Is the small screen a place for big ideas? 1

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

Dumbing down - the simplification and personalisation of "serious" news and the widening of the news agenda to embrace cultural phenomena - is crucial for the salvation of democracy.

There are two arguments to make here. First, the presentation of politics needs to be more entertaining to engage a largely uninterested audience and, second, the views and concerns of that audience must be better represented.

Politics must not set itself up above other areas of life. Serious issues can be covered in an entertaining manner, as Newsnight regularly shows. It is pointless for political elites to bemoan the rise of news as entertainment or "infotainment". News that engenders emotional responses to social issues is vital; it can inspire participation.

Ignoring for a moment the offensiveness of the phrase, with its implications of intellectual superiority, opponents of dumbing down argue that infotainment dominates and that this is a "bad thing". God forbid that news be entertaining or that the news agenda of the masses, who are more interested in Posh and Becks than Tony and Gordon, be satisfied.

Such tabloid journalism, its critics argue, has downplayed politics in favour of scandal, superficiality and showbiz and is a threat to democratic vitality. This assumption ignores the need for coverage that captures the politically underinformed and encourages more involvement in public debate.

Declining participation in traditional politics is blamed on a rise in public apathy and cynicism about politicians, largely caused by dumbing down. On the contrary, a more sensational news agenda has provided proof that we are right to doubt the motives and authority of politicians.

They lie to us (weapons of mass destruction, anyone?), commit adultery while lecturing us on morals (John Major), and their dodgy financial dealings (from Jonathan Aitken to Peter Mandelson) are legion. Generations of "responsible" and high-minded reporting left us all ignorant of their sleaziness. Politicians are to blame for our apathy and cynicism, not the messengers.

Dumbing down is good because it facilitates wider engagement within the public sphere. If we accept this is desirable, then it follows that the views of all sections of society need to be represented without prejudice, whatever the so-called informed elite think of those views.

For too long, broadcast news has failed its audience. Control of the news agenda has been in the hands of an elite with a narrow conception of "news". Their news values are mostly negative, serious and loosely based on a BBC template embracing certain cultural values regarded as self-evident.

Similarly, the BBC's stated organisational values contradict its statutory obligation to be impartial; for example, a commitment to "multiculturalism"

is a given. Any challenge to this and other shibboleths is regarded not only as heresy but also as evidence of racist or sexist leanings.

We inhabit an increasingly fragmented and individualistic civil society, illustrated by the variety of world-views one can find online. It is therefore important for broadcast media to reflect aspects of this new environment, for example, the decline in traditional party allegiances of recent decades. This, they have failed to do; the same three narrow party views receive priority in news and current affairs programmes.

Central to the myth of liberal democracies is that they possess a pluralistic media where all views are capable of being represented. But only particular perspectives are allowed free expression in the mainstream.

Widespread beliefs are denied legitimacy because they don't fit within the boundaries of respectable opinion. Look at the outrage generated among the "educated classes" when the News of the World proposed, with considerable public support, the naming and shaming of paedophiles.

Let me make my position clear so I am not misrepresented. I don't support the castration of paedophiles. I regard the British National Party as a canker. I think immigrants are a largely positive asset to British society and I abhor sexism.

I am simply arguing for the right of millions of people's views to be represented and debated in the public sphere. Based on electoral support, the Green Party and the BNP deserve broadly equal respect. But speak to BBC journalists (off the record, of course) and you will learn about the hoops they have to go through to interview the BNP and the absence of such strictures for those with acceptable alternative views such as the Greens.

The fear of giving racists the oxygen of publicity appears to outweigh any duty to democratic debate.

The mass media dominate the public sphere. So it is essential for democracy that the news media are watched or read by everyone and are truly representative of all of society. If that is "dumbing down", bring it on.

Michael Temple is professor of journalism and politics at Staffordshire University.

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