Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Abolition of Britain: The Telescreen Triumphs

From Peter Hitchens, The Abolition of Britain (San Francicso: Encounter Books, 2000)

For once, we were told exactly what to be afraid of. But it made no difference. Eliot's letter predicting the dangers of television must rank as one of the wisest and most prophetic ever published by The Times, and it was also in time to prevent the danger of which it warned. At Christmas 1950, most British households did not have a television set, and did not hope to obtain one. Britain had one television channel, which was transmitted for only a few hours each day. Radio, the cinema and a huge national variety of newspapers and magazines satisfied the wants of a literate, educated population for information and entertainment. Eliot himself was a highly influential cultural figure, publisher, playwright, poet and religious writer, who could claim to understand the USA better than most Englishmen, since he was American by birth. His letter was measured and cautious, and so important that even today, to read it is to experience a pang of loss, a feeling of a great opportunity missed.

Sir, in your issue of 17 December you announce that the BBC proposes to spend over £4 million during the next three years on the development of television. I have just returned from a visit to the United States, where television (though


not, I believe, more developed technically) has become an habitual form of entertainment in many more households than here. I find only anxiety and apprehension about the social effects of this pastime and especially about its effect (mentally, morally and physically) upon small children.

Before we endeavour to popularize it still further in this country, might it not be as well if we investigated its consequences for American society and took counsel with informed American opinion about possible safeguards and limitations? The fears expressed by my American friends were not such as could be allayed by the provision of only superior and harmless programmes. They were concerned with the television habit, whatever the programme might be.

Your obedient servant,

T. S. Eliot,

24 Russell Square, London WC1

Eliot had already foreseen all the arguments about 'superb nature programmes' and 'dramas which lead children on to the classics' and the rest of the excuses which have been put forth by the broadcasting industry for the damage which they do to young minds. Eliot could see that television was something quite different from any previous medium. Probably instinctively rather than rationally, he sensed from the worried faces of his American friends that a revolution was in progress, a revolution that would damage and weaken millions of young minds.

Now we know what Eliot only foresaw through a glass darkly. It would be many years before British children were exposed to television on such a scale and at such an early stage in their lives that the damage would be too obvious to ignore. But by the mid-1990s, it was plain that something was going seriously wrong, with more and more reports of young children from affluent homes who could not behave or read or grasp simple concepts of behaviour and manners. In January


1996, I interviewed Dr Sally Ward, an expert on the speech development of young children. Dr Ward was perturbed by the number of children unable to speak normally at ages when they should have learned to do so without any trouble. At that time, she was certain that two things had greatly increased the problem—the launch of daytime television in Britain, and the increasing number of special videotapes aimed directly at young children.

These things arrived just as the number of women going out to work was rising sharply. (At Christmas 1997, the female workforce in Britain would outnumber the male workforce for the first time in recorded history, a development with such huge consequences that it has, of course, never been debated, directly legislated for in Parliament or discussed in a general election campaign). Thanks to these developments, the television screen had become, along with schools, a kind of national childminding service. Parents could use the television as they might once have used a nanny or a grandparent. They could no longer afford the nanny, and the grandparent probably lived hundreds of miles away, but the plastic box performed the same function, cheaply and apparently harmlessly. The extent of this use of television as third parent became clear on the morning after the death of Princess Diana, when millions of adults learned the news from children deprived of their Sunday morning cartoons by special news broadcasts. But it was not just older children who were dumped in front of the flickering tube. Infants as young as six months old were being abandoned to the output of broadcasters and commercial-makers.

What is the effect of this? Dr Ward says, 'I have seen children of two-and-a-half with virtually no ability to understand words'. Often they cannot even speak, and are capable only of animal, gulping noises, boundlessly horrible and depressing. In our early months, we can learn an enormous number of things: taking turns in conversation, telling when the other person has finished, reading facial expressions, the general


rules which make civilized conversation possible. Planted in front of cartoons, or the TeleTubbies, we do not discover these things at all. This is because television's communication is all one way, encouraging people to be passive receptors rather than active partakers. The television carries on with what it is doing regardless of what they do, so they learn to do the same. And since they cannot understand what they are seeing and hearing, it does not matter if they are watching a high-level debate on Newsnight or violent rubbish such as Power Rangers. The effect is just as bad. Nor is the damage limited to conversation. Early exposure to television can mean a failure to understand how to behave as a social being, turning watchers into mere individuals unable to realize that they are connected by duty, affection or even fear to others.

