This year's Reith lectures fell far short of an acceptable standard both in form and contentby David Henderson / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
This year’s BBC Reith lectures marked a debasement of the series. One of the corporation’s notable contributions to the world of ideas has been robbed of the features that gave it a claim to distinctiveness.
When the lectures were instituted, over 50 years ago, they were a new venture in radio. As such they were given a special character and format by the BBC governors, who choose the lecturer.
First, the lectures were intended to enable well-qualified speakers to make an original contribution to public understanding; a lecturer had to have something new and substantive to say. Second, there was one lecturer only, with six half-hour periods at his or her disposal. This meant that a sustained argument could be developed. Third, the lecturer had to be an independent person, expressing personal views. No one was chosen by virtue of holding a particular office. Finally, the lecturer was alone in the studio. He or she spoke to the microphone, to the individual radio listener, not to an invited audience. The art of addressing an unseen listener is different from that of talking to a particular audience.
All these features have now been discarded. This year there were five successive lecturers, followed in the final session by a presentation by the Prince of Wales. Each lecturer spoke in a different place, to a different audience. Aside from the prince, two of the five hold high official positions: Chris Patten as a European commissioner, and Gro Harlem Brundtland as director general of the World Health Organisation. Arguably, Patten’s presentation was sufficiently personal to qualify under the old convention, but such a degree of detachment cannot be asked or expected from the head of an international agency. Since all five were limited to a single talk, none was able to develop an argument. This absence of continuity, and the scrappiness of the sequence as a whole, were accentuated by the device of inviting questions from the audience and from others via the internet. Superficiality was built in.
To say that this series had little in common with the traditional Reith lectures is not to glorify the past for its own sake. Any institution may outlive its usefulness, and it is arguable that the original Reith formula was showing its age. Perhaps the time had come for a reappraisal. But this does not justify changing the whole character of the series in a way which deprives it of its rationale and usefulness. It would have been better if the BBC had brought the series as such to an end, rather than attaching the name to a venture which departed-to such poor effect-from what had gone before.
This year’s set of lectures was an unworthy product not only because of the superficiality which the format imposed, but also because it gave a partial, distorted and biased presentation of its chosen subject matter. The theme was “sustainable development,” and each of the speakers offered a variation on it. Throughout the series it was taken for granted-by the five lecturers, the Prince of Wales, the two BBC presenters, and Jonathon Porritt, who contributed a small introduction to the series-that sustainable development is a well-defined, unexceptionable, and universally agreed objective, and that the broad implications about putting it into practice are clear. This unstated-and unwarranted-assumption was given emphasis by using as a heading for the series the phrase “respect for the earth,” as though anyone who questioned what the speakers were agreed on would be guilty of planetary disrespect. To be sure, there were differences between the five lecturers, reflecting personal views and institutional links, but all of them were broadly in the same camp.
Such a treatment does not do justice to the facts. The notion of sustainable development is neither unambiguous nor universally agreed. Not only is the term open to different interpretations on the part of those who favour it, but it is questioned or rejected by some, both as a principle and a guide to action. Not to have acknowledged this was to offer an incomplete picture.
To illustrate this point, let me go back to the original Reith model. Suppose that the BBC governors, within this model, had wanted to treat the issue of sustainable development. In their search for a lecturer, they could have considered representatives of three rival schools of thought.
First, the mainstream proponents of the principle of sustainable development, holders of what is probably the best claim to be a consensus view. They maintain that sustainable development should be viewed as a dominant objective of policy, and that a range of measures should be taken to ensure that human activity in general, and economic activity in particular, does not give rise to damaging effects on the environment, or on social welfare. These can be labelled the Light Greens. Three of this year’s lecturers-Chris Patten, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and John Browne, chief executive of BP Amoco-can be seen as wearing this colour.
A second school of thought is that of the Dark Greens. They also believe in sustainable development, but they give it a different meaning. Like the Light Greens, they believe that collective action is urgently needed, at national and international level, to conserve and restore the environment. But they view the Light Greens as “anthropocentric,” taking as the criterion for sustainable development what is in the interest of human beings, as distinct from other living species and the natural environment. For some of the Dark Greens, indeed, human activities are the chief threat to what is truly to be valued: humanity is seen as desecrating the planet. This point of view was given a brief airing in the lectures by a questioner, the leader of the southern California Sierra Club.
There is also a third school of thought, the existence of which was not hinted at in the lectures. This might be labelled the non-Greens, or Heretics. The critics and opponents of the idea of sustainable development; those who regret the extent to which it now commands approval across the world. They are unimpressed by the whole idea, and they believe that the kinds of policies advocated by the Light Greens, and still more by the Dark Greens, would do more harm than good.
A potential Reith lecturer on sustainable development could have been found within all three of these rival schools-and possibly, also, in the person of a knowledgeable critic of them all. A final choice could have been founded, not so much on the views of the candidates, but more on their ability to engage with the other schools of thought, while also being able to relate to a radio audience.
I have said little about this year’s five individual lectures, but there is not a great deal to be said. None of them made a serious contribution to debate. Two speakers put forward an institutional view. John Browne deployed a case he has made in many addresses, outlining the positive role of business in making development sustainable. Gro Harlem Brundtland’s thesis is that “health must be moved from the periphery of the development process to the centre, where it belongs.”
The other three lectures were more personal. Chris Patten’s was the most interesting, setting out the ideas of a thoughtful politician whose past responsibilities have included both development aid and the environment. Among other points, he considered the bearing of “good governance” on sustainable development, and the roles of governments and NGOs. He ended with some reflections on the need for a different kind of political leadership.
Tom Lovejoy argued that sustainable development can be best defined (and measured) in terms of biological diversity. He then gave some examples of what he saw as sound “ecosystem management,” and put in a plea to “address the greenhouse gas problem.” Not much of substance there.
Vandana Shiva, of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in Delhi, offered a fervid denunciation of the effects of globalisation. Two of her many variations on this theme were: “Economic globalisation has become a war against nature and the poor”; and “People are being perceived as parasites, to be exterminated for the ‘health’ of the global economy.” Neither argument nor evidence was given for such wild assertions, nor did Shiva tell us what she meant by globalisation. In this and in other respects, the lecture fell well below a minimum threshold of acceptability: it probably represents the lowest level to which the Reith lectures have fallen during their 50 years of existence.
Like most of those who speak up for sustainable development, all five lectures, along with Porritt and Prince Charles, believe that the world is now under threat. All of them, although to varying degrees and in some cases with qualifications, are merchants of doom. All of them contribute to the supply of false or dubious bad news.
This series of lectures was the product of a way of thinking which is obsessed with what is fashionable and attention-grabbing, and uninterested in presenting serious issues in a grown-up way. The episode raises disturbing questions about how the BBC now operates and what it stands for.