radio review

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Is everyone now really being encouraged not to think?" Tariq Ali wondered on Agenda (Radio 4, Saturday). "Or worse still, to think in crude and simplistic stereotypes?" Well, absolutely: just look at the way that commentators on the media stereotype today's press and television as crude and simplistic.

There's always evidence to support this view: Ali picked up on the "Achtung! Surrender" headlines during Euro 96, and The Girlie Show on Channel 4. But while those are remarkable examples of the depths to which the media will plunge, they also gave cause for hope. Piers Morgan explained away the Mirror's xenophobia as a joke. And when Ali talked about The Girlie Show marking a shift towards a new sort of programming - "more sexy, more entertaining, higher ratings" - it became clear he hadn't actually watched that comedy of horrified embarrassment, and had no conception of how most people reacted to it.

In fact, the one thing Ali didn't come up with was any successful instances of media populism. What he did find was an orthodoxy which takes it as axiomatic that big pictures and grabby headlines are what sell papers. Brian MacArthur, formerly editor of Today, said, "No paper is succeeding now by having as much dense text as it had 20 or 30 years ago." It's true enough; then again, what paper is doing particularly well by other means? The newspaper market is not what it was.

Meanwhile, all the potential readers and watchers Ali spoke to claimed they felt patronised by the way they were addressed by the media - granted, this included students at Ruskin College, Oxford, never notable for their conservatism; but it also included sixth-formers at a north London comprehensive who have presumably formed their worldview under the influence of the media that Ali was decrying, and they were just as cross. In fact, apart from the man from the BBC saying that there's a big debate inside the Corporation about whether they should be doing more royal coverage (and there was me thinking saturation level was some sort of limit), this whole programme seemed unintentionally cheerful.

The fact is, the media talk as though what we learn from the media is vastly important; but most of us learn what we think from friends and family and school and jobs; what we read and see has to pass through those filters. You were left wondering if the answer to Ali's original questions, in fact, wasn't a yes or a no, but a simple So What?