Millions of Europeans are returning to work this week after holidays in the sun. Yet the Mediterranean has been in the news this summer not for those escaping shop and office, but for those fleeing war. What challenges does that present for journalism?
WESTERN civilization’s religion, philosophy, and politics sprung in antiquity from its shores. Today the Mediterranean Sea has come to stand for some of its greatest challenges.
I am among those Europeans fortunate enough to have enjoyed a holiday there this summer: at its western edge, not its war-scarred east. As I watched the boats passing the beach with their tourist passengers, I thought of others who had taken to the same sea for very different reasons.
I thought of the people whom I had met during my time as a correspondent working on the opposite shore. For the two years I spent in Gaza, the Mediterranean was a constant source of calm: gazing upon it gave space to think. Even as it raged in winter storms, it seemed to do so with a liberty that was denied to so many of the people among whom I lived then. I thought of the many refugees I had met at different stages of my own life: from being a young twentysomething to a father of forty-odd. Whatever stage of their life they were at, and whether they were in the Balkans, the Caucasus, or the Middle East, they all seemed to say similar things: they were leaving because they had no choice.
I thought then of the British tabloids I had seen in the Spanish supermarket that morning, and the extensive use they made of the dehumanizing word ‘swarm’ to describe those heading for Europe. Still, if the word is good enough for the British Prime Minister, why not a headline writer, too?
Reporting on the refugees heading across the sea in search of a new life in Europe is a huge challenge. Yet journalism is often at its best when it takes on such a task: explaining to people preoccupied by their own busy lives something which they need to understand.
In this case, western audiences need to understand two things above all. The first is that people do not casually leave behind all they have known. The decision may be straightforward in that leaving offers the only chance of survival. It is rarely easy.
Seeing a seven-year-old’s tears in the holiday resort as she was told her inflatable crocodile had a puncture, and would not be coming home, I wondered how hard it would be to tell a seven-year-old that she had seen her own home for the last time. It made me wonder how you tell the same child that her sister would not be fleeing with the rest of the family because she had been killed by the shell which took the roof off the house.
The second important point is that there is no guarantee that Western Europe’s prosperity and stability can endure indefinitely. In the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, his excellent and influential account of the origins of World War I, Christopher Clark points to the ‘complex and unpredictable array of forces,’ which has taken the place of Cold War stability. Presumably many Western Europeans enjoyed time off in the summer of 1913 as my fellow tourists and I did in the Mediterranean this summer.
Journalism’s detractors may take it to task for lacking the kind of context or depth offered by history or social science research. Its strength its in its immediacy, yet it needs context too. In the case of reporting on refugees, that means remembering that they are not a ‘swarm’. They are people whose only crime, in most cases, was to be born on the side of the sea which, in this century at least, is a war zone rather than a holiday resort.