Does The Media Run Britain?
By George Walden
If they were asked the question Ted Heath put to the electorate in 1974 - who governs Britain? - many people today would reply, only half-ironically, "the media".
Oxford's dreaming spires are churning out journalists to join the new elite As its status increases, the media takes on many of the characteristics of traditional elites.
Like the nobility of old, it is concentrated in a few hands and its responsibilities are small in proportion to its power.
Awareness of its wealth and influence encourages a lordly insouciance, and the knowledge that it sets the tone in society puts a swagger in its step. It respects no superiors.
Its stance towards properly constituted authority (Parliament) is as cavalier as its attitude towards the rights of individuals (questions of privacy) can be overbearing.
And, in common with traditional elites, it is impatient of any restrictions on its activities, tending to see itself as above the law. Governments quail before the media as kings did before barons, for when barons join together in opposition the king is doomed.
Media grandees enjoy a freewheeling style of life, which does not prevent them posing as the arbiters of morality. If they remain largely untouched by scandal it is mainly because, as used to be the case with politicians, no one would dream of publicising any untoward behaviour.
Again, like the old nobility, the media sticks together, while discretion about the peccadilloes of individuals is as complete as the condemnation of the same failings in others is total and unhesitating.
And, like the airiest of aristocrats, media moguls have their whims and eccentricities: a hunch or personal prejudice can be enough to disgrace a celebrity, destroy a family, or foreshorten a promising ministerial career.
In common with many an ancestral figure, the media is convinced that it speaks in the name of the people, sometimes without going through the formality of ascertaining what the people think. The people will know what they think when the media tell them.
With the money, power and authority goes the glamour. The grubby, Bohemian image of journalism is largely gone. No longer is it a refuge for the second or third rate, a reluctant choice for graduates after politics, the judiciary and the higher civil service.
Now the higher reaches of the media are a greasy pole to themselves, along which the talented and ambitious clamber. It is fashionable to mock the proliferation of "media studies"; more significant is the fact that the number of Oxford graduates going into the press or TV tripled from 1971 to 1994.
One can see the attractions. The rewards for the successful can be far greater than for politicians. Media careers can be precarious, but then volatility of employment and evanescent influence are characteristic of the new elites.
Just as the latest art genius has his day at the Royal Academy, so a tabloid editor can have his day in The Sun, and there will never be any difficulty in replacing either when their day is done. Should the editor contrive to be successful over a long period, at the end of a career of playing to mass tastes, our anti-elite patricians can expect to be knighted or ennobled by a duly deferential government.
Meanwhile, the living is good. Media magnificos are driven about in limousines that make those of Ministers of the Crown seem modest by comparison. And when the moguls or their minions summon ministers to dine, they accept eagerly, as grateful for a meal in a restaurant beyond their private means as they are for a kind word in the organ in question.
Even as they ask probing questions about jobs for the boys in politics, the media itself remains a bastion of patronage. The fact that a large number of people are capable of writing a passable article or opinion piece, or of partaking in the production of this or that TV programme, makes the media a natural sphere of favouritism.
Once a well-born gentleman would see to it, as a matter of course, that a relation was found a place in a prestigious regiment or exclusive club. Now, such patronage is more likely to be exercised to give a foothold in the media to their daughters, nieces or cousins. Of political favouritism there is no need to speak.
Television, a hyper-democratic medium by nature, is the most potent tool in the hands of our new media elites. The point about photography, one of the Goncourt brothers observed when it was invented, was that "anyone can look", and those who control it find themselves in the most enviable position it is possible to aspire to in a mass society: that of power elites in control of an intrinsically anti-elite medium.
TV is an egalitarian machine in a double sense: infinitely accessible, it also tends to abolish hierarchies of meaning, with its meaningless colour, meaningless violence, politicians spouting meaningless phrases, singers crooning meaningless songs.
A perfect vehicle for populist condescension, TV habitually plays down to our emotions, down to our prurience, down to our credulity. The genius of British TV, pride of the race, is that it contrives to sound intelligent while consistently underrating the average person's intelligence.
Increasingly, the print media strive towards the condition of television - vivid imagery, colour, anecdotalism, immediacy, anti-intellectualism, an appeal to the senses rather than the brain.
The fact that the press is in general more Right-wing does not, of course, mean it is any less populist, and Conservative-supporting owners or editors are as happy to affect demotic postures as their Left-wing brothers.
Editorial pages deplore the vulgarity invading every sphere of our lives: turn back and you find prurient or vacuous lifestyle features, a particularly nasty rape case recorded in succulent detail, or the true confessions of a male prostitute.
The message to readers is clear: providing they refrain from questioning inherited authority, attend Church once in a while and pray God to smite our enemies, notably in Europe, the masses are allowed their little diversions. Not only six days a week, but Sundays too.
'New Elites, Making a Career in the Masses' is published tomorrow by Allen Lane. George Walden was in the Foreign Office from 1962 to 1983, Conservative MP for Buckingham from 1983 to 1997, during which time he was Minister for Higher Education. He is now a writer and journalist. To order a copy of The New Elites (rrp £18.99) at the special discount price of £16.99 with free UK p, call the Bookshop on 0870 162 087.
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