How is the news where you are? The news where I am isn’t very good. In fact, it’s so bad, I’m tempted to turn the sound down when it comes on my car radio. But that’s a bad thing. That’s what we did in the 1930s, closing our ears to the rumblings of continental Europe.
In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, goes undercover, disguises himself as a Papal emissary and moves about his own Dukedom, taking the temperature. He meets Escalus, one of his lords, who asks him, “What news abroad i’th’ world?”
“None, but that there is so great a fever on goodness that the dissolution of it must cure it. Novelty is only in request, and it is as dangerous to be aged in any kind of course as it is virtuous to be constant in any undertaking. There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure, but security enough to make fellowships accursed. Much upon this riddle runs the wisdom of the world. This news is old enough, yet it is every day’s news.”
I’ve been pondering this enigmatic utterance for the duration of my adult life, and making little headway with it, until this past week. It occurred to me, the Duke’s utterance really is a summary of the news. Three items dominated the news during the week – the refugee crisis; the election of Jeremy Corbyn to leadership of the Labour Party; and the unprecedented interview with the head of MI5 on the “Today” programme, coming out to gloom a nation armed with desktops, lap tops, tablets and smart phones, that it will need to be snooped on to an extent that would make even the Rector of Glasgow University raise his eyebrows.
The Duke makes five points, which I venture to precis as follows:
We are suffering from an institutional malaise so profound that we can only recover by making a radical change to the way in which we conduct our affairs.
There is an appetite for change, but we seem incapable of turning our ideas into reality.
You may think it praiseworthy to be resolute in a course of action; but if your policies are outdated and no longer fit for purpose, it is not. On the contrary, it is positively dangerous.
Public life is full of humbug.
Our lives are being rendered miserable by surveillance.
Now, I could marry up the Shakespeare remarks with this week’s items of news, but that seems rather a pedestrian route to take, and I will leave it to your imagination. Let’s just focus for a moment on the idea of change:
At Prime Minister’s Question Time last Wednesday, Mr Corbyn made a request, on our behalf, that PMQs be less “theatrical”. Well, good luck with that. I’m intrigued by the way the British right wing press have already ganged up on Mr Corbyn to nip him in the bud, by criticising everything about him from his demeanour to his dress to his apparent espousal of dodgy ideologies to his silence during the National Anthem to his apparent reluctance to kneel before Her Majesty as a Privy Counsellor. And I think, why are they carrying out a demolition job? After all, if he is the loose cannon that they say he is, wouldn’t they want him to head the opposition for ever? I wonder if it’s because they are afraid. They are afraid of anything they do not understand, and cannot predict. And they are afraid of that quality of Mr Corbyn’s that won him the leadership – authenticity. He isn’t the concoction of a focus group of spin doctors; he’s the real deal. I can’t say I’m a fan of Old Labour, but I do think the media should cut this guy some slack and see what he has to say. History never quite repeats itself. Mr Corbyn is not Mr Foot. He might surprise us.
But to return to Shakespeare, I wonder if his Duke of Vienna is right, that the news is always the same, that the old news is every day’s news. Sophie Raworth, Fiona Bruce, Mishal Husain et al might say, “Welcome to the BBC news at ten. The headlines tonight – we are in a terrible mess; we’re trying to get out of it but we seem to be stuck; we make a virtue out of repeating our mistakes over and over again; we completely lack any moral leadership and hence we are creating a dystopia. And now, the news wherever you are…”
So I checked it out, and you may care to do the same next time you hear the news; apply the Measure for Measure test. I watched the news late on Sunday night. (As Lennon put it, “I heard the news to-day, oh boy…”)
Well let’s see. There’s chaos in Croatia where migrants are struggling to get on board west-bound trains. Jeremy Corbyn wants to renationalise the railways line by line. Jackie Collins has passed away. Andy Murray has got us into the final of the Davis Cup. Gas explosion in Derby. Pope Frances addressed an enthusiastic crowd in Revolution Square, Havana, then met with Fidel Castro. Good news about the release of some hostages in Yemen. The Greek General Election is veering leftward. 75th anniversary in Westminster of the Battle of Britain. Rugby World Cup. Footie. And now, the news where you are.
And then – how often does this happen? – something slips under the radar. Something momentous passes unnoticed. Johann Lamont, the ex-labour leader in Scotland, recognises that a lot of Labour supporters voted Yes in the Referendum just over a year ago. Kezia Dugdale, the current incumbent, says she won’t shut down a debate on a repeat referendum. She said Labour MPs and MSPs should be able to argue for Independence.
It was all reported quite casually.
I don’t think Westminster will be too happy about that.