Like many Brits – and many non-Brits – in Hamburg, I listen to BBC radio occasionally via the internet. Apart from one jazz show, Jamie McCullum on Radio 2, I listen exclusively to Radio 3 & 4. Radio 4’s daily morning news programme, Today, is something I’ll only let enter my ears rarely: I’m addicted to the sound of the voices that speak on it, yet what those voices say often leaves me so furious, that afterwards I’m hardly fit for a normal day’s work.
As a Brit of my generation, socialised pre-internet, I’m unconsciously conditioned to associate the sound of the BBC Radio 4 voice with a range of dazzling values: courtesy, fairness, decency, reasonableness, impartiality, truthfulness. An offer of access to a considerate establishment which could nurture you & give you a place to belong. Discovering over the years that what the BBC radio 4 voice sounds like in no way matches what the BBC radio 4 voice actually does must feel a bit like how Eve felt after having eaten the apple: glad for the new knowledge, but still full of strong yearning to feel yourself back to the time when not knowing was bliss.
Yesterday’s Today programme was an archetypal example of the above. In the midst of easily the biggest crisis that has ever hit the organisation – a torrent of statements which prove there’s been institutionalised child sexual abuse inside the BBC since at least the 1940s – the Today programme decided to do interviews with ex-soldiers and their families at a veteran’s social club in west England, regarding the fundamental worth of the BBC as an institution. British soldiers, posted to all the corners of the earth for as long as the BBC has existed, have, in large numbers, depended on BBC radio for news & for maintaining their cultural identity. As a psychological survival tactic: totally justified. None of the ex-soldiers who spoke voiced any fundamental criticism of the BBC as an institution: if they had done, the Today programme would not have broadcasted those criticisms in that programme. Interviewing ex-soldiers about the state of the BBC was not news, but rather pro-BBC propaganda so crude that you might well think that Auntie Beeb is launching a provocative counter attack.
From the same Today programme I learnt that an unnamed 19 year old had been arrested for posting a photo of him burning a poppy on Facebook, accompanied by a drunken & stupid message he had written: “How about that you sqaudey c**nts”.
(The paper, pin-on poppy – for those non-Brits reading this – is the symbol with which, every November, millions of Brits remember British military men & women who heroically died for their land in past wars. Including my great-grandfather ordered over the top – gallant, gallantly, gallantly-stupidest – to march out – don’t run lads! Stiff upper lip! – against the machine guns at the Battle of the Somme, 1916. The paper poppy happens also to be the main symbol through which the civilian dead killed by the British military in Dresden & Hamburg in the 1940s – and the one million plus civilian dead killed in Iraq in the 1990s & 2000s – are conveniently forgotten.)
Yes, the 19 year old’s facebook post is offensive to British soldiers, but only on the same level of a hundred thousand drunken statements made in ten thousand British pubs any day of the week. You don’t criminalise people who are offensive in this way – it’s the nation’s duty to socialise them. You tell them – in language they can understand – that they can’t speak like that. You challenge them: if they want anybody to take the anger they are feeling about the British military seriously, then they need to express themselves in a more intelligent way. What you don’t do is arrest a badly educated young man under the Malicious Communications Act as has happened here.
It is unclear to me to what extent the Today programme directors are aware of what they were doing yesterday. But if I were a victim of child sexual abuse listening yesterday – or someone who has a family member affected by child sexual abuse – I might be enraged by the programme director’s decision to send on David Dimbleby – the highest status presenter at the BBC – to play down the seriousness of the child abuse scandal, to trickily distract the listener by putting BBC management structures – & not the child abuse itself – at the centre of his statements. And to fail to give an institutional apology on behalf of the BBC to victims of BBC child sexual abuse. You could well judge this to be “wrongful intention” on behalf of Today programme directors. The OED defines malice, in the legal sense of the word, as “wrongful intention, esp. as increasing the guilt of certain offences.” And “malicious” is defined as “characterized by malice”. Yet no one would suggest that it should be the Today programme directors & not our unnamed 19 year old who should be arrested under the “Malicious Communications Act” – would they? Rather than waste airtime on hollow crisis management exercises, perhaps the Today programme should have run an educational piece on how to legally, decently & non-maliciously burn a poppy & present the action on facebook.
Make up your own mind – listen to clips from yesterday’s programme, discussed in this article, here.