Blogroll: Lustig's Letter
I read blogs, as well as write one. The 'blogroll' on this site reproduces some posts from some of the people I enjoy reading. There are currently 7 posts from the blog 'Lustig's Letter.'
Disclaimer: Reproducing an article here need not necessarily imply agreement or endorsement!
It is a fundamental principle of all democratic activity that losers – as well as winners – accept the results of choices made. (Unless you are Donald Trump, who, as you will remember, said he would accept the result of the 2016 US presidential election on one condition: that he won.)
In my view, the principle applies to referendums as well as to elections, which is why – among many other reasons – I remain unpersuaded that Remainers are right to push for a second Brexit referendum.
Here are three more reasons:
1. There is no clear evidence that the second referendum (strictly speaking, the third if you include the one held in 1975) will produce a different result. The opinion polls (yes, I know their track record is not exactly without blemish) suggest that very few people have actually changed their minds since 2016. Some people who didn’t vote last time round now say they would vote Remain if given another chance. Whether they do or not is, of course, highly uncertain.
2. The risks of deepening the divisions already exposed by the last referendum are substantial. If you think ‘everyone’ would now vote to stay in the EU if given the chance, it’s probably because you are a ‘confidently multi-cultural’ university-educated city-dweller. If, on the other hand, you believe that EU membership has turned the UK into a dumping ground for immigrants (even if very few of them live where you do), you probably live in a post-industrial town where you feel forgotten and ignored, jobs are scarce and poverty levels are higher than the national average.
3. Even if there were to be another referendum – and if it were to produce a pro-Remain majority – what do you think would happen next? The people who voted Leave would be incandescent; support for ultra-nationalist and anti-elite political movements would rise dramatically; and – of course – there would be an immediate campaign for yet another referendum. As Robert Shrimsleyput it in the FT the other day: ‘If the previous campaign was ugly and divisive, imagine the next: a full assault on every institution of political stability with added venom for foreigners. From there a descent into pure populism is a small step and the next group of leaders will be less loveable than Nigel Farage.’The former British ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, put it even more starkly in a recent lecture (it’s well worth reading in full, by the way). ‘The fact that the European question has helped turn our political debate both somewhat, indeed sometimes seriously, mad and increasingly polarised and toxic should, I think, worry us all. It’s hard, in my view, to think of anything that would toxify it more than a further referendum.’So what should we Remainers do? First, I think, much as we regret it, we must accept that Britain will leave the EU. Our duly elected representatives, members of the House of Commons, voted to hold a referendum, and the government committed itself to abiding by the result. (‘This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.’)
Yes, I know that strictly speaking, the referendum was ‘advisory’, but the words quoted above come from an official government document. To go back on them now would not be a good look in an era when populism is already on the march.
But Remainers do have other options. Brexit does not have to mean Jacob Rees Mogg’s Brexit. I would much prefer to see soft Brexiteers in all the main parties form a united front, put together a reasoned case for a Norway-type post-exit relationship and then vote down whatever Theresa May’s ramshackle Cabinet might at the eleventh hour be able to agree to recommend to parliament.
Bring down the government? Force an election? Yes, if that’s what it takes. Hit the pause button on Article 50 and go back to square one. When push comes to shove, I’d rather see Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and John McDonnell conduct the Brexit negotiations than any of the current bunch. (You’ll have noticed that there’s a name missing from my list of Labour names. I hope I don’t need to spell out why.)
If ever there was a cause that merited the risk of party splits, surely Brexit is such a cause. But a softish, Norwayish Brexit would not be the end of the world. And although the principle of unrestricted immigration from the EU would remain in place, I’m pretty sure the EU would be prepared to allow the UK to invoke the ‘emergency brake’ clauses (articles 112 and 113 of the European Economic Area Treaty permit immigration restrictions to be imposed if ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties’ might otherwise result).
Like it or not – and I don’t – a majority of those who voted on 23 June 2016 voted for the UK to leave the EU. Yes, the campaign was a disgrace; yes, the Leave campaign broke the law; yes, there’s good reason to suppose that President Putin was up to his old tricks. But democracy means nothing if it does not mean accepting results you don’t agree with.
Much better, I think, to work for a better Brexit – a People’s Brexit, even – than to try to turn back the clock. What happened on referendum day in 2016 was a revolution – and life after a revolution can never be the same as it was before.
So I won’t be on the ‘People’s Vote’ march tomorrow – because we’ve already had the People’s Vote. We lost.
There is a hoary old joke that journalists of a certain age enjoy telling each other that goes like this: Two retired journalists are meeting up for a drink. ‘So,’ says the first journalist, ‘What are you up to these days?’ ‘I’m writing a novel,’ says the second journalist. ‘That’s amazing,’ replies the first journalist. ‘Neither am I.’
