Photo by Justin Lane/UPI Credit: UPI/Alamy Live News
On Radio

Multiple moans from the get-go

The americanisation of the BBC

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Imperialism is a tree with many thorns, as Nigel Biggar has found out. At the BBC they take what headmasters used to call “a dim view” of an historical phenomenon considered to be uniquely British. Except when it comes to cultural imperialism, when programme-makers become mustard keen. Then they can’t get enough.

Turn on the wireless at any hour, and you may think this country has been infected by a linguistic virus. Words and phrases that were once regarded as intrusive Americanisms have become commonplace. Curveball (what’s wrong with bouncer?) and stepping up to the plate (taking a fresh guard?) are daily horrors which merit six firm strokes of the cane.

As if by decree Americans are invited to shed light on subjects high and low

The wrong syllables in simple words like “harass”, “marathon” and “research” are stressed repeatedly. “Multiple” does service for many, “specialty” is in, and listeners are treated to the occasional “gotten”. As for the “get-go”, the most wretched phrase of all, beyond the cloistered walls of modern journalism and broadcasting has any British person ever used it?

As if by decree Americans are invited to shed light on subjects high and low. One glorious day there were three cherries. The Today programme asked Al Sharpton, the windbag’s windbag, to spread his gospel of light, as
part of Radio 4’s campaign to interpret British life through the corrupting filter of American racial politics. An hour later, Woman’s Hour offered a platform to Danielle Deadwyler, a black American actress, unaccountably overlooked for an Oscar.

Meanwhile the book of the week belonged to Joan Didion, an essayist of the recent past who held all the approved views. Programmes like The Essay and Free Thinking on Radio 3 are playgrounds for “activists” who see the world, and our place in it, through eyes that have long ceased to see clearly. Typical of this mentality was an Essay about a little-known nineteenth century American novel, Iola Leroy, which explored the life of a mixed-race woman after the Civil War.

There’s a word missing here, and it didn’t take long for another Radio 4 programme to supply it. “Woke” occupied the fifteen-minute slot after The World at One for five whole days, as Matthew Syed, that performing flea of contemporary thought, took us through its usage from Leadbelly in 1938 to Governor Ron DeSantis in modern-day Florida.

Radio 3 are playgrounds for “activists” who see the world, and our place in it, through eyes that have long ceased to see clearly

Syed is an odd bod. Originally a table tennis player (not that he would ever mention it), he has metamorphosed into a sports journalist who likes to write about events he watches on the box. Some sceptics dub him “the oculist”, for his relentless self-obsession. Others quote the distinguished sportswriter who said he was “the only member of our tribe who has gone from ignorance to omniscience without acquiring experience”.

Because he talks in lofty abstractions, designed to supply a layer of intellectual respectability, Syed makes a natural presenter for this kind of radio. He has never yet met an academic from the University of Abilene he didn’t like, and the Woke programmes saw him flutter those lovely feathers. Earnest, humourless, titillated by meanings not evident to lesser minds, he is the sort of chap who can say “paradigm shift” without turning crimson.

Plato, Spinoza, Descartes: these are just some of the names he knows, and he has made it his life’s work that we should know them too. He’s a benevolent soul, grooved in the finest traditions of public service broadcasting, and we’re lucky to have him.Three cheers for Syed of Oxford, ping-pong man and selfless citizen of the world!

The Sturgeon’s fall from grace brought to mind the sympathetic words Windsor Davies offered to whimpering soldiers in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum: “Oh dear, how sad, never mind.” When they had wiped away tears of regret, the toilers in the radio newsrooms swiftly blew their noses and went back mournfully to their work.

She’s one of us, Davis was suggesting, and who is to say he was wrong?

Evan Davis, presenter of PM, shared his thoughts with a variety of witnesses, and did it pretty well, though it’s sometimes hard to believe he has entered his seventh decade. Lesley Riddoch wasn’t the most reliable guest, but Jim Naughtie supplied context, and Andrew Neil spoke robust common sense, not least to Miss Riddoch, who accused critics of dancing on the Sturgeon’s grave. “She’s still alive,” he reminded her.

Talking to Charlie Falconer (“turning and turning in the widening gyre”), Davis bowled the peer a half volley on leg stump. Sturgeon held, said Davis, “the progressive views” that he, as a Labour politician, could share. Ah, the P word! She’s one of us, Davis was suggesting, and who is to say he was wrong? In that world of common assumptions they sit, snug as bugs in tartan rugs. On News Quiz later that week the “comedians” on the panel preferred to grumble about the Tories than line up their sights against the wee departed leader. Joker-in-chief was Nish Kumar, the least funny man in the kingdom. Oh, how my fingers itch! But that’s a subject for another day.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover