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P. Sainath on Mass Media v. Mass Reality: From Farm and Field to Wall Street Deals

A lecture at University of Texas, Austin by P. Sainath, sponsored by the University of Texas School of Journalism, the South Asia Institute, AID-Austin and the Society of Professional Journalists UT.

Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Part 5

Seeing so many students in the audience always provokes the teacher gene. So I'm going to begin with a question.

Who do you think is the world's biggest importer of wheat?

I'm not doing it as a test for you, it is a measure of your media. One of the most important processes is unfolding in Africa. How much of the discussion have you seen around the African uprisings that tells you that one of the big drivers of those uprisings is food prices.

The biggest importer of wheat in the world is Egypt. 20 million tons in the last twenty months 2 years. 20 million tons. So, when food prices soar, people pay an incredible price.

In Egypt, the average Egyptian citizen spends far more as a share of his or her income on food than people in comparable countries. For instance, in Brazil. If you were in Brazil, you would spend 17% of your income on an average - national average - on purchasing food. If you live in Egypt, you will spend much more than twice that. 40% of your income goes on food.

How important do you think has been the emphasis of the media on food prices as a major problem in these countries. Did you get that impression from your media? You can't. I don't blame you. But it is... don't you think it adds some perspective to what's going on? To know that that country is the biggest importer of wheat? That food prices have gone up 30.. 40.. 50% over a couple of years?

Also one of the last things Mubarak did in desperation, six weeks before he was ejected, was to reintroduce price controls, which he had removed under the orders of the structural adjustment programme put on him by the World Bank and the IMF with renewed vigor in 2004.

So there you are. Food prices were and are a major...

Have we forgotten already that in 2008... because I think the meltdown wiped out everybody's memories... 2008 was the year of food riots across the world. Remember? They were the highest.. First time you saw the Western middle classes worrying about the food prices in April to June 2008. Or have we forgotten that?

There were food riots in Kenya. There were food riots in Somalia. I think at least some of you might remember the food riots in Haiti.

2008 the food and agriculture organization of the United Nations tells us was the record highest price rise on the FAO food price index. But you know something? It got obliterated. In 2010, it was even higher. Midway through 2010, the food price index registered a 32% increase in a matter of months. And that was much higher.

2008 produced food riots. 2010 produced regime change.

It's not that these were the only factors. Not at all. There were many political factors, compelling internal factors, but they need a spark. They needed something.

Don't write off what food prices and the role of food is, and I'll explain why.

Now...

Incidentally another country... How many of you can name the African country that was completely self-sufficient in cereals in the 1970s and becomes one of the most major importers of food in the world?

Yemen.

1970s - completely self-sufficient in cereals. 2010 - one of the world's biggest importers of food.

I could name 20 countries like this and you'd see half of them in that situation you are seeing now in Africa. So it is not that... yes, democracy is very important, the politics of it is very important, but there was a major driver called hunger. Food prices.

If you look at the Arab streets, you will see people out on the streets who never ever stepped out in demonstrations and protests. Very conservative sections who never participated in protests and demos. They were there on the street. They still are on the street. Because the problem is not solved.

Ok, we'll come back to the food issue, because what's my.. this is titled as... Wages of inequality, food crisis, farm crisis and the media. We are already into two of those.

The media told you nothing about this... from what you are telling me. You did not glean from the media coverage that food prices were a major factor in what's going on.

You know, every year, the United Nations Development Programme ... and in fact, the UN has been doing this even before the UNDP became active... it's been for 30 years, the United Nations has been presenting us every year with a menu - a bill of fare. We don't see it as a consolidated menu, but we do see it in little bits and blobs.

Don't we... haven't you read somewhere, you vaguely remember... "The Secretary General of the United Nations said that if we spend 15 billion dollars a year additionally, additional expenditure on hunger, we could eliminate hunger. Have you read those sort of little items all over the newspapers? Ya... this you have.

Now what I do is, these different little items that appear, I add them up as a menu, and try figuring out what they come to.

