Reviewed: Our Lady of Paris on Radio 3

Beale's about.

Our Lady of Paris
Radio 3

“It’s a small kind of miracle, a building reaching into the clouds taking advantage of technological innovations to express the glory of God in new ways.” Simon Russell Beale is standing outside Notre Dame – 850 years old and in the midst of anniversary celebrations – and doing one of the many things he does so unusually well: making a script sound improvised without a hint of the faux casual (23 March, 12.15pm). Behind him a wintry Seine fiercely laps against stone and tourists chunter and hustle, but SRB maintains his usual quiet focus, a skill he transports directly into conversations with experts and historians that doesn’t dissolve even when he’s splurging out things like, “Oh, they’re singing in a boat! On the Seine! How sweet!” when looking at an 11th-century painting of musicians on the water.

Later, in this tender programme about the musical history of the cathedral, he quoted from bawdy medieval songs (“find here in Paris great joy/fine jewels/and honourable ladies/and others among them of the cheaper sort . . .”) without remotely changing the tone or emphasis of his voice and yet making it perfectly clear he was quoting. How does he do this? It’s as mysterious as the way he manages to appear on programmes on Radio 3 in which he is required to talk about himself personally (Summer Selection, Essential Classics, In Tune . . . Radio 3 would fall to bits without SRB, as would BBC4) and never, not once, sounding like an asshole. You try it. It’s impossible. Yet here comes SRB: not precious, not self-regarding, not nervous about his knowledge, just noticeably, always, great.

Actors moonlighting as presenters are usually required to be either twinkly and reassuring, or cynical and mysterious. With the lone exception of SRB they helplessly give off an air of (a) being barely able to wait to tell the next dirty limerick in the lunch truck, or (b) that they are only presenting this documentary because they want their life to come across as a sequence of unlikely but successful throws on a roulette wheel. And yet here is SRB talking about single-line plain chant and “exciting new worlds of sound” like the perfect presenter: a guy on whom absolutely nothing is wasted. Not just whole programmes but whole stations happily adjust around him.

Photograph: Getty Images

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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