Favouring Intercultural Dialogue: Towards a Multimodal Discourse Analysis of Satellite TV Channels in the Mediterranean Area

Michelangelo Conoscenti

Department of Language Sciences and Modern and Comparative
Literature, Università degli Studi di Torino

The following paper aims to suggest some possible “reading tracks” to better understand how the media enter into human behaviour and the way they influence our reciprocal perception of the “other”. These sometimes generate a point of view that is not necessarily consistent with reality. If communication channels are virtual bridges between North and South, let us develop a common language, consisting of mutually-recognised codes.

The practice of daily communication in the Mediterranean shows the observer an asymmetry in the reciprocal perception between the two shores of the basin. Quite frequently societies on the Southern shore have basic knowledge of history, aspects of everyday life and national languages of the Northern side, while the opposite cannot be said. Generally, Northern Mediterranean countries have a more approximate perception and knowledge of their neighbours living on the other side.

The Setting

Tahar Ben Jelloun, in an article entitled “Satellite Kalashnikovs” in the magazine L’Espresso on the 27th May 2004, makes a brief analysis on how the major Arab satellite television stations master the information techniques at the same level as the American CNN, and he points out that, for the Arab people, the broadcast images are part of the resistance against the American occupation. His article closes with a warning that I think significant, but also disquieting. I report it here because the idea of this paper was born from the same conviction and concern.

Talking about the programme Al-Shatat (Diaspora), which is a television series created by a Syrian University professor and broadcast by the Lebanese television channel Al Manar belonging to the Hezbollah movement, Ben Jelloun points out how this has been counterproductive “to the Palestinian cause due to a few scenes based on anti-Semitic stereotypes, which irritated the Jewish world (…). Beware of images, then, because they can be deadly, cause racism and cloud the mind.” In the following pages I will try to understand in what ways television images, amongst others, can represent a potential danger for the intercultural comprehension and communication between the two shores of the Mediterranean and I will explore the possibility of creating a series of expression and communication codes that can do justice to the diversities that this sea has always embodied and represented. Being a linguist, I will start this paper by observing certain recorded images and the information connected with them, which are crossing those bridges that Dibie (2003) described in his La télévision, un pont virtuel sur la Méditerranée entre les peuples et les cultures. In order to achieve this goal, the scientific part of this research2 is based on a number of works that I consider fundamental and useful in trying a different interpretative approach to the quantity of images “that falls from the sky.” First of all, the analysis of the semiotic construction stems from the studies of Kress and Van Leeuwen (1996) and from those, opportunely adapted, of Metz (1972).

The interpretation of proxemics and of the ways in which people who belong to a given culture can make certain audiovisual languages significant is instead inspired by the work of Duranti (1997), and in particular by chapter 5.6, “Visual Representations Other than Writing”. In this way the television image can be considered a participating unit (Duranti, 1997: 304), which is useful in understanding the parallel interactions between the participants in the same narrative sequence. This method of analysis uses suitably captured and digitalised images from television programmes, which allow the tracking and the identifying of the aforementioned interactions. I believe this technique is also effective in relation to the problems of the social “sites of engagement” of mediated communication (Wertsch, 1991). Mediated action is defined as the point in which culture, society and, in our case, the media start to be part of human behaviour. This is then the sphere in which social and speech practices are realised as linguistic acts3 by human beings. In the same way it is also the sphere in which individuals operate on society and on speech practices. This is why a television image, being an element of a mediated action, can be used as a significant unit for analysis. This method has been widely used by Scollon (1998), who considers images the “site of engagement” where image becomes part of communication and of social interaction between interlocutors, not only people, but also institutions or nations (Singer, 1998), to the point of modifying their behaviour.

All of these are subjects I believe crucial to the analysis I want to carry out. My research also relies on a systemic-functional perspective known as Multimodal Discourse Analysis (O’Halloran, 2006). This makes it possible to generate new semiotic frameworks for the analysis of a range of discourse genres in dynamic and static electronic media. Finally, to understand the manner in which many audiovisual languages in different nations and television programmes present common elements, due to “copying”, I will make use of the memetic theory (Blackmore, 2002), particularly of chapter 16 of the aforementioned study. As a matter of fact, when a person or an institution “imitates another, something is transferred between the two, and it can be transferred again and again to the point of gaining an identity of its own. We can think that this something is an idea, an instruction, a behaviour, a piece of information…” (Blackmore, 2002: 7). This theory intends to explain how memes,4 which are significant information units at a stylistic and/or cognitive level, by behaving like genes allow man, through language, to copy, adapt and reproduce ideas and contents modifying minds and cultures. Memes are thus independent conceptual reproducers that spread from people to people, but also from culture to culture.

