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Gwyneth Williams, the gatekeeper

The controller of Radio 4, on grumpy listeners, budget cuts and government interference at the BBC.

When Gwyneth Williams was growing up, she wasn’t allowed to listen to the BBC. In the South Africa of the 1960s, the apartheid regime viewed citizens who sought news other than that provided by the state-
controlled broadcaster as potential political dissidents, and the secret police would harass or even arrest those they discovered tuning in. The makeshift aerial on the roof of her parents’ house in Pietermaritzburg, therefore, represented more than just a chance to dip into for entertainment.

“It was a big deal, because you weren’t ­really supposed to listen,” Williams tells me over tea at Old Broadcasting House in central London, her South African accent now only the faintest trace in her voice. “We used to put up aerials to hear the news, and it was really important.”

This first encounter with the BBC World Service, crackling away in secret, was formative for Williams. She recalls it now as a reminder that, as the controller of Radio 4, she has influence over what those forced to listen covertly in places such as Zimbabwe, Eritrea and North Korea hear. “It really matters that our news and current affairs is the best,” she says, “the highest top-level journalism you can have.”

It also set the template for her career at the BBC: after time as the head of radio current affairs, she became the director of the World Service English division in 2007 – a post she left in 2010 to take the top job at Radio 4. She now leads the station at a once-in-a-decade moment of political turmoil: 2016 is the year the BBC’s royal charter must be renewed by the government.

The process is one that has already been influenced by the Conservatives’ victory in May 2015. The appointment of the veteran MP and long-time BBC critic John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary was interpreted by many as an act of war. Shortly after the election, Downing Street sources were saying that Whittingdale would “sort out the BBC”. He is, after all, the man who in 2014 described the licence fee as “worse than the poll tax”.

Williams is surprisingly relaxed about the political dialogue around the BBC. “The BBC is a great big institution right in the middle of the British state, just as our other institutions are. Institutions are in rolling crisis, as they always have been, but particularly now. They’re always recasting themselves and trying to innovate and keep up.”

More than that, she is convinced that the need for the BBC hasn’t gone away, whatever today’s politicians might be saying. “We need Auntie. It’s bound to take a different shape, and there’ll be a different political debate around it depending on the current politics, really.”

As we talked in her perch high up in the original BBC building, it was easy to understand how it’s possible to take this longer view. Politicians come and go, but the corporation is still standing at the heart of everything. What cannot be explained away, though, is that it is going to have to do more for less in future.

Although the indications are that the licence fee will remain as part of the new charter, from 2018 the BBC is going to have to absorb the cost of financing the free licences the state formerly gave to the over-75s. That amounts to £725m, or roughly a 10 per cent budget cut. As the BBC’s director general, Tony Hall, warned two years ago, it’s the kind of cut that can’t be achieved by “salami-slicing” a little bit from everything.

Asked where her station sits in all of this, Williams is upfront about the scale of the challenge she faces. “It’s affecting Radio 4, it certainly is. I’ve taken a few million quid out of Radio 4 over the last few years, as carefully as I can, obviously protecting audiences at the front line. We’ve reduced management here – we’re very small.”

The evidence is clear as far as the last point goes. Arriving for the interview, I am surprised to be shown in to a small, open-plan office with only a handful of desks. Williams explains the set-up: “It’s me, it’s the scheduler, it’s Laura [from the press office], and a couple of commissioning editors – 2.8, precisely, commissioning editors.”

The room where we are sitting isn’t even really the controller’s office – in a move reminiscent of something from the BBC satire W1A, Williams doesn’t have one, because since the 2011 redevelopment of Broadcasting House, everybody is meant to “hot-desk”. Instead, we have our tea in a meeting room that I’m told others refrain from booking out so that Williams can have a base in the building.

Although the budget cuts are not to be taken lightly, the controller of Radio 4 occupies a somewhat privileged position. “Radio 4 is relatively protected, compared with other bits,” Williams explains. “But we’ve still had to take quite a bit out. And there’s more to come.”

This protection comes courtesy of Radio 4’s greatest asset: its audience. When I speak to Williams’s predecessor as controller, Mark Damazer (now Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford), he calls it “the trump card”. Each week, the network broadcast of Radio 4 reaches nearly 11 million people, and one in every eight minutes spent with radio in the UK is spent with Radio 4. On top of that, there are more than two million on-demand requests a week via iPlayer or the Radio 4 website. While other traditional
media outlets struggle because of the internet, the advent of digital has only helped Williams reach even more people. That trump card is one she isn’t afraid to play.

“When they come for the budget, obviously I say, ‘Well, we do have a significant audience . . .’ and they know, of course, that it’s true. Radio 4 has a special place in the BBC, I think. Everybody recognises that.”

The stereotype of a Radio 4 listener is well known. They’re old, they’re grumpy, they’re quite posh, they love The Archers and they hate change. At least part of that is rooted in fact – BBC figures show that the average listener age is 56, and if you’ve ever listened to Feedback you know that some of them are quite irascible about small changes in programme format. But that is very far from the whole story, Williams insists.

“In fact, I’m very pleased [that the average age is at 56], because it’s stayed there. People are getting older, and there are more and more listeners . . . and people are living longer, but the average has stayed more or less the same. And we do have about 1.4 million listeners of under 34 a week, which is a reasonable chunk.”

Her listeners measure their lives not, like T S Eliot’s J Alfred Prufrock, in coffee spoons but by the Radio 4 schedule. “When I cut the quizzes at half-past one, when I got here first, in order to extend World at One, people wrote the most heartbroken letters, saying, ‘I always have my lunch break then to listen, and now I can’t.’ So people really care about it, but I don’t think that’s conservatism. It’s passion.”

Ultimately, the pact between Radio 4 and its listeners is mutually beneficial. Williams can build her resistance to budget cuts on their loyalty, and they trust her in return not to ruin the thing they love. “If you are rooted in it, you can actually do anything you like,” she says. “I’ve certainly learned that – more this last year than any time, but actually since I got the job – that the audience is up for anything. You can say what you want on Radio 4.”

Innovation is essential, she says, especially for an institution as old as the BBC. “I keep back a bit of budget. I cut in order to do a little bit of innovative stuff: you have to.” As well as the recent digital moves, such as allowing listeners to download programmes and keep them for up to 30 days, plus more short, 15-minute programmes that listeners can use to “build their own hours”, there is a host of initiatives planned for 2016. These include a domestic companion to From Our Own Correspondent called From Our Home Correspondent (the first episode is at 9am on 3 May), an element-by-element dramatisation of Primo Levi’s Periodic Table and the impossible-sounding Global Philosopher (the video will be on the BBC website on 22 March, and it is broadcast on Radio 4 at 9am, 29 March), in which Michael Sandel will debate with dozens of people from around the world at the same time, using a vast video wall. There will be a crowdsourced series on free speech and a new version of Look Back in Anger starring Ian McKellen and David Tennant. In charter renewal year, Radio 4 is coming out fighting.

Still, it would never do to stray too far from tradition. Williams tells me about her favourite letter from a Radio 4 listener. “It said: ‘Dear Controller, now that the last controller has departed (I hope to the innermost circle of Dante’s hell), will you bring back the UK Theme?’ It went on, saying it was a heinous act of vandalism. It was incredibly amusing.” The letter was referring to her predecessor’s decision in 2006 to abolish the orchestral music played every morning as the World Service handed back over to Radio 4. Thousands signed a petition, but the theme was still axed.

It’s a salutary lesson: no matter how skilfully you pilot Radio 4 through turbulent times, there will always be someone who thinks you ought to go to hell. 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
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Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (newstatesman.com/events)

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue