Saturday, March 11, 2006

This may come as a shock to some readers, but I actually do believe public service broadcasting is a Good Thing. Commercial radio and TV have their merits, but I am not convinced that handing over the rest of the airwaves to them would raise standards in the British media. An heretical thing to say in a conservative paper, I know, but that’s the truth of it.

No, I think the real problem with the public sector, alas, is that it only exists in theory.

Here’s a small example. When I was getting ready to face the world on Monday morning, I began listening to the BBC’s flagship radio talk show, “Start The Week,” a program where authors, thinkers and the occasional rampant self-publicist gather to market their wares. One guest was a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Moazzem Begg, who was subjected to some predictably gentle questions about the book he had written about his experiences.

Another was a well-known pundit and controversialist, Rod Liddle, who condemned the West’s “deranged” reaction to September 11 with the help of a quotation from that celebrated fount of reason, the former prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir “Jews rule the world” Mohamad.

Reader, I restrained my instinct to reach for the “off” switch. I stayed cool even when American expat crime writer Sara Paretsky — creator of that Chicago detective V.I. Warshawsky — launched a tirade against the country she presumably prefers to think of as “Amerika.” (Yes, it’s a painfully dated term, but it suits Ms. Paretsky, whose politics are every bit as antique.) As her questioner politely listened, refraining from offering anything resembling a sceptical query, Ms. Parestky described how the land of her birth had descended into a grim, McCarthyite charnel-house.

The usual portrayal of the US of A, in other words. So my blood pressure did not rise too far above normal. By the time evening came, I had, in fact, forgotten all about it. But as I was driving through the West End, I happened to switch the car radio on, and there was Ms. Paretsky again, saying exactly the same thing on the regular night-time repeat of the program.

Naturally, I quickly changed channels, switching from Radio Four, the main talk network, to Radio Three, home of highbrow music and arts. Only the voice I heard wasn’t really so highbrow, because I had blundered into the middle of an extended interview with protest singer Joan Baez. And if you know anything at all about Miss Baez it is that she has spent virtually her entire career pretending that cruel men in top hats are eating babies for breakfast in a secret location somewhere underneath the Washington Memorial.

On she droned, pontificating on Vietnam, Iraq, Cindy Sheehan and, of course, George W. Bush’s dysfunctional family. Once again, the interviewer was unfailingly reverent. I found it hard to take offence at all this: Miss Baez’s smug sermonizing was pretty amusing, in an unintentional way, I mean, particularly the part where she claimed that conservatives folded their arms and sulked when she mentioned Iraq during her concerts.

Now, can you really imagine hordes of baccy-chewing red-staters attending a Joan Baez concert? No, I can’t either. And how did she know they were conservatives anyway? Were they wearing “I love Dubya” T-shirts, or were they just pointing their guns at her?

The climactic moment came when the starstruck interviewer asked if she thought there were any present-day Woody Guthries strumming around out there. Oh, yes, replied Miss Baez, and his name is Michael Moore. At first I assumed she was talking about some up-and-coming troubadour who is unknown outside of a couple of Greenwich Village coffee houses. Then the awful truth dawned. She really did mean the film-maker: People [are] sitting around waiting for “Blowing in the Wind” to be rewritten, and what do we get? This big fat slobby genius who “puts out these movies that speak the absolute truth, so far as I can tell.”

Being slightly naive, I waited for the interviewer to raise the awkward point that believing in Michael Moore is about as grown-up as thinking Homer Simpson really does walk around with radioactive waste down his collar. But no, not a word of dissent. At which point I finally gave up and switched off. Yes, public service broadcasting is a nice idea. We British must try introducing it one of these days.

What a relief, then, to find that there is still a little honesty among the bien-pensant set. I’m referring to Zadie Smith, the author of “White Teeth,” whose latest novel, “On Beauty,” a clever, New England up-dating of “Howards End” has just been nominated for the women-only fiction award, The Orange Prize. (Confining such a gifted writer to a gender-sensitive category seems a little ridiculous to me, but that’s another story.)

Miss Smith has just begun a stint as film critic of the Sunday Telegraph, a right-wing paper whose arts coverage doesn’t stray far from conventional left-wing pieties. So far, her pieces have been slightly flowery, but still infused with genuine authority. In short, she isn’t slumming.

So I was curious to see how she would cope with George Clooney’s paean to Ed Murrow, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” It goes without saying that most of the reviewers have been competing to see who can concoct the most extravagant raves. I’m glad to report that Miss Smith, who is as conventionally left-wing as most writers, managed to avoid signing up to the conventional wisdom. Only just, but never mind:

“I watched it and loved it,” she declared. “Edward R. Murrow … was my new hero. The multi-tasking Clooney — writer, actor, director, producer — was my messiah. I was filled with righteous pride that a film such as this could be made in the current climate. And then I spent two hours on the internet and changed my mind.

“What remains is still the review I intended but it is qualified by the obvious fact that liberal films like this are made to please liberals like me. In terms of historical content, the film is neither quite honest nor quite true. That’s a shame, because it’s a great film.”

Miss Smith ended her review thus: “It’s a sure sign that things are bad when the Left, like the Right, want their history black and white.” Which leads me to wonder how many films and novels she has come across lately that espouse a non-left-wing point of view. In fairness, she does raise Ann Coulter as a point of comparison. Yet whatever Miss Coulter is — and I don’t care for her hand-grenade-tossing debating tactics — she isn’t a novelist or a film-maker.

Who is, for example, Britain’s conservative equivalent of Harold Pinter? V.S. Naipaul, I suppose. The list is not exactly endless. Being an eternal optimist, however, I cling to the hope that Zadie Smith has started a quiet revolution. Maybe we are witnessing the birth of a new literary movement: You could call it Left-wing Critics, Authors and Artists Who Are Willing To Admit The Other Side Has a Point of View. Poor Zadie is about the only member at the moment. But it’s a start.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times. His weblog is at

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