Friday, 7 September 2018

Trump, Brexit and all the news in black and white

Tired of Trump? Bored by Brexit? I’m not surprised -- the summer news agenda seemed to get stuck in a groove, didn’t it, just like the heatwave, caused by a weather pattern that refused to budge.

But the horror movie that is being filmed in the White House is far from over: the emotionally incontinent and reality-denying central character is still on his feet, roaring defiance and channelling King Kong as his world crashes about him.

(According to the New York Times, ‘King Kong’ is the nickname given to Trump by the outgoing White House counsel, Donald McGahn, on account of his fearsome temper tantrums.)

And as for Brexit, well, the slo-mo agony continues, as Brexiteers come face to face with the real world and discover that wishing upon a star doesn’t invariably come good. If you’ve really had enough of it, I suggest you book a flight to New Zealand. I’ll let you know when it’s all over, if I’m still around.

I really don’t envy my former colleagues in the news salt-mines, but I do sometimes wish they’d try just a bit harder to focus our attention on something else.

How about, for example, the fact that after a ruling by the Indian Supreme Court decriminalising homosexuality, between 20 million and 65 million Indians now know that they are no longer considered criminals?

(Assuming that the proportion of Indians who are gay is roughly similar to the proportion in the UK, 20 million is 1.5% of the population, which is the measure used by the UK Office of National Statistics, and 65 million is 5%, which is the measure preferred by the gay rights charity Stonewall. Either way, it’s a lot of people.)

Or how about the peace agreement, after twenty years of war, between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a country often labelled the North Korea of Africa, and from which over the past four years have come one of the highest numbers of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to find safety in Europe? Wars make news for all the obvious reasons, but peace deals should as well.

The problem we face as we try to make sense of what is going on around us is that we increasingly seem to look at the world in stark, binary terms. We are either pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit, pro-Trump or anti-Trump. We either revere Jeremy Corbyn, or loathe him. There is no longer any space for shades of grey or room for doubt.

(If you want my thoughts on the Labour-antisemitism row, by the way, I wrote a blogpost about it in late July. I also commend yesterday’s editorial in the Financial Times: ‘If Jeremy Corbyn were not so invested in his self-image as a life-long anti-racist campaigner, and therefore so convinced by his own sanctity, his dispute with Britain’s Jewish community would have been resolved long ago. Instead, surrounded by disciples rather than supporters, he has allowed the Labour party to be shamed by an indifference to anti-Semitism which would have staggered all his predecessors.’)
In a noisy room, only those who shout loudest are heard. So if you want to cut through the cacophony of social media, you need to shout very loudly indeed. How did Donald Trump react to last Wednesday’s extraordinary, anonymous attack on him by a member of his own administration, published by the New York Times?

One word, all in capitals, on Twitter of course. ‘TREASON?’ (If you haven’t read the piece, by the way, please do. Just click here.)

But it’s not only the social media which have injected such venom into political debate. One of the effects of referendums is to force people to make simple decisions about complex subjects, be it Scottish independence or the UK’s membership of the EU. Everything gets boiled down to the simplest – and often most misleading – slogan.

When people, inevitably, are disappointed at the outcome, they become angry. And then they start shouting more loudly than ever. He who makes the most noise wins the battle for airtime. Why else do Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage create so many waves?

The fate of Donald Trump and the outcome of the Brexit debate are two of the most consequential questions of our time. How they are resolved will echo through the history books for decades to come, so I’m afraid wishing they would go away is not an option.

If you really want something else to worry about, however, I can offer you the imminent assault on the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib; the never-ending horror of the war in Yemen; the agony of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar; and the incontrovertible evidence that Russia did indeed use a chemical weapon on British soil to attempt to murder ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Oh, and on the subject of that heatwave. I think we may have lost the battle to keep climate change to within manageable limits. If I’m right, I reckon it might be worth a headline or two.

And finally: I have a couple of speaking engagements coming up soon which you might be interested in. Next Friday, 14 September, at 8pm, I’ll be at the Chiswick Book Festival talking to Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, about his new book. Tickets are available here.

And on Saturday 22 September, at 11.15am, I’ll be at the Graham Greene International Festival in Berkhampsted, Hertfordshire, to give a talk on the subject ‘Journalists and Novelists: Facts and Truth.’ Tickets available here.


Rita said...

Robin I have already (quite coincidentally!) booked my flight to New Zealand - though I fear that when I return in November, nothing much will have changed. I would have loved to attend at least once of your speaking events.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this the newsie equivalent of "compassion fatigue"?

We know that bad shit goes on, and we'd like to do something more, but ... oh look, there's another unicorn flying by

Brexit & Trump have a serious effect on us, but we can't quantitatively appreciate what that is. Same as for Climate Change (which is even more serious than anything else in this report). Too big, too difficult to grasp, let's simply say it's not a problem or just hide our heads for another minute in the warm sand

The news about Indian gays, Eritrea, etc is great. But there's a risk of avoiding the news altogether having overdosed on Brexit & Trump


Anonymous said...

Although a few years ago now, "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business" by Neil Postman covered this pretty well, comparing Orwell's 1984 with Huxley's Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited, and finding in favour of Huxley. We don't expect, and rarely get, news any more - just entertainment. Oooh Trump has lost his rag again. Oooh Boris is getting divorced. Oooh this. Oooh that. Please, Robin, do what you can to fight this. Please?