The New Statesman Interview - Rod Liddle

The man behind the <em>Today</em> programme looks like a pop star, swears a lot, and believes in mis

The first thing everyone says about Rod Liddle is that he doesn't look the part. Shaggy hair, a pierced lobe and nicotine-stained fingers are not what you expect from the man who composes the daily menu of what the thinking and chattering classes chatter and think about. Nor is his liberal use of four-letter words.

As Sue MacGregor, the longest-serving of his team of rottweilers on Radio 4's Today programme, observes: "He's not your stereotypical suit. If you look at him, you'd think he was a former and rather exhausted member of a rock group - which he was in a previous incarnation." Fellow presenter John Humphrys agrees: "He's the most off-the-wall editor we've ever had."

He is also the one with the highest profile. This month, the Guardian published a compulsively arbitrary list of the hundred most influential people in the media. Liddle came 31st, two places in front of the proprietor of the Daily Mail and streets ahead of three of his notional bosses - the head of BBC Radio, the controller of Radio 4 and the director of BBC News. Even at the famously hierarchical Beeb, influence is no longer measured by status.

Nor is Liddle the kind of buttoned-up executive who wields this power unobtrusively. He writes a weekly column in the Guardian and has his picture - resembling a youngish Mick Jagger - posted on the Today website, where he personally answers listeners' questions. ("What is the biggest lie a guest has told?", "Why do so many reports start with a song or music?")

Says MacGregor: "What he has done very cleverly in the past three years is to raise the profile of the programme hugely. The number of mentions in the press of Today and Rod Liddle has been phenomenal."

Clearly, though, this cult of personality grates with some of his BBC superiors - those stereotypical suits - because when I rang to ask for an interview he agonised briefly. Why should anyone be interested in him? Why couldn't I write about the programme instead? I mumbled about the piece being destined for the NS's interview/profile slot and I don't make the rules, squire; so he agreed to a meeting.

The venue has to be somewhere he can feed his addiction to nicotine, and we settle for the snug on the upper floor of a wine bar not far from the BBC's White City headquarters. He arrives on time, wearing a black T-shirt that not only makes him look younger than his 41 years but matches the pack of his brand of cigarettes. He lights one as soon as he is settled.

The months following a general election are a difficult period for programmes that focus primarily on politics. People get restless and start asking questions: is it time for a radical change to the format? Has the confrontational interview run its course?

Although Liddle's answer to all these questions is no, it does not mean that he is averse to changes. Indeed, he has made several in his three and a half years as editor. In particular, he has set his small staff of 11 reporters on to ferreting out original news stories, rather than following up what has already been in the papers. "Our reporters used to fill in around presenter interviews with light pieces or explanatory features, which I've always hated. I want them to deliver hard news stories every time." As a result, it is now the newspapers that sometimes pick up stories from Today - such as the revelation of Keith Vaz's several houses, the no-go areas in Oldham and the chronic inaccuracy of the Nato bombing of Kosovo.

This kind of journalism is risky, and Liddle is lucky that his tenure has coincided with a loosening of the BBC control structures which inhibited some of his predecessors. "We used to have this vast committee that sat over us and vetted what we were trying to do. They used to have a real terror of the press. There was a multiplicity of fatuous managers who did absolutely nothing except justify their own jobs. I had stacks of bosses - imbecilic creatures whose bottom line was: 'Will this cause trouble? If it will, stop it.'"

Liddle's instinct is the reverse, and now that some of the fatuous imbeciles have been released into the community he feels freer to follow it. No longer is Today under pressure, as it was off and on during the Nineties, to steer a safer course, away from the controversies inherent in politics.

"After the 1997 election, there were people in the BBC telling us that we ought to concentrate more on 'news you can use' - to which the only possible answer is 'fuck off'." He rigorously opposes dumbing down, believing that Today should become more aspirational and elitist, not less.

The new non-authoritarian mood at the BBC also means that he can be more robust when fielding regular complaints from party-political spin-doctors about the tone or extent of his programme's coverage. "There was a time when we became infatuated with them. When they wrote to us, we'd be terrified. I don't think anyone is terrified of spin-doctors any more.

"I really do believe that, from their point of view, they invariably make the situation worse. I think their primacy will diminish when people realise that they are actually responsible for 70 or 80 per cent of the political crises. The spat between Mandelson and Brown, if it had been left to the two of them, wouldn't have been much of a problem. But once Charlie Whelan was on to it, it got out of control."

He has noted a marked difference in the spinning styles of the two candidates for the Tory leadership. "Ken Clarke's people are wonderfully laid back and never complain about anything. Then there's Iain Duncan Smith - nearly every day, letters to us, letters to the DG. Like all Eurosceptics, he thinks we're antipathetic to his point of view."

Liddle stresses that the programme is anyway covering the leadership contest only out of a sense of duty, not in response to public demand. Listeners write in their hundreds saying they do not want to hear about it: "They're awful people. We voted them out twice and we don't care who leads the party."

His experience before he joined the BBC helps him deal with the spinners and their political masters. After leaving Guisborough Comprehensive in Cleveland, he became an A-level trainee on local papers in Wales and the west of England, before going to the London School of Economics to read social psychology. Then, during the Eighties, he worked for the Labour Party as a front-bench researcher.

"It was depressing - by- election after by-election that we were expected to win and didn't; rather like being in the England cricket team. So much of Labour's control-freakery, vowing that it will never happen again, goes back to that time."

It was while working for Labour that he first came into contact with lobby journalists - including Jim Naughtie, now one of his presenters, and Alastair Campbell, spinner-in-chief. He joined the BBC by answering an advertisement for a producer on Today, although he had never listened to the programme and had to ask Naughtie to explain what it was.

For all his improvements to its news coverage, Liddle recognises that the interrogatory interviews are still Today's focal point as far as its six million regular listeners are concerned. The fact that politicians get progressively more skilled at standing up to Humphrys, MacGregor, Naughtie and Ed Stourton is not, he believes, a reason to consider changing their approach.

"In George Orwell's 1984, he made a prophecy about the death of football - that the teams would become so tactically astute that they would cancel each other out, and every game end nil-nil. Sometimes, I think that's what's happening with the interviews.

"But when you can't get people to say anything substantive on air - like Gordon Brown and the timing of the five economic tests - you have to ask the question repeatedly, so that the audience knows you're not getting an answer and can draw its own conclusions."

He sees these sterile confrontations as part of a move in politics away from belief and commitment towards total pragmatism. "Politics has contracted to a narrow band of ideology, where the politician's greatest fear is transgression, stepping out of line. The only point of winning an election is to stay in power and win the next one. Ideology has been forgotten."

To balance that trend, he believes that people with strong opinions should be given the chance of asserting them. That was why he insisted on running an interview with a spokesman for the British National Party during coverage of the Bradford race riots, and why he allows Will Self and Freddie Forsyth to express their contrasting views in the weekly Saturday essay. He has been criticised for this, especially over the right-wing Forsyth.

"He has people fuming. The illiberal liberal left think that not only is Freddie wrong, but he shouldn't be allowed to say what he is saying. The more I hear people say that, the more I think he probably should be allowed to say it as often as possible."

Making mischief is his delight. Colleagues say he is relishing the forthcoming contest to fill the gap that will be left when MacGregor steps down as a presenter in the next few months. "I can't wait," he is rumoured to have said, "to see the cat-fight when all the women who want to succeed Sue start elbowing each other aside." He has already caused fur to fly by auditioning Alice Miles, a journalist on the Times with no previous broadcasting experience.

"It would be nice to have a few people under 40 with a bit of edge to them, rather than straight out of the BBC mould," he says. "Alice has done two pilots so far and has more to do. She's a former barrister, she's young, she has opinions and she writes well."

And what about his own future? By normal BBC precedent, he ought to move on soon, but he believes he still has more to do on Today. "If they moved me to some middle-management job, I would loathe it, have no aptitude for it and sure as likely fuck up spectacularly. If I went anywhere, it would probably be outside. I'd like to do more writing."

Or, I suppose, Ken Clarke's other job, as a roving ambassador for the noxious weed, may soon come vacant.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, So what tribe do you belong to?