There was a lovely moment on the BBC’s This Week on 1 October, presented by Andrew Neil, when Alan Johnson, the greatest Labour prime minister that never was, was asked his view of the options facing the West in Syria. He said the journalist he most trusts on these matters was Patrick Cockburn of this parish, and used Patrick’s name to add authority to his own position.
This leapt out at me not just because I felt a twinge of pride in a colleague’s recognition, but because it was exactly the sentiment that Andrew Marr, a former editor of The Independent, conveyed when I was on his Sunday morning sofa a few weeks ago.
As many of you will know, Patrick was named Foreign Journalist of the Year for his coverage of Isis, and there can’t be much doubt that he is peerless when it comes to knowledge of the region, and the ability to analyse and explain it for the benefit of readers. In the first of a two-part series, continued in the Independent on Sunday on 4 October, he examines the implications of Russian and Iranian forces mobilising in Syria.
Naturally it is an honour to work, as we do here, with so many outstanding journalists. But unleashing them on the horrors of the world does present other sorts of dilemmas. Late on 1 October, as we put the paper to bed, I read three pieces in succession: Kim Sengupta’s description of the various Syrian rebel groups (none of them a particularly gentle bunch); a news story about an Italian petty criminal found dead in a London canal, tied to a shopping trolley; and then an almost unbearably harrowing dispatch from South Sudan, by Hannah McNeish, who had witnessed appalling brutality.
Reading these articles, you couldn’t help but feel dismal about humanity’s prospects. It’s a familiar complaint that all news is bad news, and that newspapers only send reporters to cover horror, crime or deprivation.
When the news agenda is as sobering as it has been this week, obviously we can’t avoid those big subjects. We can, however, take measures to make sure that we mix light and shade, that as you turn the pages you get a spot of relief, a dash of hope, and maybe a laugh, too. I’m very keen on science stories, because they tend to be intrinsically optimistic. A single picture can raise the mood, as can tales of derring-do and heroism.
But there’s no substitute for wit. I thought Mark Steel’s column, on Jeremy Corbyn and Trident, possibly the funniest I’ve ever read. You can find it online if you missed it. I hope you get a laugh out of that.
- More about:
- Patrick Cockburn
- Alan Johnson
- Andrew Marr
- The Independent
- Andrew Neil
- Jeremy Corbyn
- Foreign Journalist
- Mark Steel
- Kim Sengupta
- South Sudan
- Hannah McNeish