Thursday, January 18, 2007

Devil's Advocate - John Humphrys

I'm not sure how well-known he is abroad, but most Britons will know John Humphrys as the hard-nosed, politician-grilling presenter of the Today programme, one of the last bastions of serious political debate. I have to admit I've never actually listened to it - I hardly ever use the radio - but I'm glad it exists, and when I spotted this book while spending my Christmas money I thought it would be interesting to see Humphrys's take on today's society. Interesting it certainly is, but today's society it isn't - quite.

Devil's Advocate turns out to have been written in 1999, which sounds quite recent but was actually (whisper it) eight years ago. It's also a year I know very little about, as I was out of the country for the duration, so many of the "current" cultural phenomena he mentions go zooming over my head. It was a time when the word "texting" was only just being invented, the internet had less than 5 million websites, and reality TV was in its infancy. All of this serves to make Humphrys's complaints look just a little weird - while his general themes cover a broad cultural swathe, and the core arguments haven't dated that much, it's very odd to see a diatribe against cheap telly that makes no mention of Big Brother, and an entire book about modern society that completely ignores the internet.

I don't want to give the impression that this book is just the incoherent grumblings of an old man harking back to yesteryear - far from it. The prose is as intelligent, concise and articulate as you'd expect from such a veteran journalist, and Humphrys has no qualms about pointing the finger at those he considers responsible for society's ills - not teenage vandals or even politicians, but mostly the media and market forces that have turned us from citizens into consumers. He makes the valid point that, while it would be stupid to wish for a return to the Fifties, that doesn't mean that the current social model is the best alternative. I don't necessarily agree with all of his analysis - for example, he makes the bizarre claim that, despite all of the evidence, TV violence does cause violence in real-life, simply because that's "common sense" - but it is all very well argued and he certainly raises many issues to think about.



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