/ 26 July 2010

History in the rough

Shaun de Waal
Unreliable Sources: How the 20th Century was Reported by John Simpson (Macmillan)
First Drafts: South African History in the Making by Allister Sparks (Jonathan Ball)

Allister Sparks takes his title from Washington Post publisher Philip Grahams famous pronouncement that news reportage is “a first rough draft of history”. But the term applies more readily to BBC correspondent John Simpson’s book, which is about how the 20th century was reported (mostly by British newspapers), whereas Sparks’s collection is a round-up of his analytical pieces, which you might call a first draft of an interpretation of history.

In fact, many of the accounts in Simpson’s fascinating book show how unreliable these first drafts are. The ideal of “objective” (or at least “fair”) and factual, first-hand reporting is relatively recent and even then it is compromised by the journalist’s embeddedness. The term “embedded” gained currency during the second Gulf War, when reporters were tied to American troop units and necessarily saw things from their perspective, but the practice goes back a long way.

Winston Churchill reported widely on the Anglo-Boer War, for instance, but he was embedded from the start. He sailed to South Africa on the same ship as the upper military hierarchy of the British forces and was very much aligned to the imperial ruling class — and hence with their propagandistic aims. He carried a gun (which reporters, like medical officers, are not supposed to do) and he also staged a spectacular escape from Boer captivity that made him into a celebrity. His first-person accounts of the war then took on a special glamour and, although he may not have strayed far from the truth (or wasn’t as cavalier as Edgar Wallace, say), they certainly seem to be equally as much vehicles for his own growing fame.

Simpson draws on his extensive experience in war zones and has a fine sense of the political context in which reporters work; he sifts out the niceties of such reportorial situations, while usefully (and sometimes amusingly) quoting many a story’s headline and opening paragraphs.

The restriction of journalists to military headquarters, as most were during World War I, for instance, was not the only form of embeddedness: Simpson doesn’t call it that, but journalists toeing the line desired by their papers’ proprietors were firmly embedded in the relevant ideology and often gave their bosses what they wanted, even if it wasn’t the truth. The Spanish Civil War, particularly, seems to have given rise to a great deal of propagandist reporting: for one paper, massacres by the republican forces were relished (and frequently exaggerated), but those committed by the Fascists were glossed over.

Things are not so bad nowadays, at least for serious newspapers and other media — the tabloids still generate as much fiction as the reporters of World War I. The “top end” of the media, at least, has higher ideals and standards, though a book such as Flat Earth News (2008), Nick Davies’s study of Fleet Street today, shows that there are now many more, and different, pressures on the media — especially from the public relations industry and the spin doctors of the political elite. Davies, who should be read with Simpson, also details how the responsibilities of accurate news-gathering and reporting are all too readily elided by the economic demands of corporate owners.

The reader of Simpson’s book will not be blamed if he or she feels that the “unreliable sources” of the title are frequently the journalists themselves, but Allister Sparks would not be one of them.

Sparks has a long and distinguished history in the South African press and his previous books are among the key accounts of this country and its recent history. One thinks especially of The Mind of South Africa (1991) and Tomorrow Is Another Country (1996). Sparks’s Rough Drafts may perhaps be considered, in a way, a collection of drafts for such books: it is a collection of pieces written not in the calm of retrospection, but in the moment of often tumultuous political events. There are examples of his columns for Business Day and other papers as well as analyses produced for investors and the like, all attempting to provide an understanding of what is going on at a deeper level of the politics we read about every day.

The reading public wants not just the news but some kind of interpretation of it: we want a “why” as well as a “what”. Sparks has been providing lucid and deeply informed commentary on South African politics for longer than most in the field, and his depth of background gives enormous credibility to his writing. He is also honest about his political affiliations and how his views may have changed over time — in that he reflects and is able to elaborate on general public feeling about the process of events, helping to give some form to the often inchoate public response to what happens up there on the political stage.

There is also a predictive function to such political commentary — partly because we readers also want to be reassured in some way, if not that everything will be okay than, at least, we have a better comprehension of sometimes baffling events. Of course, nobody, however well informed, can get it right all the time. It’s not surprising to find, for instance, that Sparks could not imagine, at the time of Jacob Zuma’s rape trial, that Zuma had a political future. Then again, writing in December 2006 he predicted that 2007 would be “one helluva year” — and it certainly was.

The pieces in Rough Drafts range across the decade between 1999 and 2009, starting with Thabo Mbeki’s accession to power and moving all the way to his recall and the ascent of Zuma. In this, the book traces a trajectory from hope and admiration to confusion, disgruntlement and despair, and will be of great help to future historians of the period. Sparks makes it very clear, if more explication were needed, that in his approaches to HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe, in particular, Mbeki lost his moral authority; further, he is eloquent on the fact that the Zuma presidency was hobbled from the start because he never did have any moral authority.

Sparks is able to place South African events in a global context, drawing on his experience in the Middle East: his pieces on Israel, Hamas and Barack Obama are among the best quick-fire South African commentary on global affairs to be read.

The rest of the Philip Graham quote, as Sparks points out in his introduction, speaks of the journalist’s “inescapably impossible task” in writing that first-draft history, work that “will never really be completed about a world we can never fully understand”.

Sparks takes up that impossible task and even if he and we cannot “fully understand” our world, he does, at least, get us somewhat closer to a less partial comprehension.