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9 February 2004

After Hutton – Dyke and Campbell: spot the difference

The BBC director general and his chief enemy in Downing Street were both part of the vulgarisation o

By George Walden

”Rain on the surface of the sea” was Virginia Woolf’s view of journalism, but our sea has since shrunk to a pond, the rain is incessant and there are no institutional depths it fails to reach. Anyone falling for the idea that what we are witnessing is a battle between politics and the media can make no sense of the situation. What battle can there be when one side – the media – has already won, and the least edifying of its values have infiltrated our major institutions? Do not be fooled by either press or politicians. Politics and the media are not slugging it out, they are locked in a melting embrace. And what risks melting away is our public culture.

No fruitful discussion of the subject is possible unless it is understood that Greg Dyke and Alastair Campbell are the same person. These are mass men who attempted a takeover of British institutions: Campbell at No 10 and Dyke at the BBC. That they were proteges of people whose sometimes grubby work they were appointed to do does not prevent them constituting an elite in themselves. Their individual power and wealth (potential, in Campbell’s case) are substantial and their standing in society assured, not despite but because of their demeanour: like most populist elites, they are self-consciously four-letter men, and fucking proud of it. (Dyke’s grunge accent, his biographers suggest, was first affected at grammar school.) None of this proved incompatible with an occasionally sonorous style befitting their elevated office: Dyke with his death-or-victory defence of the independence of the BBC, and Campbell delivering his reflections on the art of government; the poor man’s Chicago gangster masquerading as the dead broke man’s Talleyrand.

The other thing our institutional wreckers have in common is that well before Hutton they were both failures. The apotheosis of Citizen Greg (you can almost see him, chubbily naked, ornamenting a ceiling in Broadcasting House) is the most revealing aspect of the entire affair. Nothing could better illustrate the triumph of image over substance that unites Tony Blair and the media, Dyke and Campbell, than how Dyke, a cultural despoiler, is lauded as a giant among men because he took on the government. Dyke is a left-wing, self-made multimillionaire, much of whose money comes from low-grade television, who was put in charge of the nation’s most powerful cultural institution by better-born, more expensively educated folk than himself. If that doesn’t tell you something fundamental about the way we live, nothing will.

It is useless to protest that the corporation loved him. The demos by BBC staff filmed by other BBC staff in favour of their boss are noteworthy only as a superbly Baudrillardian moment – a self-infatuated media piling image on image, simulacrum on simulacrum. Of course they loved him: he scaled down management, gave them their heads. But a BBC at ease with itself does not translate into quality programming. Every critic of note, from Richard Morrison in the Times to the equally excellent Victor Lewis-Smith in the London Evening Standard, agrees that Dyke, a commercial broadcaster and nothing more, has lowered the BBC’s standards. With obvious exceptions, the fare served up by our endlessly self-celebrating broadcaster is neither serious nor funny enough. It was as a direct result of his ratings-chasing that the likes of Andrew Gilligan were appointed to liven things up.

Campbell, another tabloid personality, was a frere-ennemi. Institutionally, theirs was a natural division of labour. While Greg introduced the commercial media virus into our public broadcasting culture in its least elevating form, Alastair did the same in politics. His job was to use media methods to prevent what happened to the Tories happening to Blair – and he failed at it, not just lamentably but laughably.

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The notion that the media were in any way cowed is as daft as the idea that the BBC’s independence is under threat.

We should not be surprised that the glaring failure of these two men appears curiously like success. In the mediatisation of our culture, the greatest rewards, a lot of the cash and all the glamour go to people who achieve nothing much. (The same is true in the economy: the British-registered yachts in St Tropez belong not to manufacturers but to property men.)

The advantage of being a journalist is that you do not have to come up with solutions, and politicians are cottoning on. In a society where you are paid three times as much to ask questions as to attempt an answer, why go to the risk, the pain and the trouble of taking responsibility for the public weal? (Yes, I became a writer and journalist myself, but I did give up my parliamentary seat.) In this avoidance culture the non-performers with the smarmiest public image – such as Chris Patten, the least politically and intellectually distinguished chancellor of Oxford in memory – get the honours and the praise. For elder statesmen we make do with Messrs Kaufman and Hattersley, the Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky of politics. What exactly they did in their brief periods in office was so little and so long ago that nobody remembers.

Politicians are invading the media not as conquerors but as converts, because they recognise the winning side, although the last thing the media elite can do (especially if they are foreign-owned) is confess to their power or status. Hence the vows of Dyke and the BBC that never will they submit to iron-fisted government and cease brazenly to tell the truth. As with Diana, this elite-as-victims performance is a farce, yet we are required, most earnestly, to believe it. To do so, we must imagine a situation in which Downing Street would dare appoint a governor who would dare to instruct Jeremy Paxman, Kirsty Wark or John Humphrys to discontinue their imperious interrogations or disguise their palpable contempt for ministers. Pumping up the powers of government is endemic in our media-dominated culture. Recently, the BBC advertised a TV programme on Alan Clark under the phrase “power is an aphrodisiac”. Clark could have been called many things – vulgar snob and phoney aristocrat among them – but never a repository of political power. He was a junior minister, one of nearly a hundred, doing work that in less overblown political cultures would be done by a civil servant. If he got a sexual charge from being a number two or three in the Department of Employment, he was more deluded than I had thought.

The mediatisation of politics gives rise to proliferating forms of cynicism, where shame is an unparliamentary word. In the space of a single week, the super-patriotic Michael Howard, an old contemptible in many senses, attempted to scupper a lifeline to our universities (a policy with which he secretly agreed), ignored every decent British convention in his discourtesy to Blair over Hutton, and posed as a champion of the BBC, an organisation he abhors. In the media, hypocrisy is so routine no one notices. What is the moral position of an editor on several hundred thousand a year who fills his paper with mind-rotting rubbish about royalty and celebrities while deploring the yob society in his editorial columns or his club? What of the distinguished Times columnist who trumpets his opposition to selection, or even to the diversification of comprehensives, while sending his son to Winchester? In a fully mediatised political world, Diane Abbott would have no trouble.

Clearly, many in politics are congenitally predisposed to the sanctimonious tone characteristic of much of the press, particularly born-again individuals or men of a showily religious disposition. Those from whom we are enjoined to take moral lessons are either proven liars (Jonathan Aitken), ex-drunks (George Bush and Alastair Campbell) or self-declared “Men of God” swollen with moral vanity and spiritual pride (Tony Blair, Chris Patten).

On the face of it, all this does not sound a pretty situation, yet I doubt the rot is terminal. If we can raise our eyes beyond Iraq, recognise what has happened, revert to sober, low-voltage media management at No 10, cut the crap Dyke introduced and reconstruct a BBC of which Victor Lewis-Smith would be proud, that would be something. And the governing classes, in which I include the media, are not yet the sole preserve of prigs, liars and populist poseurs. Honourable members of the media and parliament are still at work – Peter Riddell at the Times, Nick Cohen on these pages, Anne McElvoy elsewhere, Alistair Darling at transport, John Reid at health, to name random names. Think positively. Is it such a disaster that Dyke and Campbell, representatives of the worst of the Blair project, who have demeaned our public culture, have lost their power?

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