Today, tomorrow, and everyday after

How the BBC’s Radio 4 represents the balance of power.

Author: Huseyin Kishi
Follow Huseyin on Twitter @huseyinkishi

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On December the 30th, 2014 Lenny Henry was the guest editor of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. His focus of the show was exploring the lack of diversity within the media – looking at those who have overcome racial barriers, the lack of a black literary canon and race within comic books; as the BBC prides itself in (in its Royal Charter and Agreement) ’Reflecting UK Audiences’.

Henry’s guest edit then, surely meets their guidelines. In case there was any doubt, a BBC News article on the 29th of November stated:

“…Today editors will ensure the material is newsworthy and meets the BBC’s editorial guidelines.”BBC News

Since 2003, the Today show, which was originally founded in October 1957 as a programme of talks as a morning alternative to light music, has had a selection of guest editors whom are free to to bring a fresh perspective on the news.

Courting coverage

Notably, the show is an important part of the political establishment, reaching 7.18 million listeners per week and seen by MPs as setting the ‘political agenda’.

Perhaps that could explain why when there is any deviation from the script [that is: representative democracy supports the wishes of the electorate and the government is there to look after the economy etc], that there is a collective outpour of criticism aimed at the show, and the BBC.

Reception to Lenny Henry’s guest edit of the Today Programme was met with general agreement; the press seemed delighted to discuss diversity within the media – even ‘The Spectator’ noticed.

Stories from the city, stories from the sea

Compare this to the outrage and uproar that was PJ Harvey’s guest edit in January, 2014.

For Henry, the Daily Mail’s headline on 30/12/14 was: ’Thought-provoking or biased? Mixed reaction to Lenny Henry’s guest editing of Radio 4’s Today programme’

The same newspaper had lost any sense of nuance when it came to political divisions.

Harvey’s headline on 2/1/14 read: ’Radio 4’s ‘worst ever’ Today programme edited by PJ Harvey slammed by listeners, MPs and even BBC staff over left-wing rants’.

Let us look at the Guardian, the leading liberal voice whose politics are the opposite of the Mail’s.

  • PJ Harvey 2/1/14: ’Today’s uncomfortable thoughts for the day with PJ Harvey’
  • Lenny Henry 30/12/14: ’Lenny Henry’s Today edition takes on ‘devil’s avocados’ with diversity agenda’

Lastly, BBC News, the stalwart of setting the political agenda for the nation:

  • PJ Harvey 2/1/14: ’PJ Harvey guest edits ‘unusual’ Today’
  • Lenny Henry 30/12/14: ’Is the media industry sufficiently diverse?’
Respectable opinions

By comparing the headlines side-by-side of two guest editors of the today show, we can see that the debate set is actually quite narrow, and if you cross the boundary of acceptable debate, as PJ Harvey did. The consensus is quite clear: your opinions are no longer respectable.

As Noam Chomsky points out in the Common Good

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….”Noam Chomsky

Let us also consider what PJ Harvey’s edit sought to illustrate: John Pilger looked at the issue of censorship, Ian Cobain and Phil Shiner looked at the subject of torture. Julian Assange, lastly, was concerned with knowledge and power.

One may think such subjects are unusual in a liberal democracy, with such lively opinion in the press – such as the issue of diversity. However, PJ Harvey’s guests ask us to focus our attention on omissions in the media; on our civic responsibility – such as the elected governments, who have employed torture; or the politics of information, transparency and secrecy.

Given that Mark Whitby, who is the Vice President for the hard drive manufacturer Seagate, recently remarked:

“Data has never been more important. As valuable as oil and just as difficult to mine, model and manage, data is swiftly becoming a vital asset to businesses the world over.”Mark Whitby, Vice President of Seagate
It is not just governments who can see the value and importance of data (and thanks to her edit, the politics of data are discussed: who collects it, who stores it, and how it is used.)

The distinction between the two edits is clear. Henry’s show, whilst important as a discussion, does not serve to look at why – structurally – it is the case. For instance, Henry looks at those who have overcome odds because of their race to achieve success – but he does not ask how those obstacles came to be. Furthermore, if say, Henry was successful – what would change about the output of the media, if the names and faces had changed?

It wouldn’t, it would remain open to the same structural pressures as before, and thus reproduce the same perspective of the world.

PJ Harvey, by contrast, is concerned by power which is unchecked. Asking that we, as listeners, look beyond voting and buying newspapers, and ask ourselves what are the consequences? What has occurred because of it?

Tomorrow

As noted, Lenny Henry’s Today show was well received and debated in numerous opinion columns. It is, a ‘respectable issue’, a shame then that the same respect and importance was not given to PJ Harvey’s contribution to wider civic debates.

This article has been republished with the author’s permission. The article was originally published on the author’s blogsite, available here.

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