A little while ago I was with a group of family and friends discussing the Bilderberg Group, a kind of un-conference in which the world’s movers and shakers can get together and discuss matters of great import in an informal setting. As the discussions are entirely off-the-record, the hope is that the world’s business leaders and politicians might be able to check in their entrenched positions at the door, and perhaps solve problems simply which might have proven intractable under the glare of the world’s media. The nature of the meeting, therefore, is such that nobody knows what goes on behind its closed doors. During our discussion, Crox Minima (13) misheard it as the ‘Build-A-Bear Group’, which brought to mind the appealing if bizarre idea that the delegates might put the world to rights while creating teddy bears.
Secrecy. It’s a great thing. I’m all for it. Now, you might find it odd that a journalist such as myself would have anything nice to say about such a thing. But keeping quiet serves an important purpose. As an editor at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N, I find it a real help that the identities of referees are not made public, not even to one another, unless they request it, and that we are bidden to keep those identities to ourselves. In that way, referees can speak frankly about the merits and demerits of a manuscript without feeling that the world – the public, their PI, their dean, their competitors – is looking over their shoulder.
One all too easily takes such things for granted. When the world got wind that I was handling a manuscript of some public interest (don’t ask me what it was- it was long ago and I’ve forgotten) I had to spend a great deal of time fending off intrusive and sometimes aggressive queries from journalists who were less interested in the often time-consuming and delicate business of peer review, and my task in steering the best possible manuscript into the public gaze, than in their getting a scoop, or, in their words, the primacy of public interest. The public had a ‘right to know’, they said. Sure, the public has a right to know – but that right, I maintain, is best served when all the parties in the discussion are good and ready and happy to tell them, and not before.
But I digress.
The world is tearing itself apart over Syria, and whether or not the current Syrian regime used chemical weapons against some of its own citizens. Our colleague Professor S. C. of Omaha has gotten himself embroiled in this issue. I am not sure that such embroilment is a good or healthy thing, but possibly not for the reasons one might think.
As a journalist, I am aware that the news one hears or reads about is very far from an unbiased selection of all the multifarious happenings going on in the world. Every day, somewhere or another, people are born, they die, they do dreadful things to one another, and sometimes they might even commit random acts of kindness whose repercussions we cannot guess.
But news editors have decreed that as Syria is in the news, then the news should be about Syria, and the more we learn, the worse it gets, and the more helpless one feels, until all I am capable of saying in response to the various appalling revelations coming from that beleaguered country is something like
I love baby kittens. They are so warm and fluffy.
And if people set out some strident point of view and ask for my position, my response is likely to be ‘missionary’.
Therefore, when confronted by the Syrian situation, one should be alive to the agenda of news editors, who need something to push onto the front page in order to
sell copies drive traffic to their websites. If it’s not Syria, it’ll be – oh, I don’t know – Darfur, or the Economy, or Bongo-Bongo Land, or Pederasty in Public Life, or whether Edinburgh Zoo’s baby panda will be 4th or 5th in succession to the throne. Each story replaces the next like the constant parade of tawdry horrors in a fairground ghost train, each new story eclipsing the last. But the economy is still in peril, and I’d guess that there are still many refugees in Darfur, even though news editors have long since abandoned it in favour of something else with which to tickle our prurience.
So this week it’s Syria. Next week it’ll be Rhenish Prussia, or The Former Mesenteric Republic of Euthenasia, or Transylvania, or, who knows, Mordor. The best way to call the news editors’ bluff is not to discuss the issue they want us to discuss. If we can’t talk or write about something else, the best we can do is to shut up. (And if you haven’t got the message by now, please read Scoop, a wonderful novel by Evelyn Waugh, a savage satire on journalism that’s as relevant now as it was when it was written in the 1930s).
I have a suspicion that some things might resolve themselves on their own if only the meeja left them alone. For example, while the world’s press has been fixated on Syria, it hasn’t been covering the ongoing talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The talks, however, are still going on, and have been going on since 29 July. That’s more than a month, and nobody has walked out, nobody has thrown a hissy fit – or if they have, we haven’t been told.
My fervent hope is that the media will stay away (or be fixated by something else) until the participants are good and ready to tell us what they’ve decided. And if any reporter tries to poke their nose in before that much-desired moment, citing public interest, I hope that he or she will be told to sheket. Or equivalent in Arabic.