Where have all the bad guys gone?

Life in the news business is getting confusing. How can reporters interpret world events without some honest-to-God villains?
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The Independent Online

For those of us who have spent our working lives in the news business there is an increasingly unpleasant realisation lurking behind the daily headlines. Does news really make sense any more? I do not mean the individual reports you see on television, hear on the radio or read in newspapers. Each individual news report is usually coherent. But day after day the news we hear or see no longer fits into a comfortable, intelligible pattern or view of the world which makes for easy understanding.

For those of us who have spent our working lives in the news business there is an increasingly unpleasant realisation lurking behind the daily headlines. Does news really make sense any more? I do not mean the individual reports you see on television, hear on the radio or read in newspapers. Each individual news report is usually coherent. But day after day the news we hear or see no longer fits into a comfortable, intelligible pattern or view of the world which makes for easy understanding.

Sierra Leone - who are the good guys? The bad guys? How do you tell? Ethiopia? Good or bad? At war with Eritrea - should we care? Islamic rebels in the Philippines - their point is what, exactly? Al Gore versus George W Bush in the United States - does it really matter which of these two makes it to the White House? Kosovo: was it better ethnically cleansed of Kosovars and under Serb control? Or better now that it is virtually ethnically cleansed of Serbs under Nato patronage?

Even at home, the news does not quite fit into any easily understood view of the world any more. The anti-capitalist demonstrators who defaced the Cenotaph. Their point was what, exactly?

Life, or at least what passes for life in the news business, was not always like this. There used to be the simplicity of heroes and villains, friends and enemies, and there used to be the cold war. For 50 years news fitted into a simple pattern which everyone understood. Perhaps you protested at Greenham Common against American missiles in Europe. Or perhaps you believed the Greenham Common women were a bunch of deluded communist stooges. Either way, it all neatly fitted into the old order, us against them, democracy against totalitarianism, left against right.

This pattern helped readers understand everything from the rise of Mrs Thatcher, the failure of Michael Foot, the miners' strike, plus an array of strange foreign wars in far away places - Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Argentina, Angola, the Middle East. Every night we used to watch the news wondering at the back of our minds whether any of these sad little wars meant we were any closer to being blown up in a nuclear armageddon. And to understand these peculiar conflicts all we needed to do was ask ourselves which side was being paid by Moscow.

But now, as the New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman argues in a recent quirky book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, globalisation has taken over from the cold war as the organising principle of our lives and none of us - least of all journalists - quite understands this new order. What mattered in the cold war was weight - how big are your missiles? How heavy are your tanks? What matters in globalisation is speed. How fast is your modem? How good are you communications?

US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers tells a revealing story of the speed of globalisation beginning with his time working for the Dukakis Democratic presidential campaign in 1988. Summers was sent to Chicago, where he was given the use of a car which had a mobile phone. Summers was so excited at seeing this amazing new technology that he called his wife to tell her about it. Then, a few years later in 1997, Summers happened to be in Africa to open a clean water project in a remote village which could be reached only by motorised dug-out canoe. A mobile phone rang. It was his Washington office, with a query. In less than 10 years we have gone from a world in which mobile phones were unusual in Chicago, to a world in which they are not exceptional in dug-out canoes in the African bush. I recently interviewed a woman live from the South Pole who called the BBC on her mobile phone to discuss the success of her expedition.

Most of us are aware of this extraordinarily rapid pace of change in technology, but we are still unsure of how globalisation makes news stories fit together into any understandable view of the world. We know that what happened in a boardroom in Munich affected not just Rover cars, but every person in Britain. We know that an American bank is involved in the Rover rescue, and maybe even a Japanese car company. We know that the world is increasingly interconnected, and that shipbuilding in Govan and Belfast depends upon factors way beyond the control of the workers or even the Government. We see the dots of news stories, but yet cannot manage to join them together into a coherent picture of what globalisation really means for you and me.

Ronald Reagan offered us an international vision divided between the free world and the evil empire. Even if this was a cartoonish view, it helped us make sense of everything from Star Wars to industrial policy. But now? Globalisation means we have a fast world that is computer literate and a slow world in which people kill each other for diamond mines. The closest we get to totalitarianism is not Hitler or Stalin but Microsoft. Instead of invading Poland, all Bill Gates has done is produce software so popular most of us cannot do without it. And Bill Gates is a thoroughly unconvincing villain, not least because he is giving millions of dollars of his own fortune to help prevent the spread of Aids.

The best the British press can come up with as a demonic figure appears to be the European Union, though Brussels is hardly the evil empire. From time to time we might be riled by the wicked French, Italians and Spanish imposing the European conspiracy on us, but then every summer we go to France, Italy and Spain to enjoy their food, wine and sunshine. No heroes any more. No convincing villains. At a time when globalisation has become the international organising principle it is hardly surprising that news does not fit into any clear view of the world any more. We don't have one.

Gavin Esler is a presenter on BBC News 24

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