One of the BBC’s chief selling points is that it is, or endeavours to be, ‘impartial’. In yesterday’s Guardian, however, its chairman (Richard Sharp) was quoted as saying that this wasn’t a selling point at all; that people didn’t really want impartiality in their news broadcasts, but rather ‘provocation and sensation’, leaning them towards ‘more entertaining partisan outlets such as Rupert Murdoch’s expected Talk-TV.’ On the letters page of the same issue of the Guardian there were appeals to Keir Starmer to dumb down Labour’s appeal to the electorate, replacing the ‘counternarrative to whatever the Tory project is’, couched in ‘the deadening language of abstraction’, with ‘the effective use of short phrases’ to win voters over. That’s the Tories’ way, after all; and look how well it’s done for them. The underlying assumption behind all this is that ‘the people’ are too – what? ignorant? uninterested? lazy? misled? stupid? (please don’t say that) – to be able to cope with ‘impartiality’ and rational argument; and hence to make sensible choices when it comes to elections and (yes) referenda.
All of which may seem to be corroborated – especially if you’re partisan – by surveys showing that the more highly educated in society were more likely to vote for Europe and the Left in 2017 and 2019, and the less educated for Brexit and the ‘populist’ Right. ‘Highly educated’ generally means more rational; unless of course your education was at a ‘Public’ school. (Knowing your Latin declensions doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bright.) For the others, spending most of your leisure time watching ‘entertainment’ reality shows and funny quizzes on the television doesn’t necessarily fit you for considering serious things, or in a serious way. Hence – perhaps – Boris’s popularity; originally founded on an amusing guest appearance on Have I Got News for You, and then on a single memorable catch phrase in the last General Election: ‘Get Brexit Done’. Nothing else that he’s achieved in his political, journalistic and personal lives should merit this support; but that doesn’t matter beside the ‘entertainment value’ he carries: for now.
This must be highly depressing for the Opposition. Keir Starmer is never likely to take on a ‘clown’ persona as naturally as Boris. He’s a lawyer, after all. (The only entertaining lawyer I’ve come across is ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, and he was a fictional one.) Labour have tried to find simple-minded slogans to rival the Tories’ advertising agents’. The best was probably ‘For the Many, Not the Few’, which undoubtedly caught on with the young; but not more generally in the face of the image drawn of Corbyn’s greyer seriousness. It’s also depressing, can I say, for ‘élitist’ academics like me, devoted to seriousness, and to its concomitants: truth, context, rationality, joined-up thought, and all those other things that are the very antitheses of ‘entertainment’ (although I do try to find places for a few jokes in my own books); and who may still be hopeful that some of these solider qualities might find their way into the national debate eventually – perhaps when our notoriously ‘unfree press’ has been liberated and cleansed.
Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons yesterday brought this home. PMQs is an almost unique feature of the British Parliamentary system, enabling ordinary MPs to quiz their chief minister on any public issue, to which he is supposed to respond intelligently and truthfully. With Boris this is never how it works out. Intelligent and indeed searching questions are put to him, by his own supporters as well as by the Opposition parties; only to be met by irrelevant waffling, cheap jibes and lies.
It was like this yesterday. It was as if Johnson thought he was on Have I Got News for You again. But we always knew he was like that. Even his supporters know it and accept it. Indeed, that was the really remarkable thing about yesterday’s performance: the way his backbenchers supported him to the hilt, ignoring the lies, laughing at his humorous put-downs (which are, it must be said, getting more and more predictable and hence less funny as the weeks go by); and raising the roof with their cacophonous shouting and whistling. (As usual; but worse than usual yesterday, it seemed, maybe because Boris had treated them all to a slap-up dinner – wine included – at the Ritz the evening before.)
Parliament is supposed to be a place of rational debate. It usually is, in its quieter moments. But what Tory backbenchers, and the people who tune into it on TV, mainly go for is the ‘provocation and sensation’ – ‘entertainment’ – it offers on occasions like this. The chairman of the BBC may be right. Which doesn’t, of course, mean that his great institution should give in to it. That way Fox News lies.