On the face of it last week contained two really good bits of news. First, there was unemployment apparently peaking at nearly half a million fewer people than most analysts, including the Government’s, were predicting this time last year. Second, the crime stats showed an 8% headline fall, again defying the widespread prediction that there would be more offences committed during the recession.
I am sure the Government wishes more attention was being paid to the good news, and hoping an effect might show up in the opinion polls. If so, ministers will have been disappointed to open Sunday newspapers, brimming not with glad tidings but endless analysis of the child assaults in Edlington, plus pages of speculation about how the current and previous Prime Minister will perform in the Iraq inquiry. But it’s not so much the politics that interest me.
Both the employment and crime news are genuinely interesting. There are various explanations for the former and tucked away on the BBC website is a very good overview from Stephanie Flanders. So the news was reported and there are analyses available, but why don’t people seem particularly interested? Compare this with the endless agonising – on the news, in the papers, but also in bus queues and pubs – about whether this would be the worst recession since (or even including) the Great Depression.
It’s a cliche that the news focuses on bad things. Over the years various people, from newsreaders to website founders, have tried to get people interested in a more balanced offering. But our lack of interest in how we have come through the downturn better than we expected, and our willingness to put so much more emphasis on the terrible crimes of two disturbed boys than the benign social trend revealed in the crime stats, underlines the depth of our social pessimism.
Last week, in an RSA Thursday event discussing optimism, a telling point was made. One of our advocates for pessimism, the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan, said that a great thing about thinking the worst is that pessimists are surprised and delighted when things go well. But, as Laurence Shorter, author of The Optimist replied, what actually happens when inveterate pessimists are presented with good news that they ignore it, discount it or start looking for its drawbacks.
So wedded are we now to social pessimism that we are unwilling even to acknowledge that as a country we appear to have become both more economically resilient and socially responsible. If we don’t take in the good news we will be even less able to deal intelligently with the bad.
I used to take great pride in posting a blog every day. But now I seem to fail at least once a week. It isn’t a loss of enthusiasm; merely that my diary has become a voracious beast from which I can neither run nor hide. I’ve also been tardy in responding to comments even though I am always rather touched that people take the time to respond to my ramblings.
In a desperate attempt to fight back I have written a piece for today’s Times which should relieve at least some of the pressure by discouraging any speaking invite for a public sector conference.
I am writing this at Heathrow on my way to give a lecture in Northern Ireland.
My long term reader (sorry mum, we really must book up a drink after work soon) may remember my enthusiasm for cultural theory and its four paradigms of social change; the egalitarian, the individualistic, the hierarchical and fatalist.
A few months ago, after a conversation with RSA Trustee Lord Richard Best, I foolishly asserted that I could use cultural theory as a useful way of thinking about the continuing problem of social segregation in Northern Ireland.
Actually, I might even have been right. The theory can be applied; seeing segregation driven primarily by egalitarian solidarity within the different religiously affiliated based communities, suggesting that individualism might be the most powerful force driving against segregation (if, for example, the only new build homes are in integrated neighbourhoods), and recognising that there is little hierarchical drive behind greater integration.
The problem is that the whole thesis can be summed up in five minutes and I’ve got thirty to fill. At this point my lack of detailed (OK, ‘any’) knowledge about the nature of segregation, or of past attempts to solve it, come into play. ‘Ah’ I say to myself ‘looks like I’m going to have to do some research’. At which point, with a malicious sparkle in its eye, my diary (which has by now become an imaginary demon with gap teeth, red eyes and bad breath) replies ‘jolly good, you’ve got a window in June 2010’.
Fortunately for me I fastened like a barnacle on to a patient and wise advisor at the Northern Ireland office of the Chartered Institute of Housing. When I first explained my predicament she recommended books, then, as my appeals became more pathetic it was articles, and then finally she started to send me selected quotations (not long complicated ones, mind you).
I have no idea how it will go. I could ask you to remind me to tell you next week. But my diary tells me that by Monday I will have to have become an expert on parenting policy (thankfully, my sons don’t read my blog) and how the civil service should manage the transition between administrations.
I don’t even have time to develop my new idea for a film; (working title ‘Appointment book with the devil’, about a man who despite his external show of self confidence and control has become demonically possessed by his own diary.
I have had a few ‘phone calls from Sunday journalists about the McBride affair. ‘Can you tell us more about his operation?’ they say. Which, when you think about it, is a bit like someone saying:
‘me and my mates have for years been having a very intimate relationship with someone you might vaguely know – what was it like?’.
Er…you could start by asking each other
Newspapers writing indignant exposes about the briefing operation of someone upon whom they relied for years for stories! You couldn’t make it up.
I could have a stab at listing the journalists who most relied on Damian. But then I recall the words of someone I used to know who ran a kind of McBride-lite operation; ‘Matthew’ he said ‘rule number one, never ever try to take on the media’
At the risk of contrivance, I want to try and link four recent events:
· A fascinating debate we had here at the RSA last week about social pessimism (the tendency of the public to be pessimistic about society despite objective improvements in their circumstances and optimism about their own prospects).