Image Analysis, Some Preliminary Considerations

The selected images of this study, which are part of a database collected in one year of research, will show how the memetic modality is also widely spread in audiovisual languages. Since this modality is recognisable through elements that are similar to those present in one’s own culture, my selection is based not only on scientific criteria, but also personal ones. Due to the very nature of memetic definition, it uses images of “alien” television channels as comparative elements with our own world, which, for us, is “local” and therefore perceived in a more habitual way.

The aim is to assume the perspective of a viewer who is not interested in the culturally pregnant mechanism of images or in intercultural communication, and in so doing to try to understand which images give rise to stereotypical visions. Since the images I use are culturally marked,5 I hope that very soon our Southern shore colleagues will guide us through a vision from their point of view. The diffusion of stylistic elements and stereotypes, whether they be positive or negative (Scollon and Scollon, 1997: 158-159), depends not only on television, but, as I said before, on other media too, and on other experiences that are part of our daily lives. Furthermore the production of images is not neutral; it is the result of a culturally marked process. It is the outcome of choices, from among the quantity of combination options offered by the media code, taken by the maker, and therefore the exclusions, which this process implies, are also significant. The use of options and exclusions is in turn conditioned by socio-economic and political factors that point to complex selection mechanisms. Indeed, it is not by chance that in the current war in Iraq for all the aforementioned reasons, the organised groups who kidnap Western people tend more and more often to broadcast videos of proclamations and executions through the Internet.

Not only is this medium structurally well suited to the clandestine nature of these groups, but it also allows them to avoid possible censorship or blockage of the broadcasting of their videos, once the information is spread. Even in such situations the communicators show a memetic tendency to use codes thanks to very sophisticated ways of processing important elements. The clearest example is the code of the colour orange that prisoners were made to wear after the broadcasting of images of the tortures inflicted by the Americans in Iraqi prisons. This acts as a sort of memetic echo of the orange overalls worn by the prisoners in Guantanamo, but it also indicates that the prisoner has been condemned to death as retaliation for the Iraqi acts. The memetic nature of these codes is confirmed by an event dating back to August 2004. In those days a video of the execution of an American citizen by a terrorist group unknown to the experts was spread through the Internet. The American authorities declared that the citizen was neither resident in Iraq nor had he disappeared.

A few hours later the executed citizen appeared on American national TV networks; he then explained that the video was the result of his own manipulation made for his election advertising campaign. Hence we can see that the code of the colour orange went through two memetic changes within a few months. Putting aside these borderline cases and considering the wider and wider use of mass media for information broadcasting, I think it is important for audiovisual and multimedia languages to be a part of a plan whose aim is to create the possibility of cooperation in the Mediterranean area, from the point of view of both education and content production.

Mediated Communication Dynamics: A Mediterranean Perspective

A few scholars have pointed out that, in the last ten years, the Southern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern populations have gained the right to information and, as forecasted by Debord (1967), have entered the complex world of infotainment.6 This word defines information programmes that also entertain, with the goal of increasing the audience and therefore inducing the buyers of advertising space to choose those channels or programmes that offer a better return for their investments. In this regard I believe it is correct to say both shores of the Mediterranean are on the same level, since this deprecable evolution of the information system7 is relatively new also to the Northern shore.

The whole area thus appears to be a fertile ground for conquest of communication styles and codes peculiar to an Anglo-American television culture. As evidence of this, also on the Southern shore, a number of television networks have broken the “autochthonous” television rhetoric, according to which the opening news has to be devoted to the activity of the Head of State, followed only toward the end by that regarding what is happening in the rest of the world. At the same time, it is also true that national television networks retain these formats, even if slightly modified. However, in so doing they also become guarantors of a communication modality that only the Public Investor, with the sole exception of Italy, given its peculiar current situation, can afford, without the risk of displeasing the advertisers and, therefore, not bending exclusively to market and profit logic. In this regard I subscribe to Dibie’s opinion about the role that public television networks should retain in the near future of the Mediterranean area, in order to contrast the degeneration of content that the so-called free market involves and imposes.

