Magazine article The Spectator

Dumbed Down or Is It Up?

Magazine article The Spectator

Dumbed Down or Is It Up?

Article excerpt

I hesitate to call a programme a dog, as we have two of these animals at home. Florence and Wilfred be their names, and as I write they are eyeing me suspiciously from the rug by the window. It would be insulting to them to associate their species with a lousy programme and so, as I don't have a pet turkey, I shall use that word instead to describe The Romans in Britain, a six-part series on Radio Four (Saturday).

Whenever I have heard a Radio Four person denying that programmes had been trivialised to attract a wider audience, I have thought they weren't telling the truth; that it was something they felt they ought to say in case they alienated long-established listeners; a form of institutionalised dissembling of the kind we're used to from politicians and officials. Now I realise they really mean it, they genuinely think they're not lowering their standards to attract new listeners. In other words, they can't see it.

That it's staring us in the face, or perhaps shouting into our ears, is lost on them. They are bewildered that anyone should think this way about their programmes.

These thoughts were prompted by the appearance on Feedback on Radio Four (Friday) of Jonathan Ruffle, producer of The Romans in Britain. Listeners had complained that the style of presentation was suitable for a class of ten-year-olds. He was asked by the presenter, Chris Dunkley, if he had deliberately `dumbed down' the programme. Ruffle replied, 'I think it's dumbed up, to be honest.'

Dumbed up? In as much as it means anything, dumbed up is even worse than dumbed down. It means the dumbing has risen. More dumbing rather than less. Dumbed down is something of a misnomer, though we all know what this unattractive, if useful, American phrase means. As he came out of the studio no doubt Ruffle thought he'd been rather clever with his dumbed up riposte, but almost every sentence he spoke unwittingly damned his awful series. He said, `The idea that it's for a class of ten-year-olds is, to a certain extent, a compliment because the ten-yearolds are better taught.' It was older people who weren't so knowledgeable about the Romans. `We have to find some fairly lively tactics to make people think again about the Roman period.' And he admitted the sound-bite approach was the way to do this.

So what are his lively tactics? Well, they involve the presenter, historian and archaeologist Guy de la Bedoyere rushing around the country to various Roman sites to talk to experts about the 400 years of Roman occupation. …

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