It seems self-evident that newsreaders should be as neutral as possible in every way. No causes should be advanced, no stances taken, no positions attacked or defended. I even find the over-emoting of Fiona Bruce on the BBC irritating: her clumping emphases and her repertoire of smiles and frowns seem to be telling us what we should be feeling and thinking about what’s going on in the world.
The wearing of a poppy or not on-screen is a vexed issue, then: is wearing one taking a stance? Is not wearing one taking a stance? Seven years ago the Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow took some flak for refusing to bow to what he denounced as “poppy fascism”, but the criticism he received was nowhere near as virulent and vituperative as that directed this week at his ITV London counterpart, Charlene White.
“Fat slag” was probably the least offensive term applied by those who left comments on the blog in which she explained why she didn’t wear one while doing her job. She’s black, by the way, so you can imagine some of the other comments. “Go back to where you came from” - London, in her case - is just about the only printable one. Read the rest yourself and see how soiled you feel.
Her reason for desisting is eminently reasonable: she wears one off-screen but doesn’t want to favour one charity over any others - which neatly sidesteps the heavy weight of meaning with which the poppy is freighted. The whole issue has become massively overblown. Wearing one should not be a moral imperative, for public figures or ordinary Joes. As the Royal British Legion put it when defending White, “the poppy represents sacrifices made in the defence of freedom” - which includes the freedom not to wear a poppy.
Some years I wear a poppy, some years I don’t. What usually happens is that I put my money in the bucket, take the poppy and put it in my pocket then forget to put it on, or pin it on my chest very badly and notice half an hour later that it’s dropped off. It’s really not important. What matters is the money poppies raise, and you don’t need to have supported the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan to feel respect and compassion - indeed, admiration - for those who lose lives and limbs in defence of what they see as the national interest.
The symbolic significance of Remembrance Day for me has less to do with honouring the dead than remembering the horror of past wars in order to try to create a world without war. A naive and forlorn hope, perhaps, but something worth working towards.