Distracted by the sensational.

Here’s the full text of the piece printed in this week’s Camden New Journal.

My heart sank last Wednesday as news of major police activity in Queen’s Crescent emerged. At first, I feared the worst, not knowing that it was part of a long and carefully planned operation. Then, fear gave way to the frustration of another cliched headline: youth, crime, drugs, violence. And then I thought, I really hope this doesn’t knock the real news out of view: the decisions which would be made that same evening at the Town Hall.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it did. Last Wednesday night, the Cabinet decided to accept recommendations which will reduce budgets for work with children and young people by £2.8m and £2.3m respectively. It will have a profound impact on families as well as their children, and is likely to force up to a quarter of current Play & Childcare-using parents into unemployment (according to a report commissioned by Camden). Of course, a 200-strong police raid complete with Territorial Support Group, dogs, helicopters and an impressive enroute arrest by Chief Supt Sutherland is pretty exciting news, and it’s the sort of thing that trumps the countless similar news stories this decision on services will eventually espouse, which lacks the same drama and immediacy.

In fairness, the Camden New Journal has done its fair share of reporting on this issue, including a front page devoted to the two fantastic (albeit ignored) girls who challenged councillors over proposed cuts to Play & Childcare services earlier in the year. But the absence of adequate coverage of the final decision, relegated by a high-profile event, is symptomatic of a much larger and very typical problem.

As my mother would say, we allow the urgent to overtake the important. The decisions made on Wednesday night, as they stand, is a case in point. It can only lay the foundations for an increasingly fragmented and dangerous future. Cabinet Member for Finance Theo Blackwell has said as much, warning that cuts will have a real and negative impact on the lives of Camden residents. It is a good thing that this is understood, but concerning that it is accepted. What is clear is that psychologically, politically and socially we humans struggle to recognise and respond to this deeper, seemingly more mundane ‘real story’. We have a sensationalist bias and preference. Despite what common sense tells us, what research in the children and young people’s sector makes clear, indeed what Camden’s own Day Care Trust-commissioned consultation shows, we are failing to make the responsible decisions required to deal with problems which are very big, but can be tackled.

Tomorrow’s raids, tomorrow’s gangs, tomorrow’s underachieving young people, will trigger the lecturings of the next generation of politicians and policy-makers who tell us how they can solve these problems whilst at the same time having no choice but to action further Operation Targets and ASBOs and child incarcerations. And yet we know that the solutions which exist are not implemented because there is not the resource which requires political will to see them succeed. Indeed, such is our commitment to the sensational over the important that we make this rod for our own backs.

The mountain we have to climb – as children and young people or those working with them, as parents, as a wider community, as a borough – just got a lot higher. But if we turn on the news and dazzle ourselves with the latest sensation, we might just be able to forget about it.

Posted on Aug 1, 2011
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