I took part in the Cambridge Union debate last night, arguing for the proposition ‘This House Believes that Reality TV Represents Everything Wretched about Britain Today’. I underestimated the space, at how steeped in grandeur it is, and found myself more than a little nervous.
The debate was well attended; over two thirds full. Joining me to argue for the proposition were Max Clifford and the retiring Union president, Jonathan Laurence. Opposing the motion were Times journalist Hugo Rifkind, showbiz writer Zoe Griffin and James McQuillan, who appeared on The Apprentice.
The other speakers last night went for a comic interpretation of the motion. My technique was more serious-minded, more Old Testament – Quentin Tarantino fans might have deduced I was trying to mimic Samuel L Jackson’s famous biblical Pulp Fiction speech.
I was attempting to play devil’s advocate as well as being more deliberately, obviously provocative. Max was off-the-cuff languid and crammed his speech with career anecdotes. He opened by defending good Reality TV – no surprise, as his chief paymaster is Simon Cowell.
The others were a mixed bag, going for laughs. Hugo Rifkind, the leader writer for the Times, was very good, and reminded the room of some of the bad stuff. He went for Max as the real reason for the negative residue from reality TV, suggesting that Max has promoted and created many poor role models.
Zoe Griffin praised the stars that Reality TV has bred, highlighting Ben Fogle and Myleene Klass, as well praising the revenue Reality TV has generated for the GNP. I wasn’t all that sure about her argument, but she looked great in a fab frock. James McQuillan was pure stand up and self-deprecation – he treated the whole night as if it was a task on The Apprentice.
I am pleased to report Jonathan, Max and I went away winners by 5 votes – a very tight call. Winning, I am told, is a significant tick on the CV – this is, after all, the oldest and one of the most prestigious debating societies in the world.
Below is the transcript of the speech I gave.
President, ladies and gentlemen – good evening.
The very fact that Max Clifford is prepared to publicly bite the hand that feeds him is a measure of the seriousness of the situation our society now finds itself in.
There have always been celebrities, of course. Every culture under the sun reveres fame. Heracles or Odysseus, John Lennon or Joan of Arc – we know without doubt that certain people’s astonishing adventures, thoughts, ideas, poems, novels or battles will live on throughout the ages.
But it is becoming harder and harder for these people to be heard over the slew and spew of information in a world that runs on instant access
So what has changed? What is different about modern celebrity that makes it so uniquely corrosive?
Let me take you back to 1834, when that true genius of celebrity, PT Barnum, moved to New York and discovered the astounding commercial potential of the human freak show. Today, we may disapprove of exhibiting physically deformed men and women for profit.
But I ask you: is Jeremy Kyle any different?
And by Jeremy Kyle, I mean Jerry Springer, the opening rounds of the X Factor and everything else in this degrading morass of reality TV that a British crown court judge aptly called: “a morbid and depressing display of dysfunctional people whose lives are in turmoil.”
There can be little doubt that so-called “reality” television – an oxymoron if ever there was one – is responsible for this perversion.
The gospel of Reality Television is easy to understand. Everyone can be a celebrity. No skills are necessary. And low emotional IQ is a major advantage.
Today’s get-known-quick generation think that fame is an end in itself and that work is for losers. The Reality TV generation seek notoriety in the mistaken belief that it is the same thing as eminence, distinction or achievement.
They have been conned.
Reality TV is a reductive force, which exists in a self-serving media bubble – a cosy pact between format owners and media barons. Now, if that were all it is, that would be bad enough – a modern-day equivalent of Barnum’s freak show… unedifying, but pretty harmless in small doses.
But that is far from its true nature.
In this shallow and foetid Petri dish, we are growing a phoney society. One where 14 year old girls can appear on daytime TV to tell the world that their admiration of Katie Price is so great that they are being remodelled to look like her – because they believe that this alone will make them famous!
Please note, in passing, that beauty is almost always placed at a premium as a culture collapses.
Indeed, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who remarked that:
“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”
On this logarithmic scale, our Reality TV-plagued society is surely due to disappear up its own neocortex.
Psychologist Jean M. Twenge cites a telling indicator in her book Generation Me. In the 1950s, she says, just twelve percent of teens age fourteen to sixteen agreed with the statement: “I am an important person.” Yet by the late 1990s, seven times that number—eighty percent—of teens said they agreed with it.
Of course one needs belief in oneself to do well, to become more than the sum of your parts – but this rampant “self-esteem” is in truth narcissism by another name.
And as I think we can all agree, the seemingly easy route to fame that Reality TV affords is opium to the narcissist’s addiction. We risk breeding an entire generation that doesn’t understand, or want to understand, that nothing worth having comes easily.
