Last autumn I spent a couple of days at the New York Times. The staff (not to mention several thousand readers) were still recovering. On the paper's sober, hallowed front page -- the nearest thing journalism can boast to a tablet of stone -- there had recently appeared a story about Britney Spears. The Manhattan sky had fallen in. Fights broke out among Times staffers. The paper's switchboard was jammed. The editor was denounced the length and breadth of the Upper East Side. It had finally happened: the great New York Times had dumbed down.
To visiting British eyes, the debate seemed a little old hat. I thought back to raging rows we had had back in April 1994 over the death of Kurt Cobain. There were some on the staff who thought Cobain beneath the attention of Guardian readers -- no matter that half their children had been up all night in tears.
In the end we carried hundreds of words on the suicide. Part of our thinking was, to be frank, strategic. How could we convince the next generation of readers that newspapers were relevant to their lives if we ignored stories that were, well, relevant to their lives? But actually, it was right in news terms to cover Cobain's death properly. However you look at it, it was a significant story about the world as it was. Not as we would like it to be, but as it was.
And of course we were accused of dumbing down. The same furious fights they've been having in New York over Britney. And this same debate has raged not only in news-papers, but in more or less any organization that deals in creative and intellectual property.
You might say two things about this current debate. One is that it is utterly understandable. We've all seen enough dumbing-down in our lives to want to be on guard against any more manifestations of it. The other is that the debate is a terribly confused one. One in which we can't quite find even the right language to describe our fears. Concepts such as elitism, a canon of works, access, diversity and standards clash into each other -- or, worse still, miss altogether.
Would many of us prefer to live in a world in which Britten or Birtwistle out-sold Britney or Limp Bizkit? Of course. But if we want to live in the world as it is, rather than the world as we'd like it to be -- you have to make tricky decisions about how much you can skew your coverage towards cultural forms that, however important, do not seem terribly popular in relative numerical terms. Certainly, any newspaper that had the same age profile as the audience for classical music concerts would be thinking about filing for chapter 11 protection.
Surveys suggest that you have a 4 percent chance of finding anyone under the age of 24 at an average classical music concert, and a further 6 percent under 34. Young people appear overwhelmingly to find other sorts of music more appealing -- and it's not dumb to explore that, or even celebrate it. The Britney Spears phenomenon is an interesting one. It was reported at one point that she even stirred the flinty heart of the prime minister's official spokesman. It would be perverse of the New York Times not to write about her.
How ridiculous The Times of the 1960s now seems. There it was at the heart of the most extraordinary cultural explosion -- the music Tony Blair grew up with: the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd, the Who -- and barely a word about any of it was allowed into the paper.