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Selling readers short

The newspapers are too often dominated by trivia, bias and sentimentality, argues Melanie Phillips

The issues covered by the phrase 'dumbing down' go to the heart of the values which currently dominate our media, and which are giving reason for considerable concern. These issues include not just triviality, which I think most people immediately think about when they think of 'dumbing down', but also the journalism of attachment, otherwise known as bias, and the journalism of emotion, otherwise known as sentimentality.

All these phenomena, I think, have a common root, which is that any kind of hierarchy of values nowadays is thought to be elitist and, thus, completely illegitimate. Take the old idea, for example, that the BBC should consider itself some kind of guardian of the nation's values, and raise values up rather than simply play to the lowest common denominator. That concept is now considered as not just laughable and old-fashioned and out of date, but positively anti-democratic.

The idea now is that the BBC has no right to set itself above anybody else. Nobody has the right to set themselves above anybody else, and anyone in the media who dares suggest otherwise is immediately shouted down. In 'the People's Britain' the populace very much rules, and so people are given what it is assumed that they want.

In part, I think 'dumbing down' reflects the view of many editors, of the way they think society has changed. So target readerships tend to be defined as under 35, uneducated, with a very short attention span, with no interest in serious issues, and certainly no interest in Westminster politics, and only interested in sensation, entertainment, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, which of course we are all interested in really.

Serious journalism, therefore, has become boring, and is considered only to appeal to the over-35s, who, as we all know, are almost dead and so we need not bother about them. Serious journalists feel as if they are standing on a small island whose sands are being eroded almost every week. But relegated as it is, serious journalism is nevertheless waved about like a trophy when anybody complains that they are being force-fed with trivia.

There are no papers which have escaped the general pull in this direction, and a lot of readers have been left disenfranchised as a result. But I think readers have been sold short in other ways as well.

For instance, many journalists now believe, along with a lot of the population, that there is no such thing as objectivity. Anybody who claims to be objective is a hypocrite and a liar. So it is better to be honest about one's prejudices. This is sometimes called the 'journalism of attachment', which, when I was a trainee journalist, was considered to be biased and prejudiced journalism and was absolutely not on.

Opinion now dominates the media. It is not just that this is the age of that most self-indulgent figure, the newspaper columnist. What is much more disturbing in my view is that news and comment are increasingly considered to be interchangeable. The old idea that facts and comment had to be kept separate has gone.

Now, we are not so much telling people what they should be thinking about, but telling them what to think. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find out exactly what has been said or what actually has happened. Instead, what we are told is everybody else's opinion of what has been said, or what has happened. It is an approach that targets the sensations and the emotions, rather than producing the kind of logical and factual reporting which appeals to reason. A sub-division of this is confessional journalism, which encourages voyeurism and vicarious experience. The objective of making people feel has now very largely replaced the objective of making people think.

However, the age of opinion notwithstanding, increasingly and very disturbingly only one kind of opinion is permitted. Take religion, for instance. A press release that bears the heading of a religious body is very unwise. It will be on an almost automatic kamikaze mission into the nearest bin. It is hardly surprising that religious views are so marginalised since journalists have become accustomed to thinking of themselves at the very least as secular priests.

Of course, it is a crucial part of the media's role to expose wrongdoing; one of my objections at the moment is that many journalists do not do that job properly and are too content to be spoon-fed. But nevertheless, many press and TV journalists have fallen into the trap of developing an inflated view of themselves as lonely righteous crusaders against a world of public figures which is universally corrupt and which has to be dragged off its pedestal.

Too often an editorial line now runs through an entire newspaper. In the general confusion over values, I think newspapers have become standards behind which troops mass on one side or the other of any particular argument. Too many papers no longer think it is their role to hold the ring for debate but have become instead active and highly committed antagonists on the cultural battleground. Real liberal values in journalism do still exist, but the newspapers and the television programmes that subscribe to them are becoming increasingly rare, and increasingly beleaguered.

Melanie Phillips is a columnist for the Sunday Times. This is an edited version of her introduction to a discussion on dumbing down at the Media and Public Confidence Conference, held at the FT building in February

Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999



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