The point is this. There are very few journalists who haven’t fantasised at some point about writing a novel. It’s not surprising: after all, we write for a living, we construct narratives; we are – like novelists – story-tellers. Yet very few journalists actually manage to write a novel – and only a tiny number manage to write a good novel. So why is that the case? Are journalism and novel-writing similar? Or are they entirely different, the only real similarity being that they both involve putting words one in front of the other?
A few years ago, I interviewed the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She had just given a lecture in which she discussed what she called realist fiction. ‘Realist fiction,’ she said, ‘is not merely the recording of the real, as it were, it is more than that, it seeks to infuse the real with meaning, which perhaps is why the artist works with a frown. As events unfold, we do not always know what they mean. But in telling the story of what happened, meaning emerges and we are able to make connections with emotive significance. Realist fiction is, above all, the process of turning fact into truth.’
Turning fact into truth? What exactly does that mean? I had an opportunity to ask Adichie when I interviewed her the following day. When I sat down with her in a BBC studio, I asked her: ‘If you and I were to witness the same event, and then each of us wrote about it – you as a novelist and I as a journalist -- how would our accounts differ?’ She looked across the studio desk and smiled. ‘People would be moved by what I wrote,’ she said, ‘they would be informed by what you wrote.’
Ali Smith made a slightly different point in a recent interview with Nicola Sturgeon at the Edinburgh Book Festival. They were discussing the prevalence of lies in modern society, and Ali Smith said: ‘Fiction and lies are the opposite of each other. Lies go out of the way to distort and turn you away from the truth. But fiction is one of our ways of telling the truth.”
A couple of weeks ago, I heard Julian Barnes speaking at a public event, and he came up with a splendid suggestion. All novels, he said, should have a sticker on their front cover. ‘Trigger warning: contains truth.’
So Adichie, Smith and Barnes all agree: fiction is a way of telling the truth. I would argue that so is journalism, but let’s use Adichie’s formula as a starting point. She argues that people are moved by what novelists write, but they are merely informed by what journalists write. Of course, as a journalist, I do want people to be informed by my journalism – I marshal the facts to the best of my ability, sort them out into some kind of structure, and hope that I am imparting useful, accurate information. Rule number one for all journalists: Get it right.
But do I sometimes also want people who read what I have written, or who hear what I have broadcast, to be moved? Do I want my work to have, to use Adichie’s phrase, ‘emotive significance’? And if I do, am I straying across that line which she says divides novelists from journalists?
Read the following passage, and see if you can decide whether it was written by a journalist or a novelist. ‘The road south is narrow and endless. We have been driving since early morning, and the green hill country has begun to lose focus. It is a blur on to which have been painted occasional villages in shades of muddy brown and the burned yellow of banana thatch. At each village, small boys run to the edge of the road, offering cokes and bananas for sale. Some of them thrust skewers of burned meat, rancid and charcoal black, through the window. At first we found them entertaining, almost dancing in front of us, cheering excitedly as we approached. Now, seven hours later, they are tiresome, another hazard of the road along with the cattle and the goats. Any journey, even towards war, becomes a matter of routine if it goes on long enough.’
Or how about this? ‘For several mornings they were pursued by yellow butterflies which were a welcome change from the tsetses. The butterflies came tacking into the saloon as soon as it was light, while the river still lay under a layer of mist like steam on a vat. When the mist cleared they could see one bank lined with white nenuphars which from a hundred yards away resembled a regiment of swans. The colour of the water in this wider reach was pewter, except where the wheel churned the wake to chocolate, and the green reflection of the woods was not mirrored on the surface but seemed to shine up from underneath the paper-thin transparent pewter.’
Both passages are powerful descriptions of an African journey. Both, I think, conjure up vivid images in our minds. The second one comes from A Burnt Out Case by Graham Greene. But the first passage was written by a former colleague of mine at the BBC, Fergal Keane, in his book Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey, in which he recounts his experiences reporting the Rwandan genocide more than 20 years ago.
Fergal is a journalist, and his book is clearly not a novel. But does it have ‘emotive significance’? Does it do more than inform? Does it move? I think the answers are Yes in each case, which means that the line which Adichie tried to draw may not be as clear as she suggests.
Here’s another example: ‘As the sun’s last rays bathed the Cathedral square in light, the symbols of Communism and Catholicism overlapped and seemed almost to merge. The heavy walnut coffin was carried solemnly from the Cathedral and hundreds of red flags dipped in respect. Fists were raised in a Communist salute that seemed to be directed at the small crucifix carried by a priest in front of the coffin.’
That’s a description of the funeral of a young Italian Communist activist who was shot dead by neo-Fascists in 1976. It’s journalism, written by a journalist, and yes, it conveys the facts of the funeral. But I think it also does more. I should admit, by the way, that I’m the journalist who wrote it, while I was a correspondent for Reuters news agency based in Rome.
I could have written it differently, of course. I could have written: ‘A young Communist activist was buried today after a Catholic funeral in his home town of Sezze Romano.’ So why didn’t I? It would have been much more in keeping with Reuters’ usual style: spare, unadorned prose, conveying the facts simply and succinctly. More than forty years later, I can no longer remember why I chose to write it as I did – perhaps I fancied myself as a new Ernest Hemingway – but I think I probably did want my report to have some kind of ‘emotive significance’ – by highlighting the juxtaposition of Communism and Catholicism in a single ceremony.
