Three days ago our papers devoted much space to the coverage of strikes and riots in France. From where I was sitting things looked cataclysmic.
Hundreds of thousands marched and demonstrated all over the country, protesting against whatever it is the French usually protest against. There was also a bit of rioting thrown in to enliven the proceedings.
The rioters didn’t have any specific grievances. They protested against capitalism in general, spraying graffiti, smashing bank windows and trashing a BMW dealership in Montparnasse. That last one I took personally, having been a BMW driver for the past 30 years (not the same car, I hope you realise).
Eleven people got arrested in Paris, and four police officers were injured, which sounds like a normal casualty ratio.
All this was accompanied by a strike of oil refinery workers, who are exploited and downtrodden. They make on average €60,000 year for a 32-hour week and can retire at 59. If that’s not oppression, I don’t know what is.
As a result, between a quarter and a third of petrol stations in France are running dry, with the problem being especially dire in the Paris region.
Just to keep oil refinery employees company, workers in the nuclear power sector are also on strike. That may make it difficult to restart reactors down for maintenance and safety checks. Considering the general situation with fuel in Europe, those chaps chose a perfect moment.
Judging by the reports I read in London newspapers, I thought we should cancel any plans we had for going to our house in Burgundy. My December speaking engagement in Paris also looked under threat.
I didn’t cherish the possibility of getting stuck with an empty fuel tank on a dark road. And the prospect of getting caught in the middle of a street riot appealed even less. Anyway, further research was in order.
I promptly went to the on-line version of Le Figaro, the closest the French have to a conservative paper, which isn’t very close at all. I was ready for front-page coverage complete with lurid pictures, why-oh-why laments and gloomy forecasts for the near future and, more generally, for France’s survival prospects in the long run.
I got none of that. In fact, I had to flick through several computer screens to find any mention of the riots and demonstrations. In a print version, the report I finally found would have taken about a column inch. The report did say dismissively that the scale of the disturbances hadn’t come up to the expectations of the hard Left.
Evidently it’s not only beauty that’s in the eye of the beholder. What to us across the Channel looks like a major event, similar to what France had to endure in 1968, appears like a minor nuisance to the French, barely to register on the nation’s consciousness.
It could be that demos, strikes and riots are more commonplace in France than in Britain. Thus they lack both novelty appeal and the wow factor.
If a large tattooed chap bare to the waist punched me in the face, once I came to I’d consider that outrage a pivotal point in my life this year. However, a boxer to whom that sort of thing happens a hundred times during one fight may regard it at as trivial.
Perhaps this analogy goes some way towards explaining the nonchalant Gallic shrug at Le Figaro. Another possibility is that the editors didn’t want to sow more panic than was unavoidable.
In any case, that made me think about news coverage. If it can be as subjective as that, how trustworthy is it? And yet most people form their view of the world almost entirely on the basis of what they read in the papers or, more common these days, watch on TV.
Both Americans and Russians used to have correct ideas about this. The Russians have a saying “no one lies like an eyewitness”. And an American writer of the past, probably Mark Twain but I don’t remember exactly, said, “The worst thing you can say about an American is that he believes everything he reads in the papers.”
I’m out of touch with both Russia and America, but it’s instructive to see how differently the same news is covered in the two countries I live in now, Britain and France. Add to this the widely divergent stories in media outlets within each country, and one’s head begins to spin.
I suppose no one can be completely objective on anything. Hard as we try, our thoughts, feelings and personalities colour our version of events. Even in natural sciences two researchers may get different results from exactly the same experiment using exactly the same equipment. Their personalities skew the findings.
A proposal if I may. Sometimes we know what bias a media outlet has, but sometimes we don’t. What about a rating system similar to that used in films?
It could even be colour coding above the masthead: indigo for conservative, pale blue for conservative wet, pink for Leftist, red for rank communist, brown for populist, black for fascist, that sort of thing. This wouldn’t eliminate bias, but it would make it manifest.
That way a viewer turning on, say, BBC News would know what to expect: woke, pro-Labour, eco-loony, anti-Brexit propaganda. And anyone opening The Times would expect… well, about the same I suppose.
Perhaps that isn’t such a good idea after all.