Condescension and contempt for ordinary people are becoming the hallmarks of TV debate

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My heart went out to the producers of Kilroy the other day, not a direction in which it often travels. All the same, I could see how galling it must have been to have Max Clifford involved in a fracas with Roger Gale before the cameras were actually turned on. Does the man have no manners? He must have known that he had been invited so that this sort of thing might happen during the broadcast. The production company issued a statement saying that they had considered cancelling the transmission, and you could see their point - cutting to a studio in which a fight was already in progress would simply look unprofessional rather than "stimulating" or "provocative" or "controversial", or whatever the favoured euphemism for "shouting match" is at the moment. What's more, it would have shifted the blame squarely on to their shoulders for proceeding at all. But they must have been kicking themselves at the near miss - if Clifford had just held on for a few minutes, they would have got the barney on screen and yet remained editorially in the clear - able to say with a straight face that they regretted the incident, while privately gloating over the publicity value of every news bulletin re-run.

As it happened, the Kilroy row was timely, following hard on the heels of The Nation Decides, Carlton's royal tournament - a fiasco which has been finding champions in some odd places lately. Carlton may have been surprised to find that the debate it provoked had almost nothing to do with the future of the monarchy and everything to do with the future of broadcast current affairs. But after the tidal wave of execration for the programme (to which I contributed my own meagre bucketful) there began to emerge a few defenders, drenched but defiant and talking of "elitism" and "snobbery". Claire Rayner started it by announcing that she had enjoyed the cut and thrust. Others followed, suggesting that the outrage of "the establishment" (a touch of paranoia always helps) had been provoked by the robust opinions of the plain folk of Britain rather than the quality of the exchanges. In The Guardian, Maggie Brown went furthest; "it seems clear", she wrote, "that a new, popular, important, current-affairs-as- event format, however unlovely and flawed, was born before our eyes". I fear she is right. In a sharply realistic piece in The Sunday Telegraph (misrepresented by its headline: "Stop spluttering please Sir Robin - Jeremy Paxman says the Monarchy debate was not all that bad"), the Newsnight presenter warned that there was worse to come and concluded: "In 10 years' time ... I suspect we shall all be wondering what the fuss was about."

We are not quite there yet, though, which is why it is important to try to cut through Carlton's defensive smokescreen. Let us dispense with some fantasies first of all: to believe that this programme broke any kind of taboo you need to be suffering from two kinds of amnesia, both for the recent and the distant past. Popular criticism of Queen Victoria went so far as to include open discussion of her sexual continence; more recently, a country in which the tampon fantasies of the heir to the throne are a shared national joke can hardly be described as one bowed beneath a yoke of uncritical reverence. The post-war respect for the Royal Family was an unusual interlude in a long history of impertinence and irreverence - not a rule waiting to be broken.

Second, this programme was not innovative - the television producer's favourite refuge in times of distress. In fact, all that Carlton did was amplify an existing format - confrontation television - until it was virtually impossible to ignore it. Bloated beyond containment, the standard tactic of filling a studio with people and encouraging them to yell at each other (literally, in the case of The Nation Decides, which began with a frothing vocal warm-up) delivered the only result it possibly could - a belligerent extremism with rationality left gasping for air.

Third, and most crucially, the condescension and contempt for ordinary people was all on Carlton's side. To defend this programme as some kind of bold step towards public access takes the routine mendacity of lowest- common-denominator television to new depths. Three thousand people were bussed to an arena and then largely ignored in favour of zanies, game- show celebrities, professional pundits and self-congratulatory puffs. In more than two hours of broadcast time, the comments of people who had no other kind of mouthpiece perhaps amounted to 15 minutes, though even that may be generous. What you saw, in truth, was not the unpolished vigour of popular opinion, but a perfect example of television's highly polished travesty of it - the confected confrontation which divides every issue into two camps and demands that we choose just one side.

It's true, of course, that people do shout at each other in pubs, that arguments become heated and insults are exchanged. But to suggest those are the only forms of discourse that ordinary people have is both insulting and distorting. What you almost never see on television is what most of us experience quite regularly in everyday life - that is, people saying "I didn't know that ...", "you may be right ", "but what about ...?" even "I'm not sure what I think" - the whole repertoire of negotiation, concession and self-education by which people evolve their thoughts on a subject. To encourage Carlton in replacing that with football chants and flag-waving is not to speak for ordinary people, but to betray viewers who deserve much bettern

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