Needless (perhaps) to say, Radio Times is something I wouldn’t dream of buying: since I’m not much interested in the latest diversions produced by the entertainment industry — and also prefer to get my facts, news and opinion from sources other than state-corporate media — there really isn’t anything to be found in the magazine’s listings that I’ll pay to know about in advance.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t be true to say that Radio Times is a publication that I never see. In fact, a significant part of my average working week is spent reading it. Only, the issues I’m looking at are old ones (jolly old, in some cases!) that reveal a world of TV and radio broadcasting very different from today’s.
Generally speaking, of course, I’m only concerned with what those fragile yellow pages tell us about music programming and the wider musical culture in the three or four decades after WW2. But after I’d been digging about in the old, bound volumes for a couple of years, two things gradually dawned on me.
The first was that, down the decades, Radio Times has printed a truly astonishing number of photographs of Rolf Harris. The second is that those old issues actually seem to contain more photographs of bearded antipodean sex-offenders than they do misprints, mis-spellings and other slips: the amount of care the magazine’s staff took over their checking and proof-reading, issue after issue, year after year, must have been enormous. Hats off to those diligent folks, whoever they were!
Which, of course, brings me to today — or, at any rate, to this time last year, when a friend (whose opinion of the modern, post-cultural BBC is not a whit less negative than mine) sent me a page that he’d torn out of his family copy of RT as it was going off to the recycling bin.
As it happens, my personal system for filing and storing papers is one that would make a shipwreck seem organised — so the sheet arrived here and immediately disappeared. Since I suddenly and quite unexpectedly rediscovered it yesterday, I’m writing about it now before it goes missing again. Here’s a scan of the relevant corner:
I daresay quite a few readers will have spotted the two(!) things wrong with that electronic clipping. To start with, there’s the very obvious screw-up in the text: ‘nul points’, as they say, to whoever had the job of proofing that sidebar.
Less easy to see, maybe, is the screw-up someone made over the image — which doesn’t actually show Richard Strauss (1864-1949), composer of the Symphonia Domestica as well as Salome, Elektra, Ein Heldenleben and the Four Last Songs … but instead shows the earlier and quite unrelated ‘Waltz King’ Johann Strauss II (1825-99), composer of The Blue Danube, Emperor Waltz and Die Fledermaus. (And if you don’t believe me, see what the Britannica says.)
Now, my friend sent this page to me together with a peeved remark about today’s BBC being ‘incapable of doing anything properly’ — and while he is undoubtedly correct as far as the Corporation is concerned, his criticism was a little off the mark with regard to the Radio Times. For the fact is that the Radio Times isn’t produced by the BBC anymore: in 2011 the magazine was one of 33 BBC titles — the others included BBC Music, BBC Sky at Night, and Top Gear — that were ‘acquired’ for £121 million by ‘Immediate Media Co’, a publishing house owned by private equity company Exponent. Radio Times was one of the 11 titles that ‘BBC Worldwide’ simply sold outright — and in 2013 netted its new publisher a splendid £15.9 million, which was 60% of the company’s total adjusted profits. (Yes, just the RT alone: as you may or may not need me to remind you, it is reputedly the most profitable magazine in the UK.)
The reason I bring this up is twofold. First, what we get here is yet another glimpse of the reality that we aren’t supposed to notice: the fact that a system which supposedly works in terms of ‘a lean, competition-driven capitalism’ that ‘creates wealth and value’ through the encouragement of ‘free enterprise and entrepreneurial risk-taking’ is actually engaged in a different activity altogether — as a system in which products and businesses that have been created using public money and turned into valued brands with the long-term support of publicly funded institutions are then handed over, without public consultation, to make vast profits for private capital.
(And, as a little test of the system’s honesty and openness, try asking your friends and family who it is that produces the magazines BBC History, BBC Knowledge, BBC Music, BBC Wildlife, BBC Sky at Night, Countryfile, Gardeners’ World, Top Gear, and Who Do You Think You Are? I’d be prepared to bet that — for some mysterious reason! — they all think it’s the BBC. In reality, the BBC no longer produces any of them: besides the non-BBC-branded titles that were sold outright, four magazines that the BBC still owns — Top Gear among them — are produced under a contract publishing agreement, while the other 18 that changed hands are produced under a licensing agreement that preserves merely an ‘editorial interest’…)
Secondly, there are the implications of the fact that, clearly, the kind of person whose above-average education and abilities enable them to oversee the production of a profit-seeking magazine can no longer be expected to be a person with even the vaguest knowledge of who Johann Strauss II was and Richard Strauss wasn’t. From which we derive another piece of evidence showing the increasing marginalisation and abnormalisation of our classical repertoire: ‘general’ education and ‘normal’ cultural activity no longer stretch to creating awareness of what two of the West’s most famous composers looked like — and while such awareness certainly lives on under the rubric of ‘specialist knowledge’, the fact is that specialist knowledge of such a marginalised art-form is something that a magazine like Radio Times wouldn’t even think of paying for in a context where there are shareholder returns and CEO bonuses to be maximised. And, in consequence — and as the end result of a process that no doubt began with some klutz doing a Google search and being too damn lazy and unthinking to check what turned up — we get the wrong Strauss.
What’s more, in saying that there was a time when it would have been quite unthinkable for Radio Times to have presented its readers with an error of that kind, I am of course speaking empirically: in all the thousands of old RT pages I’ve read, scanned, pondered, photocopied and quoted in the last four years, I’ve never once seen any composer represented by a wrong photograph. Not a one.
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