Our era lacks grav­i­tas. That’s why we can­not deal with cri­sis

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Ian Jack

What is a na­tional cri­sis? Eighty years ago the so­cial re­searchers Charles Madge and Tom Har­ris­son de­cided it was “one of those things, like epi­demics and earth­quakes, which sud­denly ar­rive to threaten the se­cu­rity of or­di­nary lives. In the or­di­nary way, the in­ter­est of pri­vate peo­ple in pub­lic events is fit­ful and vague: at times of cri­sis it ex­tends and in­creases.” As the founders of the Mass Ob­ser­va­tion pro­ject in 1937, the first cri­sis Madge and Har­ris­son and their hun­dreds of vol­un­teer di­arists had ex­am­ined was the fall­out from the ab­di­ca­tion in De­cem­ber 1936 of Ed­ward VIII. But then in Septem­ber 1938 came Mu­nich, and Neville Cham­ber­lain’s three trips to meet Hitler to avert the out­break of war. This was a cri­sis of a dif­fer­ent or­der: the United King­dom ex­pe­ri­enced noth­ing like it again in peace­time un­til the present post-ref­er­en­dum years of bit­ter divi­sion and anx­i­ety.

Some of the per­sonal re­ac­tions recorded by Mass Ob­ser­va­tion in 1938 feel re­mark­ably fa­mil­iar. “It’s a fuck­ing mess, ain’t it?” “No one knows what’ll hap­pen.” “I can’t un­der­stand it prop­erly, but it doesn’t seem too good to me.” In Lon­don at the height of the cri­sis, a 38-year-old woman writes: “We don’t bother much about it … not be­cause we are not think­ing about it. Life’s too short to keep on with war, war, war.” And an­other woman adds: “Oh, when I see the pa­per I turn the page over. Suppose it’s be­cause I’m windy …”

I catch sight of my own be­hav­iour in these last two re­ac­tions: my need to es­cape what passes for re­al­ity by switch­ing off shows such as BBC1’s Ques­tion Time, or ex­chang­ing Ra­dio 4’s To­day pro­gramme for mu­sic on Ra­dio 3. On Thurs­day’s edi­tion of To­day an un­re­pen­tant leave voter in Bed­ford gave Nick Robinson a bis­cuit anal­ogy (per­haps in­spired by the co­me­dian Peter Kay) in which the UK had be­haved like “a soggy rich tea” in its ne­go­ti­a­tions with the “solid Hob­nob” that was the EU.

“If we’d have sent a Hob­nob with cho­co­late on we’d have won,” he said, suggest­ing Alan Su­gar as the best man for the job. All of this was said se­ri­ously. He might have been the 40-year-old chauf­feur who in 1938, when asked his opin­ion on what should be done, replied: “Keep out of for­eign en­tan­gle­ments, that’s best. Old Eng­land’s the best coun­try in the world.” Cer­tain feel­ings en­dure.

What has changed is the me­dia’s tone. In 1938, an­other world war was cer­tainly a more fright­en­ing prospect than the na­tional be­lit­tle­ment that faces us now; even so, the cov­er­age of Brexit de­serves a reg­is­ter that has gone miss­ing. Grav­ity may be the word. We have for­got­ten how to be grave.

In 1938, Mass Ob­ser­va­tion saw its pri­mary pur­pose as drilling through the pa­tri­otic rhetoric of Fleet Street news­pa­pers to the land that Ir­ish poet Louis MacNe­ice de­scribed as “the king­dom of in­di­vid­u­als”. News­pa­per ed­i­to­ri­als spoke con­fi­dently and gen­er­ally. Ac­cord­ing to the Daily Mail: “The Bri­tish na­tion un­re­servedly places its com­plete trust in the prime minister, Mr Neville Cham­ber­lain.” A Lon­don evening pa­per, the Star, be­gan an edi­to­rial: “ENG­LAND SPEAKS. The coun­try re­mains ad­mirably calm in these hours of deep­en­ing cri­sis … It is the steady spirit of a na­tion that has made up its mind and faces the fu­ture un­afraid.”

