Owen Bennett-Jones

People who work at night are obsessed by their inability to sleep in the day. Night-shifts are incomplete without a desultory conversation about the best way to order one’s hours. ‘Desultory’ because the conversation has taken place countless times before. Should you stay up for a couple of hours alter the night shift so as to achieve near-terminal exhaustion before sleeping? Or maybe it’s best to sleep immediately for two hours, go for a swim and then sleep again for the rest of the day. Then again, you could go to the Bush House dormitory for an hour or two in the night and try to sleep amid the snores and coughs of, among others, Bulgar, Burmese and Bangladeshi colleagues. The permutations are endless but as we all know, the net results are the same: people who regularly work nights are pale, bad-tempered and die of coronaries in their fifties.

Bush House, home of the BBC World Service, is full of thirty and forty-year-olds doing night-shifts. Mine is aimed at producing a programme called Newshour which is broadcast live at five in the morning. The preparations for the programme begin at nine the previous evening. To be more precise, they begin the moment one of the programme’s three producers sets eyes on you. ‘Great, you’re early, look, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve got a minister in the Liberian Government on the phone, he says he’ll do an interview but it has to be straight away because he wants to go to bed.’ (Don’t we all.) I never like interviewing people about Liberia. Liberian politics are waist-deep in blood. A London cab-driver recently tried to sell me a video which, he claimed, showed the former dictator Samuel Doe being tortured and then shot by his captors. The first political snuff movie. The interview gets underway and the Liberian minister, in time-honoured fashion, accuses his opponents of wrong-doing and himself admits no fault. I sometimes wonder why British politicians spend so much money being trained in how to handle the media. Politicians from developing countries don’t have the benefits of expensive advice from media experts in West London but they are just as capable of avoiding answering questions.

Once the Liberian minister is dealt with and on his way to bed, we return to our computers to see what’s new in the world. The news according to Reuters, the Associated Press and the other major news organisations is always dreadful: dispossessed refugees with nowhere to go; political killings which will remain unpunished; reports from Africa where the ghastly mix of war and famine daily claims more victims. It’s a minute-by-minute stream of blood-stained information on starvation, suffering and injustice.

The good news, though, is even worse: silly little articles about rediscovered family heirlooms, a recurrent story (it comes up about once a year) about a pike in a Russian river that supposedly ate a labrador (the dog’s owner saw the incident, caught the pike and cut it open to find the dog inside and still alive) – according to Tass the story is a myth. The news agencies are also given to running features about Russian fishermen gorging themselves on caviar. These attempts to lighten the tone of the world news invariably fail.

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