Opinion

John Lloyd

Journalism of the future should be less concerned with the present

John Lloyd
Jan 22, 2013 18:56 UTC

A constant and frequent complaint about journalism is that it concentrates almost exclusively on what is happening now, and not the future. Why didn’t journalists see the financial crash coming? Why didn’t they know there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Why didn’t they warn about Enron’s house of cards? Why didn’t they do more, in advance, on the climate changes that helped cause Hurricane Sandy in the United States last October? Journalists sometimes join in on this to beat themselves up – especially on the Iraqi WMD issue – because they feel foolish about giving credence to claims that turned out to be wrong, or about not asking the right questions.

Besides, the trend in a lot of the media is toward more scandal, more controversy and more opining. There are publications and broadcasts and news agencies (such as this one) that are wedded to objective reporting, investigation and rational analysis, but they are in the minority, and a lot of them are finding it hard to make a living these days.

The Web allows news organizations to make much more multimedia and source material available to audiences that have swollen in size (though many visit websites only briefly). But most new media accentuate the trend of covering the here and now, since they allow reporting and publication in, or much closer to, real time.

Of course, that’s in large part what the function of news. But journalists’ own assessment of their mission is that it must hold power to account, inform the citizenry of all issues in the public interest and adequately cover the significant institutions and events of society and the world. You can say it has never adequately done so. Regardless, it has the tools to do better now. 

Fulfilling that “Sunday best” definition of our job means, more than ever, looking into the future. Not to pronounce on things we can’t know – whether or not there were WMDs in Iraq, just when the financial crash would come, etc. – but to focus on the long-term strategic issues that set the context within which politicians and institutions plan and which will be of enormous importance to us, and even more, our children. Understanding, describing and making intelligible these large questions is holding power to account, is informing the citizenry, is covering the significant.

Searching for a charismatic leader in the grey halls of Europe

John Lloyd
Jan 15, 2013 15:07 UTC

In today’s Europe, no political leader is charismatic. Not one.

Francois Hollande ascended to the French presidency by deliberately proposing himself as “Mr. Normal” after the excitements of Nicolas Sarkozy. Mario Monti was persuaded to take the post-Berlusconi premiership because he was one of the cleverest and most responsible men in Italy. He proves it, by giving press conferences that last for hours, to the exhaustion of the Italian press corps, laying out fact upon fact. Mariano Rajoy of Spain prefers to be as near to invisible as a prime minister can be: a portrait of him last month in the left-leaning El Pais described him as “keeping as low a profile as possible.” Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland, is popular and a feisty debater: but he’s generally described as a “pragmatic centrist,” and is out-charmed and out-looked by his foreign minister, the British-educated Radoslaw Sikorski.

David Cameron manifests an occasional flash of raffish charm. But these are austere times, and the champagne lifestyle in which he indulged at Oxford’s Bullingdon Club for the Well-Heeled Drinking Man is never on show.

The capstone of this band of modest men is a woman, Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, one for whom the grand rhetorical gesture, the striking phrase, the public display of temperament, seem alien – a legacy, perhaps, of her upbringing as a Lutheran pastor’s daughter in the dourly Communist state of East Germany, where the lower the profile, the better. As the de facto leader of Europe, Merkel relies on her country’s power and her own, so far excellent, political instincts and maneuvers.

Is there a Merkel alternative?

John Lloyd
Jan 8, 2013 21:06 UTC

Germany is the economic hegemon of Europe ‑ not a position it has sought, but a greatness thrust upon it by its own industrial efficiency and cautious financial policies. The weakness of (especially) the southern European states also helped, as did those states’ years’ long binge fueled by cheap credit that Germany, among other states, provided. Now, as with all binges, there is regret, huge headaches and New Year’s resolutions never to be much better in the future.

Angela Merkel, the careful, modest first-woman chancellor is the most obvious symbol of the new hegemon. In Europe, newspapers and some politicians of the left and right stoop so low as to lard their journalism and allusions to her with increasingly overt reference to “Panzers” and “Third Reich.” In her own country, presently, the reverse: She rides high in the polls, far above any other figure, so much so that it seems as if there is no alternative – a phrase once used by that other first-woman leader, Margaret Thatcher.

