We’re living in the Great Age of Panic

It is as if we need to be afraid of one thing or another in order to feel alive

Three years ago, the Chief Medical Officer announced that a great pandemic was “a biological inevitability”. Now the writer Mark Honigsbaum has written a book about the flu pandemic of 90 years ago which is believed to have killed 50 million people and has asked whether Britain in 2008 is better prepared than it was in 1918.

You can probably guess the answer. Although the resilience of our forbears has been exaggerated, Mark Honigsbaum argues in Living with Enza: The Forgotten Story of Britain and Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 that the chance of mass panic is greater today. We depend more upon the NHS. “When expectations are not met, community spirit quickly evaporates, especially if politicians appear dithering or ineffective.”

Events of the past week suggest that he may be under-estimating the problem. This, surely is the Great Age of Panic. Mass fear of one kind or another is never far away. It is as if we need to be afraid of one thing or another in order to feel fully alive.

Quite why we lurch giddily from one surge of anxiety to another is a mystery. It might be that Western societies, cosseted by decades of relative peace and prosperity, have become pampered and soft. The media, now obliged to report on fresh disasters around the clock, hype up and dramatise reality like the producer of a TV soap whose ratings are on the slide.

Technology has played its part. Computers simultaneously make those dependent on them feel isolated and yet connected to a great amorphous mass of opinion and emotion. They flatten out complexity in favour of excitement, envy, desire and fear. The result has been strikingly evident in the past month. As we accelerated towards economic disaster, those who understand such things were bewildered by the fact that, even when governments shored up their most vulnerable financial institutions, fear remained unabated. There was no stopping the pandemic of anxiety; it had its own crazed momentum. It was not so much a slump, a crash or a depression as an accelerating panic.

Herd hysteria of a different type followed the revelation 10 days ago that two well-known broadcasters had publicly left vulgar and unfunny messages on the mobile phone of an old actor. The incident raised interesting questions of taste and morality in our culture and organisational ones for the BBC but, in the context of more important world news, it was essentially trivial.

Yet, bizarrely, it made headline news for nearly a week, spilling wildly in all sort of directions: the financing of the BBC; blokeism against feminism; attitudes towards the old; how broadcasters try to appeal to the young; privacy; celebrity pay – there was no end to it. A weird, undirected mob morality set in. Everyone, it seemed, was outraged about some aspect of a few minutes on late-night radio. When political leaders were unable to resist joining the chorus of outrage and pronounced weightily upon the issue, our national embarrassment was complete.

It is worrying when mass thinking impinges on the political process. The highly infectious anxiety of crowds can not only cause financial collapse but can lead to knee-jerk government and bad decisions.

Is there a leader out there brave enough to tell a public caught up in the panic of the moment to keep calm and grow up?