Praise for the BBC for its fabulous Reith Lectures Archives. I’ve been listening to the first, from 1948/9, by Bertrand Russell. But… the RLA do highlight the hideous dumbing-down and celebritising culture of the BBC since the 1990s.
The Reith Lectures were ‘an annual series of lectures named in honour of the BBC’s first Director General and instituted by the BBC as a stimulus to thought and a contribution to knowledge.’ (So the announcer in the introduction to the first said.) They were recorded in a studio – the first ones, live – and directed at the listener. The lecturers were all noteworthy individuals, but it was the topic which was the most important thing – that they were experts on the topic ensured that the lectures would indeed be a contribution to knowledge.
In the late 90s (was it 1998, to mark the 50th anniversary?), the Beeb changed the format to a lecture to an invited audience with questions and answers afterwards. This has been a very bad idea. First, it changed the nature of the lectures from being a radio lecture to being a lecture on the radio. These are two different entities, and this change undermined the listener’s relationship with the lecturer. Secondly, it decreased the actual lecture time, as half-an-hour now had to include questions and answers – most of which have not been enlightening or useful to the subject. Thirdly, it gave some unnecessary importance to the presenters (Lord Barg and Sue Lawley), whose introductions also ate into the lecture time. (Sue Lawley’s can take a couple of minutes!) Presumably this is why the sessions were extended to 45 minutes, although it would have been better to ditch the questions – and the audience. Fourthly, it helped focus the lectures on the personality giving them. This was really brought home to me thins morning, when I had to endure one of those ghastly adverts that bedevil Radio 4. It was Niall Ferguson talking about what he’ll be talking about. Why doesn’t he just talk about it without all this trumpeting?
The development of the Reith Lectures illustrates the wider shift in BBC philosophy and its relationship with listeners, certainly to the more intellectual stations (Radios 3 and 4). From having a common aim with the listener of learning new things, certain BBC individuals seem to want to be celebrities on a higher plane than their listeners, or to invite us to listen to celebrity-reporters interviewing celebrities. A case in point is ‘The Life Scientific’, or should that be ‘Jim Al-Khalili’s The Life Scientific’? The Radio 4 controller said proudly on Feedback last year that Radio 4 would get more science programmes. (Then Home Planet was cut, showing that statement to be ballocks.) She cited TLS as an exciting example. But this is no science programme – this is biography-cum-current-affairs-chit-chat. It’s about the person, not about the science. It’s pure celebritisation.
BBC employees – presenters, researchers and producers alike – should behave like civil servants, which is really what they are: they should be disinterested, but not uninteresting, and let the excellence of their programmes provide all the justification they need for their licence. If you need to tell your audience that a programme is Really Good, it probably isn’t. If you stick someone like Betrand Russell in a studio, the programme can’t fail to be good.