Perhaps I even came close to crossing that line, turning facts into truth. Perhaps I felt that the facts on their own, baldly stated, weren’t quite enough. One thing I’m sure of, however – I was not then, am not now, and never will be, a novelist.
Zadie Smith wrote in her introduction to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American: ‘Too much time has been spent defending Greene against the taint of journalism; we should think of him instead as the greatest journalist there ever was. If more journalists could report as well as Greene bringing us the explosion in the square [one of the most vividly drawn scenes in the novel], how long could we retain the stomach to fight the wars we do?’
I might take issue with her use of the word ‘taint’ in such close proximity to the word ‘journalism’, but I see what she’s getting at. She, like me, sees that line between facts and truth as far more blurred, more indistinct, than we might think at first. Greene certainly understood journalism, and journalists. Like Evelyn Waugh in Scoop, which to me is still the finest novel about journalism ever written, he understood the absurdity that so often accompanies the practice of journalism.
Here’s Fowler, the cynical, world-weary journalist in The Quiet American: ‘I fly to Hanoi airport. They give us a car to the Press Camp. They lay on a flight over the two towns they’ve recaptured and show us the tricolour flying. It might be any darned flag at that height. Then we have a Press Conference and a colonel explains to us what we’ve been looking at. Then we file our cables with the censor. Then we have drinks. Best barman in Indo-China. Then we catch the plane back.’
I never reported from Vietnam, but I recognise that picture only too clearly. And there’s another Fowler line that has stayed with me: ‘My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action — even an opinion is a kind of action.’
There’s a character in the Tom Stoppard play Night and Day who puts it well: ‘A foreign correspondent is someone who lives in foreign parts and corresponds, usually in the form of essays containing no new facts. Otherwise he’s someone who flies around from hotel to hotel and thinks that the most interesting thing about any story is the fact that he has arrived to cover it.’
But back to Fowler and The Quiet American. ‘Even an opinion is a kind of action’? Are reporters really not allowed to have opinions? Not when they work for the BBC, that’s for sure, although here again, the lines can get blurred. There are strict guidelines to be followed, and I wrote about them in my memoir, Is Anything Happening. ‘The BBC’s editorial guidelines for news presenters – a set of rules that should really have been inscribed in stone for Moses to bring down from Mount Sinai – are meant to help presenters negotiate a path between the safe ground of ‘news’ and the treacherous shoals of ‘comment’. They are not, alas, quite as clear cut as ‘Thou shalt not kill.’
“Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area. They may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views.”
Martin Bell, who reported for the BBC with great distinction from Bosnia and many other places, used to talk of what he called the ‘journalism of attachment’ as opposed to ‘bystander journalism’. Good journalism, he argued, especially journalism about conflict and war, cannot, should not, confine itself to a clinical factual narrative. It must, said Bell, show that the journalist cares as well as knows. A journalist’s words, he might almost have argued, must carry ‘emotive significance.’
I agree that facts alone are sometimes not enough. My aim as a reporter is always to try to convey to a reader or listener what they might see and hear – and feel -- if they were where I am. But I don’t think I need to tell them what I think, or feel – my aim is to provide enough information for them to form their own emotional response. ‘Here,’ I say to them. ‘Take hold of my hand. I want to show you something.’
This is how my friend Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times, who was killed in Syria in 2012, explained why she, and other war correspondents, put their lives on the line. ‘Someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can’t get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people – be they government, military or the man on the street – will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen. We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference.’
She might have said ‘…because we believe that what we write does have emotive significance.’ Like all journalists, she believed that information is power, and that if people are well informed, they then have the power to make a difference, even to make things better. Why report wars, after all, if not to bring home to people the reality of war, in the hope that the knowledge will make future wars less likely?
The death of Marie Colvin – who there is strong evidence to believe was deliberately targeted and murdered by the Syrian regime – and the gruesome murders of other foreigners by the Islamic State group made it all but impossible for foreign journalists to continue to cover the war. And what we have learned, in Syria as in many other places, is that if journalists cannot tell the truth about what people in power are doing, then those people will construct their own version of the truth.
Four years ago, I reported from the world’s newest nation, south Sudan, which was already disintegrating into civil war. I saw people on the brink of starvation, utterly destitute and in fear of their lives. I was very angry, and very upset at what I saw, but I tried to control my emotions when I filed a long piece for The Observer. This is how it began.
‘It is happening again. Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda, 30 years after the famine in Ethiopia, Africa's twin scourges are back. This time it is a single country facing a double disaster. South Sudan, the world's newest nation, not yet three years old, is on the brink of catastrophe.’
Short sentences. No emotive adjectives. Just stark facts, which – I hope – said what needed to be said. Facts, yes, but also, I hope, at least a nugget of truth.
