Magazine article The Spectator

Expert Witness

Magazine article The Spectator

Expert Witness

Article excerpt

Recent events in Egypt have exposed not just the chasms in our understanding of what's been going on in the countries of the Middle East, but also the effects of changes in how the BBC is spending the licence fee on reporting 'fast-breaking' stories. Instead of 'stringers' in the field, kept ticking over in foreign parts on a modest retaining fee to become deeply versed in the language, the politics, the macro-economics and the ordinary lives of the people among whom they live, the big names are now flown in for a few days of commentary. It's more noticeable on TV, but also evident on radio where last week Jim Naughtie was given leave-of absence from the Today studio and sent off to Cairo to report from Tahrir Square.

Naughtie is a wise listener, an empathetic interviewer, a welcome voice in the morning, but I felt very uncomfortable listening to his reports from Egypt, especially last Friday morning, which was dubbed (by whom? ) the Day of Departure and thought at the time to mark a turning point in what was going on there.

I didn't want to hear a Westerner giving his views on the situation, no matter his experience as a journalist, his ability to communicate with a radio audience. I wanted only the voices of the Egyptians who are calling for change, and of those who are refusing to give it. I needed to try to understand what's been going on under President Mubarak that we have not been hearing about. I wondered whether what's going on is like the Velvet Revolution in Prague or more ominously the precursor of a French-style massacre of the ancien regime.

Instead we had Naughtie, talking, it is true, to some of those who have been in the Square, but from his perspective as an observer from London, not as someone who knows much more about Egypt than I do. I felt like a tourist as I listened, not a traveller, jetting in for a few moments while I ate my bran flakes, as if this was Excess Baggage, not Today. It's not informed news, nor in-depth documentary, but a kind of voyeurism.

Call me old-fashioned but I'm really enjoying The Far Pavilions on Radio 4 (Monday to Friday mornings at 10.45 and repeated in the evenings). When the novel by M.M. Kaye was first published in the late-1970s it was thought of as 'a Gone with the Wind for the North-West Frontier'. This great wrist-buster of a romantic saga is set in the foothills of the Himalayas in the days of the Raj. …

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