My plan was to write a weekly diary for Reaction as grab bags of thoughts and personal experiences. Then before I began Coronavirus and the lockdown happened and it became a lockdown diary. Circumstances were so extraordinary that the diary filled up with a single theme for each week.
Now we seem to be escaping that monopolising obsession. The news agenda is broadening to accommodate other important topics – from Minnesota to Westminster to China to Praia da Luz.
I plan to jump about a bit now as well.
We set up Sky News in 1989. It was then only the world’s second rolling 24 hour news service, following CNN. We quickly evolved our own style, developing ways to both show the news as it happened and to analyse it in real time.
It was fortuitous that our start-up coincided with the admission of TV cameras into the House of Commons and parliament’s committees. Technological advances resulted in an exponential increase in the number of live “feeds” of events which were available.
We soon broke away from the menu approach of traditional news bulletins, starting with the headlines, followed by a series of reports lasting less than two minutes and ending in the sport and weather. Having more airtime meant that we could devote more time to major events. Until now the pandemic has been the latest all-consuming story.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
I can measure out the past three decades in the major stories which came to dominate Sky News, to the exclusion of almost everything else. There have been big political dramas, of course, including the fall of Margaret Thatcher, the rise of Tony Blair and other big set pieces. We were transfixed during the various Gulf and Balkan wars in which British forces were engaged. And there was 9/11 which began with live images of that second plane “sharking” into the Twin Towers, as Martin Amis put it.
We also bore witness to human stories thanks to the penetration of news gathering cameras especially in the US – even when they were denied full access. OJ Simpson, an American sports star few had heard of in Europe stood trial for the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. A British nanny, Louise Woodward, was accused of shaking a baby to death in Boston. Michael Jackson was acquitted on all charges of child sexual abuse.
There was one other news story, very European, very British, which preoccupied us for years and which flooded back onto the front pages this week.
In May 2007 Madeleine McCann, a British three-year-old, disappeared from the holiday apartment her parents were renting in the Portuguese resort of Praia de Luz. This Thursday German public prosecutors announced that they had identified a suspect for her murder.
No trace of Madeleine has been found for thirteen years. A spokesman for her parents said they are realistic but hope she may still be alive. The British authorities are still treating it as an open case.
The sudden loss of a child is a visceral horror for nearly everyone. It is explored in fiction by Ian McEwan in The Child in Time, frequently a set-text for school children.
Inevitably suspicion fell on the parents, who were for a period identified as formal suspects by the Portuguese authorities. Gerry and Kate McCann, who I have met and interviewed several times over the years, are remarkable people. Both qualified as doctors from ordinary backgrounds, although Kate has since given up practice. With great dignity and determination they did all they could to keep the focus on the search for their daughter. British and Portuguese police eventually pronounced them wholly innocent.
To the shame of our species the tragedy aroused jealousy and spite in some strangers. My colleague, Kate McCann, who just happens to share the same name as Madeleine’s mother, can attest to the bile which still arrives, mistargeted, in her inboxes. Inverted snobbery led to false assertions that there was only widespread interest in this missing person because the McCanns are white, middle-class and articulate and the pictures of Madeleine were so striking. After a bid to cash in on the support for the McCanns, a woman from Dewsbury was convicted in 2008 of kidnapping her own daughter, Shannon Matthews, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice.
Events in the US also crowded out Coronavirus in the news this week. Demonstrations broke out in major cities after video footage emerged of a policeman kneeling for eight minutes on the neck of a black man alleged to have used a fake bank note. George Floyd can be heard protesting that he can’t breathe. He passed out and died soon afterwards. The officer responsible has now been charged with second degree murder, the three other cops who looked on face lesser charges.
There is a link to the pandemic in that in both the US and the UK, analysis has found that black people and other non-white ethnic groups have been hit disproportionately by Covid-19.
Against this backdrop of human suffering, British and American leaders look like the darkly comic turns in Shakespearean tragedies.
President Trump tweeted repeatedly “Law & Order”, “Make America Great Again” and “November 3rd”, the date of the next election. Teargas was used to clear peaceful demonstrators so he could stage a photo-opportunity brandishing a bible outside the boarded-up “Church of the Presidents” near the White House. General Mattis, Trump’s former Defence Secretary, and General Milley, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both intervened pointedly against the President’s threat to send in the military against the protesters.
Meanwhile Britain’s parliamentarians played the fool. They voted to abandon virtual participation in the Commons and complained about the Covid-compliant physical voting system which resulted in queues hundreds of metres long and which took 43 minutes, four times longer than usual. The leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg forced MPs to come to Westminster to lead a national return to business as usual. He succeeded in demonstrating how difficult it is going to be for most people to get back to work in the present circumstances.
Predictably, a BAME cabinet minister, Alok Sharma, fell ill while speaking in the chamber. He tested negative for Coronavirus. If he had, he would have joined the exceptionally long list of senior officials who have caught Covid including the Prime Minister, the Health Secretary, the Cabinet Secretary, the Chief Special Advisor and the Chief Medical Officer.
The news agenda may have widened this week but, if anything, it has become still more dispiriting.