One of the biggest irritations caused by the long EU Referendum campaign is that it is completely dominating the political and media agenda. Other 'big' stories have been squeezed aside, partly because politicians are talking of and doing little else. The result is that all sorts of trivia, the sorts of stories which once would have attracted hardly any attention at all, are being blown up into headline news. Add in the echo chamber of social media and too often these frontpage non-stories are accompanied by quite disproportionate levels of frothy outrage. This week has seen two classic examples.
First was the controversy blown up by Joan Bakewell's comments about eating disorders. I am steering well clear of the actual debate, beyond saying that from the little I've read it is clear that illnesses like anorexia have complicated causes, only one of which might be society's attitude towards appearance (although a debate about selfie culture and Instagram, and its impact on body image might be quite interesting). I'm also not going to get into Bakewell's assertion that she was stitched up, lured, despite her long media experience, into making unguarded comments thinking they were off the record. But it seems to me that the ensuing media interest has been intense and over-the-top, the social media reaction personal, strident and relentless, and the apology inevitable.
The second example was the Top Gear doughnuting stunt which, according to some commentators, desecrated the Cenotaph. Again, I'm not endorsing what the BBC did or didn't do. On the one hand it seems pretty clear that the car was not that close to the memorial and no offence was intended. But on the other the producers should have anticipated the criticism, particularly since so much of the rest of the media is on the prowl for any mistake by the Beeb - in my view quite shamefully. What is definitely true is that this was quickly blown up into a big storm, social media waded in, and the apology had to come and it had to be grovelling.
These are just two examples: lately barely a day goes by without television and the papers banding together, fuelled by social media, to express their outrage about some transgression or other. Fine, I suppose. This is what the silly season looks like now, and we are in the longest silly season ever. I am just a bit concerned that at the end of it, on 24 June, one of the more unexpected legacies of the referendum will have been to give a fillip to the media's growing need to force apologies out of the subjects of their stories. This would be a shame, because forcing people to say sorry is not actually the media's job. More important, this cycle of story-outrage-apology is also very dangerous.
Why dangerous? Because saying sorry for thoughts you have and statements you make suggests that there is a 'right' way to think and a 'right' way to articulate oneself, and any deviation from it must be called out and punished. So it is not enough to challenge Joan Bakewell on her understanding of the facts, which was clearly deficient; we have to 'condemn' her for the 'hurt' and 'distress' she has caused - and we must make her say sorry, she must take it back, she must promise never to speak about the subject again. She must be hounded out the debate because she has indulged in wrong thinking.
I don't want to live in that world. I am really fearful of the clear continuum between the treatment of Joan Bakewell and Top Gear and the growing number of instances, reported on by Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times, of people being banned from speaking or teaching at various universities because they are 'wrong' on certain subjects. I am not a libertarian nutcase: clearly there are limits to free speech and to freedom of action. But we cannot close down all debate just because the odd phrase puts peoples' noses out of joint, causes hurt and upset, and generally deviates from the consensus. We cannot allow bullies on or off line to stop different voices being heard. If we want to live in a vibrant and open society, where we benefit from creativity and innovative thinking, where we believe that argument and diversity leads to better decision-making, and where we move with the times and sometimes have to throw off the old orthodoxy, we need to be more tolerant. Wrong thinking might be wrong, but hearing it is usually alright.