Kicking Inner City Press’ Matt Lee out of the UN is bad for media & development

News about Matt Lee and his stand-off with UN officials reached me through Twitter on Saturday morning local time and has since gained some momentum, including a longer piece on BuzzFeed.

I have been following Inner City Press’ reporting from the UN for a while and there are quite a few instances where I do not agree with Matt’s interpretation of events and his overall tone as a member of a radical opposition to the UN system. But it is 2016 and journalism is changing.

Large development organizations in general and the UN system in particular which talks a lot in an abstract way about ‘open data’, ‘transparency’ and ‘freedom of press’ need to find better ways of engaging with new forms of journalism.
I can understand that UN headquarters want to cling on to some traditional rules, regulations and gentlemen (sic!) agreements around reporting and journalism, but in a fragmented media landscape, filled with everything from BuzzFeed to Russia Today, from Foreign Policy columnists to Al-Jazeera it becomes more and more difficult to legitimize a selected few outlets and journalists based on their traditional relationship with press and communications offices.

You are telling ‘them’ about the importance of citizen journalism all the time

Even in a difficult environment such as Rwanda (see my recent book review of ‘Bad News’ for example), donors, including the UN system, will organize human rights, freedom of press and journalism trainings and events-and notions that citizen journalists will hold institutions accountable through their sometimes uncomfortable work are part of most ambassadorial speeches on about democratic values and good governance.
In my understanding, Matt Lee is doing something very similar at the UN headquarters in New York City.
There may be a vision that ‘citizen journalists’ silently work through some CSV files of open data and compile a critical report, but in this day and age you need to prepare for many different interventions and a Periscope stream from your press briefing-especially if you are public institution.

In a mediatized world, ignoring can be a powerful tool

We are talking and teaching about ‘mediatization’ all the time and one of the aspects I find most media outlets still struggle with is the fact that ignoring dissenting voices can be more powerful than trying to engage with them, expel them and give them a bigger audience; the very fact that I am writing this post is an indication that UN’s communication and security team got something wrong. If you disagree with Matt and Inner City News you may want to consider ignoring him. He has an audience and by challenging him and making his professional life difficult you are probably not achieving much.
More generally, I think development organizations need to think carefully when to engage-and when engagement will yield little or no ‘result’.
Sometimes, you encounter a student in your class who is radically opposed to ‘development’, believes that the subject must not be taught in the global North and that higher education only exist to implement some Foucauldian power-knowledge scheme-and you need to find ways of continuing the class in a constructive, yet critical way.
Mainstream journalists cheering and shouting abuse when Matt is led out of the building may say more about the shifts in journalism than the topic at hand.

The days of boring press briefings are over-so deal with it

In Germany, Tilo Jung has ‘hacked’ the traditional affair that once was the government’s official press conference. 
He asks critical, sometimes uncomfortable questions and his tone is far from the one traditional correspondents in suits usually have when they address those in power. Even if he is controversial and sometimes seems to provoke for the sake of it, he is a representative of a new generation of one-man journalism brands that turn boring press announcements in stuffy rooms into lively debates-not the worst thing in an open, vibrant democracy.

As much as I understand that the UN is a membership organization with almost 200 very different member states and that global politics and diplomacy will never be fully live tweeted and open access the UN’s press corps needs more disruptors like Matt and needs to engage more actively in discussions on how to engage publicly in the 21st century. Throwing a journalist out of he building will always reflect bad on the organization and the last thing the UN wants is bad publicity stemming from someone practicing what the UN charter preaches...


Popular posts from this blog

Links & Contents I Liked 500

The visible lessons of Invisible Children- #globaldev critique in the viral age (in response to Paul Currion)

Happy retirement Duncan Green!

Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies?

Dear white middle class British women: Please don't send used bras (or anything, really) to Africa