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Tuesday, 22 October, 2002, 15:47 GMT 16:47 UK
Britons 'fail to name key figures'
One in 10 Britons cannot name a single world leader but can list up to five characters in television soap opera EastEnders, a survey suggests.
Long-term resident of Albert Square, Phil Mitchell, is apparently twice as well known to the British public as the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
The survey, called Is Britain Dumbing Down?, also indicates nearly 10% of the population never watches, reads or listens to the news.
The editor of Whitaker's Almanac, which commissioned the poll, is now calling on the government to conduct a review of how news is presented.
The survey of 1,063 people aged 16 and over showed that half spent an hour a day watching news, compared with 86% who regularly tuned into soaps, reality TV shows or sitcoms, such as Friends.
When asked to name a national leader, 11% failed to come up with an answer - including the name of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Despite this Mr Blair proved the best known leader, named by 83% of respondents.
He was followed closely by US President George W Bush, who was named by 82%.
But only a quarter could identify Iraqi President Saddam Hussein - in spite of the fact he currently featured daily in news programmes and newspapers.
Men vs women
When asked to name characters in the BBC soap EastEnders, 63% of people surveyed could name at least one and 46% named five.
Phil Mitchell was the best known fictional figure, identified by 44% of respondents.
The survey also suggests men are better informed than women.
Only 8% of women could name five world leaders, compared with17% of men.
And 7% of women named five Cabinet members, compared with 13% of men.
Only 44% of Welsh respondents could name a world leader, along with 46% of West Midlands respondents.
The South East and Scotland fared best, with only 7% of respondents unable to name a single world leader, compared with 20% in Wales and 24% in the East Midlands.
However Welsh respondents were most likely to keep up to date with the news, with only 5% confessing to never taking an interest.
Lauren Hill, editor of Whitaker's Almanac, has written to Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell to express her concerns over the results and urge the government to help improve the public's knowledge.
"We can only conclude from this report that Britain certainly is 'dumbing down'," she said.
"The population has become fanatical about celebrities.
"With major political and international news continuously on the agenda, we believe that the government has a key role to play in encouraging people to become more interested in current affairs and the world around us.
"There is so much information out there and we feel people should be encouraged to go out and grab it with both hands."
Do you know your Cabinet Ministers? Could you name five EastEnders characters? What has made Britain "fanatical about celebrities"? What could the government do to make a difference?
This debate is now closed. Thank you for your comments.
Why is it surprising that no one is interested international news? The events are so distorted that it is impossible for the average person to know what to believe. At least the soaps are the best comedies and have no canned laughter.
GP, UK living US
Is Britain dumbing down? This is a double edged knife. The current cabinet, apart from being called Labour, is no different to the Conservatives in their plastic attitudes, false promises, and failed agendas. I find it more socially rewarding to have a chat about the latest episode of Eastenders than to even admit that I can, quite ably, state more that 5 cabinet members.
When I first moved to the UK 5 years ago, I was surprised of the lack of news programs on the public TV. I came from Italy where the news is run by 7 different national channels mostly twice between 5pm and 9pm. In Britain there is news at 5pm, when the workers are still struggling to get back home, or at 10pm when people are often too tired and going to bed.
Perhaps ignorance of world affairs can be viewed positively. Western societies are fat and happy and the average citizen has no life-or-death need to be aware of political issues. Unlike, say, the citizens of Zimbabwe, who are able to eat only if they belong to Mugabe's thug party.
It starts from being young. Kids spend too much time watching soaps instead of reading a good book.
Patrick Campbell, Spain
Maybe it's time to rename the UK as Great Britney and the national anthem can be changed to God save the Queen Vic with the Neighbours theme music as an alternative for those who prefer something a little less hymn like. Oh, and don't forget Gareth or is it Will for PM.
Today's news says it all. On the front page of the Guardian, while the PM was trying to talk peace between India and Pakistan with one hand, with the other he was trying to sell India "training" fighter aeroplanes. When politicians do these things after claiming to run "ethical" foreign policies, is it any wonder we all switch off?
Things are even worse here in the US where I have been living for the past five years. When I lived in California, the top news story on the local TV station's main weekend news programme was the local premiere of a major film release. Nothing is too trivial to make the news ahead of world or national affairs here if the story is local. Even after 11 September, most Americans have gone back to thinking that what happens outside their town is of little importance.
