TV UK, 4 April

Dead royals, red ties and ratings v principles.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

Dear David,

It is now several years since you left Britain for the USA, swearing that you would not return until the Queen Mother was dead and buried.

As your brother, I understand that you could not bear the thought of enduring the months of national mourning that would surely be orchestrated by the BBC after her death. Britain has always prided itself on its obsequiousness in these matters. But you can come home now – things have changed.

It happened right in the middle of Auntie’s Bloomers, the BBC’s holiday compilation of hilarious outtakes and on-screen gaffes. The programme was interrupted first by one of the BBC’s new idents (1) and then by a picture of HRH. Finally Peter Sissons appeared in a red tie to give us the news. Over the next few days that tie was at the centre of a row about what kind of country Britain is: funky and irreverent or stuffy and irrelevant (cheap but irresistible). It has to be said that the black tie brigade came off rather badly.

Just as conservative Americans feel obliged now more than ever to affect an embarrassing reverence for George W Bush, conservative Britons still have a tendency to make fools of themselves over the Windsors, showing comic disregard for reality. My favourite example came from Tom Utley in the Daily Telegraph, protesting about Peter Sissons’ tone as well as his tie: ‘No sense came across that he was describing a momentous day in the nation’s history.’ (2) Is this really Sissons’ fault? Or is the problem that he was not describing a momentous day in the nation’s history?

Also in the Telegraph, Janet Daley quite rightly criticised the BBC’s defensive routine about how it was simply reflecting the mood of the nation (3). In fact, Utley committed the same crime, attacking the BBC for not providing ‘the full coverage of the Queen Mother’s historic life that the nation so obviously wanted’. Did it? The BBC is closer to the mark, but that’s not the point. As Daley points out, the BBC does not have to reflect its audience. It ought therefore to make editorial decisions on principles (preferably republican ones).

The problem is that many people in authority think that reflecting their audience is a principle. This is the development explored in Century of the Self, a four-part series which concludes on Sunday (BBC2 at 8pm). The series has looked at the idea of the self and its irrational desires from Freud to Blair, arguing that today’s self-absorbed consumer society is a product of a peculiar strain of post-Freudian Sixties radicalism.

Some of the rhetoric remains. In the final episode, New Labour adviser Philip Gould speaks self-righteously about his part in transforming the Labour Party into a consumer-friendly product, using focus groups and spin to appeal to the inner voter. The programme explains that focus groups are designed to circumvent rational discussion and identify people’s feelings. Unlike many others involved in the programme (notably Derek Draper) Gould is unrepentant, and rails against the elitism of old-fashioned organisations like the BBC, who think they know best.

I have to say that ‘elite’ is not the word that springs to mind when I think of the Labour Party of Neil Kinnock and John Smith. It is precisely because the organisation was politically bankrupt and moribund that Gould and his pals were able to take it over. Century of the Self is perhaps evidence that the BBC is not ready for the same fate, but if the programme gives too much credit to the therapistas rather than looking at the crisis of authority that supports them, it is doubtless because producer Adam Curtis has had too much direct experience of their manoeuvrings.

Interestingly, though the whole trend comes from the USA, the Americans interviewed in the programme were much more contrite. Former Clintonite Robert Reich manages a fairly robust defence of active democracy against ‘consumer democracy’, and the recovering hippies have been suitably penitent throughout the series.

Of course, Americans did elect George W Bush, who, now that I think of it, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Queen Mother. But at least the USA is a republic. And it was Britain that combined reverence with emotionalism to such horrible effect after Diana died – the worst of both worlds?

On second thoughts, David, stay where you are. Do you still have that spare room?

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See TV UK, 28 March

(2) Red faces in BBC news rooms as corporation is caught on the hop, Daily Telegraph, 1 April 2002

(3) What’s wrong with the BBC is everyone’s problem, 3 April 2002

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Topics Politics


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