Wednesday 24 February
The way in which the divisions within the Conservative Party over continuing EU membership have been presented provides a good example of the extent to which news coverage has now become a form of entertainment. Serious matters are given soap opera treatment, with all the delicacy of the Jeremy Kyle show, in which dysfunctional families are exploited by being encouraged to behave badly in front of the camera. The 'spat’ between David Cameron and Boris Johnson may involve people from a different social milieu but it is treated by the media in much the same way.
A shifty, ambitious Boris is contrasted with a smooth, statesmanlike David, anxious to secure his legacy as a successful prime minister. Then there is the supporting cast on both sides – Tory backwoodsmen (and women) from the shires, anxious to defend an ill-defined notion of 'sovereignty’, set against establishment toadies who lack the vision to think beyond minor adjustments to the status quo. All this is conducted against a background of accusation and counter-accusation on social media, where instant opinion masquerades as serious analysis.
In an era of 24-hour news there must always be novelty, a new twist which meets the public appetite for fresh titbits of speculation, if not information. It is entirely fitting that the BBC plans to stage a big EU debate at the Wembley arena. Last year the venue hosted Comic Relief’s ‘Danceathon’. Perhaps we can look forward to David Cameron’s Argentinian Tango in a final showdown against Boris Johnson’s Charleston. In the case of the latter, I anticipate some timing and coordination problems.
Thursday 25 February
I am not normally a reader of the Telegraph but I buy a copy today as it is the 50,000th edition and contains a selection of readers’ letters published over the 160 years of its existence. These include pompous exchanges over split infinitives prompted by Bertrand Russell’s use of one ('to crudely dominate’) in a 1964 article. The philosopher defended his usage citing Milton’s poem 'Lycidas’ in support of his case, but without specifying the relevant passage. This led to a further flurry of letters, some of them erudite and entertaining. Contributors included T S Eliot.
Another occasional letter writer was Kingsley Amis, who made a familiar intellectual journey from Angry Young Man (with his 1954 bestseller 'Lucky Jim’) to Grumpy Old Codger (with his 1984 novel 'Stanley and the Women’). One of his efforts appeared in 1970, a spoof letter in which he describes himself as 'press officer’ for an organisation with the acronym STUPID (Society for Thinking Up Progressive Innovations and Developments). By the end of his life Amis was a caricature of the typical right-wing curmudgeon, opposed to virtually anything that involved change. That, however, did not prevent him from winning the Booker prize for his 1986 novel, 'The Old Devils’.
I have always enjoyed readers’ letters in newspapers and have sometimes written them myself. Unless you are a well-known public figure, however, they are likely to be edited, sometimes badly, by the person responsible for the letters’ page. Split infinitives no longer provoke much controversy but letters that are short, provocative and (if appropriate) witty stand the best chance of being accepted for publication.
Friday 26 February
One of the central criticisms made in Dame Janet Smith’s report on the BBC’s failure to address allegations of sexual abuse concerned the 'deferential culture’ which operated within the corporation. Television 'stars’ were treated as VIPs and regarded as 'untouchable’. Junior staff who expressed concerns about what was going on were advised to keep quiet if they wanted to have a future in broadcasting.
A similar pattern was seen in Rotherham where powerful members of the criminal gang which organised the systematic abuse and exploitation of vulnerable teenagers were allowed by the police and local government to do what they liked. It has been suggested that this was partly because of concerns about allegations of racism. Whatever the explanation, it is not in doubt that some police officers and social workers failed to act on complaints by victims and their parents, and were thus complicit in the abuse. What may never be known in both the BBC and Rotherham scandals is how far up the ladder of command the knowledge of serious misconduct went. Bureaucratic organisations tend to be very good at attributing responsibility to lower levels of the line-management structure.
Many institutions operate a 'deferential culture’, even though it may not lead to the shocking behaviour evident in these cases. For example, part of the explanation for the various banking offences was that very few staff were prepared to question the decisions of senior executives, even if they suspected they were unethical: they knew it would damage their future prospects in the financial sector. Similarly, army recruits may be subject to bullying and victimisation if they show any evidence of scepticism in relation to the officer class.
The analysis can be extended further, to less obvious instances of a culture of compliance. New entrants to medicine and the legal profession quickly learn to show respect for the hierarchy and are advised not to say anything that might be construed as a challenge to their superiors. Most become highly conformist, understandably wishing to ensure a successful future. At what point does deference cease to be showing 'proper’ regard for more knowledgeable and experienced colleagues and become something rather more sinister, acceptance of a power structure that serves the interests of those at the top? And where does this leave the doctors’ patients and the lawyers’ clients? When things go wrong, it is not unknown for some of them to become victims of evasion and cover-up, as professions seek to defend their 'integrity'.
The BBC episode should not be written off as an aberration, a dark chapter in one institution’s history. What it reveals about the dangers of a 'deferential culture' has implications far beyond the details of this particular case.
Sunday 28 February
One of Philip Larkin’s most famous poems uses the 'f’ word to arresting effect. It begins:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
This is a theme taken up in the latest book ('Not in your genes’) by the clinical psychologist Oliver James. He reviews research about genetic inheritance and concludes that, while it makes sense in relation to physical features, it has so far failed to offer a convincing explanation for psychological characteristics, particularly where they are perceived as exhibiting signs of mental disturbance. James states that 'No gene has been shown to have any significant effect on any psychological traits'. This leads him to come down on the side of nurture rather than nature when explaining the origins and development of mental health problems. Between birth and three is the critical period. One newspaper report of James’s analysis used a provocative title which would have had most parents up in arms: 'If your child is a mess, it’s your fault'.
James does acknowledge that nobody can be a complete expert in bringing up children and get everything right. It’s a very testing and demanding responsibility. Moreover, he could cite the second verse of Larkin’s poem to show that parents themselves have been victims of the same process:
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
The poem ends by noting humanity’s capacity to pass on 'misery’ from one generation to the next – 'it deepens like a coastal shelf’. By all accounts Larkin himself (a close friend of Kingsley Amis) had some strange psychological quirks. But who knows, these may have made an important contribution to his creative powers. A 'normal’ upbringing is not necessarily the best preparation for future writers and artists.