Sunday, August 29, 2004

Media Figure Bemoans 'Reality' TV

Savaging of 'seedy and cynical' TV
Society has been coarsened says Humphrys
Matt Wells, media correspondent
Saturday August 28, 2004
The Guardian

John Humphrys, arguably the BBC's most influential news presenter, made a powerful case against the corrupting influence of reality television last night, railing against a tide of "mind-numbing, witless vulgarity" and wondering whether Mary Whitehouse's clean-up campaign was right.
Humphrys, speaking to an audience of the most senior figures in British television, said much of what they produce has a coarsening effect and "turns human beings into freaks for us to gawp at".
Delivering the annual MacTaggart memorial lecture at the Media Guardian Edinburgh international television festival, Humphrys, the presenter of Today on Radio 4, painted a depressing picture of the damaging effect on participants and viewers of programmes such as Big Brother and Wife Swap.
"The good television of today is probably better than the best television of the old days. The bad television of today is worse. It is not only bad - it is damaging, meretricious, seedy and cynical."
He argued that bad television had a coarsening effect on society: "Can we really argue that the mind-numbing, witless vulgarity of so much of this stuff has no effect?"
Humphrys' speech, cogently argued and passionately delivered, was a heavyweight critique of the state of British television. He stressed that his argument was much more than another swipe against Big Brother, although the Channel 4 show was the subject of much of his ire. He was concerned with the desensitising effect of violence, bad language and misery in EastEnders, the ritual humiliation of people who take part in programmes such as Wife Swap, and the trivialisation of serious subjects.
The 61-year-old presenter, who himself has not owned a television set for five years, asked 16 channel controllers to select their best 10 programmes for him to watch in preparation for last night's lecture. He praised "superb drama" such as the Second Coming, and The Lost Prince, "outstanding" drama documentaries such as Pompeii and Bloody Sunday, comedy such as The Office and Ali G, and history presenters Simon Schama and David Starkey.
But he described his astonishment that TV executives sent him tapes of programmes such as Banzai, Breasts Uncupped and Nip/Tuck: "If they really think that sort of rubbish is the best, God knows what they think is the worst."
Humphrys implicitly criticised Peter Bazalgette, the executive who brought Big Brother to Britain, who describes his output as being neither highbrow nor lowbrow.
"The fashionable defence of it is to say that it is 'no brow' television: not high brow, not low brow - just no brow. It is no brow because it is no content, no nourishment, no good."
Humprhys acknowledged that his comments could be characterised as "coming from the collected works of Mary Whitehouse", the veteran clean-up campaigner. "She said television was on a downward moral spiral. Foul language and fornication would become routine if nothing were done to stop it. They said she was wrong. Was she?"
Humphrys also used the speech to warn against the dangers of journalistic self-censorship in the wake of the Hutton report. But he said he had not been "leant on" to go easy on politicians.
He attacked the "dangerous" thesis of an influential book by the journalist and commentator John Lloyd, What the Media Are Doing To Our Politics, that says journalists are responsible for the public cynicism about the political scene.
"Are we really saying that the public is so gullible, so incapable of seeking out information for themselves, that they can be led by the nose by a cynical media into believing something they don't want to believe?"
In his book Lloyd said the threat to the institutions of democracy was at its greatest "when the media is at its most fearless". Humphrys replied: "We should not be fearful of standing up to those in power. That is our job: to be fearless in the face of power. It is our job in a pre-Hutton era, a mid-Hutton era, a post-Hutton era. In any era."
In candid remarks about the old regime at the BBC, he said the former director general, Greg Dyke, was wrong to believe that coverage of politics was boring and required livening up.
"Even if it were true that politics is boring, it's not our job to make it fun. It's a serious business and it's our job to report it seriously ... Greg got it wrong."