It is not by chance that the French sociologist Bourdieu (1998) in his study on television journalism pointed out a system where “the whole production is set up in order to preserve pre-established values” and where competition “rather than generating originality and diversity tends to favour uniformity.” During the year spent documenting the variety of visual codes used by the Mediterranean television stations in order to prepare this study, a strong trend indeed emerged on the part of commercial broadcasters, no matter to which country they belonged. It is the tendency to be extremely memetic of the Anglo-American model, which, it must be recognised, has conditioned the whole world due to a number of socio-economic reasons.

Thus, it seems possible to say that while continental Europe, or should we say the Northern shore of the Mediterranean, has reached the end of the socalled governance, as it was once defined, the Southern area uses basic visual codes in media more frequently. “What we have arrived at is something close to the end of governance as it was once defined. When the media run the show, then the jabber and the images of the airwaves take precedence over what the images were meant to depict and no one is in charge.” (Dornan, 2001) Keeping in mind these observations about the media market and how it influences, even at a linguistic and semiotic level, the production of the contents, as demonstrated by Fairclough (1995), it appears possible to say that the Mediterranean broadcasters seem to be more original or, if one prefers, more “traditional” in their choice of the codes they use, and this is not a paradox.

They seem to have a greater awareness, even by collaborating in exchange programmes with other broadcasters, that not only is the medium the message, but that also the format used to carry it is of crucial importance. It is important to point out that this observation does not imply a judgement about how modern or not the codes used are, but rather it seeks to focus on the fact that some of these codes are still relatively uninfluenced by and therefore free from expressive modalities that are not those of the receivers of the message. In other words, I think that it is still possible for the broadcasters of the Southern Mediterranean to try to create a television language with a strong local matrix, which would thus be more suitable for the education purposes that Dibie says belong to the national public broadcasters. On the contrary many private broadcasters, especially on the Northern shore, but not only there, have already been incorporated into the sphere of more culturally marked audiovisual codes, which stem from the American Majors.

This is because, from a typically globalising point of view, thanks to a fast moving technology, “news and entertainment sources are proliferating at such a rate that the media mogul has been replaced by a bevy of harassed and sometimes confused media executives trying to guess at what the public wants.”8 In such a situation broadcasters try to optimise the expenses in order to generate an economy of scale. These in turn tend to create mimetic and memetic expressive modalities; in other words, television formats resemble each other more and more, especially those of the commercial broadcasters. It is interesting to note (see the images below) how two networks with apparently opposite editorial objectives and with culturally different audiences, CNN and Al Jazeera, organise their narrative space in a very similar way.9

This graphic and semiotic layout of the screen dates back to the ‘90s. Everywhere in the world, new information services linked to the World Wide Web were created and, in parallel, a score of satellite television channels, the majority of which were directed towards businessmen, sprang up. These networks divided their screens in several information units, allowing in such a way the audience to simultaneously observe an interview with a managing director, or a market analysts’ debate while having a stream of data updated to the second. Hargreaves (2003: 198) pointed out how this overcrowding of information on the screen coincided with the poorness of proposed contents. The issue of the memetic diffusion of these codes is important since the method of training the personnel, who participate in the generation process of the images, depends on it.

One of the aspects that intrigued us while doing this research was that several scholars, even while admitting that the media can have a fundamental role in the democratic development of countries, tend to underestimate the fact that this could also happen thanks to the generation of a common language, foreboding pacific coexistence in the Mediterranean area. Collected data show a lack of awareness on the part of Northern shore countries, and Western countries generally, that messages created for a national audience easily cross borders, thanks to satellite technology and the Internet, but can be interpreted in a completely different manner in other parts of the world. Awareness of the strong cultural value of images and their non-universality seems to be missing in many broadcasters, who entrust the great sea of satellite television channels, international circuits and the Internet with signals that are often culturally too strongly marked. In fact, this awareness should be particularly developed in the current period, in which conflicts in the Near and Middle East risk sharpening the problems of pacific coexistence in the Mediterranean area and not only there. I will mention some cases that I think illustrative of what I mean.

The first refers to October 2002, when a group of Chechen guerrilla fighters/partisans/rebels/terrorists barricaded themselves into a Moscow theatre, taking more than 800 spectators hostage. In trying to break the siege the Russian special units killed 41 members of the commando and 129 hostages. As you can see, the linguistic choice of the term used to identify the authors of the kidnapping poses a serious problem to the writer, since the very choice defines his position in relation to the event described. The same problem should have arisen with the cameraman, the editor and the producer of the programme, when selecting the images to send to air. In point of fact, these are the “words” of a much more complex and sophisticated language that, just because it is constituted by images, many people consider “neutral”. If it is true that “a picture says a thousand words”, it then poses even more complex problems in its semiotic use, given the erroneous idea that it is comprehensible and decipherable no matter what the language spoken by the viewers.

