Seeing is disbelieving

The cynical people who run television have absurdly low expectations of viewers, says Howard Jacobson, despairing of a medium that has plunged into the gutter
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It seems cruel to dog the shade of Anthony Crosland with his most cited sentence - "What one generation sees as a luxury, the next sees as a necessity" - but it feels apposite when discussing television and the condition of English culture. Or it would feel apposite if we reversed it: "What one generation sees as a necessity, the next sees as a luxury." The commodity in question being seriousness.

It seems cruel to dog the shade of Anthony Crosland with his most cited sentence - "What one generation sees as a luxury, the next sees as a necessity" - but it feels apposite when discussing television and the condition of English culture. Or it would feel apposite if we reversed it: "What one generation sees as a necessity, the next sees as a luxury." The commodity in question being seriousness.

Without getting into an argument about how serious television has ever been, I think we can agree that once upon a time - in the gaps, as it were, in the interstices - we did by chance, but also as a matter of routine, stumble on the components of seriousness: a brains trust here, an elegant history lecture there, the words of an AJ Ayer, the sharp judgement of a Kenneth Tynan, the fingers of Myra Hess, good talk - sometimes plain good talk, face to face, sometimes good talk over-illustrated with moving pictures.

Not jewels among the dross - because jewels are luxuries. Simply, what else was happening in our culture, what wasn't What's My Line?. A necessity, leaving aside the question of whether it was intellectually or morally good for us, on the grounds that anything less would have presented a false picture of the variety of our interests.

This necessity, it is plain, is now a luxury, a little of which we can have if we want, but can't expect to fall upon by chance, must go looking for and must pay extra for. We might find others who have watched the same programme, we might nod to them in the Tube, or in the corridor; but we are few and frightened.

In the mass, the nation is looking elsewhere and is interested - caused to be interested, made to be interested (for we are not born wanting to see celebrities swallow spiders) - in something else. For them to be in the picture, to be granted access to that which is also theirs - the rest of what we do, the other music, the different kind of talk, the more unexpected ways of thinking, that which is not merely the jangle of familiar opinion we call current affairs - they must take the luxury option. And if they don't, they are the losers by whatever we think that different kind of talk, other sort of music, is worth.

My own antecedents as a viewer are impeccably plebeian. On the television of my childhood home sat a photograph of MacDonald Hobley and Mary Malcolm. They were the nearest thing to Richard and Judy that 1950s, black and white, well-spoken BBC television afforded. In the photograph, MacDonald Hobley was - in fact, still is - kissing my mother and Mary Malcolm was running her fingers through my hair. This was not something that routinely happened in our family; my mother had just won a television in a competition sponsored by the Manchester Evening News, and Hobley and Malcolm were presenting it to us. To win, my mother had finished a two-line poem about the virtues of television. I can't remember the first line, but her winning entry, a clever pun, was: "A beam to enlighten our way." I'll give that verb again, for nostalgia's sake, and because it is rarely encountered now - "enlighten".

The fact that my mother hit upon that word testifies to those happy accidents of intersticed seriousness to which I have referred. She didn't think it was Mr Pastry or Muffin the Mule who did the enlightening. But we kept the picture of MacDonald Hobley and Mary Malcolm where everyone could see it.

Enlightened or not, I grew up, like most people my age, a television watcher, buoyed by its occasional serendipitous seriousness, but inured to dross. Maybe there was an innocence about 1950s dross. I remember being bored by it, but I don't remember its making me angry.

Now I watch, am bored by it, and it makes me angry. Perhaps I need to watch dross for the hit of anger it provides. Which could explain why, for example, though I complain that there are not enough documentaries or arts programmes on mainstream television, not a sufficient number of eloquently talking heads, I still don't always rush to watch them when they do appear. Alongside the wish to be enlightened, there appears to co-exist a wish to be affronted.

That there is an illogicality attached to television viewing, that it embroils one in ambivalences - AJ Ayer alternating in our affections with MacDonald Hobley, and sometimes, to our own disgust, losing to him - I don't deny. I hold up Kenneth Clark's Civilisation as a model of what television was once prepared to do, but I barely noticed it at the time. No doubt Monty Python clashed with it. If Civilisation were to be shown again I would certainly give it a look, but only if World Darts wasn't on Sky at the same hour.

I abominate celebrity culture, but I was once sounded out as to my availability for Celebrity Big Brother. I told them that my availability did not stretch that far down, but I can't pretend I wasn't flattered, in some sewerish part of myself. A person can hold contradictory positions. And television - perhaps by virtue of its being a perversion, not a marriage of true minds, just a bit on the side - would seem to invite them.

It also needs to be clearly stated that when we say we "watch", we haven't said anything about how we watch. One viewer is not another viewer, and we are not, ourselves, the same viewer one minute as we are another. If viewing figures are unreliable, it is because they are a measure of inert mass only, and tell us nothing about the viewing experience, or viewing motivation; nothing of the impulse to watch, or the aftermath of watching - best described, in my case anyway, as an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Most of what I watch, I loathe.

I cannot be alone in this. Sometimes I watch what I loathe out of some televisual version of masochism - because I want to hurt myself. Sometimes I watch spellbound, out of horror. Can we really have reduced ourselves to this?

Sometimes I watch in order to get ammunition. Know your enemy, as they say. Sometimes I watch out of duty, as a censor, or a spy, or a worried parent might. Because of the box's magnetic pull, I continue to turn it on, but increasingly in a spirit of irritation and even desolation, and hardly ever in the expectation of being stimulated. And where one is not stimulated, one is not entertained.

So when Endemol, or Bazalgette, or whoever, defies criticism of a programme by producing apparently conclusive viewing figures - what more is there to say; 20 million tuned in to see someone who had once pleasured a footballer now pleasuring a pig! - they are not necessarily delivering us the truth about what happened - whether, for example, of those 20 million, 19 million were too busy throwing up to be able to turn off.

Which is not to say that it would mitigate the offence - I don't mean against public decency, or against the pig, I mean against the national intelligence - if 20 million of us had indeed watched in admiration. It is a conviction of a democratic society that if enough of us assent to something, we thereby make it right.

I am not here to fulminate against the "dumbing down" of television. I do not like the expression "dumbing down". For * * the relatively innocuous dross of quiz programmes and chat shows, it is too harsh a description. And for the uglier instances of celebrity knowingness - for Graham Norton, for Blind Date after they ruined it, for the interminable lewdnesses dressed as sociology that pepper Channel 4, for EastEnders - "dumbing down" is too forgiving a charge, altogether too collusive in the crime.

When I hear the phrase "dumbed down", I think of Dumbo the Elephant, Walt Disney's outcast, ostracised on account of his ears making him look stupid. As it's Disney, we know whose side we are on. People who poke fun at the dim-wittedness of others always turn out to be villains in Disney. It's a proven money-spinner; backing the heart against the brain, the slow against the quick.

And so it is with "dumbing down". Built into the charge is the saving assumption that those who make it are vindictive, cold-hearted snobs. And at the end of every "dumbing down" is a sweet little dumbo with big ears - the viewer who didn't go to Oxford or Cambridge, or even the London College of Communication, like the programme-maker, and who should be left to enjoy himself the way he likes - that's to say, the way the programme maker who did go to Oxford or Cambridge believes he likes.

If we mean to be critical, let's be critical: let's talk about wicked absences before milk and water presences, let's talk about the sins of omission - all the conversation and the drama and the music that's gone missing - and for what we do see in their place, let's talk about degrading, calculatedly noxious drivel, not "dumbing down". Let's talk about lowness, which is not at all to be confused with vulgarity. Are You Being Served? was vulgar. It met with something we did not necessarily admire, but found liberating in our natures. It was an innocuous holiday from seriousness and seemliness, which we would break off with the minute it was too inane even to be that.

Low is when Big Brother acts as Pandarus, moving heaven and earth to make sexual congress happen in front of our very eyes. This too might meet with something in our natures - what egregious crime doesn't? - but the cynicism depresses us. There is no pay-off in mirth. There is not even the pay-off of pornography. All we see is calculation without heart, without the consolation of merriment on one hand, or the invigoration of blasphemy on the other.

Whether television always has been the site of degrading, calculatedly noxious drivel, into which the AJ Ayer and Kenneth Tynans were sometimes smuggled, seems to me beside the point. There are those who will tell you that the refrain "things are getting worse" is a tic, not a truth; that it answers to a constant socio-psychopathic necessity and is not a description of anything observable in actual society; that people have been saying "things are getting worse" since Adam and Eve - who surely had a case - were expelled muttering from the garden.

Even if it could be demonstrated - which it can't - that television is not a whit dumber today than it was when MacDonald Hobley kissed my mother, that is no reason to retract our claws. We are, as they say, hard-wired to make progress. We are supposed to do better than we did. Being a fool yesterday is no extenuation of the crime of being a fool today.

As for examples of this folly, I am not here to compile lists. My subject is the discourse of television, in accordance with which programmes are commissioned and given their complexion, or not commissioned at all. What does it tell us, for example, about the regard television has for its viewers' attentiveness that every programme must now explain what it's about in the first 15 seconds, and repeat that message after each commercial break, along with a resumé of what we have already seen? We are not far from a situation in which description of intention will supersede the deed. You'll have to switch on next week to see the programme you expected to see this, and even next week's episode will be taken up re-introducing the introduction that took up the programme before.

That this is not a matter of great concern when the programme consists of a woman called Aggie staring into someone's toilet bowl, or a woman called Trinny (these names are approximate) teaching a person who seems nicely enough dressed to the rest of us how to kit herself out like a streetwalker, I readily concede. But the principle of spelling out what's happening every inch of the way tells us something about the contempt the makers of programmes feel for those who consume them. We mustn't lose dumbo to the rival channel.

The other care we must take with dumbo is not to upset him with references to that which might culturally bemuse or undermine him. Recently on Coronation Street, Shelley the barmaid with bad taste in men recalled a play she'd seen at school - she forgot its name: "In fact, it bored the life out of me," she confesses, but it was about this king who had the ghost of his father hanging over him: "It really did 'is 'ead in." Why, if the play is to be invoked at all, must it have bored the life out of her? And why must she speak about it so cretinously? Would it be a sin against class solidarity to have a barmaid know a play by Shakespeare and admit to liking it?

There is, of course, a character in Coronation Street who does like Shakespeare; Ken Barlow, the soap's long-running fool to culture. I did once begin to log the times Ken Barlow referred to a book, a building, a piece of music, or was otherwise perceived to entertain an idea, and the number of times he was made to look an ass for doing so. I never once found an incidence - not one - of Ken Barlow's taking an interest in art or literature and looking more the man for it. Recently, he came back from Dublin with Deirdre complaining to understanding neighbours that she hadn't been able to keep him away from architecture. Whereupon Ken Barlow began to gush like a ninny about Irish rococo. Rococo - the very pretentiousness of the word. Of the two other characters in Coronation Street who occasionally consult a book, Norris Cole and Roy Cropper - one's a prig and one's a bore. Both, like Ken Barlow, are pedants. And, again like Ken Barlow, both are sad.

The other thing that Norris Cole, Roy Cropper and Ken Barlow have in common is age. They are all old. Now, no one in television is going to be such a fool as to poke fun at the old, but there is a disproportionate favouring of youthfulness, whether that favouring shows itself in an increase in the number of babies everyone in the soaps now wants, or in the youth-associated vocabulary with which television executives like to lard their speeches. "Bold over meek... Alive over embalmed" was how Jane Root, ex-controller of BBC2, put the choice she saw her channel making. No mention of "seasoned over raw", or "wise over infantile".

Look at the leaked plans for a revitalised, "touchy-feely" Panorama. As it stands, the programme is "too distant, demanding, difficult and didactic" - four Ds that are music to my old ears, but anathema to whoever it is within the BBC who listens for the young. "To address this," the document says, " Panorama should move from an image of distant informer to that of active agent. It should move from a remote, pedestal position of 'lecturer'" - inverted commas - "to a 'touch it, reach it, feel it guide'. It should enable people to to feel and experience the truth, not simply observe or 'learn' it." All the educational clichés of the last century, wheeled out to take any suggestion of authority out of television. If the tutor becomes suspect, untutored must be best.

What it seems to me the Panorama briefing document is tapping into is a new sentimentalisation of the noble savage - a creature that does not need to learn because it can touch and feel - only the savage in question is found not in the South Seas, but in front of our television sets.

Or in Tesco. Not my choice of defining store, but Greg Dyke's. In that long, embittered letter of goodbye to the BBC and Tony Blair he wrote on television recently, Greg Dyke, ex-director general of the BBC, remembered the hope he had once entertained of New Labour. Among the qualities he particularly admired in Tony Blair was that he looked, and I quote, "as though he had been around Tesco". Why this was a recommendation of such persuasiveness to Dyke, he neither said, nor felt he needed to say. Clearly, we would all agree that it humanised a prime minister not to be too fastidious in his choice of food and shopping ambience. Dyke measured his disillusionment with New Labour in the same terms.

Tesco man - our new standard of authenticity, the noble savage of the high streets. Let's put this idealisation of uneducatedness and unrefinement in context. If anyone were to write a history of English sentimentality, a key document in it would be John Stuart Mill's autobiography - not in itself a sentimental work, but alongside Dickens's Hard Times, routinely read sentimentally.

Mill begins with a description of his education, administered in strict accordance with his father's utilitarian principles, chief among which was the conviction that "much more than is commonly supposed may be taught, and well taught, in those early years which, in the common modes of what is called instruction, are little better than wasted". Where other children were attending to the 19th-century equivalent of Listen With Mother, Mill was learning Greek and Latin (Greek when he was three, Latin not until the advanced age of eight), along with philosophy, history, mathematics, logic etc.

What follows from this is vindication of James Mill's belief that much more may be taught a child than is commonly thought, a vindication crowned by his son's becoming a political thinker of immense distinction. But what follows for the sentimentalist is something different. Breakdown. What Mill himself calls "a crisis in my mental history".

"Aha!" says the sentimentalist: "See what happens when you expect too much of a child!" - as though no child who listened with mother ever suffered depression when he grew up. The children in Hard Times also go to pieces, though in their case the offending father is a philistine without imagination. But the association of the two books blurs that distinction. Men must be amused, says the circus master in Hard Times, and broadcasters, who are themselves a species of circus master, have been overvaluing amusement ever since. Which is not to minimise the seriousness of Mill's crisis.

In his dejection, Mill turns to poetry; not Virgil or Ovid, but the English Romantics, Wordsworth in particular, who he believed helped to re-educate him into common feelings. Wordsworth, notice, not Tolkien. A more immediate relief comes when he is reading a particular episode in the memoirs of the French writer Marmontel. The episode relates the death of Marmontel's father. "A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me," Mill writes, "and I was moved to tears." The discovery that he had tears to shed convinced Mill that all was not dead within him. In particular, we must assume, the discovery that he had tears to shed for a father. Indeed, some cynical readers of this argue that what restored Mill to emotional health was not so much crying over the death of someone else's father as imagining the death of his own. By proxy, as it were, Mill kills the father whose austere system of education lay at the root of his depression. That father killed, all is well again.

Read in this way, the idea of the father comprehends everything our age has come to abhor: authority, intellect, remoteness, the idea of an indispensable body of knowledge and achievement, objective truth, and belief in the improvability of our natures by education - a belief that is anathema to those attached to our natures just the way they are. Thus, by virtue of his being the child's teacher, the father becomes the child's enemy, blind to his emotions, forgetful of the maxim that man must be amused; in short, "distant, demanding, difficult, didactic" - and throw in sadistic to boot.

A recent student test-paper asks: "What were some of the emotionally painful consequences of his father's methods of instruction, according to Mill (eg instilling of fear and doubt rather than self-esteem)?" The dichotomy implied in this - self-esteem on the one hand, fear and doubt on the other - is telling. It shows how we have come to associate knowledge with terror and confusion; how, in our culture, our very selves are thought to be under threat from learning. It sets the nurturing mother, bestower of esteem through loving care, against the destructive father, the educator.

Intellectually, we spent the greater part of the last century killing the father. Feminism made no bones about this. The enemy was patriarchy. And out with the patriarch went not only the patriarchal canon of authoritative texts - works which our fathers considered essential to the perpetuation of their idea of culture - but the very principle of certainty and command. Meaning, as feminists came to understand it, was a matter of leakage, not assertion. Women writers had crept their voices into the culture, no bolder way of making themselves heard having been been available to them, and leakage as a consequence became fetishised.

From here on in, nobody was going to tell anybody anything. Postmodernism in its various guises goes further - now there isn't anything to tell: language means something other than it thinks it means; the employer of words is as much their victim as their creator; and the thought of anybody being in a position to proclaim, authorise or validate becomes absurd.

Thus the words of Mark Thompson, Greg Dyke's successor at the BBC, explaining to The Independent a couple of months ago why he had experienced a Pauline conversion vis-a-vis Fame Academy, something he initially thought the BBC should not have made, but then, boom... he saw the light. "You have to be very, very careful" - and I'm quoting - "about standing there like a headmaster saying we're not going to have anything like this. I try not to be prejudiced about any particular genre."

