‘WE’RE NOT HERE TO GIVE PEOPLE A HISTORY LESSON.’ The editor’s succinct rebuke served to curb the enthusiasm of a reporter intent on telling the world about the latest international story in the greatest detail. During two decades dealing with newsrooms, I heard it several times in several places.
The sentiment is sound, of course. Even if journalism is supposed to be the first rough draft of history, the material which journalists prepare for their audiences is supposed to be something different: new, and of the moment.
Yet in an age such as our own, when history is in western European politics to a greater extent than at any time since the middle of the last century, I am going to argue that to hold that view is to risk not telling the full story.
Before becoming a lecturer in Journalism in 2010, I covered international news for twenty years. The experience of covering events that changed the world as I had known it in my childhood taught me lessons about telling the stories of people living through war and revolution: the attacks of September 11th, 2001; the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A return to Russia earlier this year to research my next book, Assignment Moscow, gave me a chance to look again at a country I had not seen for ten years. It was a strange time to be there as a Brit: relations between Russia and the west were bad enough; relations between Russia and the U.K. worse than ever they had been since the end of the Cold War.
Russia was seen as a threat. The poisoning in the English town of Salisbury of the former Russian military intelligence agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, was one especially unsettling example; persistent allegations of attempts to use social media to undermine western democracy was another.
It attached itself easily to older forms of fear of the huge country on Europe’s western edge: cold war confrontation; nineteenth century cartoons of oversized bears helping themselves to chunks of the globe.
Part of my trip this year took me to Volgograd. As Stalingrad, as it was known in the 1940s, it was the site of the battle which halted the German army’s attempt to conquer the Soviet Union. Soviet forces, newly energized and enthusiastic after defeating on their mighty enemy, began to turn the tide of the entire war.
The city skyline is dominated by a colossal statue of Mother Russia, a sword in her raised right hand. She looks back over her shoulder, urging her people to emerge from the places where they have taken cover, and go on the attack. The hill where she stands is the site of the decisive, final, battle for the city: 34,000 Russian dead lie buried beneath her feet.
All of this, I reflected, is relevant to explaining Russia as it is today. No, people don’t talk about the war every day any more than they do in western Europe but, boosted by official propaganda which serves as a constant reminder of Soviet sacrifice and victory, it shapes and influences Russia’s view of itself.
It also shapes the way that it sees the west. For if we have tended to see Russia as a threat (even the name, ‘the beast from the east’, given to the snowstorms in the spring of last year seemed to have a hint of Russophobia), then let us consider how the west must look when viewed from Russia.
The west may have brought new technology and new ideas to Russia. It also brought invasion and occupation from Napoleon and Hitler. More recently, it brought ideas of democracy and free markets at time when millions struggled to make ends meet. One consequence of that confrontation is that the word ‘democracy’ (‘demokratiya’ in Russian) is still sometimes subject to a pun which replaces the first two syllables with a Russian word, ‘der’mo’, meaning ‘shit’.
Reporting on Russia, as on any other country or culture, requires an understanding of that country and culture. That means an understanding of its history. In that sense, especially today, when identity more than ideology is credited with driving our politics, we do need to give our audiences a history lesson.
That lesson must explain how we understand the story of a nation, and its influence on the present. That is context, so frequently cited as an indispensable ingredient of good reporting.
The other lessons which correspondents need to heed is a lesson in listening: as you prepare your story, listen and watch carefully to the stories surrounding you. To report a story from a country, you have to understand the stories which the people there tell about themselves.