‘Fury as academic tells BBC’s Radio 4 programme that Manchester, Leeds and York are not in the north.” “John Humphrys interrogates Rupert Everett about being gay – then asks when it’ll be irrelevant.” “Criticising Rwanda for sponsoring Arsenal shirts is shortsighted and insulting.” Headlines from London’s Evening Standard, the New Statesman and the Independent. And the connection? Radio 4’s Today programme.
What is it about Today? Why does everyone get so riled up about it? Type #r4today into Twitter of a morning, and see the vitriol. Talk to BBC insiders and they launch into a rant. Everyone has an opinion about Today.
As Radio 4’s early morning current affairs show, the flagship news outlet that strikes terror into politicians’ hearts even as they clamour to appear on it, the Today programme has been a fixture of British daily life since 1957, when it began as two 20-minute segments of “topical talks”. It settled into its feisty, interrogative role during the late 1970s and 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher would phone in impromptu. Now, Today has a weekly 7.2 million listeners, who tune in for the news, and also – the programme’s USP – to hear powerful people being held to account. Its presenters – currently settled as Nick Robinson, Mishal Husain, Justin Webb, Martha Kearney and John Humphrys – are expected to be the best in the business, experienced and knowledgeable, able to turn from tearing into a political heavyweight to an amiable discussion about bees.
When I started radio reviewing, almost 13 years ago, I spent 24 hours at the Today programme researching a feature. I was astonished at the amount of work that went into the show, how professional the researchers were, how many phone calls they made, how they stayed up all night piecing the programme together, only to have a feature ripped to shreds by the incoming presenters. I know how much care goes into the making of Today. And how, despite that care, it has long been the cause of controversy; it has got up the nose of most people over the years. It’s what it’s known for.
So, are recent calls for it to change any different from those that have gone before? There is evidence that people are deserting it: between late 2016 and late 2017, there was a drop of 300,000 listeners. Increasingly, there are alternatives, from social media, Radio 5 Live, even TV (Phil and Holly, Susanna and Piers, Victoria Derbyshire). Podcasts such as The Daily, Vox or the World Service’s Global News, give a more international slant to news.
If you’re one of those who has decided to stay, you may be aware that the current editor, Sarah Sands, began her job around a year ago. I call Sands (more of her later) and she speaks of her drive to open Today’s closed-shop feel: on her watch, she says, the programme has expanded its arts and science coverage, and done far more outside broadcasts. Her efforts have met with a mixed reaction. There has been upset over the following: Today broadcasting from London fashion week and not taking it seriously enough; presenters’ pay – when Sarah Montague found out that Humphrys was being paid more than four times her wage (this figure included work done for other BBC programmes, and Humphrys has since negotiated a reduction in his salary) – she negotiated a move to World at One; the presenters sounding out of touch with the concerns of contemporary life, such as #MeToo, transgenderism or cannabis use.
Some of these, such as historical pay decisions, are not Sands’s fault, but there is definitely more criticism than before. People I spoke to for this piece – regular listeners, news commentators and BBC insiders – all mentioned itemson Today that had annoyed them. A long interview with “Tommy bloody Steele, as though anyone is interested”. Justin Webb and Jordan Peterson discussing maternity rights: “Unbelievable.” “A stupid thing where Martha Kearney did a basic school experiment to make carbon dioxide – idiotic.” And when I put up a post on my Facebook page, asking what my friends think about the programme, I get 137 answers. The three main areas that Today lovers are upset about are the following.
First: the interview technique. Too badgering or sneery for some guests (those asked on to talk about popular culture); not challenging or probing enough for others (Trump supporters, heads of business). Humphrys is viewed as the worst offender, though Webb is also seen as too fawning to US contributors.
Second: false equivalence. This is where an expert is booked to talk about their specialist topic, but, for reasons of BBC “balance”, finds themselves up against someone far less qualified. The classic example is always climate change. Today has booked the former chancellor Nigel Lawson, a climate-change denier, to talk on the subject twice, once on Sands’s watch, and has been censured both times. (This after a BBC Trust review, back in 2011, made clear “the requirement to avoid the impression a minority view stands on the same footing as the views of climate-change scientists”.)
