Titanic grump: Alan Green, Radio 5 Live's football commentator
On Good Friday 1930, the journalists on BBC radio news did not know what to put in the evening bulletin. The country was on holiday. The world economy appeared to be recovering after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Few guessed that the revival was a suckers' rally that heralded a global depression. Europe was quiet — Adolf Hitler was still an obscure opposition politician — and although Britain ruled a great empire, nothing much seemed to be happening there either. Stumped by a slow news day, the BBC delivered the most honest broadcast in the history of journalism. "Ladies and gentlemen, there is no news tonight," proclaimed the announcer. "So here is some music."
Deceit in the modern Radio 4 — and in the rest of the media — does not always lie in journalists' biases. The pretence that there is always news worth reporting can be equally deceptive. Whatever has happened — or rather, whatever has not happened — the Today programme must always run for three hours, the news pages of the press must always be filled and, like Old Man River, the rolling news channels must keep on rolling along. The result is media without discrimination in which a parochial argument about the allocation of resources in the NHS on one day is put on a par with the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Haiti the next.
Broadcasters deliver every lead story at the same tempo and pitch. However bold they are, you will never hear John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman admit, "We're leading with this piece because we haven't got anything better to air. On normal days, we would never have bothered you with such a trivial item. Even if the supposed scandal we are presenting to you were truly a scandal, and believe me it isn't, nothing could be done about it because any conceivable cure would only make matters worse."
The first rule of broadcasting is never to tell members of the public they are wasting their time listening to you. It applies everywhere except on the football commentaries of BBC Radio 5 Live, which you should listen to even if you hate football, because in 90-minute doses you can enjoy journalism in its purest and most suicidally candid form. If a game is boring, 5 Live's presenters say so. If overpaid players fail, they denounce them. If everyone from the spectators who have paid inflated prices for tickets to the 5 Live audience is wasting their time, they will point that out repeatedly and at length.
Journalists who write about 5 Live always concentrate on the awesome misanthropy of its star commentator, Alan Green. He is indeed a titanic grump, a curmudgeon on a Himalayan scale. He must use "terrible", "diabolical", "abysmal" and "I can't believe it" more often than any other speaker of the English language. "Oh, there's someone yawning in the crowd," Green declared during last year's FA Cup semi-final. "What a surprise. How long have we got to go in this?" His condemnation would have been more understandable if the game was almost over. In fact, it had just started.