Jonathan Maitland

The idiot box

How a generation of our brightest minds were lured into the vacuous world of television

The idiot box
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How to sum up David Frost? The lazy writer’s friend, aka Wikipedia, calls him ‘an English journalist, comedian, writer, media personality and television host’. To which I would add only: ‘Britain’s first TV superstar.’ (To some he was also ‘The Bubonic Plagiarist’, but we won’t dwell on that.)

That Was The Week That Was, The Frost Report and The Nixon Interviews made him a key cultural figure of the 1960s and 1970s. But his true significance struck me only recently. He may have damaged Britain, unintentionally, as much as anyone in living memory.

Frost, in my view, was a Pied Piper who helped to lure a generation of the brightest and best away from meaningful careers and into the often vacuous, inconsequential world of television. He was exciting — that interview confronting the insurance swindler Emil Savundra, for example — glamorous and funny. Thousands of Bright Young Things watched him and thought: ‘Yesss! That’s what I want to do.’ After three decades in TV, I’ve lost count of those who were inspired by visions of Frost.

Arguably, these BYTs wasted their talent. Wasted, that is, if you think running an influential think tank or government department or attaining an office of state is preferable to making instantly obsolescent visual wallpaper. Not all TV programmes are crap, obviously. But what’s more valuable: trying to get people to change channels or trying to change the world?

Take Mark Damazer, a former editor of BBC’s Newsnight and The Nine O’Clock News, whose baldness was, wags said, caused by the heat emanating from his brain — much like the chrome-domed Tory thinker David ‘Two Brains’ Willetts. Mark got a double starred first in history from Cambridge and was briefly my boss in the 1990s. I still recall him skilfully dissecting an instantly forgettable 120--second report I’d done on chewing gum (environmental menace thereof) or similar. Bit of a waste? Sure, Mark became an excellent and transformative controller of Radio 4 — but if he and all the others like him had gone to Westminster instead the road to Brexit would surely be less rocky.

Take Mark Thompson (first, Oxford), the former BBC director-general, who managed to pass on the unexploded bomb of the Jimmy Savile scandal and avoid most of the subsequent collateral damage. With political skills like that, he could have been PM. Then there’s Tim Gardam (double first, Cambridge), the abrasive Newsnight boss who might have been home secretary in another life. And a former ITV boss of mine, now retired, whose father was an MP, but whose own greatest achievement was helping to invent a celeb-based reality show. If Alan Turing — the Bletchley Park genius who helped to save the world — were alive today, he’d probably be producing Countdown.

Some of the above might deny they were directly inspired by Frost, but that’s irrelevant really. Because what they can’t dispute is that they went into TV. And that it was Frost more than anyone who made TV what it was. So if that’s not influential, I don’t know what is.

Not every BYT got trapped in the magic rectangle. Some used it as a stepping stone, like my fleeting colleague on the Today programme in the 1990s, Michael Gove. Looking back, I can see he knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going. Other TV journos who saw the light and left the industry include Damian Green, Gloria De Piero and mouthy Marxist Paul Mason. But many more got sucked into the quicksand.

The problem was that BYTs thought television could change things. But they were wrong. During a rather self--congratulatory Newsnight programme celebrating its own anniversary, Jeremy Paxman — there’s another one — asked a senior politician whether ‘we’ (the programme) had ‘changed anything’. Paxo was clearly hoping for a yes. Silence ensued and the MP dithered. Paxo looked like a man who’d just missed a three-inch putt to win the Open.

TV did change things of course. But not in the way the BYTs would have wanted. It dumbed down and created leaders who valued soundbites over statesmanship. It educated and informed a bit, but far less so than newspapers, which aren’t as hamstrung by regulation, which go into much more depth, and which practise proper journalism, i.e. Finding Important Stuff Out rather than Superficially Covering It — as television does most of the time. TV is primarily a medium that entertains and anaesthetises.

Broadcasting isn’t the only profession luring talent on to the rocks, so perhaps it’s unfair to single it out. But when you’ve been told not to say ‘ambiguous’ on air by a producer ‘because the audience won’t know what it means’ and spent a lifetime making shows about the fat content of burgers, as I have, you get cynical. To be fair, it can be thrilling. You work with great people, you visit great places. In my case it was an entrée to an infinitely absorbing career writing plays. So that’s all right then. And yes, there are other siren industries: advertising, PR, marketing and most egregious of all, the City. A dazzling young graduate I know (first in astrophysics, Oxford) joined a firm of management consultants.

Obviously, if we are to tempt BYTs into public life, we need to offer the prospect of a decent living. But there’s a problem. How to pay MPs (current salary: £75,000) enough to compete with your (very) average, overpaid BBC manager? One who recently left the Corporation — a bluff, decent cove who’d have made a competent teacher — was on half a million pounds a year and now has a BBC pension of £300,000. And oh yes, I nearly forgot: he also got £1,000,000 — a million quid, for God’s sake! — in redundancy. Which suggests something is indeed rotten in the state of Britain. How can the caring and/or truly important professions compete with such trouser-filling? Alternatively, we could make the concept of genuine public service more appealing. But that’s hard in this contemptuous, all-politicians-are-bastards age.

Encouragingly though, attitudes to TV seem to be changing. Nowadays, more BYTs see it for what it is. Back in Frost’s heyday when there were only three channels, a screen was an alluring, special place to be. But now that there are a million and anyone can be on a screen, the allure has gone. Hence the gag: why is TV a medium? Because it’s neither rare nor well done.

So don’t put your offspring on the screen Ms Worthington. A century or so ago, they might have run a colony. But then we lost our empire and found a role making crap TV. Now that’s not what I call progress.

Jonathan Maitland debates TV's brain drain with his old boss, Phil Harding.