Just pick up a copy of the Sun. Is this Britain? Is this what we’ve done to ourselves? How can the people who work on that paper go home and face their families without any sense of shame? I’d be ashamed to the pit of my guts if I were forced to do it, and some of them are, to be fair, forced to do it, because they don’t want to be unemployed. They need to earn. Some of them do things that they are appalled by. I know that, I’ve met some of them. But my God, what a system.
The quote above is from Dennis Potter’s final interview, an astonishing, moving affair which stands as a transcendent piece of art in its own right. I was instantly reminded of it when I saw the above excerpt from The Sun’s front page.The interview is 20 years old and much about it belongs to another time (can we even envisage such an interview being broadcast in 2014?) Yet a great deal of what Potter says is remarkably prescient and powerful (and it’s almost impossible not to contrast his dignified authority with the facile attention-seeking of Russell Brand today). Potter, of course, came from a working-class background – the son of a miner, no less – and his voice belongs to a long and rich history of working-class intellectualism. We’re not supposed to remember this history. We’re not supposed to remember that to be working-class and intelligent, working-class and articulate, working-class and autodidactic, is no aberration. We’re not supposed to remember this because if we do, we remember the power and possibility which we possess. This just wouldn’t do. So instead we’re encouraged, made even, to shrink our horizons and shackle our imaginations. We’re told that to be ordinary, to be working-class, is to know our place. To defer to authority, stand proudly before the flag and blunt our minds. To believe that more is not only possible but necessary is to have ideas above our station, to be a snob, to sneer. So here’s your free flag to show that they care. They respect your right to be the kind of ordinary person who channels their ire at working-class immigrants rather than billionaire media oligarchs. Raise a glass to being ordinary!
I offer these excerpts from Potter but impore you to put aside an hour to watch the full interview when you can – you won’t regret it:
…I call my cancer—the main one in the pancreas—Rupert, because Murdoch is the one. There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press, and the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life, and it’s an important part of the cynicism and misperception of our own realities that is destroying so much of our political discourse.
Q. You do feel the state of decay has deeply set in, don’t you?
I do. With great regret and pity, and a feeling of shame of self. But it’s rescuable, just. It’s up to people to stand up and shout a bit. Not to turn it into cynicism, which I’m afraid is what is happening. Politics is still crucially important. Our choices are vital, and we’ve got to make them and not just say, ‘Oh they’re all the same.’ They are all the same in certain ways, alas—a political animal is such an animal. But lurking somewhere behind their rhetoric and their spittle are important choices that we should make.
Q. Do you think the overall sense of decay that you’ve talked about stems from political decay, or that political decay stems from other powerful symptoms?
Both. They interlace. The press and politics. The commercialization of everything means you’re putting a commercial value upon everything and you turn yourself from a citizen into a consumer, and politics is a commodity to be sold. Look what’s happening to television in general. Look who owns it. The arguments of respectable, liberal commentators about size, economies of scale, and so on, are all nonsense. A programme costs what a programme costs. It can be made by a tiny company. It’s a question of ownership of the means of communications, ‘the mass media’ in J.B. Priestley’s phrase; of political control. How can we have a mature democracy when newspapers and television are beginning to be so interlaced in ownership? Where are our freedoms to be guaranteed? Who is going to guarantee them? Look at the power that Murdoch has. Look at the effects of all these takeovers.The world of television or radio when we came into it, I’m not saying that world wasn’t paternalistic, and I’m not saying it can be preserved as it was, and I’m not saying there mustn’t be change, but that world was based upon a set of assumptions that are now almost derisible,laughable. Like in politics, certain statements become derisible. We’re destroying ourselves by not making those statements.
…Sometimes I get out of bed and I don’t know whether I’m right-wing or left-wing, to be honest, because I feel the pull of both. I feel the pull of tradition, and I love my land, I love England, and when I’m abroad, I genuinely feel homesick. I’ve always loved my country, but not drums and trumpets and billowing Union jacks and busby soldiers and the monarchy and pomp and circumstance, but something about our people that I come from and therefore respond to. And I expect other people to do it of their own backgrounds and nations and cultures, too. But those things are very difficult to put prices on and to quantify in the terminology of Mrs Thatcher and the current government. They use phrases like ‘community care’ when they mean ‘Close that costly thing and put that madman onto the street.’ And then if it’s in front of their noses they’ll do another makeshift measure and claim that things are getting better, or that the per-head spending has gone up. So what? It may have done, but what is actually happening when a young person in many, many a town in this country sees no prospect of a job?Then they will moralize, that’s the worst thing, and say, ‘Oh, crime is everything to do with the criminal.’ What is a life of not expecting to get work? What is a life of only expecting cynicism in political conversation? What is a life that sees no horizon further than the latest nasty video and cable tv and the Murdochs and The Sun?