Taking the high road and the low road……

I’ve been back from my close encounter with stand-up comedy in Edinburgh for a week. And yet I feel eerily in the same unreal comic reality……

Take this furore for example over Dr David Starkey’s appearance on Newsnight.  The first thing that strikes me as needing some explanation, before I turn to what Dr David Starkey said or didn’t say, is what was in the minds of those who chose to offer him a platform from which to say it?

Once that question is answered everything falls into its place….including Dr Starkey himself.

Dr Starkey – as I know – is an expert Tudor historian specialising on the politics of the governing class of the sixteenth century. Why you might ask should he be possessed of any particular insights into the politics of the underclass of the twenty-first century? The answer lies not it what he says but in how he says it, for whatever he has to say on racism or the vices or virtues of multiculturalism, it is no more likely to be false or true or insightful or incisive than any thoughts possessed by any educated person.

This observation provides the clue to solving the mystery of his ritual inclusion in these sorts of quasi-discussions on any number of occasions before this most recent one on Newsnight. There was a deliberate editorial decision to have Dr Starkey on the programme. That decision wasn’t news-based.

David Starkey’s reputation as a media celebrity…as opposed to an historian….rests upon his fluid ease with the waspish, outrageous, flamboyant and overstated. He cut his celebrity teeth on Radio 4’s Moral Maze where he gained a reputation for being willing to tear-into and talk-over others. He’s never short of a quotable quote…that alone makes him worthy of the Media’s attention.

In this narcissistic world each side reflects the self importance of the other…although sometimes the attention-seeking is overdone….and the guru shamelessly plays-up to his or her reputation for the risqué. But the shocking fact is that shocking rudeness entertains. It keeps viewers viewing and listeners listening. These celebrity experts are invited into the Media circus as gladiators to the ring. And they offer a contested discussion red in tooth and claw. And few possess better talons to amuse than Dr Starkey.

They’re encouraged to offer their opinions on almost any subject, without restraint.These Media gurus deliver a bloody verbal punch decorously camouflaged as intellectual insight. They thrive on hyperbole and excessive overstatement. The Media loves them only when they’re shocking. But sensationalising every subject and comment ensures that reasoned argument is crushed. The preceived need to entertain has trumped the obligation to inform. In this world the articulate zany becomes a sage with the Media acting as an amplifier for their views.

In the USA these ‘expert’ coteries have found a permanent home on Fox News… the channel that’s has done for TV news what the News of the World did for newspaper journalism – interestingly both are death-stars of the Murdoch Empire. And the Tea Party in the USA is their child. It perfectly illustrates the power of unreasoning rhetoric. It’s by this means that all sorts of libertarian, screw-ball, inflammatory or intolerant flummery poisons the political debate. Shouted assertions are allowed to pass.In their repetition they pass for truth; by default they become truth. Opinion is given equity with fact. Science is dismissed as mumbo-jumbo; the mumbo-jumbo is enthroned as reason.

The vitriolic outbursts by these expert witnesses are merely contrived, like good stand-up, to look like spontaneous argument. But self-evidently they’re too carefully crafted and modulated not to have been previously carefully rehearsed.  A good lecture; a good after dinner speech; a good performance and a good one minute rant on TV aren’t effortlessly plucked from the ether…they’re the product of hard practice.

This is where Dr Starkey must take some responsibility. He knew perfectly well that in prefacing any comment on race and the recent riots with deliberate mention of both Enoch Powell and  his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, his comments would be rendered nuclear. But in exploding this dirty-bomb of a rhetorical device he was merely giving the Media the shocked story it wanted to be able to tell and re-tell. And that is a dirtier truth than anything dreamt of in Dr Starkey’s political philosophy.

This license to bad behaviour is encouraged by the Media…a doting parent to the spoilt children of celebrity. This vogue for frank speaking now infects the private as well as public world. Everyone believes they enjoy entitlement to be rude and ignore others’ feelings if only they preface their comment with the phase ‘I like to speak my mind’. Many who share Dr Starkey’s humble origins do not share this contempt for good manners. Being clever doesn’t bestow a dispensation to be rude and unfeeling. The absence of common civility diminishes our political discourse.It also diminishes those who perpetrate it. They merely fail to see how small they have become.

Yes, the tentacles of tabloid journalism have reached very far indeed. But being high-minded won’t stop editors commissioning this pap whilst they believe it’s what their audience… their readership … their electorate…wants. As these people are wont to say when asked…there ought to be a law against it…and so…enter the Prime Minister…with one drafted and ready to enact…just one more silliness piled on to another…all papering over a profound truth: violence thrives in poverty.We leave the poor and dispossessed to try to manage this ugly reality with little support and less hope.

This violence that killed on our streets has long before this destroyed with impunity the lives of real people trapped within the underclass. There are thugs is all walks of life and bullies work everywhere but in the dislocation afforded by inter-generational poverty they rule and over-rule. Year in and year out the decent are condemned to live in close proximity to that terror.The hooded face of this terror has shown itself, briefly flickering in the burning streets. It’s caught our attention. But it will not hold it….

Our attention will be turned to other matters as the Media circus moves on. Our short attention span will be titillated with some trivial morsel of celebrity gossip more worthy of our easy consideration. That’s not entertainment; it’s a real tragedy. And all that talk of doing something will turn out once more to be that…all talk..

Is it any wonder that these disengaged and disillusioned citizens pay little heed to what they must see as empty words and empty threats?

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