x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Rolling news is always mesmeric and often contradictory

Watching non-stop television news coverage of a situation like the one in Egypt makes the adverts seem surreal.

For many here in the UK, the popular perception of Egypt has been formed largely through the rose-tinted prism of holiday brochures and travel documentaries.

Yet what an elegiac perception it is. My own trip there was by way of a memorable river cruise down the Nile back in 2001.

Whether wandering among ancient sites, standing on the steps of Queen Hatshepsut's temple or marvelling at the Aswan Dam, the country and its people left me both entranced and dazzled.

Above all, it left me wanting more. I promised myself I would one day visit the pyramids and sample the vibrant city of Cairo.

How times change. With the country in crisis, only the most foolhardy sightseer would dare to visit the Egyptian capital just now. And it's not just in Cairo that normal life has become paralysed. The monuments of Luxor and Aswan are largely deserted, while even the river cruisers are moored. Tourism, and just about everything else, is in free fall.

Watching the unfolding drama on my TV news it's difficult to square this with the country depicted in my holiday snaps. The violence and bloodshed may be all too real, but viewed from my sofa it almost feels as if I'm watching a video game.

There is a certain mesmeric quality about 24-hour rolling news that can become an obsession for a current affairs junkie such as myself, especially when political or natural disasters occur. There's always a fresh development, some more breaking news, another expert on hand to give a fresh view of the crisis. World-shaping events can now be covered in far more detail than old-fashioned terrestrial television could ever have contemplated, and all that is asked in return is that you hang on a little longer and resist reaching for the remote control.

The drawback is that on television, fact all too readily mingles with fiction, and however rigorous the editorial standards, rolling news is no exception. High drama jostles with low farce, and too much exposure to it can scramble your senses. One moment you're witnessing the unravelling of one of the world's great countries, the next you're being offered a great deal on new cars.

Take last Wednesday for instance. The Egyptian army's crackdown on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi was exhaustively covered on Sky News, but in the breaks between transmission the station trailed a new reality TV show on a sister channel, one called Killer Karaoke, in which a succession of contestants attempt to sing their favourite pop song while having unspeakable things done to them: enforced chest waxing, being immersed in gloop, or putting their hands into buckets of wriggling eels. The shrieks of the participants on the trailer seemed genuine enough, yet in a heartbeat we were back in the very real suffering in the environs of two Cairo squares. You didn't need to be Albert Einstein to register the irony of the unintended juxtaposition.

And it's not just TV that blurs the edges. Over the last few days I've tried to sample alternative coverage on the internet, both visual and journalistic: but often it's only been possible by first having to sit through a 30-second ad for a new movie blockbuster.

It's all over the web just now: a trailer for an all-action movie entitled World War Z and starring Brad Pitt, in which he plays a man trying to cope with a civilisation in meltdown. There he was, grim faced and bloodied, staring from the rear door of a helicopter at a scene of mayhem and devastation far below: burnt-out buildings, screaming ambulances and clouds of choking smoke. Having dutifully waited my allotted 30 seconds for the clip to run its course, the real events being played out in Cairo's streets duly arrived on-stream: ones of burnt-out buildings, screaming ambulances and choking smoke. Only a Luddite would wish to turn the clock back to a time when international affairs were only available on brief mid-evening bulletins. Yet at least you were never in danger of suffering news fatigue. When satirist Bill Hicks famously said that "watching television is like taking black spray paint to your third eye", he crystallised to perfection the perils of too much media exposure.

For now, all of us who care about Egypt and its people can only watch our screens, count our blessings, and hope that the country will one day regain its equilibrium rather than descend into World War Z. Though from where I'm sitting, that looks to be a long way away.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter @michael_simkins