Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War by Svetlana Alexievich

Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl was one of the best books I have read for the Read The World challenge, and so I thought I would read this as well. It is, again, a compilation of verbatim transcripts; presumably somewhat edited, if only to remove the interviewer’s questions and comments, but with the rhythms and untidiness of normal speech. This time, it is people associated with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: soldiers, nurses, bereaved mothers and widows (although no Afghan voices). The title comes from the zinc coffins that were used to deliver bodies back home.

Helicopter-tank operation in Afghanistan.  Courtesy of Soviet Military Power, 1984.   Photo No. 130, page 116.

The English edition was published in 1992, and the introduction stresses the comparison with the US experience in Vietnam; soldiers returning home from an unpopular war and being told it was all a mistake, and the impact on the country’s self-image. There are of course also many differences. The USSR kept an iron grip on the news coverage, at least initially; this book’s publication in 1990 is symptomatic of the loosening up of the glasnost/perestroika era. It’s depressing to think how Putin’s government might respond to a similar book about Ukraine or Chechnya.

The other obvious parallel, of course, is with our own recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There is never a shortage of wars to write about, after all. In the end, that made this a less remarkable book, for me, than the Chernobyl one; it is not quite as unique and weird. But it is still fascinating and insightful, and I recommend it. I would just suggest trying to read it in small doses; I found when I read too much in one go, the individuality of the voices started to blur a bit.

» The photo of a Soviet helicopter-tank operation is from the Department of Defense publication Soviet Military Power, 1984, via Wikipedia. It’s a public domain image because it was created by the US government.

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

Voices from Chernobyl was written in 1996, ten years after the reactor meltdown. It is an oral history of the disaster; that is, it’s presented as a series of ‘monologues’ by people who were involved in some way, with titles like ‘Monologue about War Movies’, ‘Monologue about the Shovel and the Atom’, ‘Monologue about Expensive Salami’. I’m actually a bit curious about exactly how they were collected; they are presented as verbatim transcripts, although I’m sure they’ve been tidied up somewhat. What you don’t get is any idea of what questions or prompting came from the interviewer. It’s quite an effective device, keeping the journalist out of the spotlight and letting the voices speak for themselves, but I assume there’s an element of artifice to it. I don’t think it detracted from the book, I’m just curious about the process.

The result is, anyway, an extraordinary book. The stories come from all kinds of perspectives: local farmers, soldiers, scientists, officials, construction workers, wives, children. And the material is fascinating: people’s accounts of being evacuated, of working on the reactor site, of nursing dying relatives. There are people who refused to leave, and people who came back because it was home, and people who, having fled conflicts elsewhere, moved to the area because there were houses lying empty. And overlying it all is the extraordinarily inept and chaotic government response, which included, for example, failing to distribute iodine or breathing masks because they thought doing so might cause panic.

And as well as the material being so interesting, it has a very literary quality; bleak and fatalistic, but laced with dark humour and absurdity, sometimes earthy, sometimes poetic. That poetry comes both from the real poignancy of the human situations and the surreal quality of many things that happened: the soldiers sent into the Zone to kill all the cats and dogs; the people whose job it was to dig up soil and bury it in pits; the fact that they were told that drinking vodka would help fight radiation poisoning, so everyone seems to have been rolling around in an alcoholic haze.

It really is a fabulous book. Here’s a little excerpt, from a man who has moved to live in the evacuated zone:

It’s easy to find books here. Now, an empty clay pitcher, or a spoon or fork, that you won’t find, but books are all over. The other day I found a volume of Pushkin. “And the thought of death is sweet to my soul.” I remember that. Yes: “The thought of death.” I am here alone. I think about death. I’ve come to like thinking. And silence helps you to prepare yourself. Man lives with death, but he doesn’t understand what it is. But I’m here alone. Yesterday I chased a wolf and a she-wolf out of the school, they were living there.

Question: Is the world as it’s depicted in words the real world? Words stand between the person and his soul.

And I’ll say this: birds, and trees, and ants, they’re closer to me now  than they were. I think about them, too. Man is frightening. And strange. But I don’t want to kill anyone here. I fish here, I have a rod. Yes. But I don’t shoot animals. And I don’t set traps. You don’t feel like killing anyone here.

