Steve Beauchampé doesn’t like what he’s hearing on the airwaves.
It has long been the case that the Conservatives gain strong political advantage through the support of the majority of Britain’s national newspapers (seven out of ten). The party has learned to use sympathetic proprietors and their compliant journalists to feed stories, smear opponents and twist and contort facts, often leaving readers with a mere smidgeon of reality, and nothing at all like the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The other parties do the same of course, wherever and whenever they can, but the headlines which daily scream from such as the Daily Mail, Sun and Express (while shouting perhaps a little less loudly from the Telegraph and Times), provide the party with a policy platform that no amount of advertising or campaigning could hope to emulate.
But newspaper sales are falling, with this slow downward spiral likely to continue, as the Internet becomes the natural source of news to an increasing number of people. Bad news for the Conservatives then? Not a bit of it, for as physical sales of papers have declined (partly balanced out by a rise in their online readership), radio ‘phone-in shows, where political and social issues of the day are discussed, have become the staple output of scores of speech-based stations, with the charge led by the BBC.
A combination of cuts to local radio funding, the availability of 24-hour news channel Radio 5 Live, and an overarching need many BBC bosses perceive to chase ratings above all other considerations, has seen the Corporation turn increasingly to the cheap as chips ‘phone-in show.
The agenda for these interminable debates is often set by the national newspapers. Their existence avoids the need for radio journalists to source original stories and many BBC outlets also conduct lengthy reviews of their content, though hardly ever extending this to either their regional paper or local news websites. Where once local radio ‘phone-ins covered little more than the plight of football teams and issues relevant to their broadcast area – and usually with a couple of informed studio guests to respond to callers – today they readily latch on to the national news agenda with little or no attempt to include any local remit, engaging with ‘experts’ only over the telephone and then but briefly.
Subjects that crop up repeatedly include crime, immigration, benefit claimants and the EU, with Islam and patriotism not far behind. Even when couched and presented in relatively neutral terms such a volume of airtime given to the core of the centre right’s political agenda would be problematic, but the terminology regularly used to structure these debates leaves little doubt as to the thinking behind the choice of topics. “Are the police too complacent about crime?” “Should foreigners be treated free on the NHS?” “Are benefit levels too high?” “Do you feel proud flying the Union Jack?” These, and any and every variant of what are essentially the same few questions, pour out daily from BBC station to station.
Designed to provoke a response, such questions are like a red rag to the ill-informed, prejudiced and bigoted whose calls, texts and tweets populate such shows, affording them the chance to sound off for a few minutes to the nation without the need for their views and the misinformation often included therein to be seriously challenged or tested. The presenters merely thank them for making “an interesting point”, desperate of course that they should call again another day, lest the programmes’ ratings fall and a new front man/woman be sought.
As doubtless those making and enjoying radio ‘phone-ins would say, they are open to anyone to join in, and thus potentially all sides can shape the debate. But engaging with such stupefying one-dimensional debates for any length of time quickly leaves me losing the will to live, something that many friends and associates with non-right wing political views attest to. Get angry or switch over, it will always be the latter. Yet it is not a choice that I should be forced to make. While the BBC’s rôle, certainly in the political sphere, must primarily be to inform and educate, in their pursuit of ratings, their presenters too often forget to sound impartial resulting in the Corporation becoming almost as complicit in the increasingly vitriolic and heartless invective directed towards many of the most vulnerable in society, as the Nasty Party and their press cohorts, who instigate and stoke such feelings.