The difference a Brit makes

Even in 2004, a foreign disaster is unlikely to endure on the front page unless an inventive news editor can place a plucky Briton at the centre of it. And if there's a cuddly pet involved, all the better, reports Tim Luckhurst
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Confiding in his diary in 1948, the Labour minister Hugh Dalton revealed that he had refused appointment to the Colonial Office because he had "a horrid vision of pullulating, poverty-stricken, diseased nigger communities, for whom one can do nothing in the short run, and who, the more one tries to help them, are querulous and ungrateful."

A liberal conscience hesitates to contemplate what Dalton would have made of the Iranian earthquake. His sympathies might have lain with the editor at BBC Wales, who deemed it worth headlining that "a team of dog-handlers from north Wales were the rescuers who discovered the sole British casualty".

This festive season, Gavin Sexton, the former fireman from Hampshire killed in Bam, was shown in a way that harked back to the invention of Lord Palmerston during the Don Pacifico incident of 1850. It is the way of rendering foreign news more interesting by putting a Brit at the heart of the narrative. During the Bosnian war, it was the aid worker Sally Becker, the "Angel of Mostar", who helped popular journalism to render the plight of Bosnian Muslims interesting to a mass audience. In the Gulf War of 1990, that role was played by the human shields - most notably the young boy Stuart Lockwood - held hostage by Saddam Hussein, and exploited in nauseating staged encounters with the Iraqi dictator.

This time, Gavin Sexton bore the posthumous burden of being the Brit you needed to know to understand the story. But the news of his death came too late to keep the Iranian disaster on every front page. As Saturday 27 December turned into Sunday 28 December, descriptions of Bam as a city "lined with small streams and the fragrance of oranges, tangerines and lemons" (The Times); "2000 years of history ... left in ruins" (The Guardian); or a "City of the Dead" (The Sun) quickly gave way to themes calculated to interest the most myopic Little Englander.

A picture was released of PC Ian Broadhurst, the police officer shot dead in Leeds. For many duty editors, the decision was a no-brainer. They put PC Broadhurst on their front pages. The Observer did not. The paper's deputy editor John Mulholland explains: "We used a very powerful picture of a father carrying the body of his son out of the devastation in Bam. We had some disquiet from readers about using such a powerful image, but it spoke of a horror that we can only begin to imagine. It was a difficult decision. These were both very live news stories. It would have been legitimate to use either one."

William Peakin, deputy editor of The Scotsman says: "I don't think we underplayed the Iranian story. But we covered the police shooting, too, even though it was an English story." BBC television gave prominence to both, but led most of its bulletins on Iran rather than the Broadhurst murder. The exception was Sunday, when domestic television outlets led for a time on the announcement that air marshals would fly on British Airways flights to the USA. But on Monday 29 December, the BBC again led on Iran in its main news bulletin - while ITN led on Broadhurst. The BBC headlined Iran all day Tuesday; and again on Wednesday, when ITN and Sky were leading on the abortive search of York railway station. But the corporation's news judgement was clearly bolstered by the discovery that, among tens of thousands of Iranian dead, there was, at last, a British victim on which to focus.

The BBC was lucky. While others struggled to get correspondents into Iran, the corporation had its veteran Middle East expert, Jim Muir, there and broadcasting first from a videophone. For editors, the battle of priorities between significant events and human interest is often decided by logistics. But it is also one of the age-old clichés of journalism, routinely satirised in attempts to establish a formal ranking of death tolls (one Brit=10 Americans=the entire population of Namibia).

The issue this time was really that the days are supposedly long gone when Britain refused to take foreigners seriously. It was more than 20 years ago that a study of cultural stereotypes found Japan described as the "upside-down country" better known as the home of Madame Butterfly than a pioneer of micro-circuitry. Today, "there is supposed to be an awareness that this is a cliché and that we should try to avoid it", says Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff University's School of Journalism. "But this festive season has shown that certain lives are deemed more worthy than others. Far more people died in Bam than on September 11. That was defined as 'the day that changed the world', and yet the scale of the death toll on this occasion is much greater. It does bring these things into stark contrast."

Perhaps, but some coverage also revealed an element of sophistication less blunt than the brutal theory that dead foreigners do not sell newspapers. That was evident in the way in which intelligent newspapers treated the death of Gavin Sexton as an angle with which to emphasise the scale of devastation. It was still a device, but one employed for noble purposes.

True perspective is offered by the popularity, throughout the last two weeks, of dogs, traditionally closer to our hearts than foreigners. It did not seem to matter that Beagle was not, technically, a canine. It was definitely British and unambiguously missing in action. Before the tectonic plates shifted, the Mirror and Sun set the standard, using their front pages to urge the plucky little probe to "phone home". Later, the Mail chimed in, explaining that Beagle was not a failure, but a very British triumph of the human spirit.

After Iran intruded, it took only three days for Annie, the dog that found Sexton's remains (and who, the BBC revealed, "is also a family pet") to reintroduce the cherished Lassie-factor.

So, was Britain revealed as a nation still harbouring a fetish for animals, and men in uniform? One tragedy is much easier to comprehend than tens of thousands, and it was with relief mingled with sincere lashings of horror that festive duty editors splashed the murder of PC Broadhurst. That, no doubt, was why the Express seized the chance to demand the return of the death penalty: "Only one punishment fits this cruel, callous crime." Both The Observer and The Sunday Times found space to dismiss the same argument.

Professor Justin Lewis says that, despite appearances, editorial priorities are different from those of the past.

"Where Americans are, on the scale of priorities, has begun to change. Once, something that happened in France was considered close to home and therefore interesting. Now, quite small American stories become very big here.

"The Washington sniper was a clear example. Americans have definitely climbed the hierarchy of significance."

British attempts to join the space race have never been relegated, and until Beagle is written off, they never will be. That was not the surprise of Christmas 2003. Nor was the assiduous hunt for a British character, human or canine, to sweeten the load of serious foreign news. The big story for those deputy and assistant editors covering for their bosses was that there was actually some news to cover.