Newspaper and television journalists appear to be under increasing pressure from editors to present their reports, including serious news items, in a sensationalist manner. Information and analysis are not enough: everything has to have an element of drama and 'human interest.' The broadsheets have followed the example of the tabloids in an attempt to halt their declining sales, and many television news summaries are no better, preferring a shallow sound bite to a thoughtful lead story.
In the case of Britain's decision to leave the European Union, for example, which involves tough and complex negotiations, the situation is presented as a battle between committed Brexiteers, anxious to fulfil a democratic mandate, and stubborn Remainers, finding economic and constitutional obstacles at every turn. This narrative is spiced up by accounts of key players engaged in settling old scores and positioning themselves for the future.
The coverage of Theresa May's speech at the Tory conference last week offers a further illustration. There was little reference to significant policy proposals, notably on capping energy prices and investing in social housing. All the focus was on her coughing and spluttering, the intervention of the prankster and the fragile signage. These were treated as metaphors for a PM in terminal decline, a 'dead woman walking.' By the weekend, after Grant Shapps's inept intervention, attempting to rally support for a leadership contest, the spin on the event had changed. Mrs May was now portrayed as plucky and resolute, determined to get on with the job and see off her critics.
To be fair, there is still some decent journalism to be found but it is in danger of being submerged by the dross. On television, the dominant voice is celebrity trash, which pollutes our screens on a daily basis. And, for many people, newspapers have been overtaken by various forms of online coverage, where extended prose is not appreciated. The preferred ingredients are an eye-catching headline, a hint of scandal, a simplistic judgement and an incentive for the deranged to indulge in therapeutic abuse. Is it too conspiratorial to suspect global media companies of engaging in a campaign to suppress rational thought?
'I'm not sure we would have won the war if it had not been for Neville Chamberlain.' That is the view of Robert Harris, whose latest novel, 'Munich', traces Chamberlain's attempts to avert conflict, most memorably summed up in his hopelessly optimistic phrase on returning from negotiations with Hitler, 'Peace for our time.' The usual characterisation of Chamberlain is as a naïve appeaser, in contrast to the pugnacious and inspirational Churchill, whose achievements as a wartime prime minister are held up for admiration.
Although Harris clearly has a great deal of sympathy for Chamberlain, his portrayal is not uncritical. He acknowledges that he made mistakes, that he was vain and 'ostentatiously modest.' The case for reassessing his place in history is based on two main arguments. Chamberlain had a vivid memory of the terrible carnage of the first world war. He felt he had a duty to avoid a repetition. In the novel, Harris has him say, '...whenever I saw a war memorial, or visited one of those vast cemeteries in France where so many dear friends are buried, I always vowed that if I ever was in a position to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again, I would do anything – sacrifice anything – to maintain peace.' This, suggests Harris, gave Britain a degree of moral authority, which Churchill was later able to exploit.
The second point is more practical. Britain was simply not prepared for war at the time of 'Munich'. In fact, if the struggle against Hitler had started earlier, we may well have lost. By 1940, the RAF had 10 times as many planes as it had in 1938. It can certainly be argued that the process of rearmament should have started much sooner, but seeking to delay the conflict, notwithstanding the ethical dilemmas this created for Britain's relations with European allies, made sense at the time.
Historical reassessment is a difficult exercise. Is it conceivable, for example, that recent political decisions which have attracted much criticism – such as David Cameron's commitment to hold a referendum on EU membership, or Tony Blair's support for America in the Iraq war – might be judged differently in 50 years' time? And what of the Trump presidency? Could someone who has been subject to so much ridicule and condemnation be rebranded as a leader who deserves some respect? Unlikely as it seems, it is not entirely inconceivable. After all, we live in a 'post truth' society. As one of the characters in 'Munich' observes, with reference to the imperatives of war: 'Truth was like any other material...it had to be beaten and bent and cut into the required shape.'
A Polish care worker, who has lived in Scotland for more than a decade, tells me that, while she is glad to have a job and enjoys her work, she is often shocked by the attitudes to the old and infirm that she encounters in this country. In Poland, she claims, families take much more responsibility for the elderly and do not depend on the various forms of state support that are available here. I do not know enough about the situation in Poland to judge whether her comparison is accurate and fair, but her comment did make me think about the growing scale of the problem and the adequacy of existing forms of provision.
It is painful to watch someone who was once active and capable of independent living gradually losing physical and mental capacities and having to rely on others in order to function at a basic level. We know from the work of charities that many elderly people suffer from loneliness and depression, particularly after the loss of a partner.
Residential care is expensive and the quality of provision is variable. Some homes are excellent, with kind staff, good meals and imaginative ways of stimulating interest among the residents. Others follow a dull routine which sometimes seems to be driven more by the convenience of the employees rather than the needs of the residents. Wherever it is a viable option, local authorities now prefer to make provision for old people to remain in their own homes, with carers visiting them several times a day. The biggest risk comes at night when there is a danger of falls, often necessitating hospital admission.
Sufferers from dementia pose particular challenges. While some are simply confused and passive, others can be paranoid, abusive and aggressive. The latter are particularly distressing for close relatives who may have been doing their best to support them. In these circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why they may feel they must turn to the professionals, especially if they have jobs and children of their own to look after. The pace of living and the physical distance that often exists between family members means that it can be impossible to make practical arrangements of a kind that might have been manageable in the past.
But the Polish care worker seemed to be referring to much more than the complications arising from the decline of the nuclear family, attendant on the complexity of the modern world. She seemed to be saying that our treatment of the elderly reveals a basic lack of humanity. If that is the case, the prospects for the future are bleak indeed.