ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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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.

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

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Europe after the storm: how Emmanuel Macron plans to transform the EU

The French president has a vision to lead the deadlocked EU out of crisis and towards greater integration. But can he carry the rest of the bloc with him, especially the troubled Germans?

Sometimes it takes a Frenchman. The 19th century writer and politician Alexis de Tocqueville is remembered today for explaining the merits of American democracy to the world. In the mid-20th century, two other Frenchmen (well, one French, and one a Lorrainer with ties to Luxembourg), political economist and diplomat Jean Monnet and foreign minister Robert Schuman, were pivotal in establishing a limited European Community of Coal and Steel; today they are remembered for creating the intellectual basis for its transformation into the European Union. Now, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, is showing the deadlocked EU a way out of the crisis. What he is proposing on Europe is so major and so much more important than any other pressing current issue, including Brexit, that it is a wonder it is not being more widely and constantly discussed across the continent.

In a series of books, articles and speeches over the past 18 months Macron has brutally exposed the weaknesses of the European Union. The problem, he shows, is that the member states are too weak on their own to enjoy effective sovereignty in the fields of finance, economy, the environment, immigration, foreign policy and defence. Worse, the EU, in its current form, is unable to remedy these deficiencies. The euro is not based on a common parliament and economic policy, and is thus condemned to perpetual instability. The taxation regimes of the member states are not co-ordinated, leading to a downward competition between EU countries that puts the foundations of Europe’s welfare regimes at stake.

While the EU sets ambitious targets to tackle climate change, its member states fail to live up to their independent promises. The continent lacks a single jointly funded army commanded by a shared government and so its defence provision is inadequate; it is actually defended by a military alliance in Nato where most of the war-fighting capacity is provided from across the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel. Most of Europe has a common travel area – Schengen – but no common border defence or established migration policy, with predictable results in the Balkans and Mediterranean.

The Europeans are in effect, though Macron does not quite put it this way, leaseholders on their own continent.

President Macron proposes to return “sovereignty” to the populations of the member states – by which he means genuine democratic participation – through the creation of a larger “European sovereignty”. His concrete suggestions for EU reform are anchored in elements such as the establishment of a European military intervention force that would have a single European doctrine and budget; and of a European border police and a European asylum office that would uphold simultaneously the integrity of its outer border and a common asylum regime. The list could go on, but even more fundamental than the policy and instrument changes suggested are the proposals on how these would be governed, funded and legitimised.

The extent of the policies suggested and their European nature leads Macron to conclude that they require a common budget overseen by a European finance minister and tightly controlled by a European parliament. Given the policy areas that the proposals cover and the mechanisms suggested to enable them, they amount to reshaping the EU in such a way as to form a European state in all but name, rather than the European confederation we have today.

But this is not all there is to it. The president’s vision effectively abandons the framework within which changes to the EU’s structure have been made up until today, namely as the sovereign decisions of the governments of its member states. Instead he suggests that Europeans reclaim – our words not his – the freehold they forfeited, with good reason, in the mid-20th century.

For in President Macron’s vision a common road map for how to develop the new Europe would be put to discussion among the populations of countries willing to engage in the process, and ready to take those discussions into consideration when voting for the next European parliament in 2019. Ultimately, this vision suggests that where some member states aren’t willing to partake in the process they would not have to join in the new union, but remain part of a slower-speed rump made up of the remains of the EU of today.

Here are Macron’s own words in his book Revolution: “We have confused sovereignty and nationalism. I say that those who truly believe in sovereignty are pro-Europeans: Europe is our chance to recover full sovereignty... Sovereignty means a population freely exercising its collective choices, on its territory. And having sovereignty means being able to act effectively. Faced with the current serious challenges, it would simply be an illusion, and a mistake, to propose to rebuild everything at the national level. Faced with an influx of migrants, the international terrorist threat, climate change, the digital transition, as well as the economic supremacy of the Americans and the Chinese, Europe is the most appropriate level at which to take action.”

The underlying conception of “sovereignty” here appears complex, but is in fact clear and revolutionary; it is no accident that his manifesto book was titled Revolution. Macron is not simply “pooling” the sovereignty of the member states; he is vesting it at a higher level. Nor is the president taking sovereignty away from these states, because in today’s world they don’t have any to begin with. The peoples of mainland Europe will have a European sovereignty or they will have no sovereignty.

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To understand where that leaves the nation state, one needs to grasp the distinction that French political thinking makes between the nation and the state. While most European nation states take their raison d’être from a shared territory or bloodlines, France’s identity is supplemented by another, that of the Republic. The Republic’s foundational myth is that of a defender of republican and universal values such as essential human and citizens’ rights. So far, these are recognised as distinct yet overlapping, as can be witnessed by important formal addresses of French presidents always ending in the call: “Vive la République, et vive la France.”

With Macron aiming to preserve the first, the French nation, he suggests transferring the other, the French Republic with its commitment to the defence of human rights and universal values, to the European level. The French nation will remain, just as the other nations will remain, but it will no longer be sovereign. The French Fifth Republic will come to a formal end – it is in practice already redundant – and will be replaced by the Sixth Republic, which will simultaneously be the first European Republic.

