Alexander McCall Smith: BBC Radio 4 must defend truth amid global attack on facts

The BBC needs to realise that Radio 4 needs to stick to what it's good at, not try to pander to a more youthful audience (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty)
The BBC needs to realise that Radio 4 needs to stick to what it's good at, not try to pander to a more youthful audience (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty)
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BBC Radio 4 – the thinking person’s radio station – seems to be under threat from forces both without and within, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

BBC Radio 4 is about to get a new controller. This is a big job, which is far more than a mere managerial post. It involves the custodianship of one of the UK’s great cultural institutions, a radio service that serves and protects the spoken word, a radio service that performs a central role in the national conversation. There are, of course, many other sites of this conversation, but Radio 4 stands head and shoulders above the rest. This is where ideas are put out to a wide audience; this is where major issues are discussed in a serious and dispassionate way; this is the place to which many people turn to find out what is happening in politics and economics. It is also a site of cultural exploration and exchange in a world in which print media find it difficult to find space for such issues. It is, in short, a beacon in a difficult landscape.

The new controller will be taking on a service that is under threat in more ways than one. There are, of course, external threats – the licence fee is not sacrosanct, and there will always be sniping at public broadcasting from those who fail to understand how lucky we are to have it. Then there are pressures that come from the frivolous climate of our times – from those who think that public broadcasting should be concerned only with mass entertainment and who would be happy to see resources go to endless local phone-in shows and popular music services. Those forces are largely indifferent to a spoken word service with a mission to serve serious debate and yes, perish the thought, educate the public.

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But it is not just external pressure that the new controller will have to face. He or she will also have to face a curious mindset within the BBC itself that takes the view that Radio 4 needs fundamental change. This attitude, in a sense, amounts to a chronic lack of belief in the merits of what it is already doing – and doing remarkably well by any standards. This lack of belief is corrosive – it speaks in the language of popularisation, it sings to a hymn sheet that worships youth, it utters tired mantras of the value of change for its own sake. It threatens the very things that make Radio 4 what it is – a spoken word service of the highest standard, not another version of any number of other radio stations.

The rot at work here is fuelled by a belief that Radio 4 has to change to attract younger listeners. Why? This is not an uncommon belief in cultural institutions, and indeed in institutions of any nature: if you do not attract a younger audience, then you are doomed to demographic disaster. In other words, your audience will die – as we all must – and you will end up with nobody.

The fallacy in this argument is obvious. There will always be things that will appeal to those, say, over 40. Certain forms of theatre, certain books, certain music will naturally have an older following, just as certain others forms of all these things will have a younger following. Skateboarding most appeals, I imagine, to teenage boys and some early-20s males. That seems to be the way of things. Now that is perfectly understandable, and skateboarding periodicals are directed towards that group. It would serve little purpose to try to broaden their appeal to those aged 40 or 50. Indeed, it might just be impossible. But why try? Why not accept that there are certain things that certain groups enjoy, and let them get on with it?

Radio 4, of course, is not just for the middle-aged. There are plenty of younger people who listen to it because they happen to be interested in the content. Not all young people are averse to serious discussion and in-depth analysis. To argue otherwise is surely to condescend to intelligent young people. But the real point is that many people grow into Radio 4 as they become older. People’s interests change and they may take a deeper interest, say, in political debate in their 40s than they did in their 20s.

At present there seems to be enthusiasm for courting younger and younger audiences for Radio 4. There is a move to have younger announcers. There is a desire to deal with the topics that the programme controllers think will be if interest to younger people. But that, of course, will be at the cost of those subjects considered weightier. And this, of course, is accompanied by something more sinister: a dumbing-down that results in lower standards of production, less concern with depth and accuracy, and a good measure of trivialisation – all of which also suits managers who want to make budget costs. Young people do not necessarily want the superficial – indeed, one of the programmes that is most popular with students is Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, which involves historians of ideas talking to one another – not the most obvious recipe for the pursuit of the youthful listener.

Radio 4 must change – it can hardly remain the same forever – but it should change organically. It should take its audience with it, not try to attract new audiences it will not get. It should remember what its job is: to profess the truth in the face of a massive international assault on facts. It should keep its seriousness of purpose foremost before it, and continue to be a rational, considered voice in a confused world of strident and seductive voices. It should not play to the gallery by inserting background music into its documentaries – a particularly lamentable bit of dumbing down, by the way.

Above all, it should not apologise for what it does so well.