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18 November 2022

The unbearable complacency of the Today programme

Arch presenters, clichéd reporting, soft interviews: no wonder BBC Radio 4’s stale morning show is rapidly losing listeners.

By Peter Williams

Having recently turned 65, the Today programme, we are told, is in trouble. Once the agenda-setting morning news briefing, the BBC Radio 4 show is rapidly losing listeners, around 600,000 in the past year according to the ratings service Rajar. Meanwhile, the station’s commercial rivals, and especially LBC, are growing steadily (albeit from a much smaller base) in audience and profile with their livelier, more partial and forthright style.

Some unconvincing explanations have been given: from a post-Covid summer holidays exodus to a decline in eventfulness since 2017, when Today’s audience peaked at 7.5 million. As if we weren’t still reckoning with the Brexit wars, the Trump presidency, the Grenfell fire and everything else from that time, along with war in Europe, a cost-of-living crisis and the failed-state vibes at Westminster. There’s a reason permacrisis was just declared word of the year.

But as someone who prefers to start the day, if start it must, with a black coffee and a blast of music, it’s clear to me where the programme’s problems begin: in the acoustics, the stultifying, airless hush. On Radio 4 everything sounds flat and close, yet muffled. With no musical beds, the programme exists in an aural space where nothing reverberates.

If Today sounds like a hermetically sealed world, its hosts speak accordingly – as if all the issues at hand were taking place somewhere very far away, and were mere fodder for arch grumbling in the senior common room. Nick Robinson presides with a tone of vague, disconnected jocularity, whether introducing an apocalyptic report on global heating or indulging in some wan, BBC-strength banter with his co-anchor Mishal Husain and the proto-Partridge sports reporter Garry Richardson. 

The presenters – Robinson, Husain, Amol Rajan, Justin Webb, Martha Kearney – are exceedingly capable and well-paid, and yet are not invited to stretch themselves compared with the demands placed on former colleagues elsewhere. In podcasting, The News Agents’ Emily Maitlis and co have to be interesting enough for people to seek them out amid infinite choice; on LBC, the New Statesman’s Andrew Marr has to marshal rolling news and interactions with the public.

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Today also can’t claim to be superior in its stock reporting. Its bulletins are written in the same taut journalese and cliché you would find elsewhere, except the bulletin readers recite these apparently timeless phrases – “fuelled speculation”, “scored a blowout victory”, “economic gridlock” – in extraordinarily plummy accents. While other voices do feature, mainly thanks to the number of Scots on the political team, RP and very mild Estuary are the immutable root notes. Regional English accents are most likely to appear in the sports bulletins. 

The format is both too baggy and too rigid. The items drag – an amble through the newspaper headlines; chummy conversations with correspondents; guest interviews. Unless a story breaks live, the reporters aren’t cajoled into urgency. Some, such as the political correspondent Nick Eardley, are able to generate it themselves, but others are allowed to plod along at their leisure.

And interviewees get an easy ride too. In recent programmes James Comer, a US congressman from Kentucky, and Nicholas Lyons, the new lord mayor of the City of London, were given only polite questions with barely a hint of challenge and intent, rather than being pressed on the Republicans’ embrace of conspiracy, say, or the City’s offshore dependencies.

Any aggression is reserved for domestic political interviews, but these have lost their pre-eminence and their sting. In fairness, there is little doubt that the quality of the political subject has deteriorated. As little as 20 years ago Today presenters might have been up against Tony Blair, William Hague, Mo Mowlam – people of substance and mental agility, willing to give the odd ankle-flash of personality. These days, if they aren’t avoiding interviews altogether (aka the Johnson manoeuvre), most ministers, such as Michelle Donelan and James Cleverly, are simply too well versed in defensive tactics – dodging, waffling, stalling – to get caught out. Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, was recently allowed to ignore Husain’s most telling question about the new migrant deal with France.

And then there are those who are so hopeless there is no need to force a mistake. Take the disaster accentuation specialist Chris Philp, who crawled out of the smoking wreckage of the post-mini-Budget Treasury only to plop straight into the moral sewer at the Home Office. Here is someone who is just as, if not more, likely to make headlines later in the morning broadcast round, having been softened up by the previous encounters. Philp was recently reduced to abject, shambling terror by that noted harvester of souls, BBC Breakfast’s Charlie Stayt, asking what his credentials were to be police minister. By the time he reached Times Radio Philp was declaring it was “a bit of a cheek” for asylum seekers at Manston processing centre to expect scabies-free living conditions in Britain, in the 21st century.  

It is also striking how our most recently departed prime minister was so expertly dismantled by a series of presenters on BBC local radio – now threatened with cuts – having wrongly supposed that would be a softer option than going on Today

Away from the wearisome matter of the present day, there is plenty of looking backwards and inwards. An interview with the former BBC chief political correspondent John Sergeant remembered the late psephologist David Butler, whose innovations, including the swingometer, are still staples of the BBC’s election night coverage; there was another for the BBC centenary with Ian Lavender of Dad’s Army, complete with an extended meditation on “Don’t tell him Pike” (Del Boy falling through the bar in Only Fools and Horses is for another day, one presumes).  

Although the Today programme, and presenters such as Brian Redhead, did a great deal to end excessive deference towards politicians in the 1970s and 1980s, it still seems a relic of a more patrician age, exemplified by the continuing presence of Thought for the Day. Today is current affairs as liturgy, with the same air of protraction, of improving boredom, and the awkward commingling of the parochial and the profound. Listening to it in 2022 feels like being stuck on the scene-setting first page of a middlebrow, mid-century novel.

If ever there was a postwar era of benevolent paternalism, a time when Britain was more secure in its self-image and had a greater sense of common purpose, with the BBC at the heart of it, it is over now. Elsewhere, presenters with views ranging across the mainstream political spectrum, from Iain Dale to James O’Brien, are proving it’s possible to inject their own point of view into news analysis and interviews without compromising fatally on balance and rigour.

Current affairs coverage needs to reflect a time where everything is at stake – the way we live, work and consume; the existence of the United Kingdom; our liberal democracy – and everything is contested, even the reality of global heating. If the BBC can’t allow its highest-profile presenters the political freedom of its rivals – which it can’t – then more of them will move on. To remain worthwhile Today, or whatever comes after it, needs to have its journalists crusading for the facts, to go all out for the essential underlying truths and realities that define our age. Time to leave the airlock and enter the fray. 

[See also: High Low with EmRata review: Emily Ratajkowski’s new podcast is a painful listen]

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette