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#PoppyPressure: Has the Symbol Lost Its Substance?

10/11/2015 12:49 GMT | Updated 09/11/2016 10:12 GMT

As predicted, the media abounded with reactions to on the Labour leader's "disgustingly poor bow" at the Cenotaph, with The Sun's front page declaring it a "remembrance day snub". Still in doubt? The Daily Telegraph's 'etiquette expert', William Hanson, was on board to clarify. In his words, "protocol dictates that, while his bow did not necessarily have to be deep, like a theatrical bow and scrape, it should have gone down around 45 degrees from the waist."

Mr Corbyn, where is your protractor? Britain's four past and present PMs, in contrast, displayed remembrance etiquette with aplomb. Among them? Tony Blair, the man who essentially confessed to an illegal war on US Television last month. On Sunday, Corbyn turned down a VIP lunch in favour of talking to Veterans. He has spent 20 years campaigning for peace. Nevertheless, trial by media concludes that the questionable nod of a head is more condemnable than *potential* blood on your hands.

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There was a troubling inevitability that Corbyn would dominate headlines. If the media thought his election was an early Christmas present, Remembrance brought a whole sleigh's worth of speculation. Would Jeremy shun Labour red for a white flower? Would he do a John Snow and forgo the symbol altogether? The press offices were left disappointed on this front, for Corbyn wore a red poppy throughout the Remembrance weekend.

The same could not be said of Sienna Miller's appearance on Graham Norton. The Poppy Police were beside themselves, with twitter accusations ranging from "disrespectful cow" to "terrible role model". In the end, her flower-free dress was attributed to its chiffon material and the actress was quite horrified at the unexpected backlash. Yet what if it had been personal choice? I fail to see how wearing a poppy bestows "role model" status.

When Jeremy Corbyn stayed silent during the National Anthem last month, my initial response was anger; on reflection, however, I was almost glad he did. Would singing it under duress make him more honourable? Since when did a symbol or a song, on its own, afford moral superiority?

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Perhaps it is since we became a society of appearances. You need only switch on your TV to see this. The BBC vowed to make its remembrance concert "contemporary and exciting"; apparently the subject of war is a bit too depressing and dated for prime time. Under the lights of a Saturday night show, producers cannot help but give the poppy some pizazz. Craig Revel Horwood's flower is as sparkly as Darcy's dress, while an X Factor contestant finds it fitting to do some brand 'X' placement on the poppy itself. If this was ITV's attempt to appease both showbiz viewers and poppy police, twitter certainly had a thing or three to say...

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Back in 2010, Jeremy Corbyn stated he has "no objection to people wearing poppies in memory of those who died in wars. However, in doing so we should have enough humility to realise that war kills." I fail to see the humility of this X Factor contestant.

In echoes of this statement, Brogan Morris's recent Huffington Post blog hit the nail on the head: "we should be asking whether this symbol is being rendered hollow by wearers who in no way support what it stands for." If we believe that remembrance is tantamount to the symbol, doesn't meaning become as paper-thin as the poppy in the box. And wow many of these boxes of must TV producers run between dressing rooms? When was the last time a poppy with signs of wear and tear graced your screen? Let's hope Craig never sees my dishevelled poppy on day 11.

I am in no doubt that many people on TV do wear the poppy by choice. Moreover, many celebrities actively raising funds and awareness for the Royal British Legion, from Charity Singles and Public Campaigns, . I Every year, without fail, I wear a poppy to remember those who died for my country. I choose to honour those who took a stand against fascism. My reasons for wearing the poppy are not, in fact, too dissimilar to Jeremy Corbyn's. Although he was hesitant to bear the symbol, when he did so it was with conviction. Tony Blair could bow down to the ground and wear a thousand poppies; still I could never read conviction in his eyes.

In the past fortnight, 'authenticity' has become something of a media buzzword. The story of an Instagram 'it' girl and her rejection of social media has - somewhat ironically - broken the internet. On the surface, Poppy Pressure and Essena O'Neill may seem unlikely bedfellows; nonetheless, they both illustrate the unsettling power of public perception.

In the social media world that Essena now condemns, Sienna Miller would not merely wear a poppy. She would post Instagram photos of her dancing across fields of poppies, wearing poppy dresses and hailing the superfood properties of the poppy. InstaMiller would be "liked" and lauded by her social media following, the epitome of public approval. Now, thanks to Essena's exposé, InstaMiller is a lie; the superficial product of public pressure. In the context of Remembrance, we are reminded of a sobering fact. What we read - and see - cannot be taken at face value.

I was 16 when I experienced this first-hand. As a prefect on my Senior School leadership team, I co-organised an assembly for Remembrance. On the day, only 3 out of 8 - myself included - wore poppies. Suddenly, one of the Deputy Head Girls turned to me and asked: "can I borrow your poppy? It looks worse if I'm not wearing one." Suffice to say, the poppy stayed pinned to my jumper and she looked thoroughly put out. My decision was not governed by my own need for validation, but hers.

There is so much public pressure to maintain face of Remembrance, but what about its soul? The selfless soldier deserves more than a borrowed or bejewelled poppy. We stop for the 2-minute silence, yet it is bookmarked by hours of twitter trolling, pages of warmongering journalism and the ceaseless fire of public pressure. As a nation fell silent on Sunday morning, a newsroom keyboard proceeded to place a pacifist on trial.

Lest they forget.