Madge and Har­ris­son noted that the trou­ble with this kind of state­ment wasn’t that it was true or false – the trou­ble was the as­sump­tion on the news­pa­per’s part that it didn’t need to find out. “More sub­tle,” they wrote, were the state­ments that ap­pealed to facts with­out es­tab­lish­ing the facts ob­jec­tively. It was here that the fab­u­lous fig­ure, the Man in the Street, played a key role. Ac­cord­ing to one writer, the Man in the Street had made up his mind that Hitler was “the supreme men­ace to the peace of the world” and un­til he was “in some way dis­posed of” no­body could sleep easy. Other Men in the Street backed Cham­ber­lain’s ap­proach and be­lieved it would save Europe from war. Only when Madge and Har­ris­son did some el­e­men­tary re­search did a much more com­pli­cated pic­ture emerge of fear, be­wil­der­ment, anger, re­solve and ig­no­rance, in pro­por­tions that changed among the pub­lic as the cri­sis ad­vanced.

The writ­ers blamed the Bri­tish press’s in­ad­e­quate and al­most men­da­cious cov­er­age of Bri­tish pub­lic opin­ion on the peo­ple they de­scribed as “the In­tel­lec­tual Few”; edi­tors who rarely met “or­di­nary peo­ple” or, when it came to big po­lit­i­cal ques­tions, en­cour­aged their re­porters to dis­cover what they felt. Sim­i­lar crit­i­cism is di­rected to­day at the “metropoli­tan liberal elite”.

In their ir­rev­er­ence and sen­ti­men­tal­ity, and their in­ter­est in celebrity and the sen­sa­tional, Bri­tish news­pa­pers and the broad­cast me­dia are now much closer to the au­di­ences they pur­sue. News – in­clud­ing po­lit­i­cal news – has be­come a kind of en­ter­tain­ment. How many min­is­ters will re­sign to­day? Did you see Cor­byn mess up again? It may be no less in­for­ma­tive, but in the telling a for­mal style of ad­dress has al­most van­ished, to be heard oc­ca­sion­ally and ec­cen­tri­cally in the an­nounce­ments of royal birthdays that come be­fore the early-morn­ing bul­letins. And some­times for­mal­ity is de­sir­able, as a way to dig­nify our grief or ap­pre­hen­sion: not for noth­ing do un­der­tak­ers wear black.

The present cri­sis will shrink soon enough. Com­pared with other crises cir­cling in the stack and wait­ing to land – species ex­tinc­tion, hu­man pop­u­la­tion growth, mass mi­gra­tion, re­source ex­haus­tion – Brexit is small stuff, a point­less dis­trac­tion. But how can news bul­letins cope with these things? How should they be ranked? A bearded man car­ry­ing a sand­wich board – “The End is Nigh” – was once a fa­mil­iar char­ac­ter in car­toons, but now the joke falls flat. “Col­lapse of civil­i­sa­tion is on the hori­zon” was how the Guardian head­lined its re­port of David At­ten­bor­ough’s speech this week to the UN’s cli­mate sum­mit in Poland. It ap­peared on the front page, though it was not the lead item.

If we want to see the world dif­fer­ently and, just pos­si­bly, avert the col­lapse, we need dif­fer­ent kinds of in­for­ma­tion. What has mat­tered un­til now is money. The in­dices that ap­pear with­out fail – fixed on the printed page and chang­ing on the screen – show the fluc­tu­a­tions of the FTSE 100, the Dow Jones, Nas­daq and the cur­rency ex­change rates. Imag­ine if in­stead the same lit­tle boxes showed the av­er­age global tem­per­a­ture, the ex­tent of Arc­tic sea ice, the rise in sea level and the parts per mil­lion of CO2 in the at­mos­phere. Day by day, the changes would be tiny – con­sol­ing in their minute­ness. Com­par­i­son with the same set of fig­ures for the same day 20 years be­fore would be needed to show their omi­nous de­vel­op­ment.

There they would be: sober, fac­tual, grave and rarely con­sulted; but al­ways warn­ing against the ul­ti­mate cri­sis, like an old-fash­ioned ser­mon on hell.

A man with a sand­wich board – ‘The End is Nigh’ – was once a fa­mil­iar char­ac­ter in car­toons. Now the joke falls flat


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