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19 September 2019

After John Humphry’s departure, what next for the Today programme?

With a straitened budget and indifferent political leaders, the BBC's flagship news show faces a challenge to remain relevant.

By Roger Mosey

The departure of John Humphrys from Today will leave a big gap in many lives. If you loved him, you’ll miss him as a breakfast companion. If you loathed him, you will no longer have the opportunity to froth about his alleged bias – and Twitter may be a little quieter. Either way, he spent an unprecedented 32 years presenting the nation’s flagship news programme, and Today will inevitably sound different without him.

The BBC has said it has no plans for a new broadcaster to take Humphrys’ place. Good. The Today programme has featured too many presenters in recent years. It’s perfectly possible to staff the rota most weeks of the year with only three people, as we did in my time as editor, when Humphrys, Sue MacGregor and James Naughtie presented the programme on air.  

Recently there have been five presenters, supplemented by a confusingly long list of guest hosts, so you could never be sure whose voice you’d be waking up to. There is an argument that a constantly shifting team is not a problem as long as the programme’s mission remains unchanged, but evidence shows that audiences respond well to a regular pairing that can produce some on-air chemistry. 

This is the standard format for breakfast television and much of commercial radio. In the distant past, it was what Today presenters Brian Redhead and John Timpson achieved. The challenge for the programme is whether that combination exists among the remaining four broadcasters: Justin Webb, Mishal Husain, Nick Robinson and Martha Kearney.

Humphry’s departure is also an opportunity for the programme to rethink the way it does politics. He excelled at the big gladiatorial combats; in his prime, there was nobody better at asking the questions listeners wanted to hear, and exposing our leaders’ attempts at evasion.

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But times have changed. Political leaders are now less likely to appear on the programme. Where their aides would have previously coveted the 8.10am interview slot, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson are reluctant to be interviewed. Paradoxically, the length of the interviews that do take place has lengthened.

When I started on Today as a junior producer in the 1980s, we would regularly schedule four items between 8.10 and the 8.25 sports news – today, it’s often only 2, or even 1. Less important politicians are given longer to say even less, which is frustrating for both interviewers and the audience. It is rare that we hear something after 10 minutes of an encounter with a politician that we didn’t hear in the first five.

It can be revelatory the first time that Dominic Raab or Barry Gardiner stumbles over a straight answer, but most mornings we can take it for granted that they will continue to obfuscate. We would all benefit if protracted interviews that cover multiple different topics in the search for a news line were replaced by more thoughtful, pointed analysis.     

Too often, the Today programme’s default setting is to listen to the metropolitan chattering classes. One of the sad things about the cuts imposed on Today is that it lost most of its own reporters – making it more difficult to get outside of London. As a former editor, it was a joy sending the likes of Sarah Cullen, Bill Turnbull, Winifred Robinson and Michael Gove (yes, that Michael Gove) across the country to produce original journalism.

The programme showcased the voices of the UK in each episode; if you were fed up with Michael Heseltine banging on, then you knew there would be a change of mood very soon. Today, producers are under greater pressure to fill the programme with fewer resources – leading to a string of live interviews, without any of the “light and shade” that I was always taught was the essence of Today.

Modernising the programme to better reflect the UK would mean spending more money. We should ignore any corporate bleating about straitened times; the BBC has a turnover of £5bn a year, and if it can afford to promote the Gemma Collins podcast extensively on television, it should definitely be able to invest in one of its most important flagship news shows.

Accountants have seldom understood that the need for efficiency costs in 24/7 news operations should be balanced against the quality of flagships like Today and Newsnight, which should have the resources to set their own agenda. Humphrys was a vital element in the distinctiveness of Today. Now that he’s gone, we need a re-imagined programme that fits the new times we live in, and produces the revelatory journalism that the country needs more than ever.

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