Radio reviewing is based on a lie – that Radio 4 is brimming with fascinating programmes

Is there, for example, anyone on radio more irritating than Eddie Mair? Yes, her name is Anita Anand

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

There are few jobs more dishonest than being a radio critic in Britain. I know this because it was how I got my first break 25 years ago as a columnist. In those days you used to get sent huge yellow envelopes full of preview cassettes, whereas now it’s all digital, but the fundamental lie is just the same: essentially you are telling the reader something they know not to be true — that BBC Radio 4 is a wonderfully civilised place to hang out, brimming with all sorts of marvellously fascinating programmes that transport you to another realm.

Yes, of course it does happen. In the same way that when Grozny was reduced to rubble in the Chechen wars, I expect there was some beautiful old building left standing, a mosque maybe, which you could have gone to visit. But if you’d then come back home and told your friends, ‘God, you really must go to Grozny. The architecture there is totally amazing,’ you wouldn’t have been telling the full story, would you?

So it is with Radio 4. (Which, as far as reviewing goes, is radio.) There are times — we’ve all been there — when you’re desperately trying to stay awake on a late-night drive or you’re slogging along a tedious stretch of motorway or you’re stuck in a jam, and to your rescue comes a documentary or even, on rarer occasions, a play so absorbing that time ceases to exist and you could happily stay there for ever.

Be honest, though: it’s not that often, is it? Definitely, I spend far more time shouting at my radio than I do blissing out to it. This is partly a function of the fact that the bulk of Radio 4’s daily schedule comprises so many programmes you can barely bear: Today — just maddening; Woman’s Hour — hateful, sanctimonious, man-hating wittering; You and Yours — bleeuurch; Costing the Earth — like being force-fed to death on sackcloth and tofu; PM — is there anyone on radio more irritating than Eddie Mair?; Any Answers — yes, there is and her name is Anita Anand.

And partly, of course, it’s because the BBC’s politics only ever go in one direction. They try really hard to be balanced, the BBC’s presenters. Unfortunately, no more are they capable of it than the scorpion is capable of not stinging the frog carrying it across the river. Like, the other morning Today’s Mishal Husain was trying to interview two people about the EU — one pro, one anti. She had no problem grilling the Brexit person but when it came to giving as hard a time to the Remainer she just couldn’t: not because she didn’t want to, I’m sure, but because she found it literally impossible to conceive of a single argument why anyone would want to leave the EU.

Its science coverage is almost worse, possibly the result of being an organisation full of arts graduates — even environment analyst Roger Harrabin is one — with hang-ups that they didn’t do a ‘proper’ degree. To make up for it, they put scientists on a pedestal: lo! The mighty keepers of the flame of knowledge with their white coats and bunsen burners.

I can’t recall ever being entertained or much educated by a single one of Jim Al-Khalili’s The Life Scientific (Tuesdays), now in its umpteenth dreary series, because he’s too stilted, and too easily impressed by whichever dreary prof he’s interviewing, never calling their claims into question. This week’s snoozer with a full-of-himself US cosmologist called Lawrence Krauss was no exception. Krauss sounded off against Republican anti-science, against Donald Trump and, inevitably, against climate sceptics. Al-Khalili listened, tongue lolling.

Possibly the ne plus ultra of Radio 4 boringness, though, are its afternoon plays. They’re invariably so third-rate you find yourself almost wishing you were listening to Jenni Murray, or even one of those worthy shows Radio 4 is so good at about the plight of Muslim women in Bradford or how terrible dyslexia is.

Every now and then, though, they throw in something halfway decent to wrong-foot you. Last week I quite enjoyed Furquan Akhtar’s Brotherhood (Friday)— a thriller about the pressures and divided loyalties faced by young British Muslims in the era of Islamic State. (Though the Islamists did get off a bit lightly.)

