This column is nothing if not foolhardy, which is why this week you find me pulling my upturned colander down over my ears, seizing my trusty wooden sword and sallying forth into the most dangerous minefield known to man.
It’s curiosity that got me into this hole. I have often wondered – sometimes on this page – why quality newspapers today are full of the kind of trivial, vulgar, mind-numbing stuff in which no well-read, educated, and discerning fellow would have the slightest interest. (You will notice that twice already on this page I have cast aside, with the devil-may-care abandon for which I am a byword, the requirement to observe gender correctness. When I tapped out the words “man” and “fellow”, I meant to. So there).
I have to admit, however, that my bravado owes much to what used to be called in a forgotten age a member of the fair sex. Without her prompting, I should never have got involved. I was happy with my own theory, to wit, that the quality press is in thrall to the new proletarian middle classes, and a proliferation of popular culture is the price we all have to pay.
But then I read Minette Marrin in the Sunday Telegraph on why British men are so miserable. Among her answers were that women take men’s jobs, they employ double standards, they blame men for all aggression, they take a man’s children and half his wealth if they decide to dump him, and “worst of all, they expect men to put up with the feminisation of culture without complaint – with the dumbing down of newspapers and television.”
You can see why, before examining the implications of that, I put a saucepan down the front of my trousers, a precaution which I omitted to mention earlier. Minette Marrin does not say that women are dumb (how could she?), but that their tastes and interests are, which, if it were to be suggested by a man, would be pretty inflammatory.
In the interests of research, I pulled on my russet Harris tweed suit (you have the full sartorial picture now), drew an emboldening lungful from my briar, and set about browsing through last week’s editions of The Times and Telegraph. I chose those titles because the former has always described itself as the paper of record and the latter is traditionally thought to be favoured by the tweeded classes. I omitted The Guardian and the Independent on the grounds that they are inherently silly and could provide no firm evidence either way.
The first example of dumbing down to jump from the page was the Telegraph’s decision to explain the word Gradgrindery, which had appeared in a news story. The old Telegraph would have assumed either that its readers knew the term or had the energy and wit to look it up. Ignorance and stupidity, however, are not the exclusive property of either sex, so no points for the Marrinian theory there.
Where she is on much stronger ground is the choice of news, or what passes for news. Both papers, for example, carried big pictures of the daughters of actors, directors and musicians showing off a fashion collection in Milan – a PR stunt and non-story that would have no place in a newspaper of true quality.
Next day, The Times filled almost half a page with a picture of Cherie Blair wearing four different outfits on the first day of the Prime Minister’s visit to China, and another half-page with pictures on a survey by the Flour Advisory Bureau purporting to show that young women want to be thin. For its part, the Telegraph devoted most of one page and parts of two others to Will Carling’s messy private life – a woman’s story without doubt. And what of the decision to devote an entire news page to the “parting of the Dutch Crown Prince and his popular girlfriend”?
In both papers, other chunks of news space were taken up by the various troubles of TV and pop celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen and Michael Flatley. The Times thought the decision by Denise Van Outen to resign from the Big Breakfast was worth half a page, complete with an historical analysis of “sexual chemistry over breakfast”.
Make no mistake, the news pages of quality papers are today garnished, often extravagantly, with rubbish. Nor is there any question that those same papers are feminised. For proof of that one need look no further than the proliferation of women columnists – a nest of twittering birds who tell us about their children, the view from their window, their conversations with friends, the dinner they ate last night, and so on. I imagine it’s a bit like overhearing mobile telephone conversations in a hairdressers.
The link between feminisation and dumbing down is not, however, demonstrable.Will Carling and the Milan Fashion Week aside, none of the trivia could be said to have an exclusively female interest. All in all, I think it safer to adhere to my earlier theory that the heavyweight broadsheets are, with a laudable lack of discrimination, setting their caps at morons in the round.
Hold on, though. I’ve just spotted this in the Sunday Telegraph: “D-Cup or Bust – Kate Berridge tries to increase her breast size through hypnotism”. Bring me my saucepan, I may yet have need of it.