When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) disintegrated over eastern Ukraine on July 17 this year, the global media narrative was seized by a politically-charged West. Hardly any Asian press establishment had the capability to dispatch a world-class media investigative team to the crash site. For all the praises heaped on Asia’s stunning growth, the tragedy exposed the region’s lingering incapacity to generate an immediate, independent and in situ media narrative.

China had long recognized the vulnerabilities posed by this strategic lacuna. An external arm of the state broadcaster CCTV now complements the spigots of internal media control. CCTV’s ability to challenge global behemoths such as the BBC and CNN remain uncertain, as questions linger over its long-term appeal and credibility.

MH17 poses a stark reminder to Asia on its continued susceptibility to external informational deluges, backed by specious social media evidences, insensate accusations, maudlin bereavement and affected gravitas. Hard evidences – belatedly released in tranche from Sept 9 – were buried under an avalanche of hysteria.

The Malaysian activist media, ever ready to publicize instances of judicial irregularities within the country, was remiss in playing by its own rulebook. Every emotive debris on the post-crash horizon was scavenged for political mileage, before public outrage began to wane.

The eerily-named opposition newsletter The Rocket, echoing the fusillades of the Western media,  concluded as early as July 23 that there was “strong evidence to suggest that pro-Russian rebels had downed the aircraft using arms from Russia, hence Malaysia should pressure the Russian government via sanctions and the cancellation of ongoing business deals with them.”

One wonders how that “strong evidence” was adduced. Was evidence mistaken for the contrived suggestibility of Western propaganda?

In keeping with the overall tempo, unfamiliar bylines briefly appeared in the Malaysian online media to reinforce notions of Russian guilt. These receded under the tide of potent counter-narratives from the US alternative media and Russian mainstays such as Novosti, Russia Today, TASS and Pravda.

Interest in the MH17 tragedy as well as the mysterious disappearance of MH370 earlier on March 8 has predictably ebbed in Malaysia, even as both tragedies are subjected to daily scrutiny in the global media.

Asia may continue to pay a heavy price for this strategic media handicap.

Choked by Mediocrity

Asia needs to ask itself whether it wants its own tragedies to be scripted abroad. Can it seize the propaganda narrative before external parties shape public opinion?  Or will it continue to rely on authoritarian media strictures to control public discourse?

The Internet has not emerged as the great equalizer to media restrictions in the non-Western world as was once envisaged. It is not simply a matter of growing online censorship. The “free media” is often a blowback to the vagaries of institutionalized patronage. Funding is not a problem for the discontented who can peddle “freedom and democracy” across the political divide. The strategic narrative, in the end, gets choked between official media control and the anarchic agendas of the Open Society, USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Activism is sometimes a well-paid career choice of a few who can impress a “free will” conviction upon the many. Murderous fallouts from the Arab Spring should have reset our bearings on the ugly realities of cyclical amnesia and horde-like delusions, wrought upon by the chimera of “hope and change.” Yet, the mob is prone to repeating its past mistakes, right after applauding the famously familiar caution of George Santayana.

The MH17 tragedy did reveal a curious paradox in the Malaysian online media: Ad hoc remarks posted on online comment boxes were sometimes superior to the main commentaries themselves.  No surprises here as mediocrity is inexorably replicated at the local level before being routinely winnowed out in the “glocality” of the borderless media.

Developing a literary flair and style are an absolute no-no. Control is overbearing, sensitivity is prioritized and language is watered down. Using terms like “poodle” or “lapdog” to describe EU subservience to US policies would be most unbecoming or unprofessional of the native commentariat. It is however touché when Marie Le Pen uses the canine analogy in an identical context. What was the difference? The savoir-faire, panache and je ne sais quois of a blonde, white nationalist? Local metier in the end goes unnoticed, unrecognized, and unrewarded.

The insipidity of Asian reportage is often matched by the pusillanimity of its content. The lack of talent and originality here is reflective of the wider media malaise worldwide. The good cop-bad cop meme is used formulaically to create bipartisan-like divides, win permanent audiences and grab future sources of revenue. Corporations, lobbies and public relations giants, inherently averse to any form of critical thinking, are well-disposed towards cultivated mediocrity in politics and the media.

The media circus becomes as depressingly predictable as the maverick actions of a John McCain or the visionary principles of a Barack Obama. These stalwarts yet prevail and get re-elected, much to the detriment of the global media quotient.

Keeping it simple

Entrenched mediocrity in the Asian media may be partly attributable to the pseudosciences creeping into the wider field of humanities. News is not only history’s first draft; it informs our social sciences that, in turn, defines the field of communications and media.

Therein lies the problem. The profusion of catchy, marketable and politically-correct neologisms is recycled within the social sciences-media loop. It is no longer sufficient to call a spade a “bloody shovel” because, as Noam Chomsky observes, “you don’t get to be a respected intellectual by presenting truisms in monosyllables.”

Post-modernist erudition is contemptuous of the mundane, especially when reality is so prosaic. Ontological fractionation accompanies hermeneutical wizardry, adding ever an expanding corpus of knowledge to the science of tauroscatology. Academic publications and its Op-ed derivatives thrive on novelties, as do sales, marketing and advertising upon which journalism is underwritten.

Chomsky pans these pseudosciences as “Polysyllabic Truisms” that continue to have “a terrible effect on the third world.” It is a world where nanotechnology competes with the sub-atomic microvita of Indian mystic P.R. Sarkar in the next big quantum leap of human development.

The East Asian mind is however averse to heavy abstractions in the social sciences realm. Contrary to popular perception, Sun-Tzu just does not do metaphysics. His pithy wisdom is geared on harnessing the physical realm; not the kundalini. Abstracts do not fill the stomach. 

Social sciences and the media are therefore overlooked in favor of science, technology and innovation (STI). Asian STI outputs perennially outpace “developments” – if one could call it – in the social sciences realm. The pursuit of science, itself often reducible to binary 0s and 1s, triumphs the need to master growing complexities in humanities.

The democratic West, after all, is more obsessed with neo-Marxist critical theorizing than Communist China, reflecting a larger East-West divide over the purpose and applicability of the social sciences and media.  The philosophical meanderings get richer, along roads that get poorer, as one travels from Tokyo to Ahmedabad.  Religious fundamentalism predominate lands further west, in a Middle East that can be intolerant of both sciences and human beings. Beyond that precipice is the West itself where the post-modernist raison d’être appears as clueless as its media.

This divide is reflected in the hemispherically opposite approaches to geopolitics. The ideologically-predicated Asian Pivot is countervailed by a Silk Road alternative based on organic trade and development.  The upshot to the latter however is a regulated media that can be hostile to colorful sparks of journalistic creativity.  Asian nations may find it desirable to temper each other’s media, and to keep matters comfortably parochial, vernacular and nationalist. Prevailing disincentives to aggressive transborder journalism will likely grow in tandem with trade.

The question however remains: For how much longer can Asia concede the strategic media narrative to the West? Should the basic 5Ws and H – the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How – of its tragedies continue to be scripted abroad?  Its mobile middle-classes are more likely to source local news from the global media due to domestic insouciance and shortcomings. This reality rarely bothers policy-makers. An event like the MH17 tragedy may result in a brief scramble to douse public ire before status quo is duly restored.

One day, however, inbuilt controls may prove insufficient, the floodgates may be breached, and the barbarians may enter. This may be the Asian Spring. It is therefore high time for Asia to develop its own pan-global media capability.