We must not put up with the cycle of hype and destroy

'What turned the Dome from a mild disappointment to a disaster was the way the media portrayed it'

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I say, sack him. No, disembowel him. Impale him on one of the yellow pylons that poke from the Dome's surface. The whole business is clearly his fault, and even if it isn't, you can't have a disaster on such a scale without someone getting the bum's rush. And who else is there? The trouble is, no one resigns any more; not politicians, not unsuccessful generals nor business people, not even football managers. They just wait to be sacked and pick up the compensation or the golden handshake. There's no honour in public life these days.

I say, sack him. No, disembowel him. Impale him on one of the yellow pylons that poke from the Dome's surface. The whole business is clearly his fault, and even if it isn't, you can't have a disaster on such a scale without someone getting the bum's rush. And who else is there? The trouble is, no one resigns any more; not politicians, not unsuccessful generals nor business people, not even football managers. They just wait to be sacked and pick up the compensation or the golden handshake. There's no honour in public life these days.

Now all you have to do, dear reader, is decide who the "him" is that has to be sacrificed, and we can get all that bit of the argument out of the way. William Hague believes that X marks the spot between Lord Falconer's once-twinkling eyes and went all the way to the Dome to say so. The problem for Mr Hague is that we shall shortly be seeing the report of the inquiry into BSE, a tragedy that cost this country more than £20bn, an entire industry and hundreds of lives - and for which neither Mr Hague nor any of his cabinet colleagues ever felt the need even to apologise, let alone resign. Just a tad more important than the poor old Dome.

Such routine hypocrisy is not just the province of the Conservative leader. We are beset with people who complain that the Dome money could have been spent on hospitals, yet who have also argued strongly for the "additionality" principle, according to which lottery money should not be used to fund activities that are the normal responsibility of government. But, as Hamish McRae said on these pages yesterday, we should stand back a bit from such saloon-bar arguments and look at the lessons.

Hamish himself laid down some useful rules for future governments contemplating entry into the entertainment and theme-park business, all of which added up to "don't". But I can't help wondering what history will make of us and the Dome. When the Simone Schama of 2030 publishes her magisterial work on millennial Britain, what will she say about the Greenwich fiasco?

She may start by pointing out that such failures were not peculiar to Britain. Over in Hanover, Germany, an even more expensive enterprise failed almost as spectacularly to excite the nation. This pointed (she may continue) to a common over-optimistic assumption on the part of democratic governments about their ability to mobilise people at will.

Furthermore, the widespread belief - shared and promoted by the press - that the Millennium was of any day-to-day significance beyond 12.01am on1 January 2000 turned out to be completely wrong. She could continue by pointing out that many had focused on the wrong disaster - the non-completion of the Jubilee Line - while failing to question the most basic assumptions about visitor numbers. She would detail the confusion about the Dome's purpose, the absurdly short period in which everything had to be done and, finally, the series of humiliating and well-publicised pleas for cash, alongside the evidence of financial incompetence.

But those would be the details. Because none of that quite explains the scale of the failure of the Dome. And I don't mean visitor numbers; I mean the role that the Dome has come to play in the nation's interior life, its symbolic uselessness. There is, it seems to me, a huge gap between any intrinsic failings of the Dome as a project - and there are many - and its complete and utter confounding. After all, at the very least it is an imposing and innovative building on a site that was previously a toxic wasteland.

A couple of months ago I heard the historian Paul Kennedy contemplate the nature of political leadership in the Western democracies. Kennedy is a man who deals with the sweep of history and remains unaffected by the trivialities. So, I was struck when he argued that one huge constraint on the politician of 2000, that had not existed for her counterpart of, say, 1960, was the sheer power and reach of the mass media. Not that this was usually focused, or directed towards a single end - as conspiracy theorists would have it - but that it nevertheless moved to the rhythm of its own heartbeat: the need for disharmony and human interest. And the need to compete.

My contention is that, allowing for the miscalculations and the vainglory, what turned the Dome from a mild disappointment into a disaster was the almost universal decision of the newspapers in this country to portray it in that way. That set the agenda for the broadcast media and made it almost impossible for counter-arguments to be heard. Remember that the Government owns no newspapers nor television stations and that a scribbler like me has more direct unmediated access to public opinion than does Tony Blair.

I need to go no further back than yesterday and an article by a liberal newspaper's most wintry polemicist. "In January," she wrote, "the Dome was promptly exposed for what it actually was: a towering monument to British philistinism and gittishness." Consider that sentence. What about the Dome - with its sculptures - is particularly philistine or gittish (or, indeed, uniquely Britishly philistine or gittish)? The Play Zone, with its animated piano notes? Harry Ramsden's chippie? The lice in the pubic hair? The circus performance? No, that sentiment manages simultaneously to be a piece of absurd and abusive hyperbole and also to be an insult to those who went to the Dome and who thought they enjoyed it.

So, here we have a silly and damaging exaggeration. But there's something else, too. As we know, from the outset the majority of those who went to the Dome said that they liked it and thought that it was worth a visit. Many wished to return. Who, then, did the prompt exposing?

The wintry polemicist and all her mates, that's who. Within a fortnight of the Dome's opening, the journalistic orthodoxy was that it was a dog. Not so-so, not OK, but a dog. Writers who had been nowhere near the Dome routinely incorporated slighting references into their reviews, seeking to outdo each other with the quality of their disdain. By the time I went, in early February, a Tube employee who recognised my face begged: "Say something nice about us, please."

So the place was on the loop. If there were a lot of people, it was too many. If there weren't so many, there were too few. This compounded the errors, made them far worse. Those errors then fed the next set of stories and intensified the problem. The Dome became a symbol of all that was "wrong" with Britain, a clichéd metaphor for a situation in which something looked good on the outside while being empty and meaningless on the inside. Interestingly, Tate Modern, universally acclaimed, is not regarded as a symbol of all that is right; it is not a metaphor for Blair's Britain (the daring use of the old to house the new), because metaphors can be used to illustrate only decline.

Hype and destroy. The fate of the Dome is indeed (among other things) a towering monument to philistinism and gittishness. But not just that of Lord Falconer.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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