TV Nation    
    Gareth Johnson examines some symptoms of the dumbing-down process    

The shocking extent of Britain's continuing love affair with banal and infantile entertainment and our people's resultant ignorance concerning events in the real world was exposed in a damning report entitled ‘Is Britain Dumbing Down?’ Commissioned by reference book Whitaker's Almanack, the survey questioned 1,063 British adults and uncovered a disturbing lack of interest in current affairs, even those of real national importance, and a worrying fixation with the glitzy world of show business. Of those questioned, a startling 11 per cent could not even name Tony Blair as Britain's Prime Minister, and 9 per cent admitted to never watching or reading the news. When asked to name five current Cabinet Ministers, 42 per cent couldn't even name one!

Predictably, a high proportion (86 per cent claimed regularly to watch soap operas like EastEnders, reality TV programmes like Pop Idol and Big Brother and US sitcoms like Will and Grace. Whilst as few as 25 per cent knew who Saddam Hussein was and a mere 6 per cent had heard of White-murderer Robert Mugabe, interest predominated in the superficial world of television shows and their celebrities. 63 per cent could name at least one EastEnders character, while 46 per cent could name five. From these shaming figures Whitaker's Almanack editor Lauren Hill grimly concluded: "Britain is certainly ‘dumbing down’. The population is fanatical about celebrities."

This fanaticism should come as no surprise. Television is without doubt the biggest societal influence ever to have been inflicted upon this country, and indeed mankind. Never before have so few people been able to manipulate and distort the beliefs of so many as through the medium of television. Its advent has led to a massed and unprecedented regimentation of thought and behaviour and has all but extinguished imagination and independent opinion. Since its ponderous birth in the fifties, this absolutely unnecessary invention has grown in leaps and bounds into a power of massive and terrifying proportions which day and night transmits an endless menu of what is at best childishly trivial and at worst degenerate and perverse. It has fostered indifference and even positivism towards every form of immortality known, and has pervaded innocent minds with damaging images of sexual hedonism.

Make-believe world

The popular obsession with the fictional world of television and the cult of celebrity over that of the real world that so typify our nation was well illustrated when in March 1998 a fictional character, ‘Deirdre Rachid’, from the popular ITV soap Coronation Street, was sent to prison for a crime she did not commit. Tabloid newspapers, ever eager to aid in the promotion of idiocy and the destruction of the British public's integrity and intelligence, issued A3 posters passionately proclaiming ‘Deirdre is innocent!’ and ‘Free the Manchester one!’ which many proceeded to display proudly in their windows, proclaiming their support for the wrongly (and fictitiously) incarcerated Mrs. Rachid. Even the politicians, keen as always to prove how ‘in touch’ with the voting public they are, joined in with the inanity. Tony Blair's spokesman solemnly declared: "It is clear to anyone with eyes in their head "that Deirdre Rachid is innocent..." Leader (then) of the Opposition William Hague too had a few words to say about this make-believe miscarriage of justice. Few saw the bizarre paradox in Deirdre Rachid and her ‘tragic’ circumstance being a mere work of fiction (and not a very good one at that), but to those who understand the baleful influence of television over the modern mind it's an important and damning indictment of modern Britain as a nation, in which the majority of citizens care more fervently about the fanciful drivel of chat show/US sitcom/soap TV than about happenings in the real world: a world that ultimately affects our lives and the lives of our children.

National psychosis

If one of the defining symptoms of psychosis is an inability to grasp reality, then television has without a doubt reduced the entire country to a condition of psychosis. This inability clearly to distinguish fact from fiction is all the more disconcerting because people do not seem to care about it. Some will argue that concern about such things is alarmist killjoy hysteria and that television merely offers harmless escapism from a cruel world, but this is clearly abject nonsense, particularly when this harmless escapism means abandoning political participation and awareness. Ignorant voters are a danger to both freedom and democracy through either their lack of political knowledge or their abstinence from the polling station. A properly operating democracy requires an attentive and concerned public to keep the actions of the ruling party of the day in check. When a large majority of the public no longer concern themselves with who runs the country and how they run it, democracy becomes obsolete: we have an elected dictatorship that has more or less complete freedom to do as it pleases. So when one reads that people are generally more interested in the goings on of the fictional Albert Square of BBC's EastEnders than in the factual goings on in parliament one is entitled to conclude that something must be very wrong with our society indeed.

We must ask ourselves the nature of our parliamentary government and of our party system in this age of endless distractions and also of the power of television to soften chronically the minds of the voting public. Certainly, it may be assumed that they do not care about the democratic rights our ancestors fought so long and hard for.

