The John Griff Column: When seeing really IS believing

If you were in Leicestershire last weekend, you might have had cause to wonder what was on earth was going on as police firearms officers swooped on a hotel where a man had reportedly been seen brandishing a what was first described as a large knife. Given the current incidence of knife crime, the alerts were, at the very least, alarming.
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In the end there was both relief and maybe a few sheepish grins to be seen because the would-be knifeman was no more sinister than an enthusiastic individual giving his Harry Potter wizarding wand a little exercise. Had he got airborne on a Nimbus 2000 instead, I assume the hotel would have called in the local force helicopter – or at least asked for the Flying Squad (boom boom).

And yet, all joking aside, these are the times in which we live, where people can perhaps be forgiven for jumping to lurid or extreme conclusions about what they think they have seen. Against the backdrop of 9/11 in the US, 7/7 here, the bombing of the Baltic Exchange in The City and the tragic outrage of the London Bridge attack, it is understandable that the blue light services prefer being called to something ultimately innocuous rather than something which goes unreported and proves damaging or worse. We are constantly warned to be vigilant, to keep our eyes open and to have the number of Crimestoppers to hand (it’s 0800 555 111) or, in the case of an actual emergency, 999.

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That constant – and very sage - warning notwithstanding, I do wonder if there is the possibility of a little glib arrogance creeping in. The imagery and reporting coming from Gaza and Ukraine is grim indeed. That it is often live from the scene makes the wretchedness of the situations all the more distressing. It takes me back to the 1982 Falklands invasion by Argentina and a war that, albeit briefly, followed. The reporting then was done through the lenses of film cameras, with the exposed footage being rushed to the safety of the nearest developer bath before it could be merged with the voices of reporters and broadcast to a waiting nation a few hours later. It was still sobering stuff though, particularly to then teenagers like me who had just been exposed to the notion of the pseudo-documentary ‘The War Game’, shot for television in 1965 but left untransmitted until 1985 because it was deemed too harrowing for audiences to stomach. I wouldn’t mind betting that if retransmitted now it would barely register, such has been our exposure to death and destruction in recent years either through instant news reporting or the realms of the 21st century blockbuster. Increasingly I find people who tell me that they don’t engage with the news now, preferring either not to switch on – or to switch away because the narrative has become too pervasive. That is, of course, an option – it doesn’t change the reality of global horrors amongst which we live.

Real, or just realistic? John suggests caution before jumping to conclusions Real, or just realistic? John suggests caution before jumping to conclusions
Real, or just realistic? John suggests caution before jumping to conclusions

At the other end of the warnings scale, I wonder if there hasn’t also been movement. Could it be that through our 24-hour news cycle we’re in danger of mass PTSD?

It doesn’t have to be in the realms of terror or crime either. Just over a decade ago the Met Office’s now legendary forecaster Michael Fish wrote himself into the history books on screen when, on the 15th of October 1987, he said: "Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you're watching, don't worry, there isn't!" In the following hours, the Great Storm of 1987 tore across the South East of England bringing devastation the like of which hadn’t been seen for over three centuries, and the loss of 19 lives. Since then, the Met Office has, I think, erred on the side of corporate caution with its alert systems. In the recent past I suggest the degree of erring has ratcheted up and although it is immeasurably better to be safe than to have to apologise, I wonder if the warnings haven’t been a little too alarmist compared to the weather that we’ve actually seen. It is a fine line that they walk, but the recent and dire warnings of snow for this part of the country simply weren’t realised – so too some of the more biblical warnings of wind and rain, great conversation starters (for which, read national pastime) though they undoubtedly are. Weather forecasters have access to some of the most powerful computer kit and modelling power on the planet – but they only ever issue forecasts – not guaranteed prophesies. Nobody, it seems, guarantees anything since the redoubtable Mr Fish. ‘Never leave home without a raincoat’ used to be the saying - perhaps the advice should be altered in light of climate change and the ever-threatened ozone layer to ‘never leave home without a black, preferably UV blocking umbrella’. Did you see the confirmation last week that the planet breached the 1.5-degree temperature increase threshold that has been warned about for so long? I wonder if would-be presidential returnee Donald Trump took any notice of it. Possibly he wasn’t told about it. Nothing to see here – move on, MAGAs.

We must – undeniably – stay alert. But at the same time, we should be challenging of our own eyes. A few months ago, as Lois and I walked our puppy, Ella, we passed a neighbour’s gates and both noticed a reasonably sized badger, lying motionless about ten metres away in the middle of the drive. Alarmed that the poor beast was in distress, we went to the front door and rang the bell. As we did, from the opposite direction, the neighbour herself drove down the road and into her drive. Waving our arms and shouting a warning, she got out of her car picked a large and remarkably life-like (or deceased-like), stuffed child’s toy that had been left out overnight, waved it at us and grinned. Chalk one up to the craft of the manufacturers – and one against the overly-impressionable but well-intentioned dog owners.

I don’t know about Harry, Ron and Hermione, but I think Hagrid would have laughed.