Irma: a suitable case for attention

Click to follow
ONE of the most convincing fictional portrayals of the relationship between journalism and war is to be found in the 1982 Australian film The Year of Living Dangerously. Set among the political upheavals of Indonesia in 1965, it touches on the response of Western journalists to the enormous, insoluble, violent changes which were sweeping South-east Asia at that time. Their response, perhaps unsurprisingly, ranges from the idealistic to the self- servingly cynical.

They are seen as playing a tangential role in the events which they seek to describe but their reports and commentaries on a conflict which they fail to understand in its entirety have little impact on the course of history or in preventing the mass slaughter of Indonesians which followed the events that figure in the film.

Cast against the global, if ineffective, vision of the film's journalist hero is the more straightforward philosophy of his androgynous, ambiguous, Eurasian assistant, Billy, who says he believes in 'giving with love to whomever God has placed in our path'.

That, essentially, is as good a way as any to describe the response of the British public to the plight of five-year-old Irma Hadzimuratovic, who was beyond hope when the media discovered her in a dingy and ill- equipped Sarajevo hospital at the weekend.

Since then the fate of one small girl has been taken to symbolise the fate of the entire population of Sarajevo, indeed of Bosnia and the whole of former Yugoslavia. Her transfer from the besieged Bosnian capital has inevitably been dubbed 'Operation Irma' and her life, equally inevitably, now hangs by a cliched thread. The ostensibly perverse and even mawkish concentration on one individual, at a time when so many are seen to be suffering, has prompted a degree of soul- searching both inside and outside the media. Are newspapers and television ignoring the wider issues in favour of a piece of human interest? Will the public lapse back into compassion fatigue once concern over Irma has passed? Is the Government using the press to turn a small positive gesture into an cover for its general inaction?

The media would be unreasonably arrogant to think that they could come up with solutions to the millenarian disputes among Serbs, Croats and Bosnians which have torn apart former Yugoslavia. But that does not mean the press cannot play a role in providing a platform for justifiable public frustration about the inaction of their own governments in the crisis. If that public frustration has in any way contributed to the Government's decision to fly in the wounded Irma, then, as the Independent commented on Tuesday: 'Any attempt to save the life of a child is, by definition, good.'

When this newspaper set out its own modest proposals on 26 July for an increased Western commitment to opening a humanitarian lifeline to central Bosnia, it stated that: 'Public opinion can drive foreign policy.' Since then more than 4,500 readers have written to express their support.

Most democratically elected governments, the present British government included, are sensitive to a greater or lesser degree to expressions of public opinion on important issues of public interest. That said, neither the press nor the public is likely to force Government into taking actions which it perceives to be contrary to the national interest.

Public opinion can be fickle and unspecific. One tragedy will provoke compassion, the next might not. The press can provide the facts and the platform. The public does the rest.