So let’s try to imagine a novel about South Sudan, written perhaps by Graham Greene. The first thing to say is that he would certainly have spent more than five days there. He would also have spent more than two hours sitting at his typewriter. I often think that people fail to appreciate how journalists operate – at great speed, and under great pressure. Facts are hard enough to gather in the little time available; truth will often have to wait till later.
More importantly, though, Greene would have created a central character to drive his narrative. Like Fowler in The Quiet American, or Querry in A Burnt-Out Case, or Castle in The Human Factor, the character would be complex, conflicted, a human peg on which to hang profound questions about both the human condition and the condition of the world in which we live.
And that device – a central, named character to entice the reader, listener or viewer -- has now become an essential tool in nearly all journalists’ box of tricks, adopting the style of the novel and the short story, marshalling facts like a journalist and turning them into truth like a novelist.
In 1984, I reported extensively from India after the army had ruthlessly brought to an end a Sikh insurgency in Punjab, centred on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. I was working for The Observer at the time: here’s how one of my reports began. ‘Major-General Shuhbeg Singh (Indian army, cashiered) died with his walkie-talkie still in his hands. The man who, for the past two years, had been the military mastermind behind Punjab’s bloody rebellion by Sikh fundamentalists, was calling the shots right to the end. He died of bullet wounds, in the smoke-filled basement of one of the holiest buildings in the Golden Temple of Amritsar.’
That use of a central character at the beginning of a story is now so common place that it has become a cliché. Pick up almost any newspaper, turn to the feature pages, and likely as not, what you find there will open with a similar device.
In 1996, more than 1,200 men were massacred in Libya’s notorious Abu Salim jail. It went virtually unreported until after the overthrow of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel 4 News, wrote a book about the Libyan revolution called Sandstorm, in which she described meeting the families of some of the men who had been slaughtered. Here’s an extract: ‘A woman thrust a small blue envelope into my hand, the kind used by old-fashioned photographic shops. I opened it in my hotel room, and found a faded colour passport picture of a round-faced boy with thick black hair, wearing a cream shirt, and a similar-sized photograph of an older man with white hair, wearing a black fez and a traditional black robe, a jird, fringed with gold brocade. A closer look reveals that he is sitting in a wheelchair. His legs, which are covered in white bandages have been amputated at the knee. A father, a husband, an uncle? How did he lose his legs? Was he already disabled when they threw him into prison? I keep the pictures in my study. The boy and the old man stare out at me: people I never knew, victims of a crime I never heard about until long years after their killers tossed their bodies into an anonymous mass grave.’
Facts? Or truth? It’s journalism, without a doubt, but when you read it, are you informed – or are you also moved?
I remember once talking to a reporter who had been embedded with US troops during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Being embedded means you are assigned to a particular military unit and you go only where they go and see only what they see. The only real difference between the soldiers and the reporter is that the soldiers have weapons and the reporter does not. This particular reporter said something that struck me as quite profound. ‘Being embedded,’ he said, ‘is like watching a war through a letter box. You can see what’s directly in front of your eyes, but that’s it. You have no idea how it fits in to the broader picture.’
It applies to more than just embedded reporters hurtling across a battlefield in an armoured vehicle. A reporter can be only in one place at a time, has only two eyes, and can talk to only a limited number of people before the next deadline. Novelists, on the other hand, well, novelists can take as long as they like … I’m tempted to say to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘I’ll try to deal with the facts now; you can look after the truth at your leisure.’
To be fair, she did recognise this journalistic dilemma in her lecture when she said: ‘As events unfold, we do not always know what they mean.’ I would phrase it slightly differently: ‘As events unfold, we never know what they mean.’
As a BBC news presenter for more than twenty years, I asked many hundreds of stupid questions, but by far the most common was some variant of: ‘So what do you think all this means?’ The only honest answer, of course, is ‘I have no idea. We’ll have to wait to find out.’ But woe betide any interviewee who was so honest – that’s not what editors, or their listeners and viewers, want to hear. We live in an age of instant gratification: people want to know everything, and they want to know now. Waiting is not an option.
So I don’t regard journalists and novelists as somehow occupying entirely different planets in the literary universe: journalists with their pathetically inadequate facts and novelists with their profound and enduring truths. Look at Charles Dickens: journalist and novelist. Look at Graham Greene: even if he was ‘tainted’, to use Zadie Smith’s word, in the eyes of his critics, he was both journalist and novelist. He dealt in both facts and truth.
The main problem I have with Adichie’s formula is that both facts and truth are somewhat slippery concepts. What exactly are facts? What, indeed, is truth? The dictionary definition of the word ‘fact’ is that it is ‘a thing that is known or proved to be true.’ And the definition of ‘true’? ‘In accordance with fact or reality.’ So the definitions form a perfect circle: it is a fact if it is true; and it is true if it is a fact.
Which brings us to George Orwell. In Nineteen Eighty Four, the central principle of the ruling party is that the past is mutable. It has no objective existence; it survives only in written records and in human memories. But since the Party controls all the records, and is in full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.
