If you don’t know him already, Nick Cohen is a journalist who writes mainly for The Observer. As a very anti-trendy leftie, I see him, in his exposure of cant and hypocrisy, as a modern Orwell (that’s praise in my book). He has a new book due out, ‘Waiting for the Etonians‘, in which he laments the decline of liberal values in the UK – mostly thanks to liberals themselves betraying the principals they have traditionally held dear.

What caught my eye in an extract published in last Sunday’s Observer was a sideswipe at what he calls the cultural industries and their ‘failure’ to engage with the ‘condition of society’ in recent years.

Against the backdrop of the ‘boom’ years of the last decade he suggests that media tended to concentrate on the good fortunes of many, ignoring the many casualties, whose numbers were growing even before the economic downturn. In particular, ‘Journalists, entertainers and artists were hopeless at dramatising their suffering, and many revelled in it’. He continues:

By the 21st century, the politically correct had placed racism and homophobia off limits. The culture industries compensated by turning on underprivileged whites with all the suspicion and condescension they displayed towards the old upper class. Media executives commissioned shows such as Little Britain and Shameless, in which the white poor were white trash: stupid teenagers who got pregnant without a thought; alcoholic fathers with delinquent children who wallowed in drugs and sex. which the taxpaying viewers could enjoy only in moderation because they had to go to work in the morning. The poor were the grasping inhabitants of a parasite paradise, scrounging off the cozened middle classes in television comedy, or freaks to be mocked on the British versions of the Jerry Springer Show.

There was truth in the stereotype – for there is truth in all stereotypes. Comedy producers could point to estates with families that had not worked for generations, living at other people’s expense on the edge of the law. The producers of reality shows could say they did not force their freaks to go on air. Contestants and guests willingly played their parts, hamming up their performances to secure fleeting fame.

The failure of the BBC and Channel 4 was not their abandonment of pity for the victims of an increasingly harsh financial system, but their lack of imagination. They did not have the intelligence to realise the fragility of their and their scoffing viewers’ lives. They never said, “Don’t laugh too loud because one day you may be poor too.” In the broadcasters’ world, the gap between living in the house with the Northern Rock mortgage and being on the council house waiting list was unbridgeable. The poor were poor because of their own depravity and weakness. They had chosen to be the way they were. The idea that there would soon come a time when hundreds of thousands would face penury through no fault of their own was beyond them.

The high arts occasionally played the same games with race and class. In general, though, literary writers and filmmakers had little interest in deprivation and wealth, and failed to see the connections between the two. Raised in public-sector families, educated in universities and working in academia, they were the artistic equivalents of Westminster’s political class: narrow professionals with few experiences of life beyond their trade. No writer is obliged to write a state-of-England novel, but so few wanted to that the critic DJ Taylor complained in 2007 of “the fatal detachment of the modern ‘literary’ writer from the society that he or she presumes to reflect”.

The markets were on the longest run in history. The decisions made in Canary Wharf and Wall Street affected everyone, high and low. But Taylor concluded that when it came to talking about “globalisation, the rise of the international money markets, the creation of a virtual economic world stratospherically removed from the processes of ordinary life – the number of contemporary writers capable of understanding their complexity, much less rendering them into fictional form, could be accommodated behind a very small table”.

There was no Dickens for the 21st century to bring to life the stunted aspirations and stultifying fears of the leveraged economy. Indebtedness became an everyday misery, quietly endured by stragglers at the circus that had briefly enchanted, then left them behind. You found them lamenting their folly and cursing the banks on radio phone-ins or in internet chatrooms rather than on the Booker shortlist or television schedules.

(see http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/jan/25/television)

Some of this argument has been articulated before, namely the scapegoating of the white working class  for various social ills. I’d tend to agree with that argument to some degree (the scapegoating, not the idea that this group are in any way responsible for the totality of social ills). However, against the continuing faith in the ‘cultural and creative industries’ as an economic force, it is unusual to find such a blanket critique of content and responsibilities.

Of course, here Cohen focuses on those CCIs most visibly concerned with representations but I wonder whether or not this argument has a bearing on the kinds of CCI we are concerned with at Interactive Cultures and in what ways?

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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