This is the first general election campaign since 1983 in which I have not been the editor of a publication (or, in 1992, the deputy editor). And in all previous campaigns since my birth I was vicariously involved because my father was always a Liberal candidate. My new detachment gives me the possibly illusory feeling that I at last understand what elections are really like. Among journalists (and, of course, candidates), elections are times of frenetic activity. Huge effort is put into covering them truly, madly, deeply. Politicians and proprietors worry tremendously what the papers say. For almost everyone else in Britain, though, elections are a quiet period, one in which markets mark time, public services wait to see who’ll come out on top and most people realise that this is a bad moment to make any long-term decision. ‘Apathy’ is the word always applied to modern voters, but it seems a bit unfair. It is rather a rational sense that the difference between the likely winners is not overwhelming, and that what you, as an individual, can do about the result is limited. Once this is understood, it becomes clear that politicians are actually better at fighting elections than the media are at covering them. We journalists yearn, naturally, for excitement, disaster, huge swings in the polls, and so we hunt for it frenetically. On the day I write, the frenzy of the moment is about whether Michael Howard quoted the right chief constable about immigration rules and whether or not a particular Tory ‘sum’ adds up. It is almost impossible to describe the extent to which these disputes do not matter, but the press cannot admit it. The able politicians, on the other hand, ride over it, and plug on with a few simple messages which may just make the difference they need. I happened to listen to Alan Milburn doing a radio election call. He didn’t say anything new or interesting, but how could he? Instead, he defended politely, competently and without striking dishonesty or complacency a number of slightly unpopular but not silly policies like refusing to pay for long-term residential care of the old, not rescuing MG Rover and not linking old-age pensions to earnings. I feel that Blair and Brown, after looking pretty ropey last week, are now getting into their stride. The danger for Mr Howard is that the pressure will tell, and he will get too sharp, testy and argumentative. The media are just that — media. Don’t speak to them; speak through them, to the quarter-listening millions beyond.
Another respect in which the media like to get in the way of the message is in advertising. It is an unwritten law of advertising agencies that the name of the thing advertised should appear in very small letters, usually down at the bottom right-hand corner. This is justified as being subtle, ‘subliminal’ etc., but I suspect that it is just more fun for the creatives if they have more room to play with. The ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ Conservative posters are like this. The concept is good, but I wonder how many voters can see who the ‘we’ in the sentence are.
As the McCartney sisters continue to seek justice for their murdered brother Robert, uncomforted by Gerry Adams’s annual declaration that the violence is over, Dublin has just experienced its equivalent killing. On the Sunday before last, someone walked up to Jim Curran, a champion kick-boxer and anti-drugs campaigner in the Liberties district, in the bar of the Green Lizard pub, and shot him three times through the head. Mr Curran was murdered because he had complained about the IRA’s protection-racket deals with local drug dealers. As with the McCartney killings, the chief suspect is an IRA man; he is head of the organisation locally and an election worker for a Sinn Fein member of the Dail. Unlike with the McCartney killings, the IRA threat to witnesses is proving ineffective, and several people have come forward. But if it hadn’t been for Jim Cusack’s report in the Sunday Independent, the thing might have gone almost unmarked, so craven is the obsession, here and there, with the illusory peace process.
The Norfolk Agreed Syllabus Conference sounds like a local branch of the pre-Vatican II Inquisition, but is in fact the body which has warned schools against referring to the Holy Ghost, as being too ‘spooky’. Funnily enough, I remember encountering this difficulty as a small child. The Holy Ghost did indeed sound a strange and possibly frightening thing, and the fact that it often took the shape of a pigeon made it no more comprehensible, though less alarming. But I remember it precisely because the phrase did seem perplexing. I therefore wanted to know what it meant. Surely this is how education works — the odd, the unfamiliar, present a challenge and therefore excite an interest. If you think about it, the truly spooky way of teaching the doctrine of the Trinity would be to express it in language that seemed perfectly ordinary.
Marian Agombar, chairman of the above Syllabus of Errors, said she was very concerned that pupils do not make mistakes about the beliefs of different faiths, but she then did so herself. She said that Christians taught that the bread and wine in communion only ‘represented’ Jesus’ body and blood, and were not actually so. It was important that children knew this, she thought, otherwise they might believe that Christians were cannibals. In fact, though, Catholics and Orthodox do believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, with what they call the ‘accidents’ of bread and wine, so she was ‘imposing’ (the worst thing you can do nowadays in RE) a (Protestant) view on all. This problem of understanding is not new. David Hume writes somewhere about a heathen prince who is converted to Christianity and allowed to receive communion after he has acknowledged that there is only one God. The following day the priest, just checking, asks him how many gods there are. He says, ‘None. There used to be one, but yesterday I ate him.’
Although no one merits a minute’s silence more than John Paul II, I cannot see why Hearts fans should be charged with a criminal offence for refusing this at the match with Celtic this week. Why shouldn’t they dislike the Pope? Why shouldn’t they be free to boo him? One may think the worse of them for that, but this is a matter of opinion, not of law. The abortion law in this country is an infinitely greater insult to the Pope, but there is no sign of charges against the majority of MPs.