Hard though it may be to believe, by most metrics, things are getting better in Britain. Maybe not year on year, but certainly decade after decade, crime is falling, poverty is falling, education is improving. There are blips and blots on this record: sometimes for a period society becomes less equal rather than more; rates of pay may not balance as fast as we might like; we still have recessions, as we all know.
Yet it seems the majority of us remain convinced that the world is falling apart. Phrases like ‘Broken Britain’ get bandied around by politicians and the media and we believe them. What happened to our pride and optimism to make us accept such negativity so readily?
It’s hard not to blame the media. In a survey about the NHS a few years back people were asked about their general impression of the NHS, and reported that it was in a terrible state. Asked about their own specific experience, they largely raved about it. Having been told repeatedly that the NHS was failing, they convinced themselves that their experience must be the exception.
The same seems to happen with crime: fewer and fewer of us are victims of crime in reality, yet we are convinced, often without specific examples, that things are getting worse. Why? In my opinion it is in part because reporting has improved: less crime feels like more.
But I think it is a little lazy to blame the press. Are we so incapable of looking at our own experience, and more importantly, engaging with our own communities, to develop our own impression? If we did we would more easily recognise the gap between the theoretical ‘Broken Britain’ and what seems to me to be a country moving slowly, falteringly, but consistently, up.
My hope is that our increasing switch to community communication and user generated content online might spur us to rely less on the national media. As digital media becomes ever more about the local, it might even get us talking to our neighbours. There may be such a thing as society after all…