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May 07, 2018



Sadly so true. It is a tragedy, as is the destruction of the universities as places of learning. And the diminished role of religion is a loss, even for those without belief. I wish there were an effective way to fight back.

Mike W


I thought the same when I recently saw an old video of Michael Foot arguing for the no vote to remain in the EC in 1975. Dodgey, shifty, Heath too.


I said to my wife, I had forgotten how bright Foot was, and how this serious lengthy debate couldn't happen on TV now.

Heil Hitlr

Shut up you r a nigger


I really hope the comment above was posted ironically to prove your point. Ironic or not, it does not belong here. Can you make it go away?


I think I would question whether the decline of intellectualism is solely a UK phenomenon. I suspect there was a backlog of intellectual elitism that hung over from pre WWII days. Some of these intellectuals gained positions of power and influence but failed to deliver much. Elitism became discredited through idleness, abuse in various forms and the intractability of the West's problems. Bumbling around in Hogwartian universities may have been OK in 1953 but not for much longer.

The question 'what is good for the country' is interesting. Just suppose we decided 'more education' was a good thing. Politicians tend to imply this but the as delivered reality is rather different probably deliberately. The question is what would it cost to raise education standards and what would we do with the product. How would we turn education spending into economic success.

This used to be simple, we simply filled our factories and offices with better educated people. Nowadays we fill our factories and offices (overseas ones) with other people. At home we keep a small cadre of those from elite universities and business schools. Then a cadre of moderately well schooled functionaries followed by a large swathe of people left to find anything they can. With the advent of robots and AI this process looks likely to continue not just for the UK but replicated across the entire world. Our past economic success depended on the rest of the world being undeveloped, as things stand we look likely to become the undeveloped nation. Mass education may not be as worthwhile as it once seemed.

So, the old intellectuals tried and failed. We are thrashing around for a solution to a seemingly insoluble economic problem. But we still have the Third Programme.

Ralph Musgrave

I suspect Chris has a point. I've read a broadsheet newpaper every day for the last 40 years (a variety of different ones), but now regard them as not worth the paper they're printed on. So I've given up.


I agree. You watch any science program and count the number of times a point is repeated then compare this to a program from the 70's.
A science program of today has about two general points which are constantly repeated with super expensive CGI.
In the 70' a science program would have a flow with maybe an unknown professor drawing on a blackboard. You would have a order of magnitude more information to consider.
Todays science are full of celebs paid most of the program budget with the graphic artist company getting the rest.
As a kid I would watch the 70's science programs in awe. Todays science programs are just mainly irritating.
The same is true for economics and other subject areas.

Thank GOD for the bloggers.


Roger Billsdon

Sadly I have to agree and I think the problem extends far beyond political and economic debate.

For example, with the launch of all the extra channels enabled by the change from analogue to digital TV and radio, I was hoping for more specialist, in-depth programming on my interests such as playing guitar, cars, digital photography and computer programming. In the 1980s BBC2 ran a couple of "Rock School" series which were a good introduction to playing guitar, bass, drums and keyboard in a group. Also back then Top Gear was a more serious, pragmatic, informative programme about cars rather than entertainment aimed at a lower common denominator. Back then the BBC championed the BBC Micro and associated programmes on computer programming. Also we had lots of Open University programmes and, on a lighter note, remember the excellent Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister series.

Surely there is room in the TV and radio schedules for modern equivalents and for some serious, informative economic programmes along the lines of Chris Dillows excellent articles in the Investors Chronicle?

Nick Drew

I have a feeling you are mainly referring to BBC output

There is plenty of excellent intellectual output from Britain today, but (as with TV in general) its dissemination has become difused - extremely difused - thanks to the www and multiplicity of platforms / outlets

the days are gone when a big BBC programme (of whatever content) would be watched by nearly everybody, and discussed by everybody the next morning

(once upon a time, 'everyone' followed the O&C Boat Race, and took sides even if they had no direct connection with either university)

maybe it was 'comforting' that all of Britain was culturally and socially bound together in these wholesome ways but, hey, it's over! Sometimes for better, sometimes for ill. As Nietzsche foresaw, we are in for some bracing times with greatly-diminished public certainties to fall back on

Dave Timoney

Key to this apparent intellectual decline has been the disappearance of the "public intellectual", whose role wasn't merely to challenge the public but to act as a tribune in challenging politicians. However, this was only possible where there was a degree of intellectual equality between the two and a willingness on the part of politicians to engage in serious debate and risk defeat.

The paucity of intellectuals in the Commons isn't so much a mirror of society as simply a statement of what is now permissible discourse, which we then see reflected in the editorial choices of Today, Question Time and the news. Our apparent intellectual decline is therefore a result of the "professionalisation" of politics and its attendant war on independent thought.

