In a world run by MTV, nobody has time to think

September 6, 2001
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This article was first published in The Daily Telegraph on 6th September 2001.

At the heart of any culture is the process by which we bring successive generations into a narrative, the story of which we are a part. There is, of course, not one story but many, but storytelling is the place where identity is found, it is the vehicle of continuity.

In the mists of our past, that is what the elders did for the members of the tribe. Today, that is what television does for us and our children. We no longer gather round the fire; instead we cluster round the screen. The technology has changed, but not the task of telling the story - of adventure and quest, risk and discovery, sacrifice and redemption.

Stories tell us who we are, where we came from and what we might aspire to be. A culture is defined by its narratives. If they make strenuous demands on the mind and spirit, then a culture has the most precious legacy of all. That is why the great dramatists, poets and novelists have an influence deeper and more enduring than politicians or military leaders. If the great stories are lost, forgotten or ignored, then a culture has begun its decline.

Television today has replaced the theatre of the 20th century, the novels of the 19th, the Bible of the 17th, the folktales of the village, the bedtime stories parents told their children.

It has become the single most powerful arena of narrative. Some years ago, my wife and I were sitting at the Lord Mayor's Banquet. We were talking to our fellow guests about the death of the great art of political rhetoric. I suggested that one of the reasons was that we no longer had shared texts.

Churchill and R H Tawney were still able to draw on the language, imagery and cadences of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. That gave their language a richness it could not otherwise have had. Nowadays, I said, we no longer have that resource, and I proposed a simple experiment. The Prime Minister (it was John Major at the time) was about to speak. I suggested that we listened to the sources from which he quoted. That would tell us what are the shared texts of our time. He spoke and quoted. His text? An advertising slogan.

Contemporary television offers us a foreshortened and fragmented world. One of its most famous examples, MTV, has become a metonym for an entire culture. In September 2000, I was in New York for the Millennium summit at the UN. It was an extraordinary gathering: 150 heads of state, each giving their view of the challenges of the 21st century. The streets of Manhattan were blocked and thousands jammed the streets, waiting to catch sight of famous faces. The occasion that brought them out, though, was the MTV video awards.

MTV, with its disconnected videos, tribal rhythms and its overt celebration of sex and success, is the metronome of our attention span. A few years ago, the religious reflection on the Today programme, Thought for the Day, was cut from three minutes to 2 min 45 sec on the ground that no one could concentrate for three minutes any more. Television puts the eye before the ear, is interrupted by advertisements and breaks down stories into hour or half-hour episodes; it is thus a medium in which it is hard to present sustained or nuanced thought. In presenting any issue, it prefers conflict to the search for consensual solutions on which democratic politics depends.

When television presents moral issues, it chooses extreme spokesmen, searching for drama but in fact creating a tragic view of the moral life, in which the rudest voice wins. Through Oprah Winfrey-type confessionals or Big Brother-style voyeurism, it removes authority from reflection, judgment and wisdom, and locates it instead in the reactions of the audience, the crowd, the mass. It resembles nothing so much as the arenas of Caligula's Rome.

This is bad news, and it makes no sense to say that this is what the public wants. The shapers of culture carry a moral responsibility. If a politician, in a racially charged neighbourhood, were to deliver a racist message, it would be no excuse for him to say that this is what his audience wanted to hear. To the contrary, the fact that they want to hear it is the very reason he should not say it.

None of this is necessary. Taking film as an example, on Sunday Channel 4 will broadcast The Shawshank Redemption, an exposition of the power of hope. Similarly, Chariots of Fire is an essay on principle versus ambition. These show that the screen is as compelling a medium as any for the exploration of moral issues. My overwhelming sense of television is of opportunities missed. To quote a rather fine insult: on the surface, it's profound, but, deep down, it's superficial.

What I want to hear are the moral voices. I want to hear respectful dialogue on the environment, globalisation, the digital divide, the human genome, the future of the family and what justice might mean in tomorrow's world.

I want to see programmes that exemplify the concept of civilisation-as-conversation, that do not insult the intelligence. I want to hear interviewers and panellists who are not paid to be rude. I want to see programmes that exploit the potential of the medium to convey spiritual drama and moral wisdom. I suspect that in this I am not alone.

Television should have space for stories that enlarge the moral imagination. It should be bold enough to give a hearing to countervoices that challenge the ruthless imperialism of political correctness.

We look to all concerned to develop a new framework for broadcasting and communications that will encourage broadcasters to take risks, produce strong narratives and develop conversations around the ethical dilemmas of our times. This can only strengthen our collective future.