In 1946 the writer and novelist George Orwell complained that,
In very many English homes the radio is literally never turned off. […] This is done with a definite purpose. The music prevents the conversation from becoming serious or even coherent. (Tribune, 11 January 1946)
Which coming from someone who once worked for the BBC is perhaps a bit rich. On the other hand, similar complaints were made about TV in the 1960s, about video games in the 1990s, and about mobile phones in the 2010s.
So, what follows are some random thoughts about the art of radio, about listening, and about journalism. Please feel free to add your opinions by sending a reply on the link at the bottom. Journalism has come in for some sustained criticism of late. From presidents to Facebook followers the accusation of ‘fake news’ has become something of a throwaway back-snipe. The novelist and humourist PG Wodehouse, in one of his later books, managed to get to the heart of the matter:
The boy was holding the dog on a leash, the gentleman of leisure was chewing gum, and all three seemed greatly interested in something in the upper branches of the tree. Jane was not one of those girls who – when encountering the sensational – pass primly by on the other side, too well bred to give way to vulgar curiosity. She liked to be in on the throbbing swirl of events. She approached the group and asked what was going on, and the gentleman of leisure was prompt with his explanation. ‘Cat up tree’, he said, getting the meat of his story into the first paragraph like a good reporter. ‘Scared to come down, bein’ frightened of the dog…’ (Company for Henry, Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1967)
The BBC has worked hard for ninety years to perfect its newsgathering systems. You can read about the way it works in radio, online and TV here.
In recent months, and particularly during December 2019, the challenges became very real. Here’s the BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan‘s assessment. Elsewhere the chief anchor of the BBC’s News at Ten, Huw Edwards, also reflected on a tense end to 2019. According to some analysts – including the BBC itself – the fall-out could be long-lasting for the Corporation.
But as a life-long radio journalist I regard reporting accurately as an imperative. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière recently said,
Resolving to make a start and write goes hand in hand with another command, which is to learn how to see, (The Edges of Fiction, Polity: Cambridge, 2019, p. 47)
And that is what a good journalist does: observes and reflects. However, we are faced with challenges when trying to speak truth to power. Consider this, from my favourite news weekly, The Economist (17/8/19, p. 49)
Which is a very real concern. But, to be frank, journalists have never been popular. In the Bible, Paul (not known to be a journalist, but one who spoke the truth as he saw it and believed it to be) stood before Festus, the Roman governor of Judea in about AD 60, and defended his faith.
At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defence. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.” (Acts 26: 24-26, NIV)
A journalist and academic, Sarah Lonsdale, has charted popular fiction’s changing descriptions of British writers and muckrakers in the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s a book that puts much of today’s arguments and disagreements into historical context. [Full disclosure: your correspondent is working with the same publishing house on a cultural history of British radio.]
In short, we are a mixture of scum and hero; of villain and brave adventurer. It was always thus. Indeed, complaining about the radio has at times been close to a national sport in Britain. By way of a summary, take this satirical example from 1944.
The game of butting into radio programmes will soon produce such a roaring chaos that the listener will not know whether he is listening to a band contest in New York or an auction in Arabia. Surely science could invent some means by which the listeners themselves could join in, shouting comments, banging bits of iron, laughing, and tearing calico. (J.B. Morton (“Beachcomber” of the Daily Express), Captain Foulenough & Company, London, 1944, p. 35)
Which kind of pre-figures txt-ing, social media, and the radio phone-in by about forty years. That could be the topic of a future post. However, for the time being, the final word goes to J.B. Morton again, but this time from The Best of Beachcomber (edited by Michael Frayn) (London, 1988 ), (p. 146)
SIXTY HORSES WEDGED IN CHIMNEY
The story to fit this sensational headline has not turned up yet.
Let me know what you think.