Lily (2007)


October 13, 2007 at 5 PM

Guarding the Fifth Estate

I don’t always enjoy reading the Guardian, the British left-leaning, high-brow daily. It can occasionally be stuffy, elitist and smug. Still, the Saturday Guardian’s writers often show a certain spark, humour, and cutting clarity that I’ve rarely seen in Canadian newspapers of late. Today’s Guardian has several examples.

This report on Burma by Kevin Doyle illustrates qualities surprising to anyone used to North American newspapers. Doyle uses emotion to tell his story and he makes little attempt to sound particularly “objective.” He also doesn’t try to hide his own presence in speaking to his interview subjects:

Midway through he stopped abruptly, his face drained and he moved in his chair, twisting his body away from two men sitting silently at a nearby table.

“They are listening. They are special police,” he said, politely ending the conversation and leaving.

Doyle doesn’t dwell too much on his own presence, but in this case his use of the narrative device reminds the reader that even the simple act of speaking to a British journalist could be perilous to the average Burmese. The piece clearly illustrates the horror faced by any citizen who would dare to agitate the military junta that rules the country. (I also admire how the British media in general refuse to call the country “Myanmar” since it was the corrupt junta that changed the name.)

This sort of journalism sits somewhat uncomfortably between the traditional North American solitudes of editorial comment and so-called objective reporting. Yet I find it a lot more engaging and informative than a typical Associated Press or Reuters piece, in which stories are always written in omniscient, neutral tones. Such efforts often drain away all of the colour and interest in the process. There is nothing so dangerous to our collective consciousness as news that makes terror seem dull and commonplace.

There is still a place for pure comment, of course. Marina Hyde and Martin Kettle’s columns show the Guardian’s editorial strengths. Hyde, writing on the cosmetics industry cuts through the hype over beauty products using classic British rhetorical tools: wit and sardonicism. Meanwhile, Kettle exposes some of the delusion behind the movement to draft Al Gore as the next Democratic presidential candidate. This is, after all, the same man a lot of left-tilting Americans weren’t too bothered about in 2000. That year, Ralph Nader’s outside candidacy attracted enough votes in Florida to cost Gore the election. Those voters were people who felt there was little difference between Gore and George W. Bush. (Of course, it would be easy to laugh at that belief if the last seven years with President Bush hadn’t been so depressing.) On Gore’s Nobel Prize, though, and what it means to his candidacy prospects, Kettle writes quite lucidly what I’ve been thinking in abstract: “But out there on mainstream American breakfast TV yesterday there were fewer headlines about Al Gore than about Britney Spears.” Indeed.

Each time I return to Vancouver, I marvel at how the daily broadsheet, the Vancouver Sun, has managed to become somehow less illuminating and engaging than before, even though I believed the bottom had already been reached. The Sun (no relationship to the homonymous tabloids of Toronto and Calgary) has perhaps never been a paper with aims as high as the Guardian, but it nevertheless used to employ some actual reporters who wrote actual stories about the news. Flipping (or surfing, as is more often the case) through the front section these days, I’m struck only by the utter lack of any in-house journalism — it’s almost all stories picked up off the wire. And many of those are the sort of isn’t-it-quirky filler that inspired some of the Sun’s own employees to once refer to the A section as “A for Animals”. From what I’ve heard, circulation of The Sun has fallen considerably over the past few years, but since it’s still the main player in town, it remains a profitable paper because of the advertisers. It’s almost a pity really, because it would appear that only by losing money will the paper’s managers ever change their approach.

The Sun does still devote considerable resources in one area: the sports section (at least when it comes to the hockey team). Still, it’s rare that one would find an article as engaging and entertaining as this Guardian piece on tonight’s England–France rugby match, which looks at how mixed Anglo-French couples are dealing with the inherent conflict of one household supporting two countries.

It’s not that Franco-British (or Anglo-French) couples are unused to disagreement; the unrivalled excellence of the UK’s public transport system, the rank inferiority of French healthcare, the relative attractions of Weston-super-Mare as against, say, St Tropez all at times provide fodder for fruitful discussion.

Ah yes, that other stellar quality of British humour: sarcasm.

Previously: The New TV
Subsequently: The Other Me


The Guardian is shit, though. You should pay attention to the hidden message about it in The Bourne Ultimatum.

— Majid Salim, October 26, 2007