Twitter puts smug British Press to shame on kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls
Wednesday 7 May, 2014
You slap my back, I'll slap yours. It's that time of year, time to look beyond phone hacking, intrusion, libel and downright incompetence. Time to raise a glass and appreciate the great institution and force for good that is the British Press.
Here we are at the heart of the prize-giving season and we've heard that sentiment as often as we've turned bottles upside down in the wine coolers and sighed at another plate of chicken supreme.
That we deserve to indulge in this festival of self-congratulation there can be no doubt. Did the new Culture Secretary not endorse us last week as being the best Press in the world? Individually we are creatures of great influence, we pick our targets, we can build 'em up and we'll knock 'em down.
A recalcitrant minister? Swat! An arrogant TV presenter? Biff! A love-rat actor? Slap! (Although sometimes, as with bankers, we don't get our way and in our frustration have to start underlining random words in headlines or even printing them in red.)
What force must we pack, then, if we work in concert. What power we can wield if we find ourselves in common cause against an evident evil.
Over the past few days we've been raising our shrill little voices to demand to know what the Nigerian Government is doing to retrieve more than 200 girls kidnapped from their school as they slept three weeks ago. We have mocked Patience Jonathan for her "gaffe" in saying she would "march into the President's office..." when the President is none other than her husband. And now we are hoisting our jingoistic flags in delight at those magical letters S, A and S. Our boys will go in and sort it all out. (Of course they won't.)
The abduction of these schoolgirls - even now no one can put an accurate number on how many were taken - on April 14 was apparently so commonplace, so unworrying that it warranted no more than eight or ten pars at most on a foreign page of our more serious prints. The reports came from agencies or stringers hundreds of miles from Nigeria. Information was difficult to verify and it was hardly worth the bother when a royal tour of Australia, 12-year-old mothers and mutant rats needed the attention of our finest writers.
A couple of days later the Nigerian military said they'd rescued most of the girls and this was reported, without question, by the greatest Press in the world. Then it seemed that wasn't the case and so the reversal was reported equally briefly. A few days later mini commentaries and the occasional Abuja dateline started to appear. But we still had our priorities right. David Moyes was being sacked, Camilla's brother had died, Susanna Reid was preparing to appear in a new television studio (behind a desk, as it turned out).
Thirteen days after the girls were kidnapped, Janice Turner raised their plight in her Saturday column for the Times:
"What if terrorists broke into Roedean? Men with guns, faces covered, kill security guards, batter down the doors of dormitories where girls preparing to sit their GCSEs are asleep. As the teenagers wake in horror, the men select several hundred pupils, round them up, drag them outside to waiting trucks and drive them off into the night.
No one knows where they are taken. The police throw up no leads and so the Roedean parents form a ragged search party. They weep and beg and hunt until nightfall but there is no sign of their daughters. A week passes. Still their girls are gone . . .
In Nigeria’s remote northeast province 230 female students at Chibok school are missing, kidnapped by Islamic jihadists Boko Haram. Where then is the live-blogging, the CNN crews, the flower-laying coverage and hourly updates?
Is empathy finite? Can we only grieve with one set of relatives at a time: the Chinese families of flight MH370 superseded by the parents of drowned South Korean children? Maybe that’s why our news is 1,000 times more concerned with a sacked football manager than an unfolding tragedy that is Beslan meets Madeleine McCann..."
It is devastating stuff. The link to the column was shared widely, people outside of Africa at last began to mutter. People on Twitter, that is. Not people in newspaper offices, you understand.
The following Monday the story merited not a line in our serious papers. Well, it was Easter and there was George Clooney getting engaged to a British barrister.
The stabbing of Ann Maguire, the Max Clifford sentence were big domestic stories, and there were pressing demands in the overseas sections with botched executions, mass death sentences in Egypt and the Ukrainian conflict. Yet the Independent still found room for a page on Yemen and a spread on Nordic sex; the Guardian took a look at Mexican basketball.
It was not until the end of the month that the missing girls began to win more space, the odd foreign page lead about being their being sold into slavery for £8, rumours of British involvement, Hague getting a little uppity.
