Radio ga-gagged

Press a button and someone’s reputation dies, warns Felipe Fernández-Armesto

August 16, 2012

Beware! An insidious and hitherto largely unsuspected form of censorship threatens. We are armed, or at least warned, against traditional abuses. Academics are used to political interference from regimes that want to enforce ideological uniformity or black out peculiar viewpoints. Even supposedly benign governments manipulate immigration regulations against supposedly subversive teachers. At local or regional levels, book-banning boards try to restrict the curriculum, even in the “Land of the Free”, where I work. The Church to which my own university belongs has sometimes abused religious discipline to contend with heterodoxy. Big business exploits lobbying and vexatious litigation against academic challenges to corporate malpractice. Partisan alumni sometimes mount campaigns against lecturers they dislike. Some university administrations try to prune or clip their turbulent clerisy for a quiet life or a corrupt donation.

We think of radio, however, as a friend. At least, public broadcasting, of the kind represented by the BBC in Britain or National Public Radio in the US has an honourable record in giving contributors a fair airing. Typically, producers who work in these stations are well educated, open-minded people with a vocation for public service, fairness and truth. The ratings war means less, in the public radio world, than high standards of quality and morality. Television, even in publicly funded hands, is less reliable because entertainment dominates producers’ priorities to the near exclusion of education. I have done little work for television in recent years because I lost confidence in the medium’s fidelity to fairness. I will present only material of my own devising, and will not take part in interviews or panels unless they are broadcast live, because I have seen too many recordings traduced in the cutting room, with academics’ views warped to support the dim or shallow agenda of a director - often a frustrated wannabe professor - or jiggered to make the contributor look stupid. I would never advise a colleague to appear on television in a recorded interview.

My faith in radio, however, has only recently begun to ebb. I have so much positive experience of this lovely medium, which is well adapted to appeal directly to the mind. For many years I was a regular presenter of one of BBC Radio 4’s current affairs programmes, Analysis, and although the budget shrank over time, the quality barely wavered. When I interviewed contributors, the producer and I took it for granted, as part of our basic professional standards, that we would record everything said, and that in editing we would strive to represent fairly views we disagreed with. Whenever I have been on the other side of the microphone with public broadcasters for whom I have worked a lot - the BBC, NPR, Radio Nacional de Espana and, until now, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation - I have felt I was in honourable hands.

That confidence is now shattered. I detect two underlying, malignant trends and one potentially ruinous technology. The first trend is towards lower standards in broadcasting, as in every industry affected by commercialisation, bureaucracy, insecurity of employment and the worship of competitiveness. Conflict makes good radio, and producers are under increasing pressure to generate it wherever it fails to arise spontaneously. Simultaneously, and more surprisingly, radio is suffering adverse effects from its growing popularity. Contrary to the doomsaying of pundits who predicted that television and the web would eclipse traditional wireless, radio is gaining audience share worldwide and broadcasters are becoming alert to their competitive opportunities. When it comes to audiences, more really does mean worse: more sensationalism, more crudity, more over-simplification, more glibness.

The ruinous technology is the mute button. Every studio must have one, to silence tedious or ill-tempered phone-in gossips. But when I worked on Analysis, we would never have dreamed of using it to censor the views of an invited contributor. I know the inside of a studio well enough to know when someone’s finger is on the button, and during a recent appearance by way of a telephone link to Late Night Live (somewhat of a misnomer as our talk about the prospects for the Elgin Marbles was recorded) on ABC’s Australian Radio National, I reeled in awareness that the technology was being pressed to censor me and tilt the discussion. Since most answers to most questions typically take the form “x but y”, it is easy to sense when the “but” is coming and make a contributor seem to endorse falsehoods, or to be unduly partisan or to be patchily informed. Editing creates a further opportunity for manipulation. A broadcaster who does not respect the standards we observed on Analysis can exploit the chance to promote a particular view at contributors’ expense. If readers of Times Higher Education do not want to be censored, I would advise three strategies: avoid recorded interviews; if you agree to record, avoid doing the interview by phone; if you do talk by phone, get written guarantees from the producer and tell him or her that you will make your own recording as an objective check for fairness; and be wary of Australia’s Late Night Live.

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