And here’s a bit by someone else, who moved back:

Sometimes I turn on the radio. They scare us and scare us with the radiation. But our lives have gotten better since the radiation came. I swear! Look around: they brought oranges, three kinds of salami, whatever you want. And to the village! My grandchildren have been all over the world. The littlest just came back from France, that’s where Napoleon attacked from once—”Grandma, I saw a pineapple!” My nephew, her brother, they took him to Berlin for the doctors. That’s where Hitler started from on his tanks. It’s a new world. Everything’s different. Is that the radiation’s fault, or what?

Voices from Chernobyl is my book from Belarus for the Read The World challenge. If you’re thinking ‘hang on, Belarus, that doesn’t sound right’, well, you’re right, the plant itself is in Ukraine, but it’s just by the border with Belarus and so Belarus was one of the worst affected places.

A quick namecheck for the translator, Keith Gessen, who I’m sure deserves a lot of credit for how well the book reads in English; and just to reiterate, I think this is a really good book and I strongly recommend it.

» There’s a whole load of photos around the web taken by tourists to the contaminated zone. Lots of pictures of the deserted town of Pripyat, particularly of peeling, empty schoolrooms. But after reading the book, they just seem too unpleasantly voyeuristic, so instead I grabbed a map of the contaminated area from Wikipedia.

Out of sync

It’s always odd when you find yourself out of sync with public opinion. Specifically at the moment it’s the phone-hacking thing… there is a growing strand of opinion that the reaction is overblown and hysterical, that the media is only obsessed with it because it is a story about the media, that we should really be focussing on Very Serious stories like famine in East Africa and the possibility of a European sovereign debt crisis or a US default. And that the worldly, sophisticated reaction is to tut a bit over the bad behaviour of the tabloids but say t’was ever thus.

And there is some truth to it, of course. There is a touch of the feeding frenzy in the way that the story has completely consumed all news and politics for the past week or so. After all, the latest phase of the phone-hacking investigation had been rolling on for months; Andy Coulson resigned back in January. And there were already plenty of reports of large scale criminality at the New of the World, including payments to the police as well as blagging and phone-hacking, none of which seemed to get a lot of political traction.

And then the story of them hacking Milly Dowler’s phone came out and suddenly the world went mad. Yesterday, for example, BBC radio broadcast live, continuous, almost uninterrupted audio from parliamentary select committees for about seven hours straight. And it made a rather wonderful change, to get current events live and unmediated without all the usual commentary, analysis and gossip: but it’s still extraordinary, the way it pushed everything else out of the news altogether.

So I think you can argue that there is something disproportionate about that sudden ramping up in intensity, even if much of it was fuelled by events: arrests, resignations, the closing the of the News of the World. Either the media and politicians are overreacting now, or they have been underreacting for months.

But the reason I talk about feeling out of sync with public opinion is that I never understood why everyone wasn’t already horrified. Even when it was ‘just’ celebrities and politicians; I know people don’t necessarily empathise very strongly with film stars and footballers, but the idea that it’s not a big deal if journalists to casually listen in to their private messages, not as part of some kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism, but on the off-chance that they might hear something which will titillate the public enough to sell a few newspapers… I just don’t know what to say. The idea of it makes my skin crawl. And apart from the fact that it’s creepy and sordid, even if you had no personal sympathy for the victims, what about the fact that they were accused of hacking the voicemails of cabinet ministers. I mean, politicians are even less likely to get public sympathy than footballers, but doesn’t it imply something pretty terrifying about press overreach that they would do something like that?

However. Sometimes you just realise that other people are not outraged by the same things you are. And if they don’t share that emotional response, well, you’re probably not going to argue them into it.

» Tiger Shark! is © Miusam CK and used under a CC Attribution licence.

In defence of tabloid journalism (sort of)

The irony of the current situation is that at a time of much hand-wringing about the future of journalism, the News of the World was one newspaper that was actually making plenty of money. Unlike, for example, the Guardian, who exposed them. Or the Times.

And I like living in a country which has a strong, vibrant newspaper culture. Even if sales have been in long term decline, and the pressure to maintain profitability has probably led to a decline in standards over the past few years, we still have nine national daily newspapers and at least four of them are reasonably serious publications.

And it’s good that they have a certain ferocity and ruthlessness to them: better that than being instinctively deferential to the rich and powerful. I always thought there was something deeply wrongheaded about the American idea that you should ‘respect the office of the President, even if you don’t respect the man’. That’s one mistake you can’t imagine the British press making.

