Forget that the government's crap, give Captain Tom a clap! The media as a mawkish propaganda machine

The press never got over the high they experienced on the day Princess Diana died.

This edition of the newsletter will be seen by some as an act of abject heresy, so let me frame it first: I think Captain Tom Moore seemed like a nice old man; it’s always sad — however abstractly — when someone dies, and the amount of money he ended up raising for charity was undoubtedly impressive. However…

I listened open-mouthed as Justin Webb concluded his interview with Matt Hancock, the latest in a long line of Health Secretaries who have failed to properly fund and support the NHS, by offering him a prompt to deliver a mawkish, crocodile-tear infused monologue about Captain Tom.

Captain Tom, knighted by a government desperate for good news and used with unblinking cynicism by the twin emotional manipulators of early morning televisual mush — animated C&A mannequin Dan Walker on BBC Breakfast and Piers Morgan, The Hot Take Fuhrer of Good Morning Britain — did come to symbolise something. However, it isn’t the symbol Matt Hancock believes (and hopes) it to be.

While the Prime Minister, a man desperate to be liked despite the palace of bones he has built around himself through incompetence and dithering, called for a ‘clap for Captain Tom’, the streets around me were silent at 6pm. The literal gesture politics of this pandemic age has curdled as we limp through the latest lockdown, as unpalatable as more banana bread or newspaper features from well-off columnists about how they’re ‘coping’.

Despite the politicians and the newspapers claiming that Tom Moore was an avatar of the strength of the wartime generation, a shortcut to Churchillian rhetoric for Boris Johnson, and a convenient distraction from the millions of other elderly people that the government has at best neglected or at worst left to die in care homes boiling over with Covid, to some — including me — his story symbolises something else entirely:

The NHS should not need to be held up by the rickety scaffolding of charity. An old man, 99 years old when he began walking up and down his garden to raise money, shouldn’t have felt it was necessary to raise that money. Captain Tom raised £32 million. The government wasted £22 billion on a track and trace system that still doesn’t work. It wasted £150 million alone on a single PPE contract for masks that were unsafe for use.

It’s no surprise that the government wants to focus on Captain Tom and to push messages about ‘forbearance’. Better that people think about how we should all ‘chip in’ like Captain Tom than their minds drift to the crooks and cronies who have made out like bandits during this crisis, many of them with close links to the Conservative Party and even personal connections to the Cabinet.

Writing for The Daily Telegraph today, Madeline Grant typifies how right-wing commentators are using Captain Tom to push their usual culture war agenda:

While hard-bitten journalists and millions who had never met him were shedding tears at the demise of Captain Sir Tom Moore, his example proved a gift amind the conflicting messages of the press conference.

Boris, always delighted to deliver stirring news, paid tribute to the dauntless veteran for achieving ‘more than any centenarian in our history.’

… The Daily Mail’s ‘excellent ‘ campaign for a statue for Captain Tom was, he declared ‘the kind of thing people will want to support! We’ll be working with his family to see what they feel most appropriate.’

Of course! All political discourse in the UK must now conclude with a statue. While the Conservative Party usually prefers that to be a statue of someone who sold slaves but was otherwise a jolly nice chap, one dedicated to Sir Tom would still do the job. Perhaps if they make it large enough — a towering Lady Liberty-style affair — it might hide the cock-ups, conspiracies and incompetence in its shadow. Don’t look at the man behind the curtain cutting cheques for his cronies, look only at the glorious Captain Tom monolith.

On Good Morning Britain, Piers Morgan 'raged’ at the ‘trolls’ attacking Captain Tom. With the Queen, the Prime Minister, celebrities, sports stars and practically every newspaper front-page paying tribute to the man, anyone suggesting this was all a little excessive, out of proportion, or propagandistic was inevitably going to be labelled a “troll”. Morgan framed it as a division between the “ordinary decent people” and “the trolls”. There is no middle ground.

What we are witnessing — whether it’s Piers Morgan preposterous performance on Good Morning Britain, The Sun’s eight-page Captain Tom supplement, Keir Starmer immediately agreeing with the Prime Minister that we clap for Captain Tom until our hands are red raw (but not red like the red flag or anything), or The Daily Mail’s opportunistic statue campaign — is the exploitation and distortion of one person’s life and death to distract from over 100,000 others.

Of course, Captain Tom’s family are entitled to their pride and their grief. Of course, his death is newsworthy because his appearance on BBC Breakfast made his charity campaign rocket to millions raised. And of course, there are plenty of people who were sad to hear he’d died. But — and it is a ‘but’ so large that it would be discernible from space — the rhetoric of the media coverage and the political posturing is overblown to the point of propaganda.

The UK suffers from a very particular disease, exacerbated by our press and political classes, which causes our public debate to default back to a Boy’s Own retelling of the Second World War. In the deranged public consciousness, the Blitz was an example of British forbearance, rather than a dark period in which murder, rape, and rampant theft were common, and Dunkirk was a triumph rather than a military disaster recast as a miracle.

Many men and women who served in the Second World War like Captain Tom Moore didn’t speak about it in the years that followed it. They didn’t see it as a time of triumph and glory, but years of misery, trauma, and grief. But Britain won, right? And that’s all that has mattered to many in the media and politics since then. So in Captain Tom, they once again have an avatar of all that is ‘good’ about Britain and, as ever, the details don’t matter very much.

Captain Tom was a man who lived for a very long time, served in a war that he had no choice but to fight in, and understandably made the most of his moment near the end of his life when his charity campaign blossomed into fame. But he was just a man and the symbolism larded onto him in death says more about the concerns of the columnists and politicians who are using him. The word ‘hero’ has always been a very handy distraction from the real actions and intentions of the state and ever-present establishment.

I didn’t weep for Captain Tom. Neither did most of the columnists who claim that they did at the top of 800 words of barely polished prose about how a man they didn’t know exemplified all the things they were going to write anyway.

Conducting an interview later in yesterday’s Today programme, Nick Robinson mused on the subject of Captain Tom:

It was almost as if he became part of our own family.

The families of the other 110,000 people who have died in the UK during this pandemic — many of them needlessly — would be justified in asking:

“Why does the mawkish media give more time to the death of one man after a very long life than my loved one who we didn’t have the foresight to get booked on BBC Breakfast?”