Sometimes, it is given to the wrong person for the right reason, and often to the wrong person for the wrong reason, but what rarely seems to be managed is giving it to the right person for the right reason.
If that happened, though, where would the Booker Prize be? Nowhere. Its avowed purpose is to take books to the wider world, but its real role in that world is to reassure it that intellectuals are just as silly as everyone else.
Every year there is this exalted punch-up, this airy-fairy version of "Why does he pick Anderton?" Every year, as the cosily critical tone of Beyond the Booker made clear, almost everyone feels better for it.
Happiest of all, perhaps, are those intellectuals who can tell the wider world how much they despise their own. In Sex and Shopping (C5), a new series which examines the global pornography industry and the British laws that forbid access to it, a veritable army of such people was on parade. Censorship, they told us, is a disgrace. What gives "middle class" people like them - although not, of course, them personally - the right to tell the "great unwashed" what they can and cannot watch?
The principle of censorship may be indefensible, but Sex and Shopping left you feeling rather keen on it. There is something about attacks on Britain's "deep sexual neurosis" that makes you want to hide the table legs with a crinoline. So far, the quality of debate in this series is not very high; nor will it be, while the interviews are edited in that just-had-a-snort style.
Yet some good points were made, notably about the way in which mainstream businesses feed off the porn industry. Unfortunately, Sex and Shopping itself was a living illustration of this point. It may have been in the mainstream business of analysing pornography but, boy, was it showing us a lot of it.
As usual with programmes on this subject, initial prurience soon turned to depressed distaste. Indeed, a question of taste is so often what it comes down to, and how can you legislate for or against that?
You can't, of course, which does not mean that the question goes away. It was back again in Picking Up the Pieces (ITV), a powerful new series which applies the hand-held camera and documentary technique of The Cops to the lives of a crew of ambulance workers. The principle of realism being sacred to this style of programme, the viewer was spared no detail of a small boy's resuscitation.
The boy had a name, but was denied the dignity of a character. You couldn't have cared whether he lived or died, and that was far, far worse than if you had cared. It proved what everyone, including those who attack censorship, surely knows in their hearts: that certain subjects bring with them greater responsibilities, and that these cannot be abnegated in the name of actualite.Reuse content