Press: ‘The End is Nigh’ — don’t hold the front page

14 December 2018

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ONE of the things that happens to journalists as they grow older is that they lose their sense that news matters. To put it another way: they gain a sense of proportion.

Of course, I strive for unremitting frivolity myself, but, from time to time, I remember an early friend in the business, a man who had sailed with the Task Force to the Falklands and thus attained the summit of his profession. One evening, five or six years later, drink taken, he asked why it had mattered to report any of it. Why did any of the deaths on that godforsaken island matter?

He made a gesture that took in the whole city of London outside my room. Every day, in hospitals here, more people died than had died in the whole of the Falklands War, and more people grieved for them. Yet none of that counted as news. The whole business, he concluded, was rotten and insane. Then he tried to persuade my then girlfriend to come with him to Venice for the weekend.

A still more drastic shift of proportion was suggested by Ian Jack in The Guardian: “The present crisis will shrink soon enough. Compared with other crises circling in the stack and waiting to land — species extinction, human population growth, mass migration, resource exhaustion — Brexit is small stuff, a pointless distraction. But how can news bulletins cope with these things? How should they be ranked? A bearded man carrying a sandwich board — ‘The End is Nigh’ — was once a familiar character in cartoons, but now the joke falls flat. ‘Collapse of civilisation is on the horizon’ was how the Guardian headlined its report of David Attenborough’s speech this week to the UN’s climate summit in Poland. It appeared on the front page, though it was not the lead item.”

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Given the class enmities that the Referendum has brought to the surface, I suspect that the best way to persuade Leave voters to change their minds would be to point out that leaving the EU will be best for the environment, since it will depress all economic activity and with it carbon emissions. Since Greenery is a cause for bishops and Guardian readers, there is a sizeable constituency that assumes it must be a con trick. Only if they are convinced that remaining will make Guardian readers (and bishops) miserable can Mail readers be reconciled to reality.

 

I KEEP coming back to the persecuted Christians of the Middle East (Press, 7 December), because it is one of the stories where journalism really can inform and usually doesn’t. The best, very long, piece I’ve seen recently came from Janine di Giovanni, in Harper’s Magazine. She has been reporting from the region for decades, and for this piece combined memories with fresh impressions from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Egypt. It is heartbreaking, and spares no one.

“In December 2002, reporting for the Times of London, I went to a special mass in Mosul in honor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the French Catholic saint who was known as ‘the Little Flower.’ As I knelt, people rocked, prayed, and sobbed as if they were grieving the death of a family member. As St. Thérèse’s bones passed through the church, and the Aramaic chanting grew louder, the worshippers touched the wooden box that contained the saint’s remains, as if she might rise up and rescue them. One blue-eyed Assyrian woman next to me was convulsed in tears. ‘Please, don’t let this war happen,’ a petite nun said, grabbing my hands. Four months later, US Marines tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square.”

She goes on to relate a particularly cruel suicide-bombing at a church in Baghdad in 2004: apparently it was “retaliation” against a Florida pastor who had burned a copy of the Qur’an on YouTube.

In an almost deserted monastery in Nineveh, she finds an Iraqi-Australian priest leading an evening prayer-vigil in Aramaic. Afterwards, she talks to him: “Father Royel had been a monk since he was twenty. ‘I wanted to live a spiritual life — I was dying in the real world,’ he said. ‘I wanted a connection to spirituality that I could only get through fasting, vigils, and prayers.’

“The West is technology, knowledge. The East is something more traditional. If something is demolished, it can never again be rebuilt.’”

 

THERE is a little frivolity to end with: an entry for photo caption of the year in a Guardian feature on worship songs — “The Powerpoint and the Glory” — coupled with an excursus into theology which really needs Alasdair MacIntyre to do it justice. I am not him, but here goes: “In Christ Alone” is described as “The Christian equivalent of Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl. . . But, unlike Galway Girl, this is redeemable: it endorses the satisfaction theory of atonement; the controversial notion that Christ suffered as a substitute for human sin. A pleasing whiff of transgression.”

This is exactly the phenomenon condemned in Macintyre’s After Virtue, where a vocabulary long outlasts the meaning of the words. The satisfaction theory of atonement makes me think at once of Mick Jagger. It mustn’t be confused with “Sympathy for the Devil”.

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