The importance of consuming a wide variety of media from different publications and sources based around the globe is relevant now more than ever, especially if your business is international, writes David Landsman
Recently, I returned from a few weeks away in Serbia and Greece, two countries where I served as a diplomat (though when I lived in Belgrade, Serbia was still within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia).
When I left Belgrade in early 2001, I remember thinking that I would probably never again find myself in a country which made the world headlines almost every day. My time in the country had begun prompting anxious calls — almost always unnecessary — from my friends and relatives about my safety.
And then, a few years later, I arrived in Greece as Ambassador of the United Kingdom — and within a few months, my adopted country was on the front pages every day, albeit in very different and much less dangerous circumstances. The kind of important people in Downing Street who were usually too busy to bother about ‘small’ countries would call at unsocial hours for an update on the latest crisis. Was it true that [insert the latest wild rumour to hit the wires]? Once again, I seemed to be at the centre of attention, though it was nothing to boast about about.
These memories have kept coming back to me since those times when I’ve had a conversation with someone about what I used to do and which countries I’ve worked in. Often, the response will be ‘that must have been very interesting/challenging/scary but everything’s fine there now, isn’t it?’ What they really mean by that of course is ‘Oh yes, I remember reading a lot about that, but I haven’t seen it on the front pages for quite a while so it must be OK’.
In one sense, that’s probably fair. If a country isn’t on the front pages anymore, it probably means either that there aren’t too many horror stories to report. In other words, what you read in the papers does tell you something about what’s happening, but it also says something about how media outlets prioritise stories. It also says a lot about our attention spans and what we want to read or hear about.
There can of course be good news too. In the case of Greece, the country has made huge steps to overcome its financial crisis, impressed with its handling of COVID, and has a highly regarded post-COVID economic recovery plan based substantially on digitisation, which is a model for the rest of the EU. Geopolitically, Greece is an active and constructive player in its region and beyond, more so than at any time in living memory.
As far as Serbia and the Western Balkans are concerned, the region is no longer at war and — as I witnessed at firsthand recently during my trip — living conditions for many have markedly improved. But just because a region is not on the front pages, doesn’t mean that all the problems have been resolved. Ever since the late 1990s, the European Union has repeatedly given a commitment to integrate the region into the bloc, but the reform process has been patchy and the EU, under its own pressures, has largely tired of enlargement. At the same time, Russia, Turkey and China are all actively seeking to increase their influence in the region. It’s not yet clear how far the US, which dominated Balkan geopolitics in the 1990s, is ‘back’. So it’s no surprise that the region still occasionally gets close to the front pages, but we must hope it doesn’t settle there again while the West isn’t looking.
The broader lesson here is about how we interpret what we absorb from the media about ‘faraway places of which we know nothing’.
As a diplomat, I used to think that the most important thing to do in the morning was to read the local newspapers and report back home on what was going on. I soon learned that it was equally important to read the British and international press to see what my bosses and colleagues back home were reading over their breakfast tables. The reports in one or two newspapers would rarely tell the whole story or provide enough analysis on which to take decisions.
If your business is international, you need multiple perspectives and the capacity to assess them. That’s why diplomats are just as necessary as ever in the age of internet and social media. And if you don’t happen to have your own diplomatic service, you need to invest in your own ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground. You need to read between the (head)lines.