Tales of the world episode 70 – Of (UN) interns and men

It is fitting to start the new season of Tales of the world podcasts with a news story arc that happened in Geneva this August. It was broken to the public by the very local newspaper Tribune de Genève, which, for three whole days, knew the glory of being quoted and mentioned by the global media giants, in their search for human-interest stories that could touch their readers during the typically slow summer reel.

The premise of the story arc was quite simple: the newspaper posted on Monday evening, around the time people check their facebook and twitter feeds, a potentially explosive news, as it was directly related to Geneva: young unpaid UN intern has to live in a tent during his internship because he cannot afford anything else, raising the question about who can actually afford to take up this kind of unpaid job. The response was quite immediate and overwhelming: almost everyone in Geneva knows someone or has been in the situation of being an unpaid UN intern, so they sympathise. They also feel inspired that someone courageous has finally took it upon themselves to say something, when they themselves did not do it, although the thought has crossed their minds. So there go offers of lodging and support. On the other hand, as the story is being picked up by more and more international media, the UN itself is forced to come up with a half baked declaration about how it helps its interns survive the fourth most expensive city in the world.

The next day, around midday, lo and behold, the intern buckles under the unexpected pressure of media coverage and claims himself touched and surprised by such reaction. He decided to resign however, and above all, to do this in a press conference in front of Palais des Nations, full of symbolism and fake humility, which instantly raises suspicions as to his ingenuity in this affair. The alarm bells started with the question of “how did the TDG journalist hear about this story” are confirmed, and sure enough, by Wednesday evening, in the middle of a heated public discussion about UN interns and their pay, or lack thereof, the third act in the drama is played and David Hyde confesses publicly that his was a communication coup orchestrated in order to get attention to this topic, about which he intended to do a documentary.

Meanwhile, UN interns did go out on a protest asking for a change the system, which was reported virtually nowhere in the press. And now, for the fifth act and the revenge, as it is called in theatre theory…the weekend papers wasted no time in calling this story a “publicity coup”, a “lying strategy”, with its main character “coming clean”, “confessing” to a “deception” and a “stunt”. By doing this they buried, in their turn, the real story – which is the growing inequality and injustice embedded in the UN internship system – under the cover of self- righteousness.

Three main observations occur to me in relation to this saga.

First, I am appalled by the comments posted by people on the first articles describing the interns’ situation, which, in their majority, did not even engage with the possibility that something is rotten in the system, and kept saying that the only thing to do is to adapt and essentially submit to the current situation, work hard and eventually “earn” the right to have a good internship, when it is pretty clear that these are no longer sufficient conditions to achieve one’s goals. I guess this is Calvinism at its best and Calvin may rest in peace, his city is still under the spell of his 16th century ideology and hypocrisy.

Secondly, my thoughts turn towards David Hyde, the unhappy protagonist of this story. I choose to be naïve enough to believe that his was not a self-interested publicity stunt, but rather the case of young person of strong convictions, who was overwhelmed by hubris and the arrogance stemming from the fact that, at the root of it, he had a good point to make. Also, let us be honest, this type of calculation turns out to be the only way to actually get through to the press, who fell so quickly and so hard for a story which was in the image of the way it works. If the idea of a documentary about this subject really existed, it was a good one and an honest one. The rub is that it needed time and reflection, values and skills that are no longer taught in schools, families and society at large. This brings me to my third point.

The ethics of journalism. What kind of journalist falls right into a youth’s poorly organised plan of making a splash for an idea? Or should we think that, more cunning than a fox who studied cunning at Oxford, the TDG journalist was complicit in this plan out of their support of the cause? I think this overestimates that particular individual on several accounts. Also, what kind of media, in general, fails to stop and reflect on why this entire situation happened, and why, ultimately, it failed to treat in depth the real subject: inequality, injustice and entitlement, and the many forms they take, including in the institutions that are meant to combat these very things. That which has failed us, including David Hyde, most in this story, is lazy journalism, which promises the glory of an instant for an individual, only to bury deep the idea or the cause they happen to stand for.

So there we go, the start of a season, which begins with a bang and a whimper and with a very precious insight: we cannot take the system on full frontal, no matter how right we are; we shall always be crushed, not least by the complicities it generates within ourselves; we can, however, build strategies and proposals based on reflection and medium and long-term processes, which help us build ourselves and narratives that will withstand the temptations of arrogance and hubris and truly build a better future.