And third: Humphrys himself. The 74-year-old is regarded as the embodiment of Today – unsurprisingly, given he’s been working there for 31 years, over half the time it’s been on air. A working-class Welshman whose vast journalistic experience includes having reported on the Aberfan disaster in 1966, Humphrys is now seen by many as past his prime. He’s considered embarrassing in areas such as #MeToo (including making jokes with Michael Gove about Harvey Weinstein). Many people believe he allows his own political opinion – he’s deemed to be pro-Brexit – colour his interviews. And even more think he was appalling on the gender pay gap: a leaked recording of him joking about it with Jon Sopel went down very badly indeed. Personally, I’m surprised by how many people think Humphrys should leave. But they do.
Before we delve into these problems, though, perhaps we should consider Today’s status among politicians. Do they regard the programme with as much reverence as they did in the past? It still pulls in members of the cabinet – David Davis seems to live under the table – as well as Labour party heavyweights, though Jeremy Corbyn seems a little wary of it. However – and this would be unheard of even five years ago – there are MPs who don’t bother with it too much.
“I don’t listen to Today,” says MP Jess Phillips. “When I wake up I look at Twitter and get my news from there, and when I’m at home with the kids, we listen to 6 Music.” She says, though, that many of her MP colleagues still listen and regard going on the show as important. “I know when they’re on because it’s all over my WhatsApp group. People saying: ‘Oh, you did really well.’”
“Doing really well” on the Today programme remains a badge of honour among politicians. Humphrys, described online by his speaking agency as a “BBC attack dog”, is known for not letting them off the hook. (In 2004, he was censured by the BBC for interrupting then minister Hazel Blears four times.)
Which brings us to interview technique. There are those who think that Today’s argumentative style is vital, especially during the headline 8.10am interview. They believe that in these days of competing media, you have to fight for attention, and, on radio, a row is the way to do it. Mark Damazer, former controller of Radio 4, points out that “the show’s gravitational pull is through interviews with important people making important decisions, and them being questioned firmly on behalf of the audience. You need some sense of intellectual tension to get that, and vigour.” A producer who used to work on Today tells me: “You have to cut through people’s breakfast time, so a good disco [radio shorthand for a two-person discussion] is important. You need friction to be noticed.”
Perhaps so. But if friction is putting off listeners, it’s also putting off interviewees. Jess Phillips, who says she has always been treated with great respect whenever she has appeared on Today, won’t speak on the programme without stipulations. “I always request not to be interviewed by John Humphrys,” she says. “I’m not interested in needless controversy on sensitive subjects. If I’m talking about rape charges or #MeToo or sexual harassment in Westminster, I refuse to be challenged along the lines of ‘Has #MeToo gone too far? Are young women making it up?’ It’s incredibly dated and part of this ridiculous anti-expert way of thinking. I’ve spent my life studying this stuff. These are facts we’re talking about. I’m not interested in knee-jerk opinion. This is news. These are facts. Today is a news programme. You can’t put facts up against wild opinion.”
Many listeners really are perplexed by the interviews on Today. “Why,” writes one, “do they haul politicians over the coals but treat business leaders/accountants/investment firms with kid gloves? Shouldn’t they be answering some difficult questions too?” Another wonders: “Why was a Trump supporter allowed to say separating children from their parents by US border guards was regrettable without being challenged?” As a listener, it can be hard to work out why some guests are grilled hard, and others are left to speak as they please.
Broadcaster Samira Ahmed berated Webb on Twitter for being “unprepared” when he interviewed Joel Pollak from the rightwing news site Breitbart: “I admire your calm, Justin, but he was in control of that whole interview.” BBC insiders feel that the show doesn’t make use of the resources available to it. “The presenters should be primed with statistics and information,” says one, “so that they can undo PR presentations with facts.” If journalists don’t ask the right questions, an interview is advertorial.
In these times of fake news and internet rumour, you would hope that the BBC’s flagship news show could put out some straight facts about, say, the US policy of taking children from refugee families. James O’Brien, presenter of his own LBC phone-in show, says this: “Here is a story about children being ripped from their parents and incarcerated, with a very real risk that they will not be able to be reunited with their families. Why do we need to argue about whether this is a good idea or a bad idea? What we need is data and I’m not sure that anyone listening to Today is going to get that. This policy was drawn up by John Kelly on 25 January 2017 and enacted by Jeff Sessions on 6 April 2018 and I don’t think we get those facts from Today.”
O’Brien also raises the question of false equivalence. Like many of a centre-left persuasion, he’s unhappy with the quality of the interviewees and with how they are introduced within the programme.
“I’m not sure that Breitbart deserves to be described as a news service,” he says, “and yet that’s how it’s presented on the Today programme. Or the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which is a dodgy thinktank – I’ve been trying for years to get to the bottom of how it’s funded and nobody knows – that’s presented as though it speaks for taxpayers, when it’s a rightwing anti-tax lobbying group. Or Sebastian Gorka [the former deputy assistant to Trump with strong links to Breitbart co-founder Steve Bannon] – how can he appear without a chapter-and-verse account of all the questionable stories in which he has been involved? There’s a red carpet element to being asked on to the Today programme and they are rolling it out for far too many people.”
The Observer columnist Nick Cohen recently wrote: “How can anyone respect a news organisation that prefers staged confrontation to reporting?” His column was sparked by Today’s treatment of Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer journalist who has been investigating Facebook, data-harvesting and Brexit. Today wanted her to speak, but only if she agreed to a discussion with Isabel Oakeshott, the Brexit-supporting journalist with close links to Conservative donor Lord Ashcroft. (Cadwalladr refused; the item was dropped.)
I ask Sands about this. “That is a story that makes me wistful for newspapers,” she says. “It’s easier to do in papers. It’s a long-form narrative, with multiple sources, and that is hard to do on a programme like Today. That story broke on Sunday, and we’re broadcasting on a Monday and we have to advance the story if we cover it, in the same way that PM has to, and Newsnight. On radio, we have to come on and say something new.”
You wonder why asking Cadwalladr detailed questions about her story wouldn’t be saying something new, but Sands is wedded to the BBC idea of balance, without considering whether reputations should also be weighed on those BBC scales. When I talk to Cohen, he’s still cross, but makes a wider point.
“Carole’s solo investigation wiped $60bn from Facebook and closed down Cambridge Analytica,” he says. “Now it’s pushing away at Russian attempts to influence elections. Can you imagine the Today programme breaking such a story? With all their resources, why aren’t they bringing in stories like this? They won’t even follow stories up because they don’t want to be seen as pro-Remain. Where is the hard investigative journalism?”
Should Today be doing investigative journalism? Is it the programme for it? Is all this furore merely a fuss about researchers’ contact books and a question of style? We haven’t even got on to Humphrys, but everyone I talk to is getting very wound up.
Not Sarah Sands, however. When we talk on the phone, she is calm, charming and enthusiastic. Nothing I say provokes her. As a newspaper, not a radio, person (she was editor of the Evening Standard and has always worked in print), Sands acknowledges that her first few months on Today were bumpy, but says she was taken aback by the furore over reporting from fashion week: “It got such a vehement reaction, I wondered, maybe Today can’t cover fashion?” Now she’s decided that the better approach is more careful scheduling and use of specialist reporters. “Our presenters are generalists, with certain areas in which they specialise, such as Martha with books. We can say that fashion isn’t John’s area of expertise.” And she’s stopped going on Twitter: “Twitter is impossible.”
What Sands has been trying to do, she says, is to open out Today from “the London bubble”. She talks about “broadening horizons”, looking to “the strengths of the BBC”, which she identifies as the “encyclopaedic quality” of its reporting. She wants more foreign coverage, “to get a window on the world” and for Today to help listeners learn, which explains puzzle of the day (my maths expert friend calls these puzzles “chore-like”, but there we are). She is enthused about natural history, evolutionary biology, nuclear physics, outer space: “I’ve just appointed Today’s first space correspondent!”
All very jolly and upbeat, but hardly the raison d’etre of Today. News is surely what the programme is about. But I get the impression that Sands is not quite as excited by this.
“When Judi Dench came on the programme she said that she finds the news at the moment very hard to cope with, and that she couldn’t watch the evening news any more. I do understand that. And I’ve noticed that when you get out of this building and talk to people outside the London echo chamber, you find that people are avoiding terrible news. They get really enthused about things like natural biology instead.”
