Another year of mocking the masses

The TV-viewing hordes are said to have no taste, but it’s Oxbridge graduates who come up with rubbish shows.

Neil Davenport

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Even before Prince William and Kate Middleton get married next year, already some commentators are arguing that only the dim masses will be interested. Apparently the OK!/Hello-reading drones will be the only ones lining up on the streets, plastic union flags in one hand and souvenir tea-towels in the other. It will provide more evidence of how silly and crass the mass of the British public is.

No doubt these royal wedding ‘hysterics’ will be added to a list that already includes Now!-reading housewives, X Factor record buyers, Big Brother voters and trashy soap opera followers – all ordinary people with low intelligence, apparently. Why can’t these people be concerned with more high-brow things, such as recycling their waste, eating organic food, and researching which companies make the most ethically sound goods?

True, class snobbery is as old as the class system itself. But not since the early part of the last century has there been such a consensus that people’s IQ and moral worth is innately provable by their viewing, listening and reading habits. And this view is not only found in the nasty-but-dim prejudices of broadsheet columnists – it informs the top end of social policy, too.

For the past 15 years, educationalists have been providing compensatory education to working-class kids – that is, extended ‘literacy and numeracy hours’ – so that they can catch up with the apparently advanced middle classes. Comprehensive school kids are now encouraged to stay behind after school, in homework clubs, lest they become prone to watching Home and Away with their chain-smoking mum. The Lib-Con coalition government is a passionate believer in early-years intervention – that is, in having enlightened officials provide the right cultural correctives for those raised in culturally disadvantaged homes.

A preoccupation with the allegedly damaging impact of so-called mass culture has long existed amongst cultural leftists. Herbert Marcuse’s phrase ‘bubblegum for the eyes’ summed up his view of Hollywood and mass entertainment. That phrase was rolled out to explain away why the radical left had no real presence in wider society – because everyone was too obsessed with trash culture to be concerned with rebelling against capitalist society. For years, Marcuse’s dictum existed only on the margins of society; now it informs the thinking of much of the chattering classes, but with a contemporary twist.

Today, the prejudice against ‘mass culture’ both flatters middle-class journalists, who conceive of themselves as superior to the rest of us, and provides justifications for more official intervention into how parents raise their kids. Either way, the conclusion is that decision-making is best left to those who know best. Forget the old obligation of the nobility; today’s paternalism comes in the form of state-approved, culturally determinist quackery.

However, I would argue that it is the cultural determinists who must surely be lacking in notable grey matter. The idea that the consumption of entertainment – something that actually shouldn’t be taken massively seriously – tells us everything we need to know about people’s moral worth is up there with measuring skull shapes to determine intelligence.

Far too often, the blather around cultural consumption is loaded with malign prejudices rather than hard fact. Take, for instance, a celebrity magazine such as Closer: with around 350,000 readers a week, apparently this is proof that there is a stupid, ignorant mass out there who want to get their hands on pointless tittle-tattle. But hang on a minute, the Guardian’s daily circulation also hovers somewhere between 350,000 and 380,000 – yet that demographic is cast as a high-minded minority rather than a dumb majority.

A similar outlook can be seen in the debate about TV viewing figures. If a high-profile drama only generates viewing figures of, say, seven million, it is considered a bit of a flop, a failure to gain a mass audience. But if Big Brother or I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! get a similar number of viewers, or even fewer, then that’s proof that the nation is going to hell in a reality-TV handcart. When stats can be interpreted to meet ready-made prejudices, then it’s clear that cultural consumption habits actually tell us little about real people’s moral worth and more about other people’s snobbery.

Besides, the likes of The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, I’m A Celebrity and so on are harmless froth that are enjoyed – remember that word? – by a cross-class, cross-generational audience. Far from being a new signifier of a backward, dystopian society, as many Simon Cowell-bashers seem to imagine, The X Factor is a fairly old-fashioned, family-oriented kind of Shared National Experience that was the staple of 1970s/1980s television schedules, too.

Yes, there is a lot wrong with television output today, especially on BBC3 and the voyeuristic bits of Channel 4. But blame that on the Oxbridge graduates devising programmes such as My Mum Is Hotter Than Me rather than on the audience. On the flipside, there has been a vast improvement in smart, innovative and high-quality dramas and comedies that are superior to similar shows from the past. This may come as a shock to some, but millions of people are able to recognise gold dust from dross and have an acute sense of when broadcasters are patronising them and lowering standards.

This is why everyday TV viewers are actually more likely to be suspicious of gratuitously coarse TV or radio – certainly more so than some respectable commentators, who deem something like Jonathan Ross’s locker-room rubbish to be cutting edge and daring. And it’s certainly not true that the masses believe any old rubbish that is spouted on TV. Which is why Jamie Oliver’s healthy-eating hectoring, Gillian McKeith’s unappetising TV diets, and the endless moralising on saving the planet have been given a sensible elbow by bullshit-detecting viewers. Remember football fans chanting ‘you fat bastard’ at Jamie Oliver a couple of years ago?

Imagining yourself as more enlightened and morally superior on account of your cultural consumption is a phase many precocious youngsters go through. What, you don’t know who Jean Luc Goddard/Paul Auster/Yo La Tengo are? Jeez, am I the only enlightened person around here? Most of us grow out of that phase pretty quickly. It’s time that the cultural determinists in the press and high office did the same.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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