Until last weekend, I knew almost nothing about Michael Schumacher. Then he had an accident and I discovered that he is, apparently, the most important person in the world. Dozens of unknown Russians killed and injured in terrorist bombings in Volgograd simply could not compete: at my gym on Monday, television news channels showed a press conference given by Schumacher's doctors so many times I could have answered the questions myself. Later in the day I even caught myself wondering "how is Michael Schumacher?" Such is the subliminal effect of seeing reports about one event to the exclusion of just about everything else.
I know lots of people are genuinely interested in motor racing and its stars. They don't come much bigger than Schumacher, who was world champion seven times before he retired. Towards the end of his career, "Schu" – as I've learned to call him – seems to have been regarded as reckless by some of his rivals, but there's nothing like a bad accident to shave the rough edges off someone's reputation. People who work in the media understand the power of "human interest" stories, which existed centuries before modern communications; they feed the same appetite as Greek myths, displaying similar themes of passion, rivalry and retribution. But the arrival of 24-hour rolling news has multiplied the craving many times over, creating what sometimes seems to me to be like an addiction.
Schumacher's doctors looked exhausted after treating him through the night following his accident last Sunday, and quickly reached the point where they had nothing left to say. On some channels, the story was billed as "breaking news" for hours, even though there were no new developments. Reporters were left frustrated, desperate for something they could talk or write about. Schumacher's manager, Sabine Kehm, complained about "constant" attempts by journalists to get access to him; she even confirmed that a man posing as a priest had been stopped by security as he tried to enter Schumacher's room.
Stories where someone's life hangs in the balance create a particularly uncomfortable guessing game. Seasoned reporters are usually reluctant to say publicly that death is a likely outcome but among themselves they refer to these assignments as "the death watch". I know that sounds callous, especially if you're a friend or relative of the person who's critically ill, but it's one of the ways journalists cope with a story which drags on for days or weeks with nothing to report. The most protracted example I can think of is the final illness of Nelson Mandela, which lasted the best part of a year; some reporters were despatched to South Africa several months before he finally expired. That, I suspect, is one of the reasons for the exhaustive coverage of his death; journalists finally got to use the material they'd been collecting while they waited for it to happen.
In the meantime, given that it would be in bad taste to speculate about someone's demise, private cynicism is balanced by public sentimentality. The waiting period is filled by interviewing friends or, in the last resort, reading out tweets from total strangers. Inevitably, these tend to be uninformed, dashed off by people who are responding without much thought to headlines.
A few years ago, I was slightly acquainted with a household name who suffered a massive stroke and was lying in hospital with no hope of recovery. The public didn't know that her brain had been irrevocably damaged and strangers kept on posting well-meaning thoughts on message boards, wishing her a speedy recovery. They were gruesome to read if you knew the reality of the situation, which ended with her life support machine being switched off.
It's understandable that anxious acquaintances and colleagues don't know what to say to journalists, but they often fall back on the irritating habit of describing anyone who's going through a medical crisis as "a fighter". It is true that the fitter someone is, the more likely they are to survive, but much of what the human body does in these circumstances is automatic.
If the patient is in a coma, as Schumacher has been after two operations to relieve pressure on his brain, it's sheer nonsense to talk about him "fighting" to stay alive. He's lucky to have survived, but strength of character and divine intervention count for a great deal less than a swift transfer to hospital and a bloody good medical team.
As it happens, Schumacher wasn't the only well-known man whose condition attracted media attention last week. In Israel, where Ariel Sharon has been in a coma since 2006, the former prime minister's family gathered at his bedside after his condition deteriorated. Doctors acknowledged that Sharon's situation was critical, which was hardly surprising in the case of an 85-year-old man with multiple organ failure, but refused to speculate further. "I am no prophet", one of them reminded reporters. It was the unvarnished truth, and I felt like applauding.