Is the small screen a place for big ideas? 2

July 21, 2006

Is 'dumbing down' the route to redemocratisation? Michael Temple believes it is a way of engaging every section of society, while Adrian Monck argues that our political system needs to change instead

As kids we watched a TV show called Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go Out And Do Something Less Boring Instead? Its mission: to get small potatoes off the couch. We killed time watching it in the holidays waiting for The Banana Splits to come on.

Using television news to activate and inform the public sounds attractive, rather like the idea of eating yourself thin. And if it worked for all of us, maybe it would be worth the £3.5 billion that the BBC gets every year.

But it doesn't work for all of us. For the same amount of money we could buy everyone in Britain a subscription to The Economist and a month's gym membership. Or we could just double the funding for research in our universities and leave the public without public service broadcasting. If people really learnt anything from television, most of us would be geniuses, especially the journalists who produce the stuff.

When I edited TV programmes (up until a year ago), I was happy to put the British National Party on air. Not because I'm a pure-bred Angle (or is it Saxon?), or because one of its sympathisers described me as a "nigger-loving Jew" or because I wanted people with records for criminal violence on television, but because the journalist in me likes to remind stupid people what they voted for. I've been happy to put many types of extremist on air, from intelligent designers to animal fascists, because if you can't wither their narrow-minded, pitiful arguments in the media spotlight, then what hope is there for the liberal elite?

That we want people to be more politically engaged is a familiar cry. Politicians wish more of us voted, broadcast journalists wish more of us cared. There are people in this country risking their lives and livelihoods to bring you rather dull information you'd rather not have. Well, wake up. Do something with it that does not involve sending a text or giving a credit card number. Alas, the bitter truth is we spend too much time watching television, and when we're not doing that we're at work or asleep.

It's not all the public's fault. The reality is that our political system offers few opportunities for participation and relatively modest scope for action to office-holders. Our democratic encounters are mostly limited to the ballot box and we vote about as often as Philip Larkin had a fun night out. I have voted in all five general elections since my 18th birthday. The ruling party has changed once. If individuals rationally conclude that their vote is almost valueless and their participation fairly unnecessary, is that conclusion the fault of the media or is it in the hands of the media to remedy?

Four years ago the BBC decided it was. They got very concerned about democracy, more specifically voter turnout. They helped by producing a report, which said: "The BBC is in a strong position to help turn around political disconnection... the BBC, we believe, is in a unique position to fulfil the fundamental objective of re-democratising democracy." They called it their "big idea -relaunching democracy". In case you hadn't noticed, we're still waiting. The message from Auntie? Democracy remains resolutely un-relaunched but keep paying the licence fee.

There may be no rational case for improving people's citizenship by paying for classy public service TV care of the "liberal elite", but there's absolutely no excuse for arguing that we should pay for "dumbed down" rubbish. This kind of argument runs along the lines of, "if only more people could hum Ride of the Valkyrie we'd all be booking holidays in Bayreuth".

When the Norwegians got worried about political apathy gnawing away at their democ-racy they launched an enor-mous series of studies to figure out why. They concluded that the problems lay with institutions and systems, not the media.

Besides, poor turnout in elections - especially with local elections - is a problem in many democracies with more or less vigorous media coverage. There isn't a newspaper in every borough acting as an unofficial cheerleader for the council. People vote with their attention. When it comes to emptying the bins, car park charges and planning permission for conservatories, most people allocate their time - sensibly - to other priorities, such as caring for elderly relatives. And surprise, surprise, the crisis of legitimacy caused by two thirds of the electorate staying at home doesn't mean that the council chambers stay empty.J They have a saying in marketing: "Nothing kills a bad product like good advertising." For an awful lot of people, politics is a lousy way to enjoy yourself. And for that we have reason still not to be fearful, but to be grateful.

Adrian Monck is head of journalism and publishing at City University.

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