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'Multiplatforming' the Reith Lectures

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Jennifer Clarke Jennifer Clarke 09:45, Monday, 25 May 2009

The Reith Lectures are amongst the most venerable of BBC institutions.

Our first director-general famously believed that the corporation should enrich the intellectual and cultural life of the nation.

In this spirit, each year the BBC invites a leading figure to deliver a series of lectures whose explicit aim is to advance public understanding and debate about significant issues. The lectures are both live events, and radio programmes broadcast on Radio 4 and the World Service.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell was the first Lecturer in 1948. A dazzling array of thinkers has stood in his shoes in the subsequent sixty-one years, including JK Galbraith, Marina Warner, Wole Soyinka and Daniel Barenboim.

This year's lecturer is the eminent Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel. His theme "A New Citizenship" builds on a lifetime's work exploring issues around democracy, ethics and what he calls the "politics of the common good".

Professor Sandel is a conspicuously engaging speaker; his Justice course at Harvard has been taken by more than 14,000 students, and will soon be made available online.

(His rather less well-known cultural contribution was to provide the inspiration for Montgomery Burns, ironically the least just character in the Simpsons cartoon).

Given Professor Sandel's topic and own broad resonance, the Reith team has redoubled its efforts to promote the content of the lectures as widely as possible beyond the boundaries of the BBC.

So as well as Professor Sandel's appearance on Start the Week this morning and the usual press interviews, he's recorded an interview with the very popular non-BBC Philosophy Bites podcast, to help us reach a valuable new audience.

And in addition to a Radio 4 site, we've set up a Twitter feed to try and raise the profile and content of this year's lectures.

We can give an insight into the production process, point to the wealth of Reith archive already available - such as an excerpt from that first Russell lecture - and link to other relevant material such as the Philosophy resources from our In Our Time colleagues.

And we can find people already talking about Professor Sandel and Reith (there are more than you might think), and invite them to join us.

The purpose is to build our own online Reith community which can engage with the subjects at the heart of Professor Sandel's lectures, and bolster the debate we hope they will engender.

We are also planning to run some Twitter events around the Lectures.

With the help of the Good Radio Club, an experiment in 'social listening' from Jem Stone and Steve Bowbrick at BBC Audio & Music Interactive, we're inviting people to listen to the repeat transmission of each Reith Lecture on Radio 4 (or to listen via the Radio 4 website) while logged into Twitter, and then to share their comments and thoughts.

We'll be inviting listeners to tag their contributions to Twitter with the hash tag #Reith (and to upload pictures to flickr using the same tag). Using tools like Twitterfall and Monitter participants will be able to follow a global conversation around the lectures while they're on air. Nearer the first transmission you'll be able to read more about the experiment on the Good Radio Club web site and the Radio 4 Reith 2009 web pages.

We've never done anything like this with Reith; it's an exciting experiment which we hope will succeed. I will report back here in a few weeks' time to share the results.

I hope you might join us.

I think Lord Reith would approve.

The Reith Lectures 2009 will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday mornings at 0900 BST starting on June 9, and repeated the following Saturday evening at 2215 BST.

The Lectures will also be broadcast on the BBC World Service starting on Saturday 13 June at 1800 GMT.

It will also be possible to listen again, and download each lecture on the Radio 4 website. There will also be a podcast.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    On Start the Week Andrew Marr asked Michael Sandel the following: "If we are to have a re-moralised politics, a new kind of citizenship, gives us some indication of where politically this new morality or ideology is going to come, what it feels like. Is it a soft leftism? Is it a new environmental leftism? What is it?"

    It reminds me of the bar in The Blues Brothers which has both kinds of music: country AND western. At the BBC you've got both kinds of ideology: leftism AND environmental leftism.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    "With the help of the Good Radio Club, an experiment in 'social listening' from Jem Stone and Steve Bowbrick at BBC Audio & Music Interactive, we're inviting people to listen to the repeat transmission of each Reith Lecture on Radio 4 (or to listen via the Radio 4 website) while logged into Twitter, and then to share their comments and thoughts."

    Remember that thing in Hitch Hiker's.. where a race are cursed with telepathy and therefore have to keep talking inane rubbish constantly to prevent their deepest thoughts being communicated to all and sundry ??

    Remind you of anything ??

  • Comment number 5.

    Let us hope, Jennifer, that you provoke a constructive debate on what it means to be a citizen, nay, to be human, in the third millennium CE, both online and off! Cheers (brunch)!


  • Comment number 6.

    When Andrew Marr asked Michael Sandel "if we need a new kind of citizenship" I think he is right to do so but begs an incorrect premise.

    In the past political influence were restricted to the few who had privilege, wealth, power, influence and, though not always, education. Today, privilege is less of a factor but the result is that those with power and influence now more often lack the very best education. Therefore they may not use their authority as wisely as they should.

    Many today are ignorant of the qualities of argument that the best philosophers employed, like Aristotle more than 2000 years ago. Take, for example, the current scandal over expenses in the British parliament. If you look at the evidence to Sir Christopher Kelly's committee at http://www.public-standards.gov.uk/OurWork/MPs__Expenses___Evidence.html, you may be appalled, as I am. Having read through about a third so far, it is dreadful to see how many submissions are no more than self-serving opinions with not a shred of logic or moral argument to support their positions.

    So, in fact, I think we need to return to the old kind of citizenship, not for the privilege of a sometimes undeserving aristocracy, but for the quality of argument that was expected.

    The contemporary tragedy as the quality of life improves and as technology allows easy communications and therefore we have more discourse, so the quality of debate in public life diminishes towards the lowest level. You have only have to look to some of the leading ancient civilisations and compare them to those today in China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and indeed the West.

    I believe that a significant reason for Moslems fundamentalism may be growing decadence in the West. If so I share that concern. Part of the reason for terrorism may be a lack of education, the ability only to argue a case crudely and inappropriately, often not being able to rationalise their case at all.

    In short, ignorance is the biggest enemy of civilisation and as the developed world advances (or does it?), so the relative level of ignorance is allowed to increase in direct proportion to greed and avarice. Perhaps if modern man valued philosophy as he should his moral compass would be more in evidence.

    So, Professor Sandel, what do you propose to do about that?

  • Comment number 7.

    The european nation state is dead, we are europeans now, as long as you obey the law, that is all that is required.

    nothing else

    pay tax
    obey law

    citizen = economic unit


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