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The infantile leftist frenzy which overcame the BBC after the second Iraq war has burned itself out. Its better journalists began fighting back after their colleagues presented the 7/7 attacks on London as an acceptable punishment for voting for Tony Blair. Justifying mass murder in Iraq was one thing, making excuses for the men who murder licence fee-payers was another. In any case, America looms too large in the imagination of broadcasting executives for anti-Americanism to become a permanent ideology. Reconciliation was always likely, but it has been speeded by Barack Obama, who for better and for worse, is a wealthy European's dream candidate.

So the BBC sent Simon Schama to the US to film The American Future, a four-part series on how the dominant themes of its history are shaping it in the 21st century. As a good liberal academic, Professor Schama oozes disapproval. There is hardly a scene when he isn't scowling or scolding. Yet you also sense that this is the BBC's Nixon-in-China moment, when old ideological disagreements are put aside. Like an ambassador to a barbaric land, the professor hints that if Americans behave themselves, mutually profitable relations may soon be restored.

Although it is easy to pick holes in his arguments, it is always a pleasure to learn what he is thinking. However, I urge readers to renew their acquaintance with Professor Schama by buying or borrowing his book of the film (American Future, Bodley Head, £20) rather than by watching the series. Far from revealing what has gone wrong with American politics, it shows all too gruesomely what has gone wrong with British television.

I cannot overemphasise how philistine the medium has become. Media executives loathe complexity and scholarly argument. On the rare occasions they feel obliged to present either - to justify the licence fee, to give them something to boast about at dinner parties - they deal with intellectuals like a spinster confronting a sex maniac. Containment is the order of the day. The intellectual must be managed and constrained until his argument is "accessible" enough for viewers they take to be cretins to understand.

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Rob Weatherill
November 10th, 2008
4:11 PM
'The intellectual must be managed and constrained until his argument is "accessible" enough for viewers they take to be cretins to understand'. Correct. This also applies to the once great programme, "Horizon", which has been reduced to often no more than scientific special effects.

November 9th, 2008
10:11 PM
Having read Citizens, I thought it was a terrible, manipulative and dishonest book. Sounds like Simon Schama was just right for the BBC.

November 4th, 2008
10:11 AM
But TDK I don't understand. if the BBC's approach to Schama is 'killing him' then surely we should look to his most recent work as a way in to seeing exactly what has been lost by the BBC treatment. But the book is in the same format and style as the TV programme. So evidently if Schama is being ruined by the BBC they have also taken over his writing as well as presenting. Or maybe - just maybe - Nick hasn't actually read Schama's book (which has been very badly received by the historical community, by the way) and is hoping nobody notices. Of 'narrative' is to blame, it is a narrative written by one S. Schama. You can't pin this one on the beeb.

November 3rd, 2008
12:11 PM
The problem is a generation of media studies student has learnt the art of "narrative". Couple this with the assumption that we all have the attention span of goldfish and the result is the dumbing down of TV documentaries. Nice article Nick. I particularly liked "Each man kills the thing he loves, and when the BBC puts Schama on air it tells him to engage in the clichéd emotions and pathetic fallacies he earned his fame by denouncing."

October 30th, 2008
4:10 PM
You complain that the programme is arranged thematically, and I sympathise. But then you say peopel should ignore the programme because of this and go to the book - which you neglect to mention is also arranged thematically and is full of Schama's personal opinions and emoting. What's the difference?

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