Now consider the tale of that notorious meeting that Donald Trump’s son, Donald Jr, had with a Russian emissary during the presidential election campaign in 2016. At first, the Trump campaign denied that there had been any meetings with Russians; then they admitted that the meeting had taken place, but said that it was primarily to discuss a programme for the adoption of Russian children. And then, just last month, the President himself said – on Twitter, of course -- that the meeting was ‘to get information on an opponent.’
In the words of Trump’s lawyer, speaking in a TV interview: ‘Over time, facts develop.’ Facts develop: it’s pure Orwell. Sometimes it’s a fact that two plus two equal four, and that the sun always rises in the east; but over time, those facts develop. Sometimes, two plus two equals five, or perhaps six, and the sun rises not in the east, but in the west, or even in the south. In his book The Art of the Deal, published more than twenty years ago, Trump wrote in praise of what he called ‘truthful hyperbole’, which he called an ‘innocent form of exaggeration’ – innocent, he said, because ‘people want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.’
Orwell would have understood perfectly. The truth is what people want to believe. And they are happy to believe what they are told by a leader whom they trust. Just as Orwell predicted, the Party controls the past, so the Party controls the truth.
As a reporter for nearly fifty years, I have spent my entire adult life believing that facts are important and that the truth matters. I have never believed that ‘over time, facts develop’, or that there is such a thing as ‘truthful hyperbole’. But I am prepared to admit to an uncomfortable truth. There are facts, and there are facts. Two reporters can observe the same event, report it entirely accurately, and still come up with two very different accounts. How? By choosing to marshal different facts, to emphasise some and disregard others. The choices that journalists make are not rooted in science, but in their own understanding of what matters, what’s important, and what isn’t.
For example: eighteen years ago, several white farmers were murdered in Zimbabwe by activists who called themselves ‘war veterans’ and said they were seizing white-owned farms in furtherance of President Mugabe’s land reform policies. I was working at the BBC at the time, and of course we reported the murders. On one occasion, during a reporting trip to Zimbabwe, I even managed to visit a white-owned farm as it was being besieged by heavily-armed pro-government activists.
But some of the white farmers who were attacked were also activists in the main opposition party, the MDC. But what was more relevant to the BBC’s listeners? That they were white, or that they were opposition supporters? ‘A white farmer and his family were murdered today in Zimbabwe by war veterans who said they were seizing their land to redistribute to landless peasants.’ A truthful statement of the facts.
‘An opposition activist and his family were murdered today by pro-government militiamen who invaded their farm.’ That is also a truthful statement of the facts – but they are different facts and they give a subtly different impression of what happened.
Here is another one: ‘Palestinian fighters fired a salvo of rockets into Israel last night after Israeli troops killed a teenager in Gaza.’ Or alternatively: ‘Israel responded in force to a cross-border incursion by Palestinian fighters last night during which a number of shots were fired. One Palestinian was reported killed.’ Both reports are accurate, but each chooses to frame the narrative differently.
I think it is important to acknowledge that neither facts nor truth are as unambiguous as we might sometimes like to think. Let’s look again at my report from Italy on the funeral of that young Communist activist all those years ago. ‘As the sun’s last rays bathed the Cathedral square in light,’ I wrote, ‘the symbols of Communism and Catholicism overlapped and seemed almost to merge.’
‘Seemed’? What kind of fact is that? Did the symbols of Communism and Catholicism merge, or didn’t they?
‘Fists were raised in a Communist salute that seemed to be directed at the small crucifix carried by a priest in front of the coffin.’ ‘Seemed’ again. In my striving for truth, was I perhaps guilty of stretching the facts?
If I had been writing a novel, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered. Novelists are allowed to stretch facts in their search for truth. Journalists, on the other hand, quite rightly, are expected not to stray. When we read a novel, we know we are reading fiction: the events described did not really happen; the characters who people its pages did not reallyexist.
John Lanchester’s novel about London, Capital, is centred on one, fictional street, Pepys Road, in Clapham, and it captures the essence of the city in a way that I don’t think journalism could. It conveys a truth in a way that facts alone could not, even though Lanchester is a journalist as well as a novelist.
The same can apply in the world of film. Ken Loach’s film, I, Daniel Blake, is the fictional depiction of what can happen when a man slips through the benefits net and falls victim to heartless austerity. But everything in it, according to the film-makers, is based on actual events. So when I interviewed the producer, Rebecca O’Brien, I asked her why, if everything in it was true, they hadn’t made the film as a documentary. Because, she said, the story they told was more powerful – and more truthful – when treated as a fictional narrative.
Having recently reread some of Graham Greene’s novels, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the most significant difference between what journalists do and what novelists do is that whereas journalists try to describe the state of the world, novelists focus on the state of the human condition. It is not so much a question of facts and truth, which can get hopelessly blurred when you start prodding at them a bit, but with the collective and the individual.