A major problem of this addiction to the world of soap operas is that for many Britons, zombified by years of habitual television viewing, the soaps are much more interesting, dramatic, sociable and less demanding than real life, which, because of hours spent either at work or passively glued to the box, is at best tedious and lacklustre. A sort of cultural malaise has befallen Britain in which ignorance and ridicule of vital current events and of the past is commonplace, and those participating simply don't see the problem or, if they do, simply don't care. They are unconcerned because it is very difficult, and from the instinctual point of view pointless, to offer resistance to being smothered beneath an ever-increasing deluge of distractions and amusements, mixed with insidious propaganda.

Misunderstanding greatness

People have become fixated with the virtual reality of entertainment television and video games at the expense of actual reality. Preferring a life of vacuity and passivity to one of responsibility and integrity has cost many Britons a meaningful appreciation of their cultural and historical inheritance. This was highlighted nowhere better than in the BBC's little project of mock-patriotism in November 2002 aimed at discovering who the general public think is the greatest Briton of all time in a series called Great Britons. BBC bosses insisted that this series is a serious contribution to the understanding of how history is perceived by modern people in this country. Given the level of knowledge displayed above by the learned members of the general public, one would be quite correct in predicting an absurd farce of considerable proportions (and, of course, cost to the licence-paying public). From a list of 100 nominees (which was apparently drawn after 33,000 people responded to a BBC poll), out of the top ten for whom the public are meant to vote the contenders wait like Oscar hopefuls. An episode arguing the merits for each of those who made it into the top ten (including, ahem, John Lennon and Princess Diana) is to be shown each week to aid the indecisive.

Although it is true that many of the other 100 nominees were sensible and deserving choices, there were a host of others whose inclusion ranges from the dubious to the downright bizarre. There were drug-using/promoting pop stars John Lennon (who praised the IRA), Paul McCartney, George Harrison and David Bowie, homosexual pop stars Boy George and Freddie Mercury, who died of AIDS, and also other modern (but equally irrelevant) music icons Robbie Williams, Cliff Richard, Bono, Bob Geldof and anarchist Jonn Lydon of Sex Pistols fame. There was radio presenter John Peel, footballers David Beckham and Bobby Moore, internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, occultist Aleister Crowley, who had a penchant for buggering goats, actress Julie Andrews, comedians Charlie Chaplin, Eric Morecambe and Michael Crawford, national hate-figure Richard Branson, Royals Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth II, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and, last but by no means least, Tony Blair (heaven knows what this inclusion did for its nominee's already distended ego).

Obviously, these frankly questionable choices were included for the benefit of those whose knowledge of history goes no further than their own lifetime, or at least not much further. Given modern educational standards, it may be assumed that this is a significantly large percentage of the population. Phone lines closed on 24th November, by which time well-over a million people had voted. In the event, Winston Churchill pipped all the other hopefuls at the post and was duly crowned as the Greatest Briton of all time.

Ridiculous comparisons

However, who won the ‘contest’ is not the issue here; it is the equation of figures like Oliver Cromwell and Alfred the Great with the likes of Boy George and David Beckham that is a sad and worrying reflection of what our consumer-driven, celebrity-obsessed society deems as ‘great’. For the countless modern thralls of the television screen, greatness is simply a question of fame, regardless of the individual's moral standing and overall contribution to the furtherance of civilisation. Of course, being famous does not necessarily make one great, although in today's TV-fixated society it is sometimes difficult to keep this in mind. Moors Murderer Myra Hindley was certainly famous - famous enough to make front-page news in every national newspaper when she died in November last year, but this fact alone does not make her ‘great’. Indeed, she must be one of the most abominable women this country has ever produced.

Unfortunately, as Great Britons revealed, the modern obsession with celebrities and their lives has polluted any idea of true greatness. But, most importantly, this project exposed the extent to which appreciation of our national history and culture has been impaired and recent generations cast adrift in a vast sea of unknowing. A profound understanding of the past, and thus of who we are, is entirely absent, and the heroes of that past replaced by a class of decadent, self-obsessed, greedy celebrities who are, in the absence of true heroes and heroines, idolised by the public.

The work of television in pushing the trivial, the childish and the perverted and its misleading espousal of mock-nationalism, combined with the creeping corruption of state education by the political left, have all but destroyed any understanding of national pride and true greatness in modern generations of Britons. A society that believes John Lennon to have been a greater man than, for instance, eleventh century freedom fighter Hereward the Wake (who did not make the Great Britons top 100) is a confused one indeed. To restore the British public to moral health and sanity, and so return Britain to at least a modicum of her former glory, this dangerous obsession with the trivial and blind adulation of false and petty idols must be halted at all costs.


‘The Great Britons, from Pop Stars and Footballers to a Satanist’, The Independent, 22nd August 2002.

‘Ten Contenders for the Title Greatest Briton’, Daily Telegraph, 20th October 2002.

‘A Nation of Dimwits?’, Daily Mail, 21st October 2002.

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