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…