Wednesday, October 12, 2011

China crisis

An interesting (if you find yourself at all interested in that sort of thing) exchange between Andrew Marr and Jeremy Paxman on Radio 4’s Start the Week (about 13 minutes in, available until Sunday). If you can’t be bothered to follow the link, Mr Paxman (who used to present the show, but is there to plug his new book about the British Empire) thinks that the listeners will need a brief explanation of what prompted the Opium Wars of the 19th century; Mr Marr (who presents the show now) reckons they’re Radio 4 listeners, with all the assumptions about class and background and education that are implied by that, so they’ll have a pretty good idea.

I’m not sure. I vaguely remembered what it was all about, but that’s mainly because I did 19th-century history at A-level. Had the subject been the chemical properties of phosphorus or Greek adverbs or the impact of chaos theory on monetarism (or indeed vice versa) I might have appreciated Andy or Jezza giving me a gentle nudge in the right direction. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Any assumption about the level of knowledge and/or understanding that you can expect from your listeners/viewers/readers is going to leave some of them feeling patronised, others confused.  The pervading atmosphere of media inclusivity, which means assuming as little as possible about the knowledge base of the audience, surely alienates as many people as it includes.

But need it be that way? Supposedly, in this glorious digital age, we should be able to tailor sources of news and information so that we are only told about things that we find interesting. So we could choose to receive less foreign news, more business, not so much celebrity schlock, more sport (but no golf) or any such combination. Maybe the next step is to offer bespoke factual programming that’s crafted to appeal not just to what we want to know, but how we want it expressed; to a specific level of understanding, so the individual listener is neither baffled nor bored.

You see, if it had been the Schleswig-Holstein Question they’d been discussing, I’d have needed some help.

9 comments:

Vicus Scurra said...

What's Radio 4?

Chris said...

I'm interested in that sort of thing. Specifically, how musical influence will work when nothing new is famous any more, is something that keeps me awake... during the day, at least. But I like your suggestion that the fragmentation of the digital age might lead to specialisation rather than just dilution. Just as long as 'bespoke' doesn't mean there can't be surprises.

Annie said...

I'm just glad you're not under water and still able to blog about Radio 4. All alright with you, my dear?

Billy said...

I don't mind the explanation, but they have to be delivered in a particularly non-patronising manner.

Tim Footman said...

Vicus: It's like Radio 4 Extra, except that it exists.

There can always be surprises, Chris. But only ones you can understand.

OK so far, thanks Annie, but we've stocked up on water and tinned peaches just in case. If it gets really bad in our neck of the woods, it'll be this weekend, apparently. I'll try to live blog the waters rising above my head...

That's a very sensible contribution, Billy. Well done. [pats head]

Charles Frith said...

Paxman still banging the drum that British Jets bombing Tripoli disqualifies his book on colonial observations. What a tool

Philip Cartwright said...

The shifting sands of "general knowledge"...

One of the many good reasons to watch Pointless - aside from the almost unbearable tension of Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman's will they/won't they relationship - is to realise just how little my notion of general knowledge matches that of the public at large (if such a thing still exists). The answers I think are obscure usually turn out to be known by everyone and the ones I consider common knowledge are frequently well-kept secrets.

On the whole I'd rather be patronised than kept ignorant, but I drew the line at BBC Four's awful "writer-on-a-journey" docu about To Kill a Mocking Bird the other night. Apparently there's still a racism problem in the US. Who'd have thunk it? Certainly not people tuning in to watch a documentary about one of the most famous novels concerning racism ever written. No way.

blackwatertown said...

Prefer the explain option - but done well and entertainingly. Lots of people think they know but don't or have forgotten.
It also establishes that the "expert" knows and can communicate that knowledge. Helps prevent people hiding behind jargon. (Said he with his producer hat on - I'm wearing it on and off at the moment to cash in on the dispersal north.)

Tim Footman said...

Think he just meant that the Libya thing has to be seen in the context of British imperial history, Charles. Which is fair enough.

Philip: Pointless proves that there are some for whom the fact that race relations in the US haven't always been AOK will be a major revelation. (Maybe the women who thought Neil Kinnock was President of Ireland?) It's basically a numbers game though. How many? And is it worth pandering to that number while insulting the rest? Especially on BBC4...

It is possible to clarify such things succinctly and without banging us over the head BWT. News stories often begin "The Prime Minister, David Cameron..." and that doesn't feel as if we're being patronised. Maybe because I still can't really believe it...