And this week, I was reminded how lucky we are that Jonathan Ruffle’s superb Tommies has become such a regular Radio 4 fixture. It’s a docudrama about life on the Western Front, meticulously pieced together from regimental war diaries and personal accounts, which convincingly recreates the banter and technicalities of military life, allowing your imagination — as radio does — to fill in the detail better than any film ever could. Such a pity it never, ever seems to be on when I’m driving.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Bonkim

    Radio 4 is O.K but lately given to show business and documentaries promoting refugee and Islamic causes.

  • Ade

    …and Africa. Miles and miles of bloody Africa, on R4 all the time. “Hey, let’s do the programme from… Africa!” “Let’s do a programme about the impact of climate change on… Africa!” “What will the influence of Brexit be on… Africa?” Aargh!

    • Quest for Liberty

      so niche so cultured. Let’s pat ourselves on the back.

  • CRSM

    No, I cannot conceive of any broadcaster more annoying, and toe-curlingly embarrassing at times, than Eddie Mair.

  • danoxford

    I gave up when ‘Book of the Week’ was a serialisation of the early life of ‘A Girl Called Jack’- who has decided that (s)he is now a boy; and was born ‘Melissa’; and had a hissy fit at anyone who mentioned this factual truth; and who turned out to be entirely responsible for becoming an unemployed single mother, despite later making a career of blaming it on the Evil Heartless Child-starving Tories…

    • hedgemagnet

      The supposedly correct form would be ‘A Girl called Jack’ – who has decided that they are now a boy. (No, I can’t keep up with it all either). For further befuddlement, take a look at their Wiki page.

    • I’d put the creature ‘Monroe’ into a correctional facility if I had the power to do so.

      • John Dove

        Oh yes, but what would they be labelled with; pink, black, or red triangles, and with all those tattoos on their arms already, would there be room for the identification number?

      • Leon Wolfeson

        Yes, of course you would. Camps and jails for those you hate, like Stalin.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      So because you won’t stop bullying people…right.

  • Jab

    The decision to give 15% of all BBC jobs to BAME is already changing the radio 4 broadcasts which attempt to brainwash us into thinking we should accept millions of migrants and sob stories about refugees.The view is totally unbalanced , they dont go to report in the alpine villages in Italy who are protesting about being forced to take African economic migrants.I am disgusted and ashamed that our culture is being trashed and we are force fed this biased and frankly incorrect material
    Anita Anand was given a job presenting a programme on a region of the UK about which she knew nothing and got the whole thing wrong.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      So because they’re trying to stop discriminating…. as you whine about people fleeing people like you being alive… as you try and trash our culture and say it’s wrong not to line up for dictators to shoot…

  • This diatribe (well deserved) mirrors my own view. I have been a devotee of Radio 4 since it was ‘The Home Service’ – I loved it with a passion, to the extent that between leaving home to go to university in 1970, starting work for real in 1974 and until 1980, I didn’t even have a television. I listened to the wonderful Radio 4. But what happened? It has become a vile, dreary, PC horror, presided over by self satisfied, man hating harpies like Jenny Murray who has me shouting at the radio every time she comes on, which mercifully is not so often as she once did. ‘Why don’t women have more power?’, ‘Why don’t women even apply for the best jobs?’ In case you don’t know, it is the fault of men. What else could it be?

    About a week ago, the appalling Lyse Ducet went into a crazed polemic about how we British must take more migrants, because ‘they are living in appalling conditions in Greece’, apparently. Since about half the Greek migrants are not in any way refugees, I don’t give a toss frankly. I’d rather we preserved what we have for the people who live here, quite frankly. Ducet was not reporting news, she was expounding her moral and political view, a partisan diatribe banged home with a certainty that if you disagree with her, you are a monster.

    I find more and more the foul afternoon plays about scroats an chavs are unlistenable, the puerlile and talentless ‘comedy’ slots, usually left wing snide sessions or just pathetic, talentless, unfunny wannabes, or entitled smart a r s ed, dynastic bores, like Victoria Corren leave me cold and bored and increasingly angry. Something I loved has been destroyed by mediocrity, and hopeless management. I actually like Eddy Mayer very much. I find him amusing, but the frequency with which I must be heard shouting at the radio by the neighbours must leave them wondering whether I am mad. I’m not. Really. I’m angry, and with good reason.

