Cold heart needs to be revived

February 13, 2004

The moral core of universities, like that of the BBC, is still alive but requires nurturing to regain strength, says Fred Inglis

The intellectual life of our country is in the hands of the universities and the BBC. It's a bit harder to name the source to which a people might look for moral authority; the radical individualisation of our culture - our ethics, our everyday conduct brought about by old corruption and new globalisation - has done everything, as we know, to diminish the very idea of authority and to teach the vegetable Fascism of Jerry Springer, The Weakest Link and the muck-seeking press.

These are not the accents of reaction. A robust and mature democracy constitutes its own authority. It would be located in its government, for sure, and in its teachers (of whatever ages), in the independence of its organs of public opinion and in the self-reliance and power of vigorous self-expression of the many institutions of its civil society, including its philanthropic bodies, its associations of youth and age, its private societies, whether for the protection of birds, trees or Harley-Davidsons, the promulgation of star-gazing, coarse fishing or pot-holing.

The loosening of the centres of moral authority is a terrible thing. Without abominable and global crisis, moral authority is unlikely to be affirmed, and crisis is not usually a happy opportunity for democracy. Today, the only generally assented-to currencies of authority are money and the poisonous aura of its omnipresence, celebrity.

This state of affairs is well known. There are serious men and women in Parliament who recognise it; there are plenty of no less serious journalists, broadcasters and academic writers who address it. But money delirium is far advanced, and I cannot doubt that the nation's heart most urgently needs a bypass.

This loss of authority is acutely marked in the universities, unignorable in the most commonplace memoranda from managers. The galloping corruption of the Thatcher years, whereby publications were priced, research sold out for profit, and students bought in from worldwide in the name of turnover, has continued headlong since 1997. The very language of the sciences and the humanities expresses the same process: the inhuman jargon, the crazy distancing from everyday life, the phoney egalitarianism, the litigious quarrelling, the absence of moral purpose, the unintelligible theorisation.

The current plight of the BBC is precisely adjacent. The language, principles and historical roots of the corporation grow from the same sap and soil as the modern British university. Its standards of truth-telling disinterestedness, high-minded public service, intelligent and morally responsible ordering and interpreting of the chaotic motions of the world, its enchantment of a vast national audience with stories at once beautiful and good are the products of the culture that shaped the great tradition of the ancient, the civic, the plate-glass and the newest universities.

It's unusual to invoke this kind of rhetoric these days. But things are bad, and it's time to beat this antique drum once again. Greg Dyke was hired to pull the ratings up; he's a gifted man and did so. He did so by taking the corporation's culture down, dumbing it doubtless, coarsening it certainly, listening always for the roar of money. The same has occurred at Universities UK and behind the big, solid, discreet portals of the Russell Group.

And yetI. The world gaped admiringly as the BBC's best people - Andrew Marr, Matt Frei, Nick Clarke, Jeremy Paxman, Kirsty Wark, Mark Mardel and Orla Guerin - reported on their own catastrophe alongside the world's fretting and chafing as thoughtfully and punctually as ever.

The mighty tradition of Broadcasting House and its noble Latin escutcheon - "to inform, to educate, to entertain" - is far from dead. Nor, I am certain, is that same tradition doomed in departments of English and philosophy, life sciences and solid-state physics. But it most desperately needs, in the phrase, structural transformation: radical conservation, delicate replanting, intelligent government.

Fred Inglis is professor emeritus of cultural studies at the University of Sheffield.

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