Opinion: Sit back and relax, it’s only the apocalypse

The British public are a complacent lot – self-satisfied and uncritical about their responsibilities, ambitions and consumer choices, not to mention politics.

In fact, according to a survey unveiled this week by market research think-tank The Future Foundation, we are so preoccupied by the trivia of celebrities that nearly half of the population do not mind if anti-terror legislation erodes our civil liberties. Which may go some way towards explaining the unique nature of the British press.

Faced with a society of couch potatoes, is it any wonder that journalists feel the need to take an extreme position in order to gain our attention? Rather like a child who feels its message isn't getting through, national newspapers resort to screaming their message through sensationalist headlines just to raise a glimmer of interest among readers.

Take the coverage of the most recent threat to the planet – avian flu. The newspaper coverage over the past couple of weeks has become increasingly hysterical, with writers revelling in images of pestilence and chaos, visualising a country locked down by disease, with travel curtailed, schools closed and quarantines imposed. The comments of the Government's chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, at the beginning of the week enabled the press to write off 50,000 lives on their front pages.

The public response? Well, most males of my acquaintance won't come up with their usual flu claims when they come down with a slight sniffle this year. But the locals in my area aren't exactly queuing round the block for the flu vaccine.

Perhaps, as an expert involved in the Sars crisis once suggested to me, all this media scaremongering is a necessary tactic to pressurise governments into taking action.

But the real problem of course is that the sensationalist coverage in the end only serves to further desensitise the public towards potential threat. From a Western perspective, Aids, Sars and BSE all failed to deliver the promised apocalypse, and there is only so long the public can spend living in a state of anxiety before lapsing back into a state of complacency, reassuring themselves that the
media focus on a new scare story every week and that nothing ever comes of them.

So, ironically, despite the alarming rhetoric, the media are in fact complicit in lulling us into a false sense of security. This has the result that if, God forbid, the threat of avian flu becomes a grisly reality, the public will be even less prepared to deal rationally with the crisis.

kate.nicholas@haynet.com

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