‘You can hear pretty clearly the sound of one of the helicopters and you can see it in the darkness,’ yelled James Reynolds over the noise of helicopters, police sirens, vehicles on the move. It was 8.10 a.m., the Today programme on the morning after the fatal Airbus A320 crash in southern France last week. Reynolds, a fine reporter, had been sent off to the crash site for an on-the-spot report, ‘live’ action, high-octane drama, tension so taut it’s almost visible. ‘I can see a convoy of police vehicles coming up the road with blue sirens,’ he continued. ‘There goes the police helicopter…’ Huge noise of rotors whirring. ‘It’s almost passing overhead.’ No doubt about that as the noise boomed around the kitchen. ‘I can see a red and a white light flashing. And that may be the last helicopter of the night. The dark has stopped the operation.’
This was broadcast at breakfast time, morning, sun blazing outside, darkness long banished. It was odd to hear a report that sounded ‘live’ but was actually a recording from the previous night. And doubly strange that in fact Reynolds had nothing new to report. All he had to go on was that the French authorities had stopped the search overnight but would resume in the morning. Why, then, was his clip allowed to fill the prime-time slot on Today? Yes, it was the main story of the morning. We did all want to know what had happened to the aircraft to cause it to crash. But without anything to say the only recourse for Reynolds was to ratchet up the atmosphere. Was there really no other way of dealing with the story?
On Radio 4 last week Matthew Solon’s two-part drama, Recent Events at Collington House (directed by John Dryden and produced by Emma Hearn), gave us a riveting exploration of the difficulties posed by different interpretations of what words might mean. I caught the first part on Friday afternoon and had to stop what I was doing to listen, the dialogue was so powerful: snappy, simple and direct. As the second part opened on Monday afternoon, Roz Taylor, head teacher at Collington House school in the Midlands, is under investigation by the Crown Prosecution Service, accused of threatening and abusive behaviour towards one of her school governors, a Muslim parent. ‘The words we use have consequences,’ says the governor.
Taylor is struggling to keep religious issues out of the everyday running of the school, and to find common ground with the Muslim community. An abusive line of graffiti on the science block, short skirts, the school debating society become major battlegrounds between her determination to promote free speech and equality of opportunity and the strict beliefs of her Muslim governors. The play was gripping because it gave us an insight into what many schools must be facing (and other institutions, too) as the multicultural aspirations of the liberal-minded confront the certainties of those with a one-faith agenda. ‘I like to see people who don’t compromise,’ said one of the pupils, in trouble because he had been looking at radicalised websites on the school computer. ‘Who make a stand. Who fight for what they believe in. I like that.’ It felt as if we were overhearing actual conversations that are taking place in real time. We were taken to the front line.
The World Service this month has been running a season of programmes under the banner ‘A Richer World’, looking at how increasing wealth across the globe is affecting those who have it, and those who don’t. This week on Wednesday we heard from Ahmed who has spent every night for the past three and a half years on London’s night buses travelling across the city, to and fro, from Leicester Square to Hampstead Heath via Camden Town, Stratford and Heathrow, homeless, without a bed, avoiding late-night clubbers, drunks and immigration police. You might miss him, the man in the jeans and hooded sweatshirt curled up on the backseat above the engine where the bus is warmest. In Sheltering on the Night Bus Damian Zane accompanied him for the night, bailing out at 4.30 a.m., too tired to keep going. Ahmed survives on the brief naps he manages to take before the bus reaches its terminus and he has to get off. During the day he volunteers as a cook at various kitchens that help migrants like himself; he is not allowed to get a job because he has been refused asylum and has no papers.
Zane also met Mary, in her fifties, who tells him that she has spent years begging on the street, coming to Britain from Uganda after being tortured and raped. She sleeps in churches, walking in as if to pray and then staying on into the night. Mary is thoughtful, well spoken. She tells Zane, ‘It belittles you. No one gives you respect.’ Zane asked her if she would go back to Uganda. ‘Going back to where I suffered. No, no, no, no, no, no, no…’