I have lived and worked in a number of other countries, including Poland and Finland and I have never come across such widespread ignorance, as exists in the UK. Their only serious competitors (equally obsessed by vacuous fame and vicarious living) are the North Americans. If I never live in England again, I am sure this will prove to be one of the main reasons.
I read once that the inventor of television said "I have just invented the world's best time waster". Looks like we've proven him right. Television can be a great form of information, but it is mostly used to fill the gaps in people's lives to stop them getting bored. Don't get me wrong, I like nothing better than a bit of harmless escapism, but when the first thing you do when you walk in the front door is switch on the telly, you need to re-evaluate your life.
The title of the poll - "Is Britain Dumbing Down?" suggests a premeditated bias on the behalf of the compilers. You can make any statistic seem plausible with appropriate bias. I'd suggest a closer look at the framing of the questions asked would reveal that far more than the implied 89% of respondents knew the name of the Prime Minister.
Tom Van den Berckt, Belgium
Would the survey results have been much different 50 years ago. I seriously doubt it.
Who's this Phil Mitchell? Is he the leader of the Tory Party?
This poll has confirmed what I have suspected for years. T.V. soaps exist for the sole purpose of filling the heads of certain members of the population with inconsequential tripe; this stops them from thinking too hard. I am sure that this sort of viewing is heartily encouraged by the establishment. Let's face it, if you want to convince Joe and Josephine Public that they are content with life, what better way than broadcasting the strife and pathos so commonly seen in soaps.
Andrew Nisbet, UK
This is really a very dull news story. Why didn't you ask someone famous for a comment - like that girl who came sixth in Pop Idol, or that woman who can't pass her driving test? Really, it's no wonder people take little interest in news.
Surely the BBC can shoulder some responsibility for this?
If it tried harder to produce original informative programming and less to keep up with commercial television stations perhaps people would have the option of watching programmes that engage rather than disengage their brains.
Whoever said that the BBC should shoulder some blame for the problem obviously doesn't pay enough attention to the website. I have never seen a news organization which provides so much information about the world rather than regional news alone. Perhaps this problem comes from the expensive nature of internet access in G.B. and the inability of the British masses to access the website for news?
Ewan Slater, England
I can't see how the government could bring in measures to prevent people from exercising their right to be vapid and superficial. In the long term, better education could help, particularly if the curriculum focused a bit more on world events and ensured that children understood how the political system works. I had no idea how it worked until I was about 17.
Perhaps Dot and Pauline should discuss the roots of Islamic terrorism, Saddam's oppression of the Kurds, and the US withdrawal from the Kyoto agreement in the laundrette.
Do we need to have a country full of intellectuals?
The main problem is the media cannot be bothered to package this information to appeal to the general public. Politicians are so lifted from 'normal' life they have no idea how to make themselves understood or interesting to joe public.
Hopefully this survey will put an end to the sneering and utterly hypocritical view, held by many British, that Americans are ill-educated brutes.
That's incredible. I'm not even old enough to be included in the survey but I could name five members of the Cabinet and most of the aforementioned world leaders. One thinks this comes about because working-class people don't have the spare time to even watch the news, and at the end of the day, people watch TV (soaps, films etc) to be entertained, not to be informed about all the bad things on this planet and how Iraq, Korea et al plan to blow us all up by 2008.
I'd like to be able to say I couldn't name five EastEnders characters, but although I never watch it, it's everywhere you turn. This boils down to two simple facts - firstly, politics is boring, soaps have to have broad appeal to succeed - a feat that no political party in history has managed! Secondly, there's an awful lot of money to be made from celebrities. The whole industry relies on relentless self-promotion. In conclusion, perhaps all politicians should spend their first year of work in 'Fame Academy' to learn how to appeal to the couch potato population.
Yes I could name five Cabinet members, and more, despite being 22 and living in the Midlands! I consider worldly knowledge a huge asset for interviews and general intelligence and general knowledge, and it shows people you are an up-to-date person.
But politics must take some of the blame. Blair's circus of spin and the downright out-of-touch nature of politics means it is a total turn-off to people. You'd have thought they'd have learned that with the low turn out year after year...
I am surrounded by peasants and fools.
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