Broadcasting, said Sir John Reith, first BBC director general, should be a public service that enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation. One can only speculate as to whether he imagined the likes of Dog Borstalor People Like Us when he articulated this mission, but his aim of uniting and educating Britain through shared ideas remains an integral – though not always immediately obvious – principle of the BBC’s charter.
The last bastion of this unapologetic commitment to the exploration of complex and challenging ideas is, of course, Radio 4, and nowhere more obviously so than in the annual series of lectures founded in 1948 to commemorate Reith’s vision. The public lecture has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, with organisations such as TED and Intelligence Squared connecting academics, scientists and expert thinkers from varied disciplines with a wider audience, hungry to engage with the big questions of modern life. With so many of these talks and debates available online, often accompanied by punchy visuals and covering every possible topic, it might be supposed that the determinedly traditional format of the Reith lectures – four hour-long talks, delivered to a live audience but broadcast on the radio, so clearly the product of a different age – would gradually be shunted aside for something more snappy, with more obviously popular appeal.