‘I wanna do Meeja Studies!’
Sad news this week when it emerged that George Armstrong, who played Alan Humphries in the original run of Grange Hill, had passed away aged 60.
For the benefit of readers not of the Greatest Generation, if you meet a British Gen X’r who says they didn’t watch Grange Hill as a kid then they are a wrong ‘un and you should make your excuses and leave.
It was, you see, a defining cultural product of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Uniquely for children’s TV of the time, its leading characters were overtly transgressive. Tucker Jenkins: part Artful Dodger, part James Dean, severed forever the connection between virtue and being well-behaved. Girls wanted him, boys wanted to be him.
I remember being discomfited when Todd Carty took the role of Mark Fowler in Eastenders, fearing that associating him with another character might undermine the authenticity of Tucker, whom a part of me believed still existed somewhere in the world. Fortunately, the understated range of Carty’s craft resolved that issue.
As the show progressed, female characters came to the fore, showcasing a righteous chippiness that seems a world away from the infantilised, faux rebellion of ‘90s Girl Power. The queen of no-fucks-given classroom youthitude was Suzanne Ross, played by Susan Tully who went on to play Mark’s sister, Michelle, in Eastenders.
Peace was never an option for Suzanne when it came to teachers. Her inexhaustible appetite for conflict gave voice to a generation who were contending with Boomerdom at its most distressingly self-confident stage. Imagine Alan Sugar when he still had lead in his pencil and you get a sense of how swaggering the adult world seemed at the time.
Suzanne believed that the curriculum should reflect changes in how the world worked and the one line I retain from Grange Hill scripts was her urgently delivered,
‘I wanna do Meeja Studies!’
In retrospect, it’s clear that this zeitgeist-invoking plea was an early tell for the collapse of civilization that we are now experiencing.
Marshall McLuhan told us that ‘the medium is the message’ in 1964 and it took twenty years to percolate down from academia, through business to fictional schoolkids. Politicians, typically, were slower to catch on which accounts for Tony Blair’s double-glazing-salesman-with-a-conscience schtick seeming so slick in 1997.
Prior to this, media training for politicians had been limited to someone asking Maggie Thatcher to tone down the screeching a bit. When post-war social mobility emboldened the electorate to demand accountability from the ruling class, the media assumed an importance in British life that would have been unthinkable in the black & white recent past.
In this 1951 interview with Anthony Eden, Leslie Mitchell demonstrates the cringing deference then required by politicians of the press.
‘Good evening. I would just like to say that, as an interviewer, and as I what I hope you will believe to be an unbiased member of the electorate, I’m most grateful to Mr Anthony Eden for inviting me to cross-question him on the present political issues …
‘Well now, Mr Eden, with your very considerable experience of foreign affairs, it’s quite obvious that I should start by asking you something about the international situation today, or perhaps you would prefer to talk about home. Which is it to be?’
By the time Suzanne was demanding Media Studies, the power balance had reversed with newspaper corporations and TV news treating politicians like office juniors who had broken the photocopier.
With Rupert Murdoch seemingly empowered to install and remove prime ministers, her insistence was reasonable.
Big-time media has a power so encompassing that we have ceased to notice it in operation. It shapes our politics with elemental inevitability, as if ‘scandals’, ‘gaffes’, and ‘U-Turns’ were as real as the weather, instead of journalistic tropes to attract eyeballs.
If you take a step back from TV news presentations and assess them objectively, they are sensationally weird.
The futuristic sets, swooping camera work, expensive hair dos and portentous, but deeply camp music lend an ersatz importance to something that occurs every day at 6.00pm whether anything has happened or not.
There’s a sense that those involved in broadcast news breathe their own ozone. Their relationship with government seems to be dysfunctionally close yet abusive: a symbiotic race to the bottom characterised by toxic gossip and fake outrage.
The preening self-regard, hubris, and detachment inherent to modern TV news renders it vulnerable to evisceration at the hands of the mob, and the mob has Twitter accounts.
Just as the press duffed up the aristocratic political scene after the war, the sans-culottes of internet and cable TV news are at the throats of the establishment media.
Or so they would have you believe.
In reality, the free-speech warriors of GB News are backed by international finance, whilst Talk TV is the latest head on the Murdoch hydra.
Their practice involves persuading their viewers to ignore perilous and worsening conditions by telling them what they want to hear.
Here’s presenter Darren Grimes, a real person not a Dickens character, reassuring them on climate change.
Don’t go on holiday, it’s too hot.
Oh? I was hoping to jet off to southern Europe to be colder than a witch’s tit.
I mean honestly, it’s the height of summer, of course it’s hot.
They’re treating us like kids, seeking to infantilise and terrify us into backing their net zero con. pic.twitter.com/MnxbNS2Mc3
— Darren Grimes (@darrengrimes_) July 15, 2023
That’s cheerful, isn’t it? Far more palatable than having to hear how Cardiff will be a lake at some unspecified time in the future. It’s simple, it’s common sense and it’s what real people think but are afraid to say.
Hey, you know what else real people think? That tax cuts for the rich strengthen the economy. Thanks Darren.
The model is different for these outlets. They only need to speak to potential customers and are therefore unshackled from the contending narratives that must be accommodated by the main broadcasters.
That allows them to wage asymmetrical war on a ‘mainstream media’ that, perversely, is mandated to include their side of the confected argument in an act of institutional self-flagellation.
Becoming the news
With organisations profiting from persuading a section of the public that traditional news sources are corrupt, it should come as no surprise that the public faces of broadcast news are frequently becoming the news.
When Angus Deayton had his indiscretions splashed across the press, producers at Have I Got News For You realised the potential for ruin in a single presenter and replaced him with a changing cast of guests.
ITV and the BBC should reflect that allowing what’s presented as an attempt at objectivity to be presented by a handful of instantly recognisable millionaires is asking for trouble. If one of them is disgraced, their identification with the message becomes poisonous.
Informing the public of tragic news in a respectful, soothing way is a skill for sure, but the ability to do it shouldn’t be valued to the point where we think it’s worthy of celebrity.
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