James Whale: the last of the radio’s trolls - by Mara Naile-Akim
So James Whale has fallen foul of the broadcasting rules (although he since has been reinstated having apologised). I am surprised he lasted until 2018 in an age of ever-increasing sensitivity. I associate him with a bygone era of radio broadcasting, one when you could offend people live on air in ways that now get you sacked. It was also a time of innocence, when ideas now seen as ‘alt-right’ seemed just a anguished fringe cry against the status quo.
I never liked listening to music; the background noise in my life was provided by talk radio, and of that two things in particular: politics and sport. But I found mainstream politics boring, full of people who always agreed and only differed on (what seemed back then) minor issues. It is not that I disagreed with a lot of what they said, it just did not make very exciting radio. Sport was different, full of manufactured controversy and tribal rivalries. And there was one station that promised sports chat all around the clock. This was TalkSport.
As I soon discovered, sport was not all: there were also shows that could be loosely described as ‘being up in arms about the state of the world’: the vast majority were phone-ins. It was cheap and cheerful: no need to produce costly programs, do research, do actual journalism. After the newsreader is done, the presenter just talks to callers, radio content provided for free by the consumer themselves. At night, they did not even bother with call filtering: the presenter was tasked with cutting you off in case you broke the broadcasting rules.
They hired some of the most provocative and controversial people they could get away with and gave them the freedom of the airwaves to unleash themselves on the callers. Some callers would be trolled in various interesting ways, as the presenter adopted provocative, typically right-wing, positions. With others, there was enthusiastic agreement and a meeting of souls. All this was to outrage the listener into either violently disagreeing or violently agreeing with the presenter. And then, hopefully, calling themselves, or at least staying tuned in and keeping the advertisers happy.
Not every program trolled people: Hawksbee and Jacobs, Tom Watt, Alvin Martin and many others were genuine nice guys, capable of talking for three hours without ridiculing a listener or going out on a limb to provoke a reaction. But they were the conventional ones, alongside a host of trolls: for instance Mike Parry and Adrian Durham still, to this day, troll on the sports programs. The colourful former Ipswich striker Alan Brazil did not even need to troll, as he was known to succeed in causing offence by just being himself.
Two presenters stood out on the political shows: Whale and Mike Dickin, who, sadly, died in a car accident a few years later. Later, they were joined by the comically extreme American Charlie Wolf and a certain George Galloway, fresh from being expelled by Labour. (It was in fact Galloway who filled in for Whale during the latter’s suspension). Before Galloway joined up, I had an impression of TalkSport as a right-wing propaganda channel, but his appointment made it clear that they were in it purely to see how much outrage they could generate. Galloway even joked about protests by Jewish students outside the studios: you could make those jokes on radio back then.
Whale, for his part, delighted in winding up ‘the lefties’. Alongside ripping ordinary callers to shreds (‘he has a go at them but they still keep phoning in’, Alan Brazil would marvel the next morning), he would cold-call CND campaigners or diversity officers and troll them in the way a right-wing troll would nowadays troll a left-wing message-board. Sometimes, he would, bucking the trend, randomly take to his interlocutor and be nice. He invited controversial guests too: once, he invited a author of a book about how Muslim immigration endangered the European civilisation. Back then, you could get away with that also: it seemed mostly harmless, much like Yuri Geller, one of Whale’s regular guests.
It was a wonderful array of trolls. Sometimes they would troll intentionally, often they would just give freedom to their nasty selves. The cliches, the terminology, the emotive lingo, the personal attacks against anyone who disagreed — it was all there, recognisable to anyone who has ever encountered a troll online (which by now is, let’s face it, pretty much everybody). And many of the current populist right-wing causes celebres were there as well: the hate of the ‘left-wing’ BBC, talk of terrorists supposedly trying to get into Britain as asylum seekers, the criticism of the war in Iraq on the grounds that ‘we should keep our boys home and mind our business’, the euroscepticism, the casual sexism, the global warming denial, the lot.
I drifted away from TalkSport by around 2006. This was before Farage, before UKIP rose as a strong force, and so the whole station was politically in opposition to everybody, with no mast to nail their colours to. It all seemed so innocent back then, at the height of New Labour: they sounded like dinosaurs from a bygone age, like provocateurs trying to generate ratings for a recently created radio station through baiting supporters of the status quo and preaching to an ever-dwindling choir.
Clearly, this was not the case. I do not know if the station (owned, of course, by Murdoch) was set up to clandestinely undermine New Labour or purely to gain listener figures by any means necessary. But the trolling, aggressive brand of the right-wing populism it promoted came back with a vengeance later.