It’s not surprising that politicians have such an on-off relationship with the broadcast media. One slip. One casual comment. One lapse of memory. Even the immaculate, armour-plated Nicola Sturgeon was caught out by Jane Garvey last Wednesday as the Woman’s Hour presenter congratulated her on her latest elevation. It had just been announced that Scotland’s First Minister was top of the Woman’s Hour ‘power list’ of the top ten women for 2015 (beating Angelina Jolie and Caitlyn Jenner) and Sturgeon was doing a live telephone interview on the Radio 4 programme from her office in Edinburgh. Garvey then lobbed a question, oh so casually, but oh so deliberately, like a lioness waiting to pounce.
‘The Big Game tonight?’
A long, embarrassingly long, pause.
‘Isn’t it, Nicola? The Big Game tonight?’ (This was Wednesday, night of the World Cup match between England’s women’s soccer team and Japan’s.)
‘What are we talking about?’ Sturgeon was forced to ask eventually, to break the yawning silence.
‘England in the World Cup.’
‘Obviously, yeah,’ said Sturgeon, giggling nervously. ‘Good luck!’
It’s lucky for her there’s no election just around the corner. For a woman who claims to be not your usual style of politician, who listens to her voters, she revealed a surprising lack of nous, of being out of touch with what ‘ordinary’ folk are interested in. How could she not have heard about the match? Had she not realised how big women’s football has suddenly become, headlining the back pages and the news streams day after day in the past few weeks? The biggest women’s story in months, and she was speaking to women on a programme designed for them. It was as if she had come to the microphone without thinking who her audience was going to be.
Sturgeon got away with it, unscathed. Afterwards, there was not a squeak anywhere about her gaffe, blown away by the team’s painful defeat. But it’s there in the archive.
The trouble with politicians (especially those now making decisions about the future of the BBC and its funding) is that it’s hard to imagine them ever listening to anything on the radio, apart perhaps from Today or maybe some football on Radio Five Live, occasionally diving into Radio 2 or Classic FM to find out what music the nation is listening to. The soundtrack of their lives is other politicians talking. George Osborne may be happy to appear on Money Box Live but does he ever listen to it on a regular basis? You might also ask whether John Whittingdale, the culture minister, has ever bothered to tune in to Radio 4’s programme on the arts, Front Row? I rather doubt it. Their portfolios are too immense; their ability to take time out and listen too limited. They don’t know what they’re missing, and that’s the trouble. They don’t think the BBC is worth what it costs, and believe they can pander to voters by speaking out against the licence fee.
Yet it’s not the big cash-heavy events such as Wimbledon, Glastonbury or even the Proms that make the BBC such a special broadcasting organisation but the multiplicity of programmes such as CSI Whale, aired on Radio 4 on Friday morning (and directed by Tim Dee). Whale enthusiast Philip Hoare took us to the laboratories of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme at Regent’s Park to witness an autopsy on a porpoise that had been washed up on a Welsh beach. There’s something so poignant about stranded cetaceans, Hoare reminded us, as those will know who witnessed the whale who floated up the Thames in 2006, disoriented, flailing about, and increasingly distressed by the noise of the crowd gathering to watch. He reckons it’s because of our collective guilt about what we’re doing to the planet, but also because it’s a symbol of some kind of ‘mortal breaching of the liminal boundaries between us’. The stranded whale becomes one of us on the beach and, just as it does so, perishes.
Hoare confessed that he was frightened of water yet he swims every day. Once, while on holiday in the Azores, he was swimming in the ocean and came across a pod of sperm whales. Suddenly, he noticed the largest of them coming towards him. He was terrified. Would he be swallowed, like Jonah in the Old Testament or one of those fishermen reportedly sucked inside the enormous, gaping mouth and later found curled up inside, their skin bleached white by the whale’s gastric juices?
‘Then I felt, rather than heard,’ Hoare continued, as in a horror movie, ‘the whale’s sonar moving through my body like an MRI scanner. It was literally looking inside my body, diagnosing and describing me, scanning a three-dimensional sound picture of the me-ness of me back to its head, performing its own aural dissection.’
He was close enough to the whale to touch, as it looked at him with its eye, ‘the size of a grapefruit’. He felt it was trying to understand him, just as much as he was trying to understand it. Then it dived straight down through the blue waters into the black. He was safe. Phew!