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40 years after Orientalism, UK press still doesn't get it

More than 40 years after Edward Said’s Orientalism, the British press still doesn’t get it
6 min read

Anttoni James Numminen

08 November, 2021
Despite Edward Said spotlighting it 43 years ago, Orientalism is alive and well in the UK press. To overcome it, media outlets should not only examine how they report on issues but also do real changes internally, writes Anttoni James Numminen.
Journalists work inside the media centre at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, in Glasgow, Scotland on 1 November 2021. [Getty]

We could assume that more than 40 years after the notion of Orientalism first entered the public consciousness, it has become something of an outdated concept, or at least is not prevalent in depictions of Middle Eastern or Asian countries, cultures, and people, in the media today. 

But look at almost any broadsheet or tabloid newspaper in the UK, and you will find the legacy of Orientalism still alive and kicking within a large portion of the news and opinion coverage. Not only is it disappointing and a testament to the media industry's failure to evolve, but it also persists in the promotion of Western superiority, which in turn has real-life consequences - from the justification of illegal military campaigns to the normalisation of discriminatory and racist discourses.

First published in 1978, Edward Said's seminal book Orientalism has come to shape various aspects of modern life, ranging from post-colonial discussion to cultural analyses. The key argument made by the American-Palestinian academic is on how a Western-centric viewing of the world has created a narrative of Western superiority which includes not only the right but the need, to intervene in Middle Eastern countries i.e., "the Orient" at large. 

Said wrote that Orientalism is "a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience."

Interestingly, when it comes to Orientalism, a common misconception about it is that if the Orient or Eastern culture is being praised, then therefore this was not an act of  Orientalism. Yet, this kind of thinking comes straight out of the colonial playbook, where imperialism was justified on the basis that it was the West's duty to help 'modernise' a 'backward' Middle East.

Sadly there are many who define themselves as "anti-racist" but very prone to relying on these tropes. In this vein, many of the recent articles on Afghanistan and Afghan refugees that I have recently seen fundamentally did not have negative angles to the story, with many of them being quite 'positive' but nevertheless, steeped in Orientalist discourses. The most striking examples were rife with white saviourism that make you wonder how they have been cleared for publication. 

To give an example, an article published by the Independent on "miles donations providing flights for refugees", spoke on how "inspiring [it is] to see the American people and American public come together to welcome our new Afghan neighbours." The article is full of praise for American and Western action to help Afghan refugees, and all about what 'they', the refugees, meant for Americans, with not one quote from the Afghan people, let alone any mention of the role of the US government and corporations in creating the current crisis.

I could go on, but for the sake of brevity I will give only one more, and especially shocking example, this time from The Telegraph, in an article titled, "British families getting ready to welcome Afghan refugees into their homes", as a perfect example of how the Orient is, as Said says, "based on its special place in the Western experience".

The piece's premise revolves around the expectations and hoped-for experiences of middle-class Britons. One of the interviewed spoke of getting the chance to "meet someone I probably wouldn't cross paths with", while another says: "we told [our children] they would learn a lot about somebody from another country." 

As if it is not bad enough that the actual people fleeing war and persecution do not get a chance to speak for themselves, they are defined by those in the West and in some cases, they are merely a means for Western people to define themselves and their own experiences of the world. Of course, it is laudable that people may have good intentions to help those worse off than themselves, but often these Orientalist attitudes perpetuate othering, rather than being one of welcoming.

There is little doubt that the homogeneity of the British media is at the root of this lack of understanding and continued ignorance when it comes to the coverage of religion, race and international issues. The lack of diversity within its very structure is evident as a report by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) noted that as of 2021, 92 per cent of journalists come from white ethnic communities - only two per cent less than in 2016.

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Meanwhile, 90 per cent of journalists were born in the UK, with only five per cent from the EU27 and five per cent remaining coming from the rest of the world. Though the gender balance has improved from 2016, with 53 per cent of journalists now being women, a lot remains to be done.

Media organisations should take a long, hard look at themselves. Not only is change needed in the way issues are reported, but also there has to be a radical change institutionally, such as in terms of who is hired and who conducts the hiring, who is appointed to editorial positions and senior roles. The media remains one of the UK's most elite professions, with the NCTJ report noting an increase in the 'graduatisation' of journalism "which could be acting against attempts to increase some aspects of diversity."

The press cannot accurately represent and give voice to the communities most in need to be heard if there is no understanding of different communities' lived experiences. Not only is it the right thing to do, but as the aftermath of the 11 September attacks has shown, when there is little representation in newsrooms, there is little challenge to dangerous editorial decisions.

In the early 2000s, the media environment degenerated into Islamophobic – and very Orientalist – narratives that quickly gained traction, with the impacts still felt today. The association of Islam and Muslims with fundamentalism and fanaticism in the popular discourse is a clear example of this.

In 1981,  a few years after Orientalism was published, Edward Said wrote a follow-up, ironically titled, Covering Islam. It examined the Western media's coverage of the Orient and Islamic world, and Said makes a powerful prophesy that following the Soviet Union's collapse, Islam "has come to represent America's major foreign devil".

Despite all his faults, Said seems to have foreseen the rise of Islamophobia in Western media discourse, yet I wonder if he expected it to gain such a hegemonic place. This unfortunate legacy of Orientalism thrives in press coverage; media organisations and journalists should closely examine the way they report on issues.

But it is not enough to just examine, real change is needed. Hopefully, that will come with the increasing number of young people joining the media industry. 

Anttoni James Nummine is a freelance journalist and writer with an interest in media research and writes for numerous British and international publications on a range of issues.

Follow him on Twitter: @A_James_Esq

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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