David Aaronovitch: The collateral damage caused by these modern Narcissi

'To someone like Yvonne Ridley, everything seems instrumental, including the poor Afghans'
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The Independent Online

This is a tale of two Britons. The first becomes important in the newsroom of the two Express newspapers on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 September. There is nearly no one present from the Sunday title. Why?

"Tuesday," wrote the paper's chief reporter Yvonne Ridley later, "was a day for lunching contacts at the Ivy or Quaglino's, followed by a pleasant wine in a local bar, and then on to a Soho watering hole." Fortunately Ridley was at her desk, and she watched the planes fly into the towers with a mounting sense, she recalls, of frustration. She wanted to get to New York, but could find no one to talk to since they were "all on a lunchbreak". Eventually, however, the news editor, Jim Murray, did turn up in the office, "full", wrote Ridley, "of bonhomie". Frustration? Bonhomie? With the towers collapsing and all those people dying? An excellent day to transmit bad news.

From Blackfriars, in central London, Ridley went – eventually – to Pakistan, got herself smuggled into Afghanistan by doing a Simpson in a burqa, stayed one night and was just about to cross back when she was arrested near the border. She then spent a couple of weeks banged up by the Taliban, was campaigned for (notably by her mother and daughter), was released and then wrote a book called In the Hands of the Taliban. Compared with the experiences of, say, Terry Waite or John McCarthy, Ridley's (for all that there was one genuinely scary moment early on) was more like a stay at an isolated and rather dilapidated health farm. The toilets weren't good, the staff were surly and had to be spoken to roughly, but at least she was given plenty of cigarettes.

No, her real problems came when she got out. "Certain sections of the media," she complained, "were prevaricating, abusive and even downright vicious towards me. Female columnists sat in the safety of their ivory towers, polishing their nails, pontificating about me as a mother, a journalist and a woman."

Terrible. Appalling. And exactly what some of her friends and colleagues have been doing to non-journalists for years. I recall one of her best pals, name-checked several times in Ridley's book, engaging in a posthumous assault on the late Paula Yates "as a mother, a celebrity and a woman". "It's a very sad thing," said Ridley later. "Journalists used to stick together and congratulate each other and now there seems to be this nasty, back-biting syndrome." Sad.

Not that other journalists hadn't fought for her. Many of her friends, she claims, used their political and other contacts to press for her case to be given greater priority. One chap with whom she'd worked at Carlton TV even set up a website calling on Tony Blair to "put Yvonne's release higher up his agenda". Higher than what, we don't discover. The health service maybe, or sending in a peace-keeping force.

You can see where I'm going with this. But before we get there, the good side needs to be acknowledged. Yvonne Ridley, as far as I can tell, is enormously brave, completely lacking in deference to old or established ways of doing things, has no real respect for authority and can be very funny – as she seems to have been during her (rather soft) interrogation, when she was asked why she had come to Afghanistan: "After the 10th time of being asked the same question I threw my arms into the air and said: 'Because I wanted to join the Taliban.' They all started laughing and it broke the tension."

But in truth this is all about narcissism, self-aggrandisement and hypocrisy. When Ridley was released, she related how well she had been treated. This, the Express turned into a "world exclusive" with a banner headline in capitals: FREED FROM TALIBAN HELL. Did Ridley resign? No. She told the UK Press Gazette: "The Sunday Express team has really bonded over this – it's a closer, tighter ship." And she had been particularly moved when "driving over Blackfriars Bridge and seeing the Express building" . So much so that a fortnight later she resigned.

Before going to Pakistan, Ridley had apparently told her mother that she was stuck for a story for the Sunday Express. When she did get over the border the idea was to go in, go to a village, get out, say you'd done it. That's great for getting an exclusive, but it's pretty hopeless for getting any useful report on the state of a country facing war. But to someone like Ridley everything seems instrumental, including the Afghans. That's why, in her book, there is no understanding, no empathy, just sentimentality. Typically, she becomes an anti-war campaigner because the Americans, reportedly, make the mistake of bombing "her" village.

What, however, hurt her most was the criticism of her as a parent. Why, her defenders have asked, should standards be applied to her – when it comes to leaving her child behind as she goes off taking risks – that would not be applied to men? In the book Ridley writes a great deal about her daughter, and reveals even more. Daisy turned nine when Mum was in Kabul nick. She stays in a boarding school in the Lake District.

During the summer holidays, Daisy's choices appear to be between going to summer camp or being looked after by an au pair. When Daisy made her appeal to the Taliban, she said, "I just want mummy to come home. I miss her very much and I want them to let her go." But actually she doesn't see her mother very much.

This is what Ridley says. "I love my job and my daughter, and don't feel that having a child should prevent me from fulfilling my vocation." Quite. But try turning that sentence around. Does she feel that having a vocation ought to prevent her from being an attentive and present parent for the child? Yes, apparently she does. She justifies this by use of a familiar inversion, making herself the child and her daughter ("eight going on 38") the parent. This piece of denial is clearly self-exculpatory. And as if it wasn't obvious enough that everything in Ridley's universe is to be used, the book contains an almost unbelievable invasion of her own child's privacy, concerning the exact circumstances of her accidental conception. They'll enjoy that at school.

I said two stories, though the second has no book yet attached to it, and so is much shorter. It certainly shows that having a parent present may not be everything. Mum was around, but Richard Reid's dad has spent 18 of his son's 28 years in prison. The boy flunked school in south London, and though subsequently described as "an affable, quiet man" by The Guardian was sufficiently disagreeable as a teenager to mug pensioners and to be sent to Feltham young offenders institute. There he converted to Islam (like Malcolm X did).

Reid's own particular way of rehabilitating himself, however, was not by dedicating his life to human rights or the alleviation of poverty, or by getting a steady job. His chosen path – allegedly – was to obliterate himself for the greater glory of God by exploding a shoe bomb in a plane somewhere over the Atlantic. And the other passengers? Not really people at all. Means to a very personal end. Collateral damage for the modern Narcissus.