The broadcast media no longer see it as their duty to provide society with moral guidance. But as this book shows, many people miss the presence of a "pilot." Perhaps Mary Whitehouse had a point after allby John Lloyd / February 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Media and Values by David E Morrison, Matthew Kieran, Michael Svennevig and Sarah Ventress Intellect Books, £29.95
The BBC was founded by John Reith as a kind of “pilot service” through the moral, social and political shoals of early 20th-century Britain (the observation was that of the sociologist Tom Burns). It’s the conclusion of this capacious and exhilarating book that in the past eight decades, we have dropped the pilot—and we have dropped him without thought of the treacherous nature of these shoals, and our inability to navigate them unaided. We are like Milton’s hungry sheep, which “look up, and are not fed”: the book’s conclusion is, in Reithian-apocalyptic style, that “the voices in our study show a sense of despair… over the very lack of judgemental pronouncement over ways to live.” Contemporary society is in large part in thrall, for its leisure time, to the broadcast media; but finds in these media a gamut of views, claims and positions, none ranked for their value, many disturbing to a dimly remembered traditional morality, all permitted by a benignly liberal Big Brother saying… whatever!
These despairing voices came to the authors through the medium of focus groups: the book’s main author, David Morrison of Leeds University’s institute of communications studies, is a profound believer in these forums, seeing in them a rare occasion in a fractured world for understanding the thinking of those whom contemporary society has prompted to withdraw from a no-longer-possible moral commonality. The authors have merged the evidence of these voices into a reflection on the age. If at times the result is too Spenglerian for my taste, it’s still a rare and precious thing: a work on the modern media which reminds broadcasters that they are social engineers (they cannot help it); and that, being so, they have a greater responsibility than they usually accept to think through the effects of their engineering projects on our mental ecology.
In the course of this, they exhume the figure of Mary Whitehouse (pictured, below right), the fervidly Christian creator of the National Viewers and Listeners’ Association. In the 1960s and beyond, Whitehouse pitted herself against a broadcasting establishment which she saw, correctly, as assisting in the dismantling of a definitely if vaguely Christian moral hegemony, in favour of a value-free smorgasbord of opinions, actively prodded along by her great satan, Hugh Greene, director general of the BBC from…