TV voyeurism, military hypocrisy and Midsomer Murders

Lessons for the future of philosophy and newsgathering from the Japanese earthquake, the way forward

Considering the Lisbon earthquake and tsun­ami of 1755 - the shocks of which were felt as far away as the Scilly Isles - Voltaire's Candide asked: "If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?" Voltaire was challenging the widespread mid-18th-century belief that the world was just as it should be, ordered on rational lines by a benevolent and omniscient God. To this intellectual mindset, the Lisbon earthquake was so shocking that many, including Samuel Johnson, refused to believe it could have happened. If, as priests insisted, natural disasters were a punishment for sin, why did the earthquake strike on All Saints Day (1 November), when the churches were packed for divine worship? Why did the victims include several hundred monks, friars and nuns? As Goethe later observed: "God, the creator and preserver of heaven and earth . . . had struck down equally the just and the unjust."

It is not too fanciful to suggest that Lisbon marked the beginning of secularism: God was put on notice of his expulsion from public affairs. The disaster in Japan will most likely have similarly profound effects on our thinking, though we cannot predict them with confidence. My immediate response - naturally coloured by socialist prejudices - is to note that rebuilding Japan, to say nothing of organising rescue operations, depends on the country's collective endeavours, not on our contemporary god, the market. It is hard to disagree with the view that "the social capital of a well-organised government and solidarity among the people is priceless". That comes not from some leftist propaganda sheet, but from the Financial Times's Lex column.

Nothing to see here
A natural disaster on this scale exposes the limitations of 24-hour rolling news. It seems to the producers somehow wrong to give significant attention to any other story but, in truth, there is little to say about an earthquake. We all, by now, know about plate tectonics but nobody can predict when and where the earth will next move. We know casualties and destruction must be very great, but more precise figures are unlikely to be accurate. (Estimates tend to peak several days after a disaster and are then revised downwards.) The pictures don't convey much because we hold no prior images of the towns and villages affected and the Japanese are not, in general, demonstrative people. Speculation about what it means for the British economy seems distasteful; even the Daily Mail hasn't yet delivered its verdict on how UK house prices will be affected. Only the nuclear power stations provide the dramatic narrative that news requires, but nearly all the action is out of sight. The Arab uprisings keep me glued to al-Jazeera for hours. But coverage of Japan just makes me feel voyeuristic. It also sets me wondering whether those armies of foreign reporters, including the inevitable and quite unnecessary TV and radio presenters, will get in the way of rescue efforts.

Made in Britain
The usual suspects, from Michael Gove to those brave warriors at the Observer, are in full cry demanding intervention in Libya. If they are heeded, British forces will face, not for the first time, a foreign army equipped (at least partly) with British-made weapons. I refuse to take liberal interventionism seriously until we wind down our arms industry.

We shall be told to be mindful of jobs. About 100,000 people are employed in the arms industry, many of them skilled engineers who could be retrained for other work. The number of jobs lost in the coal industry between 1985 and 1993 was 180,000.

Village idiot
What amazes me about people such as Brian True-May, producer of the ITV drama Midsomer Murders, is how they make statements they must know to be untrue as though they were a matter of common agreement.

There he was, talking to the Radio Times, a magazine with a million readers (some of them surely non-white), and, after explaining that the series has no ethnic-minority characters because Midsomer villages are supposed to be "the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way", he blurts out that "if you went into Slough you wouldn't see a white face there". That latter comment - Slough's population is well over 50 per cent white British - betrays the casual and ignorant racism that remains all too common.

As a defender of free speech, however, I find it hard to support True-May's suspension. Why did somebody at ITV or All3Media, the production company, not instruct him to create a more accurate representation of modern rural England where, though not plentiful, non-whites certainly exist?He could then be judged on his actions.

There's another issue, though. Midsomer villages, with an exclusively white English population, have experienced 222 murders in 14 years. I hope True-May and his team aren't suggesting a racial propensity to killing.

The fatter cats
In his review of public-sector top pay, Will Hutton says his proposals should also apply to private firms delivering public services on contract. This is important. According to Channel 4's Dispatches programme, the chief executives of Serco, G4S and Capita - companies that run state schools, transport prisoners, collect rubbish, etc - receive annual remuneration worth between £3.8m and £10m.

I have never understood why local authority and quango bosses on £200,000 should be so reviled while the rewards of these obese cats, also funded by the taxpayer, pass without comment. I shall be interested to see how eagerly the government embraces Hutton's recommendation.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world