Tuesday, 26 July 2011

In which I had absolutely no intention of ranting

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

It’s odd, the way that the blogging mind starts to work. Or perhaps I mean my quirky, sometimes clogged, rather vague blogging mind.

Each morning, I wake up. I think about the book. Then I think about the blog. Sometimes I think about them both together. The blog is a welcome thing to go in tandem with my paid work, because it is immediate, and not so daunting, and the readers say kind things, almost at once. The book just has a big, scary, amorphous floating Editor which I have conjured in the theatre of my head saying: this is not what we paid for. (My actual editor is kind, smiling, polite, and charming, and would never utter such a sentence.)

The blog also is about mood. I check my bones, metaphorically, each morning, feeling for breaks. Death lingers; the missing does not go away; the fragility is better masked now, but it is still there. Mortality walks beside me like a docile old horse. I think of the readers. I think: how much do I tell them?

Sometimes it is simple. Sometimes there is a vast issue of the day, which cannot be ignored, or the sun shines and that is all I can think of. But sometimes I think: should I really say that?

So, this is a three-day-old fury, which I was not sure I should write.

When the Norwegian news broke, I felt shock and grief. Norway feels very close to us. It is geographically not far away, just across the North Sea. I often think it is not so very different from Scotland, a country of wild scenery and clean air. I have dreamed for years of the fjords.

Every year, the Norwegian government sends the most magnificent Christmas tree to the people of Blighty; it stands proudly in Trafalgar Square, in thanks for what the British did in the war. I know that Norwegian campaign well; it is a part of the second war that I studied. There are ancient ties between the two nations.

Then, as I watched the news coverage, I started to grow amazed and furious. I wanted to write something about this, but then I thought: no, no, it’s not the time, let it go. But it haunts me, and I can’t let it drop.

So here is my big, fat, furious question: why does speculation count as ‘news’? I am genuinely asking; I do not know the answer.

The mighty BBC, an institution I love and defend, as the cross right-wingers accuse it of being a Stalinist plot, spent all afternoon covering the tragedy. I know that rolling news is really hard; I imagine being a newsreader in that situation is impossible. You suddenly have no script; you have appalling human suffering to report. But both presenters spent their entire time asking questions to which there was no answer. They found some baffled eyewitnesses, and asked them what they saw, and then said, over and over: who do you think did this?

It’s one thing to wheel in the terrorism experts, although they all ended up with egg all over their faces, as they sagely told us that it was Colonel Gadaffi, in league with Al Quaeda, in the study with the lead piping. It’s quite another to find some shattered civilian who has just seen her city go up in smoke and say: well, who do you think was responsible?

All the eyewitnesses, quite rightly, had no answer to that question. Of course they did not know. Even the damn experts did not know. Yet the newsreaders, in peculiar and rather aggressive auto-pilot, went on and on asking the same question.

At one point, the questioning took an even more sinister turn. Seeing that she was getting no joy from the who did it trope, one of the newsreaders started asking about the levels of security near the Norwegian government offices. She actually said something about it being nothing like the kind of security we see here in Britain. She went on, and on. The implication was that it was somehow the Norwegians’ fault, for being so lax and complacent. If only they had concrete bollards as they do at the House of Commons, then none of this would have happened.

Then the questioning moved on to people in official positions. The British Ambassador came on, followed by the Mayor of Oslo. Both were asked who did it. Both said, firmly and politely, that it was not the time to speculate. They said this several times. The mayor, at one point, said, in a despairing voice, that he could not possibly think about potential perpetrators, because he still had people in his city trapped in burning buildings. This did not seem to faze his interlocutor at all. She seemed rather cross and disappointed that he would not join in her orgy of unanswerable questions.

Then the security and diplomatic correspondents were wheeled on. They hedged a bit; they said we are not yet sure, and we cannot say with certainty. Then they, too, waded into the speculative swamp. Bodies were still being loaded into ambulances, and they were talking about the Danish cartoons. At this point, I actually shouted ‘What? What?’ at the television. Sweden was also mentioned. Added to the Islamist assumption was the notion that Jihadists cannot differentiate between different Scandinavian countries. It reached a surreal level of farce.

I yearned and yearned for a voice of reason. At last, on the Ten O’clock news, Frank Gardner, the articulate and brave security correspondent, appeared. His report was beautifully brief. It was brief, because still no one knew anything much, and he is too good and clever to spin phantoms and call them news. He reported the situation as it was then known. It took him about four minutes.

I love and trust the BBC. I turn to it instinctively in times of crisis. But that afternoon of reporting was disgraceful. I cannot say it enough. When something dreadful happens, I want news, not speculation.

The columnists and the bloggers, most especially Charlie Brooker and Andrew Sullivan, have made trenchant criticism of the stupidity of the anchors and experts going immediately to Al Quaeda and Jihad and Islamist madness. But in some ways, it’s not so much the fact that everybody got it wrong, except for one lovely, reasonable professor, whose name I sadly forget, who mentioned home-grown right-wing extremists. It’s the fact that everyone was asking the question before the bodies were even cold.

I think even if it had turned out to be a Jihad, so that the experts and the assumptions were proved correct, this would not excuse the instant speculative fever. My great bent is for utility. When smoke is still billowing, and gunshots are still ringing out, it serves no purpose to ask who is doing this and why. Analysis can come later, when the facts are in, and then citizens and governments may make some sense of the thing, and take preventative measures to avoid it happening again, if that is at all possible. Questions of geo-politics and cultural clashes may be asked, in time. At the moment of an atrocity, the news should be the news. Here is what we know. To ask someone on a burning street who they think set the bomb is not only heartless, it is useless. It serves no purpose at all.


