Polly Jean Harvey deserves all the accolades she gets, but the people showering them on her might want to pay closer attention to her artistic themes. In the more than two years since Harvey's war-ravaged Let England Shake made her the first-ever two-time Mercury Prize winner, her early landmark album Rid of Me turned 20. She recorded a chilling tribute to Guantanamo Bay prisoner Shaker Aamer. And she, with Adele, received the British royal family's Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award.
Thrillingly, Harvey's turn guest-editing BBC Radio 4's "Today" show today had more in common with the Guantanamo song than a medal bestowed by Prince Charles. The three-hour show featured WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, journalist John Pilger, and photographer John Duley. Actor Ralph Feinnes read poetry, and musical selections included Joan Baez and Tom Waits. As that list may suggest, the subject matter covered political views rarely espoused in such a mainstream forum — including harsh criticisms of President Obama, the Olympics, and militarism — and the show swiftly drew a backlash.
Early in the broadcast, Harvey said in a recorded statement that she asked the BBC not to edit any of the content from her contributors, whom she said she chose for their eloquence and power to move listeners. "As an artist, I try to make sense of the world through my work," she said. "These people, these voices help me make sense of it all."
The blowback was fast and furious. David Jones, a Conservative member of Parliament from Wales, took to Twitter to call the broadcast "rather unusual," adding: "Today's @BBCr4today is apparently the work of a 'guest editor.' Have to wonder who extended the invitation." From the other side of the aisle, Ian Austin, a Parliament member from the Labour Party, wrote, "In 30 years of listening, I already thought today's @BBCr4today was worst ever. I cldn't imagine it cld get worse. Then they put Assange on." Austin went on to compare Harvey to Vladimir Putin.
BBC News political editor Nick Robinson questioned the crusading journalist Pilger's critiques of Obama and the turmoil and Syria, writing: "Pilger always thought provoking but was he really suggesting that BBC ignore Obama's Mandela grief as he is a hypocrite ... Or Sunni Shia massacres in Syria as Blair & Bush's fault? Surely, John those are what we call opinions not facts?"
Still, not everybody was so upset by Harvey's work. Elsewhere in Parliament, Labour's Diane Abbott wrote that she "really enjoyed" the special and Harvey "should do it every day." Her Labour co-partisan Barry Sheerman called the program "entirely refreshing" and wrote, "Stop sulking about being back to work!"
And that's really the thing: You don't need to go as far as Harvey does in her political views to be glad there's an artist out there doing what artists should do, overturning apple carts and pissing off defenders of the status quo. That's sort of the opposite of Putin's Russia, and thank goodness. Or just thank Polly Jean. It's a new year: Your move, Adele.