'Clearly many Radio 4 listeners are bruised. I quite understand'

Middle England has risen up in fury over controller Mark Damazer's plan to axe an early morning medley of patriotic tunes. It has left him shaken. Will he now back down?
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The Independent Online

During the confrontation with the Government that culminated in the Hutton Inquiry, Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer fought in the BBC's front line. One colleague described him as "a tower of strength who was in the bunker throughout, handing out calm advice and support and taking an awful lot of the flak himself".

Damazer hoped that nothing in his career would put him under such pressure again. Last week he was disappointed, when his decision to axe the medley of UK folk songs that has for 33 years kicked off Radio 4's daily schedule exploded in his face.

The row has embroiled the Prime Minister, no less, who said menacingly: "I know the BBC will be aware of the very strong feeling that has been expressed in the House and across the country." His Chancellor, Gordon Brown, said he has "always seen the 'UK Theme' as one of the symbols of Britishness and a celebration of British culture". Jeremy Paxman was characteristically clear. "I've no idea what they think they're doing," he said. "They could have done something useful, like murdering You and Yours or VegTalk."

Will the decision be reversed? Damazer is shaken and indecisive. "At the moment we have not done it. It is therefore kind of hypothetical in the sense that it has not even happened yet and therefore I won't speculate in any particular direction about it. But clearly a significant section of the Radio 4 audience are bruised. I absolutely understand that. I am not going around the country pretending that everyone is applauding. But by the same token, I have not made the change yet."

Though adamant that he has not been cowed by the Chancellor's support for Britishness, Damazer is pained to find himself portrayed as unpatriotic: "The notion that the decision is in some way a signal that I do not approve of people feeling patriotic about the UK is plain wrong. Patriotism and pride in the very best of what Britain has to offer are expressed on Radio 4 more than anywhere else in the British media. I am not saying we exclusively define what makes the United Kingdom great, but the debate, challenge, pluralism, comedy, drama and celebration of the language which are ribboned through the Radio 4 schedule are magnificent manifestations of what makes the UK an extraordinary country."

So why provoke such profound and widespread hostility for the sake of a trifling change at a time when the audience is tiny? "It is perfectly clear to me that a lot of people disagree," says Damazer, "but, rightly or wrongly, I felt that between 5.30am and 5.45am we were not providing what the audience is interested in."

That, he claims, is "a concise news bulletin, sport and business, a weather forecast, a review of the papers and a look ahead to the day, all in 13 or 14 minutes".

He regrets having described his objective as a "pacy" news bulletin, denouncing that as "a clumsy word". What he means is that Radio 4 stalwarts regard pace as a vice reserved for lesser channels such as Five Live and commercial radio. That being the case, and given their historic antipathy to change, why incur their wrath? Simply broadcasting Fritz Spiegel's medley of "Rule Britannia", "Danny Boy", "What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?", "Greensleeves" and "Scotland the Brave" five minutes earlier would accommodate his bulletin without any other changes to the schedule. Damazer says he decided against that for "technical reasons" (to do with leaving the World Service in the middle of a programme).

He admits that most of the emails he has received have been hostile. He claims to detect "cross currents" of support but adds: "Decisions of this kind are never going to be made with universal assent or anything of the kind."

BBC insiders say he did not begin to imagine the outcry he would provoke and insist that he barely discussed it with colleagues before proceeding. Damazer refuses to divulge how far up the BBC management chain he did consult, saying only: "I did not just do it, but it was my decision. It is nobody else's responsibility."

Atypically for a talented executive still young enough to aspire to be director-general - he is 50 - Damazer has few enemies in the BBC. He is admired as an intellectual who entertains colleagues with stimulating conversation and humour and eschews bitching. One colleague says: "Mark is instinctively reluctant to assume that people will become hysterical about things that are objectively insignificant.He won't admit it but he took his eye off the ball this time."

Damazer certainly does not admit it. Instead, he parades the controversy as proof of the BBC's editorial vigour: "Today and Newsnight have gone for it as they think it's a jolly good story, and I'm rather proud of them for doing that. The degree of editorial autonomy displayed by Radio 4 on this is one of the things I admire in British culture and Radio 4."

But Damazer faces a dilemma. He arrived at Radio 4 declaring the station to be "in terrific shape" and promising to "cherish it and sustain it". Since then, new competition in the form of digital speech stations has begun to win listeners. Last week, Channel 4's chief executive, Andy Duncan, told the Oxford Media Convention that Channel 4's next diversification venture would be a bid for a digital radio licence. The proposed station, including national news and current affairs, music and comedy, is aimed straight at the Radio 4 audience.

The venerable BBC station will have to adapt and Damazer knows it: "I am not here either to suggest a diagnosis that it is all wrong and bad, because it isn't, or that there is going to be a massive change, because there won't be. The notion that radical revolutionary ferment is why I made the decision [to scrap the medley] is plain wrong." He describes his ambition as "renewing and reinvigorating Radio 4's appeal to people who either don't know about it but are interested in intelligent speech, or who listen to it much less than I would like".

The same challenge has faced every Radio 4 controller for 20 years. Half the station's audience listen to nothing except the Today programme, young listeners are a tiny minority and the established audience is ageing.

Fiddling with the medley has taught Damazer how hard he will have to work to reconcile established listeners with the changes needed to equip the station for new challenges. He pledges a gradual approach but admits: "Every now and then, programmes will leave the schedule. I need to let some fresh air in and try a few other things."

Becoming the story in a way he avoided throughout the Hutton Inquiry has been a bruising experience. Don't expect the 5.30am melody to disappear soon. It may not disappear at all.

BLOGGERS' VIEWS

Radio 4 is outdated, stuffy and stuck in its ways - antiquated even. But that's why we love it. This is the Grand Old Dame of radio and she deserves to be treated with a little respect.

David, Manchester

They can't get rid of this. This is one of the quintessential things about being British. What's next? Taking the Routemaster bus off the streets of London? Oh, wait a minute ...

[Disgusted of Mitcham]

I would cease to listen to Radio 4 if the medley were lost. We are capable of switching the radio off, and more people will after this PC nonsense. A shame. Think again.

Margaret Holland, Daventry

Please leave the UK theme alone. Fritz Spiegl's arrangements are superb. I am a music student and so now understand a bit about how he did it, but in my previous musicless existence I wondered at the balance of detail and the way he brought out characterisations.

Hilary Nicholls, Manchester

The Radio 4 theme should not be scrapped. I like to wake up to it, either to take down the shipping forecast [I am a yachtsman] or to get me ready for the day. It allows me a short time to come to. It is pleasant and patriotic without being jingoistic. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Keith Hancock, Alton Hants

Change for change's sake is a modern-day mantra that is destroying the fabric of our lives. People who wish to modify our quality of life must provide the evidence that the consumers concerned wish it.

Trevor J Crofts, Edinburgh

Failing to listen to licence payers puts the licensing arrangement in peril. I have recorded the music to play in my car each morning, before I search for another channel to listen to.

Terry Jack, Little Dunmow

I hate the Fritz Spiegl compilation with a vengeance and am so pleased it is being axed. I actually turn off the radio for five minutes when I hear the first bar and turn it back on when it is finished. Am I really alone in this? Thank you, Radio 4, for bringing this to an end.

Anna Flood, Alnwick

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