This is the text of a speech I gave at an Intelligence Squared debate on June 21, 2007. The motion was "Lord Reith is Dead. Long Live Big Brother".
I want to start in customary style by attacking the motion. It sets up a false dichotomy between Reithianism on the one hand -- programmes like This World, Newsnight, Question Time -- and vulgar, mass entertainment -- Big Brother -- on the other.
In fact, these two kinds of programmes -- the high and the low -- co-exist perfectly harmoniously. Lord Reith may be dead, but Reithianism is alive and well. This World, Newsnight and Question Time are all on television tonight -- and thanks to that well known shlockmeister Rupert Murdoch there are now whole channels available on Sky devoted to news and current affairs, wildlife, history programmes, and so forth.
So what's really at issue here? Perhaps this is supposed to be a debate between those who are in favour of the multi-channel, loosely regulated broadcasting environment we have today -- the one that allows programmes like Big Brother to exist -- and those who wish to return to a more tightly-regulated environment in which there were no more than three channels, each devoted to uplifting the masses.
Unfortunately, this "golden age" never existed. Back in the early 30s, when the BBC consisted of a single radio station, it was routinely lambasted by various high-minded critics for broadcasting more light music, comedy and vaudeville than any other European station. As one historian puts it: "The audience was offered an entirely new experience in which factual and fictional, high and low, the serious and the humorous jostled alongside each other." A particular target was Arthur Askey's Band Waggon -- the Big Brother of its day. Even Reith himself was singled out, with many critics believing that his commitment to creating an inclusive, accessible, national broadcasting system was dangerously populist and would lead to the debasement of British culture.
Nevertheless, the fact that this "golden age" never existed -- and certainly was never part of Reith's vision for the BBC -- doesn't mean that it isn't, in fact, desirable. Perhaps what's at issue is the notion that we should try and create a more responsible, less promiscuous national broadcasting system, one in which there are fewer channels and those that do exist are only permitted to show informative, uplifting, morally improving programmes; programmes that posses genuine cultural and artistic merit; programmes that reflect, in the words of Matthew Arnold, the best that has been thought and said.
The tricky part about such a proposal is: Who decides which programmes pass this quality threshold? Who's taste should this less polluted broadcasting environment embody?
The obvious answer is this country's cultural and intellectual elite -- the educated middle-class -- people such as the distinguished opponents of the motion. But it's worth reminding ourselves that the judgment of this elite -- particularly literary intellectuals -- is far from infallible. See if you can guess which author and book Virginia Woolf is referring to here? She described the book as "illiterate" and "underbred", and dismissed its author as "a self-taught working man, and" -- she continued -- "we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking and ultimately nauseating ... I'm reminded all the time of some callow board school boy."
That "board school boy" was James Joyce and the "illiterate, underbred book" Ulysses.
The difficulty here is that the only true test of artistic merit is survival and that makes it extremely problematic for anyone to judge contemporary work, however well-developed their critical faculties. But I don't want to dwell too long on this, because the point I want to make is that one section of the population ought not to be able to forcibly impose its taste on another -- and this argument doesn't rest on the belief that all judgements of aesthetic merit are ultimately unreliable.
Let us suppose that a completely infallible Brains Trust could be assembled -- a group of people who were always guaranteed to be right when it came to which programmes passed the quality threshold -- some of the regulars on Newsnight Review, for instance, or The Moral Maze -- Sue MacGregor, Bono, Sir Salman Rushdie. Would their omniscience -- their critical infallibility -- justify their role as the arbiters of what the rest of us could watch?
I think it's pretty clear that it wouldn't. For any one section of society to forcibly impose its taste on all the others is an infringement of basic liberty -- and that remains the case however infallible the Brains Trust in question happens to be.
To repeat, I'm not appealing to a species of aesthetic relativism here. My argument isn't that one section of the population oughtn't to be granted this power because all aesthetic judgments are subjective. Nor does my argument depend upon believing that Big Brother has some cultural and artistic merit. I happen to believe that it does, but even if I thought it didn't that wouldn't mean I'd be justified in trying to prevent people from watching it.
To make an analogy with breakfast cereal, I don't think anyone disputes that Muesli is better for you than Sugar Puffs. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean that Howard Jacobson is entitled to patrol the aisles of Sainsbury's removing packets of Sugar Puffs from people's trolleys and replacing them with packets of Muesli.
One of the obligations you have as a citizen of a free and democratic society is to tolerate behaviour that you disapprove of -- and, again, that's not because all value judgements are ultimate subjective. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty, the evil you do by intervening to prevent someone engaging in a morally reprehensible pursuit is far, far greater than the harm they're likely to do to themselves if they're allowed to continue. Insofar as a man's behaviour only concerns himself, then that man has an inalienable right to pursue his own good in his own way. Quote: "The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."
Okay, the opponents of the motion might say. We concede that the viewing public has a right to watch whatever it chooses. But that right isn't unlimited. Why shouldn't it be set against the health and vitality of our democracy as a whole?
The reason that people disapprove so strongly of programmes like Big Brother is that they believe their mere existence makes it impossible for ordinary people to perform their democratic duty. Restricting choice -- introducing some quality threshold -- would force members of the public to sit down in the evening and educate themselves about the issues of the day so that they might then make more informed decisions when it comes to casting their votes.
The problem with this is that you can't inculcate a greater sense of responsibility by limiting a person's choices. If you reduce a person's freedom, you make them less responsible, not more. It cannot be said often enough that you can't make people more serious-minded by preventing them from engaging in frivolous pursuits. The way to foster a more mature, responsible electorate is to increase their sovereignty over themselves, not to reduce it.
I want to end with a quote from Mill: "Wherever the Puritans have been sufficiently powerful, as in New England, and in Great Britain at the time of the Commonwealth, they have endeavoured, with considerable success, to put down all public, and nearly all private, amusements: especially music, dancing, public games, or other assemblages for purposes of diversion, and the theatre ... [I]t is by no means impossible that persons of these sentiments may at some time or other command a majority in Parliament. How will the remaining portion of the community like to have the amusements that shall be permitted to them regulated by the religious and moral sentiments of the stricter Calvinists and Methodists? Would they not ... desire these intrusively pious members of society to mind their own business? This is precisely what should be said to every government and every public, who have the pretension than no person shall enjoy any pleasure which they think wrong."