Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The age of the image

A while back, I made a bit of a comment about how the image is so prevalent in our digitised world. Well, I was pleased to hear one woman's perspective about the impact of exactly this. Professor Jean Seaton, professor of Media History at University of Westminster and author of 'Power without responsibility, came and did a Wednesday seminar for the Reuter's Institute (my work).

According to Prof. Seaton, the trend toward visualisation in the way media covers issues has impacted politics significantly. Not only do we now judge politicians a whole lot more by their looks, their carefully managed 'image', but also there is a breakdown in the private/public divide. Politicians are almost guaranteed to have all aspects of their life and past scrutinised intently, regardless of how it affects their actual ability to lead. Brings to mind Bill Clinton, who smoked but 'did not inhale' a certain substance while at Oxford University. Presumably in the same way he 'did not have sexual relations' with that woman. A vegetarian cookbook I once owned had a few interesting facts in its inside cover - of two real world leaders, one was a teetotaler, a vegetarian and exercised regularly. The other smoked, drank and was blatantly sexist, and rather portly. Who would you rather have as your leader? the first was Hitler, the second Churchill. Martin Luther king apparently cheated on his wife (which the FBI then used to blackmail him). Seemingly upright private lives don't necessarily mean someone will be a good leader. And maybe, vice versa. Its a strange issue, what is private and what is public, and how these interact.

As far as gender goes, the visual trend puts further pressure on women, as we often saw in NZ one of the favourite things to criticise about Helen Clark was her looks, and her 'mannish' voice, in a way that just didn't happen for male prime ministers. In the UK, during the election campaign, brutal emphasis was put on what the candidate's wives wore. As if that was their major role in life. We are what we look like, apparently.

The other thing Prof Seaton talked about was the way in which the media has power to set the agenda - not just in terms of how things are discussed, but what gets discussed in the first place. What is determined as news. In particular, things that have good 'images' to go with them tend to be news. Climate change is a tricky one to report on partly for this reason. One of the other speakers who put on a seminar for my work talked about the increasing number of journalists being killed while reporting. In part, this is due to the demand for close up, dramatic, centre of action images, which places the journalists and cameramen in much more risky situations.

On a lighter note, Malcolm often look out for good headlines, particularly small NZ newspapers come up with some stunners. "elderly woman found in home" "swimmer gets stung by bee" are two particularly ridiculous ones. In the UK, there was one about a horse listening to a radio show. Yep. One of these days I'll get around to reading Chomsky, I have a feeling he'd have a thing to say about the trivialisation of news. infotainment again.

In other news, Malcolm has started a new blog that's gorgeous. take a peek.

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