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What 2013's Biggest News Stories Taught Us About Our Lives

Thatcher, Woolwich, Syria, Nigella – a year in weird life lessons.

by Gavin Haynes
18 December 2013, 11:18am

Image by Marta Parszeniew

A common critique of news is that, for all its endless relaying of information, it doesn’t actually tell you anything useful. Unless you are an Iraqi politician, or a carbomb fuse manufacturer, the news that a carbomb has gone off in Baghdad doesn’t genuinely offer you anything except the pleasing, slightly numbing sense of "staying informed". Whatever that means. It may mean you look like less of a dick at parties, but most years are just a mulch of facts. Facts come. Facts go. They turn up, they invade the breaking news bar. They migrate to the live feed. They spawn opinions on the Analysis page. How much they ever actually tell us in a pragmatic sense is an entirely different question. News never taught anyone how to ride a bike or dig a pit latrine.

Below that, there is another argument that says that news tells us about the spirit of our times. That the random continuum of events that happened to have happened in a year speak to the way we live now, and therefore they are lighthouses onto our entire existence. This is true sometimes. But not always. The gush of love after Andy Murray won Wimbledon told us that Britons are yearning to reclaim a patriotism they feel has been despoiled. Typhoon Hainan only told us that big winds blow down shit houses.

So what stories have spoken to us this year? Which of them have really taught us about our lives in 2013?

– – –

THE WOOLWICH INCIDENT
What happened?
A man’s head was removed by the Cheech & Chong of international terror, who then gave an impromptu press conference about what that had felt like for them, pausing only to be shot by police.

How relevant does this feel to 2013?
Very. Once, terrorists were swooping eagles of death who might at any time shark low over the Manhattan skyline in their own fleet of murder-planes. Now, they are bumbling ground-level annoyances who have gone from four-digit kill figures to single-person attacks. At that rate, to kill even the population of Stow-on-the-Wold would take 50 years. Thanks to exactly the sort of intel that Russian traitor Edward Snowden is claiming we shouldn’t use, the only terrorist plots that make it through the net now are the ones that are no more "plotted" than the decision to go down the offie to buy six Stella.

What people will say about this in 50 years' time:
“People thought it wasn’t important at the time, but in the intervening years, terrorists have only managed to kill the equivalent of the population of Stow-on-the-Wold.”

Photo by Justin Wilkes

THE COUP IN EGYPT
What happened?
In the end, democracy was just a hashtag to Egyptians. After a year of letting the people who’d won the election govern, they decided to go back to their old comfy easychair of military dictatorship. Only, this being 2013, they decided they’d do it with a twist. This time, it was the trendy liberals who were smashing their steel fist up the jacksie of the elected legislature. Not the Muslim fundamentalists, who’d found they actually rather liked the legitimacy that winning elections gave them. The whole thing was like some role-reversal comedy on democracy, the Parent Trap or Trading Places of the Arab Spring.

How relevant does this feel to 2013?
Hyper-relevant. It’s all there. The darkside of our new tech: that the idiot-magnetising power of social media means it can now start coups as much as end dictatorships. The paradox the West doesn’t want to talk about: that democracy = good when democracy means the triumph of people like us. The inherent clash between the belief in democratic values and the danger of electing massive assholes that already played out in George Bush’s second term. The difference being that if Norman Schwarzkopf had put his tanks on Bush's White House lawn and proclaimed himself King Of the USA, even Egypt would’ve done more than just shrug meekly and look the other way.

What people will say about this in 50 years' time:
“Of course, what at first seemed like an aberration quickly developed into the Egyptians' own hybrid political system, whereby the constitution stated that to govern a President had to get 51 percent of the popular vote, plus a 2/3rds majority in the Council Of Generals.”

– – –

THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF THE BEEB RESIGNING IN RECORD TIME
What happened?
George Entwistle was a man composed entirely of polite upper-middle-class self-loathing, who naively assumed that running a BBC was a lot like running the Islington second-hand bookshop he presumably tended after coming-down from (presumably) Cambridge. When in fact it turned out you were supposed to read the papers and not accuse innocent Lords of being paedos.

How relevant does this feel to 2013?
Not at all. It feels like it could have been a scandal from any time after about 2003. Every six-and-a-half-minutes BBC D-Gs fall on their swords because they lied about WMDs, or the public realised they couldn’t spell the word "shoe", or they developed a ten-part series that erroneously suggested black people don’t have knees, or something. A tradition of staggering incompetence is exactly what makes Brits go all warm and fuzzy when thinking about their precious BBC.

What will people say about this in 50 years' time:
“George Entwistle is known to history for only two facts: being the shortest-serving D-G in the Corporation’s history. And being the first man to die after being hit by Crossrail. His life was a failure. But his pub quiz value remains inestimable.”

