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Top journalism, and its opposite

30 May 2014


TWO fascinating pieces about the Middle East this week, illustrating two entirely different modes of journalism.

Anthony Lloyd of The Times, in a dispatch filed before he and his photographer were kidnapped and shot by their fixer in northern Syria (they escaped), produced a startling vignette of life in the Syrian war. He found the last seven Christians in the rebel-held quarter of Aleppo. Five are pensioners in a hostel for poor Catholics: the oldest is a woman, aged 97 and blind, and most of the rest are in their late eighties.

These five are looked after by the other two: a sprightly 59-year-old and his wife. When the war began, there were 12 pensioners. Three were taken away by their relatives; four have since died of old age. The remainder live on the charity of their Muslim neighbours in a building without water or electricity, 200 metres from the front line. Conditions are now so dangerous that the last resident to die is buried in the hostel's courtyard, because it was impossible to get his body to church.

"I want to stay here until God finishes my life," said Maggie Anstas, 85. "I have no relatives since my husband died and I came to live here 20 years ago. Where else would I go? This is my home." This story, in which the violence is off stage, carries more of the pathos of the Syrian war than almost anything else I have read.

PAUL VALLELY, in The Guardian, was at the opposite place of good journalism with an analysis piece showing what to watch when the Pope visited Israel. "Francis, a man known for the potency of his symbolism and gestures, is making a point.

"You see that point more clearly if you look at the official itinerary issued by the Vatican. The first thing the Pope will do when he enters the Israeli-occupied West Bank is to call on 'the president of the state of Palestine'. The wording is significant: Francis is announcing that he is visiting an entity that Israel, like the United States, insists does not exist."

This was followed by a lovely piece of prophecy: "The nearest Pope Benedict got to politics on his trip in 2009 was to describe the 26ft-high Israeli security wall, which cuts through the West Bank like a concrete scar, as one of the 'saddest sights' of his visit. But Francis, known for his off-the-cuff remarks and vivid turns of phrase, could well say something explosive when, after saying mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, he has lunch with Palestinian children from the Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps."

In the end, of course, he did something much more eloquent: by praying at the separation wall, beside or beneath anti-Israeli grafitti, he added an unforgettable image to the memories of the trip. Prayer is only sometimes effective as theatre, but this was almost up to the standard of John Paul II's dropping to his knees to kiss the Polish tarmac when he returned to his homeland as Pope.

Of course he said - and meant - all the right things about Jewish suffering when he was in Israel. He was a Jesuit, after all. But they will be forgotten, because everybody says them.

ON THE other side of the world, The New York Times had an entertaining pop at Cardinal Dolan of New York: "Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan lives in a 19th-century Madison Avenue mansion that connects to St Patrick's Cathedral. A cook and two housekeepers serve him and three other priests. A driver chauffeurs him around, though in a Chrysler minivan.

"It is a comfortable, if not necessarily extravagant, lifestyle, one in keeping with that of past archbishops of New York. But in the age of Pope Francis, who has captured the world's imagination by rejecting many luxurious trappings of the papacy, is the cardinal's lifestyle humble enough?"

MEANWHILE, a piece ran in the Guardian comment section condemning the hypocrisy of the British press in its treatment of the Duchess of Cambridge's bottom, which had been bared by a rude republican gust ofwind on her visit to Australia. The German tabloid Bild Zeitung published the resulting photograph, together with shots of two other celebrity bottoms.

Perhaps a royalist should have been outraged by the fact that a future Queen of England is thought to have a bottom less noteworthy than an American reality-television star; but I was amused by the high-minded device of writing about otherpeople's hypocrisy in writing about the royal bottom.

So, naturally, I must draw attention to the hypocrisy on display in writing about the hypocrisy with which we treat the royal bottom. If anyone writes to the editor on the salacious sanctimony of this very paragraph, the universe might just explode.

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