And I don’t particularly object to the popular press being driven as much by celebrity gossip as hard news, if that’s what sells papers. I’m certainly wary of a strong legal right to privacy if the result is simply that it hands the rich and powerful another tool to deflect criticism.

And I think that it is defensible for a journalist to use illegal means to get information in the service of a greater good. If the phone hacking and blagging and email hacking had been used to expose corporate fraud, or government corruption, or some other kind of criminal or highly unethical behaviour from a public body, I would be the first to defend it. Famously, the Telegraph paid for stolen information to break the parliamentary expenses scandal.

But. The trouble is, even leaving aside the most extreme cases, the British papers have spent the past thirty years undermining their own credibility. Celebrity gossip may be defensible. Phone hacking may be defensible in some circumstances. Combining the two is fucking insane. I don’t particularly care about Sienna Miller one way or the other, but illegally listening to her phone messages on the off-chance that you might learn something about her sex life which would help sell papers… it undermines the whole idea of investigative journalism. At this point, any tabloid journalist who stands up and makes a perfectly reasonable defence of the valuable role of journalism in a democratic society immediately comes across as hypocritical and self-serving.

The news of the News of the World

It has been an extraordinary run of events at the News of the World over the past week. The analogy that sprang to mind when I was lying in bed last night was, of all things, the fall of the Berlin Wall. I know that must seem like a ludicrously overblown analogy, particularly to my non-British readers; but it’s that sense of a power structure which has become so entrenched, so calcified, that it comes to seem inevitable and permanent.

Rupert Murdoch’s place at the centre of the British press has made him a power in the land for decades; he has been as much a fixture of the establishment as the Prime Minister, or the Director-General of the BBC, or the archbishop of Canterbury. Except we’ve been through a lot of prime ministers and archbishops in the past 40 years, and there has only been one Rupert.

We haven’t seen the back of him yet, of course. But still: to see News International in such disarray, and the poetic justice of seeing them at the mercy of a news agenda driven by someone else… it is extraordinary, and just raises the possibility that the whole edifice might come a-tumbling down.

But it’s not just Rupert, or the Murdoch empire: it is the whole brutal culture of the British tabloid press. And the relationship between politicians, the press and the police; the incestuous stew of money and power and fear. Because, after all, we have had decades of newspapers behaving badly. It’s certainly not news that they are willing to invade people’s privacy, trample on the vulnerable, display jaw-dropping hypocrisy and just make stuff up if they think they can get away with it. And it’s not really news that they will break the law to do it: anyone who has been paying attention already knew that they hacked phones and bribed the police, and knows that’s just the start of it.

But in the past it just never seemed to matter what they did: they always basically got away with it. It was easier for everyone to let sleeping dogs lie. The surprise really is that they managed to find something to do which was so repulsive that it still had the power to shock. But for now, at least, they have captured the attention of the British public. And they are running scared.

It’s early days, of course. In a few years, we may be looking back and realising that nothing really changed. A couple of years ago, when the world economic system almost collapsed, it looked like we might finally claw back the dangerous excesses of the financial industry… but the moment came and went.

But we can hope.  Perhaps the collapse of a 168-year-old newspaper and a few editors going to prison will be enough to scare Fleet Street straight. For a while. The real fun, though, would be for the investigation to spread to other papers. Apparently the police raided the offices of the Daily Star today, which is a start; but the real prizes are the Mirror, the Sun, and above all the Daily fucking Mail. This is not just about the News of the World, it’s about a journalistic culture which has poisoned British life for decades. We need big, serious changes, and this is a very rare opportunity to make them happen.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

This book apparently started as an attempt to get to the bottom of a particular news story which went around the world but turned out to be, broadly speaking, a load of cobblers: the Millennium Bug. Davies wanted to trace the process by which a story could start with such limited foundations and keep going round the world, gaining in momentum, and result in governments spending a fortune on what turned out to be a non-problem — as proved by countries like Italy, who didn’t bother to do anything about it and were just fine.

But the book ended up being a much broader condemnation of the news media’s systemic failure to do its their job properly: assuming you think its job is to tell us the truth about what is happening in the world.

Interestingly, the most common accusation — political bias in the interest of newspaper proprietors — actually comes fairly low on his list of worries. The Millennium Bug story is a good example from that point of view; it would take an exceptionally conspiratorial mindset to claim that it was whipped up because Rupert Murdoch had some kind of financial interest in it.

