Two extremes of the listening experience were available on Monday on Radio 4. The day began conventionally enough with Start the Week, chaired by the deceptively genial Amol Rajan (now in charge of The Media Show), whose warm, inviting voice fronts a keen, intense intelligence. He guided his guests through a conversation about our post-truth world which, apart from the subject-matter, could have graced the airwaves in the 1950s. This was a masterclass in elevated discussion, so graceful were the exchanges, so theoretical the ideas, yet so clear the meaning. Chief among Rajan’s guests was our former editor Matthew d’Ancona, who has just published a book about post-truth and why it’s crucial that we should immediately, without hesitation, rise up and fight against its proliferation, so dangerous does he perceive its potential damage to our political and social make-up to be.
Who is judging the truth, d’Ancona queried, in a world where our faith in institutions has been seriously compromised and replaced by a free-for-all of technological companies driven by profit and algorithmic calculation. By being constantly fed what we like or feel already, through our obsession with social media (even those of us who barely know about trending), we are living in an echo chamber where we already know what we want to hear and hear what we want to know. By turning to people we know for news and information, via Facebook and similar channels, rather than more traditional means of communication, we think we can trust what we read and never stop to verify the source. Instead of cold, hard facts, which can be boring, too rational for current tastes, hard to digest, we are turning instead to the spicier fast-food alternatives of Instagram and Twitter.
At one point Rajan referred to the American president as ‘Donald Truth’ in a weird Freudian slip of the tongue, which at the same time made Trump sound even more like a cartoon character than usual. Yet, as another guest on the programme, Claire Wardle of First Draft News (a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing guidance on ‘how to find, verify and publish content sourced from the social web’), insisted, we should be careful of our terminology when we describe what’s happening to the way we communicate. Fake news is itself a misnomer. Instead, we should more correctly describe the proliferation of lies, or alternative facts, as ‘a disinformation ecosystem’. Only then, by recognising its complexity and the labyrinthine ways in which it has infiltrated what we know and think, can we begin to build our defences against it.
This was meaty stuff for Monday morning, but so stimulating and essential. It was the kind of discussion that works so well on radio because we are forced, without images, to focus on what lies behind what’s being said.
At the very same time, Radio 4’s most ambitious new programme was being launched on the web. Quake, an ‘animated audio drama’, is only available online and on digital and has not been timetabled into the network’s conventional schedule. Instead the 12 short episodes that make up the drama can all be heard at once, and in any sequence, listeners making their own narrative connections according to the order in which they choose to listen. Animated visuals can be watched as you listen, and if by chance you’ve invested in a VR headset (anything from £7 to £500+) you can also enter the drama yourself not by imagination but through the power of technology.
A quick listen on my computer to the first episode, without the benefit of VR, left me wondering why create a drama for radio with visuals. A man, away from home, somewhere exotic, is sitting in a hotel bar when an earthquake hits. He’s crushed and alone, unable to move. Will he escape? As the episodes unfold, the intention, we are told, is to show how the digital revolution has become such a useful tool in spearheading our responses to natural disasters. It was an intriguing antidote to the morning’s discussion about what’s gone wrong with new media, and I really wanted to like Quake to prove, if only to myself, that I am keeping up. But I listen to radio to give my imagination free rein; visuals and VR just get in the way.
Jeremy Bowen’s new series for Radio 4, Our Man in the Middle East (Monday), takes us back to 1990 and the build-up to war against Iraq. Bowen was then a young reporter, keen to make his mark, confused by the sight in Saudi Arabia of US military vehicles still painted green from the Vietnam war and patched up with flattened Vietnamese beer cans (someone, says Bowen, made a fortune selling yellow paint to the Americans). He wants us to understand why that war against Saddam Hussein happened, tracing its roots back to the first world war and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. This was important stuff, flavoured by Bowen’s inimitably blunt but heartfelt style. So why did the producers feel the need to add an irritatingly distracting hum of background music, as if we were in the cinema and watching a trailer for a Brad Pitt movie?