  • Hunger - 15 billion dollars a year the Secretary General tells us will eliminate the extremes of hunger.
  • 10 billion dollars additional expenditure a year, and ever person on the planet has got sanitation.
  • 15 billion dollars a year and every child... additional expenditure. We're talking about additional expenditure, ok? 15 billion dollars additional expenditure a year, and every child on the planet will be in school.
  • 12 billion dollars additional expenditure a year, or something like that, and everyone's got access to basics like water.

You put these together and you get something like between 60 billion and 80 billion dollars. Right? So what is the UN telling you? It is telling you that 60 to 80 billion dollars additional expenditure you can solve the most pressing problems of the human race.

Its never happened in all those 30 years. Why?

What did the government say? No money. There's no money, we can't solve this problem. Where's the money? You put up the money. But we can't do it. You know? Let charitable foundations and the UN and philanthropic... let Gates and Buffett do it and all that stuff. But we can't do it, because we don't have any money.

So for 30 years, this amount of 60 to 80 billion dollars the governments could not find.

Then, 2008 September, Wall Street hits the fan. And the guys and the governments who couldn't find 60 to 80 billion dollars for 30 years find a trillion dollars inside of a week. Along with their friends in Europe, they find 3 trillion dollars in the next three or four months and God knows how much more since then, and what do they find it for? They find it to give it to the very guys who tanked the world economy.

Who wrote your bailout plan? Goldman Sachs.

You collect trillions of dollars, public dollars to give it to the very guys who tanked the world economy, and you have the money!

All these years you didn't have 60... you didn't have 8% of that money, to solve the basic problems of the human race, but you have twelve times that money to hand over to the banks and the trusts and the corporations that completely destroyed the global economy.

Incidentally, a little piece of statistical trivia, if you will: In 2008 - the year they blew the global economy, American CEOs took home 18 billion dollars in bonuses - for that fiscal. For the fiscal in which they blew the global economy.

Well, I suppose it was very modest, because the previous year, it was 34 billion, but they still took home 18 billion dollars in reward. And remember where those dollars came from. It came from a public dollar bailout. It came from public tax dollars which bailed them out.

Giant corporations, having brought the world economy to its knees, in a drama scripted for the last two or three decades by neo-liberal economists and corporations have benefited massively from the ruins and the wreckage. As I said, you destroy the world economy, you take home 18 billion dollars in bonuses. But remember this, in the world we live in, and the economics we follow, and the moral philosophy of that economics, every misery is an opportunity. I assert. Every misery is an opportunity.

Let me quote for you, the sage of Omaha - Warren Buffett. Whose reaction to the Tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan is that it provides a unique buying opportunity of Japanese stocks. This is Reuters quoting Warren Buffett. Here he is "Immediately after the nightmare... after Japan's tragedy, he said, if I owned Japanese stocks, I would certainly not be selling them. frequently something out of the blue like this an extraordinary event creates a buying opportunity." And he advised his friends to invest, because the Japanese companies are on their knees, the stock prices are down, this is the time to buy!

Actually, he's right. I don't know... I think six years ago, Bob, when I spoke here, soon after the Tsunami, I pointed out... I don't know if any of you were here. You look too young to have been around then... Ever since the Tsunami - struck me then, and ever since then, in every natural calamity, I - a non-financial journalist - follow the stock markets when something terrible happens, because they start doing very well after a week.

Buffett was right. One week after the Tsunami, as the damage was really unfolding. We knew for instance, that Indonesia had lost nearly a quarter of a million people... you know 11 countries were devastated by the tsunami - eleven. Out of those 11 countries, 5 have significant stock exchanges - India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia.

Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia.

Now what happens? One week, everything is devastated and at a standstill. Then these very stock exchanges register the highest gains of stock exchanges anywhere. Why?

The smell of reconstruction dollars. The smell of the money that comes out of the misery. When Warren Buffett says invest in Japanese stocks, he knows what he is talking about. He's talking about that pace of rapid reconstruction that's going to take place. Millions and billions of dollars in contracts.

So if you are smart, you're going to put money where the Japanese stocks are, because the reconstruction will be beginning and we all know that the Japanese are very good at it, they are very efficient people. When the reconstruction starts, it will be massive. So he says, buy those shares now.

In 2004 December 26th, the Tsunami hit those 11 countries. Those 5 countries were devastated. And you know what happened after the devastation? From the first week after the devastation, the sensex, which had never broken out of the 4 thousand bracket - the Sensitive Index of the Bombay Stock Exchange, which had never broken out of the four thousand bracket crossed six thousand and never looked back. Today scaling around twenty thousand.

It never looked back. That was the breach point. The Composite Share Index of the Colombo Stock Exchange - the CSE - reached within 16 points of the highest - which was the year of its founding. Indonesia - the worst affected nation - quarter of a million people dead, the Stock Exchange is rocked by the earthquake and Tsunami.... [contd in part 2]

2

We see crisis situations happen all the time. Be they natural or man made. Media plays an important role in dispersing situation about them. However, I find that there is crucial lack of coverage in natural disasters that is counterproductive to the recovery of the region.

If there is a bomb blast, for example. Along with news about causes and the actual incident, we have reports of the dead and injured. We have journalists who will go to hospitals and see how the injured are being treated and so on. It is relatively easy in cities, because cities have a lot of journalists and the victims can be easily accessed.

I have seen many times on Twitter. News of the injured is often followed by inquiry into their well being. Philanthropic citizens and helping organizations follow up on this information. I have seen people make tweets asking how to contact the victims to sponsor their children's education, for example.

If even a fraction of those expressing intent to provide aid actually act on it, that is powerful help above and beyond what relief the government provides.

Contrast this with natural disasters. They strike where they will. Not necessarily within easy reach of the media, likely not easily accessible, particularly for calamities like the ones currently facing us - vast flooding, massive earthquake. However, at this time, I think the media needs to consciously set up information bridges. The more the needs of the people are visible, the more people hearing them will be alterted to the need and inclined to rise to the occasion.

When those devastated are in the thousands, no matter how good a government is (and I am not saying that ours is that exceptional) it is still impossible to bring life to a comfortable status for all. It is impossible to compensate for massive personal losses. The best that can be done is token amounts and ensuring shelter and medical aid for all. Possibly some basic housing to be built.

Compare this with enormous numbers of citizens living in plenty, having more things than they need, having the affordability and inclination to help. Thousands of people is miniscule compared with the number of people living in conditions of being able to aid. Really miniscule. Even if a very, very small number of these are able to help.... it is a large quantity. And it will supplement the aid provided by the government.

The other thing is that international media picks up from local media. If our coverage of devastated people needing help is low, we literally keep it out of the world's attention too. Maybe a couple of large media outlets with presence in India will send over a guy or so to report and come up with an outstanding article, but there can't be the attention to detail and necessity that is required.

International aid organizations don't register the urgency of the need as strongly... it is a domino effect that didn't happen, in a way.

There are some things media could easily do:

  • Provide clear information of the damage in every calamity - we hardly know anything about the floods in Orissa, for example.
  • Provide information on rescue and relief work in perspective of the disaster. More important than repetitive shots of one rescue or details of operations, it is important to show how efficient they are in meeting the need of the situation. How much is done, how much remains, any obstacles, etc.
  • Instead of asking people what they suffered in the media interviews, ask clearly what their situation is, and what help is urgently needed. If there are items in short supply, state them clearly, so that people with ability to provide can pick up the challenge.
  • Interview relief workers and ask them what they are doing, and how can people help them. Clear contact information, information for donating, information of where to send material supplies donated, information on how to volunteer to make the work lighter.
  • In remote regions where it is difficult to get reporters on the ground, it might be useful to request citizens with reasonable language skills to act like citizen journalists and get the information out. Hiring local bloggers may be an option if the region is not too backward. If people are assured that you are listening, they will be glad to go out and collect information for you. Someone will.

This  is important. If you notice any great calamities, the aid they get is directly proportional to how much the media pays attention to them. Easy recent comparisons would be Haiti and Pakistan.

It is an easy contribution all you media people can make for your fellow countrymen. And it will only bring you higher TRPs because people WANT to know this kind of information.

I don't presume to tell you your job, but I can tell you that I rarely watch TV, but I would watch your channel if you could tell me crucial things about our people in Orissa and Sikkim.