Wise to media tricksters

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
Back in the 19th century, when mass schooling began to spread, there was a fear in some quarters that teaching the peasantry to read and write was a bad move. If the proles ever found out what was really going on in the world they would probably start a riot, so leave the dim beggars to fester cheerfully on, anaesthetised under the soothing simplicity of their ignorance.

Today we can hear exactly the same sentiments being expressed about media studies. Although learning how the mass media work is a legitimate part of the national curriculum, it is loudly condemned by snobs, who usually know nothing about teaching such a subject, but hope they can ridicule it away as an irrelevance or a soft option.

There is a multi-billion-pound pressure on everyday life exerted by advertisers, spin doctors, confidence tricksters, spivs and rip-off merchants, let alone more benign peddlers. Gaining awareness of the manifold and clever techniques of communication and influence should be an important part of becoming an adult citizen in the 21st century.

A healthy society gives children the opportunity to become streetwise about techniques of persuasion, for their own protection.

The cartoon channels on satellite television are a prime example of mass brainwashing in the early years. A typical half-hour programme is liberally punctuated with frantic puffs for junk food, while crappy pieces of coloured plastic are hyped up as wonderfully exciting space-age games and toys. It makes the entirely predictable plot of the Scooby Doo episode actually appear intelligent alongside it, even though the baddie always turns out to be the little runt who showed them round at the beginning of the programme.

I was reminded of the relative helplessness of many citizens in the face of slick propaganda when the value-added league tables came out for 11 to 14-year-olds. In such tables about 75 or so out of the top 77 secondary schools tend to be grammar schools. This results in much public abuse for comprehensive schools and their pupils and teachers, because, after all, these are value-added tables, so schools in theory start level.

However, when the results for the next older group appear, showing developments between the ages of 14 and 16, a different story emerges.

In 2002, some 85 of the top 86 value adders for this age group were actually comprehensive schools, and the 2003 results are similar. Yet, comparatively little publicity is given to this information and the damage to comprehensive schools has in any case already been done.

A media-smart society would be quicker to pick up such matters and also to realise that there must be some artefact at work, as it is highly unlikely that particular types of school can be brilliant at adding value one minute and lousy the next.

No less a person than John Patten (and there was no less a person than good old JP), when he was secretary of state, launched a vitriolic attack on an English exam paper that invited pupils to dismantle claims being made in some dense prose taken from a beefburger advert.

"I want children to study Shakespeare, not Ronald McDonald," he thundered.

Well, don't we all? But it was one part of an English language test, and why shouldn't children learn how to challenge the rhetoric of the artificers who try to brainwash them?

Richard Nixon was a crook, but his aides made very clever use of one-minute commercials and sophisticated image-building techniques to persuade American voters that he was a model of probity. Thousands will die prematurely because advertisers tell them that cigarettes are cool as a mountain stream, when they are in fact on fire and full of carcinogens.

Every day we are bombarded by wave upon wave of persuasion, much of it based on counterfeit argument. Nine out of ten people can tell margarine from axle grease.

Famous person X uses Whizzo toothpaste (but only during the filming of the commercial). The Prime Minister suggests that supporting his top-up fees policy is the only British thing to do and opponents are probably working for Satan, a tactic successfully used earlier by General de Gaulle, among others.

In our society dissemblers not only flourish but, perversely, they can even be revered, like master criminals, or tyrants. Spin doctors are paid to turn lies into truth and rebrand truth as a lie. Being a citizen in the 21st century is like writing virus-detection software for computers: it becomes that little bit harder each day to stay ahead of the snakes, so you can only try to catch up after they have bitten somebody.

That is why it is important to teach children how the mass media work. If you don't, erI your ears will drop off. Honest.

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