Ghoulish and false? Britain's new hobby of public mourning called 'recreational grief'

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British people indulge in "recreational grief", epitomised by the mourning at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, to feel better about themselves, says a controversial report published today.

The nation is in an emotional crisis with people revelling in the "hollow expressions of public caring" at the anniversaries of murdered children and dead celebrities, a study by Civitas, a right-wing think tank, suggests.

The report described the national mourning that surrounded the death of the Princess as "ostentatious caring" and said that such behaviour has also been apparent in the public shows of sympathy for the television presenter Jill Dando, the late wife of Sir Paul McCartney, Linda, and the Soham murder victims Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells.

Wearing coloured charity ribbons, holding silences for the dead in high-profile murders and joining anti-war marches are criticised in the analysis of 21st century Britain. The report is likely to offend the millions of people who have taken part in tributes and turned out to mourn such high-profile figures as Diana, who died in 1997.

The report said that such actions amounted to "grief lite", which was "undertaken as an enjoyable event, much like going to a football match or the last night of the Proms".

But such displays of grief were phoney exercises in piling up "damp teddies and rotting flowers", said the 80-page pamphlet, entitled Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind.

Patrick West, the report's author, argued that such "hollow expressions of public caring" had been triggered by the decline of institutions which once gave meaning to people's lives, such as the family, church and neighbourhood.

He said: "We live in a post-emotional age, one characterised by crocodile tears and manufactured emotion. Ostentatious caring allows a lonely nation to forge new social bonds. Additionally, it serves as a form of catharsis.

"We saw this at its most ghoulish after the demise of Diana. In truth, mourners were not crying for her, but for themselves."

He said that the mourners soon forgot the Princess. "These recreational grievers were now emoting about Jill Dando, Linda McCartney or the Soham girls," he said.

The report argued that the Soham murders were "unquestionably tragic" but it was "almost as distressing to see sections of the public jumping on the grief bandwagon".

Mr West said: "The unfortunate inhabitants of Soham were subjected to hoards of grief tourism," with streets being overrun on the 2002 August bank holiday as coach trips arrived to see the killer Ian Huntley's home and the college where he worked in Soham.

Mr West said that the traditional minute's silence has suffered "compassion inflation" and become meaningless. "There is seemingly a case of compassion inflation, with individuals and organisations seeking to prove how much more they care by elongating the silences," the report concluded.

The wearing of charity ribbons serves to "celebrate the culture of victimhood" and is an egotistical gesture to announce "I care", the report said. But the ribbon trend had not been accompanied by a tangible increase in charity donations, the report added, and there was now an "unspoken competition" to see who could wear their Remembrance Day poppy the earliest, "particularly among politicians".

The report said: "Going on demonstrations today is too often an exercise in attention-seeking."

Civitas, also known as the Institute for the Study of Civil Society, was launched in 2000 as an independent registered charity. Recent publications include Tomorrow Is Another Country, which argued that Britain is in danger of being colonised, and Do We Need Mass Immigration?, which warned of the dangers of infectious diseases being imported by immigrants. Civitas believes it is in the business of challenging a liberal consensus. Mr West is a freelance journalist who has written for the New Statesman, The Spectator, and Living Marxism.