The unfolding story of last week’s crashed plane has been utterly heartbreaking. The image of the parents waiting at the airport for their kids to arrive home from their school trip is a haunting one for any mum or dad. This time there were no terrorist bad guys: no corporate failings. Instead the catastrophe was down to the metal disintegration of a single doomed individual. The watching world has not been allowed the luxury of anger. Instead the emerging truth has been of the most desperate variety.
150 people got on a plane for a routine flight.
150 people signed up in all good faith to travel in what is the statistically safest way there is to travel.
But it wasn’t safe.
Instead the flight became a flight of death and the media instantly switched itself onto full on tragedy mode. The last few days have offered up a diet of 24/7 of coverage which at times has bordered on the voyeuristic.
But there is nothing remotely fresh in this. Papers need selling and advertisers follow the viewing stats. Tragedy gets attention. A doomed plane will always sell more papers than Ed Balls spouting on about GDP figures.
We know this. It is merely another of the iron rules of capitalism that govern our lives. Sensitivity and showing a bit of class will forever be crowded out by the sworn in blood duty to look after the interest of shareholders.
And so the desperate death of a party of school kids is immediately monetised and measured into statistics to lure in the big advertising bucks.
What always fascinates me is how the media goes about choosing its tragedies. Because there are tragedies and tragedies and it isn’t always down to how many get killed.
First up, the type of victims is all important. Last week’s victims were very much triple A plus. They were Western and they were white. They had white, Western families waiting for them at the arrivals hall of a gleaming German airport.
They were people like us.
Well the ‘Us’ who interest the peddlers of news is the very same ‘Us’ the advertisers want to reach. We are Western and we are white. We have high disposable incomes and we are some of the world’s greatest consumers. We buy perfume and cars and life insurance and conservatories and lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners.
We are the A list.
So when a tragedy engulfs fellow A listers whose lives look a lot like ours, the media senses paydirt and they let the story roll 24/7 until every last single nook, cranny and avenue is exhausted.
Sometimes tragedies happen to people whose lives don’t look much like ours at all. On these occasions all of the media’s boxes are ticked in terms numbers of dead people. The problem is that they are basically the wrong kind of dead people. Almost every week a boat carrying the desperate refugees of Africa and the Middle East sinks to the bottom of the Mediterranean. Invariably the dead people are blameless civilians. Invariably there are many children included in the toll of the perished. In fact, the human tragedy in these cases should be particularly media friendly, for there are bad guys involved – merciless people traffickers living in the same moral vacuum as the slave ship captains who once upon a time shipped thirty million Africans across the Atlantic to the New World.
And there are the back stories of the victims. There were no juicy back stories to be found among the 150 who perished in the Alps last week. They were just regular folk living regular lives. The back stories of those who drown every week in the Med are anything but regular. Almost every one would provide material for a Holywood movie. The horrors of the lives they are fleeing from would be enough to make James Bourne think twice before getting off the plane.
So when a boat sinks with 300 civilians on board you would think the media would be licking its lips at the endless chunks of juicy airtime they could dedicate to its 24/7 coverage.
But they don’t lick their lips. Of course they don’t. Because the weekly victims of the Mediterranean crossing are the wrong kind of victims.
Lots of kids, yes.
Amazing life stories from the worst paces in the world, yes.
Black and brown.
So no good then. Black and brown doesn’t count. It’s not that we have anything against dead black and brown people. It’s just that they aren’t box office.They just don’t look like the kind of folk the advertisers yearn to reach.
No money you see. Poor as church mice. They lack the necessary tuppence to rub together. Of course it’s a dreadful shame when 300 black and brown poor people get drowned, especially when lots of them are kids. It just isn’t news.
The wrong kind of victims.
It is always about the right kind of victims and the wrong kind of victims.
Always has been.
Ask any American how many of their fellow countrymen lost their lives in Vietnam and the majority will tell you 68,000 in the blink of an eye. Ask them how many Vietnamese fell in the same war and they will have no clue.
Most us are familiar with the fact that over 400 of our soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. How many Afghanis were killed? We have no idea. Well, I don’t.
They are the wrong kind of victims.
So here’s a pop quiz for you in this week when 150 people who look just like you and me were killed when a plane smashed into an Alpine valley.
What is history’s greatest ever tragedy involving some kind of public transport? Planes, trains, buses and boats. Which was the very worst catastrophe to come out of all of the endless billions of journeys man has taken in the centuries since we moved on from the horse and cart?
I guess for most of us it won’t take so very long for images of the Titanic to jump into the forefront of our minds. This of course is entirely logical for a whole number of reasons.
Big boats are by a country mile the means of transport which carry the most people, so it stands to reason that when things go wrong with a boat the tragedy will be loads bigger than when things go wrong with a plane, train or bus.
And the Titanic was a big boat. A massive boat. And it was filled to bursting point with the very best kind of victims. White people many of whom were wearing white tie and tails in spectacular ballrooms. It was the first voyage of the world’s most famous boat.
And when it went down, over 1500 entirely innocent civilians perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. No wonder the story of their desperate demise has lived on through the ages. And then of course Holywood rubber stamped the memory of the doomed Titanic with an Oscar laden epic complete with the sainted Leonardo di Caprio.
The tragedy of the Titanic was the right kind of tragedy to the last detail. No wonder the tragedy is still remembered so well even after a century has drifted by.
So surely there can never have been a greater tragedy than that of the Titanic when 1500 of the right kind of victims met with such a terrible demise?
Well there was actually.
Ever heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff?
No? I hadn’t either. Not until a few years ago. It was a cruise ship like the Titanic. Rather bigger actually. It was commissioned by Adolf Hitler in the 1930’s through his ‘Strength through Joy’ programme. In this case the ‘Strength through Joy’ in question was giving the heroic workers of the Reich the chance of a state subsidised cruise around the Med as a reward for their herculean efforts in the Panzer factories of the Ruhr.
When the war came, the Wilhelm Gustloff became a hospital ship until in January 1945 it was awarded its final designation as a rescue ship.
This was the point in the war when the Red Army arrived in East Prussia and started to exact revenge for everything the Germans had done in Soviet Russia since June 1941. Their cruelty was very much of the primordial variety. In fact it went well beyond primordial. Stalin gave the nod for any of his soldiers to rape any German woman they chose. The Red Army definition of a woman was basically any female between the ages of 6 and a hundred. Many were raped 20 or 30 times.
The logic behind the giving of this most appalling of green lights is one of the most chilling things I have ever heard. Stalin decided the wholesale rape of German womanhood was to be enthusiastically encouraged.
It was to ‘To break their racial pride.’
Unsurprisingly the civilian population of East Prussia ran from the advancing Russian soldiers as if they were the hounds of hell. They WERE the hounds of hell. They were probably a bloody sight worse.
Thousands upon thousands made their way to the port of Gotenhafen where ships were waiting to evacuate them along the Baltic coast to safer areas. The Wilhelm Gustloff was a big boat. In its ‘Strength through Joy’ hay day, it was capable of showing 3000 factory workers a good time in the Mediterranean sunshine. But these were the most desperate times and so desperate measures were required. The boat was packed with over 10,000 passengers, 5000 of whom were children.
A furious argument broke out among the ship’s officers as to what was the safest way to get its huge consignment of human cargo along the Baltic coast to safety. Some said they should hug the shore without lights and risk the minefields. The captain disagreed and chose instead the sail in deep waters with every light on to spot mines.
It meant that when Captain Alexander. Marinesco and his Soviet sub S-13 arrived on the scene his prey was lit up like a Christmas tree. He couldn’t miss and he didn’t miss. Three torpedoes sent the Wilhem Gustloff to take its place alongside the amber at the bed of the Baltic Sea.
It was history’s greatest disaster involving a means of public transport.
But nobody either noticed nor remembered. Interestingly enough the victims should have been the right kind of victims. After all they were white West Europeans and half of them were children.
But seventy years changes a lot. Back in January 1945, Germans were the epitome of the wrong kind of victims. The prevailing mood was one of 'serves them right' and it was a mood that stretched out down the decades. Of course the 5000 kids who perished that night could hardly be blamed for Auschwitz, but nobody was remotely interested in such niceties.
I guess it says a lot for how far Germany has come since those very darkest of dark days. Last week the dead German kids were absolutely the right kind of victims and they will be remembered as such.
The 5000 kids who never lived to see the post war Germany care of Captain Marinesco’s torpedoes will no doubt remain forgotten victims. It was history’s greatest ever tragedy at sea but history will never care to recall it.
In the end it just goes to show that nothing ever changes much.