Bath rant

John Cleese in Clockwise
There is almost no situation in which this picture isn’t appropriate

I had a bath this morning, which is very unusual on a weekday but I was cold and aching from running in the rain a couple of evenings before, and – well, frankly, I wasn’t ready to be vertical.

Having a bath meant I listened to the Today programme, which most mornings I don’t any more, and listening to the Today programme reminded me why I don’t any more. I can’t have listened for more than 15 minutes but in that time it made me feel quite separately cross about three things, and I came out of the bath less relaxed than I’d gone in, which is all wrong. So to make me feel better, I’m going to make you cross about them too.

NUMBER ONE. John Humphrys exclaiming that nobody in authority had shouldered the blame for the child sex abuse gang uncovered in Rotherham last year. Nobody, that is, apart from the PERPETRATORS WHO WENT TO JAIL. I can’t bear the journalistic tendency to assume that when vulnerable people are harmed, it’s social services’ fault, as though the social care system isn’t full of desperately overworked and underfunded people trying as hard as they possibly can to stop people from coming to harm. Do the job yourself, Humphrys, and live on a social worker’s salary for a year, then start blaming them for organised criminal activity.

NUMBER TWO. David Cameron, on Letterman last night, was asked what “Magna Carta” meant, and apparently didn’t know the answer. Now, I didn’t know the answer either, but I know what Magna Carta is, and I speak English which means I can understand some Latin, so I was able to work it out. If I can do it, bloody David Cameron should be able to. I knew he was stupid, but I didn’t think he was stupid.

NUMBER THREE. A piece on Jamie Oliver’s new 15-minute dinners book, in which the nonsense argument was made for the sake of controversy where none existed (this technique will be  familiar to regular listeners) that the target audience for the book was owners of Jamie’s earlier 30-minute dinners book, and good grief, were we really so desperate for time that we needed to claw back another fifteen minutes in the evening, and what was wrong with spending an extra quarter of an hour doing something useful and enjoyable like cooking? Somebody (I have no idea who was being interviewed about it, except that none of them was Jamie Oliver) tried to make the OBVIOUS POINT that the book is aimed at people who don’t cook at all, and not at people who already enjoy cooking, but this was shouted down in the general frenzy.

I think tomorrow I shall return to comforting silence.


Early morning rage

I think I need a new radio station to listen to first thing in the morning. On the days when I leap out of bed like the lark it’s not so bad, because I only get to hear the weather forecast, which is all I really need. But on the days when it takes me a little longer to emerge, blinking, from under the duvet, the Today programme is capable of rousing me to a state of apoplexy that isn’t healthy before breakfast.

I have always been bemused by the programme’s apparent remit to challenge everything their guests say, no matter how apparently uncontroversial. Fighting for the sake of a fight seems an unlikely position for a magazine show to take, although some presenters (I’m looking at you, Humphreys and Naughtie) are worse than others.

But a couple of times in the last week or two this stance seems to have tipped over into something a bit more disturbing. After the imprisonment of Metropolitan Police Commander Ali Dizaei earlier this month for misconduct in a public office and perverting the course of justice, John Humphrys interviewed Alfred John, current chairman of the Metropolitan Black Police Association, of which Dizaei was once president. Fair enough, except that a disproportionate amount of time was devoted to whether and to what extent the MBPA had been “discredited” by Dizaei’s conviction.

If a former police officer breaks the law, it’s the police service itself which is discredited (if anyone but the offender is), and not an association his membership of which had nothing to do with the crime for which he was convicted. What was really happening here was that Dizaei had rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way while at the helm of the MBPA, leading to a distrust of the association in some quarters, and this was a chance to smear it by insinuating that Dizaei’s criminal activity was somehow related to his insistence that the Metropolitan Police is still institutionally racist, when the two things are quite seperate. Just because he’s a criminal doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything. Both Alfred John and the other guest, Brian Paddick, agreed that there is still racism within the police service, and that the MBPA has a legitimate and important job to do.

“Given that you have tried and failed by your own admission”, responded Humphrys, “there must surely be a better way of dealing with this.”

This was a novel twist. The MBPA should be disbanded not because there isn’t racism in the police, but because there is. Alfred John dealt with this silly challenge quickly and easily, but he shouldn’t have had to. I’m not sure that emphasising Dizaei’s relationship with the MBPA was the way to go at all in this feature, but the suggestion that there’s a problem with the existence of the association itself because of the actions of one officer, no matter how high-profile, makes me uncomfortable and I think reflects very badly on the programme and its editors.

Then a few days later the Church of England got into another one of its wrangles about gay members of the clergy. “It’s a moral question, isn’t it?”, opined James Naughtie. Well, Jim, not really. Not unless you actually think there’s still a question to be answered about whether it’s OK to be gay. If there isn’t, it’s if anything a legal question about whether the church is breaking employment law by discriminating against a particular group of people. You ridiculous man.

