It takes a lot for a major national network to remove a whole evening’s planned and advertised programmes so that its audience may consider a particular subject. Radio 4 did it last week for The Migration Dilemma, an hour and a half of carefully structured, wide-ranging discussion, followed by a 45-minute trenchant drama, Our Sea, by the always challenging Ronan Bennett.
How quickly was it put together? Six days, from concept to broadcast. Was it a waste of time? Absolutely not. Was it a good use of licence fee money? It was. Why didn’t BBC Director-General Tony Hall praise it publicly? Because he seldom praises radio even though licence fee payers hold BBC Radio in higher esteem and greater affection than they do BBC TV. Is that affection and esteem justified? It is, because BBC radio, unlike BBC TV, treats me as if I have a brain, a memory and the patience to listen while a complicated subject is explored.
Edward Stourton, chairing The Migration Dilemma, explained briefly why this evening of special programming was happening: the world’s conscience had been pricked by the photograph of the three-year-old child dead in the arms of a Turkish policeman and Prime Minister David Cameron had suddenly changed his policy and permitted increased numbers of migrants into the UK. The discussion began with the question that many a fellow listener must have been asking the radio for weeks, what is the difference between a refugee and an economic migrant? The answer was, it’s difficult.
The panel was precisely balanced, by politics, expertise and gender: David Goodhart, co-founder of Prospect magazine, now of cross-party think-tank Demos; Heaven Crawley, Professor of International Migration at Coventry University; Hashi Mohammed, barrister, once himself a child migrant to the UK; Stephanie Collins, political philosopher at Manchester University. In regular intervals to their vivid exchanges of opinion (on the scale of this crisis, its causes, its possible remedies, what problems it may trigger, whether this is a one-off or a trend), Tim Harford, presenter of Radio 4’s More Or Less, statistical columnist of the Financial Times, provided figures to support or query assertions and assumptions.
I was listening at the kitchen table, dishes in the sink. It began at 8.02pm, I didn’t look up at the clock until around 8.50pm. Stuff that had been buzzing in my brain for weeks (was there too much emotional reporting? Why hadn’t there been more explanation of the camps so many migrants were coming from? Why had governments only started to notice what had clearly been building up for years?) was being seriously addressed. The great thing was that by explaining why there are no easy solutions to this crisis it made even the complications more readily comprehensible. It takes time to understand a subject like this and Radio 4 gave it time, context and the serious engagement of contrasting experts. Congratulations all round, especially to producers Jim Frank and Lucy Proctor.
Our Sea, Ronan Bennett’s play that followed, started off sounding measured but soon got personal, enraged, engaged. A calm narrator, Lindsay Duncan, described posh Tom and Alice watching a man crawl out of the sea on to their Greek holiday beach, sole survivor of a shipwreck. The narrator then described our feelings about that sea, the warm, friendly Mediterranean now turning into a graveyard. The survivor turns out to be a Palestinian refugee from a camp.
As the play unfolded, all the characters, including Stephen Rea as its writer/director, stepped out of their roles to comment on the situations they were portraying, grew angry, demanded solutions to the crisis, and then went back into their roles to act their allotted lines again. The Writer kept telling them to stop arguing and get back to the play before concluding, as both actor and person, “What is the right thing to do? How do we know it?” My own thoughts and feelings, untangled by the discussion that preceded this play, promptly flew into a ragged ball again.
That’s what drama is meant to do: challenge assumptions, discomfort the audience enough to make us think, goad us into strong emotional reaction. Was it right to hitch Our Sea to The Migration Dilemma? It was. On its own, in the Afternoon Drama slot for which its 45-minute length suggests it was originally intended, Our Sea might have made me secretly think “oh no, not more about refugees, I’ve heard nine news bulletins already today”, before switching off. Following such an enlightening discussion, Bennett’s angry arrows hit me where it hurt.