Christina Patterson: It's time to ditch the dumbing down and start the wising up

Once you could say it was better to overestimate the public's mentality than underestimate it

Share

He mentioned T. S. Eliot. He mentioned Swift. He even mentioned Tacitus and St Augustine. He mentioned Shakespeare. Of course, he mentioned Shakespeare. But he mentioned, unlike another politician last week, the Shakespeare he meant to mention, the one who'd actually written all those plays. And he mentioned a word you have to be quite careful about using in a public place, a word that can get you into quite a lot of trouble. He mentioned the word "intellectual".

The man who was known to millions as Pang Ding-hong, and also as Fat Pang, and who's known in this country as the Lord Patten of Barnes, and the Chancellor of Oxford University, and the former Chairman of the Conservative Party, and also as Chris, was speaking in Oxford. He was speaking at a conference on the future of the "creative industries". He was speaking about the BBC, which he now, as Chairman, oversees. He was speaking about what it should be "trying to do".

The BBC, he said, should uphold "its standards", its "democratic intelligence", and its "civility". It can, he said, "carry ideas and ambition" to "millions of people". Television, he said, was "the closest we get" to "the sort of collective experience that was created by Sophocles and Shakespeare". He was, he said, "unashamedly" of the view that "introducing people to good books, great paintings, or beautiful music" helped to "enrich them as individuals" and "improve the quality of civic life".

There was a time when you could talk about "introducing people to good books, great paintings, or beautiful music" and not think that this was something that should make you feel ashamed. There was a time when you could say, for example, that it was "better to overestimate the mentality of the public than to underestimate it", as the man who created the BBC once did say, and know that people wouldn't frown, but would nod their heads. And when you could quote the words Lord Reith said, and not have to add, as Chris Patten felt he had to, when he quoted them last week, that Reith "wasn't being elitist". And when saying that someone was "elitist" didn't mean that they were a snob.

That was a time when people who had read Eliot, and Tacitus, and Swift, and St Augustine, because they went to the kind of school where you got to read that kind of thing, and who then went to Oxford or Cambridge, and then got jobs in the media, knew that they'd been very, very lucky to get the chance to read the things they'd read. They knew they'd been lucky to see the things they'd seen, and lucky to learn the things they'd learnt, and thought that what they should do with the luck they'd had was share it. They didn't think that what they should do, if they'd had that kind of luck, was pretend they hadn't had it.

They didn't seem to feel that if you'd had the chance to read some of the best books that had ever been written, and see some of the best plays, and look at some of the best art, then the best thing to do was to make programmes, or produce newspapers or magazines, that made it look as if you hadn't. And that those programmes, or newspapers or magazines should make it look as if anything that anyone did was as interesting and important as anything done by anyone else. Or that it was better to have a programme about someone who didn't really know how to sing or dance than about someone who did, because if you had a programme about someone who did know how to sing or dance, who had, in fact, spent years learning how to sing or dance, then that might look "elitist".

These people, who had read Eliot, and Tacitus, and Swift, and St Augustine didn't think that what you should do, if you had a chance to speak to even more people than these writers did, was stick a camera in front of someone who quite fancied becoming a model, or swapping a husband, or cleaning a house. They didn't think that the things people wanted to see and hear about, when they sat down after a long day at work, were other people's meals, and curtains, and shoes. They didn't think that so many programmes would be about meals, or curtains, or shoes that when there was one that was set in a country house, which had a plot, though it wasn't one you could really believe, it would be greeted like a Shakespeare play.

But one day, someone did. Maybe they decided this because they'd done one of those courses that talked about "postmodernism", or done a thesis on how Coronation Street was just as good as Coriolanus, and thought it would make them look really clever if they said it was better. Maybe everyone else decided to copy them. Maybe that was when TV executives decided that the kind of drama you get when you have a camera crew in someone's home, and ask them to behave as normally as they can, even though with a camera you can't, was more interesting than the kind of drama you get when someone who's devoted their life to writing drama tries to turn life into art. Maybe that was when magazine editors decided that what was more interesting than news, or thoughts about the news, was the cellulite on celebrities' legs.

And maybe, when the country seemed to be getting richer, and standards of living, or at least standards of living that you measure by money, seemed to be getting higher, it seemed like a good idea to worry about celebrities' legs. It doesn't seem like quite such a good idea now. You can worry about celebrities' legs, of course. You can worry about which celebrities are getting fat, and which celebrities are getting thin. But at the moment there seem to be an awful lot of other things to worry about. There is, for example, the global economy, and the national economy, and globalisation, and banks. There's how we make a country that's been battered by storms as good as possible for as many of us as possible, and how we all manage as our incomes go down.

One thing that most people do, even if their income has gone down, is watch telly. They pay a licence fee, and after that it's free. They could sit there, after a long day at work, or after a day when they dream of going to work, and watch more people trying to cook, or bake, or sing. Or they could, at this time, which is probably one of the most interesting times ever to have been alive, watch programmes that acknowledge that they, like every other human being on this planet, have something that doesn't depend on their income, or their education. Something called a brain.

What the BBC needs to do, says Chris Patten, is "to explain, to interrogate, and to find artistic expression for the big ideas". It's time, in other words, and not just for the country's main broadcaster, to ditch the dumbing down and start the wising up.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/queenchristina_

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application) - Agile

£215 per day: Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application ...

Guru Careers: Business Development Manager / Sales

£30 - 40k (£65k Y1 OTE Uncapped): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Business Deve...

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Day In a Page

Read Next
IDF soldiers and vehicles in an image provided by campaign group Breaking the Silence  

'Any person you see – shoot to kill': The IDF doctrine which causes the death of innocent Palestinians

Ron Zaidel
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd give tax cuts to the rich, keep Trident, and get my football team wrong

Frankie Boyle
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before