In Our Time: Melvyn Bragg and Journalistic Irrelevance

As the news cycle has replaced the reading room, the journalist has replaced the academic as the mediator of intellectual discourse. A transparent exposure of the raw facts is believed to hold the key to public enlightenment and social progress. When the academic provides a cultural and economic diagnosis of the failures of post-modernity, their position is received as merely theoretical, while when a journalist documents the scandals and dysfunction of failed institutions, a new crisis has been born. 

Serious journalism enjoys such prestige today because it stands in contrast to a far worse alternative — the info-tainment of the jingoistic partisan news networks which would erode any standard of a neutral public interest in the dissemination of information. Yet while some  journalists have attempted to defend their domain against the blatant propagandists, the academics have followed the lead and tone of the journalists without significant resistance. Rather than journalism becoming more academic, academia has become increasingly journalistic. The academic notion of intrinsically important knowledge has yielded to the journalistic notion of socially relevant information. 

Yet there are definite limitations to journalistic practice which have not been well articulated. A society full of competent and responsible journalists would still be one without much of a sense of the history and wider relevance of the news cycle. It would also be hopelessly mundane, which is why the most dry and factual of journalistic outlets, the local stations reporting mainly on the regional weather, tend to quickly devolve into feel-good talk shows.

After the unbearable excess of the last few years’ news cycles, it is very tempting to fantasize about how the news might disappear. Public gathering places may replace cable news channels with documentaries of bird migration, and radio news updates may be replaced by the live sound of wind chimes. The public information space might become an escape from the specificity of daily life, which must be sought out in less exposed channels, in a state of limited articulation. After enough constant exposure to such soothing sights and sounds, the idea of a constant news stream may seem barbaric to an enlightened humanity of the future. 

While such a radical alteration in our consumption of news may remain the stuff of science fiction, The Right Honourable Melvyn Bragg of the BBC has mastered a style of journalism just as aloof to the headlines of the day. Bragg is the host of In Our Time, a podcast titled with considerable irony, as it consists of academic discussions of topics far removed from the journalistic concerns of the day, including a great many topics in Classics. I personally found the podcast by searching for material on Plato’s Symposium, which was covered in an episode. Heraclitus and the Muses are also the subjects of pleasant 40 minute discourses.

Writing in the New Yorker, Sarah Larson comments on how different Bragg’s approach is from that of the hosts on NPR, America’s model for public-interest radio. 

The show is beloved in the U.K.; for American podcast enthusiasts, it might be experienced as a refreshing change of pace. It’s nothing like the “This American Life” style of audio entertainment, marked by self-effacing narrative authority, inventive sound design, human intimacy of various kinds, and artfully revealed narrative surprises. It is not organized into themed seasons or arcs. Nor is it an NPR-style show about current events, scientific discoveries, or new books, satisfying a need to keep up with the cultural conversation. It’s just four intelligent people in a studio, discussing complex topics that are, as a friend of mine once said of Bragg’s openers, aggressively uncommercial. To mark the show’s seven-hundred-and-fiftieth episode, last year, a Top Ten list of favorite shows was chosen by listeners. The winning episodes included “1816, the Year Without a Summer,” “The Gin Craze,” “Photosynthesis,” and “Hildegard of Bingen.” Take that, journalistic pegs and hooks.

After listening to many episodes of In Our Time, I salute the podcast for uprooting many of the artificial walls between academic discourse and popular conversation, and for promoting a very appealing vision of journalistic irrelevance. While Bragg is in a sense functioning like a journalist, he shows us how a journalist may play an important role in society without covering it at all.  His completely irrelevant discussions function like a natural mural at an airport terminal — devoid of relevant information about departures and arrivals, yet soothing the stress of transit. This kind of journalist is not broadcasting urgent facts that demand our attention, but suggesting some topics which we may enjoy.

A working class boy who matriculated at Oxford, Bragg also displays an amateur’s enthusiasm and confidence for wide-ranging conversation, unaffected by the professional’s sense of rank and reputation. One may find the conversations occasionally boring, but they are never condescending towards the listener. Rather than promoting the expertise of his interlocutors as a proof of his own credibility, Bragg goes about the dialogues without self-consciousness. He is just a normal person discussing normal things with a select group of people, not a nerd apologetically geeking out on fandoms. With many episodes on the history of math and science, his eclecticism also contradicts the popular mythology that only technical personalities are inclined toward “STEM” subjects. 

And though the topics seem elite, they are actually of more universal interest than many of the narrow subjects of an NPR-style podcast. A report about race in Alabama immediately makes large segments of the population self-conscious or defensive, while very few may object to a report on asteroids.  This is a quiet bastion of civilized conversation, at which both the interested laity and obliging experts may participate in those discussions of history and science which make a society a true society, with knowledge enduring beyond the weekly reports. 

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