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Fifty years on, BBC local radio matters more than ever

It doesn't just give people something to listen to. It gives them a voice.

The question I have been asked the most over the last week is this: how did you manage to announce that one of your presenters was dead, when he wasn’t? And not just any presenter, but Brian Matthew, who had worked for the BBC for over 60 years and who was much loved. That did actually happen on the show that I edit. We announced he was dead at 12 noon, and then just after 2 o’clock we had to issue a correction to say he wasn’t. Radio Two had been informed in the morning by close family that Brian had passed away during the night in hospital. But they were mistaken. Sadly he did die three days later. 

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The wonderful thing about radio is that you can do something else while you’re listening. You’re never actually wasting your time, in fact you’re doubling up. I’m especially struck by radio’s ability not to only entertain and inform us, but actually to transform lives. Phil Maguire is the remarkable man who set up National Prison Radio, run from Brixton Prison in south London. There’s a lot of proof that supporting and educating inmates it helps reduce reoffending rates. People who visit prisons often observe that the prisoners are just normal people. Arriving at the radio station, it was hard to tell the prisoners apart from the staff. People were so polite and friendly. But at the end of the working day, as everyone says, “see you tomorrow”, half got the bus home and the other half were locked up in their cells. 

One inmate (I’ll call him Tom) was happy to show me his “room”. It’s a familiar picture: small cell, with a bunk bed, bars on the window, and photos of family stuck to the grim walls. I started to imagine how I would cope if I were locked up here. In a Prison Radio interview, Jonathan Aitken spoke very powerfully of his first night in jail. Paralysed by fear he overhears all the terrible things the other inmates were threatening to do to him. Back with Tom I was getting a glimpse into a prisoner’s life and what matters. And what matters most, particularly to 58-year-old Tom, is having an ensuite toilet and sharing a cell with someone his own age. By way of example, we went into the next cell where you literally tripped over the WC as you walked through the door. As he put it, the 20 year old in this cell doesn’t even ask his cell mate when it’s OK to “shit with impunity”. He just does.

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I've often produced radio phone-ins where the received wisdom from the listeners is that prisons are a “holiday camp”. So it was interesting to hear Tom’s variation on that thought. The most popular TV programmes on the wings are documentaries portraying the horrendous condition of prisons overseas. A caged cell in the Philippines crammed to the rafters with 100 prisoners. Tom consoled himself with the thought that he has it relatively easy. I guess this is where I should point out that last year prison suicides were at an all-time high. Drug abuse also is a huge problem. While still chatting to Tom on the landing another prisoner approached and surreptitiously handed something over, in a brown paper bag. He seemed delighted. “What’s in there?”, I asked, trying not to sound too suspicious. He produced two slices of freshly baked bread from the prison bakery. Simple pleasures.

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I’m in Sheffield to celebrate the work of Charles Parker, the man who, along with Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, created the Radio Ballads. It’s a joyous occasion and the room is full of grey hairs like me, and young passionate students studying radio today. When they were first broadcast in the Fifties these ballads were revolutionary, transforming the way radio documentaries were made and giving a voice to people who didn’t have a voice before. They combined folk songs and instrumental music with the speech of ordinary working people. The result is utterly compelling as voices take on a truly poetic quality.

In that same spirit we hear a recording made this year from a 13-year-old girl who was kicked out of school. She tells her life story through a rap and her words manage to be both achingly sad yet relentlessly positive. She sang, “I’m not bad if you get to know me”. I’m struck again by the human need to be creative and reminded of a story from a friend who visited another penal institution, Guantanamo Bay. In the early days the prisoners were given nothing. No books, paper or pens. But on the polystyrene cups that held their drinks, they improvised, drawing elaborate designs with their finger nails. Such is the human need to create. 

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Guglielmo Marconi didn’t invent radio, but in 1901 he proved that it was possible to send a radio signal across the Atlantic. Then came the BBC in 1922, using the technology that Marconi had developed for military use in the First World War. Feeling a little guilty, perhaps, he was determined that the magic of radio was put to peaceful use. In 1967, BBC local radio was born, and in Sheffield the room is full of people delighting in reminiscing about the early decades. BBC Radio Sheffield covered the miner’s strike and the famous Battle of Orgreave. At the time, I ran the Yorkshire Rural Playbus, which was funded by Margaret Thatcher’s Community Programme. Maybe I can finally admit that we were using the resources of the state, in other words our bus, to deliver food parcels to mining families. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of BBC local radio, which doesn't just give people something to listen to. It gives people a voice.

Phil Jones is the editor of the “Jeremy Vine” show on BBC Radio 2

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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