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Frontline – A Year of Journalism & Conflict by Sky News

Seeing as this is located about a stone’s throw from my PhD room, it has taken a little too long to go and see it. Frontline is in name a year of journalism and conflict, but in actuality what was viewed in four places: Libya, Syria, Egypt and Hackney (okay, ‘the UK riots’). It is all very modern, coming equipped with Ipads, and the opportunity for “augmented reality” on your smartphone (if the wireless is working, which it wasn’t, and when finally downloaded, the app was confusing to the point of non-use). App bugginess aside, there is perhaps something a little disquieting about viewing information about people on a device that none of them could afford. One wonders if they had that in mind, but I doubt that the exhibition was aiming for a post-post-modern critique of viewing conflict. What follows is more criticism, but shouldn’t be taken as criticism of individual journalists. The people that went there were brave, some of them died. What I’m more concerned with is the structure of journalism, and why it bugs the hell out of me.

Technology issues aside, the problem that this exhibition has is that anyone likely to go there has seen it all before. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is pointless, but perhaps a little more consideration needs to be put into a similar effort in future. The ubiquity of image in contemporary life is such that it doesn’t take much awareness to have encountered every single image and moving picture in the gallery, or at least something strikingly similar. The net effect is that walking through the short exhibition is rather like trawling through a meme tumblr, only with added blood and bullets. The four conflicts covered in the exhibition have been, for want of better words, done to death over the past calendar year. So much was said, pictured, recorded and discussed about these matters that what original matter could be compiled on them would take a genius to distil into such an exhibition. Unfortunately, genius was in short supply.

There is space for something like a year of journalism and conflict, but this exhibition isn’t it. This is, after all, Sky News’ year of journalism and conflict, which, when one considers the contracted viewpoint, entirely depressing. Four conflicts, three foreign, one internal. That’s it. Now, I am not one to do down the significance of the arab spring, but the world is a very big place, and while we are collectively very interested in rebellions and uprisings with the word “democracy” attached, people are dying all over the place. In its own way, the exhibition does display quite viscerally the way in which internal selection bias and the hunt for “defining” images and moments has got the news agenda bent so far out of shape that it can no longer balance what is important. Things that are/were important: the end of Western involvement in the Iraq War (despite the Afghanistan-induced amnesia, it was the defining war of the last decade), that war continuing on without us, Afghanistan (yes, that place halfway around the world where western forces will be dying for the next 2 years, at least), Pakistan (the place where America is killing al-Qaeda plus ‘militants’ and happened to kill the most infamous person since perhaps Stalin or Hitler), Mexico (possibly the deadliest current conflict in the world by year-on-year body count?), South Sudan (hey, new state!), Sudan, DRC, the list goes on. Please don’t take my pithy comments as being my serious attitude to these wars, but maybe they should have been said at some point when people were picking “important” conflicts out of a hat. These four selected conflicts are important because Sky thinks they are (probably because they know what their viewers want to watch). There can be no objectivity in this, I understand that. Sky’s selection of these four out of a great many is an orientalism of sorts: this is the world we want to view. Dictators, freedom, the oppressed. There’s no place for messy economic power grabs of Coltan mines that keep the world’s goods going. Wars that are hard to explain, access or reduce to imagery don’t get a look in (hey, how about the fact that every BRIC country has a major instability: the Caucasus, the Amazon, Chinese ‘unrest’ and India’s Naxalites?).

Thinking about the above, I’m tempted to blame the lack of focus on Sky being a digital, 24 hour, visual medium. In honesty, I hate the 24 hour tag. It’s pointless. When the UK press begins staffing newsrooms at daytime levels between the hours of 1am and 7am, I’ll maybe revise that judgement. Maybe when it matters when a major story breaks when 90% of the population is asleep, it’ll matter, but it doesn’t, it matters when they wake up to whichever morning news media they consume, or glance at yesterday’s happenings in the Metro on the way to work. So I’m going to blame it on Sky being a visual medium. Here’s what’s been bugging me about that - is the hunt for defining images inhibiting the ‘truth’ of war reporting? We all know that without imagery, an event is likely to be ignored (“Sorry bro, no photo - no war. Go clap with one hand or something.”) but we are now flooded with very good images and video. Sod pictures of people hanging about near a deserted street: mid-explosions and soldiers caught at the instant of firing mortars/RPGs become the gold standard. Since photographers and cameramen can now happily catch something akin to a Jerry Bruckheimer still, or an offcut from Call of Duty, ‘lesser’ images get reduced in importance. Is it something like the volume wars in record mastering? It feels as though we’re visually hooked on ‘incredible’ imagery, and mundane images of war that would normally define it, and in many cases, are probably more accurate, get rejected out of hand.

The problem with the above is that put together, as happens in this exhibition, these images no longer stand out. Everything blares, nothing much explains. Weird edges get shaped out. I note that one of the defining London riots images, the chap who decided to loot Tesco value rice, is missing. Violence, violence everywhere and not a moment to think. That’s the chief analytical problem with this, particularly an exhibition that purports to focus on conflict, is that it completely lacks any and all history or balance. There is no framing, there is no perspective offered. There is the money shot, and then the participants are abandoned to carry on doing what they do after the buzz (which in many cases is much the same as what they were doing beforehand). If anything, this exhibition makes out the news media to be vampires. Were any of you bothered when Egypt, Syria and Libya were chafing at the yoke? Maybe, but it wasn’t being reported, it was merely accepted. Were they posting pictures of security force depravity? Nope, even though they were available on the internet prior to ‘the spring’. The kind of scope of thought that produced Vietnam, Inc. is absent here, and in my mind, likely to be financially impossible in this day and age.

Visual media can help us understand war. There’s space for yearly roundups, though probably with some thought in curation and a wider selection of material. The news is meant to help us understand the world outside our immediate experience. At the end of the day, this exhibition shows how depressingly limited Sky considers the outside world to be.