Among the many oddities of the age of mass information is that it turns everybody into a gossip (as Jonathan Dimbleby explained in his interview for UnHerd). Sometimes the gossip is about celebrities. Sometimes it is about politicians. But it’s gossip nonetheless.
Sometimes the gossip is about salacious matters, such as which Hollywood star has been accused of a knee-touch. Sometimes it has the slightly more highfalutin air that the same discussion gains when it revolves around ministers of state. But sexual misconduct is not the only subject of gossip in western democracies. Often the subject is equally prurient, but devoid of sex. In recent days the British public was able to enjoy the spectacle of the Conservative government’s minister for International Development being sacked (or persuaded to resign) in real time. We got to watch and read a number of corrections of previous statements, apologies and warnings and then the great spectacle of Priti Patel being ordered back from Africa for what was expected to be, and indeed proved to be, her imminent departure from the British Cabinet.
It is worth pausing for a moment on occasions such as this. Rolling news programmes ran progress reports on the flight back to the UK from Kenya, which Patel had been ordered to take. According to one report, “Brits were glued to a map said to be tracking Priti Patel’s flight back to London. At one point more than 22,000 people were following the Kenya Airlines plane on the Flightradar24 website, the live flight tracker said.”
What for? What did anybody hope to gain from this? To be slightly ahead of their friends in the news of the latest developments. To enjoy the spectacle of a politician getting some type of comeuppance. Schadenfreude for the bored, perhaps?
But to consider how strange this gossip-as-news is, consider how unlikely it is that Priti Patel would have hit the news had she not been about to be fired. If she had arrived in Kenya and carried out her duties, would any of that have made the press? Would any of it have been reported at all? What would the coverage have been of UK aid policy in Africa? What analysis of the figures, of the waste and/or benefits of such aid would have been attempted? How many people would have tracked her plane’s return to the UK?
For anyone engaged in or concerned with the world this descent towards gossip – whether higher or lower – is a serious concern. If the world were stable and the situation at home and abroad in a state of higher bliss, then the consummate interest in the sexual habits of celebrities and the career prospects of young cabinet ministers would be understandable. But, given the challenges we face, these preoccupations look not just puerile but almost decadent.
In the Middle East alone, events have been unfolding the significance of which lies in exactly inverse proportion to the amount of attention they have received. A week ago the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, announced that he was stepping down as Prime Minister. He made this announcement from Saudi Arabia, stating that his life was in danger in Lebanon. In the days that have followed the government of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain have ordered their citizens to leave Lebanon immediately.
Meanwhile the Saudi ruling family has had the nearest thing that the Kingdom is likely to get to a coup. This week the 32-year old son of King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, topped his recent spate of reforms by arranging to have the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh cordoned off and arranging for a range of people to be held there on corruption charges. This included eleven senior princes, among them Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, whose personal empire stretches from the Savoy in London to a significant stake in Twitter. Of course to arrest Saudi princes for corruption is like arresting accountants for accounting. A photo of a grand room with the princes all arrayed on mattresses in their grand fortress was humiliatingly released.
But what is happening in Saudi is a huge range of games – all of which are of huge import but few of which get even an ounce of the weight of attention given to what is sadly simply easier news. The first is a prince trying to reform in a hurry. With a massive youth-bulge in the local population and an increasing number of Saudis studying abroad (200,000 this year) the Crown Prince is looking to address the social problems which will grow in his country. Behind that there also lie the contours of a far bigger regional game.
For the recent years of Western disengagement from the region have left the region’s players needing to find their own alliances and stand on their own feet. The two terms of Barack Obama’s Presidency were not simply years of withdrawal. They were years of Iranian advance. Indeed when the history of the post 2001 wars is written historians may well look in bafflement at why America and her allies cleared vast areas of land only for the hostile forces of Iran to then move in. Why did the West become the bulldozer for Iran’s real estate ambitions?
So severe has the need for allies become that the much-vaunted cooperation between the State of Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has even broken out in public. It is no longer a secret that the Jewish State feels itself to be surrounded by Iran’s proxy forces. Firstly, through the combination of developing missile technology and endlessly bloodthirsty rhetoric which the Iranian regime continues to engage in. Secondly, through Iran’s move into Iraq and Syria. And thirdly, through its ongoing effort to build up its proxy army of Hezbollah on the country’s southern border with Israel as well as across the nation as a whole. No visit to any part of the region today can fail to be dominated by the vast looming conflict that all of this at some point suggests will occur.
Yet all this is just one week’s developments in one part of the Middle East, in a highly redacted form. Across Africa huge stories are playing out all the time which have to fight to even achieve ‘News in Brief’ status in the Western press.
Are we aware that we are distracting ourselves? Or is this a form of pre-emptive defeatism? It appears to me to be a combination of these things. Over recent years Britain and America, among other Western powers, have decided that the Middle East is too complicated for us. We no longer seem to produce the energy or people required to have a serious stab again at involving ourselves more meaningfully – even diplomatically – in what is going on there. And if that is the conclusion we have reached in the Middle East, how much more is it the case in Africa where even the largest news companies now only bother to populate an entire continent with correspondents at one end or the other.
Our gaze has retreated, along with our horizons and our ambitions. Leaving us, perhaps inevitably, following a ministerial plane as it goes along its way and waiting for another sexual scandal to then distract us all for a moment longer.