Wander past a newspaper stand and you’d be forgiven for thinking the end was nigh. Panic abounds, be it over teenage pregnancies, childhood obesity levels, unemployment figures or the cost of immigration to the economy. Society is unstable; the country is teetering on the brink of another disaster.
Behind the headlines, though, lie statistics and stories jostling to disprove the worrying narratives the media feed us. Teenage pregnancy is at an all-time low, and childhood obesity levels haven’t risen in the past decade. It’s lodged in our psyche that the job market is broken and unemployment rife – yet it’s at the lowest it has been for 10 years. And immigration is boosting our economy to the tune of £20bn.
Why, then, is it the scare stories that lead? Hyperbole sells papers, of course – if it bleeds, it leads – but while it’s tempting to think our reluctance to celebrate success is down to stiff-upper-lipped British stoicism, it seems more likely that the answer lies squarely on the doorsteps of those in power.
The production of moral panics – the phenomenon in which public fear based on media exaggeration far outstrips any real threat – operates to the benefit of both the state and its media outlets. Politicians need communication channels to their electorate; newspapers need headlines to grab their readers. Horror stories become the backdrop for political heroes to step forward, united with the public in opposition to a common enemy. An electorate riddled with fear and mistrust is easier to control than a secure and prosperous one; just ask Donald Trump’s cult of disillusioned white working-class supporters.
While fear-mongering inspires both clicks and votes alike, the reality is that social change, by its very nature, is not instantaneous enough to do either. Social attitudes do not change overnight in a fashion dramatic enough to grace a tabloid cover, and the hard work and persistence that goes into tackling inequality is difficult to sell to someone who is looking for an answer as of yesterday. While good news stories might bookend a local news bulletin nicely or pad out the middle pages in a paper, they are disproportionately unlikely to be placed on any agenda-setting front pages.
The societal impact of sacrificing success stories for fear-mongering can perhaps be seen best in the charity sector, where sustainability and impact are arguably most tenuous. In organisations reliant on cyclical funding and threatened constantly with cuts, a tightrope has to be walked between justifying funding, and shooting yourself in the foot by succeeding in spite of it. You could have blinked and missed it, but in a testament to the hard work of housing and poverty charities, street-level homelessness was all but eradicated in 2010.
In a climate of limited funding and competition, though, celebrating such success is a dangerous business. Charities scrambled for new priorities to justify their existence, and funding for work to sustain this huge success was slashed during the years of austerity. The wins happen gradually, on the back of hard graft, passionate activists and dedicated staff. The cuts happen quickly, on the back of a state agenda.
Focusing on perceived negatives at the expense of success stories goes a long way in distracting the electorate, too, from the state’s own failures. While we’re busy slamming out enraged Facebook statuses about benefit fraud, another billionaire non-dom is pocketing millions in money we’re not talking about. Benefit fraud remains a minuscule proportion of lost state income in comparison with tax evasion, but the Conservative government’s tenacity in pursuing welfare reform to the detriment of the working class gains a little bit more credibility every time it is reported on. It’s a neat little assembly line of panic – and it works.
Celebrating good news stories won’t make the bad ones go away. But it will help to empower the public with information that is balanced, fairly presented and vital in helping them form political opinions. If the media are to be truly objective, they must be brave enough to break the moral panic chain. And besides, with social media giving a voice to those outside of the media bubble, some pockets of the public are already taking matters into their own hands. Campaigns such as #lovethenhs, which is designed to boost good news stories about the healthcare system still considered one of the best in the world, in spite of what the government would have you believe about waiting times and patient care levels.
Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it, so the oft-recited saying goes. But perhaps more pertinent are those who ignore the reality of the present.
Originally published on The Guardian.