Changing minds: News media and cinema

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Ali Raza, Ahmadiyya ARC, London

Wiki Commons

The first thing that comes to mind after reading or hearing the word media is “news”. The news that we see and read in today’s world is rarely considered trustworthy by many of us because it mainly highlights the interest of specific political policies throughout the world, which will be proved later in this article.

This article will analyse news media and cinema to trace its origins and how both of these media became the cause of spreading distrust, dishonesty, chaos and even wars throughout the world.

News media and cinema may seem as independent industries, but they closely work together to achieve their goals. To accomplish this, government interference, direct or indirect, is inevitable and this will take a look at how governments of the world control these two media.

Media is the plural of medium. The word medium means, an agency or means of doing something. News media, for instance, is an agency for informing people about what is going on locally, nationally or internationally. There are many types of media, for instance print media, mass media, photography, broadcasting and advertising. 

To fully grasp the digital age we are living in and to understand news media and cinema, we need to take a step back into its history and origin. This much can be said, that it started with a pure purpose no doubt.

Imagine a time where news was whatever the next person informed you of, until and unless it was contradicted. News in ancient times was usually shared by travellers to other travellers.

We find abundant traditions in the lifetime of the Holy Prophetsa where Muslims used to deliver news of Mecca and surrounding tribes and their situations to the Holy Prophetsa (Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad, Sirat Khatamun-Nabiyyin, pp. 841-845). If it was a state against a state, then news regarding peace treaties or wars would be delivered through a qaasid (messenger).

The very first newspaper, or what we can call the initial shape of a newspaper, was reported to be published in the 8th century BC in China. However, these documents were strictly for government officials. (Xiantao Zhang, The Origins of the Modern Chinese Press, p. 13)

The first documented news with a courier service was used in Egypt at the time of the pharaohs. This documented news form was also for government officials only.

The first documented use of an organised courier service for the distribution of written documents was in Egypt, 2400 BC, where pharaohs used couriers for the dispersal of their decrees on papyrus rolls in the territory of the state. (Gerrit Bleumer, Electronic Postage Systems: Technology, Security, Economics, p. 2)

The ancient Romans developed this further as they had made small stations for couriers to deliver news to towns; these stations also had resting places for the couriers. The stations were known as change stations or rest stations and in Latin, were known as Mansio Posita, from where the word “post” is derived.

Town crier of Provincetown, Massachusetts | Wiki Commons

In Ancient Rome, citizens were informed through a gazette known as Acta Diurna. These were small notices mainly comprising of political and military news. They were publicly displayed every day in the Roman Forum, an area where all the government buildings were situated.

In A Day in Old Rome: A Picture of Roman Life, William Steams Davis sketches the life of Romans in a very pleasant and amusing way. He also touches upon these notices, known as Acta Diurna. He writes:

“There are of course the announcements for the coming exhibitions in the theatre, amphitheatre, and circus, with lists of the actors, gladiators and charioteers, and other data which can enable all Rome to arrange its wagers and its holidays. The Acta Diurna, therefore, goes about as far as is possible to create a real newspaper in the days of mere penmanship.” (William Steams Davis, A Day in Old Rome: A Picture of Roman Life, p. 285)

These small notices were being controlled by the Roman government itself, despite having editors from the outside.

Apart from the above-mentioned media of spreading news, we find bellmen or town criers, who were employed by the authorities to make announcements and inform residents about certain events. They can be traced back to the time of William the Conqueror, when he employed men to go from town to town to inform people about his conquest. (Jim Bernhard, Porcupine, Picayune, and Post: How Newspapers Get Their Names, p.76)

These town criers played the same role as television news channels play today. People would gather around after hearing the bell and listen to what the town crier had to say. A similar method is employed today as well in the digital age by many news media channels, for instance, before the news broadcast starts on the BBC, a small countdown clip is played followed by a bell ringing sound and graphics.

In Arab world, mosques were the acting news stations, especially during Friday sermons. They were largely based on political achievements or political news. Imams who used to deliver these sermons were placed in mosques by the government. (Ami Ayalon, The Press in the Arab Middle East: A History, p. 4)

In all of the above-mentioned scenarios, from the very beginning, news reporting was being controlled by the authorities.

Title page of Carolus’ Relation | University library of Heidelberg, Germany Wiki Commons

News media moved to another phase in the 17th century after the invention of the printing press. One of the first, if not the first, newspaper is considered to be Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, printed by Johann Carolus.

The impact of newspapers through the invention of the printing press was magnificent, but it came with a price now. Those times were long gone when governments used to carve news on metal plates in public gatherings or a bellman could come and enlighten public minds. This was the age of the industrial revolution and the age of business.

