The Week In Radio

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RADIO IS very comforting. War Radio (Radio 4, Thursday) started with a montage of cosy moments plucked from the ether: Laurie McMillan welcoming the listener to Radio 4, The Archers' theme tune, John Humphrys ushering in a weather report, Terry Wogan being jolly, Desert Island Discs, Garry Richardson doing the sports news, Sailing By, The Shipping Forecast... A mix as rosily bland and evocative as warm beer, cricket on the village green and old ladies cycling home from church.

The point about War Radio, however, was that the same insidious, relaxant qualities that make Radio 4 so cuddly can also make radio a uniquely poisonous medium. In Rwanda and Bosnia, propaganda stations pumping out contempt and distortions all day, every day, helped to create a climate of fear and violence in which ordinary people could commit some of the most ghastly crimes of the last half-century.

Misha Glenny - something of a stranger to the airwaves these days, more's the pity - described his own experiences of hate radio in former Yugoslavia, and talked to some of the listeners. A Bosnian Muslim woman explained how the various stations, which had all broadcast in Serbo-Croat, suddenly began to create their own languages, the Muslims interpolating Turkish words, the Croats finding a new vocabulary from goodness knows where. The effect, over time, was to dislocate communities, driving wedges of non-comprehension.

If it had been left to Glenny to explain the process, the listener's credulity might have been strained; he has an unfortunate tendency to paint swirling shapes in Day-glo colours, a kind of art nouveau approach to broadcasting. But he had enough witnesses backing him to show that in this case, at least, what looked so lurid was pure photo-realism; and while his descriptions were overblown, his moral response was flawlessly measured. After this, I will treat my radio with a little more respect and scepticism.

This was broadcast in aid of the 50th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, with reference to Article 19, about freedom of speech. A more general approach to the declaration was taken in A Better World? (Radio 4, Tuesday), in which John Sweeney tried to assess what difference it has made to the world. Rather like Glenny, Sweeney suffers from a tendency to wax indignant, as if he thinks the listener's own moral responses aren't going to be sufficient, or is worried that he may come across as the torturers' friend. He also got a little too wrapped up in the particular - too much of the programme was dedicated to the case of General Pinochet, as if we needed keeping up to speed on this one. Still, it was worth it to hear Alan Clark explain his reasons for wanting to send the general back to Chile; whereas, say, Hitler and Saddam have committed broad crimes against humanity, Pinochet was selective in his torture and killing of dissidents. Helen Bamber, who accompanied troops into Belsen and is now director of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, described the declaration as her bible. Meanwhile, Clark is trying to count the angels dancing on a pin: fun for him, maybe, but you have to admit it lacks ethical force.

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