The Media as a Chinese Whisper Machine

In his book (based on a public lecture) on Television, Bourdieu uses a good concept to describe how information is produced within the news media: he calls it the “circular circulation of information”. In a nutshell, the main idea is that, despite its function as a window open to the world, the media actually work in a relatively closed setting. The main source of information for journalists are the media themselves, journalists have their own implicit rules about what is interesting (scandal, exclusivity, being the first on a story), and the most avid readers of newspapers are… journalists in other newspapers. The Daily Mail talks about something because the Telegraph talks about it, Channel 4 prepares its headlines after watching what the BBC has done, and so on and so forth. Competition creates a lot of uniformity. This makes for a fairly closed mechanism of production. As for analogies, you could think of a mass enterprise in Chinese whispers, or a giant echo chamber where a relatively small sample of news stories gets distorted, modified and amplified at each stage of the process, while others are ignored.

There is a great example today about – again – Oprah Winfrey’s experience in a Swiss shop, where a shop assistant allegedly refused to show her a super-expensive bag, saying it was – precisely – too expensive. Oprah said it was a case of racism, which the owner of the shop has denied. On Sunday, the Sonntagsblick has interviewed the shop assistant who served Oprah to have her version. Here’s what she said

“Was haben Sie getan?
 Ich ging zu einer Vitrine und zeigte ihr eine dieser Jennifer-Aniston-Taschen, die sehr populär sind. Ich erklärte ihr, dass es diese Taschen in verschiedenen Grössen und Materialien gibt, so wie ich das immer tue. Sie blickte auf ein Gestell hinter mir. Weit oben. Darauf aus­gestellt war die 35000-Franken-Krokotasche. Ich sagte ihr, dass es dieselbe Tasche sei wie die, die ich gerade in der Hand hielt. Nur dass sie viel teurer sei. Ich könne ihr gerne noch andere Taschen zeigen. Oprah Winfrey behauptete im US-Fernsehen, Sie hätten ihr die Tasche aus rassistischen Gründen nicht ausgehändigt.
 Das ist absolut nicht wahr! Ich fragte sie sogar, ob sie die Tasche genauer anschauen wolle. Frau Winfrey hat sich nochmals im Geschäft umgeblickt, aber nichts mehr gesagt. Dann ging sie mit ihrem Begleiter in den unteren Stock. Mein Kollege hat ihnen noch die Tür aufgehalten. Sie waren nicht einmal fünf Minuten bei uns im Geschäft. Warum macht Oprah Winfrey dann solche Anschuldigungen?
 Das weiss ich nicht! Sie ist so mächtig, und ich bin bloss eine Verkäuferin. Ich habe niemandem etwas zuleide getan. Ich verstehe auch nicht, weshalb sie das so gross im TV ausschlachten muss. Hätte sich alles so zugetragen, wie sie behauptet: Warum hat sie sich dann nicht am nächsten Tag an der Hochzeit von Tina Turner bei Trudie Götz beschwert? Meine Chefin war ja dort ebenfalls zu Gast. Ich verstehe es nicht. Sie hätten zu ihr gesagt: «Sie wollen diese Tasche nicht sehen. Sie ist zu teuer. Die können Sie sich nicht leisten», sagt Winfrey.
Das stimmt nicht. Das ist absurd. So etwas würde ich zu einem Kunden nie sagen. Wirklich nicht! Gute Manieren und Höflichkeit sind das A und O in diesem Geschäft. Was würden Sie Oprah Winfrey sagen?
Ich würde mich entschuldigen. Es war ein Missverständnis. Ich habe Frau Winfrey sicher nicht absichtlich beleidigen wollen. Ich hoffe, dieser Albtraum ist bald zu Ende.

For non-German-speakers, she says that she started showing her Jennifer-Aniston bags, and then Oprah asked about the crocodile version, and the shop assistant answered it was the same, just much more expensive. The journalist says that Oprah Winfrey has affirmed that she was not given the bag because of racial prejudice, which the shop assistant vehemently denies. She also says that she has never said that Oprah “could never afford” the bag, that politeness is the most important in this trade. She doesn’t know why Oprah tore her apart (ausschlachten) like that on TV. When asked what she would tell Oprah, she says that she would apologise, that it was a misunderstanding, that she didn’t want to offend her. She wants this nightmare to be over. As stated in the title in German, she “hasn’t been able to sleep for days”.

The story has been taken up by the Daily Mail. There are direct translations from the original Sonntagsblick article and the content is similar (even though pushed to emphasise that Oprah may have lied), but the title has radically changed. From “I haven’t been able to sleep for days”, it is now “‘Oprah’s a liar’: Sales assistant in Swiss racist handbag row denies telling TV host that she could not view item because she couldn’t afford it”. Now, what you need to know is that people who write headlines and titles in newspapers are not the same who write the articles. Besides the “Chinese whisper” phenomenon across news outlets, it also happens within news outlets. For  a headline, you don’t want nuance, you want a punchline, and for that you emphasise conflict, or drama.

Finally, the website Gawker has re-used the story of the Daily Mail – and some Google translation of the original Sonntagsblick article – with a new title: “Swiss Shop Clerk Says Oprah “Cannibalized Her” With Racism Charge”. Now the term “cannibalized” seems to be a translation of the German “aussschlachten” of the original article (but ausschlachten is also used for cars). The difference between “cannibalized” and “tore apart” is that the former reinforces the racist picture that has been constructed for this shop assistant, as if she talked about Oprah Winfrey as a cannibal just like those African tribes in Allan Quatermain’s movies. So this is how you transform an interview where the shop employee says she cannot sleep into one where she calls Oprah Winfrey a Liar and a Cannibal.

