Radio: A weedy question to ask the bishop

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The Independent Culture
This column fervently endorses this newspaper's campaign against dumbing down in our institutions. As to whether or not the radio is dumber than it was, well, it all depends what you have been listening to. On Monday's Radio 4 Today programme, I heard a breathtaking piece of fatuity from one of its presenters, whom I am happy to name as Edward Stourton. He interviewed the Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, about the new Liberal Democrat leader's call for a royal commission on the decriminalisation of cannabis. The Bishop, we were warned darkly, had admitted to having "used" cannabis himself. Stourton asked: "Was this wise?"

Several thoughts might have occurred to you then. The first about his choice of the word "used". In a way quite honest, it admits that there is a purpose behind the primary drive for taking it - that of altering consciousness. But people aren't really said to "use" alcohol or cigarettes; you certainly don't get nosy radio presenters who have a rolled-up copy of the Daily Mail in the place where their brains should be asking you how often you "use" beer a week.

Here Stourton is "using" language to try to whip up a scare about a subject that even the police don't think is worth bothering much about.

But the clincher was his "was this wise?" The Bishop, had he been more flippantly inclined, might have said something like: "No way, kids, look what happened to me. I have to wear a purple shirt and listen to idiots like this at quarter past eight in the morning. Just say no before it's too late."

I forget what he said, as I was stunned, dealing with the neo-reasoning behind the question. Which works out as: "Is it wise for you to talk on a subject about which you have direct and relevant experience?" The answer he really seemed to expect was "no".

It has been a bad week for the BBC, what with the public saying that they wouldn't mind ads on it (but not this member of the public). But flagships have to be kept more spick and span than the rest of the fleet. At least Tuesday's Today programme had a moving and brave report by Jonathan Head about the Acehnese struggle against the murderous Indonesian "government" (i.e. gang of genocidal despots). That is what the BBC is for.

Speculation about what kind of matter dozes between the ears of other Today presenters, leads us, nicely I think, to Brain of Britain - which this week contained the following stumper. Question: Which director's films include 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket, and he died in England this March? Can't get it? Tip of your tongue?

I suppose the programme has to have the odd easy-peasy question so that youngsters and the information-challenged don't feel too left out. I remember, as a child, listening to the programme and being thrilled when I got more than one question right in the entire line-up. Nowadays I still get plenty wrong, although it is depressing when literature questions baffle every contestant. Such as - name one of the scientists in Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (pick from Bohr or Heisenberg - no one else did), or the source of the line, in The Waste Land, "Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song" (Spenser).

But the most significant aspect of the show is, naturally, Robert Robinson. This man, let me explain to the younger readers, was once the John Peel of his day; that is, completely unavoidable. (I joke. A far closer analogue would be Laurie Taylor.) Anyone else presenting BoB would be unthinkable, a crime against nature.

But Robinson's sour-old-geezer act is getting harder and harder to bear. His obvious dislike of some of the more populist questions is unseemly. And the setters should stop provoking him so much and he shouldn't react so badly when they do. A question about the Drudge report on the internet had him applauding the participants' ignorance. Tsk, tsk, Mr Robinson, as he might put it himself, ignorance should never be applauded. And saying Oscar Wilde's gags weren't as funny as all that is a very risky thing for a man in your position to say.

Highlight of the week, though, was Janet Suzman reading an abridgement of Samantha Weinberg's new book, A Fish Caught in Time (R4, again.) This is the story of the coelacanth (pron. see-la-kanth), the four-limbed fish that everyone thought was as extinct as the dinosaurs, until a live one turned up in a fisherman's net off East London on the coast of South Africa in 1938.

What was great and inspiring about this story (and, boy, does Suzman know how to get your attention) is that not only does it inspire you with admiration for the dedicated ichthyologists, but that the general wonder at the news showed that human- ity wasn't as dumb as you might have feared, or at least longed to be better informed. Plus you got lines like this: "Professor Smith could have stayed stroking his fish for hours."