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Radio's routing of author Naomi Wolf was ferociously polite

American author and academic Naomi Wolf at the 2019 Hay Festival
American author and academic Naomi Wolf at the 2019 Hay Festival Credit: David Levenson

Nobody does ferocious politeness quite like the British. This week, the late-night discussion programme Free Thinking (Radio 3, Thursday) was the scene of a bloody intellectual routing. The American journalist and academic Naomi Wolf was there to discuss her new book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love, with presenter Matthew Sweet.

Wolf’s book details the cases of gay men she claims were executed in 19th-century Britain for sodomy, which is part of an overall argument that homosexual love was extremely dangerous in a culture of censorship long before the infamous conviction of Oscar Wilde. But Sweet took issue with a major element of that argument. 

He claimed that, in her research, Wolf had misunderstood the historical legal term “death recorded”, presuming that it meant the application of the death penalty, when in British legal parlance it specifically meant that a criminal was not executed. As Sweet pointed out in his most devastating blow, “I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.”

There was a long pause. “Well, that’s a really important thing to investigate,” said Wolf. Her thesis was disintegrating in real time, like wet newspaper. It was fist-chewing radio. Sweet went on to argue that we can’t even be sure that these convictions were for acts of consensual gay love that would be perfectly legal today. He said it seems likely that at least some of them were convictions for rape or sexual abuse of children.

The American press have pounced on the interview, with The New York Post calling the encounter “mortifying” and New York Magazine comparing it to a “nightmare”. 

John Browne, Jeanette Winterson and Naomi Wolf at the Hay Festival 2019 Credit: BBC

And the nightmare wasn’t over. On Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday), live from the Hay Festival, Tom Sutcliffe also rounded on Wolf, completing a kind of BBC radio pincer attack. Sutcliffe began by asking Wolf what the evidence was for her argument, knowing full well that it was flawed. “You make quite a point in your book about executions for sodomy,” he said. “Now, there’s a problem with that. You haven’t had the easiest week, have you?”

“Absolutely,” said Wolf, who, to her credit, sounded resilient and on the front foot. “And I really thank Dr Matthew Sweet of the BBC for calling my attention to two errors in the book,” she went on, before mentioning that the current edition may end up a collector’s item, so quickly is the corrected reprint going to press. 

Still, the damage is done. And the relentlessly polite way that Sweet and Sutcliffe mounted their attack has been gripping. Perhaps because we’re denied the visual effects of the zeal in the interviewer’s eyes, this kind of ambush is particularly dramatic on radio: there you are, half-listening at home to two nice people having a chat about a book while you do the washing up, and all the while, quietly but lethally, the trap snaps shut.

Wolf has graciously accepted her errors and Matthew Sweet has since publicly thanked her for her generosity, though he has also listed several more points of disagreement, and the argument rumbles on. The lesson here is, don’t go on British radio unless you’re absolutely certain of your research, and also possibly wearing Kevlar. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

And if that vicious historical argument wasn’t polite enough for you, there was also the amusing experience of hearing Jacob Rees-Mogg and A N Wilson going eyeball to eyeball on Today (Radio 4, Wednesday). Wilson had already called Mogg’s new book, The Victorians, “morally repellent” and its author “worse than a twit” in his review in The Times, but now the two men were sharing a studio, and the opportunities for rudeness were limited.

It was a bad-tempered bonanza of plumminess: Wilson and Mogg sounded like two Eton schoolmasters reaching for their duelling pistols. In a roundabout argument about the actions of General Charles Napier, there were genteel murmurs of “That’s simply wrong” and “That’s just not true” flying around with wounded indignation. I’m not sure that I learnt anything new about the Victorians, but it made me laugh, at least.

Ted Kelsey, aka Joe Grundy in The Archers Credit: BBC

I can’t go without mentioning the last time we’ll hear the voice of Joe Grundy in The Archers (Radio 4, Sunday to Friday), following the death of the actor Ted Kelsey. There is no word yet on what the fate for the character will be, but Kelsey’s endearing final scene – with Joe having fallen asleep after letting his great-granddaughter, Poppy, draw on his face with lipstick – was a poignant way to end his 34 years on the programme. Let’s hope he manages a few more off-air pints of Shires before the end.