It is worth noting here that a similar "decline" has been witnessed in the USA and France, indeed British anxiety on the subject sounds trivial compared to that of the French. The fundamental problem is that politics has become too powerful in setting the intellectual weather.


Anyone else remember the Brian Walden interviews? Thoughtful, challenging and elucidatory. Nothing remotely like that now.

And is Question Time now the worst programme on television?

Handy Mike

I agree with almost everything in this post. Almost everything.

It's difficult to be simultaneously polite and accurate about the part where I disagree. So let's not bother with the former.

Paul Mason is a fucking imbecile. I've attended a few events where he's been a speaker and dipped into his books in bookshops and on the shelves of my dafter friends.

He's simply not competent to enter and contribute to the domain of political theory.


"More strikingly, can you imagine the BBC devoting 50 minutes to two old white men discussing Wittgenstein, as it did in 1976?"

I can certainly imagine that...right up to the Wittgenstein.

N. N.

To be honest, almost nothing in that discussion of Wittgenstein would be signed up to by most Wittgensteinians today. Even discounting the tremendous progress of Wittgensteinian scholarship during the past four decades (in which I have been a minor participant myself), the discussion is full of terrible oversimplifications even by the standards of its own time. It is not a coincidence that "journalist" was for Wittgenstein himself one of the strongest swear words in his vocabulary.

But Bryan Magee has always been a Wittgenstein hater at heart, as he makes very clear in his autobiography.


But we have blogs, and this has been good for intellectualism.

I studied economics at undergrad and now work as an economist. Pretty much everything useful I've learnt about economics and just generally how to think has been from blogs such as this, and doing it myself at work.

Is this an improvement versus the past? I'm not sure, but it's definitely not all bad and it will take time to work itself out.


I think this is wrong. There are lots of history programmes on TV, lots of adaptations of classic works, lots of stuff on radio such as In Our Time https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qykl. There is intellectual stuff all over the place if you want to find it.


So our blogger noticed that the range of the media has gone from high to middle brow to middle to low brow since Thatcher and Murdoch dominated politics and media, and the english media scene has become more similar to the USA or Australian one.

Why could that possibly have happened? :-)


«forgotten how bright Foot was, and how this serious lengthy debate couldn't happen on TV now.»

I was reading that before Thatcher and Murdoch, and indeed before TV, the hansard transcripts of parliamentary debates were vociferously discussed in working men's club meetings.
Compare that to this quote from a commenter on another place:

“Attended a gathering with Ann Widdecombe last night. All only of historic interest but for one comment.
To get on in politics you have to have a political personality and the best way to acquire that according to the ladder climbers is to get on Have I got News for You.. That is the word from Widdicombe.”

Boris Johnson is the outcome of that. Politicians and other media operators can choose whether to pander to their audience or engage with it, and which one works best depends on the context.
In the current context the anti-labour wing of the Labour party wants to champion the “aspirational voters who shop at John Lewis and Waitrose”...


Simon Willison, author of the Datasette software package for quickly publishing SQLite databases on the web, has imported the register of members' interests so you can do complex queries. This one shows which MPs got paid more or less than the standard £1500 for going on Have I Got News For You:


Basically, if you're a high name recognition pol, it's because Hat Trick thought you were worth spending money on. Look at the list of names.


«There is intellectual stuff all over the place if you want to find it.»

But only "if you want to find it". The default tone and topics of mainstream media instead have become noticeably lower brow, that is pandering to the lowest common denominator instead of gently raising it.

David Camp bell

Anyone know where you can get Bryan Magee's BBC interviews referred to in the blog post? I got a pang when I read in his autobiography that the BBC had wiped most of the videotapes. I also got a pang when Apple "disappeared" its "iTunes U" section from its "iTunes Store"last year. To me, that was like burning the Library at Alexandria.

George Carty

Could it be the very proliferation of channels made possible by satellite and later digital technology that cause the quality of TV to decline so much, because the limited amount of time available to TV viewers (even when assisted by VHS and later DVR recording) means that a similarly-sized pot of revenue (from the TV licence fee for BBC, or from advertising for commercial TV) was now split among a considerably larger number of channels?

This probably also explains the increasing prominence of reality dross, as that comes with additional revenue stream (in the form of phone-in voting) which can be used to subsidize other programming...


«the very proliferation of channels made possible by satellite and later digital technology that cause the quality of TV to decline so much»

In part, but not directly I think; I reckon that the best explanation was given by someone who said: most people have very different high brow main interests (music, movies, literature, politics, history, ...) but have the same few low brow interests (smut, gossip, humour, ...) so if the goal is maximize the audience the way is to pander to the lowest common denominator.
Media that have a different goal can aim instead to engage a number of slightly smaller audiences rather than pander to the lowest common denominator audience.

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