The Macron plan is thus, unsurprisingly, very “French”, as one might expect from a man who received his education from two of France’s elite universities, Sciences Po Paris and the École Nationale d’Administration, and who admires Napoleon. This is also reflected in some of his policy concerns, such as his recent call for the EU to develop a new Mediterranean strategy, which is reminiscent of Sarkozy’s failed Union for the Mediterranean, or the suggestion to establish European corporations that would be champions in one field of economic activity. That said, he and his plans are also very Anglo-Saxon (though he may not thank us for saying so). Macron makes frequent and willing use of his fluent English and has worked as a banker at Rothschild. He has praised the economic models that other countries have adopted and believes firmly in a digital start-up revolution.

Similarly, his foundational ideas for the reform of Europe are – directly or indirectly – inspired by successful developments from elsewhere. Just as the independent colonies that formed the United States realised that they were too weak to face the challenges of the age on their own, Macron emphasises that true sovereignty for Europe’s peoples can only exist through the creation of a single de facto state responsible for policies to deal with Europe’s greatest challenges. Yet, just as England, Scotland, Wales and part of Ireland remain as nations within a larger sovereign political union within the United Kingdom, so Macron sees France and the other nations retaining their distinct identity under the new “European sovereignty”. And he wants it not to be attained gradually and by stealth, but quickly through consultation and consent. He outlines a process of constitutional conventions followed by democratic procedures such as referenda, with a clear path to a European sovereignty by 2024 – the date of European parliament elections – agreed within a couple of years. Those unwilling to participate would not be able to block the progress envisioned by the others.

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There are formidable obstacles to Macron’s vision, domestic, European and global. His plan is a fundamental challenge to French nationalism of both the right and the left. So far, outside the political extremes, the response has been muted, with the exception of a few symbolic battles such as over whether the European flag should be displayed in the French parliament. Serious opposition has tended to focus on his economic plans at home. Once people wake up to the core of these ideas, there will be furious controversy. The Fifth Republic will not go gentle into the European dawn.

The Macron plan is also fundamentally at odds with the current reality and temper of the EU and its member states. As one former eurozone prime minister told us when asked about Macron’s vision, the EU “is a confederation of states with a federal overlay. It is not a state and will not become one. It is a legal order and a habit of mind, a habit of consultation”.

The idea of a multi-speed Europe is also alarming in parts of eastern Europe, where given the current deficiencies in the state of liberal democracy it would be logical to assume that they would be left in the slow lane for integration. Moreover, the Macron plan has the capacity to throw a spanner in the works of establishing a mutual settlement between the EU and the UK over crucial Brexit issues such as the Irish border and the single market.

Above all, the president’s solution puts Germany in a quandary. Though it reflexively supports anything that smacks of a restarting of the “Franco-German motor” of European integration, or the “Franco-German couple” as the French would have it, Berlin understands “more Europe” in an incremental, not a final sense.

Germany has also been much less keen to shunt the eastern Europeans into a siding. For geopolitical reasons it has preferred to slow down the train in order to allow the slower states to keep up and to enable everybody to reach the same destination together, if they ever arrive.

Besides, there is a lot of sympathy among German conservatives, especially the Christian Social Union, for the very Hungarian and Polish conservatives that Macron would like to exclude or neutralise. At the beginning of January Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán was a guest of honour at the party’s annual New Year’s retreat. Most importantly of all, the German public and most politicians alike oppose the merging of sovereign debts which Macron knows is required to stabilise the euro.

Macron’s concept of European sovereignty faces an uncertain fate in the world at large. The support of the essential freeholders of Europe’s security, the United States and, to a certain extent, the United Kingdom, cannot be taken for granted. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, an American administration cannot be automatically relied upon to defend Europe.

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Yet, at the same time Macron seems to be the only major European politician who has at least begun to build a working relationship with President Trump. So far it looks as if Macron has also understood that Britain shouldn’t be left to its own devices. Despite some growling over Brexit, he is not a plausible Britain-hater, and he has shown a keen interest in continuing defence co-operation. Also, if he has any sense, the president will realise that Brexit and the unification of mainland Europe need to be negotiated in tandem, because the two processes – just think of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic – are intertwined.

Then there are the spoilers in Europe’s neighbourhood and beyond. Russia, Turkey, and China keep Europe’s governments busy and all have the capacity to cause serious trouble. European countries are divided as to how to respond to issues such as Russia’s disregard for international boundaries or the integrity of democratic processes elsewhere.

Does President Macron have the capacity to see his ambitious plan through to completion? So far, everything in his personal and political life suggests that Macron is a man of extraordinary quality, who is unbound by convention and completely free of any path-dependency. He has never done things, at least none of the really big things, the easy way. 

