John Humphrys is well known in my country as a fearless, argumentative journalist and interviewer. Surprisingly, his morning radio programme is still the country’s main forum for political debate rather than TV. He puts the knife into politicians. As one of them, not known for his weakness at least as a media performer, has said: ‘He is forensic. Like a skilful dentist he probes to discover the weak area in any argument, and then relentlessly picks at it, painfully enlarging the hole without the benefit of anaesthetic.’
However, the book is much more than a record of forensic interviews. It’s about Britain and how we have gone wrong politically, socially and personally. I apologize for reviewing a book for Alliance which is only about Britain, but I feel what it has to say has universal application for citizens everywhere.
For he says we are in danger of becoming non-citizens. We are becoming mere consumers. We are manipulated and apparently happy to be so. We buy what others decide we should buy. We believe what others would have us believe: politics is by focus groups among key segments of the electorate, it is about remaining in power. Ideals are out.
This has to stop says Humphrys. ‘And so say I!’
Companies need to be stopped in their tracks when they take us for granted — as with GM food.
Political parties need to be thrown out when they become too clever, too all-seeing, too manipulative and too patronizing. (This is code for New Labour under Tony Blair.)
We are sliding slowly, apathetically and corporately downhill – Rupert Murdoch controls what we see. Thank God for the BBC? No, says Humphrys, for it too has become flaccid, seeking the lowest common denominators of the ratings and, like CNN, the cheapest journalistic techniques.
Towards the end of the book he writes: ‘Now I have to bring the book to an end with a Grand Solution. There is a slight problem here. I don’t have one.’ But he does. The final chapter is called ‘The Dissident Citizen’. And the dissident citizen is the solution.
Empowered (sorry!) by digitalized data systems, you and I know as much as them, the others — and we know it at the same moment in time. We can now associate on the web and stop buying certain brands, stop voting for the couch-potato life and start being dissident, if we so choose. Very slowly more of us are choosing to do so.
One way of looking at civil society is as the aggregation of individuals — not as an aggregation of NGOs. The dissident citizen is to be found in government, corporates, churches.
John Humphrys is the latest in a long line of awkward British citizens like Tom Paine (who lived in my home town, Lewes, Sussex). His book is worth reading even if you are not a regular listener to his London-based Today programme on BBC Radio 4 live every morning.
Michael Brophy is Chief Executive at CAF.
The Devil’s Advocate
John Humphrys Hutchinson £16.99
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