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A couple of weeks ago, the BBC chat show host Jonathan Ross interviewed the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, and asked him if he had indulged in any sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher.
In truth, he was more explicit than that, but we do not need to be here. The line of questioning was repellent, not to mention disingenuous; there was no interest in the substance of the question, merely in the reaction of Cameron. Would he be ambushed by the brazen vulgarity of the demands? Or would he prove himself adept at brushing them aside, thus confirming that he really does possess the sang-froid and public-relations skills to run the country, because quipping about stocking-tops and taking the nation to war are remarkably similar acts?
So far, so depressing. Cameron coped moderately well. If he had been any more dismissive of his host, he would have been charged with sense-of-humour failure, than which there seems to be no greater sin in British public life, apart, perhaps, from stray sex. If he had been any more laddish, complicit in the dull innuendo, he risked the opposite charge: trying too hard to banter with the wide boys. Gravitas is out of fashion, but has not yet been dispatched, stained and useless, to the charity shop.
There was more of this to come. The day before writing these words, I heard Ross interviewed on BBC radio. He was being asked about his interview with Cameron. Now the debate centred on whether he had gone too far. Cameron too faced questions on whether he thought the question was suitable and whether his reaction had been sufficiently rigorous. The nominal point of the original interview - to find something out about the Leader of the Opposition - is long faded from view now. We are in ever-circular media land. And we have a story that fulfils all criteria of interest, involving teasing glimpses of sex and politics, and fronted by a charismatic entertainer. Only nothing has actually happened; and we remain more ignorant than ever of our supposed area of inquiry. Would David Cameron make a good prime minister?
That feeling of disempowerment - it is not too strong a word, for democratic citizenship without knowledge is a deprived state - is ubiquitous in 21st-century culture. It is wrongly labelled “dumbing down”, a term that does not acknowledge the multiplicity of intelligent sources that still surround us. (Is there anything one could do or see in the 1950s that is inaccessible today?) It is more a case of allowing the bubbles and froth to matter too much. There is nothing too wrong with Ross’s adolescent smirking - irritating, yes; but not wrong. He is evidently popular and handsomely rewarded. There is not even much wrong with Cameron choosing to flirt and pout under the seductive glow of the light-entertainment cameras. Votes come from all directions. But the matter should have ended there. A note in the margin, a miscellany.
Instead, there is a desperate desire to invest all such trivial moments with far more relevance than they can comfortably bear. I have been as guilty as anyone. Working on another newspaper in the summer of 1990, I asked the eminent sociologist Anthony Giddens to write an essay about the fact that Paul Gascoigne had burst out crying on an Italian football field. I knew Giddens was a Spurs supporter, and thought it might be fun. He wrote a lovely, semi-ironic piece. What I wasn’t prepared for was that this moment - Gazza’s tears - would be seriously treated as a psychic watershed for the country. Something happened to the tone of the argument: semi-ironic theorising turned to earnest advocacy. We should have allowed those tears to melt in peace on the turf of Turin. Now, all over again, we have Beckham’s blubbing.
Britain is a nation that lauds sharp thinking and flip sensibility (why else would Jonathan Ross earn more than all our Nobel Prize winners combined?) and the incentive for our highly successful creative industries - marketeers, advertisers, journalists - to keep blowing those bubbles of pseudo-significance is marked. It makes for a vibrant environment, but not always an honest one.
It used to be said that the British loved to pop those self-same bubbles too, but I’m not so sure any more - the financial stakes are simply too high. The leading characters from two of our most recent media-fuelled, hype-ridden cultural movements - Britpop and Britart - are millionaires. They, and their acolytes, had every interest in swelling their own importance, with scant regard for listening to, let alone taking note of, objective judgment. And the public is forced to play along, for fear of seeming outpaced, behind the times. The tall poppies are allowed to sway in peace.
So it’s no surprise that the cheeky bluster of the chat show host has come to dominate public discourse in a way that was inconceivable even 20 years ago, when cheap sex talk was at least confined to sitcoms and tabloids. Ross was pushing the boundaries - of taste, judgment, acceptability - when he asked that question of Cameron. The only thing he knew for certain was that he would raise a laugh. And that was deemed good enough. But once those boundaries are crossed, where do we go next? Do we ever treat our politics and our culture with any respect again? Or has it all just been reduced to a poke in the ribs and a knowing snigger?