In respect of smoking bans, it seems to me that there are two worlds: public and private.
The public perception of the UK smoking ban is that it’s been a great success, and has been welcomed by everyone, smokers included. There will be no going back. And it’s here to stay. And it’s a wonderful example of enlightened, progressive legislation – much like the emancipation of slaves a century or two back.
But my own private perception of the UK smoking ban is that it’s been a disaster. It has shattered communities, alienated smokers, bankrupted pubs, and probably resulted in a significant fall in demand in the economy as smokers stay home and don’t spend.
And I suspect that my perception of smoking bans is shared by many of my readers. And my private perception is also their private perception.
But it’s the public perception of these bans that matters most. This is what determines whether politicians and governments will consider making any changes. And since the public perception, as expressed by an absence of any media interest at all in it, is that the UK smoking ban has been a great success, it’s clearly unlikely that the government is going amend it any way.
Indeed, it hasn’t even bothered to review it as it promised it would.
And in the UK, in fact, the smoking ban which was introduced on 1 July 2007 has always been a non-story. I still remember watching the BBC 6 o’clock news that day, and finding a brief report on it buried right at the end, with a couple of cheerful pub-goers interviewed welcoming it. The UK smoking ban was a “success” from Day One. And it was also a non-story from Day One too. I never saw a single news report about it again.
It was all very tightly managed. The smoking ban was going to be a “success”, and, short of armed revolt, the job of the media was to make it seem that way.
A few weeks after the UK ban came into force, I also saw Robert Feal-Martinez, chairman of Freedom2Choose, interviewed on the Richard and Judy chat show. He was getting quite a sympathetic hearing from Richard, until ASH got on the phone to the studio and Richard got an earful of something via his earpiece, after which his tone changed completely, and he became much more aggressive in his questioning.
It’s one reason why I no longer have a TV, and don’t buy newspapers.
I think the same sort of perception management goes on elsewhere. There is a considerable body of scepticism surrounding climate change/global warming, but governments generally act as if the climate change doctrine is widely-accepted public knowledge. It’s another non-story.
Much the same may apply with the EU, which is in deep trouble right now. But here perception is being managed in order to convince people that the eurozone and the EU will weather the storm, or that the storm has already been weathered, and the crisis is in the past. And so EU ex-Commissioner Romano Prodi appeared in recent days saying that, while he was very worried some months ago, he was no longer concerned about a possible break-up of the eurozone. It seems that if enough people make sufficient soothing sounds, loudly and repeatedly, everyone is re-assured. It has become another non-story.
Perception management of this sort entails manufacturing a false public perception, very largely by not reporting anything, or by reporting only success. The result can only be a widening divide between appearances and reality, which one day snaps – an example of which came during WW2 when a German radio listener suddenly realised that “our great victories were coming closer and closer to Germany”.
Much the same is likely to happen with smoking bans, global warming, and the EU. Overnight, everything that had been perceived to be a great success will come to be regarded as a terrible failure.
In this respect, blogs of one sort or other, whether they be about smoking bans or climate change or EU tyranny, provide a source of unmanaged news and comment. Their impact is not likely to be great in the face of the mass media, but they probably chip away at the foundations of received public wisdom.
For example, I’ve noticed in recent weeks that my post from a month or two back – the Black Lung Lie – seems to have gone a bit viral. It’s now getting over 200 hits per day, and rising. It’s had nearly 10,000 hits, and is streets ahead of my next most-read piece, which has only 4000 hits. Clearly there’s a hunger out there for something like this, which is about what must be one of the oldest lies in the antismoking playbook, dating all the way back to James I.
And it may connect with another post of mine which still gets a steady readership over 6 months after I published it: The Dwindling Power of the Media. For I believe that in the internet era it has ceased to be possible to control public perception in ways that it was not 20 years ago. The internet provides a vast library of alternative opinions. And once people begin to suspect that the mass media are duping them, and that they can no longer be trusted, it’s to the internet that people will turn as a source of alternative information. And people are indeed deserting the mass media, much like they’re deserting the main political parties.
If news has to be managed in such ways (and in recent years it seems to have been far more tightly managed than ever before), one may reasonably suspect that things are not going quite according to plan. For if they were going well, and everyone could see that all was going well, there would be no need for such management.