UK talent seeks TV celebrity rather than professional excellence

There’s a moment in the film Zulu (pictured below) where a missionary is carted out of the army outpost at Rorke’s Drift, South Africa, shouting: “Don’t you realise? Can’t you see? You’re all going to die!”

They look at him with typical British stoicism and know they’ll be damned if they are going to be pushed around by Johnny Foreigner. A few minutes later, they’re a hair’s breadth away from being massacred by the Zulus.

Fast-forward 128 years and I feel compelled to be a modern harbinger of doom. So here it is: we’re doomed – doomed, I tell you.

It’s a cheery message, I know, but there’s no other way to put it. It’s not the Zulus this time, but a foreign threat nonetheless. I’m talking about the march of the emerging economies here, with particular reference to China, whose economy expanded by 10.7% in 2006, marking the fastest growth since 1995. That’s the fourth period of double-digit growth in as many years.

To be fair, the British economy is making a bit of a fight of it at the moment, but you have to wonder how long it can last. The Leitch report into skills levels in the UK showed the foundations are very shaky – as a country, our grasp of reading and writing is lamentable, and we need far more than basic skills to survive.

High-tech mastery was supposed to be our destiny – yet where is our torrent of scientists and engineers? They’re nowhere to be seen. Such is the drought that you’d think the UK might qualify for some kind of international rescue package.

Too much like hard work

The problem is that this kind of thing is just a bit too much like hard work. Why study the complexities of nano-technology or the like when you could be doing a media studies course?

Meanwhile, our competitors are working obscene hours for low wages, and what’s more they’re churning out the high-tech folk in the hundreds of thousands. I’m certainly not arguing for low wages or slave labour conditions in this country, just a realisation that if we want high wages and a cushy lifestyle, not everyone can be a journalist (God forbid).

The sad thing is, the clever folk in government and in industry saw this coming. They have begged, pleaded and even thought about coercing the population into taking their educational choices seriously. But they fight a mighty beast bent on our destruction. I call him ‘Realitor’ – a beast that knows no bounds except those imposed by the size of our television screens. Others just call him reality TV.

Realitor feeds on our hopes and dreams and more importantly on our desire to get something for nothing. Research by the Learning and Skills Council found that more than one in 10 young people would now drop out of education to be on TV, even though the odds of being picked for a reality TV show and being successful afterwards are about one in 30 million – worse odds than winning the National Lottery.

Auditions for the next Big Brother have just attracted applicants in their thousands across the UK, and so the fiendish brute Realitor feeds and becomes more powerful.

And while the TV-based monstrosity covers us with his secret weapon – the Mist of Apathy – the dastardly creature also takes something away: our Sense of Responsibility. How else can we explain the fact that initiative after initiative is failing to get people to appreciate the importance of their education?

Armchair etiquette

It seems, then, that most people think the UK is as immune to foreign threats as our over-confident ancestors did at the time of the conflict with the Zulus.

I was heartened to see a survey by Deloitte that showed 50% of the working population believe the UK’s status as a global power is decreasing. Could this mean we will hit critical mass and everyone will realise what trouble we’re in? Well… no – the next stat in the research was that 69% believe maintaining the UK’s position is the government’s responsibility. This basically means two out of three people will go back to their sofas while it’s all sorted out.

And so Realitor tightens his grip.

There are two things to do as far as I can see. First, for the good of our future, make sure your company is doing all it can to train its staff – if only for its own competitive advantage. Second, petition the companies that make reality TV to sell the rights to China, India, Brazil and any other emerging threats you can think of. This way we can pack Realitor off on a tour of those countries and let him wreak havoc somewhere else.

By Michael Millar, business journalist and author



Do you agree with Michael? Or is he wide of the mark? E-mail your response to [email protected]


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