The strength and failing of journalism

I HAVE been reading a fascinating book, Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams.It is, obviously, a book of history, but it wasn't written that way.

I HAVE been reading a fascinating book, Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams.

It is, obviously, a book of history, but it wasn't written that way. It was written as journalism.

Rather partial journalism, it is true. But then, what other kind is there?

Williams, a former Unitarian minister, went to Russia in 1917, after the February revolution, to report for the New York Times.


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He became far more than a reporter, virtually taking part in the subsequent October revolution.

He was present at the major events that brought power to the Bolsheviks and was subsequently invited by Lenin to form an International Legion to help fight off the counter-revolution.

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And, incidentally, among the many Russians he met and talked to was my grandmother.

She interpreted for him and also took the photo that shows him “starting for the forests” with a party of wood-cutters.

While Williams's prose has the freshness and vividness of an eyewitness account, his position as a journalistic observer is compromised by frequent meetings with men to whom he is “honoured American comrade”.

And he makes no pretence of objectivity. Behaviour that is “cynical and treacherous” from one group of people is forgivable, even noble, from another.

In 1919, when he wrote the book, he was still full of revolutionary fervour.

He believed that not only the overthrow of the Tsar, but also of the subsequent brief “bourgeois” rule, would lead to a brave new world that would be better for all.

And it was without irony that he wrote, in a passage describing the epicentre of the revolution: “It is not in the nature of the working-man to be destructive.”

Later, of course, like his friend Trotsky, Williams would see in Stalin the betrayer of all that the revolution stood for.

But at the time he had no inkling of the way the people's revolution would turn out. That power would not be wielded fairly by and for the working-class. That instead it would be wielded viciously by a dictator every bit as malign as the most hated Tsar.

And that's the thing about journalism - both its strength and its failing. It is utterly, inescapably, of the moment.

If it's good, honest reporting it will reveal things as clearly as they can be seen now.

But however good, it can never be either enhanced or sullied by hindsight.

We know, or we think we know, how the Russian Revolution turned out. It was a lot sadder than eager, earnest young Rhys Williams imagined.

But, however much columnists and self-appointed “experts” like to project the future, we have no idea really how things will turn out for us.

This paper, like every other news source, is full of stories without endings.

About the only thing we can be certain of is that they won't turn out the way we expect.

I WAS gazing vacantly out of the window the other day when a sparrowhawk suddenly fell like a stone from the sky and swooped into a bush.

As it plunged in from one side, from every other side the bush appeared to explode with a frantic flurry of small birds making their panicked escape.

It was a good two or three minutes before the hawk reappeared. When it did I couldn't see if it was carrying away a catch, but it might have been long enough for it to make a meal in the bush.

Of course by putting out nuts and seeds for the songbirds we are indirectly feeding the predators too.

This is not really a problem in Suffolk - not in the way it's proving to be for a friend of mine in Canada.

Heather lives in Dryden, Ontario, a city of about 9,000 people - roughly the size of Woodbridge, but the biggest town in an area the size of southern England.

Our mutual friend John is a “neighbour” - four hours away in Thunder Bay, on the north shore of Lake Superior.

In such remote country, the relationship between humans and the wild is of a kind that's hard to imagine here.

Heather is angry with a woman in her street who has been putting out food for the white-tailed deer. For pursuing the half-tamed deer into town have come the creatures that feed on them - a pack of wolves.

Now, I love wolves, and the opportunity to watch them in the wild would be wonderful. Heather is not so sure.

The first she knew of their presence was when she saw them savage to death a friend's pet labrador.

Now she is aware of the wolves' tracks all around the neighbourhood, even crossing her garden. And she's worried that what they do to a dog they might do to a child.

This seems highly unlikely.

Despite lurid tales of the Little Red Riding-hood variety, wolves simply don't attack humans.

But that's easy for me to say from the safety of Suffolk.

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