RADIO: Dogger? Fisher? The Louise Woodward trial?
Sunday 16 November 1997
Look, I don't know what it was all about, but it's true. I leapt from the bath and wrote it down to tell you - and wondered if I in the wrong job, or just not getting enough sleep. If you heard it too, you might inform me and save my sanity.
It can be confusing to switch on the radio, especially when you're late for the news. This was Wednesday morning: "... a stiletto heel, with the toe resting on a man's naked buttocks. BBC, Radio 4." And this was Tuesday lunch-time - in the carefully-modulated tones of the World Service, no less: "... and costume jewellery. And that is the end of the news." How could these sentences have begun? Do I need to know?
Nick Clarke surely knows what makes news. There he was, on The World at One (R4), talking to Stuart Higgins, editor of the Sun, a man ablaze with a fiery zeal to reveal the true story of Louise Woodward, whatever it costs him. Never mind whether it's really news, or that she is a convicted criminal: it is in the public interest. Clarke challenged him: "Call me naive if you like," he said (as if anyone would) "but surely the public interest doesn't just mean what the public are interested in?"
He was right. But it was that kind of a week when the public was clearly so interested in the Woodward case that Lorraine Kelly on Talk Radio linked up to WRKO Boston Talk Radio allowing every pocket philosopher in the western world to express immoderate views as she struggled to umpire; it was the week when a whole hour of R5 was devoted to awaiting and contemplating the words of Judge Zobel. A hapless reporter, desperately filling in time, told us in awestruck tones that camera crews had reached The Rigger from, can you believe it, the Yorkshire Post. What, across the Pennines? It must be important. Later, with 20 minutes still unfilled, he was heard to ask, "So, where were you when you heard the news?" "Erm", replied a harmless, nameless drunk "Erm, well, I was in the pub." Undaunted, he pressed on, "And which bit of the pub?"
Under the tolerant control of Michael Buerk, The Moral Maze (R4) had a go at picking its way through the Woodwards and Eappens. For once, David Starkey could find no extreme stance to adopt, so a really interesting discussion ensued: even Fr. Oliver McTernan was allowed his say, developing his earlier Thought for the Day about human solidarity. The argument was, of course, inconclusive, but it avoided re-hearing the trial and it raised many of the issues that have made the case, frankly, so gripping.
Issues like whether the tabloids stir up public concern or vice versa. Matthew Parris tackled this subject in The Politician, the Actress and the Bishop (R5). He interviewed Julia Stent, the mother of Tim Yeo's child, who told a shocking story. She had refused to name Yeo, but the hacks were onto her. One morning someone phoned her mother, who was baby-sitting, telling her that Julia had suffered serious head-injuries in a car-crash. Could she give him the child's father's name and address? This horrible lie eventually led to Yeo's exposure and resignation, for all the good that did anyone: he was re-elected in May.
The power of the tabloids to topple politicians - eight of John Major's ministers, or their aides, departed within three months of the announcement of the ill-fated Back to Basics campaign - was examined by Jeremy Hardy in Power and How to Get It (R4). Endearingly, he admitted he was a useless interviewer: "I couldn't get anyone to admit to anything ... I'm bad at confrontation and completely unable to say oh come off it." He then demonstrated this by allowing John Nott to say outrageously, that the Falklands War did a lot of good and adding ruefully, "as I said, I'm not a very good interviewer".
But he had fun with the power-crazed image consultant Mary Spillane, who needed no prompting to boast that she had helped engineer a few marital break-ups, by giving politicians the confidence to get rid of "dull appendages". Hardy was back on form, Dull appendages? She couldn't mean Ffion Jenkins, cited by her fiance as evidence of his exotic multiculturalism. And he's right, said Hardy. After all, Ffion's Welsh and, as far as he could see, she has black roots.
The most terrible power is wielded by those who send young men to die in battle. This week sounded a sombre echo of the Gulf War as the crisis in Baghdad rumbled on (taking second place to Woodward in most news bulletins, of course) but an earlier war was evoked by Ruth Prince's superb Remembrance Day programme Flanders Fields (R2).
Tony Robinson narrated the story of Passchendaele which ended in the mud 80 years ago this month. An old soldier recalled that lethal mud. If you fell off a duck-board, exhausted or wounded, you drowned and your body rotted fast, so the mud had a sickly-sweet smell and a viscous quality not like porridge, he said, but like a monster: it sucked at you. When Haig's chief of staff visited this boggy swamp for the first time, after the battle was over, he wept. "Good God," he said "did we really send men to fight in this?"
During a visit to the Toc H house ("Abandon rank all ye who enter here"), Robinson met an old lady who could not forget the death of a young man, gassed before her five-year-old eyes: cue Paul McGann quietly reading Owen, "in all my dreams, before my helpless sight, he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning ..."
To him, and to many more, a War Memorial was erected at Aldershot in 1950. It has recently been vandalised but its indomitable creator is restoring it. Josefina de Vasconcellos, now 93, was on Woman's Hour (R4), talking as she chiselled and filed the stone from which the face of Christ calming the storm is emerging. It will be a gentler Christ now, she said, bringing peace to the world. Amen to that.
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