On social media sites there was movement, however. Someone opened a BringBackOurGirls Twitter account with the name @Bringgirlsback and the picture above as an avatar.
A wiki page was set up. People were invited to contribute whatever they knew, whatever ideas they might have to give the issue more publicity. It was hard work, as we can see from this Twitter timeline . But it bore fruit.
Women started to protest outside embassies, to parade with banners, to demand that the world stop and take notice. And all the time they were asking "Why aren't the mainstream media covering this story?"
One of those who has been working tirelessly is "Eggbert Springs" (@KitchenNo7) who has been making cards, taking and posting photographs and tweeting almost nonstop. She told SubScribe:
"There are people all over the world doing their bit by contacting their MPs, organising vigils/marches. Not just recognised groups but ordinary solo people like myself... (we need to) encourage people to speak up about the importance of education for all, the right for children to be safe in their schools, and abhorrence of sex trafficking."
On Sunday the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was photographed with a Bring Back Our Girls poster and the ball started to roll. The #bringbackourgirls hashtag has now been tweeted a million times. And yesterday- three weeks after the girls were taken - the story finally broke through on to a British front page.
Here it is. Under the pink sheep. Well, it's a start.
It also made a spread in the Independent and a page lead in the Telegraph.
Is it unreasonable to expect British newspapers to make a fuss about these missing children?
SubScribe doesn't think so. If we can, and do, publish special issues on the slaughter of elephants or
30-year-old crimes, then we should be able to spare a few thoughts for girls who are kidnapped, abused and debased for the crime of seeking an education.
We have taken Malala to our hearts; she is a modern heroine, invited to speak at the UN, but we have shown such scant regard for hundreds of others who share her simple ambition.
The Press, as Kirk Douglas reminded us so grotesquely, likes an Ace in the Hole; one person on whom we can shower our long-distance love and admiration. We followed the rescue of the Chilean miners - we could just about cope with 33 of them - but 234 are just too many; Nigeria just too strange, too far away. We don't understand and, unlike the schoolchildren fighting for an education, we don't care to find out more.
Tonight the Guardian is offering answers to the "vital questions" about the kidnapping under the standfirst:
It's three weeks since the terrorist group Boko Haram abducted 300 schoolgirls. But it's the lack of action by a government that doesn't seem to know what's going on that is adding to the country's torment. Guardian writers unravel the crisis
All very laudable. But readers of the paper's news, rather than comment, pages might wonder "Crisis? What crisis?" There is now a long sidebar of puffs pointing to the extensive coverage of the story, but the timelines don't go back too far. Still, however late to the party, the Guardian did at least show up - and with a fairly decent bottle.
Unlike many papers that have yet to realise that Madeleine is not the only missing child in the world.
Isn't it the job of the professional journalist to shine a light into the darkest corners? How did we fail to recognise this story? Why did we not tell it properly, in such a way that the girls might have been found while still unharmed, rather than doze for three weeks until Malala popped up?
Are we so strapped for cash that all foreign reporting has to come from agencies and stringers, that we are willing to send staff only to warzones or holiday resorts packed with expat Brits?
If international pressure is brought to bear on Goodluck Jonathan's government or our troops are sent to join the search, it will be because of the Twitter campaign. Here we are, terrified of extinction, and our digital rivals don't even need to steal our clothes - we're stripping down and giving them away.
We've spent the award season telling each other that our journalism is the best in the world, and now we have the minister's word for it, too. So it must be true.
May 8 update
Michelle Obama (@FLOTUS) joined the Twitter chorus last night with this picture and the message:
"Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It's time to #BringBackOurGirls"
...and the Times is the first to make the story the splash - even if it isn't quite as dramatic as it sounds, and that picture of Malala is several days old.
In fact, it appears that SAS liaison officers based in Nigeria have been diverted from their usual duties to focus on the girls.
A specialist Whitehall team, including one or two military officers, is being sent to join them. So don't expect heavily armed men with blacked faces and camouflage uniform to start roaming Africa.
The Times also publishes a first leader which makes clear that its concerns are far more about stability, terrorism and economic growth (all reasonable priorities) than about finding the girls.
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