According to a recent article in the Guardian travel section, the best place for tourists to visit this autumn are those laid waste by imperialism, such as Lebanon.
“We got the red carpet treatment!” ran the headline over a report on how wars abroad present a range of opportunities to the canny tourist.
For those “more doughty” tourists who are not put off by recent conflict, there is the absence of other holidaymakers. As the Guardian put it, “War in Lebanon and terrorist threats have put many off the Middle East. From a selfish point of view, that means you’ll get the sites pretty much to yourself.”
This type of manic consumerism has become endemic in the British media, with frequent references to the possibilities for luxury at bargain prices in more “exotic” locations.
The underlying concept of capitalising on the poverty and misery of others is clearly not new and nor is opposition to it on the left. In 1968 radical students sprayed “Club Med: a cheap holiday in other people’s misery” on Parisian walls.
Concern about exploitation and environmental destruction by the tourist industry has been expressed by development NGOs. Tourism Concern was formed in response to such impacts. But these concerns are largely ignored by British holiday programmes.
Consumer oriented programming is the genre which features developing countries most on British television. These are mainly cookery, holiday and travel shows.
They provide the main alternative source of media information to biased and pro-Western news coverage. These were two of the categories included in my research, which examined how programmes represented developing countries and how audiences responded.
Holiday programmes present mainly positive, often glamorous, images of their destinations. Such portrayals provide a contrast with the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” imagery prevalent in news coverage, and present an opportunity to inform viewers about aspects of the lives of local people.
However, the emphasis on consumerism tends to override this potential. Contact between holiday presenters and local people is limited to tourism industry personnel and watching “traditional tribespeople” perform. With few exceptions the lives of people living in the destinations are not considered.
The predominant view in the television industry and among the political elite is that viewers are not interested in finding out more about developing countries and that they choose consumerist programming. My research contradicted this.
Audience groups were less critical of holiday shows than they were of other sectors of television coverage, such as the conflict in Afghanistan.
To an extent, this may be explained by the pervasiveness of the genre, and the passivity engendered by the consumer oriented format. Such programmes are a major source of consumerist propaganda and help to mislead viewers about the real effects of consumerism and the exploitation of developing countries.
However, some audience groups in my research, predominantly working class groups, were critical of the received wisdom. In one example, a low income group in Maryhill, Glasgow, commented on how portrayals of local people vary in news and holiday programmes:
Facilitator: “Can you think of anything positive… different from the disasters?”
Respondent One: “ I’ve seen some different images on holiday programmes… It’s like they’re completely separate countries.”
Respondent Two: “You get all the negative stuff on the news - all the stuff about the people who live there. And then you get the nice hotels and the swimming pools and that, and it’s just for the white people who are going there with all their money to spend. You don’t see local people on those programmes.”
The corrosive commercialisation of television does not just impact on our perceptions of other countries. There are also implications for the viewer’s perception of themselves.
It was only low income audience groups who spontaneously discussed the pressure of consumer culture on their lives. Parents felt particularly pressurised to provide labelled clothes for their children, and linked this to the media.
Far from encouraging diversity, creativity and the proliferation of “choice”, the globalisation of the television industry presents a formidable threat to the medium as a vehicle for democratic communication.
The concentration of ownership and the culture of consumerism combine to set the agenda. The greater the emphasis on consumerism, the less attention is paid to the political and economic factors essential to understanding the world.
It is not in the interests of the mass media to report dissent.
So the mainstream media agenda moved quickly from the bombing of Lebanon, avoiding reporting the development of resistance within the country, to Lebanon as an opportunity for a holiday in the sun.
The crises of capitalism are multiplying, however, and British television audiences are becoming increasingly sceptical of the version of reality that is presented to them.
Emma Miller’s book Viewing the World: How Western Television And Globalisation Distort Representations Of The Developing World is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848.