This column first appeared on Reaction.
Trump Takes on the World, BBC2
Why, oh why, doesn’t the BBC commission more contemporary documentaries like this? As an institution, the BBC has unparalleled access to all the leading political players in the world. Just mention the three letters BBC and world leaders generally agree to be interviewed. This kind of programme is not inordinately expensive to make, yet how many are made each year? One? Two?
Donald Trump’s foreign policy is one that will be analysed for decades to come. In some ways this three part documentary series barely scratches the surface. Part one looks at the US relationship with NATO and Europe. Part two looks at Trump’s efforts to bring about a settlement in the Middle East and the fallout with Iran, and part three examines Trump’s extraordinary policy towards North Korea. Each episode is gripping and the viewer learns a huge amount, including from those who were in the room.
What is refreshing is that the narrator adopts a genuinely factual and balanced approach in her explanation and analysis. This was exactly the right way to script it. Her priority was to explain what lay behind Trump’s motives and how his sometimes outrageous brand of diplomacy actually brought about some unexpected results. Sometimes, but not always. The documentary certainly doesn’t shy aware from Trump’s impetuousness or outright foreign policy failures, but unlike many other programmes, there is no agenda beyond a mission to explain. How refreshing.
One of the weaknesses of our broadcast media is its lack of willingness to inform us about what’s happening in the rest of the world. Why is it we don’t know more about the farming protests in India? Why do we hardly hear a peep of news from most of our neighbours in Europe beyond a 90 second report on a news bulletin. I make a point on LBC each night of spending 25% of my newshour on foreign stories, albeit in recent years even I have succumbed to the lure of having a report from the US each day. That may well change now the box office President is no longer on stage. I also try to make a point of doing hour long phone-ins on foreign stories, mainly so I and my listeners can be educated by other listeners who know a lot about the issue at hand. Working on a commercial station, I am not obligated to do this, but I feel it’s part of what we should do. I was one of the first to do a documentary on the plight of the Uighur muslims, back in 2019. That should have been the role of the BBC, who have been playing catch-up ever since.
I’d love Tim Davie, BBC director general, to instruct his news and current affairs departments to commission far more documentaries on foreign affairs. And they could start with the outrages going on in Myanmar and Hong Kong.
The Mile End Institute Podcast
The Mile End Institute is part of Queen Mary, University of London and its mission statement is to “bring together politicians, policymakers, researchers, commentators, and the public to discuss the major challenges of a changing world.” It is mostly presented by the Institute’s co-director Tim Bale, who is more political geek than political academic. And from a podcast point of view, that is a very good thing.
I realise this is a gross generalisation, but political academics are often incredibly boring and unengaging and don’t see it as part of their role to engage with mere political mortals. They see no reason to justify their work or positions to the general public and are quite content just to continue their research in their ivory towers with the odd inconvenience of a lecture or seminar thrown in. The thought of doing a regular blog, or tweet, let alone present a podcast appears anathema to most of them. Ok, I am exaggerating to make a point, but only by a little.
This podcast is much more engaging and interesting than the title might suggest. Bale knows how to interview and to get the best out of his guests who range from book authors to people involved at the sharp end of politics. The first episode I listened to last year was about life in Number 10, featuring Theresa May’s chief of staff, along with Patrick Diamond, who lectures at QMUL but was also an adviser in Number 10 under Tony Blair, and Jill Rutter who worked in Downing Street under John Major as a civil servant. It’s quite Radio 4 in its style, but there are some light moments too. Unlike many of his contemporaries he is only too willing to get out onto the airwaves, taking a lead no doubt from the great Professor Peter (now Lord) Hennessy, who has brought such joyful enthusiasm to radio listeners and TV watchers over the years, along with thousands of students who have graduated his courses at Queen Mary. Bale has learnt his trade at the feet of the master.
The most recent episode was rather less enlightening than some others. Titled The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs we didn’t really find out much at all about the subject at hand. What we learnt about was an oral history project on the subject conducted for the Parliament Trust by two academics, who went into great detail about how they had conducted interviews with MPs over the last few years. It’s also been turned into a book, but I’m not sure this podcast episode will have encouraged many people to buy it. I wanted to learn about the lives of the MPs, not the way they conducted interviews. And having looked up the book on Amazon, I now know I definitely won’t be buying it. Its retail price is over £60! Good luck with that.