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8 March 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

A cat fight at breakfast

Sarah Montague's position as successor to Sue MacGregor on Radio 4's Today programme seemed

By Sarah Montague

Recruitment of a new BBC chairman is under way; the search for a new director general is about to begin. But at Broadcasting House, it is the occupancy of quite another post that is commanding increasingly feverish attention. The job involved is the most prestigious to which a female journalist can aspire – that of statutory female presenter on Today, the country’s most influential programme on either radio or television.

During her 18-year tenure of this position, the legendary Sue MacGregor gave it iconic status. Authoritative, imposing and icily erotic, she became a role model for all women who aspire to be taken seriously in what some of them still perceive to be a man’s world. In her time, no Today reporter would have dared plunge the programme into disaster by fluffing his lines and losing his notes. The fear of a raised eyebrow from Miss MacGregor was enough to keep the team on their toes. Cabinet ministers quaked in dread once they realised they would be facing her.

Two years ago, MacGregor decided to take a rest from 3am starts. You might have thought that replacing her would have been easy, with every newsgirl in the country ready to kill for the job. But it turned out to be harder than expected. The nation’s elite is fussy about who speaks to it over its cornflakes. Highly capable female presenters can still have voices that irritate. Female listeners seem particularly susceptible to such irritation.

Eventually, MacGregor’s mantle fell to Sarah Montague, a 38-year-old graduate of Sky News, BBC World, News 24 and Newsnight. And from the beginning, there was muttering. Traditionalists found Montague “shrill” or “hectoring”. Some of those with more contemporary tastes considered the one-time stockbroker too “jolly hockey sticks”.

Much of this was pretty unfair. “Sarah is a good interviewer,” says her fellow presenter John Humphrys. “She does her homework, and she’s ballsy.” Today‘s editor, Kevin Marsh, is solidly behind her. After a mere decade or two, Britain’s educated classes would probably have come to accept Montague as part of their aural furniture. But last year, she made the tactical error that has blighted so many women’s careers. She became pregnant.

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Criticised for seeming a little bit daffy on air, she cheerily replied that not much more could be expected from a “preg-head”. But that was not the problem. Indeed, her honesty on this point endeared her to some former doubters. The trouble came, as so often, during maternity leave. A new mum’s worst nightmare is not the nanny who shags her partner. It’s the temp who stands in at the office – and turns out to be rather good.

Inevitably, during Montague’s absence, a succession of ambitious female hacks have descended on Today. They have ranged from Martha Kearney, the stately goddess of Newsnight and Woman’s Hour, to Margaret Doyle, the Economist‘s fiendishly intelligent finance correspondent. But it is another Irishwoman who now poses the gravest challenge to Montague’s position.

Carolyn Quinn is one of the most capable female journalists that the corporation has produced. Tellingly in the eyes of some, she has made her way in radio rather than television, unlike Montague. She broke into the business by volunteering for hospital radio shifts while working as a ward clerk. Then came long years at Radio Solent. Quinn has now been a BBC political correspondent for a decade; she was one of the first journalists to get a microphone under Tony Blair’s nose when he became Labour leader. Eventually, she worked her way up the pecking order to become co-presenter of PM, and there she might have unthreateningly remained. However, perhaps in pursuit of pre-charter-review efficiency savings, PM was suddenly turned into a one-person operation. And the one person involved was going to be a man (Eddie Mair of Broadcasting House). Quinn was left as high and dry as a double-decker conductress whose route has been assigned to a bendy bus. She became that most threatening of creatures, an unattached female. Whither would she drift, but towards that tantalisingly empty slot in the early mornings?

Montague successfully gave birth on the day Lord Hutton reported. However, from Quinn’s first shift on Today, it was apparent that even if baby was doing well, mother had cause for concern. The PM reject slipped from drive-time to breakfast broadcasting as if created for the latter. Warm but tirelessly professional, Quinn excelled on every front. Even more important was her utter and instant absorption into the peculiar chemistry of the Today presenting line-up. Feedback from the programme’s usually hard-to-please audience was ecstatic.

Montague’s backers reasonably point out that while assertiveness is praised in men, assertive women are often accused of shrillness. Unfortunately, Quinn manages to project autho- rity without ever attracting any such complaint. Already, she is listed on Today‘s website as a full-blown member of the presenting team, alongside the regulars Humphrys, Jim Naughtie, Edward Stourton – and Montague. Yet the line-up is supposed to have only four members.

Perhaps, however, the teatime refugee is put off by the early starts? You must be joking. Quinn thinks she’s died and gone to heaven. She explains: “I can be talking to a world leader one hour, and having a discussion about falling hanging baskets in East Anglia the next, and still have time to attempt to coax some words out of Butch the Bullfinch. Where else could that happen?”

Montague is due to return to work any time now. Though she is only on a freelance contract, she will remain unassailable as long as she enjoys her editor’s backing. However, Marsh is to be hauled before the BBC disciplinary tribunal set up in response to the Hutton report. Since the Andrew Gilligan affair happened on his watch, he could face, if not dismissal, at least a transfer to a less high-profile post.

At this point, Montague’s prospects would start to look less certain. Marsh’s enthusiasm for his protegee is not thought to be shared by his own bosses, Helen Boaden, controller of Radio 4, and Jenny Abramsky, the director of radio. Both of these stern taskmistresses are considered particularly impatient of any female failing. A new programme editor would need to keep them sweet. In such circumstances, would Quinn inevitably triumph over Montague? Or would the new mum have to contend with an even more alarming possibility?

Last month the mighty Sue MacGregor made her first live radio broadcast since leaving Today. She stood in for Andrew Marr on Start the Week, and her performance in this rather demanding role was considered electrifying. Still only 62, she now asks, “Was I mad to give up the best job in radio?”

Were MacGregor to return to the breakfast-time airwaves, Today‘s male presenters might not be quite as overjoyed as their listeners would undoubtedly be. MacGregor was not just a stickler for truth, quality and impartiality; she also demanded a fair share of the top interviews. Yet if Today were to suffer the further indignity of losing its editor, what could do more for its bruised image than the return of its lost dominatrix?

Welcome back to the studio, Sarah.

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