Richard Ingrams' Week: Junk TV is almost as evil as junk food

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The various government clampdowns, announced almost every day, are always aimed at the irrelevant targets.

While cheap marijuana and cocaine are easily available on the street corner, huge sums of money are devoted to trying to stop people from smoking cigarettes, by banning it in public places etc.

Smoking may be harmful in lots of ways but it does not cause brain damage or the break-up of families.

This week's clampdown is to be on the advertising of junk food on television. But there is no plan afoot to clamp down on a much greater menace - junk television.

When children are reported to watch TV for four or five hours a day, you might expect that there would be some public concern about what they are watching.

But while we worry that their bodies are filled with crisps and sweets, no one is too bothered about the fact that their minds are simultaneously numbed by pop music, third-rate American cartoons or tacky quiz shows compèred by gesticulating 20-year-olds seemingly high on drugs.

Meanwhile, teachers in schools are expected to educate children in competition with the overpaid, undereducated cynics who control the big television companies. They don't stand much of a chance.

What would Johnson have thought of these books?

The shortlist of yet another big literary award - the Samuel Johnson Prize - was announced this week with the headline-catching news that it includes an anonymous "blog" broadcast on the internet by a woman in Iraq.

The panel of judges, which included the kneeling man's crumpet Cristina Odone, right, was headed by Lord Winston, the heavily mustachioed expert on female fertility and a man not best known for his knowledge of literature.

But then that is not the criterion which governs his selection. Lord Winston is there because he is nowadays a television personality whose face will be familiar to the public and, more importantly, to the press.

No scribbler, however snooty, can object to the handing out of large sums of money to writers. My gripe is that it should be done in the name of Dr Johnson.

Johnson had a pretty low opinion of most books. "How few there are," he exclaimed to his friend Mrs Thrale, "of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page."

Given that approach, it is unlikely that he would have got very far with the Iraqi woman's "blog".

Far too many books, in his view, were published. "It is observed," he said, "that a corrupt society has many laws. I know not whether it is not equally true that an ignorant age has many books."

If that was his view in the 18th century, when very few books were published, what would he think of the situation today when thousands flood out day after day?

As for critics and the lavish, lavish praise given to the kind of fashionable writers who win literary prizes: "Nothing is more common," he said, "than to find men whose works are now totally neglected mentioned with praises by their contemporaries as the oracles of their age."

* When the Afghan court sentenced Mr Abdul Rahman to death for converting to Christianity, there was a minor panic in London and Washington.

Not because the British and American governments were especially concerned to uphold the Christian church or even the principle of religious freedom.

They were more worried that the people at home might start asking why 3,000 British soldiers were being sent to risk their lives in hostile terrain in order to uphold a system where the most alien and barbaric laws remain in force.

Those who felt that way will not have been at all reassured by the sequel. Mr Rahman was pardoned but only on the grounds that he was insane. Nor will he be allowed to stay in Afghanistan, because his life will be at risk. There is no suggestion from Kabul that the law will be changed.

The Government will be relieved that in the current climate the general consensus is that nothing must be said to upset the so-called Muslim community. So, too, it is not surprising that the church's reaction to Mr Rahman's fate has so far been muted, if not non-existent.

It is true that the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke on Radio 4 this week but his message to the nation centred on the need for drivers to adhere strictly to the speed limit in the interests of offsetting the harmful effects of global warming.

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