Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Cold weather, cold reason

'THEY must do something' ... 'THEY can't do their jobs' ... 'THEY should be fired'.
I know for a fact that if I'd been forced to sleep rough at Heathrow or shuffle forward in a seven-hour queue at St Pancras I'd be one of those shouting loudest, calling for 'THEM' to do something and snarling at the 'incompetence' of it all.
I might even have agreed with Labour's Denis McShane that the Prime Minister should be out there with a shovel, or with the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, that:
"It can't be beyond the wit of man surely to find the shovels, the diggers, the snowploughs or whatever it takes to clear the snow out from under the planes, to get the planes moving and to have more than one runway going."
I did enough of that kind of thing when the Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud threatened to hold me under casino arrest in Las Vegas in April or while repatriating son #1 from the Netherlands this time last year.
That doesn't make it rational.
And it's the lack of rationality in so much "Arctic Britain" coverage that is a genuine weakness in our adversarial media and politics. That makes it very hard to lift our eyes from 'somebody must resign' or 'bungling bosses' and take a hard look at what's really happening - and what we should do about it.

Assumptions

Breaking away from the conventional wisdoms and assumptions might be one place to start.
It's pretty astonishing to still be reading or hearing 'Europe or America can cope, why can't we?' - though the chaos in Switzerland, Germany and France, let alone the US, was pretty lightly reported at first, we all know about it now, surely?
Even the most efficient operations in the most efficient countries don't expect life to go on uninterrupted when two feet of snow falls. They talk instead of resilience, which means reasonable recovery time - 'reasonable' in this context meaning 24 to 36 hours. Not even the Finns have found a way of preventing the snow from falling.
But yes, Helsinki airport does keep going - because it has three runways (third runway for Heathrow anyone?), using only one at a time while clearing the other two when the snow is heavy. Comparisons with Heathrow should, but rarely do, take into account that it also has half the traffic and a fifth of the number of passengers.
It's not just about de-icing fluid and grit and snowploughs - and the wages of the people required to drive them or stand-by when it's not snowing - it's about big, expensive, controversial decisions on infrastructure. Or reducing our passion for cheap flights, always available.
Does our media coverage encourage or discourage that kind of debate?
Then there's the expectation that it's 'THEY' who must do something to ensure that life goes on without missing a step - and they don't because they're stupid or 'bungling' (again) and should resign.
Now, as it happens, there probably is something in Ferrovial's management of the British airports it bought back in 2006 that needs proper journalistic inquiry - the answer to the question of whether it's invested properly in resilience is almost certainly hidden away there in its balance sheets and annual reports.
Anyone looking? Or is that just too complicated? Simpler to call for the minister's head - though, of course, he has no power over BAA whatsoever.

'THEM' and 'US'

Then, of course, there's 'US'. In those European countries which do recover relatively quickly from big snowfalls, people themselves play a large part. The communes, 'THEY', are responsible for some things; you, the motorist or house owner, for the rest. And part of resilience is accepting the inevitable.
In my part of France - where, incidentally, it doesn't snow much more often than the UK - when the snow starts, the main roads up and down the valleys are ploughed, salted and gritted pretty well straight away; farmers pitching in to help. Whether nagged, pressed or as volunteers, I don't know.
Valley-side roads and those over the hills aren't even touched. Signs go up telling you the limit of snow treatment. No-one expects anything different.
Down in the Vosges and Alps, some roads and passes just stay closed 'til the spring. You go a different way. No-one expects anything different.
In some departments, car owners have to own winter tyres and/or snow chains - and use them when they're told to. No-one expects any different.
Want the track to your house cleared? Clear it then. One of the biggest selling items in the hypermarkets and garden centres is 50kg sacks of coarse salt. Everyone seems to buy it; everyone seems to use it. No-one expects any different.

Hibernation

It's some way, of course, from the hibernation that used to grip France in the Middle Ages and which, as Graham Robb explains in his excellent book The Discovery of France, persisted right up to the start of the 20th century.

"Human hibernation was a physical and economic necessity."


