effect, the administration giving up on Guantanamo. Daniel Fried should at least be replaced; Reuter’s Daphine Eviatar suggests replacing him at a senior level in the White House.

The periodic reviews, promised in 2011, were supposed to scrutinise the legality of continuing to hold detainees without trial.  They are yet to start.

Congress will need plenty of work if it is to be moved on this issue. Any perceived increase in attention being paid to Guantanamo could be enough to encourage Obama to seriously reconsider this issue. Hopefully it will be enough.