Who turned the Reith Lectures into "Any Answers"?
In Paris I decided to listen, on my lap-top, to the first of this year’s Reith Lectures: Jonathan Spence on Chinese Confucianism. I’ve obviously not been concentrating as much as I should on to these lectures for the last decade or so, because I was surprised to find that the ‘lecture’ itself amounted to a little less than 20 minutes. The rest of the 45 minute slot was 20 minutes of ‘question and answer’ with the studio audience and 5 minutes of polite fluff from Sue Lawley.
For bloggers outside the UK, let me explain that the Reith Lectures are supposed to be one of the jewels in the public broadcasting crown. They started off in 1948 in honour of the first Director General of the BBC – and in his style of broadcasting. The introduction to the first series of Reith lectures (given by Bertrand Russell) claimed that their aim was to be a ‘stimulus to thought and a contribution to knowledge’.
They continue to appoint excellent speakers: recently Marina Warner, Onora O’Neill, Wole Soyinka and this year Spence, who is a professor at Yale, on “Chinese Vistas”. The trouble is that, whereas Bertrand Russell had 54 minutes locked up in a studio to deliver 6 lectures on “Authority and the Individual”, Spence has 4 sessions of under 20 minutes, on location (first one in British Library, apparently because it owns the world’s first (Chinese) book), followed by a Q and A session.
What on earth is the point of these “lectures lite”. The prospect of a 19 minute lecture on Confucianism is hardly like to attract more knife-carrying teenagers than a 40 minute version (“Come on, Wayne – let’s give them Reith lectures a try before we go out for some binge drinking and senseless violence.. it’s only 20 minutes….”). Meanwhile it leaves poor old Spence (who actually did a valiant job) struggling to tell his audience something about Confucianism and develop an interesting argument on it, in the flash of an eyelid.
Sometimes tough and interesting subjects need a bit of space to develop – as well as keep them really interesting. That’s where Russell scored, with wide ranging reflections on social groups, from insects through ancient Egypt and Sparta, to the present day. Likewise Nikolaus Pevsner whose Englishness of English Art started life as Reith Lectures. Besides, if millions can look for hours at the live web-cam in the Big Brother house, while the residents are asleep, might there not be a few hundred thousand who would listen to a good and lengthy lecture while doing the ironing?
Spence handled the questions with the usual style of a US professor. Unlike the UK, where we lecturers tend to say (even if we wrap it up a bit) when we think the question posed is stupid, our US counterparts adopt the reverse rhetoric: “what a good question”, “thank you for raising that point”, “what a difficult question” -- before going on to demolish the questioner in elegant terms. That was Spence’s tactic – almost every intervention he greeted with some version of “why how difficult!” (at which the questioner, of course, purred).
Those questioners were all celebrities themselves (Lord Ashdown, the Archbishops of Westminster and Canterbury etc), but they shared the one defining characteristic of every caller-in to every phone-in programme you have ever heard. They all had their own agenda, which didn’t necessarily have much to do with what Spence had been talking about. His subject was the Confucian tradition, but this was open season for every rant about modern China that you could think of. Why, oh why, couldn’t we have let Spence just present his argument for another 10 minutes or so?
Lawley, meanwhile, adopted the slightly patronising tone of phone-in hosts. When the Archbishop of Canterbury made his point, she reminded us that he had recently been in China (as if we were talking about football hooliganism and this was Roy from Kensal Rise who had just returned from a football match). Lord Ashdown was introduced as someone who knew Mandarin Chinese . . .
It all seemed only a knife edge away from a phone-in vote (for whose absence, I suppose we have to thank the Blue Peter et al voting scandals).
If you want a final proof of the sad fate of these lectures, I suggest you compare the BBC website’s biography of Spence with his Wikipedia entry. Both include the slightly wonky and distinctive phrase that he was “named a Fellow at Clare College Cambridge” in 2006 (he was, in fact, made a Honorary Fellow of Clare in 2006 – and that “Honorary” is an important qualifier for anyone who knows what they are talking about – and, to be strictly correct, he was “elected” not “named”). There are all kinds of possible explanations for this. Maybe Wiki has copied the BBC. But my guess is that the copying goes the other way.
(Since writing this someone has corrected the wiki entry!)