A question: why do so many people in public life have difficulty in telling the truth? Is it a) because they are all congenital liars, b) they have something to hide or c) they have real difficulty in distinguishing between black and white or indeed between white and any other colour?
It’s not just politicians who lie – possibly for all three of the above reasons – many others are just as bad. I am thinking particularly of those who run television, and the difficulty they have with the phenomenon of “dumbing down”.
The phrase is pejorative – it is intended to be – but what it describes is undoubtedly real. Or at any rate it is for anyone with eyes to see, ears to hear, and half a brain somewhere in between – characteristics widely possessed but apparently missing in those who run TV.
Let me give you an example: in a recent interview Nigel Pickard, director of programmes at ITV, whom the interviewer variously describes as amiable, jovial and matey, vigorously denies that he is sacrificing quality to please shareholders. This in spite of the fact that his summer schedule includes Celebrity Love Island, Celebrity Shark Bait, Celebrity Wrestling, Celebrities Under Pressure, and a programme featuring celebrities regressing into their past lives.
In a sane world these programmes would be seen for what they are – tat. But no one in TV can bring themselves to admit as much. Why? Is it because to do anything other than live the lie would be to commit commercial suicide?
Consider the shining example of Gerald Ratner, the jewellery retailer who dared to tell the truth – that one of the most popular items in his range was “total crap” – and paid the price when his company duly sank. He was condemned because his admission suggested that he was deliberately duping his customers by passing off rubbishy goods as the genuine article (though it is a very poor duper who loudly proclaims his duping); but can the same be said of those who direct TV programmes?
It is one thing to be deceived into buying jewellery that looks like the genuine article, but quite another to be sold junk television and believe it to be something else.
In other words, viewers know that what they’re watching is undemanding rubbish, but they like it just the same. So why the reluctance of those who conceive and make such programmes to admit that they are total crap? The obvious explanation is that such an admission would be to insult and demean the audience. To which the obvious answer is that the very fact of the programmes’ existence achieves exactly that effect.
Can it be a residual sense of professional pride that induces self-denial in programme-makers? Dare they not admit to themselves that their careers, their income, their success, all are built on peddling drivel to the masses? It must be an uncomfortable truth to live with – especially if you happen to have the benefit of a good education and know in your heart the difference between gold and base metal.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if just one of these TV people were to say, “Yes, the programmes are dumb, but we live in a dumbed-down world. People want vulgar, simple fare. It satisfies their basic tastes, it reflects their own lives, it makes them feel comfortable. It is human nature to be prurient, cruel, and sentimental, to be fascinated by violence and to be stimulated by sex. We satisfy those demands and there is no shame in that. It is what democracy means.”
Instead of plain speaking we have hypocrisy. “Dumbing down? What, us? Don’t be ridiculous.” It is that kind of denial that shows contempt for the audience. Speaking for myself, I yield to no one in my heartfelt dislike of the working class – I don’t mean the ragged trousered philanthropists of folk memory but their present day descendants, the FCUK generation who flock to football matches, deliberately make themselves as ugly as is humanly possible and wear their stupidity and ignorance with pride. TV producers, however, would find such views abhorrent. Yet it is they who consistently patronise viewers.
Listen to Lorraine Heggessey, the former controller of BBC1. Denying that she dumbed down television, she said it was all part of a cunning plan to “stretch and build audience confidence and take them on a more unusual journey”. You don’t get much more patronising than that.
What she is saying is that the audience is so stupid, so lacking in curiosity and imagination, that it has to be fed sweeties in the hope that it might later be weaned on to something more suitable for adult tastes. Thank God she’s gone.
This is not, however, a world without hope. The appalling Dick and Dom’s Ask the Family is losing viewers in droves, and occasionally the truth is told. In her book, Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC, Georgina Born quotes a BBC producer: “The more you make stupid products, the more you create the audience. The more you pander to unsophisticated taste, the more that taste becomes unsophisticated.”
Or as the great American journalist HL Mencken put it: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”