Sarah Sands: Reality television makes Marxists of us all

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The Independent Online

The case for Lucinda Ledgerwood making the finals of The Apprentice was that she was capable and confident. The case against was that she broke the first commandment of reality television: she was not pleading for the job, body and soul. Lucinda believed that she would be good at it and wanted to have a crack at it. That's all.

The mysterious pleasure of working for Sir Alan Sugar has become a metaphor for human survival. Alex appeared sincerely indignant when he accused Lucinda of "not needing" the job. She corrected him lightly. She may not need the job, but that didnot disqualify her from wanting it. In the real workplace, one would be wary of the desperation advocated by The Apprentice. Recruitment, like romance, thrives on the chase. If a candidate dropped to his knees sobbing that this job was the only thing standing between him and heading for the roof, the employer would feel understandably alarmed. A CV emphasises the positive rather than the negative, and employers are superstitious about a litany of ill-fortune.

Yet the most valuable qualification for TV prizes is adversity. It is a fascinating realisation of the Marxist dictum: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." The professionals wanted Jessie Buckley to play Nancy in the BBC's I'd Do Anything. From each according to her ability. But Jodie Prenger won the WeightWatchers vote. Her talent was to have lost eight stone and to express telegenic wonder in her large, liquid, grateful, face. Jodie needed to win.

The winner of Britain's Got Talent, George Sampson, was no Billy Elliot, but he could have launched a thousand charity appeals. I have never seen a sweeter face. And there was a higher cause than a career. He was break-dancing for his mother's mortgage.

I met the show's judge Piers Morgan at The Independent's summer party last week, and said how much I had enjoyed the final. The old brute had the indulgent smile of a parent at a nativity play. He praised the warmth and niceness of the show. Which is all very well, but excellence has no mercy. I don't think those Chinese gymnasts training for the Olympics ever had a Piers Morgan bouncing them on his knee.

Some commentators are indignant about need trumping ability, but I don't think that it matters. In real life, ability almost always triumphs. Look at Barack Obama. For the same reason, I do not mind about the frantic discrimination against children from privileged schools for the top universities. The effect has been to raise the standards of the second-league universities and to introduce a bit of humility into the middle classes.

The winners, however, have not been state school children, who have counter-intuitively been put off applying, but foreign students, particularly from Asia, who can offer high standards and tuition fees. We may have become emotional Marxists, but Thatcher's truism remains. You cannot buck the market.

Sarah Sands is editor in chief of 'Reader's Digest' magazine, UK