When I was young I fell in thrall to a religious cult. Well, I exaggerate a bit. But that’s the way of things now in our social media age. I have a point to make and a sort of many-times-photocopied version of the original truth works and I want to use it, however mendaciously.
What actually happened was that I went to a school run by a Catholic educational order called the De la Salle. They were, in many ways, a caricature. No, not the one you’re thinking of. “Come out here while I give yez a wallop for harbouring such filth in your mind!” More that kind of muscular thing. And plenty of Mass, rugby and RE for the purification of body and soul.
Caricature in chief was a man called Brother Richard. Or “Dick the Spud” as he was universally known on account of having adopted the name Richard and being very obviously Irish. Don’t gasp. It was a school full of telling surnames from Gallagher to Gahan, Moran to Malone and he taught us all religion.
When I say “taught”, what I mean was that he had assembled a sort of spiritual guidebook comprising chunks of Catechism, warnings on the temporal dangers of the modern world and explanations of bits of Catholic vocabulary.
These had to be learned by rote and reproduced on paper to every dot and comma. While that was being done, he would stroll up and down twirling a leather strap in much the same way as a cartoon cop twirls his nightstick.
There was, to all this, a sort of mutually understood sense of complicity in the ridiculous and no shortage of twinkle-eyed humour. But rosacea-headed moments of rage at his wilfully heathen charges were by no means uncommon. A sort of desirée spud, if you like.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Part of the script for this pantomime was the phrase “dangerous occasion of sin”, and often cited as one such occasion was listening to or watching “the media of communications”.
Well, think about it. The “media of communications” at the time covered everything from the nubile weekly appearances of Pan’s People on Top of The Pops to Michael Palin defending The Life of Brian from Malcolm Muggeridge.
Probably more importantly, difficult social issues were debated in terms which appeared not to take much account of doctrinal infallibility. This, a bit like Tyndale translating the Bible, rather let others in on the act. Not that he was much of a one for Catholicism.
Little wonder then that in the widely reported global explosion in demand for exorcism, the possessed apparently do a grisly line in coughing up TV and radio components. Though, perhaps surprisingly, this rarely includes speaking in the voice of Nick Robinson.
Laugh if you will, but after years and years spent in frantic and habitual consumption of “the media of communications”, I am beginning to wonder if Bro Dick had a point.
You see, the briefest glance at modern media will conjure the darkest vision of the way the world turns. Across last weekend alone, The Spectator confidently predicted a re-run of The Great Depression, there was widespread discussion of the likelihood of nuclear war, the possibility of blackouts had turned to the probability and a major politician in the First Minister of Scotland had decided she “detests” political opponents.
Now, few if any of these things are new. Many of them haunted the headlines of my youth while, on Not the Nine O’Clock News, Rowan, Pam and the gang sang “All Out Superpower Confrontation” for gallows laughs and Frankie sang “Two Tribes”.
What was absent then, however, was the sheer ubiquity of news. The cumulative sense of frenzy and portent that rolling coverage induces and with it the constant need, often false, fo find huge moments in small developments, the hot take and the “breaking” feed scrolling and endlessly enervating across the bottom of the screen like a fruit machine flashing its addictive attractions.
CNN (Chicken Noodle News as we later dubbed it, momentarily appealing but ultimately insubstantial) had yet to habituate everyone to the vicarious thrill of seeing cruise missiles turning left at Baghdad high street or the unfortunate void of lulls in action demanding to be filled with speculation.
The BBC had not yet introduced its rumbling drums intro music that, even on a quiet news day, suggest something God awful is about to happen or already has and Drop the Dead Donkey had not got around to satirising the artifice required to maintain the illusion of a permanent kaleidoscope of important events where, fortunately, an intrepid reporter is ever on hand.
After the morning paper, one had to wait for the hourly, soberly read, radio news bulletins or the main TV news at lunchtime, early and late evening. Outside that, pick up an Evening Standard on the way home from work.
No smart phone pings, no “latest”, no “update”. Moments of genuine import came in a “news flash” and were appropriately rare.
What this did, of course, was to dissipate cumulative anxiety. And it gave journalists time to assemble a considered view of what had gone supported by facts they had had time to garner. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but news had its time and its place in the business of the day.
Less equalled more. A fact the CIA had established by the end of the Vietnam War when they noticed that, the more information they had, the less accurate their intelligence analysis proved to be. The majority of what they learned was distant, partial, out of date or just plain wrong and it ended up being used to confirm preconceived theories rather than leading them to conclusions. A phenomenon the hardened news-goer will recognise and the BBC once distilled into the maxim “it’s better to be right than first”.
Nor did social media with its endless capacity for vitriol, snide implication, elliptical quotation and malicious extrapolation exist. Let alone the corrosive drip of lifestyle comparison, conspiracy theory or the sort of whispering horror that led Molly Russell to suicide.
To this, the young seem so particularly vulnerable. Their problems and pre-occupations seem in so many ways timeless but the misery of their anxiety-induced mental health issues so much more pronounced. A sort of hopelessness for the future which the permanent crisis of ever-on media can only induce.
All of which brings me back to Brother Richard and the sudden dreadful realisation that he and his little green book of temporal dangers might have been onto something. You see, class 4 West all thought that the danger to our mortal souls lay in watching Dave Allen sketches about nuns kissing the bishop’s ring. And we laughed because we found it laughable. But could he have meant despair? It’s the only sin, you know, that cannot be forgiven. Dick the Spud told me. Oh God.
Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at firstname.lastname@example.org