Radio 4 chief denies `dumbing down'

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The Independent Online
James Boyle, the controller of Radio 4, hit back yesterday at a Sunday newspaper report which claimed that he is bent on "dumbing down" large swathes of output on the BBC's hitherto most highbrow network - a report which triggered a predictably angry outcry from watchdog groups.

The report suggested that 30 programmes, including Farming Today and Yesterday in Parliament, are to be axed in a drastic shake-up. It also suggested that heavyweight shows such as Start the Week and The Moral Maze are to be ousted from their peak-time slots, or replaced with celebrity chat shows.

Contacted at his Edinburgh home, Mr Boyle said: "Dumbing down is out of the question. You can see that from my track record. I've been a head of education in the BBC. I also ran Radio Scotland, bringing it up to an intellectual standard that won it national recognition."

Mr Boyle was dubbed MacBirt after presiding over a drastic cull of presenters and programmes at "Scotland's national network" but no one north of the border ever accused him of dumbing it down. "I used to be branded a hard- boiled egghead because of the changes I made on Scotland's national network," he said.

Mr Boyle has steadfastly refused to comment on his shake-up plans before he puts them to the Corporation's board of governors at the end of the month, but he was eager to scotch speculation that the emphasis will be shifting towards comedy and quiz shows in an attempt to woo young listeners.

"It's about securing the future of Radio 4 and its proper inheritance: intelligent, educated people. Intelligence is a premium in today's media. I aim to ensure that Radio 4 preserves the monopoly in that," he said.

"Intelligent people appreciate a lot of the present output, but there won't always be new audiences. We've reached a historical juncture where there are so many other radio networks and TV channels coming on stream plus all sorts of other lifestyle distractions." Veteran broadcasting campaigner Mary Whitehouse said she was dismayed by the news. "My guess is that the listening public will not want these changes," she said, imploring the BBC to think again.

Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham and a former BBC producer, plans to raise the issue of Yesterday in Parliament today in Parliament with the Commons Speaker, Betty Boothroyd. "I hope she will share our view that this is a very important link between Parliament and the country and it would be a great shame if it were to disappear," he said.

Sir Roy Strong, former director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, was quoted yesterday as saying: "It is dumbing down time everywhere ... It is more important than ever that the BBC should hold the middle ground."

Mr Boyle hit back by saying it was "the greatest irony of all" that this "dumbing down" charge should be levelled in the Sunday Times, a once high- brow title which has been undeniably dumbed down by Rupert Murdoch in an attempt to broaden its consumer appeal into the mid-market.

He also pointed out that Yesterday in Parliament is produced by the BBC News directorate, so its fate cannot be decided solely by the controller of Radio 4.