Little pieces give flavour to a bigger narrative

Published by Tony Quinlan on

I’ve added a new podcast to my already-lengthy list.  It’s another BBC one – this time a short 2-3 minute piece each day, summing up news stories of 100 years ago in the lead up to World War I. A few weeks in, and I’ve already learned plenty, but it highlights a number of key elements that resonate strongly, including some that came up last week in a conversation with a government group about how to build a bigger national narrative:

A grander strategic narrative is best built from smaller pieces that we know have resonance

Each day, a number of news stories play out – international diplomacy and alliances between Austro-Hungary and Germany, Russia and Serbia; domestic politics including the Suffragette movement and Home Rule for Ireland; little details that may add up to something later such as the red-trousered French army. The BBC have obviously chosen some stories for their progressive relevance to the bigger story they intend to tell, but also some that have resonance with the modern-day audience – such as the distrust of European immigrants (a lovely little cameo of courses being run to help immigrants to learn how to be more British – including “who should bow first on meeting”).

This also allows for a diverse set of smaller, micro-narratives – including stories of failure and from non-authority perspectives – to percolate into the overall perception, without them coming in for undue focus.  It gives a much richer, more realistic picture of events than a standard, streamlined, only-the-directly-relevant facts.

Actions are often interpreted through the lens of national deliberate action rather than from the actions of smaller, chaotic actors

The assasination of Franz Ferdinand was interpreted by hostile governments as being a deliberate attack by the Serbian government rather than the actions of a small group of non-state actors. As a result, denials were automatically dismissed (and only raised the international temperature higher) and reparations expected. The possibility that it might not have been deliberate was not entertained by anyone – and further accidents (such as an ambassador dying after a government visit) is interpreted through the same lens as another assasination.

Local, domestic stories trump far-away ones

In the UK (from whose perspective much of this podcast comes), news is dominated far more by domestic upheavals – trials and torture of Suffragettes, negotiations and threats around Irish Home Rule and potential mass labour strikes. The weak signals of upheaval overseas are missed entirely in this foreground focus.  And when little elements are picked up they are easily dismissed – “in this contentious labour environment, we won’t allow the Prime Minister to send our sons off to war.”

Not knowing local history is a dangerous thing

June 28th had double significance in Serbia: according to the Serbian 19th century national identity founding myth, the Ottoman Empire defeated Serbia in the Battle of Kosovo with Prince Lazar slain in battle on that day in 1389, with Ottoman Sultan Murad I killed by Serbian knight Miloš Obilić. Then on June 28, 1881, a secret treaty between Austria-Hungary and Serbia is signed with Serbia earning the right to be recognized as a monarchy in exchange of surrendering its independence to the Habsburg Empire.

Knowing those two elements, it was probably not the best day for the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to be observing military manouevres and waving at crowds. (Although I wasn’t previously aware that he was assassinated on the second trip of the day – going to the hospital to visit an aide who was injured in the first attack before leaving)

A steady rhythm of examples builds the overarching narrative

With this podcast, it’s a short piece heard (almost) daily.  And it’s the accumulation of examples – some noticed, some inevitably missed – that allows the greater understanding of a bigger picture. 

I’d strongly recommend the podcast, but if you get it, download all the past episodes and listen to them from the start to get the best experience of understanding built through the accumulation of micro-narratives.