It would be dishonest of me not to admit that for much of my adult life, I read very few novels. I was an obsessive journalist, addicted to facts, you might say, rather than truth. Only as I approached the age of decrepitude did I finally acknowledge that I was missing something. And that what I was missing was an understanding of the human condition.
So now, at last, I am reading more novels. Perhaps I am spending a bit less time keeping up with the latest Brexit developments, but I hope I’m spending more time learning what it means to be human. Fewer facts, but – perhaps -- more truth. -->
As is so often the case, Donald Trump expressed it perfectly. Hurricane Florence, which has brought major devastation to parts of the US this week, was 'one of the wettest we've ever seen, from the standpoint of water'. (You don’t believe he actually said it? Here’s the video.)
And yes, this from the man whose administration thinks it would be just great if the US burnt more coal. Perhaps you hadn’t noticed, but the current acting head of the US Environmental Protection Agency is a former coal industry lobbyist. You really couldn’t make it up, which is why I’m looking forward to the new Trump baseball caps going on sale: ‘Make Water Wetter Again.’
Remember the summer heatwave? Perhaps you don’t – our weather-related memories are notoriously short. And of course, here in the UK, it’s virtually stopped raining all together – at least until Storms Ali and Bronagh popped up out of nowhere -- unless you happen to remember the downpours of 2014, the heaviest in nearly two hundred and fifty years, which caused more than a billion pounds’ worth of damage.
Just a few days ago, the UN secretary-general António Guterres tried yet again to shake world leaders out of their complacency. ‘Climate change is the defining issue of our time, and we are at a defining moment. If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change.’
Mark those words: ‘runaway climate change’. That’s what everyone wants to prevent, because it would spell disaster for future human existence – and that’s where net zero carbon emissions come in. It’s no good simply reducing the amount of carbon we spew into the earth’s atmosphere; we have to reduce it to such an extent that it no longer exceeds the amount of carbon we remove.
Early next month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the internationally-accepted scientific authority on climate change, will publish a report making the case for net zero carbon emissions. Like everything to do with climate change, it is bound to be complex and full of scientific jargon. So here, stealing unashamedly from a series of invaluable briefing papers published this week by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, is my attempt to steer a path through it. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the ECIU’s advisory board.)
First off, can it be done? Well, France, Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, Iceland and Costa Rica have already set themselves targets to get there by the middle of the century – and the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is already carbon-negative, thanks to a population of just 800,000 and a requirement written into its constitution that at least sixty per cent of its land area must remain forested in perpetuity.
Why bother? Because, in the words of the ECIU: ‘Climate science is clear that to a close approximation, the eventual extent of global warming is proportional to the total amount of carbon dioxide that human activities add to the atmosphere. So, in order to stabilise climate change, CO2 emissions need to fall to zero.’
How can it be done? Well, pumping out less of the stuff is a good start, and not quite as impossible to achieve as the sceptics would have had us believe twenty or thirty years ago. In fact, according to the ECIU, ‘the UK has already made substantial progress on decarbonisation, having cut emissions by more than 40% since 1990 while posting 70% economic growth – on a per-capita basis, leading the G7 on both measures.’
OK, but zero? True, we’re never going to get rid of all greenhouse gas emissions, although there is a theory that by feeding cows seaweed, we could cut their methane emissions by 99%. Far easier to plant lots more trees, because trees absorb CO2, so the more there are, the more CO2 gets removed from the atmosphere. (So three cheers for the new National Forest that’s being planted in the English Midlands.)
Technology can help as well: for example, by generating electricity from burning plant material, and then capturing and storing the CO2 that’s produced underground. The danger, however, is that if we start growing substantial quantities of the plant material that would be needed for increased electricity generation, we might end up chopping down trees to make space for them. Which would sort of defeat the object ...
So it’s all fine in theory, but it’ll never be done? Not necessarily – the UK actually has a rather good record in this field, having come top in a recent global index charting G20 nations’ transition to a low carbon economy.
Personally, I reckon the chances of avoiding of ‘runaway climate change’ are on a knife-edge, but if the UK needs to find itself a post-Brexit role, how about Zero Emissions Champion? According to the ECIU, ‘there are now more than 390,000 jobs in low-carbon businesses and their supply chains … [and] the UK’s low-carbon and renewable-energy economy was worth £43bn in 2016.’
So it would be good for the economy, and it might just save planet Earth. What’s not to like?
Twenty-five years ago, on 13 September 1993, the then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands on the lawn of the White House in Washington DC.
The occasion was the signing of a ‘declaration of principles’ that, in theory, would lead within five years to a comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The so-called Oslo process – ‘Oslo’ because the secret negotiations that led to the agreement took place in the Norwegian capital – marked a brief moment of optimism during a conflict that has now lasted seventy years, ever since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
The principal Israeli negotiator was Yossi Beilin, and he has just published a fascinating analysis of why that moment of optimism was so brief. In a nutshell: because extremists on both sides unleashed a cycle of violence that in effect stopped the process in its tracks, and because the Israeli side failed to recognise that in ‘asymmetrical negotiations’, the stronger party must be careful not to gain too much.
