LONDON: A short visit to this self-regarding centre of the universe was an opportunity not to be missed, given the intensive turmoil and pained introspection going on in Kathmandu. The occasion was an awards banquet, an evening of glitter and cocktails to honour the best of "development journalism". I came away without an award but chockfull of thoughts, opinions and ideas - the columnists stock-in-trade.
First impressions count so as I hurried into the five star hotel ballroom, the receptors were turned up to maximum absorption rate. Odd thing, I thought, to pay homage to coverage of poverty and humanitarian issues at a $100 dollar a plate dinner. The master of ceremonies, a respected television anchorman in Britain, made the obligatory observation that we should be having a bowl of rice and African mealy meal, just to set the tone right. I nodded sagely and sipped some expensive wine.
The nominees for the various categories were very, very good, almost all of the them well-meaning, compassionate and hard-hitting. From a BBC colleague in Africa, a withering look at how safari tourism in the exquisite Serengeti National Park was displacing local people; how callow visitors believed it was all for the better, that it was okay to banish entire communities or families because their maize patches were an eyesore for the hard-currency-and-cameras crowd. Another highlight was a twisted yet wonderful look at racism in Britain. A bearded comedian, the British born son of Iranian parents, took a group of Iraqi Kurdish refugees out for a night in the most socially conservative part of northern England. Through laughter, we learnt just how bad it still is out there.
A radio documentary into the use of rape as a weapon in Bosnia brought tears of anger, then a feeling of deep admiration for the survivors of unspeakable Balkan atrocities. It was a useful reminder of just how horrible that conflict continues to be. Amnesty International's advertising campaign against British and German arms exports, especially implements of torture, pricked the conscience but probably did very little to influence the arms merchants. Blurry images from Dubai of the annual convention of dealers in death interspersed with pictures of a smiling English salesman testing an electric shock device that eventually ended up in Indonesia, part of the torture cupboards in ex-President Suharto's intelligence agencies.
As the evening went on, and disappointment at finishing second eased with each glass of wine, my reflexive cynicism kicked in and started me wondering about a few things. For one, where were the producers and journalists from the developing world itself? Here we were, congratulating ourselves with mutual backpats about our splendid work on behalf of the poor, and where were those with first hand experience? In fact, it took a special category award funded by the World Bank to recognize work done in distant lands, and even then the winners were Americans. Never mind that their film about the searing South African Truth and Reconciliation commission was powerful beyond belief. The runner-up in the category was my personal favourite of the evening: a film from Cambodia about a group of tribesmen digging a trench across their country to lay fibre optic cables. It was delicious irony, of the saddest possible variety.
The night belonged to a soap opera though. Soul City is produced by an NGO in South Africa and its the country's most popular television programme. We watched an episode about domestic violence but almost every other social issue imaginable has been covered. Soul City entertain, enlightens and educates and it reaches about 80 per cent of the urban black population - a shining example of the good work that media can do, freed of the shackles of government interference and Murdoch-style profit seeking.
This all took place as traumatized Nepalis were hearing about the horrendous rampage at the royal palace three weeks ago, and if nothing else, the evening taught me that many, many people have immense challenges in their lives. All that remains is to get on with it, and give it your best shot. Smile for the camera.