The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #33 (August 12-18, 2003), page 12 and
Whose news is the news?
Three Weeks in Bali: A Personal Account of the Bali Bombing
By Alan Atkinson
Published by ABC Books for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, 2002
Paperback, 111 pages, $12.95
Let me first make this annoyingly officious but necessary mandatory disclaimer: there’s no way on our green planet for me to be fair about Western journalists straying east of, say, Waldport. My disability is based on the maxim, as stated by Alan Atkinson, author of Three Weeks in Bali, without a note of irony: "as reporters we can only relay what is being said."
Indeed, Mr. Atkinson fairly makes my miserable point by scampering around the rubble of a horrible disaster in a completely alien socio-cultural context, looking for English-speakers, so that he can report what they’re saying about what happened to them.
Having admitted aaall that, let me be as positive as possible by saying: Three Weeks in Bali should be required reading in every journalism school. It is exemplary of what reporters of important news should not do. Should not be.
Enough about what’s nice, on to the nasty part.
Alan Atkinson is a journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). He and his family were on vacation in Bali, a destination resort, an island in the Indonesian archipelago, when unnamed terrorists bombed two packed nightclubs.
Three Weeks in Bali is 111 pages long. Not until Page 40 of Mr. Atkinson account of the October 2002 tragedy does he begin reporting on Island Bali’s most horrible mass murder since the invasion of the Imperial Dutch army 300 years ago. What he describes instead, in page after page of infuriating detail, is Balinese hospitality workers’ charm.
The natives, the author reports, are "delightfully gentle, charming and polite" — "Dundee is extremely gracious and when he smiles there’s a twinkle in his eye" — "the young women are exquisitely beautiful, the young men are devilishly handsome" — "most of the vendors are friendly and smiling, some are charming and funny."
And of course since no account of a Westerner’s "brief taste of Asia" can be aesthetically complete without discussing stomach aches and bathroom breaks — Mr. Atkinson is compelled to tell readers about what he calls "Bali belly." Clever.
But neither ethnocentrism nor cultural imperialism, not even upset tummies, should keep us from the point of Three Weeks in Bali. That is, the brutal late-night dual bombing of the packed (whites-only) Sari Club and Paddy’s Bar in downtown Kuta. And here, Mr. Atkinson’s sense of professional journalism is fatally narrow. While it is true that nearly 200 Australians suddenly, horribly, and unjustly perished — no disrespect is intended to their souls or to those who love and miss them — Three Weeks in Bali is almost exclusively a dialogue among Australians, about Australians, for the sake of Australians.
"Australia" or "Australian" is used seven times in the first seven pages of actual reporting on the Kuta tragedy. On the eighth page, Mr. Atkinson takes the big step of talking to a Canadian, but a few pages later he’s back to interviewing the former captain of a visiting Australian football team.
Many more people passed away, many many more lives were ruined, on that same terrible night, than only those sharing citizenship with the author. By his failing to see that, by failing to feel them, non-Westerners may get the idea that our beaches, our bright women, our gentle men, are only props for a foreign play — comedy or tragedy, all the same. And this needs to stop. Stopping it, may stop terrorist bombings. Mass murdering.
Three Weeks in Bali is terrific reading. It should be a required academic text, not for what the author does well, but for what it evidences about the sorry state of professional journalism.