Radio 4 | Making History

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I was the studio guest for this week’s International Women’s Day episode of Making History with Tom Holland, joined by Professor Louise Jackson from Edinburgh. We talked about the origins of the Women’s Police Service with Dr Naomi Paxton, whether history writing is too conservative with Dr John Gallagher, and my favourite year, which – surprise! – is abortion themed.

Listen to the episode here

Contraception: worth talking about, but very quietly please

Obviously, sex sells. Ad breaks are full of it, explicit and implied – writhing perfume models, the jeans left grass stained by a hot date that only the right detergent can save, flirtatious chocolate-shilling sensualists – and basically that’s fine with me. If advertisers’ didn’t have sex, Christ knows what kind of terrifying methods they’d turn to instead for convincing us to buy stuff.

But in between the nudging, winking and occasional panting, wouldn’t it be nice if sometimes the message seeped through that sex is normal? Something you could talk about calmly, and even plan for – rather than just spritzing some body spray and hoping for the right result. That was the implication of the Department Of Health’s “Contraception: Worth Talking About” ad series. So how come this radio ad (below) has just been criticised by the ASA as too strong for the ears of under-16s?

It’s not explicit. It doesn’t even mention sex, and there’s no heavy breathing – not even a smutty pun. Just a mother and daughter talking about “the coil”, followed by a couple talking about “an implant”, and the message that you can get more information from a doctor or nurse.

At the very worst, a parent whose child heard this at 3:58 might be forced to explain that contraception is something grown-ups use when they don’t want to have babies. And the under-16s the ASA wants to protect from this blandly informative ad certainly include teens who are thinking about having sex, and who could use the encouragement to seek advice.

There is a weird belief that we can guide children to their 16th birthday without ever having to explain where babies come from, never mind how they can be avoided. It’s a dim-witted fetshisation of innocence, as any parent should know: children are curious, and they inevitably spend time with adults of (duh) child-bearing age. It takes a lot of misdirection and obfuscation to explain a pregnancy without answering questions about sex.

But plenty of adults are willing to squirm their way out dishonestly. It’s typical of this cultural squeamishness that an advert for information gets restricted. Eroticism and salaciousness are everywhere, but apparently nothing’s as harmful to children as the promise of a straight answer.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Unsatisfaction: Newsbeat and the BNP

The first formal response in any complaints procedure is the “disappointing brush-off”. My brush-off from Newsbeat arrived yesterday. Understandably, it’s a form email designed to cover all the objections received to the BNP interviews. Less understandably, the reply only refers to the radio version of the story: my complaint was specifically addressed to the online transcript.

On the 853 blog, Daryl points out that this shows a failure to understand the difference between radio and internet journalism:

what Rod McKenzie and his team at Newsbeat need to realise that while radio is a wonderful, intimate medium, it is transient. That lovingly-crafted audio piece will be forgotten next week. But that lazily slapped-up Q&A with the two “young BNP members” will still be there next week. And the week after. And next year. And it carries the BBC logo, so people around the world will think this is quality journalism – slurring the many excellent reporters I worked with in my decade there.

853, “BBC’s website cosies up to bigots”

Furthermore, my complaint was about two specific instances in which the BNP’s false and bigoted reasoning was allowed to stand as fact: the false analogy between species and race, and the untruth about Ashley Cole’s birthplace. It wasn’t a blanket objection to coverage of the BNP. But Rod McKenzie’s reply doesn’t address those issues, it only asserts that Newsbeat has a duty to cover the BNP – which is puzzling, given that I never claimed otherwise.

It’s confounding to be presented with an editor who seems unable to acknowledge that, as well as deciding whether or not to cover an issue, his journalists have the capacity to cover something well or (as in this case) very badly indeed. McKenzie presents editing in this email as a matter of inclusion or omission, not quality control.

Underlining the slightly patronising tone is McKenzie’s expectation that those who complain about the piece would be shocked to discover that the BNP has support: “This may surprise you, but a great many texts we received yesterday – were broadly supportive of the BNP.” (It’s the dash he slips in to anticipate my astonished pause that really aggravates me here.) Whereas it’s that kind of positive reaction to the propagandising Newsbeat interview that many of the complainants will have anticipated, and feared.

After the jump: McKenzie’s reply in full Continue reading