Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Radio 4 as a cover for cultural apartheid

It seems as though we have had the sort of debate we have at the moment - about what role Radio 4 should play, and how it should respond to the inherently relativist and uncertain nature of our age - at least every couple of years for as long as I have been conscious of these things. Where the current debate is concerned, though, I wonder more and more whether it's about Radio 4 at all, and whether it is really about a deeper and far more disturbing argument dressed up as "maintaining standards" and "sticking to what we do best" - that the BBC, through retreating into one kind of ghetto, would confine a significant section of British society, now making unprecedented excursions into mass consciousness through the kind of pop music that is measured by the singles chart, to another, far less privileged and protected ghetto.

Consider how William Rees-Mogg, who has used the Mail on Sunday to attack what seems a reasonable adjustment to the fact that people can no longer be guaranteed to grow into either an "elder" culture as they age or a "host" culture as they assimilate, sees himself - the benevolent squire, the protector of his Somerset minions' right to decent social conditions within the Big Society, as long of course as those conditions are on his terms. Ignore and forget, for a moment, the fact that Tinie Tempah's second hit was an insulting clone of his first, and all his subsequent singles have been pretty dreadful. Consider how British urban pop, however watered-down ("we" register that, "they" don't, it might as well all be "Next Hype" to them) becoming, without ambiguity, pop music seems to those - including those like Quentin Letts who are happy in their role as minor functionaries within Rees-Mogg's feudal universe - for whom an inoculated and frozen-in-time vision of the shires (which can somehow, for some reason, fit perfectly within dramatic cultural and technological changes if they exist entirely in the private sector) is absolutely crucial and politically central. Consider that a BBC without the remit of universality within which Radio 4 has to exist - and why it has to evolve (as it has done impressively well in recent times - its schedules of the 1980s, as those of us who've actually looked back at them recently know all too well, are full of wholly non-Reithian middlebrow drivel, most of which would thankfully never get under the radar now) - would also, almost certainly, be a BBC stripped of Radio 1 and 1Xtra, in which there would not be the platform for someone like Tinie Tempah to register in the minds of the Somerset pre-teens over whom Rees-Mogg sees himself as feudal lord ("Pass Out" came up in a way that Global Radio would never have the structure or the commitment to non-commercial values to dream of: specialist 1Xtra shows, 1Xtra playlist, Radio 1 playlist, supernova). Channel AKA and the like are merely numbers hidden deep on the EPG, with no national importance or real ability to spread those they promote beyond their own niches. The BBC still has that importance. And that is why conservatives want it to retreat into a world that is already largely gone.

Consider also, at this point, that much of the population still only has access to analogue radio when at work or in the car, and that outside the metropolitan areas there's nothing else on the FM dial that will even consider bringing these things into the national consciousness (of the FM stations I can get round here, the only time I've recently noticed any of them pushing something that isn't already culturally embedded in the UK is The Coast playing Sugarland, and they're country so - however modern, however mainstream, however pop - representative of the America that the Right desperately wants to have a bigger share of the British mass conception of that country). I remain convinced that the fixation on Radio 4 is a cover for something worse. That their idea of Radio 4, and of what it and the BBC supposedly once were, is built on a myth should be obvious, just as the BBC never "united the country" wholly around Received Pronunciation as certain people on certain forums would have us believe (the closest it came to doing that was during the Second World War, but Tommy Handley got the biggest audiences of all in that era and he certainly didn't sound like that). But I don't think they really care what the background of contributors to Woman's Hour or the settings of the Afternoon Play are going to be in, say, five years' time. That's just a convenient public face for them. Their deeper agenda, especially if they're Rod Liddle taking Murdoch's money, is to hand every single aspect of British mass culture to the same unholy alliance of multinationals and a reconstructed but essentially unaltered British elite which created and dictates every policy of the Cameron administration - which would be the inevitable result of the BBC "sticking to what it does best" and confining itself to timewarped, eternally protected versions of Radios 3 and 4. Do not believe for one moment that these people would stop at "preserving" Radio 4 "for them". If they succeeded in that aim, they'd then want to go a lot further - and that, more than anything else, is why they must not succeed.

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