Europe Is Sadder And More Complex Than We Know


For the last three years, I have been privileged to share what is going on in Europe with you every second Monday. Often, I have brought you a sample of opinions from some of Europe's most original thinkers and best newspapers and magazines. And I have also reported for this magazine.

Etymologically, “report” means to give information, but also to bring back or carry back something.

Over the past three years, I hope I have brought you back reliable impressions of the continent in which I live.

For New Matilda, I have met the furtive survivors of rickety boats on Lampedusa, Italy, people determined to start a new life in an unwelcoming country, who worriedly slunk after telling me little.

I have stood in a central Athens marketplace set against decrepit dosshouses with broken windows and met the asylum seekers who were suffering even more misery in Greece than they were in their homelands.

I have seen the incredible idealism of the young people on the Puerta del Sol in Spain, determined to re-invent their country as a more democratic, less nepotistic place, and I have witnessed the depthless grief of those who lost friends and lovers to bullets and fire on a grey February day in Kiev.

I have written these columns for you during an epoch where ideology has increasingly given way to morality and personality.

There was once a communist Left, which shaded into a social democratic center. On the right, conservatism was outflanked by fascism. All had definite visions of what an ideal society ought to be. But that was last century.

In recent years, the political conflicts in Europe have largely pitted mixed groups of people against various political and business establishments. All too often, on the streets, anger and indignation have replaced apathy and disinterest too late — at the moment when the money was gone and when people were desperate.

So this, my final New Matilda column, is also a manifesto for slow journalism. All too often, we journalists simply reflect public outrage about the crimes of officials or businessmen after the event.

In other words: we do not detect outrageous abuses of power and wanton thefts of resources until it is too late. Ours has become a shallow profession, focused more on grabs than digs, addicted to pictures of biffo but reticent to ask why a punch-up occurred.

This ought to change, through tenacious sourcework. We must spend more time talking to our friends and acquaintances and less time with our colleagues. We must also acknowledge that the people we encounter while doing our job understand the forces shaping our lives much better than we could ever do.

This requires humility from us personally. It is a quality that is hard to attain. As reporters, we ought to treat our subjects as equals, no matter how wretched, or desperate or strange they might be.

This means that my specific branch of the trade, foreign correspondence, ought to be an exercise in humanism. It should remind us that, in the end, we are not so different from one another — although we are rich and they are poor, although we speak English and they cannot understand us.

Our brief, as correspondents, is near impossible to fulfil these days. We must convey both what is said publically and reveal the levers behind the curtain. We must report to you the complex broad realities that underpin specific events and report rapidly changing events in real time. Our writing is expected to be both profound and general.

But perhaps our greatest challenge is that we must interest you in things that — while important and often dramatic — have little direct bearing on your life in the first instance.

Australia often seems very far away indeed. And this is true both for Australians gazing overseas and for foreigners looking down under.

That said, Australians themselves are more and more bound up with the rest of the world, both emotionally and professionally. And not even the lucky island continent — whose scarce citizenry has a relatively large control over its destiny — is spared the prevailing economic and geopolitical winds.

All too often in our short history, we have been drawn into conflicts and situations of which we know little. The better we Australians understand the world for ourselves, the more independent our leaders' and officials' decisions can be when it comes to matters of war, peace, money and power.

I appreciate all your comments, feedback and skepticism. Criticism of pundits' pontifications is often justified.

However, having a certain opinion of distant events and personalities is often misguided. We live in a time of dogmatism, where few are willing to empirically test their beliefs. You, too, should constantly question your beliefs and be willing to change your mind.

Now, it is time for me to leave you and go out and report what is really happening firsthand. I have decided that too many journalists spend their time repeating other people's truths. And that too few reporters actually determine what the truth is, as a service to their readers. I wish to be among the latter category.

I want to leave you with a thought, from an engaged intellectual: the Ukrainian poet and writer Sergei Zhadan. Beaten at a pro-Maidan demonstration last month, the author recently described the worsening situation in his Eastern Ukrainian hometown, Kharkiv, in an essay for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

“Our image of reality is more and more shaped by TV reports and photos. Hence, we perceive things as they are presented to us by the news agencies. But the reality looks very different to this. It is much sadder and much more complicated than the images on television.”

Next time you read a correspondent's piece in the newspaper or watch a report on television, please keep Zhadan's maxim in mind. Much too frequently, our reports have little to do with reality.

Reality is complicated. And, too often, it is also much sadder than the stylised violence on television news bulletins.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.