Friday, August 04, 2006

Our Love of Non-News

On Sunday last, (July 30 2006) a Sky News reporter was interviewing one of the organisers of the Voices for Lebanon and Palestine rally in Trafalgar Sq. In the course of the interview we heard again and again that Israeli air strikes were killing women and children, particularly children. This, interspersed with a montage of scenes of destruction and suffering in southern Lebanon.

It must be said first that the nature of a rolling news service means the viewer often hears the same points again and again. Watch Sky News for example at about 11.30 in the morning and you will often witness a correspondent placed outside some building in central London, New Scotland Yard, the Old Bailey, Westminster obviously with the brief to talk and keep talking. I have personally seen Martin Brunt approach the realms of mystic trance as he told us, albeit with a slight alteration of words, what he had just told us two minutes previous and has been telling us for the last twenty.

‘So Martin,’ says Kay or Anna or the other Martin in the studio, ‘John Prescott is unlikely to sell one of his Jags and buy a bicycle in the near future?’

Go on, go on, I’m thinking. Say it. Tell them you just bloody well said that two minutes ago. Have been saying it for the last twenty. And are they deaf or what?

But no. He continues. ‘Yes that’s right, Kay – Anna – other Martin. As I said in my previous report this morning (two minutes ago) Mr Prescott’s statement says, and I quote, (he then reads word for word from a page in front of him). ‘And,’ he adds, ‘Mr Prescott also indicated in his press conference earlier today (twenty minutes ago) that he has spoken with the PM and feels he has nothing to hide. That the matter is closed. (they show the press conference in its entirety again). ‘Martin,’ says Kay, Anna, other Martin, ‘do you think this could be an indication of a policy rift with Mr Blair. It is well known, is it not, that the Prime Minister is a Lexus man.’ ‘Indeed,’ Kay, Anna, other Martin,’ replies Martin, ‘the Prime Minister is know to be a Lexus man. However there is some disparity of opinion on this subject within the cabinet.’ ‘Martin,’ interjects Kay, or Anna or other Martin from the studio, ‘Mr Brown. What’s his feeling on this matter?’ Does he side with Mr Blair or would he go with John Prescott? Do we know what he is thinking?’ ‘Well publicly at least he sides with Mr Blair. There is off course the alleged agreement made in an Islington restaurant before the New Labour V10 was elected. (A sleek creation with a high-rev G8 speed engine, spin-doctored design, and automatically installed EWMDSF - the Elimination of Weapons of Mass Destruction Safety Feature). It is alleged that the Chancellor agreed to drive a Lexus for the first term and a half but then switch to a BMW. However this is only press speculation and both men insist that rumours that Mr Brown has been seen recently in a sporty Volkswagen cabriolet are completely unfounded. In fact both men insist that their relationship over Lexus has never been better.’ ‘Quite Martin. Would you however’. . .etc. . etc.

By the time we get to 11.55, through the ad breaks, Lisa’s weather-spot informing us that ‘pulses’ of rain, (I always though pulses were a category of food) will be coming in from the west, Martin is babbling. ‘Indeed,’ Kay, Anna, other Martin. ‘There is a piece of fluff on the sleeve of my jacket. Now just how long it has been there is difficult to say. It was not there this morning. And certainly was absent when I purchased this jacket last Saturday in that very large Marks and Spencer near Moorgate Underground Station, incidentally itself not far from the scene of one of the London terror bombings of last July seven. An atrocity attributed to home-grown Islamic Terrorists and in no way related to the government’s policy on Iraq. It may be that the fluff. . .’ ‘Martin let me interrupt you for a moment,’ cries Anna from the studio. (It has to be Anna now.) ‘Are there any indications that this piece of fluff could have been planted by a terrorist group? Possibly one sympathetic to or connected with Al-Qaeda? Or one as yet unknown to us? Or indeed it might be linked to the current situation in Baghdad.’

And so it goes.

To return to Sunday’s interview, what struck me was not the issue being discussed but the manner in which the issue was discussed.

In fact a language of discussion was barely present. What we were treated to was a montage of images and some highly emotive words.

The images are the ones we are growing used to. And will possibly grow even more used to in the future. Perhaps even inured to. Buildings reduced to rubble, Mostly Arab women (whether Palestinian, Lebanese or Iraqi), their faces distorted with anguish, wailing inconsolably at the death of a son, a father, a daughter.

Yet have we not been looking at these images in one form or another for the last thirty years? Who remembers the Black September hijackings of 1970? Televised. The bullets flying during the Intifada. The car-bombings of Beirut. Or Tel-Aviv. For those of us under the age of fifty it seems the problem of the middle-east has always been with us. Despite the media coverage it has not gone away. Or been resolved.

The difficulty is not that the media is biased or one sided. (To exist in this world is to have an opinion). Or that it is a tool of government propaganda. It is that it creates a false theatre for discussion. The purpose of the rolling news channel is news as entertainment. Journalistic sound–bites that are not censored but self-censoring. The rolling news network packs journalistic content into a form, presents it through a medium where the semiotics of advertising, soap-opera, sit-com, sport, family movies are what pertain.

