An Island in the 21st Century

Civilians in Grozny, Chechnya. 1995.  © James Rodgers

Civilians in Grozny, Chechnya. 1995.
© James Rodgers

THE POWER OF THE PRESS may humble the mighty, but it has its limits. That day it was I who felt humbled; even ashamed. The softly spoken, middle-aged, father pressed into my hand two lemons, fruit from the garden he was abandoning. His house destroyed, he climbed into his overloaded Lada, and set off. To Turkey, he said, from where he would launch a court case against the Russian government. Did I think his suit could succeed?

As far as I remember, I muttered something about not being an expert in the law — but he and I both knew the answer.

Anyone who has reported from a war zone has spoken to refugees. The encounter described above was from Chechnya in 1995, but it has is equivalents in countless other places.

Sometimes the smaller details stay in your mind. In a refugee camp in Macedonia, a child, who had fled Kosovo, cowered at the approach of a soldier. The boy was astonished when the soldier offered him a toy car, part of an aid package. I can still see the fingers holding it, hiding it; the eyes disbelieving that someone in combat gear could be kind.

Leaving your homeland is not a decision easily taken. Judging from some of the media and political commentary of recent days, this is not widely enough understood in the wealthy west. While there has been compassion for those migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean in sinking vessels, there has also been a lack of humanity which belies some observers’ own.

We are constantly told that the internet, cheaper air travel, and mobile technology are making are world smaller. Still, though, John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’ has a lesson for us that  resounds today like the funeral bell he considers later in the same Meditation (XVII). ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

Before that famous line, Donne suggests, ‘If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.’ If Europe is diminished by the loss of a lump of earth, what about thousands of lives ‘washed away by the sea’?

Despite our world shrunken by improved communication, we in Britain are not as ‘involved in mankind’ as we should be. You will look largely in vain for any discussion of international affairs in the current election campaign. While it is normal for domestic issues such as the economy, health, and education, to dominate, it would be good to know that the political parties actually had some views on the world beyond Dover.

The BBC’s World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, even wondered rather provocatively in a broadcast yesterday for The World At One what Churchill or Thatcher would have made of a Europe where Britain was so inactive. Rory Stewart, Chair of the Defence Select Committee, is not the only prominent voice to have pointed out — in an interview with Prospect —  how our lack of foreign policy expertise has been costly.

Journalism can also help to fill this gap in expertise. Patrick Cockburn’s work on ISIS for the Independent is a leading example. My research for my next book Headlines from the Holy Land (see previous post on this site) strengthened my impression of the extent to which policy makers rely on the news media for information.

Reporters may not be able to change things overnight, but, as with the coverage of the drowning of hundreds of people in the Mediterranean this week, it can help to put matters of life and death onto the political agenda.



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