Dr Ward describes a typical victim of this early exposure: 'He comes into the room and ploughs right past you. If you put a box of toys on the floor, he ploughs through that too, wandering rather aimlessly around and looking at nobody and nothing.'

'There's a lack of social awareness, a lack of knowledge of how to function in society. They aren't picking up vital clues about how others feel, or how to respond to them.'

Some form a sort of bond of love with the video player. 'They went berserk when it was turned off. They simply couldn't do without it, and when it was taken away they reacted as if their mother had disappeared.'

These, by the way, were not just the abandoned victims of single parenthood in collapsing tower blocks. The same problems afflicted the well-dressed products of wealthy, well-educated middle-class parents living in pleasant detached houses. At around the same time, researchers for the GMTV company discovered that children aged two and three were watching as much as eighteen hours of television a week, 80 per cent of it without an adult present in the room. These children, abandoned in a way only the late twentieth century could


invent, are still climbing their way towards their teens, when they will be big and strong. It is frightening to think what kind of adolescents, what kind of adults they will become, and almost unbearable to imagine what kind of parents they will be. They are only the most developed cases of a disease which has been quietly spreading up the age range since Britain ignored T. S. Eliot in 1950.

Far from restricting television, the authorities encouraged it. Winston Churchill insisted that television cameras should record the Queen's coronation in 1953, giving the new medium its greatest fillip. A Tory government then went on to destroy the BBC monopoly, brushing aside traditional Conservatives who feared the moral effects and listening only to those for whom the free market was sacred above all. Lord Reith, the founding genius of the BBC, had warned that it was only the brute force of monopoly which allowed his corporation to take a conservative moral position. He was rapidly proved right, as competition for ratings became the unanswerable argument for laxer and laxer standards of taste and language, and bolder and bolder excursions into pornography and violence. The struggle for ratings also, quite predictably, forced religious programmes into a smaller and smaller corner, along with all unfashionable minority views.

An enormous power had been released into the land, and even if its controllers had wanted it to, it was not using its strength to keep things as they were, let alone to turn back the clock. It was also taking a stronger hold on the national mind with each generation, as children came to it younger and younger and were exposed to it for longer and longer.

But why is television so unique, and why is colour television so much more potent than black-and-white? Compare it first of all with the cinema, a medium which is at first sight so very similar. Cinema is a concentrated experience, available only for two or three hours at a special time and place. It is surrounded by ceremony -- even now many theatres still use


curtains to signal the start of a programme, and there is a ritual to the order of trailers, advertisements, censor's certificate, sale of food and so on. Until thirty years ago, performances ended with the national anthem, incredible as this now seems even to me. It is also usually done in company of around the same age, with children still excluded by law from the most violent or sexually blatant films. The cinema-goer usually prefers to go with a companion, and is in any case watching with all the other people in the audience. Films, even nowadays, are often applauded. There can also be genuine infectious laughter.

Television is available without ceremony, without a special journey and without companionship. Its pleasures are increasingly solitary, especially in the millions of homes where it is on most of the time and where there is a set in each child's bedroom. It is also available in great quantity. If a viewer chooses, he can watch the television almost without interruption from the moment he gets up, or comes home. There is almost always something to watch, provided you are willing to be passive. Anyone trained from his earliest years in the television habit is likely to be extremely passive, because his ability to imagine, to hold conversations, to think without prompting, has already been weakened and withered. He does not need them.

In the 1950s, children simply could not do this in Britain. There were long periods when nothing was shown except something called the 'test card', a series of geometric patterns designed to allow engineers to tune the signal properly, sometimes accompanied by music, but now a fond memory. There was also an event known as the 'closedown', usually well before midnight, after which an announcer would remind viewers to switch off their sets. The screen would then actually go blank, emitting a high-pitched signal to wake those who might have fallen asleep in front of it. In the 1960s, there were still sizeable gaps during which nothing was transmitted at all. Parental


authority also still existed in many homes, enforced by a mother who was there all the time. Perhaps most important of all, the programmes were in black and white, or, to be truthful, pale grey, medium grey and dark grey.