There isn't a word there that isn't worth attending to. The double "very", denoting hyper-vigilance, as though getting it wrong about Fame Academy could be very, very costly. The verb "to stand" in its gerundive form, the standing as a headmaster stands, ie assertively, authoritatively, domineeringly. The figure of the headmaster itself - the hateful Nobodaddy, didact, proscriber, killjoy, cultural tsar, nay-sayer - conjured by Thompson in the unshakable conviction that we all share in the derogation of such authority; and then the easy shift from teacherliness to prejudice, as though the one is surely father to the other; a stricture from a headmaster having no other status but that of prejudice.

Is it not odd that a person whose job description is director general should seek to distance himself from the taints of a directing profession? How on earth is a man who will not stand there like a headmaster going to stand there like a director general? How can you direct, when directing is held to be an intrusion into the free emotional space of those who must suffer your direction?

If every argument about the value of what appears or does not appear on television is to be settled in an appeal to the apparent taste of the majority of the viewing public - whose actual taste, I would argue, no television executive knows anything about anyway - ultimately there is no argument. What appears to be a discussion about value is nothing but a demonstration of the power of numbers. One might call that fascism if one were given to emotional persuasion. Which, though I am not, Thompson is; as witness his description of John Tusa as "a very senior officer in Britain's cultural police: he's not the village bobby, he's Kojak".

What has John Tusa done to be called a "cultural policeman"? He has said, apparently, that classical music on television would be a test for the new management at the BBC. "A test." What's wrong with that? In fact, Thompson calls Tusa a policeman for the same reason he decries headmasterliness - for scare purposes. Whoever would pronounce on the value of this or that assumes the position of authority, and authority is to culture what terrorism is to politics.

Continuing in this vein, Thompson asks: "Shouldn't the BBC focus on the tastes of the majority of people who actually pay for it, rather than on the rarified cultural demands of the few?" A question which prompts three questions:

First, what is "rarified" about wanting television to represent, where everyone can stumble on them and enjoy them, more of the excellences of which we are capable? Second, why is the wish of the majority always referred to as a "taste", a sort of well-mannered quiescence, while the wishes of those whom Thompson refers to as proponents of high culture are always vociferous demands? And third, as all licence-payers are equal, why are some, in Thompson's book, more equal than others? Don't the vociferous and rarified demanders also "actually pay"?

Pursue that line of thought and we might discover a director general of the BBC with a guilty conscience. Now that the nation has fallen into a strange fashion of apologising, maybe the new director general of the BBC is next: "Sorry for what I did at Channel 4, and sorry for what I am about to do at the BBC."

Except that I, for one, don't want an apology for the dross. I just want to see other things without being called a member of the cultural police. And when dross is what we get, I want an acknowledgement that dross is what it is. Butlins never said it was Antibes. But who in television is ever prepared to admit that Butlins is what they're running?

Unable to conceal her satisfaction at the success of The Big Read, Jane Root, then controller of BBC2 - the person who systematically removed every vestige of seriousness from BBC2, first by sweeping it up into what she called an "art zone", then by sweeping out the "art zone" - explained in the following terms the contribution she believed The Big Read had made to civilisation: "It's about trying to get people to think that reading is something they can do socially."

What is social reading? And why is social reading, supposing it exists, something people should be got to think that they can do? To my ear, social reading is the very negation of reading, which is a solitary activity, prized by those who do it for precisely that reason. It is quiet, even when excitable, and is valuable not least for the peaceable connection it allows the self to make with that which is not self. In a noisy world, the reflectiveness * * of reading is something we would like more of, not less. No one who believes that reading makes us grander would wish it to be made more social.

Whether reading in and of itself really does make us grander, I'm not sure. It is not the activity of confinement with a book which is decisive, but the activity of confinement with which book. Thompson will hear traditional cultural élitism in that, but even he, surely, would concede that it is not the mere movement of eyes across a page that confers value on reading. We could posit a society in which the only book is Harry Potter, running to a thousand parts. The eyes of citizens of that infantilised society will still travel from left to right, but whatever it is that happens when they move from left to right across a page of The Brothers Karamazov, won't happen. And they will be the poorer. This is what I mean by élitism - that there is a particular and uncommon beneficence to be gained from reading, say, The Brothers Karamazov, that I would wish no one to miss out on.

When it comes to art, any élitist worth the name is a would-be benefactor, wanting the best for everybody. AC Grayling credits Lord Reith with such élitism: "The paternalist remit of the BBC's great Lord Reith was premised on this view... that if you took horses to water, many of them would find how good it was to drink. Although the paternalism is no longer acceptable, he was otherwise right."

But how could Reith be otherwise right if his paternalism wasn't? What otherwise is there? What Grayling rightly admires is paternalism. So where is the point of finding the word unacceptable when the thing the word denotes is not?

