Holidays away from home allow are a privilege. The break from the sheer busyness and responsibility of normal life is a gift to be savoured. Not only did I manage to read 7 books in ten days away, but I also managed not to read a single newspaper or watch a single television programme. (New Testament Greek isn’t much help when trying to follow the news in Crete.)
But one book I read reminded me of the value of quality journalism and the importance of a media in which prejudices can be challenged and perspectives can be changed. Having read Timothy Garton Ash‘s book about his Stasi record, The File, (and posted on it), I took away with me the collection of writings he has published as Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name. This collection of writings from around the world during the first decade of the twentyfirst century is the epitome of informed, intelligent, inquisitive journalism. A gifted linguist (I heard him in dialogue with the German Bundeskanzler, Angela Merkel, speaking excellent German), he brings to his language a freshness and clarity that drives the reader from piece to piece with curiosity and admiration.
Some of his topics covered matters I know something about (particularly related to Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe); but there were always fresh insights and explorations of ideas that made me wish I had had Garton Ash’s life for him. Nevertheless, he made me re-think my reflexive views on things I thought I had settled in my own mind (for example, the tension experienced in the UK between belonging to Europe or the USA or the nature of liberalism in a culture that silently cedes its freedoms to tyrannies of fear). No doubt the new UK Government will warm to his critique of history teaching in British schools (“We have gone from a simplistic, misleading mythical story… to a condition where we have no story at all.” p. 117), but I doubt we will see any real change for the better in the medium term at least. However, Garton Ash provokes, educates, stimulates and frequently puts his finger right on the button – for example, distinguishing between atheism and secularism, criticising much interfaith dialogue for its pretence at respect, and holding journalists such as himself to account.
It is this last point that hit me while reading him before returning to the reality of my ‘normal’ life. At the beginning of the book he expresses pride at being a journalist (as well as an academic at Oxford and Stanford Universities). Then, in the sixth section of the book, entitled Writers and Facts, he holds himself and his colleagues to account for what they write and how they write. Words matter and journalists’ words can change the world; so their use of words is not a thing to be taken lightly. Whilst arguing for the radical importance of a free press, he also knows the danger of losing such media freedom by compromising its conduct. In a chapter about George Orwell he writes:
In ‘Politics and the English Language’ [Orwell] shows how the corruption of language is crucial to the making and defending of bad, oppressive politics. But he also shows how we can get back at the abusers of power, because they are using our weapons: words. Freedom depends on writers keeping the word-mirrors clean. In an age of sophisticated media manipulation, this is more vital than ever.
Funnily enough, this is a point made in a different context by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book about Dostoyevsky. Language is too important to take for granted. The corruption of language always betrays the corruption of something far deeper. It is a theme to which Garton Ash returns many times.
I guess this struck home when I switched on my computer and found the news websites dominated by Naomi Campbell’s appearance at the Charles Taylor trial at the Hague. Many media outlets had shown no interest whatsoever in the tedious trial of a man being tried for war crimes the details of which are so horrendous they frequently beggar belief. Mass murder, cannibalism and the demand for justice are clearly sideshows of human importance… until a celebrity turns up and describes her summons as a ‘big personal inconvenience’.
Clearly, then, the message from The Hague today is simple: you can kill and rape and mutilate as much as you like, but if you really want to gain a purchase on early 21st-century western discourse and are not simply pissing about, you do need to have once had contact with a celebrity in some incredibly minor way. Even now, let’s hope that Janjaweed militia are making a pitch for posterity by sending baskets of muffins to Lindsay Lohan, because if and when they are ever brought to justice, they sure as Shirley aren’t going to make the major bulletins without that kind of news peg.
What else is there left to say? Other than: this is your world. Try not to choke on it.