    Did I mention ‘The Archers’? What used to be a brilliant soap ha been hijacked and turned into a pc polemic. Half the characters are ‘gay’, most of the story lines are rooted in left wing obsessions. All the men are useless t w a ts, or rogues or brutes. David Archer is a wimpy wretch who lets his gold digger wife run rings around him and his cocky daughter decide what happens on the farm that he inherited from generations of farmers in his family. I was born in the same year it started and I have listened to it ever since – not any more. I can’t stand it. Like the rest of Radio4, it has been ruined by the BBC which ought to be re-named as something along the lines of British Society for Broadcasting Left Wing Propaganda.

    • CockneyblokefromReading

      Can’t listen to Ducet’s truly terrible voice! How on earth does someone with a terrible voice get to present anything on radio?!? Yet the BBC has so many of them! Claire Runacres talks to you as though you are eight years-old, Zoe Ball IS eight years-old, Moira Stuart talks with an awful plummy voice, there’s a continuity announcer on Radio 4 who is obviously black Carribean and just sounds ridiculous, and…oh, I give up. Nothing will ever change at the BBC, like the EU.

      • Maureen Fisher

        Ducet sounds like a strangled kitten.

    • StVince

      The only way to lance the boil is to privatise the BBC. Such a shame that whittingdale bottled it.

      • I REALLY don’t want that. I thonke we’d end up with a race to the bottom and we’d have ITV type trash everywhere. the BBC does some wonderful stuff, but it has become infected with the cancer of leftism. Programmes on Radio4 like Feedback have the look of accountability and he geezer asking the questions of BBC producers is OK. He asks the right questions, but the BBC producer stock answer is ‘We know best’. The same thing happens if you use the BBC complaints service. Heads need to roll when they get it wrong. Too may of the positions in the BBC have become unaccountable sinecures and that needs to change.

        • CockneyblokefromReading

          The BBC does some great stuff, and yes, the bloke doing Feedback doesn’t hold back. But the BBC is obsessed with black people, climate change, and sport. It’s so diseased with Leftism that I’m afraid selling it and letting it go full commercial really is the only option. It already runs adverts every few minutes anyway, adverts for itself, so we really wouldn’t notice any difference.

          • StVince

            Spot on. Sadly there is no way of curing Leftism when it’s spread throughout the body. Anyway, in 2016 it’s preposterous and unacceptable for us to be taxed to support a giant media company.

            As for Feedback, every time I’ve listened proceedings follow the same course: listener complains about some outrageous bias, the bloke bowls a few gentle deliveries at the BBC producer responsible, BBC producer says “we’ve considered this very carefully, and we were right”, bloke says thanks for listening and we’ll be back next week.

          • If I could up-vote this ten times, I would.

            I still don’t support privatisation. We can see the results of this world wide in the almost universally vile, trash TV and radio they suffer. Someone said somewhere today that one of the main reasons that many Brits return from Australia is the utterly terrible TV and radio they have.

          • Dave Hill

            Are we to take it that you are in favour of the TV licence, then?

          • Quest for Liberty

            Privatisation is not neccesary but, in the age of Netflix and Amazon Prime, the license fee should not be so mandatory.

          • Leon Wolfeson

            No, of course you support abolition.

          • Snigger – hoot – Bwah ha ha ha ……

          • Leon Wolfeson

            Well no, there’s always the genocide option for your far right, as you say British assets are “preposterous and unacceptable”.

        • Leon Wolfeson

          Indeed, murdering people when they deviate from your propaganda…in the empty studio’s you’d create in your effective abolition of the BBC…

      • Leon Wolfeson

        Ah, selling off British assets to Murdoch on the cheap.

    • PaD

      I hate the Archers so much I rush to switch off at 1st bar of music…but occasionally Ill have a sneaky listen to remind myself why I hate it…inc; always the posh ones with the farm’ business plans’ and insights into bloody they get to use big words…the bumkins get bumkin stuff to witter on about,,,and there are aren’t even any token Asians/caribbeans.

      • “and there are aren’t even any token Asians/caribbeans.”

        You must live in London and think the rural world is a mirror of that. You aren’t even right; the vicar’s wife is an Indian solicitor and the squires daughter had a child by an African, which nobody even commented on, which was ridiculous. Rural areas are not packed with people of foreign origins, quite the reverse. Try moving out of your city and taking a look. The ethnic mix is pretty much like Britain was in the 1950s, predominantly white.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      Your issue with modern Britain, regressive… not everyone shares your issues with the country today.

      I get you’re mad that scroats and chavs are so high above you that…

      As you whine that the Archers is topical. As you ignore the facts about the government-toe licking BBC.

  • Freddythreepwood

    Sad; but surprised you have persevered this long. Gave up on it years ago. I wonder if they realise that they are largely preaching to the converted?

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Agree in parts, but a big factor is that there is no competition, nothing else at all like R4. Mostly I listen to music on Internet stations, Six Radio and R3 – but news and some other stuff has to be R4. Agree about Woman’s Hour: surely the only women who listen are Guardian readers. Don’t agree about Eddie Mair, who can be abrasive but I find he’s incisive with just about anyone he interviews, doesn’t let them get away with evasions, and has a sense of humour to boot. He’s quite edgy and stimulating – good for one’s humility to listen to Mair, I suggest. As for Today, I listen to bits – I mean, what else are you going to listen to first thing in the morning? Those afternoon plays, never even attempt to listen, solidly rubbish. Occasional bits of greatness! R4 re-broadcast the old serial (1950s?) of Day Of The Triffids, and a friend recorded the podcast of Dan Dare which I assume came from R4… Plus a couple of months ago there was a surprisingly good documentary on the late great Frank Zappa, presented (to my initial alarm) by Germaine Greer but she was very good on the subject.

    • Maureen Fisher

      I lived in Spain for a number of years where the radio was utterly dire. French radio is slightly better. I tend to listen to radio five or three.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        IME it’s even more difficult to locate a decent radio station in France than it is in England! Oceans of dire trashy commercial pop stations, with hardly anything like R4, R3, Six Radio…

  • ohforheavensake

    Oh, dear.

    Tell me, James: is it true that The Spectator employs you because they need someone who makes Toby Young seem clever?

    • polidorisghost

      “Tell me, James: is it true that The Spectator employs you because they need someone who makes Toby Young seem clever?”

      Why do you read either of them then?
      Why do you read The Spectator at all come to think of it?
      Instead of boring us with your fatuous “comments” why don’t you spend your time at The Guardian or The New Statesman, where you can hang out with other members of the middle class fake left? Think how right-on you would feel about yourself.
      By the way junior, he’s not “James” to you, he’s “Mr Delingpole, Sir”

      • ohforheavensake

        Do you only read things you agree with?

        • polidorisghost

          No, I’m just sick of your snide remarks.

          • Rush_is_Right

            I agree 100% but don’t feed the trolls! Just ignore the wonker.

  • polidorisghost

    Radio 3 is better by far.
    Probably because there is less talking.

    • Rush_is_Right

      Radio 3 has nosedived. Far too chatty these days. It’s still my channel of choice but very much faut de mieux.

      • MikeF

        Quite – Radio 3 is something like its former self in the evenings and at week-ends. But on weekday mornings it is now dire – if I have the time to listen to the radio then I tune into Classic FM. The latter has more substance.
        The fact is that Radio 3’s previous Controller ruined it as a serious arts broadcaster and the new one seems to be nothing more than a rubber stamp for the preceding regime.

      • Felipe Ordóñez de Rivera

        Agreed. I listen to R3 in Spain, having lived in London for many years. The endless chat that punctuates the supposed music programmes is infuriating. Mid-morning there some guest who comes on to witter about his/her “life and music”, but by far the most frequent provenance of said guest is luvviedom, be it acting, writing or cognate fields. As with so much on the BBC, the guests usually reflect the left-leaning, socialist dream world.

        Once we get to the afternoons, and the broadcast of concerts from Wigmore Hall or Festival Hall or wherever, we have to put up with a location announcer shouting into the microphone over whatever applause there may be, totally unnecessary. At the end of the afternoon, “In Tune” is more chat, often dire, but occasionally containing gems among the dross.

        Unfortunately, Radio 3, for all its grievous faults, is far better than Spanish Radio Classica, which has even more chat and invariably ponderous quasi-academic introductions to music items.

  • Malcolm Knott

    Half the time, when I switch on Radio 4, I hear women talking about personal relationships. The comedy is mostly dire and the News Quiz with Sandy Toksvig was a disgrace: a lefty-fest.

    But Eddie Mair is great, because he actually listens to his guests without interrupting, the Media Show is great and More or Less is great.

    • hedgemagnet

      Whenever I switch to Radio 4 (in the vain hope that things might be different this time…) I can pretty much guarantee that within 5 minutes I’ll be having ‘why aren’t there more women doing ‘X’ ? (where X is a well-paid or seemingly glamorous or exciting occupation) or some derivation thereof, rammed down my lug ‘oles – no matter what the initial subject matter. Saying that, I stumbled across ‘Tommies’ the other day (the other offerings in that time-slot on London local radio being dire) and found it absorbing, well researched and acted, and a cut above the usually dull and worthy dramas.

    • Absolutely_Passionate

      Those Radio 4 panel shows never have anyone to challenge the consensus, so they just sneer away at their figures of hate uninterrupted. And they call it comedy. I especially find the songs by Mitch Benn unbearably amatuerish. It’s pure agitprop.

  • plainsdrifter

    I don’t mind Eddie Mair but Anita is excruciating, rather like listening to finger nails being dragged across a blackboard.
    And there’s Orla Guerin. What a little ray of sunlight.

  • There is so much better stuff to listen to on the Internet. Stuff that is not handicapped by the need to appeal to everyone. I am interested in economics. I listen to Econtalk (google it). It is free at the point of consumption, practically free to make, has a *complete transcript* of all interviews, and doesn’t even pretend to be balanced.

    If you are not interested in economics, or have a left-wing perspective, you wouldn’t listen to this. But you don’t need to: there are lots and lots of progs out there, created by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. It’s only because they are not labelled ‘radio’ and are not broadcast, over FM wireless transmission, that they do not get reviewed. But that’s why you are old media, and they are new media.

  • Jack Rocks

    Can I put in a good word for Jim Al-Khalili? Although The Life Scientific is a pile of credulous bilge (has Al-Khalili or anyone at the BBC come to think of it, made a programme about the Decline Effect or the Replication Crisis?), his interest in quantum biology is very similar to my own. So I can tolerate him on that and other physics related things.

    Krauss is extremely arrogant of course. Very high self-esteem. Quite the narcissist.

    • jamesdelingpole

      Yes you can, Jack.

    • Hippograd

      I don’t think Jim Al-Khalili needs a good word from a stale pale male. He’s a member of the vibrant Muslim-heritage community and consequently the perfect person to tell the stale pale British about science. If it weren’t for Persons of Vibrancy like Jim, British science would hardly exist.

  • wasteman

    Trust a Paki

  • The BBC are cripplingly biased to the liberal-left. They are so biased in their output choices and stances they seem to have no idea how biased they are. I think radio 4 should be renamed Radio Marx, or Socialist Workers Party Radio….or whatever would be best fitting along these lines.

    Pause for thought is pause for international-socialist-liberal thought. Book reviews are often about overcoming oppressive British rule in the early 20th century, or novels about the plight of refugees, or transgenders, or feminism. The plays are similar. The “comedy” and “science” are often one long jeer at anything and anybody “right wing”.

    The onslaught of “progressive” themes, choices of programming topics, guests, slanting questions, etc, seems to be wall to wall, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Well, we may get one show or theme a year that could be considered ‘right wing’ or neutral…..just to carry that wafer thin veneer of “impartiality”.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      Never mind the studies.

      As you whine about all non-hard right views, of course. And about fiction, even.
      You remind me of the Hugo Awards and the Rabid Puppies Slate.

  • A Point of View sums up Radio 4 in a nutshell. One of the regular presenters is Will Self, a man who has never knowingly created a 10 word sentence when he could pad it out to 20 words. Most of them so excruciatingly verbose one can only think he spends all his life studying a thesaurus.

    When was the last time you heard from Nile Gardiner or Melanie Phillips, for example? Claire Fox can put an argument together in a way that even someone from a Secondary Modern School (1958 vintage) can understand and appreciate.

    Andrew Neil is just about the only BBC ‘journalist’ worthy of the name and even he lets the mask slip sometimes. Maybe after Brexit and with a re-vitalised Tory Party (plus the help of UKIP) the Common Purpose tossers in the BBC can be dealt with.

    Rant over.

    • Hippograd

      Self is perfect for the BBC: a narcissistic windbag who is passionately in favour of mass immigration and passionately opposed to racism and fascism.

  • Slater

    Wondrous news. A good radio critic at last to replace the unreadable, admiring of the BBC, previous Spectator reviewer.
    Radio 4 and the World Service could never put a foot wrong.
    Now we are getting closer to the truth.
    R4 is dull, boring and hectoring while the World Service is about the world telling us what to think, where it used to be about us telling the world what we were about.
    I rarely turn on R4 without a propaganda piece about foreign lives, or ethnic and other minorities’ stories.
    Audience figures can only be plummeting.
    Anyone know the latest ones?

  • Maureen Fisher

    I did stumble upon an afternoon play by chance which was the most acute social commentary I’ve heard in a long time about parents in a Nordic country who were trying out a hideous social engineering experiment on their small child by bringing it up as non gender specific and all the disastrous consequences that followed. It stood out as exceptional to the usual plays they turn out.

    • Jeremy Poynton

      They have gender neutral schools in Sweden (part of the country’s suicide pact) – for me, this is truly vile child abuse. Beyond FUBAR

      • Maureen Fisher

        It certainly came over that way.

      • Leon Wolfeson

        Your desire to kill the Swedish goes beyond “child abuse”.

  • Michael Harris

    I caught the Laurence Krauss interview and love it when things get to climate change. Just because a scientist is a famous cosmologist or physics professor, it does not mean that have a clue about disciplines outside of their area of expertise. I guarantee he has not ready any of the con arguments regarding climate science, he will have not ready one email from the leaked CRU Climate Gate affair. No doubt he has people he knows and ‘trusts’, and he tells him that we are in real climate trouble. People like Krauss & the ever pathetic Bill Nye spout the wonders of science from a very naïve point of view. I could almost say that his rhetoric was one of genuine concern for our planet, but he had not one hardball question from his fawning interviewer. The type of journalism where no hard questions are asked, no counterpoint made. A copy & paste interview.

  • James Chilton

    I don’t have time to listen to Radio 4, I’m too busy shouting at the television.

  • TrippingDwarves

    The Infinite Monkey Cage – one joke, repeated ad infinitum, by people who are not even comedians, no matter what they may think. And then, to add to the pain, it’s trailed non-stop as though the world could not even manage to to turn without it. Please, Radio 4, make it stop!

  • NickG

    Radio 4 is mainly crap. I have it tuned to a channel in the car. Often I switch it on and hear that distinct affectation in the voice that signals it’s a radio drama. It then goes straight off. Otherwise it’s likely to be the comedy voice affectation, with studio audions – off again. Then there is wymins hour – god no. If it’s none of the above, odds are its some talking heads being appallingly smug and pompous – and inevitably fashionably ‘progressive’ about something or other. Informing us about lesbian Muslim goat herders in North Wales, or how all Scottish farmers at the end of this century will be olive skinned, tech saavy, transvestites.

    Far better to listen to podcasts, the car’s engine or Zee Zee top oldies.

  • James Isserley

    I would be grateful if you could pass on my comments on his article to Mr Delingpole. You’ve deleted them, because they were critical of his lazy, shallow article. Free speech, anyone?