I met a chap the other day who knew something about this Orbit business from the inside - you know, the battle between the BBC and the firm based in Rome that beams the BBC's Arabic service to Saudi Arabia - and he was saying that the BBC didn't smell quite as sweet as all that when you knew the facts, and that they were just as capable of feeding disinformation to the media as anyone.
Well, talk like this always makes me feel uneasy because one likes to think that the BBC has standards, even if nobody else does these days. I mean, the BBC wouldn't pull the plug on a programme, would it? The BBC wouldn't refuse to put out news or reports which it thought risky, would it? Would it?
I was thinking about all this when I was listening to the Monday repeat of Radio 4's News Quiz, that sterling programme which ranges between silly nonsense and hard-hitting comedy. Interestingly, there wasn't a single reference to the Orbit matter, but I suppose that's the sort of question they reserve for Any Questions?, which is Radio 4's version of News Quiz for people who can only think at half speed. I had turned on as much as anything to listen to Jeremy Hardy, who manages to say the most outrageous things in a harmless tone of voice which conceals the fact that he's getting away with murder. This week, for instance, when asked to comment on reports that Princess Diana's legs were a bit fat because she had too much cellulite, he replied: "Of all the things you could accuse her of, it's such a minor one. I mean, she's a social-climbing, free-loading parasite who looks like a lunatic in interviews and is sending her children to boarding school so that they can turn into the same sort of emotional cripple as their father (and they talk about what a great mother she is) and then people have a go at her for having fat legs! Well, if you work out with rugby players, you get fat legs, I suppose ..."
Rip-roaring stuff. If they had answers like that on Any Questions? instead of the party propaganda we have to put up with, I'd listen to it. But it did occur to me that if anyone senior at the BBC was listening to the programme, he might have some doubts about the propriety of this material. The BBC is not always renowned for its courage these days, and now that only 10 per cent of the workforce is actually making programmes while the other 90 per cent are thinking of ways to get the charter renewed, it would not be beyond credibility to interfere with stuff like this.
A moment later, Jeremy Hardy was being even more contentious. The topic had come up of the huge amount of theft and missing property reported from the Home Office, and Hardy chipped in with a barbed comment on Michael Howard. (Why do people keep on having a go at poor old Michael Howard? The poor chap is only doing his best. It's not Michael Howard's fault if his best is so pathetically bad.)
"Something else went from the Home Office," said Hardy, "because Michael Howard used to have the priceless recollection that his father was an asylum-seeker and he appears to have lost this memory altogether now."
Hmmm ... if I was a BBC bigwig, I thought, I would think seriously about taking this delightful stuff off air.
AND AT THAT VERY MOMENT THEY BEGAN TO JAM THE PROGRAMME.
Just as Barry Took was giving the answer to a question, another voice cut in over the top of him, drowning him and saying: "The gathering pace of diplomatic actions has done nothing to restrain Israel's offensive," then going on to tell us in detail about Israel's attempt to keep the Lebanese quiet by killing them all. It was the voice of one of the BBC's reporters from the Middle East, on a telephone line, and it was loud enough to make it impossible to hear what Jeremy Hardy or anyone was saying, and it went on for some time and to my mind it was a case of the BBC jamming itself, and I have all this on tape if anyone's interested.
I didn't complain to the BBC because they would be bound to come up with some feeble excuse, like they were testing the Middle East tape for the 1pm news and left the broadcasting channel open by mistake. But would the BBC broadcast something by chance? I think not. I think they were trying to jam their own programmes.
And they have the nerve to criticise Orbit in Rome for being touchy.
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