Merkel’s stature has grown in a way that is rare for leaders other than U.S. presidents. She’s powerful because of what she does beyond her country’s borders. She has ridden the waves and storms of the past two years and has struck a middle course – pressing radical change on the debtor countries, largely in Europe’s south, but supporting them (crucially, the ailing Greece) when required. She has reminded the electorate at home that Europe must be saved if Germany is to prosper but has appeared hard enough in her demands for restructuring of the economies of debtor states to deserve the soubriquet of the Iron Chancellor. Her Christian Democratic Union party is also far ahead of the Social Democratic Party, at some 41 percent.

A church married to the wrong side of history

John Lloyd
Jan 4, 2013 20:01 UTC

After the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001, the evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell took some time to tell his fellow Americans that homosexuals (along with abortionists, feminists and pagans) were at least in part to blame. “I point my finger in their face,” he said, “and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”

Later, in a “did I say that?” moment, he apologized.

It was a low moment, but not an unusual one. Falwell is in the hate-filled corner of the religious spectrum. But even those religious leaders at the mild and inclusive end must, more in sorrow than in anger, generally tell gay men and women that as much as they respect them, they can’t officiate at their marriages. That’s a bridge over too-troubled waters.

This past Christmas time has been an active one for those in the Catholic Church concerned that legislation in both France and the UK to permit gay marriage will hollow out their faith. In a pre-Christmas address to fellow Vatican officials, Benedict XVI called for all faiths to come together against a practice that would cancel out the “authentic setting in which to hand on the blueprint for human existence.”

India tries to move beyond its rape culture

John Lloyd
Dec 28, 2012 19:59 UTC

In 1992 a young woman, Bhanwari Devi, was allegedly gang-raped near her village of Bhateri, some 40 miles from Jaipur, capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan. The incident has to be couched in “allegedly” and “reportedly” because – though the fact of the matter has been widely accepted, with compensation being paid to Devi by the state government – the five men accused were acquitted, and an appeal against the acquittal is still – 20 years after – pending.

On Dec. 16 of this year, another young woman, a 23-year-old medical student who has not been named, was gang-raped for an hour on a bus in New Delhi by six men. Using metal rods, the men beat her and her male companion, who tried to stop them, then threw them off the moving bus. The woman suffered grave internal and brain injuries, and has been moved to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth hospital, where one of the world’s most advanced centers for organ transplants is located. She remains near death. Even if she survives, her life is likely to be severely restricted. (UPDATE: She died in India on Saturday.)

There is no “alleged” about the recent New Delhi rape: Four of the men were arrested, and three have confessed, one reportedly asking to be hanged. No years of waiting for justice this time: A trial is set for next month. And no painful, little-attended struggle to have the law strengthened: Outrage over the crime has sent thousands of women and men to the streets, where they have demanded change. They and the discussion that has attended the protests have subjected Indian society to the most cauterizing of examinations, in which everything – government, political parties, the police and traditional attitudes toward women – is held up through the prism of violated women.

France’s taxing expatriates

John Lloyd
Dec 26, 2012 18:32 UTC

Gerard Depardieu, 64 years old before the year’s end, is an actor of great range and talent. He could play the naïve, finally broken farmer in Jean de Florette; the heroic, swashbuckling, great-nosed Cyrano de Bergerac; the slobbish but romantic Georges in Green Card…and so on, and on, through scores of films and TV series, made at a rate of nearly five a year for over forty years. He acquired a fortune, restaurants, vineyards and many awards, capped by the Legion d’Honneur.

Earlier this month, he became an expatriate to escape French taxes. He returned his passport to the government, and moved from Paris to the village of Nechin in Belgium, just over the French border, where he joined a community of the French rich. They live there to enjoy the low taxes on stock and capital gains – low compared to those in France, where the Socialist government has imposed a marginal tax rate of 75 percent on incomes over 1 million euros ($1.2m).

He leaves in bitterness, with the curses of his government ringing in his ears. Jean-Marc Ayrault, the Prime Minister, said he was “shirking his patriotic duties.” He said that the rich were leaving “because they want to get even richer… we cannot fight poverty if those with the most – sometimes with a lot – do not show solidarity and a bit of generosity.”

