Liberal elites have always disguised their innate conservatism and fixed the boundaries of public debate

At the Hay-on-Wye literary festival in May, leading members of the media and cultural elite assembled in the fine gardens of a Regency house to await the arrival of the great man. They included broadsheet editors, deputy editors, literary editors, ex-editors, novelists, actors and John Birt. Afterwards, there would be a "lecture about world affairs" for which a second division had paid £100 a ticket. Whispered jokes about Monica and cigars quickly turned to full-throttle obseqiousness when the great man ambled in. According to John Walsh of the Independent, "the whole garden party became a queue to shake Bill's hand, to be photographed and to rejoin their friends and discuss the experience".

Clinton told them how he had brought peace to Kosovo, Northern Ireland, et cetera. That he had bombed and killed innocent people across the world, despatched tens of thousands of Iraqi children and eroded the last of Roosevelt's New Deal cover for the poorest Americans was not at issue. Only sanitised questions were allowed; they touched on none of these crimes. The reward for this complicity was Clinton trousering $100,000.

It was a vivid snapshot of the age of new Labour elites: a gathering of Blair's winners. There have been many such events since May 1997, celebrating fame, fortune and illusion. The latter included those staged at the Foreign Office at which, with the help of media celebrities, Robin Cook announced an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy and "the pusuit of human rights in the new century". Like at Hay, the gallery was from the liberal establishment: Amnesty, the voluntary organisations, editors, news readers. They remained silent or bowled lemons. That it was all an elaborate hoax, as they now know, was not an issue.

Last Sunday, Michael Jackson, Channel 4's departing chief executive, told Observer readers that he had, no less, helped bring about "the profound social changes that have occurred in British society . . ." He cited Big Brother as representing "a melting pot for a broader, more understanding and inclusive society . . . an optimistic glimpse at the ease of presence between a group of people with different ethnicity, sexuality, religion, class and education". He related this to Blair's promised "classless society" and declared, Tony-like, that "we have a more prosperous economy than at any time in our past".

The clear implication was that Channel 4, under Jackson, was the television equivalent of new Labour. One can appreciate his argument. The threadbare liberalism of the new Labour elite, its tame columnists, lords and terrified MPs, is said to be based on tolerance for the new era's sexual and racial diversity. After all, look at all those black and gay ministers and female MPs. This is a con, of course. All it proves is that gays and blacks and females can be as reactionary and unprincipled as anybody.

Recall the lemming-line of female Labour MPs who voted for a cut in benefits to single parents, mostly mothers, and the apologetics of the black minister Paul Boateng at the most regressive Home Office in living memory, and the machinations of the gay Peter Mandelson in playing court to some of the most ruthless capitalists on earth, including the purveyors of death in the British arms industry.

That gays and females, blacks and Asians are capable of moronic behaviour in Big Brother is not "an optimistic glimpse" of anything. Like the pathetic cast of Jerry Springer, they merely provide a glimpse of the media elite's vicarious flirtation with low life for the sake of a buck and high ratings. No one denies that Channel 4 transmits some quite brilliant programmes, as it should, given its extraordinary remit and resources and the film-making talent in Britain; but these are fragments of its potential.

Liberal elites have always disguised their innate conservatism and fixed the boundaries of public debate, and those currently in charge of Britain are no different. As Jackson says, the drugs debate is important, as is the issue of race. But neither will progress unless public resources are made available for care and rehabilitation, and for proper jobs and public services in places like Oldham and Bradford: in other words, unless the economics of social democracy, at the very least, drives them.

"We have more young people in higher education than [ever] before", wrote Jackson. In fact, there are more indebted and despairing students than ever before. The proportion of working-class students has actually dropped since new Labour made so many of them pay. In his great work Equality, R H Tawney pointed out that the English educational system "will never be one worthy of a civilised society until the children of all classes in the nation attend the same schools . . . The idea that differences of educational opportunities among children should depend upon differences of wealth represents a barbarity."

That is the situation today, with the divisions within state education reinforced by new Labour's veiled class conflict. As for "a more prosperous economy than at any time in our past", well, I suppose you have to admire the sheer nerve of TV executives on half a million quid a year. The truth is that Thatcher and her heir, Blair, have created a society that allows, among the top third, a gloss of prosperity, mostly on credit, while the majority either cope with mounting insecurity or vanish into poverty. Almost half the families of Britain live on this precipice of poverty. Nearly half the children in London are brought up in poverty. According to recent research at Cambridge University, roughly 250,000 children in the poorest households are worse off since new Labour came to office. Indeed, child poverty is 50 per cent higher than when Thatcher was elected.

None of this is represented, in any sustained form, on television, and certainly not on the BBC, where the circus and propaganda of a single-ideology state dominate. It is only in recent weeks, since the events in Genoa, that the nation's dumbed-down news services have interrupted their chorus about the protesters' "violence" and begun to recognise the ferocity of state violence aimed at the anti- capitalism movement. Blair's defence of the Italian police and his gross lack of respect for the loss of a young life ought to have seen him grilled by those journalists who have access to him. But there was nothing: just gloating over Jeffrey Archer.

Study the fine photograph in the Guardian on 20 July. There are the Blairs and the Bushes greeting each other. The wives are waltzing towards their unctuous embrace; the little Texan has a hand on the effete Blair's shoulder. Bush, whom the BBC still calls "the leader of the free world", is the unelected ruler of a dangerous, rapacious, essentially undemocratic plutocracy. Blair's leadership of this country, approved by one-quarter of the electorate, is barely legitimate. Both are extremists in the literal sense, prepared to use military violence against civilians. Blair pushes unpopular and violent domestic policies, commodifying almost everything that is ours, from healthcare to schools, policies designed to make winners and losers - with those who earn half a million a year the winners, and the children imprisoned behind a wall of economic hardship, far from the voyeuristic eye of Big Brother, the losers.

The "optimistic glimpse" is not at Channel 4, but at the courage and intelligence and sheer strength of character of the young men and women, black and white and brown, gay and heterosexual, who faced the organised violence of the state in Genoa and Seattle and Prague, and will do it again and again. They represent a genuine "profound social change". Recently, the Asia vice-president of the financiers Goldman Sachs said: "This is an uprising as big as the revolution that shook the world between 1890 and 1920. Beware."

Beware indeed.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The Murdochs: a family saga