Forget dumbing down. We have never been so clever or original

Related Topics
DUMB, dumber, dumbest. The BBC is a shadow of its Reithian self, the quality papers devote more analysis to the exits of Geri and Gazza than they do to Pakistan's atomic bomb and the imploding Russian economy. The Prime Minister proudly exhibits his glo'l stops on Des O'Connor's World Cup Party while the Diana docu-soap makes a conspiracy-obsessed mockery of investigative television.

The thinking classes sigh, tut and embark on another round of jeremiads about the dumbing down of Britain. The phrase has taken on a mantra-like quality. Accusing others of being dumbed down puts the speaker on a platform of discernment which the institutions in question have allegedly failed to reach.

What a lovely warm feeling to see dumbing down all around. I am beginning to loathe the d-words. They are sanctimonious and superficial and downright dumb. They enable us to trash any changes we resent without bothering to look at why they were made and who might profit or lose by them.

The consensus has it that intellectually and culturally we are becoming crass. The consensus is wrong. Britain is a more adventurous, clever and sophisticated country by far than it was in the mythical days that the complainants evoke. We are curiously loathe to admit evidence that points in this direction. But last week the editor of the Sun was sacked and replaced by a sharp business journalist, reportedly because Rupert Murdoch wants to take the paper upmarket and draw readers from the Daily Mail. When this, of all newspapers, comes over all respectable - not exactly braining up, but at least trading up in its aspirations - it is a sign that the trend is not entirely one-way.

This is not the only encouraging sign. More people than ever before listen to classical music. Why is this so? Because the "dumbed down" Classic FM is a lot more accessible than Radio 3. The debate about high versus low culture is a sterile one. The real and welcome shift is in the crossover of popular and classical forms. Books such as Longitude, The Arcanum and Fermat's Last Theorem - popular treatments of heavyweight subjects - are in the best-seller lists. Pavarotti packs Hyde Park.

Recently, the English Heritage director Michael Webber resigned because he objects to open-air concerts ending with fireworks and reduced to snippets of the candelabra classics. "The musical component has become secondary to the business of picnicking and having fun," he said.

Naturally we can't have people doing that. His unhappiness was, "part of a much greater cultural change that I find difficult to accept". He is right: this is a wider change and it is not always a pretty sight. But it is one which stems quite naturally from the democratisation of taste and the accretion of choice.

Organisations like English Heritage now give people what they want and are prepared to pay for. Of course there is more to Puccini's Turandot than "Nessun Dorma". But people unfamiliar with opera are more likely to seek out the whole thing if they have been exposed to part of it in circumstances that are welcoming and unsnobbish. I went to the Glastonbury open-air classical concert - which is a bit like the rock one with ice- cream instead of dope sellers and in a much more pleasant setting. The musical fare was slight and the compere's introductions along the lines of "Mozart, great guy, this one will really get your toes tapping, it's the overture from Figaro..." It was a perfect summer evening in the shadow of the abbey. Children, grannies, burly fathers and young lovers were on a big night out, drinking wine and humming along. They weren't the kind of people you meet in London's Wigmore Hall. Audiences in the Wigmore look a lot more miserable.

As a nation, we are far less dumb than we were about aesthetics. Our homes are more beautiful than they were 10 years ago. In Leech homes and Georgian villas alike, we paint our halls in heritage colours and enjoy more adventurous cooking and better mass-produced clothes. In our enjoyment of the pleasures of taste and good living, we have become far more cultivated - a sure sign of a more meritocratic society.

Perhaps this is what is really bothering the cultural Grand Inquisitors. It always is hard for elites to see their pleasures appropriated and adapted to mass audiences. How dare they listen to our composers in 12-minute snatches without being prepared to sit through the whole of Wagner's Ring cycle? FR Leavis was right - it is the duty of the privileged to make sure that the intellectual pleasures they enjoy are on offer to others. But that duty should not be a front for snobbery and exclusion.

One looming problem in all this is the future of public service broadcasting. I do not believe that the BBC, if you take the aggregate of its output, is dumber than it was. When the dumb-police demand the head of Radio 4's controller on a platter because he dares make changes to the output, or television news is in the firing line for putting Gazza above the Tory reshuffle (I know which I wanted to hear about first when I got back from holiday), they seem to have forgotten how lamentable Radio 4's Today programme was 15 years ago and how closely the intellectual level of Nationwide in the 1970s resembles The Richard and Judy Show today. The past is always another, more cultivated country.

The BBC's mistake is seeking to hold on to the licence fee by trying to compete on all fronts with newcomers such as BSkyB, which do not need to claim the high ground of broadcasting in order to succeed. But the purpose of the licence fee, and its only real justification, is that it exempts the corporation from some of the pressures of competition. It allows it to raise the standards of its output above that which an unfettered market can produce alone. This is a reasonable principle for a civilized society to uphold. To let go of it is to limit horizons. But the BBC must hold on to the intellectual self-confidence to make this argument heard. At times it seems dangerously un-sure of what future it wants. The corporation cannot resist the impact of greater democracy and choice. It must become a much smaller organisation which concentrates on its real strengths in news, current affairs and documentaries. Smaller being the word that corporations dread most, it has done the opposite - wasting money and effort by trying to buccaneer its way into the satellite markets, rather than concentrating on excellence at home. I see no contradiction between continuing to uphold the broadcasting service as a public good while accepting that, in other spheres, the workings of choice and the market will produce different outcomes.

In his book Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey described Modernism as a hostile reaction of intellectual elites to the newly-educated masses at the end of the 19th century. When the book was published, I thought that Carey distorted the case in favour of the beloved "apotheosis of the ordinary". His denigration of Modernism still strikes me as wrong- headed. But the pathological obsession with dumbing down makes me think again about his broader argument. If there was ever a time in which smug elites in Britain manufactured an assault on the tastes of the mutable, rank-scented many in order to preserve for themselves the unquestioned right to define what is and is not sound culture, now is it.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.  

The Only Way is Ethics: The birth of a royal baby will not top the news for long

Will Gore
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
'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
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
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
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk