Brits on a Plane

In today’s interconnected world, news gets everywhere, fast. We are aware of the happenings in other countries almost as soon as they happen. Why is it that we still show so much more interest, when a Briton is involved?

By Tochi Onuora

AirAsia QZ8501, the fateful plane that went
missing on December 28th. (Photo: Sky News)

Just a few weeks ago, I was logging out of my email, and stumbled across a headline on MSN: ‘Search For Missing Plane Suspended Overnight.’ Naturally, knowing nothing of the subject yet, I wandered over to click it, only for it to have switched to the next article on Kim Kardashian.

Having made my way on to the page, I saw a large picture of a plane (seen right) and some accessible text. The first words were, “A British businessman” – nothing about the airline, or the number of people on the plane. For that, you had to go look further down. More background information about the man and his daughter was revealed afterwards, only emphasising the tragedy of the event (may all 162 victims rest in peace). It was just after this that it hit me; why did the article only focus on the Briton? It took a few paragraphs to even focus on the event.

Of course, this example is not the only, or even the greatest example of when, in the aftermath of a tragedy, often overseas, we in Britain only really care when a Briton is affected. Are we that inherently selfish? Can we only really start to empathise with victims when we realise that we could be in the same situation, or that the problem could potentially affect us? Of course, the lost lives and suffering of British people is just as important as those of victims of other nationalities, but it is the other victims who are usually ignored, leaving quite an unpleasant taste on society’s tongue.

A key example of this is the Ebola crisis, of which in the past few months, there had been relatively little coverage despite the disease still ravaging Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone. Britain only seemed to be brought to its senses after the Band Aid album, and again, after nurse Pauline Cafferkey unfortunately caught the disease during her voluntary visit to Sierra Leone.

A meme by the author. (Photos (clockwise):
Daily Express, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian,
NBC News)
In fact, it was only after this that David Cameron announced that her plight had made Ebola his primary concern. It should always be a primary concern, not just because somebody in Britain could now die from it. Do we have no regard for the lives of people elsewhere? Bear in mind that with diseases like Ebola, not dealing with the problem in West Africa will indefinitely endanger the lives of those living here, since diseases don’t stay isolated. This is of course, not to demean the slew of aid that has already been sent to West Africa, or to suggest that Ms Cafferkey should be treated with less seriousness, but instead to question why we seem to forget if it’s happening to somebody else across the world.

News is not the only place where western lives appear to be favoured. The 2012 film, The Impossible, looked at the heart-wrenching story of a tsunami, based on the true story of María Belón and her family. This family was Spanish but represented as British in the film. It was suitably wonderful, beautifully acted and directed, but what was striking was how at the end, this family was able to fly away from the devastation, to their rather functional western lives. The film essentially ignored the plight of the native inhabitants who experienced the most suffering and disruption to their livelihoods, placing importance on this single holidaying family instead. Few other films of equal popularity have explored the effects of this, on the poorer native residents.

In modern society, it’s very unfortunate to admit, that lives are not all worth the same. Lives in the West are seen as being of greater worth than lives elsewhere, and this is mostly due to the concentration of wealth being in the West. Of course we can say this is unfair, as all human life should be equal, but that is almost a naïve outlook. In developing countries, a single death there is not comparable to the death of somebody in Britain or the US; it does not get as much coverage. It’s partially due down to the fact that a person in a “Third World” country will not achieve as much, or generate as much money as somebody in the western world. It is a sad truth.

In the name of balance however, is it really fair to criticise David Cameron for only mentioning Ebola loudly again after a Briton was diagnosed with it? He is the British Prime Minister, so of course, he would be expected to place more attention on an issue when it directly affects a citizen of his country. Similarly, with the news which chooses to focus on Britons, it makes perfect sense that British people would play a dominant part in the story. We are the ones who demand this, and the media simply tailors itself to appeal to its consumers, by showing a Briton who we can empathise with. We only read what we want to read. In the case of the AirAsia plane, perhaps mentioning a Briton with respect to the disaster, is the only way to get people to care about the event much at all?

Perhaps. But if this continues, we need to think what consequences this will have on society. The 21stcentury is truly a global century; we are more involved in global events than ever before. As we’ve seen with Ebola, it can travel anywhere at lightning speed because of our globalised nature. And developing countries are catching up. Advances won’t be made just in Europe or America; they’ll be in Asia and Africa too. We need to be going forward into the future together, for the benefit of the human race as a whole, and acknowledging the importance of lives and suffering everywhere is the first step towards this. We need to build better, more equal relationships with these places, not neglect them in favour of ourselves.

But for now, maybe the people of West Africa need something other than a few pennies and headlines chucked their way, after the release of yet another song wondering whether or not they know what time of year it is.