There is a noise that I remember from school. It was the noise that a class collectively made when someone had done something stupid. It began with a sharp in-breath, which became an even sharper, three-syllable exhalation. It sounded like this: “AH-HAH-HAH!”
The emphasis was on the first “HAH”, with the phrase descending subtly from the high note of the “AH” through a middle tone and finally to the low concluding “HAH!”.
Have you got it? Can you hear it? That noise clattered in the ears of whomever it was directed at. It was scornful and malicious, conveying the message, “You’re useless, and we’re laughing at you, not with you”.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. It rang in my ears when Diane Abbott made her ill-advised tweet about white people, and again when Ed Milliband mistyped “Blockbusters”. I heard it again when Joan McAlpine did or did not say that people who didn’t support independence were unpatriotic. I even heard its faint echoes when the papers rushed to dub the man responsible for the Costa Concordia “Captain Coward”.
Increasingly, I feel like the media is just rushing from corner to corner, pointing its fingers and yelling, “AH-HAH– HAH!” at anyone who seems like they might have slipped up. And I don’t feel very good about it.
The problem, of course, is 24-hour rolling news. The news is never not on now, so there always has to be new news. Doesn’t matter how trivial, embarrassing or half-baked it is, there’s a ravenous beast inside our TV that needs a constant diet of ticker tapes, headlines and graphics. So the news gets shallower and nastier, in order to make a story out of everything.
But what can we do about it? Genies are notorious for their reluctance to get back in their bottles, so we can’t return to the days of solemnly switching on the TV at 6 o’clock to receive a neatly packaged update. For better or worse, the news is now permanently crashing through the air, swooping round our heads and spilling out of our phones, computers, TVs and radios. The only thing we can change is how we react to it.
So that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying not to join in. I’m trying to stand to one side, keep my mouth closed and refuse to make that terrible noise.