They always say too much disaster has the effect of inoculating the audience, so that we don’t care. But there is a level above that, of so many disasters that you go beyond the inoculation effect, into the Armageddon effect (or, as [satirical UK magazine] Private Eye had it, when they captioned George Bush on Sept. 11, 2001, “Armageddonouttahere.”)
Whatever the news has been of 2011, one thing always strikes me: This story, the alleged homicidal hospital worker, or the imminent implosion of Greece, or the famine in the horn of Africa, any one of these would normally have been enough to hold the front pages for days, even weeks: were it not for that story, the Murdoch affair, the imminent collapse of Italy, the Norwegian massacre, the American debt ceiling. There is such an abundance of news that it has torpedoed the news agenda. How do you make an agenda, when everything is as important as everything else? There is just too much news. It’s the kind of news environment that makes conspiracy theorists say: “These things are all connected.”
There is also a sense of headspin, of being unable to digest one tragedy before another happens. It’s compounded by Twitter, as almost everything always is: The modern business of half-knowing meant that the news of Amy Winehouse’s death was on Twitter before it was publicly announced, of course. The Facebook profile of a British allegedly homicidal nurse would normally have been picked over for clues all week. But they’re superseded so fast that you never get time for that half-knowledge to turn into full knowledge before the next thing happens. The effect is a news twilight, where you can’t even be sure what has been confirmed and what hasn’t.
But to return to that urge to connect, the urge to understand: Even for non-conspiracy theorists, that is a legitimate aim. When huge events tumble up on one another, it is human to look for a link. This is easier with natural disasters than it is with sudden decapitations of the high command, so, to start in New Zealand: The Christchurch earthquake in February would, in a normal year, have taken up news coverage on a scale of the Australian fires of 2009; there would have been eyewitness accounts pouring out, the whole disaster would have been broken down to individual narratives with either an especially tragic or ironic twist. I can remember specific stories about those fires, families who died in cars, brave individuals who fought off flames with a spade. I can’t remember anything at all about Christchurch, since less than three weeks later, the Japanese suffered their greatest, costliest disaster since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The tornadoes that hit Arkansas and Ontario in April would normally — having killed 45 people — have been quite a big story, but were obliterated by the destruction that had already happened. In that ruminative period that usually follows a significant event, people were batting around the theory that one earthquake will predispose the Earth to suffer another; otherwise, the coincidence of New Zealand, then Japan, then Japan again a few days later (not to mention New Zealand again in June), just seemed too great. In fact, the intricacies of new tectonic theory were totally wiped out by the threat to the Japanese nuclear power plants, which themselves — and this is surprising, given that the story is far from over — lost coverage to the Arab spring.
Even without knowing the answer to the earthquake question, there’s still a sense with natural disasters that, if they look connected, they may well be; we’re just waiting for the right climate change/environmental scientist to come along, and the links between the Brisbane floods and the drought in the Horn of Africa, the earthquakes in the Far East and the tornadoes in the West, all of it will become clear.
Likewise, with financial meltdown: If Greece looks as if it’s on the brink one minute, and the next thing you know, Portugal is; if Italy suddenly starts to wobble and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy undertake the unsettling stunt of seeming to agree with each other just so as not to frighten the horses, the links there are pretty evident. You don’t need to understand who’s in favor of the eurobond and who isn’t, the degree to which Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi created this mess because he should have been minding the ship but was actually at a bunga bunga party, you don’t need the one, two, three of all this to understand that it’s all the same currency, so naturally contagion was always a possibility.
It’s true that the US breaching its debt ceiling is a different matter, and can’t be shrugged off with a nervous “I wonder if this shared currency was a good idea after all?” laugh. But it’s also true that, if we understand anything at all about global finance, it’s that the shockwaves from the credit crunch were never going to restrict themselves to crashing on one bad decision; they will crash anywhere, and continue to crash. Nobody, looking to understand all of that, need find themselves resorting to God.
On the other hand, consider the worldwide disruption of powers that seemed inviolable: former president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, whose regime fell in February after only 17 days of street protest; former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, killed by the US in May in a blow so sudden and so long-awaited that everybody immediately assumed it had been made up to boost US President Barack Obama’s poll ratings; Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali forced to flee the country, for Saudi Arabia; Colonel Muammar Qaddafi as tenacious a tinpot dictator as has ever existed on the world stage, now apparently clinging on to power in Libya only because he has no alternative. There is, naturally, a connection between the events of the Arab spring, but what has the bin Laden attack got to do with any of that? What were the chances that he would be knocked off the front pages by the former head of the IMF arrested for sexual assault, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and that his demise would be dwarfed, to the point of being almost erased, by the end of the era of newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch?
The tragedy in Norway distilled this last feature of the year’s news: How could you ever have seen that coming? There will be people, of course, most probably in Norway, who could have foreseen that a far-right militant would want to attack one of the world’s most famously peaceable nations, wreaking a death toll in that country greater than any single event since World War II. But an outside observer, asked to predict far-right terrorist atrocity: You’d say the US, some off-grid hyper-nationalist whipped into a homicidal frenzy by the Tea Party; or you might say the Netherlands, just for the heat of its debates on Islamic fundamentalism versus nationalist extremism. But Norway … if it could be Norway, it could be anywhere. If the Arab Spring could have started in Tunisia, it could have started anywhere. Maybe all that’s standing between any of us and mania is heavy artillery.
Conspicuous by their absences are the good news events, in which a good thing happened. The British royal wedding in April, it is true, accounted for significant news acreage, being both photogenic and pleasant in conception (two people, young and in love. What’s not to like?). By the time they got to their North American tour, however, their blameless irrelevance became clear. You can’t pose in an ice-hockey shirt while people are just starting to starve to death in Somalia.
In a regular year, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s trip to Africa this month would have yielded at least one tale in which he triumphed, either brokering a peace or a trade deal, something to make the business of international diplomacy seem worthwhile. Instead, the only question arising from that escapade is what was he doing in Africa, when the integrity of parliament, the police, the press, indeed, every major institution of the British body politic, except if you count doctors, was coming into question?
There has been so little of actual Westminster politics, it feels as if recess started a month ago. What happened with the UK health service? They dropped the reforms. Did they drop the reform of the reforms? Domestic political events which seemed — because they were — vitally important, the cuts, the marches, the strikes, the summer of discontent, the swelling clash between the unions and the would-be union-smashers (let’s not write this off, by the way: This is waiting in the wings) have all fallen off the pages. It’s not because they’re not happening. Cuts are still going ahead, people are still losing their jobs, it’s all going according to plan. But the conversation is elsewhere.
As exasperating as that is, politically, that is nothing on the desperate, teeth-grinding frustration of UNICEF director, David Bull, who took out full-page adverts in the British national press last week to say: “I am writing for your support in moving the news agenda on. The story about phone hacking does matter, but there’s another, far bigger and vital story that’s going unreported.”
This is the first official famine to happen in 20 years. It’s worth bearing in mind that we are still talking about the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s, we’re still — in government, in the aid sector, in the media — talking about responses to that, and what went wrong, and what we could have done better. In 20 years’ time, the priorities of the news of 2011 will probably seem unfortunate: Bull is right. As serious as it is when a media outlet corrupts a police force, it’s not as bad as 10 million people being on the brink of death.
At the beginning of BBC radio, if the time rolled around for a news bulletin, and there was no news, the newsreader would simply say: “There is no news.” Sooner or later, the idea of a news agenda developed, and if there was no news, they would just find some news. But you can imagine today, just waking up to hear that there was no news: What a comfort that would be.
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