Some people think that in a news programme, even with the volume turned down, one can roughly understand the contents of the news. This is not exactly true. In the case of the Moscow theatre, the images show some dead women, who belonged to the group of the kidnappers. They had veils covering their heads. The camera dwelt upon these women, now unarmed, for several seconds, an eternity in television terms. But what could the effect have been on the audience or, rather, the audiences, in the different parts of the world? In Moscow or in New York someone might have seen in those women the enemy, so easily identifiable by the symbol, the veil, that immediately connects them, in stereotypical terms, to the so-called “clash of civilisations” (Huntington, 1997), which, just by chance, the media speaks of so much. And, above all, would they have felt reassured in seeing the enemy neutralised and reduced to impotence? Personally, I felt sorrow and compassion, as happens every time I see images of death, independently of the reason for which any human being has died.

But I also felt a shiver, because I asked myself what the effect of the same images could have been on people who recognise themselves10 in that veil or in that type of action. Some Islamic students of mine, anything but extremist, have told me that certain images, so strongly charged with symbolism and explicitly significant to their culture and religion, disturb and offend them. Yet others pose the following question: “Why is it that networks always broadcast, with such a wealth of details, the images of every attack on Israeli citizens, but very rarely those of the destruction of the houses of Palestinians?” It is easy to understand how these issues always promote an emotional reaction. Let us make an effort to think how these images could be received in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila or in Chechnya. If you consider this an overreaction try to imagine what any citizen would feel seeing himself represented by the television images of another country through a series of stereotypes that, if on the one hand, can identify his culture, on the other, just because they are stereotypes, oversimplify the representation, making the self-identification distorted and, at times, offensive.

This reaction is not determined by the fact that what is reported is not true, but rather that it is no longer recognisable because stereotypes do not take into account the complexity of the situation. The problem is that this kind of phenomenon and/or communicative over-simplification happens regularly, not only through television images. There is a second case I think useful to analyse: that of images created for a specific audience, which are reutilised for a different purpose. This can happen for a number of reasons, such as to achieve an economy of scale, but the risks run can be extremely high. The following pictures show the screen images from two satellite channels: RAI News 24 and RAI Med. They were recorded on the same day, a few minutes ato think how these images could be received in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila or in Chechnya. If you consider this an overreaction try to imagine what any citizen would feel seeing himself represented by the television images of another country through a series of stereotypes that, if on the one hand, can identify his culture, on the other, just because they are stereotypes, oversimplify the representation, making the self-identification distorted and, at times, offensive.

This reaction is not determined by the fact that what is reported is not true, but rather that it is no longer recognisable because stereotypes do not take into account the complexity of the situation. The problem is that this kind of phenomenon and/or communicative over-simplification happens regularly, not only through television images. There is a second case I think useful to analyse: that of images created for a specific audience, which are reutilised for a different purpose. This can happen for a number of reasons, such as to achieve an economy of scale, but the risks run can be extremely high. The following pictures show the screen images from two satellite channels: RAI News 24 and RAI Med. They were recorded on the same day, a few minutes apart, as shown by the clock on the screen.part, as shown by the clock on the screen.

The screen image of RAI News 24 shows a layout derived from CNN, as discussed before. The screen image of RAI Med, which has the Maghreb area as its main target, also has the same scheme, but on the graphic level it contains several mistakes. The most evident is the weather updates of some of the European capitals that are written in Italian instead of Arabic. The same can be said of the stock exchange information and the exchange rates on the bottom right. The Arab audience is thus faced with a framework, which prepares it to receive the message as if it were expressly prepared and codified for its cultural context, but in the end its expectations will be disappointed, as we will see shortly. Furthermore, the RAI Med screen states broadcasts, in Arabic, will start at 22.00, but the transmission, as we can see, has already started. It is important to underline the fact that such screen images, despite the imprecision contained, on a semiotic level activate possible interpretation paths, or isotopies (Eco, 1989: 92-101), which prepare the receiver to decipher the messages in the most suitable way to his cultural environment and expectations, lowering his affective filters and making him more permeable to the contents carried by the media.

