Sunday, November 02, 2008

It's a god awful small affair

In retrospect it had all the makings of the perfect storm of our national hypocrisies. Comeuppance for celebrities; sex and prurience; suburban morality; smugness; an elderly 'national treasure'; and a certain talent for pomposity. When a woman with the stage name of Voluptua, who performs in a sado-masochistic dance group called the Satanic Sluts, gets on her high horse about public decency we know we are in for something quintessentially English.

Suddenly the media was full of solemn pronouncements, politicians jumped on bandwagons, and it was not long before someone blamed the teachers. The public response struck me as nothing more than a passing frenzy, though all I experienced around me was a bland indifference, mixed with incomprehension.

We shouldn't make the mistake about this being some form of spontaneous public uproar that took people by surprise. This was manufactured outrage. That it took off where others have failed, such as the campaign against Jerry Springer: the Opera, was down to the weakness of the gag, the people who delivered it and its target - not the rich and powerful, not politicians, not bankers, not Russian oligarchs, but a popular actor.

Amongst the mountains of verbiage some dissenting voices could be heard. Will spotted the subtext early, in the mainstream media the Independent introduced a sense of proportion - "the BBC has reacted late, and extravagantly, to a mistake that clearly needed addressing, but should have been dealt with in a matter of hours" - and Paulie articulated serious concerns, seeing the affair as part of a continuing and concerted campaign against public service broadcasting by media interests seeking to profit from the demise of the BBC. He also introduced another important theme:
...the political right have suffered a crushing ideological defeat in the last few weeks. Something that they won’t properly recover from for some time. They will, naturally, turn all of their resources away from asserting their economic position, and instead, they will play the only card they have left: The cultural one.
It is a worrying phenomenon, but, despite the growing visibility of vocal religious minorities, I don't see British politics lurching into the polarisation of the American culture wars. Cultural politics is not new. The backlash to the reforms and social changes of the 1960's onwards has been a constant presence and a perpetual failure, people are not going to give up living in a happier way even if we are giving this form of conservatism more respect than it deserves. One of the things I like about this country is its irreligious irreverence making it resistant to the kind of politics that would turn suburban censoriousness into state censorship.

The attack on the BBC is more serious, though, given its vulnerability to powerful interests whose favour is the holy grail of most politicians. It is also the area where, thanks to Mary Whitehouse, the right is well organised. When Norman Tebbit talked of "the insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of the third-rate minds of that third-rate decade, the 1960s", he did so in the context of an attack on the BBC. It is nasty politics too, an expression of a collective hatred and contempt for those who are different.

I have never liked Brand and Ross, they are an integral part of the wealthy, elite, celebrity culture they pretend to mock. However, anyone tempted to join the hue and cry should, at least, think about the company they are keeping. Perhaps,too, they should wonder whether a public service broadcaster that doesn't cause any outrage is one worth having.

In the end there will be few consequences, there will be no riots or Booky Wook burning, Brand and Ross will continue to make money, and the Satanic Sluts are now well on the way to becoming national treasures in their own right. All that has happened is that another chip has been put in the BBC's self-confidence and reinforced a fearful self-censorship.

As for a rebuke for a stunt I didn't like? Well the only one worth bothering with came from Voluptua herself when she said of Brand that despite his ladies’ man reputation, he was a “disappointment” in bed.

It was indeed a god awful small affair.

1 comment:

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