review

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Who Killed the Family? (BBC2) might be said to have fallen prey to the Chicken Little Conundrum: that is "How do you raise the alarm if the sky really is falling?" On the face of it, Melanie Phillips's film was just a sustained bleat of moral panic, of a fairly familiar kind. The usual suspects had been rounded up to deliver the usual gloomy prognosis and to point fingers at the same old culprits - the "Me generation", feminism, the welfare state and sexual liberation. Given that she has written for the Guardian for most of her career, and now writes for the Observer (both liberal newspapers), you wondered for a while whether this was Phillips's grand coming-out ball as a debutante reactionary.

But then... much of what she says is simple common sense, even if she makes out that it's radical and unsayable. So you hesitate for a while - should we block our ears to a warning, simply because it is delivered by Roger Scruton? Perhaps all these concerned voices are right - that society has been irretrievably damaged by a consistent, "venomous", multi- flanked attack on the nuclear family. Perhaps it is the best mechanism we have, as many witnesses suggested, for polishing our children into citizens - a loving enclosure in which they will learn the skills of mediation, restraint and altruism? You don't have to be Janet Daley to recognize that the great virtue of civility is increasingly endangered, so it's tempting to think that the answer might lie so readily at hand.

Then you listen more closely to what these people are saying, and realise that they live in some other country from the one you inhabit - a parallel universe that bears many similarities to ours but varies in subtle details. The Chief Rabbi, for example, suggests that if you look at soap operas "you will very rarely see any conventional morality portrayed". He means that soaps are more often about transgressions of social norms than the norms themselves - that adultery features more often than washing socks. I'm sure he's a great rabbi, but he's a lousy critic; Coronation Street and Neighbours corrosive of the social fabric? You might as well conclude that Macbeth promotes regicide because that's what it depicts. He should really start worrying when soap writers decide adultery is boring.

Moreover, if the intellectual prejudice against family life is so pervasive and "monolithic", how come so many people continue to form families and maintain them, under far more difficult conditions than were ever faced in the past? The only dissenting intellectual voice Phillips appeared to have been able to find was Suzanne Moore - who simply observed that there might be more than one way to skin a cat. Hardly evidence that it is now a thought-crime to want to get married and have children. The real urgency became a little clearer towards the end, in the words used to describe all those for whom the traditional family was being prescribed as the only remedy. Roger Scruton talked of a society of "human predators" and Janet Daley predicted "massed hordes of demoralised - and I mean de-moralised - people" assaulting the fortress of decency. Perhaps something has to be done, but showing revulsion for the lives of others is surely not the best place to start.

Earlier in the evening Picture This (BBC2) had offered a less hysterical account of the endlessly varied ways in which people construct their lives, even within families. "Washing Up Wars" didn't really justify its 30 minutes, despite some inventive camera angles and a slightly strained attempt to present washing-up as a microcosm of domestic politics. But it did remind you that there are still more people who muddle along inside the old forms, than have abandoned them to roam the streets looking for pundits to mug.

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