The soundtrack to our lives contains certain noises which exist primarily to reassure the more vulnerable citizens of middle Britain that old values and traditions live on. The shipping forecast, eager middle-class voices singing “Jerusalem” on the Last Night of the Proms, the Queen’s Speech: the content of all these things is unimportant beside the fact that they still exist. They are little comfort blankets of sound. It is time to admit that one of these aural symbols of national continuity has well and truly outlived its usefulness. Radio 4’s Thought For The Day has got to go.
There was a time when the calming tones of a vicar, Sikh or rabbi, saying nothing in particular but in a soothing, pastoral tone of voice, provided a welcome contrast to the bustle and aggression of the Today programme. Now it seems unbearably patronising, a throwback to the bad old days when tweedy Establishment types took it upon themselves to tell the nation what to think and believe.
Everything is wrong with Thought For The Day. It interrupts a programme of issues, news and discussion at precisely the moment when it is hitting its stride, thereby annoying (and probably losing) many listeners. On Today, views are challenged, often ferociously, by its presenters, yet for those three minutes, some vaguely religious opinion – often rather mediocre and vapid – is given the floor, unchallenged. The general standard of argument is so low that the slot often seems like a sort of celebration of non-thinking. It comes as a shock when a big hitter, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks or Clifford Longley, makes a worthwhile point. It is, of course, quite absurd that only those who happen to be marketing a religious faith should be allowed as contributors. The BBC should be reminded that there is such a thing as a thinking non-believer, that an agnostic or an atheist is every bit as qualified to speak of moral and ethical matters as anyone else. The argument that religious views are not represented elsewhere on the Today programme is patently unsustainable.
Yet, oddly, the problem is not that this pause for thought is too long but that it is not nearly long enough. Three minutes of lightweight, uncontroversial waffle in a golden age of controversy is simply irritating.
Never in our history has there been such a general clamour of opinion all around us, in the press, online and in public debates. Everyone now has a point of view and is eager to express it. Yet, extraordinarily, the BBC responds by persisting with a feeble, virtuous sound-bite of sincere nothingness at a time of peak-hour radio.
We need more and better thoughts for the day on Radio 4, away from the ghetto of news and interviews, released from the straitjacket of a three-minute broadcasting slot. There is surely space in the schedules for a programme in which new, interesting and sometimes outspoken new voices debate the big issues behind contemporary events – a more inclusive, more daring Moral Maze. There is a wild and savage jungle of opinion and thought growing rampantly in our early 21st-century culture. In response, each morning at the same time, Radio 4 offers a very small, neat, carefully tended suburban garden. It is not enough.
Strewth, meet a Pom who doesn’t even whinge
The Australian press has welcomed a double miracle. Firstly, a 19-year-old English student has managed to survive by eating grubs and mosquitoes after getting lost for 12 days in the remote Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Then, the boy’s father turned out to be that rarest of things, a Pom who does not whinge.
As it turns out, the whingeing may soon be coming from Australians, and with some justification. Hardly had Jamie Neale and his father Richard Cass been reunited before both of them signed up with a local agent for celebrities, Sean Anderson.
Jamie has a good survival story to tell, says Anderson, who anticipates bids from newspapers for his new client’s story. School visits could be organised in which survival skills could be taught. There might even be a diet book. The search for the wandering student is said to have cost the Australian taxpayer about $100,000. Mr Neale and his father have offered their very sincere gratitude.
A sinister tale of political over-correctness
There is something very peculiar about a society which rewards those who write stories to entertain and educate the nation’s children by requiring them to buy a certificate confirming they are not paedophiles. It is hardly surprising that normally relaxed and modest writers for children, among them Philip Pullman and Michael Morpurgo, are refusing to visit schools under these humiliating and insulting circumstances.
When authors are obliged by the Government to buy licences of acceptability before they are allowed to talk to their readers, something distinctly sinister is going on.
* That very contemporary phenomenon, the celebrity divorce, is posing all sorts of legal problems. Adjudicating over the divorce proceedings of the Earl and Countess of Spencer, a judge has decreed that the new spirit of openness in family courts should cover public figures as well as “those who live their lives in tranquillity and anonymity.”
Then there is the burning question of “brand divergence”. Because, like everything else in the world of the famous, a celebrity marriage is a marketable product, and the question of who wins custody of the brand image can be as sharply contested as issues concerning children or even property.
Such things matter, as Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills could testify. Sir Paul, well and expensively advised on the public relations side, remains a cuddly national favourite.
Mills, however, who fired her publicity team, has been cast into the outer darkness.