Kate Chisholm

Nick Robinson’s Battle for the Airwaves

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Deep within the BBC’s inquiry into the Newsnight and Jimmy Savile affair is a comment by Jeremy Paxman so inflammatory as to demand its own investigation (lasting months and costing squillions). The trouble, he said, with BBC News is that it has become dominated by ‘radio people’. This was not, it seems, intended as a compliment. It’s as if, in Paxman’s view, the whole dreadful, dreary, demeaning muddle was the fault of those ‘radio people’, because according to Paxman they ‘belong to a different kind of culture’.

You might think it’s of little importance that Paxman thinks himself cast from a different mould to, say, John Humphrys or Eddie Mair. That it’s all just a spat between journalist rivals, each claiming the superiority of their ‘culture’ of gathering, reporting and commenting on events. But it actually shows just how deep the crisis is within the BBC. If Paxman really believes that TV is not only different but also better than radio in its delivery of the news, he’s actually undermining his own organisation. Who else believes this? How deep are the divisions behind those glassy new portals at New Broadcasting House?

Why, for instance, on Monday morning’s edition of Today on Radio 4 did we have two different reports on the same event by two different reporters, neither of whom seemed at all comfortable with the role they were playing. First we had David Willis on the Oscar winners, and losers, and then 18 minutes later we had Alastair Leithead, also direct from Hollywood, giving us exactly the same information as part of the News bulletin. Were both necessary? Both reports sounded so odd, so unprofessional, and gave us such little information, it made me wonder, in the light of Paxman’s remarks, whether two rival news departments were battling it out as to which should be responsible for the coverage? So frustrating was the bulletin I was forced to go online to discover what I really wanted to know (which film won Best Documentary — Searching for Sugar Man).

Later on Radio 4, Nick Robinson began a new lunchtime series Battle for the Airwaves  (produced by Rob Shepherd), telling the story of the BBC’s long-running battle with the government over its funding and editorial independence. The series is great timing, Robinson reminding us that the Beeb may be a global force in broadcasting but it’s always been dependent on the government for its very last paperclip. How impartial can it really claim to be?

The first programme began with the General Strike of 1926, which turned out to be the first real test of what has been an always ticklish relationship. Such was the extent of the strike that no newspapers were published throughout the nine days of the strike, giving the new-fangled wireless an unprecedented access to power. The public wanted to find out where they could buy bread and milk; the BBC told them. The crystal sets which until then had been thought of simply as new technology for nerds overnight became something everyone could use. Who needs advertising?

At the same time the Beeb’s managing director, John Reith, ensured he got on to the right side of the government by broadcasting live from Westminster Cathedral the sermon given by Cardinal Bourne denouncing the strike as sinful. No mention was made of the support given to the strikers by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Reith was called in to No. 10 to meet the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, who asked Reith to assist with the writing of the broadcast he then gave to the nation urging the strikers back to work, Reith making changes to the script even as Baldwin was delivering it. When the strike ended, Reith read the one o’clock news bulletin and then played ‘Jerusalem’, as if the ending of the strike was a victory for the establishment and approved of by the BBC. Some subscribers were so disgusted they renamed the BBC the British Falsehood Corporation.

News has always been a contentious issue for the BBC. It needs to be seen to be impartial at the same time as keeping the government happy. News, though, is also the Beeb’s bread and butter. Its drama output, meanwhile, as I suggested last week, is its meat and two veg. Take the new classic serial on Sunday afternoons (Radio 4). Nadia Molinari’s atmospheric production of Pather Panchali, the Indian story by Bibhuti Bhushan Banerji first made famous by Satyajit Ray’s superb film, swept us away from bleak February to the mangrove forests of West Bengal.

Opu looks back on his childhood, growing up in hunger, dirt and stark ignorance in a backward rural village. Yet his imagination is transformed by the beauty of the winding paths strewn with flowers, the fruit-filled orchards, the gentle swish of bamboo. It’s a sad, melancholy story as he remembers the sister who died, and the sadness of leaving as his father tries to find work to support them. Yet it’s also enigmatic, haunting, hinting at ‘the deep mystery at the heart of life’. The film is magical, but Tanika Gupta’s script for radio is compelling, and Meera Syal gives a spellbinding performance as the bewitching old auntie Indir. Worth every penny.