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'So Then Its Farewell': Sir Christopher Meyer in Conversation with Raymond Snoddy
6.30 - 8 London College of Communications, Elephant and Castle 12 Jan, 2009
POLIS, in parternship with The Media Society a... read more

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Financial Journalism and the Economic Crisis
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Humanitarian Communications in a Global Media Age Symposium

07 Location: LSE Date: 21 Nov, 2008

'Humanitarian Communications in a Global Media Age' is a culmination of a series of three high-level academic seminars. Bringing together outstanding international thinkers in this field, this one day symposium will exammine the state of communications around humanitarian relief, international development and human rights in a globalised digital communications age.

It will address the big questions: in an age of bloggers, celebrity campaigners and corporate public relations what are the ethics, politics and practicalities of humanitarian and development communications? How can communications attract the attention of the public and how can it convert that interest in to action?

The aim of the symposium is to broadly address the following key three themes, organised into a series of panels with leading thinkers in each area.

Panel 1: Humanitarianism, Media and the Cosmopolitan Public

Prof. Costas Douzinas, Birkbeck College

Empty Humanitarianism: This short talk will argue that the concept of 'humanity' is not a quality shared by humans but a strategy for ontological ordering. Its contemporary version of (cosmopolitan) humanitarianism is the latest phase of the 'civilising mission’.

Dr Kate Nash, Goldsmiths College

Creating Mediated Cosmopolitan Solidarity: In this paper I will reflect on how cosmopolitan solidarity beyond the national-state might be created and sustained in the absence of a global state. In ‘Global citizenship as show business: the cultural politics of Make Poverty History’ (Media, Culture and Society, 2008) I argued that the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign in the UK, which aimed to bring about structural change in global economic governance, was also part of an innovative set of campaigns across the globe to build popular cosmopolitan solidarity. In this paper I consider further the limitations of the techniques and means used to build solidarity in Make Poverty History, and discuss analogous campaigns which have created ‘extraordinary solidarity’ historically. What do we know about the necessary conditions for creating cosmopolitan solidarity? In particular I reflect on the role that is played, and might be played, by the media in creating ‘extraordinary solidarity’.

Prof. Keith Tester, University of Hull

The Stories of Birhan Woldu: In this paper I use the example of Birhan Woldu, the so-called ‘icon of famine’ from Live Aid and Live 8 as an opportunity to raise questions about whether the media are a ‘cosmopolitanism generator’. The case of the appearance of Birhan Woldu raises questions about power and the paradoxes of liberal toleration that cast doubt on confident cosmopolitan assumptions. The point is that Birhan Woldu is represented in the media as uncosmopolitan – what does this imply?

Panel Two: Global Stakeholders in Humanitarian Communication

Dr Hans K. Hansen, Copenhagen Business School

Calibrating Humanitarian Risks: How Everyday Forms of Calculative Practice Shape the Engagement with Crisis, Conflict and Corruption:
When intergovernmental organizations, international financial institutions, non-governmental organizations and corporations engage with humanitarianism today, they typically draw on a wide range of more mundane and taken-for-granted calculative practices whose powers often go unnoticed in current discussions about cosmopolitanism, global politics and the mediatization of humanitarianism. These practices include the assessment of political risks of various sorts; the rating, ranking and benchmarking of countries and organizations according to specific governance criteria; and, the deployment of blacklisting of political and corporate entities under special circumstances. I propose we take a critical look at the role of these calculative practices, including their underlying frameworks and alignment to humanitarian projects and programs. First, the study of calculative practices can provide us with important insights into how activities carried out in the name of humanitarianism make visible and governable particular subjects and relations in global politics. Calculative practices establish a field in which standards for normalcy, deviance and responsibility are delineated. Such practices are more than mere analytical tools and embedded in systems of hierarchy and authority. Second, the study of how calculative practices are deployed draws our attention to organizational strategies of legitimation, including how humanitarian initiatives and interventions across the board - public and private, national, international and transnational – can bolster or undermine the public trust of key organizations with a humanitarian agenda. The argument is illustrated with examples from on ongoing research project on international anti-corruption. Specifically, I focus on how various calculative practices have been aligned to recent programs and projects conducted under the auspices of the World Bank and humanitarian organizations.

