The cult of celebrity is firmly established in journalism and whether you like the idea or not it’s producing compelling television.
Ross Kemp’s Extreme World programme about the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez is the latest from the Bafta award-winning reporter formerly known as Grant Mitchell.
I haven’t seen any of journalism’s big beasts popping up in this part of the world but there’s the former soap actor hardman poking his unwelcome nose into cartel atrocities that have made Juarez the most dangerous city on earth.
At least 28,000 people have been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon’s campaign against organised crime, according to the country’s national security agency.
In the few days of Kemp’s visit to Juarez more than 40 people were murdered, casually, in cold blood, and often in full view of the population; this, despite 11,000 police and troops patrolling the meanest streets.
It’s a war in all but name and Kemp risked life and limb to shine a light on a place so violent that your survival choices can come down to a simple question of silver or lead – you take a bribe to comply with the gangs or they kill you.
In a place where the homicide clear-up rate is around 5%, Kemp chatted with gang-member teens, rode with a first-on-scene paramedic, visited a maximum security prison to quiz a cartel hitman and even interviewed a senior figure in the organised crime scene.
Was there enough intellectual rigour to his questions? Probably not. Could his report have been more layered, more detailed, more journalistic? Absolutely. (And Sky’s website could, and should, have made so much more of his trip).
But there he was, in harm’s way, and tugging at the threads of much bigger issues; extreme wealth and extreme poverty, venal politicians and the exercise of power, the lure of drugs and the gravitational pull of the US as the biggest cocaine market in the world,
It’s one of the great strengths of the BBC website that it’s possible to track back through consistent coverage of topics that register on your radar.
A quick search of the site reveals more than 180 news results for Ciudad Juarez including one-off reports like a particularly violent weekend last month, as well as more feature-led pieces such as Tale of the Border from 2009 or this graphic audio-slideshow which ends prophetically with the words that the violence “will keep getting worse”
It’s a perilous place to report from and, according to Mike O’Connor of the Committee to Protect Journalists, it’s a country which is losing its territorial sovereignty to the cartels.
“Every day, Felipe Calderon wakes up and thinks he’s president of Mexico,” says O’Connor, who is critical of superficial American press coverage.
Incidents are reported but there’s very little on the causes and consequences of what is happening in “our backyard”.
You can read a fuller account of his thoughts in Joseph J Kolb’s Editor & Publisher article Losing the war on reporting the Mexico narco violence and when you have take your hat off to Kemp, and ask yourself why mainstream news organisations aren’t doing a better job of reporting this bloody conflict and the wider issues it raises.
Footnote: Hat tip too to Aljazeera’s Chris Arsenault for his feature on the city’s murdered and missing women which ran on International Women’s Day.
- Veteran of Tijuana drug wars to lead Juarez police (cnn.com)
- You: U.S. charges 10 in Ciudad Juarez killings (washingtonpost.com)