No words encapsulate the spirit of the age more perfectly than that familiar phrase “named and shamed”. When someone receives the named-and-shamed treatment, the world briefly seems a better, fairer place. Whether the guilty party is a politician, a dodgy plumber, or a stingy millionaire, their naming and shaming represents a rough, but often rather satisfying, form of contemporary justice.
It has been yet another bumper weekend in the naming and shaming business. A tubby, middle-aged man has been revealed as a porn-watcher whose habit cost the nation a full £10. He has been forced to creep miserably out of his house and confess his terrible sin by submitting to that ultimate punishment of the 21st-century, the public apology.
“Porngate” as it will soon be known has been a sideshow in a great carnival of outrage about the behaviour of MPs. There have been howls of outrage about politicians from opinion-makers in the press and online. On the BBC’s Question Time, the audience was so angry that they seemed to be on the point of riot. The reliably sanctimonious Martin Bell has reminded us all of his pure and valiant fight against sleaze.
There is something ugly about this surge of public virtue. Here, in the phrase coined by Barry Mizen, whose son’s killer was jailed last week, is the true face of “angry Britain”. It is not just feral youths, or short-tempered commuters, whose lives are shaped and driven by rage, but ordinary people, shaking their fist at the television news or chuckling with satisfaction as someone in public life is brought low. It is journalists sucking up to their readers by writing increasingly vicious and inflammatory attacks on those in public life. It is also the politicians themselves who, in pathetic attempts to be populist, join the mob, express their anger about this and that and declare their faith in “the court of public opinion”.
What is going on? MPs are not behaving worse than before, any more than bankers suddenly became greedy. It is the national mood, and the tone of public discourse, which has changed, growing nastier by the week. No one could be surprised that Sir Fred Goodwin’s house was attacked; the vandals were merely expressing the public mood with a crowbar. Any violence surrounding this week’s G20 summit will be similar.
Perhaps baying for the blood of others makes us all feel virtuous. Behind all this sanctimonious public rage, they may lie a sense of private guilt. It was society, not just individuals, who have been greedy the past few years. As for Porngate, the billions being made by the adult film industry suggest that the luckless Richard Timney is not alone or unusual in watching the occasional blue movie.
The newspaper that named and shamed is part of a group that makes money out of “adult entertainment”. Another paper that is a great defender of public virtue recently ran a story about a 15-year-old prostitute and chose to illustrate it with a moody picture of a pubescent girl leaning against a wall on a neon-lit street. It was, of course, a posed and set-up photograph: in our pornified society, the story needed quite literally to be sexed up.
History should warn us that when the population is whipped into a state of outrage about politicians, something altogether more sinister is likely to appear out of the red mist.