Believe the hype? We’re hooked on it
22 May 2009
The experts who have announced that the current crisis in our political system is the worst in living memory are already being challenged. The problem is far more serious than that. Like mad bidders at a history auction, the pundits are raising the stakes as they hype up the drama. Not since Ramsay Macdonald; not since the Great Reform Act. Any advance on the rotten boroughs?
The tone of this fevered speculation may ring a not-too-distant bell. Cast your mind back a couple of months and, instead of the veteran political correspondents vowing that they had never seen anything like it in their long career, it was business affairs colleagues, led by the over-excited Robert Peston, who were saying pretty much the same thing. At first the economic crisis was the worst since the early 1980s. Then there had been nothing quite like this since the end of the Second World War. Finally, inevitably, the Great Depression was invoked.
In between the crisis of capitalism and the crisis of democracy, another great news story almost took wing on the winds of public paranoia. Swine flu was upon us. A global pandemic was widely discussed – the worse spread of disease since 1967 or perhaps even 1918. The signs were unmistakable. Historically, it was overdue.
Then, like bird flu, the panic passed. Recently, in a last desperate attempt to keep the story live and kicking, a new source of panic has been discovered. Pandemics are cunning, apparently. They can appear in a mild form, recede then return months later – this autumn, probably – in their most virulent form.
We have become hooked on these big, dramatic stories. It seems to be no longer enough for the economy to be in trouble, for there to be health worries, or for politicians to annoy voters. To feed our addiction to news melodrama, these developments must be cataclysmic and, to use a word without which no news report is complete, unprecedented. News has become a competitive business, and nothing thrills and flatters the audience quite like a story which one day will be part of history – at least, if the experts are to believed.
So, of course, journalists are enjoying the current expenses crisis, and so is the public. It offers daily pain, drama, change. The evening news has become the most compelling programme on TV. Politicians, in the eye of the storm, feel more alive too. All eyes are on them. Suddenly, what they do and say matters. It is as if each of these crises is another strand in a great reality show in which we all have a part to play.
The problem with feeding this addiction to hyperbole and hysteria is that the process is self-perpetuating. If you tell people frequently enough that there is no confidence in the financial system, or that voters are dangerously disenchanted with the parliamentary system, it will happen. It is no accident that TV presenters and chat-show hosts are now considering running for parliament. Playing a role in the melodrama of public life must seem like a logical next step after a successful appearance in I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!.
The crisis of this month will subside and some sort of normality will return. In a saner world, that would be a matter of relief but, hooked on panic, we shall soon be hankering after the next extraordinary, unprecedented, historically momentous catastrophe. We shall not have to wait long.
For a worthy cause, look to Burma
Those needing to be reminded that politics can be an honourable and important business should be following events in Burma where Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroic campaigner for democracy, has been put on trial after years of house imprisonment. It is an important moment of transition, and Ms Suu Kyi is said to be organising her defence with energy and determination.
If any cause requires the will of the world and all the pressure that diplomacy can bring, it is that of this extraordinary woman and her campaign against repression.
Risky business of playing the Trump card
Anyone writing about Donald Trump, the property tycoon with a comedy haircut, should be very careful. A New York Times journalist, Timothy O’Brien, dared to suggest in a book that Trump, pictured, may not be a billionaire, and is now on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
Trump’s defence reveals much about the business brain. Some of his wealth is, he claims, represented by what he calls his “brand value”. That can fluctuate not only with the market but also with his own feelings on any particular day.
The touchy-feely idea that wealth is a reflection of personal mood will resonate with Stuart Pearson, a 25-year-old Irishman who has been in the news since announcing that he would be putting in a multi-million-pound bid for one of Ireland’s leading building firms. The evidence is beginning to suggest that Mr Pearson, who runs a village sweet shop and lives in a rented bungalow, may have got a little carried away.
While he might have taken Donald Trump’s brand value idea rather too far, there is surely a connection between his approach and that of the billionaire. “You have to think anyway, so why not think big?” Trump once said.