Tom Sutcliffe: So are you worried over the terror alerts? Or merely anxious?

Social Studies: This isn't intelligence itself but just the window-dressing for it
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The Independent Online

A little semantic test for you, first of all. Which of the following two phrases would you think conveyed the greatest sense of urgency? "Highly likely" or "strong possibility". It's quite tricky, isn't it? If you were betting on the occurrence of an event described with one or other of these terms, it wouldn't be a simple matter to say which offered the best odds. "Highly likely" looks promising, you think, but then is "high" stronger than "strong", or "strong" really lower than "high"? You begin to dither. "Strong possibility" looks as if it has stamina. It might come up on the rails.

Let me give you a bit of extra help. The first of these probabilities has been further characterised as "severe" and the other as "substantial". Well... not a lot of help, given that one word would serve pretty well as a synonym for the other and vice versa. If it's the severity of a threat you're really worried about, you might put your money on the former. If it's the substance that keeps you awake, you'll be tempted to back the latter.

You may be relieved to know that you're not expected to stake your money or anything else on this all-but-invisible distinction. The phrases are from the Government's five Threat Levels – back in the news again after rumblings and warnings of possible terrorist activity in Europe – and ordinary citizens are encouraged not to change their activities according to shifts from one state to another. The slightly startling thing, though, is that quite important people are expected to be able to tell the difference and act upon it.

"This system," the Home Office website explains, "helps police and other law enforcement agencies decide how to allocate staff." Really? One hopes to God they've got something better to go on than these flabbily indistinguishable paraphrases, or we really are in trouble. But of course they don't pay much attention either, since this isn't intelligence itself but just the window-dressing for it. The cynical analysis would be that the system helps police and other law enforcement agencies ensure that they always have plenty of staff to allocate.

The alerts are just as useless – generally issued in give-and-take format which increases your alarm while simultaneously reassuring you that everything should be business as usual. And, one guesses, occasionally worse than useless in that they generate their own confusing echoes. The Eiffel Tower has suffered two closures in recent weeks – and I'd lay my money on the fact that the second occurred because the first had put the idea of a bomb threat into someone's mind.

In this most recent fluster of alerts, it's quite impossible to tell whether European warnings started a domino race of show-off vigilance from authorities in other countries – or if someone somewhere simply felt it was a good time to look busy as a kind of insurance payment against unforeseen eventualities. What you can say with some confidence, I suppose, is that if the information was solid and specific enough to actually justify a change of plans, we wouldn't get to hear about it on security grounds. Almost by definition, the only warnings we receive are the ones we can't use.

Art and the age of austerity

I am, by instinct, sympathetic to the campaign against arts cuts, and open to the argument that we get a very substantial return – in human happiness and tourist income – for a relatively modest outlay. But even so I find myself irritated by the current poster campaign featuring famous artworks vandalised by excision or amputation. I know it's supposed to get our attention, but it grates nonetheless. That just isn't how the cuts will operate, after all, because great artists have always found a means to their ends, even when means are tight.

There can also be a kind of artistic virtue in reduced circumstances. Even Nick Hytner, a vocal campaigner against art funding reductions, thinks this can sometimes be true. Back in 2003 – during a platform discussion on the Travelex Seasons he instituted – he explained how markedly reduced budgets for the shows in the Olivier had taken advantage of the amphitheatre space and made lower ticket prices possible.

The result, as we've seen since, wasn't impoverished theatre, it was much richer theatre. "I think that, by and large, directors and designers have responded to the challenge of the limited budgets we have given them," Hytner said then. I'd agree, and guess that they will be able to do so again. Arts cuts do their damage elsewhere, much further down the artistic food chain. And while I understand that that might be difficult to put on a poster, it might be worth trying, rather than exposing the campaign to charges of self-indulgent overreaction.

Warning: needless sign

It must have felt a bit like this during the Restoration. After years of puritan suppression, the pastimes of the people are to be freed from health and safety roundheads. This is what Lord Young says anyway, hinting at legislative change which should re-establish the true-born Briton's right to display a cavalier disregard for their own safety. Once again, schoolchildren will be able to pepper each other's faces with conker shrapnel and drunken youths enfranchised to fracture limb and skull in hazardous bits of local folklore.

I think Lord Young is broadly right about the timidity of local authorities when it comes to calculated self-endangerment, though he's going to have to do something about the cupidity of lawyers (and those who employ them) if he really wants things to alter. In the meantime, perhaps he could also encourage local authorities to abandon the practice of surrounding any body of water larger than a small puddle with warning signs alerting passers-by to the danger of drowning. In many cases, the pond has been installed in a landscape to make it look more attractive, an effect which is immediately cancelled out by the fact that it's surrounded on all sides by legal boilerplate. Only the blind and children too young to read could conceivably be protected by such eyesores – though, for obvious reasons, they're precisely those not in a position to make any practical use of them.