On the face of it last week contained two really good bits of news. First, there was unemployment apparently peaking at nearly half a million fewer people than most analysts, including the Government’s, were predicting this time last year. Second, the crime stats showed an 8% headline fall, again defying the widespread prediction that there would be more offences committed during the recession.
I am sure the Government wishes more attention was being paid to the good news, and hoping an effect might show up in the opinion polls. If so, ministers will have been disappointed to open Sunday newspapers, brimming not with glad tidings but endless analysis of the child assaults in Edlington, plus pages of speculation about how the current and previous Prime Minister will perform in the Iraq inquiry. But it’s not so much the politics that interest me.
Both the employment and crime news are genuinely interesting. There are various explanations for the former and tucked away on the BBC website is a very good overview from Stephanie Flanders. So the news was reported and there are analyses available, but why don’t people seem particularly interested? Compare this with the endless agonising - on the news, in the papers, but also in bus queues and pubs - about whether this would be the worst recession since (or even including) the Great Depression.
It’s a cliche that the news focuses on bad things. Over the years various people, from newsreaders to website founders, have tried to get people interested in a more balanced offering. But our lack of interest in how we have come through the downturn better than we expected, and our willingness to put so much more emphasis on the terrible crimes of two disturbed boys than the benign social trend revealed in the crime stats, underlines the depth of our social pessimism.
Last week, in an RSA Thursday event discussing optimism, a telling point was made. One of our advocates for pessimism, the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan, said that a great thing about thinking the worst is that pessimists are surprised and delighted when things go well. But, as Laurence Shorter, author of The Optimist replied, what actually happens when inveterate pessimists are presented with good news that they ignore it, discount it or start looking for its drawbacks.
So wedded are we now to social pessimism that we are unwilling even to acknowledge that as a country we appear to have become both more economically resilient and socially responsible. If we don’t take in the good news we will be even less able to deal intelligently with the bad.