Although I’ve never seen it since and have no idea what it was, I remember one childhood Saturday morning catching an archaic comedy movie from the 1940s or 50s – my memory dates it by the fact all the men in it were wearing hats – and a guy was being examined by a doctor for a neck injury. The GP told him to keep looking upwards and the ailment would gradually heal, so he exited the surgery and strolled out onto the street with his head aimed at the sky. As he made his way along, his unusual stance caught the eye of everyone he passed so that they all followed suit, gazing up in the belief the guy had obviously seen something fascinating. I guess it’s an old joke, but it was an old film and the concept still makes me laugh now. I wondered why that scene should infiltrate my head after being absent for several decades, but maybe it’s because such a vaudevillian gag now feels like it was actually making a shrewd point about the way in which a misinterpreted gesture can provoke a chain reaction to ripple through a crowd of people with remarkable ease and breathtaking pace. Perhaps it’s just a classic characteristic of herd mentality, and one ripe for exploitation.
A more scientific explanation came on a 1970s David Dimbleby-hosted programme examining the hysteria at Osmonds concerts. A psychologist spoke of how it would only take one member of the audience when Donny and his brothers hit the stage to set off virtually everyone else at the venue. He’d observed how one girl screaming triggered the girl sat next to her and she in turn triggered the next one and the sound rapidly travelled down the whole row, each girl taking on the pattern of the girls around her so the entire arena could erupt into a cauldron of ear-splitting frenzy within seconds. I suppose a similar thing happens at football matches, though the man who starts the chant does so in the deliberate hope that he will quickly be accompanied by a chorus; the fact he usually is accompanied by a chorus suggests again that herd mentality – whether consciously or unconsciously – instinctively replicates the behaviour of the lone individual so that he or she is soon cocooned by safety in numbers; and at many times over the years, numbers have equated with safety at football matches, where the lone individual would be vulnerable and exposed – especially if he’s playing away.
Just as one member of a crowd can purposely incite the rest of that crowd to accompany him in a singsong if he knows the crowd is primed to respond favourably, the herd mentality can be cynically manipulated by outsiders with an equal minimum of effort. Politicians and their affiliated media outlets have always used this tactic to smear their opponents and nudge the electorate towards ticking the right box in the voting booth; but the past eighteen months have seen the practice used to clinical effect, with the masses becoming more pliable pieces than ever in someone else’s chess game. The way in which the pandemic restrictions were successfully enforced by convincing great swathes of the public that they were barely two-dozen loo rolls away from death was such a resounding triumph for the powers-that-be that it taught them an invaluable lesson. They realised the public were far easier to push in the desired direction than they’d ever dared imagine before.
The media cottoned onto this a long time ago, of course. The press did so far earlier than, say, television (certainly in this country, anyway), for public broadcasting originating in the Reithian ethos clung to the antiquated notion of political impartiality in a way the newspapers and their blatantly partisan approach – which was utterly dependent on the leanings of the paper’s proprietor – never had any moral need to adhere to. Moreover, the populist end of Fleet Street and its unquenchable thirst for sensationalism and scandal stretching all the way back to Victorian penny dreadfuls had accelerated in the Murdoch era, taking the print medium down a dark, grubby alley that television news had yet to visit. Not being a viewer of either Sky or CNN, I personally began to notice news broadcasts on terrestrial TV adopting a more tabloid approach not so much with Brexit, which is usually cited as the moment when journalism as we used to know it doubled down into unashamed propaganda for one side or the other, but when the financial crash of 2007/08 occurred. This was the point at which I really became aware TV news had ceased reporting facts and had instead opted to manufacture drama. Sure, there had been agendas in place before, but a trend appeared to be developing that required a constant flow of drama, possibly because of satellite competition or possibly because there were now rolling news channels with 24 hours to fill.
I recall a news report on either BBC or ITV in late 2007 covering queues outside a branch of Northern Rock when word had got around that the bank was living on borrowed time; as those with accounts quietly waited their turn to withdraw their savings in an orderly fashion, a TV reporter buzzed round them desperately attempting to whip up an atmosphere of panic to support the hysterical tone of his piece for the evening news. It seemed as though he’d come looking for a replay of the scene in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ when George Bailey’s bank collapses; so, when confronted by a line of Brits keeping calm and carrying on, the reporter resorted to a presentation style owing more to ‘The Day Today’ than the kind of straightforward no-bullshit journalism British TV news was once renowned for. To their credit, the members of the crowd that day didn’t panic; but the manner of the response to Covid Project Fear last year proved how effective a constant stream of panic propaganda pumped into the public’s collective psyche via the multiple media tools of the 2020s can now provoke panic without breaking sweat.
It might not be convenient for the current storyline, but one doesn’t have to even ‘go back to the 70s’ to recall the last time we had lengthy queues and panic buying at petrol stations; it was barely 20 years ago, midway through the New Labour era, when Gordon Brown as the Iron Chancellor was portrayed on the front of a national newspaper as a caricature of an 18th century highwayman. But today’s trend of constantly evoking the Winter of Discontent or the Three-Day Week works better because that period has lived on as a potent lesson of what happens when governments lose the plot, even for those who were a long way from being a twinkle in the milkman’s eye at the time. And one can see the appeal. After all, the panic buying that emptied supermarket shelves last year is still fresh, and the current spate of empty shelves at your local Sainsbury’s can be linked to the pandemic, to the pingdemic, to the loss of lorry drivers from a poorly-paid profession with few (if any) provisions for its workers, to the ‘sudden’ depletion of energy supplies, and – of course – Brexit. Join the dots and we have the potential for a good old-fashioned Great British Doomsday Narrative. And the Great British public are responding accordingly.
Unemployment was far higher in the 70s and inflation was astronomical in a way that today simply cannot compare with – a staggering 40% in June 1975; and whereas trade unions then had the clout to routinely bring the economy to its knees, lockdown has managed the same feat in record time now. What eventually replaced heavy industry in the big provincial cities that had been built on the back of it was the hospitality industry, yet when the continental cafés, bistros, bars and leisure venues that revitalised such cities from the 1990s onwards were closed overnight in 2020, regional dependence on such businesses meant that the damage done was of a kind we’ll probably be dealing with the ramifications of for years. That’s the real crisis. Never mind – send the cameras to the petrol stations and engage in nonsensical arguments about biology for light relief. Apparently, rats suddenly deprived of the scraps of office workers when the workforce relocated to the home have now followed the money and are loitering in our U-bends. Maybe our perennial rodent shadows reckon we’re all doomed as well.
© The Editor