Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Banning Things Is Insane, Except When Not Banning Them Is Insane – BBC

There’s nothing better to wake up to in the morning than The Today Programme. Not because it’s any good, but because the exasperating rubbish they spout gets me properly awake and raring to have a go. This morning saw a particularly silly example of their usual editorial stance, where the programme adopts a tone that is either vociferously in favour or vociferously against something and implies that to hold any other opinion would be sheer insanity. Today, Today thought it was both entirely ludicrous and completely reasonable to ban things, without spotting the minor flaw in holding both positions simultaneously.

After the opening headlines of today’s tragedy in Iraq, the lead story was a follow-up to the dreadful killing of a man by a group of youths, in which the Chief Constable of Cheshire has made the knee-jerk reaction that the legal age of consent for alcohol should be raised to 21. You can see it on the BBC website, illustrated with not at all misleading pictures of gentlemen apparently rather younger than the 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who the Chief Constable wishes to waste his force’s time by criminalising. During the course of the day, the BBC has at least improved its English from the initial caption that
“The chief constable called for the legal drinking age to be raise,”
though, so that’s an improvement (perhaps the early morning typist was still a bit hung-over). The BBC has adopted a Daily Mail / Labour-esque line that all young people fall into the category either of ‘angel’ or ‘devil’, that there is nothing wrong with younger adults being given less money, fewer freedoms, more responsibilities and judged not on the basis of how their actions harm other people but arbitrarily by their tastes in music, clothing or recreational drugs. Well, despite the editorial line you may have heard this morning, I blame the killers rather than everyone in their age group, still less advocate prohibition as the panacea it has never proven to be in practice.

You might think, then, that The Today Programme gave out strong signals in its news agenda this morning that banning things because a few people had a problem was absolutely the right thing to do. And they did. So it would be ludicrous, wouldn’t it, for them also to adopt the editorial line at the same time that only some insane busybody would start banning things because a few people had a problem. But they did that, too.

Yesterday morning, there had been an item about, as far as I recall (‘Listen Again’ is very patchy when you have steam-powered dial-up), balloon animals being banned at children’s parties for fear of latex allergies. There was maximum sneerage at this absurd state of affairs, and again this morning when – it all having been blamed on “health and safety” – someone representing a health and safety officers’ professional organisation came on to deny that his lot had anything to do with it. We were treated to Jim Naughtie pouring scorn on the decision, and the official saying that, yes, this was absolutely wrong, and wasn’t it awful that his members always got the blame for such things, constantly citing what he called the problem of “Bonkers Conkers”. Obviously, two people fighting to let loose their invective by proving in ever more wild terms how much they agreed with each other wasn’t the most illuminating of interviews, however much I agreed with them.

Aside from the bizarreness of clearly facing both ways along their arbitrary, binary editorial position, the problem with the BBC doing the Daily Mail is that they’re so bad at it. Richard and I both goggled at the wireless when Mr Naughtie blithely announced that this was “health and safety gone mad” and that everyone had used the phrase: no, the well-known cliché he was reaching for and which a Hate Mail hack would have known by heart is “political correctness gone mad” (UK Google results for the former number 1,040, while for the latter it’s 34,100, and that seems astoundingly low), while people attacking this sort of thing usually use the term “compensation culture” (59,400, and jackpot). But perhaps I’ve been too kind by merely labelling the BBC’s two-facedness as bizarre. No, it’s actively harmful, and symptomatic of how the whole thing works, just as the health and safety official’s wish to deny everything is.

Who actually does all this banning? Well, New ‘New Laws Every Day’ Labour love it, of course, but for once it’s not all the government’s fault. No, it’s a vicious circle, in which no one takes responsibility. Look at the Daily Mail, which this morning screams for alcohol to be banned for people younger than its readership, but which will no doubt tomorrow be back to saying that calls for something it approves of (should there be such a thing) to be banned is “political correctness gone mad”, with exactly the same binary stupidity displayed by its Little Sir Echo Mr Naughtie this morning. Then there are officials, the well-meaning kind who genuinely believe all – or some – adults must be treated like children, and the probably more common kind who are fearful that they’ll be sued should anything unpleasant happen to anyone, ever. And then there are the companies that make a packet out of doing the suing, who advertise with nice-looking young women on the television, and the people who then ring Ambulance-Chasers Direct because, let’s face it, they want some free money and don’t care who pays for it.

The thing is, I just don’t like banning things. So railing against all this appeals to both the social Liberal and the economic Liberal sides of my invective. The stereotype of a social Liberal thinks everything’s the fault of heartless, rapacious big businesses who hurt everyone else in their scramble for cash. The stereotype of an economic Liberal thinks everything’s the fault of well-meaning do-gooders with no concept of reality who want to stop anyone doing anything ‘for our own good’. Well, the villains here include both. Hurrah for all Liberals!

I may not agree with everything John Stuart Mill ever said – what’s the point of a Liberal who entirely agrees with another Liberal? – but my instincts are ever likely to side with him over Roy Hattersley, and even when there are things I disapprove of or which are bad for me, I’d need a far, far stronger reason to ban them than just bleating that I don’t like what someone else is doing or that I don’t have the courage to take responsibility for my own mistakes. Drinking isn’t one of my regular vices, despite Richard’s parents’ fortieth anniversary bash, but I strolled over to my local supermarket earlier today to buy a bottle, just to stick some Vs up at the headlines. And, gosh! A little red light came on so I was challenged to make sure I looked over 21 (I do, and yes, it’s been quite a few years since anyone took a second look). So if someone of 16 gets sold booze, it’s not the fault of lax laws, but greedy suppliers. I have quite a few allergies – though not latex, fortunately for one of my regular vices – but I don’t feel the urge to ban things to make life easier for me. I don’t approve of the smoking ban, though it’s helpful to my asthma. I’m allergic to dogs, but I’d do nothing to outlaw them. It might be very helpful indeed if the government banned household dust, and sent a team round to vacuum every trace of it from under me to spare my allergic reaction. But no, they’d only send an inspector round to fine me because I don’t clean the flat thoroughly enough, and that wouldn’t stop me coughing, would it? And pretty much any kind of food can make me ill, but I know that certain kinds are much more likely to make me more unwell than others. But I still eat them from time to time, and the results aren’t something I’d sue the manufacturer for or that I’d want to campaign for a ban on so I won’t be tempted and no-one else can enjoy it – it’s simply an ill-effect that I know is largely my own fault.

So when bandwagon-jumping politicians, fear-stoking journalists, fearful safety officials, ambulance-chasing lawyers, anxious parents, authoritarian police officers and greedy citizens all say ‘It’s not my fault, guv,’ look at them askance. I can’t quite decide whether it’s ironic or appropriate that people who want to stop anyone being able to take responsibility for their own actions keep dodging responsibility for wanting to do so. Still, not my responsibility, is it?

The item on the balloons, incidentally, was followed by an item that regularly prompts an allergic reaction – the so-called Thought For the Day. So when I heard that the speaker was director “…of the thinktank Ecclesia,” I considered suing them for the dangerous lack of health advice: ‘Warning: may not contain real thoughts’.

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