Robb writes:
"The tradition of seasonal sloth was ancient and pervasive. Mountain regions closed down in the late autumn ... Other populations in the Alps and Pyrenees simply entombed themselves until March or April ... According to a geographer writing in 1909, 'the inhabitants re-emerge in spring, disheveled and anaemic'."
Perhaps the most macabre acceptance of hivernal necessity was dealing with the dead. For obvious reasons, it was impossible to bury those who couldn't make it through the long winter night - so granny's corpse would be unceremoniously lobbed up onto the roof, where the snow would keep it preserved until March or April and when the proper obsequies could take place.
That's probably taking acceptance a bit too far - for the 21st century anyway. But it does illustrate the central point.
Our insistence that our world continue uninterrupted whatever the conditions of flood, storm or snow - and that 'THEY' have to ensure it for us - is such a corrosive idea it makes it almost impossible for us to think what we really should do.
How much extra - both privately and publicly - are we prepared to pay to ensure a better resilience, knowing that it will never be 100%?
Which are the private and what are the public responsibilities? What are reasonable expectations?
How much are we prepared to change or modify our lifestyles, either to mitigate the effects of a crisis or to try to avoid it?
How much do we just have to accept?
And so on. Importantly, though, do we have a mature enough, rational enough media to feed a mature and rational public discourse where we can expect our politicians to make mature and rational decisions?
Or should we just carry on shouting a lot?

Monday, 6 December 2010

Wikileaks - the salient point?

Pretty well everything that could be said about the Wikileaks diplodocudump has been said. Everyone's made up their mind about whether it's good or bad for the world/diplomatic communication/good government etc etc.

But here's something else to think about: what does it do to journalism?

It's an important question because, as I wrote earlier, we really do have to take care we don't lose investigative journalism and all it entails because we believe ersatz, hollowed out versions are the real thing.

We have to keep in focus, too, Wikileaks' agenda as set out by its oddly self-regarding founder Julian Assange. It and he are not friendly to journalism as we know it - and it wouldn't take too much conspiratorial insanity to construct a theory that this is all about busting traditional journalism.

Here's what Assange told an audience in London back in the summer, as reported by City University's Journalism Professor, George Brock.

Wikileaks, George Brock reports, started with a focus on places where government was least transparent:

"Then they moved on to places where 'the power structure is so sewn up that the press doesn't matter much' ... 'It's all bankrupt' he said ... 'All current political theory is bankrupt, all political thought, because we don't know what the hell is going on'.

You might have guessed by now that the established media are part of the problem. Journalists, he argues, are creating unreasonable public expectations. Their 'original sin' is to enjoy the imbalance of power. Why does someone want to read what a journalist has written? 'They're ignorant and you're not. You know more ... You can't lie but the opportunity to distort is large and prevalent.'

The reader can't see the whole picture so Wikileaks has to fill the gap. Once 'primary source material' is up on the web, the 'lying opportunities' shrink."

In essence, it's the journalism bypass theory, as popular with new media gurus as it was with Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson in the decade 1994-2004.

The diplodocudump was underwhelming - but that doesn't mean it was a Bad Thing; no journalist should argue that revelation itself doesn't serve the public interest. At the very least, it's about a partial correction of the information asymmetry between power and people.

But it wasn't and couldn't ever be an end in itself. Without the attentions and mediation of the very journalism he's declared broken, Assange may as well have fed the leaked diplomatic telegrams straight into the shredder (and, yes, I know they weren't actually on paper - cut me some figurative slack here) or indeed re-recorded Lady Gaga back onto the CD.

Journalism - especially investigative journalism - has many shortcomings. There's no science about what gets investigated and what doesn't; no guarantee that it's the biggest scandals - for want of a better word - that get nailed, nor that some lesser 'scandals' don't get a place in the public sphere they don't quite deserve.

No guarantee, either, that the evidence stacks up or that the 'truth' revealed is incontestable.

But because of the way most investigative journalism comes about - through a whistleblower who rightly or wrongly senses some kind of moral violation - it has that magic thing we call salience.

And it's salience that leaking on an industrial scale lacks. Leaking for the sake of leaking or in the hope of overwhelming both power and journalism as we know it.

Whistleblowing that lacks salience does nothing to serve the public interest - if we mean capturing the public's attention to nurture its discourse in a way that has the potential to change something material.

And the risk is this: that we persuade ourselves that Wikileaks-style transparency is a substitute for investigative journalism rather than the precursor of journalistic possibilities.