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7 December 2022

Nick Robinson’s Media Notebook: On Berlin’s dark past, and in defence of the Today programme

Gazing down from the Reichstag’s glass dome, I was reminded that Britain is not alone in facing unstable politics.

By Nick Robinson

As we reached the dome of the Reichstag on a recent trip to Berlin, our guide said: “Transparency. That is the point of all this glass.” The architect Norman Foster’s aim – brilliantly achieved – was not to cover up Germany’s horrific past but to highlight it while shining light on the way its democracy works today. Everywhere politicians go in the German parliament they can be seen by the public who – if they make their way up the dome – are always on top. It’s a lesson we would do well to ponder here.

I wish I believed that Germany’s very public memorials would ensure that the Holocaust can never happen again – anywhere. But I don’t. It is the willingness of individual men and women to persecute those who have been othered, or to stand by while others persecute them, that makes genocide possible. For me the most powerful exhibits at Berlin’s Jewish Museum are the heartbreaking farewells hurled by Jews on-board trains to the death camps; many of their neighbours had watched them marched off in broad daylight and had then bid to buy their possessions cheap. My family still has a letter sent to Dr Rosenberg, my grandfather, by one of his patients explaining that he could no longer be seen coming in through the front door. He would instead visit more discreetly. Here was a man who was willing to have his life saved by a Jew but not willing to stand up for him.

[See also: How should we remember the Holocaust?]

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Visitors to the café of the Jewish Museum on the day I was there could be forgiven for being perplexed by the sound of a lone British visitor explaining how the woman dubbed the “human hand grenade” blew herself up and almost blew up the British economy too. I was dictating some final lines for a radio documentary, Liz Truss’s Big Gamble (available on BBC Sounds), and was reminded that what went so horribly wrong was both foreseeable and foreseen.

Listening back to my own interview on Today with Truss days after she was chosen as one of the final two candidates for Conservative leader, I had asked her about her “gamble” – her willingness to borrow as much (or more) than Jeremy Corbyn, and her unwillingness to listen to all those with knowledge of running the British economy. “I will bulldoze through,” she boasted. Everything you needed to know was there. Yet her party members, the Tory press and MPs who put their careers before their doubts let her do it. The post-mini-Budget front pages of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph – “At Last a True Tory Budget!” and “This revolutionary Budget adds up to the greatest I have ever seen” – should be framed and put up on the wall of every Conservative office in the country.

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Looking back on what Today reported is one reason I was deeply frustrated – if not remotely surprised – by the recent claim in the New Statesman that “soft” interviews were one reason Today was “rapidly losing listeners” while Radio 4’s “commercial rivals are growing steadily”. That’s not what the latest audience data shows. All breakfast news programmes (bar GB News Radio) saw their figures dip. One key reason for this is the inexorable rise of news avoidance. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has shown that 38 per cent of people say they often or sometimes avoid the news. The researchers say stories about “political crises, international conflicts and global pandemics seem to be precisely the ones that are turning some people away”. Yet the NS’s critic thinks Today’s problems start with the need to “reflect a time where everything is at stake”. He said he listens to music in the mornings. Not news. Quite.

[See also: What would Britain be without the BBC? – Andrew Marr]

It is, in truth, too early to tell whether lower news audiences are a blip or part of a wider trend as people get more news from their phones. Our response at Today will be to continue making the programme richer and deeper, and go beyond headline news.

This week I’m due to travel to a school with one of our Christmas editors, the chef Jamie Oliver, to hear about the importance of giving all children at least one nutritious hot meal a day, and to visit GCHQ, to hear from the successors to the heroes who cracked the Enigma code. Alongside Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus, the former prisoner of Iran Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others, these reports are a reminder of the extraordinary reach and power of a programme that people in other countries tell me they so dearly wish they had.

On our way into Berlin my wife and I queued at passport control for more than an hour and a half. The empty queue for those with EU passports convinced some that this was simply the price of Brexit. Another queue on the way home, to go through security, was a reminder that something else is going on.

Britain is not alone in facing unstable politics. I was reminded of that as I looked down from the Reichstag dome on the seats reserved for the neo-fascist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which is now just 2 per cent behind the governing Social Democrats in the polls, and for Sahra Wagenknecht of the left Die Linke party – who polls suggest is the country’s most popular politician (she might soon form her own party) – who attacks wokery and has backed Russia in the past. Germany is neither the liberal paradise some portray it as, nor the wartime caricature.

It can, though, be a place of wonderful hospitality – to Ukrainian refugees, or among the cheerful crowds in Berlin’s Christmas markets. So, let me raise a glass of Glühwein and a currywurst to wish all NS readers a wonderful Christmas and a happy New Year.

Nick Robinson is a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme

[See also: A year inside GB News: “What the hell have we done?”]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special