We’re back after a bit of a hiatus, during which we decided to make Unpacking Media Bias monthly instead of fortnightly. Think of it as a mini-magazine in one neat newsletter, with an ever-so-slightly different format each time, with perhaps a guest op-ed, author Q&A or insights, plus the usual sections. We hope you like it (you can email us to let us know either way!)
I met writer and academic Tim Hannigan last year when I chaired an online panel about decolonising travel writing. He’s the author of several books, including A Brief History of Indonesia and the award-winning Raffles and the British Invasion of Java. In his latest, The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre, he reflects on travel writing itself, from Orientalism to falsehoods, through interviews with some of the most interesting voices in the genre. I chatted to him from his hometown in Cornwall.
Meera: How do we move away from travel writing that, unintentionally exoticises and romanticises, whether we’re in Cornwall, Italy or the South Pacific? Tim: Be original in the theme-ing of the piece. There’ll always be a need for generic articles—let’s say it’s about Cornwall. Sure, interview the pasty maker and the fisherman but as fully rounded human beings, so going beyond, “This recipe’s been in the family for generations… I learnt it from my mother”. Ask something different. What’s it like in winter? What issues do you face?
Better still, be original in who you talk to. Let's say you’re in Kuala Lumpur writing a city guide. Yes, talk to the night market hawker and chef, but what about a fashion designer, as an example. It’s culturally interesting, but you’re stepping outside the obviously identifiable themes of Malaysia.
What did you discover in your research that travel writers might find handy? Firstly, I came to a happy conclusion: There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with travel writing. Yes, there’s anxiety among those of us who want to write thoughtfully, but that keeps us on our toes. Travel writing can bring out the worst in writers when encountering ‘otherness’ but you just have to work harder to keep it relevant.
Good travel writing comes from being self-reflective. Ask yourself, “Where did my ideas about this place come from?" If you’re in Cornwall, what’s shaped your ideas, be that Poldark or pasties, before arriving? Engage with that. Crack open the door to see what’s behind it.
How do you show that fascination and interest without ‘othering’? We shouldn’t be scared to show excitement. When you’re thinking, “Wow, it’s soooo different,” reflect on that. If you’re in the South Pacific, where did your notion of paradise come from? You rarely arrive with a blank slate—films, books, the news have shaped your preconceptions—so audit your own baggage and engage as meaningfully as possible. What does it look like from their side?
Do travel writers sometimes need to be more journalistic? It’s not always easy, but in longer- form travel features, I feel you can go beyond the who, what, where and when. You can give atmosphere, background and context, avoiding hit-and-run writing, and add an element of ‘reporting’ within a travel story.
Why does travel writing tend towards nostalgia and romanticisation? Are we trying to replicate ‘colonial travel writing’, consciously or not? It’s not just travel writing; it’s nature writing, design, etc. too! It’s human nature to think things were more interesting, if not better, in the past. We’re seeking an escape hatch. Think how some people hate finding the familiar e.g. a McDonalds, in a foreign place. It means the escape hatch hasn’t ‘worked’. But if we realise the present (Covid notwithstanding) is pretty cool too, we’ll engage with the real lived experience of a place and its people instead of putting it in a fantasy past.
Buy The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre by Tim Hanniganhere. Use code TTWT25 for a 25% discount.
Perspective matters; so does the past
One of the first things I said to Meera when I called her with the framework for a potential newsletter was that journalism needed to make space for new voices and different perspectives. We've always wanted UMB to be a forum for writers we rated and for people—particularly those outside the industry—who hadn't been heard.
So, we're handing the mic to Tasneem, a British-Palestinian millennial, for our first guest op-ed. In it, she shares how media has shaped and misrepresented her narrative. Hope you find this as illuminating as we did. Shivani -----
"When I moved from Palestine to the UK, aged 11, I quickly understood that I’d always need to justify my heritage. I remember a quote from author and intellectual, Edward Said, who once said that Palestinians did not have ‘permission to narrate’.
He was right. My outward identity had been shaped for me. It was a misrepresentation of my lived, millennial experience; one that had convinced people that we loved war, martyrdom and conflict, when I just wanted to date the cool boy at school and go to friends’ birthday parties. Until recently, I’d cut people’s prejudice short by telling them to “do their research”. But, in reality, we can’t address these assumptions without talking about colonialism.
The constant reference to ‘war’ suggests two equal sides have entered into a conflict but, per the colonialist script, there is an ‘Occupier’ state and ‘Occupied’ indigenous people trying to protect homes and lives—in this case, after the British gave them away.
In a recent edition of BBC’s HARDtalk, Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Mission to the UK, made reference to this, while fielding familiar and deliberate questions about a ‘conflict’: “This is a confrontation that has been based primarily on one word: negation… [It] started right here [in Britain] with The Balfour Declaration; 67 words that promised our land to others, without consulting us.” Zomlot went on to describe the British promising Palestinian land to others as an act of colonial and imperialist arrogance. As history shows us, colonisers who interfere and damage society in other countries tend to try to wash their hands of the destruction.
My experience of Palestine is multi-faith, including Muslims, Christians and Jews. The Western narrative of a ‘religious war’ between Jews and Arabs is a sensationalist fallacy that puts more lives at risk; since reporting resumed last month, there have been recorded spikes in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crimes in the UK. Reiterating this notion of balance relieves Israel from implementing real solutions that keep all citizens—Israeli and Palestinian—safe and, conveniently, allows the West to shirk responsibility for the part they continue to play.
For context, Israel has received the most US foreign assistance of any country since its establishment in 1948 and its military expenditure is one of the world’s highest. American right-wing groups financially support settler groups, such as El'ad, that displace Palestinian families in neighbourhoods like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. Palestine, meanwhile, has no army and no control of its land or territories. The West Bank is under military occupation and Gaza, including its air and sea routes, has been under a blockade for decades.
Mainstream coverage of the state violence and oppression of the Palestinian people only began in earnest recently, when #savesheikhjarrah—a hashtag created by Palestinian twins, Muna and Mohammed El-Kurd—exposed Israel’s attempt to forcefully displace 28 Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, their neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.
The hashtag, along with footage of the assault on Palestinians in the al-Aqsa Mosque, went viral and sparked protests everywhere—including in the occupied territories. Within this reporting, though, many journalists served the colonial narrative of indigenous people being ‘violent’ and ‘uncivilised’ (therefore suggesting they need controlling). This is a trope thrown around often by the press—including during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
As an example, CNN anchor, Robyn Curnow, asked Mohammed El-Kurd whether he supported “the violent protests that have erupted in solidarity with you and other families in your position right now?” El-Kurd replied, “Do you support the violent dispossession of me and my family?”
That Palestinians are finally being allowed to speak for themselves in the press is a double-edged sword; the threat of such framing means many would rather build their own platforms. Over the last month, Palestinian and anti-Occupation Israeli voices—such as @gazangirl and @jewishvoicesforpeace—have been amplified on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. The exposure was such that the Israeli government asked Facebook and TikTok to censor them; something which similarly militarised governments in India and Nigeria have also attempted in recent weeks.
Social media has also forced outlets such as Sky News and The New York Times to balance their reporting and prompted Human Rights Watch to speak publicly of the Israeli authorities’ crimes of ‘apartheid’ and ‘persecution’.
Media outlets risk becoming irrelevant and outdated if they do not honour journalistic integrity; something that sets them apart from social media platforms. It’s clear that this historically cavalier attitude from a large portion of the press has no place among a new generation, who care deeply about human rights and the dismantling of institutional racism. I know that they won’t be misrepresented in the way mine was.
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Writing Tip of the Day
The impact of people-first language cannot be overstated. For example, referring to 'enslaved people' rather than 'slaves' turns an imposed identity into a circumstance. Equally, using 'people with disabilities' rather than 'disabled people' focuses on people, rather than rushing to categorise or pigeonhole them.
An easy exercise is to think of someone who belongs to a stereotyped group and focus on their unique characteristics and best qualities. By practising this regularly, we start to become aware of our inherent biases and develop more positive habits.
The Sense Check
Are actions like removing the Queen’s portrait from a Oxford University common room significant, or does media coverage of such events detract from bigger issues we need to tackle around history? Do they also alienate potential allies, who might say they're ‘too woke’?
Shivani Ashoka Journalist, freelance travel writer and Unpacking Media Bias co-founder
Twitter: @shivaniashoka "We’re not exactly talking about the use of taxpayer money in a public space—this is the academic equivalent of a bedroom wall. It’s their common room and their decision. I’m not quite sure how it affects the rest of us. If they decided to hang Skepta's portrait in its place, that’d be their prerogative too.
I'll be honest: a monarch being revered in the same way as a deity or a dictator makes me uncomfortable. The only queens I have time for are those that fall out of bars in Soho.
As for the coverage, MPs ought to face front and focus on their jobs—rather than stoking the culture fire for clicks. If the Education Secretary has time to wade in with his opinion, perhaps he also has time to listen to those same students discuss *his* recent decisions.
I fundamentally disagree with the idea of appeasing ‘potential allies’, as well as this revisionist take on what it means to be 'woke'. If someone can be dissuaded from fighting for equity because a picture is taken down or because others take the knee, they were not an ally to begin with."
Travel writer, Adventure.com co-editor and Unpacking Media Bias co-founder Twitter: @nofixedplans
"Putting the portrait up was a decision made by students around 2013. It wasn’t ‘university policy’ to display the Queen’s photo in a common room, even if some people wish it was, along with a flag… If students today feel it’s not relevant—the photo was taken in 1952 and has more than a whiff of the colonies and Empire—they had the same right to remove it as the students who voted it in 8 years ago.
But the ‘noise’ from certain parts shows, yet again, an unhealthy relationship with our history. If we had a shared, accurate national narrative, the savoury and unsavoury, which people didn’t feel ‘personally guilty’ for, there’d be less shock-horror around something minor like taking down a photo of the Queen.
It doesn’t mean the portrait was offensive, or that ‘you don’t like the Queen’ (and if you don’t, well, it’s a free country) or you’re not ‘patriotic’ (whatever that even means). But if something presents a somewhat outdated notion of Britain in 2021 to some people, well, it’s their lounge and they get to decide what goes on the wall."
Want to ask a question (anonymously)? Send away with our new Google form (no email required) and we'll try and tackle it in an upcoming newsletter. You can also email us—we always welcome feedback, suggestions and comments.
Did You Know?
Tuesday 22nd June will be the UK’s fourth Windrush Day, marking 73 years since the SS Empire Windrush sailed into Tilbury Docks in Essex in 1948. Aboard were the first Caribbean migrants to the UK, invited to help re-build Britain after the Second World War which had left the nation in debt and in great need of labour.
But the day is about more than that one moment; it’s about acknowledging the contribution of the Windrush migrants, and subsequent arrivals and their families to British life and culture. Sadly, it’s also about highlighting the ongoing issues created by the Windrush Scandal in 2018, a by-product of the “hostile environment” created by the government, when many from the Windrush Generation and their descendants were unable to prove they had the right to stay in the UK, usually because they never had any paperwork in the first place or it had been destroyed.
The upshot is many have had their lives up-ended, lost jobs, denied legal rights, suffered from stress, been detained, and deported to countries they left as a child or had never set foot in. 21 people have died, often away from their families, before receiving compensation.
As Anthony Bryan, whose story was the inspiration for the BBC drama Sitting in Limbo, told The Independent, “My Windrush drama won a Bafta but I still haven’t received compensation,” he says. “When I think of what I’ve been through, I break out in cold sweats. I still get stressed out and, to this day, I can’t cope with hearing the banging of doors because it makes me very nervous and takes me back to that dark time in my life.”
London boy, Riz Ahmed, has launched an initiative to overhaul the depiction of Muslims in film. Ahmed, who recently became the first Muslim and first actor of Pakistani origin to be nominated for an Oscar, said the cost of Muslim misrepresentation "is measured in lost potential and lost lives".
The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion will include scholarship funding and mentoring for Muslim storytellers in the early stages of their careers. The programme speaks directly to the film and TV industry, urging them to address 'terror tropes' and hire Muslim creators for first-look deals. Its report, which examines the damaging statistics and tropes around Muslim talent, also puts pressure on industry organisations to “formally recognise Muslims as a marginalised, erased, and under-resourced group in [your] diversity, equity, and inclusion programmes”, “reform casting practices” and “intentionally seek out polycultural Muslim talent”.
Debora Ann Eden became a meme during the #Justice4Grenfell march. Here, she shares her story.
"As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than it’s taken off you and swapped for another. The jewellery of your struggles is forever on loan, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the crown jewels. You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative."