“Sometimes you want to sit there and say: ‘nothing much has happened, I’d go to bed if I were you.” So said the Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman about a phenomenon all of us face in the street of shame - what to do when there is a dearth of news.
The media is a machine which is sustained by shock and awe, and if there isn’t much going on, then we manufacture it. Not generally by inventing stories, though that does go on, but by investing the stories that are around with a significance they may not warrant. It's principally a tabloid vice, but none of us are immune and the coming of twenty four hour television has magnified it. I'm contributing to it here by writing this column.
I normally avoid reading murder and royal stories altogether because I simply don’t believe in them, and it saves time in the daily chore of reading all the papers. It’s not that I don’t believe the facts of the case: certainly Madeleine McCann was abducted (probably); Princess Diana perished in a car crash ten years ago(certainly); and a little boy was murdered last week in Liverpool. But the machine can’t leave it there, and in the absence of competing news, we have been subjected to a weekend of futile attempts to extract meaning from the random killing of eleven year old Rhys Jones: fevered anticipation of the tenth anniversary of Diana’s death; further fruitless anguish about the McCann affair. Why can’t we just leave them alone?
Now, I’m not saying that gangs of feral youths aren’t a problem; or that we should ignore gun crime; or that family break-up is good for children. But the Liverpool killing, which has launched many thousands of words on these issues, tells us very little about any of them. Rhys Jones’s murder was a tragic one-off, a unique event. Gun crime is actually going down (or up, depending on the statistics you look at). It wasn’t a typical gang-land killing and his parents are white and happily married. Stuff happens.
The search for explanation is a populist version of what the philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb called the “Black Swan” phenomenon - the human tendency to look for meaning when there often isn’t any. We are “fooled by randomness”. Paxo has a rather more robust way of putting it. Media frenzies like the McCanns, Diana and Rhys simply rob us of our reason: “At times like this, when the television hurricane hits a story, it too often sucks good sense and consideration out of the brains of those involved”.
The McCanns voluntarily became a media sensation, of course, and then were consumed by it. In a desperate search for black swans, the media descended on Gerry McCann seeking somehow to find a connexion between the loss of their daughter and the murder in Liverpool. The key, it turned out was the Everton shirt. Of course! Madeleine McCann and Rhys Jones shared a passionate support for the same football team. 40,000 Everton fans paying their respects at Goodison Park became the image of the weekend, as if in some way murder and sport had become one.
“Liverpool sometime seems to be made for grief”, said the Sunday Times, improbably linking Hillsborough, Jamie Bulger and Rhys Jones, whose death, “has brought Liverpool face to face with the sinister new cultural phenomenon of modern Britain: where youngsters feel empowered to shoot each other on a whim and are proud of it.” The only reason they didn’t add Holly and Jessica Chapmen was because they supported Manchester United. But this is not a 'sinister new phenomenon' - gangs have been around as long as long as there have been newspapers to run stories about them.
Politicians are made the biggest fools of all, having to respond to events like these because the media is running around looking for answers. So we have had David Cameron talking about everything from family breakdown to abolishing the Human Rights Act in the wake of the Liverpool killings. Yes, I know, that wasn’t about Rhys Jones, but the impending non-deportation to Italy of Learco Chindamo, who was jailed 11 years ago for the murder of headteacher Philip Lawrence. But somehow the HRA has become part of the same frenzy about "broken Britain". It's the collapse of the family, community, football, Europe, race...whatever.
There has been much debate about black fathers not raising their children, as if white marriages don’t break down. We are told that gangs have become surrogate families to disaffected urban black youth. "It's a cultural problem” the justice secretary Jack Straw told the BBC last week, “It's the absence of fathers who are actively involved in parenting... and they are more likely to be absent in the case of the Afro-Caribbean." Even the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, has got in on this one, suggesting that they could all do with a spell in the army. He wants black officers to start mentoring young black males to become responsible dads.
The Prime Minister tried not to get too involved in the Rhys Jones frenzy, but he was unable to in the end. The media would have murdered him for being unwilling to join in the emotional , rather as they attacked the Queen when she failed to show appropriate emotion over the death of Diana. Is Gordon so cold that he cannot feel the pain of 40,000 Everton supporters? Prime Minister, where are you when your nation needs you?
So, Brown had to follow the script by promising a “tougher enforcement...crackdown...more police... new laws if necessary”. Now, there may well be a case for having more police on the streets instead of filling in forms, and there may be a case for new laws, but the Rhys killing doesn’t tell us what they should be. Far more killings are the result of knife crime than guns, which tend to be carried by drug dealers for show rather than use. Airguns are responsible for a lot of killings too, and the Scottish government is pressing ahead with a law to outlaw them. But this reveals another curious dimension to the black swan hunt.
Strangely, murders mean more if they happen in England than in Scotland. Three weeks ago a teenager, Andrew Devlin, was shot and killed outside a snooker club in Paisley, but that didn’t launch an outpouring of national grief and angst. Nor did the death of two year old Andrew Morton two years ago by an airgun pellet. I’m not saying it should have, but it does lead to a curious hierarchy of impact - things seem to have more meaning the further south they happen. This is because the media machine is based in London and increasingly regards Scotland as a foreign country, even though the media it produces is broadcast here. Perhaps we should count our blessings. It means there is a chance of a more level-headed response to these episodes of inexplicable and implacable human tragedy.