Trapped in a parallel universe

There has surely never been a time when our papers have devoted more space to what's happening on te

Was Emily Parr racist? For a few days you could read all you wanted on the point, from Allison Pearson's foot-stamping in the Mail (she thought not) by way of the Times's "Turbulent history of the troublesome N-word" to the half-amused reflections of Nirpal Dhaliwal in the Independent on Sunday. It may have been second time around for race on Big Brother, and in a lower key than first time, but the coverage was unstinting.

As unstinting, that is, as could be managed given the demands of responding to the other big story of those days - the departure of Katie Hopkins from The Apprentice.

What did Katie mean for 21st-century womanhood? Was she a new kind of alpha feminist, or a victim of executive sexism, or a selfish, stuck-up bitch, or all three? You could read India Knight on the subject in the Sunday Times, or Suzanne Moore (Mail on Sunday), or Jemima Lewis (Independent), or Janice Turner (Times), or Amanda Platell (Mail), or Lorraine Kelly (Sun). At the Guardian you could read a whole bagful of female commentators on the Katie question in one go, including Lisa Jardine, Hannah Pool, Zoe Williams and our own Kira Cochrane. That's a lot of opinion.

It so happened that, in the same days, Any Dream Will Do, the BBC's public talent show in aid of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Grease Is the Word, ITV's latest Simon Cowell product, were also reaching their climaxes and staking their exciting claims to space in the papers. Did you favour Wannabe A, the gormless talent from nowhere, over Wannabe B, the hunk with the glint in his eye?

And then there was Paris Hilton (and I confess I still can't read those two words without picturing a big hotel near the Eiffel Tower). A weightless, thoughtless creature conjured up by a weightless, thoughtless television series and then left parked in the public consciousness with nothing to say or do, Paris now has to be logged tearfully in and out of jail every other day, often with coverage on the front pages.

Was there ever a time when what happened on television crowded our news and comment pages more? And I don't mean with proper questions like whether Channel 4 was entitled to run its (perfectly valid and responsible) documentary about the Diana crash or whether The Sopranos is the new Shakespeare. I mean those questions thrown out by the mirror-world that is stupidly called reality television.

Reality has so little to do with it. What happened on Big Brother between Emily Parr and Charley Uchea was barely more real than the computer-game gunfight set in Manchester Cathedral that has got Sony into trouble, just as those artfully edited showdowns in Alan Sugar's studio-not-a-boardroom are virtual, unfounded events.

We all know this. Allison Pearson knows it, and so do Nirpal Dhaliwal and Lisa Jardine. So why do papers and writers take these shows seriously? One reason, a crude but powerful one, is the belief among editors that newspapers can't afford not to write about what their readers are talking about. So it's a sort of tango with the reader into the realm of stupidity. Another reason, which the columnists are more likely to advance, is that this is a proxy for reality. What happens between Emily and Charley or between Alan and Katie may not be real, but it is an acting-out of events that do happen in the real world, and so it gives everyone a chance to dissect and understand those events.

By talking about what Emily said, in other words, we are talking about the general problem of casual, conversational racism, and by talking about Katie's choice we are examining the dilemmas of many ambitious working women.

I used to buy this. I thought, and still think, that the Shilpa Shetty affair taught us all some useful lessons. But it is a currency that devalues itself. On the one hand the television producers are trying ever more desperately to repeat the trick, and on the other, we, the viewers and newspaper readers, are now looking out for those easy lessons, expecting and craving them. So both the events and the reactions are steadily becoming more strained and contrived.

It is cheapening to us, and it is surely insulting to people who endure real racism and sexism. Why can't we talk about those people instead?

Shakespeare and the logo

"He hath the falling sickness," said Brutus, to which Cassius replied: "No, Caesar hath it not; but you and I/And honest Casca, we have the falling sickness." Cassius was talking, metaphorically, about epilepsy, an affliction now in the news because of its supposed link to the 2012 Olympic logo.

Had he been around to witness the outrage that greeted the logo, Cassius might well have observed, metaphorically again, that Seb Coe hath not the falling sickness, but you and I, and the writers of all those furious letters to the press, we have it. For, as the FT coolly pointed out, the logo does its job.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits