That popular British sport, the mass back-pedal, is back in fashion this week. Bob Geldof is not a saint. The question of world poverty is not as straightforward as it seemed. It was not necessarily a good thing to allow a revered comedy writer to insert Make Poverty History propaganda into one of his sitcoms. The BBC was wrong to trundle along in the comfy middle carriages of the liberal bandwagon.
Only two years ago, it was all different. The people were uniting to show those cynical G8 leaders that something had to be done about the Third World. The good guys – Geldof, Bono, Richard Curtis – were articulating this popular anger and the BBC, the people’s channel, gave them a platform. It was all rather moving.
Now, feet whirring backwards on the pedals, politicians, commentators and even the BBC itself seem to have concluded that the corporation has become institutionally liberal. “There is a tendency to ‘group think’, with too many staff inhabiting a shared space and comfort zone,” according to a report from the BBC Trust. Employees had a “Roneo mentality”, copying liberal values from one another.
There is something important missing from this analysis. That groupthink, to which it refers, does not exist merely within the BBC. One of the great epidemics of the early 21st century, it is all around us – wafting over political demonstrations against poverty, clogging the air in discussions on TV, causing a mass orgasm of fake sentimentality on Red Nose Day. On the surface, groupthink is harmless, an expression of decency, sensitivity and general virtue, but it carries a knuckle-duster in its pocket for those who fail to be quite nice enough.
It is usually, but not always, popular with politicians. The Make Poverty History campaign cast Blair and Brown in the role of international heroes; they rather liked that. President Bush tried to activate an unthinking, feeling response at the start of the Iraq War with childishly unconvincing speeches about bad guys and evil, but the groupthink was already heading in the opposite direction. The Not In Our Name campaign was uninterested in analysis or in the wider problems of the Middle East. What mattered was mass emotion, the sense of shared rightness of opinion.
If the BBC had held out against groupthink over the past three years, it would have been turned on mercilessly by politicians, the media and the majority of license-payers. There is a yearning, almost a compulsion, to see our own values reflected back to us on the screen. We disapprove of racism, and so Channel 4, having set up racist tension in Celebrity Big Brother, led the outrage and the bullying when it happened. We disapprove of snobbery, and so when Boris Johnson made a relatively harmless remark about lachrymose Liverpudlians, he was forced into a humiliating apology. We disapprove of smoking, and so the BBC becomes part of the propaganda campaign of group pressure on tobacco addicts.
But it is dangerous, this fog of niceness. An exquisite concern for not causing offence and a tendency to rate feeling higher than thought plays into the hands of those in power who have become masters at manipulating mood.
The great cause of the moment should be to revive the spirit of the awkward squad – on television, in parliament, in life. Debate becomes tougher and hotter when discordant voices can be heard, but at least it happens. It is time for us to get out of the comfort zone while we still can.
Cellulite and the zeitgeist
Get your handkerchiefs out, another great Diana sob-in approaches. With the 10th anniversary of the death of the Queen of Hearts, a ghastly rerun of the group madness she inspired is already under way. Pop stars are tuning up for their own special Di moment. Tina Brown has skipped belatedly on to the bandwagon and is plugging a new book. The simpering butler Paul Burrell must surely be about to make an appearance.
And now a national newspaper has solemnly reported that, in 1996, Di was worried that she had cellulite. The dimples on her thighs were caused by a bar-stool, she told the inevitable close friends. What a profoundly embarrassing insight into the national character the late princess provided.
* It would be far too easy to gain a cheap laugh from the news that Scottish children are being encouraged to be careful with their money with the publication of a book of finance-based short stories. There is nothing particularly Scottish about keeping an eye on your savings, even earning a bob or two in interest, even if people in that part of the world may have a talent for it.
A more justifiable concern is about the project as a whole, which combines the financial support of Standard Life with the marketing of the Scottish Book Trust. No less than 60,000 copies of On the Money are to be published and distributed to every primary school in Scotland.
There is something distinctly iffy about using stories to convey socially useful messages to young readers, encouraging them, to quote the Trust, “to engage empathetically with issues … such as financial awareness.” It is bossy, Victorian, and a small but meaningful betrayal of the freedom which fiction should offer.