Monday, 22 November 2010

Thanks for the thoughts

A big thank you to those who left kind words or shared similar experiences in response to my posting about the burglary at my home last week - I was surprised so many felt inclined to get in touch, on my blog, by email or telephone etc.

I was very touched that I had so many messages of sympathy, and I was very smug and happy with my place in the world to think that people cared.......

I could have left my thinking there, but as those who read my ramblings may have started to realise, I can't resist the temptation to consider whether any event reveals insights that occur to me other than the immediately obvious. And this event, the size of the response to my disclosure of my misfortune last week as well as its consequences, has got me thinking in my usual perverse (although I hope sometimes thought provoking and occasionally humorous) way!

In terms of the obvious, I am so grateful that so many felt inclined to get in touch having read or heard of my miserably discovering I had been burgled. My tale of woe and hideous bad luck has been the post that has excited the largest comment on my blog, and has done so in just hours after it was published. Of course the fact that my misfortune has generated a larger response than any of my tales of triumph in the face of adversity, of court room derring do and courageous victories snapped from the jaws of defeat...well, that might be just because my kind hearted readers felt moved by my domestic tragedy and compelled to express themselves in posting replies.

My single misfortune, therefore, seems to have generated more interest than any of my (albeit occasional self - congratulatory) tales of success. And, as you no doubt have already anticipated, I got to wondering precisely why this might be.

Are we naturally inclined to be more intensely interested in our fellow man's tragedies than his successes? Do we feel better for reading of another's misfortunes than his good luck? Might it be that another's bad luck makes us feel grateful for our own happy lives whilst reading of someone else's achievements only serves to remind us of our own perceived lack of them? I'm not sure really, but I do believe that if this is indeed a true analysis of the nature of our psyche, it is not inconsistent with the sincerity of any expressions of sympathy; these can exist alongside the thought 'poor bugger - glad it wasn't me!'.

In pursuing this line of thought, I began to consider the media and what we see reported in the papers and on television daily. What is it that sells news? Which scoops are the ones the tabloids are looking for? I don't believe it cynical of me to say that it is those that expose the misfortunes of others. If not always, then most of the time. Front page news in the tabloids is more often than not an expose of some celebrity's misfortune. Under cover 'stings' are now commonplace and (in my view, sadly) acceptable forms of investigative journalism. The reading public, thirsty for stories of the misfortunes of others give little thought to the lives that are ruined in providing them with such stories to devour and then to give thanks that their misfortunes are not so similarly exposed to the nation. Admittedly, the scoop is all the more interesting if the subject's sad state of affairs is of his own making, but this is by no means a pre - condition. It seems to me that in the case of any individual with celebrity enough to merit a mention in the news columns, we are interested far more in their embarrassments, their secrets and their misfortunes than in their success or their achievements. With the exception of the treacle sweet Hello! magazine (who's success is arguably based on their intractable and immutable insistence on positive reporting) journalistic wisdom seems to be to the effect that the public are more interested in hearing about the downside of life than its occasional ups!

I am sure that if I was to report that I had won the lottery I would receive a great deal of congratulatory response. However, if I was to report that I had missed out on winning the lottery by losing what was a winning ticket, I have to wonder whether this revelation would be of more excitable interest to the same readership? It occurs to me as I write this thought that someone wins the lottery twice a week; sure they may get a mention in the news, but not nearly the privilege of the pages devoted to the criminal who is dispossessed of his winnings, or the spendthrift who squanders his fortune shortly after winning. Similarly, our MP's in parliament do numerous good deeds, both in their personal and their professional lives. But how many of those do you remember reading in the tabloids? If the answer is nil, or practically so, let me ask how many of their failings and their misfortunes you remember reading about? It seems the misfortune of others is what we want to know about. I remember being shocked at the overwhelming coverage Jane Goody's tragic final months received in the news. It was reporting to the point of saturation. What concerned me was not so much that it was being reported, but that this was obviously what the public wanted to see. To be fair to news providers, they can only achieve readership success by informing the public about what they are interested in reading. Another example that comes to mind is that, to me at least, Princess Diana's numerous achievements are not as easily called to mind as the troubles she had - with the press, with her life and so on. My recollection of her, as I think back to those years, is of the tragedy of her life rather than its triumphs. I may be alone in thinking this, but I suspect not. And my memory? Well, I never had the privilege of meeting her myself, and anything I retain as an impression is that which was put in my head by the news institutions who wrote or spoke about her.

And so, when considering the response to my own little misfortune I had to wonder, at the same time as being very happy at the extent of it, whether there was another side to the positive thought that this was just an expression of the inherent goodness of mankind? And in considering this possible other side please don't for a second think that I am in any way denigrating the generosity and sensitivity of those who chose to send me lovely messages. It is gratifying that there are people in the world bothered enough to do so. But I cannot help wonder whether the largest response I have had to a posting was also, even if subliminally motivated by some other factor that found itself an importance in those who read about my misfortune?

This is a legal blog, and I should say there is a legal (ish) point to all of the above rambling musings. In the time before television and mass media the criminal justice system was far more central to the lives of communities than it now is. In those days, the trials of those accused of crime, of those in a wretched situation and possibly to forfeit their lives were the interest and entertainment of the overwhelming majority of society. We no longer have public hangings that are the highlights of our social calendar or people to pillory in the stocks for misdemeanours we are thrilled not to have been exposed for ourselves, but what draws us together in feeling, what is the source of discussion in our pubs and parties is precisely that. The misfortunes of others. And, perhaps, the comfort in knowing they affect persons other than ourselves. Perhaps this is why newspapers report almost exclusively only those cases that result in conviction. There is not much interest, it seems, in those who are acquitted. In the 18 years I have been in practice, cases in which I have defended have been reported in the newspapers hundreds of times - I have been vain enough to retain some of the clippings, so I can tell you for certain that of these literally hundreds of articles, the reports almost unanimously relate only to the cases I have lost. Of my unquantifiable acquittals over almost two decades there has been hardly a whisper. It seems my successes are to be remembered only in my reminiscences whilst my failures recorded for all time! I say that somewhat flippantly, because of course the reports relate not to me but to my client and his case.....but you get my point.

And to me, I suppose, that is the wonderfully interesting fact of the human condition. We have at the same time the capacity for selfless generosity that humbles, and selfish preservation that astounds. We see this more than anywhere in our courts and the trials that are played out within them.

I wonder what comments this post will inspire.....