The problem is that often, before 22.00, RAI Med does nothing other than repeat the programmes of RAI News 24, which in turns repeats part of the information production of the national channels of RAI (the Italian national broadcaster). In the case of the two images both channels were broadcasting a news item from the “Regional News of Abruzzi” (an Italian region). It was a story about an emigrant in Argentina, owner of a chain of beauty salons. RAI Med was also broadcasting this item in Italian and without Arabic subtitles, which is a common enough situation for this network. Is this just a great trust in the ability of the audiences in the Maghreb to understand Italian, or a sort of communication and cultural short sightedness? The question to pose is: what is the point of having a channel that, despite some problems, is dedicated, even graphically, to the Southern shore of the Mediterranean, but with the audio often in Italian and whose contents are only the repetition of the Italian national channels?11 The question becomes much more serious when, as happened in the recent past, instead of the story of the ItalianArgentinean coiffeur, RAI Med broadcasts the Italian national news containing declarations theorising the legitimacy of shooting on the boats carrying illegal immigrants trying to reach the Italian territorial waters, or other racist statements, which offend the audience, no matter which shore of the Mediterranean they are on. Clearly, in this case the fact that the media now incarnates a fundamental role in public diplomatic activity is ignored.12

Also ignored is the fact that the diffusion of images and statements, through the satellite networks, requires today the awareness of a series of variables which, if not controlled and dominated in a proper manner, risk compromising the mutual perception of the different nations, also jeopardising in this way the chances of future dialogue. Yet these kinds of errors happen regularly every day, because the schedulers often forget that their signals, once put onto the virtual bridges, escape from their control. We face bridges of which we know the starting pier, but not the length of the span nor the type of ground into which the arrival pier is planted. I consider it irresponsible to diffuse racist and intolerant declarations outside the national land circuits, independent of their origin and of the fact that our nation is the sender or the receiver of those messages. The same risk is obviously run by our counterparts. One night I followed a programme on Al Jazeera with an English translation. It was a debate on the current situation with phone calls from the audience. Many of the calls pointed out how the clash between us (the Arab and Islamic world) and them (the Westerners) was unavoidable.

To support this point of view there were not only the well-known political-military facts, but also the “corruption” of Westerners. A number of callers exemplified this corruption: the raging pornography on television channels, the widespread homosexuality, abortion and the way women live and dress. In a matter of minutes it had been possible to witness a summarising of stereotypes about the part of the world in which we live and this made me reflect on the way we are perceived. However, if I had been one of those believers in the clash of civilisations championed by Huntington (1997),13 who identify themselves in his thinking, would I have considered the calls to Al Jazeera just as starting points for reflection or would I have had confirmation of the hostility between us and the Arab-Islamic world, thus giving voice to all our worst stereotypes and prejudices? Or would I have limited myself to pointing out that many of the pornographic satellite channels offer their services exclusively in the Arabic language? Would I have tried to understand the apparently unequivocal meaning of some programmes regularly transmitted by Al Manar (following image), or would I have limited myself to categorising the network as the “terrorists’ network”?

Thus, one should not underestimate the almost unnoticeable changes that mediated communication can bring about between nations and above all between their citizens. It is not by chance that I consider mediated communication as a critical element in what I have defined micro-diplomacy; that is, the diplomacy carried out in various forms by single citizens. Quite recently, this panorama has been modified again by the entrance of AJI, Al Jazeera International, “on stage”.

The channel broadcasts in English thus making access to “different” information, or at least offered from a different point of view, easier for a larger audience. Since the very beginning of programmes the channel has made clear that its objective is “to promote better intercultural communication.” Is this just a catchy statement to polarise viewers’ attention? Quite the opposite as this communicative strategy seems to be carried out in all the possible fields of the production process. To reinforce the idea of being an independent and alternative “all news”, channel AJI has hired world famous English mother tongue journalists, such as BBC leading anchorman David Frost (Breakfast with Frost, now renamed on AJI Frost Over the World). At the same time, the station is carrying out a thoughtful strategy on subtler aspects of language engineering processes (Conoscenti, 2004) in its audiovisual production.

A typical example is the video clips played before the news. Not only are they produced with the same editing technique and image selection of BBC 24 and BBC World, but they use a soundtrack for the clip that is a perfect reproduction of the BBC’s. This holds true for the music chords, the harmony and rhythm. The memetic effect is clear and the marketing statement “me too” can be easily identified, i.e., this channel is worth attention and consideration as well as the BBC; the latter having (or having had?) a reputation of critical independence as far as the selection and diffusion of news is concerned. Another interesting aspect is the wide geographical areas reports refer to, from Asia to Africa, backgrounding, voluntarily (?), the Middle East. The Westerner viewer’s expectations are therefore shuffled. Thus, AJI represents itself as the channel able to give voice to several world areas, and their related problems, generally neglected by other global news networks. Another interesting strategy is the use of images to represent women’s status in the Arab and Islamic world.

