Umberto Eco’s quip “There is no news in August” hasn’t really been falsified as much as confirmed this summer. Eco was being ironic - just because the political class goes on holiday in the summer doesn’t mean that big events stop happening. But the unhealthy reliance by journalists on those in power to feed them stories and narratives means that the summer’s political machinations don’t get proper coverage: the plotting of policy, war and terrorism. That’s why no one saw the fall of Kabul coming, writes Peter Jukes.
The real reason for leaving Afghanistan
By Hew Strachan
One of the optical illusions that reveal the heavily constructed reality portrayed in modern media is the anomaly of the ‘silly season’ - the summer months when events slow down, and news becomes so scarce that journalists are reduced to seeking out performative absurdities such as skateboarding ducks, or Nigel Farage fishing for asylum seekers in the British channel. Of course, reality goes on regardless, whether it’s the increase in the number of extreme weather events due to global warming, or the shock collapse of the Afghan Government and the return of the Taliban to rule in Kabul. But the notion that ‘no news happens in August’ as Umberto Eco commented, sardonically, reveals how much of our mediated reality is artificial.
It’s an obvious truth, in Britain at least, that as Parliament goes into a long recess, and Ministers, MPs and Lords disappear to their second homes in Tuscany or the Dordogne, the political commentariat also down tools and follows them on holiday. The archaic British system is like an old manufacturing line, with senior lobby correspondents reliant on Government for raw materials, which are then processed by a tertiary industry of pundits and commentators. Between them, they manage to spin out a few yarns of speculation into whitewashed acres of newsprint and pixels. But in summer it goes quiet. Apparently.
The archaic British system is like an old manufacturing line, with senior lobby correspondents reliant on Government for raw materials, which are then processed by a tertiary industry of pundits and commentators.
In fact, it’s just an illusion. It’s based on our implicit bias that the press is there to report on events as they occur, and that it’s focused on the public interest. But invert your thinking, look again with the premise that the media is more likely focused on the private interests of its owners and that “the news” is a carefully curated and largely confected narrative, and one can see that the summer is rich with meaning and unreported news.
As politicians go back to their constituencies, or the Caribbean holiday on some oligarch’s island, politics doesn’t stand still. It ferments in the secrecy and darkness. The political laundromat might be quiet, but that just means new schemes and deals are afoot: new policies are being designed and a rack of fashionable options ready for favoured models to sport at the party conference season.
Summer is when most the news is really happening, if only dissident untamed journalists could get into those parties in the Cotswolds or onto Rupert Murdoch’s yacht. If I could transport myself back to the late 1970s, I’m sure I would have heard rumours of the ‘winter of discontent’ in the summer. You could certainly pick up Boris Johnson’s plan to prorogue Parliament and ‘get Brexit done’ in late July 2019, just before he was elected leader.
It’s only silly season for the public. For the political class, the holidays are the time to be serious.
Meanwhile, as more and more information is consumed in a disaggregated fashion online, the summer is also increasingly a time when PR companies and lobbying organisations set up their fake grass roots movements. It certainly happened last summer, with a raft of astroturfed sites and social media accounts pushing the notion that the Coronavirus crisis was over, and that there would be no ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 infections.
Of course, the second wave, when it came that autumn and winter of 2020, was more devastating and costly in terms of lives and livelihoods than the first wave of the spring. But the disconcertingly concerted misinformation campaigns certainly influenced the Prime Minister. According to his former chief advisor Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson was obsessed with the press coverage of the astroturfed PR campaigns and catastrophically delayed lockdown as a result.
The truth is, domestic affairs reflect the clashing strategies of political powers when it comes to big events, and they mainly happen in the summer. The First World War was heralded by ‘The Guns of August’, as historian Barbara W. Tuchman described them: the logistics of call ups, rail transport and mobilisations that had been initiated months before. Summer, at least in the northern hemisphere, is the prime time to launch an offensive, whether it be in Poland, Bosnia, East Ukraine, or Afghanistan. Armies don’t like moving, or massacring, in winter and want to amass as many gains as possible before the roads freeze over, and the trenches fill with rain.
Summer, at least in the northern hemisphere, is the prime time to launch an offensive, whether it be in Poland, Bosnia, East Ukraine, or Afghanistan.
It’s not that different for those plotting terrorist attacks. The ‘non-state’ actors focused on asymmetric warfare need secrecy and official lassitude during preparation, but maximum publicity for their outrages. The summer, when officials alternate vacations, is therefore and ideal time for final preparations.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, throughout the summer of 2001, senior US intelligence figures missed the volume of chatter indicating a major attack on American soil by Osama Bin Laden, from his base in Afghanistan. Perhaps it also explains why, twenty years later, the same intelligence services and news analysts and commentators completely underestimated the sweeping gains of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the catastrophic collapse of the US supported Government l. According to the Washington Post, intelligence analysts predicted on August 10 it would take at least 30 to 90 days. Kabul fell a week later.
The silly season isn’t seasonal at all. Unlike the Coronavirus, received ideas are likely to propagate at any time when like-minded groups find themselves in proximity. And this summer, for all the thunderous news, shows that thinking in ‘news cycles’ is part of the problem.
We somehow want history to repeat itself, and long to fall back into the fatalist comfort of eternal recurrence. The obvious visual parallels with the evacuation of US embassy staff from Kabul with the fall of Saigon in 1975, for example, beguile us with that sense of repetition, rather like the cyclical motion of the seasons. A historical analogy becomes an poetic visual elegy – in this case for the decline of US power – and we feel justified in our wisdom and inactivity. Part of the decline and fall of any imperium is this appetite for mythic inevitability rather than the chaotic but changeable nature of present reality.
As art critic Phillip Kennicott explained it, when looking back on the differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan “We weren’t just fatally ignorant of history. Too many people were fatally ignorant of the present”. So the silly season is always upon us, a fiction for our solace and bamboozlement, and the only silly thing about it is us.