We need to develop a vaccine against media scare tactics | David Mitchell

Is it a sign of the devaluation of the currency of dread that hardly anyone seemed to notice last week’s announcement that a terrorist attack is likely? I mean, come on! That’s still frightening, isn’t it? Or have we maxed out on stressing about things we can’t control?

No we haven’t. Don’t worry: we’re still worriers. The reason the announcement from the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre passed with little comment is that it was downgrading its prediction about a terrorist attack from “highly likely” to merely “likely”. That’s how the chances of an atrocity are expressed, by way of explanation of the five “threat levels”. On Monday, the threat level went down from “severe” (“an attack is highly likely”) to “substantial” (“an attack is likely”), which is fairly good news and therefore no way to get anyone’s attention.

The threat levels are puzzling. The lowest, “low”, is supposedly for when the JTAC reckons an attack is “highly unlikely”, but not as unlikely as it ever opting for that prediction: that would simultaneously give a massive hostage to fortune and make the Treasury question its funding. Next up is “moderate”, which means “an attack is possible, but not likely”. So, is the implication that if an attack is “highly unlikely” it’s not actually possible? Next come “substantial” and “severe” (see above) and then, at the top, “critical”, meaning “an attack is highly likely in the near future”.

This is the first mention of timescale and, before we got to it, I confess I thought “the near future” was what they all referred to – because there’s going to be a terrorist attack at some point. That’s not highly likely, it’s definite. I could tell them that on zero research. Britain hasn’t had its last terrorist attack unless an asteroid is about to obliterate all human life – something else that’s bound to happen eventually.

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Thinking about awful things that are probably going to happen isn’t much fun. Death is obviously the biggie in this category and we all have our various coping strategies where the prospect of that is concerned – meditation, alcohol, trying not to think about it, striving to become a bishop, etc. But there are lots of other bad things, big and small. Many readers of this, for example, will at some point shit themselves in public. It will be stressful and disgusting and embarrassing, but you will not die. Then, later, you will die.

Sometimes I can become overwhelmed by the premonition of all the times yet to come when I’m going to accidentally say something enormously tactless. The certainty that those future moments of agonising mortification will occur can feel unbearable. Thinking like this really doesn’t help, but we can get sucked into it, morbidly curious to experience an ever deeper sense of doom.

In that mood, the lowering of the terrorist threat level doesn’t really hit the spot, even though the home secretary did her best to further mitigate the already only slightly positive development, warning: “The public should continue to remain vigilant.” Vigilant, is it? Years and years of lovely, soothing constant vigilance followed by inevitable death – how nice. The story gaining much more traction that day, in the absence of anything eye-catchingly apocalyptic on the Covid front, was defence secretary Ben Wallace’s dark warning that a “breakdown of world order” was leading to “a growing threat of chemical and biological” attacks.

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I’m sure he’s right, but at the same time I can’t help suspecting that his timing has more to do with very different perceived vulnerabilities in the department of defence. All the fear has been going Covid’s way for ages, so Wallace felt constrained to mention some other things that we might want to be worried about that could give his department a fighting chance (or give fighting a chance) against health in the next spending round.

Of course the media were delighted to get something different to ominously report. They’ve been frightening us about the pandemic for so long that they must be concerned we’re developing a sort of herd immunity to the worry. They need to scare us a different way: after months of putting spiders in the bed, they need to jump out of the wardrobe.

The media’s MO is like a reverse Monsters Inc. The plot of Monsters Inc revolves around a city populated by monsters, where all the electricity is generated by harnessing the fear of children. A magical machine allows monsters to leap out of thousands of different children’s wardrobes at night and scare them; that fear provides the energy in Monstropolis.

It’s a nice, weird idea. Now (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film, and I heartily recommend that you do): its heartwarming conclusion rests on the amazing discovery that if, instead of terrifying the kids, the monsters make them laugh, even more electricity is generated than by terror. Joy is literally more powerful than fear, is what they find out.

The news media have had the opposite insight. Entertaining people – inducing laughter or interest – is really difficult. It takes effort and thought. Scaring them is comparatively easy and a much surer way of grabbing attention, and it’s by getting people’s attention that money is made. It doesn’t matter why people click on an article, or whether or not they were subsequently glad they did. The attention is banked either way.

The era of Covid has made this clearer than ever. We’re all scared already and the media have a wide range of eye-catching specific fears to put in the headlines. What about our children’s health? And their education? Are we doomed to economic collapse? Or mental illness? Are the vaccines ineffective? Will pubs/theatres/restaurants/department stores stay closed for ever?

Just by asking these frightening questions, even if the answers are comparatively reassuring, the business model is secure. Reputable publications won’t lie, but the truths they choose and the way they present them are focused on what we’re already fretting about rather than the actual importance of any new information they have to impart. And yet we dig back down into it, repeatedly, obsessively, deeper and deeper, in the hope of hitting a seam of consolation.



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