AJI schedules each week Everywoman: it is a gender programme and its first episodes focused on Islamic women’s rights. Producers immediately turned their attention to the construction of the visual code as a vehicle of implied meanings. The presenter is always represented as a Westernstyle anchorwoman, while Islamic women are instantiated in several different ways, to offer a sort of exemplary variety of the Islamic reality. In the episode on women’s rights in Malaysia and Sarawak the representation was enacted as follows (images were presented on screen in a sequence lasting a few seconds):

The co-presence of different personal communicative styles instantiated by means of the participants’ dress should be observed. The Kuala Lumpur towers in the background should be noticed too. They convey an image of “modernity” contrasting/opposing/or simply acting as a background to the two women. The choice depends on the viewer’s expectations and interpretation of the semiotic sign. Thus, we are offered a synthesis of “modernity” and “tradition” living together passing from the screen to everyday life. A similar strategy was adopted while interviewing Nada Zeidan, a nurse and a famous Qatar sportswoman who is a rally driver and an archer. In this case, too, the representation strategy was to show and communicate her multiple identities as a member of several communities of practice through her way of dressing according to the situation. The first image shown is the opening one. The contrast between the veil, a distinctive and culturally marked element, and the glamorous framing of the image and the interviewee’s make-up can be noticed.

In the next sequence another representation of Zeidan is offered, that of the rally driver. The viewer can be expected to have several emotional reactions engaging him/her in a sort of cultural comparison that will contrast with the previous image:

At a certain point Zeidan says: “We are in an Arab country, men don’t like a woman to be independent.” The concept is made clear by her straight hand movement and her dress, this time that of an archer.

Later on the woman is shown during a training session while instructing her students. One of these says: “I want to be like her.” This is the image of the instructor and interviewee while she is uttering the reported statement. This short sequence of images seems to show the authors’ and producers’ intention to offer the Western viewer a representation that should mitigate, if not completely delete, the perception of several stereotypes as far as Arab and Islamic women are concerned representing them (almost) simultaneously on screen. This is achieved by means of the co-presence of culturally marked images (for the Western viewer) pointing to a communicative complexity that verbal codes cannot embody.

I have said that sometimes the message is generated with the awareness that someone on the other side of the bridge is watching. In this case everything is transformed into a Shakespearean “play within the play” in which mirrored cross-references are not lacking. We can observe two interesting cases. The first regards the case of the Italians kidnapped in Iraq. At a particular point in the affair, the mother of one of the hostages pleaded with the kidnappers, saying that personally she believed the war to be unjust. To make the message more incisive and perhaps more credible, an Islamic friend of the family was also present.

Obviously this image creates an interesting isotopic drift at both ends of the bridge. From the broadcasting end, the presence of the Arab woman could be seen as an element that confirms a particular tie of friendship between the families, or otherwise as a symbol of a presumed disassociation from certain practices, even if obtained by means of a semiotic cooptation. Certainly the Islamic woman assumes the role of a cultural mediator in order to facilitate the arrival of the message at the other end of the bridge.

On the receiving end, the presence of the Islamic woman possibly serves to activate an isotopy that familiarises the contents and facilitates the lowering of the affective filters of defence put into effect by the culturally marked reception (RAI News 24 in Italian). It is interesting to note how the Italian mother reading her plea is shown in profile, while the veiled woman is facing the camera, thus becoming the privileged element of the information unit. This is as though the cameraman had already absorbed the intended meaning of the semiotic producers. Indeed, as soon as the mother finishes reading her message, the Islamic woman reads the same plea in Arabic, becoming the sole informative element of the image.

El lazo emocional entre las dos mujeres está subrayado por la mano de la madre italiana sobre el hombro de la mujer islámica y, cuando la lectura del mensaje en árabe The emotional tie between the two women is underlined by the hand of the Italian mother on the shoulder of the Islamic woman and, when the reading of the message in Arabic ends, the visual narration finishes with a hug that seals their unity of purpose.

This is a ritual formulation of the hope for a peaceful coexistence that was nullified a few days later by the news of the prisoners of war in Iraq. It is to be noted that their message is in contrast with the news update captions running along the screen at the end of the reading that state: “Iraq: US forces bomb the militia in Al-Fallujah”: a modern day version of our own War and Peace. There is no point in commenting the other caption reading: “Syria. Terrorist dies in attack on UN offices in Damascus”. Are these just unlucky coincidences?

