Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Paris: reacting to reactions

How to respond to the outrages in Paris (Friday 13 November 2015)? I found myself overloaded after about half an hour of BBC “Breaking News” coverage late Friday night.

Of course it is an outrage and it is impossible to adequately express that outrage (as so much coverage seems to prove). Are there lessons to be drawn from the reaction? Possibly it is still too early – three days on the BBC was still flagging coverage as “Breaking News” and excluding almost all other news from its TV coverage.

Should we be dominated (in all senses) by these events? Or should we stand back and think about how we are reacting and the consequences of those reactions?

One death through terrorism is an outrage in a way that somehow other “avoidable” deaths such as road deaths are not. The European Commission reports (2014 data) that France suffers 53 road deaths per year per million population – and with a population of about 63 million (ref: CIA World Factbook), that is about 3,300 deaths per year – about 64 a week. Yet this carnage is little remarked on – certainly media coverage is minimal¹.

¹ UK comparative figures are: 29 road deaths per million population per year, which on a population of 64 million is about 1,900 deaths per year – about 37 per week.

One hundred plus deaths in one set of related terrorism events triggers a huge reaction at international, national and individual levels. The media then amplifies, perpetuates and even extends this reaction and consequently we see genuinely emotional reactions across the world. Yet we are not as upset by the carnage on our roads, or deaths through domestic violence, or deaths through obesity – or even deaths through famine, dirty water (1600 baby deaths per day – WaterAid) or natural disasters elsewhere in the world.

Whilst some may condemn this “emotional incontinence”, it is probably more useful to wonder about the consequences of the depth and breadth of this reaction. The consequences are seen in political action (or inaction) by our leaders and in our demand for or tolerance of particular reactions.

There is an unconsidered chain of reactions to many tragedies and outrages:

The media – particularly the rolling news media (such as BBC News 24 and the on-line providers) – go into a “saturation mode”. The coverage excludes other stories and in its insatiable struggle to find content falls back on repetitive reports, speculation and sometimes downright irresponsible unverified and incorrect reports (such as the report that “the Jungle” at Calais had been set alight in retaliation, or that a TGV had been derailed in another attack).

Much of it is very moving, but the message is “this is terrible”, “be afraid, be very afraid”, “the world has changed”, “something must be done”. Is the media failing in a wider duty – to inform, to set in context?

Audiences then react, getting sucked into consuming even more of the coverage – and sucking in others who feel that they must also conform to the obsessive concern with the “terribleness” of the event. This makes the media feel justified in their coverage – they are getting the ratings, getting the clicks – and prolongs the media saturation.

It is argued that in a democracy, the people must be involved and that our leaders must respond to the concerns of the people. But if that concern is an essentially emotional one driven by media reports of others’ emotional responses to events, shouldn’t our leaders apply a degree of moderation in response to public concern?

Our “leaders” then respond to the toxic mix of saturation media coverage of reaction to events and public outrage fuelled by that coverage. However, this is a time for calm heads and moderate language.

Immediate “retaliation” against “newly discovered command centres” may satisfy the vindictive nature of the mob (i.e. us) and allow our leaders to demonstrate that they are “taking action to protect us”, but “intelligence” failed to predict the outrage – how reliable is the intelligence about the “newly discovered command centres” or will another hospital be accidentally bombed causing “collateral damage” and breeding further distrust of the west and further fertilising the environment that generates jihadists?

Outrages such as last Friday should (and do) get our leaders to discretely ask the security and emergency services to check that their planning is robust against any new circumstances revealed by their private investigations of what happened. But this media chain reaction should not be used to justify immediate policy changes or pushing through changes in the law – defying opposition to say that they would not agree that “everything must be done to prevent another outrage”. “Everything must be done” represents lazy thinking and can take us into some very totalitarian places.

We need to be aware of how events cause us to react and to be able to stand back and consider events in context and in an environment that is not driven by our immediate emotional reactions. Emotional reaction is human, but so is rational consideration.

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One thought on “Paris: reacting to reactions

  1. The media is simply feeding the population’s desire for bad news and ‘tragedy’. Remember years back when ‘Boris’ suggested that Scousers thrived on tragedy? Well he was right, but now this seems to have been transmitted to the entire population. Look how things have changed over the years:

    People rushing out to buy flowers to mark the death spot of people who they have never met nor previously ever heard of because the event appeared on the news.

    That we now have to have the Remembrance day silence twice, one on the 11th and one on the Sunday, when once was quite sufficient in the past.

    That people feel the need to have a ‘vigil’ following a high publicity event.

    That people try to organise ‘silences’ at sporting events, and raise ‘thousands of pounds’ to support the victim’s family; that is if the family is fortunate enough to have lost their loved one in a high publicity event.

    For the majority that do not fall into a high publicity event, they just have to get on with life.

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