Consider for example the collapse of some of the US’s news Anchors during the 9/11 attacks. A real journalist is focused. Is used to tragedy (bad news it seems is always the best news) and develops a cool head and sharp eye for the story. In a dangerous situation he or she weighs the needs of survival against the opportunity of getting something unique and telling. Sometimes even risking their lives for what they consider we should know. It is they who keep a cool head when everyone around them is embroiled.

Used to presenting news of all sorts of tragedy and unhappiness 24 hours in 24 hours out, from around the globe, one would have thought the Anchors would have risen to the challenge of real and world-changing news happening right under their noses. But they did not. They seemed unnerved by it. Unsure of themselves. Some stuttered and stammered. Ruffled papers on their desk. Forced to talk for once without an autocue, (a script) they desperately tried to find things to say other than ‘my God, oh my God’. One broke down and cried. Perhaps they were genuinely shocked or moved. Or perhaps a giant hole had been knocked in their world. Real news entered and their entertainment brief was laid bare.

Yes, some point out, but in such serious circumstances any number of public figures would have done no better. True. But then no-one conveyed on them the title ‘journalist’. No-one charged them with the responsibility of informing us about serious events. Of accurate and calm reporting.

In the US, the home of the rolling news network, voter turn-out is frighteningly low. Those who do not vote are often heard to exclaim, it makes no difference anyhow. I believe this reflects not so much a lack of political choice, but the fact that an election or political issue is now experienced as a form of entertainment. Given that, who would not rather watch American Pop Idol or Jerry Springer?

Sunday’s spokesman appealed to all of us in TV land. He was not appealing to the converted. For they already believe. And he was not appealing to the Israeli government. For they will disregard him. They know where they stand.

No. He was appealing to those of us who waver. Those of us who are not quite sure of the politics of the situation. Those of us who turn on a television and are versed in the language of television watching. Quick, easily assimilated images, that stimulate recognisable and often strong emotions. Words that are not complex, easily remembered and yet seem intelligent, even sophisticated. (I am not doubting the man’s sincerity here.)
He appealed to us in the language of television.
The children, yes the children. And the mothers. And the fathers. The sons. The grandfathers. The grandmothers. The sisters. The brothers.

Those who fight for causes, whether through a state or insurgency often overlook the fact that death takes no sides in a conflict. It breeds where it can and how it can.

Israeli air strikes are killing people as have Hezbollah rockets. For those killed ultimately it will matter little who did the killing. For those left mourning blaming one side or the other will not bring back those they have lost. Ordnance, as the military call it, does not have the ability to make such distinctions as child, mother, my people, your people. If you are within its range of explosive destruction it will not spare you. Regardless.

This is to not say I have no opinion on what is occurring in the middle-east. But I believe in addressing reality. Or rather what I can demonstrate to be true. What is verifiable.

To those who think that Arab countries or what we term the ‘Islamic World’ (a term demonstrative of our utter ignorance of the complexities and history of cultures outside our own), are going to get down on bended knee and accept with gratitude our values and lifestyle, I can only say dream at your peril. If we imagine that a day will come when middle-eastern or gulf states will happily give us their oil at special knock down prices, run to the Knesset and Washington embracing whoever is the top dog at the time, saying, ‘sahib, sahib, what wisdom you have, what foresight you posses - touch me that some of the glorious allure of your freedom and democracy may rub off on me,’ know little about human dignity or nature. If they were to do this then I think they would show themselves to be genuinely an inferior culture.

And to those Arabs (and westerners) who think that denying the legitimacy of the state of Israel is the solution to the middle-east’s problems I must say too, dream at your peril. What do you imagine will happen? That the UN will announce the forced relocation of seven million people? Dear Israel we are sorry to have to inform you that there was a regrettable mistake in our thinking in 1948 and we have been forced to consider your relocation as a nation. As at present we have not found a suitable piece of real estate, we plan to house you in various hotels about the globe. Please accept our sincerest apologies for any inconvenience caused.

That western governments would turn aside, could turn aside and permit the destruction, or partial destruction – again – of a people, is very doubtful. But what is more likely is that in the event of being ostracised from the International Community Israel would put into practice the one legacy to International relationships the Bush administration has bequeathed us (other than chaos) – pre-emptive diplomacy. (I’ll diplomat you before you diplomat me!) And while still strong and well armed it would strike quickly and ruthlessly at the hearts of those neighbouring states it considered to be of most threat. Plunging the entire region into chaos.

Israel as a state has existed for fifty odd years. During that history it has demonstrated itself to be more than capable of defending its interests. (And also aggrandizing its interests). Israel’s current hawkish policies in the region are not being prosecuted at the behest of the US or its current supine ally, the UK. Rather they are occurring in an atmosphere of tacit looking away and a total lack of leadership in International affairs.

