Monday, June 20, 2011

Touching the voids

Aung San: talking fortune cookie
If I cite The Guardian a lot in these blogs, it’s not because I think it’s a bad paper; it’s because it’s the paper I read most. But this morning my hotel was offering free copies of The Independent On Sunday, and that’s a lot worse. 

The Indy has a front page that’s more like a magazine than a newspaper front page: no news, just a main photo with two headlines, each promoting an exclusive interview with a major figure. However, that’s not my main gripe. What really annoys me is that both interviews are terrible. 

The Brahmin of Banality
Miliband: a complete void
The first is an exclusive interview with Ed Miliband, the new leader of the UK’s opposition Labour Party (which was tossed out of power last year). Miliband got the job ahead of his more popular and talented elder brother David, and seems to have been elected purely because he didn’t antagonise any faction in the party. His appeal was that he was a blank page on which everyone could project their own image of what they wanted their party to be.

One might feel sympathy for the writer, Jane Merrick, since Miliband the politician is almost a complete void. He has nothing to say and believes nothing, but Merrick seems to have botched the interview entirely, concentrating on the effect of the leadership election on the relationship between the brothers. She gets nothing, but that doesn’t stop her writing the entire middle half of the article on this very subject, having spent the first quarter of the piece trying to summarise and interpret what meagre quotes she got. And what underwhelming quotes did she get?
“I’m not going to get into the detail of that.”
“I am not going to get into that.”
“I’m not going to get into my conversations … about it.”
In fact, most of Miliband’s quotes are negatives. On becoming leader, he says, “I wouldn’t have thought that was going to be the case,” adding for good measure: “I’m not the heir to anyone,” and “I wasn’t certain … that I wanted to become an MP.” 

This tedious, negative repetitiveness overflows into his talk of his supposed rapprochement with his brother:
“I don’t think we’ve done that [had a laugh about it] … both of us have moved on.”
“We’ve both moved on.”
“Both of us have moved on.”
“[David has] moved on, so everybody else should too.”
Merrick should have moved on as well. Finally, nearly 90 per cent of the way through the article (after an irrelevant diversion into what Miliband reads to his children in bed), Merrick gives up ploughing this fallow furrow and asks about Miliband’s “vision” for Britain. This is what she gets:
“How do we reverse the sense of national decline? [I’ve added the question mark that the subs left out.] How do we give people a sense that you can be optimistic about Britain, that the next generation can do better than the last? … What kind of country do we want to create for our kids?
Yes, after nine months in the job, the Leader of the Opposition still has no answers, only more questions, and yet he describes this flabby set of vague, meaningless questions as his “mission”.

The whole piece – which is the paper's lead article – begins by declaring, "Ed Miliband attempts today to reassert his authority over his fractured party as he warns supporters of his brother David that the Labour leader is "sticking to the mission" of returning his party to election-winning form." Yet Miliband does nothing of the sort in the interview that follows; nor is there any suggestion that he will be doing it anywhere else.

In its desperation to find some content in that hopeless exchange, the paper’s leader column proclaims, “In the interview … he talks about demanding responsibility from the rich as well as the poor.” Except that Miliband doesn’t, at least, not in the published interview. He said something along those lines in the speech he made last Monday, to which Merrick refers, but there’s nothing at all about it from the paper’s own conversation with him.

Miliband, as ever, has nothing whatsoever to say and Merrick, seemingly overawed by the honour of an exclusive interview, has totally failed to pin him down on anything.

The Buddha of Burma
The Indy’s second exclusive interview is just as bad. In fact, it’s probably worse. I didn’t have a very high opinion of Ed Miliband, but I did think highly of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s oppressed opposition leader. That respect evaporated in 1,500 words of simpering sycophancy that doubled as an advertorial for the loathsome rock band U2.

Interviewer Martin Wroe found himself double-handing with a pair of film-makers who were shooting footage to be shown on U2’s next tour. As a result, Bono and U2 get eight mentions in the article, which is rather more than once every 200 words. Aung San blathers that, in her youth (in the 1960s), all celebrities had to do was “have themselves talked about in the gossip columns”. Bono, she asserts, “really started this movement of artists getting involved in human rights and political issues.”

No, seriously. I’m actually quoting here. Between the ages of 19 and 27 (i.e. 1964-72) Aung San lived in Britain and America but seemingly never heard of musicians protesting about politics or human rights. We had to wait till the 1980s for Bono to show us the way. Someone send this woman a Bob Dylan album.

The headline (which is different in the online edition) is an awkward misquote – “You don’t know what it means to sense that we are still remembered” – while a lot of space is given to some sentimental claptrap about U2’s ‘Walk On’, which makes another activist burst into tears as he remembers a set of lyrics that are little more than a reworking of Pink Floyd’s ‘Eclipse’.

As for the rest, it’s all mystical blandness masquerading as – well, I don’t know what. Wroe describes her as “fluent, articulate and graceful”, but can you get anything from drivel such as this?
“Those of us who have followed our own conscience – that is the real freedom.”
"During my years of house arrest I've often wished that I were a composer because then I could have spent my time composing."
“We should be moving all the time, moving to bring about better change, instead of just sitting there and letting things happen the way other people who are not so desirous of good change wish them to happen.”
“I feel that we are all one, and this warms my heart.” I presume she isn’t consciously referencing the old joke about the Dalai Lama going into Pizza Hut and asking, “Can you make me one with everything?”
There are many other statements, all equally bland and some of them tediously repetitive (the word “triumph” keeps recurring), although one quote is worth repeating in full for its utterly vapid banality:
“I don’t think it’s boring to work for other people. I don’t think it’s boring to think about how you might improve the lives of other people. I don’t think altruism is boring. I don’t think faith in freedom is boring. I would like young people to understand that: that these things are not boring at all.”
Yes, indeed, not boring at all. Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be positioning herself as part-Gandhi, part secular Dalai Lama, and in the process slips from being the heroine of political freedom to being a talking fortune cookie. 

Moral: You're a journalist, for God's sake. Make your interview subjects sound interesting, or at least try.

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