“The newspaper revolution, which seems to parallel the democratic revolution so precisely, was defined by the existence of a new kind of newspaper, popularly labelled by a term that would enter the language as a catchphrase: the penny paper.” (George H Douglas, The Golden Age of the Newspapers, p. 3)

Around the 1860s, some creative minds started to experiment with photographs. Everyone was aware that photographs were still, but that they could move was yet to be answered? This came to be known as chronophotography.

Edward Muybridge was an English photographer who was intrigued by producing motion through photographs and he did it successfully. One of his magnificent works was The Horse in Motion (1878).

In another continent, Thomas Edison and his associates were working on an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear” (William Antonia Dickson, History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope, and Kinetophonograph). The cinema was about to be born.

Lumiere Brothers’ first film. Workers leaving the Lumiere factory

The Lumiere brothers (Auguste and Louis) in France, 1895, publicly displayed their film for the first time in history. A projector was used to display the film.

That film showed people coming out of a factory with one shot, but it created a sensation across France and influenced the whole world later on.

The film industry was born. Sound was nearly impossible to synchronise with the moving image and that was a big challenge for filmmakers. Hence, the silent era of the film industry prevailed until 1927.

There were films before 1927, which had recorded sound, but viewers were required to have another device to listen to sound.

Lowell Thomas, the first news anchor in USA

News media also decided to jump to digital waves. The BBC, in 1927, started to operate in the UK under the government to transmit news, mostly related to the monarchy and political activities.

The BBC was the lone wolf of the UK in the news media until 1955. (Brian McNair, News and Journalism in the UK, p. 6)

Other news channels joined, like Independent Television (ITV) which supplied news to residents of the UK.

To keep the viewers returning for more, television channels started producing entertainment programmes as well and the BBC was the first channel in the UK to produce a three-hour breakfast show. (Brian McNair, News and Journalism in the UK, p. 6)        

The audience throughout the UK could see and listen to one person (the news anchor) and stay up to date regarding current affairs. The news, however, was limited to certain timings during the day. There was morning news and evening news, but in 1989, Sky News was launched in the UK, providing 24-hour news broadcast to viewers.

News by 1990 had become a global business and world powers like Britain, USA and France were to take control of the globalisation of news broadcasting.

“The most immediate characteristics of this apparently broader range of news sources are that the number of ‘voices’ which are represented among the providers is still small and that North American and western European interests dominate.” (Olivier Boyd-Barret, The Globalization of News, p. 22)

In short, the tradition of government influence over broadcasting news remained and remains.

Film industries were also on the leash by the government. From a simple scene of people coming out of a factory in 1895, film industries developed to instil emotions, cultural and political values in order to gather the audience. Film industries provided the audience with imagination but at the same time, with realism as well. The government’s control on film industries still lurks as it did back in the 1930s in Hollywood.

For instance, before World War II, Hollywood started to make movies against the Nazis, to show that they were a threat to America as well, even though Nazis were not a direct threat to America. (Iwan Morgan, Philip John Davies, Hollywood and the Great Depression: American Film, Politics and Society in the 1930s, p. 28)

From 1941 to 1945 the American government, with the help of Hollywood, produced films against Japan to incite patriotism amongst the audience so that soldiers could be recruited. To recruit African American soldiers in the US army, The Negro Soldier (1944) was produced and it was made compulsory to watch for black and white soldiers by the US army in 1944 and 1945 (Barbara Dianne, Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 1938-1948, p. 145). Hollywood was also being used to promote racial tolerance through films by incorporating black people in films and television. (ibid.)

The placement of shots in a film, the scenes and the narrative of a film did affect the audience at large. For instance, a close up on a character’s face had a different psychological effect on the audience than using a wide shot of a character in a film.

In general, the US government had a huge role in Hollywood. French cinema, one of the biggest influencers of the world, was also used by the state during the world wars to promote stability in France, but the influence of the French government in French cinema was much less than that of the US government in Hollywood.

“It is much less political than the US cinema, or the German, Spanish or Italian ones.” (politico.eu/politics)

Both the news media and cinema were being used by the authorities to transmit messages out to the public. In this day and age, it is being done 24/7 through news broadcasters and cinemas across the globe. Manipulating a public gathering is extremely easy by both of these tools in today’s world. The news informs the public and films shape the public.

Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion, 1878 | Wiki Commons

To briefly shed some positive light on the news and cinema sector, there are journalists or news channels, who in their power try to promote the truth and unbiased news.

On the other hand, there are film directors and producers, who produce films to educate and inform the audience. Both of these media have the power to affect the public at large with a positive change, but most of the times, it is used for governments’ own personal agendas, as discussed above.

Then there are some news channels and newspapers that are under the control of their respective governments and who, in turn, tell them to supress what is right.

