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20 August 2001

Is Terry Wogan the new icon of global protest?

Westminster

By John Kampfner

I have never woken up to Wogan on Radio 2. Easy listening isn’t my kind of thing. But when the man himself complained about the “lowest common denominator” culture of Radio 1 and the BBC in general, he was putting his finger on a much broader malaise in British society – a malaise that the Blair government has done little to address. And it could be its undoing.

It’s not the music on Radio 1 that is the problem. It’s the chat. Take a snippet from last Saturday lunchtime: who did we prefer, Geri or Britney? In came various e-mails from listeners comparing hair and boobs, and then this one: “It’s got to be Geri because I hate Americans.” This produced the obligatory DJ’s half- giggle-half-groan. Now, call me out of touch, and I’m certainly out of the age range, but is this really what 18- to 30-year-olds are discussing?

Wogan’s diagnosis, in his Sunday Telegraph interview, was: “It is probably reflective of the downward trend in British education. But there is a stratum of young people in Britain who are being educated and who do have intelligence. I wonder what they listen to?” He might equally have asked what they watch on television and which newspapers they read.

Laments about “dumbing down” are as old as the phenomenon itself. They ring as true as the attempts to defend “yoof” programming and lifestyle drivel in newspapers ring hollow. What has changed is the agenda that people, young and old, seem to be following.

The mid- to late 1990s marked the apogee of Brainless Britain. I remember returning from Russia in 1994 – where people lived on the edge, not knowing who was running the show, how much their money was worth or where their country was going – to read columnists here opining about shopping trolleys with wonky wheels and what you ought to be seen wearing in a particular restaurant.

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It was in this Britain that the Blair revolution (an oxymoron if ever there was one) was born. We were supposed to be impressed by who turned up at Downing Street, who said what to whom, who was in with whom. Now, as the second term grinds into motion, the evidence is that we have moved on. Perhaps the government has started to notice. During the first term, No 10 was staffed by young, football-obsessed lads. Now many have been replaced by more serious and sombre souls.

We don’t want style politics, we want to get angry again. We want to care. People like me who wanted more documentaries, more serious news, proper foreign news (not the minute and a half of “they’re weeping at the grave of young Mustafa tonight” on the TV bulletins), we used to be described as “sad bastards” or “anoraks”. No longer, it seems.

Two sets of people are responsible for the change – the anti-globalisation protesters and George W Bush.

It is no longer uncool to talk about the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiatives (with which, no doubt, you are completely familiar); it is no longer uncool to scan a product in the supermarket to see where it’s come from. The anti-globalisation movement will be out in force at this year’s Labour conference. Even once-supine Labour MPs are getting in on the act. More than 200 of them have backed a Commons motion opposing British participation in the Americans’ plans for a new national missile defence system.

Bush’s environmental slash-and-burn approach will, on one level, wreak havoc. Yet for galvanising public opinion, he is doing us a big favour. I belong to the conventional school that believes tearing up the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and allowing oil giants to drill in Alaska are, as one minister put it, “not entirely desirable”.

But on nukes, I have always been a bit of a hawk (too many postings in the old Soviet bloc, perhaps). I’m ready to listen to the arguments in favour of Son of Star Wars. So why not, as the former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle is urging, have a full-scale debate at the conference?

It goes without saying that Labour Party managers will do everything possible to prevent that debate. Tony Blair still believes in debate only on his terms. At the same time, he is letting it be known to the US administration that he would like to help on Star Wars, but had better stay quiet for a while. Ways of helping without the British public knowing are being sought.

And yet, a more candid, passionate political environment can only help this government. The turnout at the general election showed that reinventing politics and engaging voters are not peripheral issues. These are truisms that the likes of Clare Short and Mo Mowlam realised a long time ago. Other ministers are now quietly coming on board.

We need to talk more about the environment, about poverty-reduction strategies (here as well as in the developing countries), about taxation and redistribution (their desirability, or not), about state funding versus private funding (which we’ve started, sort of), about our constitution and political culture, about our national identity and individual behaviour (boorishness, alcohol). There are many more burning issues of that sort.

We could then rip up all the style sections and replant all the rainforests that have been destroyed in the name of the gossip columns and the other assorted bilge served up to the over-30s and under-30s alike. And who knows? Blair might get more votes for his policies, or at least more respect for his candour when his policies are unpopular. Radio 1 and BBC1 might get more listeners and viewers. And Terry Wogan might become an icon for the anti-globalisation movement. On second thoughts . . .

Jackie Ashley returns next week

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