It’s the stuff of which viral moments are made. While guest hosting a radio phone-in on LBC the shadow justice secretary David Lammy was faced with a caller who told him he “will never be English” because of his Afro-Caribbean descent.
Lammy went viral for all the right reasons. Even though he would have been entirely within his rights to lose his cool, he calmly tackled the caller’s objections and made a case he should never have had to: that as someone born and raised in England, he is as English as can be. He also explained that this country has for years been comprised of a mixture of people from different racial groups.
Online reactions to Lammy’s response were almost universally positive, and the video of the clash on LBC’s Twitter account has been viewed more than six million times in less than 48 hours. The question is whether it was everything it appeared to be – and if it should have been allowed to happen at all.
If we thought about it – and most of us probably haven’t – we might expect that when someone phones into and appears on a talk radio station or show, they are picked largely at random and that the presenter doesn’t know what they’re going to say.
As I know from my experience of radio studios, the reality is quite different. No one gets on air without talking to a producer first, who will gauge what the caller wants to talk about. That producer likely also has access to a system that identifies the caller: is this the first time they’ve called? How often do they call? What did they talk about last time?
These systems generally include notes about the person if they’ve dialled in before. Problem callers are permanently blocked, while the notes for others might contain warnings that they may ramble or veer off topic, or simply include details on whether or not they’re a good talker.
This means professional presenters are almost never surprised by a caller: they’ll have had a one- or two-sentence summary of what the next person on a phone-in intends to say. They also generally have the ability at their fingertips, independently of the producer, to mute the caller at any time. It’s easy to get the last word when you can absolutely guarantee it.
With these advantages, the producers at radio stations such as LBC and TalkRadio have most of the tools they need to help generate viral moments. This can be taken to extremes: hosts might have a topic they want to talk about that they’d like a caller for, or a producer might encourage a caller to frame their argument in a particular way.
The callers to these shows are generally genuine, and there is a big step between a little encouragement and producers putting words into callers’ mouths. Few of us will feel much (if any) sympathy in the particular case of the caller to whom Lammy responded on 29 March.
But it should make us think about these viral moments. We share and react to them because they feel like something unusual in politics: genuine moments of conflict or tension. In reality, they are much more akin to the stage-managed world of professional wrestling.
Real moments of surprise or worry are about as rare in phone-ins as they are in WWE – and radio stations have a button that will “dump” the last seven seconds of audio before it makes it to air, allowing them (if they react quickly) to cut any particularly bad mishaps before the audience ever hears them.
Unlike professional wrestling, though, not everyone is in on the act. Callers are not elected officials, major celebrities or paid representatives of a company or cause. They’re just members of the public, often set up to serve as foils to make well-paid and well-prepared professionals look good.
In cases like Lammy’s, where a caller is expressing views right out of the UK’s even-more-racist past, we might find we don’t care too much about an unsuspecting member of the public going viral. But that’s not the only consideration. There’s also a question about whether the host should ever have to face a question like the one put to Lammy. Politicians often get less of a heads-up about incoming callers than stations’ regular hosts, so it’s possible Lammy had no idea that caller and their views were heading his way.
If that were the case, is it really justifiable that a senior British politician is forced to publicly defend his citizenship live on air? And by sharing it as we did on social media, do we incentivise it happening again?
Moments of confrontation on phone-in radio shows are are certainly a spectacle – but so is bear-baiting, and we don’t do that anymore. It’s time to give up this vice, too.
[See also: Antonia Quirke on Times Radio]