In the ten mind-numbing years since Big Brother appeared on our screens, Reality TV has become a major force in our society. It feeds people’s hopes and dreams with a progression of sound bites that illuminate nothing but a phoney ersatz nirvana. Beyond our shores, the West is spreading a ‘fame virus’, seemingly unaware of the spread and effects of the contagion, which by any measure is now a pandemic. Countless children and young adults across the globe are desperate to “live the dream”, unaware that they aren’t even dreaming of a life.
Where, then, are the real heroes? When society genuflects toward plasticated icons of fame, they cannot see real heroes. They miss out on the subtler role models, can see no positive illustrations of value, of worth. And this, too, is one more consequence of Reality TV culture (another oxymoron). It makes it less likely for anyone with genuine, hard-earned talents to make an impact on the world at large.
Ladies and gentlemen, the motion tonight is well-worded
What an appropriate description for our current national psyche.
Perhaps in a country where trade and industry have been reduced to a trickle, where blue collars have nearly all been bleached white, there is little else for the young to do but dream of glory in what seems the best way available. That, at least, is understandable.
Less pardonable is an education system that plays along with this mass deception. I, for one, believe that our children deserve better.
But where will this end?
As a culture, we appear to be moving into a world run on Reality TV rules, insane prospect though that is. Our religion is celebrity. Our sense of community has been reduced to slots on a TV scheduler’s spreadsheet. Our conversation is piped to us via the tabloid media. All plastic, and all thoroughly wretched.
Meanwhile, we are losing the richness of life to a monochrome, reductive view of the world where too many people have been lead to believe by media moguls and TV producers that they too can be demi-gods, without putting in the work or even deserving the worship.
We live in a culture that agrees with Keats that Beauty is Truth.
However, we seem to have forgotten the second part of the famous close to Ode to a Grecian Urn: that Truth is Beauty, also.
Truth, today, is lost in a manufactured version of reality populated by beautiful, synthetic people. And the world suffers for it as more and more strive to be perfect, useless people whose only ability appears to be rich, pretty and unhappy.
Historian C.D. Odell claimed that: “the freaks of the dime museum served the purpose of raiding dull persons from the throws of their inferiority complexes”. Freaks served to boost the punter’s self esteem. The same could be said of watching Jeremy Kyle, but for the fact that so many people watch and decide that they will go on the show to claim their moment of fame – amplifying their internal deformities to please the audience.
Reality TV is, I believe, a tranquilizer for the masses, as the freak shows were in the dime museum days. But instead of people thinking ‘thank god I’m not like that’, they are now thinking ‘it could be me’ and they go out of their way to get chosen for reality TV shows. They freak themselves up to have a better chance of getting on the show.
The divide between rich and poor is bigger than it’s been in a very long time at the moment, but the overriding mood is apathy. Where once people rioted – against the poll tax, in Toxteth and Brixton – due to high level of discontent – they are now opiated by Reality TV. It has produced apathy amongst the young.
Where once you had to be talented to be famous and make money, now you don’t.
Literally anybody has a chance at being picked for a reality TV show and with that comes a certain fame and capacity to earn money – for a little while. The “ it could be you” phenomenon drives the apathy to fight back and reduces the need to have any opinion about our society. Governments won’t change anything because we are given a (false) sense of hope which keeps up down.
And consider this.
Consider it and weep.
More young people have voted on TV shows such as Big Brother and the X Factor than vote in major political elections.
You may be wondering whether I’m over-egging it. Whether, in fact, Reality TV has some beneficial side effects that I’m concealing from you? As entertainment, surely it must at least make us happy?
Actually, no. It drives young people and children to be more self-obsessed, more beautiful, more perfect, more grown up and more miserable in an attempt to gain fame and money.
In a 2007 Unicef survey, more than a quarter of the British children polled (27%) agreed with the statement: “I often feel depressed.”
What made children saddest, in this survey, was their appearance. Almost a fifth, of both sexes, were unhappy with how they looked. A study by the Girl Guides recently discovered that 46% of girls aged 11 to 16 would consider cosmetic surgery and that girls started to find fault with their appearance as early as 10 or 11. Reality TV has created a generation that believe fame and celebrity is their birthright and who cannot function properly because they feel they must make themselves look better to achieve all they desire.
One thing is certain; our moral compass has found a new magnetic field; one that points out a new slant on Oscar Wilde’s famous epigram: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
This is a generation growing up hooked on fast story lines and an optimistic, unrealistic view of reality. A generation growing up believing that they are in the stars and barely registering that they are staring straight into the gutter and have been for years.
I urge you to vote in favour of tonight’s motion.