In the end, it was all about the football. Even Qatar’s harshest critics had to concede that, in the words of one of the country’s chief lambasters, “this was the greatest Fifa World Cup final … Qatar achieved its perfect final here”. The joy of a tournament of surprises; the roar of unity from an Arab world delighting in Saudi Arabia’s early victory over Argentina and then the tantalising progress of Morocco; the warmth felt by fans from across the continents as they encountered each other in the stadiums or in Doha’s easily recognisable Souq Waqif – all seemed to cut through and fuel the perception that this really has been a very different, but nonetheless terrific, World Cup.
One lesson to be learnt from it all, though, is just how crucial it is that global media is truly diverse, pluralistic and properly representative of the peoples it reports on. Because for much of the competition, the impression was given that “international media” had formed a highly negative opinion of the host country.
Never mind that much of what they put out was either ignorant or wrong. “The Qataris are unaccustomed to seeing women in western dress in their country,” stated one UK newspaper to – one hopes – the eternal embarrassment of its editor. The figure of 6,500 migrant deaths kept on being bandied about as though they had all died through working on the World Cup; when actually, as the German news outlet DW announced in a fact check, it referred “merely to non-Qataris of various nationalities and in various occupations who have died in Qatar in the past decade” and was in line with normal fatalities.
Little mention was made of the fact that Qatar has made significant reforms, under the specific guidance of the International Labour Organisation and International Trade Union Confederation. It would appear that the critics would only be satisfied if no construction at all took place in Qatar, or perhaps anywhere where it is hot. Which it supposedly is in Doha in December – “swelteringly” so, according to one tabloid report – when, as anyone who has lived in the Gulf knows, it can be very chilly in winter.
So exercised was the BBC by these issues – and of course LGBT, where the clearly stated tolerance of visitors’ private behaviour was not enough; something more performative was required – that the broadcaster refused to show the World Cup opening ceremony at all. Instead, viewers were shown a pompous sermon by the English footballer-turned-broadcaster Gary Lineker – who was later revealed to have previously been paid £1.6 million (about $2 million) to commentate for a TV channel owned by the country he was now so sanctimoniously deploring.
The Emirati political science professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla labelled the authors of such diatribes “neocolonialists, orientalists and western hypocrites”. Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister, K Shanmugam, said there was “more than a hint of cultural superiority” in the global media's criticism. “It smacks of hypocrisy. Virtue signalling. With racial undertones,” he wrote on Facebook. “Objective reporting has been in short supply.”
With some honourable exceptions, Mr Shanmugam was correct – when one understands that “international media” is often a euphemism for western media, from Britain and America in particular. These outlets like to see themselves as objective, but they nearly all stand for a very particular viewpoint that has no sympathy for other cultures and values they deem to be “wrong”. As I wrote in these pages eight years ago, they have a tendency to cast all the Arabian Gulf states as “vaguely malign, plutocratic constructs, whose actions and internal structures are automatically suspect because they do not adhere to western notions of liberty and political order". They see little of “the reality of cohesive, traditional societies, united around national cultures and the Islamic faith, ones so free of the scourge of theft that it is perfectly safe to leave laptops, phones and other valuables on, say, a cafe table, and wander off, confident that they will be there on your return".
The beautiful moment after Argentina’s win, when the Emir of Qatar placed a bisht over Lionel Messi’s shoulders, is a case in point. As you would expect, this newspaper, and other regional outlets, reported that this was one of the highest honours the Emir could bestow. Other outlets around the world got it, too. The headline on one Indonesian website, for instance, was “Messi wears bisht cloak in the style of an Arab king when lifting the World Cup trophy”. But many western reporters and outlets, who had clearly made no effort to understand what it meant, described this courteous tribute in ways too offensive to repeat.
There is a deeper context to this. In 1980, the landmark MacBride report on the media published by Unesco stated that, owing to “the predominance of the major transnational agencies in the collection and dissemination of news … the world receives some 80 per cent of its news through London, Paris and New York". This meant that “the image of the developing countries is frequently false and distorted. More serious still, according to some vigorous critics, it is this false image, harmful to their inner balance, which is presented to the developing countries themselves".
Of course, the situation is much better today. But global media is still imbalanced. And that is why diversity has to be championed. If you cherish regional voices and want to hear their viewpoints, we need outlets such as Japan’s Nikkei, Singapore’s The Straits Times, Afghanistan’s Tolo, Myanmar’s The Irrawaddy, and this newspaper. Because culture is local, and values are local, and outsiders who view a region through the lens of their own prejudices cannot be counted on to respect that.
This we have been shown by the World Cup. It concerns not just Qatar, but every country in the Gulf – watch out for Saudi Arabia, if it ends up hosting the 2030 World Cup – every Muslim country, and every people whose culture is conservative and communitarian rather than fiercely individualistic and progressive. That could possibly constitute most of the world. If so, it’s time that its voices are heard as strongly, if not more so, than the unrepresentative cabal known as “international media”. For they will be sure to have in their sights any developing or Global South country that next has the audacity to host one of the world’s top sporting events.
Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National. Based in Malaysia, he previously spent many years living in the Arabian Gulf