Polly Harvey Wakes Up Radio 4’s ‘Today’ with Some Truly Shocking Stuff; JA is Invited.


Regular listeners to BBC Radio 4’s morning news and current affairs programme – ‘Today’ – were woken up by the programme in more than the usual way last Thursday morning, when the features were commissioned by guest editor PJ Harvey, whose ‘Let England Shake’ won her The Mercury Prize in 2011 for the second time (the only artist to win it twice), and also the 2011 Uncut Music Award, and who recently wrote a song for Shaker Aamer.



NB. Remember this Saturday is the 12th anniversary of Guantanamo – please join us in marking it in Trafalgar Square, London. Chelsea Manning released the Guantanamo Files to us via WikiLeaks who began to publish them on 25th April 2011)


Polly said this when collecting the Mercury in 2011:

It’s really good to be here this evening, because when I last won 10 years ago I was in Washington DC watching the Pentagon burning from my hotel window.

So much has happened since then.

This album took me a long time to write. It was very important to me. I wanted to make something meaningful, not just for myself but for other people, and hopefully to make something that would last.

PJ Harvey, like many of us, has clearly been journeying outwardly, and markedly so since 11th September 2001.


If you missed this programme, you seriously should catch it here – in fact even if you didn’t miss it, it well repays the time invested in listening to it again (and again…); guarantee you’ll learn more real news (and critically, context) from paying attention to the feast of content in this incredible (and, yes, it is incredible that it was allowed to go out) episode of ‘Today’ than around 99% of other news and current affairs programmes you could end up listening to by default. See below for what extracts appear where in the video if you don’t have three hours to spare all at once!

For a start it is staggeringly informative, and secondly (and as importantly) it was rivetingly communicated by people who not only know their stuff but can actually convey what they have to say so it feels real and immediate.

And it raises the hugely important issue of what news is, how we receive it, and how we respond to it.




Unsurprisingly there were a few reports of people being so absorbed they were late for work…along with a number of enraged persons tweeting their horror (no, not at the shocking stuff that they were discovering goes on, but at the shocking event of their having to listen to and learn about the shocking stuff that goes on).

Tweets on the hashtag #r4today were flowing freely throughout the airing, but, contrary to bah humbuggy reports you may have read already, were far from being uniformly negative – at worst 50/50 with a lot of delight in the surprise as well as breakfast disgruntlement. Certainly you could say without exaggeration that the programme generated a lot of comment all round and most of it could be characterised as ‘surprised’. That it created a stir is undeniable. Impact.

And the impact was ‘of the essence’ – wooing an understanding of the heart of our now (our ‘today’) from the contributors and material which homed in on the important through the relevance of historical perspective and in poetry, reports, ideas, lyrics and music with interviews; all via voices PJ Harvey said she chose because they were

highly articulate, stimulating and extremely interesting to listen to – people who challenge us and move us to examine our deepest beliefs and feelings.

I wanted to fill my programme with their voices.

She made her selection of people, not to parrot what she wanted said, but to

be heard in a manner of their choosing, whether that be a monologue, a poem, or interviewing others. What I didn’t want was for them to be restricted from saying what they wanted to say.

Wisely she established that their contributions would not be ‘edited’ by the BBC without their explicit consent. As it came together she realised that a lot of the content had ended up being related to issues of censorship.

Polly Harvey BBC Radio 4 Today image


Strikingly, the features sat in a vitalising juxtaposition with the news bulletins, bringing rare critical context and crucial background to an understanding of the national and international news of the day.

Reports of the despair of jobless young people, many contemplating suicide because they have ‘nothing to live for’; of the British government cynically considering bringing in US type fantasy sentences of 100+ years in order to avoid the EU ruling on life sentences, together with ongoing reports of their itch to ditch Human Rights legislation; and reports of an impending humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, were all heightened by the features which exposed the workings underlying situations such as these.

And in dealing with power roots and relationships at the heart of issues absolutely basic to our lives, society, world, as they did, the features exploded the day’s news into our ears and souls like it actually mattered. As one of the people interviewed (Tony Harris, injured in Afghanistan 2009) said:

underneath anything there is a human being

which is something none of us should need reminding of, but really, terribly, do..


The running order of this extraordinary and inspiring edition of ‘Today’ is here and in more detail (including the news stories for the day) with exact times below – the programme started at 6am and finished at 9am, and so eg 7.16 am = 01.16.00. PJ Harvey’s own introduction to the programme is 10 minutes in at 6.10am.

