Terence Blacker: Public service comes before public grief

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The Independent Online

Have you heard the one about Joe Biden, America's new Vice-President? It is something of an online favourite at the moment. During a television appearance, he urged viewers to visit a new US government website, and then sheepishly admitted he had forgotten "the website number". Apparently, he thought that one used the internet by dialling up numbers, rather like a telephone. Not since George Bush referred to "the Google" has there been such merriment.

Yet, for some of us, Mr Biden's gaffe is somewhat less alarming than the behaviour of his more technologically sophisticated colleagues. During President Obama's first speech to a joint session of Congress, several of the eminent politicians he was addressing were busy sending out Twitter messages on their Blackberries. "One doesn't want to sound snarky, but it is nice not see Cheney up there," twitted one. "I did big 'woohoo' for Justice Ginsberg," proclaimed another.

Eager not to fall into the Biden trap, the British Government has created a new post of Director of Digital Engagement – with a salary up to £160,000 – whose job it will be to help ministers and their departments to communicate to ordinary, modern people in the ordinary, modern way that they have come to expect.

Chat about the new media has been all around us of late, particularly in the ranks of the perennially self-obsessed "twitterati" and "blogocrats", but the eagerness of politicians to engage digitally with the public is less a question of communication than image.

Instant, chatty communication conveys a sense of chumminess; it makes the world of politics somehow warmer, more approachable. That may seem like a harmless development – why shouldn't politicians want to seem more normal and human? – but the events of this week have shown where it can lead. On Wednesday, three soldiers were killed by an explosion in Afghanistan; a fourth died of injuries sustained on Monday. On the evening television news, these deaths were reported briefly, and well down the running order.

There was, of course, a far more newsworthy death to report and to analyse in detail. The life of a severely handicapped child had ended. It was known that Ivan Cameron would not live long but, because he was the son of the leader of the Opposition, an increasingly familiar mood of group emotion took hold. MPs gathered in the Commons, their number and sombre mood indicating a tragedy of national proportions. There were moving statements from the Prime Minister and others. Parliament was then suspended. If those apparently lesser deaths (of the four soldiers) were mentioned, it was done in a dutiful sentence later on.

Of course, the death of this little boy was an unspeakable family tragedy for the Camerons, but there was something faintly suspect about this open emoting in the mother of parliaments. The repeated clichés about how we are all brought together by a sense of shared humanity, how differences are set aside, somehow felt self-congratulatory. Look at us, the MPs and ministers were saying, we are just as human as anyone else; we can be really sad, too.

Yet it is precisely at times like these when those in politics should not be like the rest of us. Tempting as it is to be caught up in the emotional drama of the moment, they should remember that in that place at that time, they, like the American lawmakers listening to President Obama, are public servants. A respectful tribute having been made, and sympathy expressed, they should get back to work.

Institutions need to be at their most boringly solid when the outside world is drenched in emotion.

The magical mystery of Van the Man

The great poet Ted Hughes was tough-minded and clear-headed on every subject except two: the Queen Mother and shamanism. It was difficult to decide which was more annoying – the royal forelock-tugging or the belief in magic which caused him, for example, to insist on his books being published on astrologically propitious dates.

The legendary musician Van Morrison is showing a similarly alarming belief in magical energy and healing. Not one of life's great chatters, he became almost expansive when asked recently about his interest in shamanism.

"If I was in another time, another era, another century or way back when, that's what I would be. You can call it that, witchdoctor, whatever you want."

Like Hughes, Morrison certainly has the look of a shaman to him, but it would take someone very brave or very sick to ask Van the Man to share his magical healing powers.

Hare today, but maybe gone tomorrow

No mammal celebrates the approach of spring and the mating season with quite the eccentric exuberance of the brown hare. This year it appeared that hares, whose numbers have declined seriously over the past 50 years, had further cause to celebrate. On 60 farms managed by Wildcare, a wildlife habitat scheme, the brown hare population increased by 35 per cent in one year. "Hares on the rebound with friendly farmers' help," read one cheerful headline. But not all farmers are quite so friendly. In south Norfolk, the breeding season is the moment when – inhumanely, some would say - farmers like to organise shoots to cull hares. On the very day I read about Wildcare, a pick-up truck drove past me with about 60 dead hares strung up in the back.

In one county, they are carefully conserved; in another they are driven and shot while breeding. It seems an odd sort of policy.

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