The ‘Golden Snitch’ argument: ‘snobbery’ and the working-class

Last night I finally got around to reading this piece on ‘scripted reality shows’ and my heart sank when, almost inevitably, Paul Flynn’s defence of them began with:

You can sniff the snobbery at 20 paces here. Yes, of course there are lovely middle-class people in Newcastle who have dinner parties discussing their trips to exhibits at the Sage and Baltic, but they’d make deathly dull TV and wouldn’t want to be on it, anyway.

and adding:

Regional types exist on TV because they exist in life.

and celebrating that:

In the unforgiving, compelling frames of reality TV, people really are, as Dave Gahan once sang, just people.

The instant recourse to ‘snobbery’ and class as a defence of the shows is something I have heard time and time again, despite being one that falls apart even in the hands of its user. Flynn acknowledges that Made In Chelsea is about ‘Posh West Londoners’. Is Flynn arguing that these shows are only hated by ‘middle-class’ people with a snobbery about both working-class people and ‘posh’ people?! You would hope not, since such a position would be incoherent.

The bottom line of the argument is quite clear: these shows portray working-class people being working-class, and if you dislike them you are a class snob. It’s like some perverse rhetorical game of Quidditch with ‘working-class’ as the Golden Snitch – whomever manages to claim it most effectively instantly wins the argument (does referencing Quidditch make me a snob?!). It’s a pernicious tactic which is used in many different spheres of life. As the recent media brouhaha has neatly demonstrated once again, the tabloids excuse the nastier elements of what they do with an appeal to the ‘ordinary/working-class person’ who apparently wants to read everything they print. When Hugh Grant appeared on Question Time and eloquently demolished the morality of the tabloid media, he was asked ‘Who are you to tell ordinary people what to read?’ (Grant’s response of ‘Who is Murdoch to tell us who to vote for?’ was a brilliant reposte, quickly revealing that such demagogic arguments are invariably a smokescreen for the influence and interests of the powerful.) Again, the bottom line is clear: if you criticise the tabloids printing dubious stories about celebrity affairs etc, you are attacking the working-class and are a snob (and again, it’s not an argument which really holds together given the strong middle-class readership of papers like the News of the World).

It’s a frequent argument in politics too. Usually it is again used to mask and defend the interests of the powerful, even if well-intentioned. The current project of ‘Blue Labour’ is a perfect example. It summarises its appeal to the working-class as “faith, family and flag”, arguing that this community is fundamentally conservative and Labour should defend its interests and identity. I won’t write an essay on Blue Labour here but suffice to say that its appeal to working-class conservative is implicitly an appeal to a white working-class (though of late this has become rather explicit, with Glasman’s courting of the EDL and recent demand to stop immigration). The way it speaks about this community has the air of people who haven’t met a working-class person in decades telling everyone else what they think and relying on the Golden Snitch argument to undermine any and all criticism. No real evidence is offered for this working-class conservatism. The spectre of organisations like the BNP is wheeled out as justification, conveniently ignoring the fact that research suggests that there is no correlation between being working-class and supporting the BNP, and that it in fact it is the lower middle-class who are most represented in its supporters.

When did everyone become so scared of criticising anything that is perceived as working-class, to the extent that quite indefensible ideas go unchallenged for fear of being labelled a ‘snob’? Isn’t it more malign to argue that the vacant, self-obsessed characters (of all classes) typical of scripted reality represent the working-class and that any educated person attacking this is a snob? The implication here is that working-class people cannot be educated, eloquent and engaged without somehow being a class traitor. This is drivel. The implication with the tabloid argument is that you cannot be working-class and try to be moral and/or believe that much of the substance of tabloid ideology is debasing and damaging without being a class traitor. This is drivel. The implication of the Blue Labour argument is that you cannot be working-class and believe that racism and bigotry in working-class people is their own responsiblity, and inexcusable, without being a class traitor. This is drivel.

We should not be fighting to ‘level down’ by romanticising stupidity, bigotry and prurience as working-class ‘qualities’. They cut across class boundaries and they are open to criticism wherever they may be found. We also should not be fighting for a world where ‘working-class’ is romanticised to the point where everyone is scared to criticise anything which identifies with it – especially other working-class people, the vast majority of whom do not watch scripted reality shows, do not read the News of the World and do not vote for extremist parties.

I am unasamedly working-class, grew up in a working-class community and had (and continue to have) many working-class friends. I think education is a good thing. I think being engaged in the world around you is a good thing. I think believing racism and bigotry is wrong no matter where it is found is a good thing. Am I typical of the working-class? Maybe I am…some would say I’m not. Am I a snob? If you believe that, I think it says more about your own attitudes to class than anything else.

Read all about it

It goes without saying (though it’s probably still worth saying it) that the latest in the News International phone-hacking scandal is beyond the pale. Completely indefensible in every way. I couldn’t care less if The Sun and News of the World went down the pan (though I know they won’t) and everyone working at those rags was thrown onto the dole.

 It strikes me that there is a wider point to this whole affair, however. As it stands, the likelihood is that this will follow the same trajectory as the outrage that followed Princess Diana’s death: the media will isolate a certain section of itself (the paparazzi then; NOTW now) and condemn it, declare it unacceptable, demand that standards are raised (though the failure of other tabloids to do this today speaks volumes about their own practices). Readers generally will join in. There may be short-term boycotts, promises of change and ‘codes of conduct’. Then…it will all blow over and we’ll all be back where we started. The paparazzi went back to their business without comment and, at some point, the tabloids are going to return to underhand (perhaps illegal) methods to gain ‘stories’.

 And why? Well, just look at the stories which DO dominate the tabloids today. Utter drivel about some celebrities built around grainy paparazzi photographs, reported fights and reconciliations which have such detail that they are either made up or obtained in ways that are, at the very least, morally dubious. This is the bread and butter of the tabloids and there must be a reason for that. It sells. It sells in the same way that Heat magazine sells, or ‘documentaries’ following the latest Kerry Katona breakdown sell, or ‘simulated reality’ shows which promise the amoral participants a taste of ‘tabloid fame’ sell. There is a line to be drawn between all of these things and yet we do all that we can to avoid drawing it, and compartmentalise our tastes. It’s alright for us to watch the debasement and humiliation of people if they are willing participants. But surely, taken to an extreme, this is exactly the appetite which the tabloids are seeking to satiate with phone-hacking? They want ever more personal, ever more extreme, ever more embarrassing stories about public figures, even if the people in question are only in the public for horrific reasons that are not of their own choosing.

 If anything is to really, fundamentally change, I think each and every one of us needs to accept some personal responsibility for the society we live in. We need to try and stop fuelling the demand for all of this shit and recognise that our prurience and delight in devouring rubbish about public figures has real consequences for everyone. It collectively debases us. In supporting the purveyors of this we are supporting a specific ideology and encouraging (not merely allowing) the debasement of public life, of our politics, of our morality. To coin a phrase, we are all in this together.

Even catching the trailers for all of these ‘reality shows’ (a true perversion of the term if ever there was one) makes me feel like we’re living in the last days of Rome. Television devoid of any thought or merit whatsoever beyond purient voyeurism at truly horrible people. Ignorant, apolitical, greedy, amoral, superficial fame-hungry idiots with absolutely nothing to say and given an enormous platform on which to say it. It’s bad enough that one of the sole purposes of the shows seems to be so that we can all feel superior to what’s on screen; worse is that there seems to be an underlying encouragement to see these people as lovable, harmless folk who are ‘just like you’. A strained division, certainly, but one that obviously seems to work for many people.

I remember when Madonna was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame (whatever happened to that?) back in 2004, she said something along the lines of ‘I wanted to be famous because I had something to say and I wanted the world to hear it.” Now people have ‘something to say’ because they think it will help lead to fame. And that ‘something to say’ is incredibly banal – bitchy, rude, so-called ‘sassy’ remarks about nothing of importance whatsoever. Hell, WAGS are role-models compared to this lot – at least they had to *marry* someone famous.