· Paul Dacre’s attack last night on Justice Eady and his spirited defence of the right of the press to expose venality and hypocrisy in high places.
· A poll published this morning by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, showing that only 22% of those surveyed (down from 27% in 2006) think ministers tell the truth.
In essence, my argument is that the press can’t have it both ways. If newspapers want, as Paul Dacre demands, the right to expose those in power, they have got to accept the responsibilities that come with that right. The problem is not so much the attacks journalists make on politicians and other people whom they deem a fair target, it is the lack of balance and the failure of accountability when the papers get things wrong.
So, in the social sphere, it may be that the newspapers are telling the truth when they give lots of publicity to violent crime – but this is completely out of proportion to the coverage they give to, for example, the evidence that crime levels are falling overall. If things are going well, there is simply no story. So, a visitor from Mars reading any of our newspapers would find it impossible to believe that satisfaction levels with the NHS are currently higher than they have ever been or that school standards are at an all time high. The media are therefore implicated in the phenomenon of social pessimism, something which individual journalists will admit, but corporate media moguls deny.
At a personal level, if you get attacked by the press, you can hope to weather the storm, but never expect to get a proper right of reply. Take the example of the Sunday Times and its full page splash on the minister, Shaun Woodward, eight days ago. The paper alleged that, despite the economic downturn, he had celebrated his 50th birthday in the most luxurious, over the top, decadent style imaginable. Unfortunately, it wasn’t true! As the Sunday Times revealed yesterday in its apology, just about everything in the piece was incorrect – the venue for the party, the number of guests, whether they all ended up in a nightclub; even the photograph was from the archives. It is clear from the apology that the journalist made no attempt to check his sources or their veracity. But whilst the grossly misleading story filled a whole page of the newspaper, the apology was one paragraph tucked away on an inside page. Unquestionably, tens of thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands, will have read the story, but may not have spotted the apology.
No-one reasonable wants to punish for the sake of it, but one assumes that the journalist who wrote the story is continuing happily in post. If a politician were found guilty of such public dishonesty, it would be a resigning matter. This is the context in which the survey showing declining trust in ministers has taken place.
Whatever the merits of Paul Dacre’s defence of a free press, the case would surely be strengthened if the media were willing themselves to be self-critical, responsible and accountable, rather than seeming to demand those virtues of everyone but themselves.
Twenty years ago when Europe and America were gripped by the AIDS panic – and before we realised that its impact in the West would seem minor in comparison to the devastation it would wreak in Africa – public anxiety was reflected in popular culture. In particular there was a fashion for movies that told morality tales about the consequences for ‘respectable’ people of behaving immorally. One example was Martin Scorsese’s under-rated ‘After Hours’ in which a hapless white collar worker gets trapped on the wrong side of New York (those who like this film associated it forever with the phrase ‘surrender Dorothy’ but you’ll need to google to find out why). But more famous was Oscar nominated Fatal Attraction. Glenn Close’s demented pursuit of Michael Douglas even created a new noun – ‘bunny boiler’ – to describe someone (usually female) who takes a vengeful view of being spurned.
I was reminded of all this by the furore over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. It’s difficult to know what to think of the row. On the one hand, Ross and Brand were only continuing the kind of hyper puerile entertainment upon which they have built so much of their careers. This may have been an extreme example but it was hardly out of keeping with their general style. On the other hand, there is no question that had anyone else left obscene messages on a pensioner’s answer phone in working hours they would have been sacked on the spot.
The story has now become a media frenzy with even Gordon Brown taking time out of managing the crisis of global capitalism to add to the criticism. The fact that the papers are now condemning two celebrities they were until last week assiduously courting and publicising is merely par for the course. Maybe the story has such legs because we are desperate for something to take our mind off the economy. But I wonder whether there may be another link. I suspect that as mre and more people suffer the impact of the global downturn we will see a growing intolerance towards the failings and peccadilloes of the rich, famous and privilege – thus the link to the change in mood during the AIDS panic.
As I have said in previous postings, it would be a good thing if the economic downturn causes us all to pause for thought. As millions of people suffer, some who are the authors of their own fate, others who are innocent victims, there will be a debate about the relationship between merit and reward. Generally, we didn’t care that much about the riches of the City and celebrity culture when we were all doing well. We won’t feel the same over the near future. But whilst such reflection is a good thing, we must resist the mass media’s hypocritical invitation to indulge in blame mongering and self righteousness. Yes, the bankers were greedy and irresponsible but we didn’t mind as long as we could keep spending, our houses kept rising in value and we could pile on the debt with apparent impunity. Similarly, Ross and Brand didn’t become famous just because some faceless BBC executive decided they should. We watched Big Brother, we enjoyed Ross tripping up his guests with sly innuendo. It appears that we have not abolished boom and bust economics.
We should resist the temptation of boom and bust morality!