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Abjuring the Realm

By Jessica A. Sequeira

As uprisings in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak continue, the country appears to have entered something of a time warp. America, which once supported Mubarak in an attempt to maintain stability, is now pressuring him to resign. People on the ground are embracing the ideals of the reformist Kefaya movement, which briefly gained popularity with the 2005 constitutional referendum before losing momentum over the past few years.

But the clock is rolling back in another way as well—in the surprising emphasis on the physical presence and personality of foreign reporters at the scene of events. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as of Feb. 5 there had been 114 direct attacks on the media, one of which resulted in the death of a reporter last Friday. Anderson Cooper took a knock on the head: The doors of his car were kicked in and the windshield broken; later he reported huddled in darkness from an “undisclosed location.” A reporter from Al Arabiya was beaten; the Belgian correspondent Maurice Sarfatti was arrested twice in the same day; multiple journalists were detained overnight. Those unhurt were firing off wire reports, phoning bureaus back home, shuttling in and out of hotels, swapping information. Tugging at various threads in her skein of connections, Christine Amanpour scored an “exclusive interview” with President Mubarak himself.

All of it, of course, was covered extensively.

If the sheer intrusive presence of this foreign media comes as something of a jolt, it is because jobs of this kind are increasingly rare. There is something essentially thrilling about the work, which places it in the same category as detective or spy as profession. (A Hitchcock film exists called Foreign Correspondent; there is no Hitchcock film titled Investment Banker.) But the heady springtime of Fleet Street—as popularized in books like Scoop, A Burnt-Out Case, and England Made Me—is over. Foreign bureaus are closing down; the days reporters would chum with leaders of dusty remote countries over Plymouth and angostura bitters have the same outdated feel as an order of pink gin. There are no more “dusty remote countries”—the world, as we are constantly reminded, is now “global” and “connected” as never before.

Every day, technology providing instant access to other regions of the world increases in sophistication, bypassing internet, mobile phone, and video to canvas more ambitious undertakings. The recently launched Google Art Project, for instance, employs the cameras used for Street View to zoom in on individual paintings at 17 museums, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the National Gallery in London. The bubble and gloss of a Van Gogh-yellow paint smear are much easier to view on a hi-def monitor than in the crowded confines of an Amsterdam gallery.

What does all this signify? Evelyn Waugh—who worked simultaneously for several newspapers out of locations from Abyssinia to East Africa—once wrote in his journal: “9 May 1962. Abjuring the realm. To make an interior act of renunciation and to become a stranger in the world; to watch one’s fellow-countrymen, as one used to watch foreigners, curious of their habits, patient of their absurdities, indifferent to their animosities—that is the secret of happiness in this century of the common man.” Waugh—who kept his fleshy lips at all times pursed, had a great-great-grandfather named Lord Cockburn, and chose to kill off a character by having him held hostage in the Brazilian jungle reading Charles Dickens aloud—was an odd bird of the old school, and the “common man” remark is very much a part of his humor.

But he was remarkably perceptive regarding the world rushing by. For if we have gained the convenience of technological delivery and the more “organic,” if necessarily biased, reportage of citizens who happen to be on the scene, we have also lost a stratum of the population which—while technically affiliated with one country—is always willing to move to the next. Roger Cohen’s column for The International Herald Tribune is called “The Globalist”; the correspondent’s job is, indeed, to be a truly global citizen. It is the life of the apostate—the deliberate renunciation of national ties in order to remain instead a free-floating entity.

In some ways, while making information more internationally accessible—Cairo from a laptop—we entrench ourselves more deeply nationalistically. All the world becomes familiar, mapped out; it becomes increasingly difficult to put stock in narratives by journalists or explorers claiming access to previously undiscovered regions or voyages into some exotic heart of darkness. The change can be tracked on a small scale in the kinds of grants awarded by Harvard’s Office of Career Services: According to one representative, traveling fellowships now more often cover work for international organizations and NGOs than individual exploratory ventures.

This is why the clear presence of the journalist, and the media’s incessant coverage of its own activity, is a refreshing change. There is something touchingly idiotic, and sublimely old-fashioned, about the spectacle of these reporters who still feel the need to enter the fray. In July of last year, The Guardian published an obituary for Basil R. Davidson, a reporter who made his name covering the death throes of Portuguese colonial influence in Africa before the Carnation Revolution. Davidson was the product of a different time, journeying solo through the continent to record its unwritten history. Later in the year, the same publication reported the passing of one of its younger journalists, who had died a quiet death in the office. His task had been to write reports on countries around the world, but he’d never had to leave his desk.

Jessica A. Sequeira ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Winthrop House.

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