I find his analysis of particular interest as it closely matches some of what I reported fifteen years ago, on the tenth anniversary of the Rabin-Arafat handshake, as a result of which I got into all sorts of trouble with pro-Israel lobby groups.
And it casts an interesting light on some of the current debate about when, and how, criticism of Israel and Israeli government policies is legitimate. (None of what follows, by the way, is meant to imply that the Palestinian side is entirely free from blame in the continuing conflict. The lack of leadership is not confined to only one side.)
In an article for the BBC news website to mark the tenth anniversary of the Oslo accords, I reported from Jerusalem: ‘Within months of the [White House] signing ceremony, a Jewish settler shot dead 29 Muslim worshippers in a mosque in the ancient West Bank city of Hebron. A little over a month later came the first post-Oslo Palestinian suicide bomb. And in November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic.’
Those statements, each of which was entirely true, were condemned at the time by an influential US-based, pro-Israel lobby organisation, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America(CAMERA), as a ‘distortion of historical fact’. And in a critique of my accompanying radio report, it added: ‘Although Lustig tried to appear even-handed by interviewing both Israelis and Palestinians, it was clear he was not straying from BBC’s “blame Israel” line.’
Now compare what I reported fifteen years ago with what Yossi Beilin wrote this week: ‘The extreme right in Israel and Islamic groups used violence that we did not foresee to thwart the process and to denigrate it in the eyes of the public. The first murderous event occurred in February 1994, when a religious Jewish doctor from Kiryat Arba settlement, a reserve officer, entered the Hebron Cave of the Patriarchs in his military uniform and massacred 29 Muslims in cold blood and injured many others. The second event was the most dramatic: the assassination of Rabin in 1995 by an extremist Jew who did so explicitly to stop the process.’
Yossi Beilin held several ministerial positions in a succession of Israeli governments, including deputy foreign minister, minister of economy and planning, justice minister and minister for religious affairs. I think it would be quite a stretch to describe him as ‘anti-Israel’.
I dredge up these memories from long ago because too many people still try to argue that criticising Israeli government policies, or even pointing to shared Israeli responsibility in failure, is somehow tantamount to being antisemitic, or at the very least anti-Israel. (My reporting in 2003 was attacked by CAMERA as part of the ‘BBC’s consistent efforts to blame Israel.’ Once, when I was on a visit to Boston, they picketed the event at which I was due to speak and carried placards describing both me and a BBC colleague as antisemites.)
Back in 2003, I pointed out that one of the biggest failures of the Oslo process was that it did not include a commitment to halt the building of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. The pro-Israel lobbyists objected to that as well, but this week Yossi Beilin backed me up: ‘We succeeded in convincing the Palestinians not to mention a freeze in settlement construction, but Israel continued to build settlements after the Oslo agreement, and this was the gravest Israeli provocation.’
The wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya have knocked the Israel-Palestine conflict off the front pages. After all, how much reporting of endless Middle East conflicts can we take? But while we’ve all been obsessed with Brexit, President Trump has nonchalantly ordered the suspension of all US financial aid to the UN’s Palestinian relief organisation UNRWA and of an additional $25 million in aid to Palestinian hospitals in east Jerusalem.
The US president seems to think that the Palestinians can be bullied and threatened into submission. The hard-line Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has never made any secret of his deep antipathy to the Oslo agreement and all it represents, seems to think the same.
History will prove them wrong. And it is not, and never will be, antisemitic to say so.
But the horror movie that is being filmed in the White House is far from over: the emotionally incontinent and reality-denying central character is still on his feet, roaring defiance and channelling King Kong as his world crashes about him.
(According to the New York Times, ‘King Kong’ is the nickname given to Trump by the outgoing White House counsel, Donald McGahn, on account of his fearsome temper tantrums.)
And as for Brexit, well, the slo-mo agony continues, as Brexiteers come face to face with the real world and discover that wishing upon a star doesn’t invariably come good. If you’ve really had enough of it, I suggest you book a flight to New Zealand. I’ll let you know when it’s all over, if I’m still around.
I really don’t envy my former colleagues in the news salt-mines, but I do sometimes wish they’d try just a bit harder to focus our attention on something else.
How about, for example, the fact that after a ruling by the Indian Supreme Court decriminalising homosexuality, between 20 million and 65 million Indians now know that they are no longer considered criminals?
(Assuming that the proportion of Indians who are gay is roughly similar to the proportion in the UK, 20 million is 1.5% of the population, which is the measure used by the UK Office of National Statistics, and 65 million is 5%, which is the measure preferred by the gay rights charity Stonewall. Either way, it’s a lot of people.)
Or how about the peace agreement, after twenty years of war, between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a country often labelled the North Korea of Africa, and from which over the past four years have come one of the highest numbers of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to find safety in Europe? Wars make news for all the obvious reasons, but peace deals should as well.
