Few articles about the UK’s upcoming election have raised my hackles as much as an article by Stuart Heritage entitled Ed Miliband admitting to not watching TV is a big mistake. Heritage picks up on a quote in a recent interview with Ed Miliband for the Radio Times in which he said “I tend not to watch the news, actually” and wrote:
“This, combined with hints elsewhere that he isn’t keeping up to date with Game of Thrones, seems to border upon a dangerous admission that he doesn’t watch TV at all”.
Heritage seems to believe that not watching television is a dangerous social trait, which somehow renders people suspicious, untrustworthy, and deeply shifty. He continues:
“And this, obviously, will not stand. We’ve all met people who don’t watch television, and we’ve all been immediately creeped out by them. It’s a generally accepted fact that the only people worse than people who don’t watch television are people who don’t own televisions, and the only people worse than those people are people who use internet comment sections to tell other people that they don’t own televisions”.
Far from it being a “dangerous admission”, I am proud to shout from the rooftops that I haven’t had a television for 20 years. Last TV I had was a small black and white portable with a round wire aerial you had to wiggle around that we used to watch ‘Blind Date’ on. To the best of my knowledge, my televisionlessness is not a fact that has creeped anyone out (do tell me, dear friends, if I have horrifically misread the signals here). I am proud also to say that my kids grew up without one, and that they, presumably against the odds, managed to grow up as rounded, caring and delightful young men, more than able to make conversation on a range of topics.
One of the key questions that struck me, reading Heritage’s piece, was who actually does watch TV anymore? Not many people I know. Everyone under 20 that I know would rather watch stuff on YouTube, and other channel-specific online players than actual TV. When I do occasionally get to watch TV, I am staggered by the inane rubbish that passes as popular culture.
My dearly beloved and I recently had two nights away, staying in a place with a TV. We were genuinely excited that we could put our feet up and be entertained. Having last had a telly when there were only 4 channels, having now 50 or so to choose from was sure to yield some indispensible content. We were rather looking forward to it.
We leapt about the channels, and in spite of our best efforts found that we ended up watching ‘Storage Wars’, where aggressive pushy North Americans come to blows over the unknown contents of shipping containers. It was morbidly fascinating for about 5 minutes and then just depressing. We tried some of the endless property shows where people get shown round houses just slightly out of their price bracket and wonder whether they should risk penury to appease the presenter. Or pointless celebrity shows with people who are just famous for having been mildly famous once. And of course the awful panel shows seemingly amusing only to the people on the panels. Or that really cheap TV where they put cameras on the front of police cars and just edit the footage together (actually I quite enjoy that stuff). A Golden Age of TV is isn’t.
And as for Heritage’s assertion that not being up to speed with Game of Thrones is an indication of dubious moral character, I would strongly beg to differ. I sat through (well, actually mostly slept through) the first 3 seasons of Game of Thrones (my wife loved it, oddly), and I hated every misogynistic, abusive, unnecessarily violent minute of it. I gave up very quickly on the pointless storyline that made no sense, and the characters I didn’t care about (i.e. all of them). It was like flipping backwards and forwards between the Adult Channel and a Lord of the Rings DVD. I hated it, although I appreciate that some people like that kind of thing. Not sure which useful and constructive values it brings into the world other than the idea that you really can’t trust anyone at all under any circumstances.
Extending Heritage’s logic, everyone in the time presumably before telly must have had an absolutely rotten time. Endless dreary days sitting around, nothing to talk to each other about, morosely sitting waiting for John Logie Baird (see right) to pull his finger out and invent television so they’d finally have something to stimulate conversation. No games, no conversation, no imagination, no creativity. God, it must have been dreadful.
I think what Heritage is trying to say is that not being up to speed with Game of Thrones, Storage Wars and all the other banal stuff that fills the channels somehow means that in any social gathering you will be left without any way of conversing with anyone, with no common ground whatsoever. That ‘popular culture’ is the only common ground left to us. That without a basic grounding in Eastenders you will left lonely and friendless. That Ed Miliband risks being unable to find anything to talk about with voters, ending up like someone shunned by fellow partygoers as some kind of dull social pariah.
The reality is of course very different. It has never happened to me that in spite of having no TV I have ever failed to find common ground with people. When he writes “it’s a generally accepted fact that the only people worse than people who don’t watch television are people who don’t own televisions”, I could just as easily turn that on its head and say that actually I think the degree to which people get out and make the world a better place, give time to meaningful activity in their community, start new projects, learn new skills, grow some food, is inversely proportionate to the amount of time they spend watching TV. Does a world teetering on the brink of runaway climate change need people watching more, or less TV? Discuss.
‘Storage Wars’ or planting out pea seedlings? The Jeremy Kyle Show or helping organise a street party? ‘Location, Location, Location’ or draughtbusting your home with friends and neighbours? It’s an easy choice for me. Does watching TV better root you in your culture and the time and place you live in, or distance you from it?
Heritage is so wrong: personally speaking, I would be far more interested in hearing Ed Miliband saying that he is too busy helping projects in his community, spending time with his kids, teaching his kids to whittle sticks, going to see actual live music or comedy, or growing parsley in his raised beds to watch Game of Thrones. Would he find that he has somehow lost the ability to make conversation with people? Of course not.
We chose not to have a TV in our family home because we didn’t want to give a high pressure salesperson for junk food corporations have unrestricted access to our children’s minds. And because as a family trying to raise our children in a way not driven by consumerism, why would we want those values continuously undermined? Research about the impacts of television on young children’s minds, and on their imaginations, is truly frightening. Some psychologists now argue that children under three ought not have any exposure to it at all. It can lead to less sensitivity to violence and a greater acceptance to the idea that violence is a way to resolve difficulties. It can hamper educational development, increase risk of obesity and much more. Kids growing up unable hold their own in a conversation about Storage Wars should really be the least of our concerns.
Does all this mean I am disconnected from popular culture? Of course not. I listen to the radio. I read the news online. I, erm, talk to people. I watch things on iPlayer – I get to watch key things as and when I want to (which isn’t very often). I watched all of Wolf Hall in the hope that something interesting would happen. It didn’t. I watched Sherlock which is brilliant. I still get to watch Match of the Day, just a couple of days after everyone else.
By making time to actually do things, meet with neighbours, do things with my kids, get involved with Transition stuff, grow my garden, I actually have REAL things to discuss with people. The irony of the term “reality television” is striking. I couldn’t name anyone from TOWIE (although sadly I do know what the letters stand for) but I do know the name of most people in my street, and which of them keep chickens. Which is most real?
“To demonstrate a blanket lack of television knowledge”, Heritage writes, “is ridiculous”. But to assume that television knowledge is what makes people interesting and relevant is vacuous and even more ridiculous. Come on Ed Miliband. Come out of the TV closet (or should that be cabinet?)! You don’t watch TV. That’s fine. Celebrate it. Tell us about what you do instead. Your knowledge of your family, your street, your garden, tell us much more about you than your understanding of Game of Thrones.