BBC Radio 4’s Today programme has gone soft – it should be setting the agenda

“Bilge from London Fashion Week on a day when North Korea fired another missile over Japan.”

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BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 15 September didn’t go down well with some of its audience. The Times columnist Janice Turner tweeted: “OMG another segment on London Fashion Week! I love fashion but I want news before 9am. Today starting to sound like local radio.”

There were countless more. My own inbox, normally devoid of broadcasting chatter these days, filled up with grumpiness. “I’ve had to turn the Today programme off for the second day in a row,” wrote a well-known female journalist. “Listening to huge chunks of bilge from London Fashion Week on a day when North Korea fired another missile over Japan.” A former Today output editor was equally blunt: “That was the worst edition of the programme I’ve heard – and I should know, having put out a few rubbish ones in my time.”

Me too. Live broadcasting is perilous, and the Today programme is in the most unforgiving of spotlights. It’s listened to by pretty much all of the chattering classes, and we former editors were used to being denounced in parliament and excoriated in the Daily Telegraph – with every minor innovation scrutinised and often attacked. An editor three decades ago introduced a gentle jazz-based signature tune and was promptly trampled into the ground by listeners.

The reason for the brouhaha now is that Today has had, since the early summer, a new editor. Sarah Sands was an unusual choice in that she had no broadcasting experience and was poached from the Evening Standard. But she had risen high in the world of newspapers, and possesses charm and an A-list contacts book. She also ticked the box, as a former Telegraph journalist and a backer of Zac Goldsmith during the London mayoral election, of not being another stereotypical BBC liberal with their roots in the Guardian.

Her vision does already seem different. “My pleasure,” purred Sheena Sauvaire, the global marketing and communications director for Topshop, at the end of her interview about London Fashion Week. You bet. She had been allowed acres of prime BBC real estate to draw attention to the “charm of Topshop” and ways the retailer has been ahead of the market, and was joined elsewhere in the programme by Burberry and H&M in what a very senior former BBC executive described as “one big puff”. Today has, of course, featured London Fashion Week for decades, but on my count there were an unprecedented eight items in one programme, and at an indulgent length.

There was a more professional attempt at going off the conventional agenda with Nick Robinson’s enlightening visit to California to look at the tech industry, which dominated another edition. But it would be hard to say that Today has excelled of late on what should be its core curriculum. Apart from the North-Korean missile, this was a period with the Juncker address on the future of Europe; the post-hurricane crisis in the Caribbean; the human rights atrocities in Myanmar; and the public-sector pay row bubbling away. All of these were marked, but seemingly without the investment of time, resources and ambition in casting that would meet Today’s traditional aim of setting the news agenda.

A programme insider told me that opinions about the new boss range from “uneasy but let’s give her a chance” to “FFS isn’t this meant to be a news programme?” These are early days, and getting to grips with a three-hour daily show isn’t easy. But the worry, according to one BBC employee, is that “she’d prefer Today to be the magazine rather than the news section”.

Broadening the agenda is a good thing for BBC News to do. I would plead guilty to producing programmes that sometimes overdid domestic politics. But the question is whether a flagship like Today is the best place to experiment with magazine items, and particularly whether it’s right for these times. The bile in the debate about Brexit would seem to require Today to be the place where the decision makers from Britain and the EU are brought to the studio and challenged, and where there is rigorous analysis of the choices facing the country. The hung parliament means that policy on taxation and spending and the NHS will be more contested than ever – and Today is the arena where the arguments can be developed and the results dissected. With a fine team of interviewers, it would be daft to diminish that role. Equally, it cannot lose its commitment to breaking news, which is the reason why such large audiences tune to Radio 4 each morning.

There is a further risk that Sands has to face. The vote to leave the EU showed the chasm between London and the rest of the country. As Channel 4’s Jon Snow observed in his MacTaggart lecture last month, never have journalists seemed “more disconnected from the lives of others. Over this past year, we… mostly London-based media pundits, pollsters and so-called experts have got it wrong.” Sands is the consummate London insider; the voice of the people, and grassroots reporting from around the UK, seem increasingly absent from the Today programme. Even when the London Fashion Week items referred to factories in the north of England, we never heard from anyone there, or even from any consumers – though there was time to interview students at Central Saint Martins in King’s Cross, north London.

This matters because Today matters. It is the place where, as Brian Redhead used to say, you can “drop a word in the ear of the nation”. What the nation needs now is a predominantly serious and analytical programme that illuminates Britain and the wider world, and we should expect the BBC to deliver it. 

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article appears in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left