“About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters”, wrote WH Auden in Musée des Beaux Arts, reflecting on Pieter Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”. The poem, like the canvas, is a tableau of indifference in which its characters carry on with their lives while, around them, a tragedy takes place. The dog, oblivious, gets on with its doggy life as Icarus falls into the sea. Modern suffering, in an age of ubiquitous connection, is close to the precise opposite. The dog is no longer getting on with its doggy life; it’s too busy helplessly doomscrolling its social media accounts to get the latest precision updates from the Russian attack on Ukraine.
War destroys the interest of everything else in its shadow. Other topics suddenly seem trivial and beside the point. People who follow the news in the usual fashion, which is to say because they wish to be better informed, will often note, of a major event, that it provides a lot to write about. Strangely, it does the opposite. The sheer overwhelming importance of war frightens away most other topics and the vast proliferation of news in the social media age confirms, minute by minute, that the subject cannot properly be avoided.
Yet, in truth, war is the province of the reporter. The BBC’s reporting in Ukraine has been so good that even Nadine Dorries, the dyspeptic Culture Secretary, has been moved to praise. The fact that the story is getting out – the very fact that reports are everywhere – is testament to the brave and necessary reporting from the scene of the crime. By comparison, the commentator on war is apt to feel rather comfortable and second-rate, and not just because there is no danger in sitting in a room typing. It is also because war exhausts the range of plausible interpretations rather quickly. There is an argument to be had about causation and culpability, interpretations to be offered about the conduct and progress of hostilities, and speculation to be entered into on where it will all end.
And so writers join the ranks of observers as the spectacle plays out. The notion of war as a media event is an idea that is at least 30 years old now. In 1991 the once-notorious French philosopher Jean Baudrillard published a series of essays in Libération and the Guardian under the provocative title, borrowed from Jean Giraudoux’s play The Trojan War Will Not Take Place, of “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”. Baudrillard’s essay is not a conspiracy theory but instead an account of the way in which the constant mediation of the war as it was presented on rolling news – a novelty at the time – conditioned the way that observers interpreted it. There was a great deal of commentary, said Baudrillard, but it was all disguised as information. Propaganda was masquerading as visible fact.
This, of course, was back in the days when we had to make do with mere hundreds of television channels, before the world was fused together via computer screens. The Gulf War was a CNN spectacle and, even supposing you had paid for the relevant channel, viewers then had to make an active choice to position themselves, static, in their living room while the coverage rolled. Nobody, back then, carried the war around with them on devices in their pockets, providing constant updates and endless alerts and alarms. Go back further, to Vietnam for example, and the news seemed as distant as the conflict.
Hyper-awareness of the news cannot be doing us much good. The notion of “news anxiety” was first mooted at exactly the time that Baudrillard was recasting the Gulf War. There are, indeed, plenty of studies that link the extent of a person’s consumption of bad news to depression, stress and anxiety. That said, and without meaning to sound unsympathetic, we do have the option of turning away. The participants of newsworthy events do not. It is self-indulgent and trivialising of us to suppose that it does any good to watch on obsessively. It doesn’t make the slightest difference to those who are being watched.
Unless, of course, the hyper-awareness leads to action. Mindful of what Elie Wiesel, in an excellent speech at the White House in 1999, once called “the perils of indifference”, perhaps the vast array of news outlets is giving us cause to act. I have certainly been inundated with well-meaning friends calling on my charitable impulse to sponsor football matches for Ukraine or walks for refugees. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but the real action is taking place with economic sanctions and the provision of arms. Has that impressive propensity to act been inspired, at some distance removed, by the sympathy induced by the coverage? It is hard to be sure yet just as hard not to think it must have mattered.
Since 2016 there has been a rolling series of events that have consumed all the available news space. In the summer of that year Brexit became the dominant topic of conversation in the UK, and in November that year the election of Donald Trump crowded out all other subjects. Then, just as Brexit began to recede, Covid struck and made other topics redundant. No sooner has Covid retreated from the front pages than the Ukraine conflict has taken up the vacated space. Think of all those unwritten columns on school reform, the NHS integrated care systems, and the problems of Universal Credit that otherwise would have exercised us. News outlets have proliferated but the field of vision has narrowed. Niche interests multiply online, in private cyber-space. But the news itself has just grown larger and harder to get away from. And that might just be more of a good thing than it is a bad thing.
[see also: I loathe Boris Johnson — but Ukrainians love him]