DJ Taylor: Oh, for the lost days of controversy

As the BBC struggles to contain its glee at the Murdoch crisis, in the arts world things are getting far too cosy for comfort

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The most remarkable thing about the News International meltdown was the ability of every interest group involved in the bust-up to come out of it badly.

Politicians who had spent years sucking up to the Murdoch empire and inviting its satraps to their weddings flocked to television studios to advertise their newly acquired outrage. Journalists who had trousered the Murdoch shilling fell over themselves to register their pained disapproval, with all thought of craft solidarity gone. Both serving and retired ornaments of Her Majesty's constabulary, grilled by a parliamentary select committee, looked as if they were taking part in a satirical spoof. On the other hand, no one in this hastily contrived parade of moral rectitude and Schadenfreude came out of it quite so badly as the BBC.

You can see the corporation's point. There you are, having endured a couple of decades twisting beneath the lash of your upstart competitor's scorn, and here, suddenly, is a heaven-sent opportunity for revenge. It was all rather like the spectacle of a long-unpunished school bully deciding to push Blenkinsop mi into the outdoor swimming pool just as the headmaster lays his hand on the gate. The atmosphere in the BBC newsrooms in the early part of the week consequently resembled nothing so much as the morning after the 1997 general election, with messrs Dimbleby, Paxman and Snow barely bothering to keep the disdain out of their voices as they reckoned up the collapse in the Conservative vote.

Back here in 2011, Nick Robinson, the political editor, was smart-alecky, Robert Peston, the business editor, uncomfortably smug, and, apart from the confidential information that appeared to have been leaked to him by highly placed sources at Wapping (something which one or two Labour MPs have drawn attention to), not terribly well prepared. It was a relief, in these circumstances, to switch over to Channel 4, where the atmosphere, if not neutral, was at any rate sober and well informed.

Back on BBC1, there came a moment when James Landale greeted the news that Rupert Murdoch may be summoned to face the select committee with the sarky expostulation "What a thought!". Mr Murdoch may very well eat babies for breakfast, but you can't help feeling that it's Mr Landale's job to report the news, not make smart remarks.

***

As economic austerity continues to make its presence felt, it is possible to take a more equivocal view of some of the statistics than the black-and-white interpretations offered up by newspaper business pages. Looking at one of the broadsheets the other day, I came across three stories, side by side, each of which, though presented as fresh evidence of cataclysm, turned out to have a positive side. The first was the by-now-traditional piece about falling house prices – on balance, a good thing, surely, as the property market is still over-inflated and thousands of first-time buyers are desperate to get a foot in the door. Then came the intelligence that oil production is falling. Again, surely, anything that husbands a finite resource can't be all bad? Finally, there was that downward shift in retail sales as "shoppers face the squeeze" – bad news for shops, certainly, but presumably an indication that people are saving part of their disposable income rather than spending it on electronic goods they don't really need.

Sadly, none of this will have any effect on that touchstone of modern economic satisfaction, "growth". At the moment, most Western governments, even those standing outside IMF headquarters with begging bowls, are engaged in a gargantuan confidence trick – pretending to their electorates that growth can be maintained indefinitely, while privately acknowledging that the next few years will be very tricky indeed. Meanwhile, that other elemental economic debate about the advantages of migrant labour continues to rage. Wednesday night's BBC Ten O'clock News interviewed the owners of an Oxfordshire gastro pub, who spoke feelingly of the superior work ethic and "flexibility" of their non-UK derived staff. They seemed nice people, but you had an idea that "flexible" probably meant "easier to exploit".

***

The death of the former arts supremo the Earl of Harewood stirred memories of a more luxuriant approach to the state-sanctioned dispersal of culture. Patrician though he may have been, this grandson of George V (who, among other jobs, ran the English National Opera and chaired the British Board of Film Classification) was no dilettante: as one obituarist pointed out, his three revisions of Kobbe's opera guide left the book fuller of Harewood than of Kobbe.

Among other achievements, the earl was responsible, in 1962, for the first Edinburgh literary festival, billed, in those fledgling days, as a "Writers' Conference". Controversy and extravagant behaviour were everywhere on display. The Indian writer Kushwant Singh deplored Western decadence. Rebecca West is supposed to have wept at sharing a stage with a "pornographer", by whom she presumably meant Henry Miller. Norman Mailer caused a storm by revealing that the Scot Alexander Trocchi took heroin. Trocchi delivered a bracing speech on "homosexuality, lesbianism and sodomy", and several Scottish nationalists nearly came to blows.

It is all a far cry from the atmosphere of the modern literary festival, where Stephen Fry's chuckle rises over serried ranks of deckchairs, and lemonade spilled over somebody's shirt front is a major event. It is difficult not to think that, as the arts world grows steadily more institutionalised, we have lost something of its animating spirit.

***

The language police long ago gave up expecting anyone to use the word "hopefully" in its original sense – meaning "full of hope" rather than "it is to be hoped that ...". Even so, I was a bit startled to discover the linguistic depths to which Paul Scholes sank recently. Discussing the Manchester United youth prospect Ravel Morrison, he remarked that, "We've trained with Ravel and we know what talent he's got – hopefully."

Now, obviously, Scholes didn't mean that he, Wayne, Dimitar and the others were full of hope about Morrison's ability. But what did he mean? As he claimed to "know" that the player had talent, where does the anticipation come in? I think Scholes meant that he and the rest of the United squad had come to the conclusion that Morrison had a certain amount of potential, but the result would keep a semantics class busy for hours.

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