In the men's room

Woman of Today: An Autobiography

Sue MacGregor <em>Headline, 342pp, £20</em>

ISBN 074724989X

Arriving at the miserable ghetto that is Television Centre in the early hours of the morning was a taste I never acquired, even if the chirpy courtesy of Sue MacGregor did help. As a punter, I was a fan of her work. As the Today programme's political commentator for the best part of two years, I became even more sympathetic to her. It wasn't her finely tuned political antennae: she would be the first to admit she wasn't a political anorak. It was more her calm voice, her poise and her ability to connect with listeners, all of which were recognised by her bosses but were not given the reward they deserved.

She didn't, as she admits here, have the killer instinct. As the Today programme adopted a more tabloid approach - shorter segments, harder news and less room for measured analysis or serious foreign features - it assumed a higher profile and more listeners than ever. MacGregor epitomised a bygone era. Sometimes she overheard snide remarks about how she had missed an all-important question to a government minister. Sometimes she didn't. But she knew they were being made and she took it on the chin.

It is in keeping with her character that, possibly to the frustration of her publishers, she has not dished the dirt in her book. Her various romances have hit the headlines and have rebounded badly on her. Some of her friends believe she would have done better to keep them to herself. But when it comes to the politicians and the programme, she is the epitome of discretion.

She chooses her words carefully about her rivals. John Humphrys, she suggests, has a "magisterial distrust" of his interviewees. "It is immensely effective; but it is not an approach with which many women interviewers feel comfortable. The interviewing style with which I feel happiest is a great deal less aggressive." There is room, she says, for contrasting styles. "Perhaps if a reincarnated Adolf Hitler found himself opposite us in the Today studio, John would wrestle him to the floor, Jim might remind him of what he had said at the Nuremberg rallies, and I would try to find out why he'd turned into a monster."

MacGregor is candid about the slights she learnt to accept most mornings. One duty editor put it to me like this: "It was a real art learning how to phrase it when we would have to tell Sue that she hadn't got the 8.10 lead - again."

Ah, the 8.10 lead, the stuff of many a squabble. I remember times when Jim Naughtie would be doing Blair or Brown down the line from Westminster, and Humphrys would have his back turned, ostentatiously reading the papers and tut-tutting at the quality of the interview. When John did it, Jim would fiddle with the pile of papers on his desk more frantically than ever, trying to show his lack of concern.

As MacGregor points out, there was and is a pecking order of presenters, whatever the assertions to the contrary by management. She cites a survey that looked at the running orders for all the Today programmes broadcast in 1996. (It makes you wonder why radio train-spotting such as this might be considered interesting, but there you go.) Humphrys got the top slot 67 per cent of the days he was on duty; Naughtie 48 per cent; and the grand dame herself just under 30 per cent. The statistics for the first half of 2001 were little different.

And yet audience research showed that MacGregor was the most popular presenter among listeners. She certainly was the most rounded. Her early life in South Africa gave her a foreign perspective - more than one that comes from doing a posting - which is now lost on a programme that is increasingly Britocentric. Much of her treatment she attributes to sexism. She laments, time and again, the lack of opportunities for women at the BBC. In this, I think, she is only partly right. It was difficult for women when she was starting out nearly 30 years ago, but not in the modern BBC.

Today did take a long time to find a female successor for her. There are numerous women correspondents, but apparently precious few who could fit the bill. But that's not for want of searching. Now that Sarah Montague is finding her feet, she will be off for a while having a baby. There is no obvious fill-in for Montague. If there were, she would be catapulted into the job. The BBC is determined to find, for any prominent job on and off air, someone who is not male, white, middle-class and southern.

Female producers at Today say MacGregor deliberately showed them no favours. She warmed to other women, but only when they had earned their spurs. She felt she had to do it the hard way, and wanted others to know it.

In truth, MacGregor won't be missed for the 8.10s, or the 7.30s or the 7.50s. She'll be missed for the rest of the programme. She may well find her talents better appreciated on other parts of Radio 4, the last part of the BBC that will for ever be Middle England. Once she has absorbed those paeans of praise from the management - from those who mean it and those who don't - she will have more time for her friends at the arts club. It won't be too long, though, before a woman receives the lion's share of the 8.10s. It's just that, for her, it wasn't meant to be.

John Kampfner is a former political correspondent of the Today programme

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The unusual suspects