This is an interesting case of the creation of spontaneous intercultural meaning that, even with simple codes, is able to force a narrative and strong visual framework onto the producer of images that is difficult to unhinge. Concluding this section, which has only used a minimal number of the images collected during a year of research, it seems possible to state that reciprocal observation is active on both sides of the bridges. The problem is that only now are we starting to understand what the effects are. The most important idea that has emerged is that it is necessary to find a way to facilitate communication that it is not easy.

Lessons Learnt and Some Questions: Toward an Inter-media Language and Space

In the course of this paper I have tried to point out how the problem of intercultural communication through media is still the object of too many easy misunderstandings, which do not take reality into account. I have also tried to show how messages, once generated and set free to circulate, could stem in their turn into meanings that are very different from the ones intended by their generators. Many are the possible explanations, some of which can be found in interdisciplinary circles that are in some way pertinent to human and social studies, as O’Halloran (2006) has tried to demonstrate.

First of all, it is necessary to acknowledge that there is a strong drifting apart between those who create the images and news and those who receive them. If, on the one hand, globalisation gave a strong impulse to the homogenisation of elite cultures, such as the ones to which the people who manage media production belong, as some of the selected images demonstrate, on the other hand we must be aware that the receivers belong to lower classes14 and are more refractory to innovations in the communication codes. As I consider globalisation a form of neo-colonialism, I include all of the cultural productions of the world not belonging to the Anglo-American matrix in this reflection.

One answer to the problem in the Mediterranean area, which has been so strongly conditioned by political and economic events caused by external agents and which push it to search for a new identity in a form that has perhaps never existed before, is to try to construct an intermediate identity through a media and mediated representation that has a common denominator. Roque (2005) proposed substituting the concept of “border”, which has too much of a political connotation, with that of intermediate and intermediary spaces. Certainly the virtual bridges represented by the means of mass communication – radio, television networks (both satellite and otherwise) and the Internet – can generate an intermediary space, that is, a media space that can be conceived and used, anthropologically speaking, as a moment of exchange with the “other” and at the same time as a place for experimenting with common languages. Basically, this just means repeating the processes that for thousands of years commerce and human contacts have always favoured, that is, the birth of a method of communication as an expression of the need for exchanges. Today, all the countries that border the Mediterranean and their neighbours need to understand that co-existence is possible, even in the diversity of languages, religions, habits and customs.

From this point of view, the media certainly represents an opportunity, since the younger generations, in the same way as those in the process of becoming literate, are much more inclined to absorb contents and ideas through audiovisual codes than through such traditional means as, for example, this book. In spite of this, for the reasons given in this study, I continue to harbour some doubts about the uncontrolled exchange of television productions, (Dibie, 2003: 85), especially when this is not preceded by adequate education in the way others communicate through audiovisual languages. This is for two reasons. The first is the negative impact that the stereotypes contained in the programmes could have, complicating the already complex intercultural communication in this historical period.

The second is the possible memetic diffusion of behavioural models15 and its consequences on the social tissue. Humphrys (2005: 332-333) has observed: “I wrote earlier than none of us who saw the pictures of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers will ever forget them – but I doubt that we can remember the words used to describe the horror. Some terrible things have happened in Iraq before and since the war, and many words have been written attacking the behaviour of the occupying forces and the insurgents. But did any of them do a fraction of the damage caused by that simple picture of a prisoner being dragged like a dog on a leash by a grinning GI? I doubt it…This is why we need a common language and this is why it needs to be taught properly and monitored constantly.” Humphrys refers to the English language, but I believe it is necessary for us to find a common language to convey those elements that allow us to identify ourselves as something different and alternative to the vision of the world that seeks to impose itself as universal. In this case the breakdown of codes, as I have already said, is more evident between commercial and public networks.

The first are memetic par excellence: they engineer their language in order to attract an audience, which in turn attracts advertisers. They utilise a utilitarian logic: if the code is complex and makes access to the content difficult, then the encoding of the message is simplified, even if the very content is to suffer. However, limits could be transformed into opportunities. A first goal for cooperation, as I have previously mentioned, could be the creation of a common audiovisual language. This should take into account the different perceptions of image that the various cultures in our catchment area have. The elaboration of a language for television, which is sufficiently elastic to tolerate national and cultural variations, seems to be a necessary condition before thinking about truly “Mediterranean” programmes and channels in common. This observation allows for the introduction of a further variable: that of the contents. In fact, too often one tends to think that broadcasters are the equivalent of information networks.