Photo by Henry Langston

THE DEATH OF MARGARET THATCHER
What happened?
An old lady in a posh hotel room developed a blood clot that went to her brain. Her brain stopped whirring round in its usual diminished loops and began to die, gradually causing the rest of her to perish with it over the next few minutes. Immediately after this, MGM Studios got an unexpectedly huge royalty cheque for a song they’d long since forgotten they owned.

How relevant does this feel to 2013?
Not even slightly. This basically happened in 2001 but has been postponed ever since while they waited for William Hague to hit puberty. The TV response – which forced us to squint back into the 80s, with its Derek Hattons and Arthur Scargills – felt like peering back at a time when pterodactyls swooped over the marshy plains of what is now Westminster. Every commentator who came on TV to tell you "what it was like" back then felt like they were explaining what a ration card was. To anyone under 30, one question was uppermost in their minds – what the fuck was wrong with all of these people?

What people will say about this in 50 years' time:
“Of course, the funeral showed that she was a polarising figure at the time. But ever since we figured out ways to subtly sterilise the sort of untermensch who opposed her, society’s admiration for Thatcher has only grown and grown.”

– – –

EDDIE SNOWDEN
What happened?
A man with a super-hot girlfriend got a bit commitment-phobic and looked around for an excuse to give her the heave-ho. Like a typically feckless modern male, he couldn’t talk about his feelings so he invented the world’s most advanced displacement strategy by giving up all of America’s secrets to its Russian enemies, allowing him to legitimately flee the country with only a text to his gf saying “sozluvukbye”.

How relevant does this feel to 2013?
Totally relevant. No one wants to commit any more. Blame it on the endless face-churn of Tinder dating or whatever, the upshot is we're now following the Japanese in failing that most basic of human tasks: to reproduce. Even nice girls with cupcakes on their breasts like Snowden's ex Lindsay Mills can't alert the tech-autistic bozos who are taking over the male gender to the tick-tocking of their bollock-clocks. Men like Snowden represent a new modern archetype. Over-paid nerds who hit 30 and suddenly feel they have to "make something" of themselves – yet the fact they've spent two decades alone in a room with a computer prevents them from realising that they're hurting others with their messiah complexes. All while a perfectly nice girl sheds one unfertilised ovum after another.

What people will say about this in 50 years' time:
“Of course, what we didn’t understand then was that having everything you do monitored by the government had begun to make us feel special – the sense of being cradled in the palm of an omniscient-being to replace the God we’d lost. The sense that our every online decision had significance. That someone – fucking someone – was looking at our tumblr. In the end, far from a liberator, Snowden was best remembered for being a shitbag boyfriend.”

British jihadis swim in a pool in Syria. Photo from Instagram.

SYRIA AND THE CHEMICAL WEAPONS
What happened?
Someone in Syria let off a chemical weapon, but no one knew who, and funnily enough the internationally mandated principle of "he who smelt it dealt it" didn’t seem to apply in this case. President Obama then decided he would pretend to nuke Syria, like a dad standing in a doorway going: “If you kids don’t go to bed right now, I’m gonna cancel the whole holiday.” Unbelievably, it worked. The world was saved. Obama immediately wrote off to Oslo to see about another Nobel Peace Prize.

How relevant does this feel to 2013?
Not very. Syria stubbornly remains an old school civil war rather than the sort of cool modern revolutionary flashmob we’ve become accustomed to. With so many more villainous tyrants on its doorstep, no one even thought about Syria for 50 years, so no one has ever had any clear box to put it in. Meaning that even now the world still looks at Syria like it’s the child it never knew it had, who suddenly turns up to stay one Christmas.

What people will say about this in 50 years' time:
“And at the time, the million who died in the civil war thanked America every day that they were having their brains splattered against the back walls of their living rooms by tank shells rather than poison gas.”

– – –

NIGELLA AND SAATCHI
What happened?
During lunch, a celebrity chef had some snot in her nose so her husband helpfully agreed to retrieve it. Then, she was choking on a boiled sweet, so he very helpfully and with much tenderness agreed to squeeze her neck till it popped out. Then these two legendary PR wizards both failed to understand what happens when you go to court to accuse someone who has been living in your house for a year of stealing.

How relevant does this feel to 2013?
Very. Post-NOTW, this is information that was captured fair and square by a man with a camera hiding in the bushes outside a restaurant, and by a reporter cunningly planted in the gallery of a courtroom, mischievously writing down what was said and deviously phoning it back to his editor. Thus proving that old school journalistic techniques can still give us access to meaningless, scurrilous tittle-tattle about people’s breakfast habits.

What people will say about this in 50 years' time:
“Well, if only they hadn’t shut the combination Pizza Hut-Taco Bell in 2028, we wouldn’t even be having this argument over where we should have dinner.”

Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes

More of Gavin's definitive end of year round-ups:

Six Tedious Conversations No-One Was Actually Having in 2013

The VICE Albums of the Year 2013