Macron has a clear strategy for the creation of his European republic. Last year he began with the reform of the French economy, partly for its own sake, but mainly to impress Berlin. Failure to do so would have left him open to the standard German “ordo-liberal” charge that other countries are not to be trusted with a European budget or common debt. This is why his book and the Sorbonne speech of September 2017 gestured towards the former German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble by speaking of “upholding common rules”, rather than just holding out a begging bowl.

So far, Macron has been extraordinarily successful, far more so than many of his detractors expected, and his supporters dared to hope.  After his remarkable, but essentially flukey election victory he created a political party, La République en Marche, from scratch and romped to victory in the subsequent parliamentary elections. He has so far overseen the domestic reform process without being derailed by France’s once almighty unions, nor has he been affected by a major political scandal involving members of his hastily created and initially heterogeneous political movement.

And Macron is no longer a mere one-man band. His outlook has inspired other seasoned politicians from different parts of France’s former political system to join him. To name but a few among the more senior political ranks, the French economy minister Bruno Le Maire speaks fluent German, is often on German TV and appears credible on both sides of the Rhine. Meanwhile, foreign and European affairs are similarly handled by experienced politicians and diplomats.

While one should not overestimate the importance of French MPs, the new class of politicians elected to parliament by Macron’s victory is very different from its predecessors. They are particularly diverse and excited about doing politics differently.

Many MPs are now considerably younger than their average constituents, while others are remarkable in their own right. To name but a few, the French parliament now includes Cédric Villani, a winner of the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal, and a staunch European federalist; while the new head of its European affairs committee, Sabine Thillaye, held a German passport for the greater part of her life before also gaining French nationality. Even if the diversity of his MPs leads to political fractures, Macron’s majority in the lower house is sufficiently large to render this inconsequential.  However, in Europe, the president had an unexpectedly slow start because of the inconclusive outcome of the German federal elections in September. Macron had hoped to start 2018 discussing the future of Europe with Chancellor Merkel; but his scheme to draft a whole new Franco-German treaty for the 55th anniversary of the historic Élysée Treaty in 1963 has had to be put on hold.

Nonetheless, there are signs that the German debate is slowly going Macron’s way. First, the German election result, which damaged Angela Merkel, and the initial deadlock over coalition talks in the country have, for the first time in more than a decade, shifted Europe’s balance of power back towards Paris. Second, the coalition agreement struck between Merkel’s Christian Democrats, its Bavarian allies and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), strikes a distinctively pro-European chord as this was a core demand by the latter party. Third, and perhaps most importantly, by securing the key finance and foreign ministries, the SPD will have considerable leverage over European affairs in the new government.

One way or the other, between them, Macron and pro-European voices in the SPD have destroyed two tenacious recent narratives: that all is well with the EU, despite a few rocky patches, and that there can be no question of further far-reaching and fast-paced European political integration any time soon.

In the future, it will thus simply no longer be good enough for Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, to trot out as he did in December the old Berlin mantra that “the discussion about whether Europe should be a federal state, confederation or a United States is one for academics and journalists, not for German foreign policy”. There is also a new Franco-German spirit in place and for once it is linked to the beginnings of a visionary and yet realistic plan. It found expression in a joint Franco-German parliamentary resolution last month in support of European reform, a pis aller for the stalled treaty. Perhaps other eurozone parliaments will follow suit with similar temporary yet symbolic measures.

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In his New Year address, Macron spoke directly to the European people. “I will need you in this year,” he said, “to rediscover our European ambition, a more sovereign and united Europe, and one that is more democratic and good for our people [sic].” He directly appealed to the much vaunted European public sphere, in effect over the heads of member state governments. It was undoubtedly the right decision, but nobody can be sure that it will work. The messages from the great European public are mixed.

To be sure, there has been a substantial recent outpouring of support for the European ideal, epitomised by the “Pulse of Europe” movement. But when one gets down to details, and especially any concerted plan to save the union, that consensus evaporates. Just before Christmas, a poll by the respected Körber Foundation showed Germans to be strongly supportive of the European Union but, by a small majority, opposed to Macron’s plan to save it.

For all the rhetoric, when it really matters, the European sense of shared destiny is still weak and common ideas are often lost in translation. Of course, public opinion can change, if credible leaders make the case to the public at large. To do this Macron will need a “Europe en Marche”, or to extend the La République en Marche across the continent: a project for the democratic unification of Europe.

Together with active citizens and other leaders he will have to craft a new common narrative that rings true in Paris, Athens and Tallinn alike. He will have to lead the nation une et indivisible out of its hexagonal comfort zone to act as a new Grande Nation in Europe. The French cannot be armed missionaries – that never worked – but they must be the animating spirit of the union. To succeed, President Macron will have to frighten and inspire Europeans in equal measure. The movement will need to give us a “project fear” and a “project hope”. 

Brendan Simms is professor in the history of international relations in the department of politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge, and chairman of pro-European think tank the Project for Democratic Union. He is a New Statesman contributing writer

Daniel Schade is a researcher and lecturer in European studies at the University of Magdeburg in Germany. He serves as deputy chairman of the PDU

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