The Media Column: I Would Not Accuse the British Press, Least of All the Mail, of Having a Heart. but It Offers a Version of the "Ecology of Images" That the Late Susan Sontag Demanded
Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)
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. …