Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: A few home truths about race on BBC radio

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The Independent Online

It is a very British brawl. Tinker with any convention or ritual and ever-watchful traditionalists rise in revolt. This time they are intolerably provoked by changes to Radio 4, initiated by the controller, Mark Damazer, who is axing Home Truths and, even more recklessly, silencing the medley which wakes up Radio 4 listeners at some dead hour in the morning. All Radio 4 controllers have these noisy confrontations and the hurt lingers.

You hear it in the voice of James Boyle, who moved Woman's Hour and was whipped soundly for the sin. I can never forgive Helen Boaden for getting rid of Room For Improvement presented by the matchless Laurie Taylor. She snatched the slot for a children's programme and all protests were in vain.

These public surges are good and necessary; they jerk the broadcasters out of smugness, let in air and light. None of it would happen if we didn't love the station as our own.

Let me join in this latest fracas. Veg Talk is rubbish, and The Archers is too. (Here come the livid letters) And the increasingly long, tedious trailers. The Moral Maze has become steadily right-wing and You and Yours massively irritates. In Our Times reigns supreme. I would defend Start the Week, Midweek and Woman's Hour with all the passion I can muster. They sneak in creative outsiders to cross the imagined borders around this station to delight, disturb and surprise.

The trespass is detested by Metropolitan snobs, who are every bit as reactionary as the forever outraged of Tunbridge Wells.

Without these programmes, Radio 4 would become even more glaringly white than it is already, a criticism I have long put to controllers and to Jenny Abramsky, who oversees all the radio networks. Polite indifference has been the response. Only one non-white name, Raj Persaud, is recognisably a fixture on the station, always described (as I am) of being "ubiquitous".

I doubt Ian Hislop or Andrew Dilnot are labelled thus, though they are as much everywhere as Persaud. For black or Asian citizens, there are limits on how much they can be seen and heard in public spaces. BBC TV has transformed itself but Radio 4 today appears less inclusive than the new Tories. Sure, we are on as interviewees; sometimes we get features (almost always on race or ethnicity) and the arts programmes kindly allow in dancers, singers and writers.

Some excellent journalists work in current affairs - notably Barnie Choudhury and Rita Chakrabati. Kenan Malik has presented Analysis, and the unique Mona Siddique, a Muslim woman, is regularly on Thought for the Day.

However, presenters who own a programme - and the most influential political slots - are white. We Britons of colour, licence holders, make up 50 per cent of the population in some London areas. After devolution, more Scots names were promoted on the station; Americans have broken through, but with us it is the same old story. Shafts of progress vanish before they are noticed- Ritula Shah, a sharp presenter on PM was swept away, replaced by an equally good white male chap, Eddie Mair. I confess I am worried that to raise such criticisms is to be blacklisted (!) but it still needs to be said.

I was at the recording of the first Reith Lecture for 2006, this time delivered by Maestro Daniel Barenboim. The audience was a true reflection of the rainbow Britain. Radio 4 still isn't.

Give this film a hatful of Oscars

If there is any justice, The Constant Gardener should win several Oscars this year. Set in Kenya, black people in the film have names, hearts, narratives, motives. Love and joy abound in the cesspits that are shantytowns. The main actors, Ralph Fiennes as a quiet civil servant and Rachel Weisz, right, as an untameable truth-seeker, are there in flesh you can touch and smell. Savagery is orchestrated by western power-merchants (think of Mark Thatcher and his diabolic lot) aided by vicious, greedy Africans. Together they bleed the state and the future.

We have gorged too long on images of lions, giraffes, photogenic Masai tribes, poverty, beaches, land- rovers, loyal servants, White Mischief and Out Of Africa, when Kenya belonged to the most spoilt of Imperial children. The director, Fernando Mereilles, energetically leads us to understand the bleak state of Kenya, one of the most beautiful countries on earth.

For the first time in western cinema, we get an authentic African reality - vibrant, dangerous and profoundly humane. I'll bet, though, the shagging cowboys get the prizes.

* I was at the bash in Guildhall celebrating great Britons last week. David Cameron was the glittering guest of honour. Seb Coe, the other winning Tory Turk sat near the radiant Leader, got two awards for bringing the Olympics to London.

Cameron's speech sounded to me as vacuous as lift musak, yet it lifted the audience who clapped long and loud. They loved him. Many said he was the next Prime Minister. New Labour honchos lurked in the shadows, diminished already, their blazing power burning low.

Last year, all eyes were on Gordon Brown who spoke with feeling about patriotism. Then he was the unchallenged Prime Minister-in-waiting. No more. Cameron could usurp him - the great and good certainly seem to think so.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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