Thursday, February 05, 2009

Carol Thatcher, praying nurses and the abolition of private life

Two stories that have hit the headline in the past couple of days involve an individual suffering sanctions from her employer for something said in a private conversation.

First, a Somerset nurse was suspended for offering to pray for a patient's recovery. The patient did not make a complaint: the action was taken only after she mentioned the incident to another nurse, who appears to have informed the authorities.

Then Carol Thatcher was dropped from the BBC's One Show because she referred to a tennis player as a "golliwog". This did not take place on air, but in a backstage conversation.

Of course, if a nurse is constantly pressing her religious opinions on patients who do not want to hear about them, then that would be a matter for disciplinary action. But there is no suggestion that that is the case here. Indeed, the patient she offered to pray for wants the nurse to keep her job.

Equally, if a TV reporter puts people's backs up every time she comes to the studio then she may be more trouble than she is worth. But it is the single golliwog incident that has precipitated the BBC's action.

These two incidents illustrate several things about the view of morality that operates today in vaguely liberal institutions like the health service or the BBC.

The first is that the individual is seen as weak and unable to defend his own interests, and at the same time as dangerous and in need of control. For both these reasons, modern workers are hedged in by all sorts of policies and codes of conduct that govern how they behave to their colleagues at work. At one time the left would have understood that this was a diminution of their freedom: now trade unions are enthusiastic advocates of the process.

Whether or not a particular word is offensive depends on many factors, notably the relationship between the participants in the conversation in which it is used. But officialdom insists on codes of conduct and allows no room for individual judgement.

When the nurse offered to pray for her the patient simply said "No, thank you". That seems to be a perfectly adequate response and should have been the end of the matter. My own position as a High Church atheist is pretty well ingrained by now, but I should not be offended if someone wanted to pray for me. I might well be happy for them to do it.

And when Carol Thatcher used the g word, could it not have been left to those present to argue with her? Are they so weak that they need to be protected from any possibility of offence.

The second point is that these incidents show that the concept of a private life is rapidly being eroded. Would you like everything you say in private to an old friend to be repeated to the world? The need to avoid offence is now seen as overriding any concept of privacy.

The third point is that these incidents - or just the Carol Thatcher one, as that seems to be the way this argument is taking me - show that we regard morality as chiefly a question of using the right language. In particular, it is a matter of avoiding the use of certain proscribed words.

I am sure we have all met people who imagine themselves on the left, use impeccably correct language but do not have a democratic bone in their bodies. Surely morality is about what one does as well as what one says?

The fourth point is that racism is just about the worst sin. Indeed, its wickedness sometimes seems to be the only tenet of modern morality.

When Cheryl Cole was charged with racially aggravated assault in 2003 her celebrity status hung in the balance. Then she was cleared of that particular charge and all was well. The argument that someone who has been sentenced to 120 hours of community service for assault occasioning actual bodily harm, and ordered her to pay her victim £500 in compensation, is not a particularly admirable figure is nowhere put. She has found not to be racist and that is all that matters.

Equally, had their been any hint of racism about Jonathan Ross's phone calls to Andrew Sachs he would have been sacked rather than suspended.

Elsewhere in the Lib Dem blogosphere, there has been a debate on Gollygate between Costigan Quist and Paul Walter. My sense is that Paul is getting the worst of it, if only because he has found himself obliged to argue that good comedy offends no one.

Finally, it may be worth pointing out that this is a generational matter. I cannot imagine describing someone as a golliwog, but then I am younger than Carol Thatcher.

Even so, I had a golliwog when I was very young (called Shoplady, since you ask) of whom I was very fond. That did not prevent me growing up to write for the Guardian and the New Statesman, so maybe we should all calm down a little here?


Blognor Regis said...

With you 100%. Even to having had a golly as a child. Mine got lost in a shop in Portsmouth I think.

Jennie Rigg said...

Actually, there is EVERY suggestion that this nurse has been forcing her views on her patients for a long time, given that she has been disciplined for it before, and she cannot be suspended, given that she is a bank nurse.

But, you know, those are just FACTS.

dreamingspire said...

The nanny state makes too many of us infantile... "Sticks and stones may break my bones (but words will never hurt me)" is for the confident person.

Matt Buck said...

A word of praise for the descriptive phrase 'vaguely liberal institutions' about the BBC and the NHS. As you go on to write, morality is not just in words but, also in actions.