There was a time when journalists could be relied upon to hold a mirror up to society and hold governments to account. But these days, the media can barely keep its own house in order, let alone change the world. One only has to look at the crisis of Rupert Murdoch's press empire in the UK to feel forsaken.
Fear not. Journalism's more idealistic mission has been taken over in recent years, by documentaries. Of course, in cinema films with high ideals and no stars are a tough sell to exhibitors. But on television, it's another matter entirely.
During the last week in November 2012, 71 broadcasters reaching over 500 million viewers across 180 countries – including some of the world's poorest nations – are broadcasting eight feature-length documentaries under the umbrella "Why Poverty?". In addition, around 30 short films will be shown online, and there will be accompanying radio, online and live events.
The whole thing was launched by HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, alongside the American actor Danny Glover at the United Nations. As media events go, it doesn't get much bigger. As an exercise in affecting hearts and minds, it is monumentally important.
Want to start a debate
The intention is to kick-start a new global debate about poverty and inequality in the 21st century. While recession-hit societies may feel that there's nothing they don't know on the subject of hardship, this collection of revelatory stories – involving greed and injustice, courage and humanity – will come as a wake-up call.
"After 50 years of aid, why are one billion people still living in poverty," asks Mette Hoffmann Meyer, head of documentaries at the Danish national broadcaster DR and a board member of the non-profit organisation behind these films, Steps International. "Why is it so difficult to ensure a decent life for everyone? These questions made us want to investigate the complexities and challenges of inequality, through different stories and points of view."
Steps chairman Nick Fraser, who runs the BBC's acclaimed documentary strand Storyville, insists that documentaries alone can't change the world. "We are public broadcasters, we're not campaigners," he says. "What we can do is start a debate. We want to talk to presidents, politicians, activists, people who know a lot and people who know absolutely nothing.
"I think that documentaries are at their best when they make you look at the world, and ask questions. This series demonstrates that there is no single answer to the problem of poverty, there's no magic bullet. There are many, complicated answers. We're saying, 'Do you want to know about the state of the world? What do you think you know about global poverty?' Once you've watched, it's up to you what you do about it."
With offices in South Africa and Denmark, Steps International seeks to address fundamental contemporary issues through high-quality documentaries, which are made available globally via a combination of partnerships – with broadcasters, digital media platforms and community organisations. The result is that these films have a guaranteed life and purpose way beyond their broadcast date.
"Why Poverty?" is its third venture. In 2001, Steps for the Future was a collection of 38 films about life in Southern Africa under the cloud of HIV/AIDS. In 2007 "Why Democracy?" featured 10 documentaries and 13 shorts exploring different interpretations of democracy. The series garnered a number of awards, including an Oscar for Alex Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side".
Don Edkins, the organisation's South Africa-based director and executive producer, says that the desire is to impact as much on individuals – and cumulatively on public opinion – as on governments and institutions.
"Steps to the Future targeted discrimination towards people living with HIV, and was extremely effective," he says. "We've done a number of follow-up studies looking at how the films encouraged people to address that particular issue – in their families, in their communities, in their schools – and become more aware of what it means to be living with HIV. That sort of response has a very direct impact on people's lives."
"Why Democracy?' had a less direct, personal impact, but it was more aimed at getting people to start discussing the importance of good governance. All these projects are founded on human rights," he adds, "whether it's the right to live with HIV, the right to good governance, the right to fairness and justice in society. Enduring poverty reflects a real failure to uphold basic human rights."
Poverty was a natural theme for the team to address, they say, but they then had to win over the six key broadcasters – in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Holland, Denmark and the UK – whose co-production or licence agreements provided the development funding that enabled the project to get off the ground.
The average budget of the eight films was around 500,000 euros. "That's a fair bit, especially in this climate," says Edkins. "A single broadcaster will only pay part of that, so you have to encourage a lot of broadcasters to put in production finance." For the other areas of the project – including the short films, website, and wider distribution of the films after broadcast – funding came from charitable foundations.
Edkins says that the scale of ambition pays off in the long run. "What's important about these Steps projects is that they consist of a collection of films made by excellent filmmakers from all over the world, screened together as a series, so you have a greater impact upon a particular issue than a single film. And the collaboration between so many broadcasters means you are reaching a much bigger audience."
Extraordinary range of voices
With "Why Democracy?" Steps had an open call and received over 600 proposals. This time it was decided to speed up the process by approaching directors directly. Three of the "Why Poverty?" directors have returned from the previous project, including Gibney. In the end there were 90 proposals, from which eight were chosen.
It was clear early on that it was impossible to discuss poverty, today, without also investigating inequality.
"We always hear of the global north donating money to the global south, as if that's a good thing," says Hoffmann Meyer, "but that just speaks to the growing inequality all over the world."
"Many of the films deal with inequality. Stealing Africa is a very powerful story about multinational money leaving Africa without being taxed, by going into safe havens, and making others rich. It's just outrageous. Park Avenue is about the increase in inequality in the US – reminding us that this really is a universal problem, as does Welcome to the World."
Says Fraser: "We tried to achieve a geographical spread, looking at a range of important places and questions. But the most important thing is the extraordinary range of voices in these films. I was particularly struck by the Bedouin wife in 'Solar Mamas', which is a very touching and important film, the vice-premier of Zambia in 'Stealing Africa', an educated white farmer and an activist for Zambia, and the stories of the tutor, the high school graduate and the kid looking for work in China, in 'Education, Education', which are sensational."
"These are people I will long, long remember. And there's no other way I would have met them other than through these documentaries."