Terence Blacker: The emptiness of institutional caring


As well-drilled as a squadron of guards, the presenters and guests on the BBC have begun wearing the new medal of concern, the poppy. Each one of them – Huw Edwards, Alan Hansen, Clare Balding, every hack, weather forecaster and speakerine – is, we are supposed to think, expressing his or her own deep and sincere sympathy for the fallen.

As an expression of public caring, it ranks somewhere between Simon Cowell's tender concern for Susan Boyle and Alastair Campbell blubbing on-camera for The Andrew Marr Show. Few, if any, of the BBC's poppy army will have given more than a passing thought to Remembrance Sunday. Theirs is a compulsory gesture of conscience, an easy dress-code adjustment that will show the world that their heart is in the right place. It has become a convenient truism that those in public life have a duty to show the rest of us how to behave. On this occasion, the message is that any concern should be boastfully displayed on every occasion. It is a lesson in comfortable hypocrisy.

Institutional caring is, by its nature, meaningless; conscience can only be a matter for individuals. The wearing of a poppy as standard dress when in front of the camera, and the assumption that interviewees should do likewise, is distinctly creepy. It is the kind of firm but informal pressure to conform – always for the very best motives – upon which repression builds. Rarely do public figures decline the BBC poppy. Even Will Self, who admirably went bare-lapelled in 2008, took refuge in the politically safe excuse that he was expressing his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bogusness of the BBC's three-line whip on poppy-wearing has been exposed this year. In order to steal a march on rival broadcasters, it has launched its 2010 poppy offensive early, preceding by seven days the official fortnight during which the British Legion runs its campaign. The result, according to those involved with the charity, may well be that the compassion-fatigued British public will give less, thanks to the corporation's eagerness to flaunt its own good-heartedness before competitors.

Perhaps the whole idea of celebrity role models should be rested for a while. The weekend's news contained a reminder that allowing public figures to influence private behaviour will almost always be of more benefit to them than to those in the outside world.

The famous can now earn themselves up to £32,000 every month, simply by endorsing a product on Twitter. The trick is to exploit the spontaneous chattiness and spurious intimacy of the medium in order to smuggle, as casually as possible, an advertising message for which the manufacturers pay handsomely. As Arnie Gullov-Singh, the businessman behind the wheeze put it: "A year ago celebrities were wary about their reputation, about selling out, but when they saw how easy it was to make $5000 a tweet, they flocked on board."

Cash or competitive caring: the game being played on Twitter, and the BBC is essentially the same. It is a fake message, cynically delivered.

The rise and rise of middle-class mediocrity

Every few years, an editor or publisher comes up with the none-too-original idea of making some money out of the desire of the English to belong to the right social class, or to sneer at those who do not. The mother of these guides to social climbing was Nancy Mitford's essay Noblesse Oblige, in which she explored U and non-U English usage – the U, naturally, stood for "upper class". In the early 1980s, as the national obsession with Diana Spencer brought with it a new dawn of snobbery, The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook was published.

Today the aspirational social climber is to be offered The Middle Class Handbook, a guide based, inevitably, on that great source of contemporary authority, a survey. There were, we are told, 2,000 interviewees, each of whom earns between £30,000 and £200,000. What a grim insight into contemporary Britain these people have provided. Their list of "middle-class heroes" might have been compiled by an enemy of the country who is trying to demoralise the civilian population. Top of the list is the Queen, followed by the faintly ludicrous survival expert Bear Grylls. Jeremy Clarkson is in the Top 10, as are Ann Widdecombe, Jamie Oliver, Joanna Lumley and, more surprisingly, Dannii Minogue.

What has happened to the once-great bourgeoisie of this country? Why does it cling so desperately to ordinariness? On this evidence, the "squeezed middle" we are hearing so much about deserves to be squeezed out of its own dullness.

Caught between animal rights and human wrongs

That increasingly odd organisation, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, stands accused this week of bullying any vet who dares to appear in court as an expert witness for the defence in cases of cruelty.

Evidence presented to a conference organised by the British Veterinary Forensic & Law Association alleges that the RSPCA has taken to intimidating vets who oppose it by filing repeated complaints about them to the Law Society, attempting to have them banned from testifying on grounds of bias and generally trying to discredit their reputations. One vet has suggested that the organisation's vast wealth has allowed it "to act as a self-appointed vigilante group... Anyone who tries to defend people against the RSPCA now risks professional complaints".

Those who choose to work as vets are not, as a whole, defenders of cruelty. These claims confirm the impression that the RSPCA has recently allowed its officials' enthusiasms for animal rights, laudable in themselves, to tip dangerously into excess, bullying and fanaticism.