Media: Just who are you calling dumb?

In a fragmented culture, it takes a steady nerve to be popular without merely being populist, argues David Walker
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The Independent Online
Dumbing down. It's a hydra-headed monster, one of which is LaLa, another Jerry Springer. One head belongs to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement which can no longer spell Nietzsche correctly, a Culture Secretary who prefers Zimmerman to Keats and another to James Boyle, BBC apparatchik and perpetrator of what (if you believe the likes of Gerald Kaufman MP) amounts to the outrage of altering, albeit marginally, the schedules for Radio Four. But is the monster real? I've a personal interest. This week I present the last 45-minute Analysis programme on Mr Boyle's network - in future it will be half an hour, a change some people will say is grist to the mill of the cultural pessimists.

The trouble is, cultural pessimism has been around a long, long time. When, in June 1956, Jack O'Brian was expressing his repugnance in the New York Journal-American at the sight of a hairy young man "caterwauling his unintelligible lyrics in an inadequate voice, during a display of primitive physical movement difficult to describe in terms suitable to a family newspaper", he was doing something that his father and grandfather had done before him: finding fault with their children's taste and translating it in a theory of historical decline. For every LaLa there is a Woodentop or, even further back, Larry the Lamb. For every Irvine Welsh there is an Alan Sillitoe, for every Tarantino, a Peckinpah. If you think we live amid encircling cultural gloom, read Huizinga on the 15th century.

Dumbing down is as much a state of mind as a quantifiable phenomenon. Though cultural criticism used to attract a particular kind of Marxist, it often has a right-wing thrust - witness the parade of doomsters whenever GCSE results show that a larger slice of the 16-plus age cohort is passing. For all the alleged assault of the forces of postmodernism and relativism, it's amazing how intact are both the idea of standards and the acceptance that creativity has to be subject to some discipline. It's not that there are no problems - specifically with arts funding and media competition - but that what people mean by dumbing down are various and sometimes contradictory things. Take a territory close to home, the British periodical and newspaper press.

On magazines, Clive Hollick (Lord Hollick in the New Labour dispensation) extols the "volume of new magazines coming on to the market dealing with a particular niche, a particular segment, a particular interest. It follows that if you are going to read those, then something else is going to fall by the wayside". Thinning of the general culture coexists with broadening and deepening of specialist interest. Is that really a chapter of loss? With newspapers, the fact that total circulation has fallen does not necessarily mean that fewer people are reading. Red top readership declines - no bad thing, surely - while there is evidence that some readers of The Sun and The Mirror are moving up to mid-market papers. The broadsheets (predatory pricing plays a role here) have become more accessible. We may regret the values and politics behind a Sun reader's passage to The Times, but dumbing down it isn't.

There is no point in being Pollyanna-ish. Millions of people still read tabloids and so (this is Roy Greenslade's phrase) are locked into an information- vacuous environment. "If," says Mr Greenslade, "they are merely reading those newspapers every day, then they are not opening their minds in the way that readers in the Fifties and Sixties reading the Cudlippian Mirror were getting the chance to."

Dumbing down often says more about producers than their audiences. Take film. There is no need for a long debate about whether Hollywood is "dumber" nowadays, as witnessed by Titanic's trawl of Oscars. The question, says the veteran critic Derek Malcolm, is whether Hollywood is squeezing out the rest of film.

"It's all very well saying everybody wants to see Titanic, but it is surprising when 500 prints are minted for this country alone, and two to three million dollars are put into advertising.

"Now a British film comes along - let's discount The Full Monty, which is a one-off. What does a Ken Loach film get? It gets probably 20 prints at the most; it doesn't get into any multiplexes."

American or multinational control of distribution inhibits diversity, promotes a homogeneity in what we see and restricts the flow of ideas. But that view, too, is time-bounded in its pessimism. "The relationship," says David Puttnam, the film producer ennobled by New Labour, "between the arts and commerce is in a constant state of mutation and change." The pattern of distribution will change, he predicts. Besides, there is an argument that American culture, especially as expressed in television production, is on a "bit of a high" at the moment. That phrase is used by David Elstein, chief executive of Channel Five. "You've got Seinfeld and Friends and Mad About You [which] are streets ahead of anything that's being generated by the Brits."

In other words it is not dumb of the British public to prefer superior offerings from across the Atlantic. Ultimately, the dumbing down argument rests on something that has become very difficult to do in a democratic age - criticism of the public's taste. But, some say, the public's taste is in fine fettle; there is an audience for excellence, for difficult and challenging material. Frances Coady, of Granta Books, cites the success of Will Hutton and, more recently, John Gray's latest book False Dawn. There is, as she puts it, a public hunger. It may be let down by the "corporatisation" of publishing, yet it keeps its edge. Discussion of public taste pretty soon lands you back at the BBC, which serves as a kind of bellwether for cultural anxiety.

John Tusa, now general manager of the Barbican, speaks for the BBC's dispossessed by saying that the doctrine of serving public taste as it is, has to be counterbalanced by institutional self-confidence that says we know what the intrinsic value of such and such a subject is and so can lead and shape public taste.

"Do I want the largest audience here? Of course. But I also want the largest possible audience for the best possible artistic programme and sometimes we know that'll only get a 60 per cent audience. But that is right because there is simply no point in doing something where you are distorting the artistic programme because you want to have 85 per cent all the time."

But there is no ready reckoner to help with that arithmetic, especially when (as Nick Kenyon, controller of BBC Radio Three puts it) "what we have today is ... a fragmenting of the ways that we approach culture".

But isn't it in such a world that the cultural provider (or newspaper editor) with self-confidence, some kind of belief in the intrinsic merit of what they are offering, ought to thrive? Corporate chieftains can control costs and cut prices but they are often cowardly. In culture, who dares wins.

The writer presents `Struck Dumb' for `Analysis' on BBC Radio Four this Thursday at 8pm.