Magazine article The Spectator

Why I'd Rather Not Switch off with This Professor

Magazine article The Spectator

Why I'd Rather Not Switch off with This Professor

Article excerpt

My state of mind this past week has been considerably disturbed by my having read The Silencing of Society by Kenneth Minogue. This 70-page pamphlet, just published by the Social Affairs Unit, is a devastating attack on journalists and their standards, practices and values.

Most journalists believe that news is somehow pure. Papers may publish trashy features, or have lunatic opinions, but we can surely all agree that news is unsullied. Professor Minogue doesn't. For him, news plays on a `human weakness for morbidity'. It draws us into `an endless short-term empathy' so that we `lose ourselves for the moment in the experience of others'. But the experience is essentially transient and meaningless. `We flounder amid information which is of little use to us.' However, we do develop superficial opinions about every subject under the sun. `Every democratic, media-sensitive citizen is a kind of fantasy ruler of the country.'

For Professor Minogue news is inescapably superficial. He doesn't believe it can reflect objective reality. `Being so much a selection of facts from an infinitely complex reality, [news] can never achieve objectivity or impartiality, and hence any accusation of bias can only be one partisanship attacking another.' News is delivered in palatable soundbites. One effect is to reduce political and religious leaders to the same level. Great men are forced to converse in the easily digestible argot of media culture rather than in the elitist language of their predecessors. This conscious `dumbing down' (the phrase is not employed by Professor Minogue) becomes more than an act, and great men are themselves debased by the medium they serve.

And not just great men, according to Professor Minogue. He believes that the media has undermined the authority of the Church as well as morality. For one thing, it `erodes our inner life, the alert subjectivity which scans and adjusts our responses to the world'. For another, the media has set itself up as a rival religion. But where the essence of Christianity is gratitude thanks to God for His unfailing Grace the media, because it is by nature oppositional, invites us constantly to criticise our lot and to find fault everywhere, even though we are immeasurably better off than our forefathers. The media has also weakened national unity, the main reason being that its values and assumptions are global and not rooted in national culture.

I hope this summary has done justice to the complexity of Professor Minogue's arguments, though he might dismiss it as a typical journalistic attempt to simplify the unsimplifiable. It is, I repeat, a devastating onslaught which sweeps one along with the sheer force of its convictions. He is right about the dumbing down, of course. Great men are often made fools of by journalists, and not just church leaders. The novelist is asked to provide in a few seconds a synopsis of the ideas in his novel when he has gone to the trouble of writing a book in order to explore them. Those not required to submit themselves to such treatment had better avoid it.

The trouble with Professor Minogue's polemic is that it mentions all the bad things and leaves out all the good ones, as polemics tend to. In a way his refusal to curry favour with journalists on so-called quality newspapers by exempting them from criticism is admirable. …

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