The Week In Radio: Is there no escape from the E word?

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The Independent Culture

We can't be talking about this for a whole month, said an exasperated John Humphrys on day one of the election campaign proper. Oh yes you can, John, indeed the amount of talking about it could probably fill many months laid end to end. Perhaps all the hot air will vaporise into Radio 5 Live's ingenious "Election word cloud". When I first heard about this I imagined some kind of Swiftian conceit – a giant balloon inflated with invective and tweets and euphemisms for "savage cuts" drifting across the land. It turns out to be an interactive application that assembles all the words spewed by politicians on 5 Live and then sorts them in order of size. Why you would want to know this, who can say, but last time I looked, the big word was economy, obviously.

The big words for Clive Anderson's The Heckler were, according to the billing, "quirky" and "irreverent" – words that often sap the will to live and indeed seem singularly inappropriate for this election. Being irreverent suggests assaulting something people revere, and you could scour the country in vain for anyone revering politicians just now. Chirpy mockery of politicians and all their works is the default setting of the comedy establishment, but it feels hopelessly behind the curve, given the white-hot anger emanating from the electorate. Quirky proved a bit of a stretch, too. Aside from analysing the week's dog-whistle word, which was "ordinary", and getting Alain de Botton to dwell on the philosophy of "reality" in politics, The Heckler amounted to not much more than a round-up of the media coverage of the election. This seems a universally popular pastime right now, what with What the Election Papers Say to The Vote Now Show, and there are moments when it crosses my mind to wonder if the country at large shares the media's fascination with itself. But as a writer in the media watching the media watching the media, I quickly come to my senses.

Nonetheless, it was a relief to find instances of genuine and thrilling political debate elsewhere. Any Questions from Cumbria with Eric Pickles, Andy Burnham, Jo Swinson and Peter Oborne was more hot-tempered than it has been for years, with the politicians ditching the usual end-of-week civility in favour of impassioned and aggressive clashes.

Looming large in the word cloud for Victoria Derbyshire's 5 Live election special from Bromsgrove were "John Lewis" "trough" and "noses". She had assembled an audience of "many disillusioned people" to grill some captive MPs and kicked off with the question "So how angry are you?" This was obviously like dropping a match in a petrol station, and there was plenty of anger, it turned out, especially towards MPs like Labour's Tony Wright, who had the gall to tell the assembled voters "I'm delighted that people seem to be galvinised. I hope this negative energy can be turned into a positive interest in issues like sorting out the house of Lords." Derbyshire officiated deftly and kept a lid on the conflagration with the same feistiness that has just won her three Sony award nominations.

Talking to voters, however unpleasant, is an occupational hazard for politicians, and broadcasters obviously feel obliged to follow suit. But sometimes they need to ask themselves, just how interested is my national audience in the problems of policing in north Wales? Jeremy Vine was in Wrexham on Monday and found himself discussing topics like whether the construction of a new prison would mean a boost in local trade from prison officers popping into town. Local issues can be illuminating and Vine's courteous enthusiasm goes a long way to keep the listeners' interest. But at times this was like being plunged into an overlong local council meeting, crazily interspersed with upbeat Eighties pop.

There was a different kind of special interest over on Radio 3, probably the only place in Britain where people are asking what the election means for classical music. Music Matters laid on an hour-long phone-in with the three culture ministers, and Ben Bradshaw, no stranger to preposterousness, claimed we'd had "probably the best decade we've ever seen in this country" in the arts. This is the kind of assertion that politicians come out with all the time, and it took a non-politician, Richard Morrison, quietly to point out: "What about the 1590s or the 1720s?"

Far more convincing is the assertion that we've probably had the best decade of Radio 4 ever seen in this country under the controllership of Mark Damazer, who is leaving in October to head up an Oxford college. Intelligent, innovative and enthusiastic, he has been an exemplary controller and a time of change, he's one national figure who will be much missed and very hard to replace.

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