Lazy days by the pool in Majorca last week were accompanied by Christopher Clark’s brilliant The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914.
As Clark notes, events in the months leading up to war remain “the political crisis par excellence” for international relations theorists. The actions and motives of the major players remain sufficiently shrouded in uncertainty that most hypotheses as to the war’s cause can find reasonable sustenance. Many theories to have done the rounds over the years are inevitably quite simplistic as a result.
Yet as Clark also points out, just as subsequent understandings of the war’s origins have sometimes relied on unsophisticated interpretations of complex contemporary events, so those were occasionally set in motion by politicians, diplomats and military strategists whose thinking was itself rather one-dimensional. The reactions of political figures in one state to the goings-on in another were often based on highly stereotyped ideas of national characteristics.
All this brought to mind the fact that complaints against newspapers, including The Independent, frequently run along the lines that an item has offered an overly-simplistic view of a given situation. In the last few months, I have received several emails from people who fear that The Independent has failed to do justice to the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian question.
In the last week there have been similar concerns expressed about reporting of suicide; and about coverage of a diabetes story.
To a certain extent, it is unavoidable that newspapers should not always be in a position to synthesise every available piece of information into a single item about a potentially complicated subject. It is the very nature of a general interest publication that it covers innumerable topics in sufficient depth to allow readers to understand the situation; but with the lightness of touch that enables people to get to the end of the article. Testing deadlines and restricted space create additional pressure.
Nevertheless, Clark’s magnificent work is a reminder that journalists must endeavour to set out as full a picture as they possibly can and should always look for hidden eddies in stories that appear unmoving on the surface. That is particularly true when the key figures about whom journalists often write are not always alive to the intricacies themselves.
For there is a nagging suspicion that some politicians of today can be as fixed and naive in their world view as their counterparts were in 1914.
It’s our duty to report suicide with care
The suicide of a celebrity is always a major talking point. To many, it can – despite there being little logic for the view – seem remarkable that an individual who has enjoyed great success can be so troubled that they take their own life.
Robin Williams’s untimely death resulted, in some quarters, in simplistic explanations for his actions: money worries, health problems, drug dependency and depression were each posited as “the answer”. While nobody could possibly know the full particulars of Williams’s state of mind, information about the scene of his death allowed some titles to push the boundaries of acceptable detail regarding the method of his suicide.
It was ironic that this should be seen in a week when The Independent highlighted the rise in self-harm among children.