It takes a left-wing rock star fronting Today to reveal how impoverished public debate has become, writes Joyce McMillan
As I write, it’s the second day of a brand new year, and the airwaves are loud with debate over one of the special holiday editions of the Radio 4 Today programme.
It is the annual custom of the Today team to invite a series of celebrity guest editors to shape their programmes over Christmas and New Year and yesterday the guest was none other than PJ Harvey, the brilliant English rock star, artist and writer, who set the nation all a-quiver both with her news agenda – which included long-term problems of torture and British involvement in the arms trade, more immediate concerns with current austerity policies and attacks on the NHS, and almost nothing from the familiar daily menu of pseudo-crises thrown up by the popular press - and with her choice of contributors, which included such controversial figures as Julian Assange of Wikileaks, and the radical journalist John Pilger. Some listeners loved the programme, relishing it as a serious challenge both to Today’s normal news agenda, and to its highly conventional style. Now in her early 40s, and a famously smart woman, Harvey recognised that form and content are intimately linked, and sought to shake up the rigid Today format, combining traditional reports and interviews with protest songs, poetry and opinion pieces. As former Newsnight editor Paul Mason pointed out in an appreciative Twitter message, the programme was so strikingly different from a normal edition of Today that it raised some profound questions about the versions of “truth” and “balance” routinely applied by the BBC.
For the 21st-century British Right, though – used to seeing their sense of what is important go largely unchallenged in day-to-day political broadcasting – the programme was an outrage. The phrase “Left-wing tosh” was bandied about, the cultural elements of the programme were mocked (how they hate and fear human creativity, these masters of the universe), and one Tory MP wondered, in vaguely menacing style, who was responsible for extending the invitation to Harvey. Since this year’s group of guest editors also included such establishment figures as Dame Eliza Manningham Buller, former head of MI5, and Anthony Jenkins, CEO of Barclays Bank, there are clearly no grounds for complaint from the Right about the overall balance of this year’s holiday editions. The British boss class, though, increasingly demand not so much balance as total hegemony. Where a generation ago they would have had the wisdom to welcome Harvey as an alternative voice that demonstrated Britain’s commitment to diversity and freedom, now they just want her and her kind to shut up, before they put any wild ideas into the heads of the compliant masses.
The row over Harvey’s edition of Today is likely, of course, to be little more than a brief storm in a media teacup. Yet it comes as a sharp reminder that what was once a normal left-of-centre agenda in Britain has now become so exotic that people react to its presence on Radio 4 with various degrees of shock. Most of the points made by Harvey’s contributors may have been accurate, truthful and based on fact. But, in terms of contemporary British political debate, they nonetheless remain marginal, because they are not part of the dominant grand narrative of our time, which requires constant deference to the priorities of rich so-called “wealth creators”, and a rapid refocusing of any popular anger towards other vulnerable groups, such as this New Year’s imaginary tidal wave of new migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.
The great political question of our time, in other words – in the UK and across the West – is whether any political force will emerge, in the 21st century, that seriously challenges this dominant narrative; or whether we are now trapped by an account of reality so far adrift of the truth, and so rarely challenged, that a long age of social, moral and intellectual decline seems almost inevitable.
It is a damning indictment of the current state of British politics – and particularly of the recent history of the Labour Party – that it takes a rock star to create a Today programme that seriously challenges and shifts the conventional news agenda.
Nor is it surprising that many centre-Left voters in Scotland are looking to next year’s independence referendum as a unique and vital opportunity to escape from this stale and ugly politics of reaction, and to start reinventing a more just and creative form of national community for the 21st century.
And as for Ed Miliband, the Labour leader who should be mustering the poetry, the imagination, the music, the international alliances and the clear political vision that might help a new generation to break the dead grip of neoliberalism at last – alas, he remains hopelessly earthbound, stuck in a groove of language that ranges from the tediously technocratic to the reductively blokeish, reduced to making a New Year video for Scottish voters which implies that hospitals in Liverpool would refuse to treat Scottish patients after independence, and forever conscious that in order to win the key south-eastern marginals that determine Westminster victory, he can afford to deviate barely at all from the mean-minded politics of austerity and victim-bashing that makes the return of progressive social policy at UK level ever more unlikely.
Yet just for a moment, in Harvey’s Today , we caught a glimpse of what it would be like truly to change those terms of debate. The vision was so startlingly unfamiliar that it reduced Today presenters Sarah Montague and Mishal Husain to breathless, apologetic giggles.
We also learned, though, just how efficiently the new establishment now moves to sweep such ideas aside, before they can begin to change minds and lives.
And we also learned how far we are from seeing the emergence, under 21st-century conditions, of a mainstream UK party with the courage and energy to embody this kind of alternative vision of our economy and our world; and to return to the dangerous, high-stakes business of offering voters not two or three different sales pitches for the same failing system, but a genuine choice between an old world that has had its day, and a new one, now struggling to be born.