In Russia, unheeded cries of corruption

John Lloyd
Dec 18, 2012 17:34 UTC

In Moscow last week at a conference for young Russian journalists, I met a man named Edward Mochalov, who differed from most of the participants in having spent much of his working life as a farmer. He retains the ruddy countenance and the strong, chapped hands of the outdoor worker in a hard climate ‑ in his case, the Chuvash Republic, some 400 miles east of Moscow.

Mochalov’s story is that when thieves stole some of his cattle and pigs, he protested to the authorities, only to find himself in jail for eight months for wrongful accusation. Maddened by what he considered the result of corruption behind the scenes, he protested all the way up to President Vladimir Putin, going so far as to appear in Moscow’s Red Square with a placard telling his story, though to no avail. As he pursued justice, his farm went untended.

And so he turned to journalism. “I had no choice. The whole administration was corrupt, nothing to be done but fight them with words,” he told me. Four years ago he founded a newspaper he called, boldly and baldly, Vzyatka (translation: The Bribe). It comes out most months, and it’s replete with investigations and denunciations of corruption in his locality. He prints some 20,000 copies and gives them away. Demand, he says, hugely outpaces supply.

Silvio Berlusconi rises from the dead (again)

John Lloyd
Dec 11, 2012 16:43 UTC

It’s not over till Silvio stops singing. The onetime cruise ship crooner has called his party – the People of Freedom – to order. Most have obeyed his command to withdraw support for the technocratic government now running Italy, including those who until recently said it was a good thing old man Berlusconi was out of the running.

The pesky thing is, Berlusconi is right about some things. His party is right when it says “the situation is worse than a year ago.” Berlusconi will be right, as well, if he judges that the parties of the left – presently the likely winners in a future election – don’t rouse much enthusiasm in the electorate. And he may – just may – be right that his money, his media and the old Berlusconi magic might tip the scales toward him.

But is he right enough to win back power? It will depend on whether his fellow citizens’ disappointment at the results, so far, of Prime Minister Mario Monti’s austerity program is greater than their memory of how ineffectual and scandal-ridden Berlusconi was by the end of his rule. This week, Monti announced he is resigning once next year’s budget is approved.

Mark Thompson’s wise words

John Lloyd
Dec 4, 2012 18:28 UTC

Last month, Mark Thompson, the new chief executive of the New York Times Co. and former director-general of the BBC, gave a short series of lectures in Oxford. In between jobs, he warned that words were losing their democratic heft. The lectures were little noticed because they largely did not touch on the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, which had just been revealed. Thompson denied all knowledge of the scandal, so no articles ‑ as far as I have seen ‑ were written.

Yet Thompson’s remarks are crucial to our understanding of modern politics everywhere, and the journalism that reports on it. They were wholly concerned with the use of language, the bedrock of all media. They expressed a deep worry ‑ at times, a real pessimism ‑ about the health of the democratic debate because of the abuse of words.

Part of Thompson’s theme was that much of the news put out by the media is, to many who watch or listen or read, unintelligible ‑ “might as well be in Sanskrit.” That is especially the case of news that attempts to describe what is happening in the economy, a subject  replete with acronyms, concepts and mysterious institutions.

A church divided against itself cannot stand

John Lloyd
Nov 27, 2012 17:46 UTC

The Church of England voted not to ordain female bishops last week, a move widely seen as defying the modern world. Much justification was given for this view.

Both the retiring and the incoming archbishops of Canterbury deplored the vote. The former, the scholarly (and “greatly saddened”) Rowan Williams, said, “It seems as if we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of … wider society.” The incoming Justin Welby took a more upbeat view, one appropriate for a former senior oil executive. “There is a lot to be done,” he said, “but I am absolutely confident that at some point I will consecrate a woman bishop.” Still, Welby conceded that the vote was “a pretty grim day for the whole church.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron, pausing in the midst of his battle to reduce European Union spending, snapped that the church needed to “get with the program” and that his task was, while respecting its autonomy, to give it a “sharp prod.” A succession of clergy, men and women, lamented the decision, some crying demonstratively on the street outside the hall where the synod – the church’s parliament – met.

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