Ah well, today turned into a bit of a rant after all. It did not start off like that. Sometimes I think perhaps one must go with the mystery.

Today is another drear and drack day. I have not the heart to take my camera out, so here are some old photographs from the last few days. I have put them into black and white, because we have not had any black and white lately, and that was where the whim took me:

26 July 1.ORF

26 July 2.ORF

26 July 3.ORF

26 July 5.ORF

26 July 5.ORF-1

26 July 6.ORF

26 July 6.ORF-1

26 July 8.ORF

26 July 8.ORF-1

26 July 9.ORF

26 July 10.ORF

26 July 11.ORF

26 July 11.ORF-1

26 July 12.ORF

26 July 13.ORF

26 July 15

26 July 15.ORF

I’m not quite sure if these work. Part of the delight of the garden pictures is the colour. Still, it is an interesting experiment, and there is no point in having lovely photograph software if one does not play around with it, once in a while.

The Pigeon, however, does suit monochrome very well, so she gets a little portfolio all her own. If the worst comes to the worst, and the book does not turn out well, I can always hire her out to Vogue:

26 July 17.ORF

26 July 19

26 July 20

26 July 21.ORF

26 July 22

26 July 26

(Is it possible to have too much beauty?)

Today, even the hill is in black and white:

26 July 24


  1. The trotting Pigeon cheered me up instantly.

  2. Ellie - thought of trotting Pigeon cheering you up cheers ME up. :)

  3. I've hardly watched the news from Norway because I find it too upsetting. Not just the stupid, stupid speculation but all the unnecessary heart-wrenching when there is no more concrete news.

    Norway for me is just too close to home.

    Helena xx

  4. The black and white photos are superb, the Pigeon could be walking in a gracious Edwardian estate.
    The fantastic Michael Morpurgo has launched a campaign to plant a tree in Norway. (there is an article on the Times App today.)

  5. Rant away, you're right, "news" reporting has been shabby recently. It's disgraceful in relation to the tragedy in Norway but do you remember the Icelandic volcano and the scaremongering that the situation could go on, "possibly", for months? Also the snow this winter. That's when I stopped watching the news in favour of Radio 4 which tends to be more measured!

  6. News reporting is no longer about being surrogate for the man in the street, accessing information he might not easily acquire and then reporting it to him without bias, as objectively as a human being can. Today it's about numbers...in terms of viewers/listeners/readers and dollars (pounds, euros, your currency of choice). I worked for years as a news reporter, and today I'm almost ashamed to admit it. The Fourth Estate has fallen flat on its face, and the fact of it makes me very sad.

  7. Three cheers for the rant. I often feel the same way about reporting. This is why I like the internet. I can pull up the BBC website, see what is going on, and then go away. None of this hanging around asking pointless and offensive questions. Unless I make the mistake of looking in the 'Comments' section and then I get inexplicably annoyed over all sorts of things.

    It's nice to have your photos in b/w for a change. The flowers look different - you see them in terms of stalk and leaf and structure, rather than just a flash of brilliant colour.

  8. Helena - could not agree more.

    Trifle Rushed - tree planting idea is genius. Going to check it out now.

    Anon - so agree about Radio Four.

    Jean - such an interesting comment; thank you.

    Rebecca - so pleased you like the black and white.

  9. If there can be any defending it I suppose the news readers are under terrific pressure to get something new so to speak to go forward with and to get new news first hence the repeated questions - but it does seem silly. Working on a monthly magazine all we did was analyse stuff after the event and it made life so much clearer a bit like your beautiful B/W photos...PS Pigeon should not get out of bed for at least £10,000 a day she's just sooo beautiful!

  10. Tattie Weasle - do agree the pressure must be awful. But they were such odd and inappropriate questions. Possibly more a problem of the wider culture of rolling news. But on a happier note: SO pleased you admire the glorious Pigeon. Cannot tell you how much she warms my heart. :)

  11. I do agree with you. TV now has so many hours available for broadcasting that it often descends into useless speculation. (It's good to rant! The English tend to be too lukewarm about things. In other countries you can rant away for a bit and it's quite acceptable: a heartfelt response. No-one gets slightly embarrassed, as in England. And people can answer with a contrary view without anyone getting the hump).

    On the subject of vacuous suppositions, I do dislike the way the police, when they're putting a suspect in a car, put their hand on the suspect's head and push him/her in, before innocence or guilt has been proved.

    Interesting to see the plants in b&w, and suitable somehow at the moment, after Norway.

    Good luck with the book!

  12. The black pansy, the black rose: they had a kind of appropriate imagery, a melancholy beauty. So yes, they worked, and especially in the context of your fully-justified rant in the midst of stupidity and madness.

    And the pigeon would look beautiful in any colour.

  13. Vivien - thank you so much for luck. I feel I shall need it. :)

    Cassie - so glad you like the black and white flowers. And of course I can only agree with you about the Pigeon.

  14. It is part of the dreadfulness of 24 hour news. If it is consolation the Norwegians themselves are still maintaining a lot of dignity and more importantly kindness throughout. A lesson to us all.


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