The news agenda

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - April 17, 2021 - 12:00am

It’s one of those weeks when UK news doesn’t really make sense. There are a few stories that are really important but a story that isn’t is going to get the most coverage, money and staff. Newsroom denizens sometimes talk about “the news agenda” as if it’s something that exists independently of their imaginations, but if you look and think critically about what you’re being served up, it’s pretty clear that most news outlets have an agenda that serves their own mission.

By the time this piece is posted, it will be the day of the funeral of Prince Philip. His death is the story that’s getting all the oxygen. It will have been planned to the smallest detail by the Palace and by broadcasters. The BBC automatically interrupts regular programming on BBC 1, 2 and its 24-hour news channel for what it calls “Category 1 deaths.” Only the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William remain on the list, now that Prince Philip has died, though I expect the list will be reviewed. I’m not a royalist myself, but I recognize the monarchy plays a very special role in UK and Commonwealth society.

As a teenager studying Politics and Government for my A levels, we compared the US versus the UK’s written versus unwritten constitutions and the notion proposed by Walter Bagehot, in “The English Constitution” of 1867, that a constitution needed two parts, “one to excite and preserve the reverence of the population” and the other to “employ that homage in the work of government.” The first he called “dignified” and the second “efficient.” Apparently the monarchy continues to provide the former, although I suspect there’s a bit of a vicious circle at play. The newsrooms look at their viewership numbers, the viewers watch what the newsrooms give them; the coverage of the royals is designed to “excite and preserve the reverence” while at the same time providing a narrative that mimics reality TV or soap opera.

I’m a self-confessed news junkie and because of all the coverage I can tell you all about the British Land Rover that Philip designed himself to bear his coffin, the 30 people who will attend the funeral at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor and tell you who said what about the late Duke of Edinburgh. It’s all a bit of an insight into the niceties of aristocratic etiquette even when dealing with tricky family politics. Is it a coincidence that Peter Phillips, son of Princess Ann, will walk in between brothers Prince William and Prince Harry? I doubt it very much, it’s a rather elegant way of dealing with the split between them.

Another item that’s got some comment is that the senior members of the royal family will not be in military uniform. It was “the most eloquent solution to the problem,” a military source told the Sun. It’s a break with tradition designed to avoid embarrassing Prince Harry, and address the reported internal Palace debate over whether the disgraced Prince Andrew should be allowed to wear a uniform, according to reports. Before giving up royal duties, Prince Harry served in the Army for ten years, he rose to the rank of Captain and completed two tours of Afghanistan.

The UK is to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next month alongside other NATO allies, now that US President Joe Biden has announced plans for the US troop withdrawal by 9/11 this year. It’s one of the stories that you would think would get a lot more coverage. In total 143,750 unique British service personnel were deployed there. 405 were killed in combat in Afghanistan. Though British combat troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014, nearly 1,000 are still there to help train and advise the Afghan National Security Forces.

The UK has a long, complex and troubled history in Afghanistan. The first Anglo-Afghan war that began in 1839 was known as the “Disaster in Afghanistan” and was the start of the rivalry between Britain and Russia for power in Central Asia that became known as the “Great Game” or “Tournament of Shadows.” In 2009, 108 British troops died, more than twice as many as the previous year. I remember how the media coverage of the coffins of young men arriving home to towns and villages across the UK made people more aware of the cost of the war and how public concern about the original aims of military intervention and its likelihood of bringing peace got more traction and voice.

Meanwhile, it’s far far harder to figure out how many Afghan people have been killed in 20 years of war. It’s probably something like 111,000, while it’s estimated the number who have died through indirect causes related to the war may be as high as 360,000. Two days ago the UN Mission in Afghanistan said that “extraordinary levels of harm inflicted on civilians in the Afghan conflict continues unabated, with UNAMA finding that the number of civilians killed and injured during the first three months of 2021 to be significantly higher than a year ago. Released today, the Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict 2021 First Quarter Report documents 1,783 civilian casualties (573 killed and 1,210 injured), a 29 percent increase compared with the same period in 2020. Of particular concern is the 37 percent increase in the number of women killed and injured, and a 23 percent increase in child casualties compared with the first quarter of 2020.” No Category 1 deaths though.

I have never been to Afghanistan myself, though I worried terribly for my ex-husband who often went there as a CNN cameraman. On the 12th September 2001, he left for Pakistan and I didn’t see him again till January the following year, though we were in constant contact over satellite phones. Journalists tried to take calculated risks in their coverage but wars are chaotic and unpredictable. He would try to call before any footage of himself in sticky situations went to air but there were times I got a call from a producer first. He was at the frontline with Northern Alliance forces with a translator and gave his flak jacket to him when they came under heavy sniper fire. He filmed it all, including his call to Atlanta to let them know they were stuck and needed a way out.

The Taliban is still active and will surely fight for control of the country once again. So, what has all the fighting, destruction, deaths and foreign intervention achieved? Surely the news agenda will get to that once the funeral is over.

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