The hidden dangers of Kylie's world

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK Kylie Minogue appeared at least a couple of times on television, once on a BBC children's programme, once on BSkyB. In the satellite interview she said she would now like to get married, have at least two children and live in the Australian equivalent of a thatched cottage, a house by the beach. She said that she preferred older men, though she had never dated a man over the age of 32, and that her ideal man was Sean Connery.

Miss Minogue is interesting because she used to be the role model offered by Neighbours to young girls. She then dropped her virginal image and appeared in some mildly embarrassing sexy poses in pop videos. The poses were embarrassing because she looked the same as she had in Neighbours.

The tabloid press compared her to Madonna. When interviewed she comes across in her original personality, not at all sophisticated or like Madonna, but very like the pleasant grown-up daughter of an ordinary Australian family. I suspect that her change of image, about which she sounded defensive, was a mistake and that she had a natural public for her natural personality. She is one of the world's Doris Days, not a Marilyn Monroe.

Her liking for Sean Connery was the only non-contemporary point of reference in the interview. She was obviously referring to the early James Bond films which relate to the early period of the Cold War, to Ian Fleming's ideas what was glamorous in the Fifties. As she is now 24, she was speaking of a period some 10 years before she was born. That is not exactly ancient history, but it is as

remote as a reference to the end of the First World War would be to someone of my generation.

As chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council I watch a wide variety of television programmes to retain a feeling for the norms of current broadcasting. Kylie Minogue fits into this general run of television very appropriately. Most of it is harmless, as she is, and most relates well to an undemanding audience. Above all, television, like Miss Minogue herself, reinforces whatever is contemporary. As a cultural influence it mirrors and repeats what is happening now and deletes what belongs to the past.

If one watches the four terrestrial channels and the satellite channels during the main viewing hours of the evening one picks up very few cultural references that are not strictly contemporary. There is some non-contemporary music and opera. Few of the presenters are over 40 and even fewer over 50; presentation is dominated by people born after the Second World War. There are few serious references to religion, to literature, to art, to philosophy or to the world of ideas. BBC 2 does give a certain amount of good coverage to science and history, but these are seen as a minority taste on a minority channel. Channel 4 is intellectual, but its intellectual interests tend not to relate to the history of culture. The overwhelming impression is that television was born yesterday, if not actually today.

Last week I was reading one of my favourite books, Professor Maynard Mack's Alexander Pope, A Life. He quotes a passage from another Pope scholar from the Seventies, William Kinsley. 'Both The Waste Land (T S Eliot) and The Dunciad (Pope) can make us feel what it would be like to redeem the time by redeeming the heritage (the Bible, the achievements of Greece and Rome, the works of the great European poets, grammatists, historians, philosophers: all that with which our own century is beginning to lose contact)'. We may wish to redeem the heritage but what chance do we have of doing so when this most powerful system of communication is almost consistently denying it?

Human consciousness lies at the intersection of the horizontal axis of the present and the vertical axis of the past. If one axis is eliminated, consciousness must become either very superficial, merely focusing on the present, or very narrow, aware only of the past. In this sense television is almost entirely a horizontal medium of communication.

That is not to say that a purely historic culture would necessarily be preferable. We can see the danger of a narrowly vertical culture only too clearly in the tribal conflicts of the modern world. Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Nagorny Karabakh, even Northern Ireland, are obsessed by cultures dominated by the injuries of the past; they are also - perhaps significantly - either non-television or fringe television areas.

When one comes from the overwhelming sense of the contemporaneous in the modern world, strongly traditional societies can be very attractive, even reassuring. Yet full human consciousness depends on the double vision of tradition and of the present. We know what damage is done when societies become obsessed with their past; we do not necessarily see what harm is done when they become obsessed with the present - when Miss Minogue, in her more innocent form, really is taken as a role model.

It is easier to say who are lost. The religious leaders are lost: Jesus, Buddha, Mohamed. Even Islam, with its firm hold over its members, loses much of its strength when exposed to a generation or two of the modern Western world. With religion goes poetry. Who now reads Aeschylus, Virgil, Dante or Milton, except for students and their professors? With poetry goes philosophy. Is Plato or Aristotle a frequently quoted authority on any channel? The spiritual, the artistic and the intellectual are all put in the margin, yet they are the true centre of human life and provide the main themes of development of the human mind.

There is little in this aspect of television which is evil in itself. Of course television has its evil side, particularly the repetition of very violent images. But anything that is specifically evil is vastly outweighed by programmes that are nave, innocuous, friendly and in themselves harmless. The harm only comes from the crowding-out effect. This television gives no spiritual nutrition, and it supports a purely modernist view of life, a succession of largely trivial images of the present.

My fear is that a society created by this destruction of contact with historic culture will prove to lack the values needed to survive, that it will be crippled by spiritual malnutrition. 'Where there is no vision, the people perish'. Television is not a medium able to deal with what President George Bush called 'the vision thing'.

Even in news television is a distancing medium rather than one which can inspire an active response. We see babies starving, but it does not become our personal duty to feed them; we see people injured, but it does not become our personal duty to bind up their wounds. We may feel compassion, but no direct acts of compassion are called for, nor are they usually possible. At most we give our support to the Government's approval of some distant action by the United Nations.

Religion, art, reason provide the values and the sense of duty of humanity. Religious, artistic and intellectual leaders have been the role models. Television does not destroy, or even often attack religion, art or reason or these leaders of the spiritual life. It simply ignores them.

Pope's Dunciad was published in 1728, in a society very different from ours. Yet he foresaw the dangers of culture trivialisation. 'Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine] Lo] Thy dread empire Chaos is restored; Light dies before thy uncreating word.' In the case of television it is the uncreating image we need to worry about. But then Friday's Daily Telegraph had a portrait of Pope, captioned: 'How to make the 'Unreadables' acceptable'. Perhaps the dunces have won.