Television leads society astray, says Humphrys

John Humphrys, one of the most respected voices on the BBC, yesterday told the television industry that reality shows were coarsening society with their "mind-numbing, witless vulgarity". He suggested the Sixties campaigner Mary Whitehouse had been right when she said television was on a "downward moral spiral".

John Humphrys, one of the most respected voices on the BBC, yesterday told the television industry that reality shows were coarsening society with their "mind-numbing, witless vulgarity". He suggested the Sixties campaigner Mary Whitehouse had been right when she said television was on a "downward moral spiral".

The presenter of the Radio 4 Today programme said channel bosses had allowed the genre to erode the distinction between the public and the private in British life and turned "human beings into freaks". Reality television was misnamed because "it is not authentic and it is not honest". The approach "had infected the mainstream" of television to the detriment of other types of programmes, such as documentaries and history.

Mr Humphrys, 61, prefaced his address with the admission that until recently he had not watched television for five years. To prepare for his speech he asked 16 television controllers to send him examples of their ten best shows.

While some were "very, very good indeed", much of the remainder had left him shocked, he said.

"So much of it seemed not just vulgar and obsessed with sex but altogether more confrontational than I'd remembered," the famously pugnacious presenter said. "The violence of the language surprised me. It seemed almost impossible to switch on without encountering some sort of aggression."

"Couldn't most of what I've said have come straight from the collected works of Mary Whitehouse? She said television was on a downward moral spiral. They said she was wrong. Was she?" he asked.

Mr Humphrys also used the annual James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, delivered at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, to call for BBC news to be "more investigative" in its political journalism and to treat politicians with scepticism.

Mr Humphrys said he was worried by the notion that the corporation's journalists were working differently in what was being termed the "post- Hutton era". He said he "didn't agree" with the view of Greg Dyke, the former director general, that it was the job of broadcasters to make politics less boring to the public.

Humphrys said: "It's not our job to make it fun. It's a serious business and it's our job to report it seriously. If people don't want it, that's their business, not ours. We shouldn't be trying to lure them into politics by pretending that it's just another game show. Greg got it wrong."

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