Should you need convincing that this was a rare and significant event, look over the line up, which included Clive Stafford Smith (Reprieve) [7.16am] on why our NHS should not be described as ‘broken’;

Phil Shiner and Ian Cobain [8.34am] on how the British taught the world to torture, with up-to-date examples of techniques employed and appearing in training manuals (this segment immediately and ironically following straight on from an MOD statement in response to one of the torture testimonies, representing torture as a thing of the past and saying that the UK govt abhors all abuses of Human Rights – this latter, in turn, causing a jarring dissonance with the news we’d heard that the British Govt were looking avidly into creative ways of circumventing that dem Human Rights Act….);

Julian Assange’s concise, relevant exposition and brief history of an idea in which WikiLeaks is rooted -‘Knowledge is Power’ – in one of the ‘Thought for the Day’ slots [8.54am]  see this post for more on this (there were two TftD …

…and the other [7.48am] was Rowan Williams reading his poem ‘Passion Plays’, specially commissioned for this programme, on the harnessing of anger, and then speaking of the primary patterns in poetry and song that enable holistic interpretation for us);

John Pilger on media and power, the tragic lack of any holding of govt to account on the part of the media, and the fear the powerful have for the courage of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden whose whistleblowing/journalism does just that [7.40am];

chelsea-manning dress picEdward_Snowden-2julian_assange_and_free_jeremy_hammond

Ralph Fiennes reading heart-stopping Shaker Aamer, [8.48am] Charles Simic [7.56am] and Wm Blake [6.25am] poems (heart-stoppingly), plus a brilliantly performed Woody Guthrie lyric – Ticky Ticky Tock [8.58am] to sign the programme off;

Dave Zirin on vested interest in Sport (think Olympics etc and the horror of its ‘trojan horse’ real legacy) [6.28am];

Simon Weston and Tony Harris interviewed in a selection by the war photographer Giles Duley (a triple amputee himself) on the realities of war seen through its effect on the combatants [8.17am] (which resonated for me with Ben Griffin’s – founder of VfPUK – appearance on The Moral Maze on the subject of ‘The Morality of Remembrance’);

Liam Shannon (1971 Belfast) [6.13am], Wambugu Wa Nyingi (1952 Kenya) [7.25am], and Peter Petredes (aged 15 in Cyprus in the 1950s) [8.33am] describing torture techniques they were each personally subjected to by the British Military:

John Rees, who opened up the real life worldwide economic impact of the City of London, its grip on power today, its sordid origins, and how fundamental to inequality it is, in an episode of the regular Business News feature which was full of remarkable facts, figures, quotes and interviews, and which broke the mould of standard self-referencing ‘Business News’ simply by using human terms of reference belonging to actual, real, life [6.15am];

Polly Harvey Wm Blake - London

Mark Curtis in a facts and figures feature on the Arms Trade and the tools of repression with comments from CAAT, drawing clear lines between powerful (and respectable and respected) interests and those who are repressed, abused, tortured and killed by British Arms exports, who asked ‘where are the radio and tv programmes exposing Whitehall’s special relationship with repressive regimes?’[6.38am];

Dennis Halliday (an ex Assistant Secretary-General at the UN who resigned over sanctions on Iraq) on the abuse of power at the heart of the United Nations Security Council…and the ridiculous, hypocritical pretence of any belief in democratic principles [6.49am]


Music selections such as Joan Baez singing Johnny, I hardly knew ye, Bruce Springsteen’s 57 Channels and Nothing On, and Tom Waits’ Strange Weather, skillfully interspersed with the features on vested interest in everything – war, the arms race, diplomacy, torture, censorship, corruption, poverty & wealth inequality and generally rampant injustice – reinforced within the heart and the imagination the information taken in by the head – resulting in a more holistic form of knowledge .

Of this Polly said

For me, music and poetry can be as persuasive and as powerful as a fine speaker and a fine speech. You will hear songs and poems supporting and highlighting the content of this programme.



Someone on Twitter responded to this by saying something like ‘But that’s a FOLK SONG, not NEWS…’ in a bewildered, irritated sort of way…

But the song was actually gut-wrenchingly relevant, coming as it did after the feature presented by Giles Duley (see above), and it gave rightful pause for reflection, rather than the usual rushing on to the next (academic) topic.

This comment underlines the point inherent in this programme about our engagement (or lack of it) with the daily flow of information that we call ‘news’, and how the selected content and presentation of that content affects how we ‘get’ news. 

I guess the thing is that people don’t expect to actually be moved (either emotionally or to action?) by news…and that, ironically, is pointedly relevant not only to the programme Polly put together (or rather, the people she drew together – they made their own selections) but is also very much connected with the feature in question. Giles Duley was a war correspondent (in fact, a photographer) when he was seriously injured by an IED going off, and some might say the issue of how we get what news from the wars could be seen as the pinnacle of this debate.


Collateral Murder is a case in point – surely more people learnt more about the war just from watching this than from years of ‘news’ reports?


So thank you Chelsea Manning, sentenced to an outrageous 35 years for reporting from the wars so we ‘got’ the real news. More here with video reports and a later video presentation with more about the case from Alexa O’Brien, here.

Please support Chelsea by taking actions listed here – various ways to oppose her sentence, support her family and write to her etc.

And just in case you wondered about the effects of this other way of ‘getting’ the news – ie primary source news; amongst many other positive consequences, it was actually one of the State Dept cables that Chelsea released that was a key cause of the Iraqi authorities’ refusal to allow US forces further immunity, when the agreement came up for renewal in Dec 2012, and this made it necessary for Obama to withdraw the troops, ending the (overt) occupation.

And thank you too, WikiLeaks the only media outlet Chelsea got in touch with interested enough to publish the vital information from the frontline. (In case you don’t know. Chelsea approached both the New York Times and the Washington Post to no avail, before contacting WikiLeaks – see her testimony here).

Which brings us to


For Julian Assange’s Thought for the Day which rounded off this remarkable programme, and why it was so apposite see next post.

classic julian afghan war logs image

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