The Swiss Apartheid

This week, Switzerland has been presented as the new country of apartheid. On Wednesday, international media outlets reported that the Federal Office for Migration had agreed exclusion rules with the town of Bremgarten in the Canton of Zurich for its new national centre for asylum seekers. Asylum seekers sheltered in that small town would not be allowed to access a number of public spaces, such as the swimming pool and the school. The town’s mayor justified these rules by “security grounds”, to prevent conflict and “guard against possible drug use”. The head of the federal migration office has said that its services had agreed to these rules to ensure “peaceful coexistence” between residents and asylum seekers. On top of this, Oprah Winfrey revealed yesterday on Larry King that she had been a victim of racism in Switzerland too. When she asked to see a 35’000 CHF bag in an upmarket shop in Zurich, she was told that the bag was “too expensive for her”. This is clearly a PR disaster. Some have argued that “tourists to Switzerland should be aware of new apartheid type policies”. I was interviewed yesterday on a radio show asking whether “the most neutral country in Europe is also the most racist“.

My answer would be no, and far from it. Switzerland has admitted more immigrants than any other European country of similar size over the last 50 years. Switzerland has one of the highest shares of immigrants amongst its population in Europe. In 2011, 23% of residents did not have Swiss citizenship. This high proportion is partly due to the fact that access to Swiss citizenship is fairly restrictive, and the conditions vary significantly across cantons, but admission policy has been very liberal by any standard. During the last 50 years, about 2 million people have migrated to Switzerland from abroad, or were born in Switzerland to immigrant parents. Without any immigration, Switzerland would now have 30% fewer inhabitants, which is a  bigger proportion than “traditional” immigration countries such as the US, Canada or Australia. Immigration is the main contribution to demographic growth (there are 2.5 times more immigrations than births). Switzerland also accepts a fairly high share of asylum seekers in relation to its population. It counts one asylum seeker per 332 inhabitants, whereas the European average is one per 625. If the Swiss were so racist and xenophobic, why would they accept so many migrants, most of them integrating very successfully?

Now of course, everything is not rosy. It is difficult to say whether what happened to Oprah Winfrey was a blatant case of racism from the news reports that I have read. Most normal people cannot afford a 35’000 CHF handbag, so the shop assistant may have just assumed she’s not part of the 0,001% of people who would spend that ridiculous sum of money for a handbag.  It is true, however, that Switzerland surely does have a racism problem which affects black people, but also other nationalities, and I don’t think it is worse than elsewhere. A few years ago, Swiss public TV produced a documentary which followed a Senegalese journalist equipped with a hidden camera while he was applying for jobs, seeking to rent a flat or even enter a club in a number of towns in French-speaking Switzerland. The behaviour of some people was really quite appalling. A study commissioned by the Swiss national commission against racism also pointed to a number of problems for black people. Discrimination is not really targeted at Black or ethnic minorities, but also affects European migrants. Another study of ethnic discrimination on the labour market pointed out that the most discriminated minority were (white) people from Kosovo in German-speaking Switzerland. I am not really familiar with comparative data on this, but I wonder if Switzerland is really worse than other countries. Nothing like the abuse that Cecile Kyenge has received has happened in Switzerland.

The Bremgarten case should  been seen against the background anti-immigration turn in Swiss immigration policy (as I tried to argue here) that has started in the 1990s with the rise of the xenophobic Swiss people party. This anti-immigration turn, however, has taken place elsewhere as well. In Switzerland, the Schweizerische Volkspartei – something like the local UKIP – has become the biggest party in parliament, and other parties have partly followed suit on its immigration policy positions out of fear of losing even more voters. Most immigration reforms in recent years have involved some  form of toughening, especially in the domain of asylum. What is interesting is that parties  have tried to show a tough stance in domains that have a marginal economic significance such as asylum or naturalizations. Right-wing parties have continuously toughened asylum and citizenship rules in recent years, but have been very reluctant to seek curbs in the free movement of workers with the EU, which is the main channel of immigration to Switzerland. In this way, they seek to please voters by hitting weak groups (asylum seekers) while not alienating business interests who are highly dependent on foreign (EU) labour.

Beside, there is little chance that the Bremgarten rules could stand a challenge at the Swiss constitutional court. It is not the first time that city councils want to enforce discriminatory rules for foreigners. Emmen, in canton Luzern, had introduced a naturalization procedure which provided for voters to decide on citizenship applications. Voters would receive a booklet with pictures and short biographies of individuals and families who wanted to become Swiss, and could decide on a “yes” or a “no”. Research carried out on this has shown that decisions were clearly discriminatory against certain nationalities; application from people from Turkey or Kosovo were systematically refused independently of their level of integration or language skills. However, these rules were ruled as unconstitutional by the Swiss Federal Court, and had to be withdrawn.

More generally, these exclusion rules are an attempt to deal with the well-known “NIMBY” syndrome (not in my backyard). This has been extensively analyzed for nuclear plants, airports or other things that countries need, but that people would rather not have next to their own home. People may favour open asylum policies, but many may not be too enthusiastic about having a centre next to their house with 300 people who are not allowed to work, do not speak the local language and have often experienced war or other disasters. As local authorities need to accept the establishment of these centers on their territory, there are negotiations between local communities and the federal level, and the “apartheid” rules are part of that.

The rules that have been agreed in Bremgarten are quite disgraceful (and probably impossible to enforce), but managing asylum requests is a fairly dirty business in general, and a business that most people ignore, or want to ignore. While Bremgarten doesn’t let asylum seekers use the public swimming pool, Australia has relocated its detention centers to remote islands in the pacific, where its own national legislation does not apply. In the UK, as far as I understand, people awaiting decisions on their asylum requests are routinely detained in prison-like facilities managed by private companies such as G4S. Sometimes they are killed in dubious circumstances, like Jimmy Mubenga.