International Papers

Millennium Blues

When newspapers tried to capture the spirit and meaning of the millennium celebrations, they generally ran into trouble. Britain’s Sunday newspapers tried very hard indeed. The Observer said that during the biggest party on the planet “most of its [6] billion souls stopped, if for one second, to remember that they were alive together, on Earth, the beautiful accident.” There was much more in this vein until the conclusion: “[W]e had been there, and we had seen each other being there. All six billion of us. We were there, and we were together alive, and it was good to be alive.” The Sunday Times said the turn of the century “was a moment of universal communality and aspiration. It was a moment when 1,000 years of peace suddenly seemed to be a human possibility.” The Independent on Sunday complained in its main front-page story that it had almost nothing to report but good news.

More soberly, Asahi Shimbun of Japan ran an editorial Sunday pointing out that communality isn’t all that it might be. Noting that the wealth of the world’s three richest men is greater than the GNPs of the 48 poorest countries in the world combined, it said that economic globalization benefits only the developed world. “Unless the imbalance is rectified and people in poor countries come to live stable lives, the connections among different people cannot be said to be a genuine network of people,” the paper said. In one poor country, Albania, an opposition newspaper summed up the state of the nation at the millennium in the gloomiest possible terms. The daily Albania said the nation’s post-Communist dreams of democracy have been dashed by a corrupt political “mafia,” which has terrorized and impoverished its citizens. “At the end of this millennium, Albania seems miserable, bloody, abandoned, and–what is worse–believing that its shattered hopes cannot be restored,” the paper said.

One of the main millennium stories around the world has been the failure of the Y2K bug to bite. As the Toronto Globe and Mail put it on New Year’s Day, the year 2000 “dawned catastrophe-free in region after region of a watchful world.” The paper said, “As of early this morning, no planes had fallen from the sky, no nuclear reactors melted down, no power grids collapsed. Computer glitches were scarce, terrorists seemed to take the night off, and Armageddon failed to begin. Civilization, such as it is, survived.” In Australia Monday, the national daily the Australian voiced fears that the Australian government, which spent billions of dollars on Y2K prevention, might have succumbed to hysteria generated by the computer industry. It quoted Anthony Finkelstein, a professor of software at University College London, as warning more than a year ago: “The public was ignorant, the IT consultants were drawn by the lure of filthy lucre, the science policy experts were seized with a mad-cow effect in which their advice ceased to be rational, the nutcases were declaring the end of the world and a sensible, empirically founded approach to risk was lost.”

In Russia, the daily Segodnya said Friday that Russia was generally safe from Y2K because most of its computers had been purchased in the mid-1990s when the problem was already understood by software producers (“Thus, the technical backwardness of Russia played to its advantage for the first time”). The paper quoted a former head of the Russian communications ministry, Aleksander Ivanov, as blaming the scare on Western intelligence services whose “crafty plan” was to install new computers with spying facilities in Russian government institutions. When Russia refused to give the Western technicians all the computer information they wanted, they had pronounced the country “ill-prepared” to deal with the millennium bug.

Many newspapers, however, highlighted a warning by Bill Gates of Microsoft that there may be computer glitches further down the line, and the Times of London led its front page Monday with the news that the bug had “affected a computer at the main uranium storage site for the US nuclear arsenal. … The exact nature of the malfunction at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Y-12 nuclear weapons plant was not disclosed because the computer controls a classified function,” the paper said. As the millennium euphoria began to evaporate, the Italian papers led Monday on chaos and transport paralysis in Rome as 3 million people invaded the city for the start of what the pope has called its jubilee year. In the London press, there was criticism of the organization of the British millennium celebrations, especially–in the letters page of the Guardian–of the lack of public toilets along the Thames. “Elegantly dressed women had to squat and urinate in shop doorways because there were no facilities,” one correspondent wrote.

Queen Elizabeth II, who had been criticized for not crossing her arms to hold hands with her husband Prince Philip and Prime Minister Tony Blair for the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” in the Millennium Dome, was vindicated Monday by the tabloid Daily Mirror, which said that arms are not supposed to be linked until the last verse of Robert Burns’ poem, which starts “And there’s a hand, my trusty fere [friend].” The president of the Burns Federation explained, “It’s no use singing ‘There’s a hand’ if you already have a hand.” In Paris, Le Monde reported Sunday that half a dozen false messiahs were taken to hospital in Jerusalem for psychiatric tests.

In an editorial Monday, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz called for the resignation of President Ezer Weizman after his office confirmed a newspaper report that between 1988 and 1993, when he was a member of the Knesset and a government minister, he received gifts of money totaling $453,000 from French millionaire Edward Sarusi. “Weizman must step down as president now, not later, because he lacks the uprightness required of a public figure, and even now does not understand what he did wrong,” the paper said. “If the president of the state does not pay the price for his actions, it will no longer be possible to demand proper conduct from other public servants. The role of the president is a symbolic one, and the symbol has to be a role model, not a symbol that engenders opprobrium.”