Give me respect

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The Independent Online
Who can blame Her Majesty the Queen for ending the BBC monopoly on her Christmas message and forcing the corporation to take turns with deadly rivals, ITV? True, it is unfortunate that she will have to break off every five minutes or so for the advertisements (I am told that the Palace is coaching HM in the arts of self-trailing. She will use a formulation such as "my heartiest greetings to the peoples of the Commonwealth - after this message").

Egged on by the tabloid press and a public fashion for personal revelation, the BBC, once a bulwark against declining values, betrayed the monarch by filming an interview with the soi-disant Queen of Hearts.

By contrast, ITV has behaved much more decorously towards the Royal Family. Jonathan Dimbleby had the courtesy to don his Barbour and tag along with Prince Charles by lochside and o'er heather before earning his interview. Viewers will recall that all Panorama's Martin Bashir had to do was to sit in a chair and ask Baroness Bulimia a few louche questions.

The Prime Minister has clearly learned the same lessons as the Queen. By granting an interview to ITN's Trevor MacDonald (rather than one of the BBC's endless stable of cocky Kirstys and languid Jeremys) he encouraged a form of dialogue between ruler and ruled that, sadly, is going out of fashion. Whereas the BBC interviewers seem to think that their first query to the Queen's premier councillor should echo that disrespectful soccer chant, "who the effing hell are you?", Mr MacDonald understands there is something of the nation and its dignity embodied in Mr Major. It takes real courage to risk the mockery of your journalistic colleagues, by asking questions such as "And now thoughts turn to holidays. What will you be giving particular thoughts to?", just as the governing party is about to collapse through internal contradictions. But it should be attempted.

The problem for Trevor is the much-vaunted "death of deference". In practice, this means not curtsying to Princess Michael of Kent, not accepting the word of a minister of the Crown, questioning whether bishops have a direct relationship with God, endlessly bleating about what goes on in police stations and not addressing newspaper editors as "Sir". Au fond, it is about believing that you could do as good a job - and are as good a person - as anyone set in authority over you.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I feel this decline very personally. I do not crow about it, but I have recently started to present a new and highly prestigious television programme myself. One consequence of this work was, I had anticipated, to be a degree of recognition and, yes, of respect. When forced to travel by crowded public transport, I had expected that old ladies would be only too glad to offer their seats to me (providing, of course, that they were not too infirm). Instead, they remain resolutely (not to say insolently) seated, though I am sure that they recognise me.

Does this matter? More, I think, than anybody yet realises. Most commentators believe that deference began to die with the election of a Labour government in 1964. Now look at what has happened to the birth rate. In that year, live births per mother stood at 2.8 (sadly, the figure for fathers appears not to be available. Political correctness strikes again!). Thirty years later, this had fallen to 1.8.

The reason is not hard to fathom. Once upon a time, no matter how we were regarded by the outside world, we could count on our children to show us respect - to defer to us. But with the decline in deference, the reward in terms of respect has fallen. And so has our desire for children. At the present rate - round about the time that Diana is elected president and Jeremy Paxman takes over Number Ten - we will stop having babies altogether. Not only deference will be dead - so will the species.