A Martian listening to Radio 4 would have us all down as codeine addicts. The media have scarred our view of public life
An autumn sun was shining. A late rose bloomed in the garden. The blackbird was in song. Then the BBC did its bit. No sooner was the morning news over than the radio cried: "Now for rape … We should warn listeners that this programme contains explicit descriptions of rape." Just the thing for a nice cup of coffee.
A presumably female audience was then treated to a morning menu of unrelieved misery. After rape, Woman's Hour gave them codeine addicts, war widows, thigh-high boots and heroin-dosed children taken into care. A discussion on how to survive brain damage offered some light relief.
This fare was not exceptional. A Martian listening to Radio 4 today would assume that the females on planet Earth were a genus of raped, harassed, child-oppressed, drug-addicted, underpaid and joyless victims, living in a perpetual state of dependency and bowel cancer. Not since Genesis have women had a worse press.
Nor is it only women who live in this state of un-grace. A Sunday morning programme called Sunday goes out when church bells are ringing and breakfast is sizzling on the stove. To the BBC, the path to Sunday morning salvation is peopled only with homosexual priests, antisemites, Zionists, Muslim fanatics, creationists, ranters, crazies and child molesters. It is X-certificate religion.
Misery syndrome applies, of course, to all the mass media. News is by definition bad. As Lord Northcliffe said: "News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress." There is no news in a plane taking off safely or a bank standing secure. News is when they crash. All happy families resemble one another; it is the unhappy ones that grip the attention. Politicians are supposed to rule well; news is when they fail.
Even so, there used to be an editorial rule of thumb that bad news should be dosed with good. The news in brief column would alternate sad and happy items. This discipline has gone, along with discretion in the choice of pictures of the dead. Even the one-time jollity of feature pages has collapsed in a grim worthiness of global warming and swine flu. The media does not do joy any more. If a newspaper is the nation talking to itself, it is talking with a sob in its throat.
Media people are told that their duty is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Only the latter is observable. The comfortable are ruthlessly afflicted, but that is supposed to be enough to spread a sardonic smile across the face of the nation, the inverse of Gore Vidal's "Whenever a friend succeeds a little something in me dies". Amid a world of guns, knives and fallen celebrities, we are supposed to cheer that it is not us.
Does this matter? It certainly must have an effect. Last week the anti-drunkenness lobby demanded an end to all publicity for alcohol, in the belief that this would influence public behaviour. The same belief underlay the ban on cigarette advertising. Most people assume that advertising boosts sales, and hence an end to advertising reduces them. In both cases, public communication is regarded as influential and should therefore be regulated.
If this applies to advertising, it must surely apply to news. News informs, as does advertising, but it also subtly influences and persuades. It makes people feel good, bad or afraid. In 2006 the opposition leader, David Cameron, espoused the new economics of wellbeing in a speech to a Google conference. He declared, as if in a revelation, that there was "more to life than money … there is GWB, general wellbeing". Being a politician, he found it hard to put flesh on the platitude, other than that happiness lay in "belonging to someone and some place".
Other pundits have tried. We have had a Happy Planet Index, a Gross National Happiness target and National Accounts of Wellbeing. In all, the message is similar, that government should concern itself with more than prosperity. Money makes people moody, jealous and negative. But so does bad news.
This month's World Economic Forum report of global comparisons makes eerie reading. Whenever it moves from hard data to opinion surveys of what Britons think about their country, the rating plummets, especially in their regard for public services and institutions. The British are presented as hypercritical of their public realm.
Confidence in Britain in the judiciary is 16th, below Hong Kong and Israel. For the school system it is 28th, and for the police 33rd. In respect for politicians, Britain comes a lowly 41st, below Egypt and Uruguay. Respect for the banking system is 126th, behind Burundi and Tajikistan. In almost no category is Britain on a par with or above France, Germany, Spain or the Scandinavian states.
This tallies with the often noted British dissatisfaction with public services and with distrust of politicians and public figures. Britons whinge like no others in Europe. Yet the whingeing tends to be specific. Opinion polls show that people tend to be more negative about the national tier of public life than the local one. They like their GPs and local hospitals; they have lost faith in the NHS. They like their school, but not schools in general. Denmark's localised health service is among the most popular in Europe.
The public is more inclined to trust – and thus be happy with – rulers they know as opposed to those about whom they only read in the papers or see on television. They prefer local politicians to national ones and have more faith in local government than national. It is significant that local newspapers and radio stations tend to carry more positive stories than national ones. Familiarity breeds the opposite of contempt. It breeds trust.
As the political scientist David Marquand wrote of the Scandinavian move in the 1980s from nationalised to localised government, it followed "growing evidence during the 1970s of public disillusionment with the public sector … service was not close to the public and failed to involve them as citizens". Faced with similar disillusion, Britain was moving in the opposite direction, and has been ever since. The result is to make the public realm seem ever more distant and, it seems, ever more miserable.
I cannot imagine a programme of censorship that would require media organisations to watch their misery count or relay a positive image of public life. We know where that leads. Occasional attempts to launch "happy" newspapers end in tears, if only of hilarity. The fact that Cameron found it so hard to attach a happiness programme to his wellbeing agenda shows how vacuous is the task.
But the media's tone of voice must have an effect. My old newspaper, north London's Ham & High, some years ago changed its policy from reporting news in the round to concentrating on crime. My image of my neighbourhood shifted abruptly from one of pride to one of grim fear, unrelated to any fact. I relate that directly to the press.
If we make ourselves miserable towards public life by what we hear, see and read, that life will not win our support. We shall become ever more inveterate complainers. If happiness really is what we seek, the media should censor itself – and cheer up a bit.