Tom Sutcliffe: 'Miracles' that can be guaranteed

Journalists know what an earthquake story looks like and will strive to deliver it
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The Independent Online

E L Doctorow's new novel Homer and Langley is based on the story of the Collyer brothers, two well-to-do New York eccentrics whose reclusiveness slowly calcified over the years into open derangement. When they were eventually discovered dead – after a terrible smell provoked officials to break into their house – it was found that one brother had starved to death while the other appeared to have been killed by one of the Heath Robinson booby traps he'd constructed to ward off marauders. He was eventually unearthed, several days after the discovery of his brother, under a dense geological layer of ancient newspapers. In all close to 100 tons of detritus was eventually removed from their Harlem brownstone.

In Doctorow's version the assembly of all this newsprint is not just a symptom of mental breakdown, it's in the service of a grand ambition. Langley has a project to which he has devoted many years of his life. Convinced that history endlessly repeats itself, with only trivial local variations, he is cataloguing every kind of news event and story in the hope that he can distill from them the essential, platonic version of that particular kind of coverage. Then, after further statistical analysis of page-placing and frequency, he plans to produce a newspaper to end all newspapers. "He wanted", Doctorow writes, "to fix American life finally in one edition, what he called Collyer's eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need".

This is not a concept that's ever likely to commend itself to a journalist but there are times when you can see what Langley was getting at – and never more so than after a serious earthquake. What Langley refers to as the "Universal Form" is vividly apparent in coverage that appears to obey some deep journalistic instinct about how such a story should be shaped. And one thing you can absolutely predict is that there will be "miracles" – by definition a startling event but actually, in the case of earthquake reporting, as predictable as a commuter train. You know one'll be along eventually, even if you can't say exactly when. The moment that you read that all hope has been given up for the lost, though, you can be confident that the clock is ticking on a "miracle" delivery – and when it comes the photographs and copy will fit within a template we already have off by heart. There will be one of those modern pietas, in which a rescue worker cradles a child or grasps a protruding hand. There will be writing of "hope" and "slender threads of consolation".

Earthquakes themselves are partly to blame for this suspicious homogeneity. A collapsed concrete building in Abruzzo or Turkey looks much the same as a collapsed concrete building in Port-au-Prince. Rubble knows no architectural style and grief is grief, whichever side of the globe you find it. But it's hard to suppress the suspicion that journalists, just like readers, know what an earthquake story looks like and will strive hard to deliver it. And you wonder what lies buried unseen beneath all those over-familiar images and descriptions – indistinguishable, apart from the captions and the proper names, from the last time round. "Miracles" make good reading of course. But they aren't, by any definition, news. They're what you expect, every time and in every place. Dog bites man. Langley would undoubtedly have an earthquake miracle rescue in Collyer's Eternal Dateless Newspaper.

The ones that go out of date should be concentrating on the far trickier task of explaining why Haiti isn't like any earthquake that has happened before and won't be like the one that comes next.

No more smart queueing for you, George

It's a little surprising to find that there have been objections to the proposed X-Ray specs security scanners on grounds of "privacy" – given that one's privacy would be gravely and terminally affected if someone actually managed to get on board an aircraft with fully functioning explosive underpants.

Personally you can peer up my backside with a miner's lamp if that indignity can be traded for a reasonable guarantee that I and my fellow humiliates won't hit the ground before our scheduled arrival – though I know there are those who argue the machines don't offer such a guarantee and that the public's genitals are only going on show to provide a figleaf for the Government in the event of another successful attack.

In the meantime, though, I was interested to see that George Clooney, left, offers a more benign version of racial profiling and airport security in the film Up in the Air, in which he plays a business traveller who approaches check-in like an Olympic sprinter getting ready in the blocks. I think I would have got the point about not joining the queue behind the couple with the baby-buggy – but I didn't know that it paid to slipstream Asian businessmen, because their fondness for slip-on shoes shaves valuable seconds off the tray-packing bit. Sadly full-body scanners will make such trade skills redundant. The most respectable looking people can have things going on under their clothing that will snarl up the line for hours. I fear even the craftiest travellers will be back to playing Security Line Lottery.

Iran, their rivals, and the Gulf between them

Sad news that this year's Islamic Solidarity Games is to be cancelled – although the reason for this change of plans will surely gladden the hearts of those who believe that real life is the finest satirist we have.

The event, intended to strengthen the bonds of affection and mutual respect between the member nations of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, wasn't written off because of security fears or as a consensual protest against the Israeli blockade of Gaza or because of swine flu (as reportedly happened last year). It had to be cancelled because Iran and several other Arab countries couldn't agree about what to call the large body of water that separates them. The Iranians insisted on "Persian Gulf" while their opponents were adamant that it should be "The Arabian Gulf".

This nomenclatural tussle has caused problems for newspaper Foreign Desks in the past, the simplest solution being to remove all implicit claims to ownership and simply call it The Gulf. This compromise was apparently proposed to the Iranians but they declined anyway. Given that the offending title was going to be stamped on all the medals for the event the Games' Federation then withdrew permission for the games to go ahead.

I wonder if all parties might be persuaded to compromise over a name that at least has accuracy in its favour: "The Gulf of Understanding". And might it be time to rename the Games, too, while they're at it.

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