Soundbites and self-promotion: a tribal gathering for Radio 4 supporters

What excitement there was when Any Questions came to town. Members of the great Radio 4 tribe emerged from the Norfolk and Suffolk countryside  – a querulous, bloody-minded, easily affronted cross section of the mature middle-class for whom the end of civilized values, as represented by an apostrophe, a radio announcer’s accent or an iffy storyline on The Archers, is just around the corner.

For these people, Radio 4 represents their soul. Its heroes  – John, Jim, Kirsty, Martha, Jonathan  – are like celebrity neighbours, and are mentioned in tones of studied, slightly simpering familiarity.

Jonathan was not chairing Any Questions in the Diss Corn Hall, a fact for which his replacement Eddie Mair modestly apologised. The programme guests were Norman Tebbit, Sarah Sands, Maya Jaggi and Diane Abbott.

Their live broadcast was revealing in small, and some might say unsurprising ways.

There was a fair degree of smug self-promotion by the BBC itself. In his warm-up, an executive discussed the corporation’s sense of duty, its economy drive, its tireless search for improvement. There is nothing particularly scandalous about an organisation marketing itself so ruthlessly to a captive audience  – it is the kind of thing time-share firms do all the time – but it seemed odd and slightly vulgar in the context of the BBC.

The audience were encouraged to express their support of, or opposition to,  panellists with applause or … otherwise. Taking this instruction to heart, several of those present booed Norman Tebbit during the early part of the programme, often at bewilderingly inappropriate moments. Asked later by Eddie Mair why they had booed, one audience member replied, ‘Because we were asked to.’ Scary.

Finally, it was interesting to see how differently the politicians and the writers engaged with the audience. Jaggi and Sands answered questions sensibly and sometimes wittily but clearly had not got the knack of giving the public the easy, instant gratification of soundbite opinion.

Tebbit and Abbot, both old hands, have honed their image over time. He is the world-weary, forthright voice of common sense; she is the representative of all that is  downtrodden and virtuous. Their every word and gesture played up to these images.

As a result, they were the ones who impressed the audience and gave them what they wanted:  the sharp pleasure of having one’s own views rehearsed or having one’s prejudices confirmed.

The Radio 4 tribe may believe themselves to be wise to the game, but they are part of it.