Colour came slowly, launched with Wimbledon tennis coverage in 1967, a tiny minority interest in 1968 with just over 20,000 licences, and not reaching a million homes until 1972. As late as 1974, there were still twice as many black-and-white sets as colour ones in British homes -- 11,766,424 to 5,558,146. But where colour came, even the bad programmes looked good, and by the late 1980s a new generation was growing up, to whom the bright, noisy plastic box in the corner was the most seductive, the cleverest, the most articulate, the most beguiling thing they had ever seen. Even the most brilliant storyteller, the most inspirational teacher, the most companionable parent or older brother, could not compete with colour television's virtuosity and variety. Sports, especially, were instantly transformed and far easier to follow. Even such things as snooker and darts suddenly became 'good television'. The pictures on the screen in the corner of the room were for the first time brighter, cleaner, sharper and more exciting than the room itself. It was harder and harder to take your eyes away from the screen. Even news bulletins became a sort of treat for the eyes, with the great capitals and landscapes of the world suddenly seen for the first time in their full, rich reality. There was no longer any need to imagine for ourselves, and the thing was so seductive that almost nobody could resist it for long. George Melly, that hopeless progressive, wrongly forecast in 1969 that there would be a 'small resistance movement of middle-class intellectuals, the children of those who in the early fifties wouldn't have the telly at all'. He thought they would equate black-and-white with high seriousness, but in fact such people either surrendered to the new and bought colour TVs, or continued to resist by refusing to have televisions in their houses at all. The only people who continued to watch in black-and-


white were the elderly poor, who could not afford the new sets or the higher TV licence fee charged for colour. Resistance to television was probably thanks to the miraculous survival of intelligent, national speech radio, kept alive by the BBC's continued accidental monopoly, and unknown almost anywhere else on earth.

The periodic battles over the two middle-class BBC radio channels - Radios Three and Four - are incomprehensible to most outsiders. They are defended, furiously and bitterly, by their small number of listeners precisely because they cater for the last serious section of the population who have not surrendered their imaginations to the television. They actually prefer to listen to the morning news on the radio than to watch it on the colour television. They are generally in young middle age, dating from the era when middle-class parents at least rationed the television. They are genuinely unhappy with television's short attention-span and its obsession with pictures above all things. Until recently, they had very little idea what the presenters of their favourite programmes looked like, a happy state brought to an end by the increasing use of radio figures on television. They are, while politically and socially liberal, puzzlingly conservative (from the BBC point of view) about the use of language, accent and grammar. Because of their backgrounds, they are present in large numbers among politicians, journalists, civil servants, churchmen and in university senior common rooms. They can write powerful letters to the editors of major newspapers. But they give a completely false impression of the state of public opinion or the broadcasting audience in Britain. They are, sadly, like the last people to escape the pods in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, or like the refugees in the forest in Fahrenheit 451, each of whom has remembered one great book to preserve it from the televisual culture which burns all books on sight. Attempts to rejuvenate the Radio Four audience have all failed, and will continue to fail, because the rising generation, even at the very


top end of the education and career range, mostly lack the concentration, curiosity, individuality and imagination required of a serious radio listener. It is unwise nowadays to assume that even intelligent young journalists have listened to Radio Four in the previous week.

This shows just how differently radio and television affect their audiences. Both become a kind of club, sharing a common knowledge of certain people, voices and serials with thousands or millions of others. But radio listeners do not pool their imaginations with anyone else, or lend their imaginative powers to others. At all times, they retain the ability to decide if a fictional character or even a real person is tall or short, dark or fair, sinister or engaging, good or bad. Television viewers have all this decided for them.

Come to television as an adult, literate and independent, and it may make you lazy and passive, but it cannot leech away the thoughts, memories and imagination you already possess. But what if you come to it as a tiny child, your memory undeveloped, your imagination a blank space, your social and conversational abilities as yet non-existent. Is it possible you will then be a different kind of person from your parents?

The American commentator Neil Postman certainly thinks so. In his book The Disappearance of Childhood: How Television Is Changing Children's Lives, Postman points out that 'even the idea of a children's game seems to be slipping from our grasp'. He noted, more than fifteen years ago, that games such as hide-and-seek had almost completely vanished. Television, he argues, requires 'perception, not conception'. How could it be otherwise when the average length of a single camera shot is now three to four seconds in programmes, two to three seconds in commercials? Its skills in delivering its message straight to the brain 'make the rigours of a literate education irrelevant'. He quotes Reginald Damerall's frightening observation that 'No child or adult becomes better at watching television by doing more of it. You have yet to hear of


television-viewing disability.' This, of course, is the opposite of reading, where greater skills allow the growing child to read more deeply, more widely and with more taste, and a growing mind builds up the mental muscle needed to tackle the great works of literature and history.