He suggests instead that the biggest single problem is more prosaic and more fundamental: that news organisations are understaffed. The logic of commercial efficiency has led to newspapers employing less people to produce the same amount of content: not just reducing the total number, but shedding particular categories like regional reporters and court reporters. Meanwhile the same process has happened at the local newspapers and wire services that were another source of stories to the national press. And something has to give. Forget real investigative journalism: simple fact-checking becomes a luxury.

And of course journalists don’t need to be malevolent or deceitful to produce bad journalism. They don’t need to actively choose to tell untruths; simply not caring whether something is true is bad enough.

So if the newspapers aren’t employing enough people to gather news properly, how do they find enough stuff to fill their pages? Well, the first source is wire services (the Press Association, AP, Reuters etc). At least those are real journalists, although they are overstretched themselves and only claim to offer accurate quotes rather than true fact-checking. But all the news outlets are getting their stories from the same wire services, so it doesn’t exactly produce variety. The whole system becomes one big echo-chamber.

And the other huge source of content is PR. A huge percentage of so-called ‘news’ is directly reproduced from someone’s press release. Isn’t that reassuring.

The book also gets into the world of government propaganda, including the truly staggering scale of CIA spending on media and propaganda during the Cold War (did you know the the CIA owned loads of foreign newspapers? I mean, seriously, what the fuck?) and the suggestion that the War on Terror has given them an opportunity to ramp up their activity again. It looks into the ‘Dark Arts’; i.e. illegal news-gathering activities by British newspapers, including but not limited to the phone-hacking which has been in the news lately. And there are some case studies of bad practice: the decline of the Sunday Times Insight team (key quote: ‘there are some journalists who would rather inhale vomit than work for Andrew Neil’), the failure of the Observer in the build up to the Iraq War (inexperienced editors seduced by their cosy relationship with Number 10 end up just parroting the government line), and the Daily Mail (for being the Daily Mail, basically, except that the racism of the paper is even more overt than I appreciated).

Anyway, it’s thought-provoking, interesting stuff. I’ve no idea how fair it is, but it all has the dismal ring of truth to me.

Egypt, the cricket, and dead tree news

The current situation in Egypt has been the second thing recently that has made newspapers feel like a ludicrously old-fashioned technology.

The first, more trivially, was the cricket. England were playing in Australia, and because of the time difference, each day’s play was starting just before midnight and running until 7.30am — optimally designed to mess with the papers’ printing schedules. So I would stay up late and watch an hour or so of the match, go to bed, wake up in the morning in time to hear the very end of that day’s play and a bit of discussion from the commentators, and wander downstairs to look at the newspaper, which would have reports on the play which had ended the previous morning. So it was effectively a full 24 hours out of date. And although I understand why it was a day behind, it still felt ludicrous: like picking up the paper on a Monday and finding reports about the football from the previous weekend instead of the one which just finished.

In the case of Egypt, of course, it’s not the time difference, just a highly unstable situation. I have been following it with a great deal of interest and mixed emotions throughout the day, following the live blogging and TV coverage from the Guardian, the BBC and Al-Jazeera online. And when I wake up in the morning, the idea that I would turn to the newspaper for news just seems ridiculous; I go straight to the computer to check what’s happening.

This isn’t something new, of course; newspapers haven’t been the place to go for fast-breaking news stories since the invention of the wireless, and their position has been steadily eroded by television, then 24 hour news channels and eventually the internet. But it seems so stark now; I read the paper every day, but I’m more likely to get breaking news from Twitter.

That’s despite the fact that I actually like newspapers. I like having something lying around the house which I can pick up and browse through while I eat a sandwich. I read the columnists, I might do the crossword, I check the TV listings, maybe look at the film reviews. I will even read the news coverage, I just don’t do it expecting to be surprised.

I don’t particularly relish the idea of iPad* newspapers, even though it is clearly the obvious technical solution. I like paper newspapers. You can scribble notes on them, use them with sticky fingers, spill things on them, and split them into sections so that more then one person can read them at once. They don’t weigh much, and you can discard them when you’ve finished with them. But they don’t fulfil the same role they used to.  One way or another, they’re going to have to adapt to that. If they want to be at the cutting edge of hard news journalism, they have to be electronic. If they want to survive as paper objects… well, that’s the difficult sentence to finish. And if they want to keep making money? That’s anyone’s guess.

One thing I would say is: I’m not pessimistic about the future of news-gathering. Just the future of newspapers. There is a line of argument that, if newspapers can’t find a way to make money in the digital age, it will be a disaster, because we need journalism and someone has to pay the journalists.

