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Paris, Monday, August 21, 2000

Britain: Alas, a Place Apart, Where Hooligans Fit Right In

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune
LONDON - From the point of view of a returning visitor, there has been a marked increase of viciousness in British, or at least English, public life. Football hooliganism, for which the nation has become renowned, may be the work of a tiny minority, but the seeds of it are found everywhere, not least in the media.

Thuggish attitudes and behavior that in Germany or Austria would be condemned as signsof incipient fascism are here regarded as mere boorishness.

The city of Portsmouth was recently the scene of some of the worst mob violence and intimidation seen in recent years in Western Europe. Houses of people alleged, in many cases wrongly, to be inhabited by convicted pedophiles were attacked and residents were forced to flee for their lives.

Support for mob action may have reflected a concern for personal insecurity that exists in many urban areas, especially public housing estates, where random violence and dysfunctional families are common.

Protection of children against repeat sexual offenders is a proper issue for public concern. Sentiment had been aroused by the recent much publicized murder of a child. But this mob action followed directly on a campaign launched by a new editor of the News of the World, a Sunday newspaper, to ''name and shame'' convicted pedophiles.

Moral outrage was particularly surprising coming from the News of the World, whose sex-and-murder story formula places it toward the bottom even of Rupert Murdoch's barrel of newspapers.

Within days, the government was deferring to the News ofthe World rather than to professional or broader political advice, and tough new anti-pedophile measures were being promised by none other than the deputy prime minister. The mob and a sleazy publication had won over police, Parliament and more considered public opinion.

Meanwhile, the ability of the police to keep order with minimal fuss or force has been undermined by its own frequent scandals, by lenient courts and by an apparent reluctant tolerance of ''laddish'' (usually loutish) behavior at all levels of society such as is not found across the Channel.

The Blair government cannot be blamed for the Portsmouth affair, but its response was typical of an administration that more than any in living memory lacks principle or ideology and is thus driven by perceptions of what it thinks is popular.

So keen is the Blair government to be seen to be ''tough on crime,'' yet so little confidence does it have in tried systems and in the public's own judgments, that it is limiting trial by jury, one of the ancient bulwarks of British liberties.

Tony Blair's presidential pretensions, lack of principle and petulant obsession with his image will eventually be his undoing at the hands of the electorate or even of his own party. But what can be done about the standards of the media - or of education, which on several measures is now close to the bottom of the European scale?

Three things especially strike the periodic visitor, especially a journalist, about the media.

First, the vulgar nationalism, not exclusively in the tabloids. It has always been there; it has just become much worse.

Second, crude in-your-face language, with columnists in broadsheet and well as tabloid newspapers often using personal insults instead of arguments.

Third, the so-called serious newspapers have followed the tabloids into a news agenda of murders, scandals and whipped up scoops. The tabloids have given up trying to cover serious issues, and the once renowned foreign coverage of the broadsheets is spotty and dominated by human drama stories.

As for the BBC, its domestic news programs are trite and parochial to the point of embarrassment to Britons who watch or listen in the company of foreigners. Complaints against this dumbing down abound but are ignored. The pseudo-radicals of the Blair era find it ''elitist'' to want news of elections in Spain or Japan rather than tearjerkers or stories about local murders and the doings of movie starsor minor royals.

Make these allegations, and an expatriate Briton is often quickly dismissed. People feel insulted to be asked to compare the streets of, say, Dover with those of Ostend, Manchester with Munich, Glasgow with Genoa. Will they measure their education system against that of Taiwan, their media against those of Germany, their records of teenage pregnancy, illiteracy, public drunkenness and violent crime against those of France or Sweden or Australia?

Righteous objections to arrogant and undemocratic bureaucracy in Brussels and reasoned criticisms of the euro quickly descend into juvenile jingoism.

Meanwhile, Britain often seems to have borrowed much of the worst of American popular culture - from TV shows to standardized restaurants, plus litigiousness and a tendency to violence - but very little of what is best in America, its openness, optimism and technological prowess.

This is an incomplete and jaundiced view of a country that yet has many merits and where civilized society has deep roots. Many good statistics could be quoted in its favor, including those on racial integration. However, the Portsmouth anti-pedophile riots have highlighted the erosion of the quality of institutions, including the media, Parliament and the police, which made for a civilized society.

Too easily, breakdown of public confidence in institutions leads to the creation of populist bogeymen and demands for simplistic, mob-approved remedies. Elsewhere they call that fascism.