Postman believes this matters enormously, because 'children are a group of people who do not know certain things which adults know'. At least, they used to be before they were seduced by television and its brothers, the video player and the virtual-reality computer game. By destroying this superior adult knowledge, and handing children the fruit of the tree of knowledge unmediated by adult wisdom, we have abandoned our young to powers and influences which we cannot control, and whose strength we do not know. To leave a child unsupervised in front of a television set is no less dangerous than giving it neat gin, or putting it within reach of narcotics.

One sign that this may be true is the way in which the old restraints on sexuality and aggressive violence are collapsing so quickly among the young, many of whom simply cannot understand what their parents are worrying about. Postman argues, 'Shame gives power and authority to adulthood. For adults know, whereas children do not, what words are shameful to use, what subjects are shameful to discuss, what acts are deemed necessary to privatize.' But 'shame cannot exert any influence as a means of social control or role differentiation in a society that cannot keep secrets' -- i.e., a society which hands children over to the cathode-ray tube. This has great consequences for attitudes towards sex. Without shame and mystery, the system of taboos 'loses its dark and figurative character, as well as most of its moral force ... what was once shameful may become a "social problem" or a "political issue".

'In revealing the secrets of sex, television has come close to eliminating the concept of sexual aberration altogether'. This is vastly more important than the issue of sex alone. Postman quotes G. K. Chesterton's warning that 'All healthy men,


ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, know that there is a certain fury in sex that we cannot afford to inflame, and that a certain mystery and awe must ever surround it if we are to remain sane.'

So the loss of parental control over the sex taboo is a far deeper danger than the mere destruction of the idea of right and wrong sexual conduct, catastrophic though this is. It has snapped some of the most important of the invisible chains which keep our society from satisfying its passions without restraint.

If that were all, it would be bad enough. But a generation brought up by Chris Evans and the other skilled performers of youth television has not just been robbed of the moral subtleties of four hundred years of literate civilization. It has become easily manipulated because it has learned first to expect to be manipulated, second to enjoy being manipulated, and third not to care when it happens. Anyone who can control a major television channel can use it to pour out propaganda, but it is only this new generation which does not know how to resist it, provided it uses the right sort of codes, language and symbols. None of these codes, languages or symbols are conservative, or can be used by a conservative, because they are 'subversive' of the imagined 'authority' of a mythical 'establishment', which of course includes the Tories and poor old Mrs Whitehouse, along with the long-dead malcontent colonels who were the originals of 'Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells'. A conservative message, in this medium, will always look as foolish as Mr William Hague in a baseball cap.

Postman returned to the assault in Amusing Ourselves to Death, where he warned that we should not be complacent just because we had avoided George Orwell's nightmare totalitarian society, which he had predicted for 1984. What was actually coming true, he suggested, was Aldous Huxley's alternative nightmare in Brave New World, where nobody even realized that they were being oppressed.


What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared that we would become a trivial culture.

Huxley, in fact, warned directly of 'man's almost infinite capacity for distractions.' Postman believes that capacity has been fully engaged in the last twenty years.

His words could almost have been written to describe the cynical, puerile, bubblegum election campaigns fought by Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and by Tony Blair in 1997, when he proclaimed himself a modern man. 'When serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when people become an audience ... a nation finds itself at risk. Culture-death is a clear possibility.' One thinks of 'Things can only get better', 'For the many, not the few' and, of course, 'Education, education, education', or of any of Mr Blair's much-praised but largely vacuous speeches.

This atmosphere of jaunty, funky emptiness is very hard to combat because, as Postman asks, 'Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? What is the antidote to a culture's being drowned by laughter?'

Echoing Eliot's dismissal of 'quality' television, he argues that 'we would be better off if television got worse, not better.... The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health. Sixty Minutes, Eyewitness News and Sesame Street are.' Spiritual devastation, he predicts 'is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate.'


But his central point in all these warnings remains that television robs adults of one of their most important tasks, as passers-on of culture to the young, mediating, explaining, sometimes hiding things until later when they will be less dangerous. Once, children became adults first by learning to speak and then by learning to read. Now we are travelling back to the primitive times before literacy, when adults could keep less from their young, when adulthood came far earlier, and the culture of the tribe was cruder and more immature as a result. If he is even half right, the implications for all settled cultures are large. For a culture such as Britain's, shaken and broken and bent and under reconstruction, the implications are immense.