Now, despite the frequently revolting behaviour of the British press (i.e. 1 2 3), I do strongly agree that we need journalism.  I have been glued to the coverage from Egypt and I admire the people who are willing to go out into the chaos to bring back that news. Newspapers are part of that; and I don’t claim to know what would step up to replace them if they all went bust tomorrow.

So this is a statement of faith, to some extent. But I just don’t believe that a technology which makes the distribution of information easier than ever before in human history is going to have the net result of reducing the amount of information available to us.

* or, you know, whatever non-Apple device eventually emerges as serious competition.

» image: Ricky Ponting, captain of Australia, looks pensive as he considers the situation in Egypt.

Fuck BP

I find it rather depressing that the British papers have decided to start defending BP against Barack Obama. I should have seen it coming: it’s never a surprise to see journalists and politicians rally to support the rich and powerful in their hour of need.

Personally I think it’s a good thing that BP is getting a kicking. I don’t know whether they were negligent or just unlucky, but one way or another they have created an environmental catastrophe. If they and every other big company really believed that these kind of accidents represented a genuine threat to their profitability, maybe they would all spend a little more of their vast wealth to make sure that it can’t ever happen again.

On the other hand, if Obama really wants to prove that his concern is the environment and not the midterm elections, it’s not enough to attack BP. He needs to follow it up by giving the same treatment to Chevron, the company that poisoned the inhabitants and fucked up the environment of thousands of square miles of Ecuadorean rainforest. And then he and rest of us need to look at the situation in Nigeria.

The way these companies crap all over the third world shows that they will cut any corner in the search for profit, as long as they can get away with it. Well, this time, BP managed to shit on the doorstep of the most powerful country on earth, and they’re getting the response they deserve.

Ospreys, monogamy and stupidity

There’s an exceptionally stupid article by Magnus Linklater in the Times today. He talks about the recovery of the British osprey population over the past 50 years with reference to their apparent monogamy and long-term pair bonds. The article ends:

What the osprey demonstrates is that, whatever indiscretions may be committed in the course of a relationship, a stable family background is ultimately the best guarantee that the species will prosper. It works for ospreys. It probably works for humans too.

So why is this exceptionally stupid? Well, it seems like almost too obvious to have to say, but: we are not ospreys.

And all you have to do is choose a different species and it enables you to draw a completely different lesson. Like for example that other fine Scottish bird, the capercaillie, which teaches us that the recipe for a successful species is for all the men to gather together and fight over the best spots to dance and sing in front of the women, with a handful of the strongest, funkiest and loudest men fathering children on all of them. Or perhaps we should learn from the herring, and millions and millions of us all gather together once a year and have a vast mass orgy.

By all means argue for monogamy: just don’t drag the ospreys into it.

» Ospreys mating was posted to Flickr by allspice1 and is used under a CC by-nd licence.

Brilliant BBC fact-checking

BBC London, reporting on some building developments which are being held up by protests from English Nature, announced that the three key bird species were ‘Dartmouth Warbler’ (actually Dartford Warbler), Woodlark and Nightjar. But the really amusing bit was that the Nightjar was illustrated with film of some Wigeons. It’s always slightly unnerving when journalists report on a subject which you know something about; it makes you realise how much crap they must be talking the rest of the time.

Bad science reporting

Ben Goldacre says (full article here):

There is one university PR department in London that I know fairly well – it’s a small middle-class world after all – and I know that until recently, they had never employed a single science graduate. This is not uncommon. Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely – since they’ll be the ones interested in reading the stuff – people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it’s edited by a whole team of people who don’t understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given “science communication” chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they’ve got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk.

Amen, brother.

Of course, it’s not just science reporting. Any time you read an article in the paper on a subject where you have some specialist knowledge – Anglo-Saxon poetry, or birdwatching, or husky racing – it’s always riddled with inaccuracies and misleading phrasing. But inaccurate reporting on Anglo-Saxon poetry is pretty harmless, whereas inaccurate reporting of, say, research into the MMR jab can scare a lot of people, undermine confidence in medicine and potentially cost people their lives.

I vaguely assume that in the core news subjects (politics, business and sport, especially) the reporters have enough real expertise to know what the important stories are and how to present them accurately, even if they don’t choose to do so. But perhaps they’re floundering around in the same fog of ignorance that seems to afflict science journalists.

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