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Television and the Decline of Deference

Stuart Clayton ask whether the mass media have undermined the status of leading authority figures in Britain since 1945.

Unlike Gladstone and Disraeli, the careers and achievements of David Lloyd George and John Prescott are rarely the subject of fruitful comparative analysis. Yet a glance over their respective biographies does give rise to one interesting comparison: whereas Lloyd George was able to keep his affair with his secretary, Frances Stevenson, hidden from the public for 30 years, Prescott’s ‘two year fling’ with one of his secretaries was splashed all over tabloids in 2006, with headlines such as ‘My Affair: By Prezza’. Clearly there has been a great deal of change in the way leading figures of authority are presented to the public via the mass media. The greater scale, intrusiveness and instantaneousness of the media have undermined the reserved detachment that was once the privilege of elites. Through the promotion of the cult of ‘celebrity’, the mass media have also encouraged the British public to hold more democratic criteria for the treatment and judgement of all kinds of public figure, from the Queen to ‘reality TV stars’. However, to hold the media solely responsible for a decline in popular deference is unconvincing: in most cases they have simply reflected changes ushered in by other powerful forces, such as the legacy of two World Wars and vastly increased material prosperity.

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