PJ Harvey’s Today edit – what’s in it for the BBC

By John Hilley (Zen Politics)

pj harveyPJ Harvey’s guest editorship of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 2 January provided a energising New Year antidote to what relentlessly passes for BBC news and commentary.

Alongside fine input from John Rees, Phil Shiner and Ian Cobain, Harvey included particularly brilliant contributions from John Pilger on the state-corporate media’s servicing of Western warmongering, and damning historical detail from Mark Curtis on Britain’s imperialist crimes.

Harvey’s invitation and selected features brought predictable right-wing reaction, including a savaging from the Telegraph and Daily Mail, with the latter’s Stephen Glover asserting over Julian Assange’s inclusion:

For the BBC to give airtime to such a grubby man is both cringe making and unpatriotic.

There was also much derisory flak from establishment liberals like David Aaronovitch, who tweeted:

I think that the editors of @BBCr4today must know how dreadful that programme was. What next? Freddie Forsyth?

In contrast, much of the wider liberal media applauded both Today and Harvey’s ‘fresh approach’. Seemingly incredulous, former-Newsnight editor Paul Mason even tweeted:

 Brilliant @PJHarveyUK edition of @BBCr4today demonstrating difference between “truth” and “editorial policy” – amazing how weird it feels

Miranda Sawyer at the Guardian also lauded Harvey’s “exhilirating” editorship, yet, in typical Guardian garb, baulked at certain voices and tones:

“[It]could have done without WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange preaching about openness of information. John Pilger, whose documentaries I admire, was a bit ranty.”

What Sawyer called “solo pontification slots” seemed nothing of the kind to this listener. Yet, such is the limitation of what even supportive liberal commentators can stomach when it comes to those more darkly-maligned announcers of vital truths.

Soaring high above all this flak and qualified commendation, it was, thus, a delight to read Joyce McMillan’s more acute observations, not only concerning the content of Harvey’s edit, but the implications of the rumpus:

The row over Harvey’s edition of Today is likely, of course, to be little more than a brief storm in a media teacup. Yet it comes as a sharp reminder that what was once a normal left-of-centre agenda in Britain has now become so exotic that people react to its presence on Radio 4 with various degrees of shock. Most of the points made by Harvey’s contributors may have been accurate, truthful and based on fact. But, in terms of contemporary British political debate, they nonetheless remain marginal, because they are not part of the dominant grand narrative of our time, which requires constant deference to the priorities of rich so-called “wealth creators”, and a rapid refocusing of any popular anger towards other vulnerable groups, such as this New Year’s imaginary tidal wave of new migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.

McMillan continued:

The great political question of our time, in other words – in the UK and across the West – is whether any political force will emerge, in the 21st century, that seriously challenges this dominant narrative; or whether we are now trapped by an account of reality so far adrift of the truth, and so rarely challenged, that a long age of social, moral and intellectual decline seems almost inevitable.

And, with timely reference to the coming independence poll in Scotland:

It is a damning indictment of the current state of British politics – and particularly of the recent history of the Labour Party – that it takes a rock star to create a Today programme that seriously challenges and shifts the conventional news agenda.

Nor is it surprising that many centre-Left voters in Scotland are looking to [this] year’s independence referendum as a unique and vital opportunity to escape from this stale and ugly politics of reaction, and to start reinventing a more just and creative form of national community for the 21st century.

But what of the BBC’s own apparent motives in all of this? While the ‘PJ show’ had the twittersphere and wider social media buzzing with approval and disapproval, the question never seriously asked was what point may be been served here for the BBC in allowing such output?

The effective absence of this question in itself says much about the passive ways in which the issue of alternative media comment is contextualised and treated by right-wing and liberal observers alike. Thus, the guest editor and her content may all be subject to lively scrutiny, while the legitimising factors underlying the BBC’s hosting of it is never coherently addressed.

So, beyond indignant Daily Mailers spluttering into their morning cornflakes, and assorted liberals approving the BBC’s ‘editorial daring’, what’s in it for the BBC?

Most immediately, this kind of ‘deviation’ gives such programmes a certain ‘edgy topicality’. As with Newsnight’s recent dalliance with Russell Brand, and Question Time’s occasional invite to the likes of George Galloway, even the ‘ever-reliable’ and sober Today slot has to angle for viewer interest and ratings in a now highly competitive and picky media market.

More crucially, such invitation allows the vital fig-leaf function of saying: ‘look, we carry a wide plurality of views, even radical ones like this.’

Of course, as the Today guest list indicates, the dominant presence of those like Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5, and Antony Jenkins, head of Barclays, means the weight of those views is always safely managed.

But what of the elasticity of such critical comment?  Could it ever stretch to allow any specific suggestion, discussion or critique on the Today slot about that very programme’s fig-leaf inclusion of people like PJ Harvey?

Pilger’s piece on media bias certainly included a direct hit by name on the BBC. Yet, as with so much ‘risky’ guest appearance, Today and other such outlets would likely avoid any deeper scrutiny of its own in-house motives.

This rare BBC ‘concession’ over content also helps amplify the notion that, while such output can be aired, it should always be regarded as alternatively marginal.

This was consistently inferred throughout the programme, with reminders from lead presenter Sarah Montague of Harvey’s guest status and desire to ‘bring something different’.

Thus, even this ‘mature editorial permission’ helps reinforce the ‘higher’ ideal of ‘BBC continuity’, while ‘acknowledging’ the viewer-friendly need for ‘experiment and variety’.

Even though so many have expressed their appreciation of Harvey’s vigorous edit and comment pieces, normal BBC service has been safely resumed.

Indeed, in the name of BBC ‘balance’, it was notable that Today deemed it necessary to carry numerous ‘fair responses’ to the claims made by Rees, Shiner, Cobain, Pilger and Curtis over Iraq war deaths, arms supplies and British torture. This included replies from BAE, Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics, and former Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak Al Rubaie, the man who led Saddam to the gallows.

With a public so already bombarded by establishment-sided news, such ‘balancing opinion’ was akin to calling (as the BBC dutifully does) the relentless Israeli bombing of Gaza ‘retaliatory responses’.

As with the wide and subversive discussion of liberal parliamentary democracy that followed Russell Brand’s Newsnight appearance, PJ Harvey’s editorship of Today has elicited a welcome, deeper questioning of both elite-fed and media-supported ‘truth’.

Let’s hope that wherever else such invitations occur, the critical focus is not only on the loaded establishment message but the particular, crafted posturing of the BBC as ‘impartial’ host and ‘open’ messenger.

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