Sands acknowledges, “of course”, that Today is built on news, that it’s “the news flagship, it’s the front line for the BBC”. It has to cover Brexit, for instance. “But Brexit is gradual, not linear. It’s unfolding. And it’s a challenge, how to do news in this environment.” She aims to cover Brexit through business, to “get a sense of issues playing out”.
“We look at the real impact: what will happen when Scottish shellfish get to Calais? What if your business is fashion and you need a zip for a dress from Europe? The Galileo project is Brexit in space: we want to be part of it, we’re shut out, what do we do?”
Does she think that presenters should challenge US speakers in the same way as they do those from the UK? I mention the “regrettable” moment about US child refugees.
“Often we are covering emotive subjects,” she says, “and our job is to keep calm. When we do political interviews, the point is to elicit a jaw-dropping moment. When that happens, do you allow the audience to react to that? Do you let the audience decide? You have to let these people speak. That’s part of holding power to account. You can’t say we can’t interview these people, they’re too divisive. Do you want to hear what they say, or do you want to express outrage?”
Letting people speak isn’t quite the same as holding them to account, but we turn to nonpolitical interviewees. Sands gets annoyed when people don’t want to come on Today because they think they’ll get a rough ride: “I get very indignant when people duck it, I think it’s their duty!” She works hard to get women on the programme.
She defends putting on women of the #MeToo generation in a discussion with older women – “the kind who say, men were always putting their hands on my knees and it never did me any harm” – because “such discussions reveal a generation gap, and that’s interesting”. She also cites a discussion between professors Robert Winston and Gary Butler on transgender children as an example of a nuanced discussion. “What we’re looking for, always, is illumination,” she says. “We don’t just want a Punch and Judy punch-up.”
So what, then, of Humphrys? Sands insists that, “once you get out of London, listeners have a different relationship with him. He is still known as the listeners’ champion. He is curious and engaged, and when someone powerful needs to be held to account, there is no one else you would rather have do it. Who is his match in the media?”
Who is Humphrys’s match, these days? Jeremy Paxman is long gone. Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, is retiring, as is Question Time’s David Dimbleby. Is this Humphrys’s time to go? It would be easier for Radio 4 if he did, perhaps, but he doesn’t seem very willing. He did an interview with the Sunday Times in 2016 in which he seemed absolutely primed to announce his retirement, to chime with Today’s 60th birthday. But Humphrys couldn’t bring himself to do it. “The problem for John,” says someone who knows him well, “is that there is no other job he wants to do. He doesn’t want to tend his roses, or make a grand statesman documentary series. He only wants to present Today.”
Humphrys’s problem is Today’s problem. Time marches on, and Humphrys is sounding out of touch. He is far from a dinosaur sexist – when the last producer left, he said a woman should get the job – but now he seems tarnished by his smug jokes about pay and gender.
He can still be fantastic, though. His recent interview with Hannah Deacon, the mother campaigning to get medical cannabis for her severely epileptic child, Alfie, was exemplary: careful, caring, fuelled by righteous anger. And it landed: within five hours of the broadcast, Home Office minister Nick Hurd phoned Deacon to give permission for the NHS to allow cannabis oil for Alfie. Humphrys – and Today – can still change the news landscape.
Back when I visited the show, I was impressed by Humphrys, who was fearless, focused on the answers, on uncovering the truth, caring not a jot for how he came over. And Today is doing a difficult job in difficult times. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. Now that the programme is happier covering culture, nature and science, a renewed concentration on news seems overdue. An unpicking of the idea of BBC balance, of what that means for a live broadcast. Whether some topics can be “moved on” without an antagonistic set-up. A focus on preparation for difficult interviews, using BBC resources to counter guests’ untruths or selective statistics. Another female presenter would be handy, and a refresher course in modern life and mores is long overdue for Humphrys, if he stays.
None of this is impossible, and Sands is a woman of ambition. When she signs off from our phone call, she tells me she wants Today to do an outside broadcast from a space station. Sending Humphrys into space? It’s a solution, I suppose.
This article was amended on 4 July 2018 to include further details about John Humphrys’s salary.
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