Once again this is the effect of American networks that tend to transform news into entertainment, the aforementioned “infotainment”. They do this without taking into account the fact that during a press conference, a politician is not necessarily aware that his statements will be translated into other languages and broadcast all over the world. However, the media can and should accomplish other roles, not least that of educating. It appears more interesting, though more complex, to ask ourselves if it is possible to plan a training programme aimed at overcoming the concept of national identity in favour of one of area. I am aware that this is anything but easy, and also politically complex, but I strongly and firmly believe that this is one of the reasons for which it is worth thinking about a Mediterranean network. I imagine and hope for a mixed international and interdisciplinary group that, during the co-productions specified by Dibie (2003: 85-88), is able to explain which elements are the significant and marked ones for each culture represented.

Only through such a negotiation of meaning is it possible to think of the birth and foundation of a truly common media language. Why limit efforts in cooperation to the diffusion of news and TV films, rather than thinking of radio and television for Mediterranean youth, made for the citizens of the future, as a primary goal of the experimentation in new codes? Thus it is necessary to make a mutual effort to verify what the common training, editing and production methods of contents are in common in the Mediterranean area. Such an effort implies a broad vision and an active involvement of all the participants.

They must be able to contribute symmetrically in terms of power, competence and contents. This is necessary because, if we really want to create pan-Mediterranean television set in an inter-media space, we must ask ourselves, setting aside the purely commercial logic, what the contents we want to communicate are and in what manner we want to do this. All of these variables will have to be subordinated to the even more complex question I have tried to bring up in the course of this discussion: is it possible to have an intercultural communication in the Mediterranean area? I believe so, even though we have just begun to pose the questions and to find some answers.

Success will only be possible if we are able to overcome the old divisions and mutual diffidence, which are the fruit of a long and tormented history that despite everything has joined us together for thousands of years. At this point the answers and solutions can and must also be of a political nature, not forgetting that “peace depends on being intercultural” (Panikkar, 2002) and the latter, in our specific case, depends on the capacity of dialogue between the different cultures and the different nations on the shores of the Mediterranean.


[1] The building of the database and some theoretical assumptions in this paper were the result of a research project funded by MIUR (2002104353-005) titled “Interculturalità e strategie di adattamento testuale – Intercultural Practices and Strategies of Textual Recasting”.

[2] It is fascinating to note how this theory recalls, not only in its terminology, that of Searle (1976) on linguistic acts.

[3] “Meme (from the Greek mimema ‘that is imitated’ in the mould of ‘gene’): a cultural element that can be considered to be transmitted from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially through imitation”, cited by Blackmore (2002), p. 71.

[4] See discussion in the next paragraph.

[5] Term created by joining the words information and entertainment.

[6] For an in-depth examination and a critical analysis of the system, see Hargreaves (2003). We think his contribution is particularly significant because Hargreaves is not only a university professor, but has also been in charge of important British newspapers.

[7] Rupert Murdoch, speech given at the Banqueting House, London, 1st September 1993

[8] Well-informed sources from the Arab-Islamic television world say that the majority of professionals working for Al Jazeera have been trained by and have worked for the Arabic Service of the BBC. When this service ceased its broadcasting, technicians and journalists were employed by the new television company. This is interesting since it proves that not only the semiotic codes used are of Anglo-American origin but also that, due to a number of socio-economic reasons, they spread in a memetic way (Blackmore, 2002, pp. 349-374).

[9] Think of the Beslan massacre. Also in this case the group of kidnappers included Chechen women wearing the veil. There seem to be many similarities with the case we are describing, but this time images of the kidnappers (dead or alive) were not shown.

[10] This was also pointed out by Dibie (2003), pp. 84-86

[11] For a wider discussion on public diplomacy and its implications in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern area see the section “Lessons Learnt and Some Questions: Towards an Inter-media Language and Space”.

[12] Among the other ideas of the American scholar, I was struck by one, expressed in a lectio magistralis at the Turin Book Fair, according to which the quarrelsomeness of the Arab-Islamic countries is due to their higher proportion of young people. Huntington believes that they are more aggressive as a consequence of the hormonal turmoil to which they are subjected.

[13] From this point of view they are also easier to manipulate.

[14] Take for example the effects generated by American television serials on the people’s language and on Italian culture, both that of television and otherwise, in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Another interesting case of memetic contamination is the proliferation of the so-called television formats that spread mutually cloned television programmes with contents of dubious quality, such as game shows, sit-coms and infotainment just to mention a few, throughout Europe and America.