Friday 26 February - Sunday 6 March

what will affect us next, Ahmed predicts, will be the move in China away from an investment and export-led economy to one powered by consumption, and the probability of the ‘sleeping giant’ of Africa awakening,

March 8, 2016

Kamal Ahmed and Stefan Stern

Purely by chance, Kamal Ahmed, Economics Editor at the BBC, was in Paris on the day of the shooting by Islamic terrorists of 89 people in the Bataclan theatre, and others elsewhere in the French capital. Dining with friends in a restaurant about ten minutes away from the attack, Ahmed had no idea what was happening in Paris until friends in the UK started texting and calling.  A moment later, all the phone signals were blocked.  The restaurant manager stood up on a table to announce that there had been an incident before shuttering the restaurant to keep all the diners inside until 3am.

“There was a weird feeling of shock and camaraderie,” says Ahmed. “But it gave the events a human context, which is important.  We shouldn’t look at such incidents purely through the prism of terrorism”.  Reporting daily on the events that shape and reflect our lives, Ahmed should certainly know.  As he sees it, the economic crisis of recent years has been succeeded by a period of anxiety over events in the Middle East, and the debate about security, immigration, and the reconfiguration of the idea of Europe grows ever more intense.

The conversation between Ahmed, Stephan Stern, a management writer and visiting professor at the Cass Business School and the festival’s director Viv Groskop, lingers on the nature of news: in particular, the changes in how we all receive our information about domestic and global events; the pressures facing the print and more traditional forms of media, with their emphasis on analysis, verification of fact and the filtering of sources from the immediacy of Twitter, Buzzfeed, YouTube and their ilk.

Ahmed cites the analogy that Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian gave to describe the profound shift: Once, journalism was a castle in which the journalists worked all day, with the drawbridge pulled up against the world beyond.  Each evening, they would throw the newspaper over the castle walls to the people waiting below.  Now, with the rise of social media, there is no longer a wall, but merely a picket fence between the journalists and the general public, where the latter can heckle the former, express their aggression and criticism, accuse them of bias.  Groskop is less optimistic: “I think the castle has been burned to the ground.”

Key events of the past fifteen years – 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, the MPs’ expenses scandal – have led to a deep anxiety in the West. And what will affect us next, Ahmed predicts, will be the move in China away from an investment and export-led economy to one powered by consumption, and the probability of the ‘sleeping giant’ of Africa awakening, which will shift the global focus to the south.  Like never before, he says, the reading of significant events reflects a sense of existential threat to a way of life and taps into an underlying sense of insecurity.  So it is the job of the media not to overplay this notion of crisis constantly, nor to conflate issues to draw general conclusions.

But, just as the future begins to look rather bleak, Stern offers a little light relief, quoting the words of the great baseball player, Yogi Berra: “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Claudia Pugh-Thomas

The Independent Bath Literature Festival 26 Feb – 6 March 2016

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