Radio leads the way in digital evolution

January 30, 1998

The other Friday I spent five and a half hours sitting in the chamber of the House of Commons listening to the debate on Teresa Gorman's Devolution for England bill. I will not go into detail as to why I had to sit there - just be aware that the parliamentary procedures are so arcane and outdated that every working day one of the government whips in the Commons and one in the Lords must write a handwritten note to the Queen, explaining what her parliament has been doing that day. You get the point?

Had I been writing to the Queen that day I might have highlighted the various views on the establishment of the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, the relation of her parliament to the European countries and the devolution of power to the regional assemblies. I would have probably congratulated the member for Billericay in leading the debate for, although her bill was defeated, it led to a fascinating, albeit inconsequential, debate on Englishness and the history of our constitution.

I would not have highlighted the 30-second exchange concerning the birthplace of the presenters of Radio Four's Today programme. Yet guess what BBC Radio Four's Yesterday in Parliament did highlight?

The media's obsession with the media continues to amaze me. Like Bishop Berkeley's tree, if we do not hear it on the Today programme, it does not exist. Most news nowadays seems to consist of reactions to reactions to previous news. The real event may or may not have taken place. This Bonfire of the Vanities exists (in an existentialist meaning of the word, if I may risk Pseuds' Corner) mainly on the airwaves.

It will not stop. Indeed the advent of national digital radio broadcasting, now only eight months away, will lead to more channels with more news and the demand for more reaction to it.

The British political classes listen to the Today programme. It is responsible for more Westminster gossip than anything - and I mean, anything.

Radio, above all other media, is growing in power. It is simple, cheap, easy to access and, in a busy world, the most straightforward way of tuning into society. It leaves television standing, it is pushing newspapers into ever decreasing circulations and it wipes the floor with the Internet. What is more, it will increasingly do so as we get more and more sophisticated.

This is what I call the "Redhead Paradox", in honour of Brian of that name, former Radio Four presenter and all round good thing. That his BBC obituary was longer than Harold Wilson's simply proves my radio theory.

Brian had a simple, honest way with words. He personified all that is good and powerful about radio. The problem is that the conventional wisdom of the chattering classes (of which I am a fully paid up subscriber) is that the Internet, interactive television and the CD- Rom are the future. I know this is true because they are always saying so on the radio.

We want our children to be computer literate and our country to lead the digital revolution. And quite right too.

Teaching them to read and write is, it would seem, an awkward nuisance standing in the way of this microchip-led crusade. Yet the BBC's children's and schools' service has been eroded to the point that it is disappearing. This is despite the overwhelming evidence that children's radio services are an invaluable tool in educating and bringing up good-mannered, lively, intelligent children. Do not even ask about commercial radio.

If I want my four-year-old to sit still and concentrate, I put on a story tape. I do not switch on the 100 mega-hertz Pentium which I am lucky enough to own. Neither did my father and neither did his. I hope neither will my son. But if there is no children's service he may have to.

Phil Woolas is Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.

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