On Radio

Elusive quest for impartiality

I would cavil at the curse of the presenter monologue, tending to sway the audience one way or the other, reveals Anne McElvoy

Illustration of Anne Mcelvoy's face

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering four issues for just £10.

Radio 4 is as familiar to a middle-class British audience as a lockdown Waitrose delivery. It also has many of the same strengths and weaknesses, being high-quality and undershooting at stand-out moments. Just as you rarely get a surprise in the Waitrose chilled ready-meal sections, the big ask for Radio 4 is: “What have you got for us that is not just another organic chicken tagine?”

The positives have been on display in a year when we have staggered downstairs to start a day of Zooms with the Today programme in the background. I have even been so tired on a Saturday after trying to get the teenagers out of bed that I tried the afternoon drama lucky dip. It ranges from the bland sub-genre of J.B. Priestley-derived comeuppances to totally random bits of programming like “The Jungle Book — a gangland coming-of-age fable”.

I have even been so tired on a Saturday after trying to get the teenagers out of bed that I tried the afternoon drama lucky dip

Tim Davie, the chirpy new director general, insists that the BBC should appeal to the whole of the UK (yep, even the parts not shopping at Waitrose). So more regional accents are encouraged (good) but my guess is that what puts “underserved” audiences off is unfamiliarity with pseudo-academic jargon as much as a dearth of northern accents. Researchers into language shifts will one day enjoy counting up the unquestioned mentions of “late-stage capitalism” and “intersectionality” now regularly thrown into intros, baffling a good chunk of the audience.

Mohit Bakaya was appointed controller in July 2019, a savvy commissioning editor with a brief to reinvigorate a schedule which was serving older listeners, not attracting “replenishers”, and relied too heavily on social-democratically-inclined chaps telling us how the world works (Andrew Marr, Neil MacGregor, Melvyn Bragg and Jonathan Dimbleby — the latter now replaced by the more relaxed northern tones of Chris Mason at Any Questions). Maybe as a rival podcaster (running the Economist’s output) and a fairly frequent Radio 4 voice, a fair amount of salt should apply to my allergies and passions, so let me pick through a few highs and lows that aren’t anywhere near my own radio bailiwicks.

Emma Barnett has made an energetic new start on Woman’s Hour. The topic range has broadened and energy levels have risen. It is also bit less prone to sounding like a preachy feminist seminar at a mid-rank university, while still taking on some thorny issues around feminism and the female experience. For some, Barnett pushed too hard at a Muslim guest on women’s rights. The BBC offered a period of “reflection” when the inevitable row broke — the new default way of saying that you don’t think you did anything wrong but want the emails to stop.

I would, however, cavil at the curse of the presenter monologue, with which the show often opens now: inevitably they tend to sway the audience one way or the other. A lead on female obesity opened with a ponderous screed telling me of the benefits of “plus-size” positivity, then added lamely, “Or do you have a different view?” (to which many of those dealing with the costly consequences of heart disease, diabetes, inherited health problems and higher Covid risks shouted, “You bloody bet!”

The elusive impartiality quest gets tougher when we look at subjects that are not strictly political but when likes and dislikes tell a bigger story. Even The World at One in Sarah Montague’s calm hands had a difficult time distinguishing whether the account of events given by “Meghan” (a chummy lapse into first-name terms on a news show) should be questioned at all — and if not why not? For me, it was too close to aligning with nearly-ex-duchesses in the overheated mood of the week. Radio 4 needs to be a clarifying experience, not just another ratchet in the outrage spiral.

In fairness, there is more to the network than news and analysis, and some creative co-productions with BBC podcasts are beginning to bear fruit. Long-form, factually based narrative is an area where the BBC can stand out in overcrowded pod-world, and Tunnel 29 was riveting on the story of the brave diggers escaping under the Berlin Wall — atmospheric, informed excavated history.

Maybe because I did not know about the backstory, my stand-out drama of the past year was Chloe Hadjimatheou’s narrated series Mayday, which followed the events leading up to the suicide of James Le Mesurier, charismatic co-founder of the White Helmet movement. This riveting saga dealt with Syria’s bloodbath and the Le Carré-esque Brit who helped to set up a volunteer civil defence organisation amid the indiscriminate bombardments of the civil war.

Subsequently, he was subjected to relentless disinformation attacks from Russian media and Assad’s cyber henchmen, the potent, invisible weapons of the era. It ended in tragedy for the most banal of reasons involving Le Mesurier’s careless misadministration of a charity he set up, but like all good podcast yarns, it was the immersive storytelling which nailed it.

It is also bit less prone to sounding like a preachy feminist seminar at a mid-rank university

God knows, we need light relief and it has been a hard year to get comedy right. Radio 4 was already facing criticism that its output was unfunny and heavily biased leftwards. In truth, much comedy is about exaggeration, including the political sort. No one mistook Lenny Bruce for impartial, but comedy veering in one direction only starts to feel closer to propaganda.

The News Quiz is the prime show in the frame here. Andy Zaitzman, described by Bakaya as a “razor-sharp satirical brain”, has replaced Nish Kumar as the new host with a lot to live up to. So far it doesn’t sound as partisan as it did, just a bit giddy and unsettled, and we haven’t exactly hit Dorothy Parker levels of zing either.

Let’s give the guy a break, because getting a panel to be sassy about a news cycle dominated by vaccines and Joe Biden on a Zoom call is uphill work. All in all, the Waitrose of radio stations is in pretty good shape, for all its ticks and troughs in a year when recording has largely moved to hall cupboards with a duvet for soundproofing. Bakaya is fond of the idea of a post-pandemic “rethink” of orthodoxies. In my dreams, someone will commission a show entitled “It’s not late-stage capitalism: this is the best it gets”. Maybe next year.

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