The media column - Peter Wilby wonders if the Mail might have a heart

I would not accuse the British press, least of all the <em>Mail</em>, of having a heart. But it offe

I want readers to be honest with themselves: how much of the Indonesian earthquake coverage did you watch or read? How many pictures of ruined homes and orphaned children did you linger over for more than a few seconds?

The earthquake illustrated the familiar claim that there is an almost arithmetical relationship between the geographical distance of a disaster, the number of dead and the UK media coverage.

Initial reports suggested 3,000 dead, a figure that usually rises steeply after earthquakes. It was too big to reduce to a brief. Yet the scale was nothing like the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 or last year's Kashmir earthquake. Nor was there any obvious domestic link: central Java is not a big tourist area, and few people in Britain are likely to have close relatives there.

The press response was predictable. All the "heavy" Sundays put something on their front pages, but none splashed on the earthquake.

The red tops led early inside pages with the story. Only the Mail on Sunday might be accused of burying it. On page 27, it reported developments in the love life of a Czech-born "tsunami model" who survived the 2004 disaster by clinging to a palm tree for eight hours. Though she broke her pelvis at the time, she now has the advantage, from the Mail's point of view, of being able to expose a white thigh in a daringly cut long dress. The pictures of screaming brown people and their gashed legs had to wait for page 43.

This may seem heartless and tasteless. I wonder. The difficulty with disaster pictures from distant lands is that they look much like one another. We do not know the victims (which is why the media search so desperately for celebrity links); we do not, most of us, know the places that have been wrecked. A picture of Brighton after the 1987 hurricane has impact because we know what Brighton usually looks like.

The same is true of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; even if we haven't visited the city, we have a mental image of normality. Shown a pile of rubble and told it used to be a Javanese village, we struggle to find meaning.

I would not accuse the British press, least of all the Mail, of having a heart. But, in its crude way, it offers a version of the "ecology of images" that the late Susan Sontag demanded. We need to contextualise suffering, to relate it to our understanding of the world.

"Compassion," wrote Sontag, "is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers."

On most news agendas, the earthquake was soon superseded by more deaths in Iraq, including those of four Britons. That is surely right, even though the usual observations apply about the media highlighting British rather than Iraqi deaths. Pictures of people and places shattered by bombs are not always readily distinguishable from those shattered by earthquakes. But Iraq, as I hope even those who supported the invasion would agree, is a situation of our making, related to our politics, our soldiers, our conception of our role in the world.

We can and should feel compassion for the victims of the Asian earthquake. But the plight of the Iraqi people has the greater call on that scarce emotion.

I owe Stephen Pollard an apology. I wrote recently that he stopped contributing to the NS because we compared Tony Blair to Stalin. Not so, as he pointed out in a letter the following week. His protest was over an earlier piece which proposed that Blair might be a psychopath.

At the time, this was not an original contention. The Times columnist Matthew Parris had written that the PM's belief that he could reconcile the irreconcilable on the Iraq war was "a familiar delusion among people who are not quite right in the head". However, our writer, Peter Dunn, produced the most extensively researched piece, talking to psychiatrists and psychologists.

Now another Times columnist, Alice Miles, writes: "The Prime Minister has gone quite mad." She compares him to George III, talking constantly but making no sense.

Pollard is a frequent Times contributor. Indeed, one of his pieces for the paper appeared on Bank Holiday Monday, a few days after Miles's disgraceful calumnies. No doubt it is by some oversight that he still sends copy to the paper.

Now for another old friend of this column. What became of Sarah Sands, the sacked editor of the Sunday Telegraph, whose innovations - including a series of letters on beating girls' bottoms - failed to find favour with the paper's owners, the Barclay brothers?

She has, I am pleased to report, settled at the Daily Mail. One day she writes from Basra; the next, she reports on the Church of England. This must be the only recorded instance of a journalist moving from the Telegraph to the Mail to go upmarket. Another former Sunday Telegraph editor, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, would surely turn in his grave if he were not still alive.