Of course, other forces have marched alongside television, though it is hard to believe that they could have been half so successful without its aid. Modern popular music, with its strangely bisexual appeal and its carnal beat -- part war-dance, part fertility ritual -- would not have spread so fast unless pubescent boys and girls had been able to see the often androgynous faces of the stars, first on television and then on the videos which are now rock's most powerful marketing device. It is for others to explain why twelve-year-old girls screamed most wildly whenever the Beatles began to sing falsetto, or why the most enduring images of Mick Jagger are those of him cross-dressing and in full make-up in the rarely shown movie Performance. The appeal of rock musicians is a peculiar thing, though if Neil Postman is right it has much to do with the sexual awakening of children who until recently would have been thought too young for such things, and who are most easily seduced by ambiguous, half-and-half figures, partly themselves and partly the other, unknown sex. But all these things suggest that people brought up as Tony Blair says he was, are different. They do not just look different, but are different, in some deep way, from the twenty or so generations which went before them, and likely to respond in different ways to different stimuli.


One of those stimuli, and one Mr Blair has been keen to bring into every classroom and home in the country, is the computer. There may be a good political reason for this. Anyone who has spent any time with computers, even at their most crude and basic level, knows the way in which the screen can draw a person into it, making him forget normal time and place, even forget or ignore bodily desires such as hunger and thirst. Once again, a computer user with obligations, with an imagination, with other forms of literacy, may be able to fight off this influence. But someone who comes to the computer without these bonds and safeguards does not even want to fight them off. He can become more fully himself, more fully a self-indulgent individual and master of his own world, by plunging as deep as he can go into the electronic pool of wonders. When John Donne wrote that no man was an island, entire of himself, he could not have foreseen the way in which such devices make solitude not just bearable, but desirable above all things. Yet that solitude is not a proper loneliness. The computer-games player becomes even more of a receiver than his friends who are watching MTV in the next room. As he wrestles with his control pad, he is actually tuning his body and mind to patterns decided by the computer programmer, making himself even more of a robot than a normal couch potato.

His moral sense, and his ability to cope with the less brightly-coloured reality of life, are also reduced. Many of these games are morally neutral, but others teach that destruction and violence come with no consequences. In the 1950s, teenage boys may have loved the sound of breaking glass, but they feared the approach of the policeman or the angry householder too. Now they can enjoy the same sound, together with the screech of tortured metal, the screams of their victims as they rip out their brainstems in Mortal Kombat or crush their cars to tinfoil in Carmageddon, and be sure that there can be no consequences, for there are no policemen or householders


out there in cyberland. Who can wonder if, when they wander into real life, they drop bricks or breezeblocks through the windscreens of passing cars, or place small corpses on railway lines, or seek to speed up the dull cold world with fast-acting drugs which make the whole of life feel like a computer game?

But if they are the masters of their own tiny worlds, are they in control of anything else, or has their self-absorption left them at the mercy of those who make the programmes, create the rock bands, design the games and sell the narcotics? Plainly, we do not yet have a nation entirely made up of blank-eyed zombies dividing their time between violent computer games and the crack-house. But we do have a disturbing amount of violent crime in which the attackers are reported as being heavily drugged, and we do have a younger generation much of which seems closed to any non-conformist arguments. A survey of the so-called 'millennium generation' in November 1998 showed that Conservative support among the young has dropped to historically low levels, quite possibly a real change in consciousness which will affect them all their lives.

This does not record a mere change in political loyalty, which is not specially important in itself. It shows that, for the first time this century, the young are not inheriting prejudices, opinions, values, morals and habits from their parents. The continuity, which once ensured that most people followed their families in such things, has been broken. The post-revolutionary generation, whose families have often disintegrated and are usually weak, whose schools do not uphold authority or tradition, whose religious experience and understanding often do not exist, has also grown up with several immensely strong outside influences, all of them radical enemies of existing culture. The same generation has had little chance to develop its own critical, personal imagination through reading, and so has been a blank page on which the revolutionaries have been able to scrawl their own slogans.


They will grow up to be modern men and women, quite like Mr Blair, but even more so. For they will not have, as he did, any 'safeguards and limitations'. They did not have Durham chorister school, a devoted and strong family, Fettes College, Oxford University and the Inns of Court to keep them from being too modern.


1 comment:

Revolution Harry said...

I've grown to like and admire Peter Hitchens. The younger, Guardian reading, me would have found that very hard to believe. He speaks an awful lot of sense on many subjects.

Reading those extracts from his book brings home the awful reality of the cultural, national and individual attack we are under.

I rarely watch TV these days but I have found myself thinking I spend too much time on the computer. There is, though, a difference between the two. Even with multiple channel choice there is comparatively little on the TV of any real value or interest. On the other hand the internet has seen an explosion of information. Sadly it has been 'drowned in a sea of irrelevance'.