Gary Day

April 27, 2007

Britain's media is going in for a spot of introspection, not on what should really concern us - our ignominious exit from the Cricket World Cup - but our continuing moral decline, the mess, the lack of respect and the bad language. And it's even worse when you step outside your front door. Thank goodness for work. A battery of regulation ensures a modicum of civilised behaviour. And to judge from student essays, morality is alive and well. A friend writes that some deeply disapprove of P. G. Wodehouse. Far too frivolous, apparently.

The navel-gazing seems to have been prompted by the decision to allow the Royal Marines held captive in Iran to sell their stories. The press was furious, especially those papers that had failed to outbid their rivals. That left them no choice but to adopt a principled stand. These military personnel were "unpatriotic", "unprofessional" and even "mercenary". Accepting money to give their account is an "insult" to the families of those killed in Iraq. Is it? I would have thought that not providing soldiers with the proper equipment was a far worse offence. Or not giving them adequate care when they return injured from Iraq or Afghanistan. Or not dealing with bullying, racism and homophobia.

But that's the trouble with moral issues. There are always two sides to them. Sometimes more. Now that really confuses me. I'm a literary theorist.

We think in terms of binary oppositions. So, on the one hand we have those who argue that these soldiers shouldn't be speaking out because that's against the Official Secrets Act and on the other, we have those who argue that the ordinary servicemen and women have been silenced for too long and it's time to hear what they have to say. Two opposing points of view. Yes, I can deal with that, just about.

What I don't understand is all this fuss about money. I thought the purpose of life was to make as much of it as possible. Improve productivity, increase profit and never mind human, social or environmental integrity.

Isn't that what we are always being told? Dying for your government doesn't pay very well, so why shouldn't these Marines make a bit of extra cash? No one seems to complain when Boris Johnson earns £10,000 for a speaking engagement on top of his MP's salary.

And think of the implications. If Navy personnel are allowed to speak to the press about their experiences and get paid for it, why not us? No one hears about our plight. How we are pawns of government policy. How we are bound by the ethics committee. How we are enclosed in rooms and interrogated about our strategic plans. And we don't get to play table tennis or watch television unless it's a training video. The world needs to know.

With all that we have to endure, is it any wonder that we occasionally want to enjoy ourselves? To rest a while from "this or that endeavour and pursuit", to be "merry with the grape" rather than "sadden after none, or bitter fruit"?

But just as you are sitting back with a contented sigh, glass in hand, what do you hear? The voice of Gordon Brown. It doesn't quite come out of the sky, but it may as well have. For the Chancellor sounds as stern as Jehovah. The public, he thunders, is fed up with celebrity culture. Oh, dear, fancy saying this on the day the news was dominated by the break-up of William and Kate. The public, he booms, demands serious discussion. If I were him, discussion would be the last thing I'd want to encourage. His enemies are already giving him a hard time on pensions, the economy and the environment. Does he really want more criticism at this crucial stage of his career?

What does he mean by "serious discussion" anyway? The leadership succession -sorry, election? I doubt it's the ills of capitalism or the depressing state of education. Once it was the three Rs, now it's the three Ts: testing, targets and training. Universities might have had something to say on these issues once, but they have been through so many upheavals in recent years that it is difficult to know what they could contribute to the debate. Not much probably; but at least it would be quality-assured.

In any case, what are the mechanisms for discussion in contemporary Britain? It's difficult enough to get through to British Gas. There's the Institute of Ideas and the web, but the top search last year was Britney Spears, proving the old adage that we reveal ourselves most in our amusements.

So let's not get too heated about the state of the nation's soul. Let's not worry unduly about relative or absolute morality. Remember what Oscar Wilde said: "Life is far too important to be taken seriously."

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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