The Importance of Being There

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a regular listener to @BBCr4today.  I find that shouting at arrogant politicians and numbskulled bureaucrats whilst standing before the shaving mirror is a good way to start my day, one of my favourite triggers being “we can’t comment on individual cases”.  Why they let these people get away with that as a justification for avoiding a difficult question I just don’t know.

Over the years, I have picked up on a few things that will lend advantage to anyone participating in a radio debate or interview on a live show such as the Today programme.  In fact, by the time I myself was interviewed by John Humphries on the show back in 2001, I was already a seasoned veteran when it came to listening, having started back in the 80s as a teenager.  And I saw a very good illustration of one of these tactics last week.

On Tuesday 29 January, Today programme grandee Jim Naughtie conducted a debate between Stephen Bell, a cartoonist for The Guardian, and Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle.  The debate took place after the 8am news, prime listening time.  The event that prompted the debate was the publication by Sunday Time of a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe on Sunday 27th January.  That cartoon was, in turn, prompted by the victory of Benjamin Netanyahu in his country’s general election and depicted Mr Netanyahu building a wall constructed from the blood and bones of Palestinians.  The paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, immediately apologised for the offence caused.  Mr Scarfe regretted the timing of the publication, which coincided with Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The purpose of this post is not to continue that debate.  For myself, I do not believe that criticism of Israeli policy in the occupied territories is equivalent to anti-semitism.  I have long thought that to be Jewish and to be Israeli are two different things.  And indeed there is a sizeable minority in Israel who are critical of the policies of their government.  Obviously, that does not make them anti-semitic.  But, strong as our support for the principle of freedom of expression must be, we must aware also of the context within which statements are made.  Mr Scarfe’s cartoon brought to mind the activities of Josef Mengele in Auschwitz.  I am sure that this was unintended, but it was the first thing that popped into my head.  As if that was not enough, for the publication to take place on the day that the world remembered the millions of victims of Nazi persecution was beyond insensitive.

But that’s my view.  What distinguished (if that’s the right word) the debate between the Stephens Pollard and Bell was the way in which attention turned to a cartoon drawn by Bell that Pollard referred to as “the puppet master”.  This cartoon was published in the Guardian earlier in the month and showed Mr Netanyahu on a Likud election plinth with a glove puppet on each hand, one bearing a likeness to William Hague and the other I can only assume from the smile to be Tony Blair.  The quality of the drawing was fine, but the sentiment I found to be somewhat clumsy.  And again, the context must be borne in mind, which is that for centuries, Jewish folk have been regarded as pulling the levers of power, operating in the shadows.  A stereotype that ignores the undeniable fact that for most of the last millennium, the Jewish people have been poor and downtrodden with few friends and fewer rights.  However, the Bell cartoon was intended as a criticism of Israeli policy, not a depiction of the Jewish character, if there can be such a thing.

It was at this point that the debate degenerated into a slanging match, with poor James Naughtie caught in the middle trying to marshall the contestants.  Bell clearly saw the interview as an opportunity to respond to criticism of the ‘puppet master’ cartoon in Pollard’s publication.  Pollard sought to justify that criticism by referencing the old Shakespearian stereotypes.  But Bell held one key advantage.  Whilst Pollard was speaking from a telephone line, Bell was live in the studio.  This meant that Jim found it difficult to control Bell for technical reasons, with Bell railing against Pollard time after time, interrupting Pollard’s responses.

Frankly, I came away from the debate with less sympathy for Bell, finding it ironic that somebody who makes his living from freedom of expression was so unwilling to let his opponent take his turn.  But there was no denying that if you are live in the studio, it is much more difficult for the interviewer to take control.  Even if your mic is turned down, you can still be heard on the presenter’s mic, especially in local radio, where the studios tend to be more compact.  On the other hand, the narrower, tinnier sound that the phone line produces is easily swamped by the fuller sound and greater bass produced by the studio.  And on radio, when two people speak at the same time, it is almost impossible to hear what either are saying.  This meant that time after time, Bell was able to drown out Pollard’s comments.

The debate is still available here for the time being, but whether you get the chance to listen to it or not, the next time you hear a contentious discussion on talk radio with participants joining from different sources (phone, ISDN, studio, etc), have a careful listen to the advantages or disadvantages that those technicalities present.  Participation by phone must always be your last resort.  With a decent broadband connection, even Skype tends to be preferable.  At least then, if you don’t like the way things are going, you can simulate a connection problem thereby giving you a blameless exit from the debate.  The presenter is then under a duty to present your argument for you.

If you can’t get to the studio, get to a local studio so they can connect you by ISDN.  If you can’t get to another studio, see if there is a radio car in your area.  Just do everything you can to avoid the phone.  You’ll thank me for it, as will your listeners, because being there in the heart of the debate is the most important technical advantage you can give yourself.

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