For instance, in 2006, southern press in the USA sent out an apology for suppressing the news of civil rights struggle in the 1960s and also promoting racial hatred that eventually led to violence against blacks in coming eras. (Neil Henry, American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media, p. 96)

Both of these media are being controlled by a few major companies. By the 1970s, the news media was being controlled by “the big three” – the USA, UK, and France. In total, four companies were controlling the news in these countries. AFP was with France; Reuters with the UK and AP and WTN in the USA (Olivier Boyd-Barret, The Globalization of News, p. 15). Today, six major companies are controlling the world media – Comcast, News Corporation Time Warner, Walt Disney, Viacom and Sony (www.webfx.com/blog/internet/the-6-companies-that-own-almost-all-media-infographic/). From wildlife documentaries to films in cinemas, these few companies are the masterminds.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat did not lag in utilising these areas to transmit their message out to the public. However, a sharp line is drawn between how the world uses media and how the Ahmadiyya Jamaat applied these media for public benefit. 

During the time of the Promised Messiahas, two newspapers were launched: Al Hakam (1897) and Al Badr (1902) with the sole purpose of propagating the message of Islam and also highlighting world issues at large. These newspapers served as a backbone of the Jamaat.

When the request was made by Hazrat Sheikh Yaqub Ali Irfanira to the Promised Messiahas to launch a newspaper for the Jamaat, the Promised Messiahas replied in the following words:

“We have no experience in this field. There is a need for a newspaper but our Jamaat comprises of poor people and is unable to bear financial strains. If you can do this through your experience, then you may do so. Allah bless this effort.” (Hayat-e-Ahmad, Vol. 4, p. 589)

While newspapers were being used as a tool by politicians for personal gains, Ahmadiyya newspapers served no such purpose. It was not being controlled by the government or politicians. It did not promote a specific political idea or a politician. What it did was simple – spread the light of truth into the world through the teachings of Islam.

There was no element of spreading dishonesty, distrust, hatred or chaos through these newspapers. Propagation of the truth was the goal and the only thing that opposed the Ahmadiyya community was the fact that people were not interested or ready to accept the truth.

I have dedicated my whole life … not to confine the spread of the light of truth to the oriental world but, as far as it lies in my power to further it in Europe, America … where the attention of the people has not been sufficiently attracted towards a proper understanding of the teachings of Islam.”(Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, Shahna-e-Haq, Ruhani Khazain, p. 443)

Despite having the mode of a newspaper, mosques still acted as a source of news. For example, Friday Sermons delivered by Khalifatul Masih also contained news regarding the Ahmadiyya movement or of contemporary issues.

In 1990, for instance, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh delivered a series of Friday Sermons on the gulf crisis. The crisis at large and verses of the Holy Quran on how to accord with the crisis were the themes of these Friday Sermons. Friday Sermons also mainly comprised of moral teachings and spiritual importance.

However, there is a difference between the earlier Arab mosques as news hubs and that of the mosques within the Ahmadiyya Jamaat. The Imam of the Ahmadiyya Jamaat is not employed by the government to spread news regarding political activities or political interests among Muslims. He is appointed by Allah Himself to spread the truth in the world for the betterment of the whole of mankind. There is no hidden propaganda or personal interest in this task. He informs the world of the reality of the situation at hand and provides the best possible solution for mankind to follow.

News in the early days, as discussed, was for government officials only. This kind of news automatically came with a stamp of authenticity from the government.

Today, governments do not issue official statements through newspapers, but they have their press departments publish official statements or policies. This is done purely for authenticity.

The Ahmadiyya Jamaat also employs the same method when it comes to issuing official statements directly from Khalifatul Masih. The official statements of Khalifatul Masih are issued by the Markaz of the Ahmadiyya Jamaat.

Later on, the Ahmadiyya Jamaat went on to use television broadcast as well, fulfilling the prophecy of the Promised Messiahas, “I shall cause thy message to reach the corners of the earth.”

The first Muslim television broadcast started in 1992 in the UK by the Ahmadiyya Community. It was named “Muslim Television Ahmadiyya” (MTA). In the early days, MTA showcased different programmes of Khalifatul Masih IVrh including his Friday Sermons, through which the world benefitted at large.  Later on, MTA evolved further into an international television channel, showcasing different religious programmes from Canada, Africa, Pakistan, India, USA and many other MTA studios around the world.

MTA International now produces hundreds of historic and informative documentaries each year, covering an array of topics. It also produces different programmes, which propagate the truth of Islam.

The Ahmadiyya Jamaat now develops every possible medium to propagate the teachings of Islam. Unlike other news media across the globe, the Ahmadiyya media is completely independent and operates on its own. It carries no hidden political interests. The goal is and will remain the same; to shine the light of truth on the world and reflect the beauty of Islam.

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