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

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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.

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