Thus do even the clearest among us capitulate to ideological fashion. In truth, the word won't harm us. Paternalism is a fine thing when practised by those who, by virtue of the trust resided in them, occupy the role of pater. As for whoever occupies the role of pater but pretends he doesn't, offering instead to give his charges only what he thinks his charges want - he is a depriver, not a provider. The consequence of paternalism declined may look like freedom, but it is freedom only in the sense that an orphan is free.

I am not among those pleased to see children reading Harry Potter in the expectation that they will get to The Brothers Karamazov eventually. From what I have seen, it is Harry Potter today followed by another Harry Potter tomorrow. And then, maybe, Tolkien.

The other meaning of "socially" is "accompanied by noise". Television people love noise. Stuff. Stuff happening. Energy, to use a word they like.Jane Root again: "I really feel," she has said, "that we're living in a moment of time when there is more energy around culture than has been the case for a very long time..." Since the Symbolists, could she mean? Since the Romantics? The Augustans? The Renaissance? Or maybe she is going no further back than the Sixties, whose energy she extolled in a recent speech.

"This was the early Sixties: a thrilling time socially, creatively and technologically. It was the era of protest, great British pop music and space exploration. And in television" - the world she really knows - "there was a huge technological opportunity, the possibility of much higher quality TV sets. And - incredibly exciting - colour was in the wings, too." Thus - in a blather of bathos and mixed metaphor - the discourse of television. The miracle is that, if that's behind the screen, what's on it isn't even worse.

And there are moments, I don't deny, when television appears to be getting better. In the past month I have watched more of substance - better if not great drama on ITV, better if still not great documentaries on BBC2, and more interesting matter on BBC4 - than I would have anticipated a year ago.

Whether we will get the permeation of seriousness we like to think we once had is another matter. In the end, it is not television that will decide. If we cannot accept that a school should be educative, how can we expect it of the BBC? If headmasters shrink from setting an intellectual example, how can we complain when directors general do the same?

Meanwhile, in forms that terrify us, the father we thought we had destroyed rises from the dead. Ironically, at first - as in political correctness, where, in the guise of liberal mindedness, and under the very noses of those who had hacked hardest at his corpse - the father returns with his Thou Shalt Nots. PC is secular fundamentalism, patriarchal, a laying down of the law, exacting strict penalties from those who do not conform.

And on its heels the more obviously frightening fundamentalisms that threaten to overwhelm all our major religions. Born again, in most cases, means the father figure born again; not always with a long forbidding beard, but always bearing his sacred, unquestionable texts, and always with greater proscriptions on women, the rebellious and the young.

In truth, of course, the father never dies. Of all illusions, the illusion of a non-judgemental society, sans policemen, sans headmasters, sans lecturers, is the cruellest. History teaches that the greatest tyranny is always that which calls itself freedom. Behind Mark Thompson's assurances that he is very very careful not to be governed by a prejudice - as behind any pretence of open-minded refusal to state a preference - the most ruthless selection is afoot. Try selling Thompson a 10-part series on élitism, beginning with Plato and ending with FR Leavis's debt to Matthew Arnold, and you will quickly sound the bottom of his careful avoidance of prejudice about genre.

Whatever postmodernism teaches of the slipperiness of absolutes, we don't function without the making of authoritative distinctions. Even where television would seem to be at its least exacting - Strictly Come Dancing, The X Factor, Pop Idol - evaluation is of the essence, the expert judges and their verdicts being half the reason we watch. It's one of life's great pleasures, enjoyed at every level of society - attending to judgements, and then judging the judges. If those who pull the invisible strings at the BBC and Channel 4 discriminated as ruthlessly as Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne, we would have better television.

We survive by learning to appraise. And we survive more efficiently by learning to appraise wisely. Non-judgementalism is a fiction, but it is a fiction the outcome of which is that we all lose; those who lose the most being those in whose name populism is practised. Every serious programme that does not appear on television, every instance of television failing to honour a difficult voice or an aesthetic surprise, is a species of censorship.

I hold it to be a wickedness - the educated or semi-educated classes laying flattering unction to the soul of a populace that has not been to school. Tesco isn't the only place to shop. Dross isn't the only thing we do. There are other worlds out there. And would you not think that those who care about illumination - if "enlightenment' is now beyond us - would want to show them?

Extracted from the Anthony Crosland Memorial Lecture on television, delivered at the School of Education, Sheffield University, on Tuesday