Magazine article The Spectator

Voices of Protest

Magazine article The Spectator

Voices of Protest

Article excerpt

It was a bit surprising to find a programme marking the 62nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Radio Two (Tuesday), not Radio Four. The stations are changing, morphing into each other as they seek ever more urgently to catch that elusive thing, a dedicated listener. Next we'll find Terry Wogan putting on the selected hits of Pierre Boulez. It's also why we're all being constantly persuaded to listen again, download and podcast -- it's another way of boosting audience figures. Power to the People, for example, was scheduled for broadcast at 10.30 p. m. The bosses in Broadcasting House, I'm pretty sure, were not expecting an audience then but were hoping to attract the attention of the laptoppers and iPodders, who manage their own listening schedules, fitting programmes in while working out on the treadmill or scurrying to work. I'm beginning to feel I must be living in a different timewarp from everyone else.

Power to the People was not really about nuclear energy (who now bothers to spend precious time finding out how things work and why? ). Instead, the presenter, Mariella Frostrup, guided us huskily through the decades of protest against the nuclear industry. We were given snatches of Hedgehoppers Anonymous and their 1965 hit, 'It's Good News Week'. Most of the band, it turns out, were stationed at RAF Wittering and took their name from the pilots who flew V bombers designed to carry nuclear weapons. They were trained to fly so low, trimming hedges, that they would be undetected by enemy radar. Strange to think that a song warning of the impact of a nuclear explosion ('Someone's dropped a bomb somewhere, / Contaminating atmosphere/ And blackening the sky') could have made it into the Top Ten. At the time, three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat from Russia's nuclear arsenal was taken very seriously. A decade earlier the philosopher Bertrand Russell had declared on television that 'we shall be lucky if we are not destroyed by nuclear weapons by the end of the decade'. Some commentators now believe it was good luck rather than good judgment that saved us, and that we were closer than we might like to think to Armageddon.

But there is another side to nuclear energy, as Frostrup reminded us. The first nuclear power station, at Windscale, near Whitehaven in Cumbria, was opened in 1956; the weapon of war was redesigned to replace the old energy suppliers, coal and oil. It was never going to be easy to persuade the non-scientific public that nuclear power was safe or desirable, but then, just a year later, the reactor caught fire and milk from an area of 200 square miles round the site was deemed to be radioactive. …

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