Which made me wonder, incidentally, why we don’t prosecute religious organisations which don’t allow certain groups to do particular jobs, or religious figures who incite hatred by speaking out against certain groups or individuals. Why can’t we ban the Pope from the UK unless he stops attacking equality legislation, or take him to court if he comes? I am fervently hoping Peter Tatchell will rise to the occasion, but he shouldn’t have to. We should oppose discrimination wherever we find it and not avoid confrontation at the risk of offending someone. The Pope is just a man.

So as you can see, I need something calming to wake up to. Birdsong, possibly, or classical music. If you have any suggestions, please let me know before I burst a blood vessel.

A question of terminology

The Today programme’s top news item this morning was the non-story that antenatal diagnoses of Down’s Syndrome are on the rise, partly because women are having babies later in life and partly because screening methods have improved over the last twenty years.

None of this seems very surprising, and I wasn’t sure why it was given top billing, unless the editors at Today are part of that humorous crowd who think that women are putting off parenthood because we’re selfish and (even worse) feminists, rather than because we think it’s important to have (a) careers which we can go back to now that one income cannot support a family and (b) relationships which are likely to last, our parents’ generation having been the first to see divorce as an acceptable alternative to unhappiness, and we as a result having seen more than our fair share of acromonious break-ups – and experienced at first-hand the effect they have on children. Or perhaps the Daily Mail would rather we get pregnant at the earliest opportunity and stay at home claiming benefits while we bring up our children single-handedly.

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, Down’s Syndrome. It’s a sensitive subject because people’s responses to the idea of bringing up a child with Down’s vary wildly, and because it’s hard to know what one’s own response is likely to be until it happens. It’s probable, though, that there were people listening this morning who are wondering whether to have the test, or, having had it and received a Down’s diagnosis, are thinking about whether to continue with their pregnancy. That being the case, you would expect the programme to treat the subject with care.

In the segment I heard, John Humphrys interviewed Joan Morris, one of the researchers who had provided the latest statistics, and Jane Fisher of Antenatal Results and Choices (ARC), and I was struck by his repeated use of the word “abortion”, when both women used the less emotive alternative, “termination”. The two words have the same literal meaning, but “abortion” has developed a second metaphorical meaning of something ugly or awful, and in my mind it’s ready to be discontinued in its sense of ending a pregnancy. But a bit of googling reveals that that opinion is by no means universal, and I realise that just because a word has taken on a certain weight for me, it doesn’t mean it holds the same associations for other people.

There’s no guidance in the BBC’s style guide on the use of the word “abortion”; nor is there in the Guardian’s (my preferred source of arbitration, because it seems to have been written by real people who have spent time thinking about it). So I wonder: is my response to the word an unusual one, or is it genuinely dropping out of use? Is there a turning point at which we can say “this word is  no longer considered appropriate”? And how can that measurement be taken? It’s all interesting stuff, and I think I’ll take a bit of time to find out more about words which have fallen out of currency, and whether it’s possible to reconstruct the process by which it happens.

But back to this morning’s show, into which Humphreys still managed to inject a bit of his customary heavy-handedness. Joan Morris had explained that although the percentage of parents who choose to terminate a Down’s pregnancy has remained stable, the number of terminations has increased in line with the higher number of diagnoses.  Jane Fisher added that this was not new information, since we already know that more pregnancies are resulting in Down’s diagnoses, and that a certain proportion of those end in terminations. At this point Humphrys jumped in with “does that imply that you think too many women are having abortions?”, which apart from bearing no relationship to what either woman had said, was an extraordinarily crass attempt at creating controversy where there wasn’t any.

I always feel a little as though I’m watching Chris Morris starting a war between Australia and Hong Kong when I listen to John Humphrys on Today. It irritates me when I can’t hear what guests are saying because he’s drowning them out by arguing every point, however insignificant. But irritating your listeners is one thing. Attempting to scare up a controversy over a subject that is already difficult, and about which many listeners will have strong personal feelings, is pointless and unforgivable. I wish they’d retire him from the radio and leave him to present Mastermind, where I think he does an admirable job (unlike Paxman, whose feigned astonishment whenever a University Challenge team fails to answer a question he thinks they should know grows more wearisome every week).

Fear of terror

Listening to the radio this morning, I came to the conclusion that there are some words which should be banned from news reporting. “Terror” instead of “terrorism” is the obvious one – it’s pointless and it leads to nonsensical coinages like the one above, which I have seen more than once.

But there are others which are just lazy. The one which raised my ire earlier was a reference to the “fuel crisis” which, at this stage, barely even counts as a crisis for the people it’s happening to, let alone the rest of us. Then the increasingly belligerent John Humphrys, in a conversation with David Cameron (for whom I have no love) during which Cameron barely edged a word in, used the word “fiasco” to refer to an event so unfiascolike (what? it’s a word) that I can’t even remember what it was.

I propose a ban on lazy clichés in news reporting. No crises, no fiascos, no terror. The only exception should be use of the suffix “-gate” to describe a faintly scandalous occurence, which should be made compulsory where the location of the event already ends in “gate”. I want to see a story about Tessa Jowell roaming around SE14 dressed in combat gear and waving an Uzi described as “New Cross Gategate”.