Home Page It's an unfair world for a dog once he has a bad name 09/08/13

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Hart of the Matter

This week we have had a shining and perfect example of the problem which has afflicted Haverhill for more than 40 years, and continues to do so, and which is conveniently nowadays labelled as ‘image’.


It is not easy to define exactly what ‘image’ means. Even people who spend their working lives trying to alter or to re-inforce the brands of companies or of celebrities would probably find it difficult to put it precisely into words, however sensitive the antennae are which enable them to do the job successfully.


The main reason for that is the ‘chicken and egg’ syndrome which means that once an image of any kind has been created, people automatically look for ways of re-inforcing it. I suppose it makes them feel comfortable that all is right with the world.


Thus, for instance, northerners are blunt and tough and southerners are sophisticated and soft, Frinton is posh and Clacton is common, Australians are hard, mean and ungentlemanly cricketers while the English ones are honest and scrupulously fair.


When something turns out to be different from the stereotype people have accepted, as with the latest cricket encounters, it sends out a message of instability.


Before 2007 most people would have thought of a bank manager as a typical example of a trustworthy person. Now we expect bankers to be crooks. You may say the media creates these things, but actually it only plays to them. You sell newspapers, or boost viewing figures or online hits by pandering to what people want to read or hear.


Haverhill is a victim of this syndrome, and has been since the 1960s – maybe a lot longer if you read some historical documents. It’s called ‘give a dog a bad name and hang him’.


A lot of work has been done to fight this, but it still needs a lot more yet doing, because turning an oil tanker around is child’s play compared with changing an established image.


On Thursday two pieces of news hove into view across the desks of regional media concerning Haverhill. One was of a sex attack on a woman, the other that the town’s neighbourhood community budget project had been so successful the Government plans to roll it out nationally and get Haverhill people to go around the country as ambassadors of it.


Now, which of those two things do you think would receive the higher priority? And before you have another pop at the media, which of those two things do you think ordinary people across Suffolk or Mid-Anglia would be more likely to believe? In other words, which do they want to believe?


As it turns out, the sex attack never happened, but the horse has already bolted. You are very unlikely to see a high-profile story explaining that it was a false report. Newspapers and broadcasters don’t generally admit that things were wrong unless they are found to have made a culpable mistake and are forced to make a correction. Otherwise they just let it lie.


As it happens, Haverhill has quite a history of false reports of sex attacks. Very few indeed have turned out to be true which, in one way, is good but also is not only a bad thing for the town, but appalling for the victims of real attacks. If there is a real one in the next few weeks, who among the public is going to believe the poor woman? It’s the old tale of the boy who cried wolf.


Of course, the police take every report extremely seriously, but for the general public it is easy to dismiss it as just another made-up story. For that reason, it can be the lesser of two evils to just let the story lie rather than explaining that it never happened.


Meanwhile, the extraordinary success of ONE Haverhill’s community budgeting project and the way it catapults Haverhill into national prominence for all the right reasons is likely to be glossed over and downgraded.


This is partly because, as I have explained before, nobody quite understands community budgeting or what ONE Haverhill is for, but more seriously it is because it doesn’t fit the profile.


Anyone who has been watching The Field Of Blood this week will see how media organisations decide on a particular viewpoint and create news that fits that profile. It is not some dinosaur of 30 years ago, but happens everywhere, all the time.


The image of Haverhill which much of the general public outside the town has always wanted to read is of a place where unpleasant things happen so they can be thankful they don’t live there, and make sure they don’t have to go there except in exceptional circumstances.


Of the two main stories available on Thursday, it is clear which fits the bill. If anyone has any misgivings, it is easy to justify by the clear need for the public to be warned that there is a sex attacker on the loose.


If we didn’t publicise it and someone else got attacked while walking home alone because they weren’t warned, we would be to blame – so runs the justification.


The fact that a woman is probably statistically less likely to be attacked in Haverhill than in any other town in the region counts for nothing.


Meantime, towns up and down the country will soon be receiving training, education and advice from unsung Haverhill on how to save money and improve services all round by pulling together councils and agencies in partnerships which five years ago were unthinkable.


It’s just an unfair world.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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