Dumbing down Reith

The 2008 Reith Lectures have just started on BBC Radio 4. The lecturer this year is Jonathan Spence of Yale, a noted expert on China. His subject is “Vistas of China”. Listening to the first one, a short and pedestrian discourse on Confucius delivered in a monotone, I was struck by the extent to which one of the beacons of British public service broadcasting has been bowdlerised and mangled.

The Reith Lectures were founded in 1948 as a way of bringing important and difficult ideas to the widest possible audience. The series was kicked off by Bertrand Russell on “Authority and the Individual”. The 1952 lecturer was Arnold Toynbee (on “The World and The West”). In 1955, Niklaus Pevsner lectured on “The Englishness of English Art”. In 1957 George Kennan talked about “Russia, The Atom and The West”. In 1966, it was J.K. Galbraith’s turn (on “The New Industrial State”). In 1967, the anthropologist Edmund Leach lectured on “A Runaway World”; in 1970 it was Donald Schon on “Change and Industrial Society”. In 1984, the lecturer was John Searle, who took as his subject “Minds, Brains and Science”. For a complete listing of Reith Lecturers, see here.

As a kid growing up in the intellectual backwoods of rural Ireland, the Reith Lectures were some of the formative experiences of my adolescent life. I was exhilarated by what they represented — great intellects giving of their best; 50 minutes of uninterrupted talk delivered in crystal clear but unpatronising terms, with transcripts available later in the week in The Listener, then the BBC’s house magazine (for which I later wrote).

But then, somewhere along the line, someone in the BBC seems to have decided that the uncompromising full-length lecture was too demanding a form for the contemporary audience, and so the series was deliberately lobotomised. The length of each lecture was reduced to about 20 minutes. Each talk is now delivered to an invited audience with a different venue (sometimes in a different continent) each week. A TV ‘personality’ (currently Sue ‘Legs’ Lawley, formerly hostess of Desert Island Discs) was imported to introduce the speaker and moderate the ‘discussion’. The only thing missing is a set of PowerPoint slides.

The result is an unmitigated shambles. And a disgrace for a public service broadcaster.

Meanwhile, that whirring noise you hear is that of John Reith rotating in his grave at 720rpm.