Radio review: The Puppet Master, and The Reith Lectures

31 May 2019


“MEET the most powerful man you’ve never heard of.” For some weeks, BBC Sounds had been urging me to make the appointment, and, last week, the opportunity arose, in the form of an omnibus edition of The Puppet Master (Radio 4, Friday), which, in March, had been presented in easily downloadable 15-minute episodes.

Whether Vladislav Surkov is, in fact, the most powerful man I have never heard of is difficult to assess, given the nature of the category in which he apparently excels, but it was consistent with the overall character of Gabriel Gatehouse’s investigation, littered as it was with melodramatic superlatives.

This account of the man whose manipulations of the Russian news agenda have pioneered a form of media manipulation known as “post-truth”, contained fascinating insights from people close to the Kremlin, as well as material from the Kiev street riots in 2011. Yet of all the podcast-formatted documentaries recently delivered by the BBC, The Puppet Master was the most derivative I have yet encountered.

The archetypes for this kind of production are Serial and S-Town: American podcast documentaries which achieved the kind of download figures which make BBC executives drool (Radio, 16 June 2017). But last week’s trend-setters are this week’s clichés, and The Puppet Master was riddled with them. The introductory music, and the direct appeal to the listener — “Remember this. . . It’s going to be important later on” — exposed a craven desire on the part of the programme makers to sex-up the material.

There was nothing that could be regarded as flashy or meretricious in Jonathan Sumption’s opening contribution to The Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Tuesday). The slow, con­sidered delivery of his disquisition on “Law’s expanding empire” was intended, one suspects, to reassure us that he had no axe to grind, and that his account had all the objectivity that one would expect of an esteemed Justice of the Supreme Court. In this, it might be said that Lord Sumption enjoys his cake both eaten and unconsumed; but woe betide any who might question his impartiality.

Nevertheless, this was a promising start. Couched in elegant prose, and containing some examples of epigrammatic wisdom (if not brevity), Sumption’s argument proposed that the law had, in recent decades, colonised those areas of public discourse which were more rightly the property of politics.

The failure of the Leveson inquiry to effect any change in policy was a fine example, Sumption argued, of why politicians should have taken to themselves the responsibility for negotiating in an area that required the nuanced skills of politics rather than the blunt tools of legislation.

His critics might dub him nostalgic, but, at the same time, Sumption maintains a pragmatic recognition of the limitations of his own profession.

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