The problem we face as we try to make sense of what is going on around us is that we increasingly seem to look at the world in stark, binary terms. We are either pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit, pro-Trump or anti-Trump. We either revere Jeremy Corbyn, or loathe him. There is no longer any space for shades of grey or room for doubt.
(If you want my thoughts on the Labour-antisemitism row, by the way, I wrote a blogpost about it in late July. I also commend yesterday’s editorial in the Financial Times: ‘If Jeremy Corbyn were not so invested in his self-image as a life-long anti-racist campaigner, and therefore so convinced by his own sanctity, his dispute with Britain’s Jewish community would have been resolved long ago. Instead, surrounded by disciples rather than supporters, he has allowed the Labour party to be shamed by an indifference to anti-Semitism which would have staggered all his predecessors.’)In a noisy room, only those who shout loudest are heard. So if you want to cut through the cacophony of social media, you need to shout very loudly indeed. How did Donald Trump react to last Wednesday’s extraordinary, anonymous attack on him by a member of his own administration, published by the New York Times?
One word, all in capitals, on Twitter of course. ‘TREASON?’ (If you haven’t read the piece, by the way, please do. Just click here.)
But it’s not only the social media which have injected such venom into political debate. One of the effects of referendums is to force people to make simple decisions about complex subjects, be it Scottish independence or the UK’s membership of the EU. Everything gets boiled down to the simplest – and often most misleading – slogan.
When people, inevitably, are disappointed at the outcome, they become angry. And then they start shouting more loudly than ever. He who makes the most noise wins the battle for airtime. Why else do Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage create so many waves?
The fate of Donald Trump and the outcome of the Brexit debate are two of the most consequential questions of our time. How they are resolved will echo through the history books for decades to come, so I’m afraid wishing they would go away is not an option.
If you really want something else to worry about, however, I can offer you the imminent assault on the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib; the never-ending horror of the war in Yemen; the agony of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar; and the incontrovertible evidence that Russia did indeed use a chemical weapon on British soil to attempt to murder ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
Oh, and on the subject of that heatwave. I think we may have lost the battle to keep climate change to within manageable limits. If I’m right, I reckon it might be worth a headline or two.
And finally: I have a couple of speaking engagements coming up soon which you might be interested in. Next Friday, 14 September, at 8pm, I’ll be at the Chiswick Book Festival talking to Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, about his new book. Tickets are available here.
And on Saturday 22 September, at 11.15am, I’ll be at the Graham Greene International Festival in Berkhampsted, Hertfordshire, to give a talk on the subject ‘Journalists and Novelists: Facts and Truth.’ Tickets available here.
Think of it this way: if Donald Trump is impeached – or resigns à la Richard Nixon – the new US president will be Mike Pence. And what is likely to be Pence's first decision? To pardon Donald Trump, à la Gerald Ford.
Now ask yourself this: what is Donald Trump’s number one priority as his former comrades and consiglieri turn against him, one by one, to save their own skins?
To stay out of jail. And – if possible – to ensure that his son Donald jr stays out of jail as well. (I’m not sure he’s that bothered about his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.)
Second question: if you are a US Democrat – or indeed a Republican who cares about the future health of the US political system – what is your number one priority? To get Trump out of the White House and bring him to justice for his myriad alleged crimes.
In which case, choose from one of the following two options: (A) impeach Trump and see him pardoned by Pence; or (B) defeat him in 2020 and see him prosecuted in the criminal courts. With a Democrat in the White House, there’ll be no pardons on offer.
So here’s the thing. The likelihood of the House of Representatives voting to impeach Trump and then the Senate voting by a two-thirds majority to convict him, which is what would be required to remove him from office, is close to zero. (Only twice in US history has the House of Representatives voted to impeach a president – Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 – and in both cases the Senate voted to acquit. Nixon resigned before he was impeached.)
If the Democrats move to impeach Trump, and their attempt fails, he is likely to emerge from the process stronger, not weaker. Remember, Clinton’s poll ratings reached record levels after the failed Republican attempt to remove him.
What’s more, Trump’s thirst for revenge will be fearsome. As will that of his supporters.
Far better, I would suggest, for the Democrats to put all their efforts into defeating Trump in 2020. It means crafting a message to appeal to Trump voters in the all-important swing states, as well as determined work on voter registration in states where the Republicans have been trying to disenfranchise vast numbers of likely Democrat voters.
It also means, above all, finding a Presidential candidate who can do what Hillary Clinton failed to do in 2016: capture voters’ imagination, offer a vision for a better future, and represent the aspirations of ordinary, middle class Americans.
Someone perhaps from a Latino or other minority background, to push back against the ugly white supremacism that has characterised the Trump presidency; under the age of forty-five, to be able to talk plausibly about new ideas – oh yes, and please, at last, a woman.
If the Democrats really fail to beat Trump for a second time, they will have forfeited the right to be considered a serious political party. They know the stakes are high; they must not fail.