NS Profile - Today programme listeners

The audience of BBC Radio's morning show may not be as liberal as we thought, but it is deadly serio

Well, there's a thing. Invited to propose a new parliamentary bill in a phone and e-mail poll, the audience of Radio 4's Today programme opt by a substantial margin for a statute empowering householders to use "any means", reasonable or otherwise, to defend their homes against criminals. Is that the same Today programme which is regularly condemned for pumping out caring, sharing, nanny-state-promoting, politically correct tosh? It is. So what's going on?

In the past, Today polls have sometimes been rigged in multiple voting scams, to the embarrassment of the programme's bosses. This time you get the impression that some of the team would be only too happy for such a plot to be uncovered now. When the Deputy Prime Minister cheerily opined on the show that the whole exercise "blew up in your face, didn't it?" presenter James Naughtie seemed disinclined to argue. Yet all the signs are that, for once, Today's electoral machinery worked impeccably. Not even the Guardian, understandably outraged though it declared itself, has managed to come up with a scrap of evidence that any malpractice occurred.

In truth, Today's agenda is less pink than its critics in the right-wing press would have you believe. Even so, the voices that dominate the programme are undoubtedly those of our liberal, sanctimonious and respectable political class, the kind of people who would abominate its new "listeners' law". Who are these Today listeners whose attitudes suddenly look so different from those beamed to them over breakfast? When Stephen Pound, the Labour MP who rashly volunteered to promote their bill unseen, discovered its nature, he declared: "The people have spoken, the bastards!" Is this characterisation fair?

The Today audience is certainly not as it is imagined to be by some in Broadcasting House. Recently, one top panjandrum, asked to explain perceptions of leftish bias in Radio 4's output, insisted that such a leaning was inevitable. The corporation had to serve its audience, and Radio 4's listeners were liberal-minded people. Still, this emphatic opinion was offered before the listeners' law had been selected. Perhaps a rethink is getting under way. If not, it should be.

Survey data collected by Rajar, the radio ratings operation, shows that although 13 per cent of Today's listeners read the Guardian, 17 per cent read the Daily Telegraph and 14 per cent read the Daily Mail. Given the huge size of the programme's audience, it would be strange if things were otherwise. Today is amazingly successful. On the average day over five million people tune in. Similar numbers of men and women listen, and although a third of the audience are over 65, numbers are respectable in all other age groups. There is a bias towards the south-east and the better-off, but nothing to indicate any particular political inclination.

It is perhaps understandable that those who produce or appear on as intimate a programme as Today should assume that their own values are shared by those who are listening in. Yet we all know that people who work at the BBC or become politicians or experts or special-interest spokespersons are a different breed from humanity as a whole. That is why hanging has been abolished and asylum-seekers continue to find some kind of welcome on our shores. So are Today listeners just the same as the rest of the populace? Well no, actually, not at all.

There may be five million people tuning in each day, but that leaves 55 million who do not. The vast bulk of the population choose to live their lives without ever hearing John interrupting or Jim apologising. The Great Uninvolved include some of our most prominent citizens. Over Christmas, on Celebrity Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, George Michael and Ronan Keating were asked which of four radio shows featured Thought for the Day. They hadn't a clue, and had to resort to a lifeline. The five million may be a large and politically diverse crowd, but something does indeed distinguish them from their much more numerous fellows. The Rajar data gives a hint of what this may be.

That heavy broadsheet readership is matched by tiny red-top take-up. Fewer than 4 per cent of Today's listeners read the Sun, Britain's biggest-selling daily. There is, however, gross over- representation of town and parish councillors, magistrates, school governors and those holding office in voluntary organisations. Today's audience turns out to embrace those earnest but vital few who take the public domain seriously and invest their energies in advancing the common weal.

The listeners' law poll provides further evidence in support of this conclusion. Second to the winning proposal on rough justice for burglars came not a piece of bigoted populism but the sensible suggestion that all organs should be available for transplant after death, except where their owners have specifically declared an objection. Third came a bossy-boots plan to ban smoking in all workplaces, but fourth place went to, of all things, a scheme that would limit the number of prime ministerial terms to two and make voting compulsory at general elections.

The Today listeners weren't going to waste their votes on creating extra bank holidays or abolishing speed humps. They were making a serious effort to engineer a better society. That included doing something about crime. They were going to tilt the balance against burglars and in favour of their victims, and if this didn't fit with establishment opinion, they did not care. They may wake up to metropolitan correctness on the radio, but that doesn't mean they agree with it. Their own opinions have been forged in the homes, streets, schools, courts, council chambers and village halls of their own communities, and they are not ashamed of them.

A visit to Today's website provides a further glimpse into the soul of its audience. Endless, in-depth discussion of every conceivable aspect of the great issues of the day goes on around the clock. It continues in the 300 or so e-mails sent to the programme team each day. Most people don't go in for this sort of thing, do they?

Indeed, the majority seem only too content to keep their distance from public affairs. Year by year, ignorance of the news agenda seems to deepen. But in such a world, the kind of people Today seems to attract take on a new importance. The majority who don't bother to find out the facts are not prepared simply to leave things to those who do. They still insist that their views must be given weight. So in the absence of real information, how are they to form those views? Why, pick up some ready-made opinions. Someone in everybody's circle will probably stay in touch with the news agenda, be it spouse, hairdresser, golf chum or pub bore. Ask him - or her - what to think about Iraq, university tuition fees or foundation hospitals. He - or she - will be bound to know. These people who know stuff become the conduits for the nation's wisdom. And they seem to depend heavily on Today, whether or not they agree with its attitudes.

Yet they seem far from uniformly content with the show. When it ends at 9 o'clock each morning, a flurry of vitriolic phone calls is guaranteed. You may yourself know obsessive Today listeners who will none the less readily tell you that the programme makes them apoplectic. Oddly, they seem to complain of left-wing bias only rarely. No, what seems to get to them is something else. A devoted fan in north London put it like this: "It's the bloody trivialisation of everything that I just can't stand. The programme's always either too trendy, friendly and sloppy, or it's trying to stir up trouble for its own sake. It's never serious enough."

This sentiment chimes with the audience profile. Today's listeners do not seem to be looking for the thrills and spills which broadcasters feel bound to provide. Instead, they want to know what's actually going on. This brings us to the impending Hutton report, which has several Today bigwigs quaking in their boots. The defence reporter Andrew Gilligan may have cocked up his fateful account of David Kelly's indiscretions, but he can hardly be blamed for being expected to deliver his momentous allegations at 6.07am in an unscripted, live "two-way".

Doubtless Today's listeners were keen to know whether Britain went to war in Iraq on a prospectus known to be false. However, it seems likely that if asked they would have traded the folksy appeal of chatty, live delivery for copper-bottomed presentation of the facts.

It seems unthinkable that among Today's thoughtful audience Lord Hutton himself is not to be found. Perhaps one consequence of his deliberations will be that he and Today's other listeners will end up getting a programme a bit more like the one that they seem to want.