Perhaps I am wrong, but the message I took from the recent transcripts of the recording cock-up between Blair and Bush was two-fold. One, if is this is what our special relationship amounts to, then what would it mean to be out of favour? And two, you cannot help come away with the feeling that for this administration most people outside the US are just a bunch of crazy wild-eyed foreigners, some less hostile than others.

I would like to see our Prime Minister salvage some credibility before he does the honourable thing and make way for Gordy. (Or whoever the compromise candidate turns out to be). Pressure, real pressure should be put on the Israeli government and Hezbollah to broker an immediate ceasefire and the UN should be given strong support, robust support to pursue a long term peace strategy in the region. Kofi-Anan is right. Syria and Iran must be involved. For they are part of the problem and therefore part of the solution.

In the seventies the Carter administration brokered peace between Israel and Egypt - thought impossible at the time. Though Anwar Sadat eventually paid with his life for the agreement, it is probable that many other lives were nevertheless saved. Though all is not yet perfect, both countries have at least a workable relationship. However with the region unstable, militancy is always a threat. And Egypt walks a thin line.

Mr Blair should break with the Bush administration and weigh in behind the UN or the EU. Neither are perfect but both, at least, have a somewhat more realistic take on the problems and difficulties involved. Most of the larger European countries have sizable Muslim populations, diverse though they may be, and we have to understand that our governments represent their opinions too. And yes, we in Europe do owe the Jews something. Over sixty years ago we failed to protect them from a political philosophy that took as one of the cornerstones of its thinking, their genocide. We like to lay the blame for that disgrace at the feet of one nation but overlook the fact that fascism was prevalent all over Europe before the war. As a political philosophy it was born in Europe.

Sunday’s interview demonstrated the weakness of the rolling news programme.

Despite images of the bodies of dead children springing to mind I in no way came close to feeling the deep and continuing anguish a parent must feel who has just lost a son or daughter in a missile or rocket attack. What I felt was a brief and strong emotion that pushed me toward a quick and facile judgment. ‘Those bad Israelis, the poor Palestinians,’ or, ‘Hezbollah must be defeated now and quickly in order to put an end to this misery’ (it could just as easily have been Israeli mothers). And this is not because I am basically a facile and shallow person. (At least not very). But because I am watching something serious and ‘real’ in the theatre of entertainment. Where the ‘rules of engagement’ (so to speak) are about making quick and easy decisions. Identifying whom I like, whom I do not like, who will carry the hopes of the narrative, who will be its foil.

Nothing we see on television is real in the sense that it requires action from us. This does not mean television cannot inform us, but to do so it must at least show a certain amount of irony regarding its subject matter. Distance itself. Draw attention to itself as a medium through which various types of information can pass. But not exclusively.

The rolling news networks, (who now set the standard for news everywhere in our society) cannot use these techniques. For seeing as they deal in events that are often tragic and supposedly serious they must never give us the impression that what they do they do lightly. The aura of authenticity must be maintained. Yet the language of the medium they work through is one where the inauthentic is celebrated almost unconditionally. (Is this why I can watch Oprah interviewing Tina Turner or Maria Carey and laud her professionalism but cringe when she discusses child-abuse, domestic violence or the plight of single mothers?) Being inauthentic does not mean a thing has no value. Only that its value is part of a layered structure of meaning. Journalism is not permitted the luxury of levels of meaning. Of irony. It is not about self-discovery, entertainment or intellectual play. It must give information and that information must be able to defend itself against any charge of inaccuracy.

It is not that the rolling news network tells an inaccurate or one-sided story, it is that it does not tell a story at all. It deals in emotion, in montage, in captions. It attempts to keep us watching but ensures that we are not drawn into too serious a discussion because then we may turn over and watch something else.

The rolling news networks are not the vanguards of globalism but our response to globalism. We watch the world as we watch anything else on television. Safely and generally in the comfort of our own home. The rolling news networks keep us in touch with global news while keeping news from other parts of the globe at bay.

In TV world we want our stories tied up, to have a resolution, to end in a way we understand - to-night or at least in next week’s installment. But ‘news’ is located in the awkward actual world. And does not conform to these requirements. The situation in the middle-east is full of complexity and difficulty. Of paradox and contradiction. Of suffering and tragedy. Human-error and misjudgment. Both Arab and Israeli.

On Sunday last the real discussion was going on off-camera. Maybe for some of the people who were standing in Trafalgar SQ or other rallies elsewhere in Europe. Certainly for people on the streets of Beirut, Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, Damascus or Tehran. In military units, Hezbollah cells, restaurants, homes and hospital wards. Perhaps in these conversations, these exchanges of opinion, some went away changed, others became more entrenched than ever. Perhaps some saw a glimmer of hope, others only darkness and despair.

I do not know. I was not there. I was at home, in far-away Europe, on the living room couch in front of the TV.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington Oct 2007