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5 February 1999

Why Einstein should rule the waves

George Waldensees, in plans for a new radio station, left-right unity against a soggy middle

By George Walden

I spent last Sunday evening in Tariq Ali’s house discussing the modalities of direct action. Our 20 or so co-conspirators included Jonathan Miller, Isabel Hilton and Melvyn Bragg, with Simon Jenkins, myself and several others representing a different tradition. Lord Gowrie is part of the plot but couldn’t make it that evening, and Bryan Appleyard has indicated sympathy in the Sunday Times.

No time was wasted in outpourings of exasperation or in ideological debate. On the substance, we understood each other a demi-mot. Public broadcasting, it was agreed, was being debased. “Radio Einstein” was Tariq Ali’s provisional name for a new radio station that would specialise in unashamed talk about ideas: on literature, science, philosophy, architecture, the arts and other such extravagances, which the authorities tolerate in moderate amounts, but whose prolonged discussion, considered to be wearisome to the populace, is not encouraged. (A friend, Christopher Hudson, has since suggested “Smart Radio”. I know – “Radio Smart-Arse”. Still, I like the youthful, contemporary ring.)

In any such meeting it is useful to have one or two people who know what they are talking about, and the presence of men and women with technical and broadcasting experience (including Gill Pyrah) kept us in line. The wavelength, the costs, the money-raising were gone through. It was heartening to hear that Tariq Ali had had a huge response, in terms of promised cash as well as enthusiasm, to his article on the project. But it was agreed that, before going ahead, we should not abandon all hope of getting the government and the BBC to find ways of meeting our grievances, which, like all insurrectionaries, we were convinced were widely shared.

Not by chance, as they say, did an apolitical meeting between people of firm political views take place at this moment. For me, it signalled a swelling revolt from diverse ends of the spectrum against the all-devouring, arrogantly populist, anti-intellectual, feelified middle. You see its triumphantly grinning face in our increasingly magaziney press, in the downwards pressure on books pages, in a World Service that is being blatantly chattified, in the travails of Radio 3, and on television. Above all you see it in the subtly diluted and Diana-ised Radio 4. “From my heart to your heart” is the universal medium of exchange, never from one mind to another. (Even if Radio 4 has better ratings, all this shows is that people resign themselves to the inevitable. And even if Radio 3 improves, we still need another station.)

It is an embarrassingly trite thing to say, but cultural conservatism, in the sense of a respect for ideas and the history of knowledge, has never been a monopoly of the right. Conversely, Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man can ring bells in non-leftist ears. The anti-popularist beat goes on: “In fact I am defending the conditions necessary for the production and diffusion of the highest human creations,” wrote that scourge of the bourgeoisie, Pierre Bourdieu recently, in an attack on television. “To escape the twin traps of elitism and demagogy we must work to maintain, even to raise the standards, of the right of entry.”

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Subject to a definition of elitism, Roger Scruton might agree. I hear no murmurs of assent from the Labour or Conservative front benches, though Chris Smith has frequently stressed the need for BBC quality.

Three years ago I tried the idea of a new programme on John Birt and got as far as I expected. Yet times are changing; there is a cultural restlessness about (remember the response, on right and left, from comedians and incandescent academics, to Cool Britannia?). Politically, a new station would make sound BBC sense. To ward off questions about the licence fee (still the best way to finance the BBC in my view) as the renewal of its charter looms, the corporation must show that it does things no one else would. Think what an argument the BBC would have (was my rather facetious line) if it did something so good that almost no one would listen at all.

If it was well enough done, they would listen. A survey by a local radio station about the idea confirmed that a lot of people are tired of being thought less intelligent than they are. Think, too, of the opportunity to de-parochialise our culture. Switch on and there would be a Californian geneticist, a Japanese architect, a South American novelist, a French philosopher, with time to develop a theme. It could also help publishing, where the marketing of less popular works is under strain.

Everyone is clear that the station must have no political coloration – though disagreements about culture could be colourfully aired. At present there is simply no space, and not much inclination on our increasingly blended and blanded radio and TV. In France, there is France Culture, an intellectual talk show, as well as France Musique. In America the standards of public radio are impressive. We have Radio 3, but that should be devoted to music, and a new channel is needed for highbrow chat. There are good things on Radios 3 and 4, but it is not the job of Radio 4 to be rarefied, and Radio 3 has limited time.

Neither children nor animals would be harmed, and in no other country would there be any objection. People would say, “Great idea”; or, “Personally, I won’t be tuning in but one day, maybe, my kids will”; or, “Not my style, pointy-head, but you just go ahead and do your thing”. In screwed-up, class-conscious Britain, one must anticipate resistance. If the government and the BBC take fright (elitism!), we must press on alone. I hope they won’t. When Tariq Ali and the noticeably Marxoid Lord Gowrie agree that something is amiss, something is afoot. And as Einstein said, “If at first an idea isn’t absurd, there is no hope for it.”

The writer is a former Conservative education minister

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