Radio / Opinion Radio 4

'However free opinion is, facts are still sacred, and somebody should be checking them'
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The Independent Culture
Polemical programmes are a difficult thing to manage. Normally when issues of moment are discussed on the radio, you expect a high degree of objectivity - balanced arguments, impartially presented facts, judicious weighing up of all the possible factors. Once you've decided to let an interested party have their say, though, it's hard to know when to call a halt.

A couple of years ago, for instance, there was a minor outcry when Teresa Gorman was given 15 minutes on Radio 4 to argue that contemporary environmental worries have been exaggerated - that the hole in the ozone layer isn't as big as all that, that nuclear power is by and large a good thing, that global warming will make summers more pleasant, and so forth. The problem was, according to the complainants, that many of the facts she cited in her support were either so denuded of context as to be meaningless, or were open to argument, or were just plain wrong. Well, if that really were the case, then you'd say that something had gone wrong - however free opinion is, facts are still sacred, and somebody should be checking them.

Things get harder when you start looking at arguments, though. On yesterday's Opinion, a farmer called Robin Page was arguing that country people are an endangered species, swamped by the migration of urban population out of the cities; he demanded that a Ministry for Rural Affairs be set up to look after country people's interests - indeed, the Commission for Racial Equality should get off its behind, he said, and realise that they were a minority that needed protecting.

His facts were, as far as I could tell, all perfectly fine; but almost all his arguments either irrelevant or incoherent. The basic idea that there is such a thing as a unified "rural culture" is absurd. On top of that, most of Page's arguments seemed not to be about shifts in population, but about unrelated economic changes. For instance, the lack of employment in the countryside, and the increasing isolation of farmers, have nothing to do with townies; they're about automation and market forces (from which farmers are more insulated than any group in society, by virtue of subsidies).

Some of his complaints weren't specifically rural either: moans about the growth of the supermarket at the expense of small local shops or a lack of consultation with local people when planning decisions were being made could just as easily apply to inner London. In the end, Page's arguments were reducible to a fear that he will soon be unable to survive "leading the sort of life I want to lead, doing the sort of things I want to do" - as if everybody else has that luxury.

The central question is, though, how far should a producer have edited this nonsense? Should you keep them on a short leash, or give them enough rope? It's not something I'd care to argue strongly for either way.

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