Prof. Mette Morsing, Copenhagen Business School

Towards Transparency or Silence?: The “global concern thesis” holds that contemporary corporations are responsible and transparent to the critical gaze of inquisitive stakeholders in global society. A central feature is the corporate response to form CSR policies demonstrating the willingness to take action on global humanitarian concerns about social and environmental issues. In fact, corporations have entered a competition to demonstrate themselves as the more globally concerned corporate citizen. While this demonstration of corporate “socially desirable behaviour” is appreciated, it is also a double-edged sword. No matter how much corporate leaders seek to manage their media visibility their ability to control is limited. The use of weblogs and other online media demonstrate how the news media and spatially isolated individuals may assert a collective influence on corporations by turning mass media into the mass’ media – for them: free of charge. In the competitive game of demonstrating a global concern, corporations may risk over-exposure followed by critique of hypocrisy. Rather than creating transparency, demonstrating a humanitarian concern becomes a source of uncertainty or fragility where the very possibility of being observed by thepublic implies a risk and a disciplining of corporate behaviour in terms of strategic silence.

Dr Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths College

Cloning the News: NGOs, New Media and the News: This paper will consider the NGO as news source and the nature of its relationship to the professional journalist in a new media environment. It draws on a range of interviews with a variety of NGOs and journalists conducted throughout 2007/08. Publicity - both for campaigning and for fundraising is a central aspect of all NGOs work. For many, particularly the large, resource rich organizations, responding to a media saturated environment has meant a growth in press and PR offices increasingly staffed by trained professional journalists. These professionals apply the same norms and values to their work as any mainstream newsroom albeit with different aims and intentions; they use their contacts and cultural capital to gain access to key journalists and report increasing success in a media-expanded world. The resource poor however, far from finding a more levelled playing field with new media increasing access, as proclaimed by many early exponents of the advantages of new communication technologies, are forced to rely on long-standing credibility established by proven news-awareness and issue relevance. They find it much harder to keep up with changes in technology and the explosion of news space; and much harder to stand out amidst the countless voices on-line all competing for journalists’ attention. As journalists are now required to do more in less time, so their interactions with news sources dwindle. In news terms, NGOs may be getting more coverage (often on-line), but the nature of that news remains firmly within pre-established journalistic norms and values – a media logic that has led to ‘news cloning’.

Panel Three: The Mediated Visibility of Humanity

Dr Eric Guthey, Copenhagen Business School

Billanthropy, Business Celebrities, and All This Business About Humanitarian Causes: When the world’s richest business figures involve themselves in philanthropic ventures, the media take notice. The media become even more fascinated when business celebrities team up with their mega-celebrity counterparts from the realms of sports, music, and entertainment to champion humanitarian causes. More than just a public relations or branding strategy, the mediated combination of big business, celebrity and humanitarian concern speaks to something fundamental about the nature of business celebrity, and about its relationship both to corporate activity and to debates about what it means to be human in a corporate society. With these issues in mind, I propose a new understanding of celebrity that helps explain why media audiences are fated to keep looking at images of Bill Gates with Bono, images of Bill Gates with young babies in Africa, and images of various other business figures sharing the frame with all manner of celebrities and residents of the Third World in ways that accentuate the connections between mediated celebrity and humanitarian concern.

Prof. Luc Bovens, LSE

The Ethics of Photojournalism: Grace Mungai, a victim of Kenya's civil war, lies murdered in a puddle of blood in her house as her young son is crying in the background. This Reuters photograph was run in large format by The Observer (Feb 10, 2008). Every day we are bombarded in the media with photographs of such horrific magnitude. Clearly truthfulness is a constraint on what is being depicted—we object to photographs that are posed, doctored or are presented out of context. But truthfulness is only a minimal constraint. There is a public trust that certain photographs are blocked from publication for being too disconcerting. They may be disrespectful towards the people depicted. Larry Burrows, a photojournalist who was killed in Vietnam, wrote, "It's not easy to photograph a man dying in the arms of his fellow country-man ... Was I simply capitalizing on other men's grief?" Or they may be disrespectful towards the readers. As readers, we feel the discomfort of Leontius in Plato's Republic who cannot resist looking at the corpses after an execution and we object to being put in this position. What motivates this public trust? What are its unspoken rules? And how does one balance the constraints of this public trust against an obligation to truthful and comprehensive reporting?

Prof. Lilie Chouliaraki, LSE

Communicating the humanitarian cause: Towards a post-emotional sensibility: My empirical focus is humanitarian appeals as a genre of mediation that traditionally configures specific forms of action at a distance based on the ‘grand’ emotions of pity: indignation and protest or empathy and charity (Boltanski 1999). I explore contemporary examples of this genre of mediation in order to show how they articulate the semiotics of vulnerability and construe moral agency towards vulnerable others. I conclude that an emerging tendency in the mediation of humanitarian appeals is to break with traditional registers of pity and to privilege a light-touch and low-intensity form of agency, no longer inspired by ‘grand’ emotion or intellectual vision but momentarily engaging us in practices of playful consumerism.

A report about the symposium will be available shortly after the event.