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Thomas Sutcliffe

Tom Sutcliffe: What hatred for NPR tells us about America

Social Studies: From a British perspective it's quite hard to see NPR as a hotbed of dogmatic socialism

They survived one attack, but there will certainly be more. National Public Radio (NPR), the closest thing that the United States has to a public service broadcasting organisation as we know it, survived an attempt by Republicans to limit its federal funding last Thursday. The encircling Apaches were beaten off, and things have temporarily gone quiet. Or quietish, to be honest, since Republicans are making no secret of their desire and their intention to have another crack at the log cabin.

And they would argue, incidentally, that my metaphor gets things entirely the wrong way round. The assailants in this case should be seen as stalwart defenders of heartland virtues, while the besieged are the enemy that threatens the American way. Indeed one of their more virulent critics, the Fox news chief Roger Ailes, described them recently as Nazis – after they'd fired an NPR commentator for remarks he'd made while appearing on a Fox talk show.

Ailes later withdrew his remark – in deference to Jewish sensitivities about such insults – diplomatically suggesting that he should have used the phrase "nasty, inflexible bigots" instead.

The ironies of this situation – the head of Fox News berating a broadcasting organisation because "these guys don't want any other point of view" – should hardly need pointing out. But, because NPR receives a small portion of its funding from the government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and because it occasionally promulgates views that are not to the liking of the far right, it has been identified as a soft target in the Republican attack on bloated government.

There is a degree of inherited spleen here which doesn't entirely match up to current circumstances; NPR used to get most of its funding from government, but over the last three decades has steadily weaned itself off the federal teat, replacing its income with sponsorship deals, charitable donations and listener pledges. Still, it represents a standing affront to the Fox News world view, with taxpayer dollars employed to fund what they (rightly) see as a market competitor.

From a British perspective it's quite hard to see NPR as a hotbed of dogmatic socialism. Yes, it was stupid of them to sack that commentator, an overreaction that inevitably opened them up to accusations of ideological censorship. And yes, they are far more likely to be listened to by those of a vaguely liberal – or independent – inclination. But they also, sometimes, make great programmes.

I should declare an interest, perhaps, as a podcast subscriber to This American Life, a brilliant weekly NPR programme which broadcasts ordinary human stories on a variety of themes, whether it's a tyrannical school supervisor or the impact of being involved in another person's death.

It's simply too variable to be easily described – but you can perhaps get some sense of its obliqueness and invention if I tell you that a recent programme on toxic debt (Toxie, if you want to listen to it) explored this notoriously complex issue by getting several of NPR's financial reporters to buy a toxic of their own – and then track down the human realities that lay behind this tradable bundle of financial obligations, including one of the defaulting mortgagees who now owed them money.

Humane, patient, nuanced and curious about other ways of thinking (they recently ran a sympathetic segment on a Tea Party activist) This American Life is everything that Fox News isn't. "If you like it so much you pay for it", its Republican enemies would probably say (not an entirely unreasonable argument). But the fact that they hate it so much, I would suggest, tells you quite a lot about how poisonously implacable America's culture wars have become.

Multiculturalism through the Tannoy

An interesting moment the other night, three minutes before curtain up at Fela! when the National Theatre address system starts to chivvy the audience into finishing its drinks and beginning the drift towards the doors. Because on this occasion the voice doesn't deploy the familiar RP diction the National Theatre usually uses but a strong Nigerian accent, addressing us with a jokey informality of tone.

It's a nice touch, warming us up for the transformation of the inside of the theatre into Fela Kuti's legendary Lagos nightclub The Shrine. But it also made me wonder why it is still relatively unusual to hear other accents and other ways of speaking on public address systems – particularly in spaces that are supposed to be representative of the country as a whole.

Most forms of public transport now vocally acknowledge that we live in a multicultural society (I have a particular soft spot for the announcer at Finsbury Park station who lists the stations on the line out to Welwyn Garden City with a weary Jamaican lilt). But lifts are still overwhelmingly white (with the honourable exception of the lifts at Broadcasting House, which address their users in a voice that sounds very much like that of the actress Sophie Okonedo), and so are most institutional recorded announcements (as opposed to those made live by employees).

The National Theatre should extend their experiment; they've been pioneers in colour-blind casting. They should establish a precedent for colour-deaf recorded announcements too.

A man who choked on his ignorance

I have two questions about the case of the Miami man who is suing a local restaurant for failing to warn him of the correct way to eat a globe artichoke, a lapse which he claims is responsible for a blockage to his intestine which required hospital treatment.

One: how on earth did he get enough of them down to cause a problem? Even a goat would think twice. Apparently he was a "business invitee" at the fateful meal in question, so maybe he just didn't like to make a fuss. But even so this would be a heroic instance of "grit your teeth and swallow".

Two: how long will it